Quirky Cruise
September 18, 2015

Small Ship Cruise Line Review: St. Lawrence Cruise Lines

The one-ship line, started in 1981, is family-owned and based in Kingston, Ontario. In 2016 Jason Clark took over as president from his uncle, Bob Clark, who once ran it with his brother. The ship, the CANADIAN EMPRESS, is a composite creation to recall early 20th-century steamboats both outside and within, inspiring an interest in Canadian history as well as its current attractions. The vessel ties up every evening allowing walks and activities ashore and entertainment aboard. There are no rough waters, and the only motion you may feel will be by a passing ship. The itineraries and operations vary only slightly from year to year, and the owners and their loyal passengers like it that way.

St. Lawrence Cruise Lines

Canadian Empress * Photo Credit: Ted Scull

Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers

CANADIAN EMPRESS (built 1981 & 66 passengers)

Passenger Profile

Primarily North Americans of retirement age. Groups, sometimes on a longer motor coach trip, may be aboard along with many repeat passengers,

Passenger Decks

3, and no elevator



Included Features

Tours ashore, admission charges, tips to drivers and guides,  and domestic beer and wine with meals. N.B. Some of the best Canadian wines come from the nearby Niagara Peninsula.

Meeting an ore carrier on the St. Lawrence. * Photo: Ted Scull

Meeting an ore carrier on the St. Lawrence. * Photo: Ted Scull


Operating season falls between mid-May and the end of October. Some are one way and others round trip, and a few are seasonal (spring and fall only). As the ship is based in Kingston, cruises often thread the 1000 Islands (actually the number is 1,870), a long-standing resort region, and to enjoy numerous sights along the St. Lawrence River and Seaway:

  • Kingston to Upper Canada Village and return (4 nights) throughout the season.
  • Kingston to Ottawa and Ottawa to Kingston in the spring stopping in the 1000 Islands, Upper Canada Village, and along the St. Lawrence River and Seaway with numerous locks to Montreal and the Ottawa River to Ottawa or the return. (5 nights one way) Several dates in July and August.
  • Kingston to Montreal and return (7 nights) in the spring through the 1000 Islands and along the St. Lawrence Seaway (including locks) with stops at Upper Canada Village, Brockville Museum and the Fur Trade Museum among others.
  • Kingston to Quebec City and Quebec City to Kingston (6 nights), six cruises each way throughout the season. The route follows the previous itinerary to Montreal then keeps on down the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City for a more in depth look at French Canada.
  • Cruise Specials: Kickoff the 40th season with a 4-night cruise long the river and Seaway to Upper Canada Village and return. Two Seaway Discovery Cruises from Kingston to Cornwall and return. June (5 nights). Three 7-night Signature Cruises from Kingston to Montreal and return. Early spring and autumn and one in the height of summer for boat watchers and history buffs.
Quebec City at dusk. * Photo: Ted Scull

Quebec City at dusk. * Photo: Ted Scull

Why Go?

The mighty St. Lawrence River and Seaway creates an important and highly-scenic route for commercial and pleasure traffic between the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes. The Canadian Empress provides a cozy Canadian down-home setting shared with like-minded travelers to experience Ontario’s and Quebec’s history, culture, scenic delights, sleepy towns, vibrant cities and river-based commercial activities.

When to Go?

Anytime during the six-month operating season. Autumn colors come earlier in Canada than in the U.S.


32 double cabins arranged on two decks come in four price categories, and all windows slide open. 5 cabins are sold as singles. Lower early season rates are available from May to mid-June The 20 compact standard cabins are on the lower St. Lawrence Deck along with two sets of larger accommodation located near the bow and at the stern. On the Ottawa deck above, eight mid-priced cabins are located forward of the Grand Saloon and just aft of the forward-facing observation deck. Cabins are twin-bedded with one becoming a sofa during the day, and several offer a double bed. Clothes are hung on hooks and pipe racks and a curtain separates the shower from the toilet.

Public Rooms

The Grand Saloon on Ottawa Deck serves as the main lounge with bar and dining room. The style is Victorian, including a patterned tin ceiling.


Meals are served in the Grand Saloon at one open sitting for the roast beef buffet on the first night, otherwise there are two sittings at lunch and dinner with breakfast an open sitting. It’s a set menu, though special dietary requests are accommodated. The cooking is straightforward as in a good restaurant on land, and the close proximity to markets results in fresh produce. Some breads come from the ovens at Upper Canada Village, a mid-19th century heritage village. Passengers dress up a bit for the final evening.

Activities & Entertainment

After dinner, there may be one of more musicians, magician and illusionist or a trivia quiz and horse races. On the Sun Deck, activities are kite flying and shuffleboard, plus cards and board games in the lounge. Shore trips venture to historic villages and houses, a variety of museums, Fort Wellington, large cities such as Montreal, Quebec and Ottawa and the operations of the St. Lawrence Seaway, its locks and power stations, and commercial and pleasure boat river traffic.

Upper Canada Village recreates 19th century life in small-town Ontario. * Photo: Ted Scull

Upper Canada Village recreates 19th century life in small-town Ontario. * Photo: Ted Scull

Some of the highlights are Upper Canada Village, a composite of houses, public and farm buildings, and church spanning more than 150 years of Canadian architecture, activities and crafts. The structures were rescued from some eight towns that were to be flooded by St. Lawrence Seaway construction beginning in the 1950s. The Seaway itself is a wonder of engineering with its large locks allowing Great Lakes ships carrying grain, iron ore and coal and for overseas container vessels. Fort Wellington was constructed to protect the Canadian border and the St. Lawrence as a traffic artery and became active during the War of 1812. The beautiful 1000 Islands near Kingston became a summer playground for the rich and famous beginning at the end of the 19th-century drawing John Jacob Astor, Helena Rubinstein, Irving Berlin and Mary Pickford. Lovely summer homes and boat houses dot some of the 1,870 islands. Omega Park exhibits Canadian wildlife — moose, bear, elk, and buffalo in an open setting near the Ottawa River between Montreal and Ottawa. Cumberland Heritage Village preserves early 1900s the agricultural history and exhibits an original Imperial Oil gas station. .

Chateau-style Via Rail Canada station at Quebec City. * Photo: Ted Scull

Chateau-style Via Rail Canada station at Quebec City. * Photo: Ted Scull

Special Notes

All embarkations and disembarkation ports – Kingston, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec) can be reached by VIA Rail Canada, and those who choose to drive to one port may take a train back if the cruise is one way. Montreal has daily Amtrak service between Montreal, Albany and New York City. While the ride is all day, the scenic sections along the Lake Champlain and the Hudson are well worth the wait.

Along the Same Lines

Ontario Waterway Cruises operates a smaller vessel nearby in Ontario, or other small ship river cruise lines.

Contact Info

Suite 200, 253 Ontario Street, Kingston, Ontario, Canada K7L2Z4;; 800-267-7868 & 613-549-8091




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American and Canadian Waterways, Cruise Regions, North America, Rivers Ship & Line Reviews, Ship & Line reviews

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