Sunlight glistens on the water and warms my face as the boat cruises past island after island on the St Lawrence River. Many people think of Canada as a winter destination, which is not surprising as Canada has no shortage of stunning mountains and world-class ski resorts. However, pay a visit to the Thousand Islands archipelago in Canada in summer and you’ll discover a utopic haven of islands shared between the Canadian province of Ontario and the US state of New York.
The boundary zigzags between 1864 islands, which range from small islands barely big enough for a small shack to the romantic Heart Island and its lavish European-style fairytale castle.
1000 Islands by helicopter
The vastness of the Thousand Islands area hits home when you see it from the sky. And the bird’s-eye view of the islands from a helicopter is simply spectacular.
On a clear day, you might even spot one of the 200 sunken shipwrecks at the bottom of the St Lawrence River. The shipwrecks date back to the War of 1812 and are a lost world that attracts divers.
The scene of forested islands and aquamarine water reminds me of Queensland’s Whitsundays. It so happens our Kouri’s Kopters helicopter pilot, Aaron Spruyt, who comes from Brisbane Australia says parts of it reminds him of Queensland.
Spruyt, who has lived in the Thousand Islands region since 2012, says the best thing about Canada is the variety of landscapes brought about by the four distinct seasons. According to Spruyt, autumn in this part of Canada is particularly stunning. Go behind the scenes with Aaron Spruyt and find out what it’s like to be a helicopter pilot in one of the most beautiful places in eastern Canada.
Boldt Castle on Heart Island is the most glamorous spot in the region. Millionaire hotelier George Boldt, the proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, built the six-story 120-room Boldt Castle for his wife, Louise.
Heart Islands is also where the Thousand Islands dressing was concocted by Boldt’s steward, Oscar Tschirky. Tschirky later went on to become the maitre-d’hotel of the Waldorf and the creator of the – now world-famous – Waldorf salad and Oscar chicken. Even today, the original Waldorf salad recipe is still considered a secret.
Part way through the building of the castle, George Boldt’s wife Louise passed away. The heartbroken millionnaire put a halt to construction and the castle remained empty for over 70 years.
Now, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority operates the castle as a tourist attraction, which you can visit from the USA or Canada. Canada’s gateway to these island treasures is a small town called Gananoque.
Where is Gananoque?
Gananoque Canada is halfway between Toronto (Canada’s largest city) and Ottawa (the nation’s capital). An eight-hour drive from New York, the town of Gananoque is a world away from the pace of the big city. It’s a town with a laid-back vibe and a population that swells by thousands in summer.
The main attraction is the St. Lawrence River and the 1,000 Islands archipelago. But even though the islands are well-established as a playground for Manhattan millionaires, Gananoque has managed to remain unpretentious and down-to-earth.
The region continues to attract local water sports enthusiasts, who are attracted by the region’s offering of authentic back-to-nature experiences like camping, fishing and kayaking.
1000 Islands kayaking
In summer, the perfect Ganonoque weather and the calm St Lawrence River make kayaking a pleasurable way to explore the islands.
A guided kayak tour with 1000 Islands kayaking is suitable for beginners and offers plenty of chances to see local wildlife.
There are a few busy crossings around the islands and we paddle past an assortment of cottages and homes on islands with intriguing names, like Huckleberry Island, Hay Island, Corn Island and Camelot Island.
Much of our time on the water is spent floating on quiet streams, where we stop paddling to watch herons, cormorants, turtles, dragonflies and a bald eagle nesting in the trees.
We stop for lunch on one of the islands and take a refreshing dip in the fresh water while our guide sets up the lunch table.
The highlight of our kayak tour is Half Moon Bay, which is a picturesque crescent moon shaped bay on the southeast end of Bostwick Island in the Admiralty Group of the Thousand Islands.
Besides being a scenic spot, in July and August, Half Moon Bay has an outdoor chapel which attracts worshippers in boats who congregate on the water for Sunday evening services.
If you need a ride to the service, wait at the sign on the dock in front of the PUC building at the end of Water Street in Gananoque at 3 pm. For a list of services go here.
Guided kayaking tours on the St Lawrence River are fun and affordable (prices from $A85 for adults and $65 for kids).
1000 Islands cruise
Cruising with Gananoque Boat Line is a relaxing way to experience the region’s beauty and learn about its geography and history. The three-hour Thousand Islands cruise passes an assortment of islands, from large wooded islands with beaches to tiny islets barely wide enough to stand on.
It’s a beautiful blue-sky day and there’s plenty of activity on the water. On my Gananoque cruise, the boat passes too many islands to keep count. Boats zip past, people fish from jetties and splash around in the water. We pass mansions and cottages, some of which have been owned by families for years.
The commentary on board is interesting listening. We learn that a rock has to be at least a square foot in size, above water year-round and have at least one tree to be considered an island. Two-thirds of the islands are in Canadian waters. But if you divide the islands up by landmass, both countries have a pretty equal share.
The star of the river is Boldt Castle in Alexandria Bay on the New York side of the border. From Gananoque, there’s a five-hour cruise that includes a Boldt Castle tour. As the spectacular castle is actually on US soil, so you’ll need your passport to land.
3 More things to do in Gananoque
1- Summer concert at Joel Stone Heritage Waterfront Park
Visiting Gananoque in summer, you’re likely to catch a free summer concert at Joel Stone Heritage Waterfront Park. In October, the Jammin’ in the 1000 Islands brings the town to life with jazz, swing and blues music.
2- Thousand Islands Playhouse
The cultural highlight is the performance of Ken Ludwig’s comedy Leading Ladies at the waterside Thousand Islands Playhouse. The quality acting and charming venue well and truly justify putting a theatre performance on your list of must-dos while visiting Gananoque. Summer season at the Thousand Islands Playhouse is from May to October. Tickets start at $A20.
3- Thousand Islands Boat Museum
Pay a visit to the Thousand Islands Boat Museum on the Gananoque waterfront and learn a bit about the region’s boat building history.
Getting to Gananoque
Gananoque is a 90-minute drive from Ottawa. Air Canada flies direct from Brisbane, Sydney and will fly from Melbourne to Vancouver from December 2017. Flying time between Australia and Canada is approximately 14 hours. Flying time between Vancouver and Ottawa is 4 hours 30 minutes.
Gananoque to Kingston is a 32km drive. Kingston, Canada’s first capital, sits on the convergence of Lake Ontario, the St Lawrence River and the UNESCO World Heritage Rideau Canal.
Thousand Islands hotels come in a variety of types and sizes, including large international chains such as Holiday Inn Gananoque, and Comfort Inn Gananoque. Holiday Inn Express Gananoque offers comfortable motel-style accommodation with a pool, gym, sauna and high-speed internet access.
A more central spot to stay is the Gananoque Inn and Spa, which is a charming inn with green lawns leading down to the water’s edge. The hotel’s Watermark Restaurant has lovely water views and good food.
The Socialist Pig has the best coffee in town and menu of creatively named food offerings. Order a Pig Mac if you’re hungry or try one of the tasty burrito bowls. There are two moody indoor areas and a sunny courtyard.
The Purple House Cafe is the place for wood-fired pizzas in a delightful garden setting. The pizzas are delicious. And yes, the building is purple!
Riva Italian Restaurant is the place to go for top-notch Italian.