Thousand Islands a delightful region to cruise

History, opulence, natural wonders and serene views are all yours on one of these two tranquil cruises down the St. Lawrence

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TORONTO, Ont. Oct. 21, 2016/ Troy Media/ – My favourite Canadian archipelago — a cluster of islands near a mainland – is in the St. Lawrence River.

The misnamed Thousand Islands is really 1,864 islands, some large like Wellesley Island, home to the Wellesley Island State Park, and others quite tiny.

How tiny? For island status, there must be at least one square foot of land above water level year-round, and it must support two living trees.

These inviting islands, most popular in the summer, stretch for 80 km downstream from Kingston, Ont. Two-thirds belong to Ontario, the other third to New York.

To fully appreciate the huge Can-Am archipelago, take two cruises, first from Gananoque, 20 minutes east of Kingston, and then from Alexandria Bay, N.Y.

The Gananoque Boat Line operates five triple-decker, all-aluminum vessels. I opted for their one-hour cruise aboard the 1000 Islander, captained by Tim Brooks and Ryan Riddell, Gananoque natives.

Tim explains that the “ship’s small 5.5-foot draw allows access everywhere, even into the shallows.” The water is quite crowded on this sunny morning with motor boats, sailboats, cruisers and a squadron of brave kayakers.

Private cottages set amidst the islands belong to business and political leaders from Canada and the U.S. Many have been in the same families for generations.

We venture through narrow channels of the Admiralty and Navy group of islands, viewing small lighthouses and watching for great blue heron, osprey and geese. We pass several parks, including the Thousand Islands National Park, and McDonald, Forsythe, Hay, Lindsay, Leek and Bostwick Islands.

The area offers several shipwreck sites, and although most are over 30 metres deep, some are a mere 4.5 metres down and can be seen from the surface.

Tim and Ryan report that muskellunge are the most prized fish here. The remarkable record catch is just one ounce short of 70 pounds, but 20-to-30-p0unders are much more common. Pike, pickerel, bass and several other species are also abundant here.

Towards the end of the cruise, we come upon an unusual sight. Upon a minuscule island, wedged miraculously between a cottage and a docked boat, is a small helicopter. I would like to watch it get in and out of its postage-stamp-sized pad.

On the American side at Alexandria Bay, opposite Boldt Castle, I take the early-morning Uncle Sam’s 2 Nation Tour, a two-and-a-quarter-hour cruise with captain Kenneth Belfield.

Ken adeptly steers our impressive (and quite full) stern wheeler among such highlights as Millionaires Row (at the beginning of the tour to set the tone). It’s a grouping of opulent summer residences built by the super rich of the 1920s, when each millionaire tried to outdo the other in size and grandeur. Boldt Castle leads the way.

In 1900, George Boldt, general manager of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City and the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, started to build the huge structure as a present to his wife. The six-storey castle is one of the largest private homes in the United States.

Equally distinctive is a huge yacht house on a neighbouring island, where the Boldts had another summer home and a vast estate, incorporating farms, canals, a golf course, tennis courts, stables and a polo field. You can imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby walking about.

In 1904, construction ceased abruptly after the death of Boldt’s wife, Louise. He never returned to Heart Island. For 73 years, the castle and other structures were exposed to theft and harsh weather.

The Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired Heart Island and the yacht house in 1977 for $1. All revenues from the castle operation go to restoration so the island can be preserved for the enjoyment of visitors. More than $15 million has been spent on restoration and improvements, and work continues.

We pass several islands with suggestive names. Devil’s Oven was the tiny cave-like hiding place that pirate Bill Johnston used during the Patriot War of 1837. We see Tom Thumb Island, Fiddler’s Elbow and Smuggler’s Cove. We cruise by the Summerland group of islands, Grenadier Island, the Canadian Palisades, view the imposing Thousand Islands Tower on Hill Island, a 120-metre-tall observation deck, and take in the Whirlpool Channel.

We see international ships heading upriver to ports ringing the Great Lakes or downriver to the ocean and distant lands. Kayaks cruise the shoreline and powerboats criss-cross the main shipping channel.

At the end of the cruise, you can disembark at Heart Island to enjoy a self-guided tour of Boldt Castle and return to the mainland (every 30 minutes) on smaller vessels.

We cover 35 km round-trip through American and Canadian waters, the heart of the Thousand Islands, while listening to informative talks by a young tour guide who provides a lively narrative.

Did you know:

• I had just finished Anne Michaels’ novel [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]The Winter Vault[/popup], which deals with the widening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The seaway is recognized as one of the most challenging engineering feats in history. Seven locks were built in the Montreal-Lake Ontario section of the seaway, five Canadian and two American, to lift vessels to 75 metres above sea level.

• Thousand Island salad dressing was named for the chain of islands by May Irwin, an actress who popularized the dressing. She thought the chopped vegetables in the dressing looked like the Thousand Islands region.

What to do:

[popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]Gananoque Boat Line[/popup]

[popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]Uncle Sam Boat Tours[/popup]

Where to stay:

[popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]The Gananoque Inn and Spa[/popup]

[popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]The 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel[/popup]

What to see:

The spectacular [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]Antique Boat Museum[/popup] in Conroy, N.Y.

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