The platform at Broad Channel is packed to the rafters as our train pulls in – rather unusual for a Sunday morning, this far out in Queens! The doors open and every single one of our fellow passengers – with surfboards, picnic hampers and folding chairs in tow – alight to join the throngs. Clearly, we didn’t get the memo this morning. Either that, or things have changed considerably since my last visit to the Rockaways!
We alight two stations later at Beach 60th St., and the platform there is as desolate as can be. With only a smattering of passengers on board, the A train trundles off in the direction of Far Rockaway, while we make our way a couple of blocks north to the Boatel at Marina 59. Having figured out how to get into the gated compound, we are motioned in the direction of ‘A dock’.
Its been touted as ‘adventure art camping on boats‘, while some have referred to it as ‘a floating art and sound installation‘, but for most its simply the Boatel! One thing’s for sure though, its quite unlike any other boat hotel you would have heard about, seen or experienced, and that’s evident enough as you walk through the patchwork of flotsam and jetsam that makes up the so-called common area!
Located on the inlet for Somerville Basin, surrounded by projects on its east side, and under the shadow of the JFK flight path, the Boatel is truly a world unto itself! Made up of 16 boats – some of them reclaimed, a lot of them found abandoned in Jamaica Bay – the Boatel is a result of an artists collective, who have worked together to transform these formerly sea-worthy vessels into floating installations. These include, to quote from their website, “a boat that sings, a patchwork treehouse, a Victorian-era naturalist’s laboratory, a hillbilly kama sutra honeymoon suite”.
Within that motley collection of boats is New York NY, a 28″ Luhrs craft, ours for the next 18 hours or so…
With Bad Irene, Seamrogh, Queen Zenobia and Sweet Annisa, amongst others, for company, New York NY is easily the least imaginative name on the Boatel’s roster! And as fair warning to anyone else who might considering booking it, basic is probably a very generous word to describe the offerings within. What’s more, it hasn’t received a whole deal of attention from any one of those artists! Looking ahead though, we have our hearts set on Ms. Nancy Boggs. And while we’re at it, we wouldn’t mind stealing the manager’s couch either!
Only in its 2nd season, the Boatel is, no doubt, a new addition to the far flung Rockaways. But to really get a feel for how much this remote corner of Queens has changed – practically in the last 4 years – all one needs to do is take a stroll along the boardwalk. A good part of it has already been resurfaced, the old wooden planks giving way to patterned stone slabs. New playgrounds and skate parks have mushroomed along its course, and there is a bevy of construction activity, as new ocean-fronted condos spring up along the length of its waterfront.
Due to the increased foot traffic, the boardwalk has also attracted a host of food and beverage vendors, and the most unique amongst them is ‘Shore Fruit’, the Rockaway’s only mobile, bicycle-powered, cut-fruit cart!
On my last visit to the Rockaways, bicycling on the boardwalk was only permitted between 5 and 10 am, a rule that very few actually adhered to. Today, in complete contradiction to that pointless law is Boarders, a shop that rents everything from surfboards to bicycles, and one that only opens for business after curfew time! It is located just off Beach 96th St., and adjacent to the ever popular Rockaway Beach Club, a former city run concession stand turned hip!
A dozen artisinal food stands, offering everything from Chocolate-dipped frozen Bananas (!) to Arepas, have ensured that ‘Beach Club’ is THE destination on the boardwalk. A bar named Low Tide, complete with open air dance floor and DJ, pours suds from Rockaway Brewing Co., a recent entry to the micro-brewing scene, although post-libation creativity still speaks the language of Modelo!
Back in the day, you took the A train and changed at Broad Channel for the Rockaway Park Shuttle. When Zipcar arrived in the city, you could carpool with friends and cut short your journey time. Today, you have the option of riding the ‘Rockabus‘. Only one problem though – it starts from Williamsburg!
Over the last two summers, this little patch of the Rockaways centred on Beach 96th St., has earned itself the title of ‘Hamptons for Hipsters‘ and ‘Williamsburg by the Beach‘. If you haven’t already got a whiff of that on the boardwalk, head over a block or so north to Rockaway Taco – often credited for starting the ‘cultural trickle’ from Billyburg – where the lines for this much hyped Taquería are ridiculously long, even at 4 in the evening!
The Tacos are very good indeed, but am not sure I’ll be queuing up for them again!
Having walked all the way here from the Boatel, we hop on the Q22 this time, which provides local bus service along the length of the Rockaways, setting us down right outside the cryptic gate of Marina 59. Stacy, who rents out kayaks and paddle boards at the marina, has kindly arranged a single kayak for me and a tandem for my friends. Together, we pore over a nautical chart, determine a course for the 3 of us, and then set out into Jamaica Bay, to behold what will surely be a stunning sundown…
Being out in Jamaica Bay is sheer bliss for an aviation enthusiast, nothing short of paradise for the bird watcher. Even if you don’t fit into any of those categories, this hour-long kayak outing is sure to delight. After all, how often does one get to see the sun set over the Big Apple, from such a unique vantage point? The icing on the cake – kayak rentals are heavily discounted in the evenings between 6 and 8 pm 😉
Back at the Boatel, we grill some Hot Dogs in the ‘common area’, crack open a few cans of Beer, and sit out on New York NY‘s deck, watching planes take off from Kennedy, the galaxy coming to life, and the occasional shooting star.
The peace is shattered around half past midnight – soon after we have turned in – as the Boatel is invaded by a bunch of hipsters, on extended birthday celebrations! They set up shop – bottles of wine, smart phones on the ready, live music et al – right outside our boat. Between the mosquitoes in our cabin, constant camera flashes outside, shrieks of excitement, and several intermittent rounds of applause, very little sleep is had by us. So much for planning this on a Sunday night, I think to myself!
In the morning, as we prepare for a longer than usual commute back to work, the tranquility of the marina betrays the debauchery of a few hours prior…
The Boatel experience, I have to admit, is probably not for everyone. But you will agree, it certainly is a novel one! For where else, you have to ask yourself, can you rent a boat for 55 bucks a night? And like all good things in NYC, this one too is just a subway ride away 😉
A full set of pics can be seen here.