August 2, 2014

Surprise!

The urban dictionary defines the term “New York minute” as the shortest measurable amount of time in the universe. My father didn’t invent the phrase, but I learned the concept from him anyway. Daddy’s railroad job got our family sleeper car passes for weekend adventures. We’d board the train in Savannah, Ga., on a Friday evening, chug into Penn Station at sunrise on Saturday and be back at the station Sunday morning. This gave us barely 24 hours—a New York minute—in the world’s greatest city.

Because we had no budget for tourist attractions, we saw the city a little bit like New Yorkers. We ate giant slices of real Italian pizza at Little Italy holes-in-the-wall and mysterious wonders from street vendors in Chinatown. We didn’t see Broadway shows, but we saw plenty of real-life characters in the East Village, the bohemian world of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.
 

Center of attention: With so many different options waiting to be explored, New York City doesn’t require an itinerary to fill your days. The bustle of Times Square is a great place to start your adventure.

I didn’t know what Beaux-Arts, neo-Gothic or Art Deco were back then, but I was thrilled by the gargoyles, spires and voluptuous shapes of the city.

The funny thing is, we didn’t feel rushed. Though my circumstances would change, the lesson I’ve carried with me is that New York is about spontaneity and discovery. If you make an inflexible plan or try to squeeze too much into too little time, you won’t taste the flavors of the city.  You won’t feel its pulse. 

 

Local favorites: Forget your guide book. The best way to see up-and-coming acts, such as the Blue Man Group, to get the best street eats and the must-see destinations— Grand Central Station for starters—is to ask a local.Falafel and Blue Men

Years later, as a journalist, I was a guest at The Mark, the prestigious landmark hotel on Manhattan’s fashionable Upper East Side. General Manager Raymond Bickson offered to show me some of his favorite city haunts. I had an instant flashback to the New York of my childhood when he impulsively stopped the limo so we could hop out and stand in line at his favorite falafel food truck. He also took me to the theater. Not Broadway, but to the East Village where, in the basement of the decaying Astor Place Theatre, three upstart young actors with heads and faces doused in electric blue grease paint were performing an insanely avant-garde percussion and mime show. Who could predict that they would grow up to be the world-famous Blue Man Group? You still can see them there, but not in the basement. They bought the building and restored it to its original grandeur.

I recently returned to the city for a family celebration. It was a perfect opportunity to check out two chic boutique hotels, newly “re-imagined” historic buildings with prominent addresses and fascinating pasts.

 

What We Planned

This weekend my sisters and I have an actual hour-by-hour agenda: See the Statue of Liberty ... take panoramic pictures from the Brooklyn Bridge … see an exhibit at The Met. And something I’ve always wanted to do: Have lunch at Grand Central Terminal’s legendary Oyster Bar. Most touristy of all, we have tickets to the city’s newest attraction, a massive, neon-infused theater on wheels called—in capital letters—THE RIDE.

“An agenda?” You’re kidding, right?” sneers the scornful voice inside me.

“Hush,” I snap back. “We aren’t New Yorkers. We’re tourists.”

Luckily, as it turns out, the spirit of the city takes over, and nothing goes very much as planned.

 

What Actually Happened

We arrive way past lunchtime on Friday, starving and cranky. I check into my sumptuous salon at The Surrey Hotel. With its privileged Upper East Side address and glamorous Beaux-Arts marble façade, it formerly was an exclusive residence hotel, home to Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The 1920s-era coffered ceilings, limestone moldings and marble archways are restored and preserved, while the salons and suites have been sumptuously appointed and art-curated for the 21st century. The newly unveiled look reflects everything you’d expect if you had $60 million and exquisite taste.

One could easily feel like Claudette Colbert settling in for a soak in her deep, sunken marble tub, followed by a rooftop cocktail as the sun sets over New York’s spires and towers. That sensuous tub calls my name like a siren song. Ignoring it, I head back down for a rendezvous with my siblings and crew. They still have their rental car and are also starving and cranky. We vow to enter whatever random food establishment is closest to whatever parking spot we find. Which turns out to be Mimi’s Pizza Kitchen, at Lexington and 84th Street. This run-down Italian place is a time warp, right back to my childhood. Paul McCartney grins from a yellowed 1989 tabloid newspaper clipping taped to the wall. Mimi’s was a favorite neighborhood hangout when Paul and Linda were dating, the article says. They reportedly got a craving and sent their personal jet over from London for a 10-pizza take-out.

This afternoon, the patronage is mostly blue-collar workers and one smart-looking, Ralph Lauren-type couple with their granddaughter. You can tell it’s their regular place. I’m pretty sure nothing has changed since Paul and Linda’s time, including the staff and the prices. The eggplant parmesan, lasagna and pizza are absolutely the real deal. 

 

Roof-top oasis: The roof garden at The Surrey Hotel offers impeccable city views and delicious spiked lemonade.Rooftop Garden: Serenity Restored

I scratch “go exploring” off my copy of the agenda and instead play my starlet role with a glorious hour’s soak in the marble tub. I’m having second thoughts about the tourist thing. Or, in fact, about leaving this room, ever.

Later, we meet for cocktails in The Surrey’s spectacular penthouse-level terrace garden, which is open only to hotel guests and, ah, “select members of the neighborhood.” With all due respect to The Met, its rooftop garden can’t compare to this private oasis of perfection. Set among the vine-draped trellises, fragrant boxes of lavender and other herbs are cushioned banquettes and wrought-iron tables. A butler glides by with a tray of hors d’oeuvres and cocktails.

The house specialty, vodka-spiked, pomegranate-basil-muddled lemonade, makes a great toast to the brand new doctor in our family. The cool, humid air puts a haze around a silvery, near-full moon and a million city lights. No other entertainment is necessary.

Saturday morning. If you were Claudette Colbert enveloped in this cocoon of a Duxiana bed, which would you do: (a) Get dressed and take pictures on a rain-threatened Brooklyn Bridge or (b) sleep an extra hour, then linger over crab Benedict at Café Boulud until check-out time? Me, too.  

 

Edgy and Posh

We arrive next at the edgy-posh Andaz on Fifth. There’s no reception desk. The concierge greets us in the lobby and checks us in via hand-held PC,while we sip a complimentary glass of wine from the oh-so-trendy communal wine and hors d’oeuvre table. The crème de la crème of Andaz amenities (besides the black cloisonné footbaths) is its Midtown location, practically on the front steps of the New York City Public Library and around the corner from Grand Central Terminal.

The Oyster Bar at Grand Central isn’t yet open for lunch, but there’s plenty to gawk at. I love the brilliant mosaic figures on the 42nd Street subway wall depicting New Year’s Eve revelers. On the lower concourse, a white-haired African-American gentleman in a black jacket dozes in one of the oversize, railroad-retro vinyl chairs. I think he looks exactly like the porters on that long-ago Pullman train. With a 10-year-old’s surge of excitement, I’m feeling the pulse of the city.

 

Beauty at every turn: Keep your eyes open and you’re bound to see something amazing. Top, a float in the annual Festival of Chariots; middle, street performers you see as part of THE RIDE; and bottom, the regal marble lions at the New York Public Library.Chariots, Patience, Fortitude and Beauty

Our agenda calls for a stroll north on Fifth Avenue to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) and perhaps some window shopping at Christian Louboutin. But the city has another idea. Hindu Lord Jagannatha’s three lavish, domed chariots are assembling right in front of the Andaz for the annual Ratha Yatra (Festival of the Chariots) parade. The museums and shops to the north will have to wait. We follow the cymbals and chanting south.

On return, we pause to admire America’s most famous marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, guarding the entrance to the library. They’re beautiful, of course, but I’m mesmerized by the sculpture of a stunning Venus-like girl on the winged horse, Pegasus, tucked into an alcove against the south wall. The inscription: “Beauty. Old Yet Ever New, Eternal Voice and Inward Word.”

I later looked it up. Audrey Munson, the real-life girl who posed for Beauty, was the city’s top sculptors’ model and muse of the 1920s. Her tragic life did not resemble this perfect work of art.

By now, of course, we’re hopelessly off-schedule. The Oyster Bar at Grand Central is now closed till dinnertime, but that gives us time to appreciate the grand marble staircase modeled after the Paris Opera House, and the bas-relief oak leaves and acorns of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s family crest over the entrances to the tracks.

I don’t want to leave, but the others are waiting for us at Ground Zero, where the new 1 World Trade Center building is rising. Displays and printed materials recount the 9/11 story, but a secret story lies just around the corner, at the 235-year-old St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church. It was built in 1776 and attended by George Washington when New York was the nation’s capital. The city’s financial district rose around it. On 9/11, when buildings all around it toppled, a canopy of trees somehow protected the tiny chapel and its 800 crumbling headstones. After removal of a deep layer of debris and ash, St. Paul’s became a serene place for recovery workers to gather, and a shrine for mourners.

This is the real pulse of this city.

 

THE RIDE: From Pulse to Pulsating

On Saturday night, we walk the few blocks from Andaz on Fifth to the heart of Times Square to board THE RIDE. One side of this gigantic pulsating bus is completely plate glass, with stadium seating rising on the other. A sophisticated speaker and sound system connects the actor/hosts and passengers on the inside with stand-up comedians, street performers and unsuspecting bystanders outside. As we roll by, a bicycle messenger abandons his cargo to do an “impromptu” break dance. An aspiring opera singer wants to know how to get to Carnegie Hall. A ballerina, all sparkles and tulle, pirouettes around the fountains on Columbus Circle. As we pass Grand Central Terminal, the floor of the bus vibrates and rumbles like a train. And then there’s the trivia. Who knew, for example, that the posh stone and marble Beaux-Arts restroom in Bryant Park (behind the New York City Public Library) pampers its users with fresh flowers, scented oils, piped in music and electronic seat covers?

On Sunday, we try again for that museum stroll. This time Fifth Avenue is completely barricaded for more than 30 blocks. Two million spectators line the Avenue for the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade.

We check our wrecked agenda. The weekend has flown by in a glorious New York minute. Yet, we still have time to see Manhattan from atop Rockefeller Center. To take a Circle Line cruise to the Statue of Liberty, sail under the famous bridges and see the skyline from the Hudson River. 

We are, after all, tourists. 

 

 

Boutique Hotels, Re-Imagined

The Surrey. Live like JFK or Bette Davis, if only for a weekend.

Besides the Duxiana beds, all rooms feature Sferra bedding and Laura Tonatto of Milan bath amenities. If you’d prefer a little more, the 2,127-square-foot Presidential Suite has its own baby grand piano, Apple Macbook computer and every imaginable technology.

Presidential Suite, $7,000/night. Other rates start at $625. 20 E. 76th St. www.thesurrey.com

 

Contemporary cool: The elegant appointments of the Aldaz Fifth Avenue offer a quick respite from the bustle of Midtown Manhattan.Andaz Fifth Avenue. Be hip, edgy and pampered.

After designer Tony Chi worked his magic last year, you’d never guess that this once was a men’s clothing store. The staff is young and gorgeous. The minimalist apartments are anything but minimal in the comfort department, with cushy beds, futuristic touch-control technology and movie-set bathrooms.

Starting at $535. 485 Fifth Ave. www.andaz.com

 

GOOD TO KNOW

* NYC has 3,000 licensed food trucks. Visit some of the fanciest ones at the Gourmet Food Truck Bazaar at Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market. www.hellskitchenfleamarket.com

* There’s a parade, public celebration, free exhibit or festival every day somewhere in New York City. Go with it. www.nycgo.com

* Do something silly, noisy and fun: THE RIDE, $65. A special fall price of $55 is available for the month of October with code “RDGOLD” online at www.experiencetheride.com or by phone at 866-299-9682.

* CityPass saves money and gets you VIP access at six top NYC attractions. $79. www.citypass.com/new-york

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