BEST FOR: Boating and history buffs, and island romantics
ALLURE: The route from the Great Lakes up the St. Lawrence Seaway to the northern Atlantic was America's first superhighway, navigated by native Iroquois paddlers and early French explorers. Today, you'll see mammoth international-bound freighters and graceful sailboats. To move you deeper into the waterway's history, New York State designated a signposted series of secondary roads that follow its coastline for 454 miles (and another 64 in neighboring Pennsylvania). The Seaway Trail became New York's first federally designated National Scenic Byway in 1996 and is a National Recreation Trail. "The romance of lighthouses and open vistas is irresistible to people who like being on the water and in small towns rather than big cities," says Teresa Mitchell, president and CEO of Seaway Trail Inc. and a lifelong coastal resident. The entire route would take a week by auto, but in a weekend you can hit the highlights of the untrammeled shore and pick up a bit of its strong seafaring history along the way.
Provision for a day on Lake Ontario by stopping at Pastabilities (315-474-1153, www.pastabilities.com) in Syracuse, and pick up penne with grilled chicken, spinach, gorgonzola, and walnuts for a floating picnic. Leaving Syracuse, drive I-81 35 miles north to Route 13 West, and link with the Seaway Trail at Route 3, bound north for Henderson Harbor.
Reserve a berth in advance to sail with Captain Lenny Roberts, owner of Yachting Operation Services (315-938-5494, www.sailwithyos.com), aboard a crewed 32- to 36-foot C&C sailboat for an afternoon's cruise. Winch in the sails with the crew as you tack with the wind, or recline topside and watch the sky overhead as the boat glides about the lake. Afterwards, it's a scenic shore-skirting drive north eight miles to the historic town of Sackets Harbor, once a shipbuilding center attacked by the British during the War of 1812.
LOCAL FARE: Walk to dinner at Sackets Harbor Brewing Company (315-646-2739, www.1812ale.com), lakeside in a former railway station now housing a popular microbrewery. The award-winning 1812 Ale, its hoppier sibling Thousand Islands Pale Ale, and other seasonal beers are on tap at the brewpub, accompanying upscale tavern fare, such as steak au poivre salad and maple-horseradish pork roast.
WHERE TO STAY: Check into the Jacob Brewster House B&B ($100-$125; 315-646-4663, www.jacobbrewsterbandb.com), where four antique-filled rooms, three with fireplaces and all with updated baths, occupy a Georgian house that dates to 1815.
Visit the Seaway Trail Discovery Center (800-732-9298, www.seawaytrail.com), located in the former Union Hotel, an 1817 limestone landmark where Ulysses S. Grant, stationed nearby in 1848, purportedly liked to play checkers. Exhibits cover regional agriculture, architecture, and lighthouses. Nearby, the grassy lakeside Sackets Harbor Battlefield Historic Site (315-646-3634) commemorates the unsuccessful British attempt to commandeer this vital American water route in 1813.
LOCAL FARE: Enjoy lunch at one of Tin Pan Galley's (315-646-3812, www.tinpangalley.com) tree-shaded tables in view of Sackets' street life. Order the homemade garlic potato chips with Maytag blue cheese dip. Then, atone for the indulgence with a fruit and grilled shrimp salad and an afternoon stroll down Main Street to Handmaidens Garden (315-646-1015, www.handmaidens garden.com) for almond-rosewater lotions and fragrant herbal soaps. Many of the ingredients for the body products come from owner Connie Nicolette's garden.
Continue on Route 180 North, then 12 North, through the countryside of small farmsteads to Alexandria Bay. Alex Bay or A Bay, in the local lingo, is the gateway to the 1,860 isles-known as the Thousand Islands-that cluster at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. The isles range from boulder-sized to 22 miles long. See dozens via an afternoon launch with Uncle Sam Boat Tours (877-253-9229, www.usboattours.com), which plies the narrow passageways to Boldt Castle, a European-style summer home built in 1900 by the owner of New York City's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Depart early so you can disembark and wander the castle's five-acre grounds and its many ornate features, including a tower playhouse, billiards room, and basement bowling alley.
WHERE TO STAY: After your cruise, check into a river-view room at Riveredge Resort ($141-$288; 800-365-6987, www.riveredge.com). The resort's fine dining room offers unparalleled views of the water and Boldt Castle. That's if you can take your eyes off the open kitchen, where Chef Jacques Cartier oversees the preparation of a luxe mixed grill (quail, lamb, and glazed duck) and wonderfully retro flambé desserts.
Leaving Alex Bay in the morning, head 10 miles up the river, hugging the coast via Route 12 to Clayton, home to the unique Antique Boat Museum (315-686-4104, www.abm.org). Celebrating the nautical culture of the region, the museum exhibits all kinds of watercraft, from early Native American dugout canoes to famous hydroplane racers to elegant, gleaming mahogany Chris-Craft and Gar Wood runabouts and cruisers, the likes of which still cruise the islands. You can try rowing a St. Lawrence skiff on the river if you visit the museum before Labor Day.
LOCAL FARE: You shouldn't leave the area without sampling the Thousand Island dressing-that classic mix of mayonnaise, ketchup, and relish-born at the 1897-vintage Thousand Islands Inn (315-686-3030, www.1000-islands.com) in Clayton. Buy a bottle to go or stick around for the haddock fish fry or fried Thousand Islands perch, which is as close to a shore lunch-the kind caught by and served to fishermen-as you'll get without spending a whole day trolling.
Stay on the shore-side road 30 miles to reach Cape Vincent, home
Tibbetts Point Lighthouse, built in 1827 to mark where the
St. Lawrence River meets Lake Ontario. The 69-foot spire contains
the only operational Fresnel lens on Lake Ontario. It's an ideal
spot for a shot of the seaway.
MORE INFO: 315-646-1000, www.seawaytrail.com