NEW YORK — During last month’s East Coast heat wave, my daughter, Laura, and I spent a night camping out in one of the world’s biggest cities.
This adventure, I came to learn, is what Collective Governors Island calls “glamping.”
You’re outdoors, all right, but the pristine white tents set up in a grassy field have views not of some bucolic, remote forest, but of the Statue of Liberty and downtown Manhattan. There are comfortable beds with 1,000-thread-count linens, a down comforter, plush Turkish towels, electricity and many other amenities. The on-site restaurant offers freshly made entrees or an expensive six-course dinner with sommelier-led wine pairings. Glamour, indeed.
It seemed like a good idea in May when I booked a stay that would coincide with a meeting in New York City.
I invited my New York City friends to join me. They all explained that they were otherwise occupied. At the last minute, Laura agreed to go with me.
The last camping trip we had taken together was a year ago, when we spent a couple of nights in the Hondo-Columbine wilderness north of Taos Ski Valley. I had considered that glamping, because we had llamas to carry our tents, cots, sleeping bags and fresh food. We saw tall peaks, aspen groves and the stars at night. One member of our party reported seeing a bear.
This trip didn’t begin at a picturesque campsite on the Red River as our last one had, but at a train station in Newark, N.J., which smelled of hot urine. We took the very efficient PATH train to the World Trade Center Station in Manhattan.
PATH’s terminus is at the Oculus — an airy, white-marble transportation hub and shopping area that cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
After doing some last-minute electronics shopping at the Apple store, we emerged at street level near the World Trade Center memorial. This is a tree-studded plaza designed around two deep holes where the twin towers once stood. Black marble balustrades etched with the victims’ names surround cascades that pour water deep into the ground where the buildings had collapsed.
It was the most moving waterfall we had ever seen on a camping trip.
We left our suitcases with the bellman at my convention hotel and started walking with our backpacks to the ferry terminal, at the tip of Manhattan. It was too hot. We took a taxi.
The Governors Island Ferry embarks from a lovely old building, built near the turn of the last century. The temperatures were in the 90s, and the waiting room was not air-conditioned, so we took refuge outside under a tree where we had our only encounter with wildlife — feeding pigeons with a pretzel we bought from a street vendor.
When our ferry arrived, it had plenty of room for cars, but there were none, and only a few tourists. The ride took 10 minutes and we embarked on a hot, shadeless road. A security guard directed us to an asphalt walkway that circled the island. We passed some 18th- or 19th-century structures covered with scaffolding, then some derelict 20th-century buildings with broken windows and torn curtains flapping in the hot breeze.
We saw a uniformed National Park Service guide in front of Castle Williams and asked him if we could take a shortcut through the circular stone fort. He told us that it had been a federal prison — only one way in and one way out — and that we would have to go around, despite the heat.
Castle Williams was built just in time to serve as a protective fort for New York harbor in the War of 1812. Beginning during the Civil War and until 1965, it was a prison.
The U.S. Army maintained Governors Island as a major command headquarters from 1796 until 1966. Until 1996, it was headquarters for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area Command. Today, the island is owned and managed partly by the U.S. Park Service and partly by The Trust for Governors Island. It contains a park, two forts, former military buildings, a high school, seasonal restaurants and, of course, the camping area.
Our walk to the campsite at Collective Governors Island took about 15 minutes. It was one of the hottest hikes I have taken on a camping trip. We checked in, signed a liability release, made dinner reservations for 6 p.m. and found our tent.
There was no shade. But the tent was lovely, complete with a large bed, wood floor, an Oriental-style carpet, sheepskin throws and designer throw pillows.
We had the closest tent to the harbor, and the view was spectacular. To the southwest, we saw in the distance the gantries that line New Jersey’s container shipping harbor. Then, the Statue of Liberty to the west. Then, the tall buildings of Jersey City. Then, the even taller buildings of Manhattan’s Financial District.
Our tent was pitched next to a chain-link fence surrounding the campsite. At night, the entrance gate is always locked — the staff explained that the island might be dangerous because of so many abandoned buildings.
Laura and I watched reflections of storm clouds making lower Manhattan’s mirrored skyscrapers turn metallic gray, purple and blue. We told each other we had never seen a more dramatic view on a camping trip.
We saw harbor sightseeing boats ply the water, as well as big, orange Staten Island ferries. Two enormous cruise ships steamed down the Hudson River, escorted by tiny tugboats. We waved at passengers lining the upper decks.
Hoping to avoid the storm, we went to dinner early. The storm broke, and we were soaked when rain pelted under our umbrella.
We took a table by the dining room tent fly, with a view of the Statue of Liberty, which was soon obscured by curtains of rain.
Other campers came in to dinner, many with young families, most improvising raincoats from trash bags and looking stunned. Dinner was served by a college student and a wet bartender. The food was as good as could be expected after the lights in the cook tent had gone out. We were happy we hadn’t reserved the special prix fixe dinner with wine pairings.
We kept moving our table farther back from the tent opening, hoping to stay a little dry. We watched as the Statue of Liberty’s torch came on and its glow flickered in and out of the rain. The Staten Island ferries appeared and disappeared into the rain and dusk, looking like orange dragons with glowing eyes. The rain on the tent was so loud that we couldn’t hear each other talk. The thunder was unceasing.
During a lull, we went back to our own tent, with a quick stop at the communal showers to wash off the sweat from our hike. Our path was running in several inches of water.
The rain started again soon after we reached our tent, this time with more lightning. I was worried about the tall metal tent post that extended from our wet floor to hold up the canvas. We jumped into bed hoping we had a rubber mattress or something that wouldn’t conduct lightning strikes.
TripAdvisor reviews had warned that guests were kept awake by the sound of helicopters flying over the harbor. All we heard during the night was rain, thunder and flapping canvas. I fell asleep wondering whether the tent would leak and we would wake up under a pile of damp cotton sheets, soggy feathers and wet sheepskins.
When we got up in the middle of the night, we noticed the view — lights from thousands of windows above Wall Street. Reflections on the Hudson River. Clouds lit from below with the city’s glow.
The morning dawned dry but overcast. We had a buffet breakfast, borrowed some plastic bags for carrying yesterday’s wet clothes and walked back to the ferry.
Since it looked as if it would start raining again soon, we abandoned our plans to hike to the high point of the island, or visit the other fort, or rent a bike.
From the top deck of the ferryboat, we could see from Brooklyn to Newark. We disembarked with a couple of dozen wet tourists. Our hike out was up Wall Street. We didn’t see any bears — it being a bull market at the time.
We checked into our hotel, took a shower and a nap and went shopping in SoHo.
Shopkeepers told us it had rained 2 inches the night before. The newspapers reported gridlock on the streets at rush hour and flooding in several subway tunnels.
Would I recommend glamping at Governors Island to my friends? Definitely. I have never been in such an exciting storm while in a tent. I have never seen such spectacular views on a camping trip. And, the whole adventure was half the cost of a hotel room in downtown Manhattan. Best of all, I was happy I had an enthusiastic and competent fellow camper.