The Thousand Islands region holds a special place in my heart. Located two hours north of where I grew up, it was the home of my family’s annual summer vacation. During a week spent in a cottage at Fair Wind Lodge, we’d watch morning cartoons, play mini golf, go for hikes and canoe rides, swim, eat pizza, make s’mores, and chase ships. (More on that last part soon.)
Before bringing my siblings and I throughout our childhood, my parents also spent time there.
As we’ve gotten older, trips to the Thousand Islands with all six of us are a thing of the past, but it remains a favorite place to return to whenever possible.
The Thousand Islands is a part-Canadian, part-American region comprised of more than 1,800 islands dotting the St. Lawrence River.
The river’s west end emerges from Lake Ontario and continues east to the Atlantic Ocean. As it passes between the Canadian province of Ontario and the US state of New York, there’s a stretch of about 50 miles that is home to almost two thousand islands, creating a beautiful and diverse landscape.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the peak of lavish resort life in the Thousand Islands. Wealthy visitors from New York City, Chicago, Cleveland and other major cities vacationed in the area at luxurious hotels or built summer mansions of their own.
The evolution of the automobile, gas and coal shortages during World War I, and the 1929 stock market crash are all factors that contributed to the eventual decline of the area’s heyday. The railroads and steamship lines that served as the primary means of reaching the region went by the wayside, and its position as a favored summer playground for the Northeast’s elite slowly diminished.
The Islands Today
While today’s modernized version of the Thousand Islands may seem less romantic than the era of families arriving by sleeper car with trunks in tow en route to island castles, the most important part of the region remains largely the same: the islands themselves.
With an influx of new businesses revitalizing the local community, endless opportunities for outdoor activities, and a fascinating history, the Thousand Islands is an ideal spot for a weekend getaway. (And I’ve got Thrillist to back me up.)
Bias aside – or maybe not – I think you should visit the Thousand Islands!
Here are my favorite things to do there.
*This list is organized geographically from West to East.
Visit the Tibbetts Point Lighthouse
Tibbetts Point Lighthouse in Cape Vincent, NY marks the spot where Lake Ontario turns into the St. Lawrence River. The lighthouse was built in 1854.
After the lovely drive in on County Road 6 with cottages on one side and the river on the other, there’s a collection of rocks to sit on and enjoy beautiful views over the water.
It’s also a great location for spotting cargo ships heading from the Great Lakes toward the Atlantic and vice versa.
Speaking of ships…
Ship spotting is my #1 favorite thing to do in the Thousand Islands! Our mom with binoculars and notebook in hand was a standing feature of our childhood trips; she’d keep an eye out, exclaim triumphantly at the first sight of one, identify them by the image on their smokestack, and record the passings in a log.
We’d often watch a ship pass by at one viewpoint and then hop in the car to try to catch it at the next one, too. Her excitement was contagious and each time we spied one it felt like unwrapping a much-wanted present on Christmas morning; a feeling that continues to this day whenever we visit.
Unsurprisingly, many of the places and activities on this list are perfect for ship spotting.
Take the Ferry to Kingston, Ontario via Wolfe Island
There’s a passenger and auto ferry that connects Cape Vincent to Wolfe Island, Ontario and then continues on to Kingston, Ontario.
Home to beautiful historic architecture, a summer farmers market and antiques market, art galleries, Queen’s University, a variety of great bars and restaurants, churches, and military structures, it’s a beautiful place to spend a day – or longer!
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Explore Further in Three Mile Bay
Three Mile Bay is a fifteen-minute drive inland from Cape Vincent. The area overlooks Chaumont Bay, which extends into Lake Ontario.
I went for an aimless drive here a few years ago with my mom and sister. One of our main activities involved picking out which vacation homes we’d like to buy for ourselves. (Girls can dream!) It’s a beautiful area to explore and an easy side trip from Cape Vincent.
Eat at Bella’s
Bella’s is a bakery and restaurant located right on the river in the beautiful town of Clayton, NY.
In recent years Bella’s has become a favorite and we always try to go there when we’re in the area.
They have indoor and outdoor seating with views of the water, and as Clayton’s main street is located along the Channel – the section of the river navigable by cargo ships – it’s another great place to watch for them!
Stock up at River Rat Cheese
Down the street from Bella’s is our favorite cheese shop, 1000 Islands River Rat Cheese. A community staple since 1981, they specialize in cheese spreads, cheese curds, and New York State cheddar cheese in a variety of ages and flavors. Don’t miss the free samples!
My favorite of their products is a sharp cheddar cheese spread that is ah-mazing with crackers and makes me feel like I’m eating a fancy form of Easy Cheese… which I think we can all get on board with.
Pick the Prettiest Yacht at the Antique Boat Museum
Also in Clayton is the Antique Boat Museum, showcasing 300 historic boats and nautical artifacts.
This beautiful space celebrates the area’s rich boating and yachting history with space to browse multi-level luxurious houseboats, speed boats, fishing vessels, motor boats, and more.
Boat lovers can also visit Chalk’s Marina, one of my brother’s favorite places, at Fishers Landing between Clayton and Alexandria Bay.
Enjoy a Flight at Wood Boat Brewing
Across the street from the Antique Boat Museum is Wood Boat Brewery. Wood Boat offers indoor and outdoor seating, flights, growlers, and a full menu featuring homemade brick oven pizzas.
Clayton is also home to two distilleries: Clayton Distillery and Saint Lawrence Spirits, as well as multiple wineries including Coyote Moon and Northern Flow. You can also find Thousand Islands Winery in nearby Alexandria Bay.
Relax on Clayton’s Waterfront
Frink Park along Clayton’s waterfront is another great space for river views, offering colorful Adirondack chairs and a pavilion for shade.
This area used to be the home of the Clayton Farmers Market, now held on Mary Street at the Village Park Circle. You can visit the market every Thursday between June and mid-September.
Walk Across the Thousand Islands Bridge
The Thousand Islands Bridge is one of the most iconic structures in the region. It’s actually a system of five bridges connecting the US to Canada, with the official border crossing found on the Ivy Lea section of the bridge between Wellesley Island (US) and Hill Island (Canada).
Each section of the bridge includes pedestrian walkways. The stretch I have walked before is from the US mainland to the southern side of Wellesley Island. Being on the bridge offers an aerial vantage point over the river that is absolutely beautiful.
Take a Walk at Minna Anthony Common Nature Center
This park covers 600 acres of land on Wellesley Island. In addition to the nature center itself, there are more than a dozen hiking trails to choose from. The year-round facility offers something for every season, from guided canoe trips to snowshoeing trails and a butterfly house.
The center’s namesake, Minna Anthony Common, was a local expert on the area’s flora and fauna. A resident of nearby Watertown, NY, she spent every summer living in neighboring Thousand Island Park.
Before her death in 1950, her illustrations and writings on the area’s natural history were featured in Watertown’s daily paper. The vote to dedicate the nature center to her memory in 1969 was unanimous.
Take a Step Back in Time at Thousand Island Park
Nearby Thousand Island Park, also on Wellesley Island, was founded in the late 19th century as a Methodist campground. Campsites were arranged around a centrally located Tabernacle and observance of the Sabbath was strict.
By the turn of the century, a lively summer community had been established surrounding games, boating, reading, crafting, fishing, music and more. Cottages and hotels were built in the place of the original tents. The religious emphasis slowly decreased.
Over the years, many of the homes and hotels in the Park were destroyed by fire and subsequently rebuilt. Despite repeated damage, T.I. Park remains one of the best places to see beautiful examples of 19th and 20th century resort architecture.
With its proximity to the Channel, it’s also another great spot to watch for ships.
Visit Scenic View Park
Continuing east from Clayton along the US mainland will take you to Alexandria Bay, another one of the region’s main towns.
Scenic View Park at 8 Fuller St. is a beautiful waterfront park complete with a miniature replica of the Thousand Islands Bridge. It’s a great place to enjoy a picnic or an ice cream from nearby Lil’ River Fudge Co., and – you may have guessed by now – watch for ships!
Enter Canadian Waters on an Uncle Sam Boat Tour
Uncle Sam Boat Tours is a popular boat touring company in the Thousand Islands and has been operating out of Alexandria Bay for more than 85 years.
They offer shuttles to and from Singer Castle and Boldt Castle, a one-hour cruise, and tours with lunch, dinner, and craft wine and beer tastings.
Their Two Nation Tour lasts 2 ¼ hours and takes you through American and Canadian waters while highlighting opulent island homes, Boldt Castle, and more.
No passports are required for any of their tours.
Visit the Iconic Boldt Castle on Heart Island
Boldt Castle is one of the most famous landmarks of the Thousand Islands region.
George C. Boldt, proprietor of NYC’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, began construction on the castle in 1900 in dedication to his wife Louise. Tragically, Louise died in 1904, mere months before the castle was completed. George stopped construction immediately and never returned to the island.
For more than seventy years, it stood largely abandoned, mid-construction, open to the harsh winter elements and vandalism.
In 1977, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired ownership of the property. In the years since, they have steadily renovated the castle and neighboring properties, including the powerhouse, gazebo, playhouse, and hennery.
When I visited the castle as a child with my family, the structure was very different from what you’ll find today. Walls were covered in graffiti and much of the structure remained unfinished.
This past summer I visited the castle for the first time in several years and was amazed by the extensive renovations that have transformed the property, including a stunning kitchen re-creation and the exterior Italian Gardens.
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From Boldt Castle you can take a free shuttle across the river to the Boldt Castle Yacht House located on Wellesley Island. (Alternatively, you can drive directly to the Yacht House, park, and take a boat to Boldt Castle from there.)
If you’re interested in visiting both, buying a combined admission ticket will save you a few dollars. Boldt Castle admission is $9.50 for adults and $6.50 for children. Yacht House admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children. Combined tickets are $12.50 for adults and $7.50 for children.
The boat ride to and from the main castle is a separate ticket.
The Yacht House showcases a collection of antique wooden boats displayed in partnership with Clayton’s Antique Boat Museum.
Camp at Kring Point State Park
Eight miles east of Alexandria Bay, Kring Point State Park has become our favorite place to camp in recent years.
The park is located on a peninsula, with sites on the north shore facing the St. Lawrence River and sites on the south shore facing Goose Bay.
From the campsite area you can cross a footbridge to Morgan Island, a day-use area with a short walking trail.
Two of our other camping go-tos are Dewolf Point State Park and Wellesley Island State Park, both located on Wellesley Island.
While not the most convenient destination for air travel, the Thousand Islands is a relatively easy drive from many major cities. By car, the area is two hours from Ottawa, three hours from Montréal, three and a half hours from Toronto, three and a half hours from Buffalo, and four hours from Burlington.
From NYC and Boston it’s a little further but still doable, taking about 5.5 to 6 hours respectively.
While there are plenty of year-round residents and businesses, there are also many restaurants and activities that are only open during the high season (usually June through October).
If you’re planning a visit during the off season, be sure to check in on the places you’re hoping to see to make sure they’re open.
Do you have a childhood vacation spot that you continue to visit today? I’d love to hear about it!
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