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Sunday, December 22, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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City Island: a touch of Nantucket in New York City

Seattle Times travel writer

CITY ISLAND — How well do you know New York City's neighborhoods?

Here's a quiz.

What borough is home to:

(A) Yankee Stadium

(B) A historic seafaring community with waterfront promenades and a quaint main street where church bells ring and shopkeepers roll up canvas awnings at night.

(C) A French country inn operated by one of New York's top chefs.

If you're puzzled, take the No. 6 train north from Manhattan to the last stop at Pelham Bay Park, transfer to Bus BX 29 and cross a causeway over a 100-year-old bridge onto a 1.5-mile-long patch of land in the western end of Long Island Sound.

Book a room at Le Refuge, a B&B in a 19th-century Victorian sea captain's house, and sip a French beer by the fireplace. Spend the weekend browsing antique shops, art galleries and eating Maine lobster. Take in a flea market at one of the local churches, walk in the park, watch the seagulls flutter across a 300-year-old harbor and breathe the salt air.

Welcome yourself to City Island, the Seaport of the Bronx.

Just a half-mile wide, this 230-acre island is on the edge of New York City in a borough known for its housing projects and run-down tenements. But stroll along its graceful waterfront or relax in the candlelit dining room at Le Refuge, and you'll feel more like you're in a small town in New England or a village in France.

"It's a part of the Bronx but it's different," explains John Vaughn, 50. He sells produce and eggs at JV's Fruit and Vegetables on City Island Avenue, a Mayberrylike main drag that runs the length of the island and takes no more than a half-hour to walk. "You go across that bridge," says Vaughn, "and it's a different world."

New York State has tapped 17 communities along Long Island Sound as historic maritime centers; City Island is the only one that is part of New York City. Ask the average New Yorker about it and chances are you'll get a blank stare. Yankee Stadium or the zoo are about as far into the Bronx as most venture. But City Island has a rich nautical history and boaters and locals know it well for its marinas and popular seafood restaurants.

Rich history

A community of 5,000, the island served as a U.S. Coast Guard station in World War II, City Island was settled by the English in 1685, and was once viewed as a possible port to rival New York's.

"It didn't work out that way," recalls Tommy Nye, 52, a fifth-generation islander who works for UK International, a sailmaker specializing in mainsails for luxury yachts. "But it did develop into a seaport of a different type."

Locals began fishing and building boats, and City Island became a major shipbuilding and yachting center.

"At 4 p.m., you could come out here, and the street would be filled with boatyard workers and sailmakers pouring into the bars and restaurants," Nye recalls.

Five winning America's Cup sloops were built here before the boat-building business declined. Things changed as condos replaced boat-

yards, and Manhattanites showed a willingness to pony up $300,000 for beach bungalows that once sold for $3,000. Today most of the commerce revolves around pleasure boating, fishing and restaurants.

Avoiding the crowds

Drive to City Island on a nice weekend and you'll be stuck in a parade of cars heading to Belden Point and its huge fish restaurants with enormous outdoor decks.

"You can't really appreciate it until you've been here in summer," says Nye. Maybe, but most out-of-towners are probably better off exploring City Island on an overcast weekday in the off-season, as my husband and I did recently. Without the crowds, we discovered a small town filled with friendly locals, many of them lifelong islanders.

At Corona's Hidden Treasures, John Corona makes stained-glass windows for some of the local restaurants. His wife, Carolyn, is in charge of the shop they've operated on City Island Avenue for 30 years.

"We keep reinventing ourselves," to keep up with the changes, she says. Right now, the merchandise leans towards a maritime theme popular with tourists — wooden model ships, fishing nets, shells and English "witch balls," hollow glass spheres said to ward off evil spirits of the sea.

A few doors away, Robert Roberge, 82, spends his days behind an antique desk at Mooncurser Records. His dusty shop is stocked floor-to-ceiling with a collection of 100,000 vinyl records, 12,000 pieces of sheet music and antique toy musical instruments. "It's a hobby," he says. "Still fun." Among his prized possessions: A framed picture of himself and jazz singer Etta James.

Roberge, a jazz fan with a long, snow-white beard, is in his store seven days a week, one reason we didn't see his portrait at a "Faces of City Island" photo exhibit when we dropped by Focal Point Gallery, the art gallery and shop run by Ron Terner for 28 years.

Favorite photo subject

"He's probably the most photographed guy around here," says Terner. "But he refused to leave his store," and the photographer who planned the project insisted on studio portraits.

Among those who did end up in the show were Jacqueline Kyle Kall, 77, owner of Port of Kall Realty, who agreed to pose in a flamboyant straw hat; Tommy Cleary, nicknamed "Tommy the red-faced postman," who's been walking his route for 18 years; and Christine Werkhoven, a waitress at The Black Whale restaurant and an Empire State champion arm wrestler. Proof of how small City Island is: We ran into all of them later in the day as we continued our stroll.

Most visitors are day-trippers, but spending the night at Le Refuge is worth considering, not only because it's the only place to stay on the island, but because it's unique among lodgings in New York City.

Pierre Saint-Denis, a professional flutist and owner of Le Refuge restaurant on New York's Upper East Side, opened the inn in 1992 as a getaway for New Yorkers too busy to leave the city. Candlelight dinners and a breakfast of croissants and coffee are served in a cozy downstairs dining room. Upstairs bedrooms with waterfront and garden views are furnished with antiques, and the hallways decorated with dried flowers and framed copies of old French newspapers.

Check out the lobster

No one leaves City Island without eating at least one lobster dinner, but knowing where to go is tricky. The sprawling places on Belden Point, such as Johnny's Famous Reef, with its acres of picnic tables, and Tito Puente's, known for its Latin jazz, are normally packed on weekends with Bronx and Queens residents, but we found them eerily empty on a weekday evening in November.

On Roger Roberge's advice, we settled on a homey-looking yellow cottage called the Original Crab Shanty. There was no view, but the drinks were big, the booths comfy and the waitress had no problem with two of us sharing the $14.95 lobster special. Even at that, it was more than we could eat: a tray of pickled vegetables, a loaf of garlic bread, two baked clams, one jumbo shrimp, a baked potato and a 1¼-pound broiled lobster.

"The lobster come from Maine this time of year, and all of the places basically serve the same thing. The main difference is atmosphere," a man who cleans lobster tanks for all of the island's restaurants told me later. He lives in the Bronx — on the other side of the bridge — and he often brings his family here for dinner.

"It's a quirky little island," he smiled. "It likes to think of itself as a little Nantucket."

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com

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