summer islandsKERRY VAN DER JAGT enjoys a paddle and a pint in Ontario’s Thousand Islands.

IT IS late afternoon when we lower our kayaks into the cobalt-blue water of the St Lawrence River, part of the Thousand Islands and Frontenac Arch Biosphere Reserve. With the sun on our backs we push off, our bows slicing the mirrored surface, sending shards of glitter in all directions. Gliding into a small rivulet we are soon engulfed by a veil of green, the slosh of water and call of a wren the only sounds.

This is the Thousand Islands, not just a salad dressing, but an actual archipelago of islands found where the five Great Lakes pinch into the St Lawrence River, between the US state of New York and Ontario in Canada. According to legend the salad dressing was created in the late 19th century when millionaire George Boldt, proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, asked his steward Oscar Tschirky to prepare a dish in honour of the islands. “The addition of a pickle was the secret ingredient,” says our guide Adam. “The pimples are meant to represent the islands.”

From water level the islands don’t look so much look like pimples, as bunches of broccoli sprouting from bedrock. While the phrase ‘Thousand Islands’ may have been a good marketing ploy, there are in fact the 1,864 islands, ranging from over 100-square kilometres to islands little more than the size of a bear. “To be counted as an island it must be capable of sustaining one tree,” says Adam.

While some of the islands are wild and woolly, with sandy beaches and spots for camping, others are preened within an inch of their lives and topped with luxury homes. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the islands were bought by the rich and famous, who built turreted mansions as their summer retreats, but today, the region is a playground for all.

Gananoque is the ideal base, a laid-back, riverside town in the heart of the Thousand Islands, with easy access to the cycle track of the Thousand Islands Parkway, the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, hiking trails along the Gananoque River and a plethora of great cafes and restaurants. A two-hour drive from Ottawa, or three-hours from Toronto, it is one of Canada’s best-kept secrets.

The ultimate way to appreciate the scope of the islands is by helicopter, flying low over Boldt Castle, built by George Boldt for his wife Louise, who sadly passed away before it was completed, Singer Castle (yes, that one) and a galaxy of other islands, floating like a platoon of furry green ships adrift in a sea of blue.

For a different perspective there’s the 1000 Islands Tower, a 130-metre lookout that stands like a giant barber’s pole in the middle of Hill Island, easily reached by driving across the St Lawrence River at the Ivy Lea Bridge. A quick elevator brings visitors to the observation deck with its 360-degree views over both the US and Canadian side. The international border, established after the War of 1812, weaves between the islands, dividing them equally, according to landmass not number. Look for the flag flying outside to tell which is which.

Back on land, Gananoque will keep you busy for days. Start at the Confederation and Sculpture Park, said to be Canada’s largest outdoor contemporary art exhibit, displaying works by local artists that reflect the history and environment of the region. From here, walk across the historic King Street Bridge, where, in 1812, a local militia defended the village during an American raid, before continuing to the Boat Museum and finally, down to the Thousand Island’s Playhouse. For six months of the year this riverside theatre puts on live professional performances, with attendees having the option of arriving by boat and tying up on the theatre’s doorstep.

For shopping head to King Street, an eclectic strip of antique and flea shops, designer and recycled fashion stores, galleries, wine bars and cafes. Pull up a seat at the Socialist Pig, not a left-wing activist, rather a community-focused enterprise housed in an 18th century axle factory. And joy of joys, the ‘Pig’ serves ‘real’ coffee and the best pumpkin pie in town.

While summer (June to September) with its boating, swimming and fishing focus, is the most popular time, autumn (fall) is also fabulous, when the air is crisp and the leaves burn with russet, red, yellow and gold. Time your trip for Halloween (October 31) for a month long festival of everything pumpkinrelated. Don’t miss the Pumpkinferno festival at Upper Canada Village.

The ideal end to any day is to finish with a cold beer at the Gananoque Brewing Company, where you’ll meet a lineup of local characters – everything from a Naughty Otter lager to the Eager Beaver cerveza, a Black Bear bock to a Hawk pale ale. A thousand Islands – a thousand choices.

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