Tag Archives: boldt castle

Heart Island: A Love Story (Complete with Fairy Tale Castle and “Millionaires Row”)

14 Sep

Millionaires Row. (Photo courtesy of 1000 Islands Tourism Council)

As a city-bred environmentalist, I’ve put a lot of thought into ways to escape or eradicate the urban “heat island.” But in Alexandria Bay, the thinking is to visit and preserve Heart Island. What a difference one letter makes!

I had the pleasure of cruising a section of the Thousand Islands with New York State Assembly member Addie J. Russel aboard one of the Uncle Sam Boat Tours cruisers. We launched from a pier around the corner from the hotel where I stayed, Capt Thomson’s Resort, which overlooks the St. Lawrence River.

As we passed astonishingly luxurious homes sitting atop tiny mounds arching out of clear water, Assemblymember Russel briefed me on some of the core environmental decisions facing her “River District” constituency. One hot debate centers on whether to build wind farms or maintain a large nuclear generating capacity — a question that resonates throughout the global environmental community. Voters are also divided over whether the government should modify water level policies maintained since dams were built generations ago. New regional growth and transportation models are being considered. As always, ecologists are busy battling zebra mussels.

As we approached Heart Island, the sunny upper deck’s milling crowd hushed and rushed to one side. Was it only the architecture that set this island apart or was it the love story that many read before arriving?

Fairy tale loves, usually involving the very wealthy, hold timeless escapist appeal. Ruth Bottigheimer, SUNY Stonybrook literary scholar and author of  Fairy Tales: A New History contends that fairy tales were not derived from orally transmitted rural folk tales as has long been believed. She posits that they were literary inventions of Italian urbanites.

Boldt Castle. (Photo courtesy of 1000 Islands Tourism Council)

And cramped city folk yearn like no others for fairy tale loves to be set in castles. Preferably their own.  George Boldt was as cosmopolitan as they come. A Prussian immigrant, he made his fortunes as a hotelier. His crowning business achievement came as proprietor of the original Waldorf-Astoria. But his most profound personal expression was this six-story castle he built as a monument to his love for Louise Kehrer Boldt, his wife.

Louise Kehrer Boldt, the castle's muse. (Photo by Erik Baard of painting at Boldt Castle)

Alas, Louise died suddenly. George halted all work on the castle in 1904.

Boldt Castle is an American reverse Taj Mahal. Whereas Emperor Shah Jahan built a mausoleum for his beloved third wife Mumtaz Mahal, George Boldt aspired to build a grand living home where love with Louise would always blossom. Her death rendered the effort meaningless. The castle stood incomplete and empty for over 70 years. The love was gone.

Or was it?

“Though the island was abandoned for decades, I dare say a good number of people living in the surrounding area were conceived here,” said Gary deYoung of the 1000 Islands Tourism Council. Couples boated out to Heart Island for trysts on many nights, writing declarations of love on the castle’s unfinished walls. Though restorations, renovations and additions have erased much of this unofficial history, happy traces remain in the basement.

Service tunnel in the basement of Boldt Castle. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Innovative for its time, an indoor pool in the basement of Boldt Castle. Though empty for decades, this room was also evidently popular with lovers. (Photo by Erik Baard)

It's always nice to arrive on Heart Island in the iconic I LOVE NY shirt, with a red or green heart. At center is Gary deYoung of the 1000 Islands Tourism Council. (Photo by Edward Hancox)

Even the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, which undertook care for the castle and island, is in on the love. Landscaping, garden features, a glass dome, furnishings and other elements added to complete the project evoke hearts and harts, or deer. Boldt himself made much of the heart/hart pun, linking his expression of love to the stags in his family crest.

Boldt's heart and hart in glass. (Photo by Erik Baard)

I suspect that Boldt was aware of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem written nearly 400 years earlier that makes use of the same pun. In that poem, the feminine is depicted in one line as “gentle, tame, and meek,” but subsequently the lover declares the author to be the prey, or hart:  “Dear heart, how like you this?”

The children's play castle. This was the only building to have residents. (Photo by Edward Hancox)

The "hennery." It paid to be a Boldt bird. (Photo by Erik Baard)

The grandeur of Heart Island doesn’t stop at the castle. Other magnificent structures include a children’s play castle, an aviary (or “hennery”) and powerhouse.

But if all of this castle business is just too over-the-top for you, perhaps you’d like to spend more time at the quaint and simple little Boldt yacht house across the water on Wellesley Island.

The Boldt yacht house is nearly itself a castle of wood. (Photo by Erik Baard)

A great, green way to get to the region is taking Amtrak to Syracuse, rather than driving all the way up. Or, of course, you could sail, row or paddle in! Our hotel, Capt. Thomson’s Resort, was perfect for sailors and drivers alike. Boat landings at Heart Island are free!

Une Promenade Sur La Crique Française (A Stroll on the French Creek)

31 Aug

Jan Brabant of T.I. Adventures eases Erik Baard into stand-up paddle boarding. (Photo by Ed Hancox)

Ah, the pleasure of “a stroll on the French Creek!” That’s right – on – not beside.

My trip to the Thousand Islands-Seaway was a weekend of many firsts, and we can count stand-up paddle boarding on the French Creek among them!

The diversity of water conditions in the North Country of New York State, which encompasses the Thousand Islands-Seaway Region and much of the Lake Ontario area, is matched only by the means of enjoying them!  T.I. Adventures alone offers sea kayaking, whitewater kayaking, power kiting (across snow on frozen lakes and freshwater bays) and of course, stand-up paddle boarding.

The placid surface of the French Creek on a fair summer day doesn’t scare off even tall and awkward newbies like me. The paddle board resembles a flat surf board (wider for novices), while the paddle is a longer version of a canoe’s. A novice starts on his or her knees for a bit, but with my coach Jan’s encouragement I was standing rather soon. Once while edging the board (turning by tilting) I dropped to my knees but didn’t fall off.

Stand-up paddle boarding is an ancient Hawaiian means of transportation that surfing instructors recently revived to better watch over their students. Now it’s become a popular sport in itself, which T.I. Adventures enthusiastically promotes.

And it’s no wonder! There’s much to see on the French Creek from a higher vantage point. T.I. Adventures is well situated, with a small dock right on the NY Department of Environmental Conservation’s 2,300 acre French Creek Wildlife Management Area. This vibrant wetlands, waterway, meadow and nut forest preserve offers great opportunities for foraging, fishing, bird watching, boating and hiking. There’s trapping and hunting too, but stand-up paddle board riflery strikes me as profoundly unwise.

Blue heron on the French Creek. (Photo by Ed Hancox)

Blue heron in flight over the French Creek wetlands. (Photo by Ed Hancox)

After exploring wetlands a bit and peering over tall grasses, I switched to a sporty sit-on-top kayak to ply the choppier waters of French Creek Bay on the St. Lawrence River (see a map of the area paddled through this link). The centerpiece of the bay, and a gem of the Great Lakes Seaway, is the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, NY. It’s a special thrill to visit this world renowned institution by water, but even those arriving at its 4.5-acre campus by land have plenty of opportunities to cruise or row in gorgeous wooden craft.

Jan Brabant of T.I. Adventures walks through the true front door of the Antique Boat Museum. (Photo by Ed Hancox)

Ed Hancox paddles back toward the mouth of the French Creek from the St. Lawrence River. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Further into the creek there’s an unusual display that’s narrower and yet captures an even broader sweep of the region’s nautical history. French Creek Marina owner and diver Wilburt Wahl has a collection of thousands of anchors for all to view — he doesn’t charge admission. With water clarity radically increased due to zebra mussel filtration (the species is still an environmental disaster, despite this one benefit), the region is a new pilgrimage spot for wreck divers and marine archaeologists.

It seems that every anchor is tethered to a story! As Wilburt tells it, one anchor was cut loose by an American ship slipping the British Navy during the Revolutionary War. Another anchor startles with a swastika. This is living history for Wilburt, who says that in 1942 he watched American fighter aircraft shelling the St. Lawrence River to sink a German U-Boat that had ventured as far into the continent as Lake Ontario. Now he has a memento to evidence his boyhood tale of battle. His son, Heinz, is also a diver and contributes to the collection.

French Creek Marina owner Wilburt Wahl with highlights from his famed anchor collection. (Photo by Erik Baard)

For me the most exciting ages-old adventure that I could feel as rust at my fingertips was one large exhibit item that could have modeled for the iconic tattoo anchor. Wilburt explained that this anchor served as ballast aboard one of the ships used by Jacques Cartier, the explorer who claimed much of North America for France. He borrowed a Iroquois regional name and applied it to the whole territory:  “Canada.”

An inscription on the anchor indicates it was forged in 1339, Wilburt explained. That’s perhaps conceivable, being between mathematician Fibonacci’s promotion of the numbering system (in a book written in 1202) and mass popularization with the printing press in 1482. One can only imagine what ports were visited and storms weathered with the aid of this anchor.

French Creek owner Wilburt Wahl with a prized object, an anchor he says served as ballast aboard a ship used by Cartier. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Inscription on the anchor believed to have belonged to one of Cartier's ships. It seems to have been forged in 1339, hinting at many adventures before the explorer was born. (Photo by Erik Baard)

My paddle buddy Ed Hancox and I are grateful to Gary DeYoung of the 1000 Islands Tourism Council for showing us around. Two fantastic restaurants where we did far more than merely fuel up are Bella’s and Teaism, pictured below. Both have amazing fresh baked goods, and healthy entrees and lunches that are delicious.

Our meal at Bella’s was made especially enjoyable by the company we kept! Not only were they fun, smart and warm people, but as representatives of Save the River (part of the Riverkeeper network) and Thousand Islands Land Trust, they greatly contributed to preserving and restoring the beauty we’d enjoyed all day.

Shaded seating for two built into half of an antique boat at charming Teaism. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Sunset over the St. Lawrence River as seen from our table at Bella's. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Clayton was once the terminus for a rail line that brought New York City residents up to their summer homes in the 1000 Islands. Today you can still take Amtrak near to the region, and then drive. Or, of course, you could sail in! Our hotel, Capt. Thomson’s Resort, was perfect for sailors and drivers alike. You’ll find it just up river from Clayton in Alexandria Bay, across from beloved Boldt Castle.

View of Boldt Castle on Hart Island from our balcony at Capt. Thomson’s Resort. (Photo by Erik Baard)

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