Wednesday 14th November
We leave Toronto just after midnight, arriving at the US border just before 2am. It takes twenty minutes to unload the bags, and after the drug dogs have done their job we are allowed off the bus. We collect luggage and wait for immigration control to process us all, there are about thirty five passengers, and we are the only bus in at this time.
The staff on duty are pleasant people, they smiled, joked and talked to you, it is such a nice change. Only two guys on though, with a third person doing any luggage searches, so it takes a bit of time, especially when they guy processing Tony has a computer malfunction. The system locks him out, so there is a lot of messing about getting it up and running again, and Tony has to go through all the finger print scans again.
Just after 3am we are on our way again, but only briefly as we stop in Buffalo to pick up another driver and more passengers. The bus is running about ¾ hr behind schedule by now.
Around 5am we pull in to a truck stop for 30 minutes at Port Byron, so we get off to stretch our legs. The only place open is a Maccas, and we decide to get a couple of sausage burritos to go with our drinks. There is a problem with our accents, apparently, as they change Tony’s coffee order for Cynthea’s smoothie. We hadn’t noticed when we paid, at $9 it was expensive enough. So we had to order a coffee, and then it came black, apparently milk, like the sauces, was extra? No, milk is included, it was the accent again! We couldn’t be bothered waiting and had our burritos, we are not overly impressed, but then it WAS Maccas. We had expected there to be a whole sausage in them at least, but they just had small chunks in it. Small chunks to go with the small burrito, definitely not value for money, but it was warm food. Back on the bus Tony drank about half the coffee and dropped back off to sleep until the next stop.
Tony’s alarm goes off at 8am, bugger, he forgot to turn it off. There is not a cloud in the sky, and the sun is shining brightly, we are going through a forested area. We are still a couple of hours from New York, so we try to get more sleep. Tony finishes off the coffee, cold by now, but it is still coffee.
Just before 9am, we are woken at another stop, we are not sure where we are, but it is still rural. We still have blue sky and sunshine, so nice to see. More shops are open here, but we only get off to stretch our legs. We have only twenty minutes here.
By 10.30am we have left the rural area behind, not quite into the big city area yet, but the traffic is getting heavier. Tony looks out the window, we are in Burlington! Have we been going around in a big circle the past eleven hours?
We get in about 45 minutes late, around 11.30am. We had expected the stop to be a bus station, but it is just a covered bus shelter. At least the brilliant weather has stuck with us. The subway entrance is just a few metres away, and Tony leaves Cynthea with the bags while he goes and checks it out. Metrocards are a cheaper way to travel, you get discount on fares and 10% bonus when you top up with $10 or more. Two of us can travel on the one card, so he gets one and loads $20 on. Tony checks to see what train leaves from here, but there is only one going downtown, and Tony sees that we need to go uptown. There seems no way to get to the uptown tracks from this side, perhaps once you pass through the ticket gate there is a way. Not willing to take that chance, Tony heads up top to meet Cynthea.
Tony is grateful that we hadn’t hauled all our bags down there as there are only stairs, no elevator or escalator. Across the road we go down the steps to the subway and see a sign above telling us this is the number one line, uptown. We guess that similar information was on the other entrance that Tony tried first, not that that would have been helpful at the time as we had yet to figure out what direction to go in.
Four stops later we are at Columbus Circle, looking over to Central Park on our right, and Trump Towers on our left. Straight on is our hostel, the directions said 400m, but it is three blocks away, so we are sceptical about the distance. We decide to walk it anyway, and are there before we know it, New York blocks are very short, about 20 of them to a mile.
You would think that having numbered streets and avenues would make it easy to find your way around Manhattan, and to a certain extent it does, but can also be confusing until you get used to the system. “Streets” run East-West, “Avenues” run North-South. The trick is remembering if you are looking for a Street or an Avenue…
Westside YMCA allocated us a cramped room, on the 10th, floor with a set of bunks, a desk and a chair, a TV and a wardrobe. It is quite small, but looks clean enough. No sign of cockroaches or bed bugs. It is expensive, NZ$532 for four nights, showers and toilets are down the hall, and there are no tea and coffee facilities in the room. Nor are there kitchen facilities in the hostel. There is a gym, sauna and pool available for guests to use at no extra charge.
The location is great, it is a short walk to the end of the street and there we have Central Park, so we head out to explore. We had not realised just how big Central Park was, at 4km long and nearly a kilometre wide, it is around 340 ha (840 acres). We realise we are not going to see very much of this park, but we will give it a good shot. The park is mostly motor vehicle free, horse drawn carriages and pedal power cabs are plentiful. There are a lot of cyclists, walkers and runners making the most of the fine weather. There are a few vendors about selling hotdogs and pretzels. We have been told that we have to have a pretzel in Central Park, so we try a couple of different flavours. They are ok, but we probably wouldn’t have them again. Later we get a hotdog, and are very disappointed in that as well. It is nothing like the big fat sausage depicted on the side of the vendor’s cart, they are finger thin and not at all satisfying. They are nice though, just not good value for money. There are lots of squirrels about, they are quite tame, no running off at the slightest movement.
There are walking and cycle tracks, bridal paths, a huge reservoir and other artificial lakes and ponds. We stop to watch skaters on the ice rink and then head out to explore the downtown area. On the way out there is a huge natural area that has been fenced off to provide a wildlife sanctuary. Central Park Zoo is here, somewhere, although we don’t get to visit it. Perhaps the most surprising aspect was the rock outcrops in the park, we had assumed the area was quite flat, but then you realise Manhattan was probably all rocky like that until they flattened it build.
We head downtown as the sun sets, along 7th and 8th Avenues to Madison Ave, 42nd St, Broadway and Times Square, all the familiar names. We pass by a McDonalds, they have coffee for S1 (plus that bloody tax again). But still, it is a good price, and Tony is hanging out for one by now. It is not far from the hostel either, so if in need of a caffeine fix… In Times Square there are lots of stalls and street artists, and illuminated signs are everywhere you turn. It is really mind blowing stuff seeing all this. There are people dressed as the Statue of Liberty hawking souvenirs, and the Naked Cowboy is strutting his stuff, dressed only in his undies. Rather him than us, it was about 7 degrees C out there tonight. Tony spots Darth Vader and a Stormtrooper. Tony is wearing the Darth Vader Tshirt he got in Toronto, so he takes off his jacket to pose for photos. They haven’t seen a Tshirt with that on it before and think it is cool.
We spend quite some time downtown, calling in to a pharmacy/grocery store to see what we can get for breakfast. The prices here seem expensive, but then we are unsure what is reasonable for here. It is not a full size grocery, so we figure that prices are higher than normal. We get some chocolate bars, some tuna and crackers and some individual serve breakfast cereals. No point getting milk to go with it, there is no where to keep it, we will just have them dry. Cynthea gets some insole liners for her boots as they are still hurting her feet. We stop at a fruit barrow on the way, and compared with what we saw elsewhere the fruit here is reasonably priced, so we get bananas and apples. We get back to the Y around 8.30pm. Tony heads off to the sauna and steam room before heading back to the room for an early night. We are a bit tired after travelling through the night and there has been plenty of walking done today.
We buy a New York city pass, US$178 (NZ$226) for two, it will get us into a number of museums and attractions (Museum of Modern Art, Top of the Rock, Museum of Natural History, Statue of Liberty island and Ellis Island, and the Empire State Building). We are told we will avoid the ticket queues with the pass, so that is a bonus, and of course if we use all the vouchers we will save a lot on admission fees. When we go to the observation decks at the Rockerfeller Centre or Empire State, we will go to one during the day, and the other just before sunset, so we can catch the sunset and seen the city by night.
We take the subway as far downtown as we can (some stations at the south end of Manhattan are still closed due to Hurricane Sandy), and walk the short distance to Battery Park to get the ferry to the Statue and Ellis Island. It is looking pretty munted around here following the storm. After the attacks on 9/11 this is where people gathered, being the closest open space to the WTC. There are a lot of (apparently) homeless people here, their belongings in either a supermarket trolley or large bags. Tony expected to be hassled for handouts, but no one approaches. The squirrels are a different story, they are very tame and there is no hesitation in approaching for a handout. We only have fruit and nut chocolate with us, so Tony sucks the chocolate off some peanuts to feed them (in case chocolate is harmful to them). He sits down and immediately they are climbing all over him and trying to get into the backpack. Cynthea sits down so Tony can take her photo too, but the camera is not quite ready so Tony tells her not to show them the food yet. Too late, the squirrel has spotted it, or more likely sniffed it out, and wants it right now. The little bugger is determined, and nips her finger, drawing blood. We probably should have got Cynthea checked out for rabies…
At the docks we look for the boat to Liberty and Ellis Islands, but there is only a river cruise boat working, the islands are both closed due to flooding and hurricane damage. We feel we should have been told those trips weren’t operating when we bought the city pass, (we may not have bought them if we had known), but it is too late now. We can use the passes for a Hudson River cruise instead, not what we wanted because we could have got a cruise for free on the Staten Island ferry!
We are out on the river for about an hour, it is bitterly cold up on the open top deck, but we stay put because you can see very little from the comfort of the enclosed decks. Back on land we head towards the World Trade Centre site, and succumb to Burger King on the way. It is well past 2pm, we had very little for breakfast, we are cold and besides that it is trying to rain.
We get to the World Trade Centre ground zero site, but the memorial is also closed due to storm damage. They expect to reopen tomorrow, and if we are there at 9am we will get priority entry. It is an emotional time as we stand at the site. On the wall of the Fire Station is a huge bronze mural depicting the attack, and a chap is busy polishing it as he talks about that fateful day. The new One World Trade Centre building, commonly called the Freedom Tower is nearing completion, it is the tallest building in New York.
We arrive at the distinctive art deco Empire State building around 4.30pm. Standing on the footpath (oops, we are in the States, it is a sidewalk), we certainly feel dwarfed by the 102 storeys that tower 380 metres above us (that is not counting the antenna!). It was completed in 1931, and for 40 years it was the tallest building in the world.
We present our passes expecting a fast track entry, but that costs extra, all that our passes allow is avoiding the ticket sales queues. There is a huge crowd waiting for the lifts, the line snakes back and forth, but there is a fast track line with no one in it. Tony tries his luck there, but is knocked back. Ah well, it was worth a shot. We have to pass through security screening checks and our bags are x-rayed too, just like at the airport. We are greeted as we pass through security and are given hand held audio guides. Tony hates the things, they are a pain to carry, but these had a very entertaining narrative by a retired New York cabbie. His name was also Tony, he sounded like Morgan Freeman and was very easy to listen to.
We take a fast lift to the 80th floor, and here there is plenty to look at in the permanent exhibit that opened in 2011 to celebrate the building’s 80th year. The exhibit pays homage to the pioneering work of the architects, builders, and labourers, more than 3,400 workers helped create history.
It is dark by the time we get to the observation deck on the 86th floor, where we have a wonderful view of the city on a cool, clear night. It just 2 degrees C, but there is very little wind. We spend about an hour and a half at the Empire State Building. Cynthea helps someone who has problems with their audio guide by loan hers to him. The guy is nearby when we leave, and Tony suggests she swap her audio guide for his faulty one, as there are no spares readily available up here.
Our next stop is across the road at Macys, this is their flagship store, the worlds’ biggest, or so they tell us. It certainly is huge, and with the exception of one building (that Macy’s built around when they couldn’t buy it), the store takes up the entire city block, bounded by 7th Ave, Broadway, 34th St and 35th St. Tony is not keen on sticking around, and even Cynthea decides she has had enough after half an hour. There is a massive Christmas tree over the main entrance, and the word “believe” is above the tree. It is good to see that the store has not gone all pc with the happy holiday stuff.
We pass by Bryant Park, it is full of what looks like temporary shops, they are just small cubes that have a wide range of arts, crafts and souvenirs for sale. There is an ice rink here too, the park is quite busy, and we spend a lot of time around here.
We walk back to the hostel, despite protests, as Tony feels there is so much for to see, and it really isn’t that far. We pass Madison Square Gardens and walk around Times Square and Broadway again. We are just as enthralled as we were last night. For those who have seen the movie Forrest Gump (and who hasn’t?), there is a Bubba Gump shrimp restaurant. There must be a chain of them, we will see more of these as we travel. On our walk back we spot a Hershey’s chocolate store, and opposite is a huge M&M’s World store. Tony has seen one in London, but not bothered to go in, but Cynthea is keen (should have taken the subway after all perhaps!). The store is huge, and there is so much merchandise to look at, which is fine as long as someone doesn’t decide there are things she must have. The most incredible sight in the store is the row upon row of tall dispensers filled with M&Ms in a huge variety of colours. Some are designer colours no less, and many exclusive to the store. You can even get the sweets personalised with a name, message or clip art, and colour combinations are made to represent different countries. It is time to head home, but we see Letterman’s studios, well we think it is the studio. He is not filming tonight, and there is a notice up telling people when to call back. Tickets to the show are available on the day, you are not allowed to line up before 9am (or you will be turned away), and the ticket office opens at 9.30am. We make our way back along Broadway to the hostel.
Staff at the Y told us there was a supermarket nearby the hostel, we looked for it, but we are still not sure just where it is. We certainly don’t want to go back to the pharmacy/market as that was quite expensive. We spot a fruit stall on the corner of our street and Broadway and get apples (two for $1) and bananas (five for $1), much cheaper than the guy we bought from midtown last night. We make a daily visit to this guy for the rest of our time here. We are finding big variations in prices at the vendor stalls, though Maccas still has the cheapest coffee, we have found several of them offer $1 cups (plus tax). The lack of tax included in most prices is a pain, but we find the street food vendors tend to include it in their prices. We get in about 10pm, Tony has a sauna but it has to be quick as they close at 10.30.