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Top New York City Getaways by Boat

By Amy Zimmer | July 12, 2012 6:35am
A view of the city during an Audubon Summer Eco-Cruise.
A view of the city during an Audubon Summer Eco-Cruise.
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NY Audubon

MANHATTAN — Why worry about traffic jams or overcrowded parking lots when you can head to the waterfront to catch a boat and a cool breeze — making the trip outta town part of the weekend fun?

New York City may no longer be the thriving maritime hub it was back when vessels clogged the harbor at the turn of the century, but there are still plenty of options for boat travel.

Ferries can take you as close as the rolling hills of Governors Island in less than 10 minutes or all the way to the ritzy summer colony of Martha’s Vineyard in five hours.

"The journey can be almost as fun as the destination," said Roland Lewis, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. "And it's just a start."

Double-crested cormorants on U-Thant Island spotted on Audubon's Sunset Eco-Cruise.
Double-crested cormorants on U-Thant Island spotted on Audubon's Sunset Eco-Cruise.
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NY Audubon

Lewis' organization, which advocates to make the harbor more accessible, has been pushing for even more ferries.

"Why not imagine a day at the beach at Coney Island and then taking a ferry to Yankee Stadium?" he said. "We're on the road to creating a web of ferry stations. We're working really hard at that."

Lewis was heartened by the overwhelmingly positive response to the new East River ferry service that has come from tourists and residents alike.

"It's a new way of getting around and 'blue'-ing the city," Lewis said.

Here are 11 boat trips, both near and far.

For quick jaunts:

Governors Island

The Trust for Governors Island has turned the 172-acre spot, just south of Manhattan’s tip, into a haven for bicycling, picnicking and art hopping. This summer's packed lineup of events includes the second annual New York Poetry Festival on July 21-22 and the Unicycle Festival on Sept. 1, which is the same day as Pig Island III, a celebration of local pork and craft beer. And what better way to celebrate the harbor than City of Water Day on July 14, with local boat tours and fishing?

The trek to Governors Island takes about 10 minutes on the free ferries from Manhattan’s Battery Maritime Building at 10 South Street (next to the Staten Island Ferry terminal) or from Brooklyn’s Pier 6 at the foot of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Bridge Park. There’s also service to the island on NY Waterway's East River Ferry ($4 each way) from the hip enclaves of Long Island City, Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Dumbo.

Red Hook

Get an up-close view of New York’s working waterfront on New York Water Taxi's IKEA Express Shuttle that runs from Wall Street’s Pier 11 to the IKEA Dock in Red Hook ($5 weekdays, free on weekends and for children 12 and under).

If you’re tempted by Swedish meatballs, the big blue box store has plenty. Otherwise, walk over to Red Hook’s Fairway, where you can munch on a lobster roll at a picnic table while taking in a view of the Statue of Liberty. Steps away, you can stroll around offices and shops at the beautifully restored Civil War-era Beard Street Warehouse, where you can pop into Pier Glass and watch blowers make precious glass birds (499 Van Brunt St.) A short trek away is Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie at 204 Van Dyke St., between Conover and Ferris streets. Near there is Louis Valentino Jr. Park, which shows outdoor movies on Tuesday evenings through Aug. 28.

South Beach

OK, it’s not exactly Miami, but one of Staten Island’s most popular attractions for those looking to catch some rays, or fish, is called South Beach — and it’s much closer. A giant dolphin fountain greets beachgoers at the Ocean Breeze Fishing Pier, which at 835 feet is one of the city’s longest. After a day on the sand or strolling the 1.7-mile boardwalk, take in some Russian or Middle Eastern delicacies nearby at the opulently decorated Chinar On the Island (283 Sand Lane). Or enjoy oysters and martinis on the patio at the South Fin Grill overlooking the water (300 Father Capodanno Blvd.)

To get there, take the Staten Island Ferry from the Whitehall Ferry Terminal (free) to the S51 Bus (MetroCard or $2.25 in change) for a 20-minute ride to Father Capodanno Blvd. and Sand Lane.

Liberty State Park, N.J.

Liberty State Park — just 2,000 feet from the Statue of Liberty — was once a major industrial waterfront hub dotted with an extensive freight and passenger transportation network that was hugely important to the region’s development. Before heading to their destinations across the country, immigrants coming to Ellis Island at the turn of the century would then buy tickets and board trains for the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, in what is now the north end of the 1,122-acre park.

The spot, now a popular place for kite flying, fishing and barbecues (bring your own grill) is just a seven-minute ferry ride from the World Financial Center Terminal to Liberty Landing (adults, $14 round trip; children, 7 to 12, $10).

Touring the other islands of New York City

Open House New York — the organization that gives the public access to some of the city’s most intriguing architectural spaces — is taking to the water on Aug. 22 for a special tour up the East River exploring the design highlights and cultural heritage of some of the 42 little islands within the city's boundaries.

Journalists Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller, co-authors of "The Other Islands of New York City: A History and Guide," will talk about these islands — from the famous ones, like Ellis, to the infamous, like Rikers. The trip, on the luxury yacht Zephyr, will glimpse the new park rising at Roosevelt Island and the bird refuge that has taken over more obscure islands, like North Brother Island.

The tour leaves from the South Street Seaport's Pier 16 at 6:30 p.m. (Cost: $36)

Randall's Island

Just across the East River from East Harlem, Randall's Island has gardens, wetlands, ball fields, tennis courts and more. Though a pilot program for regular ferry service won't be under way until the fall, New York Water Taxi is shuttling people to the island for this summer's big events.

A image from a previous Open House New York boat tour giving passengers a peek at the islands in the harbor.
A image from a previous Open House New York boat tour giving passengers a peek at the islands in the harbor.
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You can hop a ferry from East 35th Street to the Catalpa NYC Music Festival featuring the Black Keys, Snoop Dogg and TV on the Radio, among other acts (July 28-29, $35 for a two-day return ferry pass), or the Electric Zoo annual electronic music festival (Aug. 31–Sept. 2). Ferry service will also take protein lovers heading to Meatopia, the self-proclaimed "Woodstock of Edible Animals" and celebration of butchering and barbecuing, presented by Whole Foods (Sept. 8). 

For nature lovers:

NYC Audubon Summer Eco-Cruise

There's plenty of nature to enjoy within city limits. New York Audubon experts guide you through a 90-minute tour that promises to bring you "up close and personal” with black-crowned night herons, double-crested cormorants, egrets and more. As the tour glides past the iconic skyline and under the city’s bridges, guides will discuss how the small islands that dot the harbor have become home to thousands of birds in the last few decades. (And yes, the vessels are eco-friendly, with low-emission engines and hospital-grade mufflers.)

Visit New York Water Taxi’s website for a schedule of the different tours. The tours, which run through Aug. 12, depart the South Street Seaport’s Pier 17 at 7 p.m. (Adults: $35; children 3 to 12 years, $25).

Fort Tilden in the Rockaways

It takes about an hour on the New York Beach Ferry to get from Wall Street's Pier 11 to Riis Landing, a former U.S. Coast Guard station in Breezy Point (adults, $30 round trip; children, ages 5–12, $15 round trip). But once you land on the Rockaways and walk 5 minutes to the pristine and quiet beaches of Fort Tilden, it feels like an entirely new world. (There are no lifeguards on the beaches, so swimmers hit the currents at their own risk.)

Part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, the former military base is still dotted with decaying military buildings, some of which have been restored and repurposed. The Rockaway Artist Alliance holds classes and exhibitions in two buildings, and the Rockaway Theatre Company hosts productions at the historic Post Theater. The area is also a haven for hawks, turtles and other wildlife.

Sandy Hook, N.J.

Sandy Hook, another part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, is lined with a 7-mile bike path through lush holly forest. It starts at the park entrance and loops around Fort Hancock, weaving around other historic military buildings. The spot is also a hub for birding, fishing and home to the nation's oldest operating lighthouse, built in 1764. (Unlike Fort Tilden, Sandy Hook does have lifeguards and only allows swimming when they're on duty from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.)

You can take the hourlong NY Waterway ride on the weekends from Pier 79, at West 39th Street, or from the World Financial Center (adults, $43 round-trip; children, 11 and under, $17 round-trip). Seastreak offers service to Sandy Hook all week long from East 35th Street or Wall Street's Pier 11 (adults, $45 round trip; children, 5 to 12, $17 round trip).  Seastreak offers more frequent service to Highlands than Sandy Hook, but it's only a 20-minute bike ride from there to Sandy Hook (bikes cost an extra $5 to bring on the ferry). To make a weekend out of it, Highlands has several boutique hotels and upscale seafood restaurants.

Shelter Island

Just off the coast of Long Island, Shelter Island is home to the Mashomack Preserve — nearly 2,100 acres of wetlands and woodlands that are home to one of the East Coast's densest populations of breeding ospreys and many rare plants. Sometimes the endangered piping plover nests there, too.

There are also plenty of options for lodging and eating on the island, including the Vine Street Café (41 South Ferry Rd.), which has gotten rave reviews for its Chateaubriand and seafood.

To get to Shelter Island, take the Long Island Rail Road to Greenport ($18.25 one way off-peak; $25 peak). The terminal for the North Ferry Co. is nearby ($2 one way; $3 for rider and bicycle; $10 for driver and vehicle). The nature preserve is three miles from the slip for the Greenport ferry.

For intrepid sailors:

Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

For those who truly love the open ocean (and aren't prone to sea sickness), SeaStreak runs a ferry every Friday through Labor Day to the upscale summer community of Martha's Vineyard, just off the coast of Cape Cod, returning on Sunday.

The 400-passenger luxury catamaran — with a full service cash bar, food concessions and flat screen televisions showing movies — departs from East 35th Street at 4:30 p.m., arriving at Oak Bluffs at 9:45 p.m. The ferry leaves the Vineyard at 2 p.m., landing back in New York at 7:12 p.m. (adults, $230 round trip; children, ages 2 to 12, $145).

But the waterborne trip might not be for everyone.

"My family and I have taken this ferry 3 times and each time got lucky with very calm seas," wrote one person on TripAdvisor. "I have heard that it can get choppy for a small portion of the ride and yes, people have gotten sea sick."