So far, Staten Island trolley tours are filling up by Staten Island Advance Thursday July 10, 2008, 12:38 PM Hilton Flores/Staten Island Advance Tourists and Staten Islanders alike took time yesterday to take the 55-minute tour of the borough, which is free this week. On a day when the haze turned Manhattan's famous skyline into so many ghostly, jagged silhouettes -- obviating the reason so many tourists hop the ferry to Staten Island before making their typical, quickie U-turn -- a red trolley idling in the downstairs parking lot yesterday beckoned the uninitiated to venture deeper into New York City's best-kept secret.
Some mounted the steps of the vehicle waving fliers with the word "free," while others settled into the slatted-wood seats, marveling at their good fortune in having happened by with time on their hands and adventure on their minds. In all, about 20 people from as far away as Romania and Scotland and as close as Brooklyn and West Brighton took the inaugural Gray Line "Staten Island Discovery Tour" -- listening to a guide rattle off a well-informed patter as they wended along North Shore thoroughfares past some of the borough's cultural and architectural gems. "This is not like Manhattan, not like Brooklyn, this is suburban, this is rural; there are cowboys here; there are still some dirt roads," tour guide Ben Maniaci said into a microphone over the whir of the air-conditioner as the tour headed along Richmond Terrace toward Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden. 'A HOME RUN' "You can be right next to Manhattan, get all the culture you want and come home to this. It's a home run." One of two guides scheduled to lead the tours when the full-scale, $15-a-ticket, "hop on-hop-off" operation begins in earnest on Monday, the 51-year-old New Jersey resident, history buff and certified tantric healer lived in Dongan Hills as a teen and for the past eight years has led tours with Gray Line through Manhattan. As riders looked out the trolley's arched windows, they took in Maniaci's perceptive patois, embracing everything from the size and population of the borough (7 by 15 miles, population 450,000 as Maniaci calls it), to Dutch language lessons ("kill" means waterway), to lovingly restored single-family Colonial and Victorian homes, to Staten Island Chuck at the Zoo, to Joni Mitchell's song about Mandolin Brothers in West Brighton, to Washington's boat trip on the Kill van Kull on the way to his 1789 Inauguration. People from as far as Romania and as close as West Brighton took part in the "Staten Island Discovery Tour" yesterday. "Look at all the original architectural details on this doorway," he instructed guests. who dutifully snapped photos of the elegant, wrought-iron mystical-looking creatures with light globes on their backs on the way into Snug Harbor -- the former sailors' residence transformed into a bucolic cultural gathering spot, bereft of the heavy foot traffic that prevails in Central Park. "This is something else; it's a relief from the skyscrapers, the crowding," mused Horia Grusca, a journalist from Bucharest, Romania, who decided on the tour after he and his wife rode the Staten Island Ferry on their first-ever visit to New York City. "It's like a parenthesis." For 15 years, Pat Austin strolled the Brooklyn Promenade near her apartment in Brooklyn Heights, looking at the Staten Island Ferry and vowing actually to ride it one day; she and her friend decided to make the trip when they heard a radio spot about the free tour. "To me, Staten Island was always the part between the end of the Verrazano and the Outerbridge Crossing," said the retired teacher, as a slight breeze skipped off the water at Fort Wadsworth and the view of the underbelly of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge seemed to rival the majesty of San Francisco's Golden Gate. "But this is beautiful, amazing," she said as she lifted her camera and pointed it at the Manhattan skyline. "I'll be back." --Contributed by Deborah Young