Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- What the Heck ARE the 1000 Islands?
- On Our Way to the 1000 Islands
- Vegetarian Paradise
- Hiking at Panama Rocks Scenic Park
- Tickle Your Funny Bone in Jamestown
- The Family that Farts Together…
- From Great Lakes to Finger Lakes: Pit Stop in Watkins Glen
- Clayton: the Heart of the Thousand Islands Region
- Fit for Royalty: Boldt Castle and Singer Castle
- Syracuse Stop
- Next Time, Ontario and Kayaking
- Where to Stay on a New York State Road Trip
- What I Drove: Escape to the 1000 Islands
The writer was hosted for this trip.
A road trip from New York City to the 1000 islands is like traveling to another world — from the hustle of the city to the idyllic beauty of the 1000 Islands region of northern New York State. It’s a six-hour drive, but this native New Yorkers recommends a more laid-back approach, with stops along the way to hike, eat, learn about glass blowing and have a few laughs.
What the Heck ARE the 1000 Islands?
It’s called the Thousand Islands, but the northern edge of upstate New York is actually home to more than 1,800 islands, (a thousand islands just sounds better). Some of the islands are in Canada, along the St. Lawrence River. The Thousand Islands region is about a six-hour drive from New York City (and three hours from Montreal), but we took four days to get there. After all, part of the fun of a road trip is stopping along the way.
Read More: Fun things to do in the Catskills, NY’s other mountains.
On Our Way to the 1000 Islands
We spent our first day driving up to Chautauqua, far north, but east. This meant we could stop along the way at the Corning Museum of Glass. The museum, just past Ithaca, closed its welcome center for Covid-19 and disabled most of its interactive elements. But glassblowing and flame throwing demonstrations, which are always done at a safe distance from audiences, continue throughout the day. Seats are more spread out, and foot traffic flows in just one direction.
You are also required to make advance reservations for admission. But when we spontaneously stopped here midweek, we were able to buy ‘advance’ tickets for five minutes later. Capacity is reduced, so if you are on a tight schedule, buy those tickets online before you arrive to ensure you’ll be able to see the museum.
The spacious galleries feature glass collections from ancient to contemporary. If you are traveling with children, kids 17 and under are free. My family visited when I was a child so my mother could replace some of her beloved Corning Ware. The museum has a massive gift shop. It’s a mecca for Corning Ware enthusiasts.
My personal mecca was Moosewood Cafe, in Ithaca. This restaurant started in 1973 as a beacon of vegetarian and vegan food. There are 14 cookbooks based on the restaurant’s recipes (I have nine of them) and lunch here, at the outdoor cafe, was a required stop.
Hiking at Panama Rocks Scenic Park
Panama Rocks Scenic Park in Chautauqua County is an easy hike – with difficult add-on adventures. The privately owned park has giant rock formations, with caves and crevices that you can explore. I am super claustrophobic, but the caves were incredibly cool, temperature wise. Strollers are not allowed, and there are no railings at the top of the giant boulders. But you can explore here for hours with active kids.
During coronavirus, you can make reservations online and sign waivers in advance.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Bring plenty of water; there are no drinking fountains.
Tickle Your Funny Bone in Jamestown
Laughter is currency in our family, so the National Comedy Center in Jamestown was on our radar. You could spend all day here, learning about different comics through the ages, watching clips of your favorite TV shows and movies, and even performing stand up. This incredible paean to humor opened in 2018 and did a remarkable job incorporating interactive elements while adhering to Covid-19 restrictions.
After a temperature check, you complete a comedy profile on a big screen, using a personal stylus to select shows and movies you like. You get a personalized bracelet embedded with a chip to to identify yourself at different interactive stations around the museum (the better to find the snarky or political, broad or dirty humor you prefer). Instead of wearing the bracelet , you attach the bracelet to a card. Really no touch. You also get a pair of disposable earphones to listen to recordings.
The Family that Farts Together…
Families with small children can easily avoid the obscene part of the museum. But everyone who goes will have to try out the ‘whoopee’ bench. Unsuspecting people sometimes sit here and let out a loud fart. When they stand up, there’s an even bigger fart noise. This is something my kids have always found hilarious. You can even make family farts.
Jamestown, where Lucille Ball was born, is also home to the charming Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum. We were just explaining to our daughter that married couples could not be shown on television sharing a bed when we saw a recreated ‘I Love Lucy’ bedroom – with a double bed. But the accompanying panel explained that the show was so popular, people bought bedroom sets that mimicked the TV ones. Except double beds were allowed at home.
From Great Lakes to Finger Lakes: Pit Stop in Watkins Glen
Instead of heading straight to the Thousand Islands region, we detoured to Watkins Glen. We took an upstate family vacation here when I was a child. I remember hiking in Watkins Glen State Park, which was just renovated.
Watkins Glen State Park has dramatic waterfalls, but it felt crowded during Covid-19 concerns. And you don’t really hike; you walk on slippery rocks and stairs. You have to stay on the paths, and it is definitely worth a visit. But we much preferred it when we ran in at 8am and it was empty than when we returned around noon and trails were packed.
At Lakewood Vineyards, we met two families on a road trip from New York City. The children were happy to run up and down the hills before stopping to drink grape juice (instead of wine).
We toured beautiful Seneca Lake by boat with Captain Bill. Each family onboard gets a table and you can sit there mask-free. If you want to stand outside, with the wind rushing by, no masks are required.
Clayton: the Heart of the Thousand Islands Region
Being on the water whetted our appetite for the 1000 Islands, where our hotel, 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, sits on the St. Lawrence Seaway. We took a fantastic boat tour, an extra fee at the Antique Boat Museum. On our sightseeing motorboat ride, we saw Victorian houses on Wellesley Island and Governors Island used by Syracuse University for research. We could see all the waterfront tables at the restaurants in downtown Clayton
The Antique Boat Museum does temperature checks when you enter, but much of the museum is outside. Some boats are in the water and others are in giant airy hangars where social distancing is easy. Included with admission, row a traditional St. Lawrence Skiff. You can fit up to three people in one rowboat and the water is completely calm. On Tuesday evenings in summer, you can take out a sailboat for free.
You can also take sightseeing rides on Lake Ontario. Boaters who go out on their own have to be careful not to wander into Canadian waters; there are heavy fines.
Fit for Royalty: Boldt Castle and Singer Castle
Boldt Castle, Heart Island, in Alexandria Bay, has gorgeous restored rooms and grounds. We drove over the Thousand Islands Bridge, which connects the United States to Canada. The border is closed now, but we could drive the suspension bridge to Wellesley Island and catch a shuttle boat over to Boldt Castle. Be sure to look at the Boldt Yacht House, with its collection of antique boats and a gatekeeper’s cottage that tells the story of building of the castle.
George Boldt, the proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in NYC, bought Hart Island, which he renamed ‘Heart Island’ to express his love for his wife, Louise. Sadly, the magnificent home he built for her was enjoyed by the family for only four years. Louise died suddenly and George never returned to his island.
You can also access Boldt Castle through Uncle Sam Boat Tours. Uncle Sam Boat Tours also has trips to the Dark Island, home of the Singer Castle. You can only see the castle by guided tours, which last about 45 minutes. If you are a sewer, you might know the name Commodore Bourne, president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. He built the castle as a hunting lodge at the turn of the century.
We stopped in Syracuse for lunch and a visit to the E.M. Mills Rose Garden. I was so excited that we could visit a garden that it didn’t really matter the roses were spent.
Lunch was fantastic: Beer Belly Deli & Pub, close to Syracuse University and a favorite of my nephew, an alum. We couldn’t sample the beers on tap since we were driving. But there were many delicious vegan and vegetarian options. The buffalo eggplant sandwich, with blue cheese and Buffalo hot sauce, was so tasty that I had to recreate it the following week at home.
Post coronavirus, I’ll plan a visit to the The Harriet Tubman Home, a National Historical Park, which is closed due to Covid-19.
Next Time, Ontario and Kayaking
Thousand Islands National Park, in Ontario, Canada, has hiking and biking trails. The border is closed now, though. Wellesley Island State Park, on the New York side has kayaking and a nature center, both closed now due to Covid-19.
Sackets Harbor Battlefield, important in the War of 1812, is great for teaching kids a little history on a family vacation. During the summer, there are costumed interpreters, but at any time the outdoor interpretative panels and self-guided tours let kids explore at their own pace.
Where to Stay on a New York State Road Trip
At the Chautauqua Harbor Hotel, we had a super comfy king bed, and a balcony overlooking Lake Erie. This hotel, part of a mini chain that includes the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel and 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, had new protocols for dealing with the pandemic. Masks are required, fitness centers are closed, and unless you stay more than four nights, rooms are not serviced while you are there.
We saw plenty of hand sanitizer, and outdoor dining chairs and tables being cleaned thoroughly between guests. To take advantage of cool night breezes, we turned off the A/C and opened our windows while we slept. I figured fresh air was another way we could keep ourselves safe.
What I Drove: Escape to the 1000 Islands
Choosing the right car for a road trip is key. We balanced efficiency and roominess with the hybrid Ford Escape. Even if you fill it with five adult passengers, there is leg and elbow room. And the panoramic roof bathed the interior in light and air. The Escape is loaded with safety features like adaptive cruise control (necessary on a long trip) with lane centering, steering assist and a pedestrian alert alarm.
With Ford SYNC you can easily use apps on your phone. But I preferred the Ford navigation system to the Google maps on my phone. Addresses are simple to add, whether voice activated or on the touchscreen. And prompts for turns and exits were super clear to follow. On some navigation systems, you are prompted to turn too soon. Not so with Ford. You got a warning, then a turn now. We never made a wrong turn.
And the car was so comfortable that we considered driving to the Adirondacks for more hiking. But we’re saving that for another New York State getaway.