About this series: With COVID-19 restrictions expected to ease over the next few months, Wheels wants to inspire you to get ready to explore – but only when it is safe to do so. This series of daytrips and weekend drives highlights great experiences you can have in the province once conditions allow and show you why Ontario is “Ours to Discover” this summer and beyond.
The small town of Gananoque is a gateway to the Thousand Islands, a part of Ontario that has long drawn people to its magical shorelines. Originally this land was sacred to the Iroquois, who called it “The Garden of the Great Spirit.” Later, American Loyalists displaced from the eastern seaboard settled on the northern side, clearing forests to create farmland.
This region is designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and has been nicknamed the “ancient backbone of North America” (to the Mohawk it’s “The Bones of the Mother”). Long ago, successive glaciers eroded the mountaintops, compressing the landscape before finally melting. Once towering peaks are now knobby outcrops of land surrounded by water: the Thousand Islands. The tally is actually 1,864, but a patch of land must be above water 365 days a year and support a living tree to make the official count.
At its heart, is Gananoque.
In the morning:
Get into the car and point it east on Hwy. 401, heading straight for the Thousand Islands region. It’s just under a three-hour drive but with each passing minute you’ll leave GTA gridlock behind and slide into the eastern Ontario views of lakes and rivers, small towns and stunning tree-blanketed Canadian Shield landscape.
Stretch your legs right by the Gananoque waterfront at 1000 Islands Kayaking. They have rentals, as well as half-day and full-day guided trips. Getting out on the majestic St. Lawrence River is the best way to get up close and personal with the beautiful Thousand Islands. New for 2021 are guided sunset paddling tours (Wednesday through Saturday). 1000islandskayaking.com
In the afternoon:
Pick up some takeout at The Old English Pub on downtown’s main street. They have standard pub fare, with an upscale twist – like curried lamb sliders and truffle oil mac & cheese. Bag it and take it down to eat by the waterfront (the long stretch of accessible waterfront is a Gan highlight). theoldenglishpub.ca
Next, ditch the water and take to the skies on a helicopter tour for a bird’s-eye view of the Thousands Islands. 1000 Islands Helicopter Tours offers five different options, from 10 minutes to a full-hour above the shoreline, the waterway and the islands. The flights are a small group affair – a maximum of three passengers from the same party, with masks required. It’s a heart-racing way to see local highlights like the Thousand Islands International Bridge, Boldt Castle and many of the iconic islands. fly1000islands.ca
In the evening:
Time to check in at The Gananoque Inn & Spa, a classic riverside property dating back to the 1860s when it housed the Gananoque Carriage Works. The main building has 29 rooms, some with river views and others with balconies. The inn is a short walk to downtown and to the riverfront parkland. gananoqueinn.com
It’s a short stroll along the shoreline and across a small bridge to dinner on the patio at The Purple House Café. This quirky, charming little property is renowned for its salads and pizzas, wood-fired in an outdoor oven. Call first as opening times are at the whims of the weather gods! purplehousegan.com
Fingers crossed that restrictions have been lifted and you can catch a play at the excellent Thousand Islands Playhouse, an Ontario theatre renowned for its quality productions. Full-length plays are scheduled to begin in August. 1000islandsplayhouse.com
In the morning:
Fuel up with amazing coffees, lattes, teas and breakfast goodies at Laverne’s Eatery downtown (laverneseatery.com) and then head out on a leisurely drive (or bike on the paved bike path) along the beautiful Thousand Islands Parkway, beginning at the east end of Gananoque. There are many spots to pull out and swim, and restorative hiking trails at Landon Bay, just 10 minutes from town. frontenacarchbiosphere.ca/explore/hiking/landon-bay-centre
If you’ve got time, make a quick stop at the Parks Canada visitor centre at the Thousand Islands National Park (pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/on/1000/activ/experiences/mallorytown) and then head north off the Parkway to BUSL Cider in Mallorytown. BUSL is the perfect spot to pick up a unique souvenir in a bottle of handcrafted cider with flavours like raspberry hibiscus, cherry or pear. buslcider.com
In the early afternoon:
Plan for lunch just off the Parkway at Cornwall’s Pub in Rockport, on one of the best waterfront patio settings with sweeping views of the islands. Rockport is a tiny, historic hub with big offerings for visitors. (facebook.com/cornwallspub)
It’s hard to leave the beauty of the Thousand Islands Parkway, but head back to the Gananoque waterfront (fast route is along Hwy. 401, which parallels the scenic Parkway) for an afternoon foray onto the water.
During the 1920s prohibition era, the maze of river channels was a quick route for speedboats loaded with illegal hooch making quick runs from Canada to the United States. These days a popular (and legal) way to get on the water is aboard one of the scenic boat cruise tours with City Cruises Gananoque. There are one-hour to five-hour itineraries that meander past the famous landmarks and give passengers a real feel for the Thousand Islands. There will be limited numbers on board, so book tickets in advance. cityexperiences.com/gananoque/city-cruises
In the late afternoon:
One last stop downtown at a local purveyor of fine brews: the Gan Brewing Co. It’s the perfect spot to pick up a souvenir of flavours from a local, family-owned business. Located downtown in the renovated Axelworks and Spring Factory, they have a dog-friendly patio where you can sip a cold one from their extensive selection of IPAs, Pilsner, stouts, lagers and more. (ganbeer.com)
Before getting back in the car, take a cooling swim at Joel Stone Park – it has a beach, a dock for diving and a splash pad for the kids.
SIDEBAR: For the drive
For such a small town, Gananoque is awash in musical talent. Check out the music of local bard, Kevin Head (kevinheadmusic.com) or download the music of The Bells (remember songs like “Fly Little White Dove Fly” and “Stay Awhile”?). Gananoque is home to two of The Bells’ founding members, who both still gig locally.
If you have a passion for theatre and art, tee up the Thousands Islands Playhouse Podcast and join in on conversations with actors, directors and designers about using their creativity at home during the pandemic. 1000islandsplayhouse.com/playhouse-podcast/
SIDEBAR: COVID-19 need to know
In general, eastern Ontario has experienced low COVID-19 rates, but the region is still under provincewide restrictions and guidelines. Detailed information is at Leeds, Grenville & Lanark Public Health. (healthunit.org)
SIDEBAR: Timeline/Drive guide
- 8 a.m. leave Toronto if taking the leisurely route via Hwy. 401
- 11 a.m. kayaking at 1000 Islands Kayaking
- 1 p.m. takeout lunch from The Old English Pub
- 3 p.m. take to the skies with 1000 Islands Helicopter Tours
- 5 p.m. check in to your room at The Gananoque Inn & Spa
- 6:30 p.m. walk over for a wood-fired pizza at The Purple House Café (no reservations, open until 9 p.m.)
- Season dependent: catch an evening show at the Thousand Islands Playhouse
- 9 a.m. get brekkie and coffee at Laverne’s Eatery
- 10 a.m. head out for a rural driving tour along the Thousand Islands Parkway
- 12:00 p.m. lunch at Cornwall’s Pub in Rockport
- 2 p.m. hop aboard for a scenic cruise through the Thousand Islands
- 4 p.m. before leaving town pick up some brew at the Gan Brewing Co. and get in a quick swim at Joel Stone Park
- 6 p.m. Drive back to Toronto via Hwy. 401