Journey to NY's 1,000 Islands
Posted on December 4, 2019
By Paris Wolfe
The 1,000 Islands is more than just a salad dressing.
The area in New York state — known for its 1,800-plus islands in the St. Lawrence River — makes an active, long weekend getaway. The Saint Lawrence River traces the international boundary between the United States and Canada, flowing from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean.
Busiest in summer, the area entices tourists with special events year ’round.
“We make our own fun,” says Todd Buchko, general manager of the AAA four-diamond Harbor Hotel 1000 Islands in Clayton, New York.
From Punkin Chunkin in October and Christmas Parade in December to Fire and Ice in February, the small town and hotel collaborate on myriad special events. Rooms in the 105-room hotel book quickly during these dates.
For example, Fire and Ice celebration, which will be Feb. 6 to 8, embraces the power of winter. Activities are set to include 20,000 pounds of ice sculptures, a martini luge and fireworks outside, complemented by appetizers, music and more inside. A martini luge is an ice sculpture; gin/vodka goes in the top, and a martini glass catches the chilled libation at the bottom.
We visited midweek in unusually warm September weather. After dropping our luggage at the Harbor Hotel, my partner, Gary, chilled while I wandered James and Riverside streets, stopping into local, independent shops to examine clothing, food items, household décor, local art and more. I resisted all but infused balsamic vinegar at 1000 Islands Cruet.
The next morning, we were at the Antique Boat Museum when it opened at 9 a.m. The 4.5-acre campus has seven buildings and is wheelchair-accessible. The boat museum houses more than 320 boats and thousands of related artifacts. Boats with known dates range from 1856 to 2004.
Not a boating aficionado? It’s easy to be romanced by the historic, elegant wooden structures. Mahogany, cedar and white oak wood hulls practically vibrate with life beneath shiny marine varnish and, if you listen closely, seem to whisper, “pet me.”
Among the highlights of the museum’s collection are three boats, available at an extra fee, for river rides — Miss Thousand Islands II, Zipper and a vintage 1953 Chris Craft.
We spent an hour buzzing about islands in the Saint Lawrence River in Zipper, a 41.6-foot commuter yacht designed by the Purdy Boat Company in the 1930s. Despite her retro looks, Zipper’s design didn’t come to life until 1974, when brewery magnate John W. Stroh commissioned her creation.
Back at the museum dock, we toured La Duchesse, a 106-foot houseboat. Built for $175,000 in 1903 (about $5 million today), it was made for George Boldt, millionaire proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City hotelier. The houseboat was in continuous use as a summer residence by several families until 2002. During a 30-minute walking tour of the nine-bedroom vessel, visitors see the early 20th-century furnishings and hear about the lifestyle of its summer residents.
After the boat museum, we grabbed lunch at Koffee Kove, a local diner with comfort food, including a homey meatloaf and mashed potato special. Several other small, local establishments are options.
The afternoon was filled with a visit to Boldt Castle, about 12 miles northeast in Alexandria Bay on Heart Island. Once in Alexandria Bay, the only way to reach the island is by floating shuttle ($9.50 per person). Stunning from the river, the castle tells a tragic-romantic tale of love and loss.
Made of red granite quarried just seven miles away on Oak Island, it had been imagined and contracted by George Boldt. The style was inspired by grand Rhineland castles and certainly appears princess-worthy. In this case, the princess was to be Boldt’s beloved wife of 26 years, Louise.
In 1900, 300 workers — including stonemasons, carpenters and artists — starting stacking stones for the six-story, 120-room structure. For comparison, the magnificent Biltmore Estate (1890s) in Asheville, North Carolina, has 250 rooms, while Akron’s impressive Stan Hywet Hall (1910s) has 65.
After roaming the first floor, we had myriad questions about the family and building history. A video presentation on the second floor offered answers.
The theater room is truly the best place to start a tour. There we learned that Boldt commissioned the castle in honor of his wife, then stopped construction when she died suddenly in 1904 at age 42. The hotel magnate never returned to the island, leaving the project incomplete.
Weather and vandals had their way with the stone shell for 73 years, until the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the property in 1977. TIBA restored — and even advanced — the castle’s construction and made it available to the public.
Today, the first two floors are not only restored but furnished as if someone had lived in the castle. The remaining floors, while structurally reinforced, show weathering and graffiti from the neglected years.
Always interested in the greatest integrity of an artifact, Gary and I debated whether advancing construction in the 20th and 21st centuries really served history. On the shuttle back to the mainland, we heard other folks having similar conversations.
If we’d had more time, we may have visited some of the wineries and distilleries in the area or scheduled a wine-and-cheese cruise with Captain Jeff Garnsey of Classic Island Cruises. A tour and fishing guide from a family that spans nine generations in the 1000 Islands, Garnsey is a wealth of information.
And, yes, we had a salad with 1000 Islands dressing. Legend has it that the dressing was created either by the wife of a Clayton-area fishing guide or George Boldt’s chef in the late 19th century.