30 miles NW from Watertown; 90 miles N from Syracuse
Ask a downstate New Yorker about the Thousand Islands and chances are you'd be met with a thousand yard stare. Formerly one of the state's prime vacation destinations, these days it's only a household name if you like the salad dressing. While that creamy concoction did originate here (see: "The Skinny on Salad Dressing"), this isn't exactly a reason to visit. The real appeal for the faithful is the stunning natural beauty, and an abundance of fish and wildlife.
Spanning a 50-mile stretch on the southern end of the Saint Lawrence River, the islands were carved out of granite formations left some 10,000 years ago by a retreating glacier. Their beauty has long captivated lucky visitors: Iroquois legend describes them as "spilling like flowers from creation's basket." Equally taken by the archipelago, French explorers coined the name we use today. The exact number of islands depends on who's counting, but everyone seems to agree that it's well over 1,000; 1,800 or so is more likely. They range from small, rocky outcroppings to sprawling tracts fit for a king -- or at least a castle, and there are two here dating back to the region's heyday.
A century ago, this "Venice of the New World" attracted a who's who of the rich and famous. Millionaires of the Industrial Revolution would come north by private rail car and be swept off in private water taxis to glamorous hotels, or to the islands they owned. But the grand hotels have long since burned down; in their place you'll find more modest accommodations. And while many of the islands' mansions are still standing, most are private property.
Today's Thousand Islands experience is one of taking it all in -- sitting on the dock or in a boat, watching the day go by on the river. Alexandria Bay is at the heart of it all, attracting families and fisherman alike, while the Antique Boat Museum of Clayton exhibits one of the world's best collections of recreational freshwater boats. Farther down the coast, don't forget little Sackets Harbor -- though technically just out of the region, it's only a short drive, and has a history and charm of its own.
The Skinny on Salad Dressing -- Yes, Thousand Island dressing did indeed originate in these here parts -- to be specific, in the town of Clayton. A fishing guide named George LaLonde offered this new and unusual dressing as part of his shore dinners served after a long day of fishing. The dressing went public at the hotel that's now called the 1000 Islands Inn, and the recipe ended up in the hands of George Boldt, Thousand Islands resident and owner of New York City's Waldorf=Astoria Hotel, who put it on his hotel's menu. You can still get "original recipe" dressing right at the 1000 Islands Inn if you're lucky: Only 5,000 bottles are produced each year and are sold between mid-May and mid-September for $6.95 each.