A small bite of the Big Apple

By Wynne Gray

There'll never be enough time to do everything you want to in New York City, but Wynne Gray gives it a very good crack.

The view from the Rockefeller Centre. Photo / Getty Images
The view from the Rockefeller Centre. Photo / Getty Images

Little things are still fashionable in the Big Apple. It may be a mega city of incessant hustle but several times as we gazed at subway signs or tried to work out the direction of our next landmark target, New Yorkers asked if we needed assistance.

What we really needed was another few weeks to comb Manhattan and peck at the other four boroughs which make up the city boundaries.

There is more of everything it seems in New York - people, museums, restaurants, cabs, shops, crazies, parks, police, skyscrapers. It's all about choice. What will it be today? The Museum of Modern Art, Times Square, a Broadway play or a visit to the FlatIron Building?
Maybe the Rockefeller Centre or a Circle Line Boat trip around Manhattan? Perhaps a tour of the Guggenheim or a stroll through the leafy acres in Central Park?

The only constraint on your decisions is time. So as regimented as it may seem, the best way to deal with New York is to have some broad framework before you go. It is not your standard laissez faire journey or drive-by destination.

As good as the subway system is and as much as you put leather to the pavement, everything takes time in New York.

An example was a visit to the Rockefeller Centre in midtown Manhattan. The queue for tickets was minimal by NY standards but you were assigned a visiting time to go to the Top of the Rock. We returned for our whizzing ascent through 67 floors and our 360-degree view of the city from a further two levels of outside viewing platforms. To the south, the smaller Empire State Building with the elegant Chrysler Building and, to the north, the vast beauty of Central Park and the upper east and westside areas.

The view is magnificent and gives you a much better appreciation of the Manhattan layout than you get from your pedestrian vantage point when you crank your neck skywards looking for landmarks.

The writer outside The New York Times office. Photo / Wynne Gray
The writer outside The New York Times office. Photo / Wynne Gray

Another excellent way to get your New York bearings is to take a short boat cruise, which allows you to take in the Statue of Liberty, Ellis and Staten Islands, Manhattan's grid design and the bridges which cross to the other boroughs.

A boat cruise gives several hours of respite before you are back in the belly of the busy city. Restaurants are heavily patronised and, if you have forgotten to make a reservation to a fancied or recommended eatery, you can face a wait in the bar or on the pavement.

There is always some amusement. Like the native New Yorker who joined us in the wait-to-dine line. He claimed to work for a local television channel and reckoned he could die a happy man if he saw a UFO. His stories kept us entertained yet straining to decipher his accent as he became more and more animated.

A visit to the Big Apple without taking in a show on Broadway seems sacrilege, almost as bad as staying on SH1 instead of taking a brief side trip at Pokeno to visit the local butcher.

We were upstairs in the Helen Hayes Theatre to watch Rock of Ages, a light musical based on the glam rock music of the 80s. Finding a show to interest everyone is no easy detour off SH1, but after some initial nose-wrinkling there was general approval. The mezzanine view was excellent and the actors' interaction with the audience drew generous responses.

After that blast we had to take in the nearby Ellen's Stardust Diner. The waiters are all aspiring actors who sing loud and proud to any choice the punters key into the jukebox. Opera to hip-hop, they cover it all. It is a serious hoot and a great end to an evening.

We had a better time than the dude we passed on the way to the subway who wears a plaintively honest billboard; "I Need Money for Weed" as he scuffs along the sidewalk. My hankering was to take in more of the city.

Bryant Square nestles crisply next to the New York Library, which is another of the city's sumptuous buildings. The children's section has a delightful interactive atmosphere where some noise is anticipated but elsewhere peace is expected. There's a faint hum in the newspaper room and a "sorry sir" when I inquire if the New Zealand Herald is on file.

There is a real vibration a few blocks away at Grand Central Station where commuters, inter-state travellers and tourists merge in the auditorium of the great rail hub. A woman walks past muttering loudly to herself, but I put that down as a typical reaction to the mind-bending scale of the joint.

Grand Central Station. Photo / Getty Images
Grand Central Station. Photo / Getty Images

Even more inspiring is a visit to the Museum of Modern Art. Six floors of intrigue, three-dimensional interaction and spectacular viewing capture you for as long as your schedule allows. That may be a few hours or all day. If you want to see the Museum in multiple visits, MOMA membership is free and you have a year of unlimited visits. For me, it was a treasured visit, more absorbing than a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was more of a traditional tour.

The Guggenheim is only a few blocks away, across the road from the sprawling glory of Central Park. A stroll through parts of that estate or around its boundaries is a refreshing antidote if you are beginning to feel hemmed in by the city's high rise landscape.

Back on the must-do list, nothing prepares you for the 9/11 memorial to the World Trade Centre, where the complex has two pools set into the footprints of the original Twin Towers. Names of the victims are inscribed in bronze edges around the 10m waterfalls which tumble into the bottom of these water memorials.

The masterplan for the site features a transport hub and a spiral of new towers, including one which will be the tallest in North America, to soar above the memorial pools. There will be a hum about that venture, but for now the 9/11 Memorial is a zone of hushed respect.

No trip down that part of the city is complete without a shuffle through the nearby financial district and the famous Wall St, then a stroll across Brooklyn Bridge. Anyone training for the New York Marathon could keep the feet pounding in that direction to eventually run into the Barclays Centre, where the Brooklyn Nets tip off and concerts are held for about 20,000 people in the magnificent all-seated arena.

Most spectators travel on the subway, which spits you out right at the stadium for a real sports experience. Warnings about travel on the subway abound and we did meet the occasional misfit and social disgrace. One growing rumble had us all looking askance one evening as a group of about 20 young men swaggered on to the carriage.

They were up for some fun, though, with vocal talent and break-dancing skills on all surfaces of the carriage - you don't get that on the Britomart-to-Onehunga line. But then nothing compares with life in New York.

A life without a visit to the Big Apple is a life not lived.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Los Angeles and connects to New York via its code-share partner United.

Further information: See DiscoverAmerica.com for more on New York City or try the 'Trip Tuner' for additional holiday inspiration.

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