Thursday, June 1, 2017

Our Whirlwind Tour of New York City: Part I

As with most of my travel posts, I'm going to have to split this one up into multiple postings. We just saw, ate, and experienced too much to consolidate into a single post unless I seriously wanted to take a whack at breaking the record for the longest blog post ever - whatever that may be. I am splitting up the story of our New York trip into three parts. Two posts will be dedicated to our sightseeing and one will exclusively cover in-depth reviews of all the food we tasted during our stay. Each post is littered with some truly crappy photography thanks to our inability to take non-grainy photos on our iphones.

For my birthday this year, Paul whisked me away on a surprise trip to New York City. He conspired with my Mother to take me away from the kids and into a place that I have been longing to explore for nearly ten years. My Mom generously agreed to watch the children for us - which, believe me, is no easy task given how insanely busy and chatty my children are - and Paul selected a date based on her availability and then presented me with a wrapped guide book to New York City as my birthday gift along with a Little Golden Book of The Lion King since he had also acquired tickets to a Broadway show. I was beyond excited about this trip but immediately became overwhelmed while paging through the book - there was so much to do and see! How would we ever get to it all in three days?

Well, I just had to accept the fact that we weren't going to be able to do it all during our visit and once I came to that seemingly obvious realization, planning the trip wasn't so stressful. I decided that the number one thing I wanted was to just meander around and explore the different neighborhoods of Manhattan, to get a feel for the architecture, the culture, the people, and the history. I also did not plan for any fancy restaurants or upscale dining because I wanted to be able to just freely pick up a bite wherever and whenever we felt like it! I did, however, make a list of some foodie stops I wanted to visit - mainly bakeries because I have an obsession with bread and sugar. I also made a list of various historical spots, memorials, and monuments that I wanted to visit. Paul's only wish was to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. That's all he cared about but, then again, he's been to NYC several times before.

Unfortunately, Paul vetoed my plans to bring my DSLR with me to the city. He thought that toting the big, bulky camera around through crowded streets and packed subways would get a little tedious. I was upset that the only photos I would have to share from our trip would be from our phones, but I have to admit after looking back on our time there that he was totally correct. Packing light was the way to go!

We debated heavily about how exactly to get there. I did not want to drive into the city while Paul was confident that it would be a breeze. I was concerned because Paul gets very uptight and angry driving around our remote country roads so I could not imagine what a drive through Manhattan would do to his blood pressure. So, we decided to instead drive to just outside of the city, to White Plains, where we could leave our car in a secure and very reasonably priced parking garage and then take a commuter train into Grand Central Station. Everything went smoothly: my Mom arrived, we gave her a brief run-down in preparation for her stay with my little hellions her grandchildren, and then we drove the seven hours to White Plains. Paul got quite tense and nervous in the traffic surrounding a small, college town called Binghamton which prompted me to tease him about his previous plans to drive in Manhattan, "f you can't handle Binghamton traffic, you sure as heck aren't going to like driving in NYC."

In White Plains, we parked and had only about 12 minutes to spare before boarding our train. The train was largely deserted with the exception of a classy young man wearing scandalously short jogging shorts while reading his kindle with his legs propped up and splayed on the seat in front of him. Two stops down the line, we picked up five more travel companions, in the form of some very, very drunk college age girls. During the remainder of the ride, we had the pleasure of watching them drink from cans of Coors Light with a straw while passing around a cigarette and loudly discussing their drunken adventures from past parties as well as their secret to consuming large quantities of vegetables (the answer being hummus). It was a classy, classy ride into the city.

Once we arrived at Grand Central, we tried to immediately put as many people between us and those drunk girls as possible. However, within minutes we found ourselves squeezed onto a packed-far-beyond-capacity subway car with some other very colorful individuals. We had to be violating a number of safety codes with how many people were squeezed into that train and I could barely breathe due to both the stench and the fact that there simply did not seem to be enough oxygen to go around. Thankfully, our ride was short, and I squeezed out of the subway car and bounded up the steps to the street for a breath of fresh air and my first walk in the city.

My first impression was not a grand one. That breath of fresh air I was so looking forward was not at all pleasant due to an overwhelming stench that can only be described as a combination of McDonald's cheeseburgers and body odor. There were piles and piles of trash bags lining the streets and litter just about everywhere. I knew cities were dirty, but this was ridiculous. We walked a couple yards further and I was so distracted looking up at the sky-high buildings that I failed to watch where I was going and nearly toppled over a large refrigerator box lying in the sidewalk, As I caught myself, I ventured a glance into the box and nearly screamed when I saw a person staring up at me from inside the box. Like I said, my first impressions were not pleasant ones.

Just a few blocks further down and the neighborhood suddenly began to clean up and more and more people began to fill the sidewalks. I marveled at seeing the Empire State Building, all lit up for the night, as we walked past and couldn't help but remember a line concerning the iconic building from one of my favorite movies: "It's the nearest thing to heaven we have here in New York." In fact, our hotel was fairly close to the Empire State Building which was all lit up with green lights the night of our arrival. When I pointed it out to Paul, he was less than impressed: "It's a whole lot smaller than I thought it would be!" It reminded me of the time I took him to see the original copy of The Declaration of Independence at The National Archives in Washington D.C. His exact words after gazing upon this historic and monumental piece of our nation's history were: "I don't see what the big deal is. It's a giant piece of sheepskin with some faded writing. Anything could have been written on it." This is why I don't take him places.

Soon enough, we reached our hotel - the Hyatt House. The hotel was brand new, having just opened the month before. It was clean and to be honest you couldn't beat the location - or the price! While picking up our keys, the concierge encouraged us to check out the rooftop terrace of the hotel for some stunning views of the city. Paul was just thrilled to discover, upon entering our assigned room, that we had a stunning view of the McDonald's right across the street. Given his love of all things McDouble and McChicken, this was certainly a highlight for him. I did manage to tear him away from the view of his favorite artery-clogging, grease pit to take the elevator ride all the way up to the 32nd floor where the rumored rooftop terrace was located. After stepping off the elevator and onto the terrace, the most breathtaking views greeted us - the entire New York landscape, all glittering and glowing in the night, lay before us. Most major landmarks were in clear view as was the Empire State Building, which suddenly looked much closer and more imposing than it had from the street. However, neither Paul nor I could really stomach standing up there for long because we made the giant mistake of looking down over the short, thin railing separating us from a deathly plunge to the street below. Paul, in particular, started backing away to the safety of the elevator almost as soon as he looked down.

After that, we took the elevator back down to the lobby and headed out to explore Times Square and the NYC night life. By this time, it was 11:00 PM but we had heard that New York is "the city that never sleeps" so we figured that it wasn't a terrible time to start our sight seeing. We headed straight down Broadway towards Times Square along with what felt like thousands and thousands of other people. While waiting for the Pedestrian signal at one corner, one older lady started to venture off the curb a bit too early and narrowly missed being flattened by a cab taking a sharp right turn. She turned to look at us in disbelief and said: "I think he really would have hit me!"

As we walked along the streets so brightly lit up you would swear it was early evening, we suddenly realized that we were hungry - and at a very opportune time because lo and behold a Shake Shack loomed before us. We went inside, grabbed a menu, and waited in line patiently for a few burgers and a coffee milkshake. It was worth the wait. Best burger I've ever had.

After Shake Shack, we continued on down Broadway until we hit Times Square. The flashing billboards and moving ads combined with the thousands of people sandwiched in a very small area made both Paul and I conclude that Times Square was not our favorite area. It was really neat to see it all lit up at night - as well as to see the various theaters where different Broadway shows were playing - but I have a very hard time handling crowds and it was a bit too much for me. We did, however, very much enjoy meandering about, looking at the different shops, people-watching, and enjoying being outdoors in the city. It was a very neat experience.

Eventually, however, we had to call it a night and made it back to our hotel around 1:00 AM. We immediately collapsed in bed and decided to set an alarm for 6:30 the next morning although we really shouldn't have because the sounds of trucks moving up and down our street around 5:00 woke us both up. I could not fall back asleep, so we decided just to get an early start to the day. While Paul hopped in the shower, I took a peek at the view from outside our hotel window. It suddenly became quite clear why all the guide books referred to the area where our hotel was located as "the flower district." The trucks we had been hearing moving up and down the street were unloading pots and pots of exotic plants, flowers, and trees to the floral shops that lined the streets. The sidewalks were literally transformed into a gorgeous garden filled with all sorts of color and greenery and I couldn't wait to get down there to walk through it!

After encouraging a very sleepy Paul to get ready as quickly as possible, we grabbed a quick cup of some of the weakest coffee ever from the hotel breakfast bar and then headed downstairs. The coffee was quickly tossed with the hopes that we would fine something a little stronger as we made our way through the city. First, we checked out the beautiful flower shops where I saw more exquisite orchids in one place than I've ever seen in my life. I also met a couple stray cats that were really friendly and in need of a little affection. Paul was a bit annoyed that I spent about 15 minutes playing with the cats instead of getting on with the rest of our sight-seeing. "I didn't take you all the way to New York just so you could pet a cat," he grumbled as he hurried me along down the sidewalk and away from my feline friends.

Our first stop was to pick up bagels and lox from a bakery on our way to Central Park. We found a promising place, waited in line for about 20 minutes, and then headed to the park with our bag of goodies. I was shocked by the sharp juxtaposition between the busy city street with the honking horns and pushy people and the sudden tranquil beauty and quiet of Central Park. Almost as soon as you enter the park, you get the feeling that you are no longer in the middle of a large city but in a quaint, remote park in the country. It's so quiet, so beautiful, and such a different landscape compared to the rest of the city - there is grass, ponds, streams, hills, and tall trees! As we made our way through the beginning of the park, just past the golden statue of William Tecumseh Sherman, I was in total of awe of the beauty of the landscape. It was breathtaking. Paul and I barely spoke as we walked through the first half mile of the park. We nearly forgot about our breakfast, but quickly found a bench to eat it. The verdict? Best bagels and lox ever.

After wolfing down our breakfast, we continued making our way through the park. After a bit more exploring, it is safe to conclude one thing: it is very, very possible to get run over by a pack of bikers in Central Park. Almost happened to me on a half dozen occasions.

We also discovered that there weren't any really good coffee places near the park. Paul was really having a hard time functioning without caffeine but he put up with me dragging him all over Central Park before begged for us to take a detour and go find a coffee shop. After the Jackie Onassis reservoir, we headed into the Upper West Side in search of coffee and found it just before the skies opened up and began pelting the earth with big, plump raindrops. The coffee was amazing and certainly perked us up, as did the nice, quiet respite from the rain in the comfortable, chic coffeehouse. The rain was short-lived and we were soon back outside.

We decided to meander through the Upper West Side a bit, taking in the architecture of the residences and window-shopping. As we were strolling through one residential district, we noticed that the street was blocked off by security and that movie cameras were filming a scene on the steps of an apartment building just ahead of us. We were told to keep walking and to look as natural as possible so as not to ruin the shot. I so wanted to take a closer look to see if I could tell what exactly was being filmed, but we were told to hurry along while facing forward. Every time I tried to turn my head ever-so-slightly to satisfy my nosy personality, Paul squeezed my hand tightly and whispered through gritted teeth, "They said ACT NATURAL." Well, isn't it natural to want to know what all the cameras were being used for?

We finished our tour of the Upper West Side by visiting some of the bakeries that have produced my favorite baking books and shared a marvelous banana pudding at Magnolia Bakery while gazing out at the people hurrying past. By this time, it was only noon and we already felt like we had crammed quite a bit of sightseeing into our visit. The best was yet to come!

Stay Tuned for Part II...

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