Monthly Archives: September 2010

Filling in the blanks

Just a little final travel note before I close the book on another vacation. This didn’t really fit into the last post but I wanted to get it in:

I’m writing things from Pearson International Airport in Toronto, where we have a three-hour stopover. For those keeping score: Ottawa and Pearson have free wi-fi (and better wi-fi than our hotel did). LaGuardia in NYC does not. Canadian airports are winning, 2-0.

We spent out final day of vacation checking off one final item from the New York Tourist Checklist:

  • Metropolitan Museum Of Art

This was something I had wanted to do, but it didn’t really fit well into our schedule, and Pamela didn’t seem that interested, so I didn’t push it. But then we had nothing scheduled for this morning, and she suggested we visit, so off we went.

We actually took a cab a few blocks farther north than we needed to, because I wanted to see the Guggenheim Museum. I didn’t want to go in, I just wanted to see it, because it’s a somewhat famous and unique building. So I guess we actually checked two items off the New York Tourist Checklist:

  • Metropolitan Museum Of Art
  • The Guggenheim

The Met, as it’s known, was amazing. It really is an art museum, not an art gallery…and it’s enormous and maze-like. The first thing we saw was a huge exhibit of Egyptian art. But they interpret “art” quite broadly. So there are paintings and sculptures…but also an entire room from an Egyptian temple (I think) transported and installed in a large gallery. There are sarcophigi and canopy jars and jewelry boxes and make-up applicators (really) and all sorts of other things. The galleries are beatiful, and, in many cases, built or modified specifically to fit particular collections.

Besides the Egyptian art collection, we saw Italian Renaissance art, a bunch of Victorian-era art including several entire rooms recreated with all the original furniture etc. (I told you they interpreted “art” broadly), a sculpture garden full of beautiful marble sculptures from around the 17th century, a collection of medieval European and Japanese arms and armor, a gallery of Greek and Roman art (including coins), and a gallery of modern art. This last gallery was the only one that really resembled what I expected: it was mostly paintings on walls. The rest of it really straddled that line between “art gallery” and “museum”.

We didn’t see it all, in that in our three hours there, we didn’t see every gallery. But there was so much stuff in a single gallery that you could spend a day in each and not really “see it all”. Definitely recommended. Allow at least three hours. Be warned that there are surprisingly few places to sit…we saw more chairs and furniture that we weren’t allowed to sit on (because they were exhibits) than we were.

That was the end of our New York trip. From the Met, we took a cab to the hotel to grab our bags and then straight to LaGuardia. It was a nice way to end the trip. And in a couple hours, we should be home!

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I don’t like cities, but I like New York

Actually, that title is a lie. I like cities. But that’s a line from a Madonna song (entitled “New York”). I used to think it was kind of arbitrary, but looking back on the last week, I’m now fully willing to agree that New York is unlike any other city I’ve ever been to, and quite possibly unique.

Again, I’m speaking about Manhattan here, and Midtown in particular, since that’s where we spent our time. The neighbourhood is pretty incredible: where else can you regularly find neighbours like a dilapidated sewing machine repair shop right across the street from an upscale nightclub? It’s incredible how much…stuff…is packed into a small area in Manhattan.

It’s pretty easy to see what makes this area what it is. Every building is retail on the bottom, and several stories of offices or apartments on top. This means that there’s a large population in the neighbourhood 24 hours a day – people work in the offices by day, live in the apartments by night, and shop and go to restaurants all the time. If you want a coffee, or a bite to eat, or a new shirt, or a newspaper, or just about anything else, pick a direction and start walking. Within two or three minutes, you’ll probably find what you need.

Life in Manhattan is lived on the street. Very few people drive, if for no other reason than that there’s nowhere to park. Real estate is tight, so there are no big parking lots…and land is expensive, so the parking lots that do exist are pricey. (We saw parking as expensive as $15 for a half hour.) So you take a cab, or a train, or you walk. After all, everything’s nearby.

So much of what we saw brought to mind movies or TV shows. You know how in a movie, a guy needs a paper, so he buys one from the guy that’s conveniently got a news stand set up on the sidewalk? That’s New York. Those scenes of someone waving a hand in the air and getting in a taxi within ten seconds, going a few blocks, and passing a few bills to the cabbie? New York. People leaving their office and walking through the park, where people are reading on the benches and ignoring the pigeons? New York. Almost anything that looks like a generic “big city”, and seems a little unreal (too many people, too many cars, too convenient) is probably based on New York.

New York is a city you experience with all your senses. Visually, it’s overwhelming. You know how New Yorkers are famous for being unflappable? It’s because you can’t walk around being amazed by everything you see, or you won’t make it two blocks. Besides, all those people mean that you’re likely to run into a couple weirdos. Someone started shouting on the subway all of a sudden – something about “the truth” and “medicinal marijuana” – and then fell silent again, and was completely ignored. At least three or four people tried to convince me that all the Biblical prophecies were being fulfilled, and the end was near. (Who knows, maybe they were right. I didn’t take their pamphlets. Get that many thousand people in one place, and you have to expect a few wackos.

All those people mean that it’s noisy, too. There are the cars, and the honking (not as bad as it’s often shown on TV, though that may be because of the recent-looking signs threatening a $350 fine for honking). There are the people – the pedestrians talking, the hawkers trying to get you into their restaurant. There’s the roar of the subway underfoot. The occasional siren.

New York is also a city you taste: it’s a city of food. There’s the occasional hot dog vendor, but more importantly, there are restaurants. For the most part, these aren’t big chain restaurants either, but little one-off joints. We ate at “Waldy’s Wood-Fired Pizza” one night, and it’s pretty representative of the places you see. And they’re everywhere: look at what we got when we searched for restaurants near our hotel. I’m notoriously picky about food, and even I would say that if you visit NYC and don’t taste something new, you’re doing it wrong.

And unfortunately, with all those people, New York is a city of smell. Some good smells: the restaurants, the hot dog vendors. Surprising little “pollution” smell, because there’s not a crazy amount of traffic. But…there are no back lanes. So there’s nowhere to put garbage bins. So those sidewalks that everyone spends all their time on? They’re also the place that all the garbage bags get tossed. You catch whiffs of a dozen different smells while walking a block, and they’re not all pleasant.

Overall, Manhattan is unlike any place I’ve ever visited. And I like it. It’s impossible to feel out of place, in part because there are a lot of tourists, but also because there are so many different types of people walking around, there’s no single culture to make you feel like an outsider. It’s also surprisingly difficult to get lost: most of Manhattan is covered in a very straightforward grid road system, with numbered streets and avenues. And it’s ridiculously easy to get around: if all else fails, jump in a cab and tell him where you want to go.

Final verdict: Worth visiting. But you have to be willing to walk, and you have to be able to deal with lots and lots of people, an assault on your senses, and breaking out of the “hotel and car” style of vacation. If you can survive that – better yet, if you enjoy that – you’ll like it in Manhattan.

The Financial District

We spent today on the south end of Manhattan Island – the Wall Street area. Here’s the checklist, to get things started:

  • Wall Street
  • World Trade Center site
  • New York Stock Exchange
  • South Street Seaport
  • Fulton Street Market
  • Brooklyn Bridge
  • City Hall Park

We started off by sleeping in ’til around 9:00, and having breakfast in the hotel (which we’ve done every day – it’s reasonably priced, good food, and easy to find.) We then hopped a subway to the Wall Street area. We have the subway system more-or-less figured out now, and probably would have taken them more often if we had bothered to figure it out eariler.

Taking the trains versus taking a cab is an interesting decision. The trains have fairly limited routes, and even if a train goes in approximately the right direction, you probably have to walk a few blocks. Our hotel is just a couple blocks from the 28 St station for the 1-2-3 trains, which means we have pretty easy access to Times Square, Central Park, and the Wall Street area. The next thing that factors in is price: two people taking a train costs $4.50. A short cab ride in off-peak hours costs $5-$8, depending on how far you’re going. During rush hour, it costs $1 more. So the cab is more convenient, but a little cheaper. In this case, the subway stops were close by, the cab ride would have been long, and it was rush hour, so we probably saved about $8 or so by taking the train.

Our first destination was the WTC site. I had no idea what to expect, and yet somehow it wasn’t what I had expected. There’s no real “ground zero” site right now – the entire WTC area is under construction right now, as they build the new tower and the memorial grounds. But, after spending some time in Manhattan, one thing is obvious: there’s a hole in the skyline.

I’d heard people say this before, and I always interpreted it as “The WTC was very visible, and now it’s gone – there’s something missing”. But even if you don’t know about the WTC, you can’t help but notice that Manhattan is packed with tall buildings, one after the other. Other than Central Park and a couple of other small parks, everything is built up at least ten stories tall. The WTC site was pretty big, and now there’s a big gap where there are no buildings. It sticks out a bit.

The area was a bit crazy to navigate, actually. First, there’s construction going on, so some sidewalks are closed, there are fences, etc. Second, it’s a big tourist destination, so you have all the tourists, and you have all the people who show up wherever tourists are to sell them stuff. Third, it was September 10, and they were getting ready for some memorial services tomorrow, which means that there were extra police, and roads and sidewalks closed, and stages being set up, that sort of thing. All in all, a little chaotic.

Construction on the new WTC site. You can see the first several floors of the new tower.

Right next to the site is the “memorial preview” site. There’s a sort of mini-museum there – free admission, just wander in – where they have displays set up talking about the things that happened on 9/11, showing a model of the new site, and selling memorabilia (mostly NYPD/NYFD-branded stuff and books). It was packed almost shoulder-to-shoulder, but very worth visiting. It was also one of the quietest places I’ve been in Manhattan: everyone was pretty sombre.

Before this trip, I didn’t really realize how big the WTC towers were. New York is full of tall buildings, but these were tall even by the standards of Manhattan. They must really have been something to see.

Spending time in Manhattan also gives you some understanding of the impact of the collapse of the towers. This city is full of people. It sounds obvious to say it, but you really need to walk a few blocks in a busy part of Manhattan to understand that anything that affects a significant area of land is going to affect a huge number of people. Evacuating the area, like they did nine years ago, is almost inconceivable. After looking around the area, and thinking about what happened when the towers burned and fell, what’s almost more surprising is that there wasn’t more damage and death.

As an example, there’s a small, old church – with graveyard – right across the street from the WTC site. It’s been there for well over two hundred years. Apparently it suffered a little damage, but it’s still standing and looks pretty good. The headstones in front of it, with nothing between them and the WTC site, are still standing.

St. Paul’s Chapel, across the street from the WTC.

The model of the new site looks pretty nice. I couldn’t figure out if the new building is going to be taller or shorter than the old towers. Butt he memorial itself looks beautiful: the main design feature is two “pools” – huge square holes dug into the ground marking exactly where the bases of the two towers were. The edges are waterfalls, all the way around. In effect, they’re the footprints marking where the towers used to be. No new building will go on top of that land.

The pools themselves are being surrounded by trees, with the intent of making a quiet area “set apart from the sights and sounds of the city”. It would be nice to come back when it’s done, and see the new building next to the site that remembers the old buildings and the people that were killed – it seems to give the sense that the city is remembering the past, yet moving forward.

Model of the WTC memorial site.

After all that, we went for a walk down Wall Street. There are a couple of interesting sites here: Federal Hall, where Washington was inaugurated, and the New York Stock Exchange. Mostly, it’s a bunch of fancy imposing buildings.

Wall Street.

We ended up in an area that I didn’t know even existed until doing some internet research last night: South Street Seaport. It’s a habourfront area, of the sort that seems to spring up in every city that has a harbour area. They’re all more or less the same, which means they always remind me of The Forks.

South Street Seaport.

The interesting thing about this area is that it’s got these old tall ships, and the piers and whatnot, with this big old buildings in the background. It’s one of the only times that I’ve been in Manhattan and really remembered that I’m on an island.

One building, labeled “Pier 17” on the side, but referred to as the “tin building” on maps, contains a three-level mall with various shops and restaurants. Behind the seaport area is something called the Fulton Street Market It’s actually mostly restaurants, with a bit of a seafood emphasis, and not a lot of shops.

Fulton Street Market.

The main reason we came to this area was to check out the Brooklyn Bridge. I wasn’t really impressed with it when we saw it in the distance yesterday, but up close it’s really something. It’s a suspension bridge, with huge stone towers and lots and lots of steel cable.

The Brooklyn Bridge.

It’s also very high off the ground. We were hoping to go for a walk on the bridge, but we actually had to backtrack several blocks inland just to get to the bottom of the bridge. We didn’t really feel like then walking those several blocks back to get to the shoreline, then even farther to get above the East River, and then all the way balk again, so we just headed for the subway station and called it a day.

Along the way, though, we encountered City Hall Park. There’s a historical timeline thing engraved into a circular stone design in the ground, and it traces the park all the way back to New Amsterdam, when the area was called The Commons (well, probably something Dutch) and hosted sheep and a couple windmills.

City Hall Park with the Municipal Building in the background.

Just a couple of tall buildings. The fancy one is the Woolworth Building.

And…that was our last full day in New York. We’re getting tired, and our days our getting shorter, but we actually saw more today than we expected. We’re back in the hotel room now (watching Ocean’s Eleven on TV), and tomorrow we’re hoping to visit the Metropolitan Museum Of Art before catching our plane back home.

Setting expectations

Something occured to me and Pamela the other day.

On “big trips”, it’s not unusual for the person or people taking the trip to return laden with souvenirs for those at home. However, this is New York, not Europe. The stuff here falls into two categories: Things you can get at home, and kitschy tourist trash.

Short version: We’re not really bringing any presents home 🙂

There are souvenirs here, of course. They’re everywhere, especially around some of the more tourist-heavy areas. And if someone’s life would be greatly enriched by a foam Statue Of Liberty crown, or a plastic replica of the Empire State Building, we could probably fill that void. But while we’ve had our eyes open for things that people might like, we’ve also assumed that you have the good taste to not want most of the stuff that we can buy.

I did briefly toy with the idea of brining home a suitcase full of “I heart N Y” t-shirts, especially when I saw a guy selling them for the can’t-miss price of 9 for $10. But I passed. After all, how do I know whether or not you actually heart N Y? I did end up buying one for myself, because it is the quintessential New York souvenir. Mine was ridiculously expensive, by the standards of most of the ones we saw: I paid a whole four dollars for it. At that rate, I should be able to wash it at least five times.

(Actually, with the street vendors here, one of the most “New York” souvenirs you can get would be something like a $2 t-shirt or a $3 necktie or a $6 handbag.)

So yeah. Hopefully you guys weren’t really expecting anything; if you were, well…we thought of you, we looked around, and it’s pretty much cheap junk from here to the horizon. Sorry.

Lady Liberty

It was bound to happen eventually: today, we did not complete our planned itinerary. We still managed to check a few things off the New York checklist:

  • The Statue of Liberty
  • Ellis Island
  • Battery Park
  • The Sphere
  • The Wall Street “bull” statue
  • Riding the subway

Our main goal for today was the Liberty Island / Ellis Island trip. There’s a system of ferries that takes people from New Jersey and New York to Liberty Island (where the Statue of Liberty is) and Ellis Island (site of the old immigration station). It’s set up so that you buy one ticket and, as long as you get on the right ferries, you can visit both islands and end up back where you started (the site has a big warning about not getting on the wrong ferry because if you end up in New Jersey instead of New York, you’re on your own).

We had heard that, to avoid long lines, you need to get there early; ideally for the first ferry. We thought about that and decided no, we can’t get up that early. We still set the alarm for 7:00 (some vacation, eh?), and I think we made it for the second ferry at around 8:40. The timing worked out, because we could buy our ticket and get right on.

Liberty Enlightening The World

I was impressed by the Statue of Liberty – I expected to be a little underwhelmed (like when you get to Mt. Rushmore and go “That’s it?”) but it’s pretty impressive, especially up close, and they have a nice museum talking about the history and engineering. Some of the things I remember that I found interesting:

  • The outside is just a thin copper shell, a couple mm think.
  • The interior (a support system build of girders and trusses) was designed by Eiffel.
  • It ended up in New York because the designer toured a few cities and thought it would look good there.
  • Once upon a time, you could climb a ladder and get up into the torch.
  • It was built in France, disassembled, and shipped to the US, but the French workers that took it apart labelled some of the pieces in French and the American workers couldn’t understand the instructions.
  • It’s called the “Statue of Liberty” because it’s literally a statue of Liberty – that’s the name of the Roman goddess depicted. (The official name is actually “Liberty Enlightening the World”.)
  • The design went through many changes – the original concept was intended for the Suez Canal.
  • The pedestal it stands on is a giant block of solid concrete – the largest ever poured, at the time – and was so expensive and took so long to build that it became a local political issue (“Why are we spending so much for something that’s a gift?”). Locals, notably Pulitzer, ran fundraising campaigns to get the money to finish it.
  • At the time it was built, “liberty” was a controversial concept, associated with violence and revolution, and the designers were very concerned about making sure the statue looked peaceful.

And there you have more information than you ever cared to know about the Statue Of Liberty.

We didn’t buy tickets to go up into the crown: we didn’t think it was worth the money, didn’t think we had time, didn’t really care, and also they were sold out. Out tickets did allow us to the top of the pedestal, but since the elevator was broken, we had to climb the stairs: 156 of them, according to the sign. Getting to the crown would have been about another 200.

Replica of Lady Liberty's face. Little girl included for scale.

There’s not much else to say about that. It’s a big statue. You look at it, climb the pedestal, snap all the same pictures as everyone else, and leave. Next stop: Ellis Island. Once again, we had perfect timing: we just barely made it onto the boat before it was full, so we had no wait at all.

Ellis Island, main building.

The immigration buildings on Ellis Island were in use for about 80 years or so, if I remember correctly, and then abandoned. They decayed for a while, and then were turned into a historic site and restored. It’s now a museum talking about immigration to the US. It’s much the same as Pier 21 in Halifax, though frankly, I think Pier 21 was a nicer place to visit. There were two things that stand out: the “registration hall” (I think was the name) is a huge, beautiful room that was worth seeing, and the 45-minute movie that you can watch was really well done. It talks about everything from the perspective of an early-20th-century immigrant traveling in third-class (steerage), starting from the time they leave their home country, and then walking through arrival in the US and what would happen at Ellis Island, ending when they (hopefully) left the island and landed on the mainland.

Ellis Island Registration Hall

Rather surprisingly, we had perfect timing yet again for our third ferry ride, and no wait. The whole island visit took longer than we expected, though: we finally landed back on the mainland at around 3:30. Visiting these islands is a remarkable bargain: we each got the three ferry rides, admission to both museums (including the movie at Ellis Island), and access to the Statue of Liberty pedestal, all on a single $12 ticket. If you’ve got the time, and are at all interested in history, it’s a no-brainer.

What we didn’t do, is, we didn’t spend much time in the Wall Street area, and we didn’t visit the World Trade Center site. But we were tired, and hungry, and we didn’t yet have any plans for tomorrow, so we decided to call it a day. On our way out of the park, we saw something that we didn’t even know existed: “The Sphere”. It’s a bronze sculpture that used to be on the site of the World Trace Center. It was damaged in the September 11th attacks, and was transferred, in its rather beaten-up condition, to Battery Park as a memorial. Wikipedia tells me that it has become “a major tourist attraction”. When we saw it today, it was surrounded by a bunch of American flags labeled “Flag of Honor`- our guess is that this was related to the upcoming ninth anniversary of the attacks on Saturday.

The Sphere.

As a final “adventure”, we decided to take the subway home. It looked convenient, and cheaper than a cab. We ended up passing the “raging bull” statue on Wall Street (which was totally mobbed by tourists) on the way to the station. The subway was uneventful (though we were a little concerned that we might have gotten on one going the wrong direction), and we’re just hanging out in the hotel room now. We might go out for a late-night snack later on…or not. We’ll see.

The lion sleeps tonight

So. We just got back from The Lion King.

Amazing.

I really don’t know if I can describe it. The opening scene with “A Circle Of Life” set the stage, with the sunrise being breathtaking, and the gazelles and giraffes and elephants were imaginative and brilliant. The wildebeest stampede was spectacular. The scene where Rafiki shows Simba his father’s reflection took, I think, the entire audience by surprise, and was probably one of the most memorable visuals in a show that’s full of them. All I can say is: Highly recommended.

Entrance to the Minskoff Theater, home to The Lion King.

Clearly, the show is built on spectacle. It’s aiming to amaze you, and it does. But all that spectacle wraps a decent plot, and the huge theatrical bits are balanced by some scenes as simple as one or two characters on an empty stage, allowing the audience and actors to focus on the dialogue and characters without being distracted by all the costumes and sets.

The show itself follows the movie very closely – I don’t know it really well, but I think dialogue is word-for-word in places. A couple minor scenes were missing, and some scenes and songs were added, but if you know the plot of the movie, you know the plot of the musical…and you know some of the jokes, too. The play is written to still be entertaining to people that have seen the movie – you may grin slightly when you hear a familiar joke, but then laugh out loud at how the characters react to it.

The show is even a little self-referential; at one point, Zazu looks at the audience and remarks, “That wasn’t in the cartoon.” Later on, Timon actually thanks the scenery for moving into a convenient location. (In that scene, and many others, the scenery is actually actors dressed up as bits of grass or jungle plants or whatever, allowing them to move around the stage as appropriate for the scene.)

The different animals were realized in different ways. The lions were basically people, with tails and lion “masks” that sat above their head, so that they didn’t actually block the actors’ faces…but when the actors went down on all fours, the masks cleverly fell into place in front of them so that they looked like pretty convincing lions. Zazu was, basically, a man with a puppet. Timon was a sort of puppet-costume thing; hard to describe. And so on. The most impressive were the giraffes and elephants, which were nearly life-size.

But describing the costumes, or the sets, or anything, can’t convey what happens when it all gets put together. There were weak spots (I felt that the boy who played Simba as a cub had a weak singing voice, particularly during “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King”, and I thought that Mufasa was rushing some of his lines in Act 1; Pamela was disappointed with Scar), but they were vastly outweighed by the rest of it. The tickets worked out to about a dollar a minute; there were very few minutes that weren’t worth a dollar, and many that were worth more. (Big thumbs up to Pamela for getting us fantastic seats.) I know this is useless advice to most people reading this, but if you ever get the chance to see The Lion King on Broadway, do it.

Mufasa's head guards the staircase.

Of course, I’ve now skipped over everything between lunch (where I ended the previous post) and the show. But that’s ok; there wasn’t much. We wandered past Carnegie Hall and through Bloomingdale’s (two more things to check off on the New York Tourist list), on our way to one of Pamela’s chosen destinations: a little cafe (?) named Serendipity 3. It’s an important location in the movie Serendipity, and she wanted to visit. We ordered, and split, a frozen hot chocolate and an ice-cream sundae (hot fudge, vanilla, chocolate, and mint chocolate chip). They were huge. And just like I can’t describe how The Lion King looked, I can’t describe how this tasted. Totally delicious – worth the walk.

We rounded out the day with an exercise in self-hypnotism: hanging around Times Square after dark. The phrase is misleading; Times Square at night is a lot of things, but “dark” isn’t one of them. You could read by the light of all the signs. And they flashed, and pulsed, and scrolled, and showed video, and did everything they could to out-shine the signs next to them. It was pretty overwhelming, all told, but definitely worth seeing (much more so than Times Square during the day).

Part of Times Square at night.

Anyway, that was today. Plans for tomorrow include Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Ground Zero.

By the way: thanks to those who have been leaving comments. While in a lot of ways I write this blog for myself (to get the vacation and my impressions down while they’re still fresh in my mind) it’s always nice to know that other people are actually reading (and hopefully enjoying) it too.

Strawberry Fields Forever

Well, Strawberry Fields for fifteen minutes, anyway. That’s where we started our day: an area about halfway up the west side of Central Park that’s sort of a John Lennon memorial. I say “sort of” because theres a big “Imagine” mosaic in the ground, and the area is named Strawberry Fields, but other than that, there’s no real link.

We spent most of today wandering through Central Park, roughly following a plan I had devised to see the most interesting bits with the least backtracking. We had two navigational errors: I actually started out confidently walking in exactly the wrong direction (when looking at the map I thought we had come in a different entrance), and at one point shortly after, the park itself conspired to block off the route I was attempting to take, so we had to circle back and go around. Other than that, we did pretty well, which is good because we were both still a little tired from yesterday, and apparently Pamela’s shoes hurt.

Anyway, Central Park: It’s huge. It’s long and kind of narrow, and stretches from 60th street to 110th street (yes, that means it’s 50 blocks long). It reminded me a lot of, say, Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg: a large area of green space in the middle of a city with joggers and cyclists and families and scattered features like statues and gardens and buildings. We explored most of the southern half today (and don’t plan on going back for the northern half; if my map is accurate, there’s not much there).

"Imagine" mosaic at Strawberry Fields

We walked north from Strawberry Fields along the side of a lake that is descriptively named “The Lake”. We saw the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater (seriously, could I make that up? It apparently actually came from Sweden), the Delacorte Theater (which appeared to be Shakespeare-oriented) next to the Great Lawn (which contained baseball diamonds), and Belvedere Castle, next to Turtle Pond (and yes, we saw a turtle in it).

Belvedere Castle is the sort of thing that you really don’t expect to run across in the middle of a park in a big North American city. We knew it was there, but it was still sort of a surprise when it came into view. The informational signs say that it was originally built as a lookout post (not sure what they were looking out for – ducks?) and is now used as a weather station. It’s open to the public to wander through and climb the narrow winding staircase to the top (suggested $3 donation, but as the lady said to me, “If you don’t pay you can still go in”).

Belvedere Castle

Belvedere Castle was also a nice place to sit and rest. There was a bit of a breeze at the top, and benches, and shade. It was early, but we were already hot and tired. Have I mentioned yet that it’s hot? I don’t think so. The temperature is already around 22 C when we get up in the morning and is going up to around 30 C during the day. I know, everyone back in Winnipeg feels sorry for us now, but the truth is we’d be quite happy it if was 5-10 degrees cooler. It’s toasty, especially walking around all day in the sun. We’ve both been a little dehydrated.

Anyway, we couldn’t hang around forever. We kept going east across the park, past an area of winding interconnected paths called The Ramble, and turned south at Cedar Hill. There we saw a small pond (either artificial, or landscaped) called Conservatory Water. There were little model sailboats on it (presumably controlled by people with remotes somewhere) and a couple of statues. The first – and the one I had come to see – is Alice In Wonderland, complete with Alice, toadstools, Mad Hatter, March Hare, Cheshire Cat, White Rabbit, and little dog. The second statue, which wasn’t even on my map, is Hans Christian Andersen. It was actually donated in memory of all the children whose parents were killed in the 9/11 attacks. Apparently every Saturday morning at 11:00 AM, there’s “story hour” at the statue. Today, some middle-aged women were using it as the site of an aerobics class. Definitely not story hour.

Alice In Wonderland statue

Nearby is Bethesda Fountain – a large fountain on the east shore of The Lake – and Bethesda Terrace. The Terrace is not only a nice raised area to look at the lake from, but also home to the biggest surprise of the park: you can walk underneath it through an absolutely beautiful pillared walkway with a tiled ceiling. I loved it – it felt as distant from Central Park as Central Park feels from the rest of Manhattan. There have been several times when I’ve had the urge to say to Pamela “This reminds me of Europe”, and this was one of them.

Bethesda Fountain and Terrace

Under Bethesda Terrace

(That last photo right there? One of my favourites of the trip so far.)

From there, we walked down The Mall – probably one of the most well-known areas of Central Park. It’s just a wide walking area, tree-lined, with benches to sit and read or rest or whatever. The southern stretch has statues of a few famous authors and is called “Literary Walk”.

The Mall

By now it was after noon, and we were hot, tired, thirsty, and, in my case anyway, hungry. At the end of Literary Walk, my map showed a place labeled “Dairy”. I had puzzled over this initially, but as the day got longer and hotter, I became more and more convinced that it must be an ice cream place. In fact, I had even started to believe that it might be a snack bar, with fries and the like. It would have everything we wanted – the end of the rainbow.

You may have guessed by now that I was wrong.

Once upon a time, the Dairy was in fact a place where you could get a glass of milk. The southern end of Central Park is termed the Children’s District, and has a playground and that sort of stuff, and someone figured that it would be nice to be able to provide the kids with a wholesome glass of milk. Now, it’s a visitor’s centre. You can get maps, buy souvenirs, etc. Milk is no longer on offer. There is bottled water, which Pamela bought, but that’s it.

That was pretty much the end of our walk in the park. We wandered past the Carousel ($2 a ride), the Chess & Checkers House, and a playground, and exited the park on the south side. Looking at the map, if you stretch out the path we walked, it would probably cover the entire 50-block distance from the north to the south end of the park. Tired, dehydrated, and hungry (me, not Pamela – she wasn’t feeling well), we adjourned for lunch.

And I’m going to end the blog post there, too. There’s more to come, and it involves ice cream, but Pamela and I are going to leave for The Lion King fairly shortly (~20 minutes) and I don’t trust this terrible hotel internet to allow me to write that part of the post and upload the pictures in time. So stay tuned – hopefully, I’ll get the rest up tonight, after the show, but if I’m really tired when we get back you might have to wait until tomorrow…

Oh, my poor tired legs…

Well, we just about walked our legs right off today. We saw all sorts of stuff, immersed ourselves in the organized chaos of Manhattan, and had a pretty good time, but…well, put it this way: we nearly had a crisis when we thought we took a wrong turn walking to a restaurant for supper, which would imply that we walked an entire half-block in the wrong direction. This was cause for serious concern.

But, we certainly saw a lot. I’d be willing to say that if we had to end our trip now, we’ve seen New York about as well as you can in one day. Things to cross off the “New York tourist checklist” are:

  • Hailing a cab
  • The Chrysler building
  • Grand Central Terminal
  • Rockefeller Center (including the “Top Of The Rock” observation deck)
  • Radio City Music Hall
  • Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, Madison Avenue
  • F. A. O. Schwarz
  • Times Square / Broadway
  • New York Public Library

And that’s just the big stuff. It was a busy busy day. We had set the alarm for 8 AM, and were back at the hotel by 7:30 local time, totally exhausted.

The day was really just a series of small scenes, not one big event, so it’s all kind of jumbled together in my mind, even though it just happened. The only way to tell this story is to begin at the beginning, proceed through it, and stop when I get to the end.

So, the beginning: We decided to take a cab to the Chrysler building, since a bit of trip planning had suggested that that was a good place to start walking from. (Ok, the real beginning was breakfast at the hotel restaurant, where their pancakes with “warm maple syrup” came with nothing of the sort, and I suggested to Pamela that it would be amusing to make a row on the basis that, as a Canadian, I know maple syrup when I see it and this isn’t it. She disagreed.) Anyway, Pamela was a little concerned about how we actually get a cab. I flagged one down with such casual aplomb that the cab driver surely thought I was a local. You know, a local with a big camera, at a hotel, wanting to go to the Chrysler building. Well, Pamela was impressed, anyway.

The Chrysler building: Pretty cool. It actually has giant hood ornaments on the sides.

The Chrysler Building

Almost right next door, we have Grand Central Terminal (it hasn’t been called Grand Central Station for over 100 years). It was…big, nice, but nothing super-impressive. Worth seeing, but if we had gone out of our way to see it I think we would have been a little disappointed.

Grand Central Terminal

Next stop: Six or seven blocks north, to St. Bartholomew’s church. Also in the vicinity, “Marilyn Monroe’s Subway Grating”. It’s on my map, but there’s nothing at all there – just a subway grating. No plaque, no sign, nothing special. A complete anticlimax.

From there, six blocks southwest to Rockefeller Center. (Note: The blocks are rectangular, not square, so a block east/west is about three times as long as a block north/south. Pamela and I have started measuring distances in “short blocks” and “long blocks”.) The walk took us past the Fifth Avenue shops – we saw Louis Vuitton, Prada, Versaci, Saks, and a lot of other names that I don’t really know anything about, other than that they represent expensive things. Clothes, shoes, jewelry, handbags, etc. We didn’t even go in – I doubt we could afford to tip the doormen.

Rockefeller Center is a complex of buildings that was once (I think) referred to as “Radio City”. It’s home to a couple famous buildings, notably Radio City Music Hall, and 30 Rock, the home of NBC studios and a big tall building with an observatory on top, called “Top Of The Rock”. We had decided to drop the $21 for a ticket and head on up to the top. The two choices for “tall building” visits are really Top Of The Rock, or Empire State, and some research last night suggested this was a better choice.

Radio City Music Hall

It was actually pretty nifty. After we went through security (!), there were some videos showing the history of the building. It was basically built on bad luck and hubris. Rockefeller had leased all this land and was going to build a home for the Metropolitan Opera…then the depression hit and the opera backed out. For reasons that weren’t really clearly explained, he decided to built a big huge silly office building instead. I guess it all worked out in the end.

The elevator to the top is trippy (the lights dim, and the ceiling is glass so you can see straight up the elevator shaft, which is filled with coloured and blinking LED lights). The view from the top is fantastic (there are three levels of observation deck). And there’s a weird electronic art…thing…in the lobby at the top, that makes coloured boxes appear on the ceiling and follow people around. It was oddly fascinating. (Art is actually a big part of Rockefeller Center; this fits right in.)

View from Top Of The Rock. You can see the Empire State Building on the right, and the Chrysler Building on the left (behind the Met Life building)

After lunch at the Rink Bar / Rock Cafe, and a quick visit to the Lego Store, we took a long meandering we-don’t-really-know-where-we’re-going walk to F. A. O. Schwarz, the famous toy store with the giant piano from Big. It was a fantastic place: the main floor was all “classic toy store” with stuffed animals and toy drums and whatnot, and other areas had Lego and dollhouses and Playmobil and more or less everything, but without ever feeling really “commercial”. Unfortunately, the giant piano was broken (just a little while before we arrived, it sounded like).

F. A. O. Schwarz

The famous big piano. You can actually buy one of these for $250,000.

We also quickly popped into the Apple Store next door (just to see – it was nothing special) and bought some pictures from a street vendor. Next stop: Times Square.

Honestly, this was a bit of a letdown. We were tired by this point, and it was hot outside, but Times Square is a whole lot of nothing. Huge signs, lots of lights, lots of glitz, but there’s not really anything to do there. We grabbed a quick snack at the busiest McDonald’s ever, and sat on the grandstand for a bit watching the activity, but it’s not the sort of thing that you can fill an afternoon with. We did see the famous ball, and at one point we saw the Naked Cowboy (look him up if you don’t know), but mostly it was just noise and people and lights. (One oddity is that there’s not really a clearly-defined “square” – it’s sort of a few blocks of intersections and streets.

Part of Times Square

An unexpected highlight was M&M World. It wasn’t on our itinerary at all, but how can you pass up on a store advertising “Three floors of shopping”, all M&M-related?

At M&M World

Our final stop for the day was the New York Public Library, by Bryant Park. We had meant to stop by earlier, but some poor planning meant that we missed it, so we decided to loop back and see it. It was a really nice building – huge, marble, felt a lot like a legislative building or something – but we were just totally tired out and didn’t spend much time there. We wrapped up the day with a cab ride back to the hotel, about an hour’s rest, a short walk to a nearby sports bar (verdict: mixed, not as good as it looked), and then a lot of time lying on our beds and decompressing.

New York Public Library - front lobby

Well, sorry for the huge wall of text (hopefully the pictures broke it up a bit), but that’s the sort of day it was. Tomorrow should be a little simpler: We’re basically doing Central Park during the day, and going to The Lion King in the evening (so we can’t afford to get all tired again). We’ll likely pop by Carnegie Hall, just for a look-see, and other than that, take things as they come.

We made it!

How many blog posts can I write in one day, you ask? (Answer: at least three, apparently.)

We’re in the hotel now, smack in the middle of Manhattan. Tall buildings, narrow streets, people selling stuff everywhere, everything crammed into as little space as possible. Taxicabs are all over the streets, and there are people everywhere there’s not taxicabs.

Anyway, we got here fine. There was a brief moment of concern in Ottawa when it was unclear where Pamela’s luggage was going (the airline agent in Winnipeg didn’t give her a customs form or tell her to pick her bags up, so we were suspicious about whether or not it was actually going to make it to NYC, but it all worked out.

The flight from Ottawa to New York was hilariously small and empty. The flight itself is just under an hour long, and it was on this little tiny plane (a “Bombardier CRJ”, apparently). The plane only seats 50, but there were a total of 12 passengers, including us. We could have each had a full row to ourselves. It’s the only time I’ve ever been properly served on a flight: the flight attendant actually walked around, asked us what we wanted, and came back with a tray full of drinks for everyone.

The plane itself had sort of this “little plane that could” vibe to it – it sounded like it was straining just as hard as it could to make it to New York (making noises that reminded me of driving Heather’s Hyundai up a steep mountain road). It was very glad to get to LaGuardia, and hit the runway very enthusiastically.

LaGuardia itself is kind of…dingy. It’s like a bus station, with airplanes. It was really weird and low-key with bad lighting and low ceilings and didn’t feel like a big-city airport at all.

Anyway, that’s the flight, which is supposed to be the not-very-interesting part of the trip. “What about New York City?” I hear you say.

The aptly-named Flatiron Building.

Well, it’s all big and New Yorky. We went and walked around Manhattan for a while, and saw some neat stuff. Lots of big old buildings and mis-matched architecture and garbage piled on the sidewalk and people jaywalking and basically everything you ever see in a movie or TV show that wants to make it clear it’s in New York.

Touring this place makes it feel like you’ve just got a big checklist of landmarks and whatnot that you’re working through. Today’s list included:

  • Rode in a yellow taxicab
  • The Flatiron Building
  • Madison Square Park
  • The Empire State Building
  • Macy’s
  • Madison Square Gardens

Empire State Building, viewed from several blocks to the south.

The Empire State Building confused both me and Pamela, because when we saw it from several blocks away, we didn’t think it looked right. Something about the spire didn’t match our memories. But it certainly was the Empire State Building, all big and tall. What stuck me about it was the size; not the height, because you know it’s really tall, but how wide it was at the base.

Main floor, Macy's department store.

Overall, it’s been a neat experience. Nothing mind-blowing, nothing that really makes you sit back and go “Wow”, but you know you’re in New York. It’s not Winnipeg, or Toronto, or really any other place I’ve been. One weird thing has been that, since this is Labor Day (no “u” ‘cuz it’s American), a lot of stuff has been closed, which doesn’t really match what I expect from New York.

We had supper tonight at an Irish pub called the Triple Crown, which was a nice quiet break from the insane throngs of people everywhere else. Later on, after we were back at the hotel, I had a craving for a hot chocolate, and we found a little…I don’t know, deli-bar/coffeeshop/cafe/convenience store. It actually reminded me in a way of the breakfast bar I went to in Rome – if you took that idea, and transplanted it and re-analyzed it from a New York mindset, you’d probably get a place like this. Anyway, my hot chocolate craving resulted in the absolute unarguable #1 highlight of the trip so far…we passed a guy walking the other way in full Ghostbuster gear. Pamela and I did a massive double-take, and then laughed ourselves silly for the next five minutes.

I’m probably missing a lot of things – the trip has really been a chain of small experiences like that. Assuming that keeps up, this blog could get very…talky.

Plans for tomorrow: Breakfast in the hotel restaurant, then off to the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Terminal, Rockefeller Plaza, Radio City Music Hall, Times Square, and Broadway. Wish our feet luck!

Blog note: I’ve added an email subscription link, over there on the right, so you can sign up if you want an automatic email every time I post something.

Blog sidenote: I spent about two hours tonight in the hotel room arguing with this blog software, trying to get it to post my pictures properly. Grr…

Airport update

Because I know you’re wondering:

  • The plane seems to be boarding late, so we managed to get our lunch served, eaten, and paid for in time.
  • Lunch was at a bar called “Senate Chambers”. You know you’re in Ottawa…
  • Apparently there are in fact bathrooms.
  • Pamela’s not crazy – the escalators here really do speed up when you step on them.
  • Double-thumbs-up to Ottawa Airport for providing free wi-fi and a place to plug in a laptop.