Thousand Islands: The Place Behind the Salad Dressing

Cruising down St. Lawrence River sparks the beginning of a love affair.  
Thousand Islands St. Lawrence River Boats
Fishing and boating are central to the 1000 Islands way of life and boats are easily available for hire at various marinas. Photo courtesy: Thousand Islands Tourism

Leaning on the railing of the boat, I inhale the crisp air and feel the easy sway of the vessel. The morning looks freshly minted. Puffy cumulus clouds hang low from the skies as if suspended by invisible strings. Raucous seagulls squawk with all their might. But my eyes keep coming back to stare at the St. Lawrence River as it changes hues depending on where I look: bright lapis near the boat, a deep cerulean in the distance.

Minutes ago, I’d joined 300 people at the pier in Gananoque, a small town in eastern Ontario, Canada, to board this boat to cruise the St. Lawrence, which straddles the international boundary between Canada and the U.S. We will sail across some of the 1,864 islands that constitute the legendary Thousand Islands, where the eponymous salad dressing was apparently invented. Most of the 1000 Islands lie in Canada, and a few are spread across New York state. Back at the pier, talk had turned to the draw of waterbodies. One person in the group said a city doesn’t feel like home if it doesn’t have the sea or a river nearby. Another stated that the rise and ebb of tides reminds her of the first time her parents took her to the ocean. They’d turned to me. I had shrugged: I am a mountain person through and through, I’d said. Rivers are interesting, and sure, I see the lure of the sea. But I am mostly enchanted by mountains, valleys, yawning ravines.

As soon as the horn blew and we boarded, I found myself at the bow of the boat. My view now is the horizon marked by a thick forest of pine trees. It feels like the perfect day to get to know the river.

“There! That’s our first island,” a father standing near me says to the toddler in his arms, pointing at what can only with generosity be described as an outcrop of rocks covering a few square feet and holding two pine trees.

St. Lawrence River

The 1000 Islands archipelago springs from aquamarine St. Lawrence River like a dream. Whether it is laid-back cruisers, or thrill-seekers wishing to try stand-up paddling or wakeboarding, the river welcomes all. Photo courtesy Thousand Islands Tourism

“That’s an… island?” I ask the man.

He nods. He lives in Kingston, a 30 minute-drive from Gananoque, and is taking the cruise with his daughter for the second time. I learn that to be considered an official island, the land mass must stay above water 365 days of the year and support at least one living tree. Just then, a charming Victorian cottage appears on my right, on a 1,500-square-foot island with a few pine trees swaying in the breeze. A family of five emerges from the home with picnic baskets, and heads towards a small boat tethered to a pole on the river.

The commentary playing on the boat says that many islands are privately owned, and over 20 islands on the Canadian side constitute the Thousand Islands National Park. Some are spread over several acres, while others barely have enough place for a large group of waterfowl. Outside some cottages I spot colourful wooden loungers with wide armrests. Called Muskoka chairs, they are a Canadian summertime favourite. On larger islands, grand cottages for rent flaunt their graceful, sloping roofs and manicured lawns. They are surrounded by pine, ash, or maple trees. Everything looks like it’s out of a glossy brochure, the ones that sell promises of an idyllic life in the countryside.

Muskoka chairs St. Lawrence River

With slanted backs and cheerful colours, Muskoka chairs outside cottages are a common sight across the islands. Also known as Adirondack chairs, they are believed to have been designed in New York in 1903. Photo courtesy Thousand Islands Tourism

As we travel along the river, I am joined by fellow passengers who seem equally taken by life on the St. Lawrence. Three preteens stay rooted on the spot for over 15 minutes, immune to their mother’s calls for a quick snack. More fathers arrive with toddlers on their shoulders, pointing out birds and boats. I too am spellbound at the sights and sounds around. We pass lighthouses, houseboats, deathly still anglers hoping to catch that prized walleye or muskie fish in the river. A group waves at our boat and in the distance, a sunbathing couple leans in for a kiss. In Gananoque, as the porter at the inn had said: All things begin and end at the St. Lawrence.

Mac Higgs, the boat’s captain, comes over just when the voice on the speaker starts talking of smugglers and pirates. He says locals in Canada and the U.S. crossed the St. Lawrence in speedboats and skiffs to smuggle alcohol during the Prohibition era between 1920 and 1933. He is quite the storyteller, dramatizing tales of pirate attacks in the 18th century, and telling me about the river’s oldest known shipwreck dating back to 1763. He claims the ship’s skeleton still lies in the river’s depths.

Higgs’ favourite tale is one tinged with romance and tragedy. We inch closer to Heart Island, home of Boldt Castle, a medieval fairy-tale structure hidden by trees. In 1900, George Boldt, who built New York’s famed Waldorf Astoria hotel, began building a 120-room castle on the island as a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife. He also commissioned ten stone structures, including the grand Alster Tower, and had the island carved roughly in the shape of a heart. But in 1904, his wife passed away and Boldt ceased all construction, never to set foot on the island again. I see tourists emerging from their tour of the rehabilitated castle, and wonder how a restored but essentially incomplete castle would look.

It was Boldt, according to Higgs, who named the Thousand Island dressing. Legend has it that it was invented by Boldt’s chef while they were cruising across the islands in the late 1800s. Apparently, the chef had run out of his usual ingredients for a salad dressing, and created a new one with local produce. Boldt was deeply impressed with the experiment, and added the recipe to Waldorf Astoria’s menu, calling it the Thousand Island dressing in honour of the region he so loved.

Cottage Thousand Islands

Whether you choose an idyllic evening cruise or one themed on the ships lost in the St. Lawrence, the sight of charming cottages scattered across the river never gets old. Photo: Gall Mooney-Kelly/Alamy/Indiapicture

Higgs excuses himself after telling me this charming tale. I feel even more enamoured by the river and all it holds, and wonder how many more stories are hidden in its depths.

Later that afternoon, I take a 30-minute helicopter ride over the 1000 Islands. While waiting at the tour operator’s reception, I notice photographs with aerial views of some of the islands, all taken in winter. The river has a different form, and the landscape is unrecognizable: Vast, solid sheets of ice are flecked with islands. There is powdery snow on the pines, and yellow lights gleam from the cottages. Boldt Castle looks even more mythical, rising from the depths of the snow.

The pilot says the ride will give me 1,000 points of view. Seconds after we take off, I see what he means. It is sheer sorcery, the way the waters of the St. Lawrence glint in the afternoon sun, how deep green patches of island erupt randomly. Exhilarated at the vantage point, I feel like I’m living out a dream, flying over wondrous lands. The cruise gave me a sense of detail, but not the scale of the river. From up above it, I see boats snoozing at the islands’ vast marinas. There are luxurious indoor pools on some islands, says the pilot, and I spot wineries, restaurants, even golf courses and hiking trails. He points to Wellesley Island, the largest island on the U.S. side, which has New York state’s biggest camping park, sandy beaches, and a golf course.

Later that evening, I walk around Gananoque along lanes with quiet Victorian homes and grand stone churches. It is just a three-hour drive from Toronto, yet worlds away from its posh neighbourhoods and Starbucks-coffee-toting crowds glued to smartphones. In Gananoque, a long conversation could follow a smile exchanged at a local dairy because you picked the same flavour of ice cream as the person beside you. Ask somebody for directions to a church, and chances are that they will take you there.

Boldt Castle Thousand Islands

Boldt Castle is one of Heart Island’s most memorable structures. Photo courtesy Thousand Islands Tourism

A sense of community is palpable in this town of 5,200 residents, be it in the warmth of the owner of a little boutique-cum-gallery promoting local artists, or the lady who runs an antique store and lets me have a good bargain. I finally end up where many locals suggested I should, The Socialist Pig café. Across the main counter, which is supported by piles of books, I chat with the barista who tells me she brews a great apple pie tea latte. As I take in the blue damask print wallpaper and breathtaking watercolours by Ontarian artists, she asks me about my plans for the night. She suggests I catch a play at the Thousand Islands Playhouse. I admit to her that right now I’d rather walk along the riverfront. She smiles, and replies, “That makes you one with Gananoquians.” Day or night, the people of this town seem to gravitate towards the St. Lawrence. The Playhouse, I later find out, is built on the banks of the river in an old, restored canoe club of the early 1900s. As the sky and water darken, I watch guests come to the theatre in motorboats. They are all elegantly attired in dresses, suits, and scarves, holding on to their hats as the river breeze threatens to blow them off.

Close to midnight, I sip a drink on the inn’s rooftop deck. This too overlooks the St. Lawrence, now black and placid. In the distance, a man walks by its shore in solitude. Strains of music waft out from a nearby pub, and I imagine it filled with bonhomie and craft beer. There are many ways to make this town your own, but your compass will always be the river. Despite my short journey here, I feel I have come to know it; it makes me want to return. Sometimes, all it takes is a boat ride to fall in love with a river.

The Guide

Orientation The 1000 Islands archipelago on the St. Lawrence River comprises 1,864 islands that straddle the Canada-U.S. border. The majority of islands are in Ontario, while the American islands lie in New York state.

Getting There There are no direct flights from India to Kingston, which is the nearest airport to the town of Gananoque. There are daily direct flights between Delhi and Toronto. Daily flights from Mumbai to Toronto require at least one stop, at an American, European, or Middle Eastern gateway city. Toronto has several daily flights to Kingston airport, which is 47 km/35 min west of Gananoque. You can also drive the distance (262 km/3 hr).

Seasons The climate in the 1000 Islands region is characterised by mild summers and cold winters. At the peak of summer (May-Aug) the average temperature is a pleasant 21°C. This is the best time to visit the archipelago to enjoy a leisurely cruise along the St. Lawrence River, or to indulge in summer activities like swimming, fishing, camping, or golfing. In winter (Nov-Feb), the region experiences sub-zero temperatures and parts of the river freeze over.

Cruise From Gananoque, the Gananoque Boat Line offers one-hour day cruises, a 2.5-hour Lost Ships of the 1000 Islands cruise, a 5-hour Boldt Castle Stopover cruise, and evening cruises (tickets from CAD23.90/₹1,136 for adults, CAD12.83/₹610 for children aged 6-12, free for visitors under 6 years).


    Kareena Gianani is Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.

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