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Don't worry - as a fellow visitor to NYC, I know exactly what you mean by "islands around NYC". I personally love Roosevelt Island. It's worth visiting for the aerial tramway trip over the East River alone. My other favourite is City Island, which is off the Bronx (www.cityisland.com). You take the subway to Pelham Bay Park, then a short bus trip across to the island. It's charming, like a New England coastal village transported to New York. Both islands have their own, unique atmospheres - definitely worth visiting.
One island that you definitely do not want to visit is Riker's Island. That is where the prisons are. There are many other minor islands around NYC - here are some of them:
Around the Bronx - North and South Brother Island in Long Island Sound. [Where the Gen'l Slocum disaster finally ran aground.] Hart Island - NYC's potters field. Rat Island. The Nonations. City Island [NYCs own New England fishing village is worth visiting. The movie City Island staring Andy Garcia is worth seeing as well.
Around Manhattan - Randal's Island [I saw the Warped Tour There and sometimes the Cirque du Solleil has a tent here] Roosevelt Island [Great Tram ride, cool ruins on the south end and two huge psychiatric hospitals.] U Thant Island [a speck of land in the East River near the UN]. You may have heard of Liberty [formerly Bedloe's Island]. That's the one with the Statue. The Courts have determined that Ellis Island is partly in NYC, and partly in NJ.
Around Brooklyn - Right across the Buttermilk Channel is Governors Island. This is a former coast guard post that has been turned over to NYC and they are still figuring out what to do with it. Two old forts, cool views and water taxi access. Worth visiting. Coney Island? Nah, it's been connected to the mainland for centuries.
Around Queens - Lots of small islands in Jamaica Bay. All except Channel Beach Island are uninhabited.
Staten Island - Hoffman and Swinburn under the Verazzano are former quarantine island. The island of Meadow, Prawls Island and Shooters Island are bird nesting places.
Thanks, Mel! Good info : )
Have you ever read the book by Sharon Seitz: The Other Islands of NY: A History and Guide? Very informative!
Now all the OP needs is a kayak!
You should consider Governor's Island - short ferry, spend the day and feel like you're away from Manhattan - great views.
There's an interesting wildlife sanctuary at Broad Channel (not Channel Beach Island) in the middle of Jamaica Bay.
There's a subway stop there on the A train. It's the one right after the Howard Beach stop, which connects to the JFK AirTrain.
I think the island of Manhattan is worth a visit. Ask me if you want more info.
BTW, where are you staying in Queens?
I was on the East River Ferry just yesterday. Over by the Brooklyn Flea in Williamsburg (about 50 yards away from the flea entrance) is the ferry dock. At 1:30 there were only maybe 30 people milling about the pier. There's a machine to purchase tickets (credit and debit only) and then you get on line and just walk onto the boat. We were told that the boat only holds 150 people ..... but there was no problem getting on yesterday afternoon. The operators told us it starts getting busy at around 2:00 or 3:00.
From there the southbound boat goes to South 6th (hardly anyone getting on or off) ..... then Brooklyn Bridge right next to River Cafe (lots of people got off here) ..... then next stop Wall Street (lots of people got off) ..... then the last stop was Governor's Island. The entire ride down the East River was $4 dollars each way and took around 20 minutes from North 6th to Governor's Island. Nice views and very pleasant ride. On the island you can rent bikes and enjoy the great outdoors. On the way back wee took the free Governor's Island Ferry to the tip of Manhattan (next to the Staten Island ferry) and went to Chinatown to eat. It's super easy.
Thanks for the links.
Thanks for the info. Very helpful in planning my trip.