“Now reel it in slowly, Jan,” fishing guides Robin and Todd instructed me as I kept my eyes focused on the water ahead, my thigh muscles firmly engaged to support my weight against the flailing fish, my adrenaline level at a sky-high level. My fellow fishermen were cheering me on as I endeavored to catch my first salmon in the waters of Lake Ontario.
If you don’t count searching for that perfect tunic on eBay, I’ve never been much of a hunter. And fishing to me meant too many hours on a boat. Or in the case of my dad’s fishing trips when I was growing up, an excuse to get out with the guys and drink beer at 8:00 a.m. But then I went salmon fishing for the first time in Oswego, one of our many stops on our road trip from Oswego to 1000 Islands, New York.
Our road trip also included a hike by a gorgeous waterfall, dining at delicious local restaurants, a glimpse at a chapter of WWII American history, a kayak tour to a private island and a boat cruise on a vintage boat to see sites like a tiny post office, an abandoned castle with a sad love story and glorious sunsets.
And yes, we talked a bit about the origins of that famous 1000 Island dressing.
Here’s my stops along the way, and as long as I have a quasi-fishing theme going here, words I thought I’d never write, I’ve included a Catch of the Day with each stop.
Starting Point: Niagara Falls, New York
Our trip began in this tourism mecca after the end of a travel conference. Our first destination was Oswego, New York, a little less than three hours east. This small town on Lake Ontario is the oldest freshwater port in the United States.
Things to Do in Oswego County, New York
Stop #1: Rudy’s Lakeside Restaurant
There are two things you can tell me that will entice me to try any restaurant: it’s where the locals go, and they do one thing really well. Bonus points are given if the restaurant has been there for decades.
Rudy’s scores on all three counts. This small diner has been serving fish sandwiches to the Oswego community since 1946. While you can get a hamburger, chicken or fried bologna sandwich, fish is king here with a focus on haddock. The more adventurous can douse their meal with Rudy’s homemade Texas hot sauce.
After getting our fish sandwiches with fries and cole slaw, we made our way to a picnic table steps away from Lake Ontario and enjoyed our food. After lunch I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to skip a few rocks on the lake, Andy Griffith-style, as generations of local children have done.
Catch of the Day: A delicious fish sandwich, of course.
Stop #2: Fort Ontario State Historic Site
I’ve heard one of the rules of improv comedy is “commit to the bit.” While I’m not a big fan of forts usually, our tour guide at Fort Ontario State Historic Site was so committed and passionate about the fort, he elevated the experience for us. Here’s an example of his commitment – it was really hot that day and he was decked out in a full wool suit as he escorted us around this site of three British colonial forts, three French & Indian War battles and two War of 1812 battles.
That’s a lot more action than many forts I’ve seen. I once got stuck on a two-hour fort tour that I could sum up in the guide’s own words at the end, “Nothing much really happened here.”
But the most interesting thing about this fort is that the U.S. Army occupied it during World War II and from 1944 to 1946, it was the only refugee camp in this country, home to Jewish and non-Jewish people who were forced out of Europe and came here after an Executive Order signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum tells the story of those refugees and we learned more about the 982 Europeans who lived at the fort, a bit of American history I’d never heard before. They all fled from the Nazis and were placed at the fort behind barbed wire, with no real rights in the United States.
Catch of the Day: Learning about a chapter of American history I didn’t know about – WWII refugees held at a fort.
Stop #3: Overnight in Oswego
After checking in at the Best Western Captain Quarters on the Oswego River we headed to dinner at a cute little place called La Parrilla, a Mediterranean-style bistro. After working in Manhattan restaurants, Executive Chef/Owner Raymond Jock worked as a personal chef, traveling around the country with people like Jerry Seinfeld and David Sanborn before returning to his hometown to open La Parrilla.
I feasted on an incredible meal that included blackened salmon, Delmonico steak and eggplant.
Catch of the Day: A fantastic dinner is the cute town of Oswego.
Stop #4: H. Lee White Maritime Museum
You can take a guided or self-guided tour of this small museum that includes a collection of maritime art. Be sure to tour the LT-5 Major Elisha K. Henson, the last surviving tugboat from the Normandy invasion.
Catch of the Day: A tour of a real tugboat, which reinforced my knowledge that while I love being on boats, working on one is not for me.
Stop #5: Shopping in Downtown Oswego
We perused the shops at Canal Commons where I was naturally drawn to the consignment store and bought a short-sleeved shirt to stay comfortable on the hot late summer day. Lakeside Artisans has a beautiful collection of items from local artisans. I couldn’t resist some of the delectable chocolate items at Man in the Moon Candies – they had one of my favorite food items: chocolate-covered potato chips. Of course we had to eat them all before they melted in the car.
Catch of the Day: As mentioned above, chocolate treats that didn’t last long, and a cute top that will.
Stop #6: Millhouse Market
Large menus overwhelm me. Especially when it seems impossible to narrow down my choice. Millhouse Market has 21 kinds of wood-fired pizza, 10 salads, eight bowls and 36 sandwich choices. I spent more time selecting my lunch here than I did my last car.
I ended up with a turkey, avocado, sprouts sandwich, and I couldn’t tell you exactly why, but it was one of the best sandwiches I ever had. The orzo pasta salad that came with it was definitely the best ever. Our server said the secret was to mix the olive oil with salt and pepper and stir it into the pasta when it’s warm, then let it cool.
Catch of the Day: A great tip for making pasta salad.
Stop #7: Salmon River Lighthouse and Marina
Before setting out on our afternoon fishing expedition we took a peek at the River Lighthouse, with accommodations for 6-8 people. There are also a few other cottages available for rental.
But it was fishing time for us as we set out on Lake Ontario aboard the 31-foot Strike Zone Fishing Charter with Captains Robin and Todd Sheltra. They spent the afternoon with us, patiently teaching our group of non-fishermen how to fish for Chinook and Coho salmon. I had along with me my first-ever fishing license, good for one day.
Pacific salmon like hanging out in these waters at the mouths of the Oswego and Salmon Rivers before heading for their fall spawning run. The salmon fishing season runs from mid-September to late October, peaking around Columbus Day weekend.
Rob and Todd told us that the lake had originally been stocked with salmon from Alaska. They were brought to curb the population of herring as they were washing up on the beaches and causing the closure of the state parks. Three years later the lakes were filled with salmon, making the area the best for salmon fishing outside of Alaska.
We trolled the waters listening for instructions from our captains. While I was excited about fishing, I also loved just being on the water under the warm sun. We took turns with the fishing rod and each of the other two women caught a salmon, reeling it in with much excitement.
Then it was my turn. I carefully followed all their instructions and finally had one on the hook. I carefully reeled him in, but sadly, the hook fell out and he got away to live and swim another day. Not to be cheated out of the fish-holding photo, I triumphantly held up one of the salmon who hadn’t been so lucky for our photo op.
Catch of the Day: Salmon. Although in my case, it’s a photo with a salmon and the challenge to really catch a fish next time.
Stop #8: The Tailwater Lodge
A favorite of salmon fisherman, The Tailwater Lodge in Altmar, New York, is an upscale property housed in a former elementary school. It has an indoor and outdoor pool and fly fishing available on the property. After a delicious dinner in the restaurant where I enjoyed blackened salmon, we took a glasses of wine and sipped them by the firepit underneath a star-filled night.
The next morning we took a hike through the woods behind the property to the creek to spot a few fly fisherman standing in the water, spaced far apart in the rushing waters.
Catch of the Day: A relaxing night under thousands of stars.
Stop #9: Salmon River Falls
We had another beautiful day, perfect for hiking the 110-foot Salmon River Falls, a fairly easy trail that runs up to the top of the gorge for amazing views over these spectacular waterfalls.
After our hike it was time to get back on the road again and head towards Clayton, New York, about a little more than an hour away.
Catch of the Day: A day with a hike through the woods to a waterfall is always a good day.
Things to do in Clayton, New York, and 1000 Islands
Stop #10 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, Clayton
The small town of Clayton, NY, hugs the shore of the St. Lawrence River with scenic views from just about every vista. While it’s small in size, it’s big on things to do that include fishing, shopping, boating, bicycling and attractions that include museums, a theater and a vineyard.
Apparently, people here enjoy their adult beverages. The surrounding area has five breweries, three distilleries and 12 wineries.
I was instantly charmed by 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, the most beautiful of the 1000 Islands hotels, and choose it as one of The Travel 100’s Top 10 Hotels and Resorts. One of the things I loved about it is the location – I could walk out the door and visit the local shops and restaurants, or just relax in one of the colorful Adirondack chairs facing the river.
After check-in we enjoyed lunch on the Riverside Patio, one of the most beautiful patios I’ve ever seen, filled with flowers, with views of the water.
Catch of the Day: A view of the water and a magnificent bathroom at 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel.
Stop #11: Wellesley Island
Primarily a summer destination, Wellesley Island has a residential area filled with gorgeous Victorian homes in a community that began as a Methodist summer camp colony. We toured the area by bicycle, the best way to really view the homes.
Our mission was to get out on the water for a 1000 islands cruise, this time by kayaks rented from Boomerang Bike & Kayak Rental, owned by Holly Pelland who lives on the island. She was kind enough to let us paddle to her own small private island where she had a table set up with refreshments.
If you are interested in 100 Islands camping, check out Wellesley Island State Park, the largest camping facility in the region. It has three boat launches, a full marina, laundry facilities and a camp store. There’s also a nine-hole golf course and a beach on the river for sunbathing and swimming. The Minna Anthony Common Nature Center has three miles of shoreline and miles of trails for hiking.
If pitching a tent isn’t your idea of fun, there are other options including fully outfitted cottages with picnic tables and grills.
Catch of the Day: A kayak trip to a small private island. What’s better than that?
Stop #12: Dinner at Channelside
I barely paid attention to my dinner companions as I kept turning around to watch the sun set. We were seated on the back deck of Channelside, right on the water, and our dinner entertainment was the ever-changing sky as it slowly set. Living in a tree-filled city, landlocked city, seeing a sunset is a rare treat for me and I didn’t want to miss a second.
The restaurant has steaks, seafood and burgers. Be sure to get a seat on the patio if the weather is good.
Catch of the Day: Dozens of fun photos with a wine glass and a sunset – two of my favorite things.
Stop #13: Breakfast at Koffee Kove
How I love an unadorned diner, where the ancient coffee cups have grooves worn into the handle from the thousands of hands holding steaming cups of joe. This is the place for plates piled high with eggs, bacon, home fries and silver dollar pancakes.
Catch of the Day: Steaming coffee and a yummy omelet.
Stop #14: Cruising the St. Lawrence River and Alexandria Bay
The weather gods continued to shine upon us as we had a magnificent day for our 1000 Islands boat tour with Classic Island Cruises in a beautifully restored 1953 Chris Craft with Captain Jeff Garnsey.
Retired from the military, Jeff is a third-generation boat captain and started Classic Island Cruises in 2010. In addition to touring cruises he also offers wine and cheese cruises and fishing cruises.
After setting off from a dock right outside our hotel, we took off. Our first stop was to see the Frontenac post office, the remaining symbol of the 300-room New Frontenac Hotel that once stood on Round Island. During its Golden Age in the late 19th and early 20th century, Alexandria Bay attracted wealthy visitors from around the world.
When transportation in the area improved after the Civil War, wealthy people inquired about buying some of the islands in the area. George Pullman, the industrialist who invented the Pullman sleeping car, was one of these gentlemen. He invited President Ulysses S. Grant to visit in 1872. The press who accompanied him on the trip wrote stories about the area, sparking its popularity as a vacation destination.
Large new hotels like the New Frontenac Hotel were constructed and the Clayton railroad depot opened in 1873 to transport visitors. Steamboats carried passengers out to the islands where they played tennis, golf and croquet and enjoyed an active social life filled with dinner parties and dancing.
The New Frontenac burned down in 1911. While those old hotels no longer stand, the area is still popular for visitors who can stay in one of the many homes in the area.
Ever wanted to stay on your own private island? With more than 1000 to choose from (1,864 to be exact), there’s one available with your name on it. Try Whisky Island Lodge, one of the oldest lodges in the area. Built around 1875, it has eight bedrooms, four bathrooms and five porches. There’s also a two-bedroom guest cottage, boathouse and skiff house on the 3.1-acre property.
As we toured around the scenic waterways, I marveled at the many small islands that seem completely covered by just one house. As much as I love the water, could I live in a house that was completely surrounded?
We also had a discussion about what constitutes an island, apparently a topic of some debate among the locals. I believe the answer was that it had to be above water year round and it had to have a tree.
Our next stop was the Rock Island Keeper’s Cottage and Lighthouse, one of 25 historic lighthouses on the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes. It doesn’t take long to tour the small white 1884 house when the keeper lived. I climbed the spiral stairs to the top of the lighthouse to take in the views of more islands than I could count.
A Sad Love Story: Boldt Castle
Our next stop was a stunning one – a huge 1000 Islands castle built on a small island. What’s it like to have so much money you can actually change the shape of an island into a heart? That’s what George Boldt, a Prussian-born self-made hotelier, did as a gift to his wife, Louise, who was born on Valentine’s Day.
They had vacationed in Alexandria Bay and George purchased Hart Island, changing the name to Heart Island, and set out to build a castle like the ones he grew up with on the Rhine River.
Construction on Boldt Castle began in 1900 and continued for four years until Louise died at the age of 42 of congestive heart failure. Heartbroken, George immediately halted work on the castle and never returned to the island. He died in 1916.
The abandoned castle sat vacant for more than 70 years and is now owned by Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, which spent $40 million restoring it. It is open for tours from May to October.
The castle has 122 rooms, 30 bathrooms, 348 windows and includes an indoor pool, dove cote and playhouse. One floor is fully furnished as George had intended it to be upon completion.
Origins of Thousand Islands Salad Dressing
On our ride back Jeff shared the two versions of the origin story of 1000 Island dressing, that creamy, caloric dressing made with mayo and ketchup.
Version #1: George Boldt was on his yacht with his chef Oscar Tschirky and wanted a salad. Oscar had forgotten the dressing, so he concocted one from what he had on hand on the boat. George liked it so much he wanted to put it on the menu of the Waldorf-Astoria, where he was manager.
Version #2: Sophie Lelonde and her husband George owned the Herald Hotel. George was also a fishing guide and Sophie made salads and sandwiches for his customers. One of the customers was the actress May Irwin, who then introduced it to George Boldt, who then put it on the menu of the Waldorf Astoria.
Catch of the Day: So many! A fabulous day on a gorgeous vintage boat, stories of the Golden Age of Alexandria Bay and a tour of a giant castle constructed for love.
Stop #15: Coyote Moon Vineyards
Kristina Randazzo showed us around her family’s vineyard, telling us the story of growing up in California and vacationing in 1000 Islands as child. After retiring, her parents, Phil and Mary, started the vineyard, growing grapes on 20 of their 400 acres.
Sadly, Mary passed away a few years ago, but the family continues growing the award-winning wines and hosting several events a year at the vineyard.
Catch of the Day: Learning more about wine production in upstate New York and tasting the wines.
Stop #16: Saint Lawrence Spirits Chateau
There was no better way to end a perfect day than a fantastic meal at Saint Lawrence Spirits Chateau. Opened in 2017 and housed in a former nunnery, the property has a boutique hotel, distillery and a fine dining restaurant right perched on a hill overlooking the St. Lawrence River.
Chef Christian Ives serves his “Empire fusion” food here with menu items like maple bourbon duck wings, salmon piccata and lamb chops.
Catch of the Day: A fabulous dinner in a gorgeous property. And yet another stunning sunset.
– Jan Schroder, Editor-in-chief