The Island less trodden

21 Nov

It’s probably best known for it’s Orange Ferry. It’s the starting point for the NYC Marathon. And it’s infamous for its Fresh Kills landfill – where garbage from the 5 boroughs of New York City was once collected. The landfill was reopened soon after 9/11 to receive the debris from Ground Zero.

Until recently, I was one of many who knew nothing more about the city’s third largest borough (after Queens and Brooklyn) – Staten Island – than what has been stated above. My previous encounters with the island have literally been alighting from the ferry, stepping into the ferry terminal only to board again a few minutes later. I did this as a first time visitor to the city and in more recent times, as a guide to first time visitors to the city! I’ve also, on occasion, driven through the island en route to destinations in neighbouring New Jersey.

There is no doubt that the Staten Island Ferry offers some of the best views of the city and its harbour including the Statue of Liberty. And to top it all, it’s free – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week! And for those very reasons, I would continue to recommend it.

But once your on the island, the views are equally spectacular – without the rush of tourists jostling for space on the ferry’s front deck!

The ferries have been a vital link between the island and lower Manhattan providing daily commuter service to thousands. And up to September ’01, even vehicles were allowed on board. All vehicular traffic now uses the Verrazano Narrows Bridge which connects South Brooklyn with the island.

Contrary to popular belief, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge is larger than San Francisco’s much celebrated Golden Gate Bridge and is the 7th largest in the world today. The construction of the bridge in the 60s gave a much needed boost to the island. Built in 1964, this mammoth suspension bridge was named after the Italian explorer Giovanni Verrazano who sailed through ‘the narrows’ to enter New York Harbour. He was also one of the first Europeans to set foot on Staaten Eylandt (as named by the Dutch).

Although it still remains the least populous of the 5 boroughs, it is served by an excellent network of buses as also the Staten Island Railway (SIR) – both run by the MTA. The SIR is New York’s only ‘all surface subway line’ – as much as an oxymoron as that may be! And while on the topic, I must admit that the only other bit of time I spent on the island was taking a short ride on the SIR to a lovely little station called Clifton.

Clifton is one of many neighbourhoods on the island served by the railway. Unlike most of the other boroughs, apartment blocks or high rises are rare on this island. It’s the independent houses that hold sway here. The posher areas of the island host some of the cities elite and wealthy and mansions and estates are a common sight in those parts. The island’s naturally undulating terrain has given rise to no less than 4 golf courses – another reason why Manhattan folks might make the trek across! The island also boasts of the highest point in all of NYC – a measly 400 odd feet! 😉

John and I took the ferry across one morning with the intention of actually doing more than just that. We had our bikes with us, so there was really no excuse this time. There is no shortage of green ways or bike paths on the island and with the good intent of leaving the bulk of that exploration for next summer, we made our way along a 3 mile long path to the Bayonne Bridge.

The whole advantage of cycling – as I’ve discovered this summer – is that not only does it provide mobility and ease of access to places but it also gives you the option of trying routes seldom used and more often than not, the results are rewarding. Like our little detour into Snug Harbour..

Aptly named, this merchant seamen’s home was built in the early 1800s and remained (until 1950) the first and only such establishment for retired sailors in the United States. Occupying over 80 acres of land, the site managed to survive the threat of land sharks in the 60s and is today recognised as a US National Historic Landmark. It is one of the chief attractions on the island and hosts a cultural centre, museums, the Staten Island Botanical Gardens and of course, the odd sailors home, or two..

Sailors Snug Harbour is charming, beautiful and full of history. One can quite easily spend a whole day there wandering around. But on this occasion, we had a mighty bridge to cross..

The Bayonne Bridge is one of 3 (Goethals and Outer Bridge being the other 2) that connect Staten Island with the state of New Jersey. In doing so, these bridges provide an alternative and sometimes shorter route from New York to New Jersey and destinations south of it.

While not claiming to be the longest steel arch bridge in the US, at 504 meters it is still the 3rd longest such bridge in the world (the top honour is, as usual, with China!) and if you’ve been following my blog, you’ve guessed it right – this one to was inspired by the Hells Gate Bridge and built a year (1931) before the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Leaving Staten Island behind and riding out to the crest of the bridge, the views can best be described as industrial.

Ports and factories dominate these parts and the Kill Van Kull spanned by the Bayonne bridge is a busy water way. Ahead in the distance one can clearly see the landing path for Newark’s Liberty International Airport and if you strain your eyes hard enough, you may be able to discern the old Singer factory.

The bridge gets its name from Bayonne – a town in Jersey and that also means that we will, very soon, be crossing state boundaries – of the aerial variety!

About 6 miles of biking later, we are finally in downtown Bayonne which is pleasantly lively and colourful.

And so concludes our tour of New York’s many Islands. Thanks for joining me!

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