Tuesday 6 November 2012

New York - Winter 2012

A bite of the Big Apple
Sunday, 28 October

A school trip with 3 students and 14 teachers is my kind of trip!  This was really a 3 day city break for teachers but booked through a school trip company.  The students were actually just children of some of the teachers.  I am firmly a tourist on this trip as we have a full minute by minute itinerary organised.  First impressions? There's a lot of graveyards in New York...  And they are massive!  I feel they definitely took some of the lime light away from the famous New York skyline during our coach journey from the airport.  Second impression? Damn that's a beautiful skyline. 

We are staying on 31st street (yup streets have numbers rather than names here) which seems to be perfectly located for all the attractions.  A little on the expensive side but seeing as we are here for such a short time it's worth being close to everything.  We were in and then straight back out to time square to eat at a Mexican place called Chevy's.  Chevy's was alright but it was Times Square that really blew me away.  It was everything i imagined.  Animated advertisements, some as tall as the buildings, light up the whole street.  The square filled with hurried people, entertainers dressed up for a buck and yellow taxis posing for photos.  Sitting on the red steps in times square is possibly the best people watching spot in the world.  After dinner we queued to go up the empire state building for a free view of New York as Jesus sees it.  Breath taking... not because it was ridiculously cold and windy up there but because New York looks stunning from the sky.

Today was our main site seeing day.  A couple of us woke up on England time and so went for a wonder for breakfast.  Delis are massive here and were all open despite the hour.  Fantastic pastries, sandwiches, paninis, muffins, a full breakfast buffet and fresh ground coffee.  And cheap! A couple of sweet pastries and a coffee for about $4.  I could well get use to this.  The films don't lie; new yorkers actually do do this!  Once the group were up we took a stroll through Times Square and sat on the red steps in day light.  Still impressive but has a lesser impact on your retinas.  From here we started our walking tour.  This is the first time I have worn my walking boots for a city tour but i am so damn glad that i did.  We walked faaaar.  My boots carried me from the steps to the ice rink, to Grand Central Station, to Trumps Tower, around Central Park, across Brooklyn bridge, back across Brooklyn bridge and then downtown to Battery Park to see the Statue of Liberty.  Ok so we caught the underground a couple of times but my feet are well and truely done in!  Luckily, New York has many, many fuelling stations.  Pretty much one on every corner.  One of my favourite things about this place is that you can buy a hot dog for $2, and just as you finish eating it you will arrive at another hot dog stall.  I ate 6 today... and could quite happily eat another right now.

You know you're a tourist when you nervously stand next to a police car for a photo and end up getting a photo with the officers.  They're NYPD! The Grand Central station is beautiful but the real gold was buried below it.  A real fancy New York food court.  It looked amazing.  If only i hadn't eaten all these hot dogs... Anyway, apparently this was nothing compared to other food courts in NY.  It was great to roam around Central Park after hearing so much about it.  It is literally a big  square piece of green nature plonked in the middle of an urban concrete grey.  It was so peaceful people actually just slept on the grass (in hindsight i think these were just homeless people).  You get a great view from Brooklyn bridge and it was well worth the walk on tired feet.  It was around about here when we all started to receive text messages from worried loved ones at home.  Apparently England news thinks there is a hurricane coming.  It didn't feel all that windy so we weren't worrying too much.  And then we started noticing things... Like shops being boarded up, hot dog stalls closing up and really worried statues with their arms in the air (it definitely had its arms crossed and smiling last time we walked passed it) being strapped down!?

We ate at Hard Rock cafe two hours earlier than planned because they rang and told us that they are closing early due to hurricane Sandy.  They've named it!?!  That's got to mean something right?  Though it is a bit of a camp girly name.  Maybe it won't be so bad after all.  On a different and much brighter note, i had a pulled pork sandwich and it was goooooood.  Soft, fatty, juicy, salty and sweet.  If i die in this hurricane at least my last meal was a gooden. 

The City that Sometimes Sleeps
Tuesday, 30 October

We were supposed to be flying home today...  So it turns out that this hurricane was quite the big deal.  Its seriousness only properly sank in when i was watching the local news and it compared the incoming Sandy to the last years Irene (left).  We all took a deep breath as we sat and watched as they projected hurricane Irenes satellite view and gradually over-layed it with Sandy's.  It was shocking.  Not much happens in a city that is going through a super storm.

Sunday night in Jay-Z's bar didn't happen.  In fact every bar, restaurant and club were closed due to the impending hurricane.  Hotels, on the other hand, remained open.  And all hotels have bars!  Apart from our hotel that is.  So we put on our nights best and conducted what would be our first ever hotel bar crawl.  Drinking Long Island Ice Teas (for $16) in the Marriott hotel's rotating bar is a great way to see a storm through.  Yer it was a little pricey but i had put money aside for a helicopter ride weather permitting...  Pah!
The storm still hadn't hit us by Monday morning but pretty much everything was still closed in anticipation of Sandy's surprise visit.  Well everything closed but one place.  The all amazing, all American, Tick-tock diner.  I owe a few digits of my waistline to this place.  No place could tick more boxes for an American dining experience.  From the tight stripey booths to sit in, the fat pancakes, the maple syrup and even the over-weight greasy guys walking around topping up your filter coffee.  It has it all!  I had crispy bacon, eggs over easy and pancakes all with a sweet drizzle of maple syrup.  We spent the rest of the day roaming around and nosing in shops that wouldn't have even been of slight interest had any other shops been open.  As the evening grew nearer the heavens opened, the winds started to pick up and the streets gradually emptied.  We retreated to the safety of our hotel and sat it out. 
Cards, crosswords and CSI saw the evening through.  We are on 31st which turns out to be one of the few streets that have managed to keep their power.  At around 9PM we heard of a pizza place around the corner that had decided to stay open.  Braving the winds and keeping an eye out for flying cows we ordered a large New York pizza and ate it in our hotel rooms.  By this morning Sandy had left and we had the chance to witness the destruction left in her wake.  Fallen trees, building debris and smashed water towers littered the streets.  Sirens filled the air and you very clearly felt to be in the middle of a disaster zone.  Breakfast at Tick tock (yet again one of the only diners open) helped lighten the mood.
It was a whole day of nothing.  We went to China town and saw the odd few shops trying to make a living by opening to candle light.  We stocked up on water bottles (having also filled our bath tub with water in case the water is cut off) and then went back to the cards and crosswords.  There was one particular highlight of the day when we found a restaurant open serving a "Sandy's special menu" which i think translated to "we have had no delivery's but we will cook from what we've got menu".  It was here where i ticked off the New York cheesecake.  This had a much lighter and fluffier texture to the cheese cakes i know.  I don't know if that was unique to New York or to the restaurant but i definitely prefer it. 

By night the winds had completely died down and a few more places had started to open.  Feeling a little peckish; a few of us left the comfort of the hotel and went on the hunt for a Philly Cheese steak sandwich.  Papaya Dog had it advertised as selling the best in town but in light of Sandy they had no steak.  We bought a corn dog and carried on our hunt.  A corn dog tastes like a hotdog inside a freshly fried donut.  The mixture of sweet and salt, like bacon and syrup, seems popular here.  Obesity also seems quite popular here too.  Just saying.  We ended up in Times Square eating at Tad's Steaks which was a fast food steak house. You line up with your tray, pick your drink, sides and steak and wait whilst they cook it.  I had a t-bone with garlic bread, mash potato and gravy.  Proper comfort food with no bells or whistles.

"Start Spreading the News..."
Friday, 2 November
So we were supposed to go home last Tuesday.  We finally got confirmation yesterday that in fact we will be going home next Tuesday! As in an entire week later than scheduled.  School starts on Monday!? And two of the students have a maths exam on the Tuesday!  But lets see if we can make lemonade here...  If you have to be stuck somewhere for a week, New York (now that it is buzzing again) is probably the best place to be.  Considering we missed over half our itinerary we can now do it all at a much more leisurely pace.  In fact we can see much more of New York!  But to really put the fizz in it, we need to focus on the fact that our insurance is covering all of it.  The rest of our time in the hotel and 3 square meals a day.  Finally a pay off for all those times holiday insurances have screwed me over. 

On Wednesday Macy's finally opened again and we spent the entire day shopping.  Macy's is awesome.  I had eggs Benedict's for breakfast (from tick-tock of course), a seafood platter for lunch (from Red Lobster) and breaded shrimp for dinner (at Bubba Gumps).  We've gone through some tough times; a bit of retail therapy and comfort eating was needed!  I had a root beer float which i see as being very American.  It tastes like medicine.  And not Calpol.  We have done a lot of restaurants now and i am still not used to the American way.  I keep thinking my meal is say $20 and then realising i have to tip and pay tax on top of that!  The best Brits in America moment was when we ordered 4 portions of "hand cooked chips" to go with our buffalo wings and got 4 big bags of crisps...   
Yesterday we did the top of the rock for some great sky views of the city.  From here you could really see the contrast between the greenery of central park and its surroundings.  It's a beautiful view.  After, me and Jane decided that we wanted to go downtown to see the damage of Sandy.  The subways were running down to around 35th street (for free!) but anything further south were still being drained.  We caught a free bus to Battery Park which was one of the most affected areas of Manhattan.  Though everything was back on the mend, it didn't take long to realise how big Sandy really was.  Just listening to conversations on the bus of downtown residents were enough.  We soon learnt how lucky we were to have kept our power, our hotel and to have essentially lost nothing due to the super storm.  A free bus back to time square took us to our free meal in a place called Stardust Diner.  Here the waiters and waitresses are all singers hoping for their big break on Broadway. As a group we were well entertained as the food was decent and the performances were fantastic.  It takes quite some talent to carry a tray of drinks in one hand, over your head, and belt out "New York, New York" with a mic in the other hand! 
"...I'm Leaving Today"
Tuesday, 6 November
Oh my god possibly the best spontaneous decision i have ever made!  Standing on the red steps wondering what all these queues were about i investigated to find that they were selling discounted Broadway tickets.  Hmm how awesome would it be to watch a Broadway!? I didn't even consider fitting it into our tight 3 day schedule before.  For $99 we watched Lion King and almost cried in awe.  We were speechless.  Everything about it was just sheer genius.  I got so lost and fixated in the show, at intermission it felt like i had just woken up from a deep dreamy sleep.  If you have got the money (which i don't...) and the time then don't think twice about it!  After the best theatre i have ever seen i just happened to eat the best burger i have ever eaten from a fast food joint called Five Guys.  Various awards for the "best burger in town" are pasted around the restaurant and i completely agree with them.  They asked me what i would like in my burger and so i asked for a recommendation.  They responded with "everything".  It was the weight of a small baby and absolutely everything a burger should be!  They also have the most amazing drinks machine that i am sure is magical and belongs in Willy Wonka's factory (video below).  As if having a touch screen wasn't advanced enough for a drinks machine; it had 50+ different drinks, from Cherry Coke to Pink Lemonade, that came out of one tap!  When i am loaded (and as a teacher, clearly one day i will be...) i will be having myself one of these in my kitchen. 

With all this extra time we also managed to have a proper night out and go to Jay-Z's bar on Saturday night.  Cocktails, beer and dancing Gangnam style would sum the night up perfectly.  Oh and Sushi!  Yup, no post beer kebab here.  We're high flyers that go to bar 4040 and hang with the richest now.  Sunday was the unofficial New York marathon as Sandy cancelled the official one.  We walked through the park and watched for a little while before heading to the Guggenheim to feel a little cultured and at one with art.  If you are interested in art then i am sure it is pretty cool.  I was more into the actual building than anything.  I managed to take a photo whilst pretending to be texting on my phone.  Naughty i know but look how cool it looks! 
After the Guggenheim we went to witness some real culture in Harlem.  This was a completely different side to New York.  With scenes straight from movies like American Gangster and Save the Last Dance (i know this is Chicago but hey!) we instantly felt like people were looking at us as if we were a couple of turds in a punch bowl.  Within minutes someone approached us and asked us if we were lost.  We weren't lost but we were searching for Sylvia's restaurant for some soul food.  We knew nothing about it other than its recommendation in a guide book.  Whilst seeing no tourists around Harlem, we found them all in Sylvia's.  It was rammed.  With soul music playing through the speakers, photos of famous black people eating in the restaurant (including Mr Obama himself!) on the walls and ribs and fried chicken on the menu; this built up to be my favourite dining experience of the trip.  I only discovered that the soul music from the speakers was live when i went to the toilet and saw them playing! The singer actually incorporated "they're down the stairs honey" into her song as i stood next to her looking for the toilets!!  A basket of freshly baked corn bread welcomed us to our table as we ordered a starter of fried catfish and then the ribs and fried chicken combo with sides of candied yam, black eyed peas and macaroni and cheese for mains.  It wasn't even the best food of the trip but if i had a time machine i would relive this moment time and time again. 

For our final day we mopped up any remaining little bits of New York that we wanted to see:  The Staten island ferry, the High Line, China town (properly this time) and the fire station from ghost busters.  I ate a Philly cheese steak sandwich for breakfast and another Five Guys burger for my final meal in New York.  What a roller coaster of a trip this has been.   Yer there were some almighty lows but ultimately we gained so much out of it!  And how many people can say that they have been in a super storm?  The only real negative is that my trousers no longer fit and i have a ponch the size of Pluto.  When life gives you lemons, make New York style pink lemonade.  :o)