New York City – The Big Apple & the home to the best cheesecake and pastrami. Phase1 – Staten Island

Published: July 23rd 2015
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We arrive in NYC at the Port Authority Terminal (PAT) at around 11am from Philly by Greyhound after a pretty straight forward run by Express which takes 1 hour. The PAT is a pretty large complex and we make our way to street level for a coffee and time to orientate.

We find it really difficult to get any decent information for travelers. We are totally guided by the NYC section of the USA LP guide. There is surprisingly no Visitor’s Center unlike every other city or town we have been to in the past 6 months travelling through the US. Poor form NYC – a real let down!

We call Joan, our friend who we are staying with in Staten Island where she lives, to arrange meeting up. She is expecting us. We're staying with her for 4 days until Louise, Ben & Olive arrive on Friday when we shift to a B&B in Brooklyn.

Joan is someone we met in Mauritius 12 years ago and have kept in touch with. We last met her when we visited NYC 10 years ago with our daughters Sarah & Louise in 2004. She has kindly offered to put us up for a while which is really helpful as accommodation in NYC is very expensive.

She is visiting friends in Long Island for the weekend & will be back at about 4pm so we arrange to meet her at Staten Island at the Ferry Terminal on her side.

We buy 2 Metrocards which give 7 day unlimited metro travel for $30 each & a map, which seems reasonable. However, Travelers Tip: The 7 day unlimited Mero Card is valid not only for 7days unlimited journeys but can also be used for up to 4 people at a time. Unfortunately we were only informed about this at the end of our trip – so we wasted quite a bit of money as we bought 1 each as did our family & we renewed it as well for each of us.

As we have time to kill and it’s a lovely sunny day we go into the Times Square area ruck sacks in tow, for a look around and to take in the NYC vibe and get some take out Kathi Rolls for lunch. This is the original outlet for this store that we tried in London. It’s not bad though the flavours seem dumbed down a bit to what you would get in India. (The best place for these Indian wraps is Khan Cha Cha in Connaught Place New Delhi or Khan Market also in ND). The main square has tables and seats and is pedestrianized so is ideal for basking in the sun and taking it all in.

It’s busy as ever and not much has changed – the impressive tall buildings against the blue sky, the ever changing colourful neon lights & advertising, the noise of the cars (honking more than moving). What’s new is the NYPD substation on the Square – it looks really smart, and the preponderance of folk dressed in famous Disney character outfits (Buzz Lightyear, Woody etc from Toy Story and the like) walking around; the game in town is ‘take a picture with me dear tourist and give me some dollars as a tip’. There is no standard charge.

We try to find a traveler information store here but are informed that the Visitor Center was closed a few years ago as part of the City cut backs to make their budgets work. This seems odd as they rely so much on tourism to keep the city alive. False economy guys!!

As time is running we take the Metro to the huge Staten Island Ferry Terminal which takes about 30mins. The Terminal is quite impressive, clean with free toilets and functional. The Ferry to & from SI is free for everyone and is very frequent (every ½ hour or so). The Ferries are pretty impressive too – quite large and people can sit or stand on 3 levels. The trip across takes about 30 minutes and there are great views of the Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island as we go past and of Manhattan downtown moving out into the distance or looming larger than life as you approach. A really must do experience & there are not many things that you will enjoy for free in NYC.

We notice that a few tour groups are brought onto the Ferry as part of their NYC experience of the city. The tourists just catch the next Ferry back & get charged for it by the tour operators no doubt. NB: Some travelers have been charged to go on the Ferry – this is a scam on the unsuspecting so don’t pay!!

We get to the point where Joan said to meet her and her friend Joyce arrives to welcome us. Apparently Joan is stuck in traffic and in a panic and so asked her to collect us & take us to her place until Joan gets back. She arrives about 10mins after we get to Joyce’s place. She looks great and as usual is warm and welcoming of her long lost friends, and then it’s off to her place.

Joan has a beautiful house, that she bought about 10 years ago in a pretty run down state (we saw the photo evidence). She has spent the best part of 10 years gutting it out and refurbishing it to suit her style. Clearly her very own Grand Design Project and a very successful one at that! It’s really well done with a fabulous kitchen that C is very envious of and open plan through to a dining area and living room. She’s got some great features including an old telephone kiosk! Downstairs is a separate apartment with kitchen living room and bedroom & bathroom where we stay – it’s just fantastic.

We are taken on a whistle stop tour of the main sights of SI by car as it’s getting a little dark. We get great views of Manhattan lit up at night. The Island is a surprise in many ways. It’s quite residential and charming where she lives. There are some fabulous looking great big houses and a real mix of styles. It’s another aspect of NYC that doesn’t get any attention – most folks assume NYC is about Manhattan – but that’s only part of the story.

There are certain parts of SI that are really nice to live in - away from the hustle & bustle of central NYC but easily accessible. It is a strange area of contrasts – the waterside by the Port/Terminal is surprisingly under developed (almost derelict) given the view of Manhattan from here. It looks like prime sites for hotels, restaurants, shopping malls etc. Whilst other places seem run down working areas, contrasted with very large parks and amazing middle class residential areas.

We go to Enoteca Maria for dinner – recommended by Joan, and it’s a lovely local Italian and very busy and we are lucky to get the last 3 seats at the counter. As suggested by the barman/owner we get a few bits to share (veal tail risotto, pork in Gorgonzola & calamari & shrimps in cannellini beans) plus a bottle of Chianti Classico – it all works out really well. The only downside is it’s ‘cash only’ (surprising in the US given their flash the plastic culture). We’ll have to get Ben (Olive’s dad) to bring us a few dollars out after all if this is a common trend here.

As we have a few days to spare on our own, we spend our time visiting the NYC sights during the day and the evenings with Joan. We check out Times Square, Chelsea Market which is mainly eateries with a few up market provisions stores, fishmonger & butchers - all nicely decorated for Halloween, the High Line – which was previously an overhead train line that was disused for years before being converted into a walkway and planted area with good aerial views of NY along its route. It’s largely in the Meatpacking district and the locals use it a lot at weekends and at lunch time as you can picnic here with great views.

Grand Central Station is a must visit. It still serves as a terminal for some local services but is a marvelous example of great architecture. It has an amazing domed central area with blue ceiling with planetary constellations, lots of marble and, since we were last here 10 years ago, there’s even an Apple Store on the mezzanine floor! The location is a photographer’s delight.

Downstairs are lots of eateries and we decide to check out Shake Shack for a good NYC hot dog and great frozen custard (which we’ve not had since St Louis). It’s pretty good. We’ll definitely try it again.

We make our way to Macy's as we hear that they have an Information Center where we pick up some useful stuff. Then it’s a stroll through Central Park which looks amazingly large and autumnal. We try and take as many pictures as possible while the weather is good as rain is forecast for the next two days.

We'd booked tickets for climbing to the Crown of the Statue of Liberty many months ago (the only way to do so if you want to go all the way to the top). Unfortunately, the weather is a bit pants, grey, dull and drizzling when we awake, so we're not looking forward to it much as we don't expect the views to be any good. As it turns out, it's ok.

Fortunately, the rain holds off for most of the time. Once we pick up our tickets from the office in a building which was once a Castle, it’s through security on the way to the Pier to catch a small boat to the Statue.

Here we hit a hitch as we go through security as we have a Swiss Army knife on us and they won't let it through so we have either to forfeit it (and lose it forever) or take it somewhere to keep. C runs off to look at options. The local food sellers offers to buy it for a pittance so she sneaks round the back of a hedge and hides it in amongst the leaves. With a hope & a prayer it will still be there later (and in fact it is!).

We catch the boat to the island with the Statue, which takes about 10 minutes. The land around the SofL is interesting and on a clear day so is the view of Manhattan. To get into the Statue we have to go through more security and leave our bags & cameras in a storage area for $1. You can take your mobile up to take pictures.

The climb to the Crown of the statue is 384 steps. The section through the actual statue is up a narrow spiral staircase. But it's not as tough as we expected and the views from the top are still pretty good despite the weather. Getting up close to the statue you can see some lovely detailing in the copper work. It’s all been refurbished over the last year when it was closed to visitors to repair damage caused by Hurricane Sandy; thankfully it’s now accessible again.

Next we head to Ellis Island on the regular shuttle boat that links the two and Manhattan. This was the entry point for millions of immigrants to America. Its way more interesting than we had anticipated and the museum covers the whole history of settlement and immigration into the US in pictures, extracts from personal diaries of people who came together with their harrowing experiences both getting here and when here.

Outside is an extensive circular wall engraved with the names of immigrants who went through the center. There are a few Blakes but no Proverbs (our surnames).

Travellers Tip: If you are thinking of going to the top of the Statue of Liberty and do Ellis Island justice then allow at least a whole ½ day. Ellis Island has a lot of history and stories to share about immigration to the US from Europe. We felt we rushed it towards the end to catch the last Ferry back to Manhattan.

We had planned to go to Katz Deli for lunch and then to the Photography Museum for the afternoon, but by the time we finish and get back to Manhattan it's almost 3pm and we're due to FaceTime with Sarah back in London – M’s eldest daughter who’s going through a challenging time, so we get a coffee and snack and FT using the café’s net connection standing outside as the place is pretty busy. Then we head back to SI for the evening.

Over the next 4 evenings we do a mix of cook in, take out and eat out. One night Joan dishes up a great dinner of home cooked food - salmon, cauliflower cheese, beets, sweet potato pie and mixed veg.

We decide to reciprocate and C cooks one night (which is a real pleasure as Joan has a great kitchen - and an unusual experience for her it turns out as normally she always cooks). On the menu is chicken curry - M's mum’s recipe sent through by his sister in Brighton, with dal, veg and raita (washed down with a nice Ripasso). Joan seems to enjoy it which is great - as do we, especially the first dal for 10 months. Then we hit the digestifs - aka, shots. Two Mexican and a German schnapps courteousy of Joan. We slept well that night.

Next we get a reasonable take out from a local Cuban place that delivered and finally go to a local Louisiana restaurant locally (more later).

It’s fun to spend the evenings with Joan getting to know her better - she's an amazing woman. Other than reconstructing her home to her specification, she has 2 jobs and travels quite a bit. She once went off on her own on a 10 week trip aboard a Chinese Junk with some friends sailing to Madagascar! The photographs are testament to her adventurous spirit.

We wake up to a message from Louise saying "see you tomorrow"!!! We are sooo looking forward to seeing them all again - especially little Olive Pip (our granddaughter who is just 1 year old) who's had her first haircut for the trip. We spend the day at Joan's as its raining and catch up on washing, blog stuff etc.

Joan also very kindly offered to take our bags over to our Brooklyn pad on Thursday evening (the night before we are due to move to the B & B) to avoid us having to haul them through the subways etc. This is pretty typical and so generous of her. The B & B have been gracious enough to accommodate this happening and even arrange for their son in law to meet and let us into our rooms.

On the way we visit the home of one of Joan’s friends for a birthday cocktail party. They are nice group of folk - Joan used to sail with a couple of them and the host, Donna, used to live in Ealing (near our home), London. Small world they say! We witness some of the NYC wit and humour at work.

After dropping off our luggage & some orientation of the area (thanks to our iPad and the Map App which has been indispensable & has got us to and from various locations on our way around the US & Canada) we then head to Bayou, a Louisiana restaurant on SI for dinner. The decor is very much Bourbon Street revisited but with really good food and service - scrumptious lamb chops, prawns, pork stuffed with Brie & Crawfish and the ubiquitous Jambalaya.

So it’s thanks a million to Joan for a fabulous experience……hope to see you again one day soon.

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