Picture this: a brilliant day, with a few fleecy clouds scooting across a blue sky. You’ve got a few hours to blow, and a profound need to escape. An urban adventure beckons—time for a picnic, and no ordinary picnic, either. So grab your sunglasses, strap on your backpack, and follow me . . .
The least visited part of CENTRAL PARK is the northwest corner, where the Great Hill rises through a crown of oaks and elms like some fog-shrouded landmark out of Lord of the Rings. Grab a picnic lunch from MISS MAMIE’S SPOONBREAD TOO (366 West 110th Street, 212-865-6744), and approach the hill from Duke Ellington Boulevard (106th Street). Your path lies through the mysterious Strangers’ Gate, which proves, at least, that our forebears were prodigious punctuators. The rusticated stone portal leads to a twisting stairway of 77 steps cut into solid rock. At the summit you’ll find a shady picnic area with 16 tables and, in the middle of an oval promenade, a sunny greensward with plenty of places to lay a cloth. In the 19th century, the views from this promontory extended to the Hudson River and Long Island Sound; now your view is mainly the distant derriere of St. John the Divine and the pointy château towers of the country’s first cancer hospital, founded in 1884 and now a condo.
Your picnic spread incorporates some of the best Southern cooking in town, including crisp-skin fried chicken dotted with black pepper, beef short ribs glossed with a delicate gravy, and, for lighter eaters, catfish sandwiches garnished with romaine and bright red tomatoes. The sides threaten to upstage the entrées: perfect green beans, macaroni with an orange mantle of cheese so bright it almost hurts your eyes, and cole slaw instead of the too-sweet potato salad. Meal done, you can either sit back and relax or explore the further glories of the Great Hill.
The Challenge: Find Blockhouse number 1, a fortification built during the War of 1812 to repel a possible British invasion from Long Island.
Día de los Muertos
When you arrive in the hamlet of NEW DORP on the dinky train that runs from the ferry, you’ll feel like you’ve traveled back in time—a pretty line of shops runs along both sides of the sunken tracks like a frontier village, or maybe a resort town in the Catskills. New Dorp is an upper-middle-class enclave that climbs the alpine hills to the west—our eventual destination. Provision yourself at MORELOS GROCERY (134 New Dorp Lane, 718-987-2304), a well-stocked Mexican bodega that gives way to a tiny taqueria, all in the space of 300 square feet. Tortas are the things to get, bulging sandwiches dressed with ripe avocado, black beans, white cheese, jalapeños, and your choice of fillings. My fave is beef milanesa, a razor-thin cutlet something like a Texas chicken-fried steak, although chorizo, chile-sluiced pork, and—somewhat weirdly—hot dogs are also good bets. The tamales also turn out to be cheap and tasty, wonderfully malformed in their corn husk wrappers. For dessert, skip across the tracks to ANDREW AND ALAN’S BAKERY AND CHOCOLATE FACTORY (61-63-65 New Dorp Plaza, 718-667-9696), vestigial evidence of a German presence going back more than a century. One store-front slings streusel-topped fruit pastries, while the other manufactures many types of chocolates. The butter crunch—toffee crusted with pecans and milk chocolate—is especially compelling.
With the eats packed securely in your satchel, walk four blocks west up New Dorp Lane to the intersection of Richmond Road, then turn right and walk another three blocks, until you arrive at the Moravian Cemetery. Follow the cemetery up Altamont Street—don’t worry, no armed bikers, though you might encounter some rolling stones—until it dead-ends in a metal auto barrier. Walk around it and find yourself in High Rock Park. The hills seem Appalachian, and after you enjoy your Mexican repast on one of the knolls overlooking the graveyard, explore the rest of the park.
The Challenge: Find the decommissioned frame lighthouse and the 1854 German farmhouse.
Into the woods
photo: Kate Lacey
The Russian immigrants who perambulate the BRIGHTON BEACH boardwalk like to think of their neighborhood as a resort on the Black Sea, as you can tell by the names of the stores and restaurants. It’s easy to imagine that you’re shopping in Odessa as you troll the storefronts of Brighton Beach Avenue, admiring the orderly displays of vegetables, pork products, smoked fish, and piroshki—the 60-cent fried turnovers filled with potatoes or cabbage sold warm all along the thoroughfare. Buy a few piroshki, or assemble a more formidable feast at EXCLUSIVE DELI (411 Brighton Beach Avenue, no phone), which bills itself as the “World’s Most Exclusive Delicatessen.” One counter flaunts dozens of smoked pork sausages—some long and skinny, some fat and curvy. I pointed at a pair of stubby conjoined links and asked the clerk what they were called. “We call those sausages,” she replied curtly. Vying with the smoked pork are five kinds of pickled mushrooms, 20 preserved fishes, flattened roast chickens strewn with crushed garlic, and slaws in profusion. New to me was “sour apple”—a golden delicious soaked in brine.
Take your booty and wander over to the boardwalk. There are benches along its length, and a couple of pavilions with picnic tables, but these are likely to be crowded on a sunny day. Better to seek out the less populated beach to the south between Coney Island and Brighton Beach, where you can spread a tablecloth on the sand or perch on the stone jetties that point toward the Rockaways.
The Challenge: Afterward, trek further south to the Cyclone, one of the world’s last remaining wood-framed coasters. Built in 1927, it attains a maximum speed of 60 miles per hour, and its maximum drop of 85 feet will leave you shaking.
Take Me to the River
There’s no better place to get a hero in Belmont than BUTCHIE’S (2480 Hughes Avenue, Bronx, 718-733-4136), where the chicken cutlet is king, and “chicken hero” isn’t an oxymoron. These perfectly fried beauties—two to a sandwich—can be treated conventionally, mantled with plenty of gooey cheese, but with wilder combos available, why cleave to convention? A list of neighborhood-themed heros offers such strange delights as the Fordham (chicken, bacon, mozzarella, and honey mustard), but nearest to my heart are the sandwiches that incorporate onion rings or french fries. “Those heros were invented by neighborhood kids,” proclaimed the proprietor, as the cook poked her head through the kitchen window and nodded enthusiastically. For vegetarians, strips of fried eggplant can be substituted for cutlets, and the potato and egg hero is a formidable treat, too.
Secure your culinary treasures and head north—we’ve got a hike ahead of us. Our destination is the NEW YORK BOTANICAL GARDEN. Though it’s only a few blocks north as the dodo flies, land-based bipeds must tack around the campus of Fordham University to arrive at the main gate. Once inside, you’ll find an official picnic area at the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden, accessible by heading east on a path that runs behind the Haupt Conservatory. But if I were you, I’d continue on to the area known as the Native Forest, which runs along the Bronx River and features a waterfall and a dramatic bridge spanning a gorge. You can surreptitiously picnic on the river, and even take a swim, if you’re discreet about it.
The Challenge: Find the Snuff Mill—not the headquarters of Murder Inc., but a rustic stone structure, part of which dates to 1792. It ground tobacco into snuff on the former Lorillard plantation. Tobacco plantations in the Bronx? My head is spinning!
Stalking the Giant
Boasting some of the most varied terrain in town, ALLEY POND PARK stretches one mile, from the sandy swampland of Little Neck Bay to the hilly hardwood forests of Bellerose. Entering at Springfield Boulevard and 76th Avenue, you’ll encounter broad lawns with flowering trees, formal gardens with promenades, and softball diamonds and cricket pitches galore. There are plenty of picnic tables among these facilities, and some barbecue pits, too, but it’s much better to seek out the wilderness trails that extend north and east, and eat your lunch on a stump. Picnic stuff can be acquired at the nearby corner of Springfield and Union Turnpike, with choices running to deli sandwiches, bagels, and Chinese food, but since you probably came in a car, you can get better food by driving a mile or so to FIZA DINER (259-07 Hillside Avenue, 718-347-3100) for tandoori chickens and spice-rubbed kingfish steaks, or to DELI MASTERS (184-02 Horace Harding Expressway, 718-353-3030) for pastrami sandwiches and potato knishes.
The Challenge: Find the tulip tree known as the Queens Giant. As the Times recently reported, “at 134 feet tall and as much as 450 years old, it is the tallest and oldest living thing in New York City.” Hint: Seek out East Hampton Boulevard, which crosses the Long Island Expressway on the western edge of the park. Then plunge down the ravine!