May
 
20

TRAVEL COMPANIONS

Posted by: Rick Pariani in News
 

It is often advised that the secret to a successful trip is to first choose the right partner/s. So much can go awry and, before you know it, flame out of control. Companions must share understanding, respect, support and camaraderie. It also helps to have an insightful leader whose cheer comes through your enjoyment.

After 50 years of traveling and 43 books, the legendary travel writer Paul Theroux says, “You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back”. I would add – “Make sure you come back better, not bitter – with great memories for a lifetime”.

So it is with our family trips to Manhattan. I know it to be true – the City poses many daunting challenges – most of which can be avoided by following your leader and discounting popular opinion. I benefit from the living-in-the-city wisdom of our daughter, serving as our local escort and guide. We recently returned from our fifth visit, to explore and experience all that Manhattan offers. Having multiple-day, multiple trips under our belts gives us a format for something new and different, each return trip. While we have collectively taken in most all of the top-draw attractions in New York City – it is the exploration of the street-culture and neighborhoods that has provided us with lasting memories. “So complete is each neighborhood,” wrote E.B. White, “that many a New Yorker spends a lifetime within the confines of an area smaller than a country village”. These pockets of distinctively ethnic personalities give the metropolis its human face and pulse of daily life.

Our daughter actually walked the length of Broadway one day, from north to south, just to experience the entire cross-cut of Manhattan. She has built her appreciation of the City from the ground up, exploring the neighborhoods – and in less than three years of residency has mastered the subway system sans maps. She is fortunate and lucky always – as if wrapped in a perpetual fortune cookie. This attribute means that plans with her don’t go astray and everything works out splendidly.

Here is an example from our recent 2011, spring-time trip. We arrived early at our modest, Ramada Eastside, red-brick hotel – which caters to mostly international guests. We were told that our reservation had been cancelled – something to do with a credit card – blame it on today’s economy. We were shown a hand-written list of eleven other hotels that were also booked solid for the Easter Weekend. Arriving at 10:30 AM, as our daughter suggested, proved to be our first stroke of luck. We were checked in after some hand-wringing and through the kindness of an hotelier that recognized us as repeat customers.

We negotiated the subway to join our daughter in the Upper West Side for a tour of Columbia University’s Morningside Campus and Teachers College (her soon-to-be alma mater). For the tour, we were paired with Molly, the sweetest mid-western student-guide. The institution, founded in 1754 as King’s College, moved uptown in the 1890’s and is a great destination for any visitor – the grounds are meticulously maintained and the architecture and garden sculptures are world-class.

Afterwards we went to the magnificent Riverside Church and the Union Theological Seminary and enjoyed the sanctuary as the lone visitors. We strolled back across the campus in perfect blue-sky weather and went to The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. The cornerstone of the world’s largest Gothic cathedral was laid on St. Johns Day, December 27th, 1892. The architectural design is based on a Byzantine-Romanesque plan. Next door is the Cathedral Close and park with an extraordinary sculpture, almost beyond description.

For an afternoon pick-up we went to the famous Hungarian Pastry Shop & Coffee Bar at 1030 Amsterdam Avenue which happened to be celebrating their 50th Birthday in Business with all items for 50 cents each. The place was packed but we were given the “staff’s table”, front row and center, where we joined in with song and praise for the owner and his wait staff – some of whom had worked there for 17 years. Our tab was a total of $3.00 for items that would have been well over $20.00 – a fortuitous start to our trip for sure.

central-park-new-york-wallpaperFueled and ready, we struck out for Central Park, entering in the northwest corner at Douglass Circle. We hugged tight along the west side – crossing between the park paths and Central Park West, past the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Historical Society’s headquarters. We arrived at Strawberry Fields across from John Lennon’s home in the Dakota Apartments at W. 72nd Street, 38 blocks from St. John the Divine. We found the tribute bench for Bruce Kelly, 1948-1993, a University of Georgia, School of Environmental Design, Landscape Architect who worked on the Imagine composition with Yoko Ono. His bench reads, “If you seek my monument, look around you.” After learning about the upcoming, May 7th New York City Marijuana March from the organizers camped out at Strawberry Fields, we continued our hike across the heart of Central Park. We passed a film crew on location near the Bethesda Fountain and went past the Frick Museum. We ended at the #6 train subway stop at Hunter College / 68th Street and Lexington in the Upper East Side Historic District. The entire day’s walk out-distanced the north-south length of Central Park – over 4 miles.

That evening we dined on authentic Southern Indian cuisine in the heart of the Murray Hill (aka Curry Hill) neighborhood with a table right in the center of the action. Our daughter’s friend, native born in Pune, India, was our host for discovering the unique cuisine and multiple-vessel serving system. We enjoyed the hospitality of the tiny Tiffin Wallah vegetarian restaurant at 127 E. 28th Street. After dinner, our host introduced us to Happy Paan, the Indian digestive, made by a street vendor working out of a 10’ by 10’ hut. Ultimately cleansing, paan will stretch your acceptance of other-world after-dinner delights.

The next day we went for breakfast atop the impressive Art Deco Beekman Hotel at the corner of E. 49th and 1st Avenue. We nabbed the corner table with long, unimpeded skyline views to the east, south and west. We counted off familiar buildings, including Trump World Tower, the United Nations, the Seagram’s, the Lipstick (former office of Bernie “Made-off”), Rockefeller Center, the Empire State, the Chrysler and the Queensboro and Williamsburg bridges.

brooklyn-museum-ny4Later that day we arrived, via subway, at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden to enjoy a vivid Spring flower and blossom display. The 52 acre garden was founded in 1910 and features more than 12,000 plant species and cultivars from around the world – a truly remarkable collection. We followed with a visit to the Brooklyn Museum to see the new American Indian, Tipi : Heritage of the Great Plains, exhibit. Mr. Freudenheim, writing in the Wall Street Journal, describes the tipi as the “quintessential American architectural form” and states: “The Brooklyn Museum is serving up a rich visual feast in which known and unknown Indian artists and artisans, working in a wide variety of materials from early 19th century to today, expand our understanding of American art”. As luck would have it, we had the museum spaces almost entirely to ourselves – and I can tell you – those type conditions dramatically improved our visitor experience and illuminated our encounter inside of the spectacular Blackfeet painted tipi. We also enjoyed the serene calm and quiet of the museum’s Beaux-Arts Court on Floor 3 and the not-to-be-missed Elizabeth A. Sackler Center For Feminist Art on Floor 4, featuring Judy Chicago’s 1974-1979 seminal work, The Dinner Party.

The Brooklyn to Murray Hill return subway ride got us comfortably to our hotel for the evening.  We met friends in Midtown at the venerable I Trulli Ristorante & Enoteca at 122 E. 27th Street for a 3 ½ hour feast, animated by a friendly waiter who took care of every detail including a complimentary dessert. For a day that started with “what shall we do” it turned out to be absolutely perfect.

Early Friday morning, we commenced with breakfast at our go-to favorite, Penelope’s at E. 30th and Lexington, where we enjoyed a bit of North Carolina Outer Banks atmosphere in the City. We even got the prized window table and ordered their signature Penny Egg Croissant. Breakfast got us planning and we decided to shop, as a sort of mother-daughter reward for recent health, weight-loss and other assorted accomplishments. I got to chaperone and people watch along the way. On the way to 5th Avenue, we walked past the Empire State Building and overheard a ticket-taker telling the tourists that the view from the Top of the Rock was far better – he must have been a previous employee at Rockefeller Center. Strolling 5th Avenue from 42nd Street to 57th Street offers endless choice. In Lord & Taylor’s alone, there are 9 floors for women, and one for the Men’s Department. After L&T, we shopped H&M and had to peruse the flagship stores of Anthropologie and Banana Republic at Rockefeller Center. My wife and daughter came away quite pleased with new dresses, slacks and blouses.

The great thing about that neighborhood is how you can “shop” the architecture along with the goods. The City recently removed the scaffolding from the cleaning operation at the New York Public Library next to Bryant Park. The composition of the two, library and park, may be the finest urban setting in Manhattan. We absorbed the show of the library’s majestic Reading Rooms and Chambers – and the twin lions were regal in their sparkling-white, newly-cleaned finish. The neighborhood area brings you into close focus with Rockefeller Center, New York Yacht Club, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the tucked away Paley Park. Grand Central Station, the Chrysler Building and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel beckon from the east. The recently opened (November 2010) The Setai hotel by the Milanese group Bizzi & Partners, delivers beautiful Italian luxury in the neighborhood, starting at $595 per night – if you are so inclined. Michael White’s already-famed restaurant, Ai Fiori, is on the hotel’s second floor. Yes, immediately to the west is Times Square – but having been-there-done-that – we knew it would not be the easiest place to walk during peak holidays – besides, one shouldn’t eat chain-food while in New York.

Friday night we ventured into the up and coming Korean neighborhood, known as K Town, between 5th Avenue and Broadway. We came upon a riot of activity outside the 30+ year old Kunjip Restaurant at 9W 32nd Street. We knew from instant comparison with other restaurants on the street that this is where the action was – so we persevered and waited and were handsomely rewarded. This restaurant, open 24 hours, serves up genuinely authentic Korean bar-b-que in a wild and hectic environment that, behind the scenes, is totally in control at all times. At one point, we had over 20 different dishes and plates on the table. I believe that the Kunjip has to be on every foodie’s Bucket List – unless you can go to Seoul.

With Saturday came the rain – but luckily we had pre-booked with Foods of New York Tours for their Explore Chinatown Food Tasting & Cultural Walking Tour (all such tours take place regardless of weather). Like I said, we were lucky – since the booking got us up and out in questionable weather – Paul Theroux says; “Only a fool blames his bad vacation on the rain”. Last year we took their Original Greenwich Village Tour with their star performer, Kurt Upton, and we knew we had to reprise the experience. The company does a superlative job of making the neighborhoods come alive and immerses you in a way that would be very hard-pressed to accomplish on your own.

The Chinatown tour starts in Chatham Square / Five Points and is confined to its historic heart between Bowery and Mulberry, focused on Mott, Elizabeth, Bayard, Pell and the mysterious Doyers. In the crook of Doyers Street there is unmarked access to the remaining underground tunnels suggested in the movie Gangs of New York. A single doorway, signed overhead with Chinese script and the words “OK”-“Gold Flower Restaurant”, is the entrance to the uber-hip and super-secret, Apotheke Bar, at #9 Doyers. Before arriving one night, check in advance, since the bar run by Albert Trummer may be taking an economical sabbatical or moving on to its next, only-an-insider-knows, new location.

Foods of New York Tours bring you to the oldest establishments with the highest-quality fare. On their Chinatown tour you get the finest, all-original, most authentic Peking Duck in the country at the Peking Duck House on Mott Street and the best made-to-order Dim Sum dumplings you will ever taste in America from Dim Sum Go Go at 5 E. Broadway and Chatham Square.

We visited Tings Gift Shop, at 18 Doyers Street, looking for a red silk tassel for our ceramic mask from Taipei – crafted by one of Taiwan’s National Treasure Artists. Tings is one of the oldest family-owned shops in all of Chinatown. The proprietor, knowing instantly what we needed, sent us around the corner to her friend’s shop – where we struck gold, both in hospitality and in silk. The merchant loved the story and purpose of our search and the tassel she produced beautifully compliments our good-fortune art object. We also took in Ten Ren’s Tea and Ginseng Shop and had award-winning ice cream at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, after an unusually delicious chocolate cake from the Lung Moon Bakery (no, not a Moon Cake).  BTW – my Fortune Cookie read “To give happiness is to deserve happiness”.

After Chinatown it was easy going to take in all of what is left of Little Italy. I advise you to skip over Canal Street and the hawkers whispering, “Hanbag, Hanbag, Goo-chee, Prada, Chanel, Lou-eey / Goo-chee, Goo-chee, you want Coach from me”.  Mulberry Street still has some enticing Italian restaurants and cafes – but watch out, many of the shops have been taken over by other ethnicities and are anything but Italian. Most of Little Italy has lost its genuine neighborliness and the waiters stand on the sidewalk to beckon you to a table with promises of “homemade pasta, just like mama makes”.

With a little maneuvering, we made it out of “my” neighborhood into the Cast Iron Historic District of SoHo, on Broadway between Canal and Spring Street. This is a neighborhood where shopping is a different kind of pleasure. We had to visit the London invasion led by TopShop / TopMan at 478 Broadway and AllSaints Spitalfields at 512 Broadway between Broome and Spring. These two shops are more art gallery, theatre and discothèque than clothing store – try to find the dressing room and you too might just take it off where you stand. How they peddle whispery nothings and coal-stained denim-wear is anyone’s guess.

Down the street, I couldn’t hold back and at SAGA America I had to get my own pair of legendary Blundstone boots. These hand-crafted Australian travel shoes are made with buffalo leather and incorporate the 1870 company’s patented SPS X-tra Shock Protection System. By then, I must have walked the equivalent of 15 miles, so the advertised features were too hard to resist. Finally, a visit across the street for the girls’ fresh lipstick and some water from what may be the best architecturally iron-clad Duane Reade in town, was welcome relief from the pulsating store music and holiday crowds.

Shopping exhausted and overly-indulged, we took the subway for a refreshing discussion at our hotel. We entered the elevator with a diminutive, graceful lady from San Francisco. She was very haute-couture and adorned with a heavy pair of black-rimmed, I.M. Pei glasses. As we ascended, I said to my wife and daughter, “today was really a great day, even with the weather” and our cab mate said in return, “Tomorrow it will be even a more beautiful memory”. You know, there is civility and kindness all over the City, everywhere you go.

After our discussions, we ramped up our energies to take on the full force and impact of Mario Batali’s new venture. Functionality and beauty are the very essence of Italian civilization and Eataly, on Broadway at Madison Square Park across from the Flatiron Building, captures it completely. Mario opened Eataly to rave-reviews in September, 2010 (there are other ones in Paris and Tokyo). Mario, in connection with Lidia Bastianich and others, has created the ultimate Italian Emporium to celebrate the best of Italian food, wine and life. Eataly has separate wine, cheese, gelato, espresso, and pizza bars, a couple of small-plate kitchen theatres and the very fine Manzo Ristorante – all surrounded by their signature Italian market. We were told that they are working on an 800-seat Beer Garden for the second floor (New York has only two original Beer Gardens left – one in my daughter’s Astoria neighborhood).

Arriving at 8:00PM without reservations, we lucked out once more and got the best 3 seats at the theatre serving Mario’s polenta-styled gnocchis and fresh harvested asparagus. Mario says – “Eat Seasonally” – and, “If It Grows Together It Goes Together” – and all of our selections delivered on Mario’s other adage too, “Life is too short not to eat well”. We actually over-stayed the closing hour and David, our waiter, decided to honor us with a free bottle of chilled Orvieto Classico – making the walk home after a Negroni even more of a challenge. In the midst of all things Italian, it was appropriate to visit the Eataly book section and buy Sprezzatura : 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World – a treatise on the art of effortless Italian mastery by Peter D’Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish (really, that’s her name).  If you have one night, or four, in New York – go to Eataly. You can enjoy something different and unique each night you return.

We wound down on Sunday, to take it easy and do planning for forthcoming school and family events. Taking our time, we savored our experiences and appreciated our growing comfort with the City. We departed after calm reflection – in anticipation of charting our next adventure in Manhattan.

 
 


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