IN KINGSTON, ONTARIO, ON A SUMMER’S SATURDAY AFTERNOON, if you’re not in the water, on the water or above the water – you’re probably on your way to a lake or river, or strolling along the historic city’s waterfront. When I visit our big urban neighbours, I casually mention that I can leave home and have my canoe in the water in 15 minutes. Eyeballs pop.
Easy water access is just the first of many selling points. Locals scratch their heads, perplexed at why more Big City dwellers don’t ditch the traffic gridlock, the sky high real estate prices and the rush-rush-rush, and trade it all in for an affordable cost of living in a city where you can still get most places on a bicycle.
Kingston is perfectly situated (did I mention the lakes?) – equidistance from Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, with topnotch health care services, two universities and a community college. With the post-secondary students come music, film, theatre, culture and tempting dining (the rumour is Kingston has the most restaurants per capita in Canada).
If you’ve lived in Kingston for a while (I’m celebrating 30 years), you’ll know that it’s near impossible to walk the downtown streets without bumping into people you know. Yet the city is just large enough (area population: 159,000) that they may know you, but your secrets are still yours to keep.
WE HAVE WIND. There’s the big expanse of water, of course – Lake Ontario – with world-renowned sailing conditions and a downtown harbour full of boats bobbing in rows of slips. Kingston hosts the annual Canadian Olympic-training Regatta Kingston (CORK) and the waterfront just west of downtown has become a popular hangout for kiteboarders and windsurfers.
Scuba divers claim the intersection of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario has some of the best freshwater wreck diving in the world, thanks to almost 200 shipwrecks resting in the deep waters. At one time Kingston was a major shipyard and sailing vessels plied their trade up and down the river and into the Great Lakes. The motorcycle on the deck of the scuttled Wolfe Islander II ferry is a popular spot for divers to snap photos.
One of the most budget-friendly and least complicated ways to get onto the water is to let someone else do the piloting. The touristy thing is to hop aboard one of the cruise line boats, like a 1000 Islands Cruises sightseeing tour or sunset dinner cruise. My favourite way to get out there is to grab a picnic meal and ride the free Wolfe Islander III ferry between downtown Kingston and Wolfe Island. Round trip is about an hour and the view of the city skyline, Royal Military College and Fort Henry National Historic Site is fantastic.
MANY LANDLUBBERS ZIP BY THE LOCKS of the UNESCO Rideau Canal – the 202-km waterway linking Kingston to Ottawa – because they think it is for watercraft only. They are missing out on some of the best stops in this part of Ontario.
Built in the mid-1800s, the Rideau Canal cut through the rocky wilderness as a secure wartime supply route, although it never saw military action. Fast-forward to the 21st-century and it is a scenic byway for boaters, picnic grounds, slices of history and a spot for anglers to toss in a line.
The locks begin just north of the city at Kingston Mills where the lockmaster still regulates water levels in the massive locks using the original hand-cranked mechanisms. Rideau Tours is a one-stop shop of ways to explore the Rideau Canal – by boat, bike, kayak or even by helicopter.
I’ve seen this watery kingdom from the air, from the dockside and from my canoe on the water. It’s summertime bliss. And I never forget to remind myself that I can be there in 15 minutes.
WHERE TO RENT WATERCRAFT:
Ahoy Rentals rents canoes, tandem kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and sailboats.
Trailhead Kingston rents stand-up paddleboards, kayaks and canoes.
Treasure Island Marina (just east of Kingston) rents power and sailboats.
Fully equipped houseboats can be booked through Houseboat Holidays, located between Kingston and Gananoque.
Powerboats for fishing excursions can be rented at Spencer’s Riverfront Cottages, 22-km east of Kingston.
Get info at Tourism Kingston.
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