Stuart Forster takes off from Gananoque, Ontario, for a 1000 Islands helicopter tours experience over the Thousand Islands region on the Canada-USA border.
Disclosure: Stuart flew as a guest of 1000 Islands Helicopter Tours, who did not review or approve this article.
The Thousand Islands region is home to 1,864 isles and islets in the Saint Lawrence River where Ontario and upstate New York meet. The largest is Wolfe Island, near Kingston. The smallest remain uninhabited.
In the late 19th century, during the period of American history known as the Gilded Age, the region became a summer playground for the wealthy. They had opulent houses built, resulting in a stretch of the Saint Lawrence waterfront being nicknamed Millionaire’s Row.
The property now known as Singer Castle was constructed for Frederick Bourne, the president of the company which produced Singer sewing machines. Boldt Castle, now one of the region’s principal tourist attractions, was built on the orders of George Boldt, who managed New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. It was in that hotel that Thousand Islands Dressing was popularised.
The Antique Boat Museum at Clayton, New York, and Thousand Islands Boat Museum, in Gananoque, convey why the region has long attracted owners of small vessels. Oceangoing freighters cut through the region along the Saint Lawrence Seaway, carrying containers between the ports at Toronto and Detroit and elsewhere in the world.
Viewing the Thousand Islands
Boat tours and the observation platform on the 1000 Islands Tower represent ways of viewing the region. So too do helicopter flights. To look out over the islands in the Saint Lawrence from a helicopter I drove to the 1000 Islands Heliport on the edge of Gananoque, a town approximately three hours’ drive east of Toronto and two south of Ottawa.
At the heliport, I met Bill Fox, a retired Royal Canadian Air Force pilot. His career has also seen him fly jet aircraft. Bill explained that we’d be flying in a four-seater R44 Raven, one of the world’s most popular mass-produced helicopters, built by the Robinson Helicopter Company in Torrance, California.
“You get the most spectacular view of the Thousand Islands. You get to see features that you can’t see from the boat or from the shore if you’re walking, cycling or kayaking. There are things you can see; like the water clarity, the depth of the water and how rapidly it changes. The perspective of the castles is second-to-none from a helicopter. Everybody that’s taken our helicopter tours – everyone without fail – has said ‘most amazing view’,” said Bill.
Flights with 1000 Islands Helicopter Tours
The company offers tours ranging in duration from 10 minutes to one hour. 1000 Islands Helicopter Tours’ 20-minute Aerial Views and Seaway Hues tour is one of Destination Canada’s Canadian Signature Experiences. The flight includes an opportunity to view the wrecks of the Pentland and FA Georger, ships that were scuttled near Grenadier Island. Together they are nicknamed ‘The Twisted Sisters’.
“I like all of our tours, personally, because every one of them offers a different perspective. But our most popular one is the Boldt Castle Tour. A feature that you can only see from the air is the heart shape of the island itself; Heart Island.
You get to see the islands almost as soon as we take off and we point out so many of the features of the islands. You see some really expensive homes — exclusive homes — and architecture there.
The highlight, after we fly by some of the bridges, you’ll see Boldt Castle, on the heart-shaped island that George Boldt had built for the love of his life, his wife Louise, between 1900 and 1904,” explained Bill.
The Boldt Castle love story
Despite being one of the region’s key attractions, Boldt Castle was never completed. The landmark has a powerful and moving story behind it.
“He built this castle for her with the goal of presenting it to her on what I believe would have been her 42nd birthday — Valentine’s Day 1904. But in January 1904 while they were running the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City his wife Louise suffered some sort of heart failure and passed away. It’s a beautiful love story that ends tragically, so we love to show it. We circle around Boldt Castle so that everybody gets a spectacular view and can take photos of the castle.
We point out features of the castle as well. And then we show them some of the other islands close by, like Millionaires’ Row, where there are some very expensive homes. The founder of Macy’s department store had two mansions on one of the islands there. You get to see a lot of neat little bridges between islands, cottages and boathouses,” said my pilot.
A helicopter flight over the Thousand Islands
Via headsets, we communicated in the helicopter’s cockpit.
“This truly is the Thousand Islands area. To see 1,864 spectacular islands in a very small area, an 80-kilometre stretch, there’s nothing like it in the world, really,” said Bill as we rose from the helipad and powered towards the Saint Lawrence.
“The wintertime, when you see the river frozen over, is rather a unique perspective. Then the fall, when we get a mosaic of autumn colours; it’s hard to describe — it’s really amazing,” he said as we flew over trees full with their summer foliage.
I photographed as Bill provided a commentary about the landmarks below.
The ride in the helicopter was thrilling while the tour offered a memorable aerial perspective of the region.
1000 Islands Helicopter Tours (tel. +1 613 382 3888) is based at the 1000 Islands Heliport at Gananoque, Ontario, and is open throughout the year.
Stuart Forster, the author of this article, was presented with the 2017 British Annual Canada Travel Award for Best Online Coverage.
The images illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography, based in the North East of England and available for commissions worldwide.
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