City of islands
It’s surprisingly simple to explore New York by boat and ferry
IT is easy to forget New York is a city of islands and was once the world’s busiest harbour.
Hordes of visitors ride the Circle Line ferry to Liberty Island to see that famous statue, drop by Ellis Island for the immigration halls seen in The Godfather: Part II and eat a hot dog on the seafront at Coney Island. But otherwise the city can feel landlocked.
Yet of the five city boroughs, only the Bronx is on the mainland, and for most of its 388-year history, from the arrival of the first Dutch settlers, Manhattan was America’s ultimate port, its shores crisscrossed by ferries and transports, the East River and Hudson River as busy as Fifth Avenue is today.
In Herman Melville’s time, every piece of waterfront bristled with the masts of sailing ships, while the nation’s first wave of great landscape artists were focusing on the majesty of the Hudson River Valley, resulting in the famed Hudson River school.
By 1954, when Marlon Brando appeared in On the Waterfront (shot in Hoboken), the maritime tradition had gone sadly awry. Air travel was replacing ocean liners, container shipping had been diverted to a new centre in New Jersey, and General Electric was polluting the Hudson with polychlorinated biphenyls. By the 1980s, New York Harbour was a vision of dereliction, with rotten piers collapsing into the water. The only memory of the glory days was the cheesy South Street Seaport, with a few decaying tall ships.
The renaissance of the waterfront began a decade ago and has accelerated rapidly.
On Manhattan, imaginative restoration projects have lined the Hudson and East rivers with verdant parks and bicycle paths. Crumbling piers have been renovated into chic eateries, party venues and art installations, and ferry services have been revived to Brooklyn and Queens.
The environmental clean-up of the Hudson River, begun in the 1990s, is proceeding apace. New Yorkers have even heard the happy news that it’s safe to eat certain fish caught from the Hudson again — a grand total of 250gm of striped bass a month, unless you happen to be under 15 or pregnant.
The showpiece for the revived harbour is Governors Island, a strategically placed gem off the glittering southern tip of Manhat- tan. For centuries occupied by the US Army and Coast Guard, filled with quaint Victorian barracks and officers’ houses dating back to the Civil War, the 70ha island was sold by the US government to the people of New York for $1 in 2002.
Since then, Governors Island has become a model for urban renewal and a surprising haven of peace and fresh sea air within the chaotic city. On summer weekends, a free ferry service operates from Battery Park in the shadow of the financial district’s skyscrapers; visitors disembark at a leafy oasis where bicycles and pedal carts can be hired to explore the car-free island.
Quiet laneways and picnic fields are shaded by ancient trees and every turn reveals a new art installation. A recent hit was a waterfall cascading from a giant tower, lit up at night and visible from across the harbour.
Golden sand has been shipped in to create a small beach, com- plete with a happening bar offering democratically priced snacks. The National Park Service manages historic fortifications and there is a full schedule of rock concerts, fancy-dress parties and theatre festivals. This summer (until September 25), the island is also hosting an exhibition of Mark di Suvero’s giant metal outdoor sculptures.
Back on Manhattan, the creative facelift of the waterfront is revealed by a day’s stroll beside the Hudson River on the west side of the island.
Start early in Greenwich Village, at the revamped Jane Hotel, where survivors of the Titanic disaster were accommodated in 1912. Awelfare refuge until recently, the hotel has now become one of the most glamorous venues in the city; its Cafe Gitane has huge picture windows over the river, and serves delicious Moroccan breakfasts.
Around the corner in the Meatpacking District, climb the famous High Line, a former elevated railway track that once served the dockyards; in June, section two of the unique park was opened up to 30th Street, with dramatic water views. To get your feet wet in the river, take one of the free kayaks offered at either Pier 40 or Pier 96; they can’t be reserved, you just walk up and hop in on weekends for a wild paddle out among the yachts and passing motorboats.
Then repair for a drink to the Frying Pan, a funky bar on a salvaged 1929 Lightship that for decades guarded the shoals off Cape May, before sinking. It was recently raised from the deep, restored and transported to Pier 66, where it has been turned into a hip summer watering hole.
For an upscale alternative, head for a sunset cocktail at the Hudson Terrace, a sleek new rooftop bar on 46th Street in Hell’s Kitchen, with sweeping vistas up and down the river.
As a sign of the times, even the venerable Circle Line, which has launched from the 42nd Street pier since the 40s, has come up with new aquatic ideas.
This summer, the company added a boating thrill known as the Beast, a high-speed powerboat trip to the Statue of Liberty that resembles a roller-coaster ride through the crashing waves, complete with stomach-churning turns and dousings of spray.
Lacking the in-depth narrative provided by the regular Circle Line cruises (‘‘Yes, it’s big, it’s green, it’s the Statue of Liberty!’’ the driver bellows), the Beast is not the most relaxing way to see the New York skyline, but it is definitely a lot of fun. govisland.com thejanenyc.com thehighline.org downtownboathouse.org fryingpan.com hudsonterracenyc.com circleline42.com
An alternative to the sedate ferry trip to the Statue of Liberty is the Beast, a high-speed powerboat