Island getaway

Former military HQ Governors Island is now an arty seasonal sanctuary.

A 172-acre chunk of prime waterside real estate that can never be developed into luxury condos, Governors Island is a secluded anomaly a scant 800 yards from lower Manhattan. The verdant commons and stately red-brick buildings evoke an Ivy League campus by way of a colonial New England village—oddly emptied of its inhabitants.

The peaceful backwater has had a tumultuous history. Initially a seasonal fishing and gathering ground for the Lenape Indians, it was particularly plentiful in nut trees, earning it the name 'Noten Eylant’ when the Dutch arrived in the 1620s. In 1674, the British secured it for 'the benefit and accommodation of His Majesty’s Governors.’ Perhaps the most colorful of these was Edward Hyde, Viscount Cornbury, who was governor of New York and New Jersey from 1702 to 1708. A cousin of Queen Anne, he was alleged to be a cross-dresser (check out the portrait, said to be of Lord Cornbury in drag, at the New-York Historical Society).

The island’s strategic position cemented its future as a military outpost (by the late 19th century it was the army’s headquarters for the entire eastern U.S.), and it still retains a significant chunk of its military-era architecture, including Fort Jay, which broke ground in 1776, and Castle Williams, completed in 1812. When the army began to outgrow the space, excavated soil from the Lexington Avenue subway line was used to enlarge the island by 103 acres.

The modest patch has been the backdrop for some huge events. In 1909, it was the departure point for the first overwater flight, when Wilbur Wright circled the Statue of Liberty, and such legendary figures as Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Douglas MacArthur had stints on the island.

Since Governors Island opened to visitors in 2006, the program of events has increased dramatically (see website for schedule). The goal of the first phase of the revitalization strategy has been to draw visitors, explains Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC) president Leslie Koch. The second is to invest in the island’s infrastructure and preserve its 52 historic landmarks.

The third phase is to create 'a world-class set of public spaces and parks.’ In 2007, a team of international design firms, led by Rotterdam’s West 8, was chosen to develop the plans. Although details have yet to be announced, one of the signature features will be new hills constructed from the debris of (nonhistoric) buildings as they’re demolished, providing even more spots to take in spectacular harbor panoramas.

Things to do

Cycle Rent a bike on the island to explore five miles of bike paths.

Explore National Park Service rangers lead 45-minute tours of the historic landmarks.

Picnic Pick up packed provisions at the Backstage Caf at Watertaxi Beach. Picnic Point, an eight-acre patch with lounge chairs, tables and hammocks, has direct views of the Statue of Liberty.