We were looking for something special to do. My kids are leaving for camp on Sunday, so we want to do something special and memorable on Saturday. Since several weeks of separation are looming, my children are being very nice to me and agree to get up early to go to Governors Island.
I am one of those New Yorkers who doesn’t like crowds. There are lots of us on this island of more than eight million and we use tricks to feel like there are far fewer people than those who actually share our space.
The first trick is to go wherever you are going early! Visit any location that tourists and locals like to visit and you’ll notice that they are empty until noon or so on weekends. The kids and I are up, dressed, breakfasted, and out the door by 8am Saturday morning. We catch the subway down to South Ferry and were at the GI ferry terminal by 8:40am.
Some perks are big, some perks are small. Because I work at Bike and Roll, the company that offers bike rentals on Governors Island, my kids and I get to take the 9am ferry over to the island. The first public ferry is at 10am.
I introduce my kids to the Bike and Roll staff waiting to get over to the island. We have hundreds and hundreds of bikes there, plus quads and trikes, and getting everything ready takes a lot of hands.
The ferry covers the 800 yards between Manhattan and Governors Island in a flash. There’s something about being on a boat that always gives me a feeling and escape, peace, and contentment.
Believing that everyone needs to earn her keep, my kids and I help set up the GI location and in return we grab three cruisers and hit the bike path. There is a bike path that skirts the edge of the island and then there are additional “streets” that criss-cross the island.
We have the chance to enjoy the swings, the hammocks, and the adirondack chairs. My kids are having such a good time that I have to remind them to enjoy the view.
The cruisers Bike and Roll rents are very comfortable to ride. There are only three gears and they use pedal brakes. The handlebars are wide, making the bikes easy to control. You almost feel as though you are reclining back a bit as you pedal. The value of all this? No one complains about biking all over the island.
The island is undergoing some major construction this year. Buildings are being demolished, ground is being reshaped, roads are being pulled up. The GI staff seals off the construction sites, but somehow we took a wrong turn and find ourselves next to some heavy machinery. We turn around and wave to a woman about to close a gate and get back to the other side just in time.
On the ferry over we meet a gentleman who is on the island as a result of
part of the Corning Museum of Glass. They’ve driven a gigantic convertible 18-wheeler to the island that opens like a Transformer into a glass-blowing lab. We make our way over to their first demonstration of the day at 11am and watch the glassblower transform liquid glass as hot as lava into a beautiful, delicate pitcher. It’s fascinating to hear about the history of glass and the process of creating these lovely pieces. My kids are entranced. We decide that we’ll have to make a trip up to Corning to see the full museum.
We’ve made a reservation to take a guided tour of the newly-renovated Castle Williams. These tickets are available an hour in advance of the tours, which begin every half hour. Castle Williams was part of the fortification of New York Harbor and provided incredible protection to the city of New York. The protection was so good (given Fort Wood on Liberty Island, Ellis Island’s fortification, and Castle Clinton in Battery Park), that no cannon from the fort ever fired a shot during the War of 1812. The British gave up the idea of an assault on New York and went to DC to torch the White House instead.
The tour winds up from the bottom of the fort to the top and describes its history from fort to prison to community center to historic site. The stories of the Halloween parties at the Castle’s haunted houses are really entertaining.
The fort was named after Jonathan Williams who re-designed the architecture of forts using arches and a circular form and built Castle Williams of sandstone. When cannons fired at it, the shot left only small dents in the sandstone where harder, firmer rock would have crumbled and collapsed.
After our tour of the fort, we bike back to the island’s food court (an open area between buildings offering several different food options and picnic tables — there are food trucks at Picnic Point, too) where we buy a Perfect Picnic from our friend Wendy Weston. Another highpoint! The best bread, meats, cheeses, olives, jam, and, oh, those salted caramels — just perfect. Whenever it’s possible to have a Perfect Picnic, that’s my kids’ preferred choice. Mine, too.
The island is dotted with sculptures by Mark di Suvero. Sometimes they stand by themselves and sometimes they overlap with older structures. They are huge works of art — part of an exhibition presented by Storm King Art Center. While they do present a powerful invitation to kids to climb them, these vast constructions are hands-off works.
Another lap around the island and its time to head for the ferry. There are still last-minute camp errands to be run back on that other island — Manhattan.
When we go to return our bikes, we are happy to find that Bike and Roll’s new frequent visitor program has been launched. Every Bike and Roll customer receives a card that gets stamped each time they visit. Each visit back to the island means progressively larger and larger savings on bike rentals. On your second visit you save 25%, on your next visit 50%, on the next 75%, and on the next your bike rental is free. Just in case you needed another reason to return to New York’s island paradise.