• Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic

The moment I enter the main hatch of the CCGS Alexander Henry, a retired Coast Guard icebreaker that once served on the Great Lakes, I feel as if I’m walking straight into a movie. By day, the museum ship is the largest artifact in the collection of the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes, on the Kingston waterfront. By night, it serves as one of the most unusual bed and breakfasts around.

It is as a B&B guest that I’m thinking, Wait, I’ve seen this film. Then I realize that I am Larry Daley, the hapless dreamer played by Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum. Poor Larry works the graveyard shift at a natural history museum. During his watch, gladiators, Huns and a T. rex come to life and the wax figure of President Teddy Roosevelt on horseback helps Larry make sense of the chaos. With no other guests in sight and night setting in, I imagine long deceased crew members from the Alexander Henry rising from their slumber to give me a personal tour.

I feel a kinship with the old icebreaker. Both of us were born in 1958, and we are at an age when the past looks a whole lot rosier than the future. The ship spent its roughly 25-year career in the Lake Superior region. In winter, it kept the harbour of Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) clear of ice for grain shipments. In spring and summer, it serviced navigation buoys and helped in repairing lighthouses and docks. The Alexander Henry was decommissioned and moved to the Marine Museum here in Kingston in 1985 and began its life as a B&B a year later.

In retirement, the Alexander Henry is not without its charm as a place to spend a night. Late on a Friday afternoon, I find the red and white ship squatting in shallow water next to the Marine Museum. Established in 1975, the museum is made up of a number of renovated historic shipyard structures and presents the marine history of the Great Lakes, including shipwrecks and the transition from sail to steam. The jewel of the collection is the Alexander Henry. Some 64 metres stem to stern, the Alex is commanded by a huge derrick used for lifting five-tonne buoys into and out of the water. Inside, I detect the faint but unavoidable smell of diesel hanging in the air, the first sign that the Alexander Henry is not just a rosescented trip through marine history. The second sign: narrow passageways, raised doorsills, angled floors and virtually perpendicular staircases. This is the real deal. Sleepwalkers beware.

I am bunking in the chief engineer’s room, which is above the main deck with the other officers’ quarters. The chief engineer was one of the most important men on board. His job was to ensure that the machinery and systems of the vessel operated safely. The room is outfitted with a desk and filing cabinet, metal storage locker and comfortable double bed set in a high wooden frame (note to self: no falling out of bed tonight). There are other signs that I am in the Alexander Henry’s version of a penthouse suite: carpeting, wide windows and, a rarity on the ship, ensuite bathroom.

I clamber one level up to check out the captain’s quarters, and admire the anteroom and quartersawn oak, birch and mahogany finishings. A couple of decks below are the crew’s nests — just big enough for a metal bunk bed, locker and sink. As you would expect, the rates reflect the pecking order: the captain’s room is $125 a night, the chief engineer’s room is $100, and the cadet’s cabin is $75. There are 28 rooms in all.

I visit the bridge and admire the ship’s wheel and navigation equipment, then head to the winch room, where the derrick is controlled, and finally down to the steering flat, where hydraulic rams are activated and the mighty rudder moved. When the ship was at sea, this room was bone-rattlingly noisy. Before heading out, I pass through the galley and notice a poster that is a perfect relic from the Cold War yet eerily appropriate today. It reads: NUCLEAR ATTACK INSTRUCTIONS FOR MERCHANT SHIPS IN PORT.

Looking to join the crowds, I disembark the Alexander Henry and walk east down Ontario Street. Nearing City Hall, I see the makings of a traffic jam. The street has been closed to cars and is being taken over by powerboats, with names like Dominator, Black Thunder, Relentless and Thunderstruck, all sitting on trailers.

They are the star attractions of the 1000 Islands Poker Run, an unselfconscious celebration of power and fuel consumption, where drivers in “performance boats” race from one designated spot to another collecting playing cards. At the end of the race, the one with the best poker hand wins.

With the detached eye of an anthropologist studying an unknown culture, I join the teeming crowd. Necks crane to catch a glimpse of the boats. People survey the scene from the rooftops of neighbouring hotels; in front of me, two men get a good view by standing on top of a dumpster that is only partially covered. The smell is overwhelming, the noise deafening. I am starting to feel my age.

I head back to the Alexander Henry and walk to the stern of the ship, where the spooled mooring lines are illuminated by a three-quarter moon. I climb the metal stairs to the wing deck, almost level with the helicopter pad, and look out across Lake Ontario to Wolfe Island, just four kilometres away. In its heyday, the ship would never be this peaceful, no matter the time of day or night. On this evening, the Alex is going nowhere, secure in its berth.

I return to my room, swivel my body onto the soft mattress and say good night to the ghost of the chief engineer. I hope he doesn’t snore.

I awake to bird chatter and soft light streaming in and soon head to the officers’ mess for breakfast. I have yet to meet any fellow guests, though I had heard that the Alexander Henry is a popular spot among divers, who enjoy exploring the many wrecks in the waters of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario.

Heather Black and Dan Chapman of Ottawa join me for cereal and yogourt. They were invited to a wedding in Kingston, and by the time Dan got around to booking accommodation, all the hotel rooms were taken, no doubt by Poker Run junkies.

"So I figured I would see if there were any B&B rooms available, and I found this one," he says. "It was described as a B&B by the lake. I’m a cottager, so this sounded great. I told my friend here in Kingston the address, and he said, 'You fool, you’re staying on an old ship!’"

Bob and Andrew Ekins, a father and teenage son from Woodstock, Ont., knew exactly what they were booking. Over the past three weeks, Andrew has been attending a sea cadet program at the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston, and his dad has come to take him home. "I thought this would be a good way to end his stay here," says Bob.

Andrew fills me in on the RMC experience, and we talk about what it must have been like on the Alexander Henry when it was commissioned. We speculate on how often the helicopter pad was actually used.

"Oh, they went out on search and rescue missions all right," says a woman sitting opposite me, who introduces herself as Carole Quinn from Belleville, Ont. "I was a nurse in Thunder Bay in the early ’60s, and I knew a few of the guys working on the ship. I went up in the helicopter once. Holy Christmas, it was noisy."

Carole is participating in a Canadian Olympic training regatta. She booked into the Alexander Henry, but only when she boarded the ship and started walking around did she realize that this was the same Coast Guard icebreaker from her days in Thunder Bay. Kismet works in mysterious ways.

Much as I want to stay and chat, my night at the museum is drawing to a close. Heather and Dan and the Ekinses are heading home, and Carole is going sailing. Besides, it is getting close to 10 a.m., the time when the B&B turns back into a museum artifact.