Cruises spotlight New York’s majestic harbor

BY Terese Loeb Kreuzer

New York City’s harbor is one of the “great wonders of the world,” says David Rockefeller Jr. at the start of an audio recording that accompanies NY Waterway’s Downtown harbor tour.

NY Waterway is one of four cruise lines offering one-hour tours of New York Harbor. All provide an introduction to New York City’s history, natural environment and architecture plus a dazzling look at Lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn waterfront and the shores and islands of the Hudson River and the Upper Bay. Statue Cruises, New York Water Taxi and Circle Line Downtown offer comparable cruises to NY Waterway’s.

All of the tours cover much the same ground — from Battery Park City on the Hudson River, around the Battery with glimpses of Governors Island to the Manhattan Bridge on the East River.

The passengers come from all over the country and all over the world. For many, the stop by the Statue of Liberty seems to be the highlight. They crowd the side of the boat facing the statue, cameras poised.

On the NY Waterway recorded tour, architect Daniel Libeskind, who designed the master plan for the World Trade Center site, describes coming to New York by ship from Communist Poland at the age of 13 and seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, rising out of the mist at dawn. The skyline stood for the dreams of all the immigrants, he says, “freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to educate yourself, to better yourself. It is the symbol and the reality of the American dream.”

Both NY Waterway and Statue Cruises have recorded narrations, produced by the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy, a non-profit organization founded in 2005 by David Rockefeller Jr., Marian Sulzberger Heiskell and Marie Salerno to support the National Parks of New York Harbor — the National Park Service’s umbrella for its 22 parks in the metropolitan area.

New York Water Taxi and Circle Line Downtown have on-board guides who narrate the tours.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. The two recorded tours have a story line and a perspective. Though both mention harbor landmarks, the NY Waterway tour focuses on them. The Statue Cruises tour also explores the immigrant experience, past and present. Actress Kathleen Turner narrates the NY Waterway tour. Sam Roberts, a New York Times reporter, narrates the tour for Statue Cruises. Both tours have interesting comments and interpolations from historians, National Park rangers and other experts and both have a musical background.

A drawback however, is that occasionally the recordings are out of sync with what the people on the boat can actually see at that moment. Also, given the rapidity with which things change in New York City, some of the information is out of date. There are references, for instance, to the South Street Seaport Museum, which is now called Seaport Museum New York, and to Governors Island being under City and State jurisdiction. Last year, the State bowed out.

New York Water Taxi and Circle Line Downtown’s Zephyr, with on-board guides, can give passengers information on what is in front of them as the boat circles the harbor and can answer questions. However, some guides are more knowledgeable and more compelling than others — minor criticisms, no doubt, for many visitors compared with the spectacle of the harbor itself.

The NY Waterway cruise departs from Pier 11 on the East River at the foot of Wall Street. This is where, in the early 17th century, the Dutch first established their moorings to protect their fragile ships from harsh winds, as Kathleen Turner says in her narration. The Hudson River piers were built in the latter part of the 19th century to accommodate steamships and other vessels too large for the East River.

There are still harsh winds from time to time on the Hudson River, plus tides and currents that can bang the Statue Cruises vessels (which depart from the Battery) against the pier and place the gangplank at a steep pitch when the tide is high. The mobility impaired might want to consider this in choosing a harbor cruise. The cruises that leave from the East River entail a more or less flat entry from pier to gangplank to boat.

Times, prices and contact information can be found at the following websites: www.nywatertaxi.com/HarborTours/SOLE/; www.circlelinedowntown.com/zephyr.asp; www.nywaterway.com/NYHarborDowntownCruises.aspx; www.statuecruises.com/pd_harborcruises.html

More from around NYC