City of is­lands

It’s sur­pris­ingly sim­ple to ex­plore New York by boat and ferry

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - TONY PERROTTET

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

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