It’s spring! Time to shake off the hoar frost, comb the rime from your beard, and exit your hovel for the first time in months. Spring is when mariners and landlubbers alike yearn to return to the sea, “our great sweet mother,” as James Joyce put it in Ulysses, “the snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea.” Paleobiologists tell us that all life began in the ocean, and that our mammalian ancestors crawled out of the foam only 360 million years ago. We’ve never lost our affinity for the sea, or the nagging need to return to it.
So now is the time to take to the water that surrounds us on all sides. It being a little early to don swimsuits, we’re better off “going down to the sea in ships,” as Psalm 107 rather confusingly puts it. (Don’t we go down to the sea in taxis, then get on the ships?) Following are some sea-going urban adventures, and—for those who don’t succumb to seasickness on boats—some places you might want to dine afterward.
Staten Island Odyssey
No better boat ride than the Staten Island Ferry, which went from being ridiculously inexpensive to free in both directions several years ago. The ferry leaves from its glitzy new digs in Whitehall at the foot of Manhattan every 20 or 30 minutes for most of the day. The ferry—which began regular operation in 1884—is not just one painfully orange boat, but eight, in four separate classes. The most luxurious—and the one I’m always excited to get a berth on—is the Guy V. Molinari, named after the former Staten Island borough president and congressman famous for voting against Martin Luther King Day and striving to prevent lesbians from holding public office.
Don’t let that put you off his boat, though—it’s an imperial 310 feet long and capable of carrying 4,400 passengers, 42 vehicles, and a crew of 16. The boat makes more than 16 knots (18.2 mph) with the throttle wide open, rushing across the wide mouth of the Upper Bay—a distance of 5.2 miles—in just under 25 minutes. The Molinari has four decks, including a tiny hurricane deck up top, which is where you should camp out as the seascape unfolds before you: the forts and empty barracks of Governors Island on the left, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty on the right, then Bay Ridge and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge on the left, at which point the container-port machinery of Port Elizabeth rises on the right like a flock of gawky seabirds. Gulls follow the tumultuous wake of the ferry, sniping at hapless fish pulled to the surface by the screws. Finally, the twin peaks of Staten Island appear like some forgotten Caribbean port of call, with stately offices and government buildings in the forefront, and the Victorian frame houses of Saint George climbing the slopes like lazy mountaineers.
Has the salt air made you feel a bit peckish? Is so, exit the ferry terminal and walk to Bay Avenue, Staten Island’s picturesque corniche. Go three blocks left to Victory Boulevard, which is a hotbed of amazing eats. Your choices include Trinidadian, Polish, Italian, Jamaican, and Sri Lankan, plus a half-dozen Mexican taquerias. I most recommend Island Roti Shop (65 Victory Boulevard), where you can get a mean goat or conch roti, and Taqueria El Gallo Azteca (75 Victory Boulevard), where you can scarf cemitas, the round Pueblan sandwiches. My fave is milanesa, made with a pounded and fried beef cutlet and fiery sundried chipotle peppers.
On the Waterfront
NY Waterway (nywaterway.com) operates a flotilla of ferries between Manhattan and various points on the Jersey shore. While the deck of the Staten Island Ferry is as steady as a mohel’s hand, the boats that cross the Hudson are bathtub-sized by comparison, and prone to roll with each wave or wake, which makes the ride somewhat thrilling. We departed the floating pier at Battery Park City for Paulus Hook—which sounds like a boxing style favored by Jesuits, but actually betokens the campus of back-office buildings that have been growing like a cancer on the Jersey shoreline just north of the Colgate clock.
With the Goldman Sachs tower blinding us with reflected sunlight and after a mere five minutes of speedboating across the great river, we arrived at the dock, which boasts a streamlined ticket office and waiting room. The entire neighborhood, sometimes known as Exchange Place, might remind you of Blade Runner, or at least downtown L.A. The latter illusion can be enhanced by dining at Fatburger (286 Washington Street), a California chain that offers well-dressed burgers along with two types of fries.
Or abandon the neighborhood completely and seek out Jersey City’s older Grove Street downtown, a few blocks west and north, where the rococo City Hall is likely to make you scratch your head in astonishment. Across the street, Ibby’s Falafel (303 Grove Street) turns out some of the best Middle Eastern food in the tri-state area. No wonder—Ibby is the nephew of Mamoun, the most famous falafel maker on MacDougal.
The ferry costs $4.50 each way, but you can save $3 on the return trip by seeking out the Exchange Place PATH station, a couple blocks north of the ferry dock, and slithering back to lower Manhattan by underwater means.
The Old Man and the Sea
Riding a ferry while hanging onto your hat in a light nautical breeze on protected inland waterways might be considered hopelessly passive by some. Alternately, you can take the Q or B train to Sheepshead Bay—named after a fish with scarily human teeth, rather than the shape of the inlet. The bay itself is resolutely rectangular and lined with concrete. Nevertheless, a walk up and down both sides, crossing the bay on the darling mid-bay footbridge, makes for a wonderful afternoon. The western side is lined with restaurants, including a diner, a Cantonese buffet, an Azerbaijani banquet hall, a German bierstube aimed at Russians, a couple of seafood restaurants, and Uzbeki and Armenian kebab joints.
The bay also hosts a quasi-commercial fishing fleet of two dozen boats tethered to 10 docks. These boats offer fishing expeditions in the early morning, afternoon, and evening, where you can catch such fish as drum, bluefish, seabass, blackfish, scup (porgy), weakfish, fluke, and flounder. I call the fleet “quasi-commercial” because some of the fishermen who pay $30 or so to go on the cruises are clearly catching fish for fly-by-night restaurants and dodgy commercial enterprises. You can often buy their catch dockside when the boats come in.
In general, the boats set out for the vicinities of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, or Jones Beach, Long Island, though some all-day sailings go even farther. Sea Queen VII is an 85-foot boat that holds 125 fisherpersons. It leaves for half-day cruises at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. every day of the week starting April 1, casting off from Pier 5. Leaving from Pier 6 is the Marilyn Jean II (marilynjeancharters.com). For all-day or all-night fishing trips, try the Brooklyn VI (fishbox.tv/brooklyn).
The walk from the Q station at Sheepshead Bay follows the curving route of Sheepshead Bay Road, taking you through an alternately prosperous and decrepit shopping strip that might remind you of an Eastern European village. Then again, it might not. Stop at Anatolian Gyro (1605 Sheepshead Bay Road) for the world’s best doner kebab sandwich, on Turkish bread slathered with yogurt and hot sauce, or restrain your hunger for a full sit-down meal at Randazzo’s Clam Bar (2017 Emmons Avenue), where both the fried clams and raw clams are scrumptious. So’s the white clam chowder and, for a high roller, the lobster linguine. An evening at Randazzo’s nursing a beer or two, sunburned from your fishing trip, is a quintessential Brooklyn experience.
Walking the Plank
The Circle Line Pier at West 42nd Street hosts a series of boats offering estimable cruises of various durations. All these rides and more can be accessed, reserved, and purchased at nytours.us.
Queen of the tour boats is the Circle Line herself, a three-hour ride that circumnavigates Manhattan island, during which your narrator takes an almost scholarly approach to his material, pointing out historic sites and the location of great disasters. Also offered are lunch and dinner cruises aboard Bateaux New York, a low-slung pleasure boat that looks like the ones you’ve probably seen on the Seine. The discounted all-in (except alcohol) price for a three-hour “gourmet” dinner cruise is $163.95. Could the food really be that good?
If you want to skip a meal, there’s probably no better appetite suppressant than The Beast, a speedboat with a toothy sneer painted on the side that flies down to the Statue of Liberty and back at 45 mph in a mere 30 minutes, with the hull slapping the water much of the way. It’s enough to unsettle anyone’s stomach.