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New York's Thousand Islands offer countless wonders

Majestic Boldt Castle is on Heart Island in

Majestic Boldt Castle is on Heart Island in the Thousand Islands,  straddling the border of upstate New York and Canada. Credit: Alamy / National Geographic Image Collection

At 118 miles, Long Island is far and away New York’s single largest.

But at the opposite side of the state, where Lake Ontario flows into the St. Lawrence River, is its most numerous concentration — also by far.

Named the Thousand Islands (Les Mille-Iles) by 17th-century French cartographers who obviously didn’t bother to count, as there are actually closer to 2,000 of them — 1,864 to be exact — this spectacularly scenic area rocketed into national prominence in the 1870s, when self-made millionaires, looking to create their own Newport, purchased small to positively minuscule islands upon which they constructed oversized “cottages.”

Following the really big money were thousands of lesser, hotel-staying mortals, who soon collectively turned the Thousand Islands into one of the Northeast’s most popular summer playgrounds.

Today the roughly 50-mile-long, international corridor is the seasonal home of upstate boaters and fishermen, and extra regional vacationers who come for the handful of marquee attractions and the near-constant, magnificent scenery, which, thanks to those intrepid and ostentatious home builders, is as much manmade as it is natural. Fortunately for Long Islanders, the American side contains both the best sites and the best scenery as its islands are closer to the mainland, and the ship channel, through which 700-foot, oceangoing freighters routinely churn majestically, lies just off the American shore.

Island hopping

To truly experience the Thousand Islands, however, you have to get out among them, typically via a commercial boat tour. The dominant player is Alexandria Bay-based Uncle Sam, whose two-hour, Two Nation sightseeing cruise includes a narrated natural and human history of the most picturesque stretch of the Thousand Islands, which have served in turn as Iroquois and Algonquin hunting and fishing grounds, a battleground during the War of 1812, a playground of the Gilded Age and fertile grounds for rumrunners during Prohibition. (315-482-2611; usboattours.com; $23.50 adults, $11.75 ages 5-12; other tours, including lunch, dinner, and sunset cruises also available.)

It also allows for shore leave on Heart Island, home to mind-boggling Boldt Castle (315-482-9724; boldtcastle.com; $13 adults, $7.50 ages 5-12), a six-story, 120-room stone pile built by penniless Prussian immigrant-turned fabulously wealthy New York City hotelier, George Boldt for his wife, Louise. But when Louise died unexectedly in 1904, her disconsolate husband pulled the plug on all further expenditures, effectively abandoning his edifice of affection to the harsh North Country climate and even more destructive vandals. (Boldt would not leave the area entirely empty-handed, however, having somehow acquired the recipe for Thousand Island dressing, which he would introduce at his Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.)

Now restored — but still not completed — Boldt Castle dominates the view from the tourist center of Alexandria (better known as “Alex”) Bay, which has dropped a few pegs from its own turn-of-the-20th-century heyday. Seven miles downstream, but out in the middle of the river, is the Thousand Islands’ other publicly accessible mansion, Singer Castle, built in 1902 by Frederick Bourne, then president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. (877-327-5475; singercastle.com; $14.25 adults, $7.25 ages 4-12, transportation not included.)

Twelve miles upstream lies the village of Clayton, another relict of the Victorian era. The river here, however, is significantly wider, meaning that Clayton has always been much better suited for boating and fishing. Today, it’s the home of both the surprisingly expansive Antique Boat Museum (315-686-4104; abm.org; general admission $14 adults, $7 ages 7-17) and the Thousand Islands Museum (315-686-5794; timuseum.org; free), with its Muskie (muskellunge) Hall of Fame.

Another 15 miles brings you to Cape Vincent, both a historical river town and the location of the Tibbetts Point Lighthouse. Built in 1826, the lighthouse; timuseum.org, which is closed to the public, looks westward over Lake Ontario, thus making it an ideal site for picnics and sunsets.

A Bridge to somewhere

Constructed during the height of the Depression, the iconic green Thousand Islands Bridge takes motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians up and over the ship channel to Wellesley Island, the largest of the American islands, and eventually into Canada. (Toll: $3 per car each way.) Venture east and you come to the Boldt Castle Yacht House, from which you can take a shuttle to the castle. Head west and enjoy the great views of the Rock Island Lighthouse, which is not visible from the mainland. Further on, you’ll come to Thousand Island Park — not a park at all, but a 100-year summer community composed of stunning Victorian and Queen Anne cottages.

Carrying on into Canada

While you can certainly “do” the Thousand Islands without crossing into Canada, there’s no reason not to, provided you have the time and the proper documentation. (Regular driver’s licenses don’t work.) Among the best reasons to do so are to ascend the 400-foot-tall Thousand Islands Observation Tower (613-659-2335; 1000islandstower.com; $11.95 CAD adults, $7.00 CAD ages 6-12); drive or bike the Thousand Islands Parkway, which hugs the river (Route 12 on the American side doesn’t); kayak in calmer and safer waters; explore picturesque Gananoque, which was raided by the Americans on Sept. 21, 1812, or metropolitan Kingston; and take advantage of duty-free shopping on the way back.

Other activities

“Thanks” to the water-clarifying work of the invasive zebra mussel, the St. Lawrence River, which has seen its fair share of wrecks over the years, is now a significant scuba diving destination. Those looking to stay mostly above water for their thrills can venture down to Watertown for white-water rafting on the Black River. And those interested in drinking their pleasure in small sips will find several wineries willing to oblige, particularly the Thousand Islands Winery at the base of the bridge and Coyote Moon, which offers evening wine cruises from its waterfront store in Clayton. For the kids, there are mini-golf, go-karts, drive-in theaters and — if you happen to be there Aug. 9-18 — Bill Johnston’s Pirate Days in Alex Bay.

Where to stay Insofar as the river itself is the primary attraction, it only makes sense to stay somewhere with a river view. Fortunately, there’s a literal abundance of littoral opportunity — everything from upscale resorts and hotels to more modest guesthouses, motels, cottage colonies and campsites. Also available are a number of reasonably priced cabins at many of the numerous state parks, both on the mainland and Wellesley Island.

INFO visit1000islands.com

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