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New York City - Andrew and Jacqui - 2004

Flying Flag of New York

Almost ever since I’d met Jacqui she’d been talking to me about America and in particular New York. Indeed, soon after we met she and her parents went off to New York whilst I was in Santorini.

So it was only a matter of time before I undertook my first long haul flight across the Atlantic to the United States … making me the last of the RLP Team to cross the pond.

On this first visit we were watching the £s and so we had booked into a Best Western Hotel near Flushing Meadows in Queens. The Hotel itself was a little basic, but more than that it was rather remote from anywhere else. Fortunately, the Hotel offered a shuttle bus to the nearest Metro Station (111 St. on the No. 7 train). This train goes straight into Times Square, which is pretty useful. We didn’t venture beyond the Hotel much on our first night, but on day two we decided to get one of the icons done.

Manhattan Skyline

We took the Metro to South Ferry and walked across Battery Park to Castle Clinton. Castle Clinton, as well as being a venerable old military fort, is the ticket office for the ferries to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The thrill of seeing the Statue out in Harbour is one of those things that cannot be replicated. We had plenty of time to take this view in as the queue, even on this chilly November day, was pretty long.

Before boarding the Ferry you have to undergo and airport-like security cheque (removing of belts, shoes etc. to be expected). Also, unfortunately, post 9/11 it was not possible to go up to the Crown of the Statue (and at the time of writing, the recently re-opened Crown has a waiting list of some months!).

Castle Clinton, Manhattan, USA

Nevertheless, as you slowly draw closer to the Statue across New York Harbour the magic of the Lady begins to draw you in. The thrill of being here, seeing this world icon with the magnificent skyline of the Capital of the World behind it, is beyond the power of the written word. With the boat docked a mass of people disgorge onto tiny Liberty Island. Surprisingly they soon disperse and you begin to feel like one of a privileged few.

The Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty plus 2

As you walk around to the front of the Statue the scale begins to sink in. This is a truly massive sculpture. It stands 152 feet tall and the copper alone weighs 179,000 pounds, which sounds very abstract. But think of it this way, one of her great copper toes is 2 and a bit metres - about as long as I am tall at my six foot one inches.

Statue of Liberty - full view

Statue of Liberty - brilliant detail photo

As well as the Statue, of course, Liberty Island also gives you one of the greatest cityscape views of anywhere. Although now bereft of the Twin Towers at one end, the skyline of Manhattan is still thrilling and awe-inspiring.

The whole together, the view, the Statue, the very special atmosphere here, begins to make you believe the American Dream – that alchemic mixture of freedom, rights and the ability of any man to make what he can of himself. Even though, back across in the real world of New York City, we were deep in the conservative, reactionary America of George W. Bush.

Andrew & Jacqui & Manhattan Skyline

Statue of Liberty and Manhattan Skyline

From Liberty Island the Ferry proceeds directly to Ellis Island. A more abrupt change from optimism to pessimism would be hard to find. Whilst Liberty represents all that is good about America, in many ways Ellis Island represents a lot of the country’s faults. Ellis Island was for many years the many entry point to the USA for immigrants from abroad – those famous “poor, tired and huddled masses” so oft quoted. For a large number of them this was as far as they got. Refused entry for various reasons it was a place where families were parted forever and people lived in sadness and desperation. It is, of course, very easy only to see the negatives of Ellis Island – and indeed the Museum which is massive and can not be done justice in the little time you end up giving it having lingered at the Statue tends to emphasise the negative aspects. Only 12% of people passing through were sent away, the remainder made that longed for crossing over the Hudson River to Manhattan and a new life.

Inside the main hall at Ellis Island

Outside of the main building, Ellis Island, NYC

As you leave Ellis Island it is impossible not to look back at Lady Liberty, standing impassive and staring off towards France, and wonder what she might be thinking.

Liberty Island from Ellis Island

The next day were had decided to venture across to Brooklyn to seek out the “Penguin Place” – supposedly a shop selling all manner of penguin paraphernalia. The word ‘shop’, it turned out, was a little bit of an exaggeration. It was more a warehouse in a rather rundown neighbourhood referred to as “DUMBO” (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass”). Both Penguin Place and DUMBO were disappointing, although I did get a couple of rather uniquely New York-y photos.

View of the Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn

Brooklyn Bridge

From here we headed back into Manhattan. Jacqui had helped to persuade me that it was time to join the digital age camera-wise. So we ended up near Bryant Park at Currys (of all places) buying a superbly priced little digital camera. We then crossed into the Park and had a coffee break and set up the picture below to test the camera out. It was the beginning of the end for my film camera and the start of a new era!

The Bryant Hotel, Manhattan

Bryant Park is one of New York’s unknown pleasures. Little more than a square with a few trees, each time we visit it has a different and unique character – little stalls in the summer, a Christmas market in December, a skating rink and in March 2009 it took on yet another aspect being deep in snow.

Andrew & Jacqui enjoy a break in Bryant Park, NYC

Evening began to fall and we made our way up 42nd Street to another of those New York landmarks, Times Square. My first visit to Times Square did not impress. I think we had had a long day, were tired and hungry and could not quite deal with the chaos and insanity that the Square has 24 hours a day. Subsequent visits have improved my feelings about the Square considerably.

Times Square, NYC

As if to compound a day of problems, we took the Metro back to 111 St. station only to get out and find nothing much there. No taxis, no buses, no people – just menacing looking closed shops, little life and junk hiding underneath the metal scaffold holding up the Metro line. It was a very New York scene, but one from the wrong type of movie. Jacqui attempted to call a cab in a mounting sense of foreboding, and nothing came, no shops were open and only cars passed by. We felt isolated and vulnerable and vowed not to come back here in the evening again. Finally a cab showed and we travelled the fairly short journey back to our Hotel full of relief.

Another view of Times Square, NYC

Having survived 111 St. at night, the next day we headed for the next of our big landmarks – the Empire State Building. It might not be the tallest in the World anymore, but by golly this is a building and a half. Seen from the ground it looks slim and elegant, a thin needle piercing the sky, but as you get closer you begin to realise that this building is huge – not only very tall, but pretty damned wide too. It’s base is hidden behind a block of shops and offices (which allowed for the engineers to put in any number of ugly but hefty buttresses to help support it) and you enter from what feels like “around the back”.

The Empire State Building, NYC

Inside you are hit with Art Deco overload with its magnificent gilded lobby overlooked by a stunning relief fresco of the Tower part of the building.

In the Lobby of the Empire State Building, NYC

Then, once again, you are in queues. Unlike at Battery Park these are hidden within the bowels of the Empire State Building, winding down passages and up stairwells. A hint for those visiting … like everywhere else that’s worth going to – get there early!

View from the top! (1)

We had tried to time our visit to coincide with night falling, so as to get views in the daylight and at night. In the end we spent much longer in the queues than expected and it was already getting a bit twilight-y when we emerged on the 86th floor observatory. The view, though, is quite literally breath-taking – particularly on a chilly November evening. Laid out before you is Manhattan, looking down to Downtown and the Statue of Liberty, across to that most beautiful of buildings, the Chrysler Building and up towards the great oblong gap which is Central Park this is the New York of your dreams.

View from the top! (2)

As night fell it began to take on yet another look, one of twinkling bright lights, sparkling in the evening gloom. Long, straight columns of lights marked the Avenues heading north-south along Manhattan whilst Downtown glistened in the distance.

Andrew & Jacqui at the top of the Empire State Building, NYC

Looking towards Liberty Island from the Empire State Building, NYC

I have subsequently been up the Empire State many times and have had better views than this first time – but there’s nothing like the first time.

Night from the Empire State

The next day was Sunday and Jacqui had told me it was a good day to go to Chinatown and Little Italy. So we took the Metro to Canal Street (which we would later learn could mean any of a number of stations on different lines) and found ourselves in the heart of New York’s Chinatown. Chinatown in New York has a very different feel to that in London or in San Francisco. In London it is full of restaurants and not much else, it feels like a place of commerce not residence; in San Francisco it feels very touristy and slightly unreal; New York it feels real and gritty and both residential and commercial. We happened upon a lion dance going on down one of the side streets before perusing through the various bargains that can be had. Then you cross some invisible barrier and suddenly you are in Little Italy. The bargain handbags (i.e. stuff for Jacqui) suddenly become pasta restaurants (i.e. stuff for Andrew).

Mulberry Street, Little Italy, NYC

Lion Dancing in Chinatown, NYC

Walking down Mulberry Street, checking out the amazing pasta on offer, I felt like I was walking around a Billy Joel song. Things were familiar from songs, from TV, from movies. It is odd, New York is exactly like you expect it to be from the movies – but at the same time it is nothing like you expect it to be.

Andrew plus lion dancers, Chinatown, NYC

One tremendous pasta meal later and we were heading back into Midtown for a brief stop off at Times Square before heading back to Queens. We had studied the Metro map and decided that we were not going to be getting off at 111 St. anymore but at 75 St. on the F train. This drops you in a much more populated and generally nicer bit of Queens. Hunger had set in again and we found a proper American diner just down a side road and here we had veggie burgers, fries and proper massive shakes delivered in the mixing jug they were made in. There were jukeboxes on the tables and all was chrome and 1950s. We kept expecting The Fonz to come in, but he never did. From here it was simple to get a taxi back to our remote Hotel.

Jacqui in the Diner

Andrew in the Diner

The next morning we decided that we’d get up early and walk down through Flushing Meadows to the Metro Station there. We’d glimpsed from various places a big globe that we wanted to get a closer look at. This was the Unisphere, an aluminium globe which is 12 storeys high and weighs 350 tons. It was put here for the 1964 World’s Fair and is pretty much the only remaining thing from the Fair still standing. The walk to Shea Stadium Metro is very pleasant.

The Unisphere, Flushing Meadows, Queens

No. 7 Subway Trains

In our hotel in Flushing, Queens

In our hotel in Queens

Andrew finds some friends on the Subway

Andrew finds some friends on the Subway

We were back on the No. 7 train and we were off into Manhattan once more. This time we emerged at the southern end of Central Park. We thought about doing the horse and carriage ride, but in the end decided not to and instead walked along to the corner of the Park where it meets 5th Ave. in order to visit FAO Schwartz. Jacqui had visited here before and considers it to be an essential part of any visit to New York.

Outside F.A.O. Schwarz, 5th Avenue

Inside F.A.O. Schwarz

It must be said that this is a toy shop unlike any other. Particularly impressive are the stuffed (plush) toys which include full size elephants, giraffes and other animals!

Andrew feeding a penguin gummy worms

From here we took a cab to Macys and had a wander around the World’s Largest Shop. This being close to Christmas the store was decked out in all its Christmas finery and was most impressive.

Inside Macy's, NYC

Next we ventured back down the Metro to go and see Grand Central Station. Now it sounds a little bit odd, perhaps, to go and visit a Train Station as a tourist destination. Not so with Grand Central. This is a massive cathedral to the train – beautiful arched arcades, the grand concourse, the huge underground eatery area and a super little selection of odd and speciality shops makes Grand Central Station well beyond just a train station … indeed it handles less trains than the more functional Penn Station.

Main Concourse, Grand Central Station, NYC

Close by is the Chrysler Building which, sadly, you can’t actually go inside but it is still the ultimate expression of Art Deco.

The Chrysler Building, New York City

That afternoon we had set aside to visit the American Museum of Natural History and its massive Planetarium. We visited the Planetarium first and were most impressed, we then had lunch in the Museum café before heading up to the dinosaurs. Now, bearing in mind we visited long before Night At The Museum was made, so we had no idea of just how much was in this Museum.

Dinosaurs in the lobby!

Look at the teeth on that!

The Dinosaurs were tremendous – the little boy in me was thrilled to see full size Diplodocus, the grand Triceratops head and, of course, best of all that massive T-Rex that would go on to feature in the movie.

Andrew's family tree?

Biggest dinosaur around!

The Planetarium

The Planetarium

We then found ourselves in a Geology section where we found some fascinating rocks and minerals – Jacqui coming across the massive piece of amethyst in the picture below. Ironically, within a year, rocks and minerals would become quite a big part of our lives when we set up our jewellery company, Something That Sparkles.

Jacqui's big rock

We then realised that we had about 20 minutes to see everything else in the Museum. We simply were not going to make that, so we galloped around as much of the rest as we could – glimpsing the full size blue whale in one room, seeing ancient hominid figures marching across the desert in another. Sadly it was then time to go. We hadn’t left nearly enough time to see this Museum and another visit is long overdue.

Central Park, New York City

"Twin Towers" of Central Park

Leaving the Museum by the front door, you go straight out into Central Park. This time we walked around the Park a little, making first for the John Lennon Memorial in Strawberry Field, just across from the Dakota Building. We were very close to the date of John’s murder so the Imagine mosaic was festooned with flowers and candles.

Strawberry Field, Central Park, NYC

From here we began to move into the hillier, wilder central section of the Park making for Belvedere Castle. Not a real castle, of course, but an odd Italianate structure on a high point overlooking the middle of the park.

Belvedere Castle, Central Park, New York

Atop Belvedere Castle, Central Park, NYC

It was to be the last of our visits on this first trip to New York City. This was the only time that jewellery did not play a part of our visit. However, from hereon in we visited at least once every year…

New York City 2 - Andrew and Jacqui and her Mum - 2005

Flying Flag of New York

Andrew’s second visit to New York City was the first seeking out jewellery and materials for Something That Sparkles. This time Jacqui’s Mum also came along.

Whilst we were in the approximate area of the jewellery wholesalers, Andrew took a series of photos of skyscrapers and the Empire State Building in the distance which make up the next few pictures.

The Empire State Building from Broadway, NYC

Moody black and white photo of New York City

Odd "bridge" between Skyscrapers, NYC

This time we were staying at the Best Western Hotel in Flushing which is at the end of the 7 Train route. So we found ourselves getting on and off at Times Square quite often. Times Squares Station has one corridor with some very unusual ‘urban’ artwork in the form of ceramic tiles with very pop-art style images of New York. Pictured below is one of them.

Urban Artwork in Times Square Station, NYC

Sunset in Manhattan

We managed to find a little time in our busy schedule to have a look around Flushing – a town on the very edge of the Borough of Queens which has a small Victorian period church, plus a huge percentage of Koreans in the population. This makes for some very ‘interesting’ menus (but not very veggie friendly ones!).

Flushing Parish Church, NY, USA

There is also a small mall where we took the picture of Jacqui with a big carved wooden eagle.

Jacqui in Flushing Mall, NY, USA

Another side trip we made away from jewellery was to re-visit FAO Schwartz. Again, the plush toys were hugely impressive – Andrew took one of his favourite photographs on this visit the “Wall of Hounds”.

New York Taxi Driver?

Andrew and Jacqui in F.A.O. Schwartz?

Wall of Doggies

The Big Piano, F.A.O. Schwartz, NYC

Also on this visit, Jacqui’s Uncle Victor picked us up and took us out to Long Island where we went – for the first time – to the International Diner. This is one of America’s legendary ‘eat all you can’ places where the food is just phenomenal and never-ending!

Before leaving for JFK we also briefly stopped at Victor’s house in Merrick, where Andrew took a picture of a typically Long Island scene.

Merrick, Long Island, NY, USA

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and Shaun Runham
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