Travel Guide: The Thousand Islands

This freshwater playground of vintage boats and Victorian cottages on the Saint Lawrence between New York and Ontario may be America's greatest hidden getaway. Discover where to stay, eat, and play in this watery wonderland.

By David Hanson

The down-throttled outboard hums and gurgles, pushing the fiberglass hull between a narrow pinch of dark granite bedrock. The muggy summer air seems to slow us as much as the crystal clear water. This is David Garlock's boat, and we've arrived at his favorite place in the Thousand Islands. Garlock, a 62-year-old local with a history painted in strokes of Jack London and Mick Jagger, lights up a stogie. The cigar's whiff of classy ruggedness seems the perfect tribute to this sublime water-world of museum-perfect mansions, antique craftsman boats, and a guided fishing tradition that's hardly changed in a century.

I meet Garlock at the Dancing Dog Saloon in downtown Alexandria Bay, New York, on my first morning in the Thousand Islands. Garlock was born here. He manages the family lumber and hardware store and lives year-round on an island. He uses boats (and snowmobiles) more than cars, and offers to show me around.

The Thousand Islands straddle the freshwater border between New York State and the Canadian province of Ontario, a few hours east of Niagara Falls. Here, Lake Ontario squeezes down to a mile-wide opening, relinquishing its giant tub into the Saint Lawrence River, which flows in a northeastern course to the Atlantic Ocean. In these shallow, gin-clear waters, 1,864 granite islands were left like crumbs behind the Ice Age's retreating glaciers. The largest in the archipelago, Ontario's Wolfe Island, is nearly 48 square miles, while the smallest, Tom Thumb Island, is the size of a billiard table. (To qualify as an island, the outcropping has to be above water 365 days a year and support a living tree.)

In the late 1800s, America's wealthy vacationers discovered the peaceful islands—their plentiful fishing, warm summers, and solitude—and deemed them a perfect setting for their summer camps, ornate homes on private islands with equally splendid boats (and boathouses) to match. Savvy developers picked up on the new love affair with this northern escape, and a late-Victorian-era resort destination was born. While the Thousand Islands' grandest hotels are gone, many of its mansions remain; Shingle-, Stick-, Queen Anne–, and Gothic Revival–style houses nestle among the pines, cedars, and silver granite outcrops. (Most are private, but tourist boats flock to the grandest of them, the six-story Boldt Castle.)

A river guy, I'm astonished that I've never heard of this place and its mix of natural beauty and cultural history before now. Garlock's tour continues, passing Deer Island, home of a camp owned by Yale University's secret Skull and Bones society, he tells me, and then zig-zags across the invisible United States/Canada border that itself zigs and zags along the Saint Lawrence.

It's impossible to resist the temptation of winning-lottery-ticket house hunting. Garlock prefers a small, Gothic-style home punctuated with turrets and covered balconies; I'd go with the 300-square-foot cottage sitting on a 400-square-foot island like a fat frog on a lily pad, where I could sit on my doorstep with morning coffee and dip my toes in the water.

There may not be a more handsome marriage of architecture and vehicle than the pairing of turn-of-the-century mansions with Hutchinson, Lyman, Garwood, and Chris-Craft wooden runabout boats. The hangar-like rooms of the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton house many examples of the region's original cruisers, and also a chronology of canoes and other small craft that worked the waters from times long before the millionaires arrived.

After visiting with volunteers who work in the museum's workshop restoring watercraft, I'm allowed to take an antique skiff into the bay (a common museum courtesy). At the museum's dock, I drift by La Duchesse, a houseboat—which, at 106 feet long, looks more mansion than watercraft—that belonged to George Boldt before being sold to E.J. Noble, inventor of the Lifesaver, who then sold it to Andrew McNally of Rand-McNally, who donated it to the museum. A typical legacy for Thousand Islands memorabilia.

Larry Kernehan's 26-foot Chris-Craft boat could use some love from the museum's restoration crew, but I don't tell him that. We're floating 40 feet above the 2,300-ton Keystorm, a coal steamer that sunk on a shoal in 1912. Thunderheads build slowly over the distant Canadian horizon, the blue sky keeping them at bay for now. The boat rocks gently in the calm water, and this feels more like a meditation than a fishing trip. It's been almost two hours with no luck.

In the Thousand Islands, the fishing charter is a sacred tradition. For close to 150 years, men like Kernehan have been guiding visitors and mansion guests over honey holes in search of bass, pike, walleye, and musky.

Dressed in a tan button-up shirt open to a sun-reddened chest, a cigarette hanging in front of three-day-old white scruff, Kernehan looks like a New Yorker cartoon of an old-timer fisherman. He runs charters in the boat his dad bought new in 1959. "Watch your tip," he says, sensing my reverie. The tip bobs once, then twice. I lift the pole, and it arches downward. Fish on! I reel steadily against the deep tugging. Kernehan pinches his cigarette between his teeth and grabs the net. He scoops up the 20-inch walleye and hands me the long, lean, yellow-green body with a dorsal fin like a sail.

"It's got teeth, and these fins will slice you up," he says. "Grab near the gills and hold it over the boat. That's our dinner."

In 1969, at age 19, Kernehan bought his own island here. "It's a half acre when the water's down, a third of an acre when the water rises," he says. And for Kernehan, it's the destination for every charter he runs. We head there now for a classic Thousand Islands shore dinner.

The shore dinner tradition stretches back at least to President Ulysses S. Grant's 1872 visit to the islands, the story goes, and not much has changed, frankly, other than equipping the fishing boats with engines. While I swim off the dock, Kernehan builds a wood fire in an open-air kitchen. Bacon lands first in the cast-iron skillet. He serves it crispy.

There's a plan here: Pile red onion, lettuce, thick tomato slices, and bacon slabs onto white bread and top it with Thousand Island dressing. (Yep, it was invented here.) Next, boiled and salted potatoes and chunks of flaky walleye cooked in a half-inch sizzle of skillet butter. But Kernehan's not finished. He brings over the grand finale, a stack of French toast, hot butter glittering from its pores. The maple syrup pours easy.

Sitting at that picnic table in the shade of a pine tree, with cedar smoke in the air and fresh water still damp on the skin, I slip into a quiet that's more than just belly-full bliss. I feel the pleasant heft of this unique nostalgia, built of boats and the people who've crafted their lives around them, and with them. It feels like another cigar moment.

THE DETAILS

GET HERE
The Thousand Islands region comprises roughly 11 American and Canadian communities, connected by a bridge system that's an easy crossing. From the United States side, take U.S. 81, which runs due north through Syracuse, New York.

STAY HERE
The style-savvy stay in the area is on the Canadian side at the Frontenac Club Inn, which occupies an 1845 limestone bank building in the charming town of Kingston, about a one-hour drive from Clayton. The 10 guest rooms and six suites are bright and colorful, with a low-key sophistication. Rates start at $116; 613-547-6167 or frontenacclub.com.

EAT HERE
The king of the local dining experience is a shore dinner with a fishing guide; on the mainland, the culinary scene is still a little frozen in time. Brewpubs are a solid go-to, and Wood Boat Brewery in Clayton has tasty brick-oven pizzas; 315-686-3233 or woodboatbreweryny.com.

PLAY HERE
Start at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, where you can ogle more than 300 watercraft and tour the islands in a vintage speedboat; 315-686-4104 or abm.org. Uncle Sam Boat Tours runs a variety of themed trips, including to Boldt Castle; 315-482-2611 or usboattours.com. Book an angling expedition (and shore dinner) with an excellent guide through the Alexandria Bay Fishing Guides Association; alexbayfishingguides.com. For paddlers (and pedalers), Boomerang Bike & Kayak Rentals has single and tandem kayaks and bikes;

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