USA Trip Part 3: New York City

New York City: One of the top travel destinations in the United States (and the world). Many would argue that a trip to the United States is not complete without a visit to the Big Apple. So when Willem and I were planning our holiday, we included a few days in the city.

I should begin this post with a caveat: my “assessment” of NYC prior to this trip was not a  positive one. I had been to NYC before, and it does not exactly feature on my list of favorite places. In fact, I hate it. Now I’m sure some people will immediately stop here, enraged, asking “Who does this girl think she is, dissing the greatest place on earth?!” But the truth is that out of all the places I have been in my life, New York City scrapes the bottom of the barrel. It is not just that I dislike big cities. I absolutely loved living in London, and I enjoyed most other big cities I have visited in the past, but for some reason NYC doesn’t resonate with me. It is dirty, smelly, expensive, and people are just plain rude. I don’t care if it is just the “New York” attitude; a little decency goes a long way. Despite this, I tried to go into our trip with a good attitude, so that I didn’t ruin Willem’s experience there.

We started out on Tuesday by renting a car in Richmond and driving the 5.5 hours up I-95 to Secaucus, New Jersey, where our hotel was located directly across from Manhattan. We chose to stay there to avoid the exorbitant hotel prices in the city, and because we had no intention of driving our rental car into the city. Parking alone would have cost more than we spent on our hotel! Plus, the room we got was huge:

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As soon as we got checked in, we immediately walked down the street to the bus stop, where we were picked up by an express bus that goes “directly across the Lincoln Tunnel to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in 20 minutes”. Yeah right. We were unfortunate enough to catch the worst of NYC rush hour. It took us over an hour to go the four miles from our hotel to Port Authority. We arrived at Port Authority tired, annoyed, and sweaty. On the plus side, I am now intimately familiar with the tile pattern on the wall of the Lincoln Tunnel.

We bought seven-day unlimited metro cards (a great deal if you’re staying for more than two days) and rode downtown to Wall Street. Willem geeked out seeing the New York Stock Exchange in person. We took our time wandering around, and eventually found ourselves at the foot of One World Trade Center. The new building was quite beautiful, rising up high above us in the dusk light. The shape reminded me of the Shard in a lot of ways, and made me nostalgic for our neighborhood in London.

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We grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then walked to the South Street Seaport, where we got a gorgeous view of the Brooklyn Bridge and lower Manhattan lit up at night. The area ended up being one of my favorite parts of NYC. It almost didn’t fit with the rest of the city. Where the rest of NYC is gray and hard to me, this had a quaint, timeless feel. The twinkling lights, laughter spilling out of bars, and dozens of couples strolling hand-in-hand on the promenade could have been a scene from any era.

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We had had a long day of traveling, and by this time we were getting tired. Before we headed back to the hotel though, we went to see Times Square at night. It was everything you would expect it to be, and nothing more. Ridiculously crowded, full of blinding lights, and waaaay overrated.

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This is definitely one of those places you visit just to be able to say you’ve been there, because there is absolutely no other reason to ever go there on its own. I found myself wondering how in the heck Times Square managed to become famous in the first place. We gawked at the lights for about five seconds, tried to take a few photos (none of which turned out), bought a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt for Willem’s brother who collects them, and left.

We learned our lesson about NYC rush hour. The next day, we waited until 9am to catch the bus. This time the entire journey only took 15 minutes. We went straight to Grand Central Terminal, one of NYC’s architectural and historical gems. The station has featured in dozens of movies, but it is worth seeing in person. It is an amazing feeling to stand at the top of the steps on the main concourse and soak in the organized chaos going on all around.

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Don’t forget to look up though. The painted blue and gold astronomical ceiling of the main concourse should not be missed. The ceiling’s full glory was only revealed a few years ago when decades of grime and smoke were scrubbed off in a massive 12 year restoration. There is a single patch of unrestored ceiling above the Michael Jordan Steakhouse so that visitors can see the difference the restoration made.

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Since it was a nice day, we spent the next few hours after visiting Grand Central wandering the city on foot instead of taking the metro. We walked past the famous Plaza Hotel, pretended we weren’t tourists and walked right into Trump Tower, played with some toys at FAO Schwarz, and gawked at lots of things we were too poor to buy.

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The last time I was in NYC, it was the middle of winter and the weather was bitter cold, so I never got the chance to explore Central Park.  We spent a good part of the day on Wednesday doing just that. We leisurely strolled the length of the park, enjoying the summer weather in the shade of the trees. I liked that a lot of Central Park was kept natural, with huge sections of trees, lakes, and bushes. The greenery was definitely a welcome respite from the black and grey tones of the buildings that characterize the rest of the city.

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One of the things that we both wanted to do during our city trip was to go somewhere with a view of the New York City skyline. We decided to combine this wish with Willem’s love for fancy hotel bars, and found the perfect place to enjoy an afternoon drink while enjoying the city skyline at the same time. We changed into some nice clothes and went up to the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the 35th floor of the skyscraper at Columbus Circle. Entering the lobby from the elevators, we were greeted by floor-to-ceiling windows with the New York City skyline framed across Central Park. It was breathtaking.

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The best part is that there is a lobby lounge there, where anyone can enjoy a drink or meal. We were seated right in front of the windows. Willem had a coffee, I had a soda, and we shared a slice of NY cheesecake.

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I couldn’t resist being a huge tourist and snapping dozens of photos from the  massive windows. Our very short time living like the rich and famous cost us an exorbitant $20, but the view alone was worth the price. Other people pay more than that to see the view from the top of the Empire State Building, but we got to be treated like royalty and enjoy a relaxed break from the hustle and bustle of the city at the same time!

Since we splurged on our treat at the Mandarin Oriental, we went for a more budget-friendly activity next. Willem still hadn’t seen the Statue of Liberty, so we headed back to lower Manhattan to catch the Staten Island Ferry.

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This commuter ferry is quite possibly New York’s best kept secret from tourists, in my opinion. For one thing, the ferry is completely FREE, and it runs every half hour between Manhattan and Staten Island. If you are like me and don’t care to fight the crowds up to the Statue of Liberty itself (or to pay the almost $35 admission fee for two people), and just want to see the statue, then the Staten Island Ferry is a great option. You get wonderful views of the statue and Liberty Island from the ferry as it motors through the harbor.

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Even if you aren’t interested in spending time on Staten Island, you can just get off the boat, walk through the terminal, and catch the very next ferry back to Manhattan.

We took the subway back to Midtown, and along the way encountered some of New York’s finest specimens. I hope you can distinguish my sarcasm here, because these people were nowhere near fine. I have never seen as many panhandlers, scam artists, and people that have clearly just escaped from the asylum in my entire life than I did in a few days on the NYC subway. I could give you a whole soliloquy on this subject, but I don’t think it is difficult to imagine the crazy people you find on the NYC subway. And if you can’t, here is photographic evidence.

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Not impressed.

Our last two destinations for the day were the New York Public Library and Rockefeller Plaza.  We also saw the Chrysler Building along the way.

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The New York Public Library’s facade, with the two stone lions guarding the entrance, have starred in numerous films (does Ghostbusters ring a bell to anyone?).

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But what I really wanted to see was the library’s famous reading room; and it did not disappoint. The pictures I have of the room do not do it justice. Despite its beauty, I don’t think I would want to study there. I think I would find it extremely annoying to have my dream study space interrupted by tourists (like me) taking pictures every day, no matter how quiet and unobtrusive I tried to be.

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Rockefeller Center was lively, but I found it to be much less interesting without the ice skating rink that takes over the plaza at Christmastime.

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Our trip to NYC was a short one, and I know we didn’t even come close to seeing everything (we did not, for instance, have time to see the Met, go to a Broadway show, or walk the High Line), but we preferred to take our time and enjoy what we could see rather than run from place to place, checking things off the “list”.  Like I always say, this just gives us a reason to go back.

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