As a native New Yorker, I never had Staten Island on my list of top New York venues to visit to check out parks and gardens. So you can imagine my surprise when, on a recent visit with the New York City Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe, I visited his top four parks. Hmm. No wonder Staten Island is referred to as the "Borough of Parks." Benepe tells me that it's got more parkland than any other borough: 30% of Staten Island is preserved for parks.
Here's more of what I found out:
• Adrian Benepe told me that the there's a spacious Greenbelt of parks in the center of Staten Island and that Greenbelt Nature Center provides some lovely hiking trail maps. (Who knew? Hiking trails in Staten Island?) And, when I wondered if I had to do my hiking alone, I found out that High Rock Park, in the Greenbelt, offers guided walks, as does the Nature Center. High Rock Park is dense with woodland. "It's the closest you can get to the Catskills without leaving the five boroughs," says Benepe. I'm thinking how could I have missed this all these years.
• Snug Harbor is a leafy area that's closest to the ferry and chock full of cultural -- Neo-classical buildings from the 1800s -- as well as botanical delights. This is the site of the Botanical Garden where you can find a real hidden treasure: the Chinese Scholar's Garden. This is the place for peaceful contemplation as you walk the pathways in the walled-in courtyard and catch glimpses of sky, rocks and water.
• Clove Lakes Park dates to the 20th century and really feels like you are walking into another world as you walk across a stone bridge over the placid bodies of water to a waterside stone cafe, the Clove Lake Cafe, that reminded me of a quaint French bistro. You couldn't get a nicer place to dine on a summer evening. Beyond the bridge are hilly woods and a place to rent canoes.
• Another restaurant beside a pristine waterfront can be found at South Beach, a long swath of sand that merges with Midland Beach. You can bicycle or walk the boardwalk, stop at the South Fin Grill for some calamari with hot peppers -- the NYC Park's Commissioner's favorite -- and enjoy the ocean views. According to Benepe, "This is one of the most beautiful of our waterfront restaurants and one of the best beaches in all of New York City." There are plenty of activities to keep everyone occupied: beach volleyball, kayaking and even a boccie ball court.
• Conference House Park is the Commissioner's favorite. "It's my favorite park," says Benepe, "because it's beautiful beyond compare. It's like being on the coast of New England." Here, you've got a park that's 200+ acres of natural beautiful. Sure, you've got historic homes to explore, but what I love most are the walking, hiking and cycling paths and the great views of the Raritan bay.
• Finally, though Lemon Creek Park is most noted for its grand 19th century Seguine Mansion, I was particularly enchanted by the acres of salt water marshes and the soaring red clay cliffs. Numerous birds pass through this parkland on their migratory routes. But, of course, you'll spot various duck species and swans on your visit.