Rambling about (and aboard!) New York City’s Circle Line

August 1, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 30, 2013

Last week, I got to cruise around Lower Manhattan on the Circle Line. It had been approximately 10 years since I was last on the water around New York City, and far longer than that since I had last set foot aboard the Circle Line.

The Circle Line was an iconic part of my youth. The service’s tourist boats regularly ring Manhattan, circling the borough in jaunts of roughly three hours apiece. A trip on the Circle Line meant an opportunity to see skyscrapers iconic and otherwise, to feel the river breeze, and to pretend to be a Sailor and a Man of Action. (Pretend being the operative word there, as I became neither a sailor nor a man of action!)

My sibling now has little ones, and the Sibling, Sibling-in-Law and Parental Unit somehow decided — to my secret delight — that it would be a good idea to cruise en famille when the Sibling & Co. made one of their pilgrimages to the homeland.

The voyage that we took was (hum it with me! Yes, to the theme of Gilligan’s Isle!) a two-hour tour…a two-hour tour — not the iconic full-island journey of my youth but a semi-circle cruise. Be that as it may, the trip was fantastic, in my opinion.

We went on a mild mid-summer day; even so, the air conditioning in the cabin was a welcome relief, as was the breeze on the prow of the ship.

Our boat, the Circle Line Queens, backed out of its slip on Pier 83 at 42nd Street and Twelfth Avenue, in the Hudson River alongside the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, and pointed the bow south. The ship cruised between Manhattan and New Jersey; passed Liberty Island, the home of the Statue of Liberty; and turned around in New York Harbor to head north. We motored by Governors Island and up into the East River, between the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

After sailing beneath the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, the ship passed the mouth of Newtown Creek, meaning that when we looked to starboard we saw the borough of Queens instead of Brooklyn. We voyaged north to about 42nd Street — the same street from which, on Manhattan’s other side, our ship had set sail — before turning south and motoring rapidly back to our pier.

There were a few somewhat obscure spots that I particularly enjoyed seeing. One was the decrepit Domino sugar factory, which once employed more than 4,000 workers and processed more than 3 million pounds of sugar a day. It closed in 2004 after nearly a century and a half of service. The location is currently in urban redevelopment limbo; I found the graffitied exterior both foreboding and intriguing.

Another sight I enjoyed was a location I can only identify as the pair of gateways — cargo docks? — with “Long Island” written on them. Although this location seems functional and utilitarian, something about it appeals to me. Perhaps it’s the mystery of just what function these structures serve. Maybe it’s the impression of sheer strength the two gateways radiate. Or mayhaps it’s the simplicity and boldness of the identical “Long Island” labels painted on the twin structures.

By the way, this spot is just a little south of the neon Pepsi-Cola sign, which flashed on the nighttime drives home from New York City in my youth, and which still flashes today.

A third spot that I found intriguing is something in Queens that I can’t identify by name and which I find difficult to describe. There’s a low-lying modern building near what I would call a very lengthy metal canopy. The roof of this structure at once widens, curves to the west and swoops higher as it extends to the south. This is obviously some kind of public space, although I was unsure whether it actually belonged to a public park or a private development; the canopy may be intended to be an outdoor concert venue, but that’s just speculation on my part.

The Parental Unit and I agreed that we would have been happy to take the full-island cruise, which takes roughly three hours. However, the Sibling’s (adorable!) Offspring got restless, and later my Sibling and Sibling-in-Law told me that they too were tired by the end of the trip.

The Sibling also argued that the sights in and around Northern Manhattan are relatively sparse — there’s the new Yankee Stadium (across the East River, in the borough of the Bronx) and the George Washington Bridge (spanning the Hudson between Manhattan and Fort Lee, New Jersey) and that’s it.

I argued that there is also the “C Rock,” featuring an enormous varsity letter painted in the powder blue color of Columbia University. This is a sight that always captured my imagination as a child — I always wondered how people (college students!) got up on the cliff on the sheer rock face. I also wondered if I might some day have the courage to jump into the river from atop the cliff, which is not something I’ve ever had the opportunity to try.

(Full disclosure: The prospect of that jump is simultaneously terrifying and appealing to me. But frankly, this non-Man of Action is unlikely to schedule a trip to the C Rock anytime soon!)

The Circle Line’s website also lists these following sights as being among those around the northern half of Manhattan: Gracie Mansion, the official NYC mayor’s residence; the Little Red Lighthouse beneath the George Washington Bridge, which is formally called Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse, and which was featured on the cover of a 1942 children’s book; the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to medieval Europe; and Grant’s Tomb, the final resting place of a famous man named…ah, I’ll let you complete that sentence.

Decide for yourself whether the full- or the half-island cruise is for you. I’ll simply note that the former is only marginally more expensive than the latter.

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