Two Rivers and a Lake, and a White Mountain of Ice Cream

Hype is a bitter intoxicant.  Too often the hypee – one who has bought into the hype – will be forced to argue that the object of hype is not worthy, deepening the hypee’s disappointment, souring the hypee’s relationship with the hyper, and generally making the hypee feel like a sap and maybe a critical, joyless person to boot.  The alternative, though, is far worse: the hypee, knowing in his or her hyped heart of hearts that the hype-object has failed to meet expectations, disregards this secret aesthetic judgment and lies, to him or herself and to the world, and claims that this undiscovered cat really is the best saxman since the Bird, that Miracle Whip’s tang does make it better than mayonnaise.  In other words, the hypee becomes a hyper and the chorus of sad, bitter, perfidious nonsense swells by yet one more voice.

That being said, White Mountain’s homemade ice cream is the best one can find on any of the life-supporting planets in our starry galaxy.

.     .     .

She’d been building up my expectations for a year.  Shannon, my girlfriend, often regaled me with stories of Wolfe Island, the sunny windmill-spotted Big Momma of the St. Lawrence River’s Thousand Islands, and her tales invariably included trips to White Mountain, an unassuming ice cream shop in Kingston, Ontario, a quick ferry ride from the dusty roads and quiet camps on the island.  Her entire family – more a tribe, really – recognized White Mountain as the world’s greatest.  Her best friend, too, had become a devotee upon ascending this snow-capped peak.  So when I finally made it up to Kingston and Wolfe Island, because Shannon is my girlfriend and therefore my arbiter elegantiae, I approached White Mountain, to quote William Faulkner, “as an illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.”

I needed the faith to get past the menu: “Skippy Chip,” “Sir Lancelot,” and “Bee’s Nest,” didn’t offer much in the way of guidance.

My cones floweth over.

As a lover of dark chocolate – and I mean dark, Heart of Darkness cocao – I took a risk on the White Knight, a chocolate-based ice cream with white chocolate chunks.  What I ended up putting my mouth on was a hunk of cold chocolate cream so indulgent  it wiped out at once all memory of Anderson’s, Perry’s, Ben and Jerry’s … poor Wegman’s brand didn’t even stand a chance.  Coquettish white chocolate chunks (real hearty chunks, not tiny teasing “chips”) swam in an alluvial sea of exceeding thickness and uniform smoothless, of a heavy-cream flavor that hovered between dark and milk chocolate.  I felt much like Melville did after finishing Moby-Dick, when he wrote to his friend Hawthorne that, “I have [eaten] a wicked [ice cream cone], and feel spotless as the lamb.”  The experience only richened as I descended below the sea-level of the house-made waffle cone, dark and sweet and crunchy, a bastion against the melting cream.  The climax came in a single bite at the cone’s fine point, a mouthful of waffle and cream perfectly balanced, crunchy and refreshing at once, the cream just as thick as when I started, the cone just as firm.

Shannon,of more refined tastes, ordered a Bee’s Nest, a vanilla-based ice cream threaded with caramel swirls and studded with bites of chocolate chip cookie dough.  This may actually be White Mountain’s best variety – meaning that this mysterious “Bee’s Nest” is the greatest of the great, the highest of achievement of this 2400 year-old art.

But when we came back to White Mountain the next day (for breakfast) I passed on the Bee’s Nest, having tried Shannon’s, and opted for the Walnut Maple, what sounded to me like a more mature choice.  Naturally the flavor was of the richest maple syrup, no doubt locally tapped and barrel-aged.  I didn’t taste sugar, but sap.

.     .     .

I don’t mean by my devotion to White Mountain to slight the rest of Kingston, a walkable, compact little town with fine Canadian architecture, excellent and diverse food to be enjoyed on the open-air patios that brighten the streets, and wide public spaces, like Confederation Park on the waterfront and the square behind City Hall, which crowds with artisans and local farmers three days a week.  On our first night, after settling down in the Queen’s Inn (established in 1839 by a Wolfe Islander) we found our way into a quiet Cambodian and Thai place, which reminded me of the restaurant from the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross.  The spicy peanut chicken, Pad Thai, and spring rolls were packed with flavor, and went down easily with Tsingtao and Singha.

Foreground: Tsingtao, Pad Thai.  Background: Singha, spring roll, and spicy peanut chicken and rice.
Foreground: Tsingtao, Pad Thai. Background: Singha, spring roll, and spicy peanut chicken and rice.

I’d forgive you if you didn’t try a Thai lager on a trip to Kingston, though.  In fact, I’d encourage you to go for the Steamwhistle Pilsner, from a company that’s won almost as many awards for its efficiency and eco-friendly practices as it has for its crisp and refreshing amber-hued brew.  You can probably find one at several pubs in the city, but I found my first pint at Olivea, a delightful upscale Italian restaurant across from the public square.  (Unfortunately I did not catch the live jazz that the restaurant hosts every Tuesday night.)

Steamwhistle's Pilsner is darker than its German ancestors, but it's unmistakeably fresh and the taste is as bold as the color.
Steamwhistle’s Pilsner is darker than its German ancestors, but it’s unmistakably fresh and the taste is as bold as the color.

Kingston’s fine dining scene is well-epitomized in Olivea. [Photo credit: Shannon Tierney]
After an evening at one of Kingston’s many restaurants – preferably under and awning and in the open air, where your own dinner babble mixes with talk from the dessert cafe next door, and the all-you-can-eat sushi place on the other side, and the tapas place after that – I’d recommend wandering.  Even outside the city center there are sights to see, and plenty of private residences illuminated in white-blue by the streetlamps.  Kingston is host to that distinctive Canadian style of architecture found in some of Toronto’s older neighborhoods, a mix of Georgian and Neo-Georgian, with some brick and enough stone to merit the title “Limestone City.”

The City Hall is the best example of this, grand and seemingly overlarge for a town of Kingston’s size and modesty, with a dome and tholobate overlooking the Confederation Waterfront and its fountain, the abstract stone arc piercing the Neoclassical hall behind and the water, at night, dancing like white gold on the city’s quiet blue face.  Many choose to end their nights here, in front of the dancing fountain.



.     .     .

Kingston was first known as Cataraqui, the meaning of which is still debated.  It may come from the Iroquois “Katarakne,” meaning “the place where one hides,” or “a place of retreat.”  Or, according to some sources, it might just mean “muddy river.”  Still others claim the phrase is less an aesthetic judgment than a very practical reference to the geography: “where the rivers and lake meet.”  As the river isn’t muddy at all, I’ll suggest a fusion of the better theories: Kingston, or Cataraqui, is a place of retreat where two rivers and a lake meet … and where a White Mountain hides.

But as far as cartography is concerned, the two rivers – the St. Lawrence and the Cataraqui – and Lake Ontario more precisely meet at Wolfe Island, which winks the 86 red lights of its Siemens Mark III wind turbines at lovers and friends wandering Kingston’s marina at night.

I didn’t get to see much of the island; I attended a wedding at the Sacred Heart of Mary, and as the bride and groom were whisked away by horse and buggy, I, too, was whisked away … back across the river to White Mountain.  Wolfe Island, named for General James Wolfe, who bested the Marquis de Montcalm at the Battle of Quebec in 1759, is the largest of the Thousand Islands, home to many farms and family camps and estates.


While I didn’t get to drive very far inland, the Island loomed over my Kingston experience.  The wedding party transitioned from the church to the reception, and everyone boarded a triple-decker boat for a dinner-and-dancing cruise through the Thousand Islands.  There was much to see before the dancing distracted us – houses perched precariously on impossibly small islands, massive estates, slow paddle surfers, and waving families in Adirondack chairs enjoying their backyard archipelago.  But after the sun set all that disappeared.  Until 86 red lights winked from far, far off down the river.

We docked at Kingston to let off the faint of heart, and again we set out; twice, out of the darkness, I was surprised to see the Island, strung up as if with blood red pearls, winking, looming, reminding me of the flat mystery of that space, the biggest island, the final island, Loyalist bastion projecting boldly into the American side of the river.

We had to leave the next day, taking a detour through farm country below the Adirondacks before hooking west and driving back to Buffalo.  White Mountain loomed frostily over my memories as we drove west, but the flat land of Wolfe Island loomed too, in its own way – a symbol of the all the unfolding mystery of the archipelago that stretches out beyond it; of strange way of life lived there, sometimes still and sometimes hooting; of all the promise of Kingston, and of all I couldn’t taste in three short days.

Someday I’ll be back.  I’ll charter a boat.  And each time I dock, I’ll try a new flavor of White Mountain’s ice cream.


The summer sun sets on one thousand eight hundred and sixty-four islands.

Check out my full photo album here.

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