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Back in the day, a trip to Roosevelt Island — then known as Blackwell’s Island — meant your life had taken a bad turn: You were headed to Blackwell Penitentiary, the New York Lunatic Asylum, the alms (poor) house, or the Smallpox Hospital. That was in the 1800s, when New York City began purchasing islands around Manhattan to house rehabilitation institutions. If you were bound for prison, at least you were in good company — inmates included performer Mae West, singer Billie Holliday, and corrupt politician “Boss” Tweed. The insane asylum had its own in-house celebrity (unbeknownst to them), 23-year-old reporter Nellie Bly, who went undercover as a patient in 1887 and wrote an explosive expose for the New York World, “Ten Days in a Madhouse.”

Roosevelt Island today is more mellow than mad. On a recent Saturday, folks were doing yoga in the park, riding Citibikes around the 2-mile-long island, picnicking along the East River, and shopping for baby eggplants at the farmers’ market. Some backpack-wearing types were heading to school at Cornell Tech’s campus, opened in 2017. And a few of us were checking into Roosevelt Island’s only hotel — the only hotel in island history, we’re told — the Graduate Roosevelt Island. The hotel opened in June, followed by its restaurant and rooftop bar in July.

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Yes, it’s taken us two paragraphs to get to the hotel, but the island’s past is what drew us to this place. Viewing the island from, say, Long Island City or midtown Manhattan, you might wonder: What’s happening over there? And, why go? In addition to guests affiliated with Cornell Tech, “We get people from the city who want to get away from the noise and the bustle and just chill,” the fellow at the reception desk told us.

Maybe they come for the views. The 224-room, 18-story hotel — the first Graduate property in New York City and the 29th overall — offers a fantastic look at the East River and the Manhattan skyline on one side, and Queens (including Long Island City’s iconic Pepsi-Cola sign) on the other. And the price is right; rooms start at $219 per night. That’s lower than average, unless you’re talking a micro-hotel in Times Square.

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The tram to Roosevelt Island crosses the East River from Manhattan on Monday, June 12, 2021.
The tram to Roosevelt Island crosses the East River from Manhattan on Monday, June 12, 2021.Dave Sanders/NYT

By land, sea, or air

Granted, if you want to be in the heart of the action, this location won’t cut it. And if this your first time in the city, definitely choose a more rollicking neighborhood. But if you want a quiet night in a residential setting — no sirens, no raucous nightclubbers — this is a stellar option. Manhattan is minutes away via the F Train (subway), Roosevelt Island Tramway gondola (it lands at 59th Street and Second Avenue), or NYC Ferry, with stops including Long Island City, Queens; East 34th Street (Midtown East); the Brooklyn Navy Yard; and Pier 11/Wall Street. We took the ferry just for fun, and at $2.75 each way, it was a bargain compared to sightseeing cruises. The island is reachable by car, and to avoid pricey hotel valet charges, you can park at the Motorgate Parking Garage or try your luck with metered street parking.

We loved our views of Manhattan’s skyline, especially at night (tip: Ask for a room on the 10th floor or above) and liked the hotel’s playful but homey vibe. Roosevelt Island is home to plenty of young families with dogs, we noticed, as we wandered along the shaded river walkway. There’s even a branch of the New York Public Library here.

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Adding a collegiate vibe to the Graduate Roosevelt Island — 5,000 linear feet of textbooks. Cornell Tech is next door.
Adding a collegiate vibe to the Graduate Roosevelt Island — 5,000 linear feet of textbooks. Cornell Tech is next door.Diane Bair

Upon entering the Graduate Roosevelt, you’re greeted by a 12-foot “Flyboy” sculpture, created by artist Hebru Brantley, crouching beside the reception desk. If you’re a book lover, you’ll appreciate the major design element in the lobby: 5,000 linear feet of textbooks. Persian-inspired rugs, mid-century-style light fixtures, and pops of Cornell’s signature red hue add playful style. A gallery wall features portraits of prominent figures in Roosevelt Island’s history including Nellie Bly and Mae West. Interiors were done primarily by Graduate Hotels’ in-house team. Room keys replicate student IDs of famous Cornell University alums, like Toni Morrison (she earned a master’s degree in literature in 1955).

Guest room décor features shades of gray and collegiate plaid; lamps have the Cornell fight song in Morse code etched in the base, and art includes marked-up term papers. Bedside tables resemble file cabinets. The bathroom wallpaper repeats the Flyboy motif in black and white (along with prisoner mug shots). Toiletries are by Malin + Goetz.

Panorama Room, a new cocktail bar atop the Graduate Roosevelt Island.
Panorama Room, a new cocktail bar atop the Graduate Roosevelt Island.An Rong Xu/NYT

Arguably, the best space in the house is the Panorama Room, the 168-seat rooftop bar and lounge, designed by Parts and Labor Design. With indoor seating and a standup zone outdoors, this is a great spot to sip a cocktail (the bar menu wasn’t available yet during our visit) and admire the city from this lofty perch on the 18th floor.

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On the ground level, Anything At All, helmed by chef Megan Brown, offers breakfast, lunch, bar bites, and dinner. The dinner menu is short, and vegetable-forward. The biggest hit with our group was an appetizer of grilled corn ribs with queso fresco ($12), a mini version of Mexican street corn. That said, the carnivore in our group was happy with his steak and fries ($42). Other spots to eat on the island include a Japanese place and an Italian restaurant.

So, does it make sense to stay here if you’re not heading to Cornell Tech’s Roosevelt Island campus? If you’ve come to New York for its bright lights/big city vibe, nah. But if you crave someplace quiet to lay your head after a day of urban overload in the city that never sleeps, this unique destination might be your cup of chamomile.

And the views are (ahem) insane.

Graduate Roosevelt Island, 22 North Loop Road, New York, NY; 929-447-4700; www.graduatehotels.com/roosevelt-island/. Rates from $219.

Should you feel the need to get out and about, the walkway along the East River is a pleasant option.
Should you feel the need to get out and about, the walkway along the East River is a pleasant option.Diane Bair

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com