Category Archives: New York

La Bella Ferrara

Dinner, on Mulberry Street in New York’s Little Italy was very good, very good indeed, in fact, but it was totally eclipsed by dessert at La Bella Ferrara, just a short stroll down the block.

New York's Little Italy
New York’s Little Italy

This narrow little cake shop is one of the few survivors from the days when Mulberry Street was the centre of a large and thriving Italian community mostly from Naples. Over the years La Bella Ferrara has gone steadily about the business of producing cakes and pastries for the famous (one wall is a gallery of big show-biz faces) the infamous (from the late 1900s to the late 20th century, a string of Mafia held sway in the area) thousands, maybe millions, of ordinary New Yorkers and who knows how many tourists.

The problem at La Bella Ferrara is choice. Its menu boasts more than thirty different kinds of pastries, more than a dozen varieties of biscuits, thirteen types of “cakes for   every occasion”, in sizes ranging from the 8 person to the 100 person number as well as holiday and seasonal specials, including  Sfingi and Zeppole De San Giuseppe.

Fortunately, La Bella Ferrrara reproduces almost everything in miniature, so you can try sample a few.

Order a cappuccino, or an espresso and a plate of goodies, sit on the terrace and look out across the street to the shrine of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, in the front garden of the Most Precious Blood Church.

 

Café Edison, a quintessential piece of New York

Breakfast was not included in my deal at the W Hotel in Times Square. If it had been, I would never have discovered the Café Edison. To have missed this iconic Broadway eatery would have been to miss a quintessential piece of New York.

Café Edison
Café Edison

Housed in the former ballroom of Edison Hotel, at 228 West 47th Street, in the heart of Broadway, the café’s mirrored bar and booths with benches sit under a vaulted blue ceiling and between pink walls busily embossed with white. Added to this is a pastiche  of posters, homey art works that look like the oeuvres of some rising family star, fragments of menu, advertisements and framed newspaper article that proudly blow the trumpet of this theatre world landmark.

Theatre patrons, stage-hands, actors, producers and playwrights all congregate here. Plays are conceived and written here. August Wilson dashed off the notes for three of his scripts on Cafe Edison napkins. Neil Simon’s comedy, 45 Seconds From Broadway is about this café which he claimed as his second home, whose staff he embraced as his family and where he could always be found at his special, reserved, cordoned off table, just inside the front door. Big theatre deals are clinched and important Broadway decisions, like who’s up for a Tony, are thrashed out at the Café Edison’s tables.

The café is also known as the Polish Tea Room, which according to N.Y.C. lore, is a nod, or rather a dig, at the prestigious, expensive and now long-gone, Russian Tea Room. But it is also, surely, a tribute to the Café’s Polish founders Harry and Frances Edelstein and to the legendary Polish Jewish cuisine that the Edelstein family have turned out over two generations. The menu includes Latkes, matzo brei, borscht, stuffed cabbage, corned beef, pastrami, lightly fried blintzes stuffed with sweetened cheese, blueberries or cherries, giant open-faced reubens, kasha varmishkas, mazzo brei, an assortment of soups, including, according to Condé Nast Traveler, “the best matzo ball soup in town” and fabulous breakfasts with eggs “over easy” and endless coffee.

Wielding the coffee pots is a gaggle of waitresses of an appearance, age and style that strongly reminded me of an already dated sit-com called Alice which I watched every day during at 1.pm during the summer of 1983 while I breast-fed my newborn son. Other reviewers have described them as “short”, “rude”, “crabby” and “off-hand”. But to me, they had the weary, long-suffering, matter-of-fact, business-like demeanor of working mothers with jobs to do, mouths to feed and messes to clean-up before they could get off their feet. So, cups were filled, toast was replenished and extras added to meals without fuss or favour because they knew, or seemed to, what all their customers needed before they did themselves and it wouldn’t have surprised me in the slightest if they’d slapped some hands and wiped some chins into the bargain.

Don’t miss the Café Edison on your New York adventure, it’s worth it for architecture, the people watching, the exceptional (though not in the conventional sense) service and absolutely unreservedly for the food.

Greenwich Village Today

When I headed down to Greenwich Village on a grey October day, this was my quest; I was looking for that 300 year old village with a hodge-podge of streets and Washington Square as its green heart. I was searching for that cultural enclave where Gertrude Whitney had made a space for American art and where Isadora Duncan had danced as no-one had before. I was looking for those streets where Bob Dylan had walked, that club where Jimi Hendrix had played, those places and those characters from the beat generation that I had found in the Kerouac novels I’d read a lifetime ago and a world away. And did I find it?

Greenwich Village today
Greenwich Village today

Greenwich Village streets are still old village streets. Anomalies in Modern New York’s grid of numbered roads, they are narrow, mismatched and named for village fathers – Mercer, Bleecker and Leroy. Nor have the skyscrapers of Midtown and Downtown Manhattan colonized the landscape. Restricted development has safeguarded the mid-rise apartments, criss-crossed with iron fire-escapes, the terraced housing and the one-family walk-ups. However behind the façades, many vast condominiums have swallowed up whole blocks. Greenwich Village is now more the domain of celebrities and millionaires who have made it, like actress Uma Thurman and Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Magazine, than unknown artists and rising stars.

Historic Washington Square Park is still the centre and heart of the neighbourhood. Students lounge on its lawns. Ideas are thrashed out on its benches. But a new age has seen the rise of new leisure pastimes and new playgrounds, like “the Cage”, the basketball courts above the sixth Avenue subway station where the New York street ball competition takes place.

The village is still a cultural enclave. Theatre and music are thriving. The Astor Place Theatre lives on, now as the home of the Blue Man Group. The Village Vanguard and The Blue Note still feature the big names of jazz. At Café Wha, The Bitter End and The Lion’s Den new legends are born.  And now Greenwich Village has its own orchestra.

The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture still remains, on that hallowed ground on West 8th Street. Galleries and exhibition spaces abound.

The Oscar Wilde bookstore is still trading and around it the Gay community has blossomed. The Village Voice is still strong, still putting the alternative view, still keeping watch on the system, although it speaks now from pages padded with ads for call girls and phone sex.

The golden ages of bohemians and hippies have passed and their abandoned costumes hang in a host of Vintage fashion shops in Bleecker Street. They are picked up for startling sums by a new generation of non-conformists – neo-beats, born again hippies and Hendrix look-alikes. They come out in force for the annual Village Halloween Parade where the spectrum of the village’s diversity is displayed through the streets in a mile long file.

So although, old villagers would claim that much as been lost, much has been saved, at least for the outsider, (the tourist, in fact) like me. The village is still emphatically a village. The streets are vibrant. The people are colourful and if not revolutionary they are at least non-conformist. Billboards and posters show that things are happening here – creative, artistic things. There’s an air about the place that suggests that anything is possible. And to me it looked like a great place to live and work.

A short history of Greenwich Village

New York, they say, is a series of villages, each with its own distinctive character. This is what makes it so diverse and endlessly fascinating. But of all the villages in the Big Apple, none is more famous and interesting than Greenwich Village.

Greenwich Village
Greenwich Village

The American Indians called the patch land which lies between 14th Street, Houston Street, Broadway and the Hudson River Sapokanikan, or tobacco field. In the 17th century, the Dutch arrived and the farmers settled at Sapokanikan named it Noortwyck. In 1664 the British invaded, ousted the Dutch and established their city of New York nearby. Noortwyck became the site of the city cemetery. Still the former Dutch hamlet continued to develop until it officially became the village of Grin’wich in 1713. In 1822 a yellow fever epidemic in the city brought a new wave of settlers to Greenwich Village. It grew. At the same time New York was advancing to meet it and within a decade had absorbed it – the burial ground along with the narrow, oddly angled streets whose names remembered early villagers. The old burial ground became Washington Military Parade Ground and by the 1830s the surrounding streets were some of New York’s most desirable addresses, lined with respectable terraced housing. A few years later the parade ground was developed as a public park and to mark the anniversary of George Washington’s death the landmark arch was built. Soon Washington Square became the heart and centre of the village.

 

In 1831 New York University was established at the edge of Washington Square. It was the brainchild of Albert Gallatin, secretary of the Treasury under President Thomas Jefferson. His aim was to found “in this immense and fast-growing city …a system of rational and practical education fitting for all and graciously open to all”. The new university attracted scholars and intellectuals, many of them from outside the upper classes who had traditionally filled the universities and furthermore free of their social. Around them gathered the artists, the actors, the musicians, writers and the avant garde set who were to forge Greenwich Village’s fame.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Greenwich Village was an enclave of culture. In 1914, Gertrude Whitney opened the Whitney studio Club, where emerging artists could exhibit their works at 8 West 8th Street. In 1931 it became the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1936 abstract Expressionist Hans Hoffman set up an art school in West 9th Street and taught there until 1958. In 1964, when the Whitney moved to its present location, 8 West 8th Street became home to the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, founded by artist Mercedes Matter.

The performing arts thrived. Isadora Duncan, the matriarch of modern dance, lived and worked from the Village. Iconic New York Theatres opened, like the Cherry Lane and the Astor Place. Music flourished. Jazz took root here in its early days and by the 1950s Greenwich Village was New York’s centre of underground jazz. With the 1960s came folk music and the truly great names of the genre all seem to have got their start in Greenwich Village. The Mamas and the Papas met here. Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and Tom Paxton found fame here. Bob Dylan wrote and debuted most of his first, timeless greats in Greenwich Village. Nina Simone, Barbra Streisand, Simon and Garfunkel, The Velvet Underground and the legendary Jimi Hendrix were all talents “born” in the Village. Then, of course, there were the Village People. Music clubs proliferated – the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, Café Wha, the Bitter End and the Lion’s Den.

Many writers, too, made their homes in Greenwich Village, including the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Dylan Thomas lived here and collapsed while on a bender at the Whitehorse Tavern in 1953. Works of literature were set in the village, most notably those of poet Allen Ginsburg and novelists William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Village bookstores and publications reflected the diverse and (for those times) tolerant character of the community. The Oscar Wilde bookshop, established in Greenwich Village in 1967 is the oldest gay and lesbian bookstore in the world. The news weekly, the Village Voice, was the counterculture mouthpiece, the watchdog and critic of stale, stuffy old Middle America.

From the beginning, Greenwich Village had been a haven for a Bohemian set who disregarded conventional values and mores. One such was the French painter Marcel Duchamp struck a revolutionary blow by launching balloons from the Washington Square Arch and declaring Greenwich Village an independent state. In the 1950s a new and different kind of revolutionary, on the run from mainstream society and its oppressive conventions, sought refuge in the tolerant streets of Greenwich Village. These were students, writers, artists, musicians, idealists and free thinkers who would soon come to be known as the Beat Generation, then the Beats, then Beatniks. They prepared the ground and sowed the seeds of the great cultural and social revolution which was to follow in the next decade – the hippie movement. And following that, Greenwich Village became the epi-centre of Gay Liberation.

So, what is Greenwich Village like today? Find out in Travelstripe’s next post.

 

The Empire State Building

Like the Rockefeller Centre, the Empire State Building was a depression era project. But while Rockefeller’s comparatively down to earth dream was to create a city within New York City, the sky was the limit for the men behind the Empire State building. They wanted to create the tallest structure on earth! The building was designed by architect Gregory Johnson and constructed by a company named the Starrett Brothers and Eken.

The Empire State Building from the NY City Sights bus
The Empire State Building from the NY City Sights bus

Work began on the site of the former Waldorf Hotel on the corner of Fifth Avenue on St Patrick’s Day (March 17) 1930.  The 3,400 labour force was made up mainly of European immigrants and Mohawk steel workers from Montreal. 60,000 tons of structural steel, 10 million bricks, 1,8886 60 kilometres of elevator cable, 200,000 cubic feet of Indiana limestone and granite façade and 6, 4000 windows went into the 86 floor, 331,000 ton structure. On May 1, 1931 President Herbert Hoover pressed a button in the White House which turned on the lights and the Empire State building was officially opened. It was 6 weeks ahead of schedule and $5 million dollars under budget.

The piece de resistance of the finished building is the magnificent five story art deco lobby lined with granite and marble and highlighted with brushed steel. It is decorated with a metal mosaic depicting the Empire State building as the centre of the universe and hung with giant bronze medallions portraying the master craftsmen who worked on it. The metal tower at the summit was originally intended to serve as a zeppelin port. But the age of the zeppelins was brief and only one craft ever moored there. Still, since it opened, more than 117 million people have come to enjoy the magnificent views from the observation deck on the 86th floor. Over 1,000 businesses are housed in the Empire State building which has its own dedicated zip code.

From 1931 until 1972, when the World Trade Centre was raised, the Empire State building was the tallest in the world. With the tragic events of September11, 2001 it became, once again, the tallest building in New York but by this time, out in the world, it had been surpassed.

A Day at the Met.

Just to the east of Central Park’s great lawn lies the mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the largest and richest treasure houses on earth, it runs for four full city blocks, from East 80th, to East 84th Street and houses some of the world’s most prized booty.

At the Met.
At the Met.

Outside, the Met is a classical colossus of grey stone slabs, thick Doric pillars, tall veiled windows, heavy fascias and wide sweeping stairs. Inside, it’s a labyrinth of cavernous halls, long corridors, endless galleries – great and small, shadowy or blindingly bright –  and more sweeping stairs.

It was a damp, grey autumn day when I followed the lengthy queue through the Met’s revolving door, past security and up to the ticket office, where I paid my entrance fee and received a tiny metal badge, painted with a bold white M and colour coded (purple) for the day (Friday). It was wonderful weather for art galleries. Thousands of others obviously thought so too and my heart sank as I shuffled shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of them towards Greek Antiquities.

However, so vast is the Met, that I was easily able to find a free bench beside an armless marble deity, then to wander uncrowded among her stone brothers and sisters, through the ruins and spoils of their palaces and temples. I spent undisturbed hours mesmerized by the Modiglianis and other modern greats. I ambled through galleries, discovering American painters like Edward Hopper. I lost myself in rooms full of furniture and furnishings, including stained glass by Tiffany whom I knew only from his famous lamps. I wandered stunned and dumbfounded, among the magnificent Lehmann collection but couldn’t help speculating on how far it would have gone towards pulling the company he founded out of the economic abyss into which it had crashed in 2008.

Unfortunately, too, so vast is the Met that it is impossible to see all of its treasures in one visit, or even, I suspect in a hundred. I missed dozens of rooms and collections along with all the special exhibitions. I didn’t have time to queue for the fabulous ground floor restaurant overlooking Central Park. After a short break in the mezzanine café (perfect for people watching) and a cursory browse in the Met shop (brimming with great books, posters, toys and souvenirs) my day had gone. But I’ll go back to the Met, again and again and again if I get the chance!

Central Park, the green heart of New York

Central Park is the great green heart of New York. It runs up the centre of Manhattan Island from 59th to 110th Street and across from 5th Avenue to Central Park West. Twenty five million people take a walk in Central Park every year. Millions more enjoy it from lofty towers all over the city.

DSC02774

Like many other 19th century parks around the world, Central Park was inspired by the Municipal Park in Birkenhead, across the Mersey River from Liverpool, England. Re-interpreted for the Big Apple by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, its 843 acres are a blend of gloriously untamed nature, beautifully cultivated garden, playgrounds and monuments.

A labyrinth of rustic paths and horse trails wind through overhanging trees and thick bushes, past stony streams, waterfalls and outcrops of dark schist, the bedrock in which New York’s skyscrapers are anchored. There is a vast paddock of uncultivated grass, the Sheep Meadow, which was once actually a sheep pasture. Squirrels forage unconcerned for food under the trees. There’s that distinctive, woodland smell of leaves and damp vegetation. Birds call overhead. The ubiquitous New York traffic noise is a distant hum.

Broad avenues, lined with sculpted trees, cut through and across the park. There are stands of manicured bushes, giant beds layered with flowers and great expanses of lawn. While the lush and exotic 6 acre Conservatory garden is the most spectacular of the park’s formal gardens, Strawberry Fields is certainly its most memorable. Dedicated to the memory of John Lennon, the small enclosed garden is ringed with benches where devotees keep a constant vigil. A central parterre of fresh flowers depicts a peace symbol. The roof top of the Dakota building where Lennon was shot is visible above the treetops.

Central Park boasts 35 children’s playgrounds, all strictly closed to adults unaccompanied by kids. There is a Carousel, which dates back to the beginning of the 19th century and which is open every day in all seasons. The Tisch children’s Zoo contains an enchanted forest with earthen paths and native plants, where birds fly free in an invisible overhead net. TheThe Central Park Zoo, a playground for people of all ages, features tropical, temperate and polar environments and a fair representation of their inhabitants. The Delacorte Theatre is the venue for the summer New York Shakespeare festival and the Swedish Cottage Marionette has puppet shows for all ages. Last but not least of Central Park’s playgrounds is the beautiful, old world Wollman Rink where New Yorkers take to the ice in their millions every winter.

Central Park’s monuments are many and varied. There are the follies, like whimsical Belvedere Castle which completes a fairytale picture just south of the Great Lawn. The elaborate Victorian stone Bethesda Terrace, with its wings, porticoes, tunnel, sculpted façade, 1 acre esplanade completely overshadows the pretty little lake. An avenue lined with busts of great bards, pays homage to literature. Dotted all over the park are statues of the great and famous of US history. There are plaques to mark the spots where the rich and celebrated have planted trees. But the most fascinating monuments in Central Park, each with their own special story, are the park benches, some bearing famous names, others with the names of complete unknowns, some with messages of love and others with messages of loss.

A message of love on a Central Park bench
A message of love on a Central Park bench

There was a time when Central Park was a dangerous place. Visitors were cautioned against it. It was the scene of muggings and murders. But not any more. Since Rudy Juliani took the helm as Mayor of New York, the Park, along with the city has become a safe place for a stroll both by day and by night. It remains open until 2. a.m. and Park Rangers patrol 24/7. The same Park Rangers, along with teams of volunteers and Central Park Conservancy Staff lead Central Park Walks and Talks which include geology, bird-watching, ecology and park history.

There are three centres in Central Park dedicated to informing and educating visitors. The Dairy, a vintage Victorian Chalet houses the main visitor information centre and gift shop. The Henry Luce Nature Observatory, in the Belvedere Castle is an interactive display which explains how to observe, identify and record the plants and wildlife in the park. The Charles A Dana Discovery Centre provides environmental education programs  such as bird-watching, fishing, ecology and horticulture explorations as well as workshops, performances and events highlighting the park and its neighbourhood.

While Central Park’s grid of broad tree-lined avenues and labyrinth of winding rustic paths are made for walkers and ramblers, it seems that at every gate, around every bend and behind every tree, there lurks some temptation to ride – horses and carriages, bicycles, trishaws and rickshaws, there are even special little perambulators designed to take the weight off canine paws. We set off from the 59th Street entrance, determined to stay on our feet. But it wasn’t long before we succumbed to the persuasions of a gaunt Romanian trishaw operator. He showed us the Central Park of film and television – the fountain where the Friends cast took the plunge, the Boathouse Restaurant which featured in Sex and the City and the lake where Carrie and Big went under.

Central Park is many things to New York; a playground, a quiet retreat, a soft oasis of green amidst the harsh grey and a cherished piece of natural beauty in the concrete jungle. It is one of the world’s great parks, more so because it sits at the centre of one of the world’s great cities.

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.