Lake Meets River at the Cape

Clayton: Classic Thousand Islands

If you love boats, you’ll love Clayton. 

Clayton is located 13 miles east of Cape Vincent and is considered the classic antique wooden boat capital of North America. It is home to the Antique Boat Museum (abm.org), a premier freshwater nautical museum that features an annual boat show and auction every summer and displays the largest collection of antique and classic boats in the United States.

“The ABM’s annual Boat Show and Auction is one of the nation’s most prestigious antique boat shows and the longest running of its kind,” says Michael J. Folsom, the museum’s director of marketing and communications. “With boats from across the country, each show always is sure to be a varnish and mahogany wonderland of beauty.”

The 51st Annual Boat Show and Auction is held the first weekend of August (this year it will be held July 31–August 2) and showcases classic antique wooden boats. The emphasis at this year’s show is on Lymans, but the event typically attracts “woodies” of all kinds, including Gar Woods and Chris-Crafts. You also can cruise the river aboard several of its wooden boats — a thrilling way to see the Thousand Islands.

The ABM is full throttle into its 2015 season, with several new exhibits including “Canoes To Go,” featuring a unique collection of portable and collapsible boats with model years ranging from 1840 to 2015. Also new at the museum this year is a gallery of John Cooper Upham paintings, which depict iconic passenger steamboats of the St. Lawrence River.

Later in the summer, the Antique Boat Museum will host the Caravan Stage Company — a theatre troupe that will perform on a 90-foot tall ship anchored in the St. Lawrence River. The world-renowned group of acrobats and actors will entertain guests at two separate shows: One August 14 and another August 15.

Enjoy the river-themed shops and waterfront restaurants with patios that line Clayton’s Riverside Drive, including Bella’s and The Channelside Restaurant — perfect perches for boat watching. Explore 1000 Islands River Rat Cheese, Coyote Moon Winery, Corbin’s River Heritage and Michael Ringer’s St. Lawrence Gallery. There are a few newer restaurants to visit here: Johnston House Restaurant; the Wood Boat Brewery just across from ABM; and the Seaway Grille for fine dining at the Thousand Islands Harbor Hotel — a spectacular addition to Clayton’s waterfront with a view of passing ships and Calumet Island. —K.L.

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Lake Meets River at the Cape

by Kim Lunman
30-Jul-2015
Cape Vincent in Upstate New York is described as the town “Where Lake and River Meet.” Its rugged shores hug both Lake Ontario and the mighty St. Lawrence River along a panoramic peninsula that is the western gateway to the world-famous Thousand Islands.

The charming coastal town of Cape Vincent— located about 25 miles north of Watertown — is known for the Victorian-era Tibbetts Point Lighthouse, which stands watch over the Great Lakes and neighboring Canada and marks the entrance to the St. Lawrence Seaway. Cape Vincent overlooks Wolfe Island, the largest of the estimated 1,865 islands (or Thousand Islands) scattered between here and Morristown, New York and Brockville, Ontario. 

The Thousand Islands are known for their historic cottages and castles, including Boldt Castle on Heart Island (near Alexandria Bay) and Singer Castle on Dark Island further downriver in Chippewa Bay. Cape Vincent offers visitors a window to this scenic waterway that opens up into the Great Lakes. Whether you visit by lake, river or road, stepping foot in Cape Vincent is like taking a step back in time. Its 188-year-old lighthouse is a beacon for tourism, but the town’s annual French Festival has been stealing the limelight every summer for nearly half a century.

French connection

The community of about 2,000 has transformed itself into a French village for one weekend every July for 47 years during the French Festival. The Cape’s French roots run deep: Explorer Samuel de Champlain was in the area in 1615; and in 1654, Jesuit Missionaries visited the native Onondaga and Iroquois Indian Tribes, who used the area as their hunting grounds. 

“People always ask us about the French connection,” says Cape Vincent’s Chamber of Commerce executive director Shelley Higgins. 

Stores on the main street have names like Chateau, Belle-Epoque gift shop and French Towne Market. A stone’s throw away from the water is Breakwater Gallery. This cozy, friendly gallery showcases the works of artists from the Thousand Islands region. Browse original paintings in every medium, as well as sculpture, glass, pottery, jewelery, fabric creations, original cards and more. 

The village embraces its unique heritage set against the backdrop of a sweeping coastline that changes constantly with the water and prevailing winds. 

“It’s very quaint,” says Higgins. “It’s beautiful — every day is different — and it’s very serene.” 

In the early 1800s, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte reportedly stated that he wanted to move to Cape Vincent, though he was never able to escape exile in the South Atlantic. French and German settlers immigrated to Cape Vincent around this time, with the help of James LeRay de Chaumont, who moved from France to America in the 1700s and acquired much of the area’s land. The town’s namesake comes from Chaumont’s son, Vincent LeRay. 

Chaumont brought a contingent of French nobility, including Count Francis Peter Real, once the chief of police under Napoleon. Count Real built a home in Cape Vincent — noted for its unusual architecture as “the cup and saucer house”— for Napoleon, in an attempt to rescue the exiled leader from the island of St. Helena. However, Napoleon never got the chance to make Cape Vincent home; he died in 1821. 

To this day, Cape Vincent embraces its French heritage. Thousands of people flock here to take part in the annual two-day French Festival (July 11-12 this year) that transports this sleepy town back in time. The village is festooned with French and American flags during the festival, with a mass held in French at the Catholic Church. Dignitaries wear berets and period costumes to honor the town’s French ancestors, while local merchants sell freshly baked baguettes and French pastries. 

Local fare

The town offers much more than baguettes when it comes to local restaurants. Ann’s Fisherman Fare is a popular diner serving breakfast and lunch and is known for its blueberry pancakes. Taste of Design on the main street is a gathering place serving up gourmet coffee and muffins next to its boutique gift shop. Captain Jack’s, a favorite with locals and tourists, has a riverfront patio by the ferry dock in the heart of the village. Enjoy local draft beer, including War of 1812 Ale, burgers, steamed clams and seafood while watching the river go by.

It goes without saying that Thousand Island Dressing is a staple in these parts, but make sure you don’t miss out on the local fish, especially perch. Many restaurants here have fish frys on the menu — a nod to anglers’ shore dinners of the past. Snug Harbor Bar Restaurant and Marina offers a casual setting and patio overlooking Mud Bay — a good stop for pub fare including pizza, wings and chili. Aubrey’s Inn is a year-round restaurant located on the main street and just steps from the St. Lawrence. Aubrey’s boasts the largest selection of beer in the Thousand Islands, and you can enjoy live music here. 

Stop and stay a while 

Cape Vincent has plenty of accommodations, from historic lighthouses to mansions. There’s the Buccaneer Motel and the Cape Motel. The latter is a close walk to the boat ramp and has a convenience store and laundromat. The Roxy Hotel, established in 1894, has 15 rooms. There are waterfront cottages at Angel Rock Waterfront Cottages and Riverside Cottages. You even can stay overnight at Tibbetts Point Lighthouse, which was converted into a hostel after the iconic landmark was automated in 1981. For a more luxurious retreat, rent a mansion built by a distinguished officer in Napoleon’s army in 1838 called Maple Grove. The Greek Revival manor on the St. Lawrence is listed in the National Register of Historical Places. 

Once you visit the area, you’ll find yourself wanting to return, or perhaps purchase your own parcel of this paradise. To see the many real estate options available in Cape Vincent and the Thousand Islands region, contact Weichert Realtors (weichert.com)

For a taste of local history, visit the Vincent Historical Museum. Located in one of the oldest stone buildings in the village, it originally served as barracks for soldiers in the War of 1812. Later on, the Forsythe Brothers used the building as their ironwork factory for sailing vessels and cook stoves. You can explore the underwater world of the Thousand Islands at the Cape Vincent Fisheries Station and Aquarium, open from May to September. The tanks feature fish species from the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. And located just a short drive south from Cape Vincent are the villages of Three Mile Bay and Chaumont on the shore of Chaumont Bay, known as the “Golden Crescent” and largest freshwater bay in the world. 

Boaters are attracted to the coastal region of Cape Vincent for more than just its history. The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence are perfect places for sailing, boating, ship watching and fishing.

Located in Peos Bay on the St. Lawrence River is Precision Marine (precisionmarine.net), a full-service marina and certified/authorized dealer for Volvo Penta, Mercury and MerCruiser, with a variety of outboards in stock. They also offer seasonal dockage, storage, marine store and boat maintenance. 

Just downriver from Cape Vincent is Northern Marine (northernmarineinc.com), a full-sevice marina, conveniently located between Clayton and Fisher’s Landing in Spicer Bay. It is the area’s main resource for prop repair and sales, and offers fuel, pump-out, summer dockage and storage, as well as Mercury-certified repair services and towing. 

Winery and vineyard

For a wine tasting experience in a serene setting, the Cape Winery and Vineyard (thecapewinery.com) on the historic Deerlick Farm in Cape Vincent should be on your itinerary. Located less than 5 minutes from the village, this picturesque family-farm winery opened in the Spring of 2013 and is the newest stop on the Thousand Islands Seaway Wine Trail. 

David and Sandra Fralick started their vineyard in 2007, and after a few years of perfecting their wine-making skills opened their winery and tasting room. It’s already considered one of the premier wineries in the area. 

America meets Canada

Cape Vincent’s ferry service, Horne’s Ferry, makes this place not only a spot where the lake meets the river, but also where America meets Canada. Wolfe Island, with year-round ferry service to Kingston, is the largest of the Thousand Islands at 22 by 7 miles, dotted with schools, farms, churches, restaurants, a bakery and a grocery store. It has one of the largest sandy beaches in the Thousand Islands, aptly titled Big Sandy Beach. 

Wolfe Island is just a short ferry ride from Kingston, and is home to about 1,400 residents year-round, with as many as 4,000 islanders in summer. The island was part of the traditional hunting lands of the Tyendinaga Mohawk people, and its original name is Ganounkouesnot (meaning “long island standing up”). It was later named after General James Wolfe by British settlers. 

The ferry from Kingston, Wolfe Islander III, is operated by Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation and is free of charge. The Horne’s Ferry is an international link to Cape Vincent and has operated since 1802. Remarkably, the toll ferry, which operates from May to October, is still owned by the first license holder’s descendants: George and Bruce Horne. It is one of the rare U.S.-Canadian international border crossings where customs are privately operated. 

Carleton Island

Cape Vincent also is located off the shores of Carleton Island, an American island with private cottages overlooking Wolfe Island that’s known for its steep and storied history. Boaters can get a close look at Carleton Villa, a long-vacant waterfront estate built in 1894 on a rugged point. It was one of the first grand properties built in the Thousand Islands during the region’s Gilded Age by William O. Wyckoff, who made his fortune marketing Remington typewriters. He tragically died his first night in the mansion in 1895 at the age of 60, apparently of a heart attack. No one has lived in the estate for seven decades (though it has been listed for sale for $495,000). 

Carleton Island’s rich history predates its once-opulent villa. It was a British military fort during the American Revolution. More than two centuries later, that history still is evident. Rubble from barrack chimneys at Fort Haldimand remains. There are no roads here — summer residents get around the island’s rugged terrain by ATVs. 

The British warship HMS Ontario, discovered in 2008 by divers in Lake Ontario, was built and launched from Carleton Island in 1780 — the same year it sank. Today, there are about 34 cottages on what was once a farm community. The Thousand Islands Land Trust in Clayton has owned 7 acres of land on the island since 1986, including the ruins of Fort Haldimand. 

Back on shore, Cape Vincent offers boaters a chance to trek through some of its history and enjoy its restaurants and shops overlooking the harbor. Some of its stores post signs saying “Bienvenue” during the French Festival, which means “Welcome.” Spend some time here — where America meets France and Canada, and where lake meets river — and it’s clear in any language that “the Cape” is a most welcoming port of call.  

Kim Lunman is the founder, owner and publisher of Island Life magazine, which is distributed in the Thousand Islands (Islandlifemag.ca). She is based in Brockville, Ontario, the “City of the 1000 Islands.” A photographer and award-winning writer, Lunman also is an avid boater and kayaker.

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