It’s a stunning day to be out on the St. Lawrence River. Wispy puffs of cloud drift across an otherwise deep blue sky. A fresh breeze blows by and puts a few baseball caps in peril as the Gananoque Boat Line tour boat cuts across the chop. Nearby tiny islands—a few of the 1,864 outcrops that dot this stretch of the river, roughly between Kingston and Brockville, Ontario—look like illustrations from a children’s book: some with a modest cottage or two, some with opulent homes, some with just a few trees, at least one with a lighthouse.
Somewhere around the point, we pass under the Thousand Islands International Bridge, the boat slips into American waters. Not surprisingly, the islands look pretty similar to those on the Canadian side. The main perceptible difference is that the flags flapping from cottage flagpoles morph from the Maple Leaf to the Stars and Stripes.
Soon, we disembark at Boldt Castle, a sprawling mansion built in the early 1900s for George Boldt, who ran the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. When his wife Louise died suddenly in 1904, the grieving Boldt abandoned his incomplete summer home, which eventually became a museum. With its grand staircase, colourful gardens and storybook-cute Power House (a medieval-style structure complete with tiny footbridge), it’s well worth a visit.
However, even without the museum stop, the boat trip itself captures the unique appeal of this region hinged between New York State and Ontario. From the 1000 Islands in the east to Ontario’s Prince Edward County in the west, it’s a place defined by boats and water, by the rich who have come here to retreat from the world and the not-so-rich who have lived here for generations, by two countries that have found a peaceable way to share a gorgeous landscape. I love it here. Here are a few reasons to make it your next weekend getaway destination.
On The Canadian Side
Distance from Ottawa: 1 hour, 13 minutes
Distance from Toronto: 3 hours, 29 minutes
One of Brockville’s newest and most popular tourist attractions is largely hidden from view. The Brockville Railway Tunnel—Canada’s oldest such structure—has been retrofitted with a dazzling, free sound-and-light show. Once you’ve wowed your kids with that one, take them to the Aquatarium, an interactive museum where they can see otters at play and learn how hydro dams work. If they still have the energy to burn, head to Skywood Eco Adventure, just outside of town, to scramble and soar through the treetops at one of Canada’s largest zipline and aerial adventure parks.
Once you’ve amused the kids, here’s a once-in-a-lifetime treat just for adults (although kids can watch). At Fort Wellington National Historic Site in nearby Prescott, you can dress in a reproduction military uniform and fire a 19th-century cannon.
The Noble Suites
Left photo by Ursula Dowd
You may not have stayed anywhere quite like The Noble Suites, just steps from Brockville’s waterfront. This downtown mansion has been converted into seven guest suites, including the enormous, antiques-filled Senator’s Suite, which boasts two chandeliers and can sleep six. Watch for the quirky notes on the walls highlighting the home’s history and the owners’ work to restore the property.Check availability »
Distance from Ottawa: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Distance from Toronto: 3 hours, 11 minutes
The main reason most tourists come to this riverfront village is to take a Rockport Cruises sightseeing trip, to Boldt Castle or elsewhere, but it’s a picturesque stop in its own right. Browse for art and jewellery at the Paint Box Gallery, pick up a souvenir at the Rockport General Store, or climb the stairs to the hilltop Church of St. Brendan for a bird’s-eye view of the village and the river. Feeling adventurous? Take a scuba trip with Thousand Islands Pleasure Diving.
Boathouse Country Inn
This waterfront property in the heart of the village has a variety of accommodations—including suites with fireplaces, motel rooms and a bunkhouse—to suit travellers with a wide range of tastes and budgets. In summer, linger over blackened snapper or smoked ribs while enjoying river views from the restaurant patio.Check availability »
Distance from Ottawa: 1 hours, 40 minutes
Distance from Toronto: 3 hours, 0 minutes
If your dream summer getaway involves dinner and a play, Gananoque is ideal. Start with an out-of-the-ordinary pizza (such as pulled pork or butter chicken) from the wood-fired oven at the Purple House Café. A 10-minute walk away, the Thousand Islands Playhouse actually comprises two theatres, the Springer Theatre and the Firehall Theatre. Both are lovely, but at the Springer—housed in a former canoe club—you can sip your intermission glass of wine on one of two riverside decks.
To get up close and personal with the St. Lawrence River and its islands, pick up a paddle and join a guided tour with 1000 Islands Kayaking. You don’t need previous kayaking experience, and the full-day tours include a delicious buffet lunch. And if you’d like to learn more about the region’s boat-building history, check out the small but excellent Thousand Islands Boat Museum.
The Gananoque Inn and Spa
Originally a Victorian carriage factory, the Gananoque Inn and Spa became a hotel in 1896. Now incorporating the vintage main inn, a century-old house and several newer buildings, it still has a genteel vibe. Both the laid-back Muskie Jake’s Tap and Grill and the fancier Watermark Restaurant have pretty waterfront terraces.Check availability »
Distance from Ottawa: 2 hours, 0 minutes
Distance from Toronto: 2 hours, 52 minutes
Nicknamed the Limestone City for its abundance of vintage stone buildings, Kingston is the region’s hub and is packed with things to see and do. Music fans can catch a live performance at the Grand Theatre, the K-Rock Centre or the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. At Fort Henry National Historic Site, ghost tours are available from spring through fall, and soldiers in 1860s-style uniforms carry out musical sunset ceremonies in summer.
Feeling hungry? Shop for cheeses, teas, cookies and jams, as well as cool kitchenware, at Cooke’s Fine Foods and Coffee. Also downtown, Pan Chancho Bakery is the place to buy goodies like olive baguettes, apple cider bread or gluten-free scones, or to linger over Sunday brunch. A few blocks away, you can nibble on “fusion tapas” at Tango Nuevo (don’t miss the Moroccan meatballs or spicy sambal shrimp).
The Rosemount Inn and Spa
The Rosemount Inn and Spa is a great spot for a girls’ getaway. Not only is it home to a full-service spa, but it also has a separate coach house with a kitchenette and living room that offers lots of space for late-night gabfests. Breakfasts are bountiful and downtown Kingston is a short walk away.Check availability »
Distance from Ottawa: 2 hours, 43 minutes
Distance from Toronto: 2 hours, 32 minutes
Prince Edward County on Lake Ontario is not to be confused with the East Coast province of Prince Edward Island. However, it does feel like an island, as only a narrow strip of land connects it to the rest of Ontario and many visitors arrive via the free Glenora ferry. In Picton, its largest town, the independent Books & Company is a good place to pick up some holiday reading material and the Portabella bistro serves tasty Mediterranean fare.
“The County,” as everyone calls it, has attracted a wave of stressed-out urbanites from Toronto and elsewhere in the last two decades. They’ve been eagerly buying up century-old farms and turning them into bed and breakfasts, cheesemaking operations and, especially, vineyards—the County is now home to almost 40 wineries. They range from tiny Redtail Vineyard, where you can try an unusual pink Pinot Gris, to the Grange of Prince Edward, where you can sample estate-grown wines in a repurposed 19th-century barn, take a guided tour, and enjoy a picnic of charcuterie and cheese.
The Waring House Restaurant and Inn
Situated on a pretty country property just outside town, the 49-room Waring House is popular with gourmets. It’s home to an excellent onsite cookery school and two restaurants—Amelia’s Garden, serving upscale farm-to-table fare, and the more casual Barley Room, with 16 beers on tap and live music five nights a week.Check availability »
Distance from Ottawa: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Distance from Toronto: 2 hours, 24 minutes
With a name like Bloomfield, it’s probably not surprising that this Prince Edward County village is almost impossibly pretty. For a little retail therapy, try Casa Lucia for hand-painted Mexican tiles, Lustre & Tarnish for custom-designed jewellery or the memorably named Dead People’s Stuff for antiques. Once you’ve burned off some calories strolling from store to store, head to Slickers for a scoop of rich apple pie ice cream. Then drive to Sandbanks Provincial Park, about 15 minutes away, to splash in the shallows at Outlet Beach and to see some of Canada’s biggest sand dunes.
The Inn at Huff Estates
Wouldn’t you like to stay at a vineyard, at least for a night? If you book one of the 21 rooms at the Inn at Huff Estates, you can also enjoy the property’s restaurant, sculpture garden and art gallery. Every room has a fireplace, some have whirlpool tubs and the inn is open year-round, making it a cozy spot for a romantic winter weekend.Check availability »
On The American Side
Distance from Ottawa: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Distance from Toronto: 3 hours, 55 minutes
The main attraction in Ogdensburg is the Frederic Remington Art Museum, devoted to the bronzes, paintings and illustrations of its namesake, an artist born in nearby Canton. Remington was intrigued by the Old West, particularly Indigenous people, ranchers, cowboys and soldiers, and his artworks often feature horses as well.
Quality Inn Gran View
If water views are your thing, the Quality Inn Gran View on the outskirts of Ogdensburg delivers with 135 metres (450 feet) of frontage on the St. Lawrence River. Take a dip in the outdoor pool, work out in the small gym or just kick back in one of the Adirondack chairs scattered about the property. The hotel’s restaurant, open since 1945, serves up classics such as shrimp Louis, French onion soup and tableside-prepared Caesar salads, as well as pot stickers, penne à la vodka and other modern favourites.Check availability »
Distance from Ottawa: 1 hours, 47 minutes
Distance from Toronto: 3 hours, 28 minutes
To impress the guests at your next cocktail party, drop into Dark Island Spirits to pick up a bottle of the craft distillery’s peppered vodka or, perhaps, snow wheat whiskey infused with cinnamon and red chillies. If you want a quick trip to Boldt Castle, take the 10-minute shuttle with Uncle Sam Boat Tours. The company also offers longer sightseeing tours of the 1000 Islands, including luncheon cruises. And to get a peek under the water, put on your scuba gear and explore shipwrecks just minutes from shore with Blue Foot Diving.
Rock Ledge Motel
The family-owned Rock Ledge Motel offers affordable, classic motel rooms and sleeping cottages, each equipped with a mini-fridge, microwave and coffee maker. There’s also a guest house with a kitchenette that can sleep up to six. Bring or borrow a lawn game (Frisbee, anyone?), grill some burgers on the shared barbecue and use the free WiFi to post a few retro-filtered Instagram pics.Check availability »
Distance from Ottawa: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Distance from Toronto: 3 hours, 31 minutes (via the Thousand Islands International Bridge)
Photo courtesy of the Antique Boat Museum
Fabulous fishing was one of the first activities that drew tourists to the St. Lawrence River. In Clayton, 1000 Islands Fishing Charters takes keen anglers out on half-day and full-day guided trips in search of muskie, pike and bass. Some trips include an island cookout lunch or a shore dinner. Back on shore, the Antique Boat Museum has conserved more than 300 boats, many of which are displayed in 10 buildings scattered across four and a half acres. And for music lovers, the Clayton Opera House offers a diverse schedule of live shows by everyone from tribute artists to classical ensembles.
1000 Islands Harbor Hotel
Relax with hot coffee and breakfast as you watch the sunrise from your private balcony, or indulge in a midnight snack—this large hotel offers 24-hour room service. Other perks at the 1000 Islands Harbour Hotel include a heated indoor pool, a Jacuzzi, concierge services, a fine-dining restaurant and, for a short stretch in winter, an Ice Bar built from more than 10 tons (nine metric tonnes) of glittery, solid H2O.Check availability »
Distance from Ottawa: 2 hours, 12 minutes (via the Thousand Islands International Bridge)
Distance from Toronto: 4 hours, 8 minutes (via Wolfe Island)
Left photo by George Fischer, right photo courtesy of the French Festival
For a memorable summer road trip, take a ferry from Kingston to Wolfe Island, drive through rolling countryside, then take another ferry from Wolfe Island to Cape Vincent (note that the latter ferry is seasonal, running from late April to mid-October). A Frenchman founded Cape Vincent in the late 18th Century, and the annual French Festival in mid-July celebrates the village’s roots—particularly its ties to Napoleon’s followers.
Photos courtesy of Taste 1000 Islands
Aside from the festival, attractions in Cape Vincent include the Cape Winery. If you’re tired of the usual Chardonnays and Merlots, you can sample wines made with cold-resistant hybrid grapes, such as Frontenac Gris and Marquette.
Tibbetts Point Lighthouse
How often do you get the chance to stay next to a lighthouse? The seasonal Tibbetts Point Lighthouse (open from early June to early September) will appeal to budget-minded travellers. Accommodations are basic, with bunk beds, lockers, and a shared kitchen and bathrooms; there’s also a unit for families, but the sweeping views over Lake Ontario are the real draw.Check availability »
Feature photo by George Fischer