The Thousand Islands are an island group split between New York's North Country and Eastern Ontario, lying on the Canada-US border, where Lake Ontario meets the St. Lawrence River. It is a very scenic and popular summer cottage area.
Towns and Villages
The Thousand Islands are one of the most scenic spots in Ontario and northern New York. Some 1,700 islands (defined as anything permanently above water that can support at least one tree) dot this portion of the St. Lawrence River that straddles the Ontario/New York border. During the 18th and most of the 19th century, it was a choke point on the St.Lawrence and therefore of vital military importance for both the young United States and the British colony of Canada. The colonial and military influence is still visible on the Canadian side in towns like Kingston.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Thousand Islands were mainly a retreat for the wealthy, some of whom bought a private island for their summer mansion. These are visible on boat cruises down the river.
Now, it is mainly cottage country and is extremely popular during July and August holidays.
On the American side, the Thousand Islands region is served by Interstate 81, which meets the St. Lawrence River at Fisher's Landing (in between Clayton and Alexandria Bay). From there, you can either continue across the Thousand Islands Bridge to Wellesley Island and Canada, or follow NYS Route 12 along the River. On the Canadian side, Highway 401 is the most obvious choice from points anywhere but due north.
There are two main US-Canada crossing points in the Thousand Islands region.
To cross the border in either direction, don't forget your passport. Travel between the two sides is generally very easygoing, but since 2001 the US has stepped up its security checks and a passport is now essential for a hassle-free trans-national trip.
A number of different ferries and tour boats depart from Gananoque, Alexandria Bay, Rockport and Clayton. Pleasure boats may also be rented.
Timing the U.S./Canada border crossing is key to quickly getting from one side of the Thousand Islands to the other by car. The border inspection point is at its busiest on Friday evenings, Saturday mornings, and Sunday evenings, when waits of 60-90 minutes are possible. If you avoid these rush hours, your wait at the border may be two minutes or less.
Be aware that there is a toll to cross the bridge going from one country to the other. Rates vary depending on the U.S/Canadian dollar exchange rate, but is usually around $3. For that amount, you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the islands from the bridge.
During the summer season, from the Canadian side, you can enjoy a good selection of island boat cruises from Gananoque and Kingston. From Canada, Boldt Castle may best be toured by boat from Gananoque, with afternoon departures especially scenic.
On the Canadian side, if you enjoy fine maple syrup, look for local producers, or their products in local markets. If returning to the U.S., this may be your only way to get it, e.g., at least one local producer notes that the U.S. FDA no longer allows shipments. For one location, see "Buy" for Kingston, ON.
The Thousand Islands are home to two distinct dialects of English, depending which side of the St. Lawrence River you're on.
On the American side, residents speak American English with an accent colored by the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (as in Rochester, Syracuse, or Chicago), along with a little bit of Canadian Raising absorbed from north of the border. Essentially, this means that:
For a sample sentence in eye-dialect: "Oh my Gad, I kyan't believe you wint fesheen at nuyt and cot so mawch!" Honestly, though, it's not nearly as difficult to understand as all this explanation makes it out to be, and unless English isn't your first language it shouldn't give you any trouble. There is little vocabulary deviation from General American; in terms of word preference, locals call sugary carbonated drinks "soda" and when they say "the City", they usually mean Watertown (or Syracuse, if they're feeling daring).
Speech on the Canadian side is much closer to a generalized Canadian accent (with a few regional peculiarities), perhaps best exemplified by Hockey Night in Canada commentator and Kingston native Don Cherry.
In spite of the bilingual French/English signs on the Canadian side of the river (and the French heritage on the American side), actual Francophone speakers in the Thousand Islands region are few and far between, being far more populous downriver in Québec. Pronunciation of French-named landmarks tends to hew closer to actual French pronunciation on the Canadian side, while in the North Country it is heavily localized ("Chaumont", for example, is pronounced "sh'-MOE", while "Frontenac" is "FRAHNT-'n'-ack").
In spite of these wide differences, there are still points of commonality. In terms of weather, "Lake Effect" is heavy snowfall due to the influence of nearby Lake Ontario (though relatively few travelers come to this area during the winter), while "the Ice Storm" was an event in January 1998 that felled many trees and knocked out power across much of the North Country and Eastern Ontario. Be prepared to be outclassed in nautical terminology unless you grew up near a body of water. And of course, don't forget that "the River" is always the St. Lawrence River, no exceptions.