Explore Canada

Uncovering Tradition Along Canada’s St. Lawrence River

We all have that place we like to go each summer, somewhere we can kick back and relax. When I was growing up, my family started the tradition of visiting the Canadian Thousand Islands, which over the years became my happy place.

For those unfamiliar, the Thousand Islands are located along the St. Lawrence River, nestled between the New York and Canadian shorelines. Islands fall on both sides of the border, but for the inhabitants, island life knows no boundaries.

Getting there is easy. Whether you opt for a scenic route or highway, the St Lawrence river is conveniently located between major US and Canadian cities. Toronto and Montreal are nearly three hours away. Syracuse is even closer, at around 90 minutes.

thousand islands summer home
Thousand Islands is the perfect place to kick back and relax. (Photos: Allison Desatnick)

I remember visiting the area for the first time with my grandparents, who decided to rent a private island for the family to spend the summer.

The secluded island was a few miles offshore, with its own boat and dock. It had a main house and a kids’ cabin with bunk beds. The days were sunny, with cool breezes and no humidity. Although there were no schedules, we settled into a routine. The grownups would relax on the shaded deck, consuming books and cocktails, while the kids would swim, play games and go fishing.

Though the landscape has changed, the draw is the same: good times relaxing with family and friends.

To this day, I vividly remember the hours spent one afternoon watching a water snake catch and eat a fish — it was like the Discovery Channel in 3-D! In the evening we would bundle ourselves in blankets by the campfire and toast marshmallows. The chill kept the bugs at bay and made for great sleeping.

On July 1, Canada Day, we visited Boldt Castle and then dropped anchor to watch the fireworks show. The fireworks above the castle, with reflections shimmering in the water, were rivaled only by Disney.

Other excursions off our island took us into the town of Gananoque, where we would pick up groceries, visit museums and stop into the small shops. Sometimes we would dock at one of the many marinas along the shoreline to grab a burger or some ice cream. Life was simple, and the time spent with my family that summer made for great memories.

Years have passed, and my family has since laid down more permanent roots.

Various family members have purchased property on the river. Two of my uncles acquired private islands — yes, you can own your own island! — while my immediate family has opted for a floating house docked on a shared piece of land. Though the landscape has changed, the draw is the same: good times relaxing with family and friends.

Thousand Islands St. Lawerence River
Boat, paddle board, slip and slide on the St. Lawrence River. (Photos: Allison Desatnick)
thousand islands boat tour
Explore Thousand Islands history aboard a cruise line. (Photo: Allison Desatnick)

If flora and fauna is more your style, the Thousand Islands is one of the most biodiverse areas in Canada.

The river offers recreation for all interests: Jet Skiing, paddle boarding and boating. Even scuba divers of all levels will find interest in one of the numerous wrecks along the waterway.

If you are in the mood for some sightseeing, you can hop on board one of the Gananoque Boat Line’s daily river tours. The cruise line offers interesting vantage points from which to take in the Beauty of the Islands (a one-hour tour) and Lost Ships (2.5 hours).

For a trip back in history, check out the Boldt Castle Stopover Cruise, which includes a two-hour stay at the castle. Learn the story of the 120-room castle, built by a turn of the century millionaire, as a display of love for his bride.

The unfortunate twist, the castle was abruptly abandoned and never completed after his wife’s untimely death in 1904.

thousand islands nature
Walk on the wild side in one of Canada’s most biodiverse areas. (Photos: Allison Desatnick)

If flora and fauna is more your style, the Thousand Islands is one of the most biodiverse areas in Canada.

The plants and wildlife are as varied as they are fascinating. Don’t be surprised to see beavers at play or unusual water plants lining the shoreline. For bird watching, bring your binoculars to zoom in on a resident blue heron, bald eagle or Double Crested Cormorant.

thousand islands national parks
Enjoy nature at one of the river’s 21 national parks. (Photo: Allison Desatnick)

There is plenty for nature lovers to see and 21 national park islands along the river to explore. Watch out for the unexpected! Did you know deer swim? You can occasionally see their heads floating in the water as they swim from island to island.

thousand islands dock
Live that stress-free life in Canada’s Thousand Islands. (Photo: Allison Desatnick)

These days, when I make the annual trek north, I still enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. My kids meet up with their island friends without the concerns of city life.

As a throwback to my own youth, their time is devoid of today’s normal distractions and instead replaced by fun and laughter. The Thousand Islands is a magical place. Leaving your worries and stress back on shore is just the recipe to cure what ails you and gives you time to reconnect with self and family.

My only complaint: While the pace is very relaxing and time moves slowly, it always seems like our visits come to an end much too soon.


Allison Desatnick is the photo editor for Marriott TRAVELER. While she loves spending her downtime in Canada, she’s also been known to spend her time off in far-flung places like India, Iceland and Morocco.