The St Lawrence Seaway Cruise
"Cruise… past fortresses, stately homes and ever-changing scenery" … "A feast for the eyes and the palate" … "Revel in your view of palatial mansions and quaint island cottages" … "Stunning rock outcrops, and a wealth of water creatures, including seals…" These excerpts from cruise literature don't describe any of the usual cruise ship itineraries, like the Mediterranean or Caribbean, or even Alaska. What's being promoted and finding a lot of takers in recent years are passenger cruises of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes. Seen by many as only a utilitarian marine highway for the transport of steel, grain and other commodities, the Seaway is discovering a second identity as a popular cruise destination that offers all the magic, luxury, scenery and excitement vacationers could want.
A recent search on Google.com came up with some 1700 listings for Seaway cruises that offer a wide range of options and accommodations. Full-size European and North American cruise liners ply the waterway in the company of smaller local ships, some modern, some replicas of steamships and paddle-wheelers, based in Quebec, Ontario and the American states that border the Seaway and Great Lakes. Cruises are available in any length, from several weeks to an hour or two through the Thousand Islands. Seaway and St. Lawrence River cruises are even being promoted as a relaxing way to travel between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City for whatever purpose, or as one leg of a longer journey, citing links with VIA Rail in all the port cities, with stations all within a few minutes of each port.
What's so attractive about Seaway cruising? Actually, the Seaway stacks up surprisingly well against more exotic enticements. For one thing, this is sheltered, calm water cruising, with sophisticated navigational aids, and dry land and civilization are always within easy reach -reassuring for those wary of the dangers of the open sea. For those less interested in shipboard games and entertainments, the scenery is always varied, interesting, and within easy view - no lengthy stretches of empty ocean waves. While passing rolling farmland, ancient fortifications, cliffs and woodlands, or the castles of the Thousand Islands, vacationers can catch glimpses of ships carrying cargo and passengers from more than 50 countries, watch seals and Beluga whales, and spot a wide variety of shore and marsh birds and wildlife.
Seaway cruises also offer boundless opportunities for shore trips and sightseeing. For the sophisticated, the cosmopolitan cities of Montreal and Toronto provide a variety of nightlife, entertainment, casinos, museums, shopping and fine dining. There are historic sites like the old town of Quebec, restored forts from settlement days, and Upper Canada Village, which recreates life in 19th century rural Canada. Local craftspeople and Native artisans offer their original creations at fairs and in village stores all along the waterway. Niagara-on-the-Lake's annual Shaw Festival is a treat for theatre-goers, and a bus ride away is Stratford, where a selection of Shakespeare's plays is staged every summer in a replica of the Globe Theatre, complemented by musicals and other dramatic fare in companion playhouses.
The Seaway itself is also an attraction. North America's extensive lake and river systems were the first, and for a long time, the only transportation routes for European trappers, traders and settlers who migrated to the New World. Rapids, waterfalls and other obstacles to navigation made travel arduous, and the dream of a fully navigable waterway took hold. As early as 1680, a Montreal monk began digging a small canal to link Lake St. Louis and Montreal, but centuries passed before the dream was realized. In 1833, the first Welland Canal opened for navigation. And in 1959, the modern Seaway opened, allowing ocean vessels free access to the heart of North America for the first time.
The Seaway and its locks have been acclaimed one of the top 10 engineering feats of the 20th century. Entire villages were relocated to higher ground in the mid-50s to make room for the necessary dams and channels, with the help of the largest moving and construction equipment in the world at the time. Today, the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway marine transportation system runs from the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the Atlantic Ocean to the twin ports of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin, at the western tip of Lake Superior - a distance of 2,038 nautical miles or 3,700 kilometers. It includes the St. Lawrence River, the five Great Lakes, six canals and a total of 19 locks, 7 leading into Lake Ontario at the east end, 8 on the Welland Canal between Lakes Ontario and Erie, and 4 at Sault Ste. Marie, linking Lakes Huron and Superior.
The Seaway locks make up the world's most spectacular lift system. They can accommodate cargo ships measuring up to 225.5 meters in length (or 740 feet) and 23.8 meters (or 78 feet) in the beam - twice as long and half as wide as a football field, carrying cargoes equivalent to 1,000 loaded cement trucks. Between Kingston and Montreal, both cargo and cruise ships pass through 7 locks, rising 246 feet above sea level, a novel experience for most passengers. By the time a ship reaches Duluth, at the head of Lake Superior, it has risen 600 feet, the height of a 60-storey skyscraper, through a series of 19 locks, and traveled more than the distance across the Atlantic itself.
From Quebec City to Kingston, the St Lawrence passes through some of the oldest settled areas of North America. Quebec City, a vibrant stronghold of French-Canadian culture, is built into the 350-foot cliff of Cape Diamond. It is the only walled city on the continent north of Mexico, with massive ramparts that border the Plains of Abraham, where the legendary 18th century battle between Wolfe's English army and Montcalm's French forces transferred control of Canada to the British. Visitors can enjoy walks through the cobblestone streets of the charming Old Town, with its 200-year-old stone houses, browse through shops and galleries or sip café au lait at one of the many open-air cafés.
Between Quebec City and Montreal, the scenery is hilly and pastoral, with the characteristic long, narrow fields of ancient habitant farms running down to the river, interspersed with villages, each crowned with its parish church spire. The waters of the St. Lawrence support a large population of marine mammals here, including several species of seals.
Although Montreal has spread out over time, it started on an island where the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers meet. Named for Mt. Royal, which dominates the city, Montreal is an exciting combination of historic stone waterfront buildings in the old port section, dating back to the 1600s, and sophisticated avant-garde architecture in the modern downtown area. Possible excursions include the elaborate Basilica of Notre Dame de Bonsecours, walking tours of Vieux Montréal, including the Ville Marie Mission site, Château Ramezay, and the Bonsecours Market area.
Continuing west along the Seaway into Ontario and Loyalist country, settled largely by families who fled the American Revolutionary War in the late eighteenth century, the next landmark is Prescott. Here Fort Wellington, a crucial fortress during the War of 1812, has been restored. Nearby is Upper Canada Village, a re-created 1860s riverfront hamlet, next to Chrysler Farm Battlefield Park, another 1812 historic site. Also within reach (about an hour's bus ride away) is Ottawa, Canada's capital. Born as a booming frontier lumber town, Ottawa today charms visitors with canal and riverfront parks, graceful architecture, national museums, galleries, the gardens and arboretum at the Experimental Farm, and a bustling downtown Market area with many excellent restaurants and crafts for sale. Tours visit the Gothic-style Parliament Buildings, taking in the changing of the guard ceremonies in summer, and the residence of the Governor-General at Rideau Hall, or spend an hour or two cruising the Rideau Canal and Ottawa River.
Continuing west, cruises pass through the wonderfully pristine scenery of the Thousand Islands. There are actually 1,865 islands here, left behind by glaciers 12,000 years ago, which form a maze of channels among rock outcrops, lawns, flower gardens and windswept white pines. Among the summer homes by these waters, the most impressive is Boldt Castle, with Scottish-style high roof peaks and tall chimneys. It was built early in the 1900s by hotel tycoon George Boldt, whose chef, it is said, invented Thousand Island salad dressing.
The Seaway flows on to Lake Ontario, past Kingston, which was the capital of Upper Canada (now Ontario) in the early 1800s, past Toronto, Canada's second largest city, and on to the historic Welland Canal. The Welland Canal lifts ships 324 feet over the Niagara Escarpment in 7 locks, with most of the rise occurring in only eight miles. Three of the locks are designed as a continuous flight, or staircase. The current canal is the fourth, completed in 1932, a century after the first canal with its 40 wooden locks.
The more civilized coastlines of the lower Great Lakes feature gently rolling farmland, sand dunes, century-old lighthouses still in use today, heritage towns and the sophisticated urban delights of some of the world's great cities, among them Toronto, Detroit, and Chicago. Side trips can include the familiar excitement of a baseball game, a morning of fishing, an evening at the casino or theatre, golf at any one of dozens of championship courses, a day basking on an endless sand beach, or excursions through resort towns where time stopped a century ago. A visit to spectacular Niagara Falls, between Lakes Ontario and Erie, used to be de rigueur for honeymooners, and is still a favorite with tourists of all sorts. The Niagara Peninsula's fruit orchards and vineyards are a treat for the eye, and an afternoon of wine tasting can provide a treat for the palate as well.
Lake Superior and Northern Lake Huron have more rugged attractions to offer. Still sparsely settled, particularly on the north shore, these are wonderful wilderness areas with views of bare crags crowned with northern pine, breathtaking sunsets, the excitement of sighting moose, bear, or heron, and stunning rock outcrops, such as Lake Huron's "flowerpots", teeming with shore birds. Shore excursions bring the area's frontier history, still relatively recent, to mind, and there are numerous provincial, national and state parks to visit, many communities of artisans, and Native communities and cultural sites.
The Great Lakes/Seaway system has something for everyone. The surprise, really, is not that it's becoming such a popular waterway for cruising, but that it's taken so long to be rediscovered.