On the St. Lawrence River
All photographs, unless otherwise indicated, were taken by and are the property of New York Makers
Originating from Lake Ontario in uppermost New York, the mighty St. Lawrence River carves upward through North America to reach the Atlantic Ocean in Ontario, Canada, a sparkling fairyland complete with castles where 1,864 islands dot the water like those pickle morsels in your Thousand Island dressing (yes, the dressing was named for the place!). New York Makers found the Thousand Islands to be an enchanting Out-of-Office destination that remains to be discovered by those willing to drive just a little farther...
Displayed in the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center at Wellesley Island State Park
The Thousands Islands captures the hearts of those who live and play there. To quote Corey Fram, Director of 1000 Islands International Tourism Council, “I can’t imagine living anywhere else but here. Once you have that thing – that connection – where the river becomes part of you, it’s hard to get too far away. To see that look – that vibe – in my kids when they’re at, in, or on the river is something I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. Here, the river is for everybody and can be what you want it to be.”
Just Enough Room Island in Alex Bay
When asked what one or two surprising/interesting facts about the Thousand Islands might intrigue and entice visitors, Fram answered:
“1. The idea that you can book waterfront accommodations – or even an island – for a relatively reasonable price stuns first-time visitors. It’s a world-class experience, and yet it’s not priced like one. You can sleep with the sound of the waves lapping on the shore and spend the day having any water experience you can imagine. The river is so varied with its almost 2,000 islands, channels, and coves that there is no standard vacation experience. Here, the river is for everybody and can be what you want it to be.2. Many visitors are stunned that the U.S. and Canada share this region and truly treat it as one. To see U.S. and Canadian islands separated by just narrow water passages awes visitors who are even more dumbfounded to find Americans and Canadians interacting – whether on boats or the downtowns – so casually. There may be two countries sharing the 1000 Islands and the St. Lawrence River but it is very honestly one culture. For example, we have a pair of big, rare events happening in late summer. Brockville, Ontario (Canada) is hosting the Tall Ships Festival Aug. 30 – Sept. 1. Many of these ships are made their way by us this spring on their way into the Great Lakes and they’re stunning. To know they’re all going to be gathered on our shores later is pretty exciting. ”
We happily learned these truths firsthand, and hope you will want to discover all this and more on your own adventure to the Thousand Islands!
THOUSAND ISLANDS BACKGROUND
Found at Wellesley Island State Park
According to Chris Murray in his article, “Thousand Island Rocks,” the Thousand Islands we see today are composed of some of Earth’s oldest rock, dating an estimated 1.1 billion years ago; an ancient mountain system located within the geologic depression now called the St. Lawrence River was lifted and eroded by a series of glacier retreats and advances and other geological forces, the same that formed the Adirondacks.
Long ago, Iroquois and Algonquin Native American tribes fished and hunted their bounty. Explorers, fur traders, and missionaries followed. After the American Revolution, Sackets Harbor, located on Lake Ontario and part of the Thousand Islands region, became the regional base of American naval and military forces during the War of 1812. Warships were built there using local timber, and battles were fought nearby. The next wave of settlers arrived some years after the conclusion of the Civil War, as steamer transportation opened up once harder-to-access parts of the U.S., like Thousand Islands’ villages Alexandria Bay (a.k.a. Alex Bay) and Clayton. Recreation, escape, adventure, and nature drew wealthy entrepreneurs and politicians, like George Pullman and General Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the US, to these fantasy islands to enjoy their own little piece of remote-ish paradise.
Photo of a photo on display at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton. Families and their skiffs gather for church service in Half Moon Bay, ON ca 1890. ABM Archives, Owen Collection
In the early 1900s, the floodgates of aristocratic tourism opened, and suddenly everyone who thought themselves anybody vacationed at the regal resorts or on their private islands. Train travel would bring travelers close, then carriages would take them to waterfront locations or to private steamers that would deliver them to their island destinations. Among the famous stories from this era, George Boldt, hotelier best known for the Waldorf Astoria, purchased an island he named Heart (he apparently actually reshaped it to resemble one) Island for his love, Louise, and upon it, commissioned a castle to be built. Tragically, Louise died before completion of the castle. George is said never to have returned, but there is much more to this tale. The Thousand Island Bridge Authority currently owns Boldt Castle and offers ticketed tours of the island and grounds.
Boldt Castle on Heart Island in Alex Bay
While many visitors and second-home buyers came and went with the changing of the seasons, some hardcore families (they call themselves “Islanders”) stayed: winters on the mainland, summers on their “rocks”. Generation after generation, mothers and fathers, grandchildren, grandparents, and -greats, all got together, readied their boats, motor or row, packed supplies from the river ports that could last them for days or even weeks, and chartered their vessels up, down, and across the St. Lawrence for a few months of leisure, surrounded by nothing but water and deep-rooted tradition.
Fram grew up in Alexandria (of which Alex Bay is a part). He passionately shares, “The St. Lawrence River is the backdrop of many of my most cherished memories and experiences. Swimming, boating, paddling, fishing, hunting, skiing...that’s who I am. The ‘who’ of me wouldn’t be possible without the river.”
These Islanders are your gracious hosts and true historians of the Thousand Islands. Your presence is welcome, your patronage is appreciated, and your passing on of memories to friends and family is how this part of the world continues to be a far-reaching international destination, yet, most of all, a strong community of on-the-water born-and-raised pioneers.
OUR THOUSAND ISLAND TRIP EXPERIENCES
For our two-day adventure, we started in the northern part of the area at Alex Bay and drove south to end at Sacket’s Harbor. If we could have, we would have spent a full week — or longer. July and August are the most popular, hence busiest, times to visit. Here are some stops and recommendations from our Thousand Islands’ journey.
Alex Bay, our first stop (northwest on Church Street from Route 12), offers the amenities and attractions of a tourist town, a smaller version of the main hub of the area, Clayton. Alex Bay is the best place to take a boat tour because Uncle Sam, the premier boat touring company of the region, is based here.
Walking James Street, Alex Bay's "Main Street"
The Riveredge Resort (17 Holland Street), built on a jetty projecting out into the river on three sides, checks the boxes for stunning views, comfortable rooms with balconies (if requested), good food and service, along with fun company. At night, its bar hosts a lively scene or its docks offer a great perch to watch the nightlife aboard the many yachts tied up there, with Heart Island and Boldt Castle providing a stunning backdrop. The well-known Capt Thomson’s Resort (47 James Street) and Rock Ledge Motel (45302 Rt. 12), as well as other lodging options, are located nearby.
Waterside bar at Riveredge Resort
Night view of Boldt Castle from Riveredge Resort
Eat + Drink
Despite being surrounded by water, seafood is not a particular focus of the region. The Kitchen (2 Church Street) serves North Country farm-to-table fare, and wow, is it good. With a rotating menu invented based on the availability of local ingredients, you are sure to enjoy the meal experience from the moment you are seated. Tip: try reserving an outside porch table ahead. Grab a morning (or afternoon) coffee from Coffee Pot Cathy (3 James Street), a cocktail at the Dancing Dog Bar & Nightclub (5 Walton Street), and an ice cream cone from the window at The Gal’s Place (42077 Route 12).
James Street is lined with shops selling Alex Bay-branded t-shirts to pick up for yourself or someone back at home. But for locally made gifts and treasures, we enjoyed Bay House Artisans (21 James Street), offering original artwork and photography, gourmet packaged food, pottery, sculpture, glass, and more.
See + Do
Lower James Street Dock
Uncle Sam’s (47 James Street) Two Nation tour is a must. We recommend booking the Two Nation tour and hopping off at Boldt Castle before heading back to the mainland dock aboard Uncle Sam’s shuttle service. Plan for four hours in total. You will want to explore all of Boldt Castle and soak up the history -- and mystery! The Two Nation tour starts with a picture-perfect moment to look at Just Enough Room Island, an iconic Thousand Island image widely used in regional promotional materials. Locals also recommended a separate Uncle Sam Boat Tour to Singer Castle, formerly owned by Commodore Bourne of Singer Sewing Machine Company, on Dark Island, a bit further north in Chippewa Bay.
Boldt Castle on Heart Island (We spy a possible ghost orb in the top photo!)
After the tour(s), take the few-minute drive to Thousand Islands Winery (43298 Seaway Avenue) to sample some of their blends -- 23 different varieties of wine in 5 categories -- and gather ‘round the tasting bar to chit-chat with the staff and patrons. After dark, drive your wheels to Bay Drive-In Theatre (Route 26 & Bailey Settlement Road) for an outdoor movie on one of their screens.
Photo: Thousand Islands Winery
Also, Corey told us, “The Antique Classic Boat Society is hosting its International Boat Show in Alexandria Bay, New York (USA) Sept. 20-21. It moves around; last year it was in Port Huron in Michigan. They’re anticipating more than 200 antique and classic wooden boats being in the water. It’s going to be like the Gilded Age here and ought to be a sight to behold.”
Across the river and over the first part of the Thousand Islands International Bridge (the other part takes you to Ontario, Canada) is the bewitching wilderness of Wellesley Island. This is where you can submerge yourself in Mother Nature. Wellesley is rustic, yet accommodating, in charm. Housing two state parks, one with a residential district sculpted by history, Wellesley Island is still living in the past -- and that’s a great thing.
Thousand Island Park Historic District
On the road to Wellesley Island State Park
If not camping in Wellesley Island State Park (44927 Cross Island Road), then rest your bones in the old ones of the Wellesley Hotel (42809 St. Lawrence Avenue) in Thousand Island Park (TI Park). The hotel was constructed in 1903; the colorful cottage community of TI Park was established in 1875 as a Methodist summer campground. No need to drive once you get there. Life is so low-key and accessible there that a bicycle, boat, or your two feet can get you everywhere you should go.
Eat + Drink
A curated variety of adorable storefronts attached to the Wellesley Hotel await as you walk the wraparound porch. An outpost of Clayton’s The Golden Cleat (fine jewelry and home goods) is one to check out now through Labor Day Weekend.
See + Do
Exploring Wellesley Island State Park
Hiking some, if not most, of the trails of Wellesley Island State Park is intrinsically rewarding -- if you’re one of those people who love being in the woods on the edge of water. The Minna Anthony Common Nature Center was one of our favorite discoveries. It’s especially great for kids, a pleasant combination of education and interaction. Don’t leave without a purchase from their gift shop, like children’s book “St. Lawrence ABCs,” and a visit to the Butterfly House. Finally, get out on the water with a boat, jetsi, or kayak rental.
Long known for industrious boat building, Clayton is the cultural hub of the Thousand Islands. Home of the St. Lawrence Skiff, the fishing guide boat of the late 1800s that shaped life on the water during those times and for future vessels, Clayton is the place to stay if you want to be in the thick of it all, including numerous restaurants, bars, breweries, shops, hotels, private home rentals, and museums -- all easily walkable in its grid-style downtown.
Mural on the side of Clayton Trading Co. (320 James Street)
Be ambitious, rent a boat, and book a stay on Occident Island at 6th-generation-owner Phyllis Gardner’s Island Boathouse (4 miles from Clayton off Fishers Landing) or stay on land and rent a room at 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel (200 Riverside Drive), Clipper Inn (126 State Street), Wooden Boat Inn (606 Alexandria Street), a suite at the Saint Lawrence Spirits Chateau (38289 Route 12E), or a private residence like Gardner’s mainland home, the Mulberry Cottage (600 John Street).
The Mulberry Cottage
Eat + Drink
Bella’s Bakery & Bistro (602 Riverside Drive) has both the views -- being right on the river -- and menu bragging rights, serving up breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks. Once you’ve tried their food, it’s easy to find yourself there for all meals and libations. The Clipper Inn’s restaurant is a local staple with land and sea entrees. At Saint Lawrence Spirits Chateau, staff chefs and mixologists use only the finest ingredients in their dishes and cocktails, like locally harvested produce and their very own small-batch craft spirits distilled onsite. For a quality watering hole, sample a flight of beer at Wood Boat Brewery (625 Mary Street).
Berry Mascarpone Layer Cake from Bella's Bakery & Bistro
Your first shopping stop should be to River Rat Cheese (242 James Street). In addition to their signature cheeses, like maple cheddar, their shop is stocked with all kinds of provisions. After you’ve had your fill of candy and cheese curds, buy a bottle of the "Original" Thousand Island Dressing -- the recipe of controversial legend, having been made famous and served at Thousand Islands Inn but said to have been created originally by Mrs. Sophia LaLonde for her husband’s shore dinners. READ OUR THOUSAND ISLAND DRESSING WITH FRESH GREENS RECIPE. Stop in the flagship of Golden Cleat (534 Riverside Drive) for beautiful jewels and a do-it-yourself gem bar.
The famous "Original" Thousand Island Dressing
On Route 12, artists Sarah Ellen Smith and John Arnot operate studio/gallery St. Lawrence Pottery (41468 Route 12). Hand-painted wood-fired coffee mugs, serving and trinket dishes, bowls, and coasters are merchandised in the front, while the kiln and workspace are just through the back past Sarah’s glass-blowing station. When we talked with Sarah, she said about her studio sanctuary, “The River is a huge inspiration to our work. The images are derived from boat rides and summer days on the River. The flora and fauna are in the decoration as well. Our customers can see our regard for the River and appreciate holding pieces that remind them of it. Making beautiful and useful things is a good thing and making them in a place you love, well that’s pretty close to as good as it gets!”
See + Do
Museums! The Antique Boat Museum (750 Mary Street) proudly shows off its over 200 antique freshwater boats, offers boat building classes and excursions, as well as being home to the world-renowned annual Antique Boat Show and Auction (which just passed on August 2-4 this year). In the Thousand Islands Art Center (314 John Street), the Handweaving Museum can be visited. The TIAC combines both instruction and exhibition; sign up for one of their many maker workshops such as “Build a Wooden Yacht or Racecar”. Discover what it’s like to be a real “River Rat” at the Thousand Islands Museum (312 James Street), where art (like old handcrafted decoys!), history, and lifestyle all intertwine. Get lost at sea in old scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, books, and other documents. See a show year-round at the beloved Clayton Opera House (403 Riverside Drive).
Thousand Islands Art Center
Antique Boat Museum
SACKETS HARBOR + CAPE VINCENT
Further south on Lake Ontario are the towns of Sackets Harbor and Cape Vincent, about a 30-minute drive from each other. Cape Vincent is technically the only location where the blending of both Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River waters occur. “The Cape” is known for its automobile and passenger ferry to Canadian land via Wolfe Island. Sackets Harbor is known for its historical significance in the War of 1812, but today it boosts a darling Main Street.
The tiny automobile and passenger ferry to Wolfe Island, ON
Wolfe Island, ON Boat Club
In Sackets Harbor, reserve a room at the gorgeous Harbor House Inn (103 General Smith Drive) or the Marina Inn & Suites (85 Worth Street) at Madison Barracks, which once served as housing for American soldiers. And if in Cape Vincent, stay at the small boutique hotel called The Roxy (111 West Broadway).
Eat + Drink
The Tin Pan Galley (110 West Main Street) delivered on one of our favorite meals of the trip -- a very generous serving of a simple tuna melt that was to-die-for! The outside patio presents itself like a magical secret garden, with ivy crawling up the side of their brick building. The Sandwich Bar (113 West Main Street) is a bit more grab-and-go, which is perfect if a picnic or boat outing is planned. Order drinks and do some sightseeing from your waterfront seat at The Boathouse Restaurant (214 West Main Street). Over in Cape Vincent, get to the Cape Vincent Brewing Company (296 Broadway Street) for food and beer, sip on award-winning wine at The Cape Winery (2066 Deerlick Road), or land and stay at The Coal Docks Restaurant & Bar (592 East Broadway Street) -- their menu has something for everyone.
Tin Pan Gallery
The Sackets Harbor Farmers Market (corner of Main Street & General Smith Drive) runs every Saturday through October 12. With just a handful of vendors, it’s worth passing through, still having plenty of time to meander down the rest of Main Street. Calla Lillies (118 West Main Street), an emporium of artisan-made gifts, and Main Street Crafts and Drafts (201 West Main Street), part craft bar and bottle shop and part DIY workshop, are fun ways to experience the locale. Chateau (111 Esseltyne Street) in Cape Vincent is a beautiful shop of handcrafted jewelry, accessories, and apothecary, including mini-Adirondack Pack Baskets made by NY-based artist Marcia Waligory.
Sackets Harbor Farmers Market
Outside of Calla Lillies
See + Do
The Sackets Harbor Arts Center (119 West Main Street) works with local artists on special exhibitions, while also providing art classes on drawing, watercolor painting, painting on glass, and more. (Next July, return for the Plein Air Art Festival to have a rare look at Plein Air painting in action and a chance to bid on your favorites.) At Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site (504 West Main Street), there are guided and self-guided tours available and camp life reenactments of soldiers in the 1800s. Cape Vincent hosts an annual French Festival in July (so plan early for next year); shop from craft vendors, enjoy entertainment like jugglers and fiddlers, and stay late in the evening on Saturday for fireworks.