Above: Boldt Castle, Thousand Islands
Islands have held a mystical pull for travelers through the ages. The isolation and serenity that come with infinite borders of water and wind hold an allure the mainland just can’t match. This month we take you around the corner to a world where wealthy industrialists staked claim on their own fiefdoms, to the Pacific Northwest for whale watching and down the Virginia coast to an island where ponies are king, queen and court.
Newport’s Millionaire’s Row may get all the publicity, but during the Gilded Age, a cluster of islands just five hours from New York City drew captains of industry. These titans didn’t build mere mansions; they built grand castles. Some 1,800 closely spaced islands lie in the stretch of the St. Lawrence River between New York and Canada. Most visitors arrive to any of the surrounding communities by car and tour the islands by boat. Some islands only count wildlife as occupants, while others are almost completely covered by family homes. Some islands have granite cliffs; others are tiny, with one the size of a living room and nothing more than one tree. (Only those that are above water year-round and have at least one living tree qualify as islands.)
Two castles worth visiting are the Singer and Boldt castles. The Boldt castle resembles a sandcastle complete with fairy-tale drawbridge. Hotelier George Boldt holds claim to having brought Thousand Island dressing to the public when he instructed his maître d’ at the Waldorf to add the local recipe to the hotel’s menu.
The 100 year-old Singer Castle was once a hunting lodge for Frederick Gilbert, president of Singer Sewing MAchine Company. The castle still has many of its original furnishings, artifacts and secret passages. If Singer Castle seems too magnificent to leave, you can book an overnight stay in the property’s Royal Suite (Sunday through Friday, $860; Saturday $945. Sleeps six). visit1000islands.com
SAN JUAN ISLANDS,
Leave your flip-flops behind and pack your hiking boots for a visit to the San Juan Islands north of Seattle. Nature lovers flock to the three largest islands, Lopez, San Juan and Orcas. These islands have no palm trees or coconut drinks. Instead they offer the untouched beauty of the sea and forest. Visit lavender and alpaca farms or watch pods of orca whales pass in front of your kayak. Orcas Island, often called the Emerald Isle, is arguably the loveliest of the main islands and also the busiest. But busy is a relative term. This pastoral community has no traffic lights and no fast-food restaurants. Stay at Doe Bay or Rosario Resort; Rosario is the more luxe option on over forty acres of waterfront property. Doe Bay appeals to the naturalists (the hot tubs are clothing optional). visitsanjuans.com
This small island off the coast of Virginia is home to hundreds of wild ponies. The leading theory on how they became rulers of their own land is that they were the sole survivors of a Spanish galleon that crashed off the coast 400 years ago. Here there are no saddles, barns or human residents. The island is a national wildlife refuge and has no overnight accommodations except for campgrounds. Most visitors stay on neighboring Chincoteague Island with its tiny downtown. The government allows the horses to live on Assateague with the caveat that the herd is kept to no more than 150 ponies. The tradition of penning and then auctioning ponies to thin the herd draws thousands of visitors every July, some to buy ponies, some to just enjoy the accompanying carnival and festivities. To get the ponies to auction, so-called saltwater cowboys actually round up the herd and all the new foals on horseback and guide them as they swim across the narrow channel from Assateague to Chincoteague.
The pony swim is an incredible spectacle that can’t be seen anywhere else. chincoteaguechamber.com
Photographs: Hamidreza; Singer Castle by Ad Meskens; Orca by Jim Maya; Lighthouse by Dough4872; others contributed