If you look hard enough, there’s a story around every bend of the 202-kilometre-long Rideau waterway. At Fort Henry in Kingston, it’s the story of Canada’s beginnings up close. At Rock Dunder, near Morton, a snippet of the Canadian Shield’s four-billion-year-old tale. Jones Falls Locks: a testament to the ingenuity that went into building this engineering marvel—writ large in the 360-foot-long, 60-foot-high Stone Arch Dam.

On the water in Merrickville, named Canada's most beautiful village by Communities in Bloom. (photo: The Great Waterway)
On the water in Merrickville, named Canada’s most beautiful village by Communities in Bloom.

You won’t be able to hear the region’s entire story in one visit, but whatever chapter you choose, a boat, bike, car, hiking shoes or even heels will suffice to get up close to it. Read on for the crux of the Rideau’s tale, and 15 of the best ways to experience it.

History

Incorporating 47 locks, 16 rivers and 2 lakes, the Rideau Canal was always going to be a tough project for Lieutenant-Colonel John By and thousands of Irish and French-Canadian labourers. But the British military believed it would be worth it, largely because the canal would provide a secure supply and communications route between Kingston and Ottawa—away from those pesky American invaders of the 19th century.

The Old Stone Mill in Delta, a National Historic Site of Canada and one of the best examples of 19th century industrial architecture in the region. (photo: Old Stone Mill)
The Old Stone Mill in Delta, a National Historic Site of Canada and one of the best examples of 19th century industrial architecture in the region.

All told, it took six years to finish—1826 to 1832—and up to 1,000 lives, most of which were lost due to malaria, disease and accidents. That toil and sacrifice is etched into the walls, dams and locks of the canal, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest continually operated canal system on the continent.

Jones Falls Locks: Prettiest locks on the canal and Colonel By’s ultimate achievement. Four locks, a blacksmith shop, museum, lockmaster’s house and the Stone Arch Dam.

Delta Mill: Built-in 1810, the National Historic Site shows you how important the Rideau was to those who lived near its banks. Don’t miss: fresh stone-ground-flour bread on Saturdays at 10 am.

Merrickville Walking Tour: Merrickville is the best-preserved village for seeing the boom the canal brought in the 19th century. Twenty-two stops in total, from a blockhouse to a tavern.

Outdoors

The Rideau lies in the heart of the Frontenac Arch, a ridge of granite rock known as “The Bones of the Mother” in Mohawk tradition. A billion years ago, it was part of the largest chain of mountains in the world, and today you can still see their remnants in the rugged cliffs that hug the Rideau, as well as in 4 provincial parks and 10 conservation areas nearby.

High atop Rock Dunder near Morton with one of the best views in the region.
High atop Rock Dunder near Morton with one of the best views in the region.

In 2002, the Frontenac Arch’s rich natural environment and history was recognized when it became a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve—and no wonder. Here, five forest regions merge, lakes and wetlands dot the landscape, and the wildlife is, arguably, as diverse as anywhere else in the country.

Voyageur Canoe Tours: Interpretive history and nature tours along the Rideau that take place in 34-foot replica voyageur canoes with guides dressed in voyageur costume.

Hike Rock Dunder: Take the 3.9 km Summit Loop here, which climbs along an island, through a variety of forests and ends with the most spectacular views of the Rideau waterway.

Fish Seeley’s Bay: Voted the 5th ultimate fishing town in Canada, Seeley’s Bay has Large and Small Mouth Bass, Northern Pike, Crappie and the ancient Bowfin.

Food And Drink

Forty-two cheese factories were built along the Rideau from 1870 to 1909, and they produced over 4 million pounds of cheese. The area isn’t producing quite as much of the spongy stuff these days, but you can still easily find it at places like Balderson Cheese and Forfar Dairy.

The Goose and Gridiron in Merrickville: always a great option for pub and patio fans.
The Goose and Gridiron in Merrickville: always a great option for pub and patio fans.

The Rideau area also has plenty of ways to pair that fresh cheese. Stop by Blue Gypsy Wines in Oxford Mills, for example, for fruit-based wines made without sulphites, or pick up fresh-baked bread and local produce at farmers’ markets in Merrickville, Lyndhurst and Kemptville.

And with so many farms nearby, you won’t have a problem finding a variety of locally-inspired restaurants, from The Cove Country Inn in Westport, to The Yellow Canoe Café in Merrickville, to The Branch in Kemptville.

Blue Gypsy Wines: Chilled apple, blueberry, cherry, cranberry, ginger, maple, raspberry or strawberry wine made without sulphites (no headaches). Sip it while overlooking green fields.

Wendy’s Gourmet Picnics: Too busy on the water or trails to worry about food? Let Wendy’s Mobile Market bring a delicious, locally-sourced picnic to you. Available at various locks.

Westport Sweet-tooth Tour: Ice cream, candy, fudge, baked goods—oh my! Satisfy the sweet tooth at Vanilla Bean’s, Westport Bakery and Lower Mountain Mercantile.

Festivals And Events

From Kingston to Lombardy, the Rideau region is a festivals mecca no matter the time of year and no matter what your interest. Maple syrup? Check. Ice skating? Check. Fine art? Check. Fall fairs? Of course. Checking out a festival or event is the best ways to get up close to the down-home spirit, laidback lifestyle and strong community ties that make this area what it is.

Delta's maple syrup festival (April) is one of the best in the region.
Delta’s maple syrup festival (April) is one of the best in the region.

Delta Maple Syrup Festival: A jam-packed weekend of all things maple and more: pancake breakfast, maple syrup making demos, local vendors, music, wagon rides.

MUSICWestport: A free two-day outdoor music festival in picturesque Westport. Two stages, eight bands, a street fair, singing competition. Need I say more?

Skate the Lake: Every year, organizers build a one-kilometre oval on Big Rideau Lake at Portland for speed skating races and one helluva fun time. Also: curling, sleigh rides, beaver tails, chili, fireworks, celebrities and more.