Sri Lankan eats, bridge views, and a castle hedge maze
The lovely island borough of Staten Island has never been known for charming beaches or tiki torches, but for quiet waterfront neighborhoods and unbelievably beautiful views of downtown Manhattan. Little did I know that it ALSO is home to phenomenal Sri Lankan food, beautiful parks, and even a Chinese garden and a castle with a hedge maze. Who knew?
If that isn't reason enough to venture past the St. George ferry terminal, make a visit soon if only to see the island as it has looked (roughly) for the past ~150 years. A surge of new investment will mean a rapidly changing face to the north shore and interior, some of it almost universally welcome (we can soon say goodbye to the largest landfill in the world and hello to New York's second largest public park!) and some of it perhaps more controversial (other recently approved plans call for the development a 1M sqft outlet and hotel complex as well as the 60 story New York Wheel).
As always, developments like these can raise difficult questions for local residents and small business owners who may face rising rents and pressure to give up space for newcomers. On the other side, they'll probably also bring thousands of visitors to the island and plenty of good business. Regardless of the outcome, I can only hope that the phenomenal Sri Lankan eateries and other local gems survive the transition and that the redevelopment revitalizes some of the dead industrial areas without costing the island its quiet natural beauty and small town feel.
Below are a few of my favorite spots in Snug Harbor and within close walking or bus distance from the ferry terminal. Happy exploring!
Views from the Staten Island Ferry
The Staten Island Ferry is one of the very few experiences that breaks the usual New York equation of [free and wonderful = unbearably long lines]. If you ask me, the lack of day-ruining weekend lines for the ferry points to a seriously underutilized gem. The views of downtown Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and Staten Island itself are some of the best around.
Sri Lankan eats in Tompkinsville
Thanks to Max at Serious Eats and his infinite knowledge of New York's culinary destinations, I had a chance to eat where the Sri Lankans eat: in the small Staten Island neighborhood of Tompkinsville. Among the best spots is New Asha on Victory Boulevard. Try the jackfruit curry and roti kotthu, both of which are amazing. For South Indian food and a selection of Sri Lankan favorites, head next door to Dosa Garden where the String Hoppers are well worth an order. As an added bonus, you can also pick up your Sri Lankan and Indian staples at the Lanka Grocery a few steps further up the street. Bring a strong appetite and enjoy!
Silver Lake Park
This beautiful park is a ~15 min walk from Tompkinsville's delicious Sri Lankan eats. Originally home to a casino, saloon, and ice harvesting industry in the 1800s, it's now a tranquil center for Staten Island residents. On a nice afternoon, enjoy a walk across the bridge that spans the beautiful reservoir at the center.
Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden
Located on the north shore of the island near the ferry terminal, Snug Harbor was originally founded as a home for retired sailors. The complex opened in 1831 as one of the nation's first retirement centers and claimed some of the country's first national historical landmarks (five curious Greek Revival style buildings). While the complex still has its original dormitories, chapel, and music hall, it has now been re-purposed as a cultural center for the island. You can spend an entire afternoon exploring all sorts of things here, including the Heritage Farm, the Chinese Scholar's Garden, greenhouses, a music hall, the Connie Gretz Secret Garden (with castle hedge maze!), and much more.
One of the most interesting destinations in Snug Harbor is the newly renovated Noble Maritime Collection. Housed in one of the five Greek Revival style buildings, the museum exhibits artifacts and documents from the sailors that lived on the island as well as other interesting pieces including the entirely restored houseboat studio of John A. Noble. Entry is free and the renovation is beautifully done. Definitely recommend a visit if only to stroll through the building and get a better feel for Snug Harbor's history.
Mapping your trip
I had no idea how large Staten Island was until I went there and was forced to properly study a map. Hint: it's massive (59 sq miles to be exact)! The below wandering is an afternoon's worth of walking and maybe a bus or two.