The 500-kilometre route between Montreal and Toronto is one of the most heavily travelled in Canada. Highway 401, one of the country’s oldest expressways, is always busy, and so are the trains that speed back and forth between Canada’s two largest cities. Too many visitors go the whole way without stopping.
That’s a pity, because travellers that take the time to get off the highway at the halfway point will discover a charming mix of history and beauty. And LGBT travellers in particular will discover a region that is bending over backwards right now to welcome them: From Kingston, Gananoque and Brockville through the picturesque Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River, towns and businesses in this part of Eastern Ontario are making a determined effort to woo LGBT travellers to rural areas until now overlooked.
History is found all over the region, one of the main areas of settlement in Ontario of United Empire Loyalists – Americans who remained loyal to the British Crown during the American Revolution and who left the U.S. after the country won its independence. Military history buffs will want to see Fort Henry, one of the big attractions at Kingston, a small university city that was once the capital of Canada. The current fort was built in the 1830s to protect the Lake Ontario entrance to the Rideau Canal and is now a museum. All summer long, you can get a taste for military life at the fort in the mid-1800s. (See the St. Lawrence Parks Commission for information about Fort Henry.)
Located at the far eastern end of Lake Ontario, about 250 kilometres from Toronto, Kingston’s charms are generally historic, though the students from Queen’s University add spice to what is otherwise a relatively quiet place. The city has an eminently walkable downtown and many nice small restaurants and – during the first two weeks of June – a Pride Festival that culminates in a parade on June 16 this year. (See The Great Waterway for general information about the Kingston region.)
If you’re looking to get physical, one of the best things to do in the region is bicycle. The Waterfront Trail is a 700-kilometre-long bicycle path that follows the shores of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River from Niagara to the Quebec border.
The ride from Kingston to Brockville is about 90 kilometres on a mix of paved shoulder and designated bike path. It’s classified as a ‘moderate’ ride, since cyclists will discover a few rolling hills. And here’s a tip: since the dominant winds are from the west, it’s generally easier to ride from west to east – which is downstream as well. (By the way, you don’t need a car to get to Kingston to start the bike trip. You can put your bicycle on the VIA Rail train from Toronto, bicycle to Brockville, and take the train back.)
Enthusiasts will do the trip all in one day, but it’s easy to extend it by stopping for one or more nights at Gananoque, a small town along the way. This historic tourist town, with its waterfront and leafy streets, is going all out to be welcoming of LGBT travellers, says Justin Lafontaine, the Ontario program development manager for Travel Gay Canada.
“Tourism is a big deal in this town,” Lafontaine says. “And the businesses are on board. The town is definitely doing a lot of work.” Staff at many of the attractions are getting LGBT diversity training, and the town is planning its first-ever Summer Solstice Pride Festival for the weekend of June 22-24.
Looking for accommodation in Gananoque? Check out the Colonial Resort and Spa, 780 King Street West, or the Gananoque Inn & Spa, 550 Stone Street South . For general information about the region, see Thousand Islands Accommodation Partners.
The other big attraction here is the Thousand Islands themselves. And this is where the rest and relaxation comes in. These islands, in the St. Lawrence River, are home to cottagers – some of whom had quite a lot of money to spend on their summer homes. More than a century ago George Boldt, the owner of New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, built a 120-room castle on one of the islands. Boldt Castle is now a major attraction.
The best way to see the islands is on a boat cruise. There are many companies offering cruises, some of them themed. The trips can be as short as one hour, or as long five. (Tip: The Thousand Islands straddle the Canada-U.S. border. Some of the islands are in the U.S., and if you get off to explore those islands, including Boldt Castle, you will need a valid passport.)
Gananoque is one of the main embarkation points for Thousand Islands cruises. See Gananoque Boat Line Ltd for more information on cruises.
Brockville, this river-front destination at the eastern end of the Thousand Islands, is another embarkation point for boat tours. Brockville will be hosting it’s second annual Pride Walk July 21. This community led event celebrates LGBT diversity in the region. With several unique cultural and historical attractions in the area, such as the Brockville Arts Centre and the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival, it is a great summer time getaway.
With so much to offer the LGBT traveller, celebrate this summer in the Thousand Islands region.
Daniel Drolet is an Ottawa-based writer and head of Éclair Communications. He is a member of Travel Gay Canada.