American Adventures Part 1: New York City

2 sisters. 15 days. 1 country. 2 states. 4 hotels. 1 hurricane… One hell of an adventure.

In October 2016, my sister and I embarked on a 2 week long adventure in the United States, starting in New York City before exploring Orlando, Naples and Miami in Florida.

I feel I must preface this article with the declaration that I have been mildly obsessed with New York City for several years. From the beautiful skyline photo on my phone wallpaper to my current applications to Columbia University, the bright lights of this unique city have long been a topic of my imagination and future plans.

There is nothing quite like New York City. So vastly different from London, with its winding roads and complicated road-map, New York, like most American cities, is strictly mapped out on a grid system. Buildings that would be two or three floors high in London are three or four times as high in New York such that Alicia Keys’ musical summation of the city as a ‘concrete jungle’ feels forever apt. I myself noted during my first visit in 2012 that ‘New York is like London on crack’.

This particular trip was my third excursion to the “Big Apple” and had originally stemmed from a desire to explore New York more slowly, to see the lesser-known sites and to enjoy our surroundings without feeling compelled to queue for a lift up the Empire State Building.

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New York from the Empire State Building, 2012
Undoubtedly, the big tourist destinations in New York City are worth visiting. Take a trip to the aforementioned Empire State Building shortly before sunset and expect to see breathtaking views of the city in the late afternoon sun and watch as the twinkling lights of the city are switched on.

However, for an alternative to this jam-packed location, this time we took a turn on the Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises boat tour. Starting at West 42nd Street on Pier 83, the boat proceeded to Downton Manhattan and then up the East River, under the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges. On the return trip the boat diverted to see the stunning Statue of Liberty in all her glory. With narration throughout it was an informative and different way to see the city, although we emerged looking decidedly cold and windswept.

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Downtown Manhattan, 2016
In our pursuit of a more relaxed holiday, we spent much of our first day exploring the beautiful Central Park. Quite awesome in its size it would be impossible to see all of it, yet there are certain places you must make sure to see if not just for the excellent photo opportunities and the lovely picnic spots. Start in the South East corner with ‘the pond’ where huge rocks provide an excellent viewing point of the juxtaposition between towering skyscrapers and green wildlife. From there head up The Mall, a spot frequented by many movie and television crews, where the trees form a beautiful passageway leading to the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, and the lake where you can rent small rowing boats.

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Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, Central Park
For an added treat stop off at the Magnolia Bakery near to Central Park on Columbus Avenue and West 69th Street. Famous for its delightful baked goods we picked up a few cupcakes and took them over to the Sheep Meadow on the west side of the park for a picnic. Its an idyllic spot and ideal for a more relaxing afternoon.

On our second day we headed for downtown Manhattan, starting with a walk across Brooklyn Bridge. Being a little (read: very) lazy we only walked halfway across and back again, but the views of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the bridge itself are unmissable.

Heading further downtown we explored the more historic area of New York. Relics of the old city stand out against the modern skyscrapers and reminded me of how easy it is to forget that New York was not always a concrete jungle but a vital city in the formation and defence of the original colonies. Fraunces’ Tavern, where President George Washington once visited and a feature in Lin Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical Hamilton, is a great place to stop for a historically themed lunch with slightly pricey but delicious food and an impressive range of beer and ale.

Continuing the historical theme, we headed up Wall Street, past the New York Stock Exchange and up to Federal Hall where an imperious George Washington towers over the street. Pop inside and stand on the ground where the first President was sworn in and the Bill of Rights was written.

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The grave of Alexander Hamilton, founding father and focus of the smash-hit Broadway musical, Hamilton.
From there we headed to Trinity Church, where the founding father, and central character of Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton himself, is buried alongside his wife Eliza. The impressive grave is now touchingly adorned with US flags and dedications to the former Secretary of the Treasury, highlighting the astonishing impact this musical has made.

On our route back uptown we paused at the beautiful Washington Square Park. Smaller and with a stronger student presence than Central Park, likely due to its proximity to New York University, its a great place to stop and relax with a cup of coffee. Next stop was the Flatiron building – something I wanted to see purely after having seen this unusual piece of architecture featured countless times in US television shows such as White Collar and Suits. Both are places you wouldn’t likely have time to see on your first trip to New York but are a shame to miss.

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The Flatiron Building
Our third day in New York was disrupted by the news that our flight to Florida at the end of the week was cancelled due to the ongoing threat of Hurricane Matthew in the area. Determined to make the best of an extended stay in New York we plotted out our plans for the next few days.

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Our first mission: see a Broadway show. Last time I visited New York we saw Mamma Mia! at the Winter Garden Theatre by pre-booking tickets months in advance. However, Broadway is shockingly more expensive than the West End and for those wanting to save a little I would advise heading down to the tourist hot-spot, Times Square, where we queued up in the ‘tkts’ stands and were lucky enough to get fantastic seats at Fiddler on the Roof for 50% off. Do not misunderstand me, however, 50% off does not get you very far. We had excellent seats in the stalls but paid a whopping $80 for the privilege.

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The Freedom Tower
On our final day in New York we spent a sobering afternoon at Ground Zero where the memorial fountains and Freedom Tower are awe-inspiring sites to behold. However, the museum itself is unsurprisingly a difficult experience. The victims of the attack are honoured beautifully but there is no escaping the horror of that day as the museum charts the attacks using audio and visual aids. It’s chilling and the boxes of tissues located at convenient locations around the exhibit do not go unused. Nevertheless, it is a powerful and moving exhibition that will leave you with even greater respect and admiration for the millions of New Yorkers you pass in the streets, each with their own memories and experiences of that day.

On a lighter note, undoubtedly one of the highlights of New York, aside from the numerous attractions, is the fantastic array of places to eat and drink – so much that you are frankly spoiled for choice. Our hotel, the Hudson on West 58th Street boasts its own rooftop cocktail bar with stunning views of the city and delicious cocktails. However, the prices are steep and I would recommend you isolate your visit to a quick trip for a drink and a photo before heading onto establishments with a smaller price tag.

Establishments such as The Three Monkeys on West 54th which has a much more affordable drinks menu and a more relaxed, youthful vibe. For food, I could not neglect to mention Serafina on Broadway, just up from Times Square. Its pricey, but so are most places in New York, especially in such a location, and the pizza is incredible. The menu impressively boasts at least 5 variations of the classic Margherita pizza.

Our bellies full, our purses considerably lighter than when we departed London Heathrow, we were finally able to leave New York for Florida, 2 days later than planned, for the next stage of our American adventure. One that would be altogether very different, and with a very special magic twist.

Part 2 coming soon.

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