Glamping in the City: You Can Now Spend the Night on Governor’s Island

Photo: Patrick Chin / Courtesy of Collective Retreats

For many New Yorkers, Governors Island holds a certain fascination: The 172-acre former army base sits in the middle of New York Harbor, just a stone’s throw from the tip of lower Manhattan and even closer to Brooklyn. But despite its prime location, not one of New York’s nearly 9 million residents currently calls it home.

No one has lived there for decades, not since the last of the remaining Coast Guard families moved out in 1996. They left a small ghost town in their wake—grand Federal-style homes; tree-lined avenues and sprawling lawns; brick apartment blocks and schools; even a cinema. The once self-sustaining village became a lonesome remnant, the forgotten eye in the urban hurricane that is the country’s most populated corridor.

Photo: Patrick Chin / Courtesy of Collective Retreats
That’s not to say the island hasn’t had its share of recent visitors, of course. In 2012, the city re-opened it as a public park, and this is how most New Yorkers know it now—as a summer day’s getaway, a place for bike rides and music festivals and leisurely strolls along eerily quiet avenues. But aside from the staff members who maintain the grounds, almost no one has been allowed to stay on the island after the final ferry departs each evening. Until now.

Thanks to the recent opening of Collective Retreats’ newest luxury campground, it’s finally possible to spend the night on the island’s historic grounds.

“It’s a space that’s not quite a hotel, not quite an Airbnb,” says managing director Vanessa Vitale of the six-acre property that houses the the 37 fully kitted-out tents—10 luxury “Summit” safari tents with their own bathrooms, and twenty-seven smaller “Journey” bell tents—on the island’s eastern edge. “It is an experience that’s never existed before,” Vitale adds.

Photo: Patrick Chin / Courtesy of Collective Retreats

And what an experience. There’s a sense, as you arrive on the island just as everyone else is being shepherded off, that you’re getting away with something. That feeling increases as you make the short trek from the ferry pier and the peaked white tops of the tents appear; an incongruent little Smurf village rising out of a fenced-off lot that just a few months ago was a patch of dirt and rock. Under the late afternoon sun the camp is oddly stark—shockingly void of plants or trees, save for a newly-sodded, bright green lawn. The familiar skyline of lower Manhattan rises directly behind it, and suddenly, you feel very far away.

Photo: Patrick Chin / Courtesy of Collective Retreats

During dinner at Three Peaks, the on-site farm-to-table restaurant that sits under a huge tent at the center of the camp, the unmoored feeling lessens. Chef Jason Rutigliano, a Gramercy Tavern alum, makes the rounds, cheerfully describing the night’s prix fixe menu (cold corn soup, mixed green salad, scallops with beets and shiso leaf, strawberry pie—all gathered from the island’s own urban farm and New York’s green markets) as children play tag on the lawn and couples barbecue chicken wings on the Weber grills beyond. The evening settles, the starkness now completely gone. There’s the smell of charcoal and the sound of children laughing—a sudden, simulated summer-in-the-suburbs, all while the Staten Island Ferry rushes by. The sun sets, tracing the iconic silhouette of the Statue of Liberty. “This is the best part,” Rutigliano says, nodding toward the reddening sky.

Photo: Patrick Chin / Courtesy of Collective Retreats
The view ahead is good. But even better is the view to the right, where the buildings of Manhattan have started to twinkle and the nearby bell tents have begun to glow like alien ships. Guests make their way to the large communal campfire for s’mores; others head back to their tents arm in arm to take in the views from their front porches and queen-sized beds. Against all odds, in the middle of New York City, crickets loudly chirp.

“Most people come here with no expectations,” Vitale muses. “They’re not quite sure. But the word I hear most often each night is ‘magical.’ It’s suddenly become my new favorite word.”

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