Photo: Marley White
During the steamy months of summer, there's nothing quite so refreshing as taking a boat or ferry ride across the New York Harbor to feel the cool breezes that blow off the water and hear the swoosh of breaking waves and low clang of distant buoys. You can experience this free of charge on the Staten Island Ferry, complete with spectacular views of Lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty and the vast expanse of the harbor itself. What's more, you can easily extend this warm-weather sojourn by chilling out for the day at Staten Island's charming beaches, an accessible (and also free) activity often overlooked by visitors to the borough.
Located around 15 miles from Midtown Manhattan, Staten Island’s two main beaches, South Beach and Midland Beach, can be reached in a number of ways. Outside Staten Island's ferry terminal, you can transfer to the S81 or S51 bus, either of which will deposit you across the street from the entrance to South Beach. Along the way, you can easily fill in your itinerary with stops at some of the island's major attractions. Hop on the S51 bus to visit one of NYC's oldest homes, Alice Austen House Museum. The modest Dutch Colonial cottage, which dates back to the 1690s, displays historical images of the island and examples of Austen's work as a prolific photographer who documented local daily life and nature in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Another historic landmark not to be missed is Fort Wadsworth, a bulwark with connections to George Washington and Revolutionary War battles; it's located along the S51 bus route or a 15-minute walk from the Alice Austen House Museum. Sitting on a pristine 226 acres, Fort Wadsworth is home to a network of tunnels, fortresses, passageways and fortifications like Fort Tompkins and Battery Weed. The latter was used as barracks during the Civil War and is open for tours led by National Parks Service rangers—as are other parts of the grounds. Exploring Fort Wadsworth makes for not only an educational experience but a scenic one too, offering a spectacular panorama of the New York Harbor, Manhattan skyline and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the longest span in the Americas.
Getting to the beach from here is as simple as hopping back on the S51 bus line or walking along the 2.5-mile Franklin D. Roosevelt Boardwalk, which begins at the fort. From Manhattan there are three express bus options—the X4, X7 and X8, all of which stop at Father Capodanno Boulevard and Sand Lane, the main entrance to South Beach.
In the late 1800s, this summertime enclave and neighboring Midland Beach were bustling resort towns crammed with souvenir shops, bathhouses, bungalows, ritzy hotels and restaurants. Midland Beach was even the former site of the island’s very first Ferris wheel, built in 1893.
Both still rank as charming bungalow towns, with some of the most picturesque waterfronts in the City. The more populated of the two is South Beach, a family-friendly destination perfect for sunning or taking a dip in the Atlantic Ocean. A fountain with six bronze dolphins marks the primary ingress, where there's also free parking for those driving to the beach. This is near the northern part of the bike-friendly boardwalk, which begins up around Fort Wadsworth and connects directly to Midland Beach, ending at the soccer pitch Miller Field. It also runs parallel to parks, baseball fields, handball courts, a skate park, chess tables and a bocce court. A seasonal concession stand at South Beach offers typical beach fare, such as ice cream, hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken fingers and french fries.
For finer dining in South Beach there's South Fin Grill, a restaurant just off the boardwalk that features fresh raw seafood like sushi, oysters and clams along with cooked favorites such as blackened swordfish, pan-seared scallops and, for meat lovers, filet mignon. At night, South Fin Grill turns its indoor lounge and outdoor patio into Blu, a neon-lit nightlife spot that offers live entertainment, music and refreshing summery cocktails.
Like South Beach, Midland Beach has a surfeit of surfside amenities. There’s also the occasional live concert and the kid-friendly Fantasy Shore Amusement Park. This inviting new playground is home to a handful of rides; whirling teacups, a pint-size freefall, a children's railroad and the Verrazano Viper, a roller coaster for the whole family. If fishing is your passion, you'll be in good company on the Midland Beach Fishing Pier, the largest steel-and-concrete recreational pier built on the Atlantic Ocean, and a welcoming spot for beginners and experts alike. Anglers hook striped bass, fluke and sand sharks, and regulars have even spotted the occasional bottlenose dolphin. If you've left your rod at home, fear not; nearby Midland Bait & Tackle will get you outfitted with fishing rods (starting at $30), bait and other gear to cover all your needs.
While the pier promotes a catch-and-release fishing program, you can satisfy your desire for fresh fish at the nearby Joe & John Toto's Restaurant & Bar. The family-owned joint offers a seaside view, alfresco seating and a seafood-based menu with baked clams, zuppa di mussels, oysters and pasta immersed in clam sauce.
Another dining option, conveniently located off the S51 bus route back to the ferry, is Basilio Inn. The bistro is Staten Island's oldest, dating back to 1921, and is located in an 1850s carriage house that resembles a rustic villa in an Italian hillside town, complete with an herb and grape garden and bocce court on the grounds. The food is old-world authentic too: enjoy mussels sautéed with garlic and white wine, fettuccine in Bolognese sauce, zuppa di pesce and spaghetti served puttanesca style, with capers, black olives and anchovies. The restaurant's motto—“Experience la dolce vita”—aptly sums up a day's worth of unexpected pleasures just a ferry ride away.