NEW YORK -- For a landlubber like me, whose ideal boating excursion must include the illusion that it would be possible to swim to land in an emergency, the New York Water Taxi was tempting. I like being on the water, but I want the shore nearby. During a recent visit to New York, I thought an offshore view might offer a fresh perspective. Manhattan, after all, is an island, and I wanted to experience it that way, though not in a standard two-hour tour.
The Water Taxi ferryboats, gaily painted like yellow checkered cabs, offer two-day ''Hop On/Hop Off" passes that can be used to explore the neighborhoods adjoining each stop. I decided to embark Midtown at the Hudson River, skirt the lower tip around Battery Park, and end my journey near the United Nations on the East River.
The taxi, a little more than two years old, serves commuters and tourists. In the early mornings and late afternoons, the commuter route extends to include New Jersey and Manhattan's Upper East Side. For weekday sightseers, a two-day, $20 ticket for the eight stops around the island is good for all routes; check the schedule carefully, though, to see when service switches to commuter mode. The weekend schedule extends until 7:30 p.m.
Each taxi landing has triangular yellow flags with black-and-white checks, and easy-to-read posted timetables. On a brilliant sunny morning, I walked from Times Square west to Pier 84 and the aircraft carrier Intrepid, for the day's first departure.
ONE: Pier 83, West 42nd Street. The good news is the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum is on Pier 84 at 44th Street. Those with an interest in missiles, naval vessels, aircraft, and history may want to visit.
The bad news is the Water Taxi is not actually at Pier 84, the inaccurate address that appears on all its printed materials. It actually is two blocks south, near the Circle Line Cruises at 42d Street. So after thinking we had plenty of time to board the first taxi, a friend and I scrambled to catch it.
After purchasing the two-day pass, we wanted to climb the rear stairway to the open-air deck but were informed by the dour young ticket-taker that we could use the upper level only if two crew members were on board. She said her partner had called in sick, so we settled in the comfortable, slightly air-conditioned and sterile interior space. Peering past water that sprayed the large windows, we bounced along parallel to the shore.
TWO: Pier 63, Chelsea. We disembarked onto an old Delaware-Lackawanna Railroad flatcar float, which felt like stepping back in time. The retired fireboat John J. Harvey, circa 1931, the 1929 Lighthouse Service Lightship Frying Pan, and the recently built Schooner Anne are moored alongside. The lightship, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, operated off North Carolina's Cape Fear from the 1930s through the 1960s. Raised from the bottom of the sea and hauled to this pier, the ship at night, is a trendy nightclub called The Frying Pan. Also on the pier are a Lackawanna caboose from 1946 and a seasonal restaurant with a vaguely Caribbean feel (also named the Frying Pan), which fires up a barbecue every day to serve chicken, shrimp, and burgers near an outdoor bar. Near the dock is the enormous Chelsea Piers complex, a 30-acre indoor sports village with restaurants and shops. Directly across the West Side Highway is the burgeoning contemporary art district of New York. Enter any gallery and ask for a listing of Chelsea's current exhibitions. (See story, M1.)
THREE: Pier 45, Greenwich Village. On the second leg of our journey, we were again informed the upper deck was closed and the second crew had called in sick. We reluctantly took our indoor seats.
The Pier 45 dock has been restored as part of the larger Hudson River Park, which, when finished, will offer 550 acres along 5 miles of riverfront from Battery Park to 59th Street. Trees and benches line this pier, which looks across at Jersey City and Hoboken. Maps and impressively clean public restrooms are available near the jogging path. We crossed the highway and headed down Christopher Street toward the shops and restaurants of the Village.
FOUR: World Financial Center. We were at last allowed on the upper deck of the taxi, and the fresh air was glorious. We sped past airshafts for the Holland Tunnel at Canal Street and stumps of decaying piers. The Statue of Liberty glinted in the distance.
Getting off, we walked along Hudson River Park past a waterfall and lily pond, with a poem of ''The Continuous Life" by Mark Strand etched in stone at one end, and on to the Irish Hunger Memorial, a quarter-acre site designed by artist Brian Tolle commemorating the Great Famine and migration of 1845-52. We followed paths through a rugged landscape planted with ling heather, bearberry, and other native Irish flora, among stones inscribed with Ireland's 32 county names. From the 25-foot summit, we had a grand view of the river and Ellis Island. From the North Cove Yacht Harbor, we entered the restored Winter Garden in the World Financial Center, with its 45-foot-tall palm trees, and found restrooms, shops, and restaurants. Also inside, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. has mounted a wall exhibit titled ''From Recovery to Renewal" that provides a timeline from 9/11 to the present. Leaving the center on the east side brought us to the gaping hole where the twin towers once stood.
FIVE: South Street Seaport. On this trip, the upper-deck seating was open again, and a personable crew member, Chris Girgenti, offered ongoing commentary about lesser-known sights. We sped past the Colgate Clock (the world's largest, and a remnant of the former factory), a train station in New Jersey designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Battery Park (where there is a Holocaust Memorial), Governors Island (formerly a dairy farm), and the Brooklyn Army Terminal (where Elvis Presley left for Germany). The next exit offered myriad touring possibilities, including the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street, the South Street Seaport Museum, and the shops and restaurants in the seaport mall. The museum includes tours of three historic vessels, the sailing cargo ships Peking (1911) and Wavertree (1885) and the lightship Ambrose (1908).On the top floor of the mall, we stopped for cocktails and a snack at the Harbour Lights Restaurant. A north-facing deck offered a dazzling view of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and the East River. We ended the day here, having missed the last boat back to the West Side, and took a subway to our hotel.
SIX: Fulton Ferry Landing, Dumbo. I arrived solo at Pier 83 for the 10:30 a.m. departure, prepared to retrace the previous day's path. My excitement dimmed as the same dour attendant from day one informed me, again, that her second crew was ''sick," requiring me to remain inside for the first five stops. As the boat bounced hard on the water, and the air conditioning faltered in the brilliant sun, my nausea grew and I felt like a prisoner on the 39-minute ride to Brooklyn. It was a relief to get off the boat.
Dumbo stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. This area, discovered by artists looking for affordable rental space, is fast becoming home to million-dollar condos and high-end shops.
If you don't have a lunch reservation at the renowned River Cafe, there are plenty of other places to eat in nearby historic warehouse and manufacturing buildings.
SEVEN: Hunters Point, Queens. The 15-minute ride upriver was delightful in the upper-deck midday sun. But let me save you some time: Don't get off at this stop. To be fair, it's not listed as a tourist destination on the Water Taxi maps. (It's more a commuter route from Queens to Midtown.) Still, I got off, thinking there must be something worth exploring. Instead, I found the Long Island City industrial park, unsightly even to a fan of urban decay. I cooled my heels until the next boat arrived.
EIGHT: East 34th Street, Midtown. This is the end of the line, or the beginning, depending on where you start. It's mainly a residential area and also home to New York University Medical Center. The United Nations is an easy walk up First Avenue to 42nd Street. (The visitors entrance is at 45th Street). .
All in all, the Water Taxi was a great way to maneuver about the city, as several passengers agreed. Rosamund Torta, trying the taxi for the first time, said, ''I live in New York and like to know what's going on at all times. I absolutely had to do it." Mike Redig, a visitor from Tallahassee, Fla., summed it up this way: ''I wanted to try something other than the subways. What do people say? 'It's not the destination, it's the journey.' "
My Water Taxi journey was just fine: I could see the shore, and I never had to swim.