‘Totality’ into it: One of the best places to see the solar eclipse, Kingston is not wasting the opportunity

Kingston eclipse

In anticipation of the upcoming solar eclipse, Kingston is preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — and its tourism operators aren’t wasting any time “leveraging” the rare celestial event.

A total solar eclipse will pass over North America on April 8, 2024, and Kingston will be one of the few cities in Canada that will be in the path of “totality” and be plunged into nighttime-like darkness for almost three minutes.

To take advantage of the rare event, Kingston is pulling out all the stops — and its eclipse glasses — to wow visitors. 

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While solar eclipses are already infrequent, and total eclipses even more so, the solar phase of the April 8 eclipse — solar maxima —  is particularly rare.

“That’s why there’s so much hype around it,” said Noelle Piche, travel and tourism development specialist with Tourism Kingston and co-chair of Kingston’s eclipse committee. “It’s the rarest of the rare.”

Piche, who admits to a special interest in astronomy, has been working with key stakeholders including the City of Kingston for more than a year to plan city-wide activities and attractions for the big weekend, but says the celestial event has been “on her radar” for a few years.

The city’s biggest tourist attractions are opening nearly a month earlier than usual to welcome tourists for the event, and between bus tours, museum exhibits, themed haunted walks, live music and rooftop viewing parties, tourists and locals alike will have full itineraries.

Representatives from Queen’s University Physics and Astronomy Department will also disperse throughout the city, handing out solar glasses, educating visitors, and leading interactive presentations about astronomy, history and celestial events.

Eric Ferguson is the general manager of Kingston Destination Group, which includes Kingston 1000 Islands Cruises, Kingston Trolley Tours, K-Pass, Waterfront Gifts and Apparel and Kingston Walks. His crew is getting ready to shine on what he calls “eclipse weekend,” Saturday, April 6 until the day of the eclipse on Monday, April 8.

“Kingston is perfectly, completely, incredibly, right in the path of totality for what is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event — unless you want to fly to Spain for the next one,” he laughed. “We’re the perfect place to see it. Usually, people will visit Kingston in May for Victoria Day, but this is the year to come earlier.”

The eclipse-themed offerings from Kingston Destination Group include tours and presentations, but one of the biggest offerings is the eclipse package on the Island Queen Cruise, a three-level ship that tours through the Thousand Islands.

This will be the earliest the Island Queen has ever sailed since its maiden voyage in 1976, but Ferguson said his team is “turning on all the visitor experiences that usually wait for warmer weather.”

The 300-passenger ship will take 100 passengers for a “premium eclipse tour,” sailing the St. Lawrence River for the entire three-hour duration of the eclipse, complete with safety glasses, premium appetizers, and a champagne toast at the moment of totality. 

“At that exact moment when the sun is covered, you can remove the glasses. You can’t do it in Ottawa or New York City, because it isn’t obscured enough, but you can do it in Kingston, because it will be nighttime for only three minutes,” said Ferguson. “Even 50 kilometres away, there won’t be that moment. So we’re doing a version of the cruise we’d do during the Canada Day fireworks, but instead, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event.”

Half of the tickets for the cruise have been purchased, but Ferguson said he expects to sell out. In anticipation of the weekend, Kingston Destination Group has been bringing on seasonal staff earlier than usual and investing in hospitality operations, including designing the eclipse-themed menu.

“We’re in a limited galley from 1976 that didn’t anticipate dining expectations for today, so there’s new wiring for ovens and lots going on behind the scenes to offer a floating bistro on the St. Lawrence River,” he explained. “No airplane trays here.”

At the Frontenac Club four-star boutique hotel, managing partner Sean Billing is also expecting to sell out of the hotel’s eclipse package, which includes a room, meals, themed food and beverages, and a private viewing party on the rooftop patio.

“Any time we can leverage something like this, an event that is so unique to Kingston, it’s a wonderful opportunity for us,” explained Billing. “We seem to be the last to fill our rooms, and we’re at the top of the price food chain, so when something like this comes along, we love it. People are interested in a once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Of the hotel’s 20 rooms, only a few are still available for the eclipse weekend, he said, and visitors are split 50-50 between regulars and new guests.

“It’s a really exciting thing. It’s ramping up as it gets closer and gets more attention,” Billing added. “It’s one of those times I wish I had 40 or 50 rooms, because those would sell out, too.”

The sense of anticipation is tangible throughout the city, Piche agreed. The majority of hotels in Kingston are at 80 per cent capacity, she said, with guests visiting from Finland, Japan, England, and across North America.

“I had a tour operator reach out to me and say, ‘The eclipse is selling out faster than a Taylor Swift concert,’” Piche laughed. “I’m really excited for folks who have not yet been to Kingston, and the eclipse is bringing them in, because we’re rolling out the red carpet for this, and now they’ll see Kingston as a destination they can enjoy and visit again.” 

Ferguson said his goal would be to see 1,000 people enjoying eclipse activities across all of Kingston Destination Group’s offerings. Between the risks of inclement weather, hiring seasonal staff early, and financial investments, he said he doesn’t expect to break even on costs for the eclipse weekend. But for his team, “it’s bigger than that.”

“It’s about being part of the bigger, once-in-a-lifetime narrative,” he said. “Yes, we have to start operations early, which is thousands of dollars. But I’m not worried about any of that. I’m just proud of our team for putting together this experience.

“We’re proud to be part of the Kingston community. People did their Grade 8 graduation on the Island Queen and come back to get married 20 years later,” he continued. “How could we not be a part of the story of the eclipse?”

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