New York City – May 2023

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Edge Observation Deck, New York City

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Spring in NYC!

A long weekend at Hilton Club on West 57th Street just 2 blocks from Central Park. West 57th is “the” street of billionaire residences where the sunny reflections of neighboring skyscrapers and historic buildings bounce off the glassy towers.

We checked in, unpacked and hot-footed it to a rooftop bar on East 50th and Lexington called Upstairs at the Kimberly Hotel which sounded more appealing than it actually was. More a hormonally-fueled hunting ground for gangs of roaming 20-somethings rather than the sophisticated experience I had hoped, the cocktails were good but it was standing room only at the bar unless you had a reservation for one of the seating areas. It is popular with partying office workers roughly half our age 😉

Directly opposite is the Spice Symphony a curry house which was memorable not just for the quality of the food but also for the elevated level of spices – fine if you’re able to consume a Phaal without needing medical intervention – but otherwise a tad hot for the average punter.

Our first morning we were keen to revisit the urban oasis – the High Line – and walk its entire length from its southernmost point at Gansevoort Street (by Whitney Museum) to Hudson Yards on West 34th. We took the subway bright and early before the expected heatwave kicked in. It must be New York’s most popular attraction given the number of tourists, runners, strollers and locals sipping coffee and reading books on one of the myriad seating options. There are reclaimed teak “peel-up X” benches to body-length recliners in the sun – all cleverly integrated into the organic design of the High Line. Some of the sections are left wild and uncultivated to self-seed and others are perfectly manicured. At Chelsea Thicket the path is overhanging with flowering dogwood trees and shrubs. There is a section at 10th Avenue Square with a giant glass window overhanging the busy streets below. There are passageways through warehouses and buildings, spurs and overlooks, water features and sculptural installments along the route which runs through the Meatpacking District, Chelsea and the Art Gallery District all the way to the shining glass skyscrapers at Hudson Yard.

One and a half miles long, it has conveniently located access points which allow you to drop down to ground level for emergency sustenance. We stopped at the highly rated Intelligentsia Coffee bar at High Line Hotel with its red London bus parked in the shady courtyard out front on W 20th St and 10th Ave. We then nipped around the corner to Sullivan Street Bakery on 9th Avenue and W 25th St for a quick lunch before rejoining the High Line.

Whilst you’re at the southern entrance to the High Line, Chelsea Market is worth a wander (touristy but fun) and you should certainly cross the West Side Highway for a stroll around Little Island. It is New York City’s newest park with winding flower-draped pathways, stairways and giant boulders upon which locals sat cross-legged meditating in the early morning sun. It is an artificial island constructed at Pier 55 over the Hudson River and is built upon visually striking undulating white concrete pillars. A much smaller scale public oasis than the High Line but no less beautiful.

At the far north of the High Line is Hudson Yards with a raft of tourist attractions. Vessel was designed to be an interactive sculptural experience comprised of 154 interconnected staircases weaving to the summit of this “beehive-like” structure. Four people have jumped to their untimely deaths from the structure since its opening in 2019 and it has now been closed to public access save for the ground level.

For reasons which now elude me I booked Cull and Pistol restaurant for dinner that evening which was mentioned in many reviews as a top fish restaurant. Had I realized that it was one of the gazillion touristy restaurants inside Chelsea Market I would have foregone the experience. It was nothing special – neither in ambience nor food and I rather regretted the wasted opportunity to eat somewhere more upmarket. Unless you really love oysters I would give it a miss – or just squeeze it in for a quick lunch if you’re in the area.

The whole day was pretty much a culinary non-event having also revisited Mangia on West 57th for breakfast. In previous years it was a popular and well-stocked restaurant serving delicious breakfasts and home-baked goods to the trendy crowd and office workers en route to work. I guess COVID made a dramatic impact on the clientele and the offerings available.

Thank goodness my research didn’t let me down with our per-dinner libations at Bathtub Gin – a very atmospheric Roaring 20’s inspired speakeasy. Even if the cocktails had been poor (which they definitely weren’t) it would be worth a visit for the ambience alone. Central to the seating area in the bar, in pride of place, is a highly-polished copper bathtub. Bathtub Gin is named after the homemade booze which used to be watered down in bathtubs during the prohibition era. Speakeasies are, of course, hidden from sight with no visible external signs of their existence. You just have to know where to find them. Bathtub Gin is through a closed door behind Stone Street coffee shop. It exudes a kind of faded 1920’s glamour with atmospheric low lighting, flock wallpaper and plush velvet banquettes. It is also well-known for its live jazz and burlesque.

The following day the culinary tide thankfully turned in Williamsburg, a neighborhood in Brooklyn on the east side of the East River which divides Manhattan from Brooklyn.

Williamsburg considers itself to be an up and coming hipster hub, previously a manufacturing area but now apparently home to creatives, artists, cool cafes and even cooler trend-setting boutiques stores. Sounds great, no? Actually, no. It needs to come a long way before it qualifies for many of those accolades. Down at heel student area is more of the vibe it actually emanates.

Williamsburg is well-known for its street art. We followed a route through the back streets and along Bedford Avenue wading through trash, grime, broken glass and the projectile remnants of the partying from the night before. A lot of the well-known street art pieces were destroyed by graffiti artists with considerably less talent than the real artists who created them in the first place. Street art is, by its very essence, transient in nature but to wantonly destroy it is unforgivable. The iconic piece “Mona Lisa of Williamsburg” at the intersection of Broadway and Bedford Avenues is in tact – albeit flaking off the wall. Brazilian artist Kobra’s “Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol” mural is in great shape but his other famous piece “Elvis Presley War is Hell” is totally destroyed, as is “Hokusai Geisha”. Hyperrealist muralist Jorit Agoch’s “Mural of a Child” was breathtaking but currently almost inaccessible hidden behind a construction site. It didn’t stop Geoff from surreptitiously clambering up the scaffolding with my camera to acquire me a worthy shot!

Aside from the street art, the other substantial reason we took an early train to Williamsburg that morning was for brunch at Sunday in Brooklyn. So popular it gets booked up weeks ahead of time for brunch at the weekend. Since I failed to secure a reservation I kicked Geoff out of the hotel at 8.00am in order to ensure we could be first in line for opening at 9.30am. With various subway changes and a walk across the neighborhood to get to it, we arrived at 9.10am. We weren’t first in line and within minutes there was a snake of people behind us around the corner and far out of sight. It is understandably very, very popular.

Somewhat pricey but, compared, to many places in The Big Apple, worth every dollar. We would have gone back the following day if I hadn’t already made other plans. Freshly squeezed orange juice followed by wood roasted berries on brioche with ricotta, olive oil and lemon. Absolutely to die for. Apparently the avocado toast with chili peppers and watercress was similarly noteworthy.

Without doubt Sunday in Brooklyn is the highlight of Williamsburg. The rest of it could do with a heavy-duty power wash.

One great meal for brunch was followed by another for dinner at R H Rooftop Restaurant in the trendy Meatpacking District. Excellent quality food in a sophisticated setting with shimmering chandeliers and far-reaching views over Manhattan. It attracts the well-heeled and the glamorous. Although the menu is somewhat limited it didn’t disappoint until it came to dessert. Ice-cream and chocolate cookies is definitely a cop-out for a good NYC destination restaurant.

For our final full day we headed on the subway to Brooklyn, specifically to the DUMBO area where we joined the crowd of locals waiting in line at Almondine French bakery. The cakes were quite extraordinary works of art, intricately decorated with flowers and fruit. The chocolate almond croissant (the standard by which I judge all French bakeries 😉) was unusually flat but I’ll still give it 8/10 …

We continued sauntering along Brooklyn Bridge Park until we reached the pinnacle of views over Manhattan at Pier 5. The parkway has certainly come a long way over the years. It is generally spotless and meanders through shady planted green spaces, past a small beach, past repurposed piers where local residents were playing baseball and basketball and on to a marina with moored yachts. The perfect combination of city dwelling with public green spaces and, of course, one of the most recognizable views in the world.

We wandered back to the ferry terminal under Brooklyn Bridge and paid our $4 each for a ride to South Street Seaport back on Manhattan – the ferry ride can’t have exceeded 2 minutes in total. A few minutes of navigating through the Financial District and we found the World Trade Centre, the Freedom Tower and the 9/11 Memorial Reflecting Pools which, even nearly 22 years later is an emotionally draining experience.

Part of the reconstruction project of the area after 9/11 included Oculus – a fantastic elliptical-shaped white steel structure with wing-shaped tips reaching towards the sky. It serves as a transportation hub and shopping centre for the WTC and connects to the subway system. It was opened in 2016 and the architect intended it to look like a dove taking flight from the hands of a small boy. Oculus is Latin for “eye”. Every year on 9/11 a retractable skylight opens at 10:28 a.m for 2 hours illuminating the main hall with a wedge of light. This is the time of the collapse of the second tower. The retractable spine opening is called the “Way Of Light”. Spanish architect Calatrava carefully positioned the angle of the building in order to achieve this effect.

The Reflecting Pools sit in the footprints of the North and South Towers. To many people the memorials are a sobering reminder of what happened here, a place of remembrance and literal and metaphoric reflection.

To cheer ourselves up we bought last minute tickets for New York’s newest sky-high observation deck in Hudson Yards – Edge. At 100 stories in height, on a protruding ledge which dangles over the street 1200 feet below (365 meters), you can walk across a glass floor and check out the sweeping views of Manhattan all the way from Central Park and Upper Manhattan to the Financial District at the southernmost point in Lower Manhattan.

En route back we visited Washington Square park which was packed with people sunbathing and enjoying the the perfect spring weather. Bryant Park was equally jammed with tourists and locals sitting on the paved walkways around the grassy centre. Central Park was busy as ever with groups of tourists waiting for their opportunity to take a selfie on the famous stone Gapstow Bridge.

Our final evening was spent at super popular Italian restaurant Olio e Piu in Greenwich Village. It was good quality but eye-waveringly overpriced for portion sizes or service. The menu is not large but even so they seemed to have run out of basic supplies so many items offered on the menu were unavailable. I wouldn’t necessarily rush back despite its reputation.

En route back to the hotel we took the subway to Times Square for some night shots and a reminder as to why we’re not really city people. Hustlers, hobos, chaos, noise and criminals running from the cops – it’s a crazy melting pot of humanity.

New York is a city we enjoy in short bursts every few years. It isn’t all gleaming skyscrapers, flatirons, Broadway shows and historic icons. Those are the reasons to visit. It also needs, however, a good scrub … and don’t get me started on the disgusting state of the subway 😉

Bye bye NYC! In (un)equal parts fun and swanky and grungy and inexcusably filthy! Such a city of contrasts 😊

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