Thousand Islands revisited
River delights in and around Clayton, New York
A fatback, onion, and Thousand Islands dressing sandwich
In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant took a fishing trip to a sleepy area of northern New York along the St. Lawrence River. This campaign rest break and social visit—hosted by millionaire George Pullman of the eponymous railroad sleeping car—caught the attention of the press and the public, and high society soon flocked to the Thousand Islands. Hotels and summer mansions sprang up, establishing the region as “the Riviera of the East.”
The nearly 2,000 islands that make up the Thousand Islands region continue to entice visitors. And these days, you don’t need to be a Gilded Age millionaire to appreciate the cool river breezes, an assortment of tasty local brews and bites, and sunsets to rival any tropical beach.
A community on the water
At the turn of the twentieth century, eleven passenger trains terminated daily at what is now Frink Park in the village of Clayton, where passengers could continue via steamboat to an island hotel. Today, colorful Adirondack chairs, a river promenade, and a new park pavilion entice travellers to stay awhile in Clayton, a historic town that manages to at once feel both vibrant shopping center and quaint fishing village.
Settled in 1822, the historic district sits on a peninsula in the St. Lawrence. A well-preserved collection of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings house clothing boutiques, art galleries, gourmet food shops, and an endearing five-and-dime style hardware store.
A collaborative effort by residents and business owners has brought new development to Clayton, re-energizing the village as a tourist draw while maintaining the family-friendly and welcoming waterfront experience generations of visitors have come to know and love.
A new 105-room waterfront resort hotel, expanding wineries and distilleries, and a focus on the arts and culture highlight this village hub of Thousand Islands life.
The best view of both the U.S. and Canadian shorelines is from the water. Beautiful Victorian homes, expansive modern mansions, and quaint cottages perch atop rocky coasts and small islands. The international boundary line winds its way through the St. Lawrence, creating an unnoticeable distinction between the two countries. The occasional flagpole or sticker on a docked boat offer clues as to which homes sit in which nation.
For an easy day trip from Clayton, head about twelve miles northeast to the village of Alexandria Bay for a cruise with Uncle Sam Boat Tours. Grab a seat on the upper deck for a scenic two-hour, two-nation narrated ride around the islands—no passport required. The boat stops at the well-known attraction of Boldt Castle for a self-guided look around the 120-room mansion. Built by hotelier George Boldt for his wife, Louise, construction halted in 1904 when she died unexpectedly. After years of sitting abandoned, construction resumed in 1977 when the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority purchased the property for one dollar. Boldt’s descendants requested the home-now-museum be left slightly unfinished as a tribute to George and Louise. The ongoing renovations include a newly furnished kitchen and dining room and an Italianate sculpture garden.
For a more personal tour of the waters around Clayton, hire a charter with Classic Island Cruises. A sunset sail aboard a 1953 Chris Craft is perfect for a romantic evening or a day of island hopping with friends—wine and cheese included.
Arts and culture
A town so deeply rooted in river life is a natural home to Clayton’s 4.5 acre indoor/outdoor Antique Boat Museum. The waterfront campus’s collection of more than 320 boats ranges from utilitarian canoes to elegant wooden speedboats. In season, get out with the museum staff for a free sailing lesson or skiff ride. Be sure to board the 106-foot La Duchesse, a fully restored houseboat designed for George Boldt. Built in 1903, the elegant floating residence underwent a complete restoration in the 1940s, including salvaging the sunken ship, by then owner Andrew McNally III of Rand McNally Maps. The family later donated La Duchesse to the museum for public tours.
In the village center, the Clayton Opera House is drawing big name acts for concerts, comedy shows, and festivals. A community effort raised the funds to renovate the circa 1904 building and create a year-round, 500-seat performance space and ballroom, hosting more than 150 events annually.
Tastes of the town
The national craft beverage trend is hitting Clayton, with a scene that includes local brews, wine, and distilled spirits. At the downtown Woodboat Brewery, a rotating selection of craft beers tastily washes down unusual wood-fired pizzas with thicker-than-average crusts and unique toppings like corned beef and sauerkraut. Just outside of town, the Clayton Distillery and the soon-to-open St. Lawrence Spirits ferment moonshines, whiskeys, and bourbons for tastings and regional distribution.
South from the river, an expansive plateau of farmland is hosting more and more vineyards of winter-hearty grapes. Wineries, including Clayton’s Coyote Moon, are winning gold medals on the national stage with their Frontenac, Marquette, and crisp, Riesling-like La Crescent wines. Coyote Moon hosts numerous summer festivals and operates a tasting room in the heart of the village.
For breakfast with a view, head to Bella’s on Clayton’s waterfront. Lemon ricotta stuffed french toast, rotating quiche options, and homemade cookies fill plates and bellies. And for an afternoon snack, don’t miss River Rat Cheese—eponymous for a once derogatory and now point-of-pride nickname for locals. River Rat’s famous cheese curd and cheddar are sold in their flagship village store and throughout the region.
Katie DeTar is the host and producer of the television travel series Fringe Benefits, airing now on public television stations. Learn more at katiedetar.com.
Where to stay
The new Thousand Islands Harbor Hotel in Clayton hearkens back to the days of glorious summer resorts along the St. Lawrence. Book a room with an expansive river view, grab a cocktail on the giant fireside patio, and let chef Patrick Leibacher prepare you a deliciously sophisticated meal in the Seaway Grille.
For a family experience, head to nearby Wellesley Island and its state park campground, or book one of a few island cabins at Canoe Point State Park.
To get a taste of what Gilded Age campers experienced, sign on for one of Classic Island Cruises’ authentic shore dinners with Captain Jeff Garnsey. Dinners start with a fatback, onion, and thousand island dressing sandwich, and go on to feature the incongruous but delicious combination of corn on the cob, salad, fried fish, salt potatoes, and French toast.