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NEW YORK CITY GUIDE, Offbeat destinations for adventurous visitors, museums, bars, cafes, neighborhoods, parks, squares and fun stuff
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Offbeat destinations for adventurous visitors
(Words: ©ablarc from Wired New York; Photos:© urban75)

Roosevelt Island Tramway

Familiar to Spider Maniacs, this suspended cable-car gondola's fare is a mere fraction of London Eye's, but its spectacular trajectory across the East River parallels the Queensboro Bridge, affords dynamic skyline views and actually takes you somewhere.

It will take you from Second Avenue and 60th Street to Utopia.

Roosevelt Island

In this case that means Roosevelt (formerly Welfare) Island, a social-engineered community not too different from the Byker Wall or Stevenage. As usual, miscellaneous well-respected architects squandered their efforts on this one, including Jose Lluis Sert and Kallmann and McKinnell (of Boston City Hall).

Philip Johnson was the master planner, and postmodernly he devised a quirky, arcaded Main Street defined by high-rise towers, a genuine streetwall, moribund shops and directional shifts just sufficient to keep you from seeing the street's end.

No longer traffic-free, partly subsidized, partly market, skip-stop units, Corbu's social theories, and noble proletarians and U.N. employees make an undigested mix.

After you've seen the spectacular view, the incongruously-preserved woodframe farmhouse that once loomed manorially over the island's cornfields and the vaguely Gothic madhouse chapel*, you'll be ready to hop the subway back. Or would you care for a return trip on the gondola?

*From the Roosevelt Island Historical Society's brochure: "Architect Frederick Clark Withers planned the handsome structure... in 1889 [for] the New York Episcopal Mission Society for its ministry of comfort and hope to the unwanted poor and sick in the surrounding almshouses.

The chapel's bell, now in Good Shepherd Plaza, summoned them not only to worship, but daily from their straw beds to long listless hours of loneliness."

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Gray Line Bus

Not really transportation unless you plan your days around it, this open-top double-decker provides (in good weather) Manhattan's most consistently entertaining mode of transport.

I don't normally recommend tourbuses, but here I'll make a strenuous exception. Buy the two day ticket and ride all three lines all the way through, hopping off and on as you please.

If you have to omit one line, let it be Brooklyn, but then you'll miss the dynamite Manhattan Bridge crossing, perhaps the best five minutes on all the tours combined.
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The high vantage point and open top give you a great perspective and facilitate photography (certain kinds, anyway); it's great to be able to hop on and off, and all three routes pass through interesting territory.

The tourguides' patter ranges from witty to bland, from informative and insightful to ignorant and dumb. But hey, if you're well-informed, you know when the facts aren't spot-on; and when the commentary's truly inspired it's like a rolling comedy club --with all that scenery.

I recommend it no matter how jaded you are or reluctant to do something so touristy. You'll love it, but better hope the weather isn't cold or wet.


New York Water Taxi

Yellow and checkered, these jaunty little ferryboats provide multistop commuter service during warmer months. This is a much better deal than the Circle Line, which includes dreary hours of dull shoreline.

Hudson River stops are at 44th, 23rd, 10th, World Financial Center and Battery Park; East River stops are at South Street Seaport, Fulton Ferry Landing (Brooklyn, at the foot of the bridge), Williamsburg (Brooklyn, on weekends) and 34th Street.

That makes a pretty nice tour of most of Manhattan's most interesting shoreline views, a photographer's feast. In warm weather, the service runs often enough so you can hop off at every stop and explore, then hop back on. Get a two-day pass.

Another nice service provided by this winsome company is Snug Harbor Sundays, June through September excursions to Staten Island's architecturally distinguished Greek Revival art center, once a retirement home for old sailors, like the one for old veterans in London's Chelsea.

Also by New York Water Taxi: ferry service to Jersey City (a dull place).

After April 29 you can thrill yourself with The Beast, a half-hour speedboat escapade at a breakneck 45mph. The boat holds close to a hundred, features ferocious Flying Tiger graphics, roars riotously all over the harbor, and you may get a little wet. Absolutely terrific.

Manhattan from the Staten Island ferry

Everyone knows about the Staten Island Ferry. It's free, and it's good for a frank and a cheap beer. But after the skyline recedes, you'll find it goes on way too long, and its destination holds no interest; when you get to Staten Island, the only thing you can do is return on the ferry.


The Governors Island Ferry is different. The ride is mercifully short and the view from the ferry remains continuously exhilarating.

But here's the best part: when you get to this uninhabited island, there's a [lady] park ranger waiting to show you around.

Now this lady wears boots, so you'd better be ready for a strenuous hike. If you can keep up while furiously snapping pictures, you'll find an amazing earthwork fort built by George Washington [yes!] to cover his retreat from the Battle of Brooklyn.

Later in the Eighteenth Century, this was embellished with an ominously militaristic red sandstone sculpted gateway worthy of Vauban (completely un-American). Inside the fort, handsome Greek Revival officers' barracks make Renaissance townscape.

There's also a battery of cannons aimed at Downtown's skyline, a pair of chapels, a handsome row of wooden officers' houses, and a second fort, engineered by Benjamin Franklin's grandson.

This estimable sandstone structure is round; he fondly imagined cannonballs would glance off it that way. They didn't, so it was pressed into service during the Civil War to hold Confederate prisoners, and later it remained as the brig. The windows have bars and the court in the middle was used for exercise. Super interesting, but grim.

There's a great view from the promenade, there's an imposingly-scaled pile that was --prior to the Pentagon-- the country's biggest military building, and there's the historic Commandant's House.

Possibly built on Dutch foundations, this ancient structure hosted Gorbachev on his U.S. visit and was the site from which he announced to Reagan the steps that would lead to the Evil Empire's collapse.

The French President also stayed here when he came to inaugurate the refurbished Statue of Liberty. As though this weren't enough, the kitchen of this house, old-fashioned and cheerfully resplendent in its two-tone tile, was featured in an episode of Law and Order.

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