An Oakville, Canada, couple have made the voyage 114 times ...... and will be back.

A New York couple's tally is 51.

You lose count of those who have sailed the St. Lawrence River in the elegant replica riverboat, Canadian Empress, more than 20 times. One of them is Kate Kruck, of Boone, Iowa : "Every year I say 'this has been the most fun ever'....and then the next year is even better! I only wish I lived closer, because I never get enough of the St. Lawrence River."

It is fun, yes. But it is also a trip through one of the richest segments of Canadian and United States history.

From the decks of the Empress you see much of the original Canada, as unspoiled as the days when intrepid explorers paddled up and down this majestic river which carries to the sea one third of all the fresh water on earth. "What river is this?" asked Jacques Cartier of his Indian guide. "A river without end," came the response.

Your first brush with history is the ship itself, its interiors designed in charming early heritage style. The elegant furnishings, the brass handrails complemented by ornate ceilings, the Canadian Empress recaptures the grace of a turn-of-the-century lifestyle.

Its classic steamboat ambiance hides the modern technology that drives it along a modern wonder: The St. Lawrence International Seaway, with its spectacular locks and man-made canals, a lifeline between north America's agricultural and overseas trade centres. The Canadian Empress' size allows her to navigate freely among the islands and through locks which are inaccessible to larger vessels, providing close-up "reach out and touch" scenic experiences. The Empress transits seven locks, some of them with drops or lifts of some 14 metres. Seven good reasons, among many others, to make the journey.

Leaning on a rail on the aft deck as the ship was gently lowered in a lock, Bob Clark, president of the St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, a Canadian-based calm-water cruising company which offers four different cruise options of 5- and 6-nights duration, told us that along the St. Lawrence river between Kingston and Montreal, some 200 kilometres, the water drops about 68 metres. Bob is a firm believer in a "hands-on" management style, so it's not uncommon to find Bob and his wife Myrna cruising on board with passengers.

To increase the size of the St. Lawrence, entire villages were relocated to higher ground. Some of the old buildings threatened by the man-made floods are now part of the unique living museum community of Upper Canada Village.

The village represents a typical rural village of the 1860s – pass through the toll-gate and you step back into the past. The costumed guides lead you around the woollen mill, past the steam flour mills, the blacksmith, the sawmill, the dressmaker's house and many more, the heady smell of freshly baked bread tantalizing you, a member of the Temperance Society preaching the evils of drink. You're surrounded by the sights and the sounds of a world long gone, far removed from the push-button era.

The visit to Upper Canada Village is one of the fascinating tours arranged for the Empress' 66 passengers, others are to some of the U.S.A.'s Thousand Islands where passengers will find some of the opulent summer homes of the rich and famous and explore the coves, nooks and crannies veiled in folklore (see Ports of Call).

Two who did not go on the tours were Alex and Esther Velleman of Oakville. This was their 114th trip after all. No wonder their favourite cabin, No. 3, has been renamed the Velleman Suite!

But 114 times? Alex sums it up : "Good food, informal formality, friendliness, a small group of passengers .... it is such a complete relaxation. The trip has never palled. We always look forward to it.

"There's always someone to talk to .... every year we add another ten names to our Christmas card list!"

We're not surprised. We too came away with names to add to ours. Almost certainly life-long friendships had their beginnings on the journey.

The passenger camaraderie owes much to the staff. We've travelled far and wide and have often had wonderful service, but seldom has it been matched for the friendliness, the caring and efficiency of the staff of the Empress.

Alex says : "The staff are young, but they never treat the older people as "oldies". I can honestly say I've never seen any of them with a frown." Nor did we.

The day always started on the same cheerful note with the newsletter, reported, edited, typed, duplicated (sometimes at two in the morning) by the cruise director, genial John Cooke: "GOOD MORNING EVERYONE!" with all the shipboard news including information of the tours planned for the day. (There's also a splendid souvenir "SHIP'S LOG" for every passenger, giving a precise and thorough account of every stop and every part of the journey.)

Too often on cruises the prices of the shore excursions take a hefty bite out of the pocketbook. On the Empress every shore excursion is included in the price of your passage fare. Every tour was slickly programmed, the organization faultless, the buses always waiting, the timing spot on.

Apart from the shore excursions (among them a nostalgic visit to the Frederic Remington Museum at Ogdensburg to see many of his bronzes and paintings of the Wild West) there are numerous unregimented shipboard activities and events, from shuffleboard to skeet shooting.

The 32 staterooms – all of them outboard, above the waterline with screened opening windows – are small, but they do have all of the conveniences necessary for comfort. They're tastefully decorated in a turn-of-the-century theme. In any case you'll be spending all your time on the Sun Deck or in the spacious Grand Saloon which doubles as entertainment centre and dining room.

The delicious, varied meals were happy, sociable occasions on an sit-where-you-like basis. Informality is the watchword for riverboating, so even dinner attire is informal. Passengers enjoy fresh bread collected from the pioneer ovens at Upper Canada Village. Coffee, tea, beverages and delicious muffins are available 24 hours a day in case you're ever peckish. Every evening there is some Vaudeville-style live entertainment by local singers or musicians – each entertainer joining the ship in one of the overnight ports. On every cruise, one of the highlights is an evening dance.

And you can leave those sea-sick pills at home. Calm-water cruising means smooth sailing in sheltered waters – with the breathtaking scenery of the St. Lawrence as a bonus.

Photos: St Lawrence Cruise Lines