My attempts to gather a little intel on where I was headed came up empty.
"Kingston? Where's that?"
"Is that the place with the big prison?"
"I think I've seen a sign for it from the highway."
The Canadians I met before and after my trip had similar comments, except for one who had gone to university there.
"But it was your first capital," I'd reply. "It's your Philadelphia!"
A head scratch, a furrowed brow, or a "Hmmm, really?" would follow.
For such a pleasant town with a long history, Kingston, Ontario doesn't seem to have much recognition. Perhaps it's overshadowed by Toronto and the capital of Ottawa, but ironically it has long connected the two by boat. You could (and still can) travel from one and reach the other without touching land, thanks to a system of canals and locks extending north from the St. Lawrence River.
Like a Dart Thrown at a Map
I ended up here myself purely by chance. This was a post-trip for writers after the rapidly expanding TBEX travel bloggers convention. Apparently demand far outstripped supply on my first two trip choices and when my itinerary came back with this place I had never heard of, I shrugged and replied back, "Fine, count me in." A true traveler should embrace the unknown, right?
The itinerary didn't shed much light on why the city mattered and since my inquiries to Canadians had gotten me nowhere, I decided to just get on the bus with an open mind and go with the flow.
It's not often that you find yourself staying in the best hotel in town and that best hotel is a Four Points Sheraton. There were a lot of nice little B&Bs we passed upon arrival, with iron railings along their porches and flowers climbing up the brick walls, but not enough tourists are bunking down here to justify a grand showpiece hotel. After dumping off our bags and having a drink with the cheery manager, we met our local host and started our tour.
Dinner with Canada's George Washington
We strolled a few blocks to Sir John Macdonald's Public House. The restaurant and pub is housed in what was once the law office of Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, for 11 years. The restaurant's owner (and former historian) Paul Fortier showed us Sir John's likeness on the Canadian $10 note. He explained that Scottish-born Macdonald was known to be quite the drinker, so the restaurant is set up like an 18th century pub, with a fine selection of ciders, ales, and single malts from all four of Scotland's main whisky regions. Fortier wanted to show off what his cozy gathering place was known for, so soon we were looking at "tatties and neeps" (mashed potatoes and rutabagas); fish and chips, and the most memorable dish: deep-fried haggis fritters. These were a surprise hit with the crowd.
We then meandered over to another heritage spot, the Kingston Brewing Company, where cask-conditioned ale is drawn out of barrels and there's a bright red 1947 paddy wagon out front. The pub is in an 1800s building that once served as a telegraph office. The best part of all was, it was on the same block as the hotel where a bed was waiting for me.
War and Peace in Ontario
In the morning we strolled around the city center, where the longest-running market in Canada has been going for 200-plus years. In the winter the plaza turns into an ice rink. In the summer it's an outdoor movie theater some nights, host to a Blues Festival stage in August. When we pass through it's a place to buy—what else?—maple syrup.
The place that really makes foodies salivate though is Cooke's Fine Foods. Inside the gleaming carved wood shelves, original creaky floors, and tin ceilings of the 1865 building surround an incredible array of gourmet goodies. There are enough spices, cheeses, chocolates, and coffee to keep a chef smiling for a year.
Kingston's City Hall is an architectural masterpiece and the symmetry inside includes false doors placed in the right spots just to get the look right. Built in 1843, it has gone through a few revisions over the year—including stained glass windows that commemorate fighters in World War 1—plus what must be one of the nicest city council chambers in the country.
After touring the original city jail and passing the Chez Piggy's restaurant originally opened by the now-dead Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin' Spoonful, we boarded a hop-on, hop-off trolley bus and passed "Tragically Hip Way." A legend in Canada and almost completely unknown elsewhere, that band came from Kingston. It turns out so did Bryan Adams. And John Kay of Steppenwolf. Dan Akroyd lives here part of the year. How is this place so off the radar?
The area certainly saw its time in the spotlight though. During the War of 1812, its spot at the entrance to Lake Ontario and near the United States made it an essential point to defend. In the war there were only a few skirmishes though, so it became more of a "war of the carpenters," with the USA and Great Britain amassing huge fleets that seldom attacked each other. Most of the warships didn't see any action and were sunk in the harbor afterwards as part of the treaty negotiations, much to the delight of scuba divers today.
The original Fort Frontenac here was built in 1673, but the huge Fort Henry we visited didn't come along in its present form until the late 1840s, when tensions with the United States got the government worried. Touring the imposing stone fort now is an interesting history lesson, with guides in period costume explaining the military customs of the 1860s, when the personnel here reached its peak. Young enlisted men generally came here alone, getting a pint of beer a day as rations and taking week-long turns cooking for the rest. If a married officer died, the wife had three months to remarry. If a child was along, at age 14 he or she was on his own—no tagging along with Dad for the next posting.
The importance of the fort faded over time, but Point Frederick was chosen as the location for Canada's first military college, the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC). It opened in 1876 and is still functioning today, near the sites over several surviving round Martello Towers, including one completely surrounded by water.
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