A Long Weekend In New York | April 11, 2005
After SXSW Interactive wrapped up, most of the “BritPack” headed off home. However I decided to make the most of my time away, so arranged to meet up with my girlfriend for a long weekend away in New York.
I’ve always wanted to visit New York, but despite all my travelling, it’s a place I’ve never managed to get to. New York is one of those big cities–like London, Sydney or Hong Kong– that you absolutely have to visit at least once in your life. We live in an age where American popular culture has penetrated the furthest reaches of the world, and New York takes centre stage in our collective consciousness. It’s one of the places that you’ve seen so many times on TV and in the movies, you feel you know it, even if you’ve never been there before. It didn’t disappoint.
The first taste most foreign travellers get of a country or city is the city’s airport. Singapore and Hong-Kong airports are fantastic. All glass and steel, these futuristic edifices really show the international traveller how that country wants to be perceived. By contrast, Newark Airport felt much more like Heathrow or Gatwick–grubby and dilapidated. My girlfriend was flying in from the UK in a couple of hours time so I wanted to find the International arrivals. Asking for the assistance from Airport staff was an exercise in frustration, as all I managed to elicit was their annoyance, interrupting them from their important duties of staring off into space.
As anybody who’s ever been to Newark will tell you, the facilities “airside” are much better than those in the arrivals lounge, which do a good job of mimicking the facilities of a third world bus depot. If you’re waiting for somebody in the airport, whatever you do, don’t pass through customs. It’s just not worth it.
Three bored and uncomfortable hours later, I met up with Mel and we headed off into town. Now airport transfers are the next big hurdle for the international traveller. In Hong-Kong you’ve got an amazingly clean and efficient train service that gets you into town in no time flat. By contrast getting home from Heathrow involves a trip on one of the rudest, inefficient and uncomfortable bus services in the world.
It would seem that the Newark coach transfer people have been taking lessons from the Airport Express coach service, because the service sucked big time. After a 45 min wait in the freezing cold, we were herded onto a dilapidated and packed bus like cattle. 45 minutes later we were deposited on the sidewalk supposedly to wait for a shuttle bus to take us to our hotel. None of the other people waiting seemed to know what was going on and the person from the bus company was decidedly uncommunicative. Welcome to New York. The queue slowly thinned as people got fed up of waiting and jumped in a cab. When it got down to just us and another couple It was time to jump ship and get a cab as well.
Tired, exhausted and harassed, the St. Regis hotel was a sight for sore eyes. The room we were staying in was fantastic, with glass chandeliers, walk in wardrobes and our own personal butler. Despite being one of the most expensive and exclusive hotels in New York (Rod Stuart was staying just down the hall), we were never made to feel uncomfortable or out of place. The staff were amazingly friendly and the concierge was one of the most helpful people I’ve ever met.
With a pretzel vendor on every street corner and steam billowing out of every manhole cover, New York was exactly how I imagined it. Huge wide streets, skyscrapers everywhere–it felt like we’d just walked onto a set of a movie. In fact, the streets were so clean compared to home, it all felt a little artificial. Not wanting to burst any illusions of England, but it really takes a trip overseas to remind you how dirty and rundown the UK really is.
However the subway was even grubbier than the London underground. If you’ve ever been on the tube you know that’s pretty hard to accomplish, but New York does manages it effortlessly. While the subway did feel a little oppressive at times, New York felt a lot safer than I’d expected. This could have just been ignorance, but I never felt particularly threatened. Even when we ended up walking around a dodgy and deserted part of the city late one evening I felt safer than I would have in a similar situation in London or Manchester.
The day after we arrived happened to be St. Patrick’s day, so me and Mel went to see the parade. I’d been expecting a big parade, but I wasn’t expecting all the world marching bands to descend on the city for the day. It was huge. The parade started about 10 am and people were still marching along at 6pm. The atmosphere was good-natured and I was really surprised to see how much respect the crowd had for the police. I don’t know if that was just an after-effect of 9/11 or not, but it seemed that the US police have much more respect that their British cousins. Anybody with an ounce of Irish blood in their veins, and many more without, were on the streets wearing traditional green plastic Irish hats, red wigs and four leaf clovers. However I was really disappointed to see people in the parade walking along with banners of Irish terrorist martyrs. For a city that’s been so hurt by terrorism, it seemed inconceivable they’d condone such behaviour.
While in New York, we managed to see most of the main sights. We took the Staten Island ferry past the Statue of Liberty, strolled through central park and enjoyed the amazing art at MOMA. We wandered up Wall Street (boy it’s tiny) and went to pay our respects at “Ground Zero”. One thing I did learn is whatever you do, don’t go up the empire state building when it’s busy. I thought the English were supposed to have the monopoly on queuing! We queued 30 min for a ticket then another 45 to get to the lift. Despite being freezing cold outside it was roasting inside. When we got to the lift we thought that was it, only to be deposited 5 floors below the observation deck to wait another 45 min for the lift up. In the end one of the people working there suggested we take the fire escape. Getting out into the cool night air was such a relief. The views were pretty spectacular, but after 10 minutes we were done. Not really worth the 2 hour wait! And of course we had to queue for another 45 min to get out of the place.
One of the highlights of the trip was a Helicopter ride round Manhattan that Mel organised as an early birthday treat. Despite learning to fly fixed wings when I was younger, I’ve never been in a helicopter (or a hot air balloon for that matter). It was great seeing New York from this angle and we got a close up view of the Statue of Liberty without having to wait hours for the ferry out there. If you’re planning to go to New York I can highly recommend this as an experience of a lifetime.
We were only in New York for 5 days but it really felt like we saw all of it. At least my feet felt like we saw all of it. In one afternoon we walked around Brooklyn heights, across the bridge, around Chinatown and Little Italy, then over to SoHo, before ending up in a fantastic bar near the Apple store. I’d love to remember the name of this bar (cafe something) as it probably had the friendliest bar staff of anywhere I’ve ever been. We stopped in really to rest our feet, but the bar owner kept pouring us free beers. We rolled out of there about 2 hours later decidedly drunker than we went in, having had five beers each but only having paid for two. Now that’s what I call New York hospitality.
We were determined to make the most of the New York nightlife, however Mel was still jet lagged and I was exhausted from SXSW, not to mention all the sightseeing we were doing. One night we made it to the meat packing district and hung out in some cool bars such as APT and Lotus. Another night we hit the lower east side and more grungier places like Max Fish. However we were both so tired we rarely made it out past 1am.
As well as fun nights out we also managed to get some great food in New York. One night we headed out to SoHo for some excellent Mexican food at Dos Caminos. Another night we sampled some traditional New York pizza at Lombardi’s. I was much less impressed with the food at the Emperor Diner, however the setting was great and it’s the only place I’ve ever eaten a burger while listening to live piano music.
All told, I had an excellent time in New York. It’s a great city and I definitely plan to go back soon. Now that I’ve done the tourist thing I’ll look forward to spending more time exploring the city, eating at great restaurants and enjoying the nightlife.
Posted at April 11, 2005 1:56 PM