The Thousand Islands is a place we’ve dreamed of coming to for years. Somehow, every time we thought about a trip here, there was some reason it didn’t work out. So, despite our delays on the Ottawa River, we were determined to make the trip. It’s only 21 miles from Kingston, Ontario to Clayton, NY, and a of the highlight of any visit to the area. We had a lazy morning knowing it was a short trip, leaving at 9:20 and arriving by noon!
Leaving Kingston, Ontario
Approaching Clayton, New York…Back in the USA for a little bit!
The Clayton Harbor Municipal Marina had been recommended to us by Rusty Rosenberger, a local Harbor Host for AGLCA. Actually, much of our trip around the area was planned around an amazing document Rusty created to help “Loopers” visiting the area. Thank you, Rusty!! We were thrilled with the facilities, which are brand new, the friendly staff and the convenient location in town.
Clayton Harbor Municipal Marina
We cleared U.S. Customs via a video kiosk in the marina office, a process that took less than 10 minutes! Super easy for us, but staff told us we were very lucky, as it’s usually significantly longer. Phew!
After getting settled and having lunch, we set off to wander through the adorable town of Clayton, with the end goal being the Antique Boat Museum.
Scenes around Clayton
Lots of yummy treats at River Rat Cheese, a must stop while in Clayton!
And along the way, a lending library courtesy of Boy Scout Troop 46
This museum houses an impressive collection of wooden sea vessels, and is considered the premier fresh water boating museum in North America. The collection of over 300 boats is housed in several buildings and covered docks behind the main building, spanning 4.5 acres. They also offer speed boat rides on beautiful old wooden vessels, which we saw zipping around the river numerous times during our stay there. It was fascinating to see the evolution of such a wide variety of boats, not to mention every part that makes them run!
The Antique Boat Museum
One of the museums classic wooden boats out on The River for a spin!
The museum is also home to La Duchesse, the massive houseboat built by George Boldt.
Interior shots of La Dutchesse. Note the use of gold leaf on both the sinks in the bathroom and the ceilings! Oh, and a book about Misty of Chincoteague!
We had a quiet evening on board, enjoying the beautiful views and sunset over the St. Lawrence.
Due to extreme high waters this spring from both rain and snow melt, the area has been very slow to open for the boating season. Local homeowners on the water are unable to open the doors to their boathouses, as all of the electric lines controlling the doors and boat lifts are under the high water. The marinas have built platforms with cleats on top of the existing docks to get them above water to accommodate boaters in their short summer season. There are still sandbags in areas along the shore, water pumps standing ready, and plenty of docks still completely submerged.
High water in Clayton, The Thousand Islands
The next morning we had reservations with Clayton River Tours for their “Two Nation Tour” that explores both the American and Canadian islands and waters from Clayton to Alexandria Bay, that included a long stop at Boldt Castle. It was a spectacular day (sunny in the high 70’s with a nice breeze), and especially nice for the Captain to take a break and let someone else do the driving!
The Thousand Islands truly need to be seen from the water. Of course, I say that without ever having seen it by land, but to see the islands, the homes on those islands, along both the American and Canadian shores are sights only visible from the St. Lawrence River. It was great to sit back and let someone else navigate the narrow, rocky channels between the islands and see spectacular homes nestled in the trees. We had great views of a stretch of coastline referred to as “Millionaires Row”. Enough said!
The area between Clayton and Alexandria Bay is incredibly beautiful. Shortly after heading downriver towards Alex Bay (as the locals call it), the river is filled with islands, homes, boats, boat garages, lighthouses, and so much more. We thoroughly enjoyed this cruise among the islands.
Our ultimate destination was Boldt Castle, and as you head down the St. Lawrence River, the towers of the castle can be seen above the trees of Heart Island, which sits in the river directly across from Alexandria Bay. George Boldt bought Hart Island in 1895, and the closer you get to the island, the more it reveals itself. Across the river from the island is the one surviving boat house of the original five George Boldt built to house his collection of hundreds of boats.
Boldt hired architectural firm Hewit and Hewit from Philadelphia to build his castle at a cost of $2.5 million. George built the Castle as a Valentine gift for his beloved wife Louise, and he meant for it to impress! The castle stands 6 stories high, with over 120 rooms, 55 fireplaces, and 365 windows. There is an elevator in the center of the castle, and an in-ground swimming pool in the basement. If the castle had been finished it would have been able to house 25 families of 4, and each family would have their own bathroom and fireplace.
It’s important to note that the island was named “Hart” when Boldt purchased it. He then changed the spelling to “Heart”, altered the topography of the island to give it a “heart shape” when viewed from the air, and incorporated hearts throughout the details (inside and out) of the castle. Remember, this was a Valentine’s Day gift!
Unfortunately the castle was never lived in by the Boldt family or any other family. In January 1904, 18 months before it was to be completed, the workers on the island received a telegram from Mr. Boldt. The telegram simply stated, “stop all work, Louise has died.”
Louise Boldt died at the age of 42 from tuberculosis. George was so saddened by her death that he never returned to the island and the castle was never finished. He did return to the Thousand Islands visiting many of the other properties that he owned.
Boldt Castle was purchased by Edward John Noble, famous for Lifesaver candies, and was opened to the public for a short time. However, Mr. Noble never spent any money on the maintenance of the castle and it soon fell into ruins.
In 1976, the Thousand Island Bridge Authority purchased Boldt Castle from the Noble foundation for $1, under three conditions:
1. Boldt Castle would never be turned into a resort.
2. Boldt Castle would be open for all the public to see.
3. All of the money collected from admission fees must go back into the maintenance and restoration of the castle.
On Heart Island itself there are numerous smaller buildings, rather ornate and whimsical, in keeping with the lavish castle that looms over them:
The Dove-Cote was the first structures built on the island. Standing in what would be the castles courtyard, this tower once housed an elevated water tank which supplied water to the island structures. It was topped with a dove house where they collected “fancy” fowl.
The Dove – Cote
The Alster Tower (also referred to as the Playhouse) was designed to resemble defense towers similar to those on the Alster River in Germany. This building was intended for the entertainment of their guests. There was a “Shell Room” designed for dancing with a roof shaped like a shell. There is a bowling alley in the the basement, and the upper floors had plans for a billiard room, a library, bedrooms, a cafe, grill and kitchen. The playhouse is currently under renovation designed to stop further deterioration of the tower. Only the entry way of the Tower is completed.
The Alster Tower
The Water Gate was modeled after Roman monuments, and built to be the formal entry for the launches delivering guests from larger yachts anchored in the harbor and friends from other islands and the mainland. Stones were cut and delivered for double rows of columns which would enclose a covered walk, extending each side of the arch. A drawbridge within the opening was to provide a promenade on the embankment of Swan Pond, but the ambitious project was still incomplete when all worked ceased on the island.
The Water Gate
One of Boldt Castle’s most photographed structures is the Power House and Clock Tower. Located on the eastern end of Heart Island, it was designed in the fashion of a Medieval Tower. To date, it is one of the Thousand Islands Bridge Authorities largest reconstruction projects after a fire in 1939 severely damaged the building. Today it stands as George Boldt had originally intended, rising out of the St. Lawrence River from an underwater shoal, connected to Heart Island by its one of a kind, picturesque, arched stone bridge. While its design is beautiful, it was designed as much for function as fashion. It housed two generators that would supply electricity to the entire island. Unfortunately much of the original equipment has been lost, only a few pieces remain on display. The Power House and Clock Tower were closed due to the high water when we visited, but that didn’t diminish it’s beauty or our visit.
The Power House and Clock Tower
And then there’s the Castle itself…
Inside the Castle the first couple of floors have been restored (in reality, created) to reflect George and Louise Boldt’s intended finished interior complete with furnishings.
Boldt Castle Interiors
Hundreds of windows have been replaced and beautiful custom made doors and decorative windows now enhance the entrances. The Castle rises six stories from the foundation level of the indoor pool to the highest towered room.
There are several floors that are completely untouched, still showing signs of both deterioration and vandalism, so keep climbing those stairs, it’s pretty interesting!
The gardens at the Castle are absolutely spectacular, and help capture George Boldt’s vision for the grounds.
After some research and digging for local knowledge, we settled on Wood Boat Brewery, across the street from the Antique Boat Museum, for dinner. The restaurant is in a beautiful old Victorian house, with a new, covered porch out front. Besides their delicious beer and cider, the WWB is known for their unique and delicious pizzas. Have you ever heard of a pizza with Thousand Island Dressing on top of it? Yes, it was invented here, and there are several legends about it which you’ll hear all about in your time here! Crazy as it sounds, it was delicious!
Wood Boat Brewery for dinner, and ice cream for dessert on the way home!
The next day we were off to Alexandria Bay for a night to explore a bit of the area further up river. We grabbed a spot on the dock at the Village Marina, arriving early, at 11:45 to ensure getting a spot. The docks were a bit shaky and rickety due to the fact that it was underwater, and had the platforms on top, with make-shift railings, with LOTS of foot traffic.
Alexandria Bay Village Marina
We were happy to get settled, have lunch and explore town a bit before our boat tour of this part of the river, and 10 miles down river to Singer Castle. The wharf for the tour to Singer is a short walk through the town of Alexandria Bay from the marina. The town is small, adorable, with a number of cute shops and restaurants, and some cool old Art Deco signs.
Downtown Alexandria Bay
This part of the St. Lawrence in the Thousand Islands is wider, with the islands farther apart, and completely different from the area we had already explored.
Heading from Alexandria Harbor to Singer Castle
Singer Castle on Dark Island
Singer Castle, is the only remaining castle on the river to be completed, fully furnished and resided in during the height of the great builders and industrialists coming from New York. The Castle remained in the possession of the original owners, the Bourne family, from its construction in 1905 until the mid 1960’s. Frederick Bourne was the fifth President of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, which is where the name “Singer Castle” came from. You’ll notice old Singer Sewing Machines in the Castle during your tour.
Tons of granite quarried from nearby Oak Island were brought over ice and water from 1903-1905 to construct Singer Castle. The construction of Singer coincided with the halting of construction at Boldt Castle, thereby saving Heart Island employees from layoff. Mr. Frederick Gilbert Bourne, who resided at the Dakota Apartments in New York City, was a self-made millionaire. The Bourne family also had a 1,000-acre summer estate in Oakdale, Long Island. Mr. Bourne wanted to surprise his wife Emma and their children with an island hunting retreat. He purchased Dark Island in 1902 and had designed and built the castle originally known as “The Towers” for a cost of US $500,000. Italian stonemasons were engaged to shape the granite for the 4-story, 28-room castle, 4-story Tower, and an elaborate boathouse (one of three) which housed a workshop and powerhouse and one of Bourne’s steam-powered vessels, the tunnels, turrets and other curious architectural details including a 2-story ice house – essential for fine entertaining at the turn of the century, dungeons and underground passageways. Over 2,000 loads of topsoil were brought from Canada to cover the eight seven acres of rock.
Singer is completely different from Boldt. It is genuinely more “castle like”, with it’s suits of armor, secret doorways and tunnels. Unlike Boldt, Singer displays the Castle as it was during it’s occupancy. Since Boldt was never finished inside, the interiors there, while beautiful, are not authentic to the home. As a result, some of the rugs and furnishings are worn here, but it does add to the charm. Surprisingly, the grounds were disappointing. They’re well manicured, but there are no gardens to speak of.
Singer Castle can also be rented out, giving you full run of the castle and the grounds for an overnight!
The Bournes believed in having the best, and it’s evident as you tour the Castle. There are telephones, radios, record players and a “spa” with a massage table, multi-jet shower and heat chamber thought to help with weight loss.
Before leaving Alexandria Bay, we wandered over to the Cornwall Bros. Store Museum where there is a small, but interesting display of the history of the River here.
Cornwall Bros. Store Museum, 1866
Just off the shore from the Cornwall Bros. Museum, there is a shipwreck popular with divers. In anticipation of the annual Pirate Days, the Alexandria Bay Chamber of Commerce posted this sign:
On July 27th, we headed for Picnic Point to spend an afternoon and night on anchor before we left the Thousand Islands. We were fortunate enough to connect with Rusty and Melissa Rosenberger, AGLCA Harbor Hosts, who had just returned from their vacation in Europe. They were kind enough to tirelessly try to connect with us, and we were thrilled that they did. We had reached out to Rusty for anchoring suggestions, as we’re being more cautious after our experience on the Ottawa River! Not only did he give us ideas for anchoring, he and Melissa, and later some of their friends, joined us in Picnic Point, where we rafted our boats together and enjoyed a beautiful afternoon and evening in great company!
Picnic Point anchorage with Rusty and Melissa Rosenberger and friends (Al, Pam, Dom, and Pam), and yes, the water really was that color!
Our last stop in the Thousand Islands was Gananoque, back on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River. It was a windy day, and busy at the fuel dock and Customs, with a lot of overly anxious boaters pushing to get into the marina…a bit chaotic to say the least. We were first put into a funky slip that didn’t reach the electric towers on the dock, so we were then moved into another slip and got settled without a problem. Jim Lund, the AGLCA Harbor Host for Gananoque, quickly came over to welcome us from his boat just down the dock. He had a great welcome bag with information about the area and home made Butter Tarts courtesy of his wife Lesley. Thank you, Lesley, they were hands down the best Butter Tarts we’ve had in Ontario!!
Gananoque is a small, but lovely town. Nancy rode her bike to the grocery store while Rob got things done aboard Misty. This was essentially a functional stop to clear customs and get us ready for the next couple of days before hitting the Trent – Severn Waterway. We were sad to say Good-Bye to the Thousand Islands, but super excited to be getting closer to the Trent – Severn Waterway and the Georgian Bay.
The Admiral, hard at work awaiting a slip assignment at Gananoque
Charming Gananoque, Ontario