Escapes: Manhattan's Circle Line tours

By James F. Lee
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 10, 2010

The five guys in Red Sox shirts and hats stand on the deck drinking beer and watching Manhattan unfold mile after mile. I wonder whether they have any sense. Especially since the Sox beat the Yankees at Yankee Stadium the night before. But they seem to be enjoying their journey into enemy territory.

On a spectacular August day, we're aboard the Circle Line Queens, a 100-ton boat carrying 540 passengers on a three-hour cruise that circumnavigates Manhattan Island. The Queens is one of three new boats added to the Circle Line fleet. You can sit in air-conditioned comfort or stand out and face the elements on the fore or aft deck. I spend time in both environments, needing an occasional break from the sun.

Our itinerary has us setting off from Circle Line's 42nd Street pier on the Hudson, then sailing south for a view of the Statue of Liberty and the tip of Manhattan, then north up the East and Harlem rivers and back down the Hudson.

The Saturday morning river traffic is light. A large, two-masted sailboat takes advantage of the steady breeze, while jet skiers wave and hoot as they speed by. Fire-engine-red tugboats stir up spray as they make their way down the choppy East River. And the iconic Staten Island ferry passes by on its endless runs between the Battery and Staten Island.

We float by a view of everyday New York: the enclosed driving range at Chelsea Piers at West 18th Street, where golfers hit from two levels toward the Hudson; stand-up paddleboarders in the morning sun off Pier 10; sunbathers stretched out on the hill at Schurz Park on the East River; and joggers and bicyclists sharing the paths along FDR Drive. A lazy, unfolding view of the city relaxing.

But there are spectacular views as well. Looking at the rows of skyscrapers stretching northward from the tip of Manhattan is an inspiring sight, as the city seems to spring up straight from the water. The newer buildings come in all colors and shapes: the curved blue-glass facade of 17 State St. in the Financial District, the black box of the Trump World Plaza on the East River, or the white Citicorp Center Building in Midtown with its strange peak sloping at a 45-degree angle. The gleaming crowns of the stately older skyscrapers stand in sharp contrast to their newer neighbors: the gold dome of the New York Life Building, the art deco stainless steel Chrysler Building, the green pinnacle of 40 Wall St., originally the Bank of Manhattan Building, and, of course, the Empire State Building dominating them all.

No other city can claim such a variety of tall buildings. Keith Poissant, captain of the Queens, calls this panorama "the portrait of the city."

Our guide for the trip, John Curran, born and raised in Manhattan, is a wealth of information. He explains that New York is no longer a major working port. Only two deep-water piers still exist on Manhattan; most of the large commercial ships now use ports in New Jersey. He also tells us that the once-raucous waterfront of bars, brothels and crowded tenements, long avoided by the wealthy, now faces a building boom as New Yorkers scramble for a water view.

One upshot of the redeveloped waterfront is that Manhattan is now greener than it has been in decades. New parks have sprouted up on both shores, and the aptly named Hudson River Greenway offers an almost uninterrupted ribbon of verdure along the river.

Circle Line boats are on the water most days year-round, in wind, rain, snow, heat and cold. Fog is the real enemy, though, and if visibility is bad, they stay at the dock. But the variety is what Poissant likes after 25 years on the water, gradually working his way up from deckhand to getting his captain's license. There's always something new and unexpected. "I never wake up saying I hate to go to work," he said.

The unexpected today: construction at the new Willis Avenue Bridge in Harlem. Assessing the situation, Poissant decides to turn around. He can't trust the current in this tricky part of the Harlem River without knowing what construction materials might be in the water, he says. Safety first.

Back on the Hudson, we approach the dock for the end of our trip. Earlier, chief deckhand Rich Redmond told me what he thought the value of this journey was for a passenger: "You see the city from the outside and then you can venture in."

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