city_island_posterIn reel life, “City Island” is the setting for a 2009 film starring Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies as the dad and mom at the head of a dysfunctional family. In real life, City Island, New York, is best known for its low-key charm.

The island, in the Long Island Sound, is close to Bronx attractions like The Bronx Zoo, New York Botanical Garden and Pelham Bay Park, just over the bridge on the mainland.

As a native New Yorker, I never even visited the island until my grandfather was in a nursing home nearby. After we drove all the way there for a short visit, we couldn’t make the kids get right back in the car, so we’d go for lunch and let them run around.

In the movie, City Island seems rather suburban, which makes sense since it was originally part of suburban Westchester. Boats were the only way on and off until a bridge opened in 1873. The island joined New York City in 1895, but it has stayed remote.

What to Do

Since City Island is close to a huge park and surrounded by water, it has many kinds of birds, some of which live here and others that migrate through.  There’s a thriving birding community with walks and information at www.cityislandbirds.com.

The community also has several private yacht clubs and a number of well-reserved examples of Victorian architecture. If you’ve taken your kids to Cape May or San Francisco, they may even note the resemblance. Not my kids, though – although they have been to Cape May many times, and San Francisco, and even live in a Victorian brownstone in Park Slope, the architectural gems completely eluded them.

The City Island Historical Society has a Nautical Museum, open weekend afternoons. It has historical paintings and memorabilia, with the schoolroom of particular interest to kids. It shows what life in the 1830s was like for children.

But the main reason to visit City Island is to eat at one of the seafood restaurants. Then spend an hour or so walking around, maybe feeding the birds with a piece of bread left over from lunch.

Where to Eat

City Island Avenue, the main drag, has restaurants, most specializing in seafood. Portofino’s is an Italian seafood restaurant with a large deck overlooking the water, and a fireplace to make winter dining cozy. The Black Whale is a vegetarian friendly seafood restaurant, with a grilled Portobello Wrap, pasta and entrée salads for those who don’t eat meat or fish. There is also a deck for outdoor dining. The Original Crab Shanty serves Baltimore style spicy crabs, whole Lobster, shrimp, and pasta for non-seafood lovers.

Our family favorite is The Lobster Box, which specializes in crustaceans, with lobster, crab, a raw bar and some meat and pasta. At lunch the reasonably priced lobster roll satisfies a lobster craving; there is also a bargain whole lobster lunch special. We were eating here once and waited a long time for food. When Nora got bored and went to the bathroom, her food came – and a seagull swooped in and flew off with her lunch. She returned to an empty plate and everyone around us cracking up (the waitress quickly got her another lunch).

Nearby

If you want to make a day of it, check out these very family friendly attractions. For a couple of years, you could even stay on City Island, in an adorable B & B, but it recently closed.

NYC’s largest park, is home to a public beach, Orchard Beach, with a mile of sand and two playgrounds; and a Wildlife Sanctuary with trails through a salt marsh. The Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum offers frequent children’s programming and free tours of its Greek Revival interior.

Bronx Zoo, the largest branch of the NYC Wildlife Conservation Society, could be a day trip on its own. The zoo has a huge Children’s Zoo, a Congo Gorilla Forest that brings you right up to gorillas and a giant bug Carousel. The New York Botanical Garden, walking distance from the zoo, has more than 250 acres, with a native forest, Children’s Adventure Garden and Family Garden where kids can get their hands dirty.

How to get there

#6 train north to Pelham Bay Park, which is the last stop. Transfer to City Bus BX 29 towards City Island. This takes about an hour and a half.

If you’re a Sex and the City fan, take this tour of SATC sites in New York City.