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Native Americans may have been the first to stumble upon Governors Island, a 172-acre island located half a mile south from the tip of Manhattan, but ever since New York City bought the island for $1 in 2003, New Yorkers have been flocking to the US military base turned public park for respite from the city’s heat.

Located an easy five-minute boat ride from Manhattan, this barely-known city treasure – which was named by the English to signify its importance as the new home of His Majesty’s Governors -- opens its doors (or rather, harbour) to the public for four months each year with many family-friendly activities.

Visitors can relax in the well-maintained grounds, tour the impressive historic district of colonial homes and admire the two military forts, Fort Jay and Castle Williams, the latter of which was the former fortress for New York City. Castle Williams recently underwent a $6 million renovation and is now open to the public for the first time in its 200-year history.

Bike trails run around the circumference of the island, and cycles are available for hire by the day or hour. The Water Taxi Beach, a bar with real sand and volleyball courts, serves up drinks and snacks, as well as spectacular views over to Ellis Island and Manhattan.

This year, Governors Island is cementing its position as a hub for New York’s robust art scene with a 10-piece interactive sculpture garden where visitors can scramble over a full-size replica of the Statue of Liberty’s face and an imaginative 9-hole mini golf course, both by participatory art collective Figment. For the most part, the sculptures on offer change every year. July’s GlassLab glass blowing festival and September’s 4Heads art festival, which brings together more than 100 artists, are two other favourites this summer.

The island is also hosting some longer-term exhibits, including the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt exhibit on art and graphic design (until 3 September), the Children’s Museum of Art hands on painting and sculpture forum (until 30 September), and Mark di Suvero’s sculptures that tower over the public lawns (until 30 September).

Governors Island is open to the public every weekend and public holidays during summer until 30 September. Free ferries leave every 30 minutes from Manhattan’s Battery Maritime Building, starting at 10 am, and from Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6, starting at 11 am. The last ferry leaves Governors Island at 7 pm; don’t miss it as there is nowhere to stay overnight. A full listing of special events can be found on the Governors Island website.

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