On the waterfront
Get out and about for a fresh view of the Big Apple
TIMET TO EXPLORE: New York’s waterfront has seen dramatic ups and downs. It sank from being the world’s busiest harbour in the 1940s to a polluted wasteland in the 1970s, but is being reborn as the city’s most exciting new attraction. The ideal spot to contemplate this rejuvenation is Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants arrived in the US. A few months ago the once-stodgy National Park site was also the setting for the famous New York Explorers Club dinner, where glamorous visitors in formal gear wandered the cavernous halls nibbling on delicacies such as roasted scorpions, barbecued cockroaches and fluorescent algae. The keynote speaker was Robert De Niro, who starred in a film on Ellis Island by the French artist known as JR, who placed photographs of 19th-century immigrants in the 29 abandoned hospital blocks, which until recently were offlimits. A “hard hat” tour of the secret site with Save Ellis Island is a haunting experience. More: explorersclub.org; saveellisisland.org/education/tour-ellis-island/.
FLOAT THAT BOAT: New York is a city of islands. Get into the water with the Manhattan Kayak Company, owned by Eric Stiller. It’s an intensely urban experience as kayakers set off into the Hudson River from a dock by 42nd Street near Times Square, then head south to admire the golden light glinting off the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. From wavelevel, it’s easy to see why Truman Capote described Manhattan as “a diamond iceberg” in 1950. “The perception of New York waterways as grim and polluted is stuck somewhere in 1974,” Stiller says. “But things are a thousand times better than most people think. All the marine life is returning. It’s a different waterway.” More: manhattankayak.com.
BEACH BECKONS: For decades, getting to New York’s Atlantic beaches involved an exhausting subway trip. But now anyone with a Metrocard can now hop a commuter ferry from Wall Street to the sands. For $US2.75 ($3.50) take the 90-minute ride from Pier 11 to Rockaway Beach on a ferry with outdoor seating and even a bar. On sunny days, the harbour is such a sparkling blue that (if you squint) it evokes the Aegean. At the beach, an art deco pavilion in Jacob Riis Park has been taken over by hipster food vendors from Brooklyn, so instead of hot dogs and Budweiser, the beach fare is now gourmet fish tacos and frozen daiquiris. More: ferry.nyc/routes-and-schedules/route/rockaway/. MAKEM MINE A SCHOONER: Grand Banks bar operates on a century-old cod-fishing schooner. It was named for the deep fishing zone in the North Atlantic where the Titanic sank in 1912 and The Perfect Storm was set. The schooner was salvaged by “maritime preservationists” brothers Miles and Alexander Pincus, and docks every summer and autumn at Pier 25 on the Hudson. Their latest project, Pilot Brooklyn, opened this month at Pier Six in Brooklyn; it’s an oyster bar on America’s longest-serving pilot ship, a spectacular 1924-built schooner. More: grandbanks.org; pilotbrooklyn.com.
WATERW MUSIC: For 40 years, classical music fans have flocked to Bargemusic, a concert hall on a moored barge in Brooklyn. It was founded by an eccentric violin-playing Russian emigre, Olga Bloom, in what was then one of the roughest parts of the harbour. When the barge was first brought to the spot, Olga told admirers, she was welcomed by crusty Italian-born longshoremen with bowls of hot pasta. The neighbourhood is now chic DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), but audiences are still lulled by the gentle rocking created by the wake of passing boats. Dine afterwards at The River Cafe, a lavish restaurant extending directly over the water, with magical views of the skyline. More: bargemusic.org; therivercafe.com.
SPRAYS AND PLAY: The venerable Circle Line boatsb have been slowly circumnavigating Manhattanh for decades, often with retired Broadway actors as guides. But far more visceral is a ride with Media Boat Tours, founded by photojournalist Bjoern Kils. These powerful Zodiacs, built for the US Department of Defence, take professional cameramen from CNN and NBC on news stories around the waterways, then during off-hours invite the public. The trips could not be closer to the elements; passengers are given waterproof jackets and the agile craft zip into the most inaccessible corners. More: nymediaboat.com.
ARTA WHIRL: Artists have been drawn to New York’s waterways since the Hudson River school of painters worked in the 19th century. In 1986, sculptors Mark Di Suvero and Isamu Noguchi set up the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, installing grandiose minimalist contemporary artworks framed dramatically against the Manhattan skyline. Today, art is just about everywhere beside the water and the easiest to reach is the Brooklyn Bridge Park, which functions as an enormous gallery. More: socratessculpturepark.org; brooklynbridgepark.org.
COCKTAILS AND CAROUSELS: This year sees the completion of the $US25 million renovation of Battery Park, the historic wedge of greenery at Manhattan’s southernmost tip around Castle Clinton, a fort built during the 1812 war to stave off an expected British attack. The lawns now offer some of the most spectacular picnic spots and bike routes in the city. The most extravagant artistic offering is a gorgeous SeaGlass Carousel, which reduces even the most blase New Yorkers to wide-eyed wonder. Afterwards, drop in at the Blacktail Bar on a converted wharf, where the design and cocktail list pay homage to Prohibition-era bars. More: seaglasscarousel.nyc; thebattery.org; blacktailnyc.com.
OYSTERS AU NATUREL: Before the Dutch arrived, the entire New York estuary was encrusted with oyster reefs. To glimpse that lost preColombian world, volunteer on a Friday at the Billion Oyster Project, a program to reintroduce the molluscs to the marine environment off Governors Island. The project began in 2008 as part of a public high school initiative on the island; the idea is to teach city kids to sail, dive, become marine biologists and manage aquaculture. So far, 16.5 million oysters have been reintroduced, a tiny fraction of the billion projected. Then stroll to dine at the brand-new Island Oyster bar, with unobstructed views of Manhattan. More: islandoyster.com; billionoysterproject.org/get-involved/volunteer/.
FLOATING FLOORS: There’s a dizzying array of evening boat tours, but none is more wildly eccentric or such downright fun as the monthly party arranged by Shanghai Mermaid on a marvellous three-masted schooner. New Yorkers dress in vintage 20s costumes and descend for a floating swing dance party to live jazz bands. Another option is the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island, held twice every summer. More: shanghaimermaid.com; jazzagelawnparty.com. • nycgo.com
Media Boat Tours, main; Grand Banks bar on the schooner Sherman Zwicker, top right; Jazz Age Lawn Party, centre right; Rockaway Beach, above; SeaGlass Carousel, below