Strokes and the city

David Whitley sees the skyline from a low water mark.

IT HARDLY needs saying that the Manhattan skyline is spectacular from pretty much any angle. But sitting just above the bobbing waters of the Hudson River adds a whole new perspective.

From a kayak, New York looks profoundly intimidating. The race for the sky can be put in context: hundreds of separate developments trying to put their own brush strokes on an already hyper-detailed canvas. There's a temptation to just stare at it and let your paddle slide off towards the Atlantic.

Kayaking isn't the most obvious form of transport in New York. Instinct says the water is liable to be far too cold and the waterways are likely to be far too busy. The former is inaccurate, in summer at least, although it starts to get interesting once you attempt a pier-to-pier dash across a busy ferry terminal. We have small lights on the fronts of our vessels but there's a strong suspicion a ferry pilot will mistake them for reflections of moonlight on the water and mow on straight through. As such, the chicken run becomes a judicious exercise in granting right of way and waiting for a gap in the traffic.

From the boathouse on Pier 66, numerous options are available. Our guide, Alex, says it would take eight or nine hours to circumnavigate Manhattan, "depending on how strong your arm muscles are". Another popular option is to do a loop around the Statue of Liberty, which takes about three hours.

My group isn't that ambitious; we're going for a 90-minute after-dark paddle. It's an opportunity for an unusual perspective on the city, with the sun down, skyscraper lights on and the water a murky black.

I'm regarded as intermediate purely because I've been in a kayak before, while my cohorts - native New Yorkers - are absolute beginners. But part of the joy of kayaking is it's pretty easy to pick up the basics. Soon enough, the group is gliding in convoy, awed by the sun setting over the New Jersey skyline and the lights sparking into life on Manhattan's skyscrapers.

Of these, the most striking is the Empire State Building. The top of it is lit up in lurid colour. Other, lesser-known buildings stand out, too. One Worldwide Plaza looks like a giant fat pencil - its sharpened end is lit up in a moody blue, with the lead at the end acting as a yellow beacon.

Also illuminated is the USS Intrepid, an enormous decommissioned aircraft carrier that monopolises Pier 86, further up the Hudson. Sidling up alongside it, we realise the ferries are just small fry.


Ferries aside, kayaking on New York's waterways is remarkably peaceful. You start to notice things you'd never see from street level. Take, for example, the night sky. On first glance, it appears sprinkled with stars. Then you notice the stars moving and make a mental note to never apply for a job at air traffic control in New York. The "stars" are, in fact, scores of circulating planes. They appear to be spiralling in formation, like water going down a sink after the plug is pulled.

As for the city, from here the car horns, the flashing signs and the sirens are stripped out, leaving the low hum of traffic rumble, generators and ferry motors. New York may be the city that never sleeps but gently rocking on the Hudson, it appears to be at rest.

The writer was a guest of NYC & Company.

Trip notes

See + do

The Manhattan Kayak Company offers a variety of tours, with timetables available on its website. The sunset tour costs $65, bookings are advised. +1 212 924 1788,

With the kids

More actively inclined children will love the kayaking trip but younger ones and those prone to moaning about a bit of hard work are probably better off going on other adventures.


Views out over Manhattan are also available from the rooms at the Affinia Dumont (, +1 212 481 7600) hotel. It’s a stylish, well-located Midtown joint with suites available from US$249 a night.

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