An October 2004 trip
to New York by smmmarti guide
Quote: If you have traveled the continent, but missed out on this wonder of the world along the Hudson River, as I had, then take my one simple but strong suggestion. Plan your next vacation to include the Big Apple. Nothing, and nowhere compares to this fabulous metropolis.
We threw ourselves into the tourist clichés - all typical but never trite. We scoured the neighborhoods, gobbled cheesecake and hotdogs from vendors, and even caught, not one, but two Columbus Day parades. We waited anxiously as the skaters returned to the ice at Rockefeller Center and strolled through the estate jewelry exhibits at Christie's.
Even if you’ve never been to New York, you’ll feel as if you have. The images of those famous landmarks are most likely burned into your subconscious via the movies and television as deeply as they have the rest of us. From "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" to "Gangs of New York," the Big Apple has served as backdrop and/or main character in more movies than you even realize. The miracle of 32nd Street is that the city has, in a certain way, penetrated into the lives of us all.
You will realize this as you stroll down Madison Avenue. Brand new images flash back to you as faded childhood dreams. You glance up at the rooftop water tanks (do they serve any purpose but nostalgia?), run through Grand Central Station, take the elevator to the seventh floor of Tiffany’s, and catch sight of a sea of yellow taxis from your hotel window.
"No, I haven’t seen this before," you’ll remind yourself. Yet, like one long extended episode of déjà vu, you seem to be reliving an extraordinary past life while walking these streets. It is as if you stepped off the plane into the celluloid skyline you‘ve seen so many times before. It looks like NYNY, in Vegas, but only grittier. You are lulled into believing it is one big amusement park ride, but the cop in the street is not joking when he says, "stand back," and the taxi driver begs to be paid. The star of this afternoon’s matinee is the one and only - you. Nowhere else do you get the feeling that the world is at your feet and all you have to do is scoop it up.
It’s little wonder the word went out that the streets here were paved with gold…
The holiday weekend explained why getting a table at Le Cirque was no problem, but many popular delis and outlets were closed. The taxi drivers were upset because, two days in a row, parades jangled and clamored down Fifth Avenue, blocking their access to all those tourists dollars. We, on the other hand, loved the spectacle. As if New York isn't a celebration enough!
On the Columbus Holiday Monday, we strolled through Little Italy, SoHo, and Grammercy, barely needing to dodge other people. We watched a kookie squirrel man attract furry vermin in Union Square, sat on a stoop in the sunshine eating a piece of New York’s Best cheesecake, and marveled at the grand food shop in Grand Central Station.
We hadn’t planned a thing. We just walked and realized only later that by doing so, we’d really seen Manhattan.
Even if you are planning to venture further a field, the transportation system in New York is as unparalleled as its other famous feature. Check with the DOT and follow the rules and guidelines for using the subway and buses.
We typically get a kick using urban public transportation since we were both raised in the rural and suburban areas where it’s unavailable. But in NYC, we got a bigger thrill out of walking around and soaking in the sights. We took taxis when our feet gave out, the weather turned too chilly, and when we found we would be late for the theater otherwise. We were pleasantly surprised by the affordability and spent far, far less than we would have on a car rental.
Hotel | "Palace Hotel"
Disturbing memories of Mrs. Helmsley’s misdeeds compounded the misunderstanding, and I nearly canceled the reservation. However, Manhattan was overbooked for the three-day weekend by that time. I was forced to relax and look on the bright side--at least I had a reservation.
Rather than the views of Central Park I’d imagined, I had a bird’s eye view of the spires of St. Patrick’s and VIP treatment in the concierge lounge. It took about ten minutes to get over my disappointment, when the words "new ownership" and "Le Cirque" were mentioned by the multi-lingual concierge who checked us in and guaranteed our wish was her command.
"Dinner at Le Cirque?"
"Eight or 8:30?"
"Bombay Dream tickets?"
"Matinee or evening? Orchestra or balcony?"
I was beginning to like it here already.
The Palace rises 55 floors above Madison Avenue, sharing "air space" above the Villard Houses, a complex of town homes built in 1892 by financier Henry Villard. After paying an exorbitant price for the property directly across from St. Patrick’s cathedral, Mr. Villard unfortunately went bankrupt before moving into the grand estate. The property was eventually bought by the Archdiocese of New York, its use changing from residential to office and back again throughout the years.
Rather than demolish the Renaissance Revival buildings, the Helmsleys bought air rights and built around them in the late seventies. From 1980 to 1993, the hotel was known as the Helmsley Palace, but after the namesakes met their unfortunate fate, new owners took over and embarked on an extensive renovation.
The hotel does its best to retain the elegance established in the original courtyard residences. The lobby is replete with sweeping marble stairs, room-sized fireplace, and lush décor. Rooms are very spacious and well-equipped with truly luscious robes, in-room wireless internet, spa amenities, and a VIP lounge serving complimentary breakfast, snacks, drinks, canapés and desserts. The 7,000-square-foot spa and fitness center removes any excuse for missing your workout, as exercise shoes and garb are available at no charge.
My favorite spot to roost in the posh hotel was outdoors, in the brisk October air circulating through the Villard Houses courtyard. Unlike the interior of the hotel, which seems cramped in some corners, overblown in others, the Italianate courtyard offers proportion, grace, and a sense of scale. Themes from neighboring Le Cirque are repeated in the topiaries, whimsical animals illuminated by Italian lights.
Across the street, the great cathedral of St. Patrick’s stands sentinel. I couldn’t help thinking how things may have turned out differently for Leona had she stopped in the cathedral on her way to work. I thought it over, then went inside to light a candle.
I was just giving thanks, praying I’d return again soon to New York and the Palace.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 24, 2004
The New York Palace
455 MADISON AVENUE AT 50TH ST
New York, New York 10022
212 888 7000
Back in the ‘70s, it was fashionable to build restaurants around a theme, usually to hide the fact that the food wouldn‘t stand on its own. Le Cirque came on the scene during this era with its tongue decidedly in cheek. What could be a further from the image and atmosphere of the haute cuisine served at this luscious French restaurant than a bawdy circus? There was certainly no need to heighten the experience with gimmicks when the food was par excellent.
Perhaps the name was wittier than one originally suspects. It may have suggested a premonition of the hosts of luminaries and celebrities who would grace its booths over the years, creating a veritable dog-and-pony show of deal-making and power brokering.
In 1997, Le Cirque changed venues and moved into the Villard Houses adjacent to the Palace Hotel with a new name--Le Cirque 2000. Since then the restaurant has won nearly every major award conferred by the restaurant and food industry, from "Most Glamorous" to "Best Ambiance" to "Greatest Wine List of All Time." Conde Nast Traveler readers even went so far as to name the establishment "Best Restaurant in the World" in 2003.
Having heard plenty of hyperbole in my time, I nevertheless entered the restaurant with reserved judgment and realistic expectations. I would need to be convinced.
The sight of carnival-colored glass arranged as a contemporary art medley over the turn-of-the century windows provided an immediate jolt and hint of things to come, like an unexpected spice in the soup du jour. I couldn’t help but imagine a grand evening of whirling ball gowns as I looked around the elegant room, a former home for a prominent family.
Sometimes it seems that all top restaurants carry the same selection of popular offerings, rendering them indistinguishable from one another. Happily, this is not the case at Le Cirque, where one finds old standards, innovative preparations and outlandish combinations of delicacies.
Rather than reiterate what’s on the menu, I invite you to peruse the link provided on the restaurant’s website. After an amuse bouche of startling flavors, Sweetie and I decided it was safe to turn our palates over to the chef’s tasting menu, which changes nightly. Perfectly timed and orchestrated, from the kitchen came a parade of colors, textures, and flavors exciting enough to blow away the most seasoned foodie. Like a calliope wagon to children’s ears, this menu waltzed us through the full range of salty, sweet, spicy, and savory, using exquisite ingredients including seafood, wild game, tender beef, and caviar.
Giddy as if I’d overdone the cotton candy after one too many whirls on the ferris wheel, I finally understood the circus reference. Magical, fantastic, amazing, exciting. Yes, it’s the perfect name.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 25, 2004
Le Cirque 2000
455 Madison Ave
New York, New York 10022
+1 212 303 7788
In explanation, as an American, movie lover, and romantic, my sentimental nature can’t escape a strong reaction to the sight of so many icons of art and history thrown before me at once. Encountering the representative symbols of freedom and heritage stacked side-by-side on an enchanted island can be a bit overwhelming--never mind the effect of those designer dresses at Barneys!
"Can’t do it. Not yet. I’m wobbly," I reluctantly admitted to Sweetie.
"What’s wrong?" he asked, leaning closer. It wasn’t like me a bit, I’ll admit. I‘d have lovedto browse those racks at Macy’s Columbus Day Sale without him hovering.
I realized I was suffering from what can only be called the "Stendahl Syndrome." It had snuck up on me in the night, while my brain tried desperately to process all the experiences I’d consumed in the previous 36 hours. Now I was recovering from the taxi driver’s howling in the rear-view mirror, leading me through a fun-house Times Square set and onto the stage of "Bombay Dreams," where I stared stage-struck into the footlights. A mounted policeman rescued me, putting me into a carriage that galloped through Central Park before dumping me out at Rockefeller Center. I sought solace in
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where the bag checker found a half-eaten bagel in my purse and sent me to the top of the Empire State Building, where I entered the never-built sky bridge to board a sight-seeing dirigible docked in mid-air. History unfolded below as boatloads of immigrants, my grandpa included, hailed the great green lady with the torch and wept at the sight of land. Then the lady smiled at me and said, "Here you are. There‘s no place like home."
It’s understandable how things can get out of hand in the cranial syntaxes. Visiting NYC is like taking a trip through Oz. When you finally arrive in Gotham to learn they really can "dye your eyes to match your gown," it’s not hard to fall into a heady swoon. The city is all you imagine and so much more.
Fortunately, in spite of its larger-than-your-dreams brilliance, people are wonderful here. They will do their best to ease your transition into their magical world and make you feel at home. If it weren’t for this fact, NYC may be best viewed from afar, like a tornado.
As it is, all the hype claiming New Yorkers are rude, arrogant, and annoying just can’t be true. Either that, or such types had been banished the weekend of my visit, replaced by peace-loving, happy-go-lucky look-alikes who wanted nothing more than for me to love their city as much as they do. It was amazing how many understood the spell I was under.
It's obviously nothing new to visitors of the Big Apple.
Later, after 50 minutes of snaking through the basement of the world’s most famous building, he thanked me for dragging him through it. He only wished he’d brought along a book so he could have learned even more about the construction process and passed the time in line.
The Empire State Building is clearly the most famous modern structure in the world. Like the Great Pyramids and the Roman Coliseum, it’s recognized by people from all over the globe and all cultures. Although joining the hoards and taking the elevator to the 86th floor observation deck is the most touristy of tourist activities, it is also one of the more dramatic urban travel memories you can offer yourself.
Since its construction in 1931, during the midst of the Great Depression, the Empire State Building has enthralled with its glorious art deco design. Until the construction of the Twin Towers in 1972, the building remained the tallest skyscraper in the world. It has since been surpassed by a number of other structures, but the Empire State Building’s construction statistics are yet to be usurped.
"How high can you make so it won’t fall down?"
Ask a simple question in 1928 and get a bold and daring response from architect William Lamb. Built on the original site of the Waldorf Astoria, the building was erected under the direction of visionary John J. Raskob and former New York governor Alfred E. Smith. Smith had just lost a bid for the Democratic Presidential candidacy, but he ended up making a much larger mark for himself by undertaking this project and contributing his influence and marketing abilities to turning dream into reality.
In less than fourteen months, the duo built the greatest building of its time at a rate of two stories a day. Seven million man hours, 60,000 tons of steel, 200,000 cubic feet of Indiana limestone--the statistics are mind boggling, even by today’s standards. In an ironic way, the Great Depression of 1929 sparked the project. How else would they have been able to find 4,000 men willing to show up at the construction site day after day?
Now You’re An Expert
Even if you ascend the building purely because it’s the thing to do, unarmed with any knowledge of its fascinating history, you’ll not leave that way. Especially not if you succumb to the obvious sales pitch encouraging you to buy Tony’s Audio Tour. It’s worth the $5 and offers loads of information as you gaze across the vast Manhattan skyline on the observation deck. It is a self-guided tour which you can pause and start as it suits you.
It’s very windy at the top of the building--the primary reason that plans to build a docking platform for the great dirigibles was abandoned (if you’ve seen the recently released movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, you’ll see a retro-futuristic vision of this). Bundle up and brave the chill as the sun sinks slowly across the Hudson, bathing the buildings in its golden light. You’ll be tempted to go inside, visit the gift shop, have some tea. Instead, you’ll stay, nose poked through the railings, as the light shifts across the landscape, casting giant shadows across the enormous metropolis.
There is little sound besides the wind, in spite of fact that a hundred people surround you, sharing this small space. It’s the same unexpected hush that silenced the 2,000 passengers leaning on the rail as our ship approached the great glaciers of Alaska this summer. The proverbial sound of silence takes over as our collective brains whir and emotions take the place of mere words.
One just can’t help but marvel at all sorts of things from this vantage point--all sorts of things such a monument represents.