Our final stop on the mini-getaway was a quaint St. Lawrence River town. “There’s not much there,” a Canadian forewarned. “A couple of blocks. Yeah, and a few shops.” Never you mind, I thought. I’d read that Gananoque was worth a visit and so it was!
We strolled up Gananoque’s main street, stopping in several shops with local character. The best was the ancient hardware store, Donevan’s; I couldn’t resist the window displays of items purchased decades ago. Inside we found two older gentleman at the helm. The younger appeared to be at least 75 and the elder was navigating by walker. His was the voice of authority when I had questions. Turns out Charlie is a local legend at 92 years old!
The store was a combination of genuine hardware (at the rear), household goods, trinkets and flea market fare (at the fore), some with an invitation to make an offer. I found a miniature tea set, Fiestaware style (for the grands) and a percolator knob (that didn’t fit, as it would turn out) but the real value was in the cultural and generational exchange.
The tea set was unmarked and the Hubs suggested we make an offer. “Well, you could do that,” the younger clerk said, “but make it fair.” I turned that over in my mind. ($10? $15? Surely no more that.) Before I could respond he tried to dissuade me, perhaps one of the other tea sets would do? (No, not really.)
Finally, he pulled his phone out of his pocket with a flourish to call Mary. “Hello, Mary, this is Gary.” For whatever reason, the proprietor’s daughter was not on front desk duty this day. (Is Gary her husband? Such mystery and intrigue!) These three must make for some sort of retail sales staff record.
It took only slightly less time to place the call and receive a return call and finally get a price ($15) than it did to make the actual transaction … but not by much. Gary preferred I pay in cash but our Canadian was in short supply and he had no American change. He agreed to process by credit card only after warning we’d pay taxes to do so. This led to commentary about local and national politics and other disturbances. I don’t know that we’ve ever spent $20 with more interest!
The Tuesday afternoon sun was brutal, beating down relentlessly, so we were thankful for a reprieve on the Lost Ships of the Islands St. Lawrence River boat tour. Despite our familiarity with the region and abundance of excursions from American shores, the Canadian perspective is unique.
We saw many more islands than we have on U.S.-based boat tours with much better narration and a much nicer boat than good ol’ Uncle Sam provides. My favorites were the historic island stop for American slaves escaping via the underground railroad and two islands linked by reputedly the world’s shortest international bridge, a small white structure connecting stony footprints in each country. This must be among the world’s friendliest borders. It seems that every island flies a flag but some fly flags for both the USA and Canada.
Most islands are independently owned and many are so small that a few trees and single family home consume them. This is typical of the region; only a few are large or lavish. There are nearly 2,000 islands; some are far too small to inhabit, others are state or provincial parks open to the public. We sailed past millionaire’s row which sparks our imagination for living the high life. The most famous among the rich and famous are Boldt and Singer castles on Heart and Dark Islands, respectively. We’ve toured each and were happy just to sail by on this trip.
What set this St Lawrence River boat tour apart was a rich media presentation as we passed over sunken ships. The turbulent Great Lakes and rocky shoals and shifting sandbars of the St Lawrence River have claimed far more than their share of ships and lives. It was intriguing to see below the surface through videos of divers as the story of each wreck was relayed. We sipped ice cold Canadian beer in comfortable shade as clouds rolled above and small skiffs, boats and ships of all sizes sailed past on either side.
We followed a large vessel for a while — whether saltie or laker I cannot say. The Great Lakes Seaway System is amazingly versatile and vital to both countries. As our northern border and “fourth coast” it is worth a visit, in and of itself. We locals tend to take it for granted. The large ship stayed true to the deepwater channel as we veered off under another span of the Thousand Islands International Bridge. It was a perfect day on the mighty St Lawrence.
Disembarking, we had just enough time to stop by the Gananoque Brewing Company for local libations before dinner. Delicious! Our final stop was a perfect landing. I’d learned of the Maple Leaf Restaurant in a Lonely Planet guide book. With this inside scoop, we were determined to stop for a bite. Inside we found an impeccably clean and tidy restaurant with old world charm. The menu included several types of light and tender snitzel and delicately seasoned spatzel; top that off with strudel and you simply cannot go wrong.
I mentioned to our waitress how we’d landed there and the next thing we knew, Vlad, the proprietor, was at our table. He has been running this place for 28 years and is justifiably proud of the results. We left with a cool cloth bag filled with leftovers for dinner the next day. We will return, I am sure.
Thus we wrapped another modest but meaningful Canadian adventure. We never fail to find warm and welcoming people, fantastic food, and adventures midst our northerly neighbors. I hope I’ve inspired you to visit!
~ René Morley