New York, May 31st – June 6th 2012 – for Amanda’s 40th Part 1 – Pre trip stuff and the day before: Cast: Amanda: 39.9 – 40.0 Mike: 47 Standard disclaimer: My trippies tend to be somewhat lengthy: this sometimes irritates me as much as it may annoy you (after all, I have to type the things!), but Sun readers can always flick through and just look at the pretty pictures. As my primary reason for writing them is to relive the holiday months or years later, I prefer more detail rather than less. I hope, however, that like-minded folk will also enjoy them. If you don’t, then feel free to stop after the first session, but if you do, cash or cheques payable to M. Jones are gratefully received! (Or just post a reply – the feedback is very welcome!) We had been planning to be in New York for Amanda’s ‘special’ day for as long as we’ve been together (7 years next week!). The original, pre-recession, full-fat version was to be an extended repeat of our 2006 trip, where we spent 3 nights in New York followed by a week in Florida. Sod’s Law intervened, in as much as we had a limited amount to spend, and 5 nights in New York was the compromise. Hard life, isn’t it? I booked the flights and accommodation in November last year, via Expedia and Late Rooms. The flights caused us a few wobbles in the next week or two, as we discovered that we had actually booked through NetFlights, a subsidiary of Thomas Cook, who immediately published profit warnings with hints of potential administration, and the flights were with American Airlines, who quickly applied for bankruptcy protection! Obviously, all turned out ok, but it caused a larger than average intake of alcohol for a few weeks! Because of the timing (half-term and Jubilee celebrations) the flights were not exactly ‘cheap’, but by agreeing to transfer via Heathrow, it wasn’t too painful. The accommodation had to be in Midtown, and we settled on the Belvedere Hotel, West 48th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues, due to excellent reviews on Tripadvisor at the budget we had. The only other things we booked in advance were the birthday meal, at the Michelin starred River Café under Brooklyn Bridge, parking at Manchester Airport, town cars for the airport transfers in New York and visitor passes for the 9/11 Memorial. Time passed, and suddenly it’s the day before. We both booked it off, to allow for no-pressure packing and returning 18 year old son Adam’s gear to his mum’s for the duration (he was less than gruntled to discover that he would not be allowed ANY access to the house over the week, especially as it was the extended, diamond Jubilee weekend, and we think he had visions of parties chez nous! Ha!) Packing is a little bit of an art, as we don’t ‘do’ hold luggage. We each fill the two pieces of cabin baggage allowed under AA/BA regulations (there’s a bit of a licensing thing going on with the flights – we won’t know until boarding exactly who we’re flying with, and annoyingly AA have a smaller maximum size case limit than BA, so we’ve had to play safe and keep to the lowest limits). We also had to drop a key off at the cat carer’s (our elderly moggie needs medicating twice a day) and deposit Ruby the Hound at our friends, Jean and Simon’s place in Sale, south Manchester. After an hour of tv and a glass of plonk to wind down we were in bed at 9:45pm, and amazingly, I slept instantly and thoroughly until 2:15 am, only 45 minutes before the alarm. Pretty good for me, as I usually sleep fitfully before any holiday. Thursday 31st May Dozed the last half hour or so, determined not to get up before 3:00am. Up and about after the alarm went off, breakfasted, showered and final bits packed, we were in the car at 4:30am for an easy, traffic-free journey to the airport, arriving at 5:00am. Having considered the plethora of parking options around Manchester Airport, including the seductive appeal of valet right outside T3, my skinflint gene kicked in and I booked the cheapest – JetParks 3, about 2 miles round the corner on Styal Road. Basically a huge, secure, outdoor lot, with 24-hour security and coach transfers every 10-15 minutes. To give an idea of the size, the rows are labelled, A1, A2 up to 10, and we were on U2!!! We stood under a bus stop canopy in the drizzle for approximately the 10 minutes predicted, in company with a dad and daughter combo (typically Brit-inappropriately garbed in shorts and T-shirts, and shivering discreetly) and a young couple with a babe-in-stroller, burdened with all the kit and caboodle you need for 2 weeks abroad (or 1 hour in town!) with a pre-schooler. Thank goodness those days are gone!! The coach was pretty full, piloted by a grumpy git directing everyone to go all the way to the back, fold your strollers, put your cases in the racks, don’t leave anything on the floor…. Mind you, I could be a bit of a grouch if I had to drive 8 hour shifts between the airport and a few acres of tarmac every day! (Amanda has just pointed out that I can apparently be a bit of a grouch without that. Thanks love.) We add some spice to his colourless life by nearly missing our stop at T3 (I erroneously thought the car park was only used for T3 travellers, so almost didn’t get of at the first halt! It apparently serves all 3 terminals.) By the time we get inside the terminal it’s 5:35am, or just under 3 hours before our first flight. We have had conflicting advice about check-in times, as strictly speaking the first leg is a domestic one, to Heathrow, but our itinerary from the agent has indicated a 3 hour-before arrival. To be honest, we don’t mind, and I’d rather be sat at the airport with a coffee and a book several hours early rather than sweating on the motorway behind an accident or congestion. (I have a mate who once missed TWO Easyjet flights to Ireland on the same day! He’s so laid back he’s almost dead, and leaves everything to the last minute. They arrived for a morning flight 5 minutes after boarding closed, and they graciously found him space on a late afternoon flight without charge. He missed that one by 10 minutes. What a dope.) The board tells us that check-in for our flight doesn’t open until 6:20, so we “check in” to Caffe Nero instead! Doppia Espresso for Amanda, and a regular Americano with 2 extra shots (yes, barista, I do know it has 4 shots total now, I actually like it strong thank you!) for me. £4.45. We bed down in a corner and do what all married couples do at the start of a romantic holiday: we check our Facebook accounts on our phones so that we don’t have to think of anything to talk to each other about. I notice that our optician David has just checked in at T1 nearby, so we ‘say’ hi! (Must remember to ask him where he was off to!) We must have the right kind of faces on today, because as we linger near the check-in desks just after 6:00, a kindly BA assistant sorts us out at the self-check-in machine and we get our boarding passes but only for the first leg to Heathrow. Security next, with a slight wobble when we had to repack our liquids into smaller bags. Now, we had deliberately gone about 2” bigger with the bags so that, as per government guidelines, our bottles all sat happily side by side, easily inspected by the, er, inspectors. Seeing us trying to decide which one or two bottles to chuck out, the security officer just crams them all in, and seals the bags. How does that make more sense than letting them sit in a slightly larger bag? Ah well, all sorted. Off t’ departure lounge, where Amanda buys the lippy she couldn’t fit in the bag (if only we’d known!) There’s about 45 minutes to kill before the gate is announced. We sit and read, overlooking the rain-soaked runway (is it just me, or does everyone else like leaving the UK even more when it’s peeing down?), ….or at least Amanda does. I have ants in my pants at airports and spend the next ¾ hour bobbing up and down to check the status of the gate/flight. Same. No change. Same. No change. No change. Amanda stops talking to me after the 5th or 6th circuit. It’s a bit late being called, 7:50, but at least I’ve given the legs a good stretch before being cramped in economy for the next several hours! Off to Gate 142, straight on the plane, an American Airlines A320, with seats near the back in row 25, A & B. It’s a full flight lots of suited business types, heading to the smoke for meetings I guess) Taxiing at 8:20, and smoothly airborne by 8:30. It feels good to be flying again after 4 years of UK hols (sodding recession). We’ve had no information about food etc on the various legs of this trip, and are pleasantly surprised when the cabin crew start handing out breakfast panninis, juice and coffee. Typical airline fodder, but fills a corner. We read – I enjoy my new Kobo e-reader (early birthday present off my lovely wife) for the rest of the short flight. There is a bit of air congestion around Heathrow and we spend 10 minutes in hold around the capital, before heading in to land. Some cracking views of the Thames, London Eye and Wimbledon AELTennis Club (with huge Olympic rings mowed into the hillside) but sadly we’re on the wrong side so can’t get decent pics. It’s sunny here too – can’t have that! Hopefully it will start raining before we take off again! On the ground at 9:17, and to our delight we are met at the gate by a Oneworld (BA/AA/& others alliance) Customer Service rep, who gives us luminous ‘Priority’ notices to speed us through security and then guides us to the terminal bus. It’s 10:10 when we reach the AA desk, and our flight closes anytime soon! Boarding passes are issued in short order and after a 10-minute hike to the correct gate, 20, where the flight is boarding. We hang around until the last group is called, and are on board at 10:35, well down the plane (A777) in the centre of a row of 5 (36 D & E). Every seat is taken. Our neighbours are (left) a quiet American chap (turns out to be a vegetarian, but he hardly says a word in the next seven hours) and (right) a couple of plus-sized ladies of about our age. The nearest one is munching snacks before we take off, and almost never stops eating for the rest of the flight! Taxiing by 11:00 – I reset my watch to US time, so it’s 6:00am and only 3445 miles to go! I commence my personal flight rituals by browsing the wonderful publication that is Skymall Magazine. How does anyone live without such modern conveniences as the ornate, mahogany coffee table dog crate, lounge litter tray cunningly disguised as a large vase/planter, complete with fake palm, or the toilet bowl pet water fountain? Take-off at 6:15 US, and coffee is served, followed by breakfast number 3/early lunch, a chicken dinner thingy which provides calories but not much else. at about 8:00am. The in-flight info on the seat back screen tells me that there are 5 hours and 20 minutes left. I stretch my legs and visit the loo, before ritual number 2, a Jack Daniels, no ice. Amanda has a Cognac. Seems very decadent at this time of day! We both read and doze intermittently, until the next ‘meal’, pizza and shortbread at 12:00. The last hour is spent dismantling the camp, finding shoes and emptying the seatback pocket of our personal gear! Descent starts in earnest at 1:05, and we touchdown at JFK at 1:18pm. Sunny (and warm) outside (23 degrees C according to the pilot) There’s a delay of about 10 minutes when the airbridge malfunctions but an engineer appears quickly to fix it. It takes about 30 minutes to get through Border Control, and then without any bags to reclaim, we’re off into the arrivals lounge to phone Dial7 to confirm our arrival. This service proves to be very efficient, and we are in ‘our’ black Lincoln Town Car within 5 minutes. As we join the expressway towards Manhattan the driver tells us he is going to abandon the main roads in favour of ‘local streets’. He proceeds to take us through a virtual rabbit warren of clapboard houses in the Richmond Hill/ Ozone Park area before rejoining the highway closer to the East River, where we get our first glimpses of the iconic skyline: Traffic is Bedlam-y, but our ‘assertive’ driver, Mr Singh, honks and intimidates his way through the pack, into Queens Midtown Tunnel, entering Manhattan at East 42nd Street. Even though we’ve been before, and will have endless, better opportunities over the next few days, we gawp up and take photos along the route… …which passes the Chrysler Building, Grand Central and crosses 5th Avenue near the Rockefeller Centre before arriving at our hotel, the Belvedere, on West 48th Street, between 8th and 9th, at 3:45pm. The quoted cost is a flat $40, plus tolls (which he doesn’t charge us, but should have been $6.50) and tip (I give him an extra $10). You can certainly get to Midtown for less than this (although a yellow cab will cost $45 fixed, plus tolls and tip, and the town cars are more comfortable) but we wanted to enjoy the final bit of the journey without stressing over subway routes etc. First impressions of the hotel are favourable: a polite porter helps us in with our cases and then disappears before I can tip him. The reception and foyer are airy, clean and cool. The hotel was built in the 1920s and has undergone refurbishment in the last few years. Check in takes approximately 2 minutes, and we are off up to our room – I had requested a high floor (following tips on Tripadvisor about noise levels from the street and nearby 8th Ave) and we head up to the 16th (of 17!), room 18, which faces the front of the building. One thing is immediately obvious – by Manhattan standards the room is HUGE!! A long entrance hall area of maybe 12 feet includes a kitchenette (with fridge, microwave and coffee maker) wardrobe (with safe, ironing board/iron) and bathroom (small tub bath with shower over). This opens into the main room, approximately 16’ x 12’ with a very large bed (not sure if king or queen, whichever is the bigger!), dressing table, TV stand/chest of drawers, armchair, flat screen TV etc. The main window has a southerly view downtown, plus the bonus of a side, east view back up W48th, as the room is in the projecting ‘bay’ part of the structure. Eager to get out into the sunny streets, we reluctantly but sensibly unpack, and head down in the lift at 4:15pm. From past experience we plan to eat now, rather than get carried away exploring, as we did in 2006, only to end up grumpy, hungry and tired in the late evening. We have done some research using our personal city break bibles, The Rough Guide(s) and head across two avenues and down two streets to the Landmark Tavern at the corner of 46th and 11th. This is one of many Irish ‘pubs’ in Manhattan, albeit with more history than many, and receives good reviews for its food, atmosphere and drink. From the Landmark website ( http://www.thelandmarktavern.com/ ) It is lovely, and there are several customers along the traditional bar. We take a table in the left hand dining area, overlooking the street. The waitress who takes our drinks order is friendly and chatty – draft Smithwicks for me, Sauvignon Blanc for Amanda. We order from the bar menu, both select the sirloin burger, rare, with fries and trimmings. As free WiFi is provided it seems a shame not to check in on Facebook and post the usual “we’re in New York in the sunshine and you’re not! ” statuses. (We’re only using WiFi this trip, as recent roaming charge horror stories have encouraged us to switch off 3G and roaming on our phones) The food is as good as the service, a definite cut above usual pub fare, and the bill reasonable at $42: we leave $50 and head off at 5:10pm, ready for a Midtown fix. The journey back across the streets is pleasant, with a rush hour bustle evident on the sidewalks and roads. We aim for the Rockefeller Centre, passing Radio City on the western edge of the complex.. .. arriving at 5:35. The plaza is one of our favourite places in New York, with the colourful flags and of course, the stunning buildings! Top of The Rock was amazing last time, and is on the to-do (again!) list. We enter the ticket office to see how long wait times are (if lengthy, we’ll do it on another day) but are advised that the timed tickets are currently for 5:50 – 6:05, so we purchase them, as a Combo for MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, also firmly on our agenda), for $76 ($38 each), a saving of $24 on the normal prices. Result. There’s just enough time for a caffeine fix (after all, it’s almost 11:00pm in our heads, and we’ve been up for 20 hours so far today!) and we walk the few yards to the Starbucks in the basement Concourse. I have a Verona filter coffee (lovely and strong, no need for added shots) while Amanda has a Java Chip Frapuccino. The petite (and very attractive) female server commented favourably on my (tattoo) sleeves… the first of many such remarks over the week, unlike the typical UK reaction which is either to curl the lip in distaste or pretend they can’t see them! We climb to the main plaza (overlooking the sunken square where the winter ice rink is located, used as a dining and bar area in warmer months) to enjoy them. It’s just after 6:00 so we head inside to the Observation Deck entrance area. An elevator takes you up a couple of floors to a staging room where there are information boards about the construction of the building and an ‘opportunity’ to have photos taken against appropriate backdrops. No thanks. We bypass this and move round to the main, high-speed elevators that whisk us up to the 67th floor in a matter of seconds. The actual summit is 70 floors up, but the first of the 3 observation decks is at this level. We spend the next 40 minutes wandering around the 4 sides on each level, taking wayyyy too many photographs! Here are a few – and the reason we prefer this high viewpoint over the Empire State Building, is that from Top of The Rock you can see the ESB!! We feel like we’re ‘home’ now. Satisfied, we exit the tower, through the cathedral-like lobby…. …. and walk onto 5th Avenue, heading north towards Central Park South, passing some favourite stores along the way: The junction of 5th and Central Park South is very busy. It’s a lovely evening and the crowds are out in force. We head a block further north, and cut into Central Park, just to say hello…. … before crossing back onto the road and heading across to Columbus Circle. This was a favourite spot in 2006, when we were staying round the corner on W58th, and we had breakfast time coffees here a couple of times. Crossing this exceptionally busy junction, we head into the chic Time Warner Building shopping mall to visit the restrooms. Suitably relieved, it’s back into the warm sunshine to rest our tired feet in the Circle for a while. We calculate we’ve been up for nearly 22 hours now, and are feeling a bit weary, but sitting here, people and building watching for 15 or 20 minutes helps a lot. Look at the temperature: (It’s not immediately obvious, but the dancer in the last shot was wearing a tutu with LEDs sown into it!) At 7:45pm we pick ourselves up and head off down Broadway (I just LOVE saying that!!) into Times Square. This has changed significantly for the better since our last trip, and (since 2009) is now a pedestrianised, proper square, with elevated seating, tables and chairs! Wonderful!! Starting to fade a bit now, we turn west and walk back along 48th to our hotel, but on impulse walk into Hurleys Irish Pub between Broadway and 8th Ave. The bar is busy, so we sit at a cafe table along the wall, and order a Sam Adams beer and a Sauvignon Blanc. The next ¾ hour slides past as we enjoy our drinks and plan our first full day tomorrow. Time to head home: the hotel is only a block away, and on the corner of 8th there is a 24 hour grocery and flower store, where we buy some bottled water, beer and a couple of muffins for breakfast, in case we wake, hungry, ridiculously early, before anywhere is open. We are back in the room at 9:30pm. The night time view from our window is pretty good. The maid has left the air con on quite low, and we adjust it for our comfort levels before having a Bud nightcap. The alarm/radio has an iPhone/iPod dock, so we listen to ‘Random Favourites’ and finish our planning for the morrow. Exhaustion bites hard and we turn the lights off at 10:20pm – more than 24 hours since we woke! It’s been a fine first day. Goodnight all! Mike & Amanda Tomorrow: Chelsea Highline, Chelsea Market, West Village, Washington Square Park, Grand Central Oyster Bar, silly amount of walking and a dose of food poisoning!