Hudson River Park is the West Side's oasis

Hudson River Park visitors relax on Japanese artist Hudson River Park visitors relax on Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's “Guidepost to the New Space” sculpture, which is on the lawn at Pier 45. (July 5, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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Hudson River Park -- the largest development of open space in Manhattan since Central Park's creation in the 1850s -- is a modern, artful cache of spaces providing recreational activities for free.

The 5-mile-long park, which begins at Chambers Street and runs up to 59th Street, is a palette of green lawns, flowered gardens, basketball courts, skateboard parks, children's playgrounds and boathouses that offer free kayaking -- all on the riverfront.

"It's like taking a vacation when you live in the city," said Madelyn Wils, president and chief executive of the Hudson River Park Trust, which maintains the park and has managed its design and construction since 1999.

"This really is a gift," Wils said. "A lot of people don't know that it exists off the bike path on the West Side Highway. When I take people there, they can't believe it."

Beginning in lower Manhattan, the park opens up to a new pier with a miniature golf course that has a large waterfall nestled in a sea grass garden of terra-cotta stones. A low-key snack bar offers a convincing illusion that one is at a quaint coastline beach hideaway.

The beachcomber allure continues with a sand beach volleyball court with sky blue beach lounge chairs for spectators.

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The park continues north to Houston Street, where there are funky sculptured benches of braided steel trusses and cafe-style computer laptop tables and chairs that sit beneath a patch of shaded trees -- all alongside a rock garden perfect for relaxing. There's even a beach dune boardwalk surrounded by saltwater marsh plantings and marigold daisies.

Nearby are free tennis courts.

"It's great that there are free courts in the city," said Alicia Saviola of Manhattan, an avid tennis player. "It's so much better than paying a pile of money."

Next to the tennis courts are basketball courts, where the park esplanade leads to a boathouse. Victor Gonzalez, a volunteer, boasts that a quarter-million people have kayaked for free there.

On weekends, people can join kayak excursions to the Statue of Liberty or the George Washington Bridge, depending on weather and currents, Gonzalez said.

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"We give out the kayaks to the public, including a vest, and you're off," he said.

At the Village Community Boathouse next door, where volunteers like Frank Cervi offer free rowing and shipbuilding classes.

"This is one-stop shop rowing," Cervi said. "We build the boats, maintain the boats and sail them."

The portion of the park in the Chelsea neighborhood has the largest green space -- 9 acres for sunbathing, picnics, a merry-go-round and a California-style skateboard park. A sculptured garden and a natural habitat of "funky nature paths to walk on with butterflies" highlights the area, Wils said.

In 2001, park construction took off with a $450 million infusion from the city, state and federal governments. However, the park's esplanade between 29th and 44th streets still needs to be completed, at an estimated cost of $250 million. Wils said she hopes to raise the money through a mix of private and public funding.

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