Thursday, 17 July 2014

Wandering the Concrete Jungle

Flying into New York City
“Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today – I want to be a part of it, New York, New York” Nothing but Frank Sinatra playing through the overhead speakers as we landed into JFK Airport for my first visit into New York City. We flew Korean Air and I really appreciated that sentimental touch to add to the arrival by playing an iconic song to remember where you are, it worked, because I am still thinking about it.

We disembarked the A380, what a machine of a plane that is, and entered the terminal. You know that unfamiliar feeling you get when you first arrive somewhere foreign you have never been. I still feel it in my tummy when I think back to New York, a city that I will never know completely but know so well. It wasn’t my first visit through US Customs before, but the guy stamping my passport was actually very friendly and invited me into the country – “Welcome to the United States ma’am”, I was so chuffed. It was approximately 11:30 pm in the arrivals hall and all I could hear were the destinations ticking over the arrivals board, the cries of people reuniting and the wheeling of suitcases, JFK Airport offered an experience of its own. We though OK, we don’t want to spend too much on transport let’s try and book a bus on the green phone over in the corner. With no luck we moved outside to the taxi queue, where we started to feel amongst it. We hopped in the SUV version of a yellow NYC taxi, which drove us down the Van Wyck Expressway; I couldn’t help but think back to the Seinfeld episode where Elaine is hysterical “no-one has ever beaten the Van Wyck”. That’s the thing about New York, you are so familiar with it through movies and TV shows you already feel a part of it and just being there connects the dots.
28 hours and 16,000 kms later - need to freshen up
We stayed at Central Park West, an up and coming part of Manhattan, at Astor on the Park. Given we were visiting during New Year’s celebrations we stayed a little out of town, and it really gave us the feel of being a New Yorker. Our room was small; the shower/bath didn’t empty so we were up to our ankles in water every time we washed.  But we had a view of the city skyline from our 11th floor apartment and the lift was from the 1920’s for 2 people (or 4 people back then), so it felt real, and overall, the entrance to Central Park was opposite our doorstep. We put our heads down to rest that night, with the Red and Green Christmas themed lights of the Empire State Building beaming through our window, and we knew tomorrow would be the beginning of something special. 

With a view like this, we couldn't be happier staying at Astor on the Park
We woke the next morning at 5:00 am, after only 4.5 hours sleep and a 28 hour flight we were too excited to sleep. We walked up 110th St and found a little breakfast joint called Zanny’s, owned and run by two Colombians who made the BEST breakfast bagels and hot chocolate. This is where we would eat breakfast each morning over our 10 night stay, because we didn’t think we would come across anything better. The subway entrance was one block from our hotel, so we waited for the peak hour rush to pass and purchased our first Metro Card loaded with enough money to last our visit - $30.00.

The subway is dark, steely and fast, very fast. On the platforms there is no time displayed because trains come frequent enough, and they pull in quickly and take off just as fast. This contributes to the attitude of the city, everyone is always on their way somewhere, and I loved it. We got out at Times Square (of course) and all the lights, even in the broad mid-morning daylight, and crowds of thousands
surrounding us were incomparable to any other Square I have visited. Everyone is smiling and looking up. We didn’t have much time to spare as we were heading to the Financial District to start an 6 hour Free Walking tour run by Free Tours by Foot. So we took it all in from corner to corner of the square and walked to a quieter Subway towards 38th and Penn to head down to City Hall. 

Here we met Derrick, I couldn’t explain to you the level of resourcefulness this man has, and the passion he has for his city, New York. I can only recommend that anyone travelling to the Big Apple gets in touch with Free Tours by Foot and gets on an All-in-One Downtown tour. In 6 hours you will have the best introduction to Manhattan with these guys on foot you will have with anyone on wheels. You get into the nitty gritty of Wall St, the unnerving details of September 11 and the melting pots of Little Italy and Chinatown. Because I can’t explain the value of this tour enough, you will literally have to experience it yourself. And yes it is free, but the guide will make sure you walk away with enough history, knowledge and even the behaviour of Manhattanite, that a tip is definitely deserved. 

Now exhausted, we settle back towards Central Park West, and try out some $1.50 pizza and a coke feeling truly immersed.

The next morning at sunrise we’re up again! The excitement is just rattling through our bones, and we need to get out of our shoebox apartment to release the jitter. After our quick-stop at Zanny’s for breakfast we head across to Central Park for a morning walk. Shaun and I are both high on life right now, Colombian-brewed coffee in hand and the crunching of winter leaves on the paths as Central Park joggers speed past us. We’re slowly taking it all in, and stopping at every little bridge, bench or playground there is. As I type this I am feeling a flurry of nerves, maybe I am getting in touch with how Shaun was feeling at the time, because at the next spot we stopped our lives both changed. I saw a sign for the “Ladies Pavilion” as I ran towards it and said, “your not allowed in here” to Shaun, and placed my bag down and my camera over my shoulder. We took a few happy snaps together, and then I walked down to the pond where ducks were swimming to keep warm. I ran up towards Shaun beckoning him to follow me down for more pictures and as I turn around there he is on one-bended knee with a ring to match. New York immediately meant so much more to me at that point, and Central Park was now a landmark of our lives. Oh, and after a few paused minutes, I said yes.

Sharing our story - engaged in Central Park, New York City.

With a sparkle in my eye, and on my finger, the rest of our journey was captivated by others joining in on our celebrations, locals on the Subway would smile knowing what had happened to us on this trip. Only an hour later we arrived at Battery Park where I laid eyes on the Statue of Liberty and all of her grace. Close by is also the Staten Island Ferry, the remains of the World Globe that used to sit between the Twin Towers, where fragments are missing but the world is still whole.

One major visit would be the Memorial of the World Trade Centre. We visited a few months after it had first open on the 10 year anniversary. In comparison to all the world’s tragic events, this is one I was alive to see, so it has a huge impact on my life and visiting here I must comment. The tribute is incredible, and not a greater design could be considered for the dedication to those who were lost and their families. As you have to enter through security removing majority of your clothing and belongings before you enter, I wonder if it is necessary, I can only tell you what I was feeling at the time. One thing that really bothers me is visitors who are taking selfies smiling in front of the foundation fountains, as a place of remembrance and reflection I can’t help but feel this is inappropriate. You might send me hate-mail after this, but these are my thoughts and if you have taken a smiling selfie, with your hand on your hip here, you need to get in touch with reality. 

We got some serious sightseeing out of our system the first few days, and now with a familiar feeling of the city, we ventured out to some of the same places for exploration, tried foods and walked a fair bit. So much so, we have visited New York again and plan to in the next 6 months, so it’s safe to say this city does make us feel brand new.

In our total 10 day stay on the Island of Manhattan these are my highlights to share with you:

First things first, travel to New York City for New Years Eve. If it's on your bucketlist make it happen. There are plenty of cheaper options for sleeping (like what we picked), and for celebrating the ball drop in Times Square. Many dinner packages offer free drinks unti midnight and an opportunity to go outside for the main event. We picked Chevy's and had a great time. Apart from these celebrations, the city itself has another vibe, everyone is in holiday mode, and is lit up from Central Park through to Times Square, specifically Rockerfeller Plaza with the famous Christmas Tree.

The spirit of Chrismas and New Years Eve in NYC
My top things to do are:

5) Empire State Building - after midnight (great way to shake off jetlag and with no crowd, it's open til 2:00 am)
6) A burger and thickshake from Mel's Burgers (check out their shake menu for further convincing)
7) Go and see all the Seinfeld sets, or if its Sex and the City, How I Met Your Mother - just do it!
8) Visit a rooftop bar, Timeout has the best options
9) Watch Amatuer Night at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem
10) Walk the length of Central Park, if not in one go, at least see what you can - with Wafel and Dinges at one end, and the American Museum of Natural History at the other, you will always be surprised.

My top picks of Manhattan

Keep spreading the news, even if you're not leaving today. Everyone should be a part of what is - New York, New York.

P.s. Here is the Shake Menu just in case you wondered

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