The Thousand Islands are scattered along the western expanse of the St. Lawrence River in Ontario as if they’d been strung up by a genie like pearls on a necklace rather than created by the glacier forces of Nature.
How do we know there are 1,000? “They’ve all been counted!”
There are actually 1,864 islands and in 1964 one of them was given away as a prize on the Price Is Right game show on television. To qualify as one of the islands it must be above water for 365 days a year and support two living trees.
The town of Gananoque, long considered the gateway to those islands, supports about 5,000 contented souls. It’s a picture-perfect example of Small Town Canada, although the population may be drifting up a little. Gananoque is being discovered by fledgling Canadian sophisticates the way young entrepreneurs are changing the nature of Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas.
We sense this as we sit in what is becoming our favorite coffeehouse in town, the Socialist Pig. We eat here every day — not every meal because there are other restaurants here that deserve to be supported by the tourist dollar, but this strange sounding place wins hands down.
The charm is partly the great, great food, but also the amiable attitude of the young owners who are running it and the two other businesses they own here in what used to be a building for the manufacture of parts for horse-drawn carriages.
In an interview with journalist L. J. Matheson of the Gananoque Reporter, Zach Treanor, one of the owners remembered their arrival in town as being “welcomed with such wide arms by everyone in Gananoque. The sense of community is astonishing.”
The sense of community is more than astonishing — it’s overwhelming. You find this when you check any of the social media online. Yelp, TripAdvisor and Facebook just love this quirky, funky, fun place. We are sitting with some of the enthusiastic local customers right now at a big refectory-sized family table in front of the unique counter the owners created from their library of old books.
The furniture may be inexpensive furniture (they already owned the books), but we understand the professional Elektra Italian Espresso machine cost $6,000, because the “pig” knows where to put its money. And talking money we need to make this point as we rave about this place: we paid for everything we ate and drank at the Socialist Pig.
As we sit nursing our coffee amongst young enthusiastic locals this Saturday morning, we hear one say, “This is a special place in a special part of Canada!. I’m glad I came back to it.”
Our ears go up. “What is so special about Gananoque?” we ask, reaching for our notebooks.
This is what they tell us:
“I was reminded of Brigadoon,” says one. “A town so idyllic, nostalgic and picturesque--you could almost believe it was a mirage or a dream, because it feels as if you alone have discovered this little gem.”
“Why do you say that?” we asked her. “Can you give us examples?”
“Well, where else could you take a boat ride to a gorgeous castle where a millionaire built a palace for his Sleeping Beauty — who will never awaken?”
A man at the table scribbles the name Boldt Castle on a paper napkin and flips it on to our plate. In a pattern that almost seemed rehearsed, as if he does that every time a comment is made.
And, where else could you see a delightful musical performed in a spacious theater by a professional singing troupe?
Or watch a blockbuster movie in a boutique theater while you eat dinner from its cafe, attached to a vintage store?
Or gamble for fun at a small and popular local casino, discreetly maintained on the outskirts of town?
“And, where else could you soar 400 feet in 40 seconds in an elevator at Skydeck for a 360-degree view of the Thousand Islands?”
“And, where else could you eat ethnically almost as you would in Europe, with delicious English, German, Chinese, French, American and Canadian fare just a stroll apart?
“Or linger over your meal and newspaper at this Socialist Pig, our local hotspot serving innovative dishes and artisan coffee in this building lovingly renovated by a local young architect, his girlfriend, his sister and friends, using materials carefully preserved from other antique buildings?”
“And, where else could you,” says an older man scribbling the name Fort Henry on his napkin even as he speaks, “watch ghost soldiers from 1812 march around an old fort, still firing cannons and weapons at an enemy long defeated?”
“And, where else could you,” says the younger woman with him, “travel up the Rideau Canal for lunch at its anchor, the magical Hotel Kenney, to watch the locks open and close to allow passing boats to travel through?”
“And, where else could you, without leaving town, take an evening stroll through a sculpture garden by the river, or by the ocean, in a park filled with antique cannons and a miniature lighthouse?”
We are becoming believers, but we — or rather they — are not done. An elderly couple has come in, listened and joined in.
“And, where else could you,” they say, “sip an evening cocktail from the deck of the Gananoque Inn, watching the sun set over the bay? Or listen to a bagpiper on the pier, the town hall lawn, or wherever else he mysteriously appears?”
“And, where else could you,” says a lady old enough to be one of the younger persons’ grandmothers, “browse antique stores with prices from the last century as well?”
“And, where else could you,” says a man with a Welsh accent, “raise a glass in an Old English Pub to the greatest person in Britain’s last 100 years: Winston Churchill.”
“We’ll drink to that,” we say and take off with our napkin list and our cameras into what is slow-lane tourism at its best. Into a town that’s surely not going to vanish in the mist like Brigadoon.
We’ll tell you more about those places next week.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.