A Guide to Vacationing on the Thousand Islands
Just off Highway 401 in Ontario, Canada, a rugged wilderness area carved by receding glaciers more than 12,000 years ago marks the international border between the United States and Canada. Exactly 1,846 of them poke above the surface of the St. Lawrence River, making an incredibly unique landscape for travelers wandering off Canada's well-trod tourist path.
The Thousand Islands region — which spreads across 50 miles and covers territory in both the U.S. as well as Canada — is incredibly remote. Equipped with a simple paddle boat, travelers can venture down smaller channels and shorelines that are normally be inaccessible.
Navigate the intricate network of islands to go picnicking on Mallorytown Landing, to visit a full-scale Rhineland palace on a heart-shaped island, or to eat salads generously drenched in the famous dressing. Wherever you moor your boat, you'll find endless off-the-grid adventure.
See a real American castle
In the late 19th century, the Thousand Islands drew upper-crust travelers from New York, Chicago, and Cleveland, who all viewed the region as their own exclusive summer retreat (hence the grand hotels and luxury steamboat tours that once crowded the shores of the St. Lawrence). Today, visitors can still admire the opulent Boldt Castle — a 120-room, 5-building compound — commissioned by millionaire and Waldorf Astoria proprietor, George Boldt. The palatial home occupies a heart-shaped island (on the New York side), has a private bowling alley, and can be rented out for weddings and private events.
Sleep in a national park
One of Canada’s smallest national parks, Thousand Islands National Park, was founded in 1914, and today spans 19 islands. It’s a great introduction to the region’s breathtaking scenery, which ranges from rugged granite shorelines to windswept pines surrounding Victorian mansions.
Start at the Visitor Center, which is roughly a two-hour drive from either Syracuse, New York, or Montreal in Canada.
Whether camping or sleeping in an oTENTik (a kind of platform tent-cabin hybrid that’s unique to the park), there are plenty of opportunities for visitors looking to spend the night on one of the park's islands. Take a multi-day kayaking trip down the St. Lawrence, stopping off at a different island each night to grill fresh-caught fish on the beach (waterfront picnics are, in fact, an important ritual in the Thousand Islands). But what travelers love most is the solitude. Gordon Island, for example, has just two cabins, so you’ll feel like you have the whole place to yourself. (Just be sure to reserve your cabin well in advance.)
Take a boat ride
With the St. Lawrence River as the main thoroughfare, it makes sense to explore the coastal region by boat. For those who don’t own one, there are plenty of outfitters, including Ahoy Rentals in Kingston, Ontario. They'll loan out kayaks (as well as canoes, stand-up paddleboards, and sailboats) at a rate of $15 an hour, or $45 for the full day. Meanwhile, 1000 Islands Kayaking will even shuttle you and your kayak to an island of your choosing, allowing you to explore more remote sections of the St. Lawrence entirely at your own pace.
If you prefer to sit back and let someone else do the navigating, try a 90-minute sightseeing cruise on a triple-deck paddle wheeler, where an on-board guide will explain the unique history of important Thousand Island sites, like Fort Henry and the Kingston Penitentiary. Can’t handle the crowds? A 60-minute customizable water taxi tour, aboard a pontoon, might be for you.
Eat the famous salad dressing
As you might have guessed, the eponymous salad dressing was reportedly born in the Thousand Islands. Legend has it that the original recipe — a kitchen sink combo of ketchup, mayonnaise, and chopped onion — came from fishermen, who blended ingredients haphazardly from their lunch boxes. Later, George Boldt (yep, that one), brought it to the attention of diners at his Manhattan hotel, the Waldorf-Astoria, and a much-loved condiment was born.
Visit a cathedral in the water
Every July and August, visitors show up from around the world to worship together inside an open-air “cathedral” that occupies a former glacial pothole. The tradition itself dates back to 1887, and despite some minor technological updates (motor boats, electric lighting, a speaker system), the service itself remains unchanged. After dropping anchor inside Half Moon Bay, the congregation enjoys a sermon — delivered by a minister from a granite rock pulpit — while a collections basket is passed from boat to boat.