Scuba divers pass the ruins of the George A. Marsh, one of the shipwrecks that attract tourists to Kingston, Ont.
KINGSTON, Ont. - Ask some of Kingston's residents what their city is best known for today and you may just hear "universities and prisons."
But although it is home to three university campuses and Canada's largest group of federal prisons, Kingston boasts miles of waterfront property, a year full of festivals, and nearly two dozen museums, art galleries, and historic sites.
The oldest city in Ontario, Kingston is a tourist destination for both history buffs and those who love the water. It is located roughly halfway between Toronto and Montreal at the eastern end of Lake Ontario near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.
For some visitors, it is the city's rich military past that lures them. For many others, it is the lapping water of Lake Ontario that makes it a worthy destination.
The best visit is one where you make the time to do both.
And if you're lucky, you may get a glimpse of actor Dan Ackroyd, a prominant Kingstonian who has been known to wander the streets when he's in town.
On a recent visit to the Canadian city - nicknamed "The Limestone City" because it is built on a bedrock of limestone - I saw no Hollywood icons but plenty of college students. Amid the government buildings and just outside the small commercial district downtown are the small campuses of Queen's University, the Royal Military College of Canada, and a campus of St. Lawrence College.
The students can be found in the pubs, the many ethnic restaurants, and resting easily in the plethora of lakefront parks. (According to 2001 census data, about 10 percent of the nearly 147,000 people living in the greater Kingston area are students.)
In fact, one of them who was working in a local Thai restaurant suggested a visit to Canada's Penitentiary Museum, or Musee Penitentiaire du Canada, one of Kingston's more unusual museums.
Housed in the warden's residence of the original Kingston Penitentiary - and sandwiched between the current fortress that houses Canada's criminals and a prison for women - the museum is free to the public.
The small museum, which does accept donations and only has regular summer hours, starts in the days of hard labor and runs to the current focus on "interactive counseling and education."
Offering a look at Canada's federal penitentiary system, the museum displays punishment devices used decades ago, several homemade weapons - and their hiding places - that have been confiscated over the years, and some of the prisoners' clever attempts at escape.
Another museum worth visiting is the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes. (I should admit that I was in Kingston to scuba dive Lake Ontario's many famous shipwrecks.) Located on the water's edge, the museum has galleries filled with hands-on exhibits that explore the stories of fresh-water sailors.
Docked outside is the Alexander Henry Museum Ship Bed & Breakfast, a 3,000-ton Coast Guard icebreaker retired in 1985 that now serves as a floating hotel. Open during the day to those wishing to explore the ship, at night it closes to all but those visitors who sleep in the quarters once used by the mariners.
Although Kingston has a variety of pasts that are brought to life it its many museums, none is more imposing as the city's military background.
A quick read of the city's past shares that Kingston was at one time the perfect place for a trading post, which throughout its history changed hands from the French to the British, finally becoming a strategic point of defense against the Americans in the War of 1812.
But perhaps the most spectacular reminders of the city's importance as a key military site are the 12-foot wooden gates and abundant ramparts of Fort Henry.
Looming high above where the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario meet, Fort Henry continues to watch over Kingston. And while the threats that led to the construction of Fort Henry have long gone, those manning the fort take seriously their mission to remain the "timekeeper of Canada's 1860s military and civilian history."
Inside Fort Henry - named after the first Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec, Sir Henry Hamilton - men and women dressed in red coats and holding muzzle-loading rifles stand at attention. And occasionally out for a walk is David, the white goat, which was adopted as the mascot of the fort in 1953. (Today's mascot is David IX.)
Throughout the summer there are daily demonstrations for those who pay to wander the grounds of the fort. And once a week at a sunset ceremony, the skies light as the Fort Henry Guard Drums, Drill Squad, and Artillery Detachment offer a look at 1860s military music, drill, and artillery maneuvers.
(Oh, and visitors gets a snack-sized Oh Henry! Chocolate bar with the price of their admission.)
Kingston's past is found in many museums - including the Military Communications and Electronics Museum - and in visits to the city's historic sites - like the Murney Tower National Historic Site, which was built in 1846 as part of the defensive tower fortifications of Kingston.
And then there's the city's recreational opportunities. During the summer, charter boats can be seen anchored to buoys attached to the area's many shipwrecks. Ferries shuttle visitors to Wolfe Island, which offers a 40-minute bike ride down streets lined with quaint shops and restaurants. Sailboats are tethered in the ports.
At one port, Portsmouth Olympic Harbor, visitors can see where the sailing events began during the 1976 Olympics hosted by Montreal. And what's behind the looming walls nearby? Kingston Penitentiary, which had years back held public tours, is located on prime lakefront property, making the Americans wonder when it would be torn down in favor of high-rent condominiums.
Kingston is the type of place that may only get a few pages dedicated to it in the guides to Ontario but offers several days worth of sites, making it more than just a stop on your way to Toronto or Montreal.
Contact Erica Blake at:
GETTING THERE: Kingston is located in the Canadian province of Ontario. A passport is suggested in getting through Canadian custom officials.
CURRENCY: Canadian dollars although American dollars are accepted.
TAXES: Most purchases are subject to an 8 percent provincial sales tax and a 7 percent federal goods and services tax.
WEATHER: Average summer temperature is 75 degrees and average winter temperature is 17 degrees.
INFORMATION: City of Kingston: www.cityofkingston.ca; Kingston Economic Development Corporation: www.kingstoncanada.com; In and Around Kingston: www.queensu.ca/kingston.html.
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