Traveling via ferry is to experience New York City in all its glory. We get to observe from a distance, see the relationships of neighborhoods and boroughs to each other. We get to see that we are islands and shorelines connected by bridges, we are seagulls and barges and marshlands and old gantries and fishing piers. While we are a throbbing metropolis, we can also be stripped down to something more basic, more elemental, to something as natural and simple as the brackish water flowing up and down the East River.
There are other advantages to ferry travel, too, of course. While enjoying the views, one can sit back with a draft beer or plastic cup of wine. And one never gets run down in pursuit of a seat (unless you’re getting on a Rockaway boat on a Saturday in summer).
For a quick dose of ferry adventure, take a hop, skip and a jump to Long Island City (LIC), where you’ll find an amazing variety of shops, activities, and dining options to explore. The ride itself is about 4 minutes and the boats go in both directions about every 20 minutes or half hour. From classic films to fishing lessons to French fare, there’s something for everyone.
LIC is comprised of hamlets and mini-neighborhoods with names like Dutch Kills, Blissville, and Hunter’s Point.
When you arrive at the LIC ferry landing, you find yourself just north of the iconic Pepsi Cola sign. Walk up the plank to explore a beautiful landscaped boardwalk and promenade that extends south to Hunter’s Point, from where you can see nearby Greenpoint, Brooklyn. If the design and architecture firm Creme/Jun Aizaki Architecture and Design has its way, there will one day be a floating pedestrian bridge connecting the two neighborhoods, and you’ll be able to walk through to Greenpoint.
Long Island City has had many identities over the years. Once a part of Long Island, it was adopted by Queens in the late 1800s. Known for its rich soil, it used to be a vibrant farming community.
Later, Long Island City became home to many factories, such as Silvercup and Chicklets, as well as Pepsi-Cola. But by 1970 or so, many of the factories were closed. Currently it is home to the largest fortune cookie factory in the country. It is also home to Fresh Direct Headquarters and warehouses, as well as Jet Blue, Uber, and Lyft headquarters.
In the early 1980s a residential project was put in to revitalize the neighborhood, and by the late 1980s the area was rezoned from commercial to residential. Now Long Island City may be the fastest growing neighborhood in New York City, with residential high rises shooting up at an incredible pace. The Citigroup Building (aka One Court Square) is the largest structure in Queens after the Queensboro Bridge, and the tallest building outside of New York City.
Commune with Nature
Gantry Plaza State Park is comprised of 12 acres of sprawling riverfront land replete with a beautiful boardwalk connecting piers and coves and marshes, lined with flowering hibiscus and Rose of Sharon and Rosa Ragosa bushes and old, drooping willow trees that beckon you under their vines as if embracing you. Across the river from this park looms the magnificent skyline of midtown Manhattan, accentuated by the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building as well as the United Nations.
The gantries stand stately and rustic and a little rusted, a poetic tribute to Long Island City’s history when the gantries were used to offload ships’ cargo onto the trains. The old iron railroad ties also remain, rusted a deep red, with long grass and wildflowers and reeds growing up around them. One set of tracks, next to what is now a nice playground with a man-made stream, has been endowed with a lovely misting fountain. Children move back and forth between the stream and the fountain, while some adults walk and balance along the railroad ties. I try it myself and find it isn’t easy. On the second try I make it without falling, but I spend a few moments teetering there with my bad hip trying to regain my center.
I think what I find so appealing about Gantry Plaza is the way it acknowledges the importance of play for adults as well as kids. I also appreciate its well executed balancing act between the old and the new, the wild and rustic, the modern and urban.
Take a Class
Gantry Plaza is host to all kinds of summer programming including outdoor movies and concerts, art classes, stargazing, fitness classes, and kids programming at the Landing. You can find a list of upcoming activities on the Hunters Point Park Conservancy website.
While we were there, my eight year old partook in a Bricks 4 Kids event, which was part of the Summer Kids at the Landing and he had the opportunity to build a battery operated car and drive it around on a little course using a tablet as a “remote.” There were plenty of friendly, helpful staff to assist children in appropriate Lego activities from pile of Duplo on a “grass” mat on the wood planks to creating Lego mosaics. Other free kids activities on the schedule include music and movement classes, art classes, story hours, and Magic Shows and Animal Shows. LIC Landing COFFEED, which serves, along with coffee, food, ice cream, wine and beer, has comfortable large tables and ample shade.
Check out a free rod and try your luck at fishing.
Other recreational activities include free Fishing Fridays through their Environmental Education Program. These fishing classes take place on a pier a short distance from the ferry landing, just north of the gantries. It’s the one furnished with its own stainless steel fish cleaning table. We bring our scooters to cover the distance more quickly. They provide the fishing rods and the bait. It is expected to run through September, with a possible Thursday afternoon class as well as a Saturday morning class. The Friday dates remaining in August take place 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and are broken up into half hour sessions. We didn’t catch anything, but we got to see a homely looking Oyster Toadfish caught and released, as well as a baby Black Fish in the bucket.
Scale to New Heights
The Cliffs at LIC is nothing short of totally fun for kids and active adults alike. And it’s only a 15-minute walk from the LIC Ferry Landing. (We also got to look at some great mural art on Vernon Boulevard along the way.) The Cliffs has everything from bouldering to auto-belay to top roping, as well as classes, camps, and opportunities to learn outdoor climbing.
The price of a day pass is $30 and since you will need shoes and a harness you can count on another $12 … all in all a pricey bit of fun. However, buying a 10-day pass is an option, as is paying for a monthly membership.
I used to climb when I was in high school and college, at the Gunks up in New Paltz. I did it long before these indoor gyms were even a thing. Climbing is a really fun and safe way to problem solve, learn balance and coordination, get great muscle conditioning, as well as push past limitations and fear. What I love about the climbing scene is that it includes both genders. You see almost as many women and girls climbing as you do men and boys. It’s an equal opportunity sport. It also it is a very encouraging, rather than competitive, atmosphere.
Take In Some Art (and Music)
MOMA’s PS1 Contemporary Art Center, a converted school building in Long Island City, is considered the heart of Long Island City. In addition to its exhibits, the site also hosts concerts and parties.
By the way, arriving and departing LIC by ferry, you can see an art installation that you may not realize is an art installation. It’s a giant digital red clock, which is counting down the days and hours left to the end of Trump’s term as president, the building to which the clock is attached is the studio of art provocateur Matthew Barney. The clock was installed last July by a group of anonymous artists who do not want to be named, wishing for the attention to be on the clock itself, which may instill some sense of hope.
One thing great about the close proximity of LIC to Roosevelt Island is that we can easily hop over there for an evening out without needing a whole day for the trip. There is an abundance of good restaurants right on Vernon Boulevard, a few short blocks from the ferry landing.
If you enjoy southern food, like fried chicken and waffles, check out Sweet Chick. I have literally dreamt about their fried chicken drizzled in pepper infused hot honey, and the waffles served with three different flavored butters are the perfect accompaniment.
Then there is authentic and reasonably priced French cuisine at Tournesol, where the waiters all speak French. Friends have also highly recommended an Italian restaurant called Maiella.
There is a great place for BBQ, called John Brown Smokehouse and there are a couple of pizza spots, where, lo and behold, you can still get pizza by the slice! We like sLICe with their adorable neon pizza slice sign and a good crispy slice for only $2.50. And if you want to sit down for Mexican and frozen margaritas there is a place close by called Skinny’s Cantina on Center Boulevard close to the ferry and with sidewalk seating.
If you want to explore the funky side of LIC, on the other side of the Trump clock, after walking around a warehouse you can find Anable Basin Sailing Bar & Grill, the outdoor bar-restaurant that serves basic drinks and hot dogs, hamburgers and kielbasa. They don’t have table service, but the food is decent, not overpriced, and you can’t beat the setting.
So if you haven’t done so already, download the NYC Ferry app on your phone! The schedule is readily available and continually updated. You can see when the next ferry is due to arrive at the Roosevelt Island landing, or you can plan out your day.