The Rideau Canal lies 125 miles into Canadian history. This UNESCO World Heritage Site links the Canadian capital, Ottawa, with Lake Ontario, the Saint Lawrence River, and Kingston – the former capital of Canada. The canal was opened in 1832 as part of preparations for a possible war with the United States, making it the oldest continuously operating canal in North America. Fortunately, border relations have improved since those tense times, and communities along the canal eagerly receive American visitors. It’s a great destination for pleasure boaters and daytime motorists who are eager to explore the wonderful little towns along its shores.
Between Ottawa and Kingston, there are enough small towns and villages to keep explorers busy for days. This area can be discovered in all four seasons, but some of the small cafes and recreation services may be seasonal in nature. However, there is still a huge advantage to making a pilgrimage in the winter season. Each winter, a large section of the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa freezes over and turns into the world’s largest outdoor skating rink. There’s nothing more quintessential in Ottawa than enjoying skating downtown on a chilly afternoon and then warming up with hot chocolate and BeaverTails—large, flat, oblong pastries that are fried and covered in cinnamon sugar and other sweet toppings. While the ski section is limited to Ottawa only and doesn’t extend to the small towns below the canal, you’ll find plenty of indoor and outdoor fun no matter where you go.
Whether you’re driving from the city or perhaps going on a boat adventure, you won’t want to miss these beautiful stops. As someone who lives in Ottawa, these communities are truly in my own backyard and it is very exciting to share my personal recommendations and must-see sites.
The small community of Manotick is located only about 30 minutes from downtown Ottawa but this incredibly convenient enclave is in its own realm. Along Mill Street, you’ll find dozens of restored historic homes, inviting small businesses, and plenty of friendly locals. I dare say it might be the most beautiful street in the area in the fall. Some of the prime locations to put on your list include the Peppermint Organic Spa, located in a restored heritage building over 100 years old. It offers upscale spa treatments such as pedicures and facials using arctic berry peels. Nearby, Take Another Bite serves sandwiches, salads, and homemade frozen food. However, the star’s allure is the mouth-watering display of baked goods. If bread pudding is served, do whatever it takes to get a big slice. Across the road is the Mill Street Florist, which is the perfect place for a lovely gift or artistic bouquet for a friend.
2. Burrits Rapids
The small community of Burritts Rapids may have the strongest claim to being the best station in the Rideau Canal. That’s because Burritts Rapids is right in the middle of the water! The community is located on a natural island located in the Rideau River and has expanded to be on both sides of the water as well. You can explore the buildings on the island – many of which date back to the mid-1800s – by following a self-guided walking tour that explains the history of everything you see. Nearby, you’ll find the Rideau Woodland Ramble, a gorgeous garden center beloved by serious gardeners and garden enthusiasts alike. It is well worth a visit even if you have no intention of buying any plants at all.
Merrickville may give Manotick a run for their money when it comes to convenience. The community dates back to the 18th century, where heritage buildings abound. The shopping here is excellent and Mrs. McGarrigle is a must visit. In this fine food store, mustard is the star. There are 14 flavors like tarragon honey and cranberry port, which are perfect for gift giving—especially since the smallest travel-friendly 2-ounce jar. Keep an eye out for in-store demos of cooking techniques. Another must see place on my list is Gray Art Glass. This glassblowing studio offers visitors the opportunity to witness the fiery process of creating precise custom pieces of glass art. You can pick up anything from whiskey glasses to oil lamps. The community is also a great place to pick up a hike through the Rideau Trail.
4. Smith Falls
I lived in Ottawa for years before I began exploring nearby Smiths Falls. Fortunately, I am making up for lost time now. Much of Smith Falls’ history is a story of reinvention, as society weathered a storm of changing industries over the past century. But visitors are now reaping the benefits of creatively reimagining old spaces in new hot spots. For example, while the Hershey Chocolate Factory is now closed, travelers can enjoy tours of the new company that has set up shop there. It’s called tweed, and it’s one of Canada’s largest cannabis facilities and you can tour its visitor center. (Note that you can’t actually buy cannabis products here, but since the product is legal in Canada the staff can direct you to the appropriate places.) Another great “everything old is new again” project is Station Theater, which is formerly a railway station Canadian Pacific. Shows plays, films and musical events.
5. Redo Ferry
Redo Ferry is a place for myths and misconceptions. First, there is no longer a phrase – the community is connected by a bridge. Second, despite what you may hear, there is no truth in the local legend about a ferry operator in the old days who used to take passengers late at night into his house, only to never see them again. This tall, scary tale is just (or maybe there is) Little Truth be told – decide for yourself). If you’re interested in backbone stories, check out the movie schedule at the nearby Port Elmsley Drive-In Theater, in case some action thrillers are on. The humble Jimmy’s Snack Shack is a great place to end your adventures. The only thing scary about the Rideau Ferry pizza—which comes loaded with pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, onions, ham, olives, and ground beef—is how much you’ll eat.
Perth is one of the largest communities accessible from the Rideau Canal, and still has a strong small-town feel. For example, at the Perth Pie Company, a “pending menu” provides customers with the opportunity to purchase coffee or baked goods for members of the community in need. A delicious menu of sweet and savory pancakes (the chicken pancake is the best I’ve ever had) makes it hard to pick out what to take home on your own. There are more delicious goodies at Perth Chocolate Works – I love “Marshkabobs” (marshmallows garnished with chocolate). Perth is technically located on the Tay Canal, which is a nice short branch of the Rideau Canal. If you’re keen to try kayaking or stand up paddleboarding, this is a good place to get your feet wet — or to keep them dry, as you may be.
Westport is the kind of community that makes you feel like you’re discovering something new every time you visit. It could be a long list of places to eat, like Lost Penny Pub (I love loaded nachos) or Vanilla Beans Cafe and Creamery. Maybe all the cute shops, like Jake By The Lake or Lower Mountain Mercantile. Whatever it is, this is a great place to explore. In addition, it is a great place for cycling, water sports, hiking and golf. It is the proverbial hidden gem of any Rideau Canal expedition.
8. Siles Bay
The small community of Seeleys Bay is home to a long list of accommodation options, making it a great place for travelers who would prefer something other than coming back to Kingston or Ottawa at night. Visitors can choose from bed and breakfasts, cottages, and campgrounds. Other area attractions include the ShaBean Coffee roaster – which is open by appointment – and the premium Ridgway Confections chocolate – which is primarily a wholesaler but with showroom hours. It’s worth looking for assorted chocolate flavors such as bacon, coconut, ginger, and java. Tired boaters will want to revive themselves at Konez, an ice cream shop that specializes in “freakshakes” — milkshakes with outrageously elaborate toppings like large bits of cotton candy, mini cupcakes, and thick squares of cheesecake.
Pro tip: be sure to check out Blockhouses
It’s been nearly 200 years since anyone had to worry about using the Rideau Canal for Canada’s national defense. Fortunately, relations between Canada and the United States are much more cordial than they were in the early 19th century. But you can still see traces of the canal’s military assets in four apartment blocks: Merrickville, Kingston Mills, Newboro, and Rideau Narrows. Built to protect the canal in the event of an attack, the Merrickville and Kingston Mills Blockhouses today serve as seasonal museums, while the Newboro properties can be enjoyed as part of a community walking tour.