In a mere 15 years, Governors Island has become an institution beloved by New Yorkers. Originally called “Pagganck” (isle of nuts) by Native Americans, this 172-acre enclave was bought from them by the Dutch in the 17th century. It later came under British rule and was surrendered to America in 1783.
The island’s prime location, where the East and Hudson rivers meet, made it a good choice for the military, and so it was continuously under their control until the mid 1990s. The island was a Coast Guard outpost with a population of about 3,500 from 1966 to 1996, when the base closed. The federal government sold Governors Island to New York State for $1 and opened it to the public in 2003 — for the first time ever. That was also the year 22 acres were declared a National Monument (hence the National Park rangers you will see about the place).
Since then, every year has seen changes: new amenities, new landscaping, new things to do, see and eat. In 2017, Governors Island had its longest season yet — it was open for six months — and greeted 800,000 visitors. The new season, which runs May 1 to Oct. 31, should welcome even more. For general information on Governors Island, visit govisland.com. Here are a few of the island’s must-sees and must-dos.
Getting to Governors Island takes only a few minutes by ferry. The most popular routes leave from either the Battery Maritime Building in Manhattan or Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park — the latter is preferable for visitors coming from Long Island (weekends only). The rate is a modest $3 round-trip for adults and $1 for seniors, with children under 13 riding free; there is no charge before 11:30 a.m. on weekends.
Another option for weekend trips from Brooklyn is NYC Ferry (ferry.nyc/routes-and-schedules), which runs routes for $2.75; the Brooklyn landings are in Red Hook, Brooklyn Bridge Park and DUMBO.
Note that pets are not allowed on the island, except for working dogs.
Governors Island is small and can easily be explored on foot, but it’s a lot of fun to do it by bike. There is no extra charge to bring one on the ferry, though space is limited so make sure to turn up ahead to secure a spot. Or you can get one on site: The Blazing Saddles (blazingsaddles.com/new-york) rental station is right outside the ferry landing and offers a variety of rides, including surreys ($45/hour for the six-seater). If you’re happy with a regular old three-speed, there are now three CitiBike docking stations on the island.
Governors Island is protected from outlandish commercial development, which is why you won’t find any glitzy new skyscrapers or malls there. You can get an introduction to the island’s buildings with one of the ranger tours or you can explore on your own. The structures range from the handsome yellow-sides houses surrounding Nolan Park to mammoth structures like the circular Castle Williams, with its 40-foot walls (completed in 1811, it was an army prison during the Civil War), and the star-shaped Fort Jay, which was completed in 1809, after many delays, and is the oldest remaining structure on the island.
MUSIC AND PARTIES
Despite its name, the giant Governors Ball festival is on Randall’s rather than Governors Island. Which is not to say that the latter is lacking when it comes to music, with shows all season long. The daylong Full Moon Music Festival (fullmoonfest.com) brings together the indie-rock and dance crowds; this year’s edition is on June 30, while Pinknic (pinknic.com), June 30-July 1, encourages a pink-and-white dress code and celebrates food, music and (of course) rosé; the melodic-house DJ Klingande fronts this year’s music lineup (which is the same on both days).
Classical and experimental-music fans will be happy to know that Rite of Summer (riteofsummer.com), a series of free concerts, is returning in 2018. The schedule had not been announced at press time, but those with a taste for, say, Steve Reich or the Bang on a Can All Stars should be happy.
JAZZ AGE LAWN PARTY
Created in 2005, this is the event that put the island on the map as a new destination for fun. On June 16-17 and August 25-26, the daylong Jazz Age Lawn Party (jazzagelawnparty.com) invites revelers to Colonels Row to relive the Roaring Twenties. Period dress is not mandatory but strongly encouraged, and nobody will judge the quality of your Charleston. You can buy food on site or bring your own, though be advised that outside alcohol is prohibited. There is no seating provided, so bring a blanket or a foldable chair. General admission is $35.
One of the best things about Governors Island is that it keeps changing, so even if you visited, say, four years ago, you would find new things to experience. The most ambitious recent project is the area called the Hills, which opened in July 2016 and consists of four man-made mounds built out of building debris and materials brought in by barge. The unobstructed, 360-degree view from the top of 70-foot Outlook Hill is choice. Another must-do is Slide Hill, which features four slides, the longest one clocking in at 57 feet.
For the first time, up to 100 people at a time will be able to stay overnight on Governors Island (collectiveretreats.com). From June to October, you will be able to sleep in a sturdy canvas tent — no, you can’t bring your own trusty Coleman. Prices start at $150 for a two-person tent with shared bathroom and $500 for the luxury model that comes with an en-suite bathroom and extra perks like free gourmet breakfast; both include linens, towels, snacks and filtered drinking water. Select discount weekday nights start at $75 but you must check the site regularly to see when they become available.
From temporary exhibits to site-specific sculptures to sound installations, art abounds on the island. Some is commissioned, and it tends to be work by marquee names like Rachel Whiteread. But there are also the initiatives by Figment (newyork.figmentproject.org), a volunteer-run organization that has been organizing participatory art projects, including a mini-golf course. Anybody can submit a proposal to be included in Figment 2018, a free event to be held on June 23-24 — just let your imagination run free.
There is plenty to do for the young and the young at heart. The former can enjoy a playground (play-ground.nyc) specially designed to encourage adventure and risk-taking, visit the teaching garden or drop by the Compost Center and its animals (say hello to the goats and chickens between noon and 1 p.m.). Adults looking for adventure can sign up for Watson Adventures scavenger hunts (watsonadventures.com) on May 12 and July 14 ($19 per person). In keeping with the Governors Island spirit, the satisfaction of solving puzzles is the best reward.