Blessed with an exceptional 578 miles of shoreline – a good portion of which is in Brooklyn – New York City is a gigantic hydropolis.

Lifeguard rescue boat on the ‘People’s Beach’, Jacob Riis Park

In the southeast, similar to the barrier islands that protect Long Island’s eastern shore, a narrow sandy peninsula called the Rockaways extends down from Queens, flanked by the ocean on one side and the ideally protected sound of Jamaica Bay on the other. The bay is an odd, urban-locked wildlife refuge, with JFK at one end and bustling Brooklyn pretty much everywhere else.

A bridge crosses Jamaica Bay at its widest part onto the Rockaways, the A subway line running alongside in open air, on a water-level track. Further to the southwest, another bridge links southern Brooklyn to the Rockaways’ very tip where lie the Jacob Riis Park and Fort Tilden.

Oval and highly visible on satellite maps, the gigantic Jacob Riis Park parking lot could accommodate a landing Cessna and reveals that designers of the park and its immense crescent-shaped beach must have had high hopes of attracting heavy crowds from the city. Enormous signs still stand, pointlessly directing an invisible mob towards the beach. But it would seem that even in the blast of today’s summers, beach-goers barely manage to fill the edge of the parking lot closest to the sand. The rest remains empty, wild grass growing through the asphalt.

The Rockaways feature some of the nicest New York beaches – of course we’re not talking Caribbean-standard here, and I won’t swim on any of them even though many do – and the southern area occupied by the park is by far the nicest and wildest. As in many sites around Jamaica Bay, it is very difficult to sit on a Fort Tilden Beach sand dune, staring at the ocean, and believe that right behind us looms the Big Apple and its eight million human ants.

On my last visit to the peninsula, I ran into a couple of guys fishing along the Rockaway Inlet. I nodded as I passed by and one of them pointed to my photo bag and asked: “Do you have a camera?” “Yes,” I answered half-expecting him to wave me away out of a guilt trip for fishing in the wrong spot. But he surprised me. “Can you please take a picture of this?” he said pointing to his white plastic bucket, “I caught my first flounder ever!” I looked in the bucket. A decent size flounder lay on ice. The guy was bouncing around with excitement, annoying his friend who must have been either jealous, or embarrassed. A little doubtful, I asked: “Can you eat what you catch, here?” He laughed: “Well, we’re gonna eat that one!”

My fisherman was wearing gloves. He was holding the bucket as if the fish might have jumped out and gone for his jugular. He reluctantly reached in to position his catch better and complained: “Man, these things scare me!” He pocked at it twice with great disdain – or care – and I took the picture. Then he told me his name, which I sadly forgot. But he didn’t seem concerned about where the shot would appear, if at all. It had been taken. That was enough. Posterity was assured.

When crossing the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge back to Brooklyn, shoreline options are still numerous. Dead Horse Bay to the left offers beautiful short trails and the famous old bottle-littered beach, along with many birds and stunning flowers.

Pushing southwest beyond the bay, one can follow the shore past a long stretch of kitesurfer playground all the way to Sheepshead Bay’s waterfront, and suddenly gone are nature and calm. Civilization returns with a vengeance but with seaside town looks and sometimes even a glimpse of European lakes: white swans and a pedestrian bridge crossing the body of water. That water, however, is incredibly filthy.

A fleet of bass line-fishing boats awaits tourists and as the afternoon fades, skippers stand on the dock, calling out to passers by: “Striped bass, srtiped bass, last boat out!” The local crowd is colorful and accents on the street will not let you forget that you are nowhere near downtown Brooklyn. Nearby restaurants are either strangely flashy or very ethnic. This, along with most of Coney Island, is Little Russia. Добро пожаловать!