A Postcard From New York

 

This is the final blog of my New York trilogy.  This is just a brief look back at my 5-night stay in the city that never sleeps.

Back in July 2016, I had not long been back from a trip to the Philippines when I received a text from my girlfriend whilst we were both at work which read “I’m going to New York!”. I thought “WTF, WHAT!?!” and proceeded to delve deeper.  “I’ve found a Groupon offer to go to New York and am going with my sister”, feeling slightly rejected, but trying to stay positive I replied “Oh, man. I really want to go to New York”.  She replied “have you got the money?” – having just come back from an 18 day trip to the Philippines this was a perfectly reasonable question. “I’m sure I could work something out, it’s New York!”.  It transpired quickly that her sister couldn’t go with her so I jumped straight in there to carry on the prospect of going. “How much?” I asked …

£450 for flights and 5 nights’ accommodation! It seemed almost too good to be true. Flights with Norwegian and staying in a 2 or 3 star hotel. OK, so really, what’s the catch? Well, in truth my girlfriend paid an extra £65 on top the £450 so we could fly direct – going via Reykjavik on the way out was not at all appealing.  But still, a bargain was found and we could begin getting excited by the trip.

Bargain!

 

Pre-trip Planning

As I discussed in a previous post, I had decided to plan this trip out thoroughly.  The reasons for this were simple: – I knew what I would be doing each day and not wasting time ‘thinking on my feet’ whilst out there; I knew I wouldn’t miss any of the major things I wanted to see/do whilst out there; I could get an understanding of my bearings before stepping foot in the States; I would know how to get from point A to point B; and Saving money on activities by pre-booking.

The latter of which was really useful. Before flying out, between my girlfriend and I we had a theatre show booked, tickets to the ice hockey and a City Explorer Pass where we had entry into 3 city attractions already paid for.  All of which meant we’d saved a heap of cash before jetting off and had no other major outlays on activities whilst out there.

 

New York City Explorer Pass

As I mentioned above, before leaving, the missus and I had arranged ourselves these explorer passes.  They are GREAT things and I would highly encourage anyone going out there doing any paid attractions to get one.  I would also say get one before jetting out, we got ours from Attraction Tickets Direct who also supply you with an info booklet on all the attractions you can enter with the card.

The concept is simple, have a rough idea of how many attractions you want to see whilst you’re out there and buy a card with either 3,5 or 7 attractions pre-loaded. We went 3. Then you get 30 days to use up your allowance of attractions from the moment the card is used at the first attraction.

In some cases, you can queue jump with the card.  I believe you can use it in the express queue for Top of the Rock although I didn’t need to use the express queue when I was there.

You’re not tied into any specific attractions with the card, you can use it on ANY of the attractions listed.  What I would say, is check out the entry price of the ones you’re looking to go and visit before deciding. There is no point in spending $72 on a card if the 3 attractions you want to go and visit comes to $65.  After using mine, I think I had effectively got a 3 for 2 scenario on my attractions because of the cost of the activities.

Also, unless you’re going to pay the full $25 recommended entry fee for museums (you can go in for free) don’t waste the attraction cards on museums.

 

Itinerary

Without the additional detail of travelling and timings, this is what I had planned for our stay:

Night arrival Arrival at JK

Check in

Quick wonder into Times Square

Day 1 Brooklyn Bridge

Macy’s Shopping

Theatre Show

Day 2 Empire State Building

Grand Central Station

The MET

Central Park

Top of The Rock

Day 3 9/11 Memorial

Circle Line Landmark Cruise

Dive Bar pub crawl

Day 4 Ripley’s Weird and Wonderful Museum

Ice Hockey Match

Day 5 Chelsea Market

High Line Walk

Chinese New Year Parade

Return to JFK

 

Getting Around

Now, although this was not New York on the cheap, it was most definitely New York on the cost effective (romantic, I know). This meant using the Subway over Taxi’s.  the MTA in New York is good in that you can get pre-loaded cards, I bought a 7-day unlimited Metrocard for $31 that meant unlimited Subway and bus journey’s for 7 days from the time of purchase. With a cost of $2.50 each time you enter the subway you need to weigh up the cost effectiveness of this method.  During my stay, I used the subway approximately 16 times getting from A to B. As individual journey’s this would have cost $40, so I saved myself 9 bucks, not amazing, but I saved myself a fortune if I had used taxis to get about. $62 dollars for 2 people to get around for our trip, we could have easily spent over double that on taxi’s.

Top Tip – if you have an Uber app, and roaming data abroad, use Uber. They’re supposedly a lot cheaper than the yellow taxis, just not as nostalgic.

 

The Highlights

Brooklyn Bridge – What a way to begin a first morning in New York! After a breakfast feast, we started our walk across the Bridge from the Manhattan end. If you’re the sort of person that is wowed by landscape and pretty bridges this is certainly a must, if you’re not fussed by that sort of thing then don’t bother you miserable bastard, go shopping!

As a pedestrianised bridge goes, it’s impressive. Be sure to stick to the walking lane as cyclists are not shy retiring types and will scream blue murder at those that get in their way. Not me you understand, I’m a square – I even obey the arrows in car parks!

This will give you an array of awesome photo opportunities and if, like me you are with someone you will certainly have to take a couple’s selfie on the bridge – NOT with one of those selfie sticks though, don’t be one of those pricks, but grab a memory or two for the pair of you to share.

The walk itself doesn’t take too long, depending on whether or not you’re forever taking photo’s anywhere between 30-45 minutes is probably about right.

Aladdin – it’s fair to say I’m a fairly monotone, grumpy git that can occasionally express some joy and happiness like I’ve been shot in the arse with some strong narcotics.  But even I was up for a Broadway show and knew it was a ‘must do’ of any first timers New York experience.

This was one of those things we’d pre-booked.  We scoured the internet for ages looking for ways to get cheap tickets to a show. Wicked, The Book of Mormon and Aladdin were the shows we were interested in seeing and looking for deals to visit.

The first 2 shows were not on any list of discount tickets sites and nor were they available at the TCKS stand in Times Square.  We also didn’t fancy playing the lottery with tickets.  The idea of turning up to a theatre at 5-6pm to try and get a lottery ticket seat didn’t seem appealing.  I was there to enjoy myself, not waste time trying to get hold of tickets. It was alright though, Aladdin came up trumps for us. Helped by the fact we could go to a midweek show, the better half dugout a great price for a couple of mezzanine seats near centre.  Beautiful!

A Whole New World!

What a show! The sets, the costumes, the stage management it was awesome – I still have no idea how the carpet flew! I only have two grumbles – the additional songs that do not feature in the animated movie suck by comparison, thankfully there aren’t that many. Secondly, Jasmine, or should I say the woman playing Jasmine was weak.  I’m no theatre critic, but even I could tell she struggled with the numbers and she seemed to have a real nasal tone delivering her lines.  But none of that deterred from what was an awesome experience on Broadway and a fantastic show. I may even keep the idea of seeing any UK version up my sleeve for a secret date night!

Empire State Building – The first of the observation deck activities that were scheduled on the trip. I assume like a lot of people, I glazed over the pre-amble walkthrough bits before the lifts up. I understand why there is a cost associated with going up, but $34 seems steep to basically look out of a window and then walk around a bit outside.  That aside, the views were staggering. It’s an immense vantage point from which to see the city and it didn’t disappoint.

Top of The Rock – This was the second observation activity we had lined up for ourselves. The idea behind doing the two very similar activities was down to the fact that we wanted to see the city during the day and at night.  I also heard from various sources that The Top of The Rock has better views of the city, but the Empire State Building is so iconic you can’t ignore it.  So the best way to solve it was to go to both, one during the day and the other at night.

New York is exceptionally pretty at night. a different experience from viewing the city during the day, seeing the landscape lit up is almost magical.

What I would say, is that I think you should probably do it the other way around, go to The Top of The Rock in the morning and Empire State Building at night.

Circle Line Cruise – I will admit that between my girlfriend and I we struggled to agree on a third activity to use on our Explorer Pass. She wanted one of the bus tours, I wanted to get value for money.  Had we picked THE RIDE (the name is capitalised for some reason) at $78 each it would have made the two observation decks free, so it was a serious consideration.  However, the idea of spending a couple of hours sat on a bus full of people, pulling up and watching “street theatre” in various locations seemed like hell on earth. Also, with the requirement to see Lady Liberty it meant we had to get on the water.  Do I take the free Staten Island ferry? Possibly, but it doesn’t get that close. Do I take a trip to Liberty Island? Nope, as it’s not expensive enough to warrant wasting an Explorer pass activity on.  That’s when I came across the Circle Line.

These guys offer a variety of cruises on the pass. However, the time of year we were visiting only the sightseeing cruise was on offer. A 90 minute cruise on the Hudson and East rivers, taking in all the major sites from 42nd Street to Roosevelt Island this cruise also gets within 100ft of the Statue of Liberty. Sold!

The cruise itself is great, the commentary is well informed and not dull and you get some fantastic photo opportunities.  The vessel offers food and drink on board, although I didn’t personally use this and there are places to sit and stand both inside and out. I will say though, that during my cruise it was fucking freezing, but I belligerently refused to go inside – well, until my eyes had watered over with the wind chill and could no longer see where I was going!

Just make sure, especially during peak times that you get there in plenty of time to ensure you get the seat you want, get there about an hour before the schedule departure time.

Ice Hockey – one of my biggest ‘must do’ activities was going to a sporting event. New York has many to choose from – The Yankee’s, The Nicks, The Rangers, The Giants, The Jets, The list probably goes on.  Unfortunately, during our stay The (American) Football season was approaching the Super Bowl, so nothing doing there. The Baseball season was over.  But neither of that mattered, they have Ice Hockey! Working in a match during the stay was easy as there were a couple of games on during the 5 nights – so it came down to The Rangers or the Islanders.  Well, blow me if tickets for the Rangers aren’t double that of the Islanders.  I think, all-in (taxes and fees) I paid $68 for my seat at the Barclays Center, the equivalent seat at Madison Square Gardens was $120 before any additional charges. So that was it, I became an Islanders fan! You can read more about it in the first of this trilogy.

hockey1
The view from my seat in the Barclays Center
Grand Central Station – a train station, a bloody train station is on the list of must see things to see in New York. But it’s not just any train station (sounding like an M&S advert) it’s Grand Central Station.

Simply put, it’s pure elegance inside. It’s exactly the way it’s depicted in all guises – movies, TV, cartoons Grand Central is a masterclass in how buildings can make you feel great.  I will admit, I do feel a little sorry for the building, in a sea of tall trees, the Terminal building looks like a weed and is drowned out by every other building around it.  But in another way, that’s what makes what you find inside all the more special. It won’t take you long, it’s free, and you’ll get a couple of great pictures – DO IT!

grandcentral1
The view of the main concourse at Grand Central Terminal

Other Experiences

when Alicia Keys sang of “the big lights will inspire you” she must have been stood in Times Square.  From our hotel about 10 blocks down 7th Avenue you could tell where Times Square was.  The light emanating from one of the worlds most photographed places was incredible.  Even at 1am I needed sunglasses to keep the glare down! Just make sure you avoid anyone starting a conversation with you, every single one of them wants something from you;

The Met.  One of the must do’s for my girlfriend was an art gallery or museum whilst out in New York. I’ll hold my hands up and say I’m terrible at looking at exhibits of any kind, I cannot stand there and spend ages appreciating it, nor am I any good at going up to the little plaques and read all about what I see in front of me. It doesn’t float my boat.  But I did concede that it was something that we had to do whilst we were out there. The best fun I had inside the MET was when I played the weight game to all the armour. Turns out I’m pretty good at guessing the weight of ancient armour – another skill to add to the CV! What I will say with the MET is that it is ‘pay what you want’ to enter, but there’s a catch.  The catch is that you have to tell an admissions ticket seller that you don’t want to pay the recommended price and you’re going to pay X dollars. BE STRONG!;

met1
The Front of The MET
I’ve spoken at length about the food I’d eaten during my trip in the second installment of this trilogy.  Needless to say, I ate well and when I say well I don’t mean healthily;

I’d taken a stroll through Central Park. It’s a park, there isn’t a great deal more I can say about it.  You do feel in a different world the more central you go, and there are some lovely things to see and do, but it’s a big park in a concrete jungle. Neither myself or my girlfriend were interested in a horse-drawn carriage ride – the constant smell of horseshit whilst sat in the freezing cold on a Thursday afternoon in early February appealed to neither of us;

The 9/11 Memorial was very poignant and quite un-American in its concept, definitely worth a visit.  But please don’t be one of those ‘hashtag memorial selfie’ dicks. It’s completely inappropriate. I didn’t do the museum as time was short, and I would want to know how the money was used before contributing to any entrance fee.  In my eyes, it should go to those affected and no-one else.

 

The Lowlights

Fatigue – I have never felt so old as I did on day 4 and 5 of the trip. Before I had made it to day 4 I had already climbed 104 flights and walked over 32 miles.  My knees were shot to bits and the soles of my feet in need of tender loving care. The Saturday and Sunday (day 4 and 5) were a little less productive adding another 31 flights and 14 miles to my FitBit stats.  Walking into and out of every subway station moany as fuck because they don’t have escalators! The exercise did me good, no question. But it was relentless in pursuit of completing the itinerary.  As it was, my girlfriend took pity on me and sacked off the ice skating Saturday morning I had planned so that I didn’t injure myself further.

Homelessness – I was a little shocked as to the extent of homelessness in New York.  You expect to see it in the big cities and I am not saying New York is the only city in the world with the issue.  But it seemed as though there were a lot of citizens homeless in and around central Manhattan. It really showed itself after the sun had set and these people would start congregating in the stairwells of subway stations looking for some form of shelter from the cold winter nights.

Invariably, this brings with it another set of issues. There were more times than I care to mention when I was exiting or entering a subway when I was faced with the sight and smell of someone having defecated and/or urinated in the stairwell of the subway as they obviously had nowhere else to go. It just brought a harsh reality of life for some to light that I didn’t expect to be so confronted by.

Signage – London, especially touristy London is exceptionally good at signposting for anyone that isn’t local.  This is very much not the case in New York. From city maps outside tube stations and major street corners, to signs pointing to main attractions all the way through to internal signage inside buildings London is well equipped for people that are not sure about the way.  New York it’s a case of use your pigeon instinct, ask a local or die trying find it. Now, having researched routes and maps organising everything I wasn’t too bad when it came to getting my bearings exiting a subway.  But there were times both inside buildings (The Rockefeller Center being a major one) and on street level that smart signposting would be really useful.

Temperatures! – It was fucking cold! No snow, and average temperatures of 6 Celsius but the wind chill!  Especially when on/over water was horrendous!

 

Reflections

I really enjoyed my visit to New York, without a doubt.  Would I rush to go back before I need to renew my ESTA? In all honesty, probably not. Not unless something dramatic changes in the city and it becomes a must see.  But regardless, any return to New York would HAVE to coincide with at least a couple of Ice Hockey games at the Barclays Center – that would be non-negotiable.

It was only when I was sat in the yellow taxi on the way back to JFK that I started to think that maybe using the subway so much meant I had missed out on a different aspect of New York.  I started thinking, that in using the subway I would go from one part of the city to another and I would only see the change in landscape once I’d popped up from the subway station.  I didn’t get to appreciate that change along the journey. I don’t regret our decision to favour the subway, but it certainly gave me food for thought.

I was also surprised at the general run-down state of things in the city.  Sure, new building projects provide New York with a modern edge – but what exists currently is eroding away.  Our hotel room was a great metaphor for the city.  Clearly, at one stage the room was the height of fashion and part of something great.  An incredibly old CRT TV sat in a wardrobe, poor use of the space provided, cracks in the walls and dated décor all pointed to a bygone era where people raved about greatness but now looks a little sad and unloved.

Like most other American places I have visited throughout my travels, technology has not hit the mainstream.  London has plenty of free WIFI hotspots, wireless/contactless payments are common place, the Oyster Card for getting around and generally embracing modern living. New York still swipe cards! Which in turns generates a lot of paper receipts – and I wasn’t expecting to have to conduct admin at the end of every night, collating receipts from every single transaction.

That being said, I did spend a lot of time appreciating a lot of what New York had to offer.  The architecture alone could be a visit if you like that sort of thing – I appreciated it form a “woo, isn’t that pretty” sort of perspective.

Some of the views you get in New York are simply stunning.  From the midpoint of the Brooklyn Bridge to the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building, New York allows visitors and residents alike to obtain unique perspectives on the Big Apple.  The High Line ranked exceptionally highly among my girlfriend’s top experiences of New York.

My objective before setting off was to do all the major touristy things available to do – check; take in a show – check; take in a sporting event – check; and finally experience a slice of life within New York and I feel as though I managed that and will forever be grateful for the fond memories I will always have of New York.

Is it the best city in the world? For me, no.  I think New York has become complacent about its place in the world and had let things slip. But I am going to enjoy playing the ‘Been there’ game now I’m home and watching US TV shows and Movies, probably much to the annoyance of those around me!

I was just feeling a little disappointed New York didn’t pants me and then slap me round the face with all the vim and vigour I was anticipating through sheer weight of expectation.

 

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