“Welcome aboard the SS Minnow,” says Captain Richard Davis as he greets the small group of passengers who have just boarded the Georgian Clipper at Kingston, Ontario, for a six day cruise that will include travelling through the beautiful Thousand Islands. The skipper’s reference to the Minnow (the little boat made famous in the 1960s Gilligan’s Island TV series) was a joking reference to the Clipper’s modest size versus the ever growing number of gargantuan cruise vessels typically larger than apartment buildings.
While the Georgian Clipper is dwarfed by today’s mega ships, its lesser size is the primary reason passengers choose this handsome, nine-cabin boat with a maximum capacity of 18 people. “I’ve cruised on small ships all over the world and much prefer them over large vessels,” says Lorrine Lunde, a passenger from Northbrook, Illinois. She and her husband Richard found the Georgian Clipper on the internet while seeking a vacation cruise on a boat that fit with their preference for small ships.

The Clipper’s cruise director, Ted Huber, says Lunde’s penchant for smaller boats is historically a common thread amongst the ship’s clientele. “People who cruise with us like the intimacy of a small vessel; they appreciate getting to know the other passengers and by the end of a cruise it’s almost like a family,” he says. “Small ship enthusiasts also like our casual atmosphere which is an aspect we stress. No tuxedos or ball gowns needed.”
Indeed, it’s a good thing that fancy wardrobes are not a tradition on this particular vessel since space could be an issue. Owned by Heritage Cruise Lines, the 10-year-old Georgian Clipper measures about 80 feet long and has three decks with cabin quarters located on the lower level. Each immaculately clean, brightly painted cabin has a large picture window with two twin beds and a reasonable amount of closet and storage space. Bathrooms containing sink, stool and shower are small but manageable. While overall cabin décor could not be considered glamorous, it’s definitely several rungs above dorm room accommodations.

With wrap-around windows, the middle deck contains a dining room, comfortable lounge area and an attractive well-stocked bar that includes a good selection of Canadian wines. The top deck is a spacious, open-air viewing and relaxing platform fitted out with deck chairs, lounges and umbrellas. This was my first ever cruise on a small ship and what impressed me greatly was how smoothly everything onboard unfolded with a bare bones crew of only five: Captain Davis, chef Michelle Stewart, cruise director Huber and two accommodating young women, Nicole Servage and Marilyn Croteau, who did everything from serve meals to clean cabins and help with docking procedures.
In less than 24 hours crew and passengers were on a first name basis and throughout the trip service was exceptional, as was the shipboard cuisine. In a galley kitchen no larger than a small bedroom, chef Stewart created three marvellous meals a day often using fresh herbs she grows in pots on the top deck. Lamb, fish, pork medallions, tenderloin steak, seafood, escargot wrapped in pastry pockets, delicious soups and decadent deserts were among the menu items that inspired passengers to praise Stewart’s culinary skills. “One of our primary focuses on the Clipper is making sure we provide our guests with extraordinary cuisine”, says Huber.

In addition to the vessel’s size and the promise of attentive service, what also attracted Lunde and my fellow passengers from Ottawa, Hamilton and Detroit was the Clipper’s sail itinerary through the Thousand Islands.

“This is one of the most beautiful places in the world and here among the islands you’re cruising through real history,” says Captain Davis. The region is steeped in United Empire Loyalist history as well as a past punctuated by pirates, rum runners, the War of 1812, unsolved murders and colourful Indian lore.
The count of 1,000 islands is an underestimate since there are really about 1,830 ranging in size from just large enough to support a cottage to larger islands on which grand, palatial summer places have been built, some of them dating back to the 1800s. One of the most lavish and certainly the most famous is a castle rather than summer house. The cruise provides a close-up look at Heart Island’s Boldt Castle, an enormous 120-room European-style edifice built by American millionaire George Boldt as a monument of love to his wife Louise. Construction began around 1900 but prior to its completion Louise suddenly died and a heartbroken George immediately suspended work. In 1977 the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the island and spent millions of dollars completing and refurbishing the castle that looks like it came straight out of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Built in a similar style, Dark Island’s Singer Castle (some call it Jorstadt Castle) was built in 1905 by a vice president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

While the Thousand Islands are arguably the highlight of the cruise where the Clipper shares the waterway with pleasure craft and enormous lake freighters, the other component of the trip are shore excursions at ports of call each offering different and unique opportunities for sightseeing and exploring. At Picton, a protected harbour town on the edge of pretty Prince Edward County, passengers are taken on a wine-tasting excursion to some of the County’s more than 25 wineries. Prince Edward Country is United Empire Loyalist country and its charming villages and pastoral countryside are imbued with UEL history that dates back to the 1700s.

At Gananoque, the shore excursion is a short overland trip to the 400-ft.-tall Thousand Islands Sky Deck for an unsurpassed aerial view of the islands. The port of Brockville is the launch point for an overland trip to the nation’s capital that includes visiting some of Ottawa’s most famous landmarks: the Parliament Buildings, Byward Market and Laurier House.

In every conceivable way, the Georgian Clipper is a small cruise boat and it would not be to everybody’s liking. There are no giant swimming pools, no glitzy atriums, no nightly floor shows and no huge smorgasbord buffets.

In contrast, the Clipper offers a peaceful atmosphere, attentive one-on-one service and terrific cuisine. It’s the kind of cruise where you can visit the captain on the bridge at any time; it’s the kind of cruise where in mid afternoon chef Stewart is liable to appear with a platter of freshly baked cookies. It’s all very personal and exceedingly pleasant.
For more information about the Georgian Clipper and Heritage Cruise lines call 1-888-271-BOAT (2628) or go online at www.heritagecruises.com.