With travel paused, NYC’s ferries became a portal to other worlds

Passing under the Brooklyn Bridge
For Sarah Khan, the NYC Ferry became her way to re-explore New York © Jack Pearce / Lonely Planet

On an afternoon in October, one of those sublime fall days bestowed like a gift that’s about to slip through your fingers, I boarded a boat and left Manhattan. Sunshine gilded my face, my curls rippled in the breeze, and I gripped the railing to steady myself as the familiar silhouette of the New York City skyline loomed behind me. Four minutes later, I arrived in my destination: Queens.

How New York City’s ferries became a portal to other worlds

When a virus began choking the city of its vitality last March and April, like many New Yorkers, driven indoors by the endless loop of sirens, I led a disciplined existence in the name of safety and social distancing. I adapted well enough at first: I’d just signed a lease after four years of a nomadic life in and out of New York and was ready to lay down roots again. I caught up on TV shows and reacquainted myself with my long-neglected pots and pans. But after nesting for a few months, my itinerant impulses began to stir, just as warmer weather and lower COVID-19 case counts began to prod me out of my shell. But where to go? I hate driving, I can’t ride a bike, visions of densely packed subway cars terrified me, and I was not about to go anywhere near an airport. Then, just when the claustrophobia was beginning to feel unbearable, I discovered the ferry stop near my apartment.

Of all the ways to get around, boats, more than any other, spark a sense of childlike wonder in me. It’s hard to get a good look at a city when you’re within it or beneath it on a bus, cab, or subway car, but a boat allows you to gaze out over it and experience it the way it’s usually only seen on postcards.

I’ve always associated water-bound vessels with far-flung travels – drifting along the Bosphorus or the Nile on a sunset cruise, island-hopping on a dhow in Mozambique, kayaking down the Zambezi by day or amid the phosphorescence of the Andaman Islands by night. I can’t swim, and when I’m not traveling I try to keep my feet planted on the ground where possible – but if ever I find myself on a boat, some form of excitement is surely brewing. Aboard a ferry, even the four-minute jaunt from the Upper East Side to Astoria feels like an exhilarating adventure.

The Manhattan skyline viewed from the East River
Manhattan from the East River © Jack Pearce / Lonely Planet

That fall afternoon, I arrived in Astoria with a friend on a quest to taste the city’s best Greek food. Despite living in New York for most of the last 15 years, I’d never made it to Ditmars Boulevard, a longtime Greek stronghold where, on this sunny day, a stretch of tavernas and souvlaki stands were vying for patrons. The seafood temple Taverna Kyclades had attracted a lively mix of diners, so we decided to join them outside under festive blue awnings and ordered grilled prawns and calamari; across the street, a group of idling deliverymen passed the time waiting for their orders by blasting some of my favorite Bollywood melodies from the ‘90s. A $2.75 ferry ticket and a quick sail had bought me a taste of Greece with an Indian touch. Where else but in New York?

I spent most of the summer and fall exploring the reaches of the New York City ferry, testing how far it could take me, both around the city and around the world. My inaugural ferry foray was to southwest Brooklyn, where I finally made a long overdue pilgrimage to the Palestinian restaurant Tanoreen in the largely residential neighborhood of Bay Ridge – a place that had been at the top of my dining wish list for the better part of a decade, but always felt too far away from my Manhattan cocoon for me to visit.

It’s not that the ferry made Tanoreen any easier to reach than the subway might have – a transfer to a second boat and a 20-minute walk were involved – but it did make it vastly more fun. After spending so much time holed up in Manhattan, seeing the city from the water gave me a completely new vantage point to my home: skyscrapers flaring up like starbursts, draped in sunlight and framed by a majestic row of bridges. For the first time in months, I felt that familiar sense of wonder that overcomes me whenever I realize that I call the greatest city in the world home: “Wow, I live here,” I murmured to no one in particular: the wind off the East River was too loud for my friends to hear me through my mask.

A plate of eggplant napoleon
Eggplant Napoleon from Tanoreen in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn © Jack Pearce / Lonely Planet

Bay Ridge’s Fifth Avenue was a world away from the Fifth Avenue that’s closer to my apartment: I spotted signs in Arabic and a 99-cent store named Mashallah ("as God has willed," in Arabic), passed shops with hookahs and gold-embroidered Yemeni dresses on display, and shopped for markouk bread and labneh at the Middle Eastern grocery store Balady. This was the closest I’d come to traveling in nearly six months. I soaked in some of the ambient textures of my childhood in Saudi Arabia, though I decided against practicing what little Arabic I’ve gleaned from my pandemic-era Duolingo lessons.

My lunch on the outdoor patio of Tanoreen didn’t disappoint. I’d spent my locked down days reconnecting with my kitchen after years in transit, but the succulent five onion chicken and the fluffy knafeh were a welcome change after months of subsisting on my own cooking. On the way back to the ferry, we picked up pistachio and chocolate ice cream from a Turkish pastry shop and polished it off on the pier as the sun began to set. I returned, exhausted and content, to a Manhattan skyline glittering in the dark, feeling much like I do when I take a cab home from JFK after a flight.

Sunset view of the Statue of Liberty from the East River
The ferry and Statue of Liberty © Jack Pearce / Lonely Planet

A mode of transportation that had always seemed like a novelty now became a necessity, my lifeline to help me plot mini escapes in corners of the city I’d never ventured into before. One blazing-hot summer morning, a few friends and I toted sunscreen, hats, and towels for a beach day in the Rockaways, lunching on arepas from the Caracas stand and basking in the sun for a few hours before sailing back. On another day, I took two ferries and a cab in search of New York’s best Sri Lankan cuisine, which my Sri Lankan buddy assured me was found in Staten Island. He knew what he was talking about: the lamprais and chicken kottu roti I had on the patio of Lakruwana, against a colorful mural depicting a parade of elephants, were almost as good as meals I had in Colombo and Galle. Passport stamps may have been out of the question for now, but at least New York has the entire world tucked away in corners of its five boroughs.

I relied on the ferry so much that it became my go-to for less ambitious jaunts, too: to Williamsburg in Brooklyn to picnic on the waterfront, or to the Financial District for dinner – a much more relaxing way to commute, and in the same amount of time that a subway or cab might take.

I learned to make a beeline straight to the back of the boat to head up to the deck, and let others fight over the limited seats while I stood on whichever side would give me the best view: the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island ferry, the Manhattan skyline on the East River routes, or the Queens coastline on the Rockaway route. The bobbing of boats became the cadence of my summer, and the rushing tableau of the skyline whizzing past became its backdrop.

A NYC ferry in the East River, passing under the Brooklyn Bridge
A ferry in the East River © Jack Pearce / Lonely Planet

My final ride of 2020 was to Dumbo for the Photoville exhibit. The annual open-air photo exhibition in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge is perfectly suited to the COVID era. I spied photographer Francesca Magnani’s “People of the Ferry 2020. Connection at a Time of Social Distancing,” a series about New Yorkers who, like me, had embraced the ferry in earnest that summer. I studied each photograph closely, searching without luck for my masked face amid the seafarers.

I’d harbored ambitions of bundling up and riding the ferry through the colder months, but even on that trip, the icy winds on the top deck tempered my desire to roam as freely as I had in summer. Reluctantly, I retreated indoors again for the winter.

But on a balmy Friday in March of 2021 – the first day the temperature inched up beyond 65 degrees – I was back on a boat. It was just a midday break from work; there wasn’t time for much more than a round-trip jaunt to Astoria and back. But in those eight minutes, the wind once again rustled my hair as I gazed out at the skyline glinting in the late afternoon sun and I knew that the ferry would remain a fixture in my transit arsenal even as the world began regaining a sense of normalcy. A new series of wanderings await me this summer all along the East River.

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