North America

The Thousand Islands: It’s a lie. There are 1875 islands

Thousand Islands, Ontario
Photo credit: Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation/Merrithew

All this time you’ve heard there are 1,000 islands. Well, it’s not so! There are in fact nearly 2,000 islands, which means you almost double your pleasure when you are visiting the region. The islands are all shapes and sizes, some barely big enough to support the cottage perched precariously on its rocks, and others large enough to maintain farms.

Kingston is recognized as the gateway to the 1000 Islands.

At some point, someone had to count them all, but Kingston residents seem to have lost track of the exact figure now. It is generally agreed however, there are, incredibly, at least 1800 Islands in the unique region of Kingston and St. Lawrence River.

Being a former shipping route, loyalist stronghold and academic capital, it isn’t surprising to find visitors to the Kingston area have passed many fine days on the waters around the islands. The companies offering cruises from Kingston, Gananoque and Rockport along the River have been delighting families generation after generation. Each area offers a different view of the islands.

The 1000 Islands are situated in international waters shared by Canada and the United States, and the St. Lawrence River is a liquid border that glistens in the sunlight and shimmers under the moonlight. The stunning beauty gives way to a romantic setting as the evening sun sets.

For decades, the islands have been a millionaire’s playground. Many of New York’s, Ontario’s and Quebec’s cafe society have made the area a summer retreat. Some of these names, which today evoke a lost glamour, include the Astors, the Pullmans, Mary Pickford, Irving Berlin and Joan Crawford.

The 1000 Islands’ most palatial retreat is Boldt Castle, located on Heart Island. It was built as a tribute to owner George Boldt’s wife and when she suddenly died, he just walked away. Millions of dollars have since been spent to restore the castle and the Boldt Yacht House on Wellesley Island. Boldt was the millionaire proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New Your City. Renovations in recent years include the installation of 1,700 square foot of marble flooring in the castle’s Grand Lobby, completion of the grand staircase and the stained glass dome in the upper ceiling, and the complete restoration of the Boldt Castle Ballroom.

Whatever your budget and whatever your timeframe, the 1000 Islands can accommodate. There are short boat cruises, longer trips or boat rentals for the independent traveller. Anyone bent on attempting to count the islands should go for the helicopter flights, since an aerial view will reveal more of the green dots splattered throughout the waterways of Kingston.

Its proximity to Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and the Great Cataraqui River (the southernmost stretch of the Rideau Canal) paved the way for Kingston history. Today, Great Lakes ship traffic passes southward, missing Kingston, though there is a little marine traffic — ideal for yachts and pleasure boats.

Fishing in Land O' Lakes
Photo credit: Land O’ Lakes Tourist Association

On the surface the 1000 Islands is a friendly waterfront playground for cruises and day trips. But underneath the water lurks a more morbid past, which is attracting more and more visitors. Literally diving into history, tourists today can see between 200 and 400 shipwrecks, causalities of a busy shipping centre and strategic aqua highway. The many names of the wrecks read like the gravestones of family members, and their sinking dates like obituaries. Kingston claims the honour as the “best fresh-water shipwreck diving in the world”.

You can charter a scuba dive tour to uncover the sunken history ship by ship. Dive operators frequent 15 popular sites as part of the Preserve Our Wrecks (POW) program, which safeguards heritage wrecks. The shipwrecks range from schooners to steam ships, and date back to the 19th Century. Zebra mussels make for clear water, so divers can see well. The favoured dive sites are Navy Bay and Deadman Bay.

The remains of at least three warships built at Point Frederick during 1813 and 1814 survive at Kingston, including the St. Lawrence and the Kingston. The War of 1812 also led to the construction of Fort Henry on Point Henry, with a wharf to protect the Fort and keep up a pace of flurried shipbuilding. The construction of a brewery wharf and a major timber company, Calvin and Co, meant more traffic along the St. Lawrence on the way to Quebec. About 23 vessels were put to work as piers and breakwaters in a marine graveyard at Garden Island.

Haunting the wrecks of the 1000 Islands may not be everyone’s idea of a good time. Fortunately, the nearby Land O´Lakes is a water-fun spot. From the shores of Lake Ontario and on to the rugged highland forests of North Frontenac, cottage resorts and beaches have multiplied, and with them golf courses, galleries, studios and lodges.

Snap to it! There are 1000 Kodak moments

Whenever you may happen to visit, you will encounter a “Kodak moment”. Note the Fall season is particularly picturesque. The awesome autumn colours serve as a backdrop and escort visitors along the way, as professional tour guides describe the sights and historical landmarks on the river.

Keep a camera or camcorder at the ready. There are a 1000 island photo ops and you know what they say … a picture is worth a thousand words. Almost everyone who visits the islands finds him or herself aboard one of the many cruise boats that ply the rivers’ waters … simply because the lure of the water and seasonal beauty is irresistible, and indescribable. You’ll just have to see for yourself.

Wherever you may be in the towns and cities in the islands, there are several companies that provide tours of various durations from an hour to days. Most tours operate until mid-October.

Wherever you may be staying, watch the setting sun and remember the life and times of eras gone by.

All content © 2011-2018 Great World Getaways unless otherwise noted