Governors Island Is Nice, But Snug Harbor Is Magic

06/02/2011 02:55 pm ET | Updated Aug 02, 2011

Governors Island is all the rage right now. Last weekend was the kickoff for its summer season, and day-trippers mobbed crowded ferries from Lower Manhattan and Pier 6 in Brooklyn out to this small isle in New York Harbor, formerly a military base (first the Army and then the Coast Guard) and now a network of parks with a pretty waterfront bike loop.

What is there to do on Governors Island? Not much currently, although there are plans to develop "education, not for profit, and commercial facilities" on the island, according to the website. At the moment, you can see some public art, admire some old buildings, stroll through some fields, eat some undercooked veggie burgers and overcooked corn at the Water Taxi Beach, and bike the loop, which takes about 15 minutes. (Note to bikers: it may not be worth schlepping your bike out, since you will most likely be relegated to doing this loop over and over again.)

But it is indeed a welcome escape from the city: a lovely little chunk of green land, dotted by beautiful old cottages, plus a fort and a castle. The problem, for me, is that I would have been much more enchanted with it if I hadn't already been to Snug Harbor.

Snug Harbor is Governors Island's less hip but more elegant bastard younger brother.

I discovered Snug Harbor this past fall, when I took a group of high school students on a field trip there. Another teacher and I were planning a special three-day course called "Hidden Gems of New York," where we would march students to little known oases of natural beauty in New York. We had already planned Day 1 (Swindler Cove, the Little Red Lighthouse, the Cloisters) and Day 2 (the New York Conservatory Garden and the Harlem Meer), but Day 3 was a toss-up. I consulted a little book I bought on impulse about 10 years ago called 50 Places to Find Peace and Quiet in New York City, and there it was, utterly unfamiliar but somehow beckoning to me: Snug Harbor Cultural Center. So I planned a trip -- sight unseen -- and it was hands down the most dazzling hidden gem in our crown.

Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden is an 83-acre park on the northern edge of Staten Island that was once a home for retired seamen. The earliest buildings (a few stately neo-classical affairs) date back to 1801, when the campus was established as a refuge for "aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors," in the rather shabby words of the original founder. By 1900, Snug Harbor housed 900 retirees and comprised over 50 buildings, many of them gorgeous houses with High Victorian decorative touches.

These days, the sailors are gone, but somehow their ghostly presence infuses the place. The tranquil, uninhabited buildings, which seem charged with a certain air of bygone times, now contain museums, arts centers, theaters, and a bewitching restaurant/dining room. The highlight of Snug Harbor, though, is the Botanical Garden, which includes, among its many horticultural offerings, a 9/11 memorial "Healing Garden" (weeping willows and wetlands), a manicured garden copied from a Florentine villa, and a Chinese Scholar's Garden that rivals any manmade green space I have ever seen for loveliness.

Snug Harbor actually looks a lot like Governor's Island (perhaps maritime dwelling places of old all hired the same architects), except that it is more beautiful, more peaceful, and, from what I can tell, full of infinitely more delights.

My only fear is that all you fine readers will rush Snug Harbor, rendering it a hidden gem no longer. Luckily, it requires both a ferry ride to Staten Island and a 10-minute ride on a Staten Island public bus. And, unlike Governors Island, it costs money. So I'm comforted knowing that you will only go if you really mean it. And when you get there, you will understand.