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Visit the Thousand Islands and Discover the “Bay”

posted by Deb Denny at 2018-08-06 14:50:00

Upstate New York is in the heat of its summer season – literally – and if you are looking for one of the many refreshing and fun places to visit, why not consider heading north to Alexandria Bay in the Thousand Island region?

This upcoming weekend will be a special one in Alex Bay (as it is affectionately called by us New York Uppers) as it will be hosting the 21st annual Bill Johnston’s Pirate Days from Aug. 10-19.

This 10-day festival celebrates the village’s renowned renegade, smuggler and patriot Bill Johnston, who is said to have blown up a British steamer and hid out in the 1000 Islands after the Patriots War. The celebration features a pirate ship attack of the village from the St. Lawrence River as well as the sword-fighting group, known as the ‘Tales from Remikreh,’ who will be performing throughout the village streets. You can check out the swashbuckling entertainment and activities here.

If you can’t make the festival, not to worry – there is so much to do in this quaint and bustling waterfront village, as well as the surrounding area. My husband and I had a chance to visit there recently and one of the first things we did was to book a trip on the popular Uncle Sam Boat Tours. There are several cruises of varying length, and we settled on the two-nation tour where not only do you get to cruise up and down the impressive St. Lawrence through American and Canadian waters, but you can also choose to visit one or two spectacular castles – Boldt and Singer.

While we waited for our cruise time, we dropped into Bay View T’s so my husband could purchase a hoodie as that day promised to be a little chilly on the water. We met the owner of the family-owned shop that lets you design your own shirts, sweats and outerwear from a wide variety of transfers including, of course, many pirate images. Once he selected his design, the owner’s daughter created the finished product in a matter of minutes in between friendly chit-chat. We both loved the result and now he has a memorable and practical keepsake of our trip.

It was finally time for our boat tour and I was pleasantly surprised by the professional tour guide who provided a lively and informative narrative about the history, legends, culture and environment of the region as we cruised seamlessly through the narrow channels, over historic sunken wrecks and by the stunning summer homes on the islands and bedecking the shoreline.

We had decided we wanted to visit the six-story, 120-room Boldt Castle on Heart Island on our cruise as we had not been there since our childhood. To us, it appeared even more spectacular and romantic than we remembered, maybe because now that we were older we could appreciate the detail, thought and extreme work that went into the home.

George C. Boldt had built special for the love of his life, his wife, Louise, but unfortunately, Louise died suddenly before the castle was finished, causing George to cease all work on his labor of love.

Today it is the property of the Thousand Island Bridge Authority and millions of dollars have been invested to rehabilitate the abandoned structure. But, because George Boldt’s beloved Louise had never been able to spend a night in the castle, his stipulation in the transfer of the property was firm that no one else could ever spend a night in the castle – and to date no one ever has.

The self-guided castle tour offers a fascinating glimpse into the Gilded Age and the five-acre island actually houses six structures including a palatial stone arch, a power house and a massive boat house. The beauty, opulence and spectacular scenery makes the castle a popular site for weddings. Between the boat tour and the castle, I couldn’t take enough pictures!

Once back in town, we found seats at Riley’s by the River small, cozy bar for a much-needed bite to eat and refreshing adult beverage. The food was fresh and flavorful and great fuel to continue our explorations of Alex Bay’s unique shops and vibrant street action. One place we knew we wanted to head to was a new distillery we noticed on our drive into town, Dark Island Spirits Distillery.

Just a block off of the main drag on Church Street, this modern craft distillery had intrigued us because its window promised spirits that were “musically matured.” Say what? We just had to stop in and find out more. A pleasant conversation with one of the owners gave us insight to their patented process that really does use music to distill their spirits.

He explained the concept came from centuries ago when alcohol was carried in barrels on ships. The rocking of the ships caused the spirit to interact with the wood of the barrel, giving it a unique flavor. He said they applied this concept, now using the vibration of music to create the liquid waves. Not only is Dark Island Spirits the only distillery in the country to “musically mature” its product, they actually use a different genre of music for each of its different type of spirits!

Along with its handcrafted bourbon, brandy, rum, whiskey, vodka and specialty spirits, the distillery also offers local craft beers and wine slushies, boasts a sleek, comfortable tasting/bar area, an outside patio and a gift shop featuring items for the home, glassware, jewelry and more. After trying a few samples, my husband and I concurred about the uniqueness and delicious flavor of their brews, prompting an immediate sale for Dark Spirits!

As we left, the owner suggested we stop by Nav’s Popcorn across the street to try their gourmet popcorn. He said Nav’s supplies his tasting room with popcorn and it is a huge hit. Once inside the popcorn shop, the aroma hit us – along with the massive amount of options like peanut butter cup, sour patch and even pickle popcorn – and we couldn’t resist grabbing a bag for our next adventure – Clayton’s Antique Boat Museum.

The 14-mile jaunt north to Clayton offered lovely views of serene countryside and pastoral farms with livestock grazing in the fields. Clayton is a charming riverside village that was once a major shipbuilding and lumbering port. Its famous boat museum is impressive and I was amazed at how huge it was. By pure chance, we happened to arrive while it was hosting its annual Family Day and were informed that admission was free for everyone that day. Vendors were lined up along the shoreline, music was playing and it was a very festive and fun atmosphere.

The museum is comprised of several buildings with more than 300 unique and beautifully-preserved boats and thousands of recreational boating artifacts on display from all points in time. We admired speed boats, bark boats and canoes, pleasure boats and even a historic houseboat from the Gilded Age was available for tours. The museum also offers speedboat rides, rowboat rental (included with admission), boat building classes along with dozens of other classes and educational opportunities for all ages.

Even though we crammed as much as we could into our 2 ½-day trip, we just couldn’t see it all and plan to journey back soon with friends to introduce them to what we experienced, explore some more and, of course, to replace that now empty bottle of Dark Spirit whiskey.

Photos -
Bill Johnston's Pirate Days - the Watertown Daily Times
Remaining Photos - Deb Denny

posted at: 2018-08-06 14:50:00, last updated: 2021-04-06 21:02:37

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