Island hopping across the continent for a late-winter refresher

The new World Trade Center, originally known as Freedom Tower, dominates Manhattan’s skyline as you walk westward on the pedestrian pathway across the venerable Brooklyn Bridge.

I CALLED IT MY “NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT” TOUR. And Friday when I told my Center Island friend, Monique the farmer, that I’d just returned from New York City, she grinned and agreed. “Wow, you can’t get much more different from little Center Island!”

This journey, my first real travel experience since the COVID plague froze us in our tracks two years ago, came about quickly and without much planning. My old friend Daniel Farber told me a few weeks ago that a cousin had offered him use of her vacant Brooklyn Heights apartment, and that he and wife Jean planned to make the pilgrimage from their Olympia home to spend the entire month of March there. It had a guest room. Would I like to visit? After a long and quiet winter on Center Island, I didn’t take long to say yes.

Free lodging in one of the world’s priciest cities. A free air ticket, thanks to my Alaska mileage account. Good times with good friends. The pandemic seeming to ease. The math was easy.

When I talk about island hopping, I understand that Manhattan is really the well-known island of New York. But Brooklyn is on an island, too (the west end of Long Island). I’d never set foot in Brooklyn before. So I told Daniel I’d come for three nights and all I really wanted to do was explore Brooklyn on foot and eat lots of good deli food.

We did that, and more.

Wherever I’ve traveled, I’ve always treasured first-morning impressions. I love to get up early and walk to a viewpoint or a beach, a bustling market or a famous park, and fill my mind with pictures the way colored-chalk scrawlings enliven a sidewalk.

The night after my evening arrival, Daniel had slept poorly, so I let him snooze as I finished my coffee and slipped out the door onto Hicks Street, a row of dignified old brick apartment blocks. Directly across the street from ours, tucked between two residences, squatted an ancient firehouse that looked like Ghostbusters headquarters. In three quick blocks of walking, with a left on Montague Street, I was on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, an 1,800-foot-long walkway cantilevered over the hillside with a spectacular view of Lower Manhattan and the East River. A swivel of my head took in everything from the Statue of Liberty to the Brooklyn Bridge. The air was crisp, the sky was blue, colorful ferries skittered everywhere, and the 1,776-foot World Trade Center spire, originally known as Freedom Tower, dominated the stupendous island scenery. It’s America’s loftiest skyscraper.

Brooklyn Bridge guy wires frame Lower Manhattan.

Once everyone was up and about, we walked miles that sunny day, through interesting residential streets crowded with authentic brownstones the color of a russet potato fresh from the earth. Pausing to admire the gorgeous Brooklyn Public Library, we ended up at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and lunch in Crown Heights.

Tropical blooms brighten the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s conservatory.

More than one night, we blissfully dined on Mediterranean-style food from two Atlantic Avenue institutions, Sahadi’s deli grocery, run by a family from Lebanon, and a Syrian bakery called Damascus. The smokiest, richest baba ghanough (their spelling) this side of Beirut. Spicy and delicious Za’atar chicken. Dips and spreads, pies and pastries.

The second day of my visit was cold and cloudy. When not pouring rain it was snowing. We hopped the subway to Manhattan and wisely spent the day indoors, first touring the Whitney Museum of American Art in the West Village. Highlights: a special exhibit of African-American artist Jennifer Packer’s studies of people with haunting faces and clothed in colors so vibrant that you had to wonder if the paint was made from human blood and maybe the zest of mandarin oranges. Another favorite for Daniel and me was a historical montage and film of a whimsical, miniature kinetic circus created by Alexander Calder. It showed me a whole new, quirky side of this artist known for monumental, plaza-filling sculpture.

We spent the afternoon, delightfully, as part of the studio audience at a Rockefeller Center taping of NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” The former “Saturday Night Live” comedian spent off-camera time chatting amiably with the crowd. (And yes, they really do have strobe-like signs that flash “APPLAUSE” when they want you to clap.) Sorry, I don’t have any photos; the not-so-amiable handlers in fancy suits made it clear that if you took a photo in the studio you would (A) be forced to erase it, and (B) get thrown out.

Perhaps the thrill of the trip was my final morning, well in advance of my 5 p.m. flight home, when Daniel and I decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Blue sky had returned. We arrived at the bridge as the sun flooded the skyline of Manhattan, ahead of us. The 1.1-mile span is an engineering wonder, built over a period of 13 years between 1870 and 1883. Its arched 272-foot Gothic Revival towers make it a colossal work of art.

Unlike most bridges, the pedestrian pathway is suspended in the bridge’s center, above the traffic lanes, separating you from the noise and rush of cars. Striding along, it felt like a peaceful walk in the sky as we gazed at the continent’s tallest building framed by a galvanized spider web of suspension cables. The bridge carries 10,000 pedestrians a day, but we never felt crowded.

Daniel at the less shiny end of the financial district’s bull.

Once on Manhattan, we wandered through the Wall Street district, past the fabled bronze bull, and back to the river’s edge to catch a passenger ferry back to Brooklyn. (Statuary trivia: Bronze statues worldwide have parts that passersby rub for good luck, such as Scottish philosopher David Hume’s big toe in Edinburgh, or John Harvard’s left foot at Harvard University, and consequently those parts are always shiniest. The shiniest part of the Wall Street bull: its beefy testicles. God bless ballsy America.)

Back to Seattle on Thursday. Back to Center Island Friday. Saturday morning I took a home COVID test. It was negative. I love my little island, but the effect on my morale of a getaway to someplace completely different: Definitely positive.

4 thoughts on “Island hopping across the continent for a late-winter refresher

  1. Hey Brian: Glad you had a nice break and got home before the (turns out..) whimpy hammer cyclone they had predicted for the east coast. Your pics of the Brooklynn bridge remind me of photo realist paintings of same by Richard Estes whose show was at the American Museum of Arts and Crafts ( I think was its name) at Columbus Circle at the SW corner of Central Park….


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