Monthly Archives: September 2014

Thousand Islands Castles… Truly Majestic

The castle was designed with soaring spires and high ramparts, after the castles in the Rhineland, the neighbourhood where he grew up. A self-made millionaire, he had risen from a kitchen worker in a hotel to the proprietor of the great hotels Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan and the Bellevue-Stratford in Philadelphia. And when George Boldt wanted to build a castle to demonstrate his love for his wife Louise, no expenses were spared. He bought the Hart Island in the Thousand Islands group which he reshaped in the form a heart and renamed ‘Heart’ Island. Going up six stories, the castle had 120 rooms, a powerhouse, Italian gardens, a drawbridge, tunnels, and a children’s play castle.


The castle was to be presented to Louise on Valentine’s Day of 1904, but things went wrong before that. In January, Louise died of a heart failure at age 41. A heart-broken George Boldt immediately ordered all construction stopped at the castle and never again set foot on Heart Island.

The grand staircase
The Boldt Castle, the biggest castle on Thousand Islands, stood abandoned for 73 years, subject to harsh winters and random acts of vandalism. In 1977, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority was handed over charge of the castle. Currently the castle is undergoing restoration, as per the original plans. The lower two floors are fully restored and work is going on, on the upper floors. All entrance fees collected from visitors are used solely for the restoration work.

Stained glass dome of the cupola
The Thousand Islands salad dressing was first introduced at the Waldorf Astoria by George Bolt. So was the Waldorf salad.

The power house, which was planned to generate all the electric power needed for the Boldt Castle, was destroyed in a fire in 1939. Now it has been fully restored.

A gazebo on the castle grounds

Children’s play castle named the Alster Tower

The portrait of Louise Boldt displayed in the castle
Another very prominent castle among the Thousand Islands, is the Singer Castle, named by Frederick Bourne, the president of… you guessed it, the Singer Sewing Machine Company! And every room in the castle, I mean every room, has a sewing machine in it!

When Bourne acquired the island, it was named Dark Island because of the dark pine trees growing thick. A self-made millionaire, he started working in his teens, in the offices of a thread company which developed a thread suitable for a sewing machine for the first time. He wanted to build a castle and engaged the famous architect Ernest Flagg to build one, around the same time as the Boldt castle was being built, 1902 to 1904. And as model, he pointed to the castle in Walter Scott’s novel ‘Woodstock’.

And the result was the 4-story, 28-room Singer Castle, with many hideaways, underground tunnels, dungeons, spy holes and secret rooms all over the place, just like in Woodstock Place. Today, many of those are open and visible to visitors. The castle boasts of elaborate boathouses, a workshop, powerhouse and a 2-story ice house.

While the castle was being built, Bourne kept it an absolute secret from his family so that he could present it to them as a surprise! I can really imagine the whole family of nine kids, going ‘OMG!’ 🙂

The dining room with elk, caribou, deer and moose heads mounted on the four walls
The furnishings included Italian hand-carved ornate tables and chairs, wrought-iron chandeliers, brass lamps, oak cabinets, bronze work, and paintings.

Do you see the difference in the height of the headboards? And the size of the breakfast trays? Yep, the wife had to know that she could never be equal to the man! 🙂

Corn Island seen from Singer Castle
During the days of prohibition in the US (1920-1933), groups of guests used to be ferried across by luxury launches, to Corn Island which is located in Canada, but had the same owner. After the cocktail party, they will get back in time for dinner!

I wonder whether this is still functional!
Today, Boldt Castle and Singer Castle are available for weddings and other functions. You can also stay at the royal suite at the Singer Castle for a not-too-exorbitant rate.
One fact that impressed me while listening to the stories of these castles, was that both were built by men who rose from the bottom rungs to the highest positions in the society of their day, only through the dint of their hard work. Would such a feat be possible today?
There were several more castles built among the Thousand Islands… Castle Rest, the first castle to be built on Thousand Islands, Imperial Isle, Calumet Castle, Arcadia, Carlton Villa… it is a long list. But none of them are in existence today. Most were demolished and replaced by more modest and modern edifices.
This was a weekend well-spent, but I doubt there will be any more such outings this year. As the weather gets cool, cold, icy, activities turn indoors. And food! How about this gorgeous caramelised pear and roquefort tart for a start?



26 Sep 2014

Single House Islands… So Many of Them!

Oh yeah, we were talking about the Thousand Islands. What really really enchanted me about the place were the cute little islands with just one home on them. Of course, these are summer dwellings as it will be physically impossible to live in the middle of a frozen river in the winter. Or would it? Imagine sledding to go visit your neighbour! 🙂

The most picturesque of all the houses, is this little gem, with the water and water birds almost coming up to the front steps.


In fact, if you get out of the back door, you will be stepping directly into the water!


There are no industries emitting effluence into the St. Lawrence river and the boats on the river have to adhere to strict cleanliness regulations. Also, it is a crime, punishable by law, for a resident to throw any garbage into the river. Thus the water of the St. Lawrence river is extremely clean and clear. Even at a depth of meters, you can make out the dark patches of the rocky river bottom.


Look at another red house. This one has more trees around it, and it has its own boat jetty.


This barge like house is built covering the entire width of the narrow island, like someone picked up and placed it there precisely.


Some of the large islands have common power generation facilities. And recently, underwater power connections have been introduced to a few islands located closer to the mainland. But most of the islands depend on individual generators and battery power for household needs.
See the neat boat house at the side of this house? The tree look huge, comparatively.


This house is directly under the tree. Hot summer’s day, blue chair, heavenly breeze… aah!


Perfect oval of an island. Can’t really see the boat house hidden among the trees.


There are no natural springs or waterfalls anywhere on the islands to provide drinking water. So the islanders have to bring their own water from the mainland. For cleaning and washing needs, water from the river is used.


Here is a blue house among blue waters! Step off the boat and you are directly on the deck of the house.


What do you do with your household garbage when you are located in the middle of water? And it is a crime to throw anything in the water? Not to worry, garbage collection is done regularly, by a barge nicknamed ‘honey barge’.


Here is a house located at the extreme end of the island. Also, I believe there is a pathway built to the neighbouring island.


While our boat passed by, the two guys sitting on the deck chugging beer waved to us. Many of the houses are owned by weekenders who live and work elsewhere during the week.


The Wau-Winet Island was written up in New York Times a while back.


Tourist guides on the boats always tell the story of the Zavikon Islands, owned by the same person and connected by a bridge but located in two countries. And how it is the shortest international bridge. Our guide was no exception… he spoke of the owner telling him about the convenience of being able to escape to another country for a while, whenever he had a little spat with his wife. (I could see the wistful looks on the faces of many a man on the boat!) And the boats stop around that area for a photo-op. However, that story has been debunked; both islands are in Canada!


Apparently the owner likes the fake story and is encouraging the telling of it, by displaying the different flags prominently on the little bridge.
After seeing the small houses, let’s take a look at the huge castles next.


23 Sep 2014

Thousand Islands… Beyond Beautiful!

Usually half the fun of travelling to a new place is the planning, the talking, the anticipation… but this was a trip without any of those. When Gloria asked me whether I wanted to go to Thousand Islands with two more of her friends, my only question was… when? The answer ‘tomorrow’ was not what I expected, but what the heck, how long does it take to throw some clothes and toiletries in a bag? So there we were, driving to upstate New York and the Thousand Islands on a Friday evening.


The group of islands known as Thousand Islands, is located in the St. Lawrence river, flowing along the border between Canada and the US. The river originates at Lake Ontario in the Great Lakes region and drains into the Atlantic Ocean, flowing in the north east direction. It is the widest river estuary in the world and shelters the beautiful islands in its blue waters. And though the group is called Thousand Islands, there are actually 1864 islands in all, in a 50 miles long stretch of the river.


The only way to experience the beauty of the islands is to go for boat rides among them. And there are several shore towns on either bank that offer such tours. We chose to go to Alexandria Bay, one of the big towns on our side, the US side. And it has a variety of tours to suit people of different interests.


To be qualified as an island in the group, a land mass should be above water the year round, should be at least one square mile in area and should support at least one living tree.


The area of the islands vary considerably, from 40 square miles to tiny ones with just one home and one tree. Also, there are numerous outcroppings of rock without any inhabitants except for the birds. The majority of the islands are modest sized with two or three homes on them. And there are two castles that you can visit, also on the islands. More about them later.


The river St Lawrence was named after the saint himself. Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, was the first European to explore this area, in the first half of the 16th century. He arrived at the mouth of the river on an August 10th, which is the martyr day of St. Lawrence and hence he named the river St. Lawrence.


On a cliff overlooking the river on the Canadian side, is a statue of St. Lawrence, put up as a tourist attraction.



The statue is shown holding a book and a gridiron. Legend has it that St. Lawrence, who was the archdeacon of Rome, was asked to surrender the treasures of the church by the Roman prefect. St. Lawrence brought forward the poor of the church saying that they indeed are the treasures of the church. The enraged prefect ordered that St. Lawrence be punished by a slow death on a gridiron with burning coals underneath it. The gridiron is thus associated with the saint and he is worshipped as the patron saint of cooks.


In the early 1900s, many industrialists, businessmen and other prominent men in the society bought islands and built houses on them. Today the Millionaire’s Row boasts of large beautifully landscaped homes occupied by the rich and famous of the land.


St. Lawrence river is a major shipping route connecting ocean going ships to the Great Lakes. Due to the presence of the islands and rock formations under the water, it is a difficult river to navigate. There are plenty of navigation aids like lighthouses and beacons present to help the ships and boats.


Beacons indicate the boundaries of the navigable area of the river. A ship should keep the red beacons on the port (left) side and the green beacons on the starboard (right) side when going upstream, away from the ocean.


Similarly, when going towards the ocean, the green beacons should be on the left and red ones on the right.


During days of the prohibition in the US from 1920 to 1933, a lot of money was made by a lot people on the St. Lawrence river by transporting liquor from Canada where there was no prohibition. One of the amusing stories is about how smugglers will have the cases of whiskey bottles trailing their boats so that the rope could be instantly cut if there was any chance of the prohibition agents approaching the boat. But then, the losses became so unaffordable that they started packing half of each case with salt. When the rope was cut, the load will sink, but once the salt got dissolved the case with the whiskey bottles will promptly rise up in three or four days! And the boats were often painted different colours on either side to trick the agents watching.


One of the islands in the group is actually called ‘Whiskey Island’. Apparently, boats from Canada used to leave their cargo on this island, of course within the territory of Canada, to be retrieved by their counterparts from the US conveniently out of sight of the agents. Interesting times and interesting stories!
How would you like to live on an island where you are the only resident? There are several such one-home islands! More about them when we continue.




19 Sep 2014

Guggenheim – a Museum or a Work of Art?

Coming soon…

16 Sep 2014

Festival of San Gennaro

Being educated in a missionary school part of the time, I’m pretty much familiar with the array of saints. At least so I thought. Till I found out that the legions of towns and municipalities in Italy have their own patron saints! Prominent among them is San Gennaro who is the patron saint of Naples.

Little Italy in downtown New York celebrates the Feast of San Gennaro every year. This year the feast started on the 11th of September and will last till the 21st.

The statue of San Gennaro in front of the Most Precious Blood Church at Mulberry Street. Devotees pin their offerings to the streamers hanging from the base of the statue.


According to Catholic beliefs, San Gennaro was the bishop of Naples in the 3rd century AD, and became a martyr to his faith, being beheaded by Roman emperor Diocletian who persecuted Christian believers. According to the faithful, a vial of his blood kept in the Naples Cathedral turns back into liquid form on three days important to his history, every year.


Decorations of green, white and red, the colours of the Italian flag

The tradition of celebrating the feast of San Gennaro started in 1926, in Little Italy where the early immigrants from the country had first settled. Over a million people participate in the event every year.


Colourful parades, musical entertainment, and fun events like cannoli and pizza eating competitions are all part of the celebrations. And food, plenty of food, is of course the main focus of the feast. And the word ‘feast’ is not used loosely here… it is a real feast, with food and drink in abundance. More than 35 of the restaurants along Mulberry Street participate with extended temporary dining areas to accommodate the feast goers. This is in addition to 200+ street vendors lining Mulberry Street and selling varieties of Italian food, from the exotic to the mundane.


And of course, traffic along Mulberry Street is shut down for the duration of the feast.


Sausages, meatballs, calzones, pasta, and pizza… in all their varieties were present, but my attention was mainly towards the sweet side.




Funnel cakes…


Fried oreos…


We sampled everything except the fried oreos. I have eaten fried oreos once earlier, around the time they first appeared. Would I eat them again? Maybe, if the alternative is death by starvation… Haha!


One Italian speciality going fast was torrone. It is a kind of candy made out of sugar and various nuts. The best way to describe their texture is to point to the hammers found in the stalls selling them!


Stuffed clams ready to go into the oven at a seafood stall…


Attractive cocktail containers that you can take with you. And what is more, it is free refills!


If you don’t really care for the cocktails, there are soft drinks.






All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable time will be yours, regardless of which day you go!



12 Sep 2014

Union Square Green Market… an End of Season Visit

The Union Square Green Market is an eternal source of goodies, any time of the year. Still, the best season at the market is the summer. The lush abundance of nature’s bounty on display is like so much eye candy, and something truly exciting to any food lover.
Most weeks during the summer, I make a side step to the market on the way from work. There is always something of interest to pick up… a bunch of green garlic, a block of unusual cheese from an upstate dairy, or a black and white cookie… among the mounds of produce that is piled up in the stalls.
The variety of produce available in the market is amazing. And most of them are organically cultivated. All in all, any locavore’s dream come true! If I did not have to commute home, I would be doing all my veggie shopping here, without a doubt!
On a recent visit, the place looked fully loaded despite the signs of a waning summer. Just walking along the tables was enough to make one hungry!


And more vegetables…

Multi-hued root vegetables looking especially pretty…

Tomatoes in all shapes and colours…


Summer fruits…


Celery root, one of my favourite things…

Some speciality garlic…

Squashes, summer and winter…

Varieties of chilies…


Jams, jellies and preserves…

Cookies, pies and breads…


Interesting small batch wines…

Hard cider made from local apples…

Fresh pasta…

Ready to eat salad mixes…


And this time, there was even a ‘Harey Krishna’ group performing at the market!




09 Sep 2014

Travel Story, Continued

I walk into the room… and on the table, is this vase full of gorgeous orange roses!


And a cake decorated with fresh strawberries and marbled chocolate pieces… inscribed with the message, ‘WITH BEST COMPLIMENTS’.


On closer look, I’m even more surprised… propped up against the cake is a card bearing my name! So it is not a mistake after all!


As if on cue, there is a knock on the door. The guy at the door introduces himself as the assistant manager of the hotel. He wants to know whether I liked the flowers and the cake. I assure him on that count. Yes, they are beautiful, but why? Why? He is honest with his answer… ‘Ma’am, the general manager saw your note and he was very angry with me. He has asked me to get your opinion reversed before you leave the hotel in a week. Ma’am, I’ll bring any colour flowers, any cake you want… you have to give me a good service comment before you leave’.

All this came pouring out in a stream. Finally when he stopped for breath, I told him nothing of that sort will be necessary… I’ll be happy to write a note appreciating the good service as long as the service is good. No flowers or cakes will be necessary for that. ‘No ma’am, I have to make sure you are happy. Otherwise, GM will be very annoyed with me. You have to write a note when you leave, ma’am’. It takes much reassurance to finally get rid of him.

And goodies keep appearing in my room on a daily basis. Flowers, fruits, chocolates…


Gerberas in a bamboo vase…


Big bunch of red roses…


Red roses, white asters and yellow sprays…


Another lovely gerbera…


A solitary red rose, chocolates, fruits…


Yellow roses and purple orchids, fruits, chocolates…

The march of the goodies continue through the week, increasing my discomfort with the whole situation. I can’t wait to get away from the place.

Soon, it is the weekend. A close friend of mine is visiting me, to do some sightseeing. She will go back Sunday and I’ll be leaving on Monday night. We spend the whole of Saturday checking out the historical and touristy places of the city and get back to the hotel by late evening. Too bushed to go out for dinner, we decide to go to the hotel dining room. The dinner is good, with live musical entertainment.

And it is Monday and checkout time. I can see the assistant manager hovering in the background, in case he needs to remind me of the good feedback. But he has nothing to fear; there has been no further fiascos on the service front. I’ll be writing that ‘note’ he so much wanted.

Though this is an official trip, I ask the front desk to separate the room and food expenses as I’ll be using my personal card to pay for the expenses for my friend. I get the accounts for food and it doesn’t look right. It’s way more than what I had expected. I do a mental calculation again, and yes, it is almost twice what it should be. I ask to see the individual checks. The man glances through them before handing them over to me and tells me, ‘ma’am, it is the check for the Saturday dinner’.

I zero in on that bill and see that it is a huge one… I mean really huge. A dozen or so beers, big platters of chicken and fish and plenty of desserts. Apparently the check for a large party. I look at the signature at the bottom and of course, it is not mine. I point out this little discrepancy to the front desk man.

He calls for the waiter in charge of the table, there are whispered conferences, of course joined by the assistant manager. The front desk man comes back to me with a sheepish face… ‘ma’am, there was some mistake; it was the check for another table which was accidentally placed under your account. I’ll right away prepare a new one’.

I look around for the assistant manager… he is nowhere around. Happily, I realise… I have seen the last of him! 🙂



05 Sep 2014

A Travel Story

It was an official trip. The salt mines I work at, wanted me to go and set up a team of writers in a remote city in a remote country, both of which shall remain unnamed. I had identified and recruited a talented team long distance and now was going to meet them. All in all I’ll be staying for a week.


I reached the city in the evening. The hotel was booked by our company travel department; and though it was one of those that charged exorbitant rates for corporate from the US, I had to stick with the official choice. The only good thing I could discern about the place was that it had fairly well-reviewed dining facilities so that I wouldn’t have to venture out for dinner after a day’s work.


So I check in. It is the standard room, with heavy dark furnishings and hardly any view to speak of. I am glad to see there is a coffee machine, but I see just this one measly packet of coffee, nowhere near enough to jog me out of my jet lag, when morning comes. So I call the front office, as per the information found in the room, and ask for more coffee. “Yes ma’am, it will be there in a minute”, the response was prompt.


I watch some TV, and aiming for an early night, decide to go for dinner. Realising that the coffee has not yet arrived, I call the front office again. The poor things are shocked that the coffee has not been brought yet. They are ready to have it delivered right away, but as I am on my way out, they promise that it will be in my room when I get back from dinner. Good enough already!


I saunter back to my room after a fairly okay dinner. And… you guessed it, no coffee! By this time, I’m getting a bit on the pissed side, and call the front office immediately. As can be expected, they can’t believe their ears! “No coffee? Really no coffee delivered to the room?” Another promise to take care of it at once.


Settling down with my book, I wait for the angel of coffee. Half an hour, no angel. By this time that coffee packet has moved from a ‘want’ to a ‘desperate need’. Finally I get out of the room and head for the front office to take delivery of the coffee personally. Around the corner, who do I meet? The coffee angel himself! Not one, but two coffee packets in hand! I know there is no point in asking him what took him so long; the definite answer would be that he rushed with the coffee the moment he was told about it.


So the next morning I drop a two-line note into the suggestions box, suggesting that they should at least take care of the basic needs of their guests and not make them call the front office three times for something as simple as a coffee packet.


By the time my work day is over, I am in a semi-zombie state, being pretty badly jet-lagged. I step into the room, ready to drop onto the bed, and am stopped dead in my tracks… immediately, I know it is a mistake, there is no other explanation!

To be continued…



02 Sep 2014