The Gateway to the 1000 Islands offers something for everyone and in every season.

By Brad Roberts

Just east of Toronto and west of Montreal, on the north shore of the mighty St. Lawrence River lies a small picturesque Ontario town called Gananoque – meaning “Water Rising over Rocks” or “Garden of the Great Spirit”. The town was founded in 1793 by a refugee Loyalist named Joel Stone who opened a flour mill, which spurred lumbering, mining, and milling operations on both sides of the beautiful Gananoque River.

“Gan”, as the locals affectionately refer to it today, has the dubious distinction of being the real gateway to one of the best kept boating secrets in the world – the 1000 Islands. In fact there are 1,864 islands to be precise, some of which lie in US waters, many are privately owned, and some are a part of the Thousand Islands National Park of Canada. Collectively, along with the fresh waters of the St. Lawrence River they provide a stunningly beautiful place to boat – whether you’re cruising, fish, or catching a Poker Run.

Beyond the islands and the water, Gan offers so much more that it really is a vacation destination to add to your must-visit list. From a quaint playhouse theatre, to amazing restaurants, to boat tours to historic castles, come and explore this hidden gem.

You may want to begin your visit at the local museum. Located in an historic waterfront building overlooking the St. Lawrence River, The Arthur Child Heritage Museum is a living piece of history allowing visitors to experience 10,000 years of 1000 Island history via the museums interactive displays. Explore the 1000 Islands ecosystem, the First Nations people, early settlers, Ice Harvesting, Fur Trading, military leaders and folk heroes, as well as the role of the St. Lawrence River, past and present. Step into a turn of the century kitchen, or admire the current antique boat on display from the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton NY.  The area’s history includes pirates and heroines, the Garden of the Great Spirit and the Gilded Age when business barons from New York City built castles on islands.

Speaking of castles, it was at the turn of the century when George C. Boldt, the millionaire proprietor of the world-famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel, set out to build a full-size Rhineland Castle on picturesque Heart Island. The grandiose structure was to be a display of his love for his wife, Louise. Over 300 workers fashioned the six story, 120 room castle, sparing no expense and paying great attention to every single detail.  Tragically, in 1904 his wife passed away suddenly, and all construction was halted. Boldt never returned to the island, leaving behind the structure as a monument of his love. Currently Boldt Castle, with its’ massive boat house and all of the surrounding grounds is owned by the Thousand Islands Bridge authority who are restoring the castle to its intended glory. (You need your passport to travel to Boldt Castle as Heart Island lies in US waters.)

Of course you can bring your own boat and launch it at one of the local marinas and explore the waters yourself.  Be sure to travel east downstream and snap a photo of your boat with the massive Ivy Lea Bridge in the backgound.  There was some severe flooding in 2017 that damaged a lot of docks, boathouses and property in the area, but the restoration is well underway. If you’re looking for a site in the Thousand Islands National Park be sure to check out their website and reserve early.

It’s a short cruise from anywhere over to the south side of Bostwick Island and the chapel at Half Moon Bay, so named because of its crescent moon shape. In 1887, a group of summer campers began to meet on Sundays in the bay for divine services. The growing popularity of the meetings soon attracted campers for miles around and from Gananoque.  Each summer this romantic outdoor chapel is crowded with worshippers of all kinds.  David Wallace of Boston, Mass., owner of the property, died in 1904 and bequeathed Half Moon Bay to be held in trust as a place of worship.

Even if you don’t have your own boat, you can still get out onto the beautiful waters that surround the 1000 Islands and enjoy the stunning scenery. Boat tours in the area began when a local mailman who delivered mail to the island residents took some passengers as a sideline to his mail delivery business. In 1951, three local Gananoque men began Gananoque Boat Lines with the “Linda 7”; a wooden tour boat, which carried just 55 passengers. In the 1970’s Gananoque Boat Line created their own ship-building yard and began building the very boats that are still in use today. The “Thousand Islander” cost almost $400,000, and was a 110 ft. long, three-deck, 380 passenger vessel – the first tourist-carrying all aluminum passenger vessel in North America. Today you can choose from a one to five hour cruises, with or without meals on board, and there are custom charter opportunities for groups of all sizes.

There are plenty of great restaurants and café’s onshore as well, both lining the waterfront and all up and down the main street of Gananoque, and every Thursday during the summer months the Farmers Market comes to town with fresh local produce.

There may very well be no better way to round out your visit to the area than to catch a play at the Thousand Islands Playhouse. Known as “Canada’s dockside theatre”, two fully renovated historic theatres buildings sit side-by-side on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Gananoque.  Imagine boating up the docks to see a live play in the afternoon or evening! The Springer Theatre has 360 seats and the Firehall Theatre has 140 seats, both offering the theatre goers an intimate interaction with the actors on stage.  The Playhouse was voted one of the top five summer festivals in Eastern Ontario, and offers over 80% of their programming created by Canadian writers. For a truly unique experience, join them for a themed “Dock Dinner” right on the waterfront.

Be sure to plan your visit to catch the next Poker Run event!  The 1000 Islands and Gananoque area has been hosting the annual Poker Run for many years. This summer’s Gananoque Shootout and Poker Run event runs on Sept 5th to 8th and you can get all the details at https://pokerrunsamerica.com/ultimateshootout/

Gan offers something for everyone in every season. When summer’s warm winds turn chilly the area explodes with colour in the fall and the restaurants switch their menu’s over a hearty harvest theme with plenty of locally grown foods. Fun local festivals, and free family fishing weekends highlight the winter months. For a complete calendar of events to help you plan your visit to Gananoque click on https://www.gananoque.ca or https://www.1000islandstourism.com/  

Getting There:

Gananoque is located approximately 3 hours east of Toronto, 2 hours south-west of Ottawa and 3 hours west of Montreal. Gananoque is just 15 minutes from the border crossing into Upper New York State via the Ivy Lea Bridge and is only 50 minutes North of Watertown, NY.  Depending on where you wish to go on the water be sure you have up to date NOAA and CHS paper charts, an up to date electronic chart in your chartplotter and your Passport.

Where to Stay:

The 1000 Islands Accommodation Partners include: The Glenhouse Resort, The Gananoque Inn & Spa, The Colonial Resort & Spa, The Holiday Inn Express & Suites, The Quality Inn & Suites, The Clarion Inn & Conference Centre, The Ramada Provincial, The Best Western Country Squire, and The Comfort Inn. There are also several private Bed and Breakfasts and AirBnB’s in the area.

Points of Interest:

Marinas:

NOTE: US Border Crossing information can be found here: https://www.cbp.gov/travel/pleasure-boats-private-flyers

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Brad Roberts
Brad grew up at the family cottage on Lake Simcoe using both powerboats and sailboats. A veteran journalist with large national daily newspapers, outdoor interest magazines, and syndicated television shows, Brad has entertained and educated readers for over 25 years with his unique family-inclusive perspective. His favorite pastime is teaching others to use their boats to access the freedom and beauty of a Life Afloat. Brad, his wife, and their three daughters have traveled and boated all over North America and the Caribbean, but choose to keep their "floating home" on the fresh waters of Central Ontario.