Image: Governors Island
Mary Altaffer  /  AP file
Framed by the Statue of Liberty, visitors ride bicycles on the bike paths on Governors Island.
updated 9/2/2008 7:58:37 PM ET 2008-09-02T23:58:37

There's an attraction in New York City that offers sweeping views of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty, traffic-free biking, shaded lawns for picnics and outdoor concerts. And it's all free — including the quick ferry to get there.

Located just off the tip of Manhattan, the former military base on what's called Governors Island is slowly evolving into a public playground and attracting more and more visitors each year.

This year, it has expanded days and hours, sculpture exhibits and for the first time, bike rentals. The boat ride also offers views of the towering manmade waterfalls that were installed on the East River this summer. (The waterfalls are in place through Oct. 13 and the Governors Island ferry runs through Oct. 12.)

"It's great to come here and spend the day," said Walter Martin, an Argentine who works in New York. He spent a recent sweltering day enjoying the island's cooler temperatures with his wife and two young daughters.

With its red brick buildings with white trim and large green lawns, the island has the feel of a college campus during summer break, with a few stragglers tossing a Frisbee or lounging in a courtyard. Many of the buildings are still shuttered, although enough of the homes are open to give you an idea of what it was like to live there years ago.

The ferry ride to the island begins at a spiffed-up terminal right next to the terminal for the Staten Island ferry. The ferry delivers you in less than 10 minutes to the island, where visitors can roam more than half of its 172 acres (69.6 hectares).

The island was used as a military base for over 200 years, until the Coast Guard left in 1996. The federal government eventually sold it to New York for $1 and today most of it is under the control of a city-state partnership that is overseeing its makeover. The National Park Service takes care of 22 acres (9 hectares), including two forts. It first opened to the public in 2004.

There are many options for exploring: A tram tour circles the island or a self-guided walking tour is available at the bookstore at the ferry landing.

Slideshow: The Big Apple But a good way to wander is to rent a bike, or bring one along on the ferry. The island is mostly flat and there's no traffic to contend with.

That's what appealed to one visitor, 6-year-old Julia Crager, a still-learning bicycle rider from Manhattan.

"It's very different — and no cars," explained Julia. "I kind of like this town."

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Setting off from the ferry landing, a road loops around the open half of the island. (The southern half is closed while the military apartments and other buildings are demolished.)

The New York City borough of Brooklyn and its new cruise ship terminal are just across Buttermilk Channel and off in the distance, the Verrazano-Narrrows bridge stretches between Brooklyn and Staten Island. On a Saturday earlier this summer, island visitors paused to watch the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship pull away from its berth and head out to sea.

Don't miss the charming residential area called Nolan Park, which is ringed with yellow homes built between 1854 and 1902 for officers' families.

It's also the scene of a sculpture exhibit this summer.

Farther along is a gray stone chapel and a string of buildings that look like a studio backlot, including a crumbling YMCA and an empty movie theater. What's playing? "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," tour tram operator Henry Paul Jones jokes.

Head over to the other side of the island and you'll pass a monument to the Wright Brothers and other pioneers of flight. Wilbur Wright flew a demonstration flight in 1909 from the island, which was later proposed as the site for an airport.

The roadway along the western edge of the island offers the best views of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. From there, you can watch the hustle and bustle of the harbor as the Staten Island ferries, tugs, sailboats and tourist boats glide by. A stretch of the road has been reserved for catch-and-release fishing.

Standing guard over the harbor is the circular Castle Williams, built in the early 1800s and one of two forts on the island. Tucked behind Fort Jay in the center of the island is another neighborhood with brick homes called Colonel's Row.

For one event this summer, the area was transformed into a lawn party from "The Great Gatsby" with a small orchestra playing and couples dancing the Charleston on a wooden dance floor. Women wilted in linen dresses and men decked out in bow ties and suspenders mopped their brows in the heat.

"I don't feel like I'm in New York City," said resident Claire Beaudreault, who participated in a vintage swimsuit contest.

Before you head back to the ferry, duck into Pershing Hall to see a 1977 aerial photo of the island. It shows the island in all its glory in the center of the harbor surrounded by sailing ships on July Fourth.

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