Road trip to Thousand Islands on US-Canada border

The Thousand Islands, a dramatic glacier-etched archipelago in the St. Lawrence River that straddles the maritime border between the United States and Ontario, Canada, was a favorite summer playground of the Gilded Age wealthy.

Today the islands — 1,864, to be exact, from the large and habitable to little more than tree-sprouted shoals — are popular spots for outdoor recreation, historic sightseeing, food and craft beverages, and even a rich shipwreck-diving scene.

The region might seem like a long haul for a weekend getaway, but it’s well worth it. The ideal time to visit is late summer through mid-fall, when the crowds have thinned, the forests are flush with jewel-toned foliage, and warm days give way to nights cool enough for gathering around the fire pit.

Find more weekend road trips: Coastal Rhode Island | Lower Adirondacks | Cape Ann, Massachusetts

How to get to the Thousand Islands

Nonstop flights are available from JFK to Syracuse Hancock International Airport. Amtrak’s Empire Service can also transport you from Penn Station to Syracuse in about 5.5 hours. From there, you’ll need to rent a car and drive 90 minutes to the Thousand Islands. Driving from New York City, via I-380 North to I-81 North, takes about six hours.

Train service is available from Albany to Syracuse, and takes about 2.5 hours. Bus service is a little cheaper, but takes twice as long. The best bet is driving, via I-90 West to 12 North, which takes 3.5 hours.

Day 1: Castles, raw nature and a quaint riverfront town

Start in Alexandria Bay, or Alex Bay to locals. While touristy, it’s also the best springboard for several of the region’s marquee outdoor activities. Have a quick breakfast at the new Alex Bay Juice Co. (39 Church St.)where you can choose from cold-press juices and smoothie bowls.

Afterward, take a cruise around the islands. Clayton Islands Tours’ new five-hour Ultimate Sightseeing Tour on the St. Lawrence River takes a “greatest hits” approach to the river’s best-loved sites — Millionaire’s Row, home to majestic Gilded Age summer homes; Rock Island Lighthouse; and Boldt Castle — along with a picnic lunch.

For a look at what lies beneath, go scuba diving to some of the thousands of shipwrecks cradled against the floor of the St. Lawrence River. Warm, clear waters make it possible to explore a gone-but-not-forgotten 18th-century French cutter captured during the War of 1812, a schooner accidentally sliced ​​in half by a passing freighter in the early 1900s, and the Eastcliffe Hall, a 2,000-ton, 252-foot cargo vessel that struck a shoal in 1970 and took her crew of nine to Davy Jones’s locker.

There are many options for taking a cruise around the islands.

Provided by Visit 1000 Islands

The St.  Lawrence River historically was a prominent trading byway, and its floor is littered with thousands of shipwrecks.

The St. Lawrence River historically was a prominent trading byway, and its floor is littered with thousands of shipwrecks.

Provided by Visit 1000 Islands

Back on land, stop for refreshment at Dark Island Spirits (42 Church St.), maker of bourbons, whiskeys, brandies, vodkas, gins and liqueurs. Their craft cocktails are potent and surprisingly inexpensive.

Landlubbers should head eight miles south, across the scenic Thousand Islands Bridge, to Wellesley Island State Park (44927 Cross Island Road), home to the region’s largest camping complex, nine miles of hiking trails, a sandy beach and a golf course. Walk the three-mile shoreline trail of the Minna Anthony Common Nature Centernamed for a pioneering yet little-known female ecologist, pausing on the rocky outcrop of the River Trail overlooking The Narrows for a panoramic photo.

As afternoon slides into evening, stop in Clayton. A former shipbuilding and lumbering port town, it boasts a petite, newly renovated downtown lined with historic architecture, including the Clayton Opera House (403 Riverside Drive)a former vaudeville theater that now hosts live performances.

The downtown has several shops, restaurants and cultural attractions. The Thousand Islands Arts Center (314 John St.) has an unusual collection of and offers classes in handweaving. The Antique Boat Museum (750 Mary St.) isn’t just a showcase for 320 unique boats; it also hosts educational programs and an annual boat show. Via their Ride the River program, you can enjoy a comprehensive tour of the islands from the stern of the Miss Thousand Islands II.

Clayton is a former shipbuilding and lumbering port with a newly renovated downtown.

Clayton is a former shipbuilding and lumbering port with a newly renovated downtown.

Robin Catalano / Special to the Times Union

Wellesley Island State Park has nine miles of hiking trails, a golf course and the region's largest campground.

Wellesley Island State Park has nine miles of hiking trails, a golf course and the region’s largest campground.

Provided by Visit 1000 Islands

The Antique Boat Museum in Clayton has 320 unique seafaring vessels.

The Antique Boat Museum in Clayton has 320 unique seafaring vessels.

Damien Dorr Photography

Savor sunset over the river at the farm-to-table St. Lawrence Spirits Chateau (38289 State Route 12E). Two top picks: the burrata with lemon-pickled watermelon and basil over arugula and the catch of the day, seared and spiced with za’atar and served with a quinoa-Castelvetrano olive salad. Their distillery makes the spirits used in their cocktails, including an unusual line of absinthes.

​Day 2: Lighthouses, a Revolutionary battlefield and boutique shopping

In Cape Vincent, once home to Joseph Bonaparte, brother of the infamous French dictator, have breakfast downtown at homey, nautical-themed Coal Docks (592 Broadway St.). Then drive or bicycle (call 613-382-4232 for rentals) along the rocky shoreline of Route 6 to Tibbetts Point Lighthouse (933435 Tibbetts Point Road). Located at the confluence of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, this beacon, built in 1854, features the only original working Fresnel lens in the region. Because it’s still an active navigational aid, visits are restricted to the exterior.

Go stand-up paddleboarding, swimming, or kayaking from Burnham Point State Park (340765 State Route 12E) or any of the other state parks in the region. The St. Lawrence stays warm enough for dipping all the way through early October.

Sit down to an early lunch in Pockets Harbor at the Whiskey Coop (214 1/2 Main St.). The Southern-influenced menu features recipes like crispy buttermilk-battered chicken breast with pickled jalapenos, dill pickles and cheddar, and a rich, cookielike Kentucky Derby pie made with chocolate, bourbon and walnuts.

Tibbetts Point Lighthouse, built in 1854, features the only original working Fresnel lens in the region.  It is still an active navigational aid.

Tibbetts Point Lighthouse, built in 1854, features the only original working Fresnel lens in the region. It is still an active navigational aid.

Provided by Visit 1000 Islands

The Whiskey Coop in Sackets Harbor has a Southern-influenced menu with items like crispy buttermilk-battered chicken breast and a Kentucky Derby pie.

The Whiskey Coop in Sackets Harbor has a Southern-influenced menu with items like crispy buttermilk-battered chicken breast and a Kentucky Derby pie.

Provided by Visit 1000 Islands

For an overview of this beautifully preserved historic village, a strategic spot during the War of 1812, pay a visit to the Pockets Harbor Heritage Area Visitors Center (301 W. Main St.) or head straight for the Pockets Harbor Battlefield(504 W. Main St.)site of a crucial skirmish. Sail Ontario (102 Navy Point Road) offers sailing lessons that whisk you past the battlefield and out into the open water of Lake Ontario.

Main Street in Sackets Harbor is home to a handful of shops, cafes, and pubs. Pick up cheeky gifts at the Paisley Lily Boutique (208 Main St.) or locally created art and jewelry at the Pockets Harbor Arts Center (119 W. Main St.). The latter also hosts classes on topics like painting, needle felting and natural dyeing.

For a nice selection of tea and accessories, including Japanese teapots and cups, go to the Handmaiden’s Garden (117 W. Main St.). Refuel for your trip home with one of their bubble teas, or else a coconut mocha frappe and a cinnamon roll from Chrissy Beanz Bakery (105 W. Main St.).

Where to stay in the Thousand Islands

Budget travelers will appreciate this modern, soothing apartment in Pockets Harboror this tiny home in Henderson Harbor. There are also plenty of affordable camping optionsincluding on Wellesley Island.

For a midpriced room in a superb location with gorgeous views of the St. Lawrence, book a stay at the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel (200 Riverside Drive) in Clayton. The Wooden Boat Inn (606 Alexandria St.)also in Clayton, is a quirky boutique property with a sweet courtyard and a screened porch for sipping coffee in the morning or a glass of wine at night.

In the spurge category, Casa Blanca Cherry Island and Belle Island offer luxury private rentals, with spectacular views, for small groups.

Rooms at the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, in Clayton, range from about $180 to $429 per night.

Rooms at the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, in Clayton, range from about $180 to $429 per night.

Atwood Media Productions

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