On the Waterfront: Kayaking in Red Hook

I’ve always been interested in kayaking, but never seemed to find the time or the opportunity to do it, especially since moving to NYC.  Growing up in Massachusetts and living in Connecticut for so many years, I used to enjoy canoeing on small rivers and ponds with my Dad and friends during summers of old. So with summer here again, I started getting the itch to give kayaking a go.  Now, I’m sure kayaking is not typically the first activity that comes to mind to most people when thinking of things to do in NYC.  But bear in mind: NYC is surrounded by water.  All you really need is a seaworthy craft, paddles, and a life vest and the water is your highway. Well, not if you’re a novice like me who’s unfamiliar with the local waters and the potential dangers.  So I starting digging around and found that there are a number of volunteer organizations around NYC that offer free kayaking tours on New York’s waters.  Most of these groups provide everything you need, including the kayak, paddles, life vests, basic instructions and a professional guide to watch over you.

Since I live in Brooklyn, I decided to give Red Hook Boaters a shot.  Red Hook Boaters is an all-volunteer organization devoted to providing safe public access to the waters of Red Hook, “to bring people to the sport of kayaking, and to promote education about, and care for, the coastal environment.”  During the summer months they offer free walk-up kayaking twice a week: Thursday evenings from 6 to 8 pm and Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5 pm (schedule is subject to change). No previous kayaking experience is required. It sounded like the perfect introduction to kayaking in NYC. So on a hot Thursday evening after the 4th of July holiday, I decided to take a “7th inning stretch” with my son to Red Hook to check it out! And I wasn’t disappointed.

Red Hook Boaters located at Louis Valentino Jr. Pier Park. The cove provides a great spot for kayaking as well as some amazing views of the Statue of Liberty.

RED HOOK: An Historic Industrial/Shipping Neighborhood Enclave

R-E-D H-O-O-K: this cute array of gigantic childhood “blocks” of boulders can be found right beside the cove at Valentino Jr. Pier. Notice the old red brick warehouses in the background–historic remnants of the once prosperous shipping port.

Red Hook is an eclectic neighborhood located in southwestern Brooklyn.  Its name is derived from its appearance as a tiny geographic “hook” jutting into New York Harbor.  Historically, Red Hook served as a thriving industrial port in the 19th and early 20th C. providing thousands of jobs to primarily Italian and Irish American dockworkers.  According to PBS.org, by the 1950s, Red Hook had over 20,000 residents, many of them longshoremen living in public housing projects built in the 1930s to accommodate the growing number of dockworkers and their families.  The neighborhood also had a tough reputation—with such notorious figures as Al Capone allegedly getting their start there as small-time criminals.  And that rough and tough reputation was evident in the 1954 crime drama classic, On the Waterfront, set in Red Hook, where a young Marlon Brando as a former boxer turned longshoreman takes a stand against a corrupt and powerful union boss. Between the 1960s and ’80s, Red Hook experienced a rapid economic decline precipitated by the loss of its traditional shipping business to New Jersey.  As the economy worsened, local crime increased.  Since the late 1990s, however, the neighborhood has been enjoying a slow but steady recovery as middle class artists and others have migrated to the former industrial shipping enclave attracted by its lower rents and a historic waterfront replete with old warehouses and cobblestone streets dating back to the Civil War era.  Today, it’s an eclectic neighborhood of local artists and artisans as well as an array of businesses.  And for tourists or New Yorkers looking for something different, Red Hook offers a great spot for exploration and recreation, as well as some outstanding views of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

View from Louis Valentino Jr. Pier.  Lady Liberty beckons in the distance…

A taste of the artistic graffiti gracing one of the warehouses alongside Louis Valentino Jr. Pier.


Red Hook Boaters is located at Louis Valentino Jr. Pier Park, a tiny cove graced by old brick warehouses on either side with a direct view of Lady Liberty across the water.  My son and I arrived just before 6 pm and a crowd of about a dozen people were already there waiting to kayak.  After filling out the necessary waiver forms and being fitted for our life vests, we were given a brief but informative lesson on how to safely kayak on the local waters.  The instructors then helped everyone climb into their kayaks one at a time and we were off.  Due to the potential dangers of strong currents and boat traffic on the open water, we were told to kayak only around the cove and the pier, which was just fine by us.  And in order to provide the opportunity for others to participate, we were limited to about a 20 minute excursion. That said, the experience and the opportunity to enjoy some outstanding views on the water was priceless!  And if this is your first time or you’re going with kids like I was, you’ll appreciate the chance just to get your feet–and likely you’re clothes–wet!  Advice: definitely wear a bathing suit and keep your camera/phones in a water resistant bag. Paddling around the cove with views of the guiding torch of “The New Colossus” to our west and the Freedom Tower rising from the ashes of Ground Zero to her north, I couldn’t help but think of the countless generations of people that crossed the ancient waters around us to discover a new land in pursuit of new lives and new opportunities… As a New Englander who moved to NYC for a new experience, I can definitely relate to that spirit of adventure and challenge.

On the water! It’s amazing to feel the glide of the water beneath you while taking in some of the dramatic and tranquil views.  A rewarding experience…

After our dalliance with a mere drop in the bucket of the great waters surrounding New York City, we took a couple of hours to explore the surrounding community.  As mentioned above, Red Hook is a really unique, eclectic neighborhood worth an exploration in its own right.

Here are a few suggestions to check out during your visit:

Work up a bit of sweat while kayaking?  You might want to check out this old Red Hook ‘institution’: Sonny’s Bar is a local saloon located inside an 1850’s era tenement apartment on cobblestoned Conover Street, just a short walk from the waterfront and Valentino Jr. Pier.  The old decor inside might remind you of the bar where a conflicted Terry Malloy took Edie on their first date.

Sunny’s Bar: one of the oldest running bars on the Brooklyn waterfront. The 19th C building and cobblestone street takes you back to a different ara.

For a more family-friendly experience with an eye towards the nabe’s maritime history, check out The Waterfront Museum, a free museum housed aboard the 1914 Lehigh Valley Barge #79. The museum is designed to promote NYC’s maritime heritage and an understanding of the importance of the Harbor and the local waterways as highways for commerce, culture, and recreation.  Check the website for details.

View of Lehigh Valley Railroad Barge #79, home of The Waterfront Museum.

‘Potted’ plants aboard the Barge.

After checking out the Museum, take a stroll through a beautiful public garden located right next to the Barge.  In addition to enjoying some amazing views of New York Harbor and the Verrazano Bridge, connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island, this local ‘greenway’ offers a nice spot to sit back, relax and enjoy the colorful flowers. If you didn’t bring lunch or a snack, swing by Fairway, a unique and popular family-owned grocery store chain whose Red Hook store, located in a large old brick warehouse right on the waterfront, of course, boasts one of the largest grocery markets in NYC.  And in the unlikely event you don’t find what you’re looking for at the deli, check out Fairway’s Patio Grill, which serves burgers, dogs, BBQ, and lobster rolls, while offering beautiful views of the harbor.

The public garden invites you…

A close-up of some of the public garden’s flora.

Another popular option for dining is the Red Hook Lobster Pound located on nearby Van Brunt Street, where you can enjoy succulent Maine lobsters and lobster rolls.

Regardless of where you dine, and there are many other options, make sure you save room for dessert at Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies.  If you’re a fan of key lime pie or just want to see what the hype is all about, you definitely can’t miss a sample of the sweet, tart pies Steve’s has to offer.  Simply divine, especially on a hot afternoon or evening in Red Hook.  And if you can’t find it, keep a look out for the signs to show you the way!

At an intersection in Red Hook. Notice the sign pointing towards the key lime pie?

Still heading in the right direction for Steve’s…

Finally! Like an oasis in the desert! Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie. If the are doors open, buy some pie then, ’cause they might be closed if you swing by later. And if you aren’t sold yet, according to my 7 year old son, it’s one of the best pies in the world.

There is so much more to see and enjoy in Red Hook.  I’ve merely scratched the surface here.  I highly recommend you visit Red Hook to see the neighborhood for yourself.

Getting There

If you don’t have a car, Red Hook is accessible by subway (the F and G trains to Carroll Street and you’ll have to walk a bit) and the bus (the B 61).  I recommend using HopStop for determining the best way to get there by bus/train.  There is also a ferry service between Manhattan and Red Hook’s IKEA.

Well, hopefully, I’ve inspired you to take a “7th inning stretch” to try kayaking along Red Hook’s historic waterfront and to further explore some of the jewels of this eclectic Brooklyn neighborhood.



3 Responses to “On the Waterfront: Kayaking in Red Hook”

  1. 1 The Local Traveler July 31, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    Trying Kayaking is on my to do list for this summer!

  2. 3 Kateri Jochum August 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    So glad you had a good time – come by and visit us again sometime!
    Kateri Jochum – a Red Hook Boater

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