Hollywood has had a love affair with New York’s iconic Central Park for over a century. And why not? It’s an urban oasis that brings together fantasy, escape, glamour and wide open spaces for Manhattanites.
This green rectangle in the heart of Manhattan stretches from 59th to 110th Streets and from Central Park West to fabled Fifth Avenue. Think of the zoo that formed the backdrop for “Madagascar,” the Boathouse Restaurant where Sally sipped after meeting Harry, the fountain that enlivened a musical romp for “The Producers.” And on the fringe, there’s the acclaimed Metropolitan Museum of Art, located on the east side, the Museum of Natural History on the west and the tony Plaza Hotel at Central Park South. Best of all, in a city where prices for recreation, music and theater can be stratospheric, park attractions are reasonable and many are even free. For a refreshing break on a bustling New York getaway, try these ideas for a Central Park interlude. –Jay Lloyd
WHAT TO DO
CENTRAL PARK ZOO
64th Street near 5th Avenue
As a kid in New York, watching the antics of the seals was a highlight of any trip to Central Park and its compact zoo. Years later, nothing much has changed; they’re just as mesmerizing. The animated penguins and lemurs that ratcheted up the fun in “Madagascar” are just as entertaining in the flesh, feather or fur. For kids, the children’s zoo here is a live introduction to a variety of familiar critters straight out of “Ol’ McDonald.” Birds, monkeys, polar bears and a tropical troop of reptiles and amphibians make for a fascinating few hours on a Central Park sojourn. Tickets are $12 for adults. Seniors pay $9, and kids (3 to 12) pass the gates for $7. The rundown on rates is here.
ROWING ON CENTRAL PARK LAKE
Between 74th and 75th Streets
The picturesque Central Park Lake below a canyon of high-rise luxury apartments has seen generations of New Yorkers satisfy a need to get on the water. Rowboats on the lake have been a film staple and a magnet for artists. Boats are available for rent at $12 an hour, and a couple of kayaks and a gondola are also in the mix.
CARRIAGE RIDES IN CENTRAL PARK
59TH Street at Central Park South
Gone are the days when men in top hats and tails ended an evening on the town by taking their ladies on a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park. Then, it was romantic, and it still is, though the dress has changed. But a carriage ride through the park by day is probably the best tour of the park’s highlights that you’ll find. I’ve had no trouble finding a carriage and a driver with personality just by walking up to the carriage row at 59th and Central Park West near Columbus Circle. Prices will vary depending on length of the ride, but my last 45 minute ride clocked in at $110. Remember, the carriages can carry four riders — a bit much for romance, but great for a family.
STROLLING THROUGH THE PARK
Most people who come here simply take a stroll, although you can rent a bicycle, take a pedal powered rickshaw or go for a jog as well. But strolling let’s you take in the sights of youngsters (and some not-so-young folks!) sailing remote control boats on the lake. Along the way, you’ll find street musicians, ice cream vendors and the occasional makeshift market. For free park maps to make the stroll fluid, just go to: www.centralparknyc.org/maps/downloadable-maps
FREE EVENTS IN THE PARK
There’s something going on in Central Park daily throughout the summer, from wildlife exhibitions to fishing instruction, tours, nature walks and concerts. You can find a full calendar of events here.
The icing on the cake of free entertainment is the highly acclaimed “Shakespeare in the Park” productions. “Comedy of Errors” is appearing now through June 30th. Tickets are free, but if you want a place you’ll need a ducat. To find out how to score yours, click on the “Tickets” link.
WHERE TO EAT
The park boasts a remarkable eatery at about 74th Street and the lake. The Loeb Boathouse is fine dining offering a classic view of rowboats on Central Park Lake. There’s indoor and outdoor seating, plus a lakeside bar for a quiet drink in a tranquil setting, all right in the middle of bustling Manhattan. Food preparation is worthy of the upwardly pointing price, with lunchtime entrees checking in between $24 and $30. Dinner is higher. However, a light lunch from the appetizer menu falls between $13 to $18 and is rewarding both for taste and environment. And if you’d like to pull an oar on the lake or peddle a bike in the park after lunch, both are available for rent right at the Boathouse.
This summer, the venerable TAVERN ON THE GREEN, a park favorite for generations of New Yorkers and visitors, will reopen after a long closing for renovations.
Tip: Don’t try to take it all in during one day. Central Park is an experience to be savored, so enjoy it in small bites. You’ll keep coming back for a Central Park getaway whenever you feel the need to be in a big city but get away from it at the same time.