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CATCH THE RIVER SIGHTS ON A ST LAWRENCE
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
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,
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
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
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.