“I could not help but compare the Boldt Castle with the Taj Mahal both as universal monuments of tragic love.”
My New York-born, Cebu-based brother-in-law Glenn gamely dared our close-knit traveling group—lovers of capital cities—to visit Russell, New York. The hamlet not only upstate but deep in the northern country, some 350 miles away from the magnetism of the heart-thumping Manhattan.
Russell’s pride, Glen says, includes family-run diners, orchestras of chirping birds atop tall trees, herds of deers where bucks grunt, does hiss, and fawns bleat while they graze.
This is removed from Michelin star restaurants sans Broadway theaters of box-office hit musicals and plays and a sparkling canopy of bright stars on a clear sky sans pulsating neon lights of the metropolis. “This is the opposite side of the pendulum,” he reminds us.
Being the super-eager fasten-your-seatbelts travelers that we are, we were more than hyped up, as we accepted his challenge and off we flew and drove the rest of the way.
Our home was a one-for-the-books pretty cottage at the end of a dirt road beside a flowing river. Unscathed from all the lights and sounds, traffic and pollution of the city, it is an exceptional authentic rural setting.
Our first targeted road trip was the Thousand Islands, an archipelago of more than 1,800 islets in St. Lawrence River straddling the border of the US and Canada.
Though it is commonly seen around Pennsylvania, my sister Honey pointed out an unexpected sight to behold by the highway: an Amish Buggy, which is more commonly seen around Pennsylvania.
The horse-drawn carriage (usually made out of fiberglass) transported what seemed like an Amish couple at a relaxed pace. I consider it a symbol of their people who basically choose to remain close to their families and within the confines of their ever-growing communities.
Approaching our destination, it then crossed our minds—did the popular Thousand Islands Salad Dressing have any connection with these isles?
We soon learned the often-repeated tale where a fisherman’s wife Sophia LaLonde nonchalantly mixed ketchup and mayonnaise, with pickle relish, to serve her husband George. It eventually caught the attention of a frequent visitor, the acclaimed vaudeville actress May Irwin, who likewise enjoyed this concoction and requested for the recipe.
She would then pass it on to George Boldt, the influential tycoon behind the Waldorf Astoria Hotel famed as the pinnacle of quality and service at the time. Boldt then instructed the maître d’hôtel, Oscar Tschirky, to include the dressing on the property’s menu in 1894.
Exalted and acclaimed as one of the world’s celebrated salad dressings, we cannot imagine an island dotting the oceans of the world which has never heard of the Thousand Island Dressing.
By the bay
Our jump off point was a small port village but renowned and big in beauty, the Alexandria Bay. It is a seemingly one-street-affair with elevated boardwalks reminiscent of Sausalito in California during the 70s.
My favorite hideaway shop was the quaint and unpretentious Linda’s Patchwork. It housed several unique handcrafted-with-much love country home decorations, garlands and wreaths, jars and candles, and wooden typography that warms the heart.
Among those I recall spelled “Home—a story of who we are… a collection of all things we love,” and “Family: There are two gifts we should give our children. One is roots and the other is wings,” plus “Never run faster than your guardian angels can fly.” My sister Anafe’s choice was “Best moms get promoted to grandmas.”
We lunched at Riley’s By the River, a family-friendly luncheonette, which offered a panoramic view of Alexandria Bay’s Lower Harbor, with sail boats at play. We could also see the Main Shipping Channel, where vessels glided holding fishermen proudly waving their catch of the day. At a distance, we spotted Sunken Rock Island, which hosted an old lighthouse tower now powered by solar panels.
We all had generous bowls of their signature Chow Down Seafood Chowder. It was a rich and creamy bisque, lavishly sprinkled with seafood, thick bacon bits, vegetables, and served with toast points.
Our feast, particularly chosen by bistro chain owner Freddie, included Lobster Rolls, served in a New England style bun, which was like nothing we have ever tried before. Others opted for the Uncle Sam’s Triple Decker Turkey Club, or the Chicken Riggies pasta. We even had haddocks grilled-to-perfection and delicious crab cakes.
For the non-negotiable dessert, everyone succumbed to the Bombe Dot Com. It was an explosion of chocolate cake layered with white chocolate mousse, covered with chocolate ganache and white chocolate drizzle.
Forts and castles
We signed up for the Tours of the Castles, an 11-mile cruise with expert local guides who narrated anecdotes on points of interests.
The Singer Castle is considered as the only completed castle in the vicinity, now fully furnished, resided on during the heyday of the great builders and industrialists of New York such as the Astors, the Mellons, and the Vanderbilts.
Frederick Gilbert Bourne originally built the castle as a hunting lodge. The fifth president of the Singer Manufacturing Company between 1889 and 1905, he was responsible for the business to boom as a multi- international enterprise.
The four-story property was erected by American Beaux-Arts architect Ernest Flagg, inspired by a stronghold in England as described in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Woodstock. Over a decade ago, the mysterious and even possibly haunted fort on the Dark Island was acquired by Germans who opened the doors of this enigma to the general public.
We caught glimpses of the life of yesteryears as we bumped into litographs and paintings, wrought iron chandeliers, and even hand-carved tables and chairs from Italy.
Our curiosity was entirely piqued as we stepped inside some walls of the 28 bedrooms and several more hidden networks of passageways. There used to be a panel in the library that opened to an entire room, but only if you pulled a specific book from the shelf. No Hollywood magic here, this is the real deal.
Now sailing upriver, we disembarked at the main dock of the five-acre Heart Island for an easy-to-follow self-guided tour of the 129-room Boldt Castle. An amazing architectural accomplishment, it is one of the grandest of all Gilded-Age mansions.
The story of the citadel is as beautiful and haunting as the site itself. It is a tragic testimony of the undying love of a dreamer-achiever of a visionary gentleman, a captain of industry, hotel magnate George Boldt, for his beloved wife.
Construction began in 1900. Not a single detail or expense was spared as a dedication to Louise. This grandiose structure of a summer fantasy home was planned to rival the grandest and largest castles of all of Europe, in an ultimate prime spot in this most-desired group of islands.
However, tragedy struck.
Madame Boldt passed away a few months before the castle was set to be completed. Mr. Boldt was understandably heartbroken, and commanded all of the 300 workers (architects, artists, carpenters, stonemasons) to stop the project.
At that point, the six story palace was already complete with its most recognizable elements: the Peristyle Archway, the Alster Tower, the Gazebo, the Shell Fountain, the Power House, the Italian Garden and the Dove Cove. The mourning, grieving husband, according to reports, never stepped foot in the island ever again since that fatal day.
The testament of love, abandoned and forsaken for 73 years, had been exposed to the natural elements and became a victim of continuous vandalism.
In 1977, the land was acquired by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority for a gleaming $1—yes, one American dollar—with the agreement that any and all revenues would find itself toward its restoration and preservation.
With a day well-spent hopping around the full-of-tales isles, we rode back to our it-grows-on-you-more-by-the-day rustic cottage in Russell. I could not help but compare the Boldt Castle with the Taj Mahal both as universal monuments of tragic love.
Banner: Singer Castle on St. Lawrence River / Photo by EDU JARQUE