When in New York City, take the boat

Part of our City Sights NY 3 day package was a boat trip around Manhattan Island with the Circle Line cruise company. So, after 2 days, off and on, touring New York on a double-decker bus, on the third day we sailed.

Statue of Liberty from the Circle Line Boat
Statue of Liberty from the Circle Line Boat

The Circle Line is New York’s oldest and largest cruise company. It has been sailing since 1945 and has hosted over 60 million passengers. It is one of the world’s most famous boat rides and the Circle Line terminal on Pier 83 is one of 42nd Street’s most famous landmarks.

The cruise circles Manhattan Island and passes the other four boroughs – Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx – that make up the five boroughs of New York. It heads south along the Hudson River, between Manhattan and New Jersey. It sails into Upper New York Bay for a glimpse of Staten Island, then rounds the south end of Manhattan and heads north up the East River, passing Long Island, with Brooklyn and Queens on the southern tip. It continues into the Harlem River and passes the Bronx, on the mainland. At the northern end of Manhattan, it passes back into the Hudson through the Harlem Canal for the final stretch back to Pier 83.

The New York skyline looks different from the deck of our circle line boat. It is softened too by a veil of fine drizzle.

To our right, on the New Jersey shore, lies Hoboken, home town of Frank Sinatra, once struggle town but now gentrifying like the rest of the Big Apple. On the left we spot Battery Park, the mile of land reclaimed from the Hudson, where the largest real estate development in the US forms a backdrop to Pier A, the oldest pier in NYC. Behind and above Battery Park is the forlorn space in the sky where the twin towers of the World Trade Centre once stood. We cruise up to the Statue of Liberty, holding her torch 300feet above the harbour and linger at Ellis Island, once the immigrants’ gateway to the US and now home to the Immigration Museum.

We turn back between Governor’s Island, headquarters of the US coastguard and Lower Manhattan, passing the historic South Street Seaport with the Fulton Market in the block of century old buildings behind it. We cruise under the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. We pass the United Nations Building, (looking rather the worse for wear from this side) and Roosevelt Island, fully self-contained and dubbed ‘one of the most unusual new communities in the United States’. Just across the river the lawns of elegant Gracie Mansion, official residence of the Mayor of New York, slope down to the water’s edge. We sail under the Triborough Bridge which connects the Boroughs of Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx and look into the shell of Yankee Stadium which witnessed its closing game just weeks ago.

We turn up the Harlem River and under the Spuyten Dyvil (Spitting Devil) Bridge, where, after 3 blasts on our boat’s horn, an invisible operator swings the center section open so that we can pass through. High on a hill at the northern tip of Manhattan, among the thick bush of Fort Trynon Park are the towers of the Cloisters, once a monastery and now an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our last Bridge is the George Washington, with its little Red Lighthouse, no longer operational but preserved as a children’s playground. The tomb of Ulysses S Grant, Civil War hero, slips by, followed by the Riverside Church, home of the World Council of churches and the Soldiers and Sailors monument, in memory of those who lost their lives in the Civil War. The circle is closed.

The Circle Line brochure declares “cruises are designed to provide the best viewing opportunities, but also to be informative, comfortable and entertaining as well” Our Circle Line cruise did not disappoint. In fact it exceeded our expectations. Highlights for me, however, were not the landmarks, although I wouldn’t have missed the circle line views of them for the world.  The most memorable parts of the cruise for me were the unexpected glimpses of quiet rrustic scenes; deserted little beaches and inlets, patches of forest, overhanging trees, shady parks contrasted with intensely the urban; grim apartment blocks in the Bronx where kids waved from high windows, fenced-in concrete courts in Harlem, where boys shot hoops. Lastly, there was David, a drama graduate, a history buff and an amazing raconteur, who brought landmarks, Boroughs, bridges, , islands and little secret spots along the river to brilliant life.

When in New York City, take the bus

For an introduction to an unknown city, you can’t beat the bus tour.

The view from the bus
The view from the bus

Two of New York’s best hop-on, hop-off double-decker companies, City Sights N.Y and Gray Line had stops just outside our hotel in Times Square, with an army of zealous agents selling tickets on the pavement. We almost fell for Augustin’s fantastic Gray Line deal but, in the end, succumbed to Wade’s superior salesmanship and bought a City Sights NY 3 day package for $49, saving $137. Go figure!

Off and on, over the next two days we surveyed New York from the top deck of our big blue City Sights bus. We discovered its districts – Theatre, Garment, Flower and Financial. We followed the rise of its buildings storey after storey into the clouds; the greats like the Empire State, the Rockefeller Centre, Woolworths and the Chrysler, as well as hundreds of unknown art deco gems.

We rolled up the west side of Central Park and down the east. We spotted outcrops of schist, (the bedrock in which NY’s skyscrapers are anchored) between the trees on one side and peered into the houses of the super rich and celebrated on the other. We cruised past those legendary Avenues – Park, Lexington, Madison and Fifth and along its famous Streets from 42nd to Wall. We passed through Greenwich Village, Soho, Noho, Tribeca, China Town, Little Italy and Harlem. We saw those great landmarks, Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Gardens, the Lincoln Centre, Grand Central Station and the great galleries, the Met and the Guggenheim.

We caught glimpses of ordinary life, old men sitting on the steps of Harlem brownstones, old ladies shuffling down to the corner store, little kids playing in parks, big kids hanging out on street corners. We skirted around its tragedies; the Twin Towers site, where jack hammers pounded behind a high board fence, the spot where John Lennon was shot and the YMCA where his assassin prepared for the kill. We saw a fence, hung with cards for the victims of 9/11 and a churchyard draped with yellow ribbons for the victims of the War in Iraq. We passed icons of TV and movie land, like the Seinfeld Soup Nazi’s kitchen and Tiffany’s.

The City Sights N. Y. tour gives a great introduction to New York and a wonderful insight into the life and culture of this fascinating city. What takes it beyond a mere overview is the exceptional quality of the guides. There’s no crackling recorded commentary on the City Sights NY bus. Real, live, walking, talking people lead you through the tour. All extremely individual, they have their own particular takes on the place and their own particular specialty. One of our guides was an architecture aficionado. With him, no building, great or small and no unusual detail escaped our attention. Another was a political animal, with all the inside gen. on how the city runs and who runs it. Another was practical chap with useful information on living in New York; the cost of apartments, best delis and diners, worst departments stores and most accessible laundrettes. They were all compelling story-tellers who knew their city and wanted the punters to know it too.

The City Sights NY tour prepared us and inspired us to get down into the streets and in among those monuments to explore and discover the city for ourselves over the next ten days of our stay

The City Sights NY Company offers numerous deals and packages. For more information visit www.citysights.ny.com

 

The W, New York

Times Square, just around the corner from the W
Times Square, just around the corner from the W

The W hotel sits right at the insomniac, neon heart of New York, on the corner where Broadway, Times Square and 46th Street meet. Traffic whirls around it in an endless circle; tour buses scoop up and set down sightseers on one side, taxis drop off and pick up theatre-goers on another. The surrounding streets teem with people, scenes of urban life, from the banal to the bizarre, play out day and night. Voices, music, traffic, machines and sirens merge into a discordant roar.

Swing through the W’s revolving doors, though, and you leave all this behind.

Water is the theme of the W’s décor. The roar of the city is drowned in a stream of cool music. The glare of neon is lost in soothing colours of stone and river. In the downstairs foyer, water ripples down one wall in a floor to ceiling tank and drops of light spill from the ceiling onto the flagstone floor. The music flows into the lift and up to the 7th floor. To the left is the Welcome or Reception area, ahead the concierge’s desk. Their lamps float like bubbles in the dim light.

The Water theme flows on up to rooms. There’s more stone grey, muted light and lots of glass. There’s a floating glass mural behind the bed (which surprisingly, is not a water bed, but is nevertheless as soft as a rolling wave) The bedside tables are cubes of orange glass. Mini bar goodies (Munch at the W) entice from a big glass box. On the wall is a rack of glossy magazines – Gotham, City and Wish. There’s a floating glass desk. The bathroom is a glass and grey box (with a generous supply of soft white towels and Bliss toiletries) A grey leather chaise longue unfurls below a giant window which looks out into the neon screens of Times Square.

In Sweat, the 10th floor gym, the submarine light and riverscape colours continue. Fast-flowing house music (or TV!) speeds you through your workout. Fat white towels, abundant Bliss toiletries and crisp green Granny Smith apples ease recovery.

On the 7th floor, adjacent to the Welcome area is The Living Room, the hottest bar in town. Fittingly, its colours are those of the reef and the beach. There are circles of sand coloured couches and screens. A coral orange glass mural shimmers on the far wall. The Living room is great place for star-gazing and intrigue spotting.

Down on the ground floor, The Blue Fin restaurant, despite its name, has a menu which goes well beyond the ocean. Its attractions too go beyond cuisine. From its front bar you can watch the 24/7 action of Times Square while in the shadowed corners of its back room you can spot New York socialites, celebrities and stars.

The W’s basement club Whiskey is one of a number founded by model, tycoon and husband of Cindy Crawford Rande Gerber. This is the place to be seen dancing the night away beneath the big screens, surrounded by hot music and cool New York party people.

The Store, open all hours, lit with bright white light and full of fabulous gifts, clothes, stationery, and groovy gum-boots as well as mundane things like toothbrushes.

It would be easy to while away New York days and nights here in this seductive self-contained W world. The hotel’s service philosophy is whatever, whenever. Blue Fin’s kitchen never closes. The Living room never draws its blinds. At sweat you jog your way through nights and days. The Store never shuts. Just call Room Service aka Whatever Whenever and a posse of Adonises in suits will deliver whatever you want whenever you want it to wherever you are. So there’s really no need to leave.

But eventually those neon lights outside the window beckon and the muffled sounds of the city call from beyond the walls. It’s time to get out and explore.

 

New York expectations overturned

We had expected to be amazed by New York and we were. Most of the time it exceeded our expectations and often it completely overturned them.

Broadway skyline
Broadway skyline

Apart from two stopovers in Los Angeles back into the last century, I’d never been to the States. Even from those brief, long distant encounters, I carry memories of gruelling queues, heavy security, close, lengthy passport scrutiny, questions, bag searches and peremptory, if not rude personnel. We flew in from Athens to John F. Kennedy Airport expecting more of the same – much more of the same. That first expectation was soon overturned.

Posters, lining the corridors from the plane to the Immigration Hall, told us that we could expect courtesy and respect from airport personnel and where to go if denied it. Good start! The queues dealt swiftly with 300 or so passengers who disembarked from our Olympic Airlines flight. Only one firm, efficient, but courteous, young African American in a suit directed it. I looked for signs of guns but couldn’t find them. Even though we had filled in the wrong immigration form and had to return to the desk for another, we were soon back at the booth again where we were fingerprinted efficiently, our passports were scrutinized and stamped quickly and we were welcomed to New York warmly. Our bags were already circling the carousel when we arrived in baggage claim. We passed unchallenged through a door marked “Nothing to Declare”

We were carrying with us a set of preconceptions gleaned from the media, veteran friends of the NY experience and our own conjecture, that New York was impersonal, people suspicious and paranoid and that the city’s systems and infrastructure were inefficient. These were soon dispelled too.

Out on U.S. soil in arrivals we were greeted by the cheerful Marie, one of a team, in scout-inspired uniforms, dedicated to helping confused foreigners as they emerge wide-eyed from the other side. A taxi to Times Square, she advised, should cost $45. Should we tip? “Sure, if they’re nice to you” said Marie “But if they’re mean to you ain’t gonna tip now are you?” Er, well we thought we had to “No Sir uh uh, ain’t nobody gonna tip nobody mean” OK well then how much should we tip somebody who’s nice? “Well now that’s up to your own generousity”

Also somewhere in the back of my mind lurked the vague idea, that since 9/11, Middle Eastern people in the US lived in closely watched a demi-monde, with no part in its systems apart from tossing together the odd kebab. I thought too, naively that the typical New York Taxi driver was an old, crusty, gravel-voiced Robert De Niro, Joe Pesche or Archie Bunker type with a fund of NY folk stories. These ideas too went the way of my expectations and misconceptions.

Our taxi driver was called Aziz. His brothers seemed to be driving the taxi in front, the one behind and the one next door. He looked about 18 and was totally silent. Arab music played in the background. “Love this music” I said half to myself. Aziz turned the music up.

Gridlock was a word I had firmly linked to the phrase New York traffic. It was 5pm when we sailed out of JFK and onto the expressway. Peak hour! But truly, the traffic was no worse than, if as bad, as the Tulla freeway, I decided as we zoomed along with the haunting drums, bells, strings and pipes of Arabia in background and New York’s amazing cityscape unfolding on both sides.

We tipped Aziz generously.

More about New York in Travelstripe’s next post

 

Mokau

The road that runs along the Taranaki Bight on the west coast of Aotearoa New Zealand’s North Island, is a spectacular drive. It is bordered on one side by sloping farmland, rugged hills terraced with ancient Pa sites and pockets of beautiful bush and on the other by magnificent surf beaches. It passes through lovely little seaside towns, like Mokau.

Mokau Butchery
Mokau Butchery

Located at the mouth of the Mokau River just north of the boundary between the Taranaki and the Waikato region, Mokau, has a permanent population of 400 people, who are served by a core of small shops, a hilltop cafe, a Catholic Church and museum.

We happened to pass through Mokau and drop into the museum when a meeting of the Mokau Historical Society was in session, so we were treated to a tour (with commentary) of the collection of fascinating artefacts and photos by one of the town’s oldest citizens.

Born and bred in Mokau, he had a hundred and one stories of the old town and its characters. In the old days, he told us, Taranaki was possum free. Mokau kept it that way. They went without a bridge to prevent the furry pests from pattering across and posted a watchman with a rifle just in case any sneaked aboard a boat or decided to swim.

He had also gone to the Mokau School with June Opie, author of the New Zealand book ‘Over My Dead Body’ which tells of her battle with polio and her years in an iron lung. June Opie’s father, furthermore, was a possum watchman on the Taranaki bank of the Mokau River!

Mokau offers excellent fishing, particularly for kahawai and snapper and the whitebait run thick at the river mouth. It is also a popular spot for surfers as it has some great surf breaks.

In the summer, holiday makers come to enjoy the beach and the tiny population swells to a a couple of thousand.

 

Puke Ariki, New Plymouth’s Museum

Puke Ariki is New Plymouth’s Museum. It holds all the secrets of life in the region, from the beginning to the present day.

Puke Ariki's old/new façade
Puke Ariki’s old/new façade

Approximately 2000 years ago a band of adventurers left their homeland in Rangiatea and, aboard a canoe named Aotea, captained by a Rangatira (chief)  named Turi, followed the stars and the currents until they reached the shores of Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud. They called their new home Taranaki.

Almost 800 years later, a select group of emigrants, from Plymouth, Devon, England arrived in Taranaki, They called their new home New Plymouth.

To learn the stories of the two peoples and of the great region they call home, visit Puke Ariki, on Ariki Street, overlooking the wild Tasman Sea.

The impressive and unforgettable building with its old/new almost trompe l’oeil facade, consists of two wings linked by an air bridge. It houses the public library, the museum, and the visitor information center.

The museum’s “Treasures” galleries take the visitor through different facets of Taranaki and include the taonga, the works of art, artefacts and the many inventions, by both Maori and Pakeha, that necessity, in the new land, gave rise to. Taranaki Stories, details the region’s land wars, pioneer history, and life in Taranaki today. The state-of the art theatrette has seats that change colour as the lights fade down and is used to support the current exhibitions.

At the time of our visit, during the 2011 World Cup, there was a great exhibition on Taranaki Rugby and a fascinating film in the theatrette on Maori Rugby in the region.

The complex has two cafes and a large grassed outdoor space. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 9am to 6pm, and Saturday, Sunday, and holidays from 9am to 5pm. Admission is free.

New Plymouth Taranaki’s city

From humble beginnings as a trading post established in 1828 by Richard “Dicky” Barrett, then as a gateway for English settlers from Plymouth, Devon and later, during the infamous New Zealand Wars, as a garrison town, New Plymouth has grown to a city of 52, 000 people comprising two thirds of Taranaki’s population.

Ken Lye's Wind Wand
Ken Lye’s Wind Wand

It is the region’s financial centre and is home to the largest non government-owned New Zealand bank, the TSB (Taranaki Savings Bank). New Plymouth serves and is sustained by Taranaki’s rich dairy, oil, natural gas and petrochemical industry.

While it must be admitted that the city is completely overshadowed by the stunning natural features of the countryside that surrounds it, most notably the singularly beautiful Mount Taranaki, it is worth a visit to explore the historic buildings, to stroll in the lovely Pukekura Park, to battle with the elements on the 10km Coastal Walkway alongside the wild Tasman Sea, to marvel at Ken Lye’s 45 metre Wind Wand and to take in the many spectacular views of the mountain.

Taranaki, home of the hardcores

Just before we set off to explore Taranaki, we passed a large grey bus in a Wellington car park. Boldly written at the top of its windscreen was the following boast “God created Taranaki so the Hardcore people would have somewhere to live”

aranaki, where the Hardcore people live
aranaki, where the Hardcore people live

We’d barely crossed the border into the Taranaki region when the rain began to fall. We drove on. The rain became a thick grey curtain, impenetrable even with the headlights on high beam. We pulled over and waited. The rain was relentless. It was hardcore. I peered into the obscurity. What kind of country lay beyond the blanket of hard, driving rain? How hard exactly were the hardcore people who lived here? I was soon to find out.

Within a few minutes, dim figures broke from the watery wall ahead and ran swiftly towards us.  As they came closer they took shape as children, bare-headed, bare-footed, in t- shirts and shorts, bags bouncing on their backs. School was out and its hardcore pupils were on their way home.

When the road had cleared of kids and the rain had eased to a thin veil, we drove on. Thick bands of water were spilling down the steep banks on either side of the road; it was fast becoming a river. We eased cautiously on ahead of it, past farms of an unbelievable green, through dying towns where the ruins of once prosperous flourishing dairy factories and freezing works huddled on the outskirts and abandoned shops lined the empty streets, on to New Plymouth. In more clement weather we might have lingered and explored, stopped to photograph the Aotea canoe at Patea, to have a beer in the grand old hotel at Waverley, to admire Taranaki Maunga from afar or to follow one a signpost up an enticing side road but we were driven on by the relentless rain and the threat of an even worse storm waiting just offshore.  We were definitely in Taranaki, the hardcore country.

A Hangi and more at Mitai

When it comes to Rotorua culinary experiences (or Aotearoa New Zealand culinary experiences, in fact) the Hangi is de rigeur. Steamed underground on a bed of hot stones, hangi cuisine is melt in the mouth tender, with a taste all of its own.

Mitai'Hangi
Mitai’Hangi

Faced with a dozen different hangi options, including concert and cultural experience, I found it difficult to make a choice, so I called an expert on all things Maori, hangi cuisine included,  Ceillhe Sperath of Time Unlimited Tours.

“Mitai!” she replied without hesitation “Best Hangi, best concert, best evening all round”.

She wasn’t wrong.

Our Mitai experience begins when their signature van picks us up at our hotel, sometime between 5.45 and 6.10, and whisks us away to a spot in the lee of Mount Ngongotaha, on the northern side of the city. It’s clear, from the car-park full of vans and coaches, that this is a big and popular event.

Music, a mix of old Maori and pakeha favourites, floats from the doorway of an enormous marquee. After check-in at reception and a stop at the bar, we make our way through a sea of tables to our place, at the front, near the singer. I’m transported back to the 60son the nostalgic strains of Pearly Shells and E Pari Ra. My reverie is interrupted, though, by our M.C, who begins greetings and introductions, all in their own languages, to the 13 nations represented in the crowd.

Introductions over, we’re off to witness the lifting of the Hangi. The lifting of any Hangi is always attended by a certain a degree of anticipation, excitement and ceremony. Mitai adds suspense, drama and mystery to the event. When we arrive at the Hangi pit it has, in fact, already been lifted. Neat rows of heihei (chicken) reme (lamb) riwai (potatoes) paukena (pumpkin) and kumara (sweet potatoes) sit, steaming fragrantly in a wire basket on a raised bench, rather like an altar. We all stare and drool in reverent silence. But not for long! The Mitai experience is an active and involving one.

Soon we’re on the move again, down a bush path lit by flaming torches, to the river. We line up on the bank. There’s distant call, a karanga, a long booming blast on a conch shell, the sound of chanting and the rhythmic splash of paddles. It grows louder and louder and a waka full of tattooed warriors, in full traditional dress glides into view and paddles on by. We shuffle back up the bush path and follow the sound of the karanga into another marquee.

Before us, in the dim light, is an ancient village where dark shapes huddle around fires in front of rough nikau whares, or huts. We are back in the time before the Pakeha, mai rano, long ago. When we’ve taken our seats, the villagers rise and the Powhiri, or welcome ceremony begins. There are whaikorero (traditional speeches of welcome) and waiata (songs) to support them. Demonstrations of taiaha (weaponry) poi, waiata-a-ringa (action songs) and explanations of ta moko (tattoos) and traditional dress as well as legends and stories follow. Who knows how long we sit spellbound steeped in the lore and the life of the Maori.

But we quickly return to real time at the news that our hangi is served in the first marquee. We find it flanked by all sorts of salads and side dishes including kai moana (seafood) on a table almost audibly groaning under the strain. The singer is back at his station to sweeten our dining experience. But really, it needs no sweetening – the Mitai kai (food) is delicious and the Hangi is simply sensational. Short work is soon made of it all. Another table is unveiled, laden with all manner of desserts, as well those Kiwi “originals” the Pavlova and the trifle.

One might imagine that the evening would end there, that we would all roll off our chairs and out to our coaches or vans, to return “tired but happy and full” to our hotels. Perhaps elsewhere it might, but not at Mitai. The Mitai evening gives new meaning to the term interactive experience.

After dinner we are issued with torches and we join our guide Te Po for a bush tour. It begins with a talk on trees. We learn the difference between nikau, wheke, ponga and the Kiwi emblem the silver fern. We see model whare thatched with nikau. We see how silver fern can be used to light the way in the dark. We plunge deeper into the bush and assemble beside a small round pool. We turn our torches off and the night is lit with thousands of tiny spots of light – glow-worms! The magic of the glow-worms is only surpassed by the magic of the pool or puna. It is Mitai’s sacred spring. Warriors bathed here to heal their wounds after battle. The tohunga, or tribal medicine men from the district used its waters for rituals and to cure the sick. Its water is of such purity and clarity, that although it is two meters deep, it seems only centimetres. The bubbles from the spring underneath rise like a stream of little glass balls and the colour and texture every grain of sand at the bottom is clearly and sharply defined.

After the bush walk, we did go back to our coaches and vans and we did return, tired but happy to our hotels.

Now, I can say, without hesitation, that Mitai has the best hangi, the best concert, the best cultural experience, the best insight into Maori traditions and the best evening all round in Rotorua.

Mitai; 196 Fairy Springs Road, Rotorua

Rotorua Adventures

To many, Rotorua is a thermal wonderland, a mecca of Maori culture and the heart of the lakes district. To others it is an amazing adventure playground.

Messing about in boats on Lake Rotorua
Messing about in boats on Lake Rotorua

No matter which particular type of death-defying feat you’re after, Rotorua has them all and then some.

The Bungy-jump is an imperative for true the adrenalin-junkie and of course Rotorua offers its own unique bungy possibilities, like the cliff ledge leap!!!.

There are rivers with miles of wild rapids for those who want the thrill of white water rafting. If that doesn’t satisfy the thirst for thrills, try white water sledging, crashing downstream on a vamped up boogie board.

Sky-divers, bored with benign skies and gentle landscapes can try dropping into the crater of a lightly slumbering Volcano.

Hikers, bikers and trampers can test their mettle on any number of bush tracks, from painless to perilous.

Crazy braves can career down the luge. This high-speed, totally out of control hurtle down a cutting in the steep side of Mount Ngongotaha is guaranteed to deliver an adrenalin rush you’ll never forget.

Then there’s zorbing. Spread-eagled inside a giant transparent ball, the zorber is rolled head over heels down a slope until he comes he comes to a standstill. Afficianados say it’s the ultimate thrill.

And finally, when you can take no more and need a gentle come down, there’s always a bit of messing about in boats on any one of the lakes.

http://www.rotoruanz.com/experiences/adventure