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CATCH THE RIVER SIGHTS ON A ST LAWRENCE CRUISE

By Pam Hobbs



It's fun to wake up, lift the bedroom curtain and see an island drifting by. The first one had a little cottage on it, and a canoe tied to the dock. The next was so small it supported no more than two spindly trees and patches of scrubby grass. The third, though doubtless known as The Cottage, resembled an English mansion, while flags of four nations flew out front in Honore of current house guests. I enjoyed the luxury of lying in bed and watching the world drift by - even when I remembered it was I, not the islands in transit.

There are approximately 1,800 islands in the Thousand Islands region of the St Lawrence River. Last night we anchored among them, perhaps where explorers, voyageurs and pioneers once camped en route to the interior. It is an appropriate stopover for us, because we are on a Heritage Waterway tour and our ship is reminiscent of the steamboats that plied this river a century or so ago.

She is the Canadian Empress, an ungainly looking vessel at first sight, but dear to us by the time we part. Travelling between Kingston, Ontario and Québec City her itineraries include weekend getaways and three to five day cruises.

Summer is by far the Empress's busiest season. Yet in May and October, when the days are usually warm and nights pleasantly cool, cruise rates drop appreciably. (By the way, October - not September - sees the riverbanks ablaze with spectacular colors. Influenced by the warming effect of the water, the riverside leaves are barely tinged with gold when others are dead and carpeting the ground inland.)

Owner Bob Clark deserves success with his Empress, in return for the tender loving care he continues to lavish upon her. As he tells it, he was a semi-retired builder back in 1979, and a mite bored with it all. Then one golden afternoon he took a couple of beers over to a friend who was raking leaves at his riverside cottage. Talk turned to the many cruise boats going by, and Clark calculated that 24 boats carried 14,000 passengers a day out of Kingston, but none had overnight accommodation. When steamboats carrying travellers from Québec City at the turn of the century were recalled, the possibility of building a replica came to mind. The idea took hold and Clark's boredom was swept away with his pal's leaves.

The all-aluminum Empress was 11 months in the planning and another 11 months under construction in Gananoque, Ontario. This marriage of steamboat authenticity with modern technology and comforts resulted in the birth of a twin-engine diesel ship, 108 feet (33m) long with a capacity for 66 passengers in 32 staterooms and a crew of 14.

Following her launching in September, 1981, the Empress made four cruises that year, initially to iron out wrinkles in design and on-board routine. There were remarkably few: a patio door from the main lounge is now made to close by itself for the comfort of people inside; three clothes hooks in each cabin (the same as on the original steamboats) proved inadequate for modern travellers, so they were replaced with rods and hangers.

Even the inexperienced eye can see that no expense was spared to achieve an authentic decor. Where possible, Canadian materials were employed, but often Clark had to shop farther afield - in Belgium for the rich velvet drapes, Sweden for stateroom doors and England for plush Axminster carpeting. Elaborately patterned tin ceilings in the public areas are particularly interesting. After months of research, Clark tracked down some abandoned molds used for ceilings in the old river boats and had them put back to use.

Staterooms are small, but elegant. Each has at least two full sized windows for river viewing, and thermostats for individual control of the air conditioning. Fixtures and furnishings are expensive, like our trundle which makes into a double bed, with its brass rail on three sides and salmon-colored velvet cover to match the curtains. We have the thick Axminster carpeting, private toilet and shower, full length and marble basin with large brass taps. Our luggage fits neatly into the closet space. Then, because well rested passengers are more inclined to be happy passengers, all mattresses are of higher quality than those used in some first-class hotels.

It is this generous approach that makes it work so well. Clark says he is selling nostalgia, quality and service. The nostalgia is self- evident. So is the quality. To mention one example, he buys produce from a small wholesaler who charges more than his competitors, but will deliver on Sundays immediately prior to departure. Service? Crew members also represent the cream of the crop. The ship has two crews, allowing for a full change-over at each end of the journey so passengers are never greeted by a tired staff. All are carefully picked from hundreds of applications received each season. Deck hands and waitresses on our trip were Queen's University graduates.

About 70 percent of our passengers are retired people, in groups from Irwin, Pennsylvania, and Strathroy, Ontario. We also had two teen-aged boys, who quickly proved there is no such thing as a generation gap. The rest included several American teachers, a well travelled couple from Philadelphia who compared this with their recent Alaskan cruise, an architect from Birmingham, an accountant from Mississauga, and a Dearborn, Mich, realtor.

Had we voted for the most popular crew member, doubtless John Clark would have won hands down. John, who gave the older folks clues in Trivial Pursuit, struggled to get a fire going for the weiner roast, counted heads on land excursions and each night, wrote, printed and delivered beneath cabin doors a newsletter detailing the day's events.

One of John's letters reminded me I had dallied enough watching those islands from my bed, because soon we would be stopping at one in New York State. It is Heart Island, where the poignant story of George and Louise Boldt unfolds in a castle which will never be finished, since all work ceased upon Mrs. Boldt's death in 1904. More than $2 million had been put into the building, and a further fortune was to make it one of the world's finest homes. But instead, tourists now tramp through the empty rooms, gum wrappers lie in Italian marble fireplaces and crude graffiti decorates bedroom walls.

As the Empress hummed on to Prescott that day, we lunched on sole with wild rice and discussed the remarkable George Boldt, who came to the United States from Prussia at the age of 13, got himself work peeling potatoes and eventually became owner of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Boldt loved this area. He had a farm here large enough to supply produce to his hotel. But perhaps his chef, Oscar, brought a more lasting fame to the region. He created a salad dressing which he named Thousand Islands.

Our own chef was Joe Garrido, who produced imaginative meals from his little galley three times a day. In true cruise boat tradition, we all ate too much. Take our last evening when Joe barbecued filet mignon steaks as we tucked into breaded mushrooms and salads. Three hours later we all turned up for a weiner roast, consuming several weiners apiece while listening to visiting musicians. Afternoon tea, with cake or hot scones and preserves, was always well attended. Tea, coffee, soft drinks and snacks left out 24 hours a day were replenished often. The bar, open from 11.30 a.m. to 1.a.m., except Sundays, when it closed at 11 p.m. was seldom without customers.

Boldt Castle was the first of our four shore excursions. Prescott was second, for a visit to Fort Wellington, built during the war of 1812 to protect British shipping between Upper and Lower Canada. Here, a costumed guide explained how the fort was garrisoned for several years after the war, then fell into ruin. The present fortress dates from 1837.

We dutifully toured officers' quarters and the blockhouse, and watched a demonstration of musket firing - good naturedly repeated for a woman whose camera malfunctioned the first time around - and met school children dressed to the period and enjoying their summer roles immensely.

With two visits to Upper Canada Village planned, we docked overnight at Crysler Park Marina about two km (a mile and a half) away. What is now Crysler Park was the site of an important battle in the War of 1812. It was November, 1813, when Upper Canada settlers joined regular British troops in the fighting at Crysler's Farm. Their victory, on the heels of another in Québec, prevented the American capture of Montreal, which would have cut off vital supplies to British troops in the west.

On a warm and peaceful evening, horse-drawn wagons took us back in time, past the deserted battle site and into Upper Canada Village for a turkey dinner at the nineteenth-century Willard's Hotel.

Again next morning the wagons took us to the village, this time for a closer look at some of its 40-odd buildings. Typical of the nineteenth-century river-front community, the village is one of Canada's most interesting living museums, established in the 1950s when seaway construction compelled removal of historic buildings from their original sites. In our allotted two hours we could sample no more than a taste. Still, it was a pleasant interlude. We talked with the lock-master and several "housewives" going about their nineteenth- century chores. We enjoyed the gardens, crammed with flowers this summer as a result of the warm weather.

On the river, too, we had near perfect weather. Always in sight of land, we could sit on deck for hours, watching an ever-changing view. We waved and shouted greetings back to cottagers, leisure sailors, and even the crews of foreign freighters rumbling by. I think we went through seven locks. After the first two, nothing less than a 11 metre (35 foot) lift caused me to stir from my chaise. Then, all too soon, the cottages had given way to neat little farms and villages, and we were passing into the suburbs of Montréal.

We docked at the foot of Old Montréal to find tour busses waiting for our groups and taxis for the rest of us. A van had brought the new crew and food supplies from Kingston. Three hours later a group of strangers boarded our Empress. They assembled for the welcome party, were introduced to the crew, then sailed off into the sunset for a rendezvous with the past. We returned to Kingston by train, picked up our car, which we had left at the station before going on board, and drove home.