Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis walk into a 150-year-old former axel factory to refill their jug of lager. They’re not slipping into a bootlegger’s hideaway in some dry county in the American bible belt — it’s just an average Friday afternoon in Gananoque, at least when the show at the Thousand Islands Playhouse, a few blocks from the Gananoque Brewing Company taproom, is a 1950s rock-and-roll musical and the well-coiffed actors portraying the King and the Killer are thirsty.
For years, Gananoque — a town on the St. Lawrence River an hour and a half from Ottawa — has been a regular pit stop on our drive to Toronto to visit family. With a couple long road trips on the vacation horizon, my daughters and I sought a destination close to home for an early-summer weekend getaway. And as that moment at the brewery reminded me, even familiar places can surprise you if you hang around long enough.
I start my first morning in Gananoque with a double Americano from The Socialist Pig, a café and full-service restaurant (with patio) in a restored industrial building across the alley from the brewery. The countertop, made from laminated magazines, is supported by a stack of shellacked books, but more than the funky décor, it’s the coffee — among the best I’ve had anywhere — and freshly baked chocolate croissants that keep us coming back.
Fully caffeinated, our first stop is 1000 Islands Kayaking, based in the municipal marina just south of downtown. Owner Scott Ewert, a paddling instructor and guide who bought the business a dozen years ago, was going to lead the girls and I on a kayak outing to a nearby cluster of islands, but it’s raining and blustery. Instead, we get a motorboat tour and regional geology and wildlife lesson, then stop at McDonald Island — part of Thousand Islands National Park — for a walk in the forest and gourmet snack (local tapenade, sourdough rosemary bread, fresh berries, and artisanal cheeses) in a picnic shelter. 1000 Islands Kayaking will shuttle you and/or your gear to one of the many campsites sprinkled across the national park islands, so even novice paddlers can spend a night in the middle of the river.
The rain lets up by early afternoon, and we take advantage of the break in the weather with a bird’s eye view of the St. Lawrence courtesy 1000 Islands Helicopter Tours. Our chopper quickly rises to more than 1,000 feet and zips along at about 180 kilometres per hour, but the flight is so smooth, we can focus on gazing down at the green islands. “On a clear day,” pilot Aaron Spruyt says, “you can see the Adirondacks.”
Back on the ground, we window shop the main-strip storefronts of King Street, which is lined with restaurants and boutiques, then head to our room at the Ramada Provincial Inn — part of a huge array of accommodation options, including riverside inns and heritage B&Bs — to get ready for the evening’s outing: a dinner cruise with Gananoque Boat Lines. Our ship sails at 6 p.m., and as we work our way through the three-course meal, we pass misty islands and gorgeous summer homes. A Bee Gees-style cover band takes the stage in the upper deck after dinner, but we head outside on the third deck to get a close-up look at Boldt Castle, one of the 1000 Islands’ main attractions. A chance to steer the ship draws my daughters into the bridge on the way back to town.
The next morning, under a blue sky, we drive 20 minutes east of Gananoque along the waterside Thousand Islands Parkway to Skywood Eco Adventure, which opened in 2016 and bills itself as Canada’s largest aerial adventure park.
Outfitted in climbing harnesses and helmets, the girls and I go through an orientation session, then climb a platform and begin to work our way through the treetops on a series of five adventure courses.
Navigating between patches of shade and light on routes comprised of wonky wooden bridges, elaborate swings, nets, zip lines, and other obstacles, I start to work up a sweat — and start to think about a quick trip back to the brewery after lunch.
If the lager is tasty enough to keep Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis coming back, then Gananoque beer, like the town itself, certainly gives a getaway-seeking Ottawan a reason to return.