Betty OíNeill-Roderick

In the days of the Revolutionary War, Governors Island protected New Yorkís harbor. Today this island, which sits right in the middle of New York Harbor, offers art, cultural and recreational activities for visitors who flock to its shores.

The East River Ferry offers a scenic trip to the island from various points along the East River, and ferries also run from the Battery Maritime Building at South and Whitehall streets in Lower Manhattan. The island can be reached only by ferry; private boats are not permitted to dock there.

Historic Governors Island offers dramatic views of the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, downtown Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Bridge. Since there are no cars on the island, the best way to tour it is by pedal power.

Visitors can bring their own bikes or rent bikes, tandem or quad cycles. This summer, you can borrow a bike free for one hour, 10 a.m. to noon daily.

The national monument opened for the summer season on May 24, and will remain open daily through Sept. 28. National park rangers give private tours Wednesday through Sunday, and are on hand every day to help visitors explore the island and to explain its rich history.

Artists and art groups now occupy many of the public spaces and buildings. Nolan Park is the center for arts programming, where the New York Sculptors Guild offers indoor and outdoor exhibitions, carving workshops and gallery talks.

The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council provides public programs and studio space for more than 50 visual and performing artists in Building 110. These open studios offer the opportunity to tour studios, watch rehearsals, hear readings and speak with the artists-in-residence about their work.

This year an additional 30 acres of Governors Island are open to the public. Designed by the landscape architectural firm West 8, the area features Liggett Terrace, a six-acre plaza with seasonal plantings, seating and public art, and Hammock Grove, with 1,500 new trees, play areas and 50 red hammocks swinging in the breeze where visitors can stop and rest.

The area also features site-specific art by Mark Handforth and Susan Philipsz, part of the islandís public art commissioning program.

Throughout the summer, concerts take place at the Governors Beach Club, and festivals such as the Governors Island Alliance Family Festival, the FIGMENT Art Festival and the Metropolitan Waterfront Festival offer family entertainment.

Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the green, or take advantage of food trucks and vendors at the new Liggett Terrace. After lunch, enjoy a free round of miniature golf on the Parade Grounds.

Governors Island played an important role in every major American military engagement since the Revolutionary War.

Native Americans sold the island to the Dutch in 1637, and it became a permanent U.S. army facility in 1800. In 1878, the island became the Armyís headquarters for the eastern United States, and after World War II the First U.S. Army was headquartered here.

More than 3,000 soldiers and their families once resided there.

In 1909, Wilbur Wright took off from the islandís dusty parade ground and flew around the Statue of Liberty, marking the first successful flight over water.

On June 30, 1966, the U.S. Coast Guard took over, establishing headquarters for its Atlantic Area Command, its largest base in the United States. For 30 years, Coast Guard members and their families lived on the island.

Castle Williams sits majestically on the north side of the island. The sandstone structure was the first fortification designed by an American military engineer, Col. Jonathan Williams. Completed in 1811, it was an integral part of the harborís defenses and protected New York City during the War of 1812.

During the Civil War, it was used to hold Confederate prisoners of war, then became part of the army prison system. In 2012, after a three-year cleanup and stabilization, the National Park Service reopened Castle Williams, with tours and exhibits to explain its history.

Visitors will also want to tour the French-style Fort Jay, which was built in 1806. It proved to be a powerful deterrent to the British Navy during the War of 1812. The barracks later housed officers and their families. White rocking chairs on the veranda invite guests to sit a while and enjoy the view.

Unfortunately, there are no overnight accommodations on Governors Island, and visitors must leave at dusk. The ferries offer a spectacular view of the sunset over Manhattan on the way home.

For more information or tours, call the Governors Island Alliance at 646-820-7556, visit www.governors?islandalliance.org, or visit www.NYCGO.com.