I wrote recently about Coney Island, and how easy it is to feel you are taking a mini-break from New York City without leaving the city itself. I recently spent a day on Governors Island, in some ways more disorienting (in a good way!) since you are simultaneously surrounded by nature and yet experiencing spectacular views of lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty.
Governors Island sits a mere 800 yards away from Manhattan and is even closer to Brooklyn (400 yards). Originally reserved for the Governors of the New York Colony during British rule, the American Continental Army used it to their advantage and fired on the British from the island during the Revolutionary War. After American Independence, forts were built on the island for coastal protection, and Castle Williams (which is still standing) was later used to hold Confederate prisoners of war during the Civil War. When material dug out from Manhattan to create the first subway line was used to enlarge Governors Island, it became first an Army base and later one for the Coast Guard. By 1996, however, the Coast Guard had ceased to use the island, and it began to be redeveloped as a public park. Fort Jay and Castle Williams, as well as 22 acres of the island, have been declared a National Monument – the remaining 100 acres belong to the city and are in the middle of a ten year plan to revitalize Governors Island for use by the residents of New York.
Getting to Governors Island is somehow both easy and difficult. The ferry leaves from lower Manhattan (just north of the Staten Island Ferry terminal) on the hour starting at 10 AM, and leaves the island to return to Manhattan on the half hour. The cost is $2 roundtrip, but is free if you are a resident and have an idNYC card (if you are a resident and don’t have one, what are you waiting for? there are so many great discounts and benefits, check out the card here). The actual ferry ride is only seven minutes long, but if you miss one (as I did, slower than expected subway traffic on the 4 getting me there just a few minutes after the 10 AM ferry left) it’s a long wait.
One entertaining thing to do in the area if you miss a ferry is to watch helicopters take off and land just north of the Battery Maritime Building.
Once the ferry is ready to load, it only takes a few minutes before you are looking back at the Battery Maritime building as the ferry leaves lower Manhattan.
Within a few minutes you arrive on Governors Island at Soissons Landing.
The constant odd juxtaposition of quaint old buildings, green lawn, and spectacular views of the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan is disorienting, but in an exciting way.
One view of Castle Williams.
If you pass the old historic buildings and follow the signs for the newest part of Governors Island Park, The Hills, you can find the longest slide in NYC, three stories tall and 57 feet long. My advice on a sunny day is to be sure you are wearing long pants – that metal slide gets HOT!
The Hills was constructed using so much landfill it would require 1806 subway cars to transport it. Much of it came from the demolition of some buildings and parking lots elsewhere on Governors Island. Some of the actual hills were created using pumice, because any heavier material would push the existing landfill into the harbor.
A plaque marking the National Park Service site, Castle Williams, with fantastic views of lower Manhattan, which is just a few hundred yards away.
Wonderful views of the Statue of Liberty can also be seen from the western edge of Governors Island.
Ferries return on the half hour, with the last ferry back at 6 during the week and 7 on the weekend.
Returning back to Manhattan, you can feel as though you have taken a trip to another country, one where you gazed at the city as though it was a movie backdrop or a mirage. I highly recommend taking the journey. I found I appreciate the city so much more when I have seen it through a different angle – even one that technically lies within the city limits. Governors Island is open daily during the summer season, which lasts roughly the end of May through the end of September. For more information check out their website here.