Travel diary: USA 2011


I have been toying with how to combine the photos I took whilst on holiday with the memoirs scribbled in a travel diary – then voila – I remembered the blog I have. The right place to start is the beginning – leaving Australia on a coldish Saturday morning in Sydney’s spring, bound for L.A.. But the places and experiences fresh in my mind were from the last week – spent living it up in New York. So backwards I will write.

 

There is not one word I could ever rely on to fully describe New York – the things people tell you to expect are amplified by being there and finally experiencing first hand a town that dances to many different beats. Continuously.
I arrived into NY from Vermont after a short delay – meaning we landed at night-time rather than late afternoon. Stepping outside those airport doors I could feel the city thrum. At first a shock to the senses, as sounds and lights dazzle but you are quickly enticed into a world which will leave you changed forever.

Lucky me had found a cheap (by NY standards!) place to stay with someone in lower midtown (via airbnb.com) – in between the Empire State Building and Grand Central Station. The kind of place that I thought NY was all about – tall brick apartment blocks, smiling doormen (they would surely have some secret gossip to tell!!) and old slow lifts. What I got was just perfect – even had my own balcony and view over the busy street scape below.

37th Street looking west across Manhattan
Park Ave on a rainy morning

Even a view of the Empire State Building from my bedroom!

I had a full six days to pack as much of New York in as I could – and I was determined to check a few tourist things off my list (Empire State Building, Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge etc.) as well as dig up a few surprises too. But probably the one thing that I did not expect to find (perhaps my ignorance shows here) was food – amazing food. I believe one email I sent back home at the time was titled “if only writing burnt calories…”; the challenge was not to stop at every single enticing store, street vendor or restaurant I passed before lunchtime came.
I have quite a few foody highlights (the few extra kilos I bought home were worth every bite!), sadly though my camera did not attend most of them! So, here in my recount words will have to be suffice to capture the memory.

Coffee seemed to be a mission some days – I mean, there’s coffee on every street corner but some of it tastes like dirt mixed with drain water. I am a little bit of a coffee snob (proper espresso shot latte thanks, none of this percolator rubbish!), so when my guide book mentioned “voted the best coffee in Manhattan” I was there. 71 Irving St Coffee and Tea Bar didn’t disappoint  – a basement cafe tucked away in downtown (near Union Square), open early and serving delicious coffee, breakfasts and bakes goods enough to get you going in the early morning. The croissant I had was just the right combination of flaki-ness and buttery indulgence…I think after this trip I will have to expand my foodie palate and visit France for a “proper” education in baked goods.
I even hiked 15 blocks along Broadway from Central Park one afternoon in search of a little shop highly rated – but couldn’t find it! Turns out it had moved, but I did find the best choc-chip cookies – fresh and still warm from the oven – so the trip was not a total disappointment.
I accidentally located the offices of Bluebottle Coffee Co. hiding away in the Rockefeller Centre – a these guys provided my coffee highlight from San Francisco – but could not locate where they actually sold their brew…turns out you need to head to Brooklyn and (summertime) downtown for your caffeine hit from these guys, which I highly rate.

Another coffee highlight was Le Pain Quotidien – it was my refuge on a rainy afternoon as I was scampering across Central Park from The Met to Broadway. I was expecting mediocre (a bakery chain…always hit or miss) but pleasantly excited as the staff were friendly – OK maybe a little happy to finally see a customer – and served up delicious hot coffee to go with my chia muffin.
To be honest, good coffee experiences were hard work finding – unless you were flush with inside information on where to head or eons of time to sample, sample, sample some more. I was excited to head into Think Coffee on Bleecker St – an excellent barrister in Vermont has worked here for some time and it came with a few recommendations – but alas, I obviously caught an ‘off’ day (or something). They were slow with takeaways, forgot my order and the milk was too hot to help the coffee sing. Oh well, you live and learn!
The last decent cup of brew I had in New York was a complete surprise – my final day I literally stumbled into Grounded in West Village, arms laden with shopping. It had just what you need for a late afternoon pick-me-up, with inviting decor, friendly staff and a big selection of organic and/or fair trade beverages available. Yep, gets my tick of approval.

But it wasn’t all about coffee all the time – I did leave the search for caffeine behind occasionally! The first full day exploring NY I got a little teeny bit lost (it didn’t get any better – I got on the subway the next day bound for downtown Manhattan, got off halfway to Coney Island!!) but a got type of getting lost – I have coined it the “productive” type…you kind of have a sense of where you are headed for one thing, and end up doing about 5 other things on the way!
But I got lost and found Chelsea – an artsy area full of galleries, up-market boutique shops and the glorious Chelsea Markets (the closest thing I could liken it to would be South Melbourne’s markets) fresh markets that have a more cultured, up-market appeal. There were more cupcakes than carrots, cuts of meat I have never seen, home-brew kits and all the spices you could ever want or need. You can grab something for lunch and sit down to admire the action or the art and history of the space (originally the Oreo Factory). I did sample Amy’s Bread (the first of two visits) for lunch – a delicious mini-baguet filled with fresh bocconcini, basil and tomato, before finishing with a cherry-soda scone!
Near Chelsea markets is the High Line – the ultimate in urban regeneration/renewal. A disused train line converted in 2006 into green space and pedestrian walkway that keeps you off the streets and gives you better views of the Manhattan world. Also good for people watching, especially on a sunny, late summer-feel afternoon.


Green oasis…

The newest section open near 30st – and the next piece to be “beautified”

Cross-town view up above the mayhem!

The quirkiness of NY came to meet me then – in two separate incidents. I inadvertently walked down the wrong street and got sucked into cartoon mania – turns out there was a three-day comic fest in progress. I felt out of place as I wasn’t under the age of 18, or wearing any face paint, glasses, costume or carrying (x) comic book! So I got out of there….as quick as I could.
The second bizarre one was as I meandered along Bleecher St perusing shops, restaurants, bakeries etc. At one stage I was surrounded by pink-wearing Lycra clad women marching for breast cancer awareness, then on the other side of the street was the “Occupy Wall St” march on it’s way to Times Square (with full police escort and marching band!!). Certainly not a quiet Saturday afternoon in East Village!

Bleecher St. East Village. Awesome!
Even the Lycra Avon ladies walking to raise money for breast cancer got a police escort!

Seriously, I think the number of police was unbelievable!

Wall St march

Markets at Union Square, not a bad start to the weekend…
Ended up here just about every day – shops, food, markets and central to everything else (oh, and my subway line)
Seriously, could lose a few hours in this area….

One of the many memorials for 9/11…quite moving

Chinatown vibe just next door to culture and cafes of East Village

Chinatown merges with Little Italy – talk about culture clash! But it works….

A quiet Grand Central Station – I was here before 9am on a Saturday; I take it everyone else is still asleep!

Looking a little more alive late in the day – the photos don’t do justice to the amazing grandeur of the ceiling especially at night, when the “stars” sparkle!

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Exploring: Brooklyn, Staten Island and Manhattan

 If there was one area in New York outside of Manhattan that I was desperate to see, it was Brooklyn. So many people I had spoken to prior to the trip raved about getting “out of Manhattan” and experiencing the art, culture and outdoors that Brooklyn is known for. And it didn’t disappoint…when I got there!!
My navigation skills hadn’t improved, and instead of ending up on a train to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (near 8th Ave and 1st street) I got off the Subway to discover I was at 60th street! Back-tracking a fair way, I eventually discovered a green, quiet oasis – with autumn colour just starting to descend. It was such a lovely contrast to where I had left off at the start of my day – only a couple of cyclists, runners, new mums pushing strollers and dog-walkers were my company on a clear warm sunny day.

The aptly named Long Meadow at Prospect Park

Picnic house

 From the serene surrounds of the park, I wandered along the streets of Park Slope, the most desirable section of Brooklyn recognizable by the sheer number of handsome brownstones.

Dressed up with a little touch of Halloween…

More exclusive brownstones along leafy 8th Ave
I had a lovely stroll in the sunshine down the commercial heart of Park Slope: Seventh avenue – past the grocery stores, florists, cafes and dry cleaners. Then past some boutique stores, bookshops and coffee spots, a hospital and even a school! Talk about diverse!!! Of course, by this time my stomach was searching for the next stop for some sustenance, and so I stumbled into BareBurger. The best bit? You create your own burger with the type of meat (or vegie!) you want, bun or no bun – even the choice of thick chunky chips (mmmm!) and/or onion rings.
I could barely decide, but my stomach drew me to Moroccan chicken served with a salad of goat’s cheese, walnut, spinach, beetroot and chutney. Of course, couldn’t enjoy this meal without a drink….delicious dark ale (organic of course!!).

Lunch

From Seventh Ave I set off to journey back to Brooklyn Heights, near the Brooklyn Bridge.
Via Grand Army Plaza and the Triumphal Arch. Then past the Brooklyn Public Library.

The Triumphal Arch is built to recognise and commemorate efforts in the Civil War (1850’s)
Library entrance – elaborate!

 I then landed at DUMBO – the foreshore of Brooklyn Heights, littered with urban renewal and art. It would have been great to have a full day here to explore all the galleries, markets and happenings – not to mention food! River Cafe for the upscale, Bubby’s for pie, or for a sweet hit Jacques Torres Chocolate. And I haven’t even had time to mention taking a short walk up to Atlantic Avenue – the heart of Lebanese and Middle Eastern Cuisine in New York.

Now restored and exclusive DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass)
Parkland under Brooklyn Bridge, near River Cafe

 Of course, I could leave Brooklyn any other way except by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge! The walk itself is not strenuous – except to dodge all the people stopped for picture-snapping. I felt sorry for the cyclists commuting home from work and having to miss us tourists, completely unpredictable and incapable of obeying the “stick right” rule.

Upper Manhattan from afar

Downtown
Brooklyn Bridge is the oldest cable-stayed bridge

1875: New York Tower is completed

Woolworth Building from Brooklyn Bridge

 Once back on the soil of Manhattan I had the chance to wander around Downtown and explore.

Some interesting art in City Hall Park
Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan
View of Brooklyn Heights from Manhattan

I walked back from the Bridge via South Street Seaport to Downtown Financial District. Since the “occupy wall street” folk had moved on a couple of days before, I got to [sort of] look around the famous commerce centre. I say sort of, because the security was still very tight – you only came close to getting into any of the buildings with a security pass, let along even walk down Wall street itself. Police were on every corner searching cars and even delivery guys backpacks.

A bull for Black Monday (1987)

Beautiful old architecture near Battery Park juxtaposing with skyscrapers
You could barely see the sky at times…

 So, with the sun low in the sky and weary feet I set off in the opposite direction of home…desperate to fit just a little more into my day before nightfall.
As I had not been organised enough to get myself a prized ticket to tour Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty (booked out months in advance) I took the freebie option: a ride to Staten Island upon the ferry.

Manhattan from a distance

I may not have seen the Lady herself up close or got to tour the island, but I did get a very nice ferry ride and beautiful sunset 🙂
It left me feeling pretty chuffed at how much I had fit into one single day exploring New York…A little tired maybe, but I figured the night was young – plenty to see and do!! There was enough time left to go home from some yummy dinner (courtesy of Wholefoods – wish there was one just around the corner at home home!).

The guidebooks said the lines would be more than an hour….not a person in sight!

Times Square from above!

Completed in May 1931 – taller than the Chrylser Building and Eiffel Tower – The Empire State Building has dominated the skyline of New York since – not to mention starred in many movies that we all think of as “iconic” New York.
Getting to the top at 11pm at night, the views were spectacular…New York is certainly transformed by lights at night – you can really get perspective for what more than 8 million people look like!!

Chrysler building and east mid-town, with Madison Ave on the left. My place is just down there!!
Downtown….
The Empire State Building spire – built to make it the tallest building at the time, also to prevent lightning strike damage
I got chatting to one of the attendants at the top – who couldn’t believe I had a full six weeks holiday, paid – hats off to those guys who stand there all day and night (even when it’s snowing in winter!!) making sure people don’t jump off the building!! And just like every other American I met on the trip, he was keen to visit Australia – must be our fantastic tourism ads 🙂
So, that’s the end of my epic adventure for one day. Quite a day really!

Thank goodness for a comfy bed.

My Visit to the World Trade Centre

The events of 9/11 have changed each of us – no one can argue this fact; it made the world a smaller and more complicated place. I’m pretty sure everyone can remember what they were doing, where they were when the news filtered through about the tragedy.
For me, living on the other side of the globe and having no direct connection to the events in 2001, I wondered exactly what my reaction would be visiting the site during my time in NY. Would I be overwhelmed by the emotion? I initially was reluctant to buy into the “hype” surrounding the construction site, a little hesitant to be swept up in all the emotion as I feared it would either be a “show” of American power or a “shrine” tainted with hatred and anger.

In the end, it was none of that.

It was a juxtaposition or sorts – existing beside the massive void left when the towers collapsed is the city’s busiest corporate area. It is noticeable the defiant statement these workers and companies make; nothing will stop us getting on with business. But little things make you realize that every person is honestly just trying to live in a way they can remember and honour the victims.

Firstly, it is important to mention what a fantastic job the volunteers do – those that are involved with the museum as well as the hard working folk who run the walking tours. They really to do provide a personal insight that brings the site to life, and will ensure generations to come understand what happened that day. Should you find yourself in NY sometime soon, find a spare half-day and head down to the Tribute WTC Visitor Centre to see the exhibits or take a tour. All volunteer guides are survivors or have personal links to that day in 2001.
I was lucky enough to get on a walking tour led by two guides – one of which was a “first responder” and lost his brother; the other guide was on duty and in charge of security in the South tower (somehow making it out alive!!).

But before I started the official tour, I had time to explore the World Financial Centre – a group of buildings built along the Hudson River, as part of Battery Park City. Believe it or not, this entire section of Manhattan island is “man-made” comprised of landfill and material excavated from the original construction of the World Trade Centre site (the complex was opened in 1973).
Today, the buildings of the World Financial Centre are inhabited by workers and tourists a-like under very strict security, but it really is a mini-city complete with shopping complex, restaurants, cafes, beauty shops and even holds live music/entertainment for all to enjoy. Although there was no live entertainment the day I visited, I did enjoy a yummy salad and chocolate eclair from Financier Patisserie sitting in the sun surrounded by business workers wheeling and dealing over the phone, or relaxing in the sun. The Winter Garden (below) gives the best views over the memorial site and on-going construction.

The Winter Garden atrium was heavily damaged in 2011, but now stands proudly restored
Views across to New Jersey
Winter Garden

 During the reconstruction of the Winter Garden, the whole floor of Italian marble had to be removed and replaced. In fact it was a diplomatic exercise – the Italian government helped source “matching” stone from its quarries because the original source of marble was no longer operating! You cannot tell the difference between what is old and what is new….

Looking out over the construction site from Winter Garden – the memorial site is complete but the museum (right) is still under construction in late 2011

The walking tour began beside the Tribute centre – on the brick wall of NYFD Station 10 is a memorial mural and plaque dedicated to the 343 New York City Fire Department members that died. It was installed by law firm Holland and Knight, who lost a partner of their own also involved in the fire and rescue response on September 11.

Most of these workers were first responders – some entire squads were lost from stations scattered all over Manhattan.
The plaque did not aim to identify any particular station, engine number or ladder – instead commemorate the brave effort of all.

 It was here that we had our first view of One World Trade Centre a.k.a. “freedom tower” – which when complete will reach the same height as the Twin Towers were. Currently it is about 80 stories high, so there is still a fair bit more height to go on this building before it gets to 110 stories, or 1368ft!!

 This Southbridge cross-walk is the only original one that survived the impact and collapse of the nearby WTC 7 buildings. It would have originally ferried people across from the Financial Centre to the Trade Centre complex, near the St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church (which had to be demolished secondary to damage). This is also the site of the last building to be demolished in relation to 2001 – the Deutsche Bank Building. In total, 16 acres were cleared at “Ground Zero”, and will form part of the memorial as well as being rebuilt to house the seven WTC buildings once again.

Rebuilding the Deutsche Bank Building with a city backdrop
It was amazing and emotional to hear the stories our guides shared…of near misses and fate, of losing loved ones, and the inability to comprehend the scale of the disaster – even when standing amongst the rubble of Ground Zero. It seems stupid to us now, but I’m sure that shock reaction helped many people survive.
Where I thought the tour would be sombre and sad it was uplifting to hear the reactions of those who responded to the tragedy – perhaps donating time, money or resources to the recovery. The amazing memorials that have been set up in tribute don’t wreak of anger or sorrow or revenge – they commemorate and inspire us that visit never to forget.
The original mission of the World Trade Centre complex was to “promote world peace through trade” – and hopefully there is plenty of peace vibes that continue to be conveyed in the memorial and museum  at Ground Zero when complete.
Possibly the most surprising element of doing the tours is that I managed to get entry into the memorial site – despite the fact you need to book online months in advance (they were booked out for 2011 I believe). So from the tour I wandered back around to the entry, proceeded to stand in an endless queue before being searched and x-rayed as if I was hopping on a long-haul flight. Then proceeded on to the next stop – I.D. check. Then again another stop before the entrance to make sure I had a valid ticket!! But being inside gave a new perspective to the void left from September 2001 – as well as the remarkable re-build.
This gives you an idea where the names are written on each “imprint”
Part of the “forest of trees” planted on the site around the pools of reflection….there will eventually be over 400 trees planted, as well as plenty of grassed areas and seats for people to stop and reflect.
South tower memorial

North Tower memorial

L to R: museum (under construction); WTC 4 going up; city backdrop looking south
Looking back in the late afternoon sun towards Winter Garden

Getting lost in Midtown….

If you’re like me, you read up on the “must-do” things in a guide book before you even set foot in a city. But time and time again, I am reminded that the real stand-out moments are the ones we cannot forsee or plan. Cue, my adventures around Midtown on the way to Times Square and Broadway.

You probably sleep in a little, maybe wander to the nearest coffee/breakfast location.
Then, with your walking shoes on, you head down Park Ave. through Grand Central Station, past Waldorf-Astoria, and turn onto W49th St.

View down Park Ave. to Metlife Building @ Grand Central.

You stop and admire the view at Rockefeller Centre, window shop a little along Fifth Avenue (be sure not to get too laden with purchases along your way!)

Instead, perhaps you might take a turn on the ice-skating rink, or drop into the NBC studios at Rockefeller Plaza for tour.

Eventually you’ll turn and head west along Central Park South (maybe grab pretzel from the street vendors at Grand Army Plaza).

The Plaza, at Grand Army.



You leave Central Park behind as you wander downtown on Broadway – yes, by now you are truly lost in the midst of it all.

There you find a new dimension to your world: the brights lights, big city dazzle of Time Square.

So naive-looking by day.

More street vendors will pry their wares – all those nic-naks you never knew you wanted or needed.

Maybe you’ll do some more shopping, or stop for a bite to eat. 
Try resisting the “wall of colour”….

Peanut, almond, plain, even coconut and pretzel flavours!!

Or here for another dose of sugar!!
 

As the sun sets, sit awhile under the watchful eye of George M. Cohen (“the man who owned Broadway”) to soak in the sights and sounds; another day in New York done.

But the real heart’n’soul, the buzzing energy and dazzle is only really obvious when you venture there after dark.



 



Maybe you are satisfied just to walk the streets, surround yourself with the energy and excitement of Times Square. But if you are organised, or perhaps lucky enough you will go to a show. No-one should leave New York without experiencing the entertainment of a Broadway Show.
There will be queues to buy the tickets, queues to enter the venue, and of course a long wait for the loo during intermission. But remember some of the most memorable things happen when you don’t expect…like meeting some friendly folk in line, who give you some great tips for restaurants or coffee.
For me, there was no second thoughts about what I would see – I was off to see The Phantom of the Opera, which has been showing at The Majestic since 1988. Worth every queue of the day and each penny spent, and more…..

Maybe you’re fortunate enough to go backstage after the show, meet the artists and really feel part of the show. If not, you might find your very own spot to chill and have a drink in one of the many bars nearly.

Then you’ll stumble home, amazed that the same streets you saw this morning are transformed by the night-time vibe.


Central Park

There’s no way I can narrow down my “highlight” to just one day, or even one location! But perhaps one of the most memorable days was exploring Central Park and Times Square. Iconic NY – yes!! But so much more than a tourist hot-spot.

 It’s like the gateway to a different universe…alternate “horse-power” wait patiently to take you rolling through the park. Or you can hire a bike, roller blades – I chose to do it on foot. There is so much to see I don’t think you can do this Park justice without planning at least a day there.


On the Sunday I visited, the warm weather had bought everyone out for one last taste of “summer” weekend fun. Children chased birds, collected leaves, climbed atop the rocks for a better view or explored the water’s edge. Families picnicked on the lawns, or by the lake. Early Autumn colours popped with their city backdrop. You can seriously feel the busy vibes melt away the further in the park you get.

Some people ran. Others biked. Many more soaked in the sun, sitting by The Lake with music, a book or even a camera.

Couples paddles their way across and around, taking in the view. The almost cloud-less day gave everyone a good reason to slow down, relax and enjoy what was left of the weekend.

Other boats floated where the currents took them.


 I had only seen a small portion of this park, but was taken aback by how much creativity and vision went into this icon of Manhattan – Central park covers over 800 acres at the “centre” of the island, all of which were man-made by Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1800’s. The vision was formed by William Cullen Bryant (famous editor of New York Evening Post, and poet) to transform the “waste-land” north of 59th Street and provide New Yorker’s with a quiet oasis for recreation.

Central Park, looking from Harlem south over Manhattan.

Bizarre meets vista – Belvedere Castle (1872) sits in the middle of Central Park as an imitation of medieval Scotland. It also provides amazing views across the northern, less popular part of the park.

From here, you turn the corner and find the Shakespeare Garden along side a “Swedish” playhouse. By this stage I was ready to find some food and a place to sit and soak it all up. I wandered further along the paths trying to dodge the runners, prams and bikes then stumbled upon buskers.
These guys were pretty good – simple music, melodic (Love the double bass!).

 Apparently this “eclectic” collection of folk are regulars, entertaining Central Park visitors by playing Beetles’ cover songs – smashing out the tunes damn well!!

 I couldn’t visit Central Park without a trip past Strawberry Fields and “imagine” tribute to John Lennon. A few more guitars and buskers were cashing in there too.

Wandering back along the western side of the park, I found open space and sunshine I craved – The Sheep Meadow. Framed by distant sky scrapers, this was where I would work on capturing a bit more of that lazy Sunday vibe everyone had.
Even managed to enjoy a late afternoon snack – my own taste of “sex and the city” – courtesy of Magnolia Bakery (just two blocks west of the park on Columbus Ave – it’s worth the trip!! But go early, as these delicious and interesting creations seem to sell out very quickly)……