East of Kingston, Hwy-401 and the calmer, prettier Hwy-2 follow the northern shore of the St Lawrence River, whose island-studded waters were tricky going until the 1950s when the US and Canadian governments created the St Lawrence Seaway. An extraordinarily ambitious project, the Seaway extends 3790km inland from the Atlantic by means of lakes, rivers and locks to the west end of Lake Superior. Fifteen locks were installed on the St Lawrence River alone, each big enough to handle massive ocean-going freighters, while a string of dams harnessed the river’s hydroelectric potential. But it all came at a price: the Seaway necessitated the relocation of many riverside towns, a process which one local newspaper bewailed with the headline “once again another patch of Ontario is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of progress”. There were long-term environmental costs, too, with the ships transporting species previously unknown here on their hulls and in their bilge. What’s more, the Seaway has been something of a flop, its decline directly related to the move towards road and air.
Leaving Kingston, Hwy-2 begins by cutting across rolling farmland and offering fleeting views of the region’s scenic highlight, the Thousand Islands, a confetti of lightly forested granite islands poking out of the river for the 80km between Kingston and Brockville. The islands are best seen on a cruise, available at most riverside towns, including Kingston, though those from Gananoque are generally rated the best. Among the towns dotting the river, Brockville and tiny Prescott are the most enjoyable, but still most people pass on by with Ottawa, just 175km from Kingston, the most obvious target. The most scenic part of the drive is along the Thousand Islands Parkway, a 40km stretch of Hwy-2 beginning just to the east of Gananoque, where the road is shadowed by a combined cycle- and footpath.
Geologically, the Thousand Islands form part of the Frontenac axis, a ridge of million-year-old rock that stretches down into New York State. Aboriginal peoples called the islands Manitouana – the “Garden of the Great Spirit” – in the belief they were created when petals of heavenly flowers were scattered on the river; more prosaically, the islands later gave their name to a salad dressing. The Thousand Islands first hit the national headlines in the late 1830s, when they were the haunt of an irascible Canadian pirate, William Johnston, whose irritation with the British prompted him and his gang to spend several years harrying British shipping and Canadian farmers until he retired (with his booty) to New York State. Thereafter, the islands became a popular retreat for the rich and famous – including Irving Berlin and Jack Dempsey – but it was George Boldt, the owner of New York’s Waldorf Astoria, who outdid them all. In 1899, he bought one of the islands and reshaped it into a heart as a tribute to his wife: hence the name Heart Island. He then plonked a whopping – and whoppingly expensive – ersatz medieval castle on top of the island, but promptly abandoned Boldt Castle (daily: early May to late June & late Aug to late Sept 10am–6.30pm; late June to late Aug 10am–7.30pm; late Sept to early Oct 10am–5.30pm; early to mid-Oct 11am–5pm; US$8.50; t 315 482 9724, w boldtcastle.com) when his wife died, taking his new salad-dressing recipe with him back to New York.
For cruises out into the Thousand Islands, you’re spoiled for choice, but one obvious place to aim for is Gananoque, 30km east of Kingston, where the main cruise boat operator is the Gananoque Boat Line (1hr trips: mid-May to late Sept 4–6 daily; early May to mid-May & late Sept to early Nov by appointment; $23.90 or $27.48; 2hr 30min trips: early May to mid-Oct 2–5 daily; $35.96; t 1 888 717 4837, w ganboatline.com). Highlights of the longer cruise include a good look at Just Room Enough Island, with its single tiny home, and, at the other extreme, Millionaire’s Row on much larger Wellesley Island. The same company also does five-hour cruises (mid-May to late June Sat & Sun only, 2 daily; late June to early Sept 2 daily; early Sept to late Sept Mon–Fri 1 daily and Sat & Sun 2 daily; late Sept to early Oct 1 daily; mid-Oct Mon, Sat & Sun 1 daily; $45.39, but castle extra), which include a two-hour stop at Boldt Castle; the castle is in US waters, so bring your passport.