Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Hello Brooklyn - Day Eleven, Part 1 - Tuesday 14 February

Ah 14 February... our arch nemesis. Luckily we had the distraction of having bigger fish to fry.

We had packed the night before so there was no need to be up at the scrake of dawn on Tuesday morning. However there was still a free breakfast to be taken advantage of, so we popped down to the lobby, grabbed some bagels and beverages and brought them back to our room to chill out for a little while. Then it was goodbye to Nu Hotel and indeed Brooklyn, as we made our way back to our old and familiar friend, Penn Station.

Jay Street and Fulton Mall Brooklyn New York

It was a bit of a trickier journey on the subway this time though, as we somehow had to manage two backpacks and three cases between the two of us. I needed one hand for my crutch, so the Yorkshireman bravely took on two of the cases. It might not have been so tricky if the handle on our new Bed Bath and Beyond bag didn't keep trying to sneak back into the frame every time we stopped, but then what can you realistically expect for $19.95?

Eventually we made it, found the Amtrak departure gates and settled in to wait for our train to board. I left the hassled-looking Yorkshireman to bag-sit while I went and gathered a little picnic for myself for the train - we wouldn't be arriving in Boston until almost 3.30pm and then we'd have to go straight to the hotel to check in, so lunch was inevitably going to be a train-bound experience. I grabbed a ham and cheese croissant and a cupcake from Zaro's (I'd seen them every time we popped in and out of Penn Station over the last eight days so I was finally going to give one a try!). I also took one look at my poor overheated and overwhelmed husband and decided to buy him an iced tea to cool him down. He was irrationally grateful bless him.

Then soon enough we were wrestling our big bags on to the train and once again enjoying the views and the comfortable seats as Amtrak whisked us down the east coast where new exciting adventures awaited us in Boston. Although I must admit I did feel sad as the Manhattan skyline faded from view. It's still my favourite city in the world and if money and time allows me, I will definitely be back one day in the not-too-distant future.

Back on the train, I enjoyed relaxing and reading my book. I also enjoyed my picnic, although the cupcake tasted quite mass-produced and was definitely not going to be competing with Crumbs any time soon. There was a bit of a delay on the tracks about an hour away from Boston, but we arrived at Back Bay Station just after 3.30pm. Time to see what Boston had in store for us!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Hello Brooklyn - Day Ten - Monday 13 February

"February thirteen, two thousand and twelve!", a deep, American voice said in my head as I woke up. "Eeeeeeeee!", I replied to it. Today would herald one of my most eagerly anticipated activities of our whole trip, and I was so excited!

But first there were some practicalities to take care of. This was to be our last full day in New York and we had some luggage difficulties to take care of first. With all stuff we'd already bought and the intention of buying a few more things, there just was not going to be enough room in our two suitcases and two backpacks.

I hooked our laptop up to the free WiFi and did some research. It would be fine to take three cases and two backpacks on Amtrak to Boston. We were flying from Boston to London with Virgin Atlantic's Premium Economy (thanks to a nifty seat sale deal), which meant we could actually even take four cases there. When we landed in Heathrow, for cost and timing issues I won't go into, we had to catch a National Express coach from Heathrow to Gatwick, but that seemed to be fine too. One last hiccup though: flying back from Gatwick to Belfast with no-frills airline Flybe. We agreed it would be worth the extra £30 to upgrade one of us to "Go Large" (yes, they are the McDonalds of airlines), so we paid online and made a mental note to go and buy another cheap case later that day.

In the meantime we had some exploring to do. We'd just missed the free breakfast at our hotel, so we took a walk to a deli nearby and bought some food and drinks there. Fed and caffeinated, we headed to the subway and caught the F train all the way from Jay St MetroTech to Roosevelt Island.

When we got out at Roosevelt Island a very lost Asian man asked us for directions. I have no idea how he'd ended up where he was but I think we gave him the right advice of the two different trains he'd need to take to get where he wanted to go. Bless him, I hope he found his way!

We, on the other hand, had a walk around some of Roosevelt Island. I watched some boats travel up the East River and unabashedly waved back at the tourists on one of them, and the Yorkshireman took some photos of ducks. So, pretty standard stuff for us both.

Then we headed into the Roosevelt Tram Station. Last time we were in New York, the existence of the Roosevelt Tramway had completely passed us by, but I'd since read that it was a pleasant ride with nice views and, awesomely, you can ride it for free if you had an unlimited Metrocard. Excellent.

View of Queensboro Bridge and Tramway from Roosevelt Island New York

As we waited for the tram to come back from the Manhattan side, we watched an older native New Yorker in a wheelchair try to explain to a tourist who sounded like he was from Texas how to swipe his Metrocard properly. Texas guy's wife was already through but Texas guy himself was swiping much too fast, then much too slowly, then only halfway... it was a disaster. Part of me wanted to just go over, take it out of his hands and do it for him, but he was looking more and more irate.

Eventually, just as Texas guy finally got through (I resisted the urge to cheer), the tram touched down in front of us and on we all got. The view was indeed good but for me the fun was in knowing I was suspended on a giant pulley system across the river and streets.

View of East River from Roosevelt Island Tramway New York

View of Upper East Side from Roosevelt Island Tramway New York

I also liked checking out the Queensboro Bridge up close and personal. It's not the prettiest of New York's bridges but it's certainly one of the most interesting.

We emerged from the tram and walked for a while through the Upper East Side/Lenox Hill/Turtle Bay neighbourhoods. I noticed again how there was a completely different feel to this area than in the other New York neighbourhoods we'd visited. It's strange how Williamsburg, Lower Manhattan, the Upper East Side and Downtown Brooklyn are all completely different and yet each of them is so intrinsically "New York". So cool. You don't really get that here in the UK, where a row of terraced houses or high street shops looks pretty much the same in Belfast, Bradford or Birmingham.

On our walk we stumbled across another cupcake shop, Buttercup Bake Shop. It wasn't one I'd heard of but my rule remains that all cupcakes are eligible for the title of 'World's Best Cupcake', so I bought a 'Buttercup Golden with Vanilla Icing' cupcake and tucked it away for later.

For lunch I'd scheduled a stop at Ess-a-Bagel. As you may have gathered I'm a big fan of bagels, so I was eager to try what some New Yorkers say is the best bagel in the city. I figured I might as well go for the whole stereotypical experience and ordered my bagel with cream cheese and lox. For a bagel it was pretty expensive (over $10) but I have to say it was delicious.

In fairness I've never met a New York bagel I didn't like, even if it came from Starbucks or a hotel's complimentary breakfast. Most of the bagels we get in the UK are pretty stale in comparison - the only ones that come close are from Asda's bakery (which are really good actually).

Bagel experience complete, we walked down 3rd Avenue to 49th Street and caught the M50 bus along to 10th Avenue. We wandered up to 54th Street, turned a corner and there was our next photo stop of the day: the studio where they record The Colbert Report.

Colbert Report Studio 54th Street New York

Colbert Report Studio 54th Street New York No Graffiti On This Wall

No sign of Stephen himself but we snapped a few photos as we avoided being randomly dive-bombed by about a gazillion birds who were hanging out in the trees beside the studio. Perhaps they're fans too.

Then it was on to 11th Avenue and back down to 52nd Street to join the line for the New York experience that had been making me giddy for weeks: we had tickets to go and see The Daily Show!

The Daily Show Studio 11th Avenue New York

For months before our trip, I'd been regularly checking the ticket reservations section of the Daily Show's website to see if anything would pop up for the dates we would be in New York. A couple of weeks before, when nothing had appeared, I did a bit of research and it seemed that both The Daily Show and Colbert Report were going to be on hiatus on the main week we were there! Oh noes! Talk about bad timing. There was only one thing for it: keep checking back for the one date we'd be in the city where they might actually be recording the show (Monday 13 February) and hope for the best.

With only four days to go until our trip, I was half-heartedly checking for tickets at lunchtime at work. I'd switched to a different tab when I hadn't seen any available but when I came back about 10 minutes later, the page had refreshed itself and, oh!oh!oh!, there were two tickets available for our date! Quick! But it was too late, someone had already poached them. Doh!

I was disappointed but not about to give up completely - In my time of lurking on the tickets site I'd noticed some people seem to reserve the tickets but then don't confirm them, which means they go back on soon after. I sat for the next while hitting F5 pretty much repeatedly to refresh the page. And then suddenly, there they were again! I typed my details as fast as my fingers would let me, clicked submit and... yes! It had gone through! Quick! To the email to confirm!

I clicked the link in the email and there it was, with heavenly light streaming through a cloud on to my computer monitor and choirs of angels singing... "Congratulations! You have scheduled 2 tickets to the February 13, 2012 taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." Yeah I have! Woooo!

So, less than two weeks later, we joined the line outside the studio to get our place in the audience. They give out more tickets than there are places to ensure there are definitely enough people in the audience, so you have to arrive early to reserve your place. Then they release you back into the city for a couple of hours and when you come back you have to go into a pen which corresponds with the number on your ticket.

We joined the queue before 2pm and they didn't start giving out the tickets until around 2.40pm, so it was quite a wait (especially with sore feet and a sore hip). However there was a convenience store on the corner where I got a cup of coffee to enjoy with my Buttercup cupcake. I have to say, it was definitely the sweetest cupcake I had in New York. It reminded me of butter tablet, such was the sugar content in the frosting. It wasn't half bad though; not the best I'd tried but if I lived nearby I'd probably be a fairly regular visitor.

Eventually we got our little yellow tickets with The Daily Show logo, a number and the date stamped on them and left the line. Not sure what we could do in the two hours before we had to be back in line, we decided just to jump on an uptown bus and go explore a little of the Upper West Side.

We hopped off the bus somewhere in the mid-70s near the Jewish Community Center on Amsterdam Avenue and wandered back south. We walked past one of those on-street second-hand book stalls that I've only ever seen on TV or in the movies. That wouldn't work in Belfast - all the books would be soaked in a sudden rain shower or blow away in the wind!

By this point we needed a restroom and a WiFi connection, so we called into a Starbucks, but it was only small and very busy. McDonalds it was. We used the restrooms and bought a couple of drinks and a small snack each but the place was absolutely packed full of teenagers having various melodramas, so we decamped to some benches in the middle of the street where Broadway meets Amsterdam Avenue.

Another couple about our age (who had been ahead of us in McDonalds) were eating their food on the bench opposite us, discussing how they'd always wanted to sit outside in the middle of a city; I wondered where they come from that they've never done that before. A homeless lady sleeping on another bench ignored us all.

We decided it was time to head back down to the Daily Show studio and found a bus stop which took us down Broadway. We jumped off that one and on to another M50 and right back over to the Daily Show studio again. We were a little early so we grabbed some refreshments from the shop on the corner (where a lot of our fellow audience members seemed to have congregated) and went to find our pen.

Happily we were numbers 72 and 73 so we weren't that far back. My feet and hip were sore again by this point and I was struggling to stay upright leaning on my crutch for support, but without me even saying anything one of the security guys appeared from nowhere with a folding chair for me to sit on while I waited. Awesome, thank you!

About twenty minutes after we got there, they started letting in the VIP guests from their pen. In the meantime we mere plebs were advised that if we wanted the restroom in the next two hours, now was the time to go, and were briefed on what we should expect from the whole experience. Twenty more minutes later and we were finally in the doorway waiting to go through security.

After my bag was searched and I hobbled through the scanner, I joined the Yorkshireman in the queue to find out where the producers wanted us to sit. Everyone in front of us was being pointed towards somewhere around the third row down in the middle section. Not too shabby! However the nice lady clearly saw my crutch, took pity on me and pointed us straight towards the front row. Wow! I was so excited! And thank you again!

We had to wait for another twenty minutes or so for everyone else to be seated and in the meantime we watched clips from the show on TV monitors suspended from the ceiling and listened to pop music over the speakers.
Then the warm up guy came on and was great. We were told that the audience mics are set at a much lower volume than Jon's and so we would really have to scream and laugh much louder than we usually would. I'm a "woo girl" - no problem.

Then there he was: Jon Stewart, mere feet in front of us! Eeeeee! He's just as cute and dinky as he looks on TV. He had a short chat with the audience, which was very funny, then he took his place at the desk and launched straight into the recording. Over the speakers came the familiar opening voiceover: "February 13, 2012... from Comedy Central's World News Headquarters in New York, this is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."


You can (for now anyway) watch the episode we saw online here, although if you don't live in the USA you might not be able to watch it unless by semi-nefarious means. Suffice to say it was very entertaining, even though our guest was a little dry. It met all my expectations and then some. And for free! What a bargain! Jon also did the whole thing in one take, which was amazing. On the other hand it meant we were finished, out the door and waiting on 50th Street for the M50 bus again by 6pm.

So, last night in New York. Obviously it would have been nice to go and have some fun - truly immerse ourselves in the city - but alas we had things to do.

So we bused and subwayed it down to 23rd St station on 6th Avenue. I was pretty hungry by then and intended to grab something from one of the street carts but the guy serving was taking forever to serve the guy in front of me, so I cut my losses and went to Hale and Hearty Soup instead for a small and overpriced cup of soup to keep me going. I also decided the perfect New York goodbye would be one final Happy Birthday cupcake from the Crumbs store which had been twinkling at me in the darkness, so we bought a cupcake each to enjoy later.

Then we found our way to Sports Authority so the Yorkshireman could (finally!) buy the New York Rangers third jersey he had his heart set on. Very pleased with his purchase, we turned our attentions to looking for a cheap suitcase. TJ Maxx and Marshalls proved to be too expensive but we came across a wheelie bag in Bed Bath & Beyond for $19.99. However the Yorkshireman was concerned its dimensions might be too large for our airlines and we needed free WiFi to investigate. We couldn't find a Starbucks (in New York - is that possible?) so it was off to McDonalds again. A quick check later and it was confirmed: the size of the bag was ok.

By this time it was 8.50pm and Bed Bath and Beyond was due to close at 9pm. I hobbled as fast as my poorly hip could carry me and we raced into the store just on time to buy the bag. By then we were exhausted so there was nothing for it but to return to Brooklyn and get packing.

We were back in our hotel room by around 9.30pm so we ordered takeout via Seamless again and packed while we waited for it. Eventually, after everything had been distributed between the three bags and two backpacks, the food arrived.

We'd ordered from a diner-type place called the Park Plaza Restaurant but sadly it was mediocre at best. I had ordered matzoh ball soup to start (meh) and an "Angus Chopped Sirloin Steak", which actually turned out to be minced beef turned into the shape of a steak. Weird. My mashed potato tasted like Smash and the "steamed corn" was tinned sweetcorn. I felt somewhat misled. The Yorkshireman's fried chicken with vegetables was equally as underwhelming. Their sweet potato fries were ok though.

Full but with leftovers still on the table, we gave up on the food and instead turned our attention to the TV: our episode of The Daily Show was coming on! It was exactly as it had been live but it was nice to relive it when you've seen the sets and the people involved in person. I also thought I heard my high-pitched "wooo" near the start, which would make sense given that we'd been sitting directly under a mic and also that I'm pretty noisy.

After The Daily Show, we watched the Colbert Report and then went to sleep. Tomorrow we would be leaving New York (*sob*) and going to investigate another city: Boston.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Hello Brooklyn - Day Nine - Sunday 12 February

On Sunday morning I woke up fairly early and flipping starving - we hadn't eaten more than a(n admittedly huge) cupcake each since about 2pm the day before, which may have been a factor in the snarking match the Yorkshireman and I had had the night before. He still looked dead to the world and I knew he'd be grumpy if he was woken up early, so I got dressed and tiptoed downstairs to the breakfast bar in the lobby, returning ten minutes later with a toasted bagel with cream cheese and a takeout cup of coffee.

I had breakfast whilst reading my book in one of the comfy chairs in our room. I enjoyed relaxing in peace and quiet for a while but the food aspect was actually badly timed, since our first activity for that morning was to eat more food. However I wasn't planning on waking the slumbering Grouchosaurus for at least another hour and I was confident I could handle more food later that morning.

Eventually the Yorkshireman's eyes peeked open and he seemed to feel better for the extra sleep. We got ready and left the hotel, heading for the Lower East Side in Manhattan and to another place on my foodie bucket list, Katz's Deli.

Exterior of Katz's Deli New York

For those unfamiliar with Katz's Deli, it's one of the oldest, most famous Jewish delis in New York. There are others that have great reputations too but when somewhere is so famous and yet the locals are still raving about the food there, you really have to give it a try. I think celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain explains it well. Katz's was also the location for Meg Ryan's famous fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally (there's a sign hanging from the ceiling to show you which table) and is often featured on shows like Man vs Food.

Interior of Katz's Deli New York

I'd read up on their ticket system before we went but it still confused us a little, perhaps because there was no queue when we got there and so no-one to copy! Still, we worked it out pretty quickly and remembered to tip the guy making our sandwiches when he gave us a sample of the pastrami. It was looking a bit hairy for a minute when I realised said counter guy had put mustard on my pastrami and rye when I'd said not to (I blame my accent, but come on!). Thankfully the Yorkshireman was happy enough to swap his non-mustardy piece of bread for my mustardy one. Phew - disaster averted!

It was still quite early for lunch (around 11am) when we sat down to eat, but there were a good few others already tucking in to their food, so we joined 'em. I have to say, the pastrami was as good as they say, and the sandwiches were as big as they say too. I just about managed mine (although I was approaching "meat sweats" territory by the end) but the Yorkshireman had to leave some of his.

I also had great fun looking at all the photos on the wall of famous people who had visited the Deli. I didn't know about half of them but there were some great ones. My favourites were the one of "Mr Big and Baby's Daddy from Dirty Dancing!" (Chris Noth and Jerry Orbach; clearly Law and Order kind of passed me by) and, of course, the photo of one of my personal role models in life, Judge Judy! I was so giddy about the latter I demanded to take a photo of the photo. The Yorkshireman handed me the camera and tried to pretend he wasn't with me.

Photograph of Judge Judy and Jerry Sheindlin at Katz's Deli New York

All in all I really enjoyed going to Katz's (constant smell of pickled gherkins aside) and would happily return to try some of those other delicious-looking hand-carved meats... yum!

Still on a foodie kick, we made a stop a few blocks down at another contender for the title of 'World's Best Cupcake'. This time it was Sugar Sweet Sunshine, which everyone seems to rave about. We purchased two cupcakes for later consumption (a Sunshine cake (vanilla) and a Pumpkin one) and we headed back to the subway and uptown.

We popped back up above ground a short while later at 34th Street Herald Square (on 6th Avenue) and stumbled upon a mall (rare in New York City), funnily enough called Manhattan Mall. The Yorkshireman was still on the lookout for a reasonably priced New York Rangers third jersey and JCPenney said it had sports teamwear, so in we went. We couldn't find the teamwear section but we did find some great souvenir t-shirts for family and friends back home. The Yorkshireman also got a Thundercats one for himself. Bless.

Bags in hand we walked down 31st Street, past the Affinia Manhattan where we worked out which window we'd been looking out of most the week prior, and past the Hook and Ladder 24 firehouse where all those sirens had been coming from. We also found a NY Rangers merchandise shop but they wanted over $200 for the same jersey that was $125 in Sports Authority. No thanks.

Our next activity of the day was to watch yet another NY Rangers game, but this time we actually had tickets! Madison Square Garden, baby! Bring it on! The game had originally been scheduled for 3pm but was brought forward to 12.30pm. We had reworked our itinerary accordingly and it actually ended up working out better for us.

We entered the arena and although I was offered the choice of an elevator to our floor way up in the 400s (because of my crutch), I said I was good with the escalators. They also had a free giveaway and we got signs in the shape of the Rangers' badge, which had the badge on one side and said "Let's Go Rangers!" on the other. Nice.

The refreshment options on the top floor were a bit rubbish but a quick hobble down the staircase and I found my now-traditional beer and soft pretzel. Back up in the 400s we found our seats and settled in for the game.

New York Rangers play at Madison Square Garden

The NY Rangers were taking on the Washington Capitals, which made it the second Caps game we'd seen on our trip. This time there was no confusion as to who to support though - it was Rangers all the way. It was an interesting game, with a Rangers goal, then a Caps goal, then two more Rangers goals, leaving the Caps under pressure to score an equaliser before the end of the third period. Thankfully they didn't manage it and the Rangers won 3-2, which made us giddily happy!

Madison Square Garden Scoreboard New York Rangers Win

Apparently they turn the escalators off after the game, so everyone has to walk down the steps to get out of MSG. Even if my dodgy hip had been up to the stairs, the pushy crowds made me nervous, so I waited with some other less-than-mobile people for an elevator. We ended up being advised to go down to the next floor to get one from there for some reason, which I was happy to do because it meant getting away from the shouty impatient lady who was pressing the call button repeatedly and ranting about how long she had to wait.

Back on the street but continuing the ice-hockey theme, we made our way to the NHL Powered by Reebok Store in search of a few hockey jerseys the Yorkshireman wanted. As well as being a fellow NY Rangers fan, he has actually supported the Dallas Stars for much longer. He wanted a specific jersey from each of his teams' current offerings, but the Rangers' jersey was more expensive than at Sports Authority and they didn't have the Stars' one he wanted, so we left empty-handed. Actually I tell a lie, we left via their hockey-themed Starbucks with a drink each.

We took our beverages over to the seated area outside the Fox News (*shudder*) building and enjoyed them with the cupcakes we'd bought from Sugar Sweet Sunshine earlier. I understood why they are so many people's favourite cupcakes - it wasn't so much that they were delicious (although they were - you could really taste the flavourings rather than just sugar), but they had also been a bargain at $1.75 each. That said, for texture reasons if nothing else, Crumbs still had the edge for me.

Next we walked over to the Rockefeller Center and found the entrance to Top of the Rock. On our last trip to New York we'd been to the top of the Empire State Building, but many people suggest that Top of the Rock is better because there are shorter queues and you can see Central Park and the Empire State Building itself from there. Always suckers for an impressive view, we were eager to compare the two experiences and up we went.

I have to say, the rumours about the length of the lines are entirely true. With the Empire State Building, we had to wait for about twenty minutes for an elevator to the observation deck (and apparently that's a short wait), whereas with Top of the Rock there were only two elevators' full of people ahead of us and they went quickly. The elevator ride itself was pretty cool too. I won't ruin the surprise, except to say "look up!"

There are three observation decks at the Top of the Rock. The bottom two floors (the 67th and 69th) have clear plastic panels to shield you from the wind a bit, but the top one (the 70th floor) is completely open. We tried all three of them and although my favourite was the 70th floor with its uninhibited views, it was absolutely freezing up there!

View of Central Park from Top of the Rock Rockefeller Center New York

View of the Empire State Building from Top of the Rock Rockefeller Center New York

Literally freezing, as it turns out: as the sun set over the city and darkness started to fall, it brought with it a snow storm. We watched the grey clouds roll down over the George Washington Bridge, over Central Park, and then suddenly the swirling snow was whipping around us.

Snow storm approaching Manhattan New York over George Washington Bridge

We were waiting for the Empire State Building to turn its lights on and it was a magical (if cold!) experience to watch the snow fall over the city as it steadily lit itself up for the night.

View of Empire State Building and Manhattan in snow storm from Top of the Rock Rockefeller Center

When the feeling in our extremities had gone from stinging to numb, we decided it was time to go back inside. We made our way to Starbucks in the Rockefeller Center for a warming drink. Well, I did - the Yorkshireman bizarrely ordered an iced tea (out of habit I imagine) and was bemused at his own choice. I hooked my phone up to the free WiFi to plan the specifics of our evening's activities - we had an idea of what we were doing but not specifically where and I was unwilling to wander the snowy streets without a specific destination to aim for. Strangely our evening ended up being completely different than we planned anyway, and all the better for it.

On our last visit we'd spent a fabulous evening at Duplex Piano Bar in the West Village but I'd also heard about another piano bar, Don't Tell Mama in Midtown and decided to try that one instead on this trip.

First of all we decided to go and see what the situation was with tables in a nearby restaurant I'd heard a lot about, Becco. After a lot of unnecessary faffing about with closing one door before you open another at the entrance to the restaurant, we eventually established that they had no tables available until 8.30pm, which was two and a half hours away. However last time we'd gone to a piano bar the time had flown by, so we made a reservation and then went out in search of an ATM so we'd be able to tip at Don't Tell Mama.

We did find an ATM on 9th Avenue but we also found an Amy's Bread there too. Amy's Bread was another competitor on my list for the title of 'World's Best Cupcake' and so I couldn't pass it by without purchasing one (yellow cake with pink frosting - as close to vanilla as possible). I tucked it away in my bag for later and we returned to Don't Tell Mama.

The Yorkshireman ordered us a drink at the bar while I went in search of a restroom, which turned out to be kinda gross. When I got back they'd served up my "Long Island Iced Tea but made with Diet Coke, not regular"... except I'd been given a Long Island Iced Tea (which tasted horribly of whiskey for some reason) and also a separate Diet Coke. Again, I get that there might have been confusion because of our accents, but no-one else has ever had a problem when I've ordered that.

I might have forgiven the drinks mix up but there was just something really off about the piano bar as a whole. The woman singing at the piano had clearly refused to use a microphone, the result of which was that only the table beside the piano could hear her at all. There were also precocious children getting in everyone's way, perhaps something to do with the Performers Theatre Workshops they were holding that day. I know it was still pretty early but there was none of the ambience I'd expect from a piano bar and we just didn't like it.

We finished our drinks (superfluous Diet Coke included) and went back on to the street. We had no idea how we could fill the hour and a half until our reservation at Becco so we decided to cut our losses with Midtown, cancel the reservation and go elsewhere for the evening.

When we thought about it, we knew what would really make us happy that night. First stop was a proper meal in the Malibu Diner, where we'd eaten a few times on our last trip since it had been close to our hotel. We each had a two course meal that seemed to contain all of the food groups and left feeling full and contented for $50 all in, including tax and tip. I had tried meatloaf for the first time ever (not really something we do in Belfast) and it was very nice - I can see why it's a favourite comfort food in the States.

Then we made our way down to the West Village again - Duplex, we were back! It was exactly as we remembered it and just as much fun. Shanna was still there singing and wisecracking through the night, but this time Brian was on the piano.

We wrote our request for two songs on a napkin and put a tip in the big perspex top hat. They were pretty obscure requests and I wouldn't have been surprised if they'd laughed them off, but with all due respect and gratitude to Brian, who is clearly as nutty as we are, he dutifully performed a song from Avenue Q (There's a Fine Fine Line) and one from Buffy Once More With Feeling (I'm Under Your Spell), explaining to the piano bar's customers what exactly was happening during the latter song in the actual episode. It was freaking awesome!

We also made a new friend at Duplex, who was as camp as all get out. Topics of conversation included how he could lose a stone and a half before his vacation in a month's time (apparently the secret is to eat nothing, only drink alcohol and then throw up), how big my boobs are (and he's "not even a boob guy!" - I would think not!) and how his boyfriend was too "boring" to come out partying with him on a Sunday night. We even got to say hi to said boyfriend on his cell phone (proof I'd had enough to drink - I have a big phone phobia). I love New Yorkers.

Also? Duplex made me a "Long Island Iced Tea but made with Diet Coke, not regular" without a problem. And it was delicious. Yes, Duplex beat Don't Tell Mama hands down.

Buzzed from the beer and excellently performed live music, we made our way back to Brooklyn and into the bed cave. It had been an awesome day and tomorrow, if all went according to plan, had the potential to be pretty damn awesome too.

P.S. I don't actually remember when I ate the Amy's Bread cupcake but I remember that while it was nice, it didn't beat Crumbs, or even Sugar Sweet Sunshine actually.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Hello Brooklyn - Day Eight - Saturday 11 February

On Saturday we woke up surprisingly not hungover and intrigued to go explore our surroundings a bit more by daylight. We had an itinerary all planned but before we left we grabbed a bagel from the hotel's free continental breakfast. I might have had a bit more to eat but I was saving some room for our first stop of the day: the Brooklyn Flea Market.

I had actually wanted to go to Smorgasburg really, but it's closed in winter. However their website suggested visiting the Brooklyn Flea's food vendors instead and we figured, hey, why not. Skylight One Hanson was actually only a relatively easy walk from our hotel anyway.

It snowed as we walked along Atlantic Avenue and we saw some interesting stuff on the way, including a giant metal chicken!

Giant Metal Chicken on Atlantic Avenue Brooklyn New York

For background information on why this made me completely giddy you must firstly submit to the genius that is The Bloggess, then read this particular post (which is, I think, one of my favourite blog posts ever) and then finally have a look at this Facebook page. All will become bewilderingly and awesomely clear. And before you ask, someone has already posted a photo of the Brooklyn Beyoncé on the Facebook page. I checked.

Shortly after our giant metal chicken sighting, we arrived at the Brooklyn Flea. Turns out Skylight One Hanson was indeed the tall building we'd seen repeatedly on the skyline since we arrived in Brooklyn the day before. I'll be honest, from some angles we'd thought it looked rather phallic.

Skylight One Hanson Building on Skyline of Brooklyn New York

Not so from inside (thankfully), where it was actually rather stunning.

Interior of Skylight One Hanson Building at Brooklyn Flea Market New York

Not sure where anything was, we decided our best approach was to just wander around and look at stuff. There were a lot of weird and wonderful things for sale, as well as, to be perfectly frank, some utter tat. It was actually more expensive than I'd anticipated too. I'd figured the prices would have been around the same as my favourite vintage shop in Belfast, where most of the revamped clothing is around £10-30, but the only dress I'd seriously considered at the Flea was $85 (around £55). A bit steep for my liking, especially for something second-hand and actually pretty flimsy looking.

However clothes were not the main attraction for me; I was looking for the food vendors. There had been a meat seller of some description and a mini cupcake seller by the main entrance, but I was not in the market for meat-based products and, even in spite of my love of cupcakes, I wasn't in the mood for mini ones after my Baked by Melissa experience the day before.

We wandered down to the lower floor and, although we did find some food vendors, they only seemed to be setting up for the day. I must admit this irked me a little. The website had said it all kicked off at 10am and it was already after 10.45am when we got there. I guess maybe you have to wait a bit longer for most of the food vendors to set up but it would have been helpful to know that in advance to stop us wasting our time. As it was I could only walk past the empty Dough stall (one I had particularly been looking forward to) and onward through the rest of the Flea.

In the end, to be honest, I didn't think much of the Brooklyn Flea. My only purchase was a (very cute) ring for my friend with a tiny little tea cup and saucer on it. Apart from that it just wasn't my kind of thing. Whether my opinion had been tainted by the much-anticipated food vendors not being open yet, my general "new is always better" attitude or even the rain outside, I don't know, but it was the one thing we did in New York that I wish we hadn't bothered to add to our itinerary. The Yorkshireman felt the same.

With only a kitsch ring to show for our morning thus far, we left the Flea and I demanded that we go to the Dunkin' Donuts I'd spotted nearby. If Dough were not going to meet the needs of my mid-morning sweet tooth, I'd find someone else who would! Also, I'd only had one cup of coffee so far that day and that's just not enough for an addict like me.

It was still snowing lightly outside so we sat in Dunkin' Donuts while I enjoyed my caffeine and sugar hit and we overheard the strangest conversation between three women sitting beside us.

Seemingly they were all frequent shoplifters and were discussing the audacity of the NYPD for arresting them for it. One of them, referring to her theft of 30 lipsticks, solemnly said, "I mean, I hadn't been arrested in 13 years. 13. Years! You think they'd cut me a break for that, but no, they arrested me!" Her friends agreed that this was totally beyond the pale. We tried not to laugh in case they shanked us but I did consider submitting it to Overheard In New York.

Bemused, we left and started walking back up Atlantic Avenue. We called into Walgreens and I picked up some Butterfingers and Mini Hersheys for people back home.

I then discovered a bakery not on my list, Betty Bakery, and of course had to buy a vanilla cupcake to try. All cupcakes are eligible for the title of World's Best Cupcake. Betty's wasn't the world's best, but it was actually very nice. The frosting was sweet and smooth, and although the cake was a little dry for my liking it tasted homemade. Very nice indeed, although their pies looked absolutely gorgeous and I wish I'd had time and space to try a slice of one of those too.

A few doors down we stumbled upon a Salvation Army thrift store. At home we call them charity shops and the Yorkshireman likes nothing more than a good rummage through a charity shop in search of hidden treasure. Unfortunately for him they had closed off the second floor, which was where they had all the menswear, so we left empty-handed.

We then decided to veer off Atlantic Avenue, since we'd seen it already on the way to the Flea, and wandered up Bond Street. Strangely enough we then stumbled upon a Goodwill thrift store. This one was huge! We both looked around for quite a while. I found some things I wanted to buy but I knew we had space constraints with our luggage so I left them on the rails. The Yorkshireman didn't find anything here either but we agreed it was one of the most impressive charity shops we'd seen.

We wandered the streets a bit more and stumbled upon the "Love Letter to Brooklyn" street art by Stephen Powers (aka ESPO) that we'd seen on one of our favourite New York blogs, We Heart New York.

Love Letter to Brooklyn Street Art by Stephen Powers aka ESPO Brooklyn New York

Then eventually we found our way back to the MetroTech building, as we were off in search of some more show tickets at the TKTS Booth there. There was a longer queue at this one than we'd faced at the South Street Seaport one on Wednesday, but that wouldn't be difficult really. There were really only about 20 people ahead of us this time and the line went quickly.

As we moved up the line, we discussed our options. I'd really wanted to see How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying but Harry Potter and Blaine from Glee had both left and the protagonist was now being played by Nick Jonas. We hadn't forgiven Jonas (to be said with a slight hiss) for ruining the otherwise wonderful 25th Anniversary Concert of one of our favourite ever musicals, Les Misérables, with his irritatingly over-earnest, High School Musicalesque performance as Marius. I mean, I know the character of Marius is a whiney wuss anyway, but Jonas took it to a level where I had no empathy with him whatsoever... even during Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, which was just unfathomable to me. Michael Ball he is not.


We'd hoped to see Rock of Ages but there were only discounts for the matinee the next day and we already had something booked for the same time. In the end we decided that if the tickets were less than $70 for How To Succeed, we would attempt to overlook "the Jonas factor", but otherwise we would go for Sister Act.

When it was our turn at the window we discovered How To Succeed was going for more than our limit, so Sister Act it was. The tickets were $70.25 each and we were to sit in row J of the Orchestra section. Mission accomplished.

We then had a decision to make. You see, our itinerary said we should be heading over to Flatbush Avenue to a bar called Ocean's 8 at Brownstone to watch the New York Rangers play the Philadelphia Flyers at 1pm. However we'd grown very fond of the Flying Puck after our last two visits and quite liked the idea of being surrounded by fellow NY Rangers fans. After a rather dull morning we came down on the side of familiarity and headed down into the subway, Manhattan bound.

Emerging at Penn Station everything was just as we had left it the day before. We bounded into the Flying Puck and made our way to the table we'd sat at last time. This time one of the servers asked us straight away to move to a table for two. We looked around in disbelief at the mostly-empty bar, looked at her strangely and then said, actually, we would sit at the bar - we wanted to watch the game and if we sat at a table for two, one of us would be facing the wall, not the TVs.

At the bar we ordered our beers (the only thing I didn't really like about the Flying Puck was the lack of beer selection - Coors Light was the lesser of several evils) and since it was lunchtime we also looked at the menu again. We both ordered burgers, the Yorkshireman's covered with chilli and mine with bacon, cheese and caramelised onions.

My burger was so good. It was funny because the day before we'd been watching the "The Best Burger in New York" episode of How I Met Your Mother and now I thought I'd found mine. Move over Shake Shack, this was the real deal! The problem with burgers in the UK is that you're never offered a choice on how they're cooked. I personally like my burgers like I like my steak: medium, with a perfect line of pink in the middle. Here they're all just brown and chewy. The Flying Puck's burger was perfectly medium, wonderfully tender and so juicy. Yum!

The hockey was pretty awesome too. The NY Rangers won 5-2, including a hat-trick from Ryan Callahan, my favourite non-goaltender Ranger. And what was especially cool was that people actually threw their hats on to the ice in celebration.

After the game, we paid our tab and let the subway carry us back to Brooklyn. There was a few hours to go until the Broadway Theatre had demanded our presence, so it was time to go and have a real New Yorker experience in the meantime. Yes folks, we were off to the laundromat.

No, the laundromat is not the name of some underground club in the Meatpacking District - we were going to an actual laundromat. Including Washington DC and Boston, our trip was to be two weeks long and we were already one week in: we were running out of clean clothes. Me in particular, thanks to my inability to eat or drink anything without spilling at least some of it down my top. I'm classy that way.

There were two laundromats (can I start calling them laundrettes again now? I feel very faux American saying "laundromat") close to our hotel and we'd scoped each of them out on our walk that morning. The furthest one away was huge but seemed to have some kind of card system to work the machines - more complicated than putting quarters in a slot! So we opted for the one right around the corner from our hotel instead, Dirt Busters Laundry.

I was a bit wary in case these things don't work the same way they do in the UK but I needn't have worried. There was a machine at the back to give you change in quarters for the machines and they sold little boxes of laundry detergent and dryer sheets at reasonable prices. The Yorkshireman and I put our laundry in for a wash cycle and then nipped across the road to grab a drink. I quite enjoyed sitting on the plastic chairs at the front of the toasty warm laundromat, sipping my coffee and reading my book with the calming hum of the dryers behind me.

We emerged about an hour later, clothes clean, dry and freshly folded, and went back to our hotel room to get ready for our show.

By the time we caught the subway back to Manhattan and found our way to the theatre, there was only a short time until curtain up. However I had spied an old friend of mine in the vicinity and couldn't resist paying her a visit first. You may recall that on our last trip, Crumbs had claimed the title of my favourite cupcake in New York. It had also been hard to beat since, with only two contenders coming close to being as delicious. I hadn't intended to return on this trip but there it was, right in front of me. And we hadn't had dinner yet. It was fate.

I couldn't decide between two flavours and so bought both: a Happy Birthday cupcake and a White Hot Chocolate cupcake. The Yorkshireman decided to buy two for himself as well, which surprised me since he's not really into cupcakes. We didn't have time to enjoy them before the show, so we carried them in with us (eliciting a stern warning from a security guy that we couldn't eat them in the theatre... spoilsport). We found our seats easily enough and settled in for the show.

The show was great. I've watched Sister Act (as in the movie) about a hundred times and although I knew the score for the musical was different than the movie's soundtrack, I was pleased to see that the story remained pretty much the same. And also, the music was pretty good regardless. The songs in the movie obviously have a certain appeal because they're based on pop songs that you already know, but the original songs for the musical were equally and differently wonderful because they were unique and helped tell the story.

I've enjoyed other shows more (Avenue Q, Les Misérables and Wicked to name a few) but I would still recommend it highly. The highlights for me were the set (excellent throughout), Patina Miller's performance as Deloris, Carolee Carmello as Mother Superior and Sarah Bolt as Sister Mary Patrick, all of whom had fantastic voices and were wonderful comedy actresses.

In the end our hunger chased us out of the theatre in the interval to consume an illicit cupcake each on the street corner, amongst the smokers desperate for their own fix. I went for the Happy Birthday one and it went straight in as my favourite cupcake ever.

It brought me right back to when I was 11 years old and staying in Cortland, NY as part of a lets-take-the-poor-terrorism-stricken-children-out-of-scary-Northern-Ireland-for-a-break charity programme (with Project Children - belated thanks by the way!) and we had a celebratory picnic day thing. We all had cake and ice-cream, but this was no cake like we Belfast babes had ever experienced. Our birthday cakes back home, previously considered a wonderful treat, were now relegated to being merely dry sponge covered with sickly royal icing. This new wonder cake was moist and covered in creamy frosting. I've never tasted cake like it again... until Crumbs' Happy Birthday cupcake. It was just perfection. Also one of the cupcakes with the highest calories in the shop, but worth every bulging fat cell.

After the show had finished, we headed wearily back to the subway (trying to stay clear of the ever-luminescent Times Square) and back to Brooklyn.

Times Square at night from 49th Street and 7th Avenue

P.S. Check out the yummy billboard of David Duchovny in the photo above. You're welcome.

Back at the hotel our tiredness led to a brief but terse argument. In need of some space, I descended to the lobby at around midnight, where I read the news that Whitney Houston had died. How very sad. Also strange - the last time we were away Amy Winehouse had died. I'm not sure when we'll next go exploring the world but we'll be sure to give the celebrity world a bit of a heads up.

With my own frustrations now put into perspective, I went back to our room and climbed into the bed cave and fell fast asleep within minutes. Just as well really - tomorrow would be another busy one.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Hello Brooklyn - Day Seven, Part 2 - Friday 10 February

We only visited Brooklyn twice on our last trip, once for the Brooklyn Brewery's Happy Hour and once to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. We'd really liked what we'd seen and looked forward to exploring more neighbourhoods outside Manhattan this time. For a while we were torn between two choices: Long Island City in Queens or somewhere in Brooklyn? There seemed to be more to do in Brooklyn, so Brooklyn it was.

We had chosen the Nu Hotel, which describes itself as being at the intersection of four different Brooklyn neighborhoods, namely Downtown Brooklyn, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens. It was a pretty new hotel (or, indeed, "nu") and we liked the look of the modern décor. Plus we got another suite for a good price and it had, of all things, a hammock in it! Score!

By the time we had wrestled our overloaded bags (and my crutch) on and off the subway and down the road from the subway stop to our hotel, we were grumpy and tired. Judging from all the car horns and people impatiently walking and driving through stoplights, we weren't the only ones.

Thankfully check-in was trouble free and we were in our funky little room within minutes of arriving. We abandoned our bags in the corner, removed our coats and shoes and took the requisite before-we-mess-it-up photos of the room. There are too few to make a pretty collage like I did with the last couple of hotels, but here are some highlights:

Nu Suite at Nu Hotel Brooklyn New York

Squishy Bed Cave at Nu Hotel Brooklyn New York

Orchid atop a wooden block at Nu Hotel Brooklyn New York

Then we settled into the bed cave for a quick rest and some rubbish TV for a while. Our itinerary had said we were to explore the area around the hotel but when the Yorkshireman's weary voice came from beside me to ask whether "this counts as exploring Brooklyn, right?", I could only answer in the affirmative.

We relaxed for a while and then decided to get planning our journey to our evening's activity. There didn't look to be a straight-forward subway route, so we delved into the Brooklyn bus map. There did seem to be a direct bus route so, emboldened by our bus success in Manhattan, we figured we'd give it a go.

Shoes and coats back on, we walked back up towards the MetroTech Center and found the bus stop for the 62 bus. After a short wait, one arrived and we joined the mob of people trying to get on simultaneously. As a fan of orderly queues at the best of times, not to mention when I have limited mobility, I started feeling a bit panicky by the swarm. However the lovely nature of New Yorkers once again came to the surface as lots of people moved aside and told me to go ahead of them. Thank you, lovely Brooklynites.

I found a couple of seats at the back of the bus and hobbled my way there. Unfortunately the Yorkshireman (ever courteous) did not have the same luck and let everyone else on ahead of him. As the bus quickly filled up I worried he might not make it on at all but eventually he appeared (one of the last) and we were off! I followed our route as best I could on Google Maps and somehow we ended up in the right place on Bedford Avenue. Success!

Given our evening's plans we decided it would be a good idea to line our stomachs and after entering and quickly exiting a shop that smelt like dog pee (ick), we found a much fresher smelling shop where I bought a vegan falafel wrap and the Yorshireman went for a cookie. We ate as we walked and soon enough we were in familiar territory, as there, across the road, was the Brooklyn Brewery.

Brooklyn Brewery New York

We'd had an absolute ball there on our last trip and so had determined that we must return this time. We walked in through the doors and went straight to the nice lady selling the beer tokens: we knew the drill. We went for 5 tokens each, which was $40 in total. This works out at $4 per beer, or $8 for one of the really strong ones. In New York City? A bargain!

The options available had changed somewhat since our last visit and my favourite (Detonation Ale) was not on the board, but I was intrigued to try the new Mary's Maple Porter. It soon became my replacement favourite, whereas the Yorkshireman still preferred Blast, but at 2 tokens a go Blast had better be good really! I thought the Weisse was pretty yum too - I love a good wheat beer.

Happy hour at the Brewery was as much fun as last time. For one thing, Bjork's Icelandic choir, Graduale Nobili, made a surprise appearance and treated us all to a few impromptu numbers on the brewery floor, including their national anthem, which sounded just like this. Only in New York!

We were also pleased to see an old friend again: the Brooklyn Brewery's resident cat. The Yorkshireman goes gaga broody over cats at the best of times, but combine this attraction with some beer and he's fascinated. Sadly he didn't get close enough for a stroke this time, but I did enquire on the way out as to said kitty's name. Turns out his name is Monster and a bit of Googling later revealed that he has his own Facebook page and his own blog!

Space at the Brewery was at a premium and a few tokens in we still hadn't found a seat. Eventually a group left, abandoning the barrel they'd been using as a table. I hobble-swooped in and claimed it as my own. I allowed the Yorkshireman to share. Another couple of girls co-claimed it for a while but eventually they left and I decided that I should sit on it instead of our beers: well, my hip and feet were sore! Plus we only had a few tokens left anyway. Now, Weisse or Mary Maple? Choices, choices...

Beer tokens all gone (I went for Mary in the end and had my "good choice" endorsed by a fellow fan at the bar), we waved goodbye to Monster and made our way giddily out of the Brewery and back to the bus stop on Bedford Avenue. After a while a 62 arrived and we hopped on. We were a bit more confident about our journey back to the hotel (through beer or experience, who knows?) and made it back easily enough.

When we got back we were pretty hungry and decided to use our free WiFi to order in from Seamless again. We went Cuban (not really a cuisine offered in Belfast) from the Cubana Cafe and it was pretty good actually! I had steak with peppers and onions served with rice and beans with a side of roasted corn on the cob on a stick, followed by some tres leches, which I've always wanted to try (sweetest thing ever by the way!).

Stuffed and still a bit merry from all the beer, we decided it was time for bed and climbed into the white, squishy cave. I'll be honest, it was a bit tricky to manoeuvre into since I couldn't move my leg out to the side without wincing, but at least the crash landing was comfortable.

Back to Manhattan - Day Seven, Part 1 - Friday 10 February

Friday morning arrived quickly. I wanted to spend the day wrapped up in the green throw on the sofa, looking out the window at a hazy Manhattan and moseying around our lovely suite, drinking coffee and watching cheesy-yet-addictive American TV (have you seen The Doctors yet? It's on CBS Reality over here too - it's like a chat show but with slightly sanctimonious medical experts).

Hazy view of Lower Manhattan from 28th Floor of Affinia Manhattan Hotel New York

However there was work to be done. So I did all those things for a little while and then began the struggle to pack five suitcases' worth of stuff into two cases and two backpacks. Turns out? Shopping means you have more stuff! Who knew?!

The Yorkshireman decided this lack of space was the perfect excuse for a bit of morning drinking - after all, the few remaining bottles of beer we had left in our kitchenette's fridge would clearly take up far too much space. I don't recall the last time I drank alcohol at 10.30am (perhaps a buck's fizz at some point on a holiday?) but we figured it would already be 3.30pm back home, so it was acceptable behaviour. Or not. Either way: beer!

As we'd prepaid for our room because of the good rate, the Affinia Manhattan were kind enough to slip us our final ($0) bill under the door with a note saying we didn't need to see anyone to check out and could just drop our room keys into the key box at reception on our way out any time before noon. No muss, no fuss.

So, a little after 11.30am and a little light-headed from our beer-before-breakfast experience, we did a final check of the room, took one more longing look at our view, and then descended with our over-stuffed luggage down to reception. What awaited us was equally maddening and hilarious.

We were trying to locate one of the bellmen to ask if they would store our luggage for us for a few hours, but they were all busily occupied. What on earth was going on? Within minutes we realised that it was all related to the report we'd seen on NY1 that morning about the upcoming Westminster Kennel Club's 136th Annual Dog Show across the road in Madison Square Garden. It wasn't happening until 13-14 February but clearly the participants were settling in early.

It seems that, for the owners of ridiculously expensive dogs preened to within an inch of their lives, the Affinia Manhattan is the place to stay. Everywhere, steely women were bossing the bellmen around, explaining snappily which dogs and which bags had to be taken to which room. Yikes. And I thought I had it bad at work...

We eventually tracked down a bellman who kindly agreed to store our bags before resuming his bitch-related work (take that how you will). We made a note to tip well upon our return.

De-bagged, we were free to explore. Despite the relatively relaxed activities that morning and the day before, my feet and hip were still sore, so I was really only up for short, easily accessible activities. Luckily, we had a plan!

Our first stop of the day, killing two birds with one stone, was Grand Central Terminal. We'd had a flying visit there on our last trip but had since stumbled upon the free walking tour you can print from their website, which included the whispering gallery we'd heard so much about but missed last time. Plus, since we'd skipped Junior's on Wednesday night, I still needed to check their cheesecake off my New York food bucket list, and there just so happens to be a Junior's in Grand Central.

We arrived at Grand Central and, still quite weary, we followed the walking tour around the terminal.

Interior including chandeliers in Grand Central Terminal New York

Our first attempt at the whispering gallery was unsuccessful but when we swapped to the opposite corners, all was suddenly clear. It was fun and kinda creepy.

Feeling much more informed about the terminal and its subtle oak leaf and acorn themed décor, we grabbed a table at Junior's in the food court for lunch. I had (my first ever) matzah ball soup and half a corned beef sandwich (American corned beef, which is different than ours), both of which were ok. However the main attraction had been the cheesecake - even many New Yorkers seem to claim it as the best in the city - so I dutifully ordered a slice of the plain stuff.

It was pretty good but nothing particularly special. I'm fairly sure I've had slices just as good from the posher ranges in the UK supermarkets for instance. I'm not sure what I was expecting, maybe something more unique, or something different that what I was used to? I was going to order the cherry cheesecake but wanted to try an unadulterated version - perhaps the flavours are the big attraction? I can see why people say to split a slice though - it was very rich. Even my huge appetite and sweet tooth couldn't cope with the whole thing alone.

Stomachs full, we set off back into the terminal to find the "Kissing Room" (Biltmore Room). We had a little trouble finding our way to the right tracks but eventually stumbled upon it. What we also stumbled upon in Grand Central? Some flipping Take 5 bars in Hudson News! Dammit! Saying that, they were $2.29 each (approx £1.45), which I think is a bit steep for a bar of chocolate. Still, I was so amazed to finally see them that I bought two for sister dearest.

Outside the terminal, we had a look at the last stop on the walking tour, the Transportation statue above the entrance of the terminal.

Transportation statue atop entrance of Grand Central Terminal New York

The Yorkshireman took a few photos of the area, including of my favourite ever building, the Chrysler Building (which I always refer to as "my building").

Chrysler Building New York

Then we made our way to our next stop of the day, the New York Public Library's Mid-Manhattan Library, adjacent to Byrant Park.

Mid Manhattan New York Public Library and Lion

Time to confess: my awareness of this stunning facility was only brought about by the Sex and the City movie. I know, sorry. It's where Carrie and Big were going to get married. Before he heartlessly left her at the altar and she hit him with her bridal bouquet. Oh the drama! However I've since learned there's more to it than a movie location and was looking forward to seeing it in person.

I didn't hit the Yorkshireman with any flowers but we did go and have a look inside. I hadn't realised there was a whole mini museum in there but it was so interesting. There was an original score for Star Spangled Banner, an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, excerpts from Malcolm X's journals, some photos taken from space exploration missions... even an actual Ku Klux Klan uniform! It was such a strange mix of things in such a small space but it was brilliant and well worth a look. The architecture was pretty impressive too.

Next we headed back to the Affinia Manhattan via Starbucks. We settled ourselves in for a rest on the sofas in the hotel's lobby and enjoyed our drinks whilst marvelling at this previously unknown world of dog competitions: the hotel had even thoughtfully left dog-related magazines on the coffee tables!

On the way in, one woman had decided not to care that she was holding up an entire lane of traffic by parking right outside the hotel doors to unload her precious cargo. She was a typical specimen of those in the lobby that afternoon. Well-behaved dogs sat obediently in their grey plastic carriers while their less-well-behaved owners instructed bellmen how to stack their four hundred cases of doggie accoutrements in the right way on those big trolley/cage things. I would have sworn at them.

We waited for a suitable moment and pounced to request our bags back. We tipped $10 and wished our friendly bellman luck. He gave us a knowing and somewhat jaded look before returning to the fray. We, on the other hand, headed down into the subway and over to a whole new borough: Brooklyn!

EDIT: I totally forgot when I was writing this, but on our way to Grand Central we'd stumbled upon another shop from my cupcake bucket list: Baked by Melissa. Melissa actually bakes mini cupcakes, with only one or two bites per cake. I bought three: Tie-Dye (as close to vanilla as they had), Cinnamon and Blueberry Crumble (which was the mini of the month). I ate them in the lobby of the Affinia with the aforementioned Starbucks. They were all really nice in their own way (the tie-dye was my favourite) but they were just too small! By the time you got a taste of the flavour, it was all gone. It seems that dinky desserts are not for me.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Back to Manhattan - Day Six - Thursday 9 February

It was the same morning routine on the Thursday morning: woke up, still tired but excited about the day ahead, made some coffee, admired the view with NY1 on TV in the background and then eventually got ready to go. We made our way up to the Starbucks opposite Macy's so I could grab a bagel and yet more coffee and take advantage of their free WiFi, then it was onward to 49th Street for our first New York bus experience!

On our last trip we had gotten to know the subway pretty well, so we were confident about getting around. However our plans for the day were mostly over by the Hudson River on the far west of Manhattan and the subway only goes as far west as 8th Avenue, which would have meant more of a walk than my poor hip and feet felt up to. Enter the cross-town bus! We'd looked at the MTA Manhattan bus map and figured we should be able to take the subway up to 50th Street and then the M50 bus from 49th Street straight to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, which was our first port of call (pun intended) of the day.

But first! Those flipping Take 5 bars. Since the Hershey's store was close enough to our bus stop, we figured we might as well call in - hopefully at 9.30am it would actually be open this time. It was, of course, but we still couldn't see Take 5 bars anywhere. Eventually I found a Hershey's gift pack, which contained one solitary Take 5 bar. So at least they existed. I had started to wonder if they were a figment of sister dearest's imagination, which, if you know her, you'll recognise is not outside the realms of possibility. I asked a store assistant if they had Take 5s by themselves, but apparently, no, just that one in the gift box.

Having been in the USA for almost a week now and still having not seen them elsewhere, I sighed the deep sigh of someone who knows they're paying an inflated price for something they don't really want but feel they have to buy, and coughed up the $14. Oh well, it was another tick off the to-buy list. Onward to the bus!

The bus was actually really straight forward. We found the stop easily enough and it didn't take long before a bus pulled up. You can use your unlimited Metrocard on the MTA buses, so it didn't cost us anything extra. Plus, unlike the subway, there are no steps involved and you actually get to see your surroundings as you travel. The M50's last stop was right outside the Circle Line terminal, which was actually really handy since we had to make a quick stop there first anyway, and then it was just a quick walk over to the Intrepid. Yes, we liked the bus.

We also liked the Intrepid. We've learned the hard way over the years that with museums it's best to start at the top and work your way down, so we got the lift up to the Flight Deck and had a look at all the planes and helicopters, which was good fun.

USS Intrepid Air Sea and Space Museum New York

Aircraft on Intrepid Air Sea and Space Museum New York

Sadly the only way to get to the navigation bridge was to climb up some steep steps. With my sore hip and crutch there was no way I was getting up there. I found a bench to sit on instead and sent the Yorkshireman up alone. He waved at me from above (from the "vulture's nest", I believe) and took some photos to show me what was up there. It turned out you weren't really allowed to play the exhibits up there anyway, so I didn't miss much that would have interested me.

Instead I watched a group of small school kids emerge on to the flight deck and be very sweetly amazed by the view. One wide-eyed boy said he was "on top of the world!", which was very cute.

When the Yorkshireman returned from his expedition we went down to the Hangar Deck. That was where all the fun was at. It turns out, they have a whole load of interactive exhibits there! I was thrilled since those are the only things that make museums interesting to me. What can I say, I'm a kinesthetic learner. Also mentally five years old. I got to pretend to fly a helicopter, play with switches and buttons inside a space capsule, complete tasks with space gloves on, sit in the captain's chair in a pretend navigation deck, sit in a rowing boat that moved as though it were at sea, play with air flows… it was brilliant! Anything I can climb on or where I can press buttons is an instant winner with me, so I had a fab time, crutch and all!

We debated going on one of the simulators but they were kinda expensive and we also feared my leg might fall off, so we gave them a miss. We were having a look at another interactive exhibit where you had to step from side to side and try to line up your line of sight with a ball of light (called the "meatball" apparently) and a cross-mark, i.e. like a plane would have to do to land on an aircraft carrier at sea, when a gentleman who had formerly been in the military came over to tell us more. I'm painfully anti-social and hate talking to strangers but it was actually very interesting and I discovered that he and his fellow yellow t-shirted workers at the museums are actually volunteers, which is nice of them. He suggested we watch the short movie that shows every 15 minutes about the Intrepid's time in action and then left us to look at the impressive Lego model of the Intrepid.

We'd just missed the start of the film so we decided to come back later if we had time and made our way down to the Gallery and Third Deck. Here they had examples of mess halls, sculleries, etc, and it was interesting to see where and how the actual crew would have slept, prepared food, ate and hung out in their downtime. I wouldn't fancy it myself for extended periods but more power to them! That said, we did call into the Au Bon Pain they hide down there for lunch and ate in the actual mess deck, surrounded by bleak tables, chairs and pipes everywhere, which was kinda cool.

After lunch we took a walk along the pier to check out Concorde. Sadly you're no longer able to see the interior unless you're part of a guided tour, which was disappointing, but even the outside was pretty impressive. I would have loved to have flown in one of those bad boys!

Concorde on Intrepid Air Sea and Space Museum New York

Next we took a look at some steel beams which had been recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Centers after 9/11 and learned that, apparently, the New York arm of the FBI had actually moved its operations and investigation into 9/11 on-board the Intrepid after their offices at the World Trade Center were put out of action. I'd never known that, but what a weird and wonderful solution to a strange and terrible event.

Next on our to-do list was to explore the Growler submarine, but a sign outside said that anyone who needed assistance walking was not allowed onboard. Doh! It turns out that it was for good cause: we had thought there was some kind of security line you had to go through before you were admitted entrance, but it turned out to be a replica of the cramped little doorways between the different sections of the submarine, which you had to prove you could get through on the relative safety of dry land before you were allowed to try it out in the submarine itself. There was no way I was getting through more than one of those without a struggle, so I again took to a bench (luckily it was a lovely day) and waited for the Yorkshireman to explore on his own. He apparently found it interesting, which was good.

We still had a little time to kill so we decided to go and watch the short film. It was very, well, patriotic, shall we say. Also a bit fighty for my liking (sorry, I'm a self-confessed, unrealistic pacifist - the unnecessary violence mankind inflicts on each other during times of war horrifies me). But it was interesting nonetheless and worth watching to round out your knowledge and experience of the Intrepid. It might actually be the best place to start if you're there, so you understand the significance of the exhibits as you go round.

When the film finished we made our way down to the gift shop and had a look at the cool stuff for sale. We bought our traditional souvenir fridge magnet (I fear our magnet collection will soon weigh more than our fridge) and then abandoned ship, strangely enough to go and board another, somewhat smaller ship.

We walked back to the Circle Line terminal and showed the tickets we had bought earlier for our three hour Full Island Tour around the whole of Manhattan, then joined the line. Our feet were still sore from our previous days' adventures so we were looking forward to the long opportunity to sit down, but we had to suffer for it first, namely by queueing for half an hour while the boat's previous sightseers disembarked and our own group had to pose for official photos in front of the boat. The Yorkshireman and I, never ones to pay good money for something we can do ourselves, declined the invitation.

Eventually we got on to the boat and claimed two seats in the open air portion of the top deck on the left-hand side of the boat (or the port side, as I think the nautical terminology has it). It was a mild day, with the sunshine in the clear skies warming the otherwise crisp winter air, but we had wrapped up warmly and were willing to brave the cold for the uninhibited views. Our tour guide introduced himself and gave us all the information about life jackets, refreshment facilities, etc, and then we were off!

Circle Line terminal and Empire State Building from Hudson River

I won't go into detail of every little thing we saw, but there were some memorable parts worth specific mention. We got a lot closer to the Statue of Liberty than we had on the Staten Island Ferry on our last trip, which was cool.

Statue of Liberty New York

View of Lower Manhattan from New York Harbour

We got a closer look at Ellis Island and Governors Island too. I also really enjoyed sailing under all the bridges, especially the Brooklyn Bridge, since we'd walked over it last time, and the Queensboro Bridge, since I just think it's a pretty quirky as bridges go.

View of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge from the East River

View of Manhattan from the East River

Ed Koch Queensboro / 59th Street Bridge from the East River

I thought the north tip of Manhattan was really cool too because it looked nothing like you would ever imagine Manhattan would do, with still waters and trees and no skyscrapers in view at all.

Northern shores of Manhattan

Northern tip of Manhattan from the Hudson River

I also really only took in how much of Manhattan there is beyond Central Park when I saw it for myself at a relatively slow speed - for some reason in my head the park is pretty much the top of the island, save for a few blocks, but in reality that couldn't be further from the truth. Granted, if you draw a line from Tito Puente Way (which runs east from the top-right of the park) up 1st Avenue straight up to the shore of the island, it's not even 1 mile. However start at 110th Street (which runs west from the top-left of the park) and go up 11th Avenue and onward as the crow flies to the shore, it's over 5 miles! That's actually a longer distance than from the south of the park to the southern tip of Manhattan at its longest point! I hadn't realised that at all.

Google Map of Manhattan - distances from park to shore

By the time we'd rounded the northern tip of the island and were passing The Cloisters on our left, we were starting to shiver a bit. I'd already had a warming cup of coffee and a warming cup of what was supposed to be chicken noodle soup but actually seemed to be pasta bow broth with two small, dry chunks of indeterminable meat in it. Even our tour guide gave up for a while and had a bit of a break from the cold, only returning to tell us about North River Wastewater Treatment Plant some time later.

The Cloisters from the Hudson River New York

By the time we were on the final stretch back to the terminal, the sun was beginning to set, casting a lovely orangey-red glow over the Hudson, Manhattan and New Jersey. It was still flipping freezing, don't get me wrong, but it was still very beautiful.

View of Manhattan at sunset from Hudson River

By the time we disembarked from the boat, we couldn't really feel our extremities any more. I may have fallen a little bit in love with the hand dryer in the ladies' restroom.

The next stage of our itinerary was to find a sports bar and settle in with some bar snacks and a few beers on time for the NY Rangers game against Tampa Bay Lightning, facing off at 7pm that evening. We'd heard good things about an Irish bar called Lansdowne Road, which was within walking distance of the Circle Line terminal and so made a (rather numb) bee-line in that direction. It felt a bit strange to come all the way from Northern Ireland to the USA to go to an Irish bar, but I'll give anything a try once.

When we got there we ordered some beers and, eager to try some real American bar food, some hot wings and a side of fries. The Yorkshireman and I love hot and spicy food, the hotter the better (challenge accepted!), so we of course picked the hottest ones on the menu. For our first few bites we thought, hmmm, these aren't that hot. Then the heat began to build. We went from being chilled to the bone to having rather pink faces pretty quickly! We did really enjoy the hotness of them actually, but I was disappointed they just tasted like Tabasco sauce to me, which I don't like the flavour of, although I don't know what else I was expecting really.

After our food and another beer we sat back and reflected on the atmosphere of the bar. Compared with the Flying Puck a couple of nights before, we found it lacked the right atmosphere for ice hockey and weren't particularly keen to stick around. Instead we paid up and headed back towards the now-very-familiar stretch by Penn Station and into the Flying Puck. This time we sat at one of the tables instead of the bar and a petite blonde server presented us with a menu.

We'd originally planned to watch the game and then walk to a diner afterwards for something to eat, but since we were now across the road from our hotel and didn't fancy doing much more than stumble back there after a few beers and some good hockeyin', we decided to top up our fries and hot wings with another shared portion, this time of chilli fries. Chilli fries aren't something we see on menus here very often but having sampled the Flying Puck's offerings, this is something which now disappoints us greatly - the fries were nothing special but the chilli more than made up for it. Yum!

Another few beers later (the staff at the Flying Puck are certainly attentive when your drink is running low!) and it had been a feisty game. The score was tied 3-3 and we were going to overtime. When, after only 2 minutes 37 seconds of overtime, NY Rangers scored, the bar erupted with the sort of unadulterated joy that only a sports fan whose team has just won and a small child on Christmas morning possess.

Quite merry now, in both the happiness and alcohol related senses of the word, I decided to grab a slice of pizza on the way back to the hotel, or specifically from a place on the opposite corner called New Pizza Town II. I went for a slice of vegetable pizza but it was actually pretty rubbish, especially given the price, which was nearly $5 - I hadn't realised until I had to pay. What a rip off! I felt ashamed to have paid more than $1.50 for it - what am I, a tourist or something?

Back in our wonderful hotel room, it was time for the Daily Show and Colbert Report in bed once again. Tomorrow we would check out of our lovely room and go get to know another part of the city a bit better. I was sad to leave behind the comfortable bed, amazing view and handier-than-anticipated kitchenette, although I was looking forward to a bit of a bigger bathroom. We decided to leave packing until the morning and went to sleep.