New York City at Christmas

I like traveling during the Christmas holidays. We don’t celebrate Christmas and have no family obligations, but for me it is a festive time of year and I like to do something fun. We alternate Christmas in Santa Fe (which is delightful – the Canyon Road Christmas Eve walk, snow, cosy winter evenings in front of the fire) with a Christmas trip. The sensible part of me says “don’t do it”: everyone is traveling, flights and airports are crowded, kids are off school, cities are crowded, weather can be bad and if your flight is cancelled you could be stranded somewhere for days. All of these things happened on this trip, but I am still happy that we did the trip.

We left Santa Fe on the morning of Christmas Eve and arrived at La Guardia around 6pm. To avoid standing in long taxi lines in cold temperatures, we arranged for a car service to meet us at the airport. Christmas Eve was quiet at the airport, there were no lines for taxis and the weather was mild, but it was nice being met by the driver.

In 1997, Steve had a consulting job in New York City which required him to spend one week every month there for over a year. I was not working at the time, so I accompanied him on these trips. He worked and I explored New York. We had also traveled to New York frequently when we lived on the East Coast in the late 80s.

Usually when we go to New York, I am in full freak-out mode for 24 hours: the crowds, the noise, the concrete, the buildings!! This was the first time that it all felt comfortable to me. Perhaps this was because we were staying in the area which we know well from our earlier travel – Union Square. Perhaps I am finally getting used to large cities. Perhaps I was too tired from the events of the past few months to be freaked out.

We stayed at Hotel Giraffe, a boutique hotel on Park Avenue, just north of Union Square. We had not stayed there before, but it had good reviews on Slow Travel, they were having a Christmas sale and the location is perfect. We liked the hotel (read more details in my review, under Resources).

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After checking into the hotel, we went out for a late dinner at Zen Palate, a Vegetarian Asian restaurant which was a regular place for dinner when we traveled there before. The manager of the restaurant remembered us – well, she remembered Steve! Steve said, “you must be mistaken” and she said “it was many years ago and you are from Colorado”. We are from New Mexico, but Colorado is almost the same. She really did remember us, even what we usually ordered. What a nice way to start our week in New York.

It was a week of visiting Slow Travel friends and revisiting places we loved when we came to New York regularly. We did not do much else.

On Christmas Day we had a lovely brunch with Janet (a regular on the message board) and her husband Alan at the restaurant Country in the Carlton Hotel, not far from where we were staying. The food was very good, the setting was lovely and we had a great time. After brunch, we walked uptown to see the windows at Macys. Many others had the same idea and the area was packed. I thought the city would be empty on Christmas Day. We did get a good look at the windows, and then walked on towards Rockefeller Center. It started to rain before we got there, so we hopped in a cab and went back to the hotel.

Later that evening we took a cab to the Upper West Side, to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, to see a concert of medieval music. Moderator Emeritus David was singing. The concert was great and we went to his apartment for a visit after. It was raining that evening, but that was the last of the rain for the rest of the week.

We decided to keep on Santa Fe time for the trip, so our days did not start until about noon, after breakfast in our room, and ended late. Tuesday we had nothing scheduled so we went to our favorite stores near Union Square and had lunch at our favorite Macrobiotic restaurant, Souen. We had dinner there too! ABC Home and Carpet continues to be my favorite store in New York. I did not buy anything, but we walked around and looked at their perfect sheets, towels, furniture, pillows, blankets, etc.

Wednesday was our day in New Jersey to visit Marian, the message board Matriarch, and Lisa W., our friend who recently moved to Montclair from California. We walked up Fifth Avenue, past the Empire State Building, to Penn Station and took the train to Montclair.

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I was a bit confused at Penn Station, but I picked the right person to ask. He was a regular commuter and explained exactly how it all worked. As in many European stations, you wait in front of a large board listing all the scheduled trains, to see what track your train will be on. When it is displayed, you have ten minutes to make it to your track. It was a nice 45 minute train ride to Montclair. We all had lunch at a great Chinese vegetarian restaurant and then visited for the afternoon. Montclair is a beautiful town! I could happily live there.

We took the train back and then went to a Moderator’s Dinner at ‘inoteca, an upscale Italian restaurant on the Lower East Side. The food was a bit difficult for a vegetarian (they don’t serve pasta), but we managed. It was like Italian tapas – small delightful dishes which we all shared. It was a great dinner and we had lots of fun. The restaurant was very noisy, but I think only Steve and I thought that. New Yorkers are used to noise – on the street, in the crowded restaurants, everywhere. There must be quiet spots in Central Park, but you probably still feel the roar of the city.

One of the things I love about New York is flagging down taxis. I love stepping out, putting up my hand, having the taxi come to a stop, hopping in. It is a feeling of luxury: not having to drive, or walk, or take the subway. On one of our many taxi rides, I said to the driver “It is Hotel Giraffe on the next corner”. He replied in a lyrical African accent “Hotel Giraffe. Yes, I know this hotel. I remember this name.” This is the closest I will ever get to a giraffe (other than a zoo); maybe he has seen one where he is from or maybe he was born in America and only doing the African accent for fun. In New York, you never know. (Or maybe it was a French accent, in which case, why am I writing about this?)

Thursday was our Slow Travel GTG lunch at an Indian restaurant. It was a big GTG, almost 20 people, and the two hours felt like five minutes. I did not even get a chance to talk to everyone! I have to learn how to navigate GTGs better, so I get to talk to more people, but I really enjoyed myself. It was a great group and the food was good.

After lunch, a few of us went looking for a coffee shop. Janet has a knack for finding great places in New York. For our 2004 GTG, she organized a pre-GTG meeting at a bar near Chinatown and it was the perfect place for us all to meet. This time she took us to a café across the street from Grand Central Station, literally under Park Avenue, or so it seemed. There was some kind of ramp and the restaurant was under it. We had coffee and cake and talked some more.

The weather was great the week we were there, although it had been warmer just before we arrived and was much warmer again after. There was no snow on the ground and daytime temperatures were in the 50s and 40s. Some evenings we needed our scarves, hats and gloves, but most days just our light winter coats were enough. It was windy and grey much of the time, but the weather was good for being out and about. Not too hot, not too cold.

That night, Steve and I walked some more, went into some big computer stores, then took the subway down to the village. We went to the other branch of Souen for dinner. When we got off the subway at Houston, we saw several fire engines and police cars. Houston, which is a main street, was blocked off from Sixth Avenue to Broadway (several blocks). We could see huge clouds of very black smoke coming out of a manhole on the street and from a building further along. Whenever we are in New York, some type of small “disaster” happens. My guess is that something like this happens every week: pieces of a building falling off to the sidewalk; something exploding; something collapsing; sink holes opening up on the street. We searched the Internet and watched the local news, but there was no mention of this apparently insignificant incident.

After dinner, we walked through Soho. Some of the stores were still open so we visited the Soho Apple store (got myself a Video iPod – my big purchase of the trip), walked around Dean and Deluca, then bought some journals at Kate’s Paperie.

When we visited New York in the mid 90s, I always brought food things home from Dean and Deluca: olive oil, olives, teas, chocolates, pastries, even bread. This was before Whole Foods came to Santa Fe. This time I only looked, I did not bring anything home. If I were to have brought something back to Santa Fe, it would have been bagels. There is something about New York bagels that is unlike bagels anywhere else. The bagels that you get in Santa Fe should not even be called bagels!

On Friday, we had our last meal at Souen – a nice lunch – then walked up to the Theatre District. This was a great walk along Sixth Avenue. After awhile in New York, it starts to feel like a “sealed city”. From the concrete building, to the concrete sidewalk, to the asphalt road; I know there is dirt somewhere, but I just can’t find it. My legs hurt from walking on concrete. Everything seems hard. We started looking for dirt and found a few square feet in front of a church, then another little bit around a tree. Bits of dirt poking up here and there, trying to escape. I know that New York is a very livable city and has lovely small parks all over (like the one shown below – Madison Square Park) and the huge Central Park, and water on both sides, but sometimes doing a long walk up one of the Avenues, it really does feel like a concrete jungle.

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New York City streets were laid out in a grid pattern when the city was built, but Broadway, which cuts across Manhattan from the southeast to the northwest, was already established as a street. The town planners used this to their advantage and created some nice parks or significant squares where Broadway crosses the main Avenues: Union Square Park (Park Avenue), Madison Square Park (Fifth Avenue), Herald Square (Sixth Avenue), Times Square (Seventh Avenue), Columbus Circle and the corner of Central Park (Eighth Avenue), Lincoln Square (Ninth Avenue/Columbus).

When we got close to Times Square, where there is no dirt, the crowds thickened and it was very slow going. I am always amazed at the number of people in Times Square; it can be overwhelming. We got to the theater in plenty of time, but I spent that time waiting in a line for the women’s restroom in the nearby Marriott. My main complaint about New York – the lack of public restrooms. You can’t even nip into a MacDonald’s to use the restrooms, as you can in the rest of the country; at least not the ones in Midtown. The one I went into had a big guy guarding the way to the area with the restrooms. He only let you through if you had made a purchase and had it in your hand. Telling him your husband was in line to purchase something and could you just quickly run up and use the bathroom got you nowhere.

We bought tickets online for the Friday matinee of the play “Spamalot”. Amy (Moderator Emeritus) and her family, and Ginger (Suncoast on the board) and her husband were also going. We had arranged to meet after the show. I, as is typical for me, waited too long to purchase tickets (never wanting to commit to something un-refundable until close to the departure date), so we ended up way off to the side with “partial view” seats. The play was at the Shubert Theatre, just off Time’s Square, one of the older theatres built when people were shorter and thinner. I could barely fit into my seat. I am only 5’11”, but my legs are pretty long and I could only fit if I sat really straight. After intermission, the couple in front of us changed seats and the very large man was in front of me. He was so large that just sitting there he pushed the whole seat back, so I no longer fit in the space. I had to sit on an angle for the second half. Over $100 a ticket and you have to sit all scrunched up.

The strangest thing happened during the performance. There was a scene with torches, but I could still smell the smoke long after the scene. Then they stopped the play at a point where it did not seem it should be stopped and announced they were stopping the play. Everyone thought it was a joke. A few minutes later, they asked everyone to leave the theatre! The smoke was real, there was a fire. Everyone went outside, we used our cell phones to gather our group together, Steve went to the Starbucks and got us some coffees, we all waited. About an hour later we all went back in. The play continued where it had been interrupted, and a few jokes about the fire were added. Turns out it was only a fire in the alley behind the theatre, but the smoke had been sucked into the ventilation system of the theater.

The play was mostly parts from the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, with bits from their other movies thrown in, and then they turned it all into a musical. It was funny, but not as brilliant as I had hoped it would be. After the play we went to an Irish bar with Ginger and Craig, then met Amy and Larry and the boys at Zen Palate on Union Square for dinner. A lovely end to a fun week.

I wrote about our flight, drive, attempted flight, and final drive home earlier in my blog – it seemed like a trip of its own.

When we finished our New York time in the mid 90s, I told Steve we would probably never return. We spent a lot of time there and had in earlier years also. My feeling was that for the price of the flight and the hotel, you might as well go to Europe. Well, I was wrong. This was our third time returning to New York and it was a good trip. Of course, now I am saying – next time, let’s go to Paris!

Slow Travel Resources for New York

Reviews of Hotel Giraffe
Hotel reviews
Restaurant lists by David, Amy and Pauline
Restaurant reviews
Vacation Rental listings
Vacation Rental reviews
Manhattan Neighborhoods, According to Me by David Ronis
Walking and Eating in Lower Manhattan by Kelly Calanni from NJ (KellyC)
New York through the Centuries by Sarah N Walker
Amy’s New York City Things to Do
Pauline’s List of New York City stores

Hotels, Restaurants, Shops

Hotel Giraffe, Park Avenue and 26th Street
Souen, Macrobiotic restaurant, 28 East 13th St. between University Place and 5th Ave and 210 Sixth Ave at Prince
Zen Palate, 34 East Union Sq. (there are other locations)
‘inoteca, 98 Rivington St. at Ludlow
Dean & DeLuca, 560 Broadway at Prince, in Soho
Ess-a-Bagel, 359 1st Avenue at 21st St. Everyone says these are the best.
H & H Bagels, two westside locations: 2239 Broadway at W. 80th St. and 639 West 46th St. at 11th Avenue. H&H is always mentioned when you read about good bagels and they ship bagels overnight! I am going to order some.
ABC Carpet & Home, 888 Broadway. The best home and furnishings store!
Kate’s Paperie, great selection of papers, journals, pens.
Monty Python’s Spamalot

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Pauline Kenny

Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen are US expats living in Dorset. We moved to the UK in 2010. Read about our move. If you would like to talk about travel, please join us on the Slow Europe Travel Forums.

2 thoughts on “New York City at Christmas”

  1. Next time your in New York try walking down University Place in the East Village and visiting some of the eateries there like Jacks, Knickerbocker, Artes, etc-etc. For bagels try Bagel Bobs also on University Place.

    P.S. Weren’t the macy’s windows fabulous.

    Jsdoorman
    http://www.doormaninthecity.com

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