Ross, my seven-year-old, and I leaned over the railing and peered into the slate-blue water of the St. Lawrence River.
“It’s the only part of the tour that’s underwater,” Nancy, our tour guide, said. “There, it’s coming up on the bow.”
My son and I strained our eyes to spot something, anything. A shipwreck maybe? A sea monster?
“Now we’re passing right over it,” Nancy continued.
“Over what?” I said to Peter, my husband, who sat on the bench of the tour boat as Ross and I kept looking into the water, the other passengers beside us at the rail.
“Ooops, we passed it. Did you see it?” Nancy asked, and then she chuckled into her microphone. “Don’t feel embarrassed. I tease all my tours this way. That was the international boundary between the United States and Canada we just crossed, and of course, there’s nothing to see!”
Sheepishly I returned to my seat, wondering how in the world Peter figured out we were setting ourselves up for a practical joke. He just knew somehow. Not me, I’m as gullible as a fish, and Nancy got me: hook, line and sinker!
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE
Fishing, boating, and good times are what attract a multitude of vacationers to the Thousand Islands every summer. This group of almost two thousand islands is found near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, about seven hundred miles north of Virginia Beach. The St. Lawrence, North America’s longest east-west river, flows from Lake Ontario eight hundred and some miles to the Atlantic Ocean, providing an important passage for ocean freighters to reach the Great Lakes.
Scattered for about sixty miles along the river between New York and Ontario, the Thousand Islands offer vacationing families an array of activities, most of which involve the water. I’ve been fortunate to enjoy the ambience of the Islands since I was a little girl. My dad’s side of the family, most of whom are from upstate New York, have vacationed at the Islands since early last century.
I grew up summering on Hill Island, where my Great Aunt Adelaide’s Victorian cottage proved a wonderful gathering spot for our extended family. As a child, I hiked all over the island, rowed our wooden boat in the placid cove near the cottage, fished for small perch in the quiet stillness of the boat house, and generally escaped from normal life for awhile.
This ability to take a break from the hectic pace of modern life is the main reason my family and I love to go to the Islands. It’s a place where natural beauty, fresh air, brisk water, and brilliant sunsets make you appreciate being alive. As my sister-in-law once said, “After a few days, I get into the rhythm of the river. I slow down and enjoy just being there.”
One of the best ways to discover the Islands is by boat. Many tours are available, some of which even feature buffet meals and entertainment. My family and I enjoyed the two-hour, two-nation tour offered by Uncle Sam Boat Tours, which departs daily during the summer months from Alexandria Bay, New York. On the tour you’ll hear the history of the region, as well as pirate legends and stories of the rich and famous who have vacationed there for more than a hundred years.
Among the elite who loved the Thousand Islands was George Boldt, who managed two prominent hotels in the late 1800s: the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and the Bellevue-Stratford in Philadelphia. As a testimony of love for his wife, Louise, George decided to build a Rhineland castle, extravagantly designed, on a heart-shaped island near Alexandria Bay. Work on Boldt castle began in 1897, but in 1904 when the castle was nearly finished, George told the three hundred builders and craftsmen to stop work. His beloved wife had died of pneumonia at the age of 42.The castle remained untouched for decades until 1977 when it was acquired by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, which has since undertaken a massive rehabilitation program to restore the castle to its original beauty.
We stopped at Boldt Castle during our Uncle Sam tour and enjoyed exploring the castle’s four stories and myriad rooms, some of which are lavishly restored and decorated with Italian marble floors and walnut paneling. Historic photographs and period furnishings are on display in many rooms. Ross liked the Alster Tower, also called the Play House, a playful structure right on the water with, among other things, a two-lane bowling alley. I loved the formal Italian garden on the opposite side of the island with its marble statues, some of which were found still crated where they had sunk in an old boathouse.
I felt a sense of loss as we walked through the castle, our footsteps echoing on the stairs and in the empty rooms. The lovely setting, beautiful views, and lavish decor seemed tinged with bittersweet sadness. It’s obvious George meant the castle to be a testament to his love for Louise, and when she died, the castle’s meaning died, too. Her tragic death haunts the hallways.
A SENSE OF THE PAST
It’s this sense of the past that seems so prevalent in the Thousand Islands, where the rocky bluffs that edge the islands are estimated to be a million years old. This granite is all that remained behind when mile-thick sheets of ice, known as the Great Canadian Shield, melted at the end of the Ice Age. Ice still forms each winter on the St. Lawrence and can grow thick enough to support cars and trucks, although I don’t think I’d want to drive across. Years ago, when my great aunt’s family decided a boat house was needed to complement the cottage, workers built it on the mainland and pulled it over the ice to Hill Island with a team of horses, or so the story goes.
Speaking of stories, Thousand Island dressing did in fact originate in the Thousand Islands. A steward served George Boldt a new salad dressing while cruising the river, and George liked it so much he named it after his favorite vacation destination and served it in the restaurants of his world-famous hotels. Incidentally, George continued to summer in the Islands after the death of his wife though he never set foot on Heart Island again.
After our boat tour, Peter, Ross, and I visited Clayton, NY, a cute riverfront town just a short drive from Alexandria Bay with a few antique shops, restaurants, and a fabulous playground, perfect for letting kids burn up some energy. That’s always been my philosophy when traveling with children: balance the sightseeing and structured activities with good old-fashioned play time. Picnicking at a playground offers opportunities for kids to get their ya-ya’s out and for parents to kick off their shoes and unwind. Sometimes I’m guilty of planning too much when I take my family on vacation. That’s when down time becomes even more important.
Another reason to visit Clayton is the Antique Boat Museum, home of wooden boats of yesteryear. The boats range from luxurious run-abouts with leather upholstery to simple St. Lawrence skiffs with their signature pointed sterns, resembling canoes more than rowboats. Seeing these boats brought back sun-sparkled memories of riding in Adelaide’s Chris Craft back and forth from our cottage to the closest village on the mainland: Rockport, Ontario, where we’d shop, go to church, and retrieve mail at the dusty post office housed in a marina. Even today Rockport remains a charming little town with a winter population of 220 that swells to 600 in the summer.
Just downriver from Rockport on the Canadian side is the town of Gananoque, where we always stock up on groceries, Canadian beer, and fireworks, you know, the important things. With its old-fashioned main street lined on both sides with shops and restaurants, “Gan” as we call it is a pleasant town to explore. Families will especially enjoy stopping in the Arthur Child Heritage Centre, a museum dedicated to showcasing the history of the Thousand Islands region.
A good day trip for families visiting the Thousand Islands is Upper Canada Village about an hour’s drive east near Cornwall, Ontario. A recreated pioneer village, peopled with docents who welcome you into their homes, barns, shops, and gardens, spreads out along the riverfront. It’s an educational outdoor history museum with lots of fun stuff for kids to do. My older boys once got to try milking a cow there. They also enjoyed playing old-fashioned games in the children’s activity area, riding in a horse-drawn wagon, and learning all about Canadian life in the 1860s.
Accommodations in the Thousand Islands range from mom-and-pop motels to luxury hotels. Families can also rent homes in the Islands or camp in one of the many state and national parks in the vicinity. Another unique option is to rent a houseboat for a truly nautical experience: sleeping on the river. Summer is definitely the best time to visit although some members of my family who have visited the Islands other times of the year say that each season brings its own special wonder.
Whether you like to fish, boat, sightsee, or simply relax, you’ll find the Thousand Islands a unique and beautiful vacation spot. When you visit, make sure you take time to walk in the pine-scented woods, watch a salmon-pink sunset, and listen to the loons calling each other across a peaceful cove. It won’t take long for you to get hooked on the Thousand Islands!
For more information about the Thousand Islands, call 800-847-5263 or visit www.visit1000islands.com.