Circling Back to Touristy Activities
February 23, 2014

 

There’s never really an off-season for tourism in New York City but as residents, we find that there are 

better times to do some classically touristy things and still have room to breathe. Our children, Halina and Riley, ages 8 and 11, love experiencing the city in the way that countless visitors do, and we always come away with a much deeper appreciation for home. 
 
The Circle Line boat trip around Manhattan is one such example. Knowing that it is packed during the warm-weather seasons, we opted for a cruise on a brisk Saturday late in January. We anticipated having the decks practically to ourselves, but we were surprised at how much seating there was in the heated indoor areas. Plenty of space for our group of 8 with elbow room, no matter which side of the deck we migrated to for better views of "101 city sights" (as locals, we saw way more than the 101 called out by the guide!), including 3 rivers, 7 major bridges, 5 boroughs, the Garden State, and great vistas of all the harbor islands.   
 
A Three-Hour Cruise Loaded with History and Environmental Awareness
 
To take the Circle Line cruise is to realize how New York City’s modern history is intertwined with major efforts to clean up our land and waterways, just as much as its early history is embedded in native American culture and language. The very name Manhattan comes from Manna-hata, meaning “island of many hills,” which is how it was called by the Lenape who lived in the New York metropolitan region long before Henry Hudson ever set sail for our shores. We were also reminded how Broadway, which runs the full 12-mile length of Manhattan, with a few odd angles thrown in, was a well-worn Lenape footpath that the European settlers simply expanded upon. 
 
We took this trip shortly before singer-songwriter—and environmental activist—Pete Seeger passed away at age 94, and the guide was sure to mention how Mr. Seeger and his sloop Clearwater were instrumental in the 1960s and beyond in raising awareness of our nation’s polluted rivers, and in particular the Hudson. Almost as if to underscore this point, we saw a few die-hard anglers on the shores of the rivers we plied, figuring, we supposed, that at least the competition for catches would be minimal!  
 
As much as the views of skyscrapers soaring shoulder to shoulder in such close quarters is awesome—and, no doubt, the big draw for tourists—our eyes kept moving downward, to marvel at the exposed bedrock along the shoreline that actually supports the legendary physical development that makes New York City the unique place that it is. 
 
Large swaths and cliffs of exposed Manhattan schist, much of it streaked with veins of white granite, are visible throughout the tour, especially from the middle of the East River, north into the Harlem River, and heading back south in the Hudson. Perched high on the Bronx escarpment is the first-ever Hall of Fame in the United States, looming large over the river. It is a reminder of the critical role “mother nature” played in the development of New York City. None of it would exist without the strong foundation beneath it, and the particularly deep and mighty rivers that surround it. At 300 miles long and 50 feet deep around Manhattan, the Hudson was uniquely suited to support big-barge, inland shipping. 
 
Notes to Selves on Future Excursions
 
In bobbing around the rivers, we were reminded of several favorite places that we haven’t visited in a couple of years: 
  • Governor’s Island has 30 acres of new park land and several ball fields in the making, with huge heaps of dirt dominating the landscape. It is scheduled to re-open in May 2014 and for the first time, will be open seven days per week. With almost no motorized traffic and numerous historic sites, including the 1811 Castle Williams, we made a mental note to head out there with our bikes when it opens. 
  • The offbeat and thought-provoking Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, where collections of large-scale installation art underscore the “belief that reclamation, revitalization and creative expression are essential to the survival, humanity and improvement of our urban environment.
  • The soon-to-reopen Highbridge Park, a disused conduit along the Old Croton Aqueduct. It is the oldest bridge connecting two boroughs in New York City still in existence, linking Manhattan at 173rd Street and Dyckman Avenue and 170th and University Avenue in the Bronx. Seen topside from the Harlem River, our daughter Halina, age 8, already can’t wait to visit the Rapunzel-like tower on the Manhattan side that houses a water pump. The 1,200-foot span, which was closed to the public in 1960, is set to open for pedestrian recreation later this year.
  • Swindler’s Cove Park, the first revitalization project along this stretch of the Harlem River, and a very successful one at that. We once spent a whole Saturday picnicking among the beautiful sculpted gardens and letting Riley and Halina, then ages 8 and 5, explore the intricate network of gravel footpaths and boardwalk bridges.
 
Also, while the views throughout the Circle Line cruise are terrific, we recommend that, unlike us, you bring binoculars to see certain sights up close and personal, such as the bird sanctuary located along the upper East River, near where it mingles with the Harlem River, shortly after you go under the pedestrian overpass that leads to Ward’s and Randall’s Islands. 
 
Logistics
 
The Circle Line sails daily from Pier 83 at West 42nd Street and the Hudson at 2:30 p.m. until March 14, when additional hours become available. Food, beverages and restrooms are available on board. 
 

 

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