Spring Awakening: A Visit To Snug Harbor In New York City

After a gruelingly long but otherwise uneventful winter, spring is finally in the air. Green shoots are muscling their way to the front row. Flowers are taking center stage. The hibernating inhabitants of the city are slowly emerging from their slumber, eager and ready to shed their winter layers and expend all that pent up energy. All the usual suspects come to mind: picnics in Central Park, visits to the Brooklyn Botanic and New York Botanical Gardens, and trips to Governors Island. Patio seats and access to rooftop bars become hot commodities. But we thought we’d offer another, oft-forgotten option to add to your list: Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden in Staten Island.

Magnolia tree, pond and Asian-style structure at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

A corridor at the Chinese Scholar's Garden at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Bamboo forest path at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Thanks to some inspiration from our friend Lynn from Blue Brightly, we were particularly excited to explore the Chinese Scholar’s Garden, which opened in 1999. It features a compilation of different gardens in China, including eight pavilions, a bamboo forest path, waterfalls, a koi pond, gorgeous flowers, Chinese calligraphy, and a variety of Ghongshi scholar’s rocks. Each aspect of the garden holds a deeper meaning, from the architectural details to the selection of plants. Here are a few highlights to look out for as you stroll through:

The Moon Gate

Moon Gate with Chinese calligraphy above and view of the garden at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Circles are highly symbolic in many cultures, signifying totality, infinity, an unbroken line. The Moon Gate in the Chinese Scholar’s Garden represents the completeness of the universe, but it also offers visitors different perspectives of the garden. As you move through the space, the gate highlights changing views.

Lingering in Clouds Peak

Building flanked by magnolia trees and rock formations by a pond at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Rockeries in the garden are meant to represent the mountainous landscape of China. The largest rock sculpture is named Lingering in Clouds Peak, which symbolizes the lofty goal of a scholar: attaining knowledge.

The Yellow Bamboo

Path leading past yellow bamboo trees at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Bamboo is a symbol of longevity and vitality because it can survive the hardest natural conditions and remains green all year round. Bamboo is the symbol of the scholar as it is both flexible and strong.

The Patterned Ground

Patterned ground with trees rocks at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

River stones are used to create varying patterns on the ground throughout the space. Each brocade pattern carries a different meaning, symbolizing purity, enlightenment, harmony and knowledge.

But Snug Harbor isn’t a one-note destination, the grounds of the converted 19th century charitable rest home for sailors offer myriad sites and activities to enjoy. Opportunities to explore history, architecture, gardens, agriculture, visual and performing arts, and education are spread far and wide across its 83-acres. Take a jaunt. Make a day of it. You won’t regret it.

Allee of trees at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The alley leading to Cottage Row
A row of cottages at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Cottage Row, home to emerging artists in the Snug Harbor Residency Program
A row of cherry blossom trees at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
A row of cherry blossom trees leading to the Connie Gretz Secret Garden
Veterans Memorial Hall and magnolia tree at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Veterans Memorial Hall

Staten Island and How To Get There

When people talk about escaping Manhattan, they almost always mention the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, or Long Island. Staten Island is often treated like the stepchild of the outer boroughs, and that’s really quite unfortunate because it has a lot to offer: a zoo, a park, a cultural center, architectural treasures, a 630-foot observation wheel, museums, beaches, and some really great dining options. It is also the least populated and greenest borough, boasting an incredible 12,300 acres of parkland.

Staten Island is easily accessible by way of a quick 25-minute ferry ride from Whitehall Terminal in lower Manhattan. (The views on the ride over are nothing to scoff at either, you’ll even get to say hi to Lady Liberty.) Once you arrive in Staten Island take the S40 bus at Gate D to travel along Richmond Terrace, and let the bus driver know that you want to get off at Snug Harbor. It’s less than a 10-minute ride.

Pro Tip: The ferry is free but is largely used for commuting. Avoid weekday commuting rush hours for the most comfortable ride. Do not fall for scams involving strangers in uniforms trying to sell you tickets.

Pair it with:

Lunch at Lakruwana

Interior of Lakruwana with gold wall hanging via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Interior of Lakruwana via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Sri Lankan dish Lamprais from Lakruwana via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Sri Lankan dish String Hopper Kotu from Lakruwana via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

There are a lot of amazing restaurants in Staten Island, from low-key casual to high-class fancy. But Lynn and I always tend to migrate toward the more adventurous options, and Staten Island has plenty to offer in this category. As it happens, one of the largest populations of Sri Lankans living outside of their native homeland resides in Staten Island. In our minds, the test for authentic ethnic food is the answer to a pretty simple question: how many patrons of said restaurant are of that ethnicity?

When we stepped into Lakruwana recently and discovered that ninety percent of those chowing down were Sri Lankan, it was clear we were in the right place. The interior is covered, floor to ceiling, in genuine Sri Lankan artifacts, shipped piece by piece specifically to produce the elaborate effect. But enough about that, let’s talk about the food. From the affordable, clay pot lined, weekend buffet to à la carte offerings, you really can’t go wrong here. Our Lamprais (an elaborate combination of spiced meats and vegetables on a bed of rice, steamed in a banana leaf wrap) and String Hopper Kotu (a molded pyramid of stir fried rice flower nets with a side of curry) did not disappoint. You’ll be planning your next visit before you clear your plate.

668 Bay Street

Tuesday-Wednesday: 12:00pm-10:00pm
Thursday: 5:00pm-10:00pm
Friday-Sunday: 12:00pm-10:00pm

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Four pictures of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Gardens grounds, including the Chinese Scholar’s Garden trees, flowers, rock formations, and water features, with a pin title of "One Perfect Spring Day in Staten Island".

– J.

16 thoughts on “Spring Awakening: A Visit To Snug Harbor In New York City”

  1. Good news! I knew there was more to Staten Island than the ferry terminal. We were there last July (when we were still new) and only stayed around the ferry, not finding much to do or see Now we have a destination. You did a wonderful job of describing it. Thanks for the heads up!

    1. Too funny, Tip. I’m pretty sure right around the ferry terminal is the least interesting part! No wonder you had that notion. Well, I’m very happy to have given you a reason or two to reconsider.

  2. What a wonderful weekend day trip! I have to sheepishly admit I am one of those people who never even consider Staten Island when planning city adventures. It also looks MUCH less crowded than Central Park was over the weekend – I tried to take Charlie on Sunday to see the cherry trees, and between the swarms of people, the Greek parade shutting down 5th Ave, and a dog who doesn’t enjoy noise OR crowds, it was anything but relaxing haha.

    Also really interesting fact about the symbolism behind bamboo…I knew that it grows really fast, but I didn’t realize that it remained green in all conditions. Very symbolic!

    1. Hey Lauren! Thanks for reading our post. I’m gonna stop you right there on that crowded comment. Now, I’m sure Snug Harbor is generally WAY less congested than Central Park (isn’t everything?), but keep in mind the season is still fairly early going…in the sense of the weather conditions. 🙂 In fact, I was telling Lynn that I bet the branches a week and a half ago were barren. No green shoots, no flowers. Anyway, I’m sure it gets busier than when we visited.

      As for Charlie…C’mon you know he only hangs out in quiet cafes (cappuccinos before 10 AM, double espressos thereafter) and sophisticated bars (Belgian style ales, occasionally two fingers of Glenfiddich 50 year). A park just isn’t his scene.

      1. Hahaha, you know Charlie better than I do. If I’m lucky, he’ll sit next to me on a good day, when my awkwardness won’t kill his cool vibe…

  3. What a beautiful garden! Spring has come at last. In fact I had a secret plan to take the ferry for the view of the Statue of Liberty, and it sounds like Staten Island is a great borough to spend some time in as well. Those houses on Cottage Row…ah I want to take up residence 🙂

    1. Indeed, Cynthia! Of course, we’ll now go straight to blistering hot. But after this long winter slog we’ve been through, I’ll take it. You should definitely check out SI, cute Cottage Row houses and all. And tell us all about it, of course.

  4. The only thing I had done in Staten Island is visit old Richmond town. No wonder I have never heard of, nor seen this. It’s such a beautiful botanical garden.:)
    Interestingly, I just interviewed a Sri Lankan woman for my project. Will hopefully transcribe it soon enough! 🙂
    I have to go eat at Lakruwana. Looks delicious.

    1. Hey there, Tara! You know, I was aware that SI was sort of an afterthought for most people, but after writing this post and reading comments, I feel even more strongly that it really doesn’t get the credit it deserves. I don’t know who does the borough’s promotion, but they definitely need to step up their game.

      I’ll look forward to reading your interview when you publish. And given your sophisticated palate, I’d definitely be interested in hearing your thoughts on Lakruwana.

  5. I can’t remember the last time I was in Staten Island! But the day you spent there would make me take a second look at going. Snug Harbor is gorgeous and I love your photos!

    1. Thanks so much, Trudy! We’d been meaning to get out to Snug Harbor for a while, but we’re just as guilty as everyone else of putting it on the back burner. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day for it, though! We hope you similarly luck out when you make it out there 🙂

  6. Yea! I’m glad you finally got over to Snug Harbor, and also discovered Lakruwana – I seem to remember it opened not long before we moved, but we ate once or twice….Dosa Garden made wonderful dosas, too. Your post brings back great memories…glad to hear the cottages are being put to good use. When I was there, they were falling into disrepair and used only for backdrops for commercial shoots once in a while. The cherry trees look beautiful, and the Scholar’s Garden appears to be kept up well. I hope you go back and explore that crazy borough more….and thanks for the mention.

    1. It always seems like such a task to get out to Staten Island, but then you finally do it and realize it’s less of a hassle than getting out to certain parts of Brooklyn! We’ll definitely be back to explore more of it, if not for the food alone 😉 We’ll also add Dosa Garden to the list, thank you for another great recommendation!

      1. That’s true about certain parts of Brooklyn. And some day when you have wheels, it is a fantastic place to seek out weirdness.

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