Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Wanderer Returns...

Before I go any further let me once again say Icelandair is the best way to go! Cheaper flights than it's rivals on the route, only minutes delay everytime you fly and a trip to the blue lagoon thrown in for free...oh and if business class isn't full they let you move to the posh seats! Geoff was, as I suspected, totally agog with the landscape in Iceland and he enjoyed his wee jaunt to the Blue Lagoon!

The Blue Lagoon,Iceland, 3pm, Cold, Dark and Strange. Photos just don't do the colour of the water justice.

I've no doubt that this post is going to end up reading like a "100 Things To Do In New York" book but selah as Ross would say. We arrived at 8pm on the Friday and I was instantly in love with my hotel room...massive bed, egyptian cotton sheets, marble bathroom, stereo, tv, comfy chair...almost enough to make you want to stay in! We stayed at the Grand Hyatt which had Grand Central Station on one side and the Chrysler Building (my favourite building in NYC) on the other.

I've been to NYC before but Geoff was a virgin to the city so we did all the usual tourist things. If you've never been before there are a few "must do's" that have to be part of the visit. Firstly the tour buses...there are 4 routes in total during winter but you need only do 2 of them. Uptown loop and downtown loop, the guides are amazing and what they don't tell you about the city isn't worth knowing. You also get a good grip on your bearings doing the tours so within a day you know your upper east side from your midtown...all of which is useful! Best of all they only use up about 5 hours of your trip so they leave plenty time to do the rest of the city.

We had a jaunt up the Empire State...well you have to don't you? I went up at night last time but seeing the view during daylight was a totally different experience. The ticket is good all day so you can do both if you feel the need.

View of Midtown, looking North-East towards Queens in the distance

The view is definitely worth waiting in the queue for...even though it is about 40 minutes long!You go up in the lift to the 8oth floor and then get a second lift up the next 6 floors and emerge on the 86th floor to Manhattan, Jersey, The Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn all sprawled out before you. Apparently on a good clear day you can see for 16 miles.

We took a wander to Times (it's not a square) Square and stolled around reading the news off the neon signs and listening to the many New Yorkers who stand around advertising the various shows that are one in the side streets nearby. It seems there is something for everyone here. Big name musical shows like Evita and Cats, famous plays by Arthur Millar and Tenesse Williams, plays by obsure unknown writers, shows by up and comings in the stand up comedy clubs, debates on issues affecting the world which take place in theatres...these are like shows but there's no script, the audience do all the talking!

Now you know I like my Wizard Of Oz...this is one show I need to see! The untold story of the Withces of Oz. "So much happened before Dorothy dropped in". Now that's a tag line!

One thing about Times (it's not a square) Square is that it's always hooching. The lights are on 24/7 and it's bloody bright but more so it's bloody noisy...there are 2 main roads running right through it and there's a reason there's a cop shop slap bang in the middle of it albeit they're just sitting eating doughnuts! I feel duty bound to advise anyone feeling the need to go to NYC not to book a hotel on Times (it's not a square)'ll get no bloody sleep!!

View of Manhattan from the Hudson (West Side) - eagle eyed readers will note Concorde sitting pretty at the end of one of the piers which houses the air and sea museum...isn't concorde small??!

The one thing that amazed me about NYC last time I went was the people. I'm lucky enough to have visited the States on 7 occasions now and I'll be honest and say that before I had visted the country I was of the much of the rest of the worlds population...that the good folks of the USA were all slightly mad, full of their own importance, slightly thicker than average and loud. How untrue these preconceptions turned out to be. The ordinary American people are friendly, polite to a fault, funny, the first to laugh at themselves (shops in NYC are full of t-shirts bearing pictures of George Bush and George W Bush bearing the slogan "Dumb & Dumber"!) and always happy to help or advise you on something and without doubt they do customer service like nowhere else I've been. Speaking of people, the mix of cultures and races that live in the city is truly bizarre. Chinatown with it's masses of oriental people, Harlem where every face (or very near it) is black, the growing Indian Corner with it's vastly expanding population and Little Italy where the Italians set up when they got off the boats generations ago. Best of all though is the smells you get as you go through each of the areas...chinese food, garlic, curry, steaks...all coming from the multitudes of restaurants that seem to be on every corner.

Another thing I love about New York...and I'm going to sound sad the buildings. I like nice buildings. New York has hundreds of them. Low rise old style apartments, 1930's style sky scrapers, 4 storey brownstone townhouses, modern glass and chrome sky scrapers or the grand buildings like the Courthouse and the Public Library...all of them different and with the exception of the buildings thrown up in the 1970's (well it was a shit decade for taste) all of them lovely in their own way.

The large black glass scraper in the middle is Trump Towers, there another 2 exactly like it in the city. The area office in charge of development have told Mr Trump that they want him to start changing the look of his buildings or they won't let him build anymore! The lower rise building to the right of it with the pointed top (you can just about see it) is an apartment block...the penthouse apartment is currently for sale...3 bedrooms and a roof terrace for the bargain price of $80 million!! I'm told it has fantastic $80 million I should bloody well hope so!!

So we spent Saturday doing the bus tours, the Empire State and Times (it's not a square) Square and went to bed exhausted but feeling like we had achieved something! Anyway we needed our sleep because Sunday was shopping day! We headed to the Port Authority bus depot and caught the bus to Woodbury Common outlets which is about 60 minutes away from Manhattan. Again I had already been up here but Geoff doesn't mind a bit of retail therapy now and again and in any event the trip itself is worth going for! The bus heads out of NYC towards the Jersey side and within 20 minutes your in countryside, add another 10 minutes and you are out in the wilds of New Jersey and heading towards the Catskill's beautiful. I would imagine it looks great in summer when all the trees are green and the flowers are out but I like it in winter when there's snow on the hills and icicles hanging everywhere.

After a good 6 hours melting plastic we headed back down to Manhattan with our loot which included a Bose sound dock for the Ipod which was a bargain $299 as opposed to the £299 it costs here! Us British just get ripped off left, right and centre! Of course there are shit loads of shops in NYC. Couture shops, department stores, specialist boutiques. I find NYC a bit more expensive than other areas of the States for shopping but it's still much better value than we get here.

Not that they are bragging or anything! The stores owners were enraged last year when a Japanese store opened which was bigger than Macy's. Not to be outdone they took out some of the office space within the building and made it into retail space...they won back the title of the world's largest store by only 3 inches!! Another fact? Mr Macy, the original owner and founder of the company sold it to Mr & Mrs Schwarz (on the condition the name remained the same) who moved it to its current site. Mr & Mrs Schwarz were killed on their return journey from a trip to Europe in 1912. They were passengers on the Titanic. There is a memorial to the couple on the outside of the building and a medical centre called after them.

Sunday night was spent wandering round Soho and walking up Park Avenue stopping for a good hour in the biggest Virgin shop I've seen and filling a basket with cd's and games from their sale...I don't buy as many cd's as I used to as I like most of us download everything now but both Geoff and I love music and we're from the generation that would spend hours in record shops looking for stuff to buy. It's been so long since I did that so it was bliss to wander for a while raking through the racks of discs and with the average cd costing about £5 it's worth it too! After walking back Uptown (which took about 3 hours!) we were ready for a drink and hit a bar to sit and watch the world go by for an hour or so...a few Vodka/Cranberries later and it was back to the hotel with throbbing feet! Somehow though you don't seem to mind all the walking you can do...try asking me to walk for 3 hours here!

Monday morning was a nice early start. We were up at 5am to get most of our packing done and out on the streets by 7am. NYC is a totally different place from Monday to Friday. For one thing during working hours the population expands like you would not believe. If you think it's busy on Saturday, wait till you see them piling in off the subways on a Monday morning! A great place to do this is at Ground Zero, the old world trade centre site. You can kill two birds with one stone (perhaps kill is not the best word to use when I'm talking about this area) and not only go to the site but there is a subway directly underneath it (it was only minimally damaged by 9/11 and was re-opened wothin 6 days) and you can see all the commuters coming in from outside the city heading to their offices. They all look in a hurry, mobiles phones, laptops, newspapers and coffee in hand. The women in their skirt suits with their trainers on carrying their Gucci/Manolo/Choo heels to change into!

Ground Zero hasn't changed much at all since I was there last March. They have altered the plans for the building which was to replace the Twin Towers. Freedom Tower was to be the biggest building in the world and last March the model version was there to view, it has gone now as fears were raised about building something so high (1886 feet) and the plans have been re-drawn. The main tower will now be 1776 feet high with office space going no higher than the original towers and the remainder being made up by a glass mast which will rise above NYC.

Ground Zero...the building just in shot to the left is one of 5 which were also badly damaged in the attacks. It is, like the others, in the process of being rebuilt. The Iron Cross which was originally a temporary feature in the aftermath of the attacks is now a symbolic part of Manhattan and is illuminated at night. It will be moved when building commences in full but it will not be destroyed and will become part of a display of effects from the disaster.

The one thing that is most surprising about Ground Zero is how small the site actually is when you consider what was originally there. I was never lucky enough to have seen the towers first hand...I flew into New York 4 days after they were destroyed (on the first flight out of Britain when the skies re-opened in the States) on my way to Florida and literally flew over the site. Back then the site was still smouldering and black smoke was still rising high in the air. I've seen all the pictures but actually standing there it is so hard to imagine what they must have looked like. The strange thing being that when you see the skyline of NYC there is a distinctive gap downtown from all angles which you know the towers used to fill. The area is surrounded by a high wire fence and has round the clock security. On the top of the fence is a series of metal plates with the names of the known dead who worked in the towers. There are thousands of names on it. You stand and read over them and automatically your mind brings up the images that you saw on tv and you can't help but imagine what the last moments of these peoples lives were like.

There is another reason why going to Ground Zero is a good idea. There just happens to be a massive department store (Century 21) right across the street which as if by magic is also a discount store and it has everything from tin openers to designer handbags for "much cheapness" as the market traders of Turkey say. Having enjoyed the luxury of goose down and Egyptian cotton bedding for the last few nights I felt a desire to treat myself to some new bedding and promptly bought Egyptian cotton sheets, pillowcases, a goose down throw and mattress filler for a bargain $200 saving myself over $280 in the process and had to buy another suitcase to get them home in!

After a quick stop off to at the hotel to check out we dropped the luggage with the Bell Hop and headed back out for the afternoon. We went for a look around Grand Central Station which was gorgeous and then we decided to wander up 5th Avenue and look in the windows of the fancy stores which never in my wildest dreams could I afford to shop in! Geoff was beyond chuffed to find a big NBA shop and spent ages wandering round it looking at all the stuff and choosing a few bits and pieces. Geoff is a big lad...6ft 3" and about 18 stone but seeing him standing next to life size cut outs of Shaq put things in perspective a bit! Better still seeing his size 10's trying to fill Shaq's size 22 footprint was laughable! Of course it was necessary to buy my son a Miami Heat top like his Dad's! Actually if I'm truthful I'm not sure I could live in the States...Geoff loves his Football here and that's his passion but he also loves American sports and he watches American football (He's a Redskins fan) and Basketball (The Heat) here whenever it's on so I can only imagine what he'd be like if we lived in the US where it never seems to be off! I have promised him our next trip to NYC will coincide with a Heat/Knicks game at Madison Square Garden! Actually he's getting me quite into the basketball so I'd enjoy that but I cannot get my head round the rules of American Football no matter how I try!

After a bit of stolling (and me stopping to get my nails done!) we went for a wander round Tiffany's and gazed in awe at the massive diamonds...I have never felt like such a tramp in my life! I'm there in my jeans and trainers looking at all this bling worth thousands of dollars but I'll tell you something, I may have felt underdressed and may well have looked like I couldn't afford the box never mind the jewellery but it didn't stop the staff from showing me things and encouraging me to try them on. I think they know the tourists come just to be nosy and they play along!

Tiffany & Co...Don't ask for Breakfast because they don't do it!!

Perhaps my favourite thing of this trip though was the thing we did last. Our bus guide recommended a trip to the Rockefeller Centre's Observatory or 30 Rock as locals know it. We wandered back up 6th Avenue and found just look up really and follow the buildings if your lost...and went inside. I had never been here before so it was something new for both of us. It cost $33 for us both to go up and there were no queues, it was straight in the lift and away you go. Before you get to the lift you can browse a gallery showing how the centre was built and read loads of facts about it. There's also a chance to stand on a glass floor which has an optical illusion below it so it looks as though your standing on a steel beam about 60 storeys up during the buildings know that famous black and white picture of the workers sitting on the steel girder eating lunch high above New York? You do? Good. Well it's a popular mistake that those workers were building the Empire State...actually they were building the Rockefeller Centre and when yo9u stand on the glass floor they are there below you eating lunch! The lift up is great as well. It has a glass roof so you can see right up the lift shaft and how high and how fast you're going...40 seconds to get to floor 72! Aside all that though you go for the view and what a view it is! The view from Empire State is great but you can't see the Empire State building in the skyline when you're up it! You see it from 30 Rock!

The view looking Downtown to the Financial District and the Hudson mouth. Far in the distance is Lady Liberty. You can really see how the Empire dominates the skyline.

Of course you not only get great views of the Empire State but also the rest of New York. The wall around the top is only knee high so it's a bit hairy up there but you are shielded by glass panels of safety glass which surround the edge to stop you falling but even so the fact the wall is so low and you can go right to the edge makes this much scarier than the top of the Empire. Best of all there are 4 observation levels in total. The lowest is indoors and you can sit on the window sills and look down at the streets below then you can go outside and take in the view before getting an escalator up to the next outdoor level and then if you're really brave you can climb the flight of steps to the very top...and it is the very top, you're right there with the mobile phone mast and satellite recievers!

Looking north over Central Park towards Harlem where the sun is shining down!!

View over the Upper West Side with North Bergen in the distance over the river in might just make it out but the deeper brown building to the left of the orangey coloured one on the parimeter of the park is the Dakota Building, it was on the street outside here that John Lennon was shot. Yoko Ono still lives there to this day in the same apartment and directly in front of it in the park is Strawberry Fields the official memorial site to John Lennon. It is 2 acres in size and was originally planted with strawberries but the birds kept destroying them so it is now planted with a species of plant from almost every country in the world. There is a place where fans can leave messages and a meditation spot. Apparently Yoko can see it from her window!

And so after a busy weekend it was time to head to the airport for our flight home. We waved goodbye to Manhattan at 5pm and headed over the bridge to Queens looking back for a last view of the skyline in the setting sun before it was out of sight. We drove through Queens taking in the sights along the way, Shea Stadium and Flushing Meadow and finally arrived at JFK totally knackered, looking forward to getting home but sorry to be leaving!

A quick stop in Iceland to catch the connecting flight to Glasgow and we were back home an hour or so later in the Scottish drizzle. Despite his initial reservations about going Geoff loved New York and he is well up for going back again sometime. Even though I had seen it all before (except 30 Rock) I enjoyed it just as much if not more this time round. It's a great city and given you can get there for a few quid more than a weekend break to somewhere in Europe it's not as expensive as you'd think...if you've not been then you should go and if you need someone to go with I'm always available and as you'll have noticed I listened good to my guides so I can probably do a not bad job of giving you the tour!

Right now though my fingers are numb from typing so I'm away to lie down! Actaully given it's 12.20am I'm going to bed!

Jenny xx


Godess Of Bitch said...

Wonderful! I'm so glad you guys had a good time. Looks like you had good weather as well! Lucky ducks.

Steven Douglas said...

Welcome back, you two. Looks like it was a great weekend.

Jen, if you ever get bored with your current job, you could always become a tour guide. The way you wrote some of the narrative is exactly the way they would have orated it on a tour. A great piece of writing. :-)