"Welcome to the Seaport of the Bronx," the sign trumpets.
Old salts seeking escape, take note: This may be the rough-and-tumble borough that's home to Yankee Stadium, but here's a corner of it that lays claim to being the birthplace of the American oyster industry, as well as for many years a major yacht-building center.
Part colorful urban community, part quaint fishing village, City Island is a 230-acre enclave of novel appeal -- a sort of hip-hop Nantucket that proudly traces its origins back to a 1685 English deal with the Dutch. (The more famous land settlement for New Amsterdam, i.e. Manhattan, is only 59 years older.)
Over the past 30 years I'd tried various restaurants where I could peer out over Eastchester Bay to the Tinker-Toy-like skyline in the distance. Yet unless you knew a hospitable Island homeowner, overnighting here hadn't been possible until the island's lone bed-and-breakfast opened in 1992.
In a restored 19th-century sea captain's house, Le Refuge Inn is an oasis of all things Gallic -- from the fat morning croissants and Provencal fabrics to the paperbound French novels scattered about. And because owner Pierre Saint-Denis (who also runs an Upper East Side French restaurant) is a musician as well as a chef, he has added to island culture in another way: The series of Sunday afternoon string quartet concerts he's established at Le Refuge are respected on this island as well as the bigger ones to the west and south.
Most visitors, though, arrive as day-trippers -- expecting, in most cases, to simply eat fish, and in others to catch theirs first, boat rentals and sport charters being widely available.
My own idea was to take a reading of island culture beyond the kitschy crustacean palaces and fried-fish rituals I already knew. My preference, to tell the truth, is always to be somewhere where it works out that the less you do, the more you experience. So, walking in the door at Le Refuge on Saturday, I'd arranged to meet a former Manhattanite who, with his wife, has been "expatriated" now for a decade.
What I hoped was the chance to see the island for a few hours through his eyes. And though it's impossible ever to get lost on the narrow grid, still I craved to orient myself by taking a tour with him and absorbing local lore as it came up naturally. This last we accomplished by first stopping at Port of Kall Realty, adjoining the inn's yard. There, anyone who's fortunate enough to find her in can meet Jacqueline Kyle Kall, a third-generation City Island real estate agent. The first female president of the Bronx Board of Realtors, the seventysomething Kall is a one-woman chamber of commerce for City Island, and her picture-filled office an unofficial museum.
At lunchtime, on the back terrace at nearby JP's, a waterside spot boasting it stays open 365 days a year, we ordered shrimp salad plates and basked in the view.
Just a half-mile across at its thickest, City Island offers virtually no commerce on its cross streets, and none whatsoever on those parallel to the 1 1/4-mile main drag, City Island Avenue. Those few who venture off the main drag, however, will find that the island's domestic architecture is eclectic and even downright eccentric, spanning as it does three centuries and their (often overlapping, or mingled) styles.
There are dwellings so minute even Barbie would complain. At the bay end of Tier Street is an enormous shingled Victorian of such perfect picturesqueness it provided the location for the 1962 film version of O'Neill's "A Long Day's Journey into Night" with Katharine Hepburn.
My late-afternooon stroll also included a leisurely crawl past City Island Avenue's gift shops, antiques stores and art galleries. I didn't have to hurry since most of them, on weekends, at least, are open late.
At City Island Flowers and Plants, I bagged several vintage bracelets at a dollar apiece, reluctantly passing up a chipped ceramic cookie jar in the shape of everyone's favorite tugboat, Little Toot. Across the street at Focal Point Gallery, I bought blank cards with paintings by an island artist showing popular views of two Long Island Sound landmarks, the Stepping Stones and Execution lighthouses. At the Starving Artist Studio & Gallery, I sampled City Island Salt Water Taffy.
The island's most raucous eating spots are clustered at Belden Point, the hub of the utterly multicultural after-dark scene. Young couples, families with kids in tow, cruising adolescents, senior citizens, wedding guests and banquetgoers: Often, whole Bronx or Queens neighborhoods seem to be out to eat or party.
Tito Puente's, with Latin jazz on weekend nights and at Sunday brunch, is a large, friendly spot specializing in the dishes of its namesake's home, Puerto Rico. Since it's a fairly recent addition to the island scene, I chose to perch here on a conga-drum stool and order an appetizer. Just a few steps farther along are Johnny's Reef and Tony's on the Pier, the even more enormous, traditionally competing self-service eateries that anchor the Point at either end, hungry lines streaming in and out of the doors continuously.
The Worm Bar -- actually, a no-name bait-and-tackle shop on Minnieford Avenue, around the corner from Le Refuge, that does double duty as a tavern -- will appeal to those with a taste for improbable dives. Coming on at night a bit like a set for some forgotten one-act O'Neill, the shop's raffish nocturnal habits give way in daylight to the business of renting boats and selling fishing gear. When I walked through on Sunday morning, it was peaceful on the docks out back, rowboats gently rocking. Fisherman's rush hour, of course, had already come and gone -- by 5:30.
At noon, in the intimacy of Le Refuge's garden cottage filled with appreciative City Island music lovers, I listened to a young Australian violinist play Bach, Mozart and Ravel. Afterward, I made a stop at the City Island Nautical Museum, housed in a onetime public school and staffed by island volunteers who keep to a Sunday-only schedule.
My last treat was an oily, spicy Italian hero from Anthony's Deli -- a reminder that this was still, after all, the Bronx. Thus fortified, I made my way to Roger Roberge's one-of-a-kind emporium, Mooncurser Records, where the white-bearded proprietor presides sagely over his stock of 60,000 LPs and 78s and 15,000 45s, each tidily filed in perfect alphabetical order.
Mooncurser had the air of a cosmic jukebox disguised as a general store, or perhaps a Ray Bradbury-ish time machine, standing ready to transport all who enter to a better world. Whatever it was, it was a hard place to leave.
Just like City Island.
Ways & Means
GETTING THERE: City Island, N.Y., is about five hours from the Beltway via I-95 north to the N.J. Turnpike to the George Washington Bridge. (From the bridge, follow signs for the Cross Bronx Expressway and then I-95 north/New England Thruway to Exit 8. Follow the signs.
BEING THERE: Except perhaps in the January deep of winter, City Island's choices will support much more than the general hanging-out route I took. From noon Saturday, when I parked in one of Le Refuge's spaces, until I left Sunday, I walked everywhere, but you might want to use the car to reach the hiking, biking, golf and trail-riding opportunities of nearby Pelham Bay Park. Also in the park, the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum and Gardens (718-885-1461), an elegant 1842 Greek Revival estate that Mayor Fiorello La Guardia used in 1936 as his summer office, is open three afternoons a week for self-guided tours. Closer to the City Island Bridge on the mainland side is Turtle Cove Restaurant and Golf Complex (718-885-2646) with a driving range, miniature golf and batting cages.
WHERE TO STAY: Le Refuge Inn (718-885-2478) has eight rooms and a cottage. (Only two of the rooms have private baths; my double, with a shared bath, was $96.) Guests at the inn are welcomed free of charge to the Sunday concerts, which are otherwise $12 to $20.
WHERE TO EAT: The City Island Diner (718-885-0362) is the morning spot of repute, popular for its nautically themed specialty omelets (the "Mizzen": spinach, bacon and ricotta), pancakes and waffles. (Le Refuge serves a simple continental breakfast, the large glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice was the highlight for me.)
In the seafood sweepstakes, friend Jim Leff (author of "The Eclectic Gourmet Guide to Greater New York City") prefers the enormous, fluorescent-lit, self-serve Johnny's Famous Reef (718-885-2090) for anything fried and also the more upscale Crab Shanty (718-885-1810), with its white-painted walls and comfortable booths. Locals, however, give high marks to Artie's Italian & Seafood Specialties (718-885-9885), a white-tablecloth kind of place, and to the reliable Rhodes Restaurant (718-885-1538), with decent pub food amid the memorabilia. There's also the eclectic menu (and truly lovely garden, in warm weather) at the Black Whale (718-885-3657). And, Wednesday-Sunday, Le Refuge offers fixed-price, classic French cuisine by candlelight in the front parlor or back porch. As this is the fanciest (and most romantic) spot to eat on City Island, it's worth mentioning that the price is $55 per person, without wine.
DETAILS: Contact the City Island Chamber of Commerce at 718-885-9100 or www.cityisland.com.