A Night on Governors Island? Be Prepared to Spend for It.


This story is part of an occasional series exploring nightlife in New York.

Tom Begley isn’t afraid of ghosts.

As an overnight caretaker for Governors Island who often works from dusk to 7 a.m., Mr. Begley, 49, wouldn’t be able to do his job if he were easily spooked.

“I just think ghosts are former people,” he said as we cruised around the nearly empty 172-acre island on a recent Friday in a golf cart, accompanied by one of its working dogs, Leader. “So what’s there to be afraid of?”

Mr. Begley is one of the lucky few people who consistently spend the night on Governors Island, a former military base that’s a short ferry ride from both Manhattan and Brooklyn.

For others who are curious about what the island is like in the middle of the night, though, there’s really only one way to find out: glamping.

With no permanent residents (but 300 species of birds), the island usually attracts a quiet group of daytime visitors who want to enjoy the open fields and beautiful views.

But the Collective Retreats glamping site, which opened in 2018, can accommodate about 70 glamorous campers per night, who sleep over in upscale private tents or lodgings. (Though prices fluctuate depending on demand, the site’s cheapest tents usually cost more than $400 nightly.)

“It’s expensive, but it’s fun,” said Matt Siegel, who was spending his 44th birthday glamping on the island with his wife, Jenny, and their two children.

It was his first time staying overnight, but Ms. Siegel had glamped on the island before, along with the kids, Ryder, 10, and Maren, 8. They had chosen an early June weekend this time in hopes of solid weather.

“We had one year we came too late, like the last week of June, and it was scorching,” she said. “And last year we came in early May and it was raining and cold.”

Vanessa Vitale, the chief hospitality officer for Collective Retreats, said that the site, located on the western side of the island, used to be a mere parking lot.

“I actually struggled a lot to get anything to grow out here because it was paved so low,” she said.

“It was extremely difficult to operate,” she added. “You may as well be on the island of Fiji, right? Everything is brought in.”

Construction challenges aside, the site now has working toilets, sinks and showers, as well as accommodations that are larger than some New York City bedrooms.

Daily “maker workshops” take place after check-in — a recent one focused on mezcal and chile pairings — and visitors are encouraged to explore the island before returning to their tents. Aside from dinner, the only activity offered after dark is making s’mores.

Clare Newman, the president and chief executive of the Trust for Governors Island, which is responsible for the island’s maintenance and operations, estimated that more than 100 people stay on the island on a typical weekend night during the summer, including a mix of glampers, security and emergency teams, a ferry crew, and a caretaker.

For many, the appeal of Governors Island is that it doesn’t feel like any other part of New York City. There’s lush nature and a merciful lack of noise and people.

“This place touches my soul,” said Omar Hassan, 38, as he sat atop a hill to watch the sunset with his fiancée, Isabelle Caous. “And this moment right here, it’s one of my dreams.”

Mr. Hassan, who moved to New York from Egypt in 2010 to seek asylum, said that he and Ms. Caous, 21, had come up from Miami to attend a gala for Immigration Equality, the organization that helped him become a United States citizen. He proposed to Ms. Caous onstage at the event.

“I used to come here alone all the time and I sat there and looked at this rock,” he said, pointing to a spot lower down on the hill. “I saw couples a couple of times and wondered if I was ever going to have this moment.”

While the last ferries usually depart from Governors Island at 6, on Friday and Saturday nights, they run until 10 p.m., allowing people to stay and enjoy the sunset. Sometimes companies hold private events on the island and charter ferries to head back even later.

Governors Island wasn’t always just a place for visitors. Before the Coast Guard left it in the late 1990s, about 3,000 people resided on the base.

“They did have things like grocery stores,” Ms. Newman said of that era. “There was a dry cleaner, there was a movie theater.”

Yet when the federal government sold the island to New York in 2003 for $1, it was under two major conditions: the city and state — which jointly controlled it — couldn’t build new housing or a casino on it.

“2005 was the first year we were open at all to the public, and it was only a few weekends a year,” Ms. Newman said. “It’s been a constant march of expanding access.”

Governors Island announced in September that instead of closing to the public on Oct. 31, it would remain open 365 days a year. Since then, the Trust has started working to expand access to allow more people to enjoy it at night.

Soon, Ms. Newman said, The Institute for Public Architecture, which addresses inequity around the city through design, and Shandaken, which provides free public programs and artist services, will host about a dozen overnight residents.

The island’s food vendors and athletic fields and working on expanding their hours, and the new QCNY Spa is staying open until 11 p.m. on weekends.

There will also be special events throughout the summer, such as the Pride Island music festival and film screenings on the Parade Ground in collaboration with Lincoln Center.

The uptick in activity aside, Mr. Begley, the caretaker, said that he enjoys the typically quiet nights that he gets to spend on Governors Island.

Though he lives on the Lower East Side, he also has an apartment in one of the island’s forts.

“It’s there to keep me comfortable and sane,” he said as he stopped by the apartment to grab a thermos of tea. “Otherwise it could be hard and lonely and weird if you don’t really have a good spot to hang on the island when you’re here every night, pretty much.”

He appreciates the island’s nature and its quirks, and he enjoys collecting interesting things he comes across on his route.

“I have my dreams of having a strange little Etsy shop with rounded bricks and driftwood,” he said as we drove along the island’s edge.

And he said that his favorite part of his shift is right around dawn, when he gets to circle the island with Leader, who has any dog’s dream job: chasing geese away.

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