Tag Archives: New York

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.

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