Easter long weekend. Why not take an extra day off and spend 4 glorious days in New York?
Leaving Toronto on a Thursday afternoon is not the easiest nor fastest way to go, but you do what you got to do. After a couple hours in traffic, we finally arrive at the Rainbow bridge to cross the border. One not particularly friendly but bearable border agent later we are heading towards the nearest AT&T store to get our phones hooked up to a local data and call plan. By the time we are done with that (which takes extra time, because you actually have to work hard to convince people to sell you a microSIM card in that place) it’s past 8pm, the sun is down and it’s rapidly turning dark. Toll booths, curvy highways (I mean, interstates), it was really quite uneventful, and after a while got downright tedious. The darkness in particular made it difficult to stay alert as there was nothing to even look at in terms of scenery. Somewhere midway it was time to gas up and we decided to go for a snack as well. Not much is open at those hours in the middle of nowhere, so we went for Wendy’s. If you cannot say anything good, better say nothing at all, but on the other hand, it was clear that NYC restaurants and cafés did not have to try all that hard to beat that dried out food substitute.
Somewhere around 1am the city lights started getting brighter. Evidently it was the Jersey City, and after the last toll of the night at the Lincoln Tunnel, we were in Manhattan. Our hotel was located on Lexington and 37th Street and the most direct route, according to the GPS, was across 42nd Street – through the busy Times Square. Even at 2am the city looked very much awake, though in retrospect, the amount of people just a few hours earlier would be magnitudes higher.
We left the car in a garage nearby and headed off to the hotel. After a long trip it was just off to sleep, and no photos to show for it.
The morning of the first day we had an important decision to make: which way do we head after we exit the hotel? For no particular reason, we headed north by Lexington Ave. The idea was to just check out the streets semi-randomly, get breakfast and see where that leads us.
At some point we stopped at a cafe to grab breakfast: panini, Arizona green tea, pastry and fruits. According to the maps, we were getting closer to Central Park, and decided to eat our breakfast there.
In some ways New York is not unlike Toronto. It just seems to take every feature to the extreme. Bigger, busier, taller, fuller, louder, faster, brighter. Of course, a city of this size will look and feel different if you just move a block, but the first impression, from where we were standing, was just that.
As we headed east on 59th towards Central Park, we passed a small shop that I at first ignored, but was shortly convinced to go back and check out. It turned out to be Macaron Cafe, a boutique shop that sells a few dozens varieties of macarons. It turned out to be a good decision, as we came back to it a few more times during our stay to get more of the fresh, soft, flavourful, melting-in-your-mouth delicacies.
As we approached Central Park, we noticed a large number of people gathered at the corner of the street. Apparently, a group of guys was entertaining the crowd with some break dancing and overall clowning around. After that diversion, we finally got inside the park.
We walked for a few minutes, and then settled on one of the big boulders to finally have breakfast. The weather was very string-like, bright, but not too warm. The trees were covered in bloom and despite being quite busy for a park, it still seemed calm compared to the bustle of the streets.
Although Manhattan is such a densely populated island, Central Park covers a very sizeable chunk of it. We walked and walked, and there just seemed no end to it. At some point we exited the park and just walked along its west edge, on the street. The streets north of Museum of Natural History looked much more residential and quiet compared to midtown area we started in.
One of the things that caught attention was the way cars were parked on the side of the road: extremely close, bumper to bumper. Many cars had rubber bumper protectors hanging on the back, and many did not. Those that did not were showing lots of paint damage on the front and back. People like to complain about trouble finding parking in downtown Toronto, but nevertheless, it is completely uncommon for a car to bump the one in front or back as part of parallel parking procedure. If someone does that, it would be only as a result of a mistake or incompetence, it’s definitely not an acceptable thing to do. I once saw a video posted by a Canadian news site of a car doing parallel parking in New York City, “bumping out” the cars immediately in front and behind it to fit – with a distance between them at the end probably not exceeding 10cm. To someone from Toronto that looked outrageous. I guess in NYC it’s just normal ;).
After pondering like that for a bit, we kept walking and reached the north end of Central Park. Kept walking further north, but nothing seemed to be happening, just residential areas, kids playing, things of that nature. Decided to head to Brooklyn and see what those bridges and the River Cafe are all about. Thanks to several strategically pre-installed apps on the phone we managed to figure out a route and headed to the nearest subway station.
The nearest subway station was on 116th street. Got a pair of Metro Cards with $10 on each and went on to the actual platforms. I have not used Toronto’s subway system in a couple of years now, but from what I recall, it was in a similar state of interior decay.
After switching the trains we finally resurfaced in Brooklyn and although the main attraction planned for the evening was the Brooklyn Bridge, it was the other bridge that caught the eye first.
We slowly made our way to River Café and sat at one of the tables in the glass enclosed terrace room. After ordering a couple foie gras appetizers we decided to move to one of the outside tables, where we could take some photos of the sunset without the obstruction of the windows.
As our orders came in, we mounted the camera on the handrail on the edge of the terrace and set it to take intervalometer photos, to be converted into a high-speed video of the city lighting up as the sun sets (to be posted along with other NYC intervalometer videos as soon as I figure out what to use as a soundtrack). The view was great, the food was delicious, but ultimately when the sun went down we needed to make plan for the rest of the evening. Although delicious, our meal was really only an appetizer, since we were not quite dressed up to go for a full dinner at River Café. After looking for some suggestions of restaurants in the city, we settled on Tony’s DiNapoli near Times Square. Called in to reserve a table (might as well use those AT&T cellphone minutes), we had over an hour to kill before dinner.
Slowly made our way back to the subway station and headed to Times Square.
Another thing that caught our eyes – cops. They seemed to be almost everywhere, and the busier the area, the more police was present (naturally). Cars, bikes, motor scooters, vans, horses, and even some kind of odd vehicular contraptions that reminded me of the little carts with large hoses that I saw a few times in early mornings in Toronto, sucking up trash from the streets. They often came in large groups and in Times Square area especially they seemed to want to make themselves unmistakably obvious and flashy.
After the shiny and loud Times Square, it was time for dinner. One of the reviewers on TripAdvisor described Tony’s DiNapoli as “Loud, Large Portions, Good Service. Not the best.” That was pretty much spot on. But best is the enemy of good. After very fancy starters at River Café, it’s fine to only spend a few minutes finding a place to complete the dinner. The rest of the time, keep exploring the new surroundings.
Despite low expectations and food that was nothing spectacular, there was one thing Tony’s surprised me with. They had Bellini on their menu! Frozen Bellini, to be precise, but the machine that makes it frozen was broken, the waiter told me, so I had a plain old non-frozen variety instead. I actually prefer it that way, and although it did not taste quite as good as the ones we had in Venice, it was a warm reminder of our Italian adventure.
With that out of the way, we ventured out to the streets again. Headed north and made our way to the Rockefeller Center.
Everything was so huge, it called for a change in point of view. The ultra wide fisheye lens seemed perfect for it.
We planned to go to the top of this building on one of the other days, and seeing it from ground level definitely confirmed the plans.
We walked further on along 5th Ave. The wide lens provided quite an interesting perspective, mixing near and far and messing with the parallel lines in the most unapologetic manner.
Before calling it a night on the last day, we asked our GoPro camera to record the sunrise as seen from our window. Here is the best it could come up with:
This time, we headed south from 37th Street. The first proposed destination – the Flatiron building.
This one was really hard to capture. The sun was already quite high and desperately wanted to overtake any shot of the iconic structure.
Walking from our hotel to the Flatiron district works up an appetite. As we walked north away from the building, I noticed a Mexican food stand that promised the best Mexican street food money can buy. It was manned by a Mexican cook and a white guy who handled payments and took orders. As we approached it, there was already someone waiting for their grilled chicken burrito, and apparently the cook was under the impression that the order was for three of them, when in fact the customer only wanted one. Yet the difference was exactly what we wanted to order. As the cashier pointed out to the cook, “you are making the right number of burritos, they just haven’t ordered them yet.” Reading minds is his side job, apparently.
Hunger out of the way, we continued further north. Among things to see next would be MOMA and TOTR. We got our TOTR tickets online after being convinced by a lady on the phone that a QR code in a confirmation email would suffice and we don’t need to print anything out, which would probably be a pain.
The museum left me in a somewhat bewildered state. We did not go in with anything specific in mind, though perhaps that might have been helpful. Some of the works we looked at were a bit on a disturbing side (the exhibit was titled Exquisite Corpses, so what else would you expect?), and we finished off with looking at the photographs of Eugène Atget, a French photographer from the beginning of the 20th century. At that point I was overloaded and just wanted to fill my eyes with something more familiar, so we went outside. We have only been here for a little over a day, but my ability to process new experiences was slowing down drastically.
Although it was close to an hour until our scheduled arrival time to Top of the Rock, we decided to just stick around the area until that time.
As the scheduled time approached, we went up to the entrance. There was the first of a large number of lines we had to endure to get to the top. It took a total of just under 30 minutes from the first ticket check to breathing the cold air outside on the 67th floor. The attractions along the way included a security checkpoint, and a long line up broken up by an option to take a photo in front of a fake “view from the top” backdrop, and about 15 minutes worth of documentary footage about the Rockefeller Center. I was slightly annoyed at that documentary at first, but then realized that it’s not actually making the line any longer, it’s just to keep you a little less bored while you wait for the elevators.
The timing of our visit could not be better. The sun was almost at the horizon, but still visible. One thing that we wanted to do on this trip was to get some cool sunset intervalometer clips, which meant that the spot we’re at during sunset had to be planned to be interesting. It was Brooklyn bridge the day before, and now it is Top of the Rock. I must say the view is very dramatic. In an unfair comparison, the CN Tower in Toronto, although significantly taller, does not impress nearly as much. Partly it’s because of the more limited view you get from it – there is no escaping safety glass or netting, partly because the surrounding cityscape is not nearly as busy as in NYC.
After hanging around the 67th floor deck for a little while we noticed a sign indicating there is more to be seen a little higher. I think many people genuinely did not notice that, as the top level was not only free from safety glass, it was also more free from the crowds. Most people were looking south towards downtown, so if you wanted to take in the northern views, you could start feeling seriously lonely. We asked one of the guards on the 70th floor to take a photo of us while there was still light, took a few more shots and then set the D7000 to take intervalometer shots of the southern views and the darkening city.
One thing we miscalculated on the whole NYC trip was the weather. After an unusually warm week in mid-March our brains switched to “summer time”, and despite the temperatures lowering subsequently, we dressed a bit too light for the weather. It was not too bad during the day, but at night with the sun down it became a lot more apparent. At the top of the Rockefeller Center it was both cold and windy and although we lasted a whole hour and a half, it ultimately became too cold to continue enjoying it. We made our way back to the elevators and stopped at a gift shop on the ground level. The most logical souvenir to get was a pair of hoodies – which we promptly put on under our jackets to make the evening a little warmer.
The rest of the evening was spent getting back to the hotel using the least direct route and snapping more views of the streets.
Our plans for the third day included getting to the Brooklyn bridge in time for sunrise, getting some shots of the rising sun and then walking back to Manhattan. As is customary, I disregarded the alarm for about 30 minutes. Although we knew we’d probably miss sunrise, we still got out and headed for the Grand Central.
It was Easter Sunday and the town was noticeably quiet. The walk to the bridge was fairly lengthy. In retrospect, if we wanted to catch the sunrise there, it would be a good idea to plan to arrive in Brooklyn about an hour before sunrise time, to have a chance to catch things in darkness from the bridge.
After a short break on a bench near the bridge we continued exploring. This time it was downtown’s turn. Perhaps Easter Sunday is not the day to see it as it is most of the other times, but on the other hand, it’s a point of view that you don’t get often, which is not altogether undesirable.
Speaking of desirable things: breakfast. As we passed a cute café Financier, I first took a photo, then walked past it, and then realized that we might as well go in and see about getting something to eat. We took a couple of croissants (each a different variation of something with almond) and coffee. The coffee was okay, the croissants were incredible. Maybe it was the freshness, maybe they just put dope in it to make it more appealing, but they were just the right combination of soft and crunchy, light and flavourful. They were arguably the best croissants I have had in a long while.
After walking around the streets and enjoying the Bowling Green park, we went on to the ferry docks to get on the Staten Island ferry.
After a lazy stroll around the harbour, we got to the ferry dock and sat waiting for the next one to come in. Upon embarking, most people went to the front of the ferry. It got so busy there, there was no way we would get a clear view of anything from that point. So we walked across the boat to the other end and spent the ride facing back toward Manhattan.
After getting off the boat on Staten Island, we proceeded to just get on another one and go back. The island itself was not something we wanted to explore. Not this time.
On the way back we ended up getting settled inside the main section of the ferry, near one of the windows, which we opened, which caused a powerful wind to blow around the cabin, which nobody seemed to mind despite it being a fairly chilly day. The most striking image to be seen on that trip was the approaching Manhattan skyline. As you get closer to the city, the boat starts turning to get to its designated dock and all the buildings shift before your eyes in a somewhat surreal way. It’s not something you can photograph or even film, unless perhaps you get one of those 3D cameras. The effect is produced as the massive buildings appear to quickly move around you exposing their relative depths and highlighting the three-dimensiality of it all. Walking around the city you cannot see it as you are moving too slowly, and a video is too flat. Another way to see this is if you speed through a highway that passes through a city centre (tested and confirm on Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway).
Back in the city, the sun was starting to heat up and it was time for lunch. Having a pizza at a famous Grimaldi’s Pizza place in Brooklyn seemed like a good idea after reading about it for a bit, so off we went for the subway and across the East River.
Back in Brooklyn, we went to where Grimaldi’s Pizza was supposed to be. It appears they actually changed locations, so we went for the other one, which was within walking distance anyway. There we were greeted with a very badly painted house, a sign saying something along the lines of it being the best pizza place you could imagine, and a totally locked door. Fruitlessly tried calling the telephone number found on their website. No one picked up. The mood shifted from “eagerly awaiting the good stuff” to “mildly annoyed” and finally to “moderately pissed off”. Tried getting some food at nearby places, but they were either too upscale, or too busy. Neither shelling out $100 for lunch, nor waiting 40 minutes for a takeout pizza seemed tempting. Decided to say to hell with all that and just head back to the hotel, hoping that somewhere on Lexington between Grand Central and 37th Ave there will be a place that will actually be willing to feed us.
From the station we entered we had to change trains to get to Grand Central. That may not sound exciting, but it was a surprisingly complex path. The Fulton Street station is having some major repair/rebuild work going on and felt like a maze to navigate. With good directions, but a somewhat claustrophobic maze nonetheless.
Up on Lexington we did stumble upon what looked like a passable pizza place, where we promptly picked up a few slices of pizza, some drinks, and were on our way in less time than it took to push and pull on Grimaldi’s door and realize it was closed. Up in the hotel the slices were examined, declared satisfactory and eaten in bed. And since we woke up before sunrise the only sensible thing to do was close the wonderful light-proof blinds on the window and take a nap.
Upon waking up, we were delighted to see that the sun was still up and decided to plan the rest of the evening, so that there are no finicky surprises like closed restaurants or something. Booked a table at Birdland for their 10:30pm show, and decided to go up on the roof of our hotel (16th floor) to catch the fast approaching sunset from there.
Next stop: Times Square. The idea here was to set the camera to take intervalometer shots and combine them to make the busy area appear even faster. We ended up taking them from 3 different locations before it was time for our dinner reservation. A small highlight of one of the world’s biggest tourist traps: a spray paint artist who created sci-fi inspired cityscapes in front of your eyes.
At one point a large group of police officers rode into the square on motor scooters. I so wanted to ask one of them to lend me the ride to pose for a picture, but ultimately decided against that.
Dinner at Birdland did not start as well as expected. Despite having the reservation for 10:30pm, we were first sent to wait at the bar. It was closer to 11pm when they started calling out the names of those with reservations and seating them. We got a table at the front, just off centre, and did not even have to bribe anyone (I guess the $30 per person cover charge is enough). The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra playing that set was great. I’m no jazz aficionado, but it sounded kind like I had hoped it would. The food was good too. I ordered fish covered in mustard seeds, and the seeds provided a curiously crunchy texture to the soft fillet. They maybe have kept us waiting longer than we wanted, but in the end we were happy with both food and entertainment.
As our last night in town was winding down we strolled slowly back to the hotel.
Before departing the next morning, there were a few more things to do. First, have breakfast and grab some extra to eat along the way. The previous Wendy’s style fiasco must be avoided. We ended up having panini at a nearby cafe and buritos to go. Just for the heck of it, dropped by Bloomingdale’s to see what the fuss is all about. Left after about 10 minutes. Sure, a large high end place, but I think I’d be hard pressed to find anything there that I cannot find in stores in Toronto. I mean, maybe they do have something, but it was far from obvious and there was no time to waste looking too hard for it. Maybe if I was from a small town, or another continent – otherwise, no point.
Back to the hotel to pick up our suitcase, then to the garage to pick up the car and then… no, not Toronto. Atlantic ocean shore, or as close to it as we can get. Went through Brooklyn bridge and across to the south-west area of the island.
We picked up a few seashells on the shore, including some large ones that had to be literally clawed out from in-between the rocks. It was a very peaceful departure from the high paced city. Afterwards we went back, through Brooklyn again and across the Manhattan bridge. Traffic was brutal, I opened the sunroof and took a few shots, it was just that slow.
The juxtaposition of the Empire State Building and the ghetto area of Chinatown immediately off the bridge seemed interesting enough to photograph. The rest of the drive was across a busy Chinatown street and was even slower than crossing the bridge. Chinatown itself did not seem that curious to me personally, mainly because it is not that dramatically different from places I can find in my city. What I did do was get out of the car at one point to grab a pair of hot dogs (the vendor claimed to serve the best stuff in NYC, although that was not what convinced me), and slowly stroll forward to meet my designated driver about 50 meters ahead. For the record: the hot dogs did take some time to get sliced open, briefly cooked, put together in a pita (because yes, I decided to go with that instead of a plain bun) and wrapped in foil. The traffic was just nasty. I have to admit, I have never seen it that bad for that long in Toronto.
All in all, it took about 2 hours from the time we left Brooklyn to the time we entered New Jersey. There, some road work forced us to take a detour from the GPS-planned route, and after a few toll payments we were on the way home. Midway we ended up stopping at the exact same gas station to fuel up. No Wendy’s this time, just the cold but infinitely better burito, consumed without stopping the car during those long straight stretches of the interstates.
Speaking of the tolls. I don’t exactly mind paying for things I use, but could they be a bit more user-friendly? Close to the end of the American leg of our journey we were faced with a toll booth that required payment of $1.25 in quarters only! By some weird and unusual fluke I happened to have exactly 5 quarters. I was searching for the last of them for about a minute. The stuff these people come up with, I think they do it just to provide material for stand up comedians.
Finally, we came to a border booth, where a disinterested guard asked us some profound questions like what our license plate number is, and where do we live (I think we failed to answer either of those correctly). “What are you bringing in?” – “Some souvenirs.” At which point he gets interrupted by some other guard and waves us through. The rest of the way was fondly familiar from previous trips to Niagara and other destinations west of Toronto. It’s always sad to leave your vacation behind, but somehow it’s still uplifting to be coming back home.