Early-morning mist curls up from the St. Lawrence River. Coffee in hand, passengers on the Georgian Clipper lean over the rails to watch the Thousand Islands slip by, each with a story attached.
One island with a hump in the middle, appropriately named Dromedary Island, is said to be the place where author Nicholas Monsarrat wrote The Cruel Sea, a classic novel of North Atlantic sea battles during the Second World War.
As Heart Island drifts by, we learn from our cruise director that the chef of the wealthy hotel baron George Boldt, who built Boldt Castle on the island, invented Thousand Island salad dressing.
Neither story, though compelling, stands up to close scrutiny.
As a British Information Officer, Monsarrat had been assigned to Ottawa and had spent time at a cottage on Dromedary. He wrote two novels while living on the island, but The Cruel Sea was written before he came to Canada. The hotel baron's chef never visited the island mansion that his employer had built, and Sophie LaLonde, of Clayton, N.Y., claimed to have been the real creator of the often maligned pink dressing, although even her story is disputed.
The stories are so good that it's of little consequence if some are apocryphal. Is there truth to the legend of the gruesome killing of a suspected bagman, believed to have run away to hide out in the Thousand Islands with money that was to finance the assassination of President Lincoln? And just who was the mysterious Frenchman who was found on the beach at Chimney Island, a tomahawk embedded in his head, his beautiful wife gone without a trace?
One thing is certain -- these are storied islands whose history is entwined with the very formation of Canada. There are 1,830 of them at one count -- spread along an 80-kilometre span between Kingston and Brockville -- and they have been home to the rich, the nefarious, the famous and the foolish.
On a six-day St. Lawrence cruise, it is possible to view the islands that inspire such evocative stories and to chart the emergence of our national border, from the tussle for land between the French and the British, to the War of 1812, up to the days when the U.S. and Canada jointly decided on the final demarcation line between the two countries. And the best way to appreciate these islands and their legends is from the water, especially from a ship like the 18-passenger Clipper, which is small enough to sail into the many little bays and get close to shore.
As the Clipper winds through the islands, it crisscrosses the border many times -- no passport needed as long as you don't tie up. Crisscross Island, in fact, marks the place where the big lake steamers zigzag from one side of the river to the other, following the international border. One moment, there's a Canadian island off the bow, and the next, America's Boldt Castle slides by, looking like a German castle on the Rhine. The castle, of course, plays a leading role in yet another Thousand Islands story.
George Boldt built his Italian Renaissance-style stone castle in 1900 for his wife, Louise, the love of his life. When she died unexpectedly, at the age of 42, he ordered all construction on the island property to stop, and never visited again. Unpacked crates of china, plaster mouldings and fixtures were left abandoned. In 1977, after years of neglect, the castle became the property of the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, which has restored much of the castle. Visitors can tour the property.
Singer Castle on Dark Island, built with profits from the Singer Sewing Machine Company, is another splendid old pile that is a testament to turn of the century wealth. It is now owned by a German tourism company that operates tours and rents the property for special events.
This is the inaugural season for the Georgian Clipper's cruises of the Thousand Islands, Bay of Quinte and the St. Lawrence River with itineraries that begin and end in Kingston. During the cruise, the boat visits Prince Edward County for tours of a cidery and the Waupoos Winery, stops for a picnic lunch at Sandbanks Provincial Park and visits Bloomfield, with its antique stores and heritage homes.
A docking in the city of Brockville permits passengers to walk through the historic city named after British war hero Sir Isaac Brock. The church square, with its authentic architecture and fountains, feels like a walk back in time. There is a full-day excursion to Ottawa after the boat docks in Gananoque, with the chance to attend one of the two playhouses in "Gan" after dinner and to visit the Arthur Child Museum. There's a stop in the cottage town of Rockport to visit a pub.
But it is the islands, their cottages that come in every size and colour, their peaceful docks and gracious verandas and the boat traffic on the river -- from small sailboats to massive ocean-going ships -- that are the biggest attractions of the cruise.
There's a spacious open top deck for viewing, and a comfortable main deck with lounge chairs and a well-stocked bar, as well as an attractive dining room.
Cabins are small and sparse, but the beds are comfortable and the space is immaculate. The washrooms are so small that taking a shower requires some contortions, but it serves the purpose and this is, after all, a boat.
Dining is a pleasure. The Clipper's kitchen uses local and fresh ingredients as much as possible for on-board cuisine that is ample, fresh and simple. For example, chef Michelle Stewart creates open-faced tarts and vinaigrettes from Prince Edward County apples and cider. The milk produced by Poplar Dell Farm on Amhurst Island is used to make the cheese produced by the Wilton Cheese Factory, which shows up as part of a tapas menu for lunch one day. Bison raised on Wolfe Island's Pyke Farm provides the bison rib-eye steaks for one dinner's main course. Mussels are cooked in vidal wine from Waupoos Winery and, as the season progresses, Stewart will harvest her own herbs from pots she has planted on the top deck.
This is not a cruise for everyone. There is no casino, no musical in the ballroom. In fact, there is no ballroom. The accommodations are not luxurious, and the cruise director will also be the person who serves you a cocktail or helps to clear the table.
It is a cruise for those who love to be intimately connected to the passing shoreline and who will enjoy mid-morning "elevenses" on the top deck while places with names like Grindstone, Molly's Gut, Whisky Island, Half Moon Bay and the Lost Channel slip past -- each with a story to tell.
Pack your bags
Heritage Cruise Lines: 1-888-271-2628; heritagecruises.com. Cruises run from June to Oct. 16. Six-day cruises cost $1,769 a person (double occupancy). Fare includes all onboard meals, excursions and port charges. Cruises booked before July 31 qualify for a 25-per-cent discount.