Seaway to heaven: A meandering cruise through the Great Lakes and the Thousand Islands

Michael Kerr
The Canadian Express takes you on a scenic journey from the Atlantic Ocean to the western tip of Lake Superior - Ian Coristine/1000IslandsPhotoArt.com

The muffins gave it away. The walls of the lock were soaring as our ship descended, but so smoothly were we moving that there was no real sense of how swiftly it was happening – except in the size of the muffins.

When we’d arrived, one of our Canadian crew had handed over a batch, freshly baked in the galley, to the Americans operating the lock. That foil-wrapped package was now in the back of their buggy on the quay alongside us, and growing bigger each time I glanced at it. So too was the grin on the buggy driver’s face. He and his mates would soon be done with us, and free to zip back to base and tuck in.

With a drop – or, for unbound vessels, a lift – of 45ft, the Snell lock (named after a US congressman), is the deepest of all in a system that’s not short of superlatives. The Great Lakes St Lawrence Seaway System is the world’s largest inland waterway; “the tallest water staircase west of China”. Using its canals, shipping channels and locks, ocean-going vessels can sail 2,312 miles (3,700km) into North America’s interior, from the Atlantic Ocean to the western tip of Lake Superior. En route, they are raised 552ft, or roughly the height of a 60-storey building.

An icebreaker, the d’Iberville, began the first through-transit 60 years ago, on April 25 1959. When the Queen – representing Canada – presided over the formal opening with the US president, Dwight D Eisenhower, on June 26, she said that the system was “a magnificent monument to the enduring friendship of our two nations and to their partnership in the development of North America”. It was also the culmination of centuries of efforts to exploit the St Lawrence river; efforts that began in 1534 when King François I of France sent Jacques Cartier to explore the northern lands, in search of gold, spices and a passage to Asia.

Traffic on the seaway has declined from a high in the mid-Seventies: the newest container vessels are too big to use it, competition is sharper from road and rail, and ice still forces closure between December and March. But it remains an important waterway, and one increasingly used by pleasure craft.

Navigating the St Lawrence Seaway System Credit: Getty

I saw it from the Canadian Empress, a vessel that’s younger than it looks. Launched in 1981, it was designed, with a tall stack, boxy profile and shallow draught, to be a faithful replica of the riverboats that plied the waters of upper Canada around 1900. Just 108ft long, with a 30ft beam, it takes a maximum of 66 passengers on trips between its base in Kingston – a town with gulls in its traffic and domes on its skyline – and Quebec City.

The Seaway was seen as a great moment of international cooperation Credit: GETTY

One highlight, a meandering passage through the Thousand Islands, comes early. We were still enjoying a hearty breakfast on the first morning when the ship began pootling among the most westward of them, offering us glimpses through the picture windows of cormorants, a blue heron, a hawk of some kind.

In Gananoque (where the Empress was built), we paused at the museum for a swift run-through on the islands’ history: from Ice Age formation, via Iroquois longhouse, to Boldt Castle. George C Boldt, who arrived penniless in the US from Prussia, went on to become the first manager of the Waldorf Astoria in New York, the inventor of room service and a millionaire. He visited the Thousand Islands in the early 1890s, and immediately decided to build a summer home there. It would be a gift to his wife, Louise, and a monument to his love for her. The builders had been busy for four years on the Rhineland-style castle when a telegram arrived in January 1904: down tools. Mrs Boldt had died. Though ours was the last trip of the season, and the sundeck more often a wind deck, quite a few of us went aloft to get a good look at Mr Boldt’s extraordinary confection, with its turrets and towers and Gaudíesque playhouse. Work – funded by tourist fees – restarted in 1977. If he’s looking down, he might find it some consolation that his supersized love token is a popular venue for weddings.

Other passengers were content to see the castle from the “Grand Salon”, the restaurant-and-bar, with its pressed-tin ceiling and brass-railed bar and staircase. It was there that our jolly purser and cruise director, Mary Lynn, presided over quizzes and bingo. Though on only her second year on the Empress, she was intimately acquainted with the waters it sails. What was curiosity to us was family connection for her: “My grandfather did the brickwork at that factory… my sister’s the admin manager there… Dad was chief of police in this town… I’ve got history all along the river.”

Some of the seaway’s history is haunting. Damming necessitated by the billion-dollar project – which was also about generating power – widened the river. On “Inundation Day”, July 1 1958, half a dozen villages and three hamlets vanished under what is now known as Lake St Lawrence.

Some buildings were spared and re-erected in Upper Canada Village, in the heart of eastern Ontario, which aims to recreate life in a rural English-Canadian setting in the year 1866. We shuttled there on a miniature train from our berth at Crysler Park Marina, on the northern shore of the St Lawrence.

Richard, our actorish guide, bearded and frock-coated, did his best to take us back in time, talking in the present tense as we made the rounds of tavern, church and general store. At the last, he told us, patent medicines included laudanum, popular among women as a remedy for hysteria. “Men do not contract hysteria in the 19th century,” he said, before adding, with 21st-century revisionist relish, “Men are quite frequently the cause of hysteria.”

Make time to visit Montreal on your voyage Credit: Getty

I was on the Empress only for its outward journey, disembarking at Lachine, formerly Saint-Sulpice, one of the first three parishes on the island of Montreal. It was renamed thanks to one of Jacques Cartier’s successors, René-Robert Cavelier, who was granted land there. So sure was he that he’d find a passage to China that he took to dressing in readiness in silk clothes. He was mocked for his obsession; his crew were derided as “Chinois” and his patch as “La Chine” – French for China.

Over the next couple of days, I dipped into the maritime history of Montreal, through the excellent Pointe-à-Callière museum and, later, on a walk with a local guide, Martin Robitaille. He explained that, in the early days of European settlement, it was the Lachine area that was the bridge between Montreal, the Great Lakes and the North American interior.

Cartier had run into impassable rapids, so permanent posts were established above and below to allow for portage. The Lachine Canal was built in the 1820s to bypass the rapids and, with modifications over the years, remained in use until the Seventies. Well before then, though, it had effectively been supplanted by the St Lawrence Seaway.

Lake Superior Credit: Getty

Reopened in 2002 to recreational boating, the canal is now the centre of a linear urban park. It runs for eight and a half miles (13.6km) from Lake St-Louis to what is now known as the Old Port, the cargo trade having given some ground to tourism.

A new cruise terminal, designed to decant passengers straight from their ships into the old town, opened in June 2017. If they pause on the riverside, those passengers will find invitations to see Montreal from a bike, a Segway, a zip line, or from Canada’s biggest observation wheel. They’ll be offered souvenirs from shops housed in shipping containers. Even Cartier’s most frustrating obstacle has been turned into an opportunity. Hauled up for winter on one quay were three craft that will soon be buzzing. Above them a sign read: “SAUTE-MOUTONS – JET BOATING – sur les rapides.”

Essentials

Michael Kerr travelled as a guest of Tourism Montreal (mtl.org/en/what-to-do), Québec Original (Quebecoriginal.com/en-gb) and St Lawrence Cruise Lines (001 800 267 7868; stlawrencecruiselines.com), which offers cruises from four to seven nights on the St Lawrence and Ottawa rivers on a replica steamboat from May to October, with departures from Kingston, Ottawa and Quebec City. A six-night Canadian Connection West cruise, departing from Quebec City on June 29 2018 costs from C$2,789 (£1,603) excluding flights.

In Montreal, he stayed at the Hôtel William Gray (hotelwilliamgray.com); doubles from C$171 (£100) a night.