Friday, 13 November 2009

New York makes the perfect getaway

10 NOV 2009:  Recently a friend Helen Tilston and I took off for a way-too-short “girl’s weekend” in New York.  I am regularly amazed at the number of people I meet across Canada and the US, who only an hour’s flight, or less than a  day’s drive away, have never visited Manhattan.  With one of the world’s three greatest cities (my opinion of course - the others - London and Paris) on your doorstep, you stay home.  That’s just mindboggling.

Anyway, Helen and I decided to drive (always my first choice) so we set off Thursday morning bright and early from Toronto, stopping only at Duty Free to stock up, and at US Customs and Immigration where the officer had some unusual questions as to how long we had known each other and where we met.  We managed to provide pretty quick answers – “over 25 years” and “Wardair” so I guess we passed and he let us go with a wave and a “have fun”.

Getting there

I love the drive through New York and Pennsylvania which, once you get off the New York Thruway and past Syracuse is lovely all the way through the Poconos and The Delaware Water Gap Recreational Area.  We stayed overnight at Clark’s Summit in Pennsylvania about two hours out of New York and headed for the city bright and early. 

With just one unintended detour, (“keep to the right” said Helen as I veered left), we soon zoomed through the Lincoln Tunnel and into the cacophony of midtown Manhattan.  People are sometimes concerned about driving in New York, but while, certainly the traffic (especially the cabs, can be intimidating, it’s easy to navigate. It’s a grid and it’s got (for the most part) a logical system of alternating one way streets.  In no time we were heading up Sixth to The Midtown New York Hilton. 

Then came the sirens, the police cars, and the stopped traffic.  For a moment we thought the Hilton was on fire – but no, it was the building next door which had smoke pouring out of somewhere (turned out to be a manhole).  The streets were of course barricaded and police were redirecting traffic and fire department officials were scurrying about.  I dropped Helen at the entrance with the luggage and scooted around to the hotel garage entrance on the next street.

Nice and easy

The way parking is handled is usually a dead giveaway as to the service levels of a hotel. In this case I drove into a brightly lit area (parking lots in New York can be horribly dingy) and there was an attendant at my side in less than 30 seconds.  He asked if I needed any assistance with luggage, handed over a ticket and directed me to the main lobby – through glass doors leading into the hotel - right there. 

The process was completed in under a minute. It was convenient, efficient, professional and pleasant.  I reached the check-in counter at the same time Helen did.

Check in was smooth and swift and handled with a smile.  We were soon following a porter up to our room.

The room was a good size with two queen beds and all the mod-cons including a LCD flat screen television, coffee/hospitality area and mini-bar (untouched by us).  There was also a multi-functional rolling desk which was quite a neat innovation. 

The phones are two-line cordless with speakerphone and voicemail capability, and there is desktop-level data port and plug.  I don’t know about anyone else, but for me who has to pack a computer at all times, and often has to conduct phone interviews, these are convenient  touches that make the difference in a choosing a hotel.  The other thing that ranks high with me are sufficient pillows and comfortable beds.  The Hilton is tops in this department.

Our bellman was helpful and pleasant without being obsequious, and helpfully went a fetched a bucket of ice.

Our view overlooked the burning (well, smoking) building leaving Helen and I to reminisce that the very first time we had a “Girl’s weekend” in New York, which was not far off 20 years ago, we stayed at the same Hilton and had arrived (via the now defunct People’s Express airlines) and checked in about ten minutes when the fire alarms went off and looking out our window we could see a small fire on the awning over the entrance.  Looking at the smoke pouring out the manhole on the street below, felt as though the years had just vanished and here we were again standing at the window - same place – same smoke. 

Ever so cultured

With a brief relaxation we decided to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a beautiful autumnal day – sunny and crisp so we took off on foot.  One of the biggest plusses of the Hilton, is its proximity to everything.  You can walk almost everywhere.

Strolling along Fifth Avenue across from the Park, we could almost believe we were New Yorkers.  Two beautiful young men came jogging by.  Probably in their early twenties, well built, dressed identically in below the knee tight running pants and grey sweatshirts, they had identical below shoulder length dreadlocks and were identical twins.  Absolutely identical.  It was quite a sight as they ran in perfect synchronization with each other.

We decided to stop for lunch before hitting the Met and found an Italian Restaurant with a long narrow front section, leading a few steps down to a pair of dining rooms bright with original paintings, and crammed with late lunchers.  Squeezing into a small heavy wooden table and had an excellent and quite reasonable lunch. 

It was only a few minutes from there to the Met where for US $30, we spent an entire afternoon and much of the evening enjoying the art.  There was a Vermeer exhibition on, and as is frequently the case, famous paintings are usually much smaller than what one has imagined them to be. 

I particularly enjoyed a trip to the roof garden where aside from a fabulous view of the city, on exhibition was a sculpture called Maelstrom by American artist Roxy Paine.  The stainless steel installation (130 feet by 45 feet) encompasses the entire roof garden for which it was especially created, and one can actually be right in it, giving a sensation of almost walking through a shiny silver treetop. 

At some point we checked the time to discover that the afternoon had sped by and we were exhausted.

We grabbed a cab back to the hotel stopping at a small grocery store across the street to buy some essentials - cheese, tapenade, bread, grapes, apples, and a dubious bottle of red wine, we staggered back across the street to the hotel.

Well, dubious turned out not to be the word for  the wine.  The last time I tasted anything of quite this vintage the Vietnam war was in full swing, and a friend and I pooled our payday-is-just-around-the corner-resources (about $5) to buy a jug of Andreas red.  Back then we drank it and solved the problems of the world too boot, these days we took a sip, ditched it, and switched to Talisker, a rather nice single malt.

After deciding on all the things we could/should do on a night in New York we fell asleep. 

Relax and enjoy

The next day, both being painters we packed tiny watercolour boxes and books and set off for the West Village.  The destination was my favourite lunch spot (no pun intended) – the Spotted Pig.  Arriving (intentionally) early we set up across the street and spent an hour or so creating little masterpieces (!) 

I say this every time I talk about or write about New York.  Go to the Spotted Pig.  It’s not fancy. It’s just a pub.  A very Englishy pub.  But the food is superb and the atmosphere just “real”.  Of course, all the servers are ’resting’ actors or dancers.

We walked off lunch strolling through the west village and the boutiques and galleries of Soho, and ended up on Canal Street where we picked up a couple of bargains and Helen witnessed a pickpocket team in action.

Finally we made our way back to the Hilton, stopping for a drink and some people watching in the lobby bar which is well suited for both activities.

After a brief rest we decided to take a stroll and find a restaurant for dinner.  Well, that took all of about five minutes, as we found a charming spot just up the street from the hotel.  Great food, excellent service and there sitting at the bar across from us was one of the jogging twins from the previous day. Serendipity!

Heading home

The following morning, retrieving the car was as simple as checking it in and we waved goodbye to the Hilton and headed for the Holland Tunnel and home. 

Easier said than done – a marathon had closed the tunnel, so adjusting to the situation and once again navigating New York with relative ease we headed downtown and crossed at the Lincoln Tunnel.

We were back in Toronto by dinner time.  It may seem a long way to go to not do a huge amount, but New York is invigorating all on its own. Rather than a packed itinerary I have always preferred to do one or two things (in this instance the Met, some watercolour painting and the Spotted Pig)  and then spend time browsing through stores or galleries, just people watching  and soaking up the atmosphere of a city.

If you are looking for a short getaway, there are any number of flights available, and if flying from Toronto don’t forget Porter Airlines at Toronto City Centre Airport. I will always recommend the midtown Hilton for great service and great location – walking distance to Broadway, theatres, any number of restaurants and steps from Central Park and shopping on Fifth Avenue or Madison Avenue.

These days when quick, short getaways are increasingly popular, New York is a perfect location.

 New York views

Reprinted with permission from Travel Industry Today

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