In most places, city dwellers who want to enjoy a little time in the country are faced with the unappetizing prospect of climbing into a car and driving through a congested belt of suburbs to get there, intensifying the stress they had probably hoped to diffuse by leaving the city. Kingstonians are lucky that way. From the heart of downtown they can step, drive, or ride their bicycles onto a ferry that will take them straight to rural Wolfe Island. Rather than a sprawling tangle of box stores and subdivisions to depress them along the way, they’ll find sweeping views across the lake and the river, a postcard panorama of the downtown waterfront, Fort Henry standing watch on its hill, and the western Thousand Islands spreading out before them. Road rage is nowhere to be seen.
January may seem an odd time of year to be reading about an island getaway, but a visit to Wolfe Island is worthwhile any time. The experience is entirely unlike summer. A ferry ride through a narrow channel in the ice is itself something few people, even Canadians, have experienced—and it makes a great conversation piece. Ask most of your friends how they think the bubble system that runs along the bottom of the river to keep the channel from freezing was laid, and you’ll more than likely stump them. (Answer: a long perforated pipe was welded together on the ice and then let sink when the ice melted in the spring.)
But collecting a bit of experiential Canadiana is far from the only reason for making the crossing. If it’s in search of quiet that you go to a place like Wolfe Island in the summer, you’ll find your dose of tranquility multiplied many times over when the mercury plummets and the snow flies (not that it’s done much flying this year). Be aware, however, that you’ll be greeted by an entirely different scene when you arrive, because the winter ferry dock is four kilometres east of the village—which may be enough to convince most visitors to bring their cars. Not to worry, though; the ferry lines are much, much shorter during the winter months.
A winter visit to Wolfe Island will be best enjoyed by those with an adventurous and cold-hardy spirit. For as long as there’s no snow, the island’s tens and tens of kilometres of gravel back roads (which means every road but two) are as peaceful a place to walk or cycle as any dedicated conversation area in greater Kingston. You may walk for hours without seeing a single car. The island boasts three established bike routes of varying lengths, and if you’re a winter cyclist you’ll have them all to yourself (map here).
Although there isn’t enough demand to keep all the island’s businesses open year-round, there’s no need to worry about making it all the way back to the city once you’ve worked up an appetite from all the strenuous exploring you’ll be doing. The Wolfe Island Pub and Pizzeria (W.I.P.P.) is open every day, all winter long. It’s a local institution—a cozy and inexpensive place to grab a hearty breakfast, to enjoy a burger and a beer for lunch or dinner, or to pick up local gossip any time of day. The Wolfe Island Grille, famous for its lively patio scene in the summertime, is just across the street from the W.I.P.P. and offers fine food, a full bar, and occasional entertainment. The Grill’s winter hours are Fridays from 4 to 10 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fargo’s general store also keeps regular hours all year long, providing islanders and visitors alike with basic grocery items and an L.C.B.O. If you know ahead of time that you want to eat on the island, it’s always a good idea to call first because restaurant hours are not observed religiously. Wolfe Island works on Wolfe Island time.
The free Wolfe Island ferry departs from the bottom of Barrack Street every hour on the half hour in the morning and every hour on the hour in the afternoon and evening. For a full schedule click here.