We’ve been to the Red Flame Diner, the Frick Collection and the Whitney. Now it’s time to clear our heads of comfort food and culture so Monsieur and I head across to Central Park. Every time we’ve visited together, we’ve spent a little time in this glorious lung for the island of Manhattan, and every time, we’ve discovered new sights to enthrall. The last visit saw us wading through drifts of newly-fallen snow; this time, the sun was shining and New Yorkers were out in droves, soaking up the vitamin D.
Do you think this runner stopped for some Gatorade or a big, fat pretzel after his run?
This pair looked slightly uncomfortable on their carriage ride:
Their wives, hidden by the hood, looked far more enthused. Monsieur and I didn’t feel the need for wheels, no matter how romantic the notion of a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park, so on we walked.
The paths were busy with happy wanderers, like ourselves:
And then, in the midst of everything, we found our old pal, Rabbie Burns:
We passed the place where people’s endowments of trees for the park are honoured by plaques in a place called Literary Walk:
Further along, we found people sunning themselves like seals on a giant rock. We climbed up to see what they were watching and found the Wollman skating rink beneath the Midtown skyline. There was no mistaking who operates it these days – Donald Trump, his name emblazoned all around the rink:
We then headed for the Plaza Hotel and Fifth Avenue, spotting this colourful line up of carriages en route:
Now the carriages and tree-lined walks would be replaced by skyscrapers and New York yellow cabs, but not before we glimpse a horse proudly sprouting a bright purple feather from its bridle. It seems that even the horses in Manhattan know that in this part of world, anything goes.
DSK: a trio of letters synonymous with scandal, sex and the Sofitel Hotel in New York City. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then-head of the IMF found himself embroiled in a hotel housemaid’s accusation of sexual assault earlier this year, Monsieur and I were transfixed before the television, not because of yet another (yawn) politician making the headlines due to a certain lack of behavioural restraint, but because of the hotel at the centre of the scandal. The story broke while we were in France for a family celebration. The French news stations were saturated with back-to-back tales of Strauss-Kahn and his fateful stay at the New York Sofitel, where Monsieur and I have stayed quite happily twice – no straying politicos or maids-with-benefits involved. It felt odd to know the place where such sordid events unfolded; contrary to how it may have come across in this year’s press coverage of the DSK affair, the Sofitel is a serene and beautiful place to call home during a sojourn in Manhattan.
Monsieur and I are fans of the Sofitel chain, especially as the presence of plenty of French staff make Monsieur feel so at home. On our last visit to The Big Apple, we dragged our cases up to the Sofitel from Penn Station and were greeted with warmth and a couple of welcome drinks vouchers to be used at Gaby, the hotel bar. Once we’d settled into our room set in a quiet recess away from 44th Street we took our vouchers down to the lobby to join the Friday afternoon crowd for a drink.
It was still too early for the pre-theatre crowd so prevalent in Midtown, and too early for most office workers to kick up their heels at the start of the weekend, but there was already the beginning of a lively gathering at one end of the room. Our waiter was Buddhist in his calm approach to serving his patrons; so much so he was almost invisible. Menus and cocktail mix appeared before us, yet so quietly that it was as if they’d been conjured from thin air.
Perusing the drinks list, Monsieur decided to forego his usual mojito in favour of the Lemon Drop cocktail, his first sip causing an audible sigh of appreciation. I stole a taste: it was like intense alcoholic lemonade with the essence of lemon meringue pie mixed through it. Iced, this would be a grown-up’s dessert of choice, not far from that naughty Venetian after-dinner drink, the sgroppino.
Chocolate was on my mind, so I ordered a mochatini, but our waiter quietly returned to our table to say “I’m afraid we’re all out of the Starbuck’s liquor required to make the mochatini. Could I interest you a chocatini instead?”. I was more than a little surprised to learn that a French hotel served drinks made with an American coffee giant’s syrup, but I have to admit that Starbuck’s mocha flavouring is quite excellent (stone me, curse me, but I give credit where it’s due). Fortunately, the chocatini soon took my mind off the omnipresence of globalisation. The cocktail was absolute decadence in a glass, like syrupy, alcoholic chocolate milk.
Meanwhile, three suits had taken stools at the bar, self-importantly jabbing the air from time to time as they mentioned markets and calls and shorts and losses. Shortly afterward, three women dressed for the kill arrived and took seats a little further down the bar. Air-kissing commenced amidst drawling “how AAAAARE you”s, making me giggle at their own brand of theatre. By the time we left, the girls were exchanging meaningful nods with the neighbouring suits whilst pointedly preening long tresses and adjusting cleavages. DSK it wasn’t, but mating rituals in Manhattan still make excellent entertainment.
There are many good reasons to stay at New York’s Sofitel: it’s ideally situated for the theatre district and Times Square, is central for the main attractions of all the big Avenues, close to the major stores of Barney’s, Bendel’s and Bloomingdale’s and shares its address of 44th Street with the eponymous Red Flame Diner and the Algonquin Hotel of Round Table fame. Ready and waiting for you when you’ve walked your feet into a numbed fatigue, the Sofitel beds are there to envelop the tired wanderer in their rejuvenating cocoons of softness. The doormen and concierges go the extra mile, there are PC and printing facilities in a quiet corner of the lobby, and if you want to just sit and watch the comings of goings of visitors and guests, the sumptuous lobby armchairs provide the comfort from which to do so.
Highly recommended, especially if someone else is paying, and I think we can safely assume that DSK won’t be going back any time soon.
There are four branches of Petite Abeille, or ‘Little Bee’ in New York City, each with Belgian charm and all proud of their reputation as being the providers of an excellent weekend brunch. Alas, house rules say no reservations are possible; you have to present yourself in person and be prepared to wait.
Monsieur and I were in New York for a long weekend, late in March. We were lucky with the weather: the sky was nothing but high and blue, the air crisp and we couldn’t wait for a proper Noo Yoik Sunday brunch, so, armed with a pair of rumbling stomachs we headed down to lower Manhattan to the Petite Abeille at 134 West Broadway.
On arrival there was already a line out the door, but within a few minutes we were inside and soon after that were offered seats at the bar while we waited for a table to become free. The restaurant byline is ‘a taste of Belgium’ and the walls were suitably covered with Tintin posters and a variety of Belgian memorabilia. We ordered drinks to quell our hunger. Monsieur had an OJ and I went all out, ordering one of the famous Petite Abeille Bloody Marys.
This was one fantastic cocktail, with plenty of va-va-voom courtesy of oodles of fresh horseradish and a liberal dose of Worcestershire sauce. The usual celery stick garnish was enhanced by a sprinkling of colourful batons of capsicum, a bit like fat pick-up sticks. The success of this drink surely augured well for our brunch – if we ever got a table.
Just as Monsieur’s stirrings of impatience became dangerous to the waitresses, we were ushered to a table by the window – one of the prime positions in this otherwise tiny shack of an eatery. The wait was worth it for our view of both our fellow patrons and the street of eclectic boutiques outside. There must have been a fun run that day because runners and their cheerleading friends and family started to descend on the Petite Abeille, wrapped in aluminium blankets. These sporty folk knew exactly where to get their post-exercise carb fix.
Monsieur and I ventured into the menu with caution, nibbling at first on a shared almond croissant and a tartine of perfectly toasted baguette slathered with Nutella. My husband being French, his critique of breads is utterly unforgiving, so when he declared the baguette perfect and asked for a toaster like the one in the Petite Abeille kitchen, I was blown away. Such praise is rare.
Around us, the meal of choice seemed to be the waffle special, loaded with blueberries, strawberries and rounds of fresh kiwifruit, all scattered atop an evil layer of whipped cream. This was obviously not the place for slimmers, as proven by a quick glance at the menu which features a lot of eggs, potatoes, burgers and cheese. With such a tempting selection I was torn; would I honour my penchant for croquettes (North Sea shrimp or Belgian Cheese), cave in to an Omelette Maison (smoked salmon, scallions and sour cream) or tuck into the vol au vent filled with chicken stew, bacon, mushrooms and accompanied by fries? In the end I decided to go all out on the calorie front, ordering the Macaroni Jambon-Fromage - traditional mac ‘n’cheese with ham and Gruyère, delightfully gooey and rich with melted dairy products. Then to assuage the guilt attached to the glutton I am fully capable of being, I ordered a side salad of leaves with sliced red onion, seedless cucumber chunks and divinely marinated tomato that’s reminiscent of how tomatoey a tomato should taste. All of the time.
Monsieur was now elbow deep in his brunch fare: eggs benedict with smoked salmon, mesclun salad and stoemp, golden yolky lava coursing across his plate. “Your eggs are better,” he pronounced, “but the muffins and smoked salmon are excellent.” Having started the day unconvinced by my choice of brunch restaurant, fussy French husband was now praising my eatery-selection techniques. “And this stoemp is very, very good.” he mumbled through a mouthful of leek and potato mash. The only thing he didn’t comment on was the mesclun, but he wouldn’t; to Monsieur salad is simply salad, only worthy of comment when the leaves are brown.
Bottomless ice water and decent regular coffee with warm milk completed this sunny picture. We didn’t have room for any of the eight waffle options on offer but as a consolation, we would now not need lunch, having been fully topped up with calorific goodness. Monsieur and I paid our waitress with a smile, heading out into a bright Manhattan Sunday afternoon with gleeful step. I’ll certainly be back when the siren call of the North Sea shrimp croquettes becomes insistently inescapable and between you and me, I hope that might be soon.
San Francisco buzzes with life, the clang of cable cars and the revving of vehicles making some of the most difficult hill starts in the world. Down at the port, sailboats and ferries and tugs and ships all come and go, depositing passengers and collecting new ones whilst barking seals bask on floating platforms at Fisherman’s Wharf and the City’s renowned wind whips its way around corners, flapping awnings and flags on its way.
Yet just 12 miles north of the busy Bay Area metropolis lies an area of complete tranquillity called Muir Woods. I first visited this natural monument many years ago as a teenager, and now was about to return, newly married with husband in tow.
Monsieur had been to the Bay Area before this, but hadn’t yet visited Muir Woods, which understandably boasts the title of ‘National Monument’. Muir Woods was declared as such by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, by which time this area of towering Coastal Redwood trees contained but a fraction of California’s original number, which once spread across a staggering 2 million acres of old growth forest. That was before the logging industry came and cleared most of trees away and before the cities were founded and populations grew and wood was needed for building and paper and fuel and furniture.
Thankfully, the area in which Muir Woods stands was considered inaccessible, thus saving it from the slaughter of trees taking place elsewhere in the state. Then a certain US Congressman by the name of William Kent and his wife purchased the area that contains Muir Woods, in the interest of keeping the sky-scraping trees safe from the dreaded axe.
On naming Muir Woods, Kent’s name was initially considered as appropriate, but after a time Kent himself tossed it out in favour of that of John Muir, a naturalist whose work had helped create the National Park System. And so the Woods were renamed in appreciation of Muir.
Monsieur and I purchase our tickets at a little hut manned by a bearded man resembling your archetypal log cabin-dweller. I start humming Daniel Boone, then off down the path we wander. There’s no rush apart from that of the breeze stirring the branches above.
Before long we can barely see the sky for the amount of foliage above us, the girth of the tree trunks on either side of the path growing ever larger. Chip and Dale’s cousins play in the undergrowth to either side and a Woody Woodpecker can be heard in the distance, his beak pecking away madly with its sound echoing through the trees, but something larger is rustling the ferns a couple of metres away. We follow the movement of shaking green leaves until we spot the source: a young doe foraging for lunch, oblivious to our gawping from the track below.
“Remind me why we live in London?” asks Monsieur,
“Quite.” I reply, struggling to remember the reasons myself.
A little later we stop to check history’s famous dates against the rings of a slice of ancient tree trunk, then listen for a while to one of the woodland rangers as she rattles off facts and figures about the trees themselves:
For instance, how much your average redwood needs to drink in a day (up to 500 gallons, a lot of which is drawn from fog), how tall redwoods can grow (115 metres) and the height of the tallest tree in Muir Woods (79 metres and climbing). We also learn that the Coast Redwood or Sequoia sempervirens variety to be found at Muir Woods only grows in a specific coastal climate. In winter, this area will have plenty of rainfall to sustain such giants, but the summers here are dry, so the trees rely on fogs from the nearby sea to provide necessary moisture.
Watching the enthusiasm of the young woman in ranger’s uniform I envy her this job because it matters. Preserving such a beautiful, natural environment is a true vocation. There’s no rat race here. This work counts for something and even on the wettest days of the year, to be tasked with guarding a monument such as Muir Woods, its soaring trees which have breathed and grown as wars were fought and countries formed, its happy fauna frolicking undisturbed about the place, must make getting up each morning a joy. It’s positively Snow White (without the Seven Dwarfs).
Ambling along the pathways we find several redwoods with burn marks on their trunks. We know from the ranger that redwoods don’t burn easily, thanks to fire-resistant tannins in their composition, which is why these scorched trees are still standing tall today.
Next, we pass through the aptly-named Cathedral Grove, where some of the tallest trees in the Woods are gathered, soaring skyward as might the columns of a Gothic cathedral with a leafy canopy for its ceiling. Then we cross the burbling Redwood Creek to climb up to a higher path. I feel my heart rate slow, such is the peace all about us, and inhale deeply. The aroma of redwood trees is all at once fresh and spicy and warm and I want to sear the scent into my memory.
Monsieur and I eventually finish our walk and marvel at what a wonderful place Muir Woods is. In the haze of tranquillity we float back to the Smurfmobile, whispering a thank you to the ghosts of the Kents for saving the Woods for future generations, and ponder how lucky we are to have spent our first day of honeymoon amongst the towering redwoods. A calmer start to our holiday we could not have wished for. As John Muir once remarked:
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
Only the blind could possibly miss the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge on a visit to San Francisco. It’s everywhere. Even when you’re on the wrong side of a hill or behind a building, it’s omnipresent – on postcards and tee shirts and coffee mugs and posters.
Rather than content ourselves with the varying 2-D views of this stunning landmark on calendars in gift shops, Monsieur and I decided that our honeymoon would not be complete without a couple of Golden Gate Bridge crossings. And so we traversed this world-famous suspension bridge in our giant white Smurfmobile; first to visit Muir Woods and Sausalito, and on another occasion to visit the vineyards of Napa Valley.
We were incredibly lucky with the weather while we were in San Francisco; the sky was Halcyon blue, a striking backdrop for the deep terracotta span of the Golden Gate. As the Smurfmobile neared the bridge my heart skipped a little with excitement. Then, at last, we were right there on the 2737 metre-long structure, the choppy waters of the Bay beneath us and eerie little Alcatraz a small dot to our right.
Once on the Marin County side, we pulled into a viewing area to take photos of the city skyline, The Rock and the Oakland Bridge. Then we went for a little walk part way back across the Golden Gate. Cyclists share the walkway so we had to be careful not to be squished by keen people in lycra pedalling in their lycra best. The concept of slowing down for pedestrians did not seem to feature in the mindset of this speedy bunch.
As we moved towards the centre of the bridge Monsieur and I noted with interest an emergency helpline phone. Statistics on how many people jump from the Golden Gate each year vary greatly, depending on who’s counting (local government statistics tend to be significantly lower than independent groups), but at least there are phones there if a potential jumper has a change of heart up there and decides to ask for help.
Analysis shows that the Golden Gate Bridge is the most popular place (if you can call it ‘popular’) for suicides on the planet. Jumpers rarely survive (although there is the tale of one survivor who swam to shore and drove himself to hospital) thanks to a 75 metre drop which takes 4 seconds for the average body to achieve, by which time it has gathered enough velocity to render its impact on the water like that of a mass of concrete. In the rare cases that a jumper does survive the fall, they will be injured by it or may freeze to death in the chill water. In the cases where a jumper achieves their objective, their body may never be found, thanks to the strength of the currents which may wash a body straight out to sea.
Pondering this, Monsieur and I wandered back to the car, managing (just) to survive NOT a 75 metre fall into icy water but the very real danger of the cyclists who were all riding their bikes as if they were after the yellow jersey. Fortunately, we made it back to the car park in one piece, but not thanks to them. Cyclists of the Golden Gate Bridge: may all your tyres go flat.
Now safely ensconced in our fat, white car on a particularly sunshiny day we had plans that did not involve rushing about or running people over. Following a hectic eight months our aim was to relax and take time to smell the metaphorical roses. That in mind, we were off to experience the cycle-free tranquillity of Muir Woods. Chipmunks and redwoods, AHOY!
Everyone who was alive when planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Centre knows where they were at the time. Seven years later, the legacy of that attack is still with us, in our actions, in our racism towards anyone who looks vaguely Middle Eastern, in our fear of flying, in our reactions to media, in our politics. Single for a Reason has a brilliant post without words today, commemorating 9-11. Click here to see Pat’s page.
Here are some photos of the World Trade Center (American spelling on purpose, anglophiles!) that I took just before Christmas 2006.
On the approach, there’s already quite a crowd, including the determined conspiracy theorists.
They must be convinced of their theories to brave the cold December day, standing for hours being booed by the patriots. Still, freedom includes self-expression, no? The scariest part is wondering if these theorists are right. It would make things so, so much worse if they are.
Scenes of that terrible day hold people in place as they stare and stare, silent, at the images in the makeshift photo gallery or reading the timeline, bit by bit.
Many folk come to this part of Manhattan for Century 21′s famous bargains. Some don’t realise they’ll be whammed with a giant graveyard cum building site across the way. Most stop and visit the WTC memorial before leaving to shop. After all, life must go on, but we should also remember.
Who could imagine the horror of completing a day’s work here?
The dead, the surviving, the blamed, the guilty, the innocent, the legends, the insidious legacy that seems nowhere near an end. I feel so bad for the good people in this world whose lives and identities have been tainted by this atrocious event, purely because they follow a particular religion or look a certain way.
Time to leave. Looking out from under cover, Manhattan’s life continues.
And later, beneath a brilliant sunset, it was hard to believe that anything like 9-11 could have happened here, or that a friend’s entire New York team (make that office) at Cantor Fitzgerald was wiped out, or that another friend due for a meeting at the WTC ran uncharacteristically late, thus saving his life, or that a petite friend who hates walking or taking the subway trudged the miles home in high, high heels, but didn’t feel her feet because she was in shock, or that a young man I once met had endured the pain of that final phone call from a WTC office from his beautiful wife, his high school sweetheart, and had to come to London to escape the thousands of daily reminders of that day, or that the emergency services would lose so many selfless and brave individuals as they tried so valiantly to save others. No one could possibly believe it. Not when Manhattan’s beauty remains. It’s all a bad, bad dream. But then we wake up…
and we’re still here. We do not give in and we do not give up. We go on.
For some time now, I’ve been promising to write a list of things to do in New York for a colleague who’ll be visiting there soon. Then I thought, better to blog it. Same result, different method. Here’s the first part:
It’s family legend that as a foetus I first kicked in New York. My parents were there because Dad had a work placement in New York for a while and Mum tagged along. I love asking her about that time. In my mind it is a different New York with a slightly faded technicolour look and lots of people wearing mini skirts, ironed hair and orange and brown striped shirts with wide collars. Inside my mother, I was coming alive. Perhaps it was New York that woke me up, with its honking yellow cabs and loud, city people. Perhaps that’s why I love the place so much.
The past couple of years, Monsieur has travelled to New York for a winter bonding session with his American colleagues. They have off-site meetings and off-site sporting fun. He has won curling contests in Mohonk (so proud!) and artfully avoided ice skating in a blizzard (Monsieur hates the cold). Then, once Action Monsieur is all actioned and bonded out, I fly across to join him for the weekend so we can have some New York fun.
For my first winter weekend spent with Monsieur in the Big Apple, the company booked us into the Roosevelt Hotel. This was a bit weird because my father used to stay there when he came to New York on business. The halls are wide, the bedrooms small, the bathrooms tired and the central heating noisily erratic, but it’s central. So central that it’s right by Grand Central Station and you can’t get any more central than that.
I love Grand Central Station. I’ve even travelled in and out of it by train when I went to visit Yale with friends. There’s something so New York about this honey stone building with its landmark clock and destination oyster bar. Once upon a time I had the oyster bar on my must-eat-here-list. Then I had a bad oyster. The poisoning was so bad that my doctor told me I could never eat oysters again because my body would remember and press the eject button. Having ejected quite enough oyster at that time, I haven’t touched one since, but I miss them terribly. A saving grace is that the Grand Central Oyster Bar doesn’t only serve oysters so I’d be perfectly safe. Today’s menu reads like a sea-lover’s dream: Maine mussels, popcorn shrimp, bouillabaisse and New England clam chowder. Bluefish, catfish, halibut and monkfish. Sea scallops, soft shell crab, fresh Maine lobster and fried Jumbo shrimp, and even though I can’t eat them myself, to read Oysters Rockefeller on a menu is to read a line of New York’s culinary poetry. Okay, Oyster Bar at Grand Central, you are on my list for next time.
Apart from the trains and the Oyster Bar, Grand Central Station has a great little shopping mall. There are gift shops and a Banana Republic, food shops and florists and hair salons… and, best of all, a food market!
Food markets are my thing. I love them. I take photos in them while Monsieur buries his head in a cookbook, trying not to be associated with that strange woman who insists on photographing fruit. I love the smells and the colours and the textures and the inspiration. I love talking to the chicken man about the best way to prepare his breasts (yes, I know how that sounds). I love the spices, the recipe cards, the ingredients I’ve yet to try, the vegetable I’ve never seen before because it isn’t popular where I live. Grand Central Market is one of these places. If you love food, you must visit. The last time I went, the fish stall had the best looking tuna burgers you can imagine – all minced yellowfin pressed into patties with a few breadcrumbs, a squeeze of lemon and tufts of fresh coriander…
Razzbuffnik will be pleased to hear that there are only two Starbucks in the entire mall, and there’s even a museum shop to keep trainspotters happy. Called The Transit Museum Gallery and Store (related to The Transit Museum in Brooklyn Heights), there’s all sorts of transport-related paraphernalia to add to your collection, alongside changing exhibitions. If I run out of my favourite face cream, there is an Oliviers & Co selling olive-based products direct from la belle France, and if you’re there on a Wednesday or Friday, you can join one of the free tours of the station to hear its fascinating history and how it has been saved, on more than one occasion, from the wrecking ball.
If you do visit Grand Central Station, stop in the main concourse and remember all those moments when this backdrop has been immortalised on film, and then, slowly, look up. It’s the Sky Ceiling, and if you know anything about astronomy, you’ll see that it’s back-to-front.