A Thousand Islands & A Thousand Tales

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A Thousand Islands & A Thousand Tales

From spooky castles to Taj Mahal-style love stories, this pristine archipelago bordering USA and Canada offers so much more than the salad dressing the tourist spot spawned

By Text and Photographs: Jeroo Irani

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Published: Thu 28 Jan 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 29 Jan 2016, 10:35 AM

The millionaire-proprietor of the famed Waldorf-Astoria in New York, George Boldt, was besotted. Not with his hotel, nor a mistress, but by his wife Louise! He was prone to making grand gestures and bought an island for her to express his love.

The island was one of the 1,864 isles in the St Lawrence river that straddle the peaceful US-Canadian border between northern New York state and south-eastern Ontario, Canada. (The border zig-zags across the waterway, never touching land. The graceful 1000 Islands Bridge links the divide between the two countries.)

In 1900, Boldt started to build on the island an extravagant Rhineland-style German castle of about 120 rooms and even altered the shape of the island to look like a heart - The island has been called Heart Island ever since. Work was underway on 11 buildings with grand staircases and much gilt and glitter and Italian-style gardens that blossomed in front of the castle. Indeed $2.5 million (that is about $50 million today) had been invested, when the cherished Louise died suddenly in 1904. Boldt was devastated and he abandoned the project and never set foot on the island again.

The tragic love story brought a tear to many an eye on the Gananoque Boat Line vessel that we were sailing on, as it wove between the islands, islets and the bays in the course of a two and a half hour cruise. One of our co-passengers seemed unmoved by the Taj Mahal-style love story and whispered wryly: "I've heard another version - that the beautiful Louise ran away with her chauffeur and that broke Boldt's heart."
Be that as it may, Boldt castle was deserted and vandalised till the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority took over the island in 1977, restored it and opened it up to tourists. Our boat, however, steamed slowly past the beautiful castle, which, despite its eye-catching girth and size, was draped in an air of melancholy; a sense of love lost and, perhaps, infidelity?
As our cruise boat chugged along, we learnt from the commentary that these islands were part of an ancient mountain chain. Way back in time, they were inhabited by native Indians who evocatively called them the Garden of the Great Spirit. As we stood on the upper deck to let the cool breeze fan our cheeks, the lush verdant outcrops slipped past and seemed banked up till the far horizon; some were dotted with cottages, others with stately manors and castles and quite a few were just big enough to hold a rustic cabin or merely a tree. Others were bare and looked like slumbering whales with a solitary osprey nest on them; a white tail deer that pranced past or a wading bird at the water's edge, looking for its meal. There was ineffable beauty all around.
But what enchanted us was the so-called Millionaire's Row, the legacy of a gilded era when the 1000 Islands became a retreat for the wealthy. Hotels came up on some of the islands and American millionaires with deep pockets bought entire isles to build elaborate summer mansions, and the same families hold many of these even today.
Railway magnate George Pullman, of Pullman car fame, was among the first millionaire-industrialists to build a castle on an island in 1888 which he called Castle Rest. He rechristened the island Pullman Island and built his labour of love by ferrying material by boat and by sleds in winter. Soon William Wyckoff on Carleton Island, Charles Emery on Calumet Island and George C Boldt on Heart Island and Fredrick Bourne of Singer Sewing Machines fame on Dark Island built trophy castles of their own, thus putting the 1000 Islands, on both sides of the border, on the resort map.
Many of these pies in the sky have a tragic past - Castle Rest was razed to the ground by the owners when property taxes became too heavy during The Great Depression. The six-storey castle was destroyed to reduce the value of the property; As a result, only the former staff quarters remain. The Calabrese family now own it and spend happy summers there.
As our cruise progressed, we saw a few other castles including Calumet Castle, built by tobacco tycoon Charles G Emery of New York city, that inspired other business moguls to follow suit. The 30-room castle had a lagoon, a guesthouse, skiff house and a boat house, and was the epicentre of lavish parties. Emery sailing down the river in his steam yachts was a familiar sight during the Golden Age that he helped usher in.
But tragedy stalked him - his first wife died of cancer and his second wife too took ill and pleaded with her husband that she wished to die in the castle. She did, on his birthday, July 20, 1907, after which Emery hung tapestries on the windows to prevent light from coming in, and moved to the caretaker's house. The castle became a dark, sad place wreathed in the melancholy of a cemetery. After his death, the castle lay vacant for many years before it inexplicably burnt down in 1956.
Another casualty was Carleton Villa built in 1894 by William O Wyckoff, who made his fortune selling Remington typewriters. But neither Wyckoff, nor his wife got to enjoy their new acquisition. His wife succumbed to cancer a month before they were due to move in and Wyckoff died of a heart attack on his first night on the island! "It's the spookiest real estate offering on the market," said Konrad Linckh, who owns the 1000 Islands Tower on Hill Island, when we met him one evening.
Konrad and his wife Heidi came as visitors to the area and fell in love with it and bought the 50-year-old Observation Tower (open from mid-April to mid-October) that soars 400ft above the gently rippling St Lawrence River. The tower's three observation decks command expansive views of the emerald isles and since the time the couple moved  to the area, they have gone fishing, boating, cycling. and indulged in the many activities that the 1000 Islands throw up for visitors. "You can even get married here," he said. Or savour breakfast-with-a-view at the Tower, or watch the sunset gild the startlingly green isles and azure waters.
There were spectacular views too from Kouri's Kopters' four-seater helicopter as it buzzed over the picturesque town of Gananoque and hovered over the islands and some of the legendary castles. From up above, you get a real sense of the jaw-dropping breadth of the 80km-long archipelago.
Back on terra firma, after a 15-minute fantasy flight, we had a good laugh watching a hilarious sitcom at the Springer Theatre on the waterfront of Ganonoque.
Later, over dinner at the Glenhouse Resort on the waterfront, we watched the blue sheath of the tranquil waterway. Canadian geese waddled on the lawns beyond a flower-draped veranda where guests sipped their drinks and drank in the enchanting views. It was yet another perspective on the 1000 Islands and its endless shorelines.
And then we tucked into some more 1000 Islands lore, this time poured over our salad. A local lady at the popular Thousand Islands Inn created the Thousand Islands dressing, so it goes, which George Boldt's chef subsequently presented at the Waldorf-Astoria, and the tangy dressing became an instant hit.
Back home, as we savour a salad tossed in the pink creamy magic, we imagine that the iconic dressing captures, in its depths, the exotic beauty of a land far far away which we had glimpsed all too briefly.


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