Top class seafood and salsa dancing on the beach; Wanderlust sheds some light on some of New York's lesser known island gems
New York City has a hidden side. Beyond the iconic landmarks – the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty – it hides a cluster of small islands, just waiting to be discovered. The archipelago of New York City is made up of no less than 40 natural and man-made islands.
Everyone knows Manhattan, but what about the rest? For a real New York escape, take to the water and discover idyllic fishing communities and wild reserves on some of the lesser-known isles. In this heaving metropolis, they offer a chance to slow down the pace, meet colourful locals, discover historic areas and get back to nature.
The smell of daffodils and hyacinths blends with a hint of sea salt, while green monk parakeets squawk above. Although it feels like a small seaside town, this is still New York City – City Island to be precise. Hidden off the east side of the Bronx, and extending into the Long Island Sound, this is a real Big Apple gem.
Measuring just 2.4km from top to bottom, City Island is a small (only 4,000 residents) but proud and historic community with strong ties to its boat-building heritage – no fewer than seven yacht clubs have made the island their home. Meander down streets that are only three-blocks long and you’ll discover the New York of old. Lovingly restored clapboard-and-shingle Victorian houses with manicured gardens and house-proud owners shearing away at box hedges line the streets. Many a tired and cynical Manhattan resident has moved here for the peace and tranquillity.
Small enough to walk around in a day, City Island also provides a great opportunity for cyclists – hire a bike in Manhattan and pedal your way through the New England-esque setting. Or follow City’s maritime tradition and take a leisurely boat ride around the islet. This takes you pass Hart Island and the eerie Potters’ Field – the burial site of New York’s indigent, poor and unknown. Although off-limits to the public, sailing past its abandoned asylum and graves is a scary experience. Local company Island Current runs morning and sunset fishing tours, offering die-hard fishermen and amateurs alike a chance to catch flounder and bass while taking in city views.
If the mention of lobster tempts your tastebuds then head to one of City Island’s seafood restaurants which offer a banquet of all things marine and fried. Choose between whale-sized portions of oyster, lobster, flounder, crab and more, all served waterside in cardboard boxes.
The sun-drenched courtyard at The Black Whale attracts a local lunchtime crowd with freshly prepared crab cakes – the house speciality. But Sea Shore is the seafood ‘big daddy’ of City Island , serving fresh lobster to 600 guests in a single sitting. The outdoor deck provides a picture-perfect view of the Bay at sunset, and a cool breeze and a cooler drink add the finishing touches to an extraordinary New York day.
Get there: No. 6 subway uptown to Pelham Bay Park, then no.29 bus to City Island
A ten-minute walk over the bridge from City Island takes you to Orchard Beach – a coastal getaway created in the 1930s, perched on the east of the Bronx. On a summer’s day the sound of boom boxes blasting out Latin rhythms will have you salsa-ing on the sand with Hispanic locals, and during the hot, New York summers the beach plays host to a series of free weekend concerts.
Surrounding the beach is Pelham Bay Park, which serves as an idyllic picnic spot with views over City Island, Hart Island and the cool waters of Long Island Sound. The area also includes Hunter Island and Twin Island, two distinctive islets connected to the beach via reclaimed land. Hunter Island is a dense forest of pine, oak and birch, with trails leading to secluded coves, wild floral patches and sporadic wildlife (raccoons, wild turkeys and opossums have all been spotted here). Stonework from a former 19th-century estate can also be found.
Twin Island is a massive metamorphic rock that had spiritual significance for its original inhabitants, the Native American Siwanoy. The island’s geological features include glacial remnants and gigantic 15,000-year-old boulders with swirling patterns of colour. Tiptoe through tidal pools – home to blue crabs and an assortment of shellfish. There’s plenty of pristine wilderness, rocky outcrops and trails to uncover, turning a day at the beach into a real adventure. Apart from the odd fisherman casting his rod, this quiet stretch of coastline is relatively people-free and ready to explore.
Get there: No. 6 subway uptown
Many a trip to New York includes a ride on the Staten Island Ferry – without doubt one the city’s best freebies. But, sadly, most visitors take the round-trip and don’t bother to get off until they’re back on Manhattan. Granted, Staten Island is mostly residential and somewhat industrial, but a short bus ride from the ferry terminal will take you to one of New York’s most tranquil and inviting locations – Snug Harbor.
Originally established as a 19th-century retreat for retired seamen, this estate is now a thriving cultural zone boasting a glorious combination of historic Greek-Revival and Beaux-Arts buildings, arts venues, greenhouses and swathes of well-kept gardens.
Snug Harbor’s most inviting attraction is the Chinese Scholar’s Garden. Step back into 13th-century Ming Dynasty China at this exquisite authentic space consisting of pavilions, trees and water features – it’s a breath of fresh air in an otherwise chaotic New York.
Visiting during blossom season only adds to the space’s Zen atmosphere and intricate design. Entering through a tunnel of overgrown bamboo, you are transported to a secluded oasis of calm, with only a hint of civilisation provided by the muted sounds of a jazz quartet playing at the nearby Botanica Café. Before leaving, make sure you stop in at Snug Harbor’s visitor centre for a glimpse of the original seamen’s dormitories and reception area, restored to their 19th-century grandeur.
Get there: Ferry to St. George Ferry on Richmond Terrace. Then S40 bus to Snug Harbor
Originally settled by squatters in the early 19th century, Broad Channel, a narrow and somewhat forgotten islet in the Borough of Queens, had its share of notoriety as a centre of alcohol smuggling during Prohibition.
Apart from the trade in booze, not much has changed in the intervening years. A quirky and close-knit community, Broad Channel’s rickety stilt houses and fishing shacks are built along canals. But this is no Venice – just a spattering of shops and a few rowdy bars make up this settlement where fishing is still a way of life.
The island adjoins Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge – a serene haven for birds and humans alike. Covering just over 36 sq km, this is one of the most important bird sanctuaries in the north-east USA, boasting more than 325 species of migrating birds seasonally. A variety of different hiking trails weave you through swampy marshlands, coastal tracks and secluded wooded areas where you may encounter huge osprey feeding their young, graceful egrets and a vast array of heron, ibis and swallows.
The Refuge’s visitor centre can arm you with free trail maps so you can explore on your own – remember to bring binoculars. You might even happen upon local artist Geoff Rawling who often sets up his easel here, seeking inspiration from the marshlands. The intermittent sound of aircraft taking off and landing at JFK Airport, just across Jamaica Bay, is the only reminder of just how close you are to the real world.
Get there: A-line subway uptown to Broad Channel station