A Midwinter’s Bite of the Big Apple

Got the winter blues or a little cabin fever? Well here’s the cure: New York City. David Letterman is right when he calls it the greatest city in the world. It is. Put aside the fact that it is the commerce centre of the universe or that its storied history goes back over 400 years or that the New Yawk accent is almost as good as listening to a Newfie at a kitchen party. The city itself is a planning and architectural marvel and the sights and sounds it offers provide visitors with an overwhelming choice of destinations worth visiting.

The first thing we did was look for a great place to stay (and there are many) that was within walking distance of the subways (the best way to get around New York) and close to some of the attractions we wanted to visit. After some Internet searching, we chose the Buckingham Hotel in the heart of Manhattan. The Buckingham is located on the corner of 57th Street West and Avenue of the Americas, one block from Broadway near Carnegie Hall and two blocks from the entrance to Central Park. Located in the midst of New York’s world-famous cultural district, the Buckingham Hotel was built in 1929 in what is referred to as midtown. Internationally renowned concert halls, art galleries, museums, and schools of art and dance surround the hotel. The Buckingham has a friendly staff and all the modern amenities, including wireless and Internet access, a business centre and concierge, large bathtubs and really hot showers. The rooms are very clean, bright and spacious – designed with a retro look that took me back to the Roaring Twenties. There is no restaurant in the Buckingham, but that is no problem as there are so many places nearby catering to all tastes and open 24/7.

You can drive to New York from Ottawa in about seven hours but this time we chose to fly to get more time in the city. We flew into LaGuardia Airport and decided to take a shuttle bus from the airport to the hotel. The price was $17US per person. The good news is the shuttle goes right to the door of your hotel. The bad news is the shuttle is crammed full of people and you have to do the milk run, stopping at other hotels until the driver drops you off at yours. Overall it was not a bad experience. You see a great deal of Manhattan as you are driven about in the airport shuttle. The cost for two people to get a cab from LaGuardia is about $45US. Bottom line – take the cab. It gets you there faster and it’s worth the extra  $13. (We took a cab on the way back).

We checked into the Buckingham and took a walk around the block. We noticed a place called Nino’s Tuscany Restaurant (at 117 West 58th Street). It looked so inviting and we knew we were in for a treat as soon as we walked through the doors. Try Nino’s seafood antipasti; it’s literally to die for. My partner ordered the pasta with mushrooms and pancetta cream sauce while I tried the smoked chorizo sausage cooked in a spicy arabiatta tomato sauce with linguini. As Italian food goes, it doesn’t get any better than this place. The wines list was both extensive and reasonably priced. The service was excellent. The desserts were home-cooked and the espresso machine and after-dinner drinks helped cap off a perfect New York meal.

The next morning, we ventured out to a pâtisserie and coffee shop on the Great White Way before heading to Central Park, one of the true pleasures of the Big Apple. You can literally walk for miles and not feel like you are in the city. You get in the habit while in New York City of measuring distance by the number of blocks you walk. We walked about 91 city blocks on our fist day, including 30 blocks along the edge of Central Park as we made our way to the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve always wanted to visit this museum, especially after seeing Ben Stiller’s movie Night at the Museum this past Christmas. To fully appreciate the museum, you could probably spend a couple of days there visiting. We decided to go through the exhibits that met our personal interests. For me, that meant going through the Pacific West Coast Indian Exhibits and the Northeast Indian Exhibits. My partner wanted to see the ocean life exhibit. We both wanted to see the dinosaur exhibit and the animals of the world section. The Museum is 150 years old and built in the grand style of America’s Golden Age. We spent about five hours at the museum and could easily have spent another full day there.

Next up was Macy’s Department Store. Walking down Broadway puts your senses in visual overdrive. There is so much to see: the theatres, restaurants, shops and teeming humanity. Mostly you will remember the lights. I’ve never seen so many lit-up places at night. Between the lights and the people there is a constant energy in New York City that is truly remarkable. We felt perfectly safe walking around New York City — safer than we feel walking around downtown Ottawa at night. The police are very high-profile on the streets of Manhattan. The vendors are friendly. New Yorkers are friendlier than Ottawans, I must say. We enjoyed our 40-block walk and made sure we stopped at a pub on Broadway for a couple of pints to refuel before continuing our journey. We were lucky because we had entered an online lottery via CBS for the David Letterman show and were selected to attend. No one was as surprised as me when I got the call the day before we left saying we had been selected in the draw to be part of the next day’s audience. Late Night with David Letterman is at the old Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway.

After the show, we dropped by the Carnegie Deli for dinner. This was probably the only downer on the trip. Yes, it’s a deli but it is hugely overpriced – a smoked meat sandwich cost $12.95US. The desserts were also overpriced and not very tasty. It’s the only time on our trip when we both felt like we were being had. However, other smaller delis offer the traditional great food at affordable prices on many of the sidestreets. So, if you want to do the deli thing — go off-Broadway.

On our second full day in NYC, we hit the subway and headed to Brooklyn to take in the Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005 visiting exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The subway is clean and cheap. Oh, if only Ottawa had something like this instead of a stupid Transitway. Entry to the Leibovitz exhibit cost $8US and was worth every penny. The exhibit was exceptionally well done, featuring a cross-section of the genius photographer’s public and private works over the last 30 years. The Brooklyn Museum is beautifully designed in the Grand Style and has a children’s area, a cafeteria and public parking. It is also directly on the NYC subway line, which is good, because it’s near a rough neighborhood – but no worse than many Ottawa districts you don’t want to be caught dead in after dark.

The NYC Rockefeller Centre

Next up was a subway ride back to Chinatown and then a walk to the SoHo District – one of New York’s hippest neighbourhoods, resplendent in the architecture of the Cast Iron Historic District. There are literally blocks of vendors selling every kind of watch and trinket imaginable. It was an incredibly brisk cold day and I was not dressed warmly enough. It only took moments for me to find a vendor who was selling quality 100% cotton sweaters at a very cheap price. SoHo is popular with professionals, artists, celebrities, musicians and the like; it’s a community unto itself, featuring beautiful refurbished heritage buildings, high-end fashion shops, open markets and an array of restaurants offering delicacies from all over the world. We came upon Il Corallo Trattoria at 172-176 Prince Street – truly one of the city’s finest little eateries. The atmosphere is intimate as the tables are very close together, but you still have enough space for private conversation. The food is lovingly made with the freshest and finest ingredients. We arrived at 5:30 pm; by 6:50 pm, the restaurant was full. That says it all. Next up was a visit to Rockefeller Centre. We skated on the fabled outdoor rink under the statue of Atlas. Then we walked around the NBC studios where Good Morning America and Saturday Night Live are shot. As we headed back to our hotel, we saw a restaurant advertising two-for-one martinis for $11US. Despite our state of pleasant exhaustion, we couldn’t pass on that deal. What a great way to end our NYC weekend. New York City really is a wonderful town.