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Great gardens, a cool seaside village and a fab Little Italy; welcome to The Bronx!

Wave Hill Gardens, a magical area of The Bronx.

Jim Byers photo. Wave Hill Gardens, a magical area of The Bronx.

THE BRONX, NEW YORK CITY – I was torn about what parts of New York to check out for the trip I took over the last few days.

It seems there are a lot of stories around focussing on trendy new areas of Brooklyn. And talking about fun things to do in Manhattan and even Queens.

But when the tourism board’s representative in Toronto sent me a note and pointed out some things to do in The Bronx, I was intrigued.

Really? I used to cover the Blue Jays back in the late 1990s and would cover games at Yankee Stadium. We usually filed our stories too late at night to get the team bus back to the hotel in Manhattan so we’d have to call a company called Miles Taxi, a private service that serviced The Bronx.

(Once I got a ride into Manhattan after a playoff game with a writer from USA Today and two hookers who’d been at the game and who invited the elderly writer and I out for some partying. I politely declined. My friend from USA Today sat stone stiff and didn’t even breathe all the way back to the hotel. Another time, my cab ran out of gas and we had to push it to three blocks off FDR Dr. to a late-night station in Harlem on 125 th St. True stories, both of them.)

Between that and the towers of low-rent housing in the South Bronx and movies like Fort Apache, The Bronx I didn’t have a great impression of The Bronx, an opinion I undoubtedly share with many folks. But when the tourism board person pointed out a nice park and a fun-looking island and a nice looking neighborhood and a reasonable hotel to check out I decided to give it a shot.

And I came away impressed. Perhaps the most distinctive area I visited was City Island, a small island that’s maybe a mile and a half long and a quarter mile wide that sticks itself out into Long Island Sound, up near Pelham Bay Park in the far northeast section of The Bronx.

It’s a fun area with seafood restaurants called The Lobster Box and Sammy’s Fish Box, as well as very cute Victorian homes and painted wooden homes with pink bikes on the porch. There’s no police station on the island and no movie theatre and no chain restaurants. But there’s a lovely old church dating back to 1849 and lots of pretty views of the water.

Locals call it “Martha’s Vineyard with a New York accent,” which is perhaps a bit over the top given there aren’t too many vacationing American presidents around here. But the idea is a clever one and it’s a very charming community and not at all what you would expect from The Bronx if you watch TV or take the train or drive to a Yankees game.

It’ll take some time to get there, but you can get a bus from the end of the #6 subway line to City Island. And you’re next to Pelham Bay Park, where you can play golf or rent kayaks or go horseback riding or spend the day at the beach.

On the opposite side of The Bronx, tucked into the northwest corner, is an absolute gem called Wave Hill . It’s a 28-acre garden that has been home over the years to the likes of Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt and Toscanini (the three T’s!). It’s easy to see why it would’ve been a great place 100 years ago, given its position high on a bluff overlooking the ever-so-wide and peaceful Hudson River, with fabulous views over to the heavily treed Palisades in New Jersey. Given that it’s now surrounded by one of the biggest cities in the world, it’s even more precious.

I wasn’t sure I was we approached, driving north from our south Bronx hotel past crumbling highways and high-rise projects. But we soon started wending our way through the community of Riverdale, past small shops and leafy streets and huge parks and lovely homes that wouldn’t look out of place in Rosedale in Toronto or West Vancouver.

We soon reached the park and were immediately transformed. There are plants of seemingly every kind; palm trees and dazzling yellow tulips and gnarly Cypress like you’d see in California. There’s an alpine garden and an enclosed area with orchids and cactus and outdoor gardens emblazoned with colour, not to mention flowering crabapples and cherry trees and yellow magnolias and more traditional purple/pink magnolias.

It’s lovingly designed and offers stupendous vistas and a real sense of tranquility. I loved it on my first day in New York but it would be even better as a respite after a couple days fighting crowds on the subway or on Times Square or Rockefeller Center. Truly one of the most magnificent urban parks I’ve ever seen.

Not only can you tour the home and admire the views that Twain and Roosevelt and Toscanini soaked in, but they offer everything from yoga to woodworking to photography courses and tons more. There’s a small café in the Wave Hill House, with a glorious, shady patio and more terrific views.

I can’t recommend this place enough. I really can’t.

There’s a shuttle from the end of the #1 subway to Wave Hill, or you also can get a shuttle from the nearby Metro North (like the Go Train system Toronto) station, I was told.

Zero Otto Nove trattoria on Arthur Ave. in The Bronx. It's a far more authentic Little Italy than the touristy version in Manhattan.

Jim Byers photo. Zero Otto Nove trattoria on Arthur Ave. in The Bronx. It’s a far more authentic Little Italy than the touristy version in Manhattan.

We also had time to check out Arthur Avenue in The Bronx, known as the authentic Little Italy of New York. And with good reason. There are no strolling accordion players (at least not when we were there) and no giant Little Italy signs; just hard-working Italian immigrants selling perfect prosciutto and serving up equally perfect cappuccino at sidewalk cafes. They’ll even fill your cannoli in front of your eyes at Madonia Bakery, which has loaves of bread the size of a Buick.

Dinner was wonderful at Zero Otto Nove trattoria, which has a lovely interior painted to look like an Italian piazza. They often make their pasta in a tin foil package, and I had one prepared that way with grilled lamb sausage, mascarpone and yellow tomatoes that was to die for. Very good margherita pizza, too, and homemade limoncello to finish things off.

Arthur Avenue is quite close to the Bronx Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo and to Fordham University and can be reached via a short walk from the Fordham station on the Metro North line or by a number of subway lines and a walk or bus or cab ride.

(Incidentally, if you’re wondering where the name The Bronx comes from, it’s apparently a reference to an old farm north of Manhattan owned by a family called The Broncks. When folks were looking to escape the city a century or two back, they’d sometimes say, “We’re going to visit The Broncks.” And that’s how the name came about, I was told.)

We stayed at the Bronx Opera House hotel . I was hoping it would look a bit like an old opera house inside, but it was pretty plain. The decorations were nice enough and there was free Wi-Fi and a FABULOUS bed and a nice bathroom, but the breakfast was what you’d expect at a Comfort Inn on Interstate 75 in Ohio or Kentucky (no offence, guys) and it was hard to find a regular taxi. On the other hand, it was clean and the service was terrific and the hotel is just a block and-a-half from the subway, making it a 20-minute ride to Times Square. The area’s a tad scruffy and not so enjoyable to walk around at night, but it was fine during the day and people were friendly and nearby Alexander Ave. has stunning old brownstones and a couple pretty churches you can admire.

Best of all, you can find rooms for as little as $149 a night. Certainly under $200, which is hard to do in New York.

First-time visitors to New York probably wouldn’t make a trip to The Bronx. I doubt I would suggest it to a second-time visitor. But if you’ve been a few times or are taking more than the usual three or four days, I’d highly recommend broadening your horizons and checking things out.

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