Introducing Thousand Islands Region
Virtually unknown to downstate New Yorkers, in part because of its relative inaccessibility, this region of over 1800 islands – from tiny outcroppings just large enough to lie down on to larger islands with roads and towns – is a scenic wonderland separating the US from Canada. From its source in the Atlantic Ocean far to the north, the wide and deceptively fast-moving St Lawrence River East empties into Lake Ontario at Cape Vincent. This portion of the river was once a summer playground for the very rich, who built large, stately homes here. It is still a popular vacation area known for its boating, camping and even shipwreck scuba diving.
The site of a major battle during the War of 1812, Sackets Harbor is on Lake Ontario but isn't technically part of the Thousand Islands. Still, it is a convenient starting point for touring the region. Several inviting restaurants line the street that runs down to the harbor front with waterside patio seating.
The relaxing, French-heritage village of Cape Vincent is at the western end of the river where it meets the lake. Drive out to the Tibbetts Point Lighthouse for stunning lake views; an attractive hostel shares the property. Nearby Burnham Point State Park has wooded, lakeside campsites.
Fifteen miles to the east along the Seaway Trail (Rte 12), Clayton has more than a dozen marinas and a few good eating choices in an area generally bereft of them. The Antique Boat Museum actually lets you sail or row the old vessels as you learn about them. TI Adventures rents kayaks and runs white-water-rafting trips down the Black River. Such activities are also organized by several companies in Watertown, a sizable city half an hour's drive to the south.
Lyric Coffee House, surprisingly contemporary for Clayton, serves specialty coffee drinks, gelato and pastries. as well as meat, fish and pasta mains.
Further east, Alexandria Bay (Alex Bay), an early-20th-century resort town, is still the center of tourism on the American side – its sister city is Gananoque in Canada. While it is run-down and tacky, there's enough around to keep you occupied: go-karts, mini-golf and a drive-in movie theater are only minutes away. It's also the departure point for ferries to Heart Island, where Boldt Castle marks the love story of a rags-to-riches New York hotelier who built the castle for his beloved wife. Sadly, she died before its completion. The same hotelier once asked his chef to create a new salad dressing, which was popularized as 'Thousand Island' – an unfortunate blend of ketchup, mayonnaise and relish. Uncle Sam's Boat Tours has several departures daily for its recommended two-nation cruise (visiting both the US and Canadian sides of the river), which allows you to stop at Boldt Castle and ride back on one of its half-hourly ferries for free.
Wellesley Island State Park offers camping, which is probably the best accommodations option even for the raccoon-averse. Many sites are almost directly on the riverfront and some have their own 'private' beaches. The island is only accessible by crossing a toll portion ($2.50) of the Thousand Islands Bridge.
There are several supposedly upscale resorts around Alex Bay, though none is especially good value. Probably the best midrange choice is Capt Thomson's Resort on the waterfront next to the office for Uncle Sam's Boat Tours.
Jet Blue has regular daily flights to Hancock International Airport (SYR) in Syracuse, 90 minutes south. Several major car-rental agencies have offices in the airport. Cyclists will enjoy the mostly flat Scenic Byway Trail.