Despite what New Yorkers might tell you, you really can island hop around their city, says Ella Walker.
Tell anyone you’re island hopping around New York City and expect blank, bemused faces – after all, it’s not a Greek archipelago.
While it’s hard to miss Lady Lib’s outstretched arm, waving regally from her designated spot on the Hudson River, Manhattan also has a string of other lesser known water-lapped satellites, from Governors Island in New York Harbor (a playground of jazz and poetry festivals, open May to September) to Randall’s Island Park (robustly criss-crossed by tennis courts, football fields and baseball pitches).
Each metropolitan atoll is an intriguing, if relatively ignored, scrap of floating land that really cranks into action come spring and summer.
Roosevelt Island is nuzzled limpet-like against Manhattan’s East flank. Mention it and people tend to exclaim thoughtfully, “I’ve always meant to take the cable car sometime.” So, fortified by muffins and breakfast bagels at our homey Best Western in mid-town East, we walk the 11 blocks north to the Roosevelt Island Tramway, and do just that.
First built in 1976, the tramway’s strung high above the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, its two cable cars in raspberry-ripple red and white trace languidly back and forth, never quite meeting.
Slotting in alongside Roosevelt Island commuters (the fare’s the same as a subway journey with an MTA metrocard), there’s a dawning sense of exposure as we become suspended over the East River. On the ground, you’re snared between the city’s towers, each one squeezing out its own hunk of sky, but bobbing steadily through the air, you’re able to examine those colossal columns of glass and steel from a whole different plane.
I go from feeling infinitesimally tiny on the cable car, to gargantuan on Roosevelt proper. The island is just 240m by 3km, and has the shape and stance of the short arm of a wishbone, snapped off from the main branch of the city.
We track along its west flank to the frog-green, tree-lined isosceles of Four Freedoms Park, a clipped and minimalist memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt, but our progress is stalled by the tumble-down ruin of the island’s former Smallpox Hospital.
The Queen Victoria-era quarantine site, now stark and hollowed out by vines, is a reminder that New York’s islands historically have rather dark and sickly pasts. Ellis Island offered hope or damnation for arriving immigrants; Rikers Island is notorious for its soon-to-be-shut down penitentiary, while America’s largest mass grave can be found on the uninhabited Hart Island.
Roosevelt is lived on, but it’s still a little eerie. Blame the blocky, cold war-style apartment complexes, and the fact that, the further from the tram terminal you wander – and you can’t go far – the emptier it feels. Soon though, its 9,000 residents, including those crabbing intently off the boardwalk, will have to make room; developers have plans to turn the island into a tech centre to rival Palo Alto.
City Island, however, has no impending hi-tech gloss to contend with. Shaped like a knobbly saxophone, it’s plonked off the main bulk of the Bronx, roughly an hour and a half from mid-town Manhattan (take the 6 train to the lovely sounding Pelham Bay Park, then catch the bx29 bus).
“You going for lobster?” asks our hotel manager Robert, the only New Yorker who doesn’t raise an eyebrow and ask, tone incredulous, “Are you sure you don’t mean Manhattan Island?” when I tell him we’re heading to the fishing spot. “I’d bunk off work and come with you – it’s my favourite.”
Standing on the main drag, it’s possible to glimpse the island’s edges peeling away into grey-green water on either side, and you can meander from one end to the other – even dawdling jealously outside its clapboard houses with their wraparound porches in creamy crayon hues – in under 20 minutes.
We decide that’s just about enough exercise to warrant crumbly, herb-stuffed crab cakes and butter-drowned scampi tails in an oxtail leather booth at the City Island Lobster House, at the northern pinnacle of the island.
A crew of retirees sit nearby, hunched over fire engine red lobster shells, chortling through what sounds like their weekly lunch. Billowing napkins are tucked under wrinkled chins and snippets of their conversation – difficult children, a bank robbery – carry across the room. It’s all very Sopranos.
On the wall, there’s an ode to Ernest Hemingway, but when asked if the writer really ate here, our waiter just grins wryly over his coffee pot and says cryptically, “Maybe he did.” There’s a quiet, ineffable charm about the place, and it’s not just the elderly, lobster-scoffing gangsters.
Back in town, we easily lose an hour in 239 Play, an independent vintage toy store run by City Island lifer Dan Treiber. It busts out of the high street’s former 150-year-old general store, a squat turquoise building that, had Dan not adopted it in 2016, would’ve been knocked down to make way for a stack of condos.
Retro Star Wars figurines jostle for space; powdery My Little Ponies flick their rainbow manes, while a 1930s set of Wizard Of Oz Dolls appear to majestically survey the plasticky crowds of Hulks, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Batman paraphernalia.
The guy behind the desk lands somewhere between shocked and amused when we explain that no, we don’t live on the island. “We don’t get many tourists, mostly nostalgic locals,” he says, adding: “People don’t generally come in unless they’re from here; the Bronx still has a bit of a reputation…”
While the Bronx deserves to be cut some slack, Coney Island’s reputation is nailed on; as accurate as its 1920s wooden roller coaster Cyclone is scream-worthily snazzy.
Sure, it’s not technically an island – more of a much-loved honorary one – although the thick band of slatted wooden boardwalk squished against primrose coloured sand, does run a gaudy groove along the base of Brooklyn, and Brooklyn is technically on Long Island… so, it kind of counts.
Roughly an hour from central Manhattan on the Q, F and D lines to Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue, the journey is worth it for an authentic Nathan’s Famous beef hot dog alone, slathered in double-yellow lines of American mustard. There’s kitsch, seaside whimsy in abundance, from the spangled Wonder Wheel, to the illustrated New York Aquarium mural.
Coney Island fizzes with anticipation and a candyfloss-induced buzz, but beneath it, just like on City and Roosevelt Islands, there’s the ghost of the urban mainland. Let them share in some of Manhattan’s glitter.
Ella Walker was a guest at Best Western Plus Hospitality House. Double room with breakfast costs from $229 plus taxes. Visit HospitalityHouseNY.com
For more information about New York and its attractions, visit NYC Go, The Official Guide To New York City (nycgo.com)
- Press Association