New York's a Beach

11 Nov 2014 | 01:38

    Staten Island’s South Beach Though I’ve lived on the Staten Island for about seven years, it was only a couple of summers ago that I discovered South Beach—because I stubbornly hopped on the ferry to Manhattan whenever possible.

    Too bad: South Beach is the ideal urban beach—because it’s mostly devoid of the amenities sought after by most bathers. That makes it easier to find a spot of your own without the disturbing boom boxes that have become commonplace in many other destinations.

    Located on the eastern side of the island, not far from the Verrazzano-Narrows bridge, in a neighborhood with a growing presence of Russian and Polish immigrants (the latter leaving Greenpoint due to—here we go again—the rising rental prices back in Brooklyn), South Beach is arguably the most underrated,  undiscovered stretch of beach in the five boroughs. And, despite efforts from local politicians who’ve tried to make it a tourist destination, it’s likely to stay that way, which is a relief to the local sun-seekers who cringe at the idea of having that shore (which also includes Midland Beach) become another overcrowded Coney Island.

    But it wasn’t always like that: South Beach enjoyed its heyday during the beginning of the 20th century, when special ferries took bathers and tourists directly—which included several resorts, The Happy Land amusement parks and a number of arcades. Now , the arcades are all gone (the last one closed in 2006), and the only way to get there using public transportation is by taking a 15-minute ride on the S51 or 52 buses at the St. George Ferry terminal.

    South Beach has been since revitalized thanks to the labors of community members who rallied for improvements in the area. Rebuilding efforts began in 1995 and, since then, more than $12 million, both in private and public funds, has been spent on renovations to the 1.7-mile boardwalk (one of the longest in the country) and surrounding areas. Plenty of delis in the area serve up sandwiches and wraps, and a small liquor store recently started offering unusual but moderately priced Georgian and Latvian wines, Polish and Russian vodkas and a few better-known brands. If you’re looking for a little more style for your beach adventure, check out South Fin Grill (300 Father Capodano Blvd; 718-446-7679), a restaurant with outdoor seating that began business about two years ago. The service is courteous and speedy, and the place has an unexpectedly upscale ambience (inside dining requires business casual attire).

    The best time to come to South Beach is in the early afternoons, when most families with young children have already gone for the day. Take a cooler with your favorite brew or wine—but make sure to drink from paper or plastic cups (security is strict). The beach is quite long, so you won’t have a hard time to find a more private spot for sunbathing or just enjoying the day. So, go ahead, forget that Staten Island phobia and you’ll be surprised at what a  peaceful time can be had so close to the hustle and bustle of the city.  (Ernest Barteldes)

    More Than Meets The Eye at Riis Beach Partly because it requires some doing to get there by public transportation, Jacob Riis Park doesn’t make it onto the destination list for many summer city-dwellers. But the park is a hidden treasure for naturalists, cyclists and anyone with the patience for the commute (or a car).

    Opened in 1930, Riis was a project of the famous urban planner Robert Moses, designed to give the city’s growing immigrant population a respite from tenement life. Moses modeled the stretch of shorefront after Jones Beach, hoping to create a similar experience nearer to the city. Now it serves mostly families, with the east end of the beach a haven for gay cruising and sunbathing. It’s located in the Jamaica Bay unit of the Queens’ Gateway National Recreation Area, nestled between Fort Tilden to the West and Rockaway Beach on the East, on the Rockaway Peninsula (open daily from 6 in the morning to midnight).

    Because it’s separated from urban existence by a vast parking lot, and its status as a national park, the beach feels remote—the faded glory of its municipal buildings adding to its quiet, ethereal charm. And the lack of evidence of city life makes it well suited for its original role as a working-class escape. But under its parched surface, this beach has a host of other unique advantages.

    Navy buffs appreciate Riis Beach for the arcane bit of military history it represents: The former site of the Rockaway Naval Air Station, distinguished for being the site of the first NC-4 crossing of the Atlantic. Casual golfers like the relaxed atmosphere of the Breezy Point Executive Golf Course, a “pitch and putt” course open since 1935 (718-474-1623). In addition to golf, the beach offers paddle tennis and basketball courts, as well as a children’s playground.

    If you’re heading out there sans car, you’ll need a MetroCard and sunscreen, though not necessarily a full bathing suit (topless sunbathing is tacitly condoned at the east end). Take the A train to Rockaway Park/Beach 116th Street, then the Q22 or Q35 bus the rest of the way. If you’re up for it, the most scenic way to get there is by bicycle. A path winds along the water from the Upper New York Bay all the way to the beach, and is easy to connect to from most neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Should you suffer a broken inner tube on your way, bike repair and purchase are available at the Mini Mall (430 Beach 129th St., 718-645-6787). Bikes aren’t allowed on the boardwalk during the beach’s prime hours, so once you’ve oiled up your gears, take a spin of the surrounding areas to the neighboring Floyd Bennet Field, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Preserve, Fort Tilden Park, and Breezy Point, among other locations. Or join an official bike tour of the Floyd Bennet Field area (main entrance ranger station, Fridays, Jul. 20-Aug 31 6-7:30 p.m.).

    The beach itself, with its far-from-the-madding-crowd feel and comparably clean surroundings, is a great location for long, uninterrupted days of sun worship. For the best experience, take a right at the old-timey clock tower and wend your way west past where the concrete boardwalk ends. A five to 10-minute walk rewards you with a mossy, uninhabited stretch that’s a happy distance from the stinky lavatories and garbage cans that mar the otherwise picturesque entrance to the park. End your day at the beach with a cultural or educational event, such as an exhibit and meet-and-greet with photographer Alice M. Hughey (Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, June 23, 2-4 p.m.), a beach campfire with national park rangers on independence day weekend (Bay 14, Beach 169th St., June 29, 7:30-9:30 p.m.) or a Big Band Dance Party on the beach (July 22 4-7 p.m.). (Francesca Levy)

    Water Taxi Beach There’s something to be said for the pleasures of Water Taxi Beach, located on an industrial stretch of Hunter’s Point, Queens. First, it must be pointed out that the location does not, in fact, meet the basic criteria to be called a “beach,” since it’s impossible to go swimming there. It’s next to the water, and sand is involved, but a chain-link fence and a steep drop separate you from the East River (not that you’d ever want to take a dip there anyway). Still, it’s one of the easiest outings you can undertake—getting there involves a five-minute Water Taxi ride from the 34th Street Pier —and it’s a worthwhile way to spend a lazy afternoon.

    A whole parents—with rockabilly tattoos, highly-styled hair and ripped jeans—take advantage of their free time there. In addition, a strong showing of drunken frat boys and muscled Brooklyn old-timers round out the scene. The fenced-in enclosure holds picnic tables, a tented dance floor and a volleyball court. Make sure to get in line at the refreshment area before you go too far in, by late afternoon, the queue can be long. Harry’s at Water Taxi Beach offers surprisingly decent sangria, along with a selection of beers. Once you’ve grabbed your food, perch near one of the cooling sprinklers that dot the perimeter, at a picnic table or just stake out a spot in the sand. Or you could get off your butt and dance to the DJ-provided music on the dance floor.

    Being there can feel silly at first, but go with it, and you might find yourself relaxing and having fun. It’s less than idyllic, but it’s a change from the day-to-day, offers prime people-watching and reminds you what lengths New Yorkers will go to to get out of their apartments in the summer.