NEW YORK — That Manhattan is an island is easy to forget until you get onto a boat. Suddenly your whole view of the city changes.
The island shows its shape and the overpowering skyscrapers become exciting scenery. New York may well be its loveliest from the water, especially at sunset when the famous skyline turns red-gold and the lights blink on.
This year there are more ways than ever to see Manhattan by boat. On a Saturday night spin around the harbor I saw them all out partying: the sleek new dinner boats, side-wheel, paddle-boat and venerable Circle Line boats filled with dancers, and the sailboats skimming silently with the wind, all promenading past the Statue of Liberty.
Lady Liberty is the star of the harbor this year, as she emerges renewed for her spectacular 100th birthday party on the Fourth of July.
The most glamorous are the dinner boats Riveranda and Empress, offering lunch, brunch and dinner sails. The ambiance on board is swanky, the people dressed to kill. Food critics of Gourmet and New York magazines judged the food good enough, then went on to rave about the charms of the voyage.
Passengers seem to agree. "It's so romantic," sighed one woman, sipping champagne with her date while the glittering skyscrapers slipped quietly by.
Unlike most New York cruise boats, Riveranda and Empress, joined this year by Princess and Duchess, sail all year. Prices are $17 for lunch and the ride, $45 for dinner ($50 on weekends) and $35 for Sunday brunch. A pianist plays and sings at lunch and there's a live dance band at dinner.
For photographers, sightseers and business people planning a long lunch meeting, the lunch cruises are a good bet.
The dinner boats first set sail in July, 1984, and New Yorkers and tourists alike love them. They leave from Pier 62 at West 23rd Street and the Hudson River; reservations for dinner are essential: (212) 929-0790.
Even newer is New York's only side-wheel boat, the Andrew Fletcher, a 1930s-style excursion boat that holds 400. Friday nights there's dancing on the hurricane deck to a rock 'n' roll band. This replica sails from the Seaport. Ninety-minute daytime cruises cost $7, Friday night rock 'n' roll cruises $12. Cruises run from April 5 until October; phone (212) 964-9082.
To sail past Manhattan with the wind in your hair, go south to the oldest part of Manhattan and board a sailing ship. A weakness for the Roaring '20s drew me to the 62-foot Ventura on a Saturday night, along with a party of eight sharing a picnic, a couple and their son, two women and several dating couples.
For two hours our daily cares disappeared in the energy of the cool summer breeze and the fascination of seeing the skyline in silence.
Each sailboat has its own personality. You have three choices: The 100-year-old work boat the Pioneer sails from the Seaport (212) 669-9416); the Gatsby-era Ventura sails from Pier 11 on the East River at the foot of Wall Street (212) 344-5942), and the Petrel, a former ocean racer, sails from the Battery at the terminus of the IRT No. 1 subway train (212) 825-1976).
Runs of the Cruises
Cruises run one to three hours and cost $10 to $23. Pioneer runs from May 1 to Sept. 14, Petrel from about the second week in April until mid-October, the Ventura about the same.
If this makes you want to hoist your own mainsail, some Manhattan yachts are up for charter at Pier 11. Yachts for Sail has two 37-foot French sailing yachts and a 45-footer, available bare-boat or crewed at $60 an hour plus $70 prep fee, plus $35 an hour for the captain if you want one (212) 809-2825).
Next door, Ventura's 43-foot Morgan is available with captain and crew, food and drink, for the week or the weekend (212) 344-5942).
Or you can head over to City Island, a surprising little seaside village that's a part of the Bronx. New York Sailing (212) 885-3103) rents sailboats to qualified sailors at $70-$130 for eight hours, and teaches sailing. Boats are available from March 29 to the beginning of November. Be prepared to take a skills checkout before any bare-boat rental. After a City Island sail, try one of the many seafood restaurants near where it docks.
New York's best-known cruise is the Circle Line, circumnavigating Manhattan for 40 years. This classic, popular as ever, sails south along the Hudson, past the World Trade Center, Battery Park and the Statue of Liberty, around the tip of Manhattan, underneath the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, north up the East River past the United Nations (the dinner boats sail that far), through Hell's Gate, across the Harlem River, under the George Washington Bridge and back.
The three-hour cruise costs $12 (children, $6) and accommodates 600 passengers. Don't let the perennially long line discourage you; it moves quickly, and the flocks of international tourists in colorful native dress provide entertaining people-watching while you wait.