Hit the Road: Castles, color and cruises at Thousand Islands

Hit the Road: Castles, color and cruises at Thousand Islands
Gilded Age millionaire George Boldt built this castle on Heart Island in the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence River for his wife. Construction was halted when she died suddenly at age 41. More than $15 million in private money has restored much of the lavish summer home, now a major attraction. Photo by Jerry Ondash

We come upon St. Mary’s Catholic Church while taking a walking history tour of Clayton, N.Y.

Immediate impression: The Gothic stone church is way too large for this resort town of about 5,000 that sits on the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands area. Perhaps the commanding edifice wasn’t oversized when it was built in the late 1880s, a tourism heyday when people of means arrived in Clayton by train with servants and stuffed steamer trunks. They came to escape the heat of the cities, revel in the bucolic countryside and cruise the St. Lawrence in private and commercial tour boats.

Today, Clayton (https://visit1000islands.com/communities/clayton-ny/) is still a tourist destination and perfect base for exploring the Thousand Islands area. It even offers the story of a miracle, which brings us back to St. Mary’s Church.

I discover a statue of St. Marianne Cope (1838-1918) in a side-yard grotto, as well as a couple from Syracuse, Bernie and Karen Mahoney. I ask whether they’ve heard of this saint, whose name sounds oddly contemporary.

Yes, they say, they know of Cope.

Little Island
The Thousand Islands are made up of 1,864 islands that sit in the St. Lawrence River, which forms the U.S.-Canadian border. Some of the islands, like this one, are just big enough to support a single tree. Photo by Jerry Ondash

A nun originally from Syracuse, she spent most of her life carrying for lepers on Hawaii’s island of Molokai. Cope was canonized in 2012, partly because of a miracle that involved Bernie’s then-14-year-old cousin, Kate Mahoney, also of Syracuse. In 1992, she was dying of stage 4 ovarian cancer.

According to Bernie, “(Kate) was in complete organ-shutdown” when her parents, the nuns in Cope’s order and a people’s prayer-chain sought Cope’s help. Outcome: Kate Mahoney lives to tell her story.   (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pn1rwXKSHNA.)

This encounter gives us something to ponder as we wander Clayton’s leafy streets in the warm October sunshine. Trees show hints of color that is to come; signs in store windows call for volunteers to work the annual Punkin Chunkin (a catapult competition that rewards the longest heave of pumpkins into the St. Lawrence);l and ladies at card tables sell tickets for tonight’s performance at the Clayton Opera House, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Later, from our balcony at the 4-year-old 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel (105 rooms), we watch massive barges move by, getting as much work done as possible before the river freezes. (This happens later each year, according to locals.) The hotel was built on the former site of a snowplow factory, which makes us wonder what Clayton looks like in January.

“If you are a winter person, this a great place to be,” says hotel manager Todd Buchko. “The very best ice fishing comes from the St. Lawrence River, and there are great snowmobile trails, great snow-shoeing on Wellesley Island (in the middle of the river), ice hockey and curling.”

I believe him, but am grateful for October weather and the uncrowded sidewalks that run along the riverbank, evening gatherings around the hotel’s fire pits, and the bursts of color everywhere provided by huge pots of mums that punctuate the patio. We can still enjoy al fresco dining at a riverside restaurant, where local wine comes from the Thousand Islands Seaway Wine Trail (Motto: “It’s not California. It’s not Tuscany. It’s the Thousand Islands.” http://www.tiswinetrail.com).

The next day, with a bit of threatening skies that never produced, we board a Clayton Island Tours boat for an hour-long ride downriver to Heart Island, one of the 1,864 islands that make up the Thousand Islands archipelago.  Our destination: Boldt Castle, an opulent six-story, 120-room residence which could be mistaken for a bit of Bavaria. George Boldt, who made his fortune in the hotel industry, employed 300 workers to construct the castle as a testament of love for his wife. Sadly, in 1904 at age 41, she died suddenly, and work on the castle ceased. It fell into ruin and remained that way until 1977, when the first of millions of private dollars began pouring into the castle. Much of the castle has been restored to its intended splendor, and it has become a major tourist draw for thousands each summer. (www.boldtcastle.com).

Thousand Islands Harbor Hotel – rates start at $129 off-season; $179 in-season; www.1000islandsharborhotel.com. For more photos and commentary, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.

Want to share your travels? Email me at eondash@coastnewsgroup.com.

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