Gananoque is close to home yet far from ordinary
ABOVE: A view of Gananoque, the gateway to the 1000 Islands, from Fly 1000 Islands.
International travel restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 have led Canadians from coast to coast to coast to look closer to home for their vacation getaways. For those living in Ontario, the spectacular 1000 Islands are a world class destination at your doorstep.
Gananoque is the heart of the 1000 Islands and is just a short 90-minute drive from Ottawa along the 401. However, the picture-esque route is to take the 416 to Prescott and then follow the St.Lawrence Seaway along the Thousand Islands Parkway that passes through the delightful towns of Brockville, Mallorytown and Rockport as you make your way into picture perfect Gananoque. The scenery is spectacular year-round but especially colourful in the fall when the trees converge into a plaid blanket that runs up against the gleaming and clear fresh water of Canada’s most famous waterway. The 1000 Islands experience is not complete until you have seen them from the roadside drive and then from a kayak or boat on the water and, if you're lucky, from the air via a helicopter tour.
Be sure to make a leisurely stop at BUSL Cider in Mallorytown. They serve hard cider and handcrafted cider in a variety of flavours including their signature Haskap, Apple, Cherry and Blueberry Beet on most days from at 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., Mallorytown is also home to Jones Creek Trails and Brown’s Bay Park where you can go hiking and take in scenic lookouts, rugged rock faces, and tall stands of pine that define the area. (Most park islands have hiking trails that provide excellent views of the scenic Thousand Islands. Trails vary in difficulty and length).
Gananoque is a charming small Ontario town situated on the St. Lawrence Seaway in the heart of the 1000 Islands. We checked into the Comfort Inn & Suites Thousand Islands Harbor District. This modern hotel was uniquely designed to complement the mood and historic features of this wonderful town. It features comfortable rooms with modern amenities, a complimentary breakfast, indoor pool and complimentary parking and Wi-Fi. We parked our car and walked to all our destinations for the next two days from the Inn. On our first night we went for dinner at The Maple Leaf Restaurant on King Street, just across from the town hall. Only in Canada would you find an authentic Czech restaurant in a small-town Ontario. It is both a quaint and pleasant spot serving authentic Czech cuisine. The schnitzel, pierogis, spaetzle and goulash are superb. Oh, and did I mention the dark Czech beer and apple strudel and ice cream. This place is well worth a visit or two when in Gananoque.
We walked everywhere during our stay. There are some great local shops and pubs and it's pleasant to just sit at Joel Stone Park in the late afternoon and enjoy the view. Just across the street you’ll find the local ‘GAN brewering Co.’ which serves a hoppy IPA and several other selections that will help set the tone for a great dinner at Muskie Jake’s Tap & Grill — a pleasant ten minute walk away at the Gananoque Inn. There are all kinds of foodie stops in Gananoque including Laverne’s Eatery at 11 King Street East, Panache Bakery & Café at 162 King Street East and the Hot Roast Company, 198 King Street East.
We began our second day in the 1000 Islands by taking a three hour, half-day guided kayak tour. There is nothing like gliding along close to the water on a brisk and sunny fall day, jutting in and out of the crevasses and inlets that define the Islands. Local kayak outfitters offer fully guided full day, half day and overnight kayaking excursions along the mighty St. Lawrence River for all experience levels. They also offer an assortment of certification courses, rentals, and powerboat shuttle. Their knowledge of the islands and its history is second to none!
The most touristy thing you can do in Gananoque is take the Gananoque Boat Line tour which departs several times each day from the main pier at 280 Main Street. I highly recommend this tour because you will get to see the 1000 Islands from the water in all their beauty and immensity. The boat is comfortable and calm and has a nice snack bar that serves sandwiches, hotdogs, and beverages. We went for the 2.5 hour ‘Lost Ships of the 1000 Islands’ cruise which is a Destination Canada Canadian Signature Experience. The cruise weaves through the Islands, crossing briefly into American waters (Passports not required because the boat does not drop anchor in American waters) and then goes around the world famous Boldt Castle on Heart Island!
The homes and historic buildings that are the soul of the 1000 Islands can all be seen on this picturesque and informative cruise. We passed under the international border bridge which I have driven over dozens of times. It provides a completely different scale to the region and you really get a sense of why so many people love this area and have made this their destination summer home for well over a century. Today, people live here year-round!
On our final day we decided to go horseback riding and then for a helicopter ride over the Islands. Fort Garry Stables is just a 15-minute drive from our hotel. We went for an hour-long trail ride through the Frontenac Arch Biosphere. The trail rides are suited for all experience levels and they are happy to give you a tour of their stables and introduce you to all their horses. You’ll learn all about equestrian care — these people love their horses, and it shows.
If you want to get a sense of the vastness and unique terrain and riverway that makes up the 1000 Islands you can't go wrong by taking a 1000 Islands Helicopter tour over the region. Based in Gananoque, Fly 1000 Islands offers a dozen tours of historic landmarks and regional activities. Their 20-minute Boldt Castle tour is a Destination Ontario Signature Experience, and their 30-minute Two Castle tour is a Destination Canada Canadian Signature Experience. We took the shorter 10-minute tour over the Islands on a crisp sunny autumn morning. It was ten minutes of spectacular beauty that I will never forget.
Gananoque offers walking trails throughout the town and cycling along the waterfront trail. We are avid cyclists and plan to return to cycle through the region now that we are familiar with its incredible offerings. Plan to spend a day just hanging out and visiting the museums and art galleries in town. Start with a visit to the fabulous 1000 Islands History Museum at 125 Water Street. You will get a real sense of the history of the area and the geography of the region by spending an hour or so here. There is much to do and lots to see in Gananoque. Take your time-it’s well worth the visit and you’ll want to return.