Liberty State Park, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and Liberty Science Center all make northeastern New Jersey their home or jumping-off point. By ferry or car from Jersey City, it's easy to visit these hallmarks of America - not to mention take in the New York skyline along the way.
Liberty State Park
With nearly 5 million visitors last year alone, Liberty State Park in Jersey City is one of the most popular state parks in the country, second only to Niagara Falls.
Visitors come from around the country and the world to stroll along the park's 1.5-mile riverfront walkway and more than five miles of trails. Its wide-open spaces make it perfect for picnics and annual events such as a kite-flying contest. It's a natural oasis in the middle of one of the largest urban areas in the world.
But it's no secret what the park's biggest attraction is. The wide, panoramic view of the New York City skyline and the Statue of Liberty provides a backdrop to any number of activities that visitors can enjoy - fishing, boating, and for kids, the state's largest playground.
"It's not an exaggeration to say that the views from the park are the most inspiring and dramatic and spectacular in the whole world," says Sam Pesin, president of the Friends of Liberty State Park, a nonprofit group dedicated to the park's preservation. "The park is just a great, majestic treasure."
The story of Liberty State Park, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year, is one of a grand rebirth and revitalization.
Prior to the 1950s, the section of the Jersey City coast in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty was an eyesore - little more than "decaying piers and abandoned railroad yards," as Pesin puts it.
But beginning with the work of individuals such as Pesin's father, Morris, for whom a road through the park is now named, the area underwent a decades-long transformation into the urban getaway it has become.
Park Superintendent Josh Osowski notes that unlike some other state parks around the country, Liberty State Park is free for all visitors.
"This [park] was a gift to the country, so there are no fees," he says, referring to N.J. Gov. Brendan Byrne's 1976 pronouncement that Liberty State Park would be "New Jersey's gift to the nation."
Long-term plans for the 1,200-acre park - of which 600 acres are above water - include a large Wildlife Enhancement and Recreation Area that Osowski says will be "one of the largest ecological projects going on in the country."
Liberty State Park also provides the setting for frequent art and music festivals, an Interpretive Center for nature education, and ferry service to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island
Towering above New York Bay, the Statue of Liberty is perhaps the greatest symbol of American ideals of freedom. Since being assembled atop Fort Wood on 12-acre Bedloe's Island - later renamed Liberty Island - in 1886, Lady Liberty has attracted countless numbers of visitors eager to see the massive monument to human liberty.
Of his creation's enormous size, sculptor Auguste Bartholdi noted, "Colossal statuary does not consist simply in making an enormous statue. It ought to produce an emotion in the breast of the spectator, not because of its volume, but because its size is in keeping with the idea that it interprets..."
Appropriately, the sculpture - officially named "Liberty Enlightening the World" - watched over millions of foreigners seeking a free life in America as they passed through the nearby Ellis Island immigration station beginning in 1892.
After years of disuse, Ellis Island was restored as a museum.
The two sites, which are open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., receive more than 5 million visitors annually, according to Superintendent Cynthia Garrett. Most of those visitors come in the warmer months, but even the off season sees some large groups, according to one of the site's interpretive rangers.
"There were [just] kids here from Pennsylvania, 75 of them," the ranger said on a slow day before the spring crowds picked up.
When visiting the Statue of Liberty, guests can tour the grounds of Liberty Island alone or with an interpretive ranger. To enter the statue's promenade or observatory, visitors must obtain a "Free Time Pass" in advance.
Although visitors are no longer allowed to climb the stairs to the statue's crown, they can take an elevator to the 10th floor pedestal and climb 24 steps to take a look at the interior construction that has kept the massive statue standing tall for nearly 120 years.
On the second floor of the pedestal is an exhibit that traces the history and symbolism of the statue. It includes a full-scale replica of the statue's foot and face, plus a balcony overlooking the original 1886 torch.
Visitors can learn about the more than 12 million immigrants who came to America through nearby Ellis Island in one of the island's exhibits in the Main Building or at The American Immigrant Wall of Honor, which is inscribed with some 600,000 names.
Exhibits in the island's Main Building include "Treasures from Home," featuring more than 2,000 possessions brought by foreigners from their homelands, and "Through America's Gate," which follows the rigorous inspection process through which immigrants were put.
Other historic buildings on the island include a dormitory, a 1930s ferry terminal, and the former contagious disease wards. The Main Building also features an audio tour, cafeteria and gift shop.
The only fee for entrance to either the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island is the cost of ferry tickets, which can be purchased in advance or at the CRRNJ Terminal in Liberty State Park.
For more information about the Statue of Liberty National Monument, which includes Ellis Island, call (212) 363-3200 or visit www.nps.gov/stli. For information about the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, which departs from Liberty State Park in Jersey City, call (201) 435-9499.
Free Time Passes to tour the statue's promenade and observatory can be reserved in advance by calling (866) STATUE-4 or visiting www.statuereservations.com. For same-day availability, check at the ferry ticket window at the CRRNJ Terminal in Liberty State Park.
Liberty Science Center: Riverside
Liberty Science Center, which typically draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to Jersey City each year, is closed for construction until 2007. However, while the main facility undergoes a massive $104 million renovation and expansion, families can head to the nearby historic Central Railroad of New Jersey (CRRNJ) Terminal, where 4,000 square feet of exhibit space has been converted into a temporary home for the science center.
Running in the new space is "Eat and Be Eaten," an exhibition exploring the wide range of adaptations that organisms use to capture food and evade predators.
On display are several dozen different species - including firefly-mimic cockroaches, alligator snapping turtles, milksnakes, and a gaboon viper - each of which has developed its own particular method of surviving in the wild.
The exhibition also features high-tech interactivity called SNSE ("Science Now, Science Everywhere") through which visitors can use their mobile phones to learn more about the creatures on display.
Liberty Science Center: Riverside, as the temporary facility is called, also features a new CineMuse high-definition movie, "Weird Nature: Devious Defenses," which is included in the $3 admission price.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the CRRNJ Terminal, history buffs can learn more about the infamous 1916 explosion that rocked the nearby Black Tom munitions depot. Workers at the terminal's information desk say that a savvy historian can sometimes be found to give informal tours of the historic terminal. For more information on the CRRNJ Terminal, call (201) 915-3400 for information on the terminal.
All of the attractions in this article can be easily accessed via N.J. Turnpike, Exit 14B.
After a day strolling through Liberty State Park or riding the ferries to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, be sure to grab a bite to eat at one of these nearby restaurants.
Liberty House Restaurant
Each spring since opening in 2002, the upscale but comfortable Liberty House Restaurant has opened up its outdoor terrace, offering seats with a spectacular view of the New York City skyline.
Owner Jeanne Cretella says that Liberty House's chefs often use organic ingredients and produce from local farmers. She says tailoring the restaurant's dishes to what's in season means that the menu is constantly updated.
"We're really big on changing our menu seasonally," she says. "People really look forward to the ongoing changes."
Besides the extensive menu, the restaurant features a raw bar and sushi, plus two banquet halls.
Liberty House Restaurant is located inside Liberty State Park at 76 Audrey Zapp Dr. Call (201) 395-0300 or visit www.libertyhouserestaurant.com.
Lightship Barge & Grill
Liberty Landing Marina may have hundreds of boats, but only one of them holds a restaurant in its hull. Known informally as "The Big Red Boat," Lightship Barge & Grill offers steaks, chicken, and naturally, seafood.
Diners can head downstairs to the full bar for a drink or eat out on the ship's deck, offering a view of the New York City skyline, the CRRNJ Terminal and the marina.
The restaurant also offers seafood appetizers such as oysters, mussels and calamari, plus catering options.
Lightship Barge & Grill is located inside Liberty State Park at 80 Audrey Zapp Dr. Call (201) 985-8174 or visit www.lightshipbargeandgrill.net. - CZ