Last year, it took until mid-July for Governors Island to open its gates to ferry-loads of pandemic-rattled folks seeking a big outdoor space on which to run around and play and picnic and bike and relax and snooze. But with COVID cases dropping, vaccinations increasing, and a city ready to explode with the joys of summer, the island getaway is opening right on time this season, and with a full lineup of cultural events, family fun, terrific food, and all the simple pleasures of exploring a still largely-undeveloped space. Here’s a look at what you can expect in 2021, starting this weekend…
Starting tomorrow, May 1st, and running through October 31st, Governors Island will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, and from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. on weekends.
Ferries to the island run from Manhattan’s Maritime Battery Building every day. On weekends there are also two embarkation points in Brooklyn, at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, and at the Atlantic Basin in Red Hook. The ferry is free before noon on the weekends, and costs $3 roundtrip for “general admission” passengers at all other times. Kids 12-and-under ride free. No extra charge for bikes or strollers. Due to COVID-related capacity restrictions on the boats, you must purchase your ferry ticket in advance, which you can do here.
Most of the historic buildings, massive lawns, play areas, and special attractions on the 172-acre island are within easy walking distance of both ferry slips, but biking down to Picnic Point, say, with its broad Statue of Liberty harbor views, is really fun too. There are seven miles of blissfully car-free bike paths total! If you don’t want to ferry your two-wheeler across the harbor, there are rental places on site, as well as three Citi Bike docks.
FOOD & DRINKS
You absolutely can bring your own picnic to the island, but also know that there’s plenty of very good food available once you get there.
The most exciting news on this front is the addition of Pooja Bavishi’s superb Malai ice cream to the lineup at Liggett Terrace, where she’ll be selling her brand new Weekender Ice Cream Bars from a cute little cart. These bars are total genius: a base of chewy, cookie-like pastry, a thick slab of one of Malai’s signature flavors—Rose With Cinnamon Roasted Almonds, Sea Salt Vanilla, Turkish Coffee, Vegan Spiced Peanut Crunch, among others—and a topping of something crisp, like the candied fennel seeds on the Confetti Sweet Milk. The must-try treats are a Governors Island exclusive, and will be available on weekends only throughout the season.
The other new vendor this year is Mai Bpen Rai, a Smorgasburg alum that specializes in Thai Green Papaya Salads, from longtime Fatty Crab chef Kris Olbrich. Returning food-and-drink favorites include Threes Brewing and Meat Hook, serving up the perfect combo of burgers and beer; Fauzia’s Heavenly Delights, featuring Jerk Chicken, Cod Fritters, and other Jamaican dishes; the Makina Cafe truck, with its healthy, hearty Eritrean-Ethiopian fare; and Pizza Yard, slinging wood-fired pies over near Colonels Row. For the best skyline views, both Island Oyster and Taco Vista are back again serving their titular food and plenty of booze at Soissons Landing, right near the Manhattan-bound ferry.
SPECIAL EVENTS & EXHIBITIONS
After a quiet cultural season last year, there are a number of musical events and art exhibitions taking place this summer, all with pandemic protocols and capacity restrictions in place, of course. The hugely popular Jazz Age Lawn Party returns for its 15th year on June 12th and 13th. Pinknic, a weekend-long party with DJs and lots of rose, hits the Oval on September 4th and 5th. And there’s a free Cajun and Creole music festival called Swamp in the City coming to Nolan Lawn on May 15th and 16th. Bring your own instruments for the big jam session!
NADA House, the always-wild exhibition from the New Art Dealers Alliance, is back on the island this year, running from May 8th through August 8th and showcasing the works of more than 50 contemporary artists throughout the stately Colonial Revival houses of Colonels Row. Other art happening include LMCC’s site-specific installations at the Art Center, which will open in June; a specially commissioned mural by Duke Riley brightening up the Maritime Building’s ferry waiting room; and a series of outdoor programs hosted by the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts.
The Collective Retreats luxury glamping grounds are also re-opening for business starting tomorrow, and that business is luxury overnight stays in either the Summit Tents or the tiny house Outlook Shelters near the Great Lawn. In addition to just the novelty (and romantic) aspect of a Governors Island sleepover, complete with meals of course, Collective offers guests such “experiences” as mixology lessons, a Shucking and Sabering class, and live music with evening cocktails.
Did we bury the lede here? Five actual sheep have taken up residence in the idyllic Hammock Grove, “hired” for the summer to gorge themselves on invasive plants like phragmites and mugwort. Their names, in case you want to chat, are Flour, Sam, Evening, Chad, and Philip Aries, but please don’t feed or pet these freshly-sheared beasts. And bird watchers of all degrees of enthusiasm will enjoy the New York City Audubon self-guided tours—there are more than 200 species who call the island home—which you can pick up at their Nature Center in Nolan Park.