Stuck in the City—and Lovin' It

Four cool adventures for three hot months

Some people have summer cottages in Connecticut, Columbia County, or the Catskills, while others can put the touch on friends with beach homes in Long Island or the Jersey shore for the hot, humid weekends. But many of us (including me) find ourselves sojourning in the metropolitan area for our summer recreation. Here are four great—and cheap—local trips, each with its own exciting visual and culinary payoffs.

#1 A CUT-RATE HELICOPTER RIDE
By No. 7 train and on foot

The verdant ribbon of Flushing Meadows Park is worth a summer trip on its own, but this journey concentrates on a spectacular hidden attraction. Begin by disembarking the No. 7 train at the Willets PointShea Stadium stop; walk southward toward the tennis stadium, skirting it on the right as you head for the Unisphere, a gigantic metal globe that's a vestige of the 1964–65 World's Fair. To its right stands the Queens Museum. Go inside (admission is $5) and head for the Panorama, a sprawling scale-model map of the five boroughs.

The statistics are impressive: The Panorama is the largest 3-D map in the world, encompassing 9,335 square feet at a scale of one inch equals 100 feet, making the Empire State Building a little over seven inches tall. The model accurately depicts 895,000 individual buildings, 1700 parks, 771 miles of shoreline, and 17 major bridges. An inclined catwalk wraps the model, allowing you to examine every corner of the city. See if you can spot your own apartment building! As spotlights rake the terrain, an omniscient narrator breathlessly describes the making of the Panorama. A visit here is like a helicopter tour of the city, only cheaper and more comfortable.

Exit the museum and head for its north side, where a bridge traverses the Grand Central Expressway to the west. Continue on this limited-access street, past the undulating concrete curtain and real Saturn rocket of the New York Hall of Science, another worthy destination. Entering Corona, you'll find yourself at 49th Avenue and 111th Street. Walk over to 108th Street (only one block away on the psychotically maladapted Queens grid), then perambulate south a few blocks to William F. Moore Park, where Sicilian men play bocce on a festively illuminated court far into the summer evenings. Adjacent stands the legendary Lemon Ice King of Corona (52-02 108th Street, 718-699-5133), where the best flavors are cantaloupe, coffee, mint, and, of course, lemon.

In the mood for something more substantial? Corona Pork Store (107-22 Corona Avenue, 718-699-5080) is famous for its hot Italian hero sandwiches. For a sit-down Italian meal, check out Il Forno (51-23 108 Street, 718-271-3736). To return to the No. 7 train, walk up 108th Street to Roosevelt Avenue and turn right toward the 111th Street station.

#2 PASSAGE TO INDIA
By PATH and on foot

Grab the PATH at Penn Station (still only $1.50!), or anywhere along its Sixth Avenue route. Enter near the front of the train and ride to Grove Street in Jersey City. Glide up the escalator from the station's mezzanine and find yourself in the revamped Gregory Park Plaza—jeez, it looks like Paris! Right in front of you is Newark Avenue. Take a left and work your way up the thoroughfare in a northwesterly direction. You'll pass ornate 19th-century real estate in the throes of transition, quaint tree-shaded squares and misshapen plazas, lots of 99-cent stores, and an excellent old-fashioned Italian bakery (Pecoraro, 279 Newark Avenue, 201-798-0111). Right after the fire station, the road swoops upward under the towering turnpike extension to Jersey City's Palisades, passing over a cemetery and junk-filled rail yard. Atop the hill shines the neoclassical William L. Dickinson High School, like a vision of Olympus.

Continue on Newark Avenue as it jogs right, past a region of Filipino eateries, including Philippine Bread House (530 Newark Avenue, 201-659-1753), where the supply of sugary baked goods includes ube bread—a psychedelic loaf streaked with purple yam jam. A steam table offers more substantial fare, but your full meal is elsewhere. Further along Newark Avenue, a neighborhood of pawn shops, courthouses, and bail bondsmen culminates in Five Corners, at which point the avenue dog-legs left. A couple blocks west you'll arrive at an Indian neighborhood with jumbled signs in Hindi and Arabic—for halal butchers, stands selling unfamiliar veggies, storefront Hindu temples festooned with flowers, and a dozen delectable restaurants.

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image: alexlukas.com

Up for a quick bite? Patel Snacks (785 Newark Avenue, 201-792-4356) offers strictly vegetarian Punjabi and Gujarati small plates, including spoonable agglomerations of crunchy, sweet, and salty ingredients called "chats." Equally remarkable are the joints specializing in vegetarian south Indian fare. Pick either Dosa Hut (777 Newark Avenue, 201-420-6660) or Sri Ganesha's Dosa House (809 Newark Avenue, 201-222-3883); each offers nearly 30 variations on the potato-stuffed pancake called masala dosa, and the spongy dumplings called iddly. The nabe provides other dining options to explore, including meat-bearing Punjabi restaurants, and, at the end of the strip, a pizza parlor that offers Indian-style pies. My favorite features fresh jalapenos.

Maybe buy a cut-rate box of mangoes or some crunchy snacks as a souvenir, then return to the intersection of Kennedy Boulevard at the top of the hill. Turn right and walk three blocks south to the Journal Square PATH station.

#3 LUNCH ON THE BLACK SEA
By Q or B train and on foot

Board the Q (or the speedier B) at the rear of the train and ride to Brighton Beach, the end of the line. Though the name sounds British, the ambiance of this seaside resort is totally Russian. Specifically, its denizens like to pretend they're hanging in Odessa, on the Black Sea. After admiring the neighborhood from the cinematic perspective of the elevated tracks, descend to sea level, where you'll encounter several blocks devoted to Soviet-style commerce, including big-ticket nightclubs like The National (avoid them), delis flaunting an astonishing selection of cured meats and fish, Cyrillic newsstands like Black Sea Bookstore, and the city's cheapest vegetable stands.

If you feel like picnicking along the beach, head a few blocks south to M & I International Food (249 Brighton Beach Avenue, 718-615-1011), where the selection of smoked pork products puts Parisian charcuteries to shame. There's also an aisle of preserved fish, smoked to perfection and just waiting to be flaked and eaten with dark bread and mustard; and a pastry counter flogging savory turnovers called piroshki, bulging with beef, cabbage, or potatoes. If you're exceptionally brave, wash everything down with a big bottle of kvass, a dark, effervescent tonic.

Or, for sit-down, go north an equal distance to Café Kashkar (1141 Brighton Beach Avenue, 718-743-3832), a Uighur eatery devoted to the Turkic food of the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Order the fist-size lamb dumplings called manti, lamb-rib kebabs cooked over charcoal, or one of the sturdy soups like lagman, mobbed with homemade noodles. Green tea served in a big Chinese pot is the preferred beverage.

Thus fortified with picnic stuff, or sated on Central Asian food, head east to the boardwalk. There you'll find acres of sandy beaches (take a swim!), a line of boardwalk cafes offering mediocre food but good stiff drinks, and, late into the summer evenings, a promenade of strollers taking in the sea air, punctuated by buskers performing nostalgic music on accordion and violin, offering umpteen renditions of "Those Were the Days."

Return to the Q and B, or, for a more ambitious walk, go south along the Boardwalk to the Coney Island station, a distance of about a mile. Don't miss the wood-frame Cyclone rollercoaster—not for the faint of heart or the overly stuffed!

#4 JELLIN' LIKE MAGELLAN
By car

Ferdinand Magellan sailed around the world in three years, but your assignment is to circumnavigate Staten Island in a single day. Magellan croaked en route, but I expect you to return alive and still kicking. You'll need a car, so you may have to enlist a driving friend, or—Zeus help us!—rent a Zip Car.

You're going to need a detailed map. I recommend Hagstrom's New York City 5 Borough Atlas. Begin by finding your way across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, once the longest suspension bridge in the world. Once on the Staten Island side, take exit 14 for Narrows Road West toward Hylan Boulevard. Keep left at the fork to continue toward Fingerboard Road. Turn left at Fingerboard Road, and turn left again onto Hylan Boulevard, which parallels the Atlantic seaboard in a southwesterly direction. You can experience the ocean and the pristine beaches at several points. One choice is the extensive Great Kills Park, but better as far as I'm concerned is Wolfe's Pond Park, which offers the wonderful combo of freshwater pond, beach with changing rooms, and a grassy tree-fringed meadow for picnicking. Turn left at Cornelia Avenue after picking up picnic supplies at one of the delis along Hylan Boulevard.

Continue southward on Hylan until you hit land's end—Tottenville, the southernmost point in New York State. There you'll find the Old Conference House, where Ben Franklin once laid his shaggy head, and expansive views of Raritan Bay. Drive northward on local streets till you hit Arthur Kill Road, which will take you through some marvelous industrial landscapes on the Jersey side of the island. Stop for a brew at the ancient Bavarian German biker bar Killmeyer's (4254 Arthur Kill Road, 718-984-1202), where you can enjoy an excellent repast of sausages, schnitzels, and beer. Continue on Arthur Kill Road—past tank farms, 19th-century cemeteries, and, best of all, a graveyard of wrecked ships!

Eventually, as the denuded earthworks of Fresh Kills Landfill loom on the horizon, Arthur Kill Road feeds into the West Shore Expressway going north. Take it to the Staten Island Expressway. Go east and you'll end up at the Verrazano Narrows Bridge on the way to Brooklyn. If you have some extra time and are still hungry, there are a couple of places north of the expressway that rank among the city's best eateries. Denino's (524 Port Richmond Avenue, 718-442-9401) serves conch salad and Staten Island–style pizzas, with a thicker crust than the usual Neapolitan pie, while New Asha Café (322 Victory Boulevard, 718-420-0649) specializes in such Sri Lankan fare as black lamb curries made with toasted spices and coconut-laced fish stews. Bon appetit!

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