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Feels like Brigadoon

Memories, museums, and a castle in upstate New York

Family-oriented campgrounds dot the two dozen state parks that line the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands region of New York. Boldt Castle on Heart Island was built in 1904. Family-oriented campgrounds dot the two dozen state parks that line the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands region of New York. Boldt Castle on Heart Island was built in 1904. (Photos by Bill regan/For the Boston Globe)
By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / August 31, 2008
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THREE MILE BAY, N.Y. - Tonight, home is a tent in Long Point State Park, on a peninsula jutting into Lake Ontario. The neighbors include four women and a dog in a big tent with an American flag staked out front, two young couples in VW Vanagon campers, and an older man in an RV bedecked with Christmas lights. It's an American idyll, circa 1958.

Even the concept of car camping in a state park seems quaint in an era when people either don't camp at all or eschew vehicles for hiking in the backcountry with a 70-pound pack. Car camping is for suburbanites who want just a taste of nature and some of the comforts and safety of home.

Because it became popular in the mid-20th century, when middle-class Americans took to the roads in droves, car camping is the perfect way to experience the Thousand Islands, the vacationland straddling the St. Lawrence Seaway along the border of upstate New York. This is the place, according to some accounts, that gave us Thousand Island salad dressing. Even though it was invented half a century earlier, it perfectly anticipated the food tastes of 1950s America.

The 1,864 islands clustered near the eastern end of the St. Lawrence River give the region its name. The area includes the opposing shorelines of New York and southern Ontario along the St. Lawrence, from where it meets Lake Ontario on the west to the towns of Massena, N.Y., and Cornwall, Ont., on the east. The region boomed as a millionaires' playground at the turn of the 20th century, and several estates remain on the rocky islands, which range from Boston-sized (48 square miles) to minuscule.

After the Depression, the millionaires left and the tourism economy fizzled, reviving after the United States and Canada built the St. Lawrence Seaway in the mid-1950s. This allowed cargo ships to navigate between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic.

My husband and I and two friends drove for most of a day to revisit the region where he had once stayed as a child. It was hard to choose from the more than two dozen state parks and countless private campgrounds lining both sides of the river, but he picked one within an hour's drive of Cape Vincent, Clayton, and Alexandria at the eastern end of the seaway.

North of the Adirondacks and the Finger Lakes, this part of New York is an expanse of farmland returning to vine-tangled scrub. The big sky lends drama to the landscape, with clouds tumbling, piling up, and scuddling away. Long Point State Park's campsites are small, open, and cheek-by-jowl, but comfortable nonetheless.

We set camp, then headed to Cape Vincent, the nearest town with restaurants, about 12 miles north, for dinner. This small town at the mouth of the St. Lawrence has several options, and we picked one with water views and overcooked burgers. But at least it was authentic, like the local markets, bait shops, and restaurants in town. As we noticed on the drive in, very little in the way of franchise business clutters the area.

In the morning we set out for Alexandria Bay, about 50 miles northeast, passing minigolf courses, go-cart tracks, and mom-and-pop motels. We seemed to be traveling back through time, and in Alex Bay (as the locals call it), we enter a 1950s Brigadoon. The main drag, James Street, is a veritable museum of period graphics. Huge neon arrows overhang shops selling fudge, T-shirts, and candles. The big draw here is the dock at the end of James Street, where tour boats depart.

After buying tickets, we find a quieter side of town where the restored Cornwall Brothers Store and Museum houses a private collection of river-culture artifacts. A hundred years ago, the dock out front brought people from the passenger and cargo ships right past the door.

The narrated seaway cruise points out bits of lore as the boat weaves through the islands: We passed Millionaires' Row, where most of the Gilded Age mansions stand, and a cave that once hid a pirate. Below the surface, an underwater dive trail links more than 100 shipwrecks between here and Erie, Pa. The river, carved by a glacier, varies in depth from a few feet to a few hundred, with bony ledges cropping up at random, making voyages perilous. The porous limestone riverbed, aided by millions of zebra mussels, filters the St. Lawrence to a state of near purity. Island dwellers drop lines 40 feet down to tap the cleanest drinking water.

Of the 80 fish species in the river, the local game fish is the muskellunge, or muskie, a member of the pike family. They can grow as big as barracudas and have teeth almost as fearsome.

The boat stops at Heart Island, dropping people who want to explore Boldt Castle. Hotel magnate George Boldt built the mansion as a tribute to his wife, Louise. When she died, in 1904, just before the house was finished, Boldt abandoned the place. Now it's open to the public, and we hopped off the boat to explore the grounds before the next shuttle to Alex Bay. There is plenty to see here, but the Arch, a Roman-styled water gateway, is particularly enchanting.

That evening we dined in Clayton at the Thousand Islands Inn, which claims to have invented the dressing. The weathered three-story building isn't much to look at, but inside it's a flashback to Colonial-revival decor and pre-cholesterol-watching days, with offerings like prime rib, liver and onions, roast duckling, and shrimp scampi. Delicious, of course.

Back at Long Point that night, the wind swept clouds from the sky and dozens of orange campfires flickered on the ground. The camp was filled with the murmur of low voices and laughter.

By 10 the next morning we were pushing off into French Creek in kayaks rented from the nearest outfitter, in Clayton. At the creek we enjoyed a peaceful paddle among ducks, reeds, and water lilies.

The pleasures of Clayton, billed as the area's cultural center, include the Thousand Islands Museum, notable for its small but intriguing collection of hand-carved decoys and shellacked trophy muskies. Next door, the new Lyric Coffee House occupies a former moviehouse. A spiffy Antique Boat Museum, a restored opera house, and several antiques shops reflect a recent downtown comeback. Small boats tied up at the waterfront park, where benches invited people to take in the view.

Later, a 10-minute drive across part of the seven-mile Thousand Islands Bridge took us to Wellesley Island in the heart of the islands. Its Victorian cottage settlements and three state parks hold the allure of coastal Maine decades ago. We passed on a meal at the Nut 'n Fanci and got out at Wellesley Island State Park to ogle several enormous osprey nests atop utility poles.

The next day we headed for home. Seeking a breakfast place, we entered Chaumont, where the Duck Stop Diner's packed parking lot caught our attention. We took a table on the porch. A waitress plunked down mugs. "How ya doin' t'day?" she said, smiling like we were old friends.

"Fine," I replied, "just fine."

Jane Roy Brown can be reached at regan-brown.com.

If You Go

Long Point State Park

7495 State Park Road

Three Mile Bay, N.Y.

315-649-5258

nysparks.state.ny.us/parks/

Campsites $13 a night.

Where to eat

Thousand Islands Inn

335 Riverside Drive

Clayton, N.Y.

315-686-3030 800-544-4241

1000-islands.com

Entrees $14.95-$26.95. Rooms $70-$145.

Duck Stop Diner

12308 Route 12E

Chaumont, N.Y.

315-649-2390

Breakfast $2.80-$6.50. Lunch $2.50-$5.95.

Lyric Coffee House

246 James St.

315-686-4700

lyriccoffeehouse.com

Coffee, tea, espresso drinks $1.45-$4.30. Wraps $5.95, pastries $1.25-$3.75.

What to do

Uncle Sam Boat Tours

45 James St.

Alexandria Bay, N.Y.

800-253-9229

unclesamboattour.com

Tours available at varying prices through Oct. 31.

Boldt Castle

Heart Island

800-847-5263

boldtcastle.com

Daily 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. May 10-Oct. 5. Castle admission adults $5.75, children ages 6-12 $3.50. Grounds are free.

T.I. Adventures

1011 State St.

Clayton, N.Y.

315-686-2500

tiadventures.com

Kayak rentals, tours, instruction. Rentals $40-$59 a day.

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