“You are so LUCKY, I just love love LOVE New York” gushed the Qantas ground staff as we checked in. This was something I had been hearing repeatedly for weeks now as seemingly EVERYONE loves NYC. Not one person had said anything to the contrary and I guess it is just one of those cities that has a beloved personality all of its own like Paris or Rome. We had a sense of what was to come before we even stepped onto American soil. As a first timer in the US of A I was guilty of several preconceived ideas about the place, most of which proved to be wrong in reality, but it was with much anticipation and a little bit of trepidation that I arrived at JFK airport ready to immerse myself in everything that is New York.
We had arranged to stay in an Airbnb (our first time) and it was a perfect decision. We had a real sense of what it would be like to actually live in NYC and we had a load more room than we would have had in a hotel. My cousin lived a mile away in a lovely old brownstone in Brooklyn and we had a great first night with her and her hubby in a little gastro pub around the corner. They were able to give us a ‘locals’ view of what to do and where to go and it was lovely to be with my English family in their adopted homeland. As I know only too well, visits from people from home are always few and far between and are to be made the most of!! I could really see how you could soon feel at home in Brooklyn and Williamsburg as they both had a nice villagey feel. A real neighbourhood.
Neighbourhoods, as it turns out, are what it’s all about.
New York is huge yet small. People seem to mostly stay in their own neighbourhoods and eat, drink and shop locally. We repeatedly found when talking to people that they hadn’t quite got around to visiting X or Y yet, even after living in NYC for years! We were full of questions and once people heard our accents they were eager to answer them. We found the best places to meet people were in bars. We met so many great people when sitting at the bar, especially once they heard our voices, as my sports mad husband wasn’t shy about asking a gazillion questions re the baseball that was on, The Yankees were in the playoffs and there was a lot of passion and noise gathered around the bar TVs. It was nice to talk to local New Yorkers about their lives and they were eager to hear about ours in Australia. Almost to a man they said it was way too far to visit especially as the average American only gets 2 weeks annual leave. They thought we were incredibly lucky to get 4 weeks!
We stayed in the Upper East Side for our first week so we were in the middle of a large Hasidic Jewish population which was interesting as it was one of their big holidays and they were all dressed in these massive furry hats called a shtreimel and sharing prayers and harvest type gifts with people. The Jewish delis are a thing of beauty. I could have stayed there for hours but we bought our pastrami on rye and an amazing goats cheese and escaped before I spent the equivalent of a months wages on all the beautifully displayed goods. Again, all those words you’ve heard throughout your life – matzoh balls, knishes, lox on bagels, latkes etc. Lots of little old ladies impeccably dressed with their hubbies in suits just doing their groceries, a contrast to the tourists in their Nikes pounding the streets busy getting to and from wherever.
We enjoyed three totally different evenings of entertainment that our lovely friends Dean and Nicki had arranged for us all. The 1st was at the beautifully appointed NoMad hotel with an exquisite dinner followed by a very entertaining and extremely clever show by magician Dan White. The 2nd was a play at The Lyceum called The Play that went Wrong and it was hilarious and very interactive and on our last night with them we went to The Lion King which was every bit as colourful and energetic as I had imagined. We followed this up with a trip to Blue Note, a jazz club in the West Village and a 10.30pm show from an 80 year old prominent jazz pianist and his band. It was pretty obscure to be honest with lots of discordant notes and not exactly musical but an experience nonetheless!! Seeing all the things and places that we have grown up hearing about is weird. As if you already know them but you obviously really don’t, we hadn’t realised how much of America is in our psyche through TV and the movies and as we walked over Park Lane, Lexington and 5th Avenue it felt like we were in the middle of a monopoly game!
There is plenty to do in NY, loads of touristy places to visit and we did end up going up to ‘The Top of the Rock’ to see the amazing view over Manhattan, you can truly see how vast the city is from up there and the ice skating rink in the Rockefeller Plaza had just opened for the winter season and although it was still warm enough for us to just wear a tee shirt we could imagine people in a few weeks time skating in their winter coats under the huge Christmas Tree that epitomises Xmas in NYC. We walked the Brooklyn Bridge and marvelled at all the sights, we ate pizza and burgers, chilli and fried chicken and walked kilometres every day, by far the best way to experience the city. Central Park was a huge beating heart in the middle of the city and we had a lovely day cycling around it and chatting with an old gentleman in his nineties about the changes in the world and even about the Central Park robins who no longer migrate due to global warming. His rheumy eyes and mottled skin had seen history come and go but he still loved to sit in his beloved park and watch life go by and to chat with people from all over the world. These things made me happier than whizzing up 80 floors to take a picture from the top of a building or shop for yet more “stuff”.
The things that will forever stay in my head are the stories from New York such as the stories of the ‘peopling of New York’ from the early days of immigration. A trip to Ellis Island, which was the gateway to America for so many people giving up everything they knew in the hope of something better, is unmissable. These people arrived after weeks and weeks being cooped up on ships crammed together dreaming of a new life after much adversity, sometimes to find that their families had to be split up on arrival due to health problems or they were shipped off to Texas instead of staying with extended family in the city. Our favourite places were those that evoked emotion like Ellis Island and of course the 9/11 memorial and museum.
I will NEVER forget the museum at Ground Zero and the stories within. A few hours spent here makes you remember both the best and worst of humanity and I challenge anyone to leave it unmoved. It’s still hard to believe that 9/11 ever happened, especially when you’re walking down the same streets that were engulfed in so much choking dust and debris that no one could recognise their everyday environment. As always the human stories that came out of that tragic day are overwhelming and after a few hours I literally couldn’t take anything else in. A later visit to the Fire Museum gave us additional insight into the day with the NYFD’s own memories of the day when they were heroes to so many and where so many of them lost their lives. Ordinary men in the most extraordinary of circumstances. A day that forever changed our world.
A few things surprised me…. The amount of beautiful old buildings when I had imagined they would all be modern, the amount of really good food there was to be had (at a price I may add, I’m never going to complain about Sydney being expensive again after this trip!) A particular favourite for everyday was the wonderful Eataly. A whole block dedicated to Italian food of every description. A food Hall, deli, fishmonger and butcher all rolled into one. We had the best pasta I think I’ve ever had with a great Pinot from Oregon for US$18 and that my friends is about as cheap as it gets in The Big Apple.
After a big week in The Big Smoke we rented a car and escaped to New England. My chauffeur did very well driving out of New York, which is not anything to relish considering they drive on the other side and the car was a left hand drive and we were in the middle of about 12 different roads. Miraculously we were out of the city before we knew it and bowling down the Interstate 95 with our roof down and feeling the fresh air on our face. All was well until the Sat Nav decided to stop communicating with us and we had to rely on an old fashioned road sign to Newport RI. A tiny one pointing to the Newport Uni was all we saw and by the time we reached Providence we realised we had gone too far and then had to turn around and head 40 miles back! Now in the rush hour and with the low afternoon sun in our eyes as well as not having the faintest clue as to where we were, we were forced to turn on our Aussie phones and rely on Google Maps to get us there. Guessing that’s going to be a nice bill when it arrives.
However once we arrived at our little guesthouse we were thrilled by the quaintness of everything and our lovely Attic bedroom with a view of the rooftops and the local church. We could finally put some of our warmer clothes on as the evening was cool (New York had been unseasonably warm and we hadn’t even had a long sleeved tee shirt on thus far.) So dressed in our jackets we took off to explore and loved what we saw. The next day we left the car at home and walked along the famous cliff walk where you can see the mansions from the late 1800s onwards belonging to the likes of the Vanderbilt and Rockefeller families. They were a statement in opulence and a show of their great wealth. Their great lawns rolling down to the ocean must have been a welcome respite from the overwhelming summer heat in NYC with the sea breeze keeping things cool and fresh.
For my erstwhile travelling companion and chauffeur this was a trip down memory lane as he had spent a few months here in the summer of ’83 as a young man. He had bought a Harley Davidson and was travelling around the country and as The Americas Cup was on here (and The Aussies won it) life was just one huge party. With his partner in crime, a cartoonist from NYC, they jumped the fence at a huge lawn party at no other place than the Vanderbilt Mansion, The Breakers, and soon they were mingling with the crowd and enjoying the hospitality of Mr Alan Bond. Eventually the security guys suspected that the story that the boys had told them saying that they were from the company that erected the marquee and were here to “test the tension of the ropes” was completely fictional and they were rather unceremoniously escorted from the premises! All these years later he was back, this time as an official ticket holder as we toured the most incredibly opulent house he broke into 34 years ago, an example of ‘The Gilded Age’ it was very over the top and I couldn’t really imagine living there, curled up on the sofa with a good book! The kitchen however was amazing, with a beautiful collection of copper pots and the biggest oven I’ve ever seen!!
Before a wonderful Mexican meal of lobster quesadillas and watermelon margaritas (a wonderful recommendation from the beautiful Matilda Meakes) we popped into a local bar (seems to be a recurring theme!!) and there was a group of a dozen young trainee naval officers enjoying a 4 hour leave pass after a 10 week stint on duty. In Australia that situation would have got messy pretty quickly but these young men were SO SO POLITE. It happened to pop up in conversation that I was from a naval family in the UK and a few minutes later two of these fresh faced boys came up to me and said “excuse me Ma’am but we’d just like to thank your Father for his service!” Needless to say I was gobsmacked (and was it wrong that I loved the Ma’am bit?) Service personnel are quite revered over here nowadays and they are very upfront about thanking everyone. The combination of the fresh air and sunshine from the cliff walk worked it’s magic and we really started to relax and feel like we were on holiday. So much so that we started wondering if we really did want to go to Boston and another big city after all or maybe instead we could stay on The Cape and enjoy the tranquility? We had a couple of nights booked in Martha’s Vineyard to make up our minds….
We experienced the only bad weather of the trip in Martha’s Vineyard but I actually think it enhanced the experience for me. The colours were amazing, unique and misty and of an appealing monochromatic palette. We stayed in the fabulous Nobnocket Inn, let’s face it folks the name alone is unforgettable! This was special as it was recommended by a close friend of my sisters in Wales and once again I had the sense of being in such a small world, united by friendships. Annabelle and Simon were consummate hosts and we LOVED our room and all the luxurious little touches such as a choice of nightcap and beautiful sweet treats waiting for us on our return from dinner. The next day we borrowed their bikes and cycled around the island enjoying the mizzly rain and then after 20 miles REALLY enjoying the bar we found with a great lunch AND the footy for Cam!!! We explored the little towns with their patriotic flags flying at every possible opportunity and the little gingerbread cottages that originally housed people from religious groups that came for summer camp. Everything was so cute, almost like a little model village.
Our lovely hosts waved us off with a recommendation to stay at The Chatham Inn on The Cape and as we drove away the sun came out and we were so happy that we had changed our plans from Boston where driving is apparently worse than NY, I’m pretty sure our holiday feels would have flown straight out of the window if we’d continued on there!! As it was we had the top down on the car and we were feeling pretty happy as we cruised into Chatham. We’ve grown up with movies showing off that beautiful Cape Cod style of house and the reality certainly didn’t disappoint. Everything was immaculately presented and as neat as a pin. I would happily live in the garages of these homes they were so beautiful! Halloween and Thanksgiving were two themes that were being fully embraced everywhere we went. Pumpkins, corn cobs and orange and yellow flowers were displayed everywhere, even if the house only had a small window box! In Manhattan we couldn’t avoid Halloween, scary witches, possessed babies, laughing clowns and spider’s webs stretched as far as the eye could see. They certainly do love a theme!!
We stopped off in Falmouth for a genuine American Diner experience at Betsy’s which looked straight out of a sitcom with the original chairs, a jukebox and neon signs. We loved it (well everything apart from the brown water that they call coffee) and dutifully complied with the sign telling us to ‘EAT HEAVY’
One of the quaintest things particular to the Cape is that the cars stop for you. I’m not talking about when you’re at a crossing, I mean literally everywhere. If you stop anywhere at the side of the road waiting for a break in the (sparse) traffic, the cars just stop for you to cross. It was lovely, a small town nicety that respected pedestrians and visitors to their town.
On the way back to NYC we stopped off to enjoy one more night with our friends who had now rented a beautiful house in Westerly, Rhode Island that belonged to the Relais Chateaux group operated Ocean House, a stunning old Victorian hotel that has been renovated to a very high standard and sits majestically on top of a hill overlooking the ocean. We took a drive to the nearby town of Mystic where they filmed the 1988 film Mystic Pizza starring a young Julia Roberts and we ate at that very same pizza restaurant where they still have the film playing on a constant loop. Not a bad pizza either I must say!
We farewelled them as we made our way back to Manhattan in the Mustang, a lot more relaxed than when we’d left a week prior and Cam feeling quite accomplished driving like a pro right into E64th street!! A quick trip downtown to our last little Airbnb sojourn in SoHo where we found ourselves in a charming studio with a terrace (an absolute find in the middle of the action). It somehow managed to be quiet whilst being surrounded by bars and restaurants and a mere 5 minute walk to Broadway and all the big, shiny shops! We took advantage of it’s location, walking to The High Line which has transformed the old rail line in the meat packing district into a little piece of nature in the midst of the skyscrapers. A different style of architecture every 5 minutes and a birds eye view of the city.
We were also a hop skip and a jump from Wall Street so we hopped on the subway to check out the Cocoa Exchange. My very own Cocoa trader was pretty excited to be in the midst of the action as you can see….
A trip to the Smithsonian Institute to see the history of the American Indians was interesting and also to the Fire Museum, MOMA with it’s modern art, The Flatiron, Grand Central Station, the beautiful Public Library and a walk along The Hudson River and we were almost ready to hop on the plane home. We managed to catch up with some other Aussies who now call New York home, enjoying a brunch with Jack and a dinner with Nic at The Odeon. So good to see them both enjoying all that this amazing city offers.
So to summarise our trip to the USA, it was WONDERFUL to see another country, how other people live and to see all the places we have read and heard about. The people were NOT loud and obnoxious, the food was loads better than I had imagined, the bistros and bars were fantastic, the public transport, Uber and Airbnb all made life easy and convenient and there was something to look at on every corner. We saw some poverty, especially on the way to and from the airport and I’m sure if we had visited different areas we would have seen a lot more and I can understand why – this place is EXPENSIVE!! Our exchange rate didn’t help so we tried not to think about it too much or it would have spoiled things. We didn’t shop much but I could have gone crazy with sneakers – a third of the price they are in Oz and very tempting! It is a vast country and even in the little pocket of land we covered things varied enormously and it would be fun to see a bit more of it one day. The Man of The House is making noises about a road trip on a motor bike but that may be a step too far for this little yellow duck!
As usual, stepping out of your comfort zone and seeing the world also makes you realise how lucky we are to call Australia home. The things we take for granted – our wonderful clean cities, amazing beaches and gorgeous countryside are truly to be appreciated, it’s so strange that we have to go away sometimes to appreciate what’s in our own back yard! So we are now home, reunited with the Choccy Drop back in our little white house in The Meadow being woken daily at 6am by a flock of screeching cockatoos and I wouldn’t have it any other way ♥♥♥