Fall in Love With the Thousand Islands
Photo: Thomas Kitchin & Victoria Hurst/Getty Images
Autumn splendour, endless waterfront views, award-winning wine and even a castle, the Thousand Islands region has everything you need for a romantic fall getaway.
Nestled between Ontario and New York State lies a sprawling archipelago of islands in the St. Lawrence River — 1864 of them, to be exact.
When you’re vacationing in the Thousand Islands, you’re on “river time” where things move at a leisurely pace and relaxing in a beautiful setting is the way to spend the day. Cool temperatures and fiery colours reflected on the water set the stage for a perfect romantic getaway.
Located midway between Toronto and Montreal on the Canadian side, the region spans several communities and two countries — each with its own unique flavour and attractions. It’s easily accessible by car from Ontario’s Highway 401 and New York State’s Route 81, and getting there is often as scenic as the destination itself.
Not sure where to start? Here’s a sample of the many sites and activities you’ll find:
Day 1: Kingston
This charming city is the perfect place to begin your getaway. Canada’s first capital city is home to many unique historical sites, such as the Kingston Mills Lockstation. This part of the Rideau Canal waterway is a great site for a romantic lunchtime picnic and some local leaf-peeping. Take a quick peak inside the Blockhouse for a look back in time to see how early lockmasters lived.
When you’re done, take Highway 15 to Highway 2 to visit Fort Henry. Originally built during the War of 1812, and rebuilt in 1832-37, this site was designed to guard the intersection of three main waterways: the Rideau Canal, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. Today the fort is a national historic site open for tours and special events, such as the Wednesday night Sunset Ceremonies and this fall’s Fort Fright haunted tour. The hill affords a few of the nearby islands and their Martello Tower fortifications.
Day 2: Gananoque and area
Today is all about the quintessential Thousand Islands activity: the boat tour. From Kingston to Gananoque you can take the 401 or opt for a more leisurely drive down Highway 2. Once you arrive in town, it’s time to board a three-hour cruise through the heart of the islands. Many cities and towns in the area offer boat tours of one, two or three hours in length, but tours departing from Gananoque or Rockport will take you further into the islands than one departing from Kingston.
A three-hour tour offers the best coverage of the channels, and they offer stories and secrets about the landscape. You’ll want to select a tour with a stop-over at Boldt Castle. Located on Heart Island in Alexandria Bay, New York, this Rhineland-style castle has a long and sad history.
Like many millionaires before him, George Boldt purchased the island to build a luxurious summer home for his wife, Louise. Unfortunately, construction was halted after she passed away in 1904, and the Boldts reportedly never returned. The Thousand Islands Bridge Authority took over the property in 1977 and has since been restoring and conserving the castle and the island’s other structures.
Day 3: Clayton and Alexandria Bay
We hope your camera-clicking finger isn’t worn out yet, because today is also full of great photo-ops. When leaving Gananoque/Ivy Lea, take the Thousand Islands Parkway to the Bridge to the U.S.A. exit. Along the way, the highway affords many views of the water and islands.
If you’re feeling brave (and wearing sturdy shoes), try walking across one of the spans that make up the Thousand Islands Bridge. At its highest point, the Canadian span towers more than 120 feet above the river, but you won’t get the best view from a car. (And yes, there is a separate sidewalk for pedestrians.)
Before you cross the U.S. span, take a little detour on Hill Island to visit the 1000 Islands Skydeck. Towering over 400 feet above the islands, the Skydeck offers three observation decks for a full 360-degree view. On a clear day, you can see as far as 65 km, according to the Skydeck website.
Afterwards it’s down to earth to learn more about the history of the region at the Antique Boat Museum in nearby Clayton, New York. The museum houses a collection of small crafts (including dug-out canoes, sailing canoes and the traditional St. Lawrence skiffs) as well as pleasure craft and speed boats in beautiful mahogany. You can even take a tour of the area in a mahogany triple-cockpit runabout. See the museum website for more details.
For a relaxing and tasty way to round out the day, head to the Thousand Islands Winery in Alexandria Bay for a tour and a sampling of some of their award-winning vintages. Selections include red, white and blush in addition to select fruit/dessert wines.
IF YOU GO
– Shop around before you book a room. Sunday nights and weekdays are less expensive than weekends, and many hotels offer special rates for two or three night stays. The closer to the water you are — and the better the view — the more you can expect to pay. In Kingston, for example, hotels in the west end are cheaper than downtown and have the added benefits of free parking and easy access to the highways.
– Dress in layers. Despite warm autumn days, it will feel cooler near or on the water — especially at night.
– Protect yourself from the sun. You may not feel the heat, but the water amplifies UV rays. A wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen and sunglasses are recommended.
– Take your travel documents. You now need a passport or NEXUS card to cross the border (including a stop at Boldt Castle).
– If you’re renting a boat, be careful where you land. Most islands are privately owned, but you can visit designated parks, like the St. Lawrence Islands National Park of Canada.