New York is a city dominated by islands. Most of these islands, like Manhattan and Staten Island, are easily accessible and fairly well traversed. Yet in a city this densely populated, so well-known and discussed, there still remain pockets of isolation; islands of mysterious calm and forgotten charm that make a visitor feel as though they’ve stumbled upon the ruins of some grandiose civilization. One of the most iconic examples of this phenomenon is Governor’s Island, a tiny droplet of land in New York Harbor situated teasingly close to the hustle and bustle of New York proper but worlds-away in pace and temperament.
Governor’s Island began its history as the exclusive province of the British colony’s royal governors. It was an isolated piece of land off-limits to commoners, reserved for those of privilege. Soon after American Independence in the late 18th Century the site became home to a U.S. Army base and later a Coast Guard installation. It wasn’t until more than 200 years later, in 2003, that control was transferred back to the City of New York and the Governor’s Island National Monument was established.
It’s now 2009 and Governor’s Island is a radically different place, free of its shroud of off-limits secrecy. The island is today a free five-minute ferry ride from downtown New York, a seasonal retreat that offers visitors a wealth of unique activities, beautiful vistas and fascinating history. Best of all, Governor’s Island is tailor-made for bike riding. The site boasts over five miles of car-free bike trails winding past opulent mansions, jaw dropping vistas of New York Harbor and quiet green spaces sparsely populated with visitors.
Ready to take a look? Join Undiscovered New York as we explore Governor’s Island by bike…click below for more.
Getting There and Getting a Bike
Separated as it is from the rest of New York proper, it seems difficult to get to Governor’s Island. In truth it’s a surprisingly easy trip. Pick up a free ferry at the Battery Maritime Building in downtown Manhattan. After a quick ten minute jaunt across New York Harbor you’ve arrived at the Island’s main loading dock. All visitors are invited to bring their own bikes along on the ferry for the ride.
Once you’re off the ferry, jump on your bike and off you go to explore the island! Didn’t bring your own bike? Fear not – just left of the main ferry landing is a bike rental station, where bikes can be rented on Friday-Sunday. New York has also implemented a special Free Bike Fridays system, allowing cyclists to rent a bike for up to one hour at no charge.
Let’s Bike – Heading South
We begin our biking tour of Governor’s Island by heading left down the road out from the bike rental station. This area is one of the more densely developed part of the island, housing most of the facilities used by the U.S. Coast Guard during the Island’s stint as central command for the organization’s Eastern Seaboard activities. At its peak, the Island was home to around 3,500 full-time residents. Don’t worry, we’ll return to this area for a look before the end of our biking trip.
Along your right you’ll be able to see the elegant facades of Nolan Park peeking through the foliage, including the Commanding Officer’s House. The residences were once home to some of the Island’s high-ranking officials. They are now largely uninhabited though still retain many of their beautiful architectural details like colonnades and gabled roofs.
Off to your left, across the channel, is Red Hook, a shipping port that is now home to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. If you’re lucky you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of a massive cruise ship like the Queen Mary 2 docked at the station.
After about 10-15 minutes of biking we’ve come to the island’s southernmost tip, also called Picnic Point. The southern end of Governor’s Island is actually man-made, composed of the land dug up during the construction of the Lexington Avenue Subway line. It’s a great place to relax and chill out, offering green grass and sweeping views of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and Statue of Liberty.
More Biking – Heading North
As we head back up the Island’s other side, you’ll be treated to spectacular views of New York Harbor. As you bike along, you’re likely to gaze out at teetering sailboats, meandering their way through the Harbor. To the north lie the twin peaks of glass and steel, with New Jersey off to your left and Manhattan off to the right, split in half by the coursing Hudson River.
Just before completing the Island’s outer bike loop we’ll cycle past the imposing bulk of Castle Williams. Erected in the early 1800’s, this hulking stone fortress one stood as the main line of defense for New York Harbor, menacing would-be attackers with heavy artillery. It later served time as a prison in the early 20th Century.
With that, you’ve made it all the way back to the starting point. Return your bike or continue on and explore some of the Island’s lesser known side streets and back roads.
By now you’ve returned to the ferry landing. Nearby lie a whole range of monuments and activities to keep you occupied until that next ferry arrives. Just up the hill from the main landing is Fort Jay, one of the Island’s oldest forts.
Behind Fort Jay is a former military parade ground. These days its a beautiful open green space dotted with trees. At one point it even harbored a 9-hole golf course, now demolished. Off the parade grounds is Nolan Park, home to the Commanding Officer’s House as well as Colonels Row, another area of beautifully preserved mansions. The area is dotted with tables and benches, making it the perfect spot for a lazy Summer picnic.
If you’ve had your fill of forts and mansions, make sure to stick around for one Governor’s Island’s many planned summer activities including Jazz concerts, film festivals and polo matches.