Travel
5 min

1000 Nails and other secrets of Gananoque

There's more than you'd expect

THEATRE. Gananoque's 1000 Island Playhouse churns out the gay-friendly fare nightly through the summer and fall, including Glorious. Credit: Hollie Stewart, courtesy of the 1000 Islands Playhouse

As the scrubby greens of Eastern Ontario whiz by, my boyfriend more or less evenly divides his attention between the road and the Blackberry in his lap. This, less than an hour in. It isn’t even long distance yet.

Unplugging — it’s easier said than done.

It’s Friday, 5pm. Contents of the (rented) Dodge Nitro SUV: Blackberry, check; cell phone, check; laptop, iPod, seven seasons of The West Wing, check, check, check.

Cruising down the 401 to Gananoque, we hope to spend the weekend decompressing. The cell phone and Blackberry will to stay off. The laptop is strictly for watching DVDs, not for checking e-mail.

The driving-while-texting I permit on a technicality. We aren’t in Gananoque proper yet. Once we are there, though, scout’s honour, no Blackberry.

Escaping Ottawa is usually framed in different terms. For gay men especially, weekenders are for livelier fare. We crave what the city is missing: the veritable buffet of bars offered by Toronto’s Church St and Queen West, the thriving, urban hipness of Montreal, and the all-night parties of New York.

We don’t often plan our weekends around “getting away from it all” the same way people in larger cities do. After all, what is there to get away from? Ottawa is quiet, pretty, safe — the kind of town New Yorkers are likely to find, well, restful.

But, for a lot of professionals, a weekend at home is no escape from their job. Armed with cell phones, Blackberries and a souped-up home computer — today’s workforce find that “weekend” doesn’t mean what it once did. And for younger people just entering the workforce and eager to please their bosses, the Blackberry is never, ever off.

Safely nestled into my office, I’ve got a reminder of this. My desktop wallpaper is a close up of the boyf, in the B&B parking lot right before check-in, blue Blackberry light gleaming in the reflection of his sunglasses. Last time, last time. I swear.

The picture is taken in front of The Trinity House Inn, a gay-owned bed and breakfast within a stone’s throw of the Gananoque marina. What? A gay-owned B&B? Running one plays on gay men’s traditional strengths in entertaining, cooking, decorating and antique collecting.

Jacques O’Shea is a capable host, a friendly tour guide and a collector of wall-mounted chinoiserie panels (on display in the lobby and guest rooms.) He’s eager that we try the Inn’s dining room, and after a quickie and a trip to the LCBO, we do.

The food at the Trinity House is at the high end of the Gananoque market. Although the atmosphere is a tad cluttered, the view from the screened-in dining porch is all salve. It’s a lovely (if heavy) meal of scallops, cheddar soup and angel hair pasta. Their buy-local philosophy has us pairing the meal with a tasty Barley Boys Brewing Company pale ale. Desert — wafers, strawberries and vanilla mousse — is fireworks. Add it to the bill, Jacques, we’ll pick it up at checkout.

We retire for more nookie, a walk in the town’s stone-and-gabled neighbourhoods, and a couple of episodes of The West Wing before bed.

We have two things on the agenda for Saturday: shopping and tickets to the 1000 Islands Playhouse. These we manage to draw out into a whole day, thanks to a few bedroom breaks back at the Inn. Is it possible that Gananoque is an aphrodisiac?

King St looks like something out of Pleasantville. The motto of the Gananoque business association is “More than you’d expect,” something a Christopher Guest film would make great hay out of. Still, aside from snickering at the double entendre in the local esthetician’s business name (1000 Nails), we manage to shirk our ironic detachment for a few hours and enjoy Gananoque at face value.

At the Sarah Sterken Gallery (tiny, but a must-see), the showroom empties into a well-loved pottery workspace. They showcase a mix of painting, photography and jewellery. It’s the internet-poker-playing cashier’s first day, but he gives us some inside information about how the pottery is made. We pick up two handmade stoneware mugs ($40) and a hand-fired clay pot ($65.)

Up the street, we trundle through All About Books. It’s not Eastern Ontario’s most ambitious used bookstore (that title belonging to The Book Gallery in Carleton Place), but it’s a local hub, offering baked goods and internet service. Happily — and I realize this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea — we spend an hour crawling around the floor, combing the lowest bookshelves and end up with about 10 books, including Opportunity in Canada, a immigration how-to manual from 1948 that features a forward by Lord Beaverbrook.

This reporter’s meagre pocketbook kept him from making major purchases at the big, well-stocked antique shops along King St E and further afield. If that’s your bag, there’s at least a daytrip’s worth of shopping, but I’d recommend doing a little research before packing the van, since the antique shops, thrift stores and flea markets are a tad spread out.

I am seduced by the man-sized pig statue foisting a paddle on the patio of Moroni’s, a bar and pizzeria. Admittedly, in that moment I slip back into an ironic appreciation of Gananoque’s small-town charm. Aside from ironically, I’m not sure how to recommend it, other than to say the food is functional and there is a high waitresses-to-tables ratio.

Then on to the theatre.

Milling about on the deck with a coffee at 7:30pm — like many of their patrons, mostly seniors, we were early — we watch a motorboat pull up. The 1000 Islands Playhouse, I should mention, hugs the St Lawrence, and the front of it opens up on a beautiful vista of the river.

Three women, likely sisters, peer out from the craft and argue about which of the dock cleats they ought to tie their boat to. That’s right, there’s dock parking for cottagers. One, a tad sour, complains as they pass the first spot.

“What about here?”

Here voice echoed over the water.

“What? Why aren’t we parking here?”

And then they clamoured out. Sunglasses. Shawls. Pumps.

Peter Quilter’s Glorious tells the real-life story of soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, whose biography details the triumph of chutzpah over talent. The play uses her gay piano player, Cosme McMoon, as a framing device. It’s a farce, clearly aimed at an older demographic, but it succeeds winningly at its modest ambitions.

The Firehall Theatre itself is a gem. It was built as an Armoury in 1912 and later renovated into a Firehall — in 1966 — and still later renovated into a playhouse in 2003. It’s maximizing it’s queer potential this summer with a pair of camp musicals (Les Miserables and Anne & Gilbert) a psychedelic sideshow (The Four Horsemen Project) and queer Quebecois theatre (Michel Tremblay’s Assorted Candy.)

Sunday morning, after a stop at the Casino 1000 Island, we’re back on the 401. If the B&B were a gingerbread cottage, then Hansel’s bread crumbs are Conservative politicians — you can poke around with John Baird, Pierre Pollivere and Lisa MacLeod on your way to or from the Gan.

It’s heartland Ontario conservative country. Despite the faith-based schools debacle, Gananoque Conservative MPP Bob Runciman was elected by better than a simple majority: 56 percent of the vote. But don’t let that stop you. Aside from a little rubbernecking, the townies couldn’t have cared less.

Gananoque has all the ingredients you need for a weekend of great sex. The town moves at a slower pace, meaning there’s lots of time for languid afternoon trysts. Add to that the town’s specialty: vendors of pastries, ice cream, wine and seafood to set the mood.

And since the town rolls up the street at 9pm, you’re likely to get a good night’s sleep — which, for the overscheduled professional, is the greatest aphrodisiac of all.

A word of warning: you pretty much have to bring your sex partners with you to enjoy Gananoque. For singles, there’s a slightly more lively nightlife in Kingston (think Queen’s students and soldiers.) Indeed, even gay chatrooms don’t turn up a ton of results for the town.

Still, for gays who want to make a weekend out of it, Gananoque’s got a lot going on this summer: motorcycle rides (for example, the River Rat Rally Jun 27-29); the Festival of the Islands (Aug 8-16); stops by Molly Johnson (Aug 18) and Joel Plaskett (Sep 15) — all on top of dyke/bear favourites like camping, boating and cottaging. I’ve got to agree with the business association: there’s more than you’d expect.

Trinity House Inn.
90 Stone St.
trinityinn.com.

Sarah Sterken Gallery.
181 King St.
thesarahsterkengallery.com.

1000 Island Playhouse.
185 South Street.
1000islandsplayhouse.com.