Hoffman and Swinburne Islands Up Close

Swinburne Island

Created with landfill in the 19th Century, Hoffman and Swinburne islands are those mysterious tree-covered patches of land off the East Shore of Staten Island. They were built to quarantine immigrants (after Staten Islanders burned down two quarantine hospitals in Tomkinsville in 1858).

I look at the islands often while running on the FDR boardwalk, and I think of what they once were and of what they almost became—Robert Moses wanted to build dry land connecting them to the mainland of Staten Island. And I have always wondered what these islands look like up close.

Last weekend I was able to approach the islands, as part of New York Water Taxi’s Audobon Winter EcoCruise to see winter birds and harbor seals. The smaller Swinburne Island was the more interesting of the two, as it serves as a temporary home for some of the 300 seals that take up residence in New York harbor in the winter. Though none were on dry land, several seals were in the water, bobbing their heads up to take a look at the strange yellow catamaran that paid them a visit on a blustery Sunday afternoon.

You can see in the pictures below that Swinburne is also home to ruins. According to our guide (and some blogging kayakers), Hurricane Sandy took a toll on the island. Last year, the ruins of three buildings stood on the island; now only one and a third of a building stand.

The last trip of the season will be March 3. But if you miss that, New York Water Taxi also offers summer Ecocruises.

Gulls in Erie Basin
Gulls in Erie Basin
Passing under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
Passing under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
Hoffman Island
Hoffman Island
Swinburne Island
Swinburne Island
Swinburne Island
Swinburne Island
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Hidden Harbors Tour of Newark Bay

Bayonne Bridge at sunset

I could spend every weekend walking a new neighborhood of New York and still not know the city inside and out. Knowing that there is always another block or hundred to explore is what I love most about living here.

Recently I’ve taken advantage of some walking tours offered by the Municipal Art Society. Led by knowledgeable guides, many of them architectural historians, the tours have taught me a lot about Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Bushwick.

But last week I enjoyed a tour of a different kind—a boat tour of Newark Harbor. Hidden Harbors, working with Circle Line, offers boat tours of unconventional places that highlight the past and current working waterfront. Newtown Creek, Newark Bay, the Brooklyn waterfront, even a circumnavigation of Staten Island are among the tours offered every summer.

And last week’s tour was unconventional. Yes, we did a quick loop under the Brooklyn Bridge at the start of the tour, and on our way back to South Street Seaport, we were given a closeup view of Lady Liberty—but we were also treated to views of Red Hook, a tugboat repair shop on the North Shore of Staten Island, barges in the Kill Van Kull, the container port in Newark Bay and a “teardrop” Sept. 11 memorial hidden off the coast of Bayonne.

The entire tour was narrated by two guides who shared a wealth of information about the past, present and future of New York’s port. And the boat, Circle Line’s Zephyr, offered indoor and outdoor seating, as well as a full snack and drink bar.

Hidden Harbor’s tours wrap up next month for the year. I look forward to taking another tour with them next year.

The port at Elizabeth, New Jersey
The port at Elizabeth, New Jersey
Bayonne Bridge from Newark Bay
Bayonne Bridge from Newark Bay
Statue of Liberty at sunset
Statue of Liberty at sunset