7 Reasons an Erie Canal Boat Trip Should be at the Top of Your Bucket List

Packet boat in water tied at Pittsford Terminal with historic bridge in background on canal boat holidays United States

Why are Erie Canal Boat Trips Bucketlist Worthy?

There are a mired of reasons why the Erie Canal Should be at the Top of Your Bucket List, but here are my top 7. If this quick list whets your appetite, then scroll through self-skippered canal boat photos on UNSTOPPABLE Stacey’s other Erie Canal boat trip posts to see for yourself the other reasons to get out and enjoy nature on the Erie Canal.

1.) Experience Erie Canal Boat Holidays before they get overexposed

narrowboat holidays boats crammed onto European canal
European Narrowboat holidays traffic. Photo by Tim Green from Bradford - Mirfield, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52102124

Self-skippered canal boat trips are ultra-popular in Europe right now, but the rage hasn’t hit this side of the pond – yet! Friends brag and post about their barge holidays in the UK, and I see plenty of canallers skippering narrowboat holidays barges in France when I’m long-distance walking there.

But get this: Many of those same canallers are surprised when I tell them that they don’t have to fly to Europe for lovely floating holidays – self-drive canal boats can be had here in the US. Canaling in the US is – for now – off the tourists’ radar.

In Britain, canal boat trips are called ‘canal boat holidays’, ‘barge holidays’ or ‘narrowboat holidays’. In France, canal boat trips are known as ‘self-drive canal boats’ or péniches de plaisance.

In the US, Erie Canal packet boats are named after the historic flat-bottomed craft that first sailed the Erie Canal from New York City on the Atlantic to Buffalo, New York, on Lake Erie. Built to replicate historic canal boats, the modern boats have all the creature comforts and , in fact, are not as narrow as those in Europe. What’s more, I have it from an insider that our canals are much cleaner than those she navigated in Europe.

2.) Erie Canal Named ‘Top 10’ Canal Trip

Screen shot of National Geographic Top 10 Canal trips

You’ll soon be hearing a lot more about Erie Canal trips as National Geographic recently named the Erie Canal as one of the “Top 10 Canal Trips” … in the world! (See, I said this self-skippered canal boat is a thing outside the US.)

The undervisited waters of the Erie Canal were rated right up there with the Shropshire Union Canal in England and the self-drive barges and canal system in France. The list published online came from the National Geographic book Journeys of a Lifetime.  Check out the book on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2lfa8ZW

3.) Practice Makes Perfect on Erie Canal Boats

canal boat trips - Becky at tiller steering Erie Canal Packet boat along the Deep Cut of the Erie Canal with self-skippered canal boat
Becky navigates the Erie Canal Packet Boat along the ‘Deep Cut’ of the Erie Canal

Just think about this… Erie Canal packet boats might be the perfect way to hon your boating skills before you take a run at self-skippering a boat in a foreign country. Navigating the language, boating etiquette and navigation laws as well as the vessel might be a little much for a first-time boating adventure. In pastoral western New York, you’ll still tie up at picturesque villages that offer local wines, cheeses and beers – just like at the hamlets in France or England.

4.) Local Food: Farm to Table along the Erie Canal

French Cream Puffs at ZAMBISTRO in Medina, NY. Vanilla Bean Ice Cream Stuffed, Chocolate Sauce, Sliced Almonds eaten at stopover on canal boat trips
French Cream Puffs at ZAMBISTRO in Medina, NY. Vanilla Bean Ice Cream Stuffed, Chocolate Sauce, Sliced Almonds.

Speaking of local provisions, the local foods that you find in restaurants and markets along the way are another reason to set sail on the Erie Canal. Taste renowned wines from the neighboring Finger Lakes, a world-class wine producing region. You could choose a wine country route on the Erie Canal system.

Indeed, Western NY dairy is known for fabulous ice cream, Abbott’s Frozen Custard and cheeses. (A NY Brie, was one of the best I’ve ever had.) The area just south of Lake Ontario has been recognized for apples, cherries and other fruits since the Erie Canal was first opened in 1825. We passed by those farmlands and then stopped in the rural villages to taste the local products at chef-owned restaurants – for a surprising blend of hipster restaurants and laid-back Americana.

Locally grown produce at Rochester Community Market just off the Genesee Arm of the Erie Canal

5.) Easy and Affordable Canal Boat Rental

canal boat trips - Interior of Erie Canal Packet Boat galley (Kitchen) with knotty pine walls

Above all, the ultra-clean Mid-Lakes Navigation boat, similar to the original packet boats that carried goods and people on the Erie Canal, has everything you need for a relaxing, yet adventurous vacation. The easy-to-operate vessel is outfitted with bikes, bedding, fully equipped galley (kitchen with gas stove, oven and refrigerator,) potable water, wine glasses, and Erie Canal maps and charts.

Besides all that, we docked our self-skippered canal boat for the night at village canal parks, many that offered electric and water hookups, wifi, showers, and bathrooms for free or a small nightly charge.

All you need to bring is food, beer and wine. We provisioned at Wegmans Food Markets, Inc. which has earned an almost cult following in Rochester, the home of the accolated grocer. I, BTW, am fast becoming a Wegmans devotee.

Don’t forget to pack swimsuits, sunscreen, sunnies and hats, and something warm for the evenings. BTW, I’m happy to share my packing list for this affordable canal boat rental, simply add your request in the comments below.

6.) Unbeatable Erie Canal History and Attractions

The Home of George Eastman, founder Eastman Kodak in Rochester, NY

We flew into Rochester, NY, (ROC) and spent the day before our Erie Canal boat trip experiencing the history and attractions of the area. The George Eastman Museum, Living Roots Wine & Co. and Veneto Wood Fired Pizza & Pasta were a few of our stops.

George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, left behind his mansion, art collection, and inventory of film, cameras and photos. I would be a member of this outstanding museum, if I lived in Rochester, for sure. It’s a must-see attraction along with the Strong Museum of Play and National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House.

Veneto’s food was fabulous (Becky said that her dish was one of the best she’s ever had – and she’s eaten all over the world.) Living Roots Wine & Co. has a backstory so strong that I will be pitching it to Wine Spectator.

Pesce at Veneto Wood Fired Pizza & Pasta in Rochester during Erie canal boat trip
Pesce at Veneto Wood Fired Pizza & Pasta in Rochester, NY

Most noteworthy attractions along the Erie Canal include the many New England-style villages (for that is where the Quakers and others came from once the canal afforded a means to pioneer westward.) You can stop, shop, stay or learn at fascinating small-town museums.

We especially enjoyed:

  • Historic Palmyra (Five museums one destination) where I recommend you spend the morning before you pick up you Mid-Lakes Navigation packet boat. Inside one of the five, the Erie Canal Depot, located in a 1830s tenant house you can imagine yourself a passenger on the Erie Canal in those early days.
  • Spencerport Depot & Canal Museum
  • Medina Railroad Museum

7.) Just Enough Adventure on the Erie Canal Boat Trip

Erie Canal Packet Boat in Lock 32 near Pittsford, NY. Erie canal boat trips
Erie Canal Packet Boat in Lock 32 near Pittsford, NY.

We sailed this 41-foot “packet boat” like true adventurers through huge concrete locks, under 100-year-old lift bridges, through picturesque countryside and past urban industrial centers.

You guessed it…
This all-girls crew was a bit intimidated with the undertaking at the get-go. However, we had excellent training from Mid-Lakes navigation. Gill, our salty trainer, took us through our first lock and practiced the fine art of Erie Canal radio etiquette with us, before setting us adrift on our own.

As I tried to capture our first “lock in” on video, Becky, our captain quipped, “Did you tell him we are virgins?” Maybe not appropriate for the YouTube vid.

‘Lock in’ is Canaller speak for entering a lock, which is something like a “boat elevator” that uses water and gravity to raise and low our boat as the elevation of the surrounding landscape raised (westbound towards Lake Erie) or lowered (eastbound towards the Atlantic Ocean.)

We were blessed to have little boat traffic (only 10% of Erie Canal usage is commercial, the rest is recreational.) If we three land-lubbing women can manage this 41-footer, so can you!

My college roommate, Becky who piloted a narrowboat holidays in the UK with her Mum was at the helm for most of our Erie Canal boat trip. Tammy, who admitted that she steered a sailboat in the San Francisco Bay, but never ‘landed the plane,’ took over as communications expert and was in charge of contacting the lockmasters and lift masters before we made our entry. I was the navigator, letting the crew (Becky and Tammy) know about our upcoming canal structures (and attempting to get photos of them.)

Learn more about canal boating on the Erie Canal at https://midlakesnav.com

Read the full  Erie Canal story at https://unstoppablestaceytravel.com/2019/06/11/canaling-adventure-88-miles-on-the-erie-canal

Note: Some of the above links are affiliate links, which at no extra cost to you, will earn me a small commission and reduce the costs of running this site. Please know that commission or no commission, I genuinely recommend every product on this page. If you have any questions about these products, please let me know.

Next up: Historic Bridges of the Erie Canal.

As is common in the travel industry, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

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6 thoughts on “7 Reasons an Erie Canal Boat Trip Should be at the Top of Your Bucket List”

    • That song made an impression on a lot of us, Donna. Isn’t that interesting how things from our childhood can affect our curiosity as adults?

      Reply
  1. Hi Stacey! I’m here exploring and LOVING your blog-your attitude is so much like me and I love it! I’m also married and don’t travel with my hubby all that much, due to his work, and just don’t mind traveling solo so I do….people think I’m weird haha! So happy to know you and will you be attending the IFWTWA conference? I know I’ll see you in Yuma! 🙂

    Reply
  2. Thanks for including me in this amazing experience! Being able to experience the Canal as an all-women crew was such a special experience. The food was incredible at every stop, but my favorite part of the trip was travelling on the water and experiencing the locks!

    Reply
    • Tammy, one of my favorite images of our Erie Canal Boat trip is the picture of your smile as you maneuver the stabilizer rope in the lock. Thanks for your help, sailor!

      Reply

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