*Disclaimer: I was a guest of 1000 Islands Tourism for this trip. All opinons, however, are my own.
Imagine a place filled with stories of prohibition parties, rum runners, castles, and pirates. A place with clear waters filled with shipwrecks, tree-covered islands with stunning summer homes, and colourful sunsets. A place that you could explore by foot, by boat, and by air.
It sounds a bit like a children’s fairytale, doesn’t it? But the truth is, this place exists. It’s called the 1000 Islands, and it’s located right here in Canada. In this article, I’m going to tell you how you can best explore the area and plan your own 1000 Islands tour.
About the 1000 Islands
So, what are the 1000 islands? The 1000 Islands is a group of over 1800 islands located between the Canada and US border. It was once a playground for the rich and elite in the 19th century, but today has become a playground for all types of visitors looking to enjoy the stunning scenery and outdoor sports and activities.
There are actually 1864 islands in this chain (there are rules as to what constitutes and island). Well, at least according to Canada. Americans will tell you that there are 1865 because an American millionaire literally built his own island. Whether you choose to count that or not is up to you! The landmass of this area is divided equally between the two countries, however, Canada is home to about 2/3 of the actual islands.
The 1000 Islands is a historical area with a surprising number of fascinating stories tied to it. Some of these islands were used as part of the Underground Railroad, some have ties to Bill Johnson who is perhaps better known as ‘Pirate of the St. Lawrence’, and another holds a castle with a tragic tale.
From smugglers and shipwrecks to tragic love stories and more, the best way to dig into the stories of the 1000 Islands is to come and visit it for yourself which you can easily do from Gananoque.
Gananoque is known as Canada’s gateway to the 1000 islands. This tiny but charming town is on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, about 2 hours from Ottawa and 3 hours from Toronto. Known for its stunning views, friendly locals, and abundance of activities, Gananoque makes for the perfect base for your own 1000 Islands tour.
Gananoque Hotels and B&Bs
If you are looking for where to stay in Gananoque, you have several options. It’s mostly mid-range hotels and B&B type properties here, many of which are located within about 1km of the downtown core of the city.
Looking for recommendations? Take a look at these properties:
Hotels in Gananoque
- Colonial Resort & Spa
- Comfort Inn & Suites Thousand Islands Harbour District
- Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites 1000 Islands-Gananoque
- The Gananoque Inn & Spa
B&BS in Gananoque
- The Woodview Inn
- Seaway Manor B&B
- 1000 Islands Bes and Breakfast- The Bulloch House
- Sleepy Hollow B&B
Gananoque is a small town so your best bet is to book in advance. Most of the hotels are simple/basic options while the B&Bs tend to be a bit more upscale. A few are also pet friendly!
Getting Around Gananoque & 1000 Islands
While there is a train station a few kilometres outside the town of Gananoque, this is a destination you want to explore by car. Chances are you’ll want to drive from your hotel into the downtown or waterfront area for the day and you’ll definitely want to have a vehicle to get to some of the places I recommend when I get to sharing the best things to do in the 1000 Islands. There are local taxis around if you decide to go out and have a few drinks, but this is 100% a road trip type destination.
As for parking, most of the parking lots here are paid. Both by the water and in the downtown core. The downtown area has metered spots while the waterfront has lots with attendants. There are a few free parking areas if you come early. The maximum I saw was 4 hours free parking down by Main Street (waterfront area). For exploring the town, you can check Garden Street for free spots as well.
Restaurants in Gananoque
When it comes to food and drink in Gananoque, you have a variety of choices. From typical fast-food options to Canadian, Asian, Italian, and even Czech options. Here are a few to consider.
Muskie Jakes: Typical Canadian fare (burgers, pasta, club sandwich) with great patio views.
Stonewater Pub: Pub food, craft beer, and amazing margaritas!
The Maple Leaf: Czech and Canadian style dishes. Specializes in Schnitzel.
Panache Bakery & Café: Breakfast pastries and fresh-made sandwiches perfect for picnics.
Gan Brewing Co: Serves 8 craft beers on a patio in the heart of downtown Gananoque.
Bonus Tip: If you have some extra time (especially if you are coming from Ottawa), make a stop in Mallorytown which is about 25 minutes from Gananoque. There is a great Cidery calls BUSL that offers a variety of cider flavours including pear, cherry, and haskap berry (kind of like blueberries). You can grab a drink (or try a flight!) and enjoy some pretty beautiful views over their apple orchards and haskap fields. If you like what you try (which I did) you can buy some to take home!
Things to do in 1000 Islands & Gananoque
Now that you’ve organized where to stay and figured out what to eat, the next step is figuring out what you want to do. There are tons of options for things to do in the 1000 Islands especially if you love the outdoors. Here are some recommendations for your 1000 Islands tour:
Explore by Kayak
If you love the water as much as I do, then exploring the 1000 Islands by kayak is a must-do. 1000 Islands Kayaking Co. offers rentals for independent exploring or half-day and full-day guided kayak excursions. You’ll spend a few hours on the water in a small group with a local guide who will show you some kayaking skills as well as share some local sites and stories about the surrounding area. I did the half-day tour which, as an experienced kayaker, was a very relaxing experience and I would think suited for new and beginner level kayakers as well. Learn more here.
Enjoy a 1000 Islands Cruise
One of the best things to do in the 1000 Islands is to take a 1000 Islands cruise. We did the 2.5 hour Lost Ships of the 1000 Islands cruise with Gananoque Boat Line which told some amazing stories and circled around Boldt Castle. You can learn more about their cruises here.
Take a Helicopter Ride
The views from the water are pretty stunning but the views from above-wow. If you have ever wanted to take a helicopter ride, this is a good place to do it. 1000 Islands Helicopter Tours offers a variety of different rides with different times and different price points starting at $99 per person. It’s a splurge for this area, but also one of the most unique things you can do on your 1000 Islands tour. Learn more here.
Go for a Hike or Cycle
Hiking is also a very common and popular activity to do in this region. There are plenty of trails in the area of varying lengths and levels of difficulty. Some popular place for hiking include: The Landon Bay Centre, Marble Rock Conservation Area, and the Gananoque Trail System.
If you prefer, you can also cycle around the area as well. The Thousand Islands Parkway has a bike path connecting a lot of the smaller villages in the area. *If you are travelling during 2020 you may need to bring your own bike. Rentals were not available when I visited, though you can check with local providers ahead of time as things may change as the province continues to reopen.
Check out the Local Swim Spots
Of course, you can absolutely swim in this area as well! There is a family-friendly swim spot at Joel Stone Park in Gananoque. Also, Brown’s Bay Park in nearby Mallorytown. My preferred area was Halstead Lookout Point. We went around 7pm and it was much quieter and very local, just a few kids playing in the water. It’s not so much a sandy beach area but there are a few rocky areas where you can lay out your towel and the views here are stunning, especially around sunset time.
Go Scuba Diving
Fun fact: The 1000 Islands is some of the best fresh-water diving in the world! Sure, the waters may be colder, but that just helps preserve all the wrecks that lie below. Additionally, the waters here are incredibly clear offering great visibility. The dive season here is relatively short though, so you’ll need to plan your visit accordingly. I’d love to go back and dive here!
Explore Gananoque Town
Gananoque is known as the gateway to the 1000 Islands and while it’s a great base for outdoor adventures in the area, Gananoque is worth a little bit of your time as well. It has a typical small-town feel with most shops located on the main street. Boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and cafes can all be found along this stretch. From what I was told, the town’s pride is Donevan’s Hardware store or, more specifically, it’s owner Charlie, who seems to be a much-loved pillar in the local community. There are also a couple of museums in the area including the 1000 Islands History Museum and the Thousand Islands Boat Museum.
Travelling to The 1000 Islands During the Pandemic
I visited the 1000 Islands during July of 2020, a week after most of Ontario opened up to stage 3 during the pandemic. I was pleased with the precautions taken everywhere I went in terms of social distancing and cleanliness.
-The kayaks were all cleaned and sanitized by users at the end of their tour then again by staff.
-The 1000 Islands Boat Tour required masks onboard at all times, had socially distanced seating, and limited the guests on board to 45.
-Restaurants all prioritized outdoor seating options with socially distanced tables
-Staff at the hotel, restaurants, and shops sanitized pens & credit card machines before use.
Additionally, I found the people to be pretty good with social distancing as well. Unsurprisingly, it tended to be children who struggled the most and got close but, overall, I felt very comfortable and safe.
Furthermore, I also think it’s incredibly important to point out that at no point did I feel unwelcome as a visitor from a big city. I was worried that, being a small town, Gananoque residents would be unhappy to get tourists. In fact, it was the opposite. All locals, not just those in the tourism sector, that I came across were incredibly warm and friendly.
This was my first actual trip during COVID-19 and, especially as someone who has taken social distancing so seriously, I felt really good about how the area was handling everything.
Final Tips for Your 1000 Islands Tour
Have I convinced you to start planning your own 1000 Islands Tour? Amazing- it makes for a perfect weekend getaway! But, I do have a couple of last-minute tips for you.
Make reservations in advance! Things book up really quickly, especially during the pandemic, so make sure to plan early so you can see/do/stay/eat what and where you want.
Some businesses are also open for reduced hours because of COVID-19, so don’t trust what Google says! Check with the store/restaurant beforehand to avoid disappointment. Yes, I found this out the hard way.
I hope you love your time in this beautiful part of North America as much as I did! Happy exploring!