"Why have I never been here before?" This is the first of two revelations during our mini-getaway to the bucolic St. Lawrence Islands National Park. It's certainly easy enough to get here - in the midst of the Thousand Islands, this park is only a three-hour drive from Toronto. Growing up, we trekked to Muskoka - but this time we head east. The "cottages" are just as grand, the granite and pitch pine scenery is similar, but with 80 kilometres of protected land, the wildlife is much more abundant. The loons are bigger, turtles sun in groups (we saw 10 on one log) and there's a majestic great blue heron around every corner.
My husband and I have come to take our kids, ages 10 and 6, camping. But are we - former outdoors people - ready to reach the park's islands, islets and shoals under our own steam? We need a gentle re-entry and a guided trip with 1000 Islands Kayaking ("You bring the sleeping bags, we'll do everything else," the e-mail promised) will make our adventure a little easier.
We arrive in Gananoque, Ont., a gateway to the Thousand Islands and our outfitter's home base late Saturday afternoon. Before roughing it in the bush, a little pampering is in order. Just around the corner sits The Victoria Rose Inn, a lovingly restored mansion built in 1872 with 12 exquisitely appointed rooms. "Do we have to go camping?" sighs Bethany, our older child, flopping back on expensive linens.
Well, yes. But not without a good meal first. That night, just down the Thousand Islands Parkway, The Ivy restaurant is full of summer folk who have come over in their boats. Arrive from the lake and it feels like pulling up to a (rich) friend's summer home for dinner; the atmosphere and service are equally welcoming. As the kids play on The Ivy's expansive grounds and we enjoy a very grown-up meal, I forget why I wanted to spend the next night in a tent.
My sense of adventure returns the next morning when I see our tandem kayaks waiting by the marina. Steve Cloke, our 25-year-old guide, introduces himself, kits us out with life jackets (no Jack, don't blow the whistle unless you need help) and makes sure we have dry bags for our cameras and extra sweaters. Before getting on the water, he teaches us all how to manoeuvre our boats and the best way to avoid wrenching a shoulder.
Thankfully, a water taxi will ferry all our gear later in the day.
St. Lawrence Islands National Park extends from Cedar Island off Kingston to Stovin Island off Brockville, about 80 kilometres east. As kayaking neophytes, we decide to stick near Gananoque to the Admiralty Group of islands (so called because they were named by a Royal Navy captain to honour naval commanders).
We lily dip our way out of the marina and into a quiet bay to get the hang of steering these lithe yet sturdy boats until Steve is convinced we won't dunk ourselves crossing the nerve-racking boat channel. It's hard not to feel vulnerable when a triple-decker, 500-passenger tour boat chugs by, but once you're safely on an island, watching the boats is part of the charm of this park. About 43,000 people visit St. Lawrence Islands National Park each year, most of them sailing from island to island and "camping" dockside. Exploring in a kayak is a more intimate experience. You can glide closer to the granite outcrops and slink through such island alleyways as Turtle Tunnel. It's also a great way to get a close look at the stunning cottages built on just about every island that is not part of the national park.
We stop for lunch at McDonald Island. And what a spread - cheeses, fresh artisanal bread, thinly sliced meats, veggies, berries and organic juices, much of it from local producers.
That afternoon, we wind around 15 more islands, resting in a sheltered cove called Half Moon Bay. Surrounded by cathedral high smooth granite walls, it's a peaceful spot where boaters have been bobbing in the bay for Sunday worship every July and August since 1887.
The weather has been sunny and the waters calm all day, but the wind picks up as we start our last big crossing before Aubrey Island, where we would camp that night. Now we're pushing through white-capped waves - this turns out to be the kids' favourite part of the trip. Jack squeals with glee and holds his paddle like he's on a roller coaster. But all I want is to cross before one of those flume-park waves sinks us - something Steve later tells me was unlikely as these kayaks would stay afloat even after a good swamping.
Wet and weary, we arrive at Aubrey, the westernmost island in the Admiralty Group. Before we even have a chance to find the outhouse, Steve pulls out thermoses of hot water to make tea. Steaming mugs in hand we wander under the oak canopy while Steve unpacks the kayaks and starts schlepping the camping gear dropped off earlier in the day. This is when I have my second revelation: Camping is way more fun with a butler. Steve puts up our tent, cooks dinner, washes the dishes and then, as the kids roast marshmallows, he pulls out a bottle of wine so we can make a toast to our first family camping adventure.
Before the sun sets, we have a visit from Marianne Kelly, a Parks Canada interpreter, one of several who tour the islands to chat with campers. The kids are enthralled when she lets us handle a moose jawbone and brings out Onondaga and Algonquin arrowheads found on one of the islands. We fall asleep to loon calls and coyote howls, and awake to sliced fruit and hot coffee (the real stuff, not instant). While the kids discover secret passageways along the rocky shore, my husband and I stretch out our sore muscles, and before long Steve is back with scrambled eggs and crispy bacon - just the carbs we'll need for Day 2 of our 17-kilometre paddle.
On our leisurely route back to the marina, we weave in and out of dozens more islands, spotting more great blue herons, terns, loons and turtles. Rounding the wild, protected side of Hay Island, Steve leads us through bulrushes on the twisty kayak path. At this time of year, the reeds aren't much taller than our kayak, but by the end of the summer they'll reach nearly two metres.
That night, we bask in creature comforts at the Gananoque Inn, a historic hotel about a 10-minute walk from the marina. While my husband and kids make good use of the hot tub, I sit on the dock. I'm not ready to leave the water just yet - my sense of adventure has been kick-started, and I'm planning our next trip.
IF YOU GO
Got a boat? Mallorytown Landing, 121 1000 Islands Parkway (Highway 401 Exit 675); parkscanada.gc.ca/sli. Parking and boat launch fee: $19.60. Enormous playground and hands-on visitor centre. Hiking trails and picnic facilities available.
Need a boat? 1000 Islands Kayaking 110 Kate St., Gananoque; 613-329-6265; 1000islandskayaking.com. Half-day rentals from $35 (single) to $55 (tandem).
Where to stay
Victoria Rose Inn, 279 King St. W., Gananoque; 888-246-2893; victoriaroseinn.com. Rooms from $189, includes breakfast. Check out the "see and do" section on the website for inventive, detailed day-trip ideas.
Gananoque Inn & Spa, 550 Stone St. S., Gananoque; 800-465-3101; gananoqueinn.com. Make sure to book the waterfront rooms, from $299.
For more information on the area: ontariotravel.net.