New York in 48 Hours
When I first looked to plan a spring trip to the East Coast, I was focused on getting Johanna and myself to Washington, D.C. during that small window of time when the cherry blossoms are in bloom and the springtime warmth banishes the snow flurries and icy winter air. I started by adding a “free one-way” onto our summer round-trip flight to Croatia (see this post for an explanation), but we still had to get from Southern California to Washington. That’s where United’s award availability got scarce and New York got added to the itinerary.
By flying to the United hub city of Newark, we were able to get to the East Coast on award miles and then utilize one of the many inexpensive yet comfortable private bus companies to get to DC. Between landing in Newark and heading to DC though, we went on a 48-hour whirlwind tour of New York City.
Our original flight from the West Coast was essentially cancelled because of a mechanical problem, so we were re-booked on the last flight out that night. We were happy not to lose a day at the start of our trip, but we ended up with two “middle-seat” tickets in different sections of the airplane cabin and surrounded by imposingly-sized armrest warriors…the silent battles for shoulder and arm-space began almost immediately, and assured us of a less than restful night’s sleep. As we departed Newark Airport on the AirTrain connection to Manhattan, we tried to gather ourselves and make the best of it. After all, New York is “the city that never sleeps,” so we’d be having a truly authentic experience!
I’ll save the details of public transportation in NYC for later, but I will say here that, even having been to New York once before, getting to and utilizing the subway system at Penn Station is sort of like visiting a new country where no one speaks your language. After a few false starts though, we deciphered the subway code and made our way to our hotel.
Day 1: New York City, New York
The Waldorf Astoria is, in my opinion, one of the most iconic establishments at which you can have a bed for the night in NYC, so when the opportunity arose to utilize some Hilton Honors points to book our stay there, I had jumped at the chance. Our stay there wasn’t perfect (more about the benefits and drawbacks to truly aspirational hotel award bookings in a later post), but it was grand. From the moment one enters the marble outer lobby it is clear that the Waldorf’s interior matches the magnificent facades of the high-rises that surround it in the heart of Midtown Manhattan.
Since we’d arrived mid-morning, our room was not yet ready, so we left our luggage at the hotel and headed out into the city. We tried to move through the maze of high-rises, automobile-clogged roads, and aggressive walking patterns of the New York sidewalks toward some nearby points of interest (NYC Public Library, Bryant Park, Empire State Building, etc.). Here is some of what we saw while on the streets of Manhattan on our first day in the city:
If our first day in NYC was about exploring some of the highlights of Mid-Manhattan along 5th Avenue, the first evening was about figuring out what all the fuss is about the up-and-coming borough of Brooklyn. Over the last few years, it’s been nearly impossible to avoid hearing about the “gentrification” of Brooklyn, the “hipster take-over,” or the “rich people coming in here and kicking us out of our neighborhoods” depending on the author or documentary-maker. Being evening, we decided to do our research via visits to a few popular bar and restaurant districts in Brooklyn.
First up was Smith Street, wedged in-between the neighborhoods of Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill, for a stop a the Clover Club during happy hour, followed by an unplanned stop at Cubana Cafe after some bar “window-shopping.” Here’s what we found:
The Clover Club has been featured in a number of television series and media publications as one of the top cocktail bars in the country. We tried the Moscow Mule and the Jack Rose (both delicious). Clover Club makes their own simple syrups, which made for a truly impressive ginger flavor in my Mule. We also had the potato crisps (made with duck fat) and enjoyed excellent and efficient service at the bar.
After having been transported to an earlier time via the Clover Club, it was an agreeable coincidence that we ended up at Cubana Cafe, as those who have visited Cuba recently say they quite literally do live in a different time. Latin music, freshly made empanadas, and Cuba libres filled the room with Havana flavor. Strangely enough, though, a real highlight of the easy-going establishment are the photos adorning the loo, which depict life in Cuba. Apparently the owner’s friend is the photographer.
After a few stops on Smith Street, we hopped back on the subway and headed over to Grand Street in Williamsburg, the most often publicized of the Brooklyn neighborhoods. After a few false-starts, we ended up at Shanghai Bistro & Garden, which features long-table, communal-style seating. We scarfed down some dumplings and a delicious crispy duck dish with plum sauce and then decided to call it a night.
Of the two areas, we found the Williamsburg strip to be more free-wheeling or “in-flux” if you will, a mix of empty storefronts and vibrant, unique restaurant and bar offerings. While we did not experience anything worrisome, the area felt a bit less stable and welcoming than Smith street between the two hill districts. Smith Street was full of classy, pitch-perfect dining and drinking options, while Grand Street offered a more edgy experience, with a good number of dive bars and alternative hangouts. To totally generalize based upon a single night, Grand Street might be best suited for college-age and early-to-mid twenty-somethings, while Smith Street is right on the button for everyone from young professionals to middle-aged couples.
After having sampled some of the nightlife offerings in Brooklyn, we were delighted to return to our suite at the Waldorf for some much needed rest before another 24 hours jam-packed with New York City exploration and adventure!
Day 2: New York City, New York
After having covered lots of Midtown Manhattan on our first day in New York, we focused most of our efforts on Lower Manhattan for the beginning of our second day in the city. However, since it was convenient to the subway line we would be taking down to Lower Manhattan, we first decide to check out the famed Central Park. Here’s what we found:
As it turns out, the lush, garden-like setting of Central Park you see in the movies occurs during a smaller window of time than we spoiled Californians had imagined. At a time when Santa Barbara is a deep green of new growth despite a very serious drought, Central Park has yet to put its charm on. Despite its starkness, the rain, and temperatures ranging in the low 40’s, we encountered lots of cyclists and runners toughing it out in CP — sometimes travel is meant to show you just how good home is.
So off we went on the red line of the subway, directly from the southwest corner of Central Park to the most important stop of our short visit to New York.
As we approached Ground Zero, the new World Trade Center building helped guide us through the maze of construction, tourism, and business as usual — all three an important and welcome sight in a place where every American’s heart once sank below the earth. Ground Zero holds such significance to me that it should and must have its own post (Coming Soon). What I will say here and now is that the memorial grounds are exceptionally well-executed and resonated deeply with me in a way that I’m still working through.
Logistically speaking, the 9/11 Memorial is still a work-in-progress, but the essence is that it is to be donation-based entry so that all can see. There is a ticket location a few blocks from the actual memorial, where people queue for time-specific entry slots. We made our donation and received tickets for entry just a half-hour later, so there was really no waiting to get inside the memorial grounds. Thanks to the timed-entry, the grounds themselves were not crowded, which allowed for uninterrupted reflection at the pools.
A museum with artifacts from the falling of the “twin towers” was not yet completed, but advertised that it would soon be open. There was no light conversation on the grounds, no posturing, no smiling. If you go, be prepared both to think and to confront the absence of thought. In all, we spent about an hour walking the grounds, reading the names, staring into the abyss.
We were aware that Staten Island commuters have for a good, long while shared their daily trips to and from the city with tourists and lovebirds seeking views of the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty without the heavy price-tag of the many boat-cruise offerings and decided to join them. The Staten Island Ferry takes about half-an-hour to cross the Hudson River from South Ferry to St. George Terminal on Staten Island, and served as a satisfactory transition from the deeply personal experience of the 9/11 Memorial back to true and light tourism.
Upon reaching the other side, it was my intention to avoid the stereotypical faux pas of hopping off one ferry only to turn around and immediately embark on the return voyage without experiencing or contributing anything to the fair Island of Staten. Instead, thanks to great advice from an old friend who local knowledge, we walked over to Pier 76 for a beer and some delicious pizza. Pier 76 appears to be more of an evening hang-out and at 3pm we were the only customers in the establishment that didn’t seem to know the bartender.
With a revolving tap of several beers, mostly East Coast brands I’d never heard of, I settled on a Goose Island IPA and then another. As we were about to leave, I made sure to snap a shot of the “goose tap,” at which point the bartender explained that Goose Island was purchased by Anheuser-Busch, to which I quickly replied, “oh, that’s too bad — hopefully they don’t screw it up.” Genuine laughter ensued, which tells me that the crowd here know a bit about beer. I like that.
After making our way back to the big city, we decided it was time rest and recover a bit before our next highlight of our whirlwind tour of New York City: The Book of Mormon on Broadway! It was a real pleasure coming back to such a beautiful and well-appointed hotel, but before long we were back on the street, making our way to a bar in the theatre district that specializes in mixed drinks utilizing their house-infused vodkas and whiskeys.
Infuse51 had recently undergone a change in name, but I had seen a number of good online reviews both with the old incarnation and new, so that was to be our pre-theatre spot. What I didn’t realize is that Infuse51 appears to be a gay bar, and honestly, we felt it sort of added to the experience of being in the big city. Our bartender was having a delightful time, getting his groove on and mixing drinks with this great list of infused alcohol and my partner in crime was loving his playlist. After sampling a few of the vodka infusions to much success, we (well, actually just I…Johanna knew better) decided to get adventurous and try whiskey infused with bacon. Two things I love, what could go wrong, right? Wrong! Still, it was a worthwhile experience.
The Eugene O’neill theatre is not one of the larger playhouses I’ve been to, but it’s very charming and was packed to the brim with eager theatre-goers. The theatre being medium-size, our seats around the middle of the mezzanine put us in excellent position for the show and we grinned and belly-laughed with the rest of the audience for the better part of two-and-a-half hours. The Book of Mormon’s take of 9 Tony Awards was proven well-deserved. It is irreverent and borderline filthy at times and must be taken as such from line one, but the writing is spectacular and on Broadway, production quality is always good.
One of the funniest moments of the night for me actually occurred during the intermission as the bathroom line snaked around corners, down stairs, and back and forth on itself many times over. This theatre sells alcoholic beverages in adult-size “sippy-cups” that you can actually take to your seat and lets just say some of the younger individuals in the crowd were taking full advantage.
One of these young fellow descending the stairs in line (having already spent quite a while in line before the stairs), having finally come in view of the 50-or-so of us waiting in rows for the tiny bathroom, drunkenly blurted out, “oh no! This line goes on forever! This is terrible!” A quick retort alluding to a line from the musical (“man up”) came from one of his buddies and laughter erupted in the line. Several more jokes at this drunken guys expense helped pass the time and the long line became just another punch-line opportunity in a night filled with those.
After the show, we weren’t quite ready to return to the hotel, so we popped into Lillie’s, a bar very near the Eugene O’neill Theatre that looked promising. The attractive Victorian decor struck the perfect after-show note and we spent a good while just people-watching and admiring the paintings, carved-wood accents, and many other accents that gave the dim-lit bar a pleasant feel. Post-Lillie’s we wandered a bit through Time-Square, dazzled by the lights, but didn’t find anything else that struck us and decided to call it a night.
The next morning we checked out of the Waldorf-Astoria and, 48 hours after arriving in NYC, caught a direct bus to Washington, D.C. for the second part of our weeklong trip to the East Coast.