For New Yorkers, the possibilities of staycations are endless. Whether it’s a weekend in the Catskills, a beach break in Long Island, or an indulgent stay in a Manhattan hotel, a brief yet luxurious getaway doesn’t have to mean taking a flight and hours of travel.
But one location those living in the Big Apple may not have considered is a small, historic spot very close to home - Roosevelt Island.
The narrow strip of land nestled between Manhattan and Queens, and formerly known by its nickname “Welfare Island” originally housed a penitentiary, then an asylum, and later, a smallpox hospital, which is still available to view from a distance.
Now, however, the island is home to a new hotel, the hundreds of students who attend Cornell Tech, a technology, business, law, and design campus of Cornell University, and a general population of 12,440.
With new expansion and building over recent years, we went to find out - should you consider a staycation in Roosevelt Island?
In regards to practicality, it’s easier than one would imagine to get to the island, as the F train from Manhattan or Queens takes you straight there.
If you want a more out-of-the-ordinary New York experience, however, the cable cars, departing from Midtown East, are the way to go.
Although mostly used by commuters to and from the island, flying over the East River is certainly a unique experience, even though the ride lasts just a few minutes and the views are fairly obscured by the bridges.
When we arrived, we were greeted by the classic oversized red “I Heart” sign, this time of course with RI, which momentarily fooled us into thinking we were on a real vacation.
At the top and bottom of the island are small - but unusually spotless for New York - parks that boast impressive views of Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn.
Both by day and night, the expansive views are different to those you see from the boroughs, allowing visitors and residents to see many of the city’s landmarks without having to turn their head. When we visited on a sunny Friday afternoon, the Franklin D Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, located on the island’s southern point, was comfortably full with others out enjoying the views.
Walking around, there is no doubt that Roosevelt Island has been transformed into a university campus, with the island boasting the feeling of a small quaint college town, but without the party atmosphere. It is quiet and peaceful, making it a stark contrast to the bustling city across the water.
As for the things to do during a visit to the island, the list is limited, with the main tourist attraction being the aforementioned derelict smallpox hospital, which visitors can view from a distance due to its structural instability.
The hospital, which treated about 7,000 patients a year from 1856 until 1875, is an undeniably remarkable work of architecture. It’s covering of snaking green vines means it now resembles a gothic haunted house more than anything else.
There is only one hotel on Roosevelt Island, the 224-room Graduate Roosevelt Island, which opened in June of this year and sits nestled above the Cornell Tech campus.
On our brief trip to the island, we stayed at the new hotel, where we were pleasantly surprised by the stunning lobby and bar - and the Manhattan-worthy cocktails we were served while we waited for our room to be ready.
The room itself, a suite, was smaller than you’d expect, but outfitted nicely, with unique furnishings chosen by design firm Snøhetta. The key cards for accessing the rooms, which range from $289 a night for a standard room to $329 a night for a suite, are also fun as they resemble student ID cards similar to those found on any college campus.
Upon our realisation that, despite drinking in the hotel lobby for more than an hour, we had two and a half more hours until dinner, we again set out to explore the island, heading towards the other end of the two-mile land mass. On our brief walk towards the northern tip, it was easy to see the appeal of the island for those who want to be near New York City but slightly distanced from the boroughs.
We returned for dinner at the hotel, again in the lobby restaurant Anything At All, where we had a decent meal consisting of various appetisers followed by wagyu burgers and waffle fries.
The bartenders continued to impress, however, as we inquired about a drink being enjoyed by guests at a table over only to be served one of the best takes on a piña colada.
After dinner, we made our way to the 18th floor of the hotel, which boasts a new bar and lounge called the Panorama Room. Both hotel eateries are spearheaded by Marc Rose and Med Abrous, the co-founders of LA-based hospitality group Call Mom.
The name is fitting, as the expansive bar does indeed offer panoramic views of the skyline, with an outdoor wrap-around balcony allowing visitors to take in the incredible view, or pose for pictures in front of it.
We found the cocktail menu in the Panorama Room just as impressive as the main lobby bar, while an order of caviar nachos, which consisted of plantain chips covered with a sprinkling of salty fish eggs and topped with more salt, completed our food for the night.
Ultimately, the bar, which gives off a contemporary lounge vibe, exceeded our expectations - and seemed to be a popular nightlife choice despite opening just a few months ago. The crowd was mostly made up of individuals on dates and large groups celebrating birthday parties, with the Panorama Room managing to be a fitting location for either occasion.
While enjoying a cocktail on the balcony, we decided that the unbeatable view and the drinks served at either of the hotel bars alone were absolutely worth the trip.
Our one-night staycation ended back in our hotel, where we admired the view from our window, as well as the sunrise at 6am, before checking out and heading back to Manhattan via tram car.
Overall, a trip to Roosevelt Island is worth it if you are looking for an inexpensive break from the city where you can indulge in a cocktail or two, or are on the hunt for unique views. But, although we enjoyed the brief respite from the bustling noise of Manhattan, we aren’t sure how quickly we’d return.
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