Any day now, New Yorkers will toss out their skin-shedding face creams, cancel their appointments for chemical peels and erase bug spray from the shopping list. All they will need to do to scour off that age- revealing outer layer of skin while acquiring a total-body gloss that will repel noxious critters of most species, is to take a dip in the Hudson River at one of two sun-drenched beaches to be installed along the West Side Highway. One is planned for 31st Street, another for something called the Gansevoort Peninsula, just a pork chop's throw west of the meat-packing district.

Plunging into the Hudson, as any devotee of gangster films knows, has remained a popular recreational activity for certain segments of the Manhattan populace throughout the century. But for those without cement shoes, the fun has been largely off-limits in the decades since the bounteous residue of plastics, sewage treatment plants and other stylish conveniences came falling drop by drop upon the river. But all of that has been changed. The water has been unsludged and populations of hearty, ravenous marine life now thrive only steps away from a pier where the city's garbage trucks still park, including a mushy-but-resilient variety of sea worm which is the aquatic equivalent of an "all-clear" signal, a virtual guarantee that the water is safe, if not exactly drinkable.

Not so long ago, if you had told a New Yorker that there was a river nearby, you would have been met with bafflement and scepticism. "A river near here? Where?" People were aware that there was water here and there. There was the Fulton Fish Market, which was a clue. There was a film, On The Waterfront, which hinted at some local water presence in the past. There were Brighton Beach and Coney Island, dimly remembered theme parks that had to do with Russians or maybe the ocean. And then there were the bridges, if one only thought to look down. But over the past ten years the populace has grown grudgingly aware that the town is bordered by water, and, accordingly, city developers have leapt to take advantage of the epiphany.

First there was the creation of the South Street Seaport, a complex of tourist-friendly theme shops and old-time eateries in the financial district. That was followed by the brief vogue of a pier-top tropical hula boite called Amazon, which had gone one better by the christening of an actual boat called The Frying Pan, which came complete with dancing below decks and moonlight horseplay on the bridge. People began to acquire friends of a friend who were said to spend weekends jet-skiing on the Fast River, or crewing on board a romantically yawing schooner near the Statue of Liberty, or kayaking up by Riverside Park.

The inevitable thought arose: might it be possible to visit all these new attractions by sea? Selfless athletes swam round the island and determined that it might. And so, at last, this June a courageous band of entrepreneurs unleashed a test fleet of water taxis on Manhattan. The water taxi was to be a checkerboard version of the vaporetto, whisking passengers to and from moor-worthy points between the battleship-cum-museum Intrepid, Battery Park and the Williamsburg Bridge. The hope was that harbour-skimming Manhattanites would hop aboard the water taxis every 20 minutes or so and disembark along the waterfront at will. Sadly, the boats, which had been patterned after a lazy, drifting, sun-basked Floridian model, proved unequal to the task of overpowering the masterful currents of New York harbour, and managed to straggle into the dock only every hour or so. The project was scrapped, but revamped, turbo-charged water-taxis will be attempted in spring.

Meanwhile, the city has made the Staten Island commuter ferry free-of- charge to lure citizens into water dependence. Doubtless the intention is that New Yorkers will get hooked on the free ride and acquire a water addiction that will pay off big time when the beachfront swimshops, lemonade and corndog outposts and boat barns dig in stakes along the slivers of sand on the Hudson.