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Boroughing Into Staten Island
In N.Y., Take a Free Boat Ride to History, Art and Gardens

By Grace Lichtenstein
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 26, 2007

You've heard of the Staten Island ferry, and perhaps even ridden it, but the adventure is hardly over once you've docked.

The 59-square-mile Staten Island sits at the entrance to New York harbor between New Jersey and Brooklyn. Named after the Dutch parliament by explorer Henry Hudson, in 1898 it became one of the five boroughs that make up New York City. Since its settlement in the 17th century, its bucolic hills and shoreline have given it an almost rural ambiance. It is the least populated of the boroughs, yet it is hardly boring.

Instead of turning around and heading back to Manhattan, stay awhile and explore some of the more unusual and engaging sights beyond the ferry terminal. And you thought the highlight would be a free boat ride.

Snug Harbor Cultural Center

Once a home for retired sailors, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center is the closest diversion to the ferry (10 minutes by bus) and the most varied. The former dormitories and hospital now house an assortment of indoor and outdoor attractions -- museums, performing arts venues and botanical grounds -- covering an 83-acre plot.

With 26 buildings to visit, you might be stumped on where to begin. Start at the Noble Maritime Collection museum, which contains one of center's most compelling displays: a houseboat that painter, lithographer and sailor John A. Noble converted into an artist's studio, assembling it from salvaged wooden ship materials over 40 years. It is a home on the water and an artist's lair all in one, complete with wooden surfaces, portholes, an engineer's bed, a drawing table, and printmaking and etching implements. Inside, it's easy to envision the boat moored in nearby waters while the son of painter John "Wichita Bill" Noble sketched maritime subjects from the 1930s until his death in 1983. The younger Noble made regular rowboat excursions to observe and document the working life of the waterfront. The Noble collection is a testament to a vibrant culture of ships, docks and laborers that has mostly disappeared from New York.

Moving from sea to land, the Chinese Scholar's Garden is the first of its kind in the United States, a nice coup for Staten Island. The garden, which opened in 1999, was created by artisans from China's Suzhou province, who used materials imported from that region. Such gardens were originally designed as refuges for scholars and administrators after they retired from an emperor's court. This one is a sanctuary for folks of all backgrounds, royal or not.

Enclosed by walls to preserve its serenity, the garden invites visitors to meander through a tranquil, artfully arranged Asian landscape of rock shapes, doors, ponds, walkways and bridges. Its pavilions and features have Zenlike names, such as the Knowing Fish Pavilion, the Teahouse of Hearing Pines and the Court of Pure Mind and Spirit.

The Chinese Scholar's Garden is on the grounds of the Staten Island Botanical Garden, which also contains several other gardens, a pond and a greenhouse. There's even a maze named after "The Secret Garden," the children's book by Victorian author Frances Hodgson Burnett, and designed especially for kids.

While the Staten Island Botanical Garden is not in the same league as its cousins in the Bronx and Brooklyn, it is unpretentious and uncrowded. On a nice weekend, you are apt to encounter local families enjoying the flowers and having lunch at the umbrella-shaded tables of Cafe Botanica, an informal restaurant in a row of Victorian cottages on the grounds.

* Snug Harbor Cultural Center, 1000 Richmond Terr., 718-448-2500. From the ferry, it is a 10-minute ride on the S40 bus. Each institution here, including the Noble Maritime Collection, Staten Island Botanical Garden, Chinese Scholar's Garden and Connie Gretz's Secret Garden, is separate; parking is free for all. Individual Web sites provide better information on the attractions than the center's Web site, http://www.snug-harbor.org. Noble Maritime Collection, 718-447-6490, http://www.noblemaritime.org; $5. Staten Island Botanical Garden, 718-273-8200, http://www.sibg.org; free. Chinese Scholar's Garden, 718-273-8200, http://www.sibg.org/cg.html; $5 adults. Admission to Connie Gretz's Secret Garden is $2 for adults, or free if accompanied by a child or with admission to the Chinese Scholar's Garden.

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art

Atop a steep hill with sweeping views of the island, this museum is the real deal, only without the hordes of visitors obstructing the artwork. Established in the 1940s by an American actress and gallery owner to showcase her Asian art collection, it is housed with a research library in two buildings resembling a Himalayan mountain temple, complete with a surrounding garden. Like the Snug Harbor attractions, the museum is modest in scale. But, says docent Joe DeCillis, "This is all original -- no copies."

The permanent collection is full of remarkable sculptures and artifacts from the 15th to 20th centuries, including a tea set used by the Dalai Lama, who visited the museum in 1991. One glass case contains an array of wrathful deities. Each is a Yamantaka -- "one who ends death" -- from the 17th or 18th century. The figures have what at first seem like wings but turn out to be many arms.

Perhaps the most arresting work is a rare mandala made from marble sand with mineral pigments. The cosmic diagram was created at the museum in 2005 by three Bhutanese monks in honor of Losar, the Tibetan New Year. DeCillis explained that the sand paintings, reminiscent of Navajo works, are typically designed to be temporary and are destroyed soon after they are made. In this case, the monks allowed their painting to be preserved.

The newest exhibit, "From Staten Island to Shangri-La: The Collecting Life of Jacques Marchais," celebrates the museum's 60th anniversary and uses journals, rare books, photos and art to tell the extraordinary story of Himalayan art collector Marchais and her spiritual quest. (The exhibit runs until Dec. 31, 2008.) Marchais was among the great popularizers of Himalayan art in the early 20th century and helped build American interest in Buddhism, according to curator Sarah Johnson.

For a souvenir, the small museum gift shop sells replicas of the yarn "freedom bracelets" originally woven by Tibetan political prisoners as a symbol of resistance to the Chinese occupation of their country since the 1950s. (Current versions are made in Tibetan settlements in northern India.) They cost $1.

*Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, 333 Lighthouse Ave., 718-987-3500, http://www.tibetanmuseum.org; $5. From the ferry, take the S74 bus to the Lighthouse Avenue stop (about a 30-minute ride), then walk up the hill.

Alice Austen House

Another stalwart woman who left her mark on Staten Island was Alice Austen (1866-1952), the pioneering documentary photographer whose 19th-century Gothic Victorian cottage sits just north of the Verrazano Bridge, on the eastern edge of Staten Island looking toward Brooklyn. Austen spent 80 years in the cottage, named Clear Comfort, which opened as a museum in 1985 to display her photos.

Among her favorite subjects were turn-of-the-century socialites on Staten Island and gritty immigrants en route to the United States or milling around the streets of Manhattan. Some of Austen's photos depict Staten Islanders on carefree auto excursions and posing with the latest in sporting equipment, the tennis racket; others show the quarantine station near her house where ships bearing what poet Emma Lazarus called the "huddled masses" had to stop before being allowed to disembark at the "golden door" of Ellis Island.

Austen also snapped many images of the busy waterways beyond her front lawn. However, I came away with an impression of a Staten Island that remained an idyllic rural outpost years after its smaller sister island to the north began growing into an urban, skyscraper Gotham.

* Alice Austen House, 2 Hylan Blvd., 718-816-4506, http://www.aliceausten.org; $2 suggested donation. From the ferry, take the S51 bus to the Hylan Boulevard stop (about a 15-minute ride), then walk one block east on Hylan toward the waterfront.

Grace Lichtenstein, senior travel writer for Suite101.com, last wrote for Travel about bicycle sightseeing in New York City.

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