Cover photo: 1000 Islands Hotel, courtesy Gerry Barker
Our visit to Watkins Glen and the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel seemed all too short. Even though we had almost two days to explore the area, and packed a lot in, it didn’t seem nearly enough. We had hoped to squeeze in the nearby Corning Glass Museum and the Hawk Meadow Mushroom farm, but they’re on the list for next time.
Today we’re headed for the next stop on our Empire State Road Trip, the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, the third in the Harbor Hotel Collection. It’s located in Clayton, NY, right by the scenic St. Lawrence River. The drive there is 175 miles, a good portion of which is I-90 east to Syracuse, then continuing on I-81 north to the hotel.
If we had more time, we would make a stop along the way at Seneca Falls, reportedly the inspiration for Frank Capra’s classic Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There is a museum there devoted to it.
The weather continues to be warm and sunny, actually bordering on hot – not really what we expected, but for these Florida kids, that’s just fine.
We arrive at mid-day, and like its sister properties, the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel is ideally located on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, and also like the others, has AAA’s prestigious Four Diamond status. While there’s plenty to do and see in area, one could be perfectly happy to grab one of their over-sized chairs and enjoy the river with drink in hand.
Architecturally similar to the other two Harbor hotels, it has 105 rooms and suites, an indoor pool and hot tub, fitness center, a concierge, the Seaway Grille dining room and 1000 Islands bar. Like the others, it also accommodates weddings and special events. The hotel has also adopted the same before mentioned COVID safeguards. Our second floor room has a great view of the river, and once settled, it’s time to find lunch.
The hotel connects to a winding riverwalk, and we head off to explore the nearby shopping/dining options along the way. We pass a lovely pier and park, which displays in large letters, “Clayton, New York.” On the street nearby is a charming collection of buildings, including the Clayton Opera House, which reopen this summer with a variety of live events. Next door is the River Bottom Bar and Grill, where we grab a bite to eat. One other note: The area has construction going on, so stay alert for one-way traffic.
After lunch, we have arranged a visit to one of Clayton’s premier attractions, the Antique Boat Museum. Located at 750 Mary Street, and walk-able from the hotel, it comprises 10 buildings with almost 30,000 square feet of exhibit space, dedicated to preserving America’s maritime heritage.
We are fortunate to get a private tour from their executive director, Rebecca Hopfinger. She starts the tour by showing us one of their crown jewels, the La Duchesse, a 106-foot houseboat built in 1903 for hotel magnate George Boldt, who once managed the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York (more about Boldt in the next installment). The museum acquired it in 2005.
With the original furnishings intact, it truly is a houseboat in every sense, with everything you would want in gracious living. Without its own means of propulsion, it had to be towed wherever it went on the St. Lawrence River. You can well imagine the Boldt family and friends enjoying the good life aboard.
One of the exhibits Pam particularly enjoyed was the Chris Craft section of The National Motor Boat Show, which celebrates the history of motor boating. Her father owned several of the sleek, wooden vessels and seeing them on display brought back many fond memories.
Also impressive was the exhibit entitled “Quest for Speed,” tracking the history of speed boat racing and the people who raced them. It was fitting that our next stop was actually taking a ride in one. One of the boats the museum maintains as part of “In Water Fleet” is Miss 1000 Islands, reproduced from the original 1930s design by the Hacker Boat Company in New York. This 30-foot, mahogany runabout, powered by a Mercury 8.1 liter, 385-horsepower engine, is a real beauty.
Captain Bruce is our pilot, and once aboard, we head out on the river. Capt. Bruce is native to the area, and we learn not only about the river and its rich history, but also about all the wealthy families whose mansions line the banks and islands. There are 1,874 islands, by the way, split between the U.S. and Canada (you can see Canada in the distance, as well as the bridge that connects the two countries). Capt. Bruce explains you don’t want to venture into Canadian waters – with the COVID lockdown in place, you could risk a hefty fine.
Out in the open, the captain asks if we want to go slow or fast. No thinking long on that one: Fast! The engine roars to life and we are soon speeding along at an exhilarating 45 knots, our hair flying in the wind. Taking the ride with Capt. Bruce was easily one of the most memorable 90 minutes of our road trip. If you are in the Clayton or 1000 Islands area, the Antique Boat Museum is definitely a must-see.
One more note to add: Don’t be surprised if an enormous tanker or cargo ship suddenly appears. The seaway, with its locks and canals, is the main thoroughfare for ocean-going ships to travel from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes, going as far as Duluth, MN.
Back at the hotel, we regroup and dress for dinner at the Seaway Grille. But first, we order the cocktail special, the Harbor Breeze – a mix of vodka, cranberry and pineapple, with a splash of coconut rum. In a word, delicious. We’ll be ordering more of these before we go.
We end our day on the Riverside Patio, an oasis for enjoying the sunset over the river. Another day has literally flown by. And tomorrow promises to be just as eventful.
NEXT: A visit to the legendary Boldt Castle, and more wineries. Stay with us!