MANHATTAN Idyllic island excursion among the skyscrapers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New York--When a friend visiting from out of state last June asked to be shown a "fun weekend in the Big Apple," I knew just where to take him.

Not to the museums, monuments or hottest shows on Broadway. Summer in the city calls for breezier fare -- particularly for those who already have done the standard tourist trek. What I planned encompassed three ingredients that make New York sizzle, and not just from the summer swelter: music, great views and the magic of Manhattan outdoors on land and on water.

We feasted under the stars at the American Festival Cafe at Rockefeller Center, listening to live music of the '50s and '60s. We picnicked under a shade tree in Central Park as an Ecuadorean combo played on our left and a lone saxophonist wailed the blues on our right. We set off on a riverboat from the South Street Seaport and danced to a New Orleans rhythm band as we cruised past the Statue of Liberty. We danced the calypso and the salsa alongside the Hudson River at the Amazon Village, a club bedecked with palm trees, sandy beach and views of the Jersey coastline. Finally, we had a late, lovely brunch at the River Cafe on the Brooklyn waterfront, accompanied by a pianist's mellow tones and a view of yachts gliding by the Manhattan skyline.

We could have done much more had time and energy permitted. This summer, there's an abundance of options combining music, views and the open air. Here's a sample:

Dining

* The Summer Garden of the American Festival Cafe, Rockefeller Plaza, 20 W. 50th St.; (212) 246-6699. The famous Rockefeller Center ice rink becomes an outdoor restaurant in the summer, with a cascading fountain, live nighttime music (Tuesday through Saturday) and, from mid-May to September, one of the best dinner deals in town. Daily for $24.95, you get a "Down East Clambake Dinner," a whole Maine lobster with drawn butter, steamer clams, mussels, red-skin potatoes, corn on the cob, coleslaw, corn sticks, biscuits and a blueberry crumble sundae. The mood is festive, there's usually a breeze, and the Rockefeller Plaza backdrop -- with the gilded statue of Prometheus soaring overhead -- is very tony.

* The River Cafe, 1 Water St., Brooklyn, under the Brooklyn Bridge; (718) 522-5200. Isn't it romantic to dine on gourmet fare done up like works of art, while a pianist plays classic love songs and the Manhattan skyline glistens behind tugboats, yachts and tankers on the East River?

The River Cafe is no secret, so make a reservation well in advance and dress up for the occasion. I was surprised by the friendliness of the staff and the discovery that there isn't a bad seat in the house.

Prices are stiff, however. At lunch, my appetizer of three smoked salmon morsels cost $11 -- a bundle even though they were in the shape of a boat deck with a potato-crisp sail. Entrees are about double that, and more at dinner. But the food was great, and the service -- though not particularly efficient -- was pleasant, and it was all beside the point once the piano kicked in and the view grabbed us.

A tip for budget diners: The light fare on the deck is a much cheaper way to go -- $6 to $15. Or, you could just have drinks.

* The Boathouse Cafe in Central Park, East Drive and 72nd Street; (212) 517-3623. Set lakeside, with striped umbrellas and views of the park and skyline, the cafe is an indulgent alternative to picnicking in the park. The food is Northern Italian, the prices pure New York: $7 for antipasto, $13 to $25 for entrees. There's usually live music Tuesday and Thursday nights. Reservations are essential.

The Boathouse also operates a Venetian gondola you can charter (with a sometimes-singing gondolier) at $35 per half hour, sans food. The gondola holds up to six people, and you can buy a fruit plate and a bottle of house wine (about $30) to take along, but BYO is forbidden. Make reservations well in advance.

* Harbor Lights Restaurants, Pier 17, Third Floor, South Street Seaport; (212) 227-2800. The thought of dining on the outside patio above the East River overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge was music to my ears even before I learned dinner would be accompanied by a soulful piano player. The regular menu is pricey, but the grill menu of hamburgers, spicy Buffalo wings and pizza was under $10 an entree and well-prepared. And the maitre d' and waiters were very nice, going out of their way to accommodate my fickle sense of seating and an order change. This is a great place to take a break after a stroll around the seaport and its seemingly endless mall shops. We came here after a river cruise for a later dinner and sat gazing at the glittering Brooklyn Bridge long after we'd paid our bill.

Music and entertainment

* The Amazon Village, Westside Highway, Pier 25 at North Moore Street on the Hudson River; (212) 227-2900. This 2-year-old village/restaurant boasts outdoor bars and a cafe with shaggy thatched roofs, palm trees, a waterfall and 10,000 square feet of sandy beach on the waterfront -- complete with beach chairs and a volleyball court -- in-line skating, miniature golf and live bands playing.

The village is open from noon to midnight weekdays, and until 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. But don't even think of showing up before dusk. The fun is being there at night, with the lights, music and funkiness of it all.

The village is so popular that it's often full by 7 p.m. weekends, so try to get there before then. The club, entirely outdoors, operates from mid-May to Oct. 1. Admission is usually $5-$10 (depending on the entertainment), more for special events.

* South Street Seaport, Pier 16, Fulton and South streets, on the East River; (212) 669-9400. There always seems to be something fun going on at the seaport, whether it's a band performing on the pier, jugglers and magicians working the crowd or fireworks under the stars.

My favorite seaport experiences are the music cruises on the Seaport Line's paddle-wheeler, the Andrew Fletcher. Most Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights from June 3 to Sept. 25 there are two-hour excursions featuring live or recorded rock, jazz, country-western, blues or oldies. Often there are two cruises -- and sometimes three -- per night. (From May 14-June 3, the boat operates Friday nights only).

No matter how hot it is, the breeze from the upper deck is cool, and the view of the Statue of Liberty, Governor's Island, the Empire State Building and Manhattan skyline are always magnificent. There are drinks and snacks for sale, and usually the music is great for dancing. Music cruises run $18 to $20. The Andrew Fletcher also conducts 90-minute narrated sightseeing tours around "lowest" Manhattan. The tours run daily through Dec. 31, with sailings at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Price: $12 adults; $6 children. For information, call the Seaport line at (212) 233-4800.

Another great seaport sail is on the 108-year-old Pioneer, a 100-foot schooner that makes two-hour afternoon and evening jaunts for views of the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center, the Brooklyn Bridge and lower Manhattan. The Pioneer rarely has music, but you won't miss it and you can take your own picnic. Price: $15 adults; $7 children under 12; $12 seniors citizens. For a schedule and reservations, call the seaport at (212) 669-9417.

* Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza at W. 65th St.; (212) 875-5400. This bastion of culture goes all out in 'N summer to get some fresh air into its repertoire.

The popular Midsummer Night's Swing, running from June 23 to July 24, features dancing on the plaza to live bands -- from swing to mambo, samba, Cajun and zydeco -- from 8:15 to 11 Wednesday through Saturday nights. There are pre-dance lessons Wednesdays and Thursdays from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Admission: $7.

The center's Performing Arts Out of Doors program, now in its 23rd season, runs Aug. 3-29, and is the largest festival of free music and dance performances in New York. The entertainment takes place at several Lincoln Center venues: the plaza, the fountain, the Damrosch band shell. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays and include Latin, folk, rock and gospel singers. There are also modern and classical music and dance, and plenty of jazz. There are several programs for children as well. The season culminates with a folk festival Aug. 28 and 29.

When hunger strikes, you can eat at Lincoln Center's outdoor cafe or bring a sandwich with you.

* Free Shakespeare in the Park, Delacorte Theater at 81st Street and Central Park West; (212) 598-7100. This is a lot of fun, but only if you don't mind waiting in line. The shows, presented by the late Joseph Papp's Public Theater, begin at 8 p.m., and tickets are handed out at 6:15 p.m. But there's so much demand the line starts forming in early

afternoon. Those in line early get a voucher for up to two tickets a person, but both have to be in line when the actual tickets are handed out at 6:15 p.m. Many people make a day of it, taking a lunch and spelling each other in line.

The shows this summer are "Henry VIII" (running throughout July) and "All's Well That Ends Well" (running throughout August). Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays.

* Free New York Philharmonic in the Park, Great Lawn of Central Park (enter from 79th Street on the east side or 81st Street on the west side). Once a summerlong series, the wonderful Philharmonic has been forced by budget cuts to give just three performances on the Great Lawn this summer. The big event is Sunday, July 4, with fireworks after the concert. Performances -- also are tentatively scheduled for June 28 and July 7, but call ahead because those dates could change. The actual programs have not been set yet, but nobody cares much. The real thrill is picnicking on the grass and watching dusk fade to night while the Philharmonic plays. Concerts begin at 8 p.m., but most folks get there much earlier to land a good spot on the grass and get the party rolling.

* Battery Park City, foot of Liberty Street in lowest Manhattan. If you haven't discovered Battery Park City yet, you're in for a wonderful surprise. This development of condos, restaurants and parks on the Hudson River across from the World Trade Center is a tranquil respite from the bustling metropolis. There are landscaped walkways along the river, plenty of benches for relaxing and restaurants overlooking the water and Hoboken.

This summer, two free outdoor performance series make a visit to the park even more attractive.

Sounds at Sunset, with literaryreadings and cabaret acts, runs every Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., June 1 through Aug. 31 at Hudson River Park. For information, call (212) 416-5300.

Selected Wednesday nights in July and August, there's Dancing on the Plaza at the glitzy World Financial Center, just below the Hudson River Park. Bands play everything from rhythm and blues to soul and big band music. This year's program runs July 2 and 21, and Aug. 11 and 25, with music from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. For a schedule, call (212) 945-0505.

* Central Park Summer Stage. Rumsey Playfield, enter at E. 72nd Street; (212) 360-2777. From June 10 to Aug. 1, the Central Park Conservancy sponsors a free music series featuring great names and new faces in blues, rock, hip-hop, folk, jazz, country-western, gospel and international song and dance, plus assorted literary readings. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; at 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Starting its second season this year is the 90-minute narrated Central Park Trolley Tour that meanders through the 843-acre park, taking in the sights while explaining the park's history, landscape, sculptures and monuments. Running from late April to late October, tours depart Mondays through Fridays at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. from Grand Army Plaza, at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South. Tickets may be bought at the end of the Central Park information kiosk, Fifth Avenue and 60th Street. Price: $14 adults; $7 children; $12 senior citizens. The trolleys are air-conditioned and accessible to the disabled. Call (212) 360-2727. For advance reservations, call (212) 397-3809.

Even when there's nothing officially scheduled, there's always entertainment in Central Park, particularly the area near the Bethesda Fountain. You'll see street musicians, singers and jugglers, plus in-line skating competitions along a stretch of roadway closed to traffic on weekends. Picnic food is a must -- get it from Zabar's, 2245 Broadway at 80th Street.

On your way out of the park, make a pilgrimage to Strawberry Field, the lovely little homage-garden to John Lennon at the western edge of the park at 72nd Street. There's usually a lone guitar player singing Beatle songs.

For more information about Manhattan's sights and sounds, write the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau, 2 Columbus Circle, New York, N.Y. 10019 or call (212) 397-8222.

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