Canadian Staycation: Sailing the Rideau Waterway

Rideau River

Looking for a unique staycation right here at home? Le Boat, a luxury boat rental service that got its start in Europe, offers Canadian tourists the chance to captain a cruise along the Rideau Waterway. Photo: Danielle Donders/Getty Images

Outward from our nation’s capital threads a waterway so historic it’s been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site. A testament to human ingenuity, the Rideau Waterway’s series of traversable canals and locks from Ottawa to Kingston still stand as a brilliant example of our early 19th-century chutzpah.

Slow travel by boat along this Canadian treasure; loons calling; great blue herons fishing and peregrine falcons swooping, adding to the scenery. It leaves us awestruck.

Rideau Canal
The Rideau Canal is the oldest continuously-operated canal system in North America. Photo: Vivian Vassos

 

Once we were given the green light in Ontario to spend more time with our social bubble, I ran for this river with a constant travel companion. Actually, it’s more than a river. The Rideau Waterway comprises canals and locks, lakes, tiny pine tree-dotted islands and forested shores lined with cottages, cabins and boathouses. The water is sparkling, crystal clear. And there were nearly no active cases of COVID-19 in the area.

We can travel by train again, and Via Rail has daily service to our stop: Smiths Falls. The town is just outside Ottawa, along the Rideau, and is the North American HQ for Le Boat, a European company that features yacht-type houseboats that ply the rivers of France, the U.K., Holland and Italy — and, since 2018, Canada.

Rideau Waterway
Taking in a sunset on our cruise of the Rideau River. Photo: Vivian Vassos

 

At the train station, we’re asked a series of questions (any fever, cough or difficulty breathing?) and organized into different cars, depending on our final destination. Everyone must wear a mask the entire time while on board. If you don’t have one, the train conductors will offer it to you, with a pair of tongs, only touching the strings to maintain as little contact as possible. And seating is arranged so physical distancing can be adhered to. Unless you’re travelling together, you can’t sit next to anyone else.

We had arranged a car service — the driver was masked — to take us to the neighbouring heritage town of Merrickville-Wolford, all gorgeous stone Victorian houses-turned-boutiques and restaurants. Lunch was in an open courtyard, with tables distanced at least three metres apart, and our server wore a clear visor. Nice, as we could see her smile, but still felt protected.

No car? No problem. While still on the train, we went online and ordered groceries from the local store for delivery. Le Boat, too, offers a shopping service for non-perishables, so the pantry was already stocked when we arrived. (But if you need other supplies, everything is within walking distance of the marina.)

Rideau Waterway
Having dinner on the deck of our yacht-style houseboat. Photo: Courtesy Vivian Vassos

 

On checking in, we were offered hand-sewn cotton masks, and there is hand sanitizer on the boat. Cabins come with ensuite baths, so no sharing, and freshly laundered linens and towels were folded and waiting for us to make our own beds. I didn’t mind; it made me feel better knowing the linens were untouched.

We have a training session on how to drive our Horizon Cruiser (no experience or licence required, but knowing how to drive a car helps). It’s recommended you don’t go more than about seven kilometres an hour, and we’re escorted through the first lock. Then we were off.

We did all our own cooking and cocktail-making, so we were able to control when and what we ate, how far we travelled and where we stopped for the night. Regaining the sense of freedom and watching this gorgeous part of our country pass by, we’re secure in our bubble. Drifting along with the loons floating nearby and the herons and falcons soaring overhead is one of the great Canadiana experiences.