While in the Thousand Islands last month, an island region strung along the eastern end of the St. Lawrence Seaway between upstate New York and Canada, we had a welcome overlap between our northern vacation and the trip to Jamaica that would immediately follow.
We took a little boat trip to that other Kingston — Kingston, Ontario.
For the first week in July, we were visiting Adam’s Uncle Jim and Aunt Buzz at their summer place on the New York side of the Thousand Islands. After several days of unseasonable rain and chill, bundled up in a great old house together with an iPod, Jenga, conversation and cocktails, at last the sun emerged — and Buzz, who believes in the power of both a change of scene and retail therapy, decided that a trip to Canada was highly in order.
She and Jim saddled up their double-console speedboat and took us on an hour-and-a-half ride to Kingston, a great big town ’round these parts. For the first time since 1997, when Adam and I cruised from Seattle to Victoria, B.C., we set sail from one country to another.
A passport is highly recommended for the trip, as you’re supposed to stop in the little Canadian port town of Gananoque, Ontario (pronounced Gan-an-OCK-wee) to clear customs with dock authorities. (After all, nobody likes to be chased down and chastised by nautical Mounties.) You might want to spend a little time here, strolling amongst architecture that evokes the town’s War of 1812 heyday, or wandering some of the Ganonoque Trails. Better yet, if you’re here between August 13-15, 2009, don’t miss headliner Snoop Dogg at the 1000 Islands Music Fest. (You’re welcome.)
Between Gananoque and Kingston, the St. Lawrence River narrows slightly, and you can ogle the full gamut of water’s-edge Canadian life in the Islands: Posh properties with sloping lawns and tricked-out yachts; graceful willows and wraparound porches; garish new construction; funny little rectangular houseboats circa 1960; and tiny cabins that seem like they were moved here from an Adirondack summer camp.
Soon you’ll see the huge (and brand-spanking new) Wolfe Island Wind Project off in the distance, and you’re at last entering Kingston Harbour. The air suddenly feels cleaner and clearer…more, well, Canadian.
Up on Point Henry you’ll see stalwart Fort Henry, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that you can go and explore for yourselves. The fort was built by the British in 1832 (35 years before Canadian Confederation) to protect the Lake Ontario end of the Rideau Canal; the canal, part of a river-alternate route between Kingston and Montreal, is itself a tourist attraction these days. Kingston Mills, the southernmost station on the canal, sits on the Cataraqui River about 4 1/2 miles up from the Harbour and features a restored 1839 blockhouse.
Docking in Kingston is as simple as puttering into the central Portsmouth Olympic Harbour Marina and paying the dock attendant an average of $1.50 an hour. Kingston is an almost freakishly tidy, walkable city; you can hop right off your launch and get to steppin.’
If you have iPods and headphones, you can download the Kingston Audio Tour, a 40-minute guide that outlines Kingston’s history as Canada’s first capital (long since replaced by neighboring Ottawa), and as Ontario’s “Limestone City.”
This nickname, by the way, is about the only real correlation we could find between this northern Kingston and the capital city of Jamaica; while the Canadian version is full of municipal buildings built from local limestone, the Caribbean version’s economy is boosted by mass export of the island’s main, sedimentary rock.
If walking around Kingston, Ontario isn’t your cup of tea, you can always get oriented/chauffered on the bright red Confederation Tour Trolley.
Either way, you might want to visit three uniquely Canadian local sights:
- The Agnes Etherington Art Centre, the Queen’s University museum of historical and contemporary Canadian art
- The International Hockey Hall of Fame, because really? Where the hell else are you going to do this
- Bellevue House, the 19th-century villa of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald
Or, you can always independently wander the cobbled streets, popping in and out of craft galleries and gift stores, delighting in the mid-1800s architecture with its gables and gingerbread details. Enjoy street performers like Scottish fiddlers, and be sure to stop at elegant Cooke’s Fine Foods and Coffee for a bag of roasted beans (no Jamaican Blue Mountain, sadly) or some beautiful chocolates from around the world.
No matter what you do, be sure to stop for lunch at the reknowned Chez Piggy, set in a romantic garden courtyard (carved, not surprisingly, from limestone). Kick back in this quiet, elegant spot over their local mussels, almost-ridiculous “Pig Kahuna” burger, and crispy yam & yucca chips, paired with the crisp house sangria.
The experience, much like Kingston itself, is nothing short of civilized.