A simple accident of the calendar put me in
last Sept. 11. I was there not for the memorial observance led by Vice President
at ground zero but, because of a free weekend and a good airfare, to prove that there is a great outdoors in the heart of
There would, however, be constant reminders of the date.
The weather was just as gloriously sunny as it was on that day back in 2001, and if New York was supposed to be in a solemn mood, apparently no one told all the people strolling, jogging, biking and otherwise embracing what has to be the city's greatest meteorological month.
After breakfast at the Boathouse on The Lake in Central Park, my wife and I would be joining them on rented bikes to navigate that silver lining of a bike trail that hugs the shores of Manhattan.
We took off from a bike-rental storefront just south of Central Park and picked up the bike trail at 59th Street in
Park, which stretches five miles south to
. Nothing against Central Park, but Hudson River Park deserves more notice from visitors. Though it parallels some highly trafficked streets a safe distance away, it is loaded with tree-insulated enclaves that look out onto the Hudson and
This gives New Yorkers some eye-pleasing, soul-soothing horizontal in their vertical lives.
The bikeway is so flat that calling it a physical challenge would be an exaggeration. We glided south along the park amid polite but significant bike traffic, stopping on occasion just because. And if you're not serving a clock, you could make a day or more of it. The diversions are many: batting cages, skating rinks, a driving range, a water park, a trapeze school.
After stopping for a $3 lemonade and a $6 crepe at a concession wagon in one of those forested niches, we pushed south toward Battery Park, first having to detour off the bike route at ground zero. On that day it still looked like any fenced construction site, except for a massive American flag hanging from a building overlooking the whole scene (site of a new memorial).
This was an odd moment. It was Sept. 11, after all. The vice president was on the other side of the fenced area, offering his words. I stopped for a few minutes, trying to imagine the worst kind of horror happening in such a beautiful place on such a beautiful day, when the best of humanity met the worst of humanity.
Ten years later, it's still a shock, and being in that spot didn't help the brain process it. It didn't seem real.
Those people who never got to go home again used to walk right where I was, and they would head over to where I was going, Battery Park, on beautiful days to relax or take a leisurely lunch.
We resumed our mission. On through Battery Park, which offers a getaway wealth of its own, with either fine dining or more street food amid fountains and gardens. Frankly, the view is better with the street food. You can have a hot dog with the
. It's here that you get your first glimpse of her.
Back on our trail, we pushed around the south end of Manhattan to the Battery Maritime Building to catch the free weekend ferry to Governors Island, which is perfectly poised in New York Harbor for stunning views of the Manhattan skyline, Liberty Island and Jersey City all at once.
Half a mile off Manhattan, the island was a military installation from
's time until the Coast Guard sailed away in 1996. Still there are old barracks, a maritime high school, lots of green space, plus some landmark houses left over from various commanders. It's also very bike friendly, with broad streets and paved paths and no cars to run you over. A chunk of the island is a National Historic Landmark District, and about 87 acres is now in the city's hands. New York is still making park plans for this incredible gift.
This also is where angry New Yorkers wanted the
plotters tried, rather than on Manhattan soil. Again, such a painful thing in such a beautiful place. That, however, turned out to be unnecessary.
For us, it was back over to Manhattan and northward up the bike trail. This overlooks the East River, which certainly isn't as beautiful as the Hudson but does give you a look at such icons as the
, the Chrysler Building and the
. You'll even see people fishing.
The trail on this side is rough in patches, and it abruptly ended in a blind dead end at 37th Street. Heading back across town to return our bikes, we cut east to First Avenue and turned north to the
. From a bike seat, this globally important site seemed smaller, diminished. On a bike, you see things differently.
We continued on, heading east now on 51st Street. And the significance of this day was about to become inescapable.
Glimpsing something that looked like a church window inside the firehouse at 165 E. 51st St. in Manhattan, I hit the brakes and called to my wife. We entered the open bay door, and there, on the east wall, were 10 photos and plaques, with these words: "In the Arms of Angels"; "Midtowns Eastside Heroes"; "We Will Never Forget."
Ten guys left this tiny fire station for the World Trade Center in 2001, and they would never come back.
Suddenly, this tiny fire station seemed huge.
On 9/11, 343 firefighters and paramedics left stations like this, never to return. In just six hours and 16 miles, I had so come to appreciate where these people worked, lived and played. And even more, what they gave.
If you go
Dining on the Lake:
If this is the only experience you have in Central Park, you won't regret it. In pleasant weather, the Boathouse Restaurant's deck on the water is exquisite, with food appropriate to the occasion. For brunch, get in line early if you want a good seat. 212-517-2233, thecentralparkboathouse.com
The easiest thing to do is ask your hotel concierge to arrange for your bike to be delivered to your hotel. Beyond that, Manhattan is peppered with bike rentals. The one I used was selling off its rental bikes, however.
It's difficult not to stop at this place. Chelsea Piers Sports & Entertainment Complex is a 28-acre sports village on the Hudson. 212-336-6777, chelseapiers.com
This is a great place to bike for fantastic vistas of New York Harbor. The free ferry operates from the Battery Maritime Building, 10 South St., adjacent to the Staten Island Ferry, Friday-Sunday and holiday Mondays from May 27-Sept. 25. You can take your bike. 212-440-2200, govisland.com
Museum of Jewish Heritage:
The museum, not far from the 9/11 site, calls itself "a living memorial to
." It hosts permanent and rotating exhibits, public events and educational programming, among other things. From a second-floor window, visitors have a clear sight of the Statue of Liberty. 646-437-4202, mjhnyc.org