In July 2022, we visited New York’s Thousand Islands region for the first time and completely fell in love. Technically there are about 1864 islands here, and for boaters like us, this area is an absolute dream come true! Even if you’re not a boater, though, I think you’ll love the Thousand Islands as much as we did. It’s quiet and laid back and not overrun by tourists in the same way that, say, Lake George is. It does seem to cater to an older crowd and couples, though, so it may not be the ideal vacation spot to bring your younger kids or teens. However, it’s a wonderful location for a relaxing vacation on and near the water that you don’t want to miss!
Below you’ll find more tips on where to stay, what to do, and where to eat and drink, but you can also view our complete itinerary for more inspiration for planning your own trip to the Thousand Islands.
Where to Stay
We split up our visit to the Thousand Islands so that we spent the first half on the St. Lawrence River and the second half on Lake Ontario. If you want to be on the river, Clayton and Alexandria Bay are great towns to use as your base of operations.
To start the week, we stayed at the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel in Clayton, NY. It’s right on the river and has unbeatable views. They have a lovely patio with firepits, and you can enjoy your meals or drinks outside if you choose. There’s a walking path by the river with several Adirondack chairs, and hotel guests (including ourselves) could often be seen enjoying a beer or glass of wine while taking in the sunset. Clayton is absolutely adorable, with multiple restaurants, bars, and shops to keep you busy. The best part is that several restaurants have dining available right on the river!
For the second half of our week, we drove south to the quaint little town of Sackets Harbor, which is situated on Lake Ontario. We stayed downtown at the Harbor House Inn, which is a beautiful boutique hotel within walking distance of several shops and restaurants. Sackets Harbor is definitely smaller than Clayton and Alexandria Bay, but we appreciated its more intimate feel later in our visit when we were starting to get tired and just wanted to relax a bit more.
I would say if you’re going to the Thousand Islands for the first time or with kids, you’ll definitely want to be closer to the action up on the St. Lawrence River. Meanwhile, charming Sackets Harbor would be perfect for a relaxing long weekend with your special someone.
What to Do
There is plenty to do in the Thousand Islands, and you’ll have more than enough activities to fill your week. In my opinion, though, the best activities are water-based activities!
Guided Boat Tour: If you’re new to the Thousand Islands, I highly recommend kicking off your trip with a guided boat tour so that you can get the lay of the land (and the water!) and find out which places you might want to visit later on your own. We chose the Singer Castle tour from Uncle Sam Boat Tours with the optional stop at the end to Boldt Castle. This tour was a great way to learn more about the Thousand Islands while getting to visit two of the area’s most beautiful attractions! At Singer Castle, we had a tour guide who took us through the house and shared a bit of its history. From there, you can choose whether you want to get off the boat at Hart Island for a self-guided tour of Boldt Castle, the grounds, and the yacht house or you can simply return to the marina. If you do go to Hart Island, you can catch any Uncle Sam boat back to the marina when you wrap up your visit. Boldt Castle is pretty special, so I would definitely take advantage of the optional visit there!
Private Boat Rental: Once you’ve done a guided tour, you’ll have a better sense of the Thousand Islands’ geography and you’ll be ready to head out on your own boat. We rented a pontoon boat from Mac’s Boat Rentals and enjoyed an entire day exploring the St. Lawrence River and its many, many islands. Our favorite stop was at the Lake of the Isles inside Wellesley Island. We anchored there and enjoyed lunch and a late afternoon dip in the water. There are tons of places in Clayton and Alexandria Bay where you can rent a boat, and the pricing and rental hours will vary. We chose Mac’s based on their many positive Google reviews and the fact that they mostly had brand-new boats. Our boat was in great shape, and we had a fantastic day on the water!
Antique Boat Museum: In Clayton, you can easily spend half a day at the Antique Boat Museum which is right on the river. During our visit, we opted for their full package, which includes museum admission, a speedboat ride, and a guided tour of the houseboat, La Duchesse. The museum’s boats are in excellent condition, and their collection will appeal to kids and adults alike. They offer different ticketing options, so you can do as little or as much as you’d like depending on your schedule and budget.
Sail Ontario: In Sackets Harbor, you can charter a sailboat for a half day, full day, overnight, or even just a sunset. On our last night in the Thousand Islands, we booked a private sunset sail through Sail Ontario and enjoyed one last Thousand Islands sunset before heading back home. We didn’t have much wind and it was a bit cloudy, but we spent nearly three peaceful hours slowly crisscrossing the bay while enjoying the view of Sackets Harbor from the water. You can bring your own snacks and beverages and kick back and relax while Captain Brett does all the sailing. If you prefer to captain your own vessel, they have rental options available as well for ASA-certified sailors.
Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse: For a final on-water adventure, head down to Oswego on Lake Ontario and take a boat ride out to the West Pierhead Lighthouse. You’ll be able to climb up to the top of the lighthouse where you can look out across the miles and miles of beautiful, blue Lake Ontario. Your ticket also includes admission to the H. Lee White Maritime Museum, which is a wonderful place to learn about the Great Lakes’ maritime history.
And don’t worry. If you’re prone to sea sickness or prefer to spend your time on land, the Thousand Islands still has plenty of activities to keep you busy!
Alex Bay 500: My husband and I are overgrown children with a competitive streak, so we never pass up an opportunity for a good go-kart race. The Alex Bay 500 track is particularly fun because it has no track bumpers/barriers and the course is a mile long! There is a miniature golf course here as well, but we opted not to play during our visit. The go-kart track, though, was the best we’ve ever done, and I highly recommend it if you have kids or just enjoy a bit of racing yourself!
Brockville Railway Tunnel: If you’re interested in taking a day trip to Canada during your visit, we can happily recommend Brockville. It’s a cute little town located on the river, with lots of shops and restaurants downtown in the Tall Ships Landing area. The real highlight, though, was walking through the Brockville Railway Tunnel, which has special lighting, music, a little train for the kids, and informational placards to read along the way. It takes about 20-30 minutes to walk the tunnel and read all the signs inside what is the oldest railway tunnel in Canada. Bring a sweatshirt and nonslip shoes – it can be cool and a bit wet inside the tunnel. Also, be sure you read up on border crossing policies before your visit. At a minimum, you’ll need to register and provide your COVID vaccination details through the ArriveCan app. If you’re not a U.S. citizen, check for any other visa or entry requirements that may apply.
Tibbetts Point Lighthouse: From Clayton, NY, it’s a short drive to Cape Vincent and the Tibbetts Point Lighthouse, which can be found where the St. Lawrence River connects to Lake Ontario on the U.S. side of the river. It’s a popular spot for picnicking or watching the sunset, but you can’t presently climb to the top of the lighthouse. Regardless, the views of the lake and river are spectacular here, and it’s a great spot to watch all the cargo vessels entering and leaving the lake. Don’t forget to check out the displays in the foghorn building!
Salmon River Falls: On our way to Oswego, we stopped at the Salmon River Falls Unique Area. Here you can walk out onto the top of the waterfall and there are several trails you can follow, either along the upper or lower sections of the river. We opted for the flatter upper section, which was easy to follow and very quiet and peaceful. The initial trail to the falls is accessible, but beyond that, you’ll want to bring your hiking boots, especially if you take the steeper hike down to the lower section of the falls.
Watertown: While staying in Sackets Harbor, we took a drive over to Watertown, NY, which is only about 20 minutes away. The downtown is situated around a cute square, and there are many restaurants, breweries, and shops for you to choose from. Nearby in Thompson Park is Zoo New York, which features animals that are native to NY State. It’s a small but cute zoo, and we enjoyed lazily strolling through it. Before you leave, be sure to walk or drive through spectacular Thompson Park, too (it was designed by the sons of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted.)
Where to Eat and Drink
Wood Boat Brewery (Clayton) – This brewery has a nice patio and a decent variety of beer styles. My husband really enjoyed their Channel Marker IPA and had it at several different locations during the week. They have typical bar food, including some interesting pizzas – try the Popper Pizza!
The Lost Navigator (Clayton) – We never pass up an opportunity to find a pool table when we’re traveling, and the Lost Navigator did not disappoint. This is definitely a bit of a dive, but everyone was super friendly, and the drinks were cold and cheap! There is a dart board as well if that’s more your thing, and people were dumping lots of money into the jukebox.
The Hops Spot (Clayton) – When in the northern U.S., you gotta have poutine and The Hops Spot had several different versions to choose from. They also have a ton of shaded outdoor seating and a great selection of craft beers on tap.
Bella’s (Clayton) – We went to Bella’s for breakfast and it did not disappoint. They make fantastic homemade bread, and it makes for even better French toast. The best part, though, is that you get to dine right alongside the river!
Shipwreck Eatery (Clayton) – For a quicker breakfast on the river, check out Shipwreck Eatery instead. Their menu is more limited than Bella’s, but they have a nice patio on the river for enjoying a quick and delicious meal.
Koffee Kove (Clayton) – For more diner-style food or an exceptionally good breakfast sandwich to go, check out the Koffee Kove. Be prepared for a wait, though. When Bella’s was closed, the line for the Koffee Kove was insane!
St. Lawrence Spirits (Clayton) – This distillery has a tasting room in Clayton, but we actually stopped at their location at Saint Lawrence Spirits Château, which is a hotel and restaurant on the St. Lawrence River. There is a tent outside that serves as their tasting bar, and they have a pretty little patio where you can sit and enjoy a refreshing cocktail. We bought a bottle of bourbon to bring home with us!
Riley’s on the River (Alexandria Bay) – Located at the Uncle Sam Boat Tour parking lot, Riley’s was an oasis after our long day of touring Singer and Boldt Castles. We were absolutely famished after our tour and Riley’s was right there. Fortunately, the food turned out to be really good and the drinks were cold and refreshing! They have a wide selection of standard American fare – the cobb salad in particular was quite good (and it was massive!)
1812 Brewing Co. (Sackets Harbor) – This brewery was conveniently located right next door to our hotel in Sackets Harbor, so we actually went in a couple times during our stay. They have a lovely patio on the water, and the food was decent, too. They had an especially good sour on tap at the time we visited.
The Whiskey Coop (Sackets Harbor) – This place was hoppin’ when we went and we had a little bit of a wait for a table. They have a nice patio with live music and a huge whiskey selection. They also have these insanely large fried chicken sandwiches that are big enough to share. If you don’t plan to share, you might want to skip the appetizers so you have plenty of room in your belly!
Red Sun Fire Roasting Co. (Oswego) – We grabbed lunch in Oswego before our boat tour and museum visit, and we enjoyed our meal at Red Sun Fire Roasting Co. They have burgers and pizza and other typical American bar fare. We shared their stretched bread appetizer and really enjoyed that!
Holy Smokes Bourbon and BBQ (Watertown) – After visiting the zoo in Watertown, we went to Holy Smokes for lunch. You order from the counter, and they will bring your food out to you. The portions were pretty big – they don’t skimp on the meat! Sadly, they don’t have a liquor license so there was not, in fact, any bourbon to be enjoyed.
That’s it, folks! I hope you’ll make it to the Thousand Islands sometime soon, and I hope you’ll find the tips and info here helpful as you plan your trip. Don’t forget to check out our complete itinerary for even more ideas. Happy travels, friends!