It served as an army base for 200 years following the Revolutionary War — now the only battles are over picnic tables. Over the past few summers, Governors Island has gone from an unused historical curiosity to a reinvented summer day-trip destination with a full calendar of artsy fare, concerts and other frolicsome events, most of them free. That makes it pretty much the best thing to happen to summer around here since the Brooklyn Bridge Park got a spiffy makeover.
Also free is the Brooklyn-Governors Island ferry that leaves from Pier 6 at Atlantic Avenue and Columbia Street every ten minutes on summer Saturdays and Sundays. (Get the ferry schedule here.) Here’s some of what’s in store starting Friday, when the island officially opens for the season:
• Classical concert series: Governors Island’s first classical-contemporary concert series, Rite of Summer, offers free concerts July 2, August 13, and September 4 at 1pm and 3pm. The first show, led by keyboardist/conductor Jed Distler, features over 40 of New York’s top musicians. Show number 2 features rock/electronica-inspired string quartet Ethel. The third and final concert brings pianist/co-directors Blair McMillen and Pam Goldberg, and will include up tempo violin and piano duos by John Adams, JS Bach and others.
• MiniGolf: Figment MiniGolf, a free mini 14-hole golf course designed with the theme of “Bugs and Features,” is modeled on insect-inspired designs submitted by budding artists. No need to bring your Callaway—everything is provided. Open from May 27- September 25.
• Fashion exhibit: The Empire Historic Arts Fund’s exhibit, Designs for Living, showcases historic couture fashion and accessories from 1795 – 2011, from icons including Balenciaga and Dior. This three-part exhibit is housed in Building 10, Nolan Park, and is open Fridays from 10-5 and weekends from 10-7.
• Free bikes!: While you can bring your own wheels to enjoy the island’s five miles of car-free biking, on Fridays through September 23, Bike and Roll, the Island’s bike rental outlet, lets you borrow a bike for free for up to an hour.
• Sculpture Garden: Storm King Art Center presents roughly a dozen or so works of world-renowned sculptor Mark di Suvero. The pieces, many of which are large-scale and composed of steel, wood, and cables in beautiful form, will be scattered all around the Island for the public to admire and explore. Opens Friday.
• Polo classic (and celebrities): Who needs the Hamptons when you can get a free seat at the Veuve Cliquot Polo Classic? This year they allocated even more room for the public to sit and picnic as they watch polo, all for free. You won’t be rubbing elbows with glamorous co-hosts Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs, or with emcee Hugh Jackman, but you’re going to feel every bit a socialista. June 5 at noon.
• Fly a free kite: The Governor’s Island Alliance provides free kites to the public on July 23, starting at 11 am.
• City of Water Day festival: Free boat tours, music, food, and more on July 24, starting 10am.
• Vintage bug contest: Volkswagen Traffic Jam 2011, a spectator-judged vintage VW car show and picnic on August 13, starting at 10 am
• Figment Art Project: A mainstay on the Island since 2007, this display of interactive and participatory art has swelled in numbers with each passing year—both in visitors as well as contributing artists, locations, and public support. This year, it runs from June 10 – 12.
Not Free, But Honorable Mention
• Organic Market: Starting in July, you can purchase produce from Added Value, a Red Hook-based farm that also grows fruit and vegetables on a 3-acre patch of the island’s Picnic Point.
• 1920s Dance Bash: 20’s Jazz-Age Dance Party, Tickets are only $7 in advance, or $10 upon reaching the island. The event features dance instruction, picnicking, and games. I saw this as an outsider last year when it sold out, and my jealously was palpable. Don’t forget to bring a picnic basket and your A-game dance skills. And by A-game, I mean your previously unappreciated skills for doing The Charleston. June 25-26, 11am.
• Tall Ship Cruise: World Science Festival’s “All Aboard the Mystic Whaler!” takes you and your child over 7 years old around the harbor to sing seafaring songs, learn about science of the immediate surroundings and water inhabitants, and appreciate the inner workings of a tall ship as you learn to chart your own course through the harbor. $25 per person, June 4 at 11am and 3:30pm. Deck tours are given in between sailings.
For more information on Governors Island events and what you can and can’t bring to the island (ie, your own booze), see the official site.