With a built-in tourist attraction—the impressive St. Lawrence and its more than 1,000 islands—the villages and small cities that dot the shoreline know that warm weather is fleeting and plan accordingly. There is something for everyone to do between now and the end of summer in the Thousand Islands. And the trip to Alexandria Bay is a mere 90 minutes from the Syracuse area.
Heading north on Interstate 81 for 70 miles from Syracuse leads you directly into Watertown, a small city that brings all the national retailer comforts of home. Beyond stopping for a quick cup of coffee or lunch before you head to the river, you can visit the indigenous animals at the New York State Zoo at Thompson Park (782-6180; www.nyszoo.org); partake in the seven miles of whitewater rafting on the Black River ((800) 847-5263; www.blackriverny.com); or take a Downtown Walking Tour, including the Washington Street Arboretum (both at www.watertown-ny.gov).
The terminus of Route 81 takes you into Alexandria Bay, the most touristy of all the spots along the river. Highlights include Mazeland, Route 12, one full acre of 8-foot evergreens to get lost and found inside (482-5128; www.mazeland.us); Cornwall Brothers Store, Market Street (482-4586; www.alexandriahistorical.com), with its pictorial displays of hotels, boats and river life, as well as antiques; and Aqua Zoo, 43681 Route 12 (482-5771; www.aquazoo.com), a pricy but worth-it look at fish, coral and invertebrates from around the world.
Must-sees include Boldt Castle, Heart Island, Alexandria Bay (482-2501; www.boldtcastle.com), erected for love and abandoned when the object of affection died. Take a self-guided tour of the 120-room castle and perhaps you’ll observe a wedding or two. In nearby Chippewa Bay stands Singer Castle (324-3275; www.singercastle.com). Take a 45-minute guided tour of the grounds and four floors of the castle built by millionaire Frederick Gilbert Bourne of the Singer Sewing Machine Co.
Most visits to the region mandate a trip across or on the river, and Alexandria Bay is happy to provide. The major river crossing looms just west of the Bay, via the Thousand Islands International Bridge (www.tibridge.com), which provides easy access to and from Canada along its 8.5-mile suspension bridge spans. Constructed at a cost of $3 million and dedicated on Aug. 18, 1938, by President Franklin Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, the bridge did more for international relations than Molson and Labatt’s combined. Crossing isn’t as easy as just a few years ago, however; New Yorkers traveling into Canada need to carry either a passport or an enhanced driver’s license. And if you’re bringing children, be sure to have their birth certificates.
As for travels on the water, there is no lack of boat tours of all sizes, durations and themes to keep travelers happy. Boat cruises that tour the region leave port about every half-hour from Clayton and Alexandria Bay on the American side and Gananoque, Kingston, Rockport, Brockville and Ivy Lea on the Canadian side. Most cruises are narrated, providing commentary on the history and folklore of the islands. Most make stopovers at Boldt Castle and Singer Castle. Among them: 1000 Islands & Seaway Cruises, Brockville, (800) 353-3157; Gananoque Boat Line, 280 Main St., Gananoque, and 95 Ivy Lea Road, Ivy Lea, (888) 717-4837; 1000 Island Cruises, 23 Front St., Rockport, (800) 563-8687; Uncle Sam Boat Tours, 47 James St., Alexandria Bay, (888) 253-9229; and Clayton Island Tours, Riverside Drive, Clayton, 686-4820.
Speaking of Clayton, let’s head west from A-Bay to check out the other domestic riverfront attractions. Lovely town that Clayton is, it’s full of quality museums and spots to sit riverside and enjoy the view. Thousand Island Arts Center, 314 John St. (686-4123; www.tiartscenter.org), is home to the Handweaving Museum and holds many special events and exhibits throughout the summer. The Thousand Islands Museum, 312 James St. (686-5794; www.timuseum.org), boasts a display of award-winning muskellunge caught in the region, as well as historic programs. The Antique Boat Museum, 750 Mary St. (686-4104; www.abm.org), is well worth a visit to marvel at the 100-plus gorgeous antique bots, motors and engines. Speedboat rides are available as well.
Next over is Cape Vincent, decidedly sleepier than its neighbor but containing a few attractions worth your time. Tibbets Point Lighthouse Visitor Center, 33435 Tibbets Point Road (654-2700) pictured on page 24, is a historic lighthouse situated at the point where Lake Ontario narrows into the St. Lawrence River. Tours are available. Recently refurbished is the State Department of Environmental Conservation Research Station & Aquarium, 541 E. Broadway (654-2147), open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Inside you’ll find five tanks with fish native to local waters, as well as picnic, fishing and restroom facilities.
And if you’re looking for a nifty way to cross the border, check out Horne’s Ferry (783-2402; www.hornesferry.com), running between Cape Vincent and Wolfe Island, Ontario. From there you can hang out on that island (it’s great for biking), or take the enormous ferry in Kingston. Horne’s Ferry doesn’t hold too many cars, so it’s best to line up early; it runs from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and there is a fee.
Southwest of Cape Vincent, along the Lake Ontario shoreline, you’ll find Three Mile Bay, Sackets Harbor and Henderson Harbor, comprising the Golden Crescent, a deep-water harbor area rich with fishing and boating opportunities. If angling ain’t your thang, take in the tourist attractions at pretty Sackets Harbor. Head to the Seaway Trail Discovery Center, 410 W. Main St. ((800) 732-9298; www.seawaytrail.com), with interactive exhibits about the region. Or the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site, 504 W. Main St. (646-3634), spot for two battles of the War of 1812 and holding some interesting buildings and exhibits. It’s also a nice place for a picnic. Or for something completely different, try the Lake Ontario Playhouse, 103 W. Main St. (646-2305; www.payhousecomedy.com), featuring well-known standup comedians, summer theater productions and dances.
Ready to check out the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River? Make sure you have your proper identification and cash to pay the toll. You can cross at either the Thousand Islands Bridge or, 36 miles downriver, take the usually less crowded Ogdensburg Bridge (393-4080; www.ogdensport.com), which leads motorists to Prescott, Ontario, where we can begin our Canadian tour. First up is the Fort Wellington National Historic Site, 370 VanKoughnet St. ((613) 925-2896), constructed during the War of 1812 when it was thought those pesky Americans might invade. Now that things have settled down, Americans are more than welcome.
A little far afield, but worth a visit, is the Historic Cornwall Jail, 11 Water St. W., Cornwall ((613) 938-4748; www.cornwalljail.com), built in 1834 and operated until it closed in 2002. Cell blocks, common areas, exercise yard and visitation area have all been maintained. Learn the stories of prison life from the point of view of both guards and inmates, and scare the kids at the same time.
Heading back downriver you’ll come to Morrisburg, where Upper Canada Village Heritage Park, 13740 County Road 2 ((613) 543-4328; www.uppercanadavillage.com), will bring you close to life in the 1860s through costumed interpreters and entertainment; it’s similar to Cooperstown’s Farmers’ Museum. Close by is Upper Canada Playhouse, 12320 County Road 2 ((613) 543-3713; www.uppercanadaplayhouse.com), home to a four-show summer season of theater.
West of Prescott, you’ll hit the village of Brockville, called the “City of the 1000 Islands.” One of the oldest communities in Ontario, Brockville is host to many summer festivals, including the 1000 Islands Wine and Food Festival, Riverfest, 1000 Islands Jazz Fesvital and the Tiko Dog Show. Cyclists can access a 37-kilometer (23-mile) stretch of trail parallel to the 1000 Islands Parkway linking Brockville, Rockport, Ivy Lea and Gananoque.
While in Gananoque, check out the Arthur Child Heritage Museum of the 1000 Islands, 125 Water St. ((613) 382-2535; www.1000islandsheritagemuseum.com), where visitors can experience the history, life and times of the region. Also there is the Thousand Islands Playhouse, 185 South St. ((613) 382-7086; www.1000islandplayhouse.com), celebrating 30 seasons of professional theater. And if gambling is on your summer agenda, you won’t want to miss Casino Thousand Islands, 380 Highway 2 W ((513) 382-6800; www.olg.ca), with slot machines, table games and tasty cuisine. You must be age 19 to enter.
Worth more than a day-trip visit is Kingston, site of the original capital of Canada, known as the city of museums for these impressive examples: Fort Henry, International Hockey Hall of Fame, Maclachlan Woodworking Museum, Penitentiary Museum and Union Gallery. In addition to the culture of Kingston, you’ll find a vibrant downtown with shops, restaurants, parks, a historic walking tour and spots to hang out and watch the river flow. It’s really worthy of a weekend getaway. When you’re ready to return home, line up for the free Wolfe Island Ferry (www.wolfeisland.com) to link with Horne’s Ferry and Cape Vincent. Be sure to double-check the schedule so you’re not stranded overnight in Marysville. b