Wilson Harbor, NY

So near, yet…

It’s really astonishing. In Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe, there are six million or so of us, crowded into bustling neighbourhoods and driving on packed roads. As Canadians we see the United States  as a bigger, even more populous big brother next door.

BUT. A mere 30 miles across Lake Ontario, you can find pastoral country in the charmingly American harbour and village of Wilson, NY that defies whatever image you have of the United States as the hub of industry and commerce. Tired of traffic on the 400 or QEW? For a quick serenity fix whenever you want just click www.wilsonnewyork.com/webcam.htm for a camera view of peacefulness in progress. Or better yet, head southeast, navigate carefully up the left side of the channel between the long Wilson Harbor piers extending out into Lake Ontario.

Within the harbour, follow the channel to discover a charming getaway that mostly is visited only by boaters. Even though it’s America, upstate New York is quiet, shockingly quiet. Wilson used to be a one-industry town; since Pfeiffer Salad Dressings closed its plant in 2009 it’s a no-industry town. Today the popular Wilson Boat House restaurant that overlooks your boat slip might be the largest employer. There is next to nothing doing in Wilson and therein lies its appeal. You’ll quickly forget that the Big Smoke is but a hoot and a holler to the north.

What you will find in Wilson is a big, friendly welcome for Canadians and some fine boating facilities. Wilson Harbor has been a vacation spot since the mid-1800s when, according to tourist sign information, Torontonians arrived by ferry for picnics. Today there are three well-equipped marinas with transient slips and three friendly yacht clubs that offer reciprocal moorings for visitors plus a state park with some visitor slips and anchorage just beside. The harbour itself is beautifully protected and scenic, offering several dining/drinking spots, some interesting shops, a community swimming pool and a gas dock.

Tucked in behind Sunset Island, hiding it from view on approach, Wilson Harbor is surprisingly sizeable. Inside, the water is Y-shaped. From the entrance, follow the channel carefully to avoid grounding up the port side and you’ll immediately see a huge lighthouse building which is actually a community centre with the accompanying Linnea’s Pool, a very inviting, kid-friendly facility.

There are moorings on this east side at the Wilson Boatyard Marina or the Tuscarora Yacht Club — mostly taken up by fun loving sport fishermen. The many fine boats there seem to be equally equipped for angling and partying, although in the tranquil Wilson tradition it appears to focus mostly on happy afternoon fish tales and very little raucousness.

If you take the starboard channel coming in, you will be in Tuscarora Bay, which extends west into a significant basin where there are many mooring options including the Wilson YC, Moyer’s Marina and the Island Yacht Club — which is part of the complex containing the Sunset Bay Marina and Wilson Boat Works. Everyone seems to monitor VHF 68 if you want to call in.

At the west end of the Bay is the State Park for both a mooring option and the non-optional U.S. Customs and Border Protection videophone check in (which you certainly won’t want to skip — trust me). Also on the north side of the Bay is the Sunset Grill that — from its perch on a slight rise — overlooks the harbour, some fine parkland and yes, some pretty good sunsets. Perhaps on a really clear day, you can see the CN Tower if you want to be reminded that your iPhone probably has 125 emails waiting for you. The Sunset is locally known for Blue Wednesdays bringing fine bands to the harbour on Wednesdays throughout the summer.

Once you’re tied up, it’s pretty easy to explore the area on foot or bike. Surrounding the lighthouse building is the longstanding Wilson Boat House Restaurant with its superb patio. Adjacent to the gas dock building is an enclave of small touristy shops including a C-store, Vizcarra Vineyards local wine shop, 4 Season Gifts and Destination clothing. Walk up Harbor Street just behind the Boat House Restaurant and you’ll find Brownie’s Custard Stand for oldish-fashioned hot dogs, snacks and ice cream. Continuing along Harbor takes you to Young Street, the main business strip — it’s not far at all. The adjacent downtown — translation: one block has a couple of local watering holes, an IGA, a bank, a bookstore, then a very village-y Wilson Free Library and… well, that’s about it.

Since we’re here to visit the United States, check out the village homes especially the “Historic Cobblestone Homes.”  In Western New York during the 1800s, many homes were built of the rounded polished rock of Lake Ontario that was all along lake beaches. Wilson has quite a few, mostly on Maple Road.  

The Wilson House Restaurant and Inn at Lake and Young at the centre of the village adjacent to the town’s traffic light is another cobblestone example. It’s open for old-fashioned cuisine including the mandatory Friday Fish Fry.

Wilson has an unusual isolation. It’s about the same distance from Buffalo as it is from the CN Tower and not far east of Youngstown, NY, well known for its Level Regatta. It’s about 60 km along the very quiet Seaway Trail Highway 18 that parallels the shoreline toward Rochester. Nearby Olcott Beach was once an amusement park and is now trying with moderate success to re-invent itself.

If you check the calendar of events at http://villageofwilson.org you’ll see a summer-long schedule of community-driven fun like the Wilson Dog Paddle in June, some well attended auto Cruise Nights and August’s Field Day, one of the last remaining of such events in the state that brings fire trucks and marching bands to Young Street. There’s also a regular series of free movies and band concerts in Clark’s Park behind the Wilson Boatyard Marina.

Readying for the journey to Wilson and looking for the hot insider cruise tips, I asked a dock mate, who very frequently crosses the lake to weekend in Wilson Harbor, what draws him back again and again.

“What’s there, Jeff?”  

“Nothing, not much at all. That’s why I love it!”

Walk the walk

The Reporting Requirements for Private Boat Operators in the Great Lakes Region, effective January 2008, says that, “all U.S. Citizen and alien boaters, family members and all guests entering the United States MUST REPORT for inspection immediately upon arrival.”

Since leisure is the operating mode in Wilson, you won’t mind the slightly inconvenient location of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection videophone at the east end of the harbour and just up the hill on the side of a small building in the State Park. Right after you moor, take the stroll over to the lovely park and do your duty to the Stars and Bars. A lazy meander back to the dock, then it’s time for cocktails.

Hey buddy, where’s the fire?

This summer the landmark (if that’s the right word) Hub Hotel on the main drag has been given a new life as the Firehouse Tavern. Your new hosts as of July are locals Russell and Susan Jackman.

Russell’s other life is as the fire chief of Wilson. As a visiting regional instructor, he met firefighters all over Western New York collecting souvenir helmets from those brave lads and lasses, which now adorn the wall of the newly re-done beverage spot. The incendiary theme is continued in the Five Alarm Wings, and other menu faves.

Photo Captions
Photo 1 – The lighthouse community centre and Wilson Boat House welcome you if you take the left channel in.
Photo 2 – Cruising kids love Linnea's Pool.
Photo 3 – There is lots of angling on the south shore of Lake Ontario.
Photo 4 – There are a few cute shops at Wilson. Maybe this is the day you get to know some NY State wines?
Photo 5 – Pretty and relaxing, the Wilson Pier sign welcomes visitors.

By John Morris

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