Summer Fun Day Tripping: Manhattan

Summering, like any fine art, is ideally a solitary pursuit. What inveterate joiners sometimes forget (or maybe never knew) is that summer is mainly about escape, not only from routine and responsibility but from what personnel directors grimly call “interfacing.”

There are, of course, a few things I wouldn’t want to do solo in Manhattan: Charter a gondola ride on Central Park’s lake, order roast chicken for two at Balthazar, tango at Midsummer Night Swing. But many more things are actually compromised by company. Here is a sampling.

During the earliest hours of the day, it’s not really new places that compel but new perspectives on the old ones. So wake shortly after dawn and walk wherever it’s the off-hour. If you live downtown, get up three hours before SoHo rouses itself – a not impossible 7:30 a.m. If you live uptown, get up even earlier. Avoid the Sheep Meadow, the reservoir, and the people who mistake the jogging path for the Indy 500, and head to Fifth Avenue and 105th Street, the entrance to the park’s Conservatory Garden. I was almost convinced, during a recent visit, that only the park’s immediate neighbors and all of the city’s wedding planners know about this intimate six-acre throwback to the golden age of American gardens. At 8 a.m., you’ll encounter a morning mist commonly associated with the Cotswolds and a formal landscape of vast lawns, hedge mazes, immaculate flower beds, an especially dignified fountain, and stately walks – over which sycamores impersonate a perfect canopy.

Even if alarm clocks have begun to go off all over the East Village by the time you’re ready for some breakfast (chances are they aren’t even set), you’ll still find it reasonably calm at St. Dymphna’s (118 St. Marks Place; 254-6636), where a good fry-up can be had for $9.95. If this complete Irish breakfast is more than you can handle this early, have a scone and an iced tea. The only imperative is to ask for a table in the tranquil garden.

Late morning, as the heat announces itself, take a bus (the city’s best window on the world) to Chelsea Piers (23rd Street and Twelfth Avenue; 336-6500), where the uninterrupted breezes, vistas, and small talk (of trim middle-aged Midwesterners in festive sun visors and fanny packs) will convince you that you’ve wholly dispensed with urban squalor. Pay $1 for every ten swings at fast or slow pitches in the batting cages. The ferociously serious regulars, busy ruling the world, take only benevolent notice of men who can’t hit and women who show up in the skirts they wore to work. Alternatives for the unaccompanied: swinging a Big Bertha at the driving range, shooting baskets in the gym, surrendering your feet to the care of a reflexologist.

Regardless of whether you had a prayer in the cages, a pleasing spot to await meditatively the cool of the afternoon – while gently educating yourself in architecture – is one of Manhattan’s places of worship. St. John the Divine, with its impressive vertical tours, will not do. Neither will St. Patrick’s, with its crowd-friendly TV monitors and railed-off pews. Instead, try St. Bartholomew’s (which has an adjoining café), at 51st Street and Park Avenue, or Grace Church (designed by St. Patrick’s architect, and the only acceptable place for a wedding in the Age of Innocence), at Broadway and 10th Street. I prefer St. Patrick’s more spectacular and less renowned Fifth Avenue neighbor St. Thomas, at 53rd Street. It is here that a church’s prevailing silence, only accentuated by the din of the street, sounds best.

It costs less than a movie, and is far more invigorating, so why don’t you cover the Central Park loop on a three-speed bike? Or, if six miles is a mere spin for you, take Broadway or St. Nicholas Avenue to the George Washington Bridge’s pedestrian (not to be interpreted literally) crossway. Eight dollars will buy you an hour’s ride; rent your equipment at the Loeb Boathouse (861-4137). Before doing so, grab a bag lunch at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop (174 Fifth Avenue, at 22nd Street; 675-5096), or eat at its counter, breathing in the incomparable scent of corned beef and Old New York.

One of photographer William Eggleston’s favorite things to do, besides firing a gun at various inanimate objects in his house, is sitting in a bus station for a couple of hours, studying people. Cured of his trigger-happiness, Mr. Eggleston might be my kind of man. I watch people not at the Port Authority but at Grand Central – or at least I did before the renovations began and Häagen-Dazs closed. In summer, at midafternoon, one can make do with the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel (57 East 57th Street; 758-5700). The unimpeachable grandeur of the architecture makes up for the homogeneity of the clientele. Having a drink here is a particularly desirable activity for lone rangers who have not quite shed their self-consciousness: How do either guests or staff know you’re not waiting for anything other than a drop in your own body temperature? The teetotaler’s option is the Frick Collection’s Garden Court (1 East 70th Street; 288-0700). Pretend you’re impatiently waiting for someone lingering over the Holbeins, and then unsystematically analyze the boisterous fountain and those circling it. The Frick is not highly trafficked, but the people there (all, owing to the rules, over age 10) are interesting: almost beautiful in their rapt appreciation for the collection or their poignant concern that they don’t know art when they see it. On the other hand, you could, of course, just look at the Holbeins.

It’s time to move outdoors again. Well, make that a semblance of the outdoors. At the Asphalt Green AquaCenter (1750 York Avenue, at 91st Street; 369-8890), take a dip in the plus-size pool (the latest Fodor’s not misleadingly identifies it as a sea), complete with a movable bottom. Why swim alone? Because there’s no way not to, unless you’re in training for a spot on the Olympic synchronized-swimming team. Even if you swear by the buddy system – hardly essential at Asphalt Green, where lifeguards are always on duty – swimming is an independent activity; after you get your flutter kick going, it’s really just rhythmic breathing. During most hours, nonmembers may swim for $15.

The Upper East Side, good enough for some of the finickiest people in the world three seasons out of four, is so agreeably barren come summer that you might as well stay there for dinner. Make yourself up a picnic at the Vinegar Factory (431 East 91st Street; 987-0885) – try the rosemary-garlic spit-roasted chicken, the twice-baked potatoes with julienne of vegetables, any of the chilled soups, and the tarte Tatin for dessert – and take it to Carl Schurz Park (East End Avenue between 84th and 90th Streets). This park is not widely celebrated, probably because it’s insufficiently grassy, but never mind: You are going for the view. Follow the esplanade – officially known as John Finley Walk – north to the point where you see very little of Roosevelt Island, only a valiant little lighthouse, and the Triborough Bridge. Settle yourself on a bench in front of the wrought-iron railings. Passing motorboats and chartered cruises with drunken wedding parties make something resembling waves that crash against the rocks.

Call it a day, and the auspicious beginning of an evening, by viewing the sunset from a helicopter. Taking off from the heliport at Twelfth Avenue and 30th Street, Liberty Helicopters (465-8905) offers everything from a four-and-a-half-minute “Liberty Sampler” ride ($49) to a fifteen-minute splurge (“The Grand Tour,” $145). The tours are pilot-narrated, freeing you from the need to voice obligatory platitudes about the impressive visibility. Pack your camera.

The most important thing to bring, however, is a skepticism of all schedules – this one or your own. Prescribed leisure has a way of becoming very hard work, and is hostile to one of solitude’s greatest rewards: unsparing serendipity.

Summer Fun Day Tripping: Manhattan