More to Thousand Islands than salad dressing

More to Thousand Islands than salad dressing
FOR more than a century, Thousand Island dressing has been drizzled on to salads and seafood around the world but do these islands actually exist?
On a cruise up the St Lawrence River, I discovered that the name wasn't dreamt up by some advertising whiz-kid. As our boat approached Lake Ontario, where the wide river forms the border between Canada and the United States, the islands began to appear. All 1800 of them, give or take.

They are scattered across an archipelago stretching about 90km. Early last century, the super-rich of North America built their opulent summer lodges, even castles, on the larger ones.

As we sailed by, our captain took to the loudspeaker to explain the history of the eponymous dressing. It was the concoction of a local woman, Sophia LaLonde, whose husband George led fishing trips for the well-to-do.

One of his clients was Mae Irwin, a leading actress of the day, who apparently enjoyed the salad dressing during Sophia's picnic lunches rather more than the actual fishing. To Mae, the finely chopped ingredients resembled the islands.

She invited another summer resident, George C. Boldt, to sample it and he too was bowled over. Boldt happened to own New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and ordered his famous chef, Oscar Tschirky (inventor of the Waldorf salad), to add this humble creation to the menu.

Boldt so adored his wife, Louise, that he bought her one of the largest of the Thousand Islands, transformed it at great cost into the shape of a heart and proceeded to build her a castle so big it needed a workforce of 500. On the day she died unexpectedly in 1904, he abandoned the whole project and never returned.

The ruins were bought for a dollar in 1977, are slowly being restored and are a tourist attraction.

For me the islands, still a top getaway destination with holiday homes ranging from shacks to mansions, were a highlight of a 14-night cruise that started on the St Lawrence in Montreal and ended nearly 1600km later, sailing down the Hudson River to New York.

Our floating home was the Grande Mariner, built in 1998 and a few metres longer than an Olympic swimming pool. On board is accommodation for up to 96 passengers, a one-sitting dining room, a lounge and large sundeck.

Meals were basic and wholesome, cooked on board with none of the flamboyance of some European river boats. Cabins were on the small side, with ample storage space under the wonderfully comfortable beds.

Each cabin had its own, limited-capacity hot water tank. We were advised to switch on and wash down, switch off and soap/shampoo, then switch on again and wash off before the water cooled. And it worked.

We joined the Grande Mariner in Montreal, a city that isn't all it seems. Deep winter snow and hot summers led to the creation of another Montreal, underground, where about 30km of subterranean walkways house 1200 shops, eating places and entertainment venues that are used by 100,000 people every day, no matter what the weather.

After calling at the lovely walled city of Quebec (no recession here, said our guide proudly, and no unemployment) and witnessing the spot where General James Wolfe died during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, came disappointment.

The captain was forced to cancel the next leg of our voyage, out towards the Gulf of St Lawrence where whales abound, as a storm was blowing. Instead, we turned inland and climbed through the huge locks of the St Lawrence Seaway until we reached the Thousand Islands.

Though we didn't visit Boldt's unfinished castle on Heart Island, the Grande Mariner tied up at the jetty of nearby Dark Island and we explored a fully completed one with a sewing machine in every room.

The mock-Gothic edifice was built in 1904 by the president of the firm that made them hence Singer Castle.

From the islands, our voyage took us across the southern tip of Lake Ontario and down the Oswego Canal to join the mighty Erie Canal, the 570km engineering masterpiece that links the Great Lakes to the Hudson and the Atlantic Ocean.

The Erie Canal is no longer the important trade route it once was but, as a leisure resource, it's hard to beat and it saved its most spectacular feature until the end the Waterford Flight, a series of five locks dropping 50m in 3.2km.

From there we entered the Hudson River and 225km downstream New York City awaited.

On a glorious morning, we sailed the length of Manhattan Island, round the Statue of Liberty, past Ground Zero where the new One World Trade Centre is halfway to becoming America's tallest skyscraper, and tied up next to the QE2's old pier.
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