As the nation steadfastly emerges from the COVID-19 restrictions, many Canadians find themselves eager for vacation options, myself included. With international, transborder, and even inter-provincial travel out of the question for many, our wanderlust will have to be sated by exploring our backyards.
And thus I found myself on the Rideau Lakes on board a Le Boat premier Horizon cruiser with my family bubble. Le Boat was a natural choice for us because unlike camping or a hotel vacation, the self-drive charter is an entirely private and exclusive experience, without having to share common facilities or mix with other travellers. And we had complete freedom to design our vacation — deciding where, when, and how far we wanted to go — entirely at our own pace.
We checked in at Le Boat’s base in Smiths Falls, Ontario, less than four hours’ drive from Toronto or one hour from Ottawa. (VIA trains also stop at Smiths Falls.) After a comprehensive boat orientation, navigation, and driving lesson, our foursome headed out on a week-long adventure on the Rideau Canal.
Built between 1826 and 1832 to provide safe passage between Ottawa and Kingston away from American threats, the Rideau Canal spans 202 kilometres (137 miles), connected with 47 locks in 22 lockstations. The canal’s historical significance as well as its well-preserved buildings and locks system earned its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017.
Exploring Ontario’s Scenic Lock System
Our southwesterly route from Smiths Falls took us through Lower Rideau Lake, Big Rideau Lake, and Upper Rideau Lake. This is Ontario cottage country, where shorelines are dotted with summer homes — some rustic, some grand. From great expanses to narrow channels, the scenery is exquisite, with a dreaminess to its features. We spot graceful herons gliding across the sparkling lake, floating convoys of Canada geese, and the iconic loon fishing for dinner. Big sun, blue sky, and gentle breezes make for easy motoring every day.
Our first stop: Beveridges Locks. Added in the late 1880s to connect the Lower Rideau Lake to the Tay Canal leading into Perth, these twin locks are technically not counted as part of the Rideau Canal system. Nevertheless, Beveridges was a pleasant place to moor for our first evening, where we enjoyed our dinner onboard, a quick swim, and drinks around the campfire.
The next morning, we awoke to chirping songbirds and a sprinkling of sunshine through the skylight of our cabin. A few ambitious boaters were already casting off. We heard the clickety-clack of the lock gates opening and then the release of the flotilla of cruisers heading out for the day’s adventure.
After a leisure breakfast, we coasted towards Portland, well-tucked in the southeast corner of Big Rideau Lake. Travelling at a speed of less than 10 kilometres (6.5 miles) per hour, we arrived in time for lunch. Portland’s storied past can be explored on a heritage walking tour through 12 historical buildings erected between the 1840s to 1926 by the town’s pioneers. But on that scorching hot day, we opted for an ice cream from the grocery store and a refreshing swim at the beach before retreating to our top deck for icy gin and tonics.
Enchantments of Cottage Country
To reach Westport the next day, we transited through the Narrows Lock from Big Rideau Lake to Upper Rideau Lake — the lowest elevation rise of our trip at only three feet. Once moored in Westport, we hit the walking trails of Foley Mountain for a spectacular view of the town. A less strenuous option is to stroll along the waterfront and enjoy a refreshing pint at Westport Brewery. We capped off our day with a delicious dinner at family-owned Scheuremann Vineyard and Winery, serving wood-oven pizzas and the best rib steak we have tasted. The winery offers tastings, a sculpture garden, and ample outdoor seating.
Our next overnight was spent in Newboro. Popular with anglers, largemouth bass is the prize to catch. The village also offers excellent retail therapy in the form of Kilborn’s on the Rideau, with two floors full of clothing, shoes, jewellery, knickknacks, home, and cottage furnishings. One can easily spend hours browsing here and then head over for a fish-and-chips or walleye dinner at nearby Stirling Lodge.
Chaffeys Lockstation — named after mill operator Samuel Chaffey — gave us a chance to stretch our legs as the 100-kilometre (65-mile) Cataraqui Trail traverses through here. Following an old railway bed, we walked on a train bridge before heading into the forest and wetlands. Busy chipmunks and squirrels rustled in the bushes while white-tailed deer cautiously eyed us from the woods. But it was the pint-sized leopard frogs along the marsh that made me squeal. Until the last second, they stayed camouflaged until the moment they jump out of the way to avoid my impending step.
The next morning, we took a morning sail down to remote Davis Lock, which in my opinion was the most quaint and picturesque of the stations. The signboards indicate that little has changed since the lock was built, other than the addition of picnic tables for visitors to contemplate its history and peaceful surroundings. The lockmaster’s house built in 1842 still stands, although it has been converted into a vacation rental. While we would have liked to venture farther, our weeklong tour ended and we reluctantly turned back for Smiths Falls.
As I returned to my Central Ontario home to face the next chapter of the pandemic, I felt a little more optimistic. The lake breezes lifted my spirits and the sublime nature recharged my mind. Although most provinces are moving into more relaxed phases, there will still be times of doubt and questions of how long recovery will take. In the meantime, I know I can always relive my time out on the lakes with Le Boat, as that’s where hope floats.
MORE ABOUT LE BOAT
The Vessels: Le Boat’s line of Premier Horizon cruisers ranges from one to five bedrooms with ensuite baths that sleep up to 12. Every boat is outfitted with a full kitchen and a top deck with ample seating and barbecue hot plate. Le Boat also offers grocery stocking service, bicycle, kayak, and SUP rentals.
Sailing: A boating licence or previous boating experience is not required. A full hands-on demonstration and boat operation instructions are provided before departure.
Rates: A 7-night tour of the Rideau Lakes in September costs approximately $4,719, according to Le Boat’s booking engine.
COVID-19 Protocols: Following Ontario’s Health and Safety Guidelines, Le Boat has implemented comprehensive protocols under the COVID Safety Charter, with strict measures such as:
- Staggering arrivals and social distancing for check-in, with all staff wearing personal protective equipment.
- Sending all pre-departure information including compulsory safety videos to guests in advance and processing all payments before arrival.
- Deep-cleaning and sanitizing of all touchpoints on boats using disinfectant sprays that have been proven to kill the COVID-19 virus.
- Washing all linens and towels at high temperatures and handled only by staff wearing PPE.
There is still availability for 2020 trips (the season ends on October 14). The 2021 season will start on May 21 and is open for reservations now. To book a Le Boat charter, contact your professional travel advisor, visit Le Boat’s website, or call the company at 1-800-734-5491.