Sitting off the tip of lower Manhattan, the 172-acre Governors Island is New York City‘s newest playground. And it’s pretty cool, too. On the 5-minute ferry ride you’re treated to awesome views of the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan Skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Brooklyn itself. Once on the island, a car-free environment is yours to enjoy. On a weekend afternoon, you can see live music, wander through art galleries, take a free yoga class, picnic in the shade, rent a bicycle, relax in the sun, and so much more. It’s fun for the entire family, too. And best of all its free!
What’s the Story?
Governors Island is steeped in history. Wouter Van Twiller, a representative from Holland, bought the island from Native Americans in 1637 for the bargain price of two ax heads, a string of beads, and a handful of nails. From then until the 1960s, the island served as an important American military base including stints as a strategic fort during the Revolutionary War and as a central recruiting station during the Civil War. In 1966, the Coast Guard took it over.
After they left in 1995, the island lay dormant until it was purchased by the city in 2002. Although it welcomed visitors for a tour as early as 2003, it wasn’t until 2010 that it opened officially to an enthusiastic public.
Getting to the island is as easy as walking into Central Park. A free ferry departs hourly from the Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan, close to the South Ferry, Bowling Green, and Whitehall Street subway stops. The island is open Friday through Sunday, and Monday holidays from late May through September 25. Ferries leave twice an hour (hourly on Fridays), between 10am and 5:30pm; ferries return to Manhattan every half hour from 10:30am to 7pm (5pm on Fridays). If you’re coming from Brooklyn’s Pier 6 on Atlantic Avenue, ferries run continuously from 11am to 5pm, the last ferry returning at 7pm. It’s easy to spend as much or as little time as you like.
What to Do
A plethora of fun activities will keep you occupied for however long you want to stay on the island. There’s Water Taxi Beach, a stretch of sand that hosts events and the occasional live band, though no swimming is permitted. At Nolan Park, a well-preserved collection of 19th-century officers’ quarters houses art galleries and gifts shops. Rent a bicycle or quadracycle for a spin on the paved 2-mile bicycle path that circles the island (come on a Friday and bike rentals are free). If you want to get in the water, sign up for a free kayak for a short paddle off shore.
The Parade Ground is a great place to just wander and people watch. You can hear live music, take a free yoga class, sample food from the many vendors, and take an art class. On the southern end of the island is Picnic Point, a stretch of green with picnic tables, hammocks, and close-up views of the Stature of Liberty.
Food, Food, Food
Food is everywhere on Governors Island. Vendors sell a variety of food, from zesty Caribbean fare to hot dogs, at Liggett Terrace and Picnic Point. The Parade Ground is the place to go for ice scream, smoothies, and occasional samples. At Water Taxi Beach you can order fries, hot dogs, and burgers to eat on picnic tables front the sand. You can also buy alcohol there, but it must be consumed there at the beach. You’re welcome to bring your own food and picnic on the island; however, you cannot bring alcohol to the island.
Governors Island hosts a variety of cultural events throughout the season. Upcoming 2011 events include Governors Island Swim (September 10), where swimmers jump off the ferry boat for a race around the island. Ongoing weekend events include 4 Heads Art Fair, where more than 100 artists are each given a room of their own in which to create an exhibition environment of their own design, and Big Apple Circus Family Fun Fest, which includes teaching kids and families how to juggle, clown around, and other circus tricks. Check the web site for the latest information.
– William Travis
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