As a first-time visitor to the 1000 Islands, I arrived with questions. You might be similarly curious, so let’s get the basics out of the way.
- The 1000 Islands is actually an archipelago comprising 1,864 islands in the St. Lawrence River. The region spans both sides of the border between the United States and Canada (and I can only assume that the latter nation is responsible for the modest name).
- You do need a passport to cross the border even in the water, and yes—there is a customs procedure.
- This is, indeed, where the salad dressing comes from.
Gananoque is one of those small Ontario towns that changes with the seasons. Many of the local businesses rely on the river, hibernating while it’s frozen and coming to life with the thaw. This doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do in the winter—1000 Islands Helicopter Tours is open year-round for ice fishing and touring, for example—but it’s in the spring and summer that the population swells to five times its off-season size. It’s easy to see why. The 1000 Islands used to be called a “millionaire’s playground,” a vibe you can still get in on, even if it’s only for your vacation. The biggest attraction is the islands themselves, and after you’ve viewed them from the air, you’ll want to get up close. Gananoque Boat Line has been ferrying guests for more than 40 years, and this summer they’re giving you even more reason to visit. In anticipation of welcoming their 11 millionth passenger, the line is giving away a prize of $11,000 and a private island for a week.
Those looking for something a little more hands-on should head over to 1000 Islands Kayaking and book in a day trip or overnight with camping.
The Thousand Islands Playhouse hosts a robust summer program. Theatre-goers will have their choice of eight productions during the 2015 season, including the much-anticipated “Bed and Breakfast,” a show about “being out” in small town Ontario written by local playwright Mark Crawford.
If you’re looking to dig into the history of the region, check out the Arthur Child Heritage Museum where, starting in May, there will be an exhibit on dated technology (word has it they have gotten their hands on an early flight simulator!). The permanent exhibition tells the story of the region, and a viewing gallery screens footage from Boldt Castle to the folks who forgot their passport.
Gananoque has plenty of quality food and drink, starting with The Socialist Pig. Espresso drinks and a fresh menu built from locally-sourced ingredients are reason enough to visit, but the place also serves as a community meeting place. Make yourself at home (and order the Country Fair Burrito—you’re welcome). For something more upscale, try the house-made pastas at Riva. Panaché Bakery and Café bakes fresh daily, and serves breads, pastries, sandwiches, and soups. This is also the place to get authentic hot cross buns. For a taste of the local brew, hit the Gananoque Brewing Company. There are hundreds of rooms in and around town, with perhaps the most historic in the Gananoque Inn & Spa. This fully renovated establishment occupies what was originally the Gananoque Carriage Works, built in the 1870s on the banks of the St. Lawrence where it stands still. There’s an on-site spa, and two restaurants, each with unobstructed views. Budget-conscious visitors have their choice of places to stay as well. If you’re looking for gambling excitement at the OLG Slots & Casinos, consider the Holiday Inn Express; it’s just across the road. Otherwise, the casino runs a shuttle to further-flung locations.
From Toronto, it’s about a two and a half-hour drive along Highway 401 eastbound. You can enter Gananoque starting at exit 645, just after Kingston. Pro-tip: If you’ve got some extra time, drop down to Highway 2 at Port Hope, where the driving is more scenic, and you might catch a roadside attraction. From Ottawa, take Highway 416 south to the 401 and head west. It’s about a 2-hour trip. From Montreal, it’s a straight shot west on the 401 for around 3 hours. If you’re coming from New York State, there’s a border crossing on Highway 81. Take the historic Thousand Islands Bridge to enter Canada.