The free ride across the harbour to Staten Island is one of the highlights of any visit to New York City, but is there any point in getting off the ferry?
Culturally Staten Island has more in common with suburban New Jersey than with the other four New York boroughs – and with parts of the island still reeling from damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy, most tourists promptly hop on the next boat back to Manhattan. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss the “forgotten borough” so readily; its leafy streets harbour some real gems (unaffected by Sandy), not least a fabulous Chinese garden, a Tibetan gallery and a colonial village, as well as some authentic Sri Lankan restaurants.
A 625-foot (190.5m) ferris wheel, potentially the largest in the world (though Dubai – where else? – is already planning to top this), is slated for 2015, while the new National Lighthouse Museum should open sometime this year. And the world’s largest landfill site is well on the way to becoming the eco-triumph that is Freshkills Park, supporting diverse habitats for wildlife, birds and plant communities.
You don’t have to visit Williamsburg or New England for a dose of colonial America – unbeknown to most New Yorkers, Staten Island boasts its very own slice of olde history, replete with costumed role players tending fires, welding tin and making useful olde artefacts like wooden barrels. Historic Richmond Town is an open-air museum of around 27 historic buildings; at its core is the preserved village of Richmond, centre of the island’s government until 1898, as well as clapboard houses transported from other parts of the island. Don’t miss the Dutch-style Voorlezer’s House, the nation’s oldest existing school building – built sometime before 1696, it’s prehistoric by New York standards.
Staten Island may seem an unlikely place to cement US-China relations, but that’s what happened in 1998, when after years of lobbying, a party of Chinese artists arrived at the Staten Island Botanical Garden to create one of the most remarkable sights in the city. The Chinese Scholar’s Garden is a wonderfully evocative homage to the nineteenth century Couple’s Retreat Garden in Suzhou, China, a one-acre complex of Qing Dynasty-style, pagoda-roofed halls, artfully planted courtyards, bamboo groves and koi ponds. It’s one of only two authentic scholar’s gardens in the US.
The Chinese gardeners would have been no doubt bewildered by Staten Island’s equally remarkable tribute to Tibet, incongruously located in the island’s residential heartland. The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art clutches onto the steep hillside much like monasteries in Tibet, one building designed to resemble a gompa, or Buddhist temple. Inside are displayed a fraction of the religious sculptures, thangka paintings, rare Bhutanese sand mandalas and ancient carved-wood stupas collected by Jacques Marchais, who built this complex in the 1940s. In October, monks in maroon robes perform ritual ceremonies, and food and crafts are sold, at the annual Tibetan Festival.
At other times of year you are more likely to see Sri Lankan families on the streets of Staten Island than Tibetan monks: “Little Sri Lanka” in the Tompkinsville neighbourhood (centred along Victory Blvd), is home to one of the largest Sri Lankan communities outside the country itself. Try the cheap hoppers (noodles), veggie roti, spicy chicken, curries and idlis at New Asha Sri Lankan Restaurant (322 Victory Blvd, at Cebra Ave 718 420 0649). They even have cricket matches playing on the TV.
The Staten Island Ferry runs 24 hours, and is free. See www.visitstatenisland.com for more information about the island.
Stephen Keeling is the co-author of the Rough Guide to New York.