A Future Option for Cruising Canada’s St. Lawrence River

Cornwall Docks (courtesy Harry Valentine)
Port of Cornwall (courtesy Harry Valentine)

Published Jul 2, 2020 5:13 PM by Harry Valentine

Short-distance and multi-day long-distance river cruises have steadily gained popularity amongst tourists, including along Canada’s St. Lawrence River and Seaway. Cruise vessels call at ports of Montreal and Quebec City. It is possible that perhaps as early as the summer of 2021 or 2022, cruise vessels that sail along the Seaway may also be able to offer passengers the option of visit Canada’s Capital, the City of Ottawa courtesy of a former Seaway freight port that could be re-activated to berth cruise ships.


At the present time and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada has closed its ports to cruise ships sailing from overseas ports of origin. Should the pandemic end within the next year, it is likely that by 2021 or 2022 Canada would re-open its ports to cruise ships sailing from overseas origins. By that time, the quayside at the former Port of Cornwall located southeast of Ottawa along the St. Lawrence Seaway could become available berth cruise vessels to allow tourists to visit Ottawa courtesy of motor coach transportation. 

Cruise ships tie up at the Ports of Montreal and Quebec City where historic areas and major tourist attractions are located within close proximity to both ports, with tour bus and chartered motor coach service being available from dockside. While Canada’s Capital City of Ottawa is a major summer time tourist attraction, navigation dimensions along the Ottawa River between Montreal and Ottawa and also along the Rideau Canal between Ottawa and Lake Ontario restrict access to mini-size cruise vessels such as the length and height adjustable “Kawartha Voyageur” and the “Canadian Empress”. 

The Ottawa Option

Due to road traffic congestion conditions caused by traffic density and annual summer road construction at Montreal along with the distance between Montreal and Ottawa, transporting cruise vessel tourists by motor coach between the 2-cities would be impractical. The closure of a Seaway-max capable commercial freight port located southeast of Ottawa along the St. Lawrence River offers a possible option. Railway lines that connected to the Port of Cornwall were removed several years ago and jurisdiction over the port has been transferred to municipal authorities where officials reject re-activating the port for commercial freight traffic.

The Ottawa – Cornwall road distance is half that of the Ottawa – Montreal distance and during peak travel periods, local traffic flows smoothly and quickly in the small City of Cornwall. Marinas at Kingston and Brockville can only berth “ships” of 100-feet and 60-feet length respectively. The 185-feet length “Grande Caribe” and “Grande Mariner” sail from New York City through the Hudson River and Erie Canal to Lake Ontario and St Lawrence Seaway to Montreal and Quebec City. The historic “Upper Canada Village” that depicts 19th century living in the region is located within 25-minutes of Cornwall.

Port of Cornwall

Initial contact with officials at City of Cornwall indicate that they are willing to consider having tourist cruise vessels make brief stops at their port and are interested in discussions with the cruise industry. A motor coach operator that is a member of the local chamber of commerce has also responded positively to providing same-day return motor coach transportation service between Port of Cornwall and Ottawa, with the option of tour guides being able to provide a sightseeing tour around Ottawa and visits to historic Ottawa area tourist attractions.  

The Port of Cornwall is able to berth cruise ships of up to 720-feet in length by 80-feet beam and 26-feet sailing draft, while the City of Cornwall marina has been able to berth the mini cruise ship called the “Canadian Empress”. About the maximum size of vessel that could sail the Ottawa River between Montreal and Ottawa would be 150-feet length by 8-feet draft and 35-feet beam, excluding “Grande Caribe” and “Grand Mariner”. There is scope to re-activate the Port of Cornwall to berth cruise ships and space to park motor coaches to transport cruise ship passengers.

Future Options

Since the transfer of the former Port of Cornwall to municipal authorities, officials have been exploring future possibilities for the port area. Many years ago, a private company operated a grain transshipment terminal for Seaway-max size of ships in the northeastern region of Lake Ontario, at City of Kingston. Changes in bulk grain transport resulted in the closure of the terminal, with condominiums being built in the former terminal area. While berthing a large cruise vessel at that former terminal might still be possible, transferring passengers between ship and motor coach transport would be problematic.

While a developer proposed to build condominium housing close to the Port of Cornwall, unlike Kingston the proposal left open the possibility for commercial vehicle service to and from dockside. The proposal leaves open the possibility for tourist cruise vessels to tie up at Cornwall dockside where passengers could transfer between ship and motor coaches to visit tourist attractions at City of Ottawa and the historic Upper Canada Village. There is an option for 3-municipalities of City of Ottawa, City of Cornwall and Mohawk Council future Port of Cornwall options and present options to cruise ship operators.


Tourists who travel by cruise vessel and by motor coach are often interested in visiting historic sites and tourist attractions. In Eastern Canada, the main cities such as Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa are main summer time tourist destinations that offer the combination of historic sites and tourist attractions. Both Montreal and Quebec City offer port areas where large tourist cruise ships that sail from Europe and the USA can berth, with easy passenger transfer between ship and motor coach to carry tourists to visit local historic sites and major tourist attractions.  

While many large cruise vessels that sail into the St. Lawrence River also sail upstream of Montreal, the option of being able to berth at the old Port of Cornwall would allow for easy transfer to motor coach transportation to and from Canada’s Capital City of Ottawa and its numerous historic attractions. Municipal officials and cruise ship operators have the option of exploring the option of cruise ship tourists visiting Ottawa courtesy of a conveniently located port capable of berthing large ocean going cruise ships, with easy and convenient transfer to motor coach transportation.


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.