KINGSTON, Ontario—Looking for fall color? Take a hint. Pick a country whose flag looks like autumn. Say, one with a great big red maple leaf on it.
How could you miss?
And that means the reds, yellows and oranges of late September to mid-October are likely to be fantastic around Kingston, at the east end of Lake Ontario, and the nearby Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River.
This is classic leaf-peeping country. Why?
First, you have lots of trees, like maples, that change colors. Need I remind you of the Canadian flag again?
Then you have lots of water. Gurgling streams, rushing rivers. It adds to the fresh, outdoorsy feel. Boat trips can be great. And if you tie in a tragically romantic story from the Thousand Islands, that's even better.
Finally, and importantly, you want an old-timey feel.
Glass-and-steel skyscrapers and fast-food joints are lousy backdrops for fall color tours. We're talking Grandma Moses, not Mies van der Rohe.
You need a place with a storied past, the bang of screen doors, ivy-covered walls, cozy B&Bs, woods to kick leaves in and a farmers' market resplendent with pumpkins, apple pies redolent of cinnamon and pinewood baby cradles.
And, just to make it perfect, you need the smell of burning leaves, a sure trigger to bring back childhood memories.
When it comes to old-timey, Kingston rates five rocking chairs in any guidebook. Kingston is so old-timey, Victorian architecture is considered somewhat modern. In the Great Lakes region, many towns date to the Victorian era. Some go back as far as the voyageurs.
Kingston's history goes back further still. It is Ontario's oldest city.
One of the best ways to see fall colors is from one of the cruise boats that mutter among those river islands. The area actually has almost twice as many islands as the name suggests, 1,800 in all. An island, in this case, is any chunk of land in the river that stays above water all year and can support one tree.
Some of the islands are preserved as a Canadian national park, but most are privately owned. You can glide by the cottages and mansions (basically the same thing) and indulge your fantasies about owning an island summer place.
Lots of famous people have owned whole islands here or chunks of them. They include a lot who came up from New York City, including show-biz types like Arthur Godfrey, Kate Smith and Irving Berlin, fur trader John Jacob Astor, cosmetics mogul Helena Rubenstein and George Pullman, who invented the railroad sleeper car.
The international border zigzags down the middle of the river, so no island has divided loyalties.
Some islands are officially on the New York state side, but most are Canadian. (Those Canadians have a knack for coming out ahead. When you think about it, even their country is bigger than ours -- 3.85 million square miles to our 3.72 million.)
Predictably, islands are named for generals and other famous people and for local flora and fauna (Maple, Oak, Duck, Berry, Turnip). But because the river has so many, scores have just numbers, like 56 or 103B.
Perhaps the most famous island is Heart. This five-acre protruding rock has its own 100-room stone castle. Lots of cruise boats stop here, and last year almost 250,000 people visited it.
A fellow named George Boldt built it. He could afford it. A millionaire, Boldt owned the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. His castle was a love project. His money-is-no-object dream was to create a full-size Rhineland castle for his wife, Louise.
Starting in 1900, he set 300 workers to digging, laying stone, hammering and so on. The goal was a castle with 120 rooms, 16 fireplaces, a grand marble staircase, an indoor pool and a tower with a dance hall, billiard room, library and bowling alley.
It was never finished. In 1904, Louise died of tuberculosis. Heartbroken, Boldt stopped construction. The building just sat, gathering dust and the occasional vandal.
In 1974, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority took control. Now each year, the authority renovates more of the castle.
The best daylight cruises of the Thousand Islands start in the town of Gananoque, 20 miles east of Kingston.
You can take a three-hour tour of the islands with the Gananoque Boat Line, which stops at Boldt Castle. Boats leave daily every hour 9-5 until Oct. 15. Price: about $9.45 for adults and $4 for ages 6-12. Call 613-382-2146 or check www.ganboatline.com
Also consider one of the Kingston 1,000 Island Cruises boats. The 3 1/2-hour evening dinner cruise is particularly charming.
Whatever your pleasure, Kingston and the Thousand Islands offer fall beauty at a relaxed pace.