NEW YORK CITY — — On a sun-splashed afternoon that marked the second day of summer, I joined a diverse throng of men, women and children, all waiting to board the Staten Island Ferry — a hulking orange vessel that provides free commuter service between Manhattan and its neighboring borough about five miles to the south.
But many on the boat were tourists headed out for a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, scheduled to reopen July 4 after being closed to visitors for more than eight months.
As uniformed crews readied the nearly 300-foot-long John F. Kennedy for the 25-minute excursion, watercolor skies and wispy clouds framed the city's renowned skyline, and soft breezes enveloped New York Harbor.
In due course, we were on our way, a flock of seagulls chasing the boat and waves churning foam in our wake. I could see why riding the ferry is considered one of the best visitor experiences in New York.
About midway to our destination, passengers began gesturing excitedly toward a figure in the distance. From my perch on a deck, I could make out a somewhat hazy object that eventually came into focus: Lady Liberty in all her glory, complete with that spiked, seven-point halo and torch held aloft in her right hand.
Suddenly, teens were holding up iPhones. Families posed near the ferry's bow to snap photos. Couples held up their babies. And as the statue slowly passed from sight, there were cheers and applause.
Even a glimpse of the symbol of freedom, seemed to evoke hope. As the nation grapples with tough questions about democracy amid surveillance revelations, wartime drone strikes, terrorism and immigration challenges, America may need what Lady Liberty represents now more than ever.
'Enlightening the World'
The "Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World" was a gift from France that was dedicated in October 1886.
"There's no question it's symbolic. [The July 4 reopening is] like the return of an old friend," said George Fertitta, CEO of NYC & Company, the city's official marketing and tourism organization. "It's a guardian symbol of optimism, diversity and strength."
Designed by sculptor Frederic Bartholdi and built with the assistance of Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, the statue is made of pure copper sheeting. The only exception is the flame of the torch, which is coated in gold leaf. Dressed in a robe, holding a stone tablet and standing at just over 151 feet, Lady Liberty boasts a stonework pedestal and star-shaped foundation that boosts its height by another 154 feet.
Generations of American immigrants — about 12 million, according to records — saw the statue when arriving at nearby Ellis Island for processing from 1892 until the mid-1950s.
The statue was designated a national monument in 1924, and restored for its centennial celebration on July 4,1986. It had undergone a nearly yearlong $30 million makeover, including new steps to the crown, easier wheelchair access and other safety upgrades, when superstorm Sandy disrupted plans for the unveiling last October.
The storm brought high winds and rising water to Liberty Island, a 12-acre expanse south of Lower Manhattan.
While the statue's hardy iron framework enabled it to withstand the storm's intense winds, its island home was in the path of a massive storm surge that left nearly 75 percent of the area underwater. Utilities and a backup generator were all destroyed, according to National Park Service officials. The docks sustained major damage, and brick walkways were uprooted.
With emergency funds provided by Congress, contractors have worked to repair and replace the docks on Liberty Island, as well as the interiors of several park structures.
Additionally, security screening facilities and other equipment officials said was necessary for "safe operations" were put in place. Officials have estimated that all the work could cost as much as $59 million.
On Independence Day, visitors will once again have access to Liberty Island, including the grounds and the statue. Ellis Island remains closed to the public because of damage from Sandy, as is the Immigration Museum on the island.
"We are delighted that Lady Liberty will once again be open to the public," said David Luchsinger, the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island superintendent.
While park officials are eager for visitors to make the trip to get reaquainted with Lady Liberty, security measures have been tightened. Visitors who want to see the statue up close will need to undergo either a preliminary screening at Battery Park in Lower Manhattan or at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.
Once on Liberty Island, there will be a secondary screening using modern detection technology for those entering the monument, say officials.
Officials will have additional security measures in place at Battery Park, Liberty State Park and on board the ferries themselves. Though specifics weren't revealed, officials say these measures include a coordinated combination of law enforcement, security personnel and technology.
"The National Park Service has been working hard to reopen Lady Liberty as soon and as safely as possible," said NPS spokesman John Warren. "We invite you to take the short drive or train ride from Baltimore to New York and help us celebrate the reopening on July 4."
Tourists can see the Statue of Liberty from different vantage points, including the Staten Island Ferry and commercial water taxis, but the official "authorized" boat line of Lady Liberty is Statue Cruises. Its vessels sail daily from Battery Park and its representatives provide an overview of sights along the harbor.
Mike Burke, the company's COO, acknowledges that he's been anxiously counting down the days until the famous statue is open again.
"The [national] park has been closed for 248 days," he said. "Last year, we took almost 3.8 million people over to the statue and to Ellis Island. About 80 percent come from the New York City side and the rest, about 20 percent, came over from New Jersey."
While there is no admission fee to visit Liberty Island or the statue, there is a charge for the ferry transportation to and from Liberty Island. Tickets can be purchased online via Statue Cruises website or by phone. Tickets are also available in Lower Manhattan's Battery Park inside historic Castle Clinton and at Liberty State Park in New Jersey. At this time, visitors may reserve advance tickets for travel from July 4 through Sept. 2.
"We encourage people to buy online," said Burke, who notes that Liberty "crown" tickets are available only by reservation. "There are a limited number of time slots to go inside the crown."
A dual revival
In many ways, the statue's reopening mirrors the revival of Lower Manhattan, which was also hit hard by Sandy.
The thriving commercial and residential enclave includes neighborhoods south of Chambers Street such as the Financial District and Battery Park City. Millions of visitors flock here annually to see the New York Stock Exchange, stroll down Wall Street and pay their respects at the 9/11 Memorial.
The area, which has a sophisticated urbane vibe, features ample places to shop and dine, as well as historic sites and cultural attractions.
There are small theaters, lovely parks with gardens, fountains and striking public art, and paths for joggers. Attractions include a bevy of museums, such as the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the National Museum of the American Indian.
Also noteworthy is the African Burial Ground National Monument, and several sites that pay homage to the Korean War and Navy.
There are nearly two dozen hotels in Lower Manhattan, including the Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park. The 39-story, 298-room luxury hotel is located in Battery Park's scenic esplanade, and features views of the Statue of Liberty and New York harbor.
When heavy rains and storm surges flooded Battery Park and nearby streets with 13 feet of water in some places, the hotel was among dozens of local businesses that suffered damage.
"We're in the most flood-prone area, if you will, and on October 28th, we were under orders to evacuate," says Nicole LaValette, director of sales and marketing. "We sent our guests to other hotels, moved furniture, boarded up the lobby and all the glass. Fortunately, the public areas weren't visibly impacted, although the basement offices got water."
Today, the hotel's lower level offices have been renovated. The hotel will celebrate the statue's reopening with guest packages that include tours, gourmet "heritage" meals and themed cocktails to fete Lady Liberty. The staff is also giving back to the local community in other ways.
"We do volunteer work through the Battery Conservancy, helping in its efforts to beautify the downtown park," says LaValette, a native of Germany who came to New York in 2008. "Our guests can participate as well. It's a way to improve this city we all love."
Tourists have already begun to come back to Lower Manhattan post-Sandy, says Fertitta of NYC & Company, and Lady Liberty's return on the holiday when America celebrates its independence, dovetails with the region's economic, cultural and emotional healing.
"I think it shows the resiliency of New York and demonstrates the perennial optimism of our residents," he said.
If you go
Statue of Liberty
Admission is free, but tickets are required. Ferry tickets start at $17 for adults; $14 for seniors; and $9 for childrens ages 4-12. Reservations are now available for dates through Sept. 2. Tickets to visit the crown cost a little more and are limited to advance reservation only, with a maximum of four tickets per order. Updated information on the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island is available on the National Park Service website at: http://www.nps.gov/stli. Visitors can also go to statuecruises.com or call 201-604-2800.
Get the pass. Tourism officials are promoting the New York CityPASS, which enables visitors to save on admission to many of New York City's attractions, including the Statue of Liberty, and skip most main-entrance ticket lines. New York CityPASS ticket booklets: $106 adults; $79 youth, ages 6-17. Purchase online at CityPASS.com.
Battery Park. Battery Park is an area of Lower Manhattan with parks, gardens, public art, memorials, statues, eateries, and views of the New York harbor and Lady Liberty. The Financial District, the 9/11 Memorial and local Jewish and Native American museums are also in the area.
Stone Street is a pedestrian-only outdoor restaurant seating area that is about a 10-minute walk from Battery Park in the Financial District. Adrienne's Pizzabar is a sitdown place with great food and atmosphere.
Restaurants like PJ Clarke's (pjclarkes.com/hudson) and Shake Shack (shakeshack.com) are also close, in an area called Battery Park City.
The Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park (2 West St.) has rooms with views of Lady Liberty, and fun touches such as telescopes to see every detail of its crown and torch. Offerings include a "Summer in the Park" package that includes a sail around the Statue of Liberty, a picnic lunch and more. For reservations, call 800-241-3333 or go to ritzcarlton.com.
The Holiday Inn Express New York City Wall Street (126 Water St.) is located in the heart of the Financial District, a short distance from the New York Stock Exchange, City Hall and the Federal Reserve Bank. For reservations, call 1-888-465-4329.
For more information, go to nycgo.com.