August 16, 2010

Day Trip: Governors Island

On Governors Island in 1812 you may have heard, "Ready the cannons, the ships are approaching!" but today you'll hear "Check out the cool art near Water Taxi Beach!" A lot has changed on the former military island, once vital in defending New York's inner harbor from intruders. Now, a five minute (free!) ferry ride from Lower Manhattan, the island is anything but hostile. In fact, tranquil, idyllic, and picturesque come to mind.

Prepare to stroll, picnic, bike, marvel at art, and take in gorgeous 360-degree views of the New York harbor on your visit. Governors Island also has a great lineup of bands at Water Taxi Beach, an array of sporting events and fun programs for kids. And where else can you enjoy the Statue of Liberty as a picnic backdrop or meander through beautiful 19th century homes, originally built for commanding officers that now house art and handmade goods for sale? So hop on the ferry and spend the day enjoying this tiny island, steeped in history, now filled with happy, relaxed New Yorkers. Want to join them? Here's how, plus tips and info:

• The island is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from June 5 - October 10 (2010)
• Ferry: from Manhattan: the terminal is next to the Staten Island Ferry terminal in Lower Manhattan (near the R train). The first ferry departs at 10am. From Brooklyn: the ferry runs Saturday/Sunday only. The terminal is at Pier 6, in the Brooklyn Bridge Park, at the end of Atlantic Avenue (take 2/3, 4/5, R trains or B63 bus). The first ferry departs at 11am.
• Bicycles are permitted on the ferry or you can rent one on the island
• Alcohol can not be brought onto the island, but is served at Water Taxi Beach
• There are many opportunities to purchase food and drinks around the island

• The island perimeter is 2.2 miles, great for biking or walking
• The island is 20 city blocks (1 mile) long and 5 city blocks wide
• If you need cash there's an ATM upon exiting the ferry
• Restrooms are located around the island, the first one off the ferry is in Building 110
• Bike rentals: A two-minute walk from the Manhattan ferry, up the hill to the right, at Colonels Row. A minute walk from the Brooklyn ferry, straight up the hill.

I recommend picking up a self-guided tour map from Building 140, to the left of the Manhattan ferry
• Water Taxi Beach (food, beer, concerts)
• Castle Williams (point of defense for the harbor, housed prisoners)
• Fort Jay (point of defense, housed officers, oldest structure on island, gates date to 1796)
• Colonels Row (bike rentals, art in houses, sporting events, Jazz Age dance parties)
• FIGMENT Mini-Golf (art + golf, through the tall arch at Liggett Hall)
• Parade Grounds (circus demonstrations, Civil War reenactments, bake sales)
• Nolan Park (Etsy house, Children's Museum of the Arts, church, officer housing)
• Picnic Point (food, rest areas, hammocks)

For up-to-date information, along with ferry schedules, event and concert schedules, visit the official Governors Island site. Happy exploring!

August 1, 2010

Cheap(er) Hotels in New York

While New York ranks high on the list of fun and exciting things to do, it ranks (very) low on the plethora of affordable places to stay. But don't despair, there are options. Especially if you embrace the attitude New Yorkers do: think of your accommodations as merely a place to sleep and get go do more fun and exciting things!
So don't be shocked if your hotel room is the size of your bathroom back home, space is at a premium here. Thankfully the city specializes in "shiny things/hey, look over here" distractions to keep you fully entertained - and out of your hotel room.
Below is a list of more affordable hotel options (in no particular order), without going the hostel route. Enjoy your stay, but more importantly, enjoy New York!

Hotel East Houston
151 East Houston St. (at Eldridge St.)
$152-$291 per night
--Stylish, yet small rooms; great city views from the roof terrace. Located on the border of the Lower East Side and the East Village.

East Village Bed & Coffee
110 Avenue C (between 7th/8th St.)
$80-$130 per night
--Rooms are funky and quirky, just like the neighborhood. Located in the East Village.

The Pod Hotel

230 E. 51st. (between 2nd/3rd Ave.)
$133-$303 per night
--Tiny rooms (hence "pod"), simplistic decor, very popular with budget travelers. Located in Midtown.

Cosmopolitan Hotel--Tribeca
125 Chambers St. (at West Broadway)
$175-$215 per night
--Possibly New York City's oldest hotel structure (1845), it's gone through many name changes and many guests (including Abraham Lincoln). Small rooms, very basic amenities. Located in Tribeca.

Chelsea Pines Inn
317 W. 14th St. (between 8th/9th Ave.)
$159 to $310 per night
--Built as a private home in 1850, each room is "dedicated to a 'Celluloid Hero' from the Golden Age of Hollywood." Located on border of Chelsea and Greenwich Village.

The Hotel Wolcott
4 W. 31st St. (between 5th Ave./Broadway)
$150-$260 per night
--Furniture looks a bit dated, but rooms are clean and comfortable. Close to the Empire State Building, Macy's and Times Square. Located near Midtown.

Hotel Deauville
103 E. 29th St. (between Park Ave. S. and Lexington Ave.)
$135-$175 per night
--The rooms are clean, but nothing fancy. Great for a low maintenance traveler. Guests enjoy the original hand-operated elevator and the friendly and attentive staff. Located near Midtown.
61-63 Chrystie St. (between Hester St. and Canal St.)
$149-$278 per night
--Built in 2009, in a grittier area where you get a taste of "real" New Yorkers (Chinatown and Little Italy are close by). Rooms are decent-size with nice amenities. Located on the Lower East Side.

(Note: All information was correct at time of posting. Please check hotel websites for the most up-to-date information.)

July 21, 2010

From the Airport to the Big City

You're in New York. You have arrived! (Both literally and figuratively). But since there's no room on the island for an airport you need to get to the city. How? Well buckle up, my friend, and I'll tell ya. But first, the basics:

1) There are 3 major airports: JFK (in Queens), La Guardia (in Queens) and Newark (in New Jersey)
2) JFK is enormous, like a small city. It's the main hub for Jet Blue, and is also a major international gateway hub for Delta and American. La Guardia is much smaller, closest to the city and a hub for American Eagle. Newark is in between, size-wise, and the second largest hub for United Airlines.
3) When approaching La Guardia you may feel as though you're going to land in the water. Don't freak out, there's a runway there.
4) It's not common practice to meet guests at the airport because most of us don't have cars.

With 4) said, here's how you do it:
• Cab: There are cab stands outside the baggage area of all 3 airports. Follow the signs for "ground transportation" and you'll see people and cabs lined up.
JFK to Manhattan: flat fare of $45, plus bridge/tunnel tolls. (time: one hour)
La Guardia to Manhattan: no set fare, the metered rates apply, plus tolls. (time: 45 minutes)
Newark to Manhattan: no set fare, metered rates apply, plus a $15 surcharge - plus tolls going and returning. (time: 45 minutes)

• Car service: Schedule a pick-up when you arrive or do it online prior. Or you can take your chance that the black Lincoln Town Car is indeed a car service and not just a guy trying to make a buck on his own with no car insurance.

• Train: This is how many New Yorkers do it if our luggage isn't too heavy and it's not too late.
From JFK: take the AirTrain from the airport to the A train (subway). The A takes you directly into the city (time: one hour).
From LaGuardia: no train/subway from here, but you can take a bus (see information below).
From Newark: take the AirTrain to NJ Transit (Newark International Airport stop). You'll need to purchase a ticket for the NJ train going to NEW YORK Penn Station (not Newark Penn Station, which the train will stop at first). When you arrive at Penn Station you'll have the option of the 1/2/3 and A/C/E subway lines. (time: 45 minutes)

• Bus: From JFK and La Guardia the bus will drop you off at Grand Central Station (midtown east) or Port Authority (midtown west). From Newark, the bus will drop you off at Port Authority only. (JFK time: 1 hour 20 minutes, the other 2, about an hour)

All times listed above are approximate, but if you're doing the reverse and leaving New York make sure and give yourself an extra hour. Besides massive traffic, you never know when you'll encounter construction, accidents or train problems. Then you'll miss your plane and have to stay longer. But...that wouldn't be so bad now, would it?

July 12, 2010

NY Museums

The Met. The MoMA. The Frick. (plus about 200 others). NY abounds with museums and choosing which one(s) to visit can be overwhelming for those trying to fit in as much NY culture as possible in a short visit. To help, I've compiled a list of the most popular, i.e., most visited. And while these museums are fantastic and definitely worth a visit, I encourage those interested in a more "local" experience to take a peek at some of the smaller, lesser known alternatives. There's the Morgan Library, The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, The Cloisters and so many more. However, one of my favorite museums is the city itself. Walk outside, admire the details of the incredible architecture given to us by various cultures during various time periods. And bonus: it's always free.

Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met)
1000 5th Ave (at 82nd St)
**admission is "suggested" (for those on a budget)
Lowdown: Massive collection of art from all over the world and from just about every time period. Don't try to do it all in one day, pick and chose sections and enjoy. Weather permitting, don't miss the roof exhibits (see above photo), along with incredible views of Central Park and the city.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (The Guggenheim)
1071 5th Ave (at 89th St)
**pay what you wish: Saturdays, 5:45 to 7:45 pm
Lowdown: A Frank Lloyd Wright building that houses contemporary and modern art in the form of photography, painting, video and sculpture. Also, Monet, Picasso, van Gogh and Gaugin are among those in the permanent collection, on view in a dedicated gallery.

Museum of Modern Art (The MoMA)
11 W. 53rd St (near 5th Ave)
**Target free Fridays: free every Friday, 4pm-8pm
Lowdown: Modern Art, and lots of it. After a $425 million renovation, completed in 2004, the space is simply stunning. Enjoy live music in the Sculpture Garden, July and August, Thursdays, 5:30pm-7:30pm.

Whitney Museum of American Art (The Whitney)
99 Gansevoort Street (between Washington Street and 10th Avenue)
Lowdown: 20th Century and contemporary American art with a focus on works by living artists. The Whitney's new downtown building includes 50,000 square feet of indoor galleries, 13,000 square feet of outdoor exhibition space, and terraces facing the High Line.

American Museum of Natural History (The Natural History Museum)
Central Park West at 79th St.
**admission is "suggested"
Lowdown: Exhibits focusing on "human cultures, the natural world and the universe through a wide-ranging program of scientific research, education and exhibition." Check out the life-sized whale suspended overhead in the Ocean Life Hall - it's amazing. This museum is great for kids.

New Museum of Contemporary Art (The New Museum)
235 Bowery (at Prince)
Lowdown: The collection consists solely of contemporary art. Visitors seem to have strong reactions to this museum: complete love or total hatred. For gorgeous views of the city (something everyone can agree) head to the 7th floor Sky Room; open on weekends only.

Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum (The Cooper-Hewitt)
2 E. 90th St (at 5th Ave)
**garden open May-September, weather permitting
Lowdown: A Smithsonian museum, it's the nation's only museum devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. Works can be seen in the form of: glass, jewelry, fabrics, textiles and the like. The exquisite garden (with views of Central Park) will make you wish you lived in this mansion, like Andrew Carnegie did in the early 1900s.

The Frick Collection (The Frick)
1 E. 70th St (near 5th Ave)
**pay what you wish: Sundays, 11am-1pm
Lowdown: It's a museum within a museum. Henry Clay Frick's early 1900s mansion is largely preserved to it's original state, right down to the furniture, upholstery, ornate fireplaces and leather-bound books. It serves as a backdrop to an impressive collection of European art which includes paintings, textiles, clocks and sculptures. Don't miss the serene Garden Court where you can sit on a bench and let your mind get lost in the sounds of the fountain and the beauty of the architecture.

(Note: All information was correct at time of posting. Please check museum websites for the most up-to-date information.)

June 6, 2010

Day Trip: Fire Island

Every New Yorker knows that while the city is amazing, there comes a time when we need to leave, explore other places and rejuvenate. That time happens about, oh, every couple of months. Whether it's a day trip, a long weekend upstate or a week in St. Lucia, it's necessary to slow down and recharge our batteries. I've always said the mayor should set up a vacation fund for New Yorkers and require that we get out of the city every 60 days. At least.

First stop: total relaxation at...Fire Island! Only 60 miles from NYC is a 30-mile long, 1/2 mile-wide pristine oasis. The only way to get there is by ferry as cars aren't allowed on the island. There are many different towns to visit, some much more lively than others. Ocean Beach is the unofficial capital of Fire Island with lots of bars, restaurants and shopping. I prefer the quiet areas, like Sunken Forest at Sailors' Haven, where there are people around, but most are a half-mile down the beach. It's lovely.

Sunken Forest is great because not only do you get to enjoy the beach, you have the option to meander along a nature walk with 300-year old trees on your way to the beach. There are also a variety of animals to spot in the forest (they hang out in the "sunken" part, you're safe), including the big deer I saw on my last visit. And during the summer the MTA offers getaway packages, making the trip cheaper.

Ready to get to the deer and the beach? Here's how:
• Take the LIRR from Penn Station (34th St/8th Ave) or if in Brooklyn, from Atlantic Terminal (Atlantic Ave/Barclays Center subway station) to SAYVILLE. It's on the Montauk line and you may need to transfer--the conductor punching tickets on board will tell you. (Time: about 1.5 hours)
• Once in Sayville there are "taxis"--which are actually small shuttle buses--waiting at the train station to take you to the ferry. (Time: 10 minutes)
• The ferry will take you to Fire Island. (Time: 20 minutes)
• Once off the ferry, you can go to the left and get food, straight to go directly to the beach and/or restrooms or go to the right and walk through the Sunken Forest, which also takes you to the beach
• Last step: sweet, sweet relaxation...

April 26, 2010

Unwritten Rules of Being a New Yorker

Want to be a New Yorker for a day? Follow these unwritten rules and you'll fit in just fine:

1. Walk fast. We walk at a much faster pace than the rest of the country and have mastered the art of weaving in and out of crowds with ease.
2. Talk fast. Or rather, we like to get to the point. We're very blunt and don't spend a lot of time on niceties and small talk. The advantage? A plethora of interesting conversations.
3. Move over. When we're done paying at a store, we slide over to put away change and receipts so as not to keep the next customer waiting.
4. Keep walking. When we get to the top of subway stairs we keep moving, even if we're unsure of our direction. This also applies at street level.
5. Step to the side. If we need to look at a map or other directions we'll step to the side, we don't stand in the middle of fast-flowing sidewalk traffic.
6. Walk staggered. When walking with friends or family we walk staggered, not in a line. There's not enough room here to sprawl.
7. Holding hands. We often don't with our significant other. It's not uncommon for us to walk between a couple if that's the fastest route to maneuver through a crowd.
8. Tiny spaces. We've mastered the art of cramming into teeny tiny apts, shoe-boxed sized restaurants and crowded subway cars. The photo above shows how we read our newspapers on the train: fold, fold, fold.
9. Don't block subway doors. We know that when the subway doors open we move away from them by either stepping out of the car or moving to the center of the train.
10. Hailing a cab. We don't whistle or yell "taxi," like in the movies. We stick our arm up, hand raised and voila! Taxi.
11. Overpriced. We accept we're paying $45 for a steak (just the steak) and $16 for a martini because the restaurant has to pay their overpriced rent, as real estate is at a premium (okay, an extreme premium) here.
12. Lines. We know to stand in one line at drug stores, department stores and fast food places and wait for an employee at one of the many registers to yell "next, step down."
13. Waiting for the light to change. We know to stand on the street next to the curb, not on the curb itself. Time is precious and this way we're one step closer to our destination.
14. Eating pizza. We know that a whole pizza is called a "pie," a single piece is a "slice," just cheese is a "plain" (possibly the most popular), and we fold our slice in half (lengthwise) before digging in.
15. Neighbors. We usually don't know our neighbors. We mind our own business and stay out of theirs. We may live next to someone for 5 years and couldn't pick them out of a line up - and after being surrounded by a multitude of people all day, that's just fine by us. So if we don't give you a warm smile and say "Hi!" don't be offended. It's not personal, it's just New York.

16. The end. We know time is of the essence so...enjoy the rest of your day!

April 25, 2010

We Heart NY. A lot.

When I moved to New York in 2000, I didn't think it was possible to live in a place with as much pride as my native Texas. Man, was I wrong. New Yorkers loooooove their city. You can live here 5 years or 5 decades and if someone bashes the city a New Yorker will quickly come back with 20 reasons why it's the greatest place in the country, if not the world.
It's often said you have to earn the right to call yourself a New Yorker. And while rewarding, it's a difficult place to live, so once you prove you're not only tough enough to survive, but can follow a set of unwritten rules, you may indeed call yourself a New Yorker.
The following is a hilarious exchange from "How I Met Your Mother" that demonstrates just how much passion we have for our city.

Season 3, episode 2 "We're Not From Here". (Ted and Barney pose as tourists to pick up a couple of NY women. To their dismay, the women have taken them to do tourist things all day, and now they've just survived a mugging. Thankful to be alive, the women suggest they all go back to their place and "celebrate.")

Barney: So, where do you live?
Ted: What, West Village?
Girl #1: Close. West Orange.
Ted: West Orange...New Jersey?
Girl #1: Yeah.
Ted: You guys live in New Jersey, not New York?
Barney: Theodore.
Girl #1: Yup.
Ted: New Jersey?
Barney: Teddy.
Girl #1: Yeah, but don't worry, it's pretty much New York.
Ted: Oh no. Oh no.
Barney: Oh no.
Ted: New Jersey is not 'pretty much New York.' You are not 'pretty much New Yorkers.'
Girl #1: And how would you know?
Ted: Because I live here. That's right! I live here. Yes, we're full of crap. Yes, we pretended to be from out of town so we could sleep with you and leave in the morning. But you know what's even worse than that? Saying you're a New Yorker when you're not. Because this is the GREATEST CITY IN THE WORLD and you have to earn the right to call yourself a New Yorker. So why don't you girls crawl into the open sewer pipe you call the Holland Tunnel and flush yourselves back to 'pretty much New York.' Because I will do A LOT to get laid, but I am NOT going to New Jersey!

Yep, that 'pretty much' sums it up. (signing off from Brooklyn - definitely New York)

April 21, 2010

NYC: Myth vs. Fact

A friend of a friend visited NYC and decided, after one day, she didn't like it. At all. The reasons? Because NYers were "rude," she didn't feel "safe," and everything was "expensive." Like with any big city, those are valid concerns, but had she taken the time to read up a little on NYC  or even ask her friend some questions, she may have had a different experience. Below are some common NYC myths I'd like to dispel:

1. NYers are rude. FACT: NYers are direct and aggressive. If you ask for directions we'll happily give them to you. But then that's it, we're done. NYers don't care why you're going there or if your cousin went there last year and really liked it - we have things to do, places to be.

2. The subway isn't safe. FACT: The subway is, for the most part, safe. Just pay attention - to signs and those around you - and hold onto your bag (purse) and phone. 2am-6am is usually the most "unsafe" time since less people are riding, but even then, very few incidents take place.

3. Your purse/bag will be stolen. FACT: Not likely if you 1) firmly grip said item when walking 2) keep item by your feet, not on the back of a chair at restaurants 3) pay attention to your surroundings instead of the tall buildings. Observe, if you will, the little girl in the photo above clutching both bags, she knows what's up. So put away the fanny packs and stop wearing the backpack across your chest - we (probably) won't steal your bag.

4. The city never sleeps. FACT: The city naps - or rather, power naps. Yes it's loud here and our city "bird" very well may be the siren, but between 2-6am there's a lull in the amount of people and noise as commuters go home and most businesses close. However, last call is 4am so if you chose not to sleep, head to the nearest bar to find wide awake, noise-making compadres.

5. You can't visit inexpensively. FACT: You can if you know some tricks because yes, it's generally an expensive city. Try a bed & breakfast, a cheaper alternative to pricey hotels. As for food, there are many reasonably-priced restaurants, just browse the menus posted outside. Also, get half-price Broadway tickets the day of the show. There are many more tips, but those are a few to get you started.

6. All NYers have fabulous, Sex and the City lives. FACT: Not even close. If you're lucky enough to have a trust fund, a very (very) high-paying job or you don't mind swimming in credit card debt then yes, that lifestyle can be yours round the clock. Otherwise you learn to budget like anywhere else, and pick and chose your extravagances.

7. NY taxis aren't safe. FACT:  They're as safe as a roller coaster and roughly the same experience. Since drivers work for tips they're eager to get to the next fare so...buckle up! And don't worry about them not staying in their lane, we don't believe in lanes. However, we do believe in aggressive merging and cutting people off to get to our destination faster.

8. "If I can make it here..." refers to career only. FACT: It takes a special kind of person to live in NYC. You have to put up with a lot of noise, hoards of people, crowded subway cars, tiny living spaces, outrageous rents, $20 burgers. Not to mention possibly the largest crowd of aggressive, type-A, overachievers ever assembled. You want that account executive job? So do 843 other people. Good luck with that.

9. All NY Italians are in the mob. FACT: If you're looking for Goodfellas, you'll have to rent the movie. Stop by Little Italy and the picture looks quite different: older men in track suits with grey chest hair peeking out under gold chains and stark white sneakers. They're probably smoking cigars and discussing the goings-on of the block, not plotting who's next to "swim with the fishes. A mob like the old days? Fuggedaboutit.

10. Everything happens in a "NY minute." FACT: There's actually a lot of waiting. NYers certainly walk at a faster pace and expect things to happen yesterday, but we also spend a lot of our time waiting. Because not only does NY looks like a movie set, it functions like one too. You hurry up...and wait. For the train, in long lines at the store, an hour for a table at brunch. When 8.2 million people want the same thing at once, well...see you in line!

Remember, when traveling you don't have to agree with the nature of the people or their customs, but trips are more pleasant when you understand why things happen the way they do. It's the whole "when in Rome" thing. Except first, you'll need to learn about "Rome." Now if you'll excuse me, I have a line to wait in. When in Rome...