We were desperately sad to disembark the luxury of the ship, as it meant the end of a complete spoil from Grandpa Brian and it also meant that our cohesive party of 12 was now splitting up. Granny Pam and Grandpa Brian were heading home and David and Natalie were going to be visiting Natalie’s sister in suburban New York.
Bizarrely, we were also heading to New York, but Jeanie had arranged that we would be in the thick of it. No gentle suburbia for us. She booked a hotel 100m from Times Square. In the busiest season of the year. At Christmas time. In mid-winter. For a brief three days.
It seemed like an ill-conceived plan for our family of six but it really was a convenient addition as it gave us the chance to show the kids one of the great cities of the world.
The plan was simple – cram a week of New York sightseeing into two and a half days.
We were all mentally prepared for it. Well, that was until I mapped our route from JFK to our humble Broadway @ Times Square hotel, entirely aboard public transport. The first leg was simple – the Air Train to Jamaica Station.
The change to the Metro was simple in theory but as we waited for the train I snapped a happy pic of the family crowded around the Metro Map as a keepsake for our adventure.
Our posed photo caught the eye of one of many mentally deranged people in the big city and he started swearing at us as tourists in “his” New York (you can see him back right of the photo). He derided us for our stupidity and the fact that the trains are filled with tourists. “Where are all the New Yorkers?” he screamed aggressively. He then started shouting that there was no accommodation for “niggers” in New York any longer. This was all dished out standing above us on the train. I looked at my poor kids, worried that this might freak them out, as it was certainly freaking me out.
Our only strategy was to look ahead and feel somewhat secured by the additional passengers in our carriage and it wasn’t a moment too soon before he opened the carriage door and moved to the next one to spread his Christmas anti-cheer. I was shaken. I think we all were.
Then it was off the Metro and a simple walk up the steps to the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue from where I had calculated a short walk of about 800m to the hotel. It was all good in theory until we emerged at street level and were swamped by the throngs of tourists making their way up and down the streets and avenues of New York two days before Christmas.
I can admit now to feeling extremely uncomfortable, navigating a family of six, fully laden with three weeks’ worth of luggage through massive crowds, not really sure of where to go, especially with a kid of Emma’s size who was simply invisible below the average height of all the tourists.
I think we were all questioning the sanity of our decision making at that moment in time. Did we really think it was a great idea to come to New York at this time of year?
Those thoughts quickly dissipated once we’d dropped off our bags and had walked our first few blocks, seeing the Saks Department store Christmas windows, the Rockefeller Plaza and the ice skaters and Times Square and all its chaotic festivities two nights before Christmas. The Guinness at the Irish Pub across the road was the best way to end a busy day of stressful travel.
Our first full day in New York was a crazy one.
We crammed in as much as was humanly possible. We started with the 9/11 memorial, then the ferry to Liberty Island, followed by lunch near Battery Park, an attempted fondle of the balls of the Raging Bull (the queue was about a block long), a walk down to Wall Street, a Metro trip to the Upper West Side, a wander through Central Park, a visit to the American Museum of Natural History, an hour of Christmas present shopping, back to Times Square and then dinner at another Irish Pub.
It would be too hard to describe all the sights and sounds but here goes a quick summary of some of the highlights:
An absolute must-do for any visitor to New York. It was a strange feeling taking the kids there as they weren’t even a twinkle in our eyes when it all happened. The memorial is a phenomenal dedication to those that lost their lives. The footage of the events is surreal and depressing as all hell but it was a significant moment in our history and so it was important for the kids to see it.
The dud of the trip. We stood in a queue for an hour to board the ferry, during which time an overzealous security lady broke my sunglasses, then we spent an hour and half on the ferry in icy cold conditions and in all it sucked a huge part of our day where we could have done so many other things. At least we got the photo.
American Museum of Natural History
We had timed this one tightly (due to the time spent at Liberty Island) so we had a quick 90 minutes in a museum that really could justify an entire week. We decided the best plan would be to split up as Adam and I were desperate to see the Birds of the World display and the others had different priorities. We met at the IMAX show called Backyard Wilderness, which we had low expectations for but was absolutely magical.
A great way to end our visit to the museum was to be in the building when they started announcing the imminent closure and they started closing doors and turning off lights. Nothing could have been a more realistic re-enactment of “The Night at the Museum”, which all of our kids have seen many times. I wondered if Robin Williams (Teddy Roosevelt) would actually come alive on top of that horse of his.
So that was day one under the belt. And it was Christmas Eve.
Our Christmases are usually spent with loads of family and extra loads of presents under a Christmas tree at our family home. This would be a very different Christmas. At about 4:45pm on Christmas Eve, Jeanie and I hadn’t even contemplated any gifts for the kids and so, as crazy as it sounds, we embarked on a shopping frenzy (with a great degree of moderation) to try and fill a Christmas stocking with a few gifts for each of the kids. Jeanie dominated the Natural History Museum gift shop and I went to a Barnes and Noble for a few books to throw in.
We reunited at another Irish pub for a meal and celebrated our Christmas Eve dinner eating barely affordable burgers and chips. There wasn’t a turkey, gammon or Christmas pudding anywhere to be seen.
We then wandered back to our hotel via a Ben and Jerries for ice cream (on a painfully cold night) and tucked the kids in with each of them feeling a touch home sick at the absence of the extended family.
It was a bizarre start to Christmas as Jeanie and I bundled out of bed nice and early to head down to a Europa coffee shop to get hold of makeshift Christmas stockings. Jeanie had a notion that a Europa takeaway bag would be an appropriate replacement. It just goes to show that our trip was now very much in the budget phase. I promised to buy her a coffee at the same time and we crossed the icy streets in the pre-dawn and headed to Europa. She hadn’t even bothered to change out of her pyjamas, which made for some memorable pics as we walked the quiet streets – a pleasant change from the mayhem the night before.
With our bags acquired and our lousy coffee sipped, we headed back to the hotel and woke the kids up with their bags of surprises. It went down way better than we had expected, which is indicative of how low their expectations really were. We’d done a good job of managing those.
It was Christmas Day now and would you believe it if I told you I had birding plans?
I am sure when Jeanie chose New York as our final destination she had no idea that I would even be able to find some birding. It may have been the middle of winter in the busiest tourist time of the year but I was determined. Google was again my best friend and a quick search revealed the legendary walks in Central Park led by Dr Bob and Deborah Allen who have both been leading multiple walks per week in Central Park for over 25 years (see website here: www.birdingbob.com). I had read about these walks in a birding book a number of years ago and now Adam and I had the opportunity to partake. And the fact that it was Christmas Day made no difference. The walk would go ahead at 9:30 am as they always do on a Tuesday morning. All you had to do was pitch up at 9:30, pay your $10 and Dr Bob and Deborah would lead the way.
Once the gifts were opened and enjoyed Adam and I donned our backpacks filled with our camera equipment (hiking up 5th Avenue with a 500mm lens hanging on my hip would not be advised) and we headed north into the southern end of the park to meet Dr Bob and Deborah at Loeb’s Boathouse.
I think my expectations were low but I was still happy to be out on a beautiful day, doing something a little different in a sphere that I absolutely love.
I needn’t have had low expectations as it was a wonderful experience. There were only eight of us on the walk but it was a perfect group size to allow us to chat at length with Dr Bob and Deborah about their walks, their lives and their love for the birds of Central Park. Both of them knew exactly where to find the birds and they were both exceptionally accommodating in making sure we got some quality photos.
We visited a number of different habitats and over the course of three hours we managed over 40 species, of which four were lifers for me.
A good example of their knowledge of where to find the birds was the Fox Sparrow that Dr Bob found in a group of about 200 House and White-throated Sparrows which just seemed to be everywhere. We also visited roosting sites for Barred and Northern Saw-whet Owls and clearly without their knowledge we would never have seen those birds.
Here are some of the pics from the morning:
And with the bird walk I ticked off a bucket list item for me and proved to Jeanie that I will find birds no matter where she takes me.
Having spent my Christmas morning doing something I really wanted to do, I gave myself to the rest of the family and agreed to hit the tourist trail again with a visit to the Empire State building to watch the sunset. I think I only agreed to it as I figured that New Yorkers would be bundled up inside, enjoying their Christmas lunches and family time and the queues for the top of the Empire State would be short and swift. Well, I was completely wrong. It turns out that it is a thing, as a tourist, to visit the top of the Empire State on Christmas Day to watch the sun set. This became apparent as the fast moving queue on the outside of the building entered the building and the staff walked up and down the snaking queues giving the expected time to get to the top. From where we were standing after half an hour spent outside it would still take us another two hours to get to the top. Add to that the 45 minutes at the top and then a further two hours to get down, we were in for a five hour experience.
I was half way out the door to find myself some solitude (maybe back at the Park) when the kindly staff offered the Express Experience, which involved parting with large sums of dollars for a fast pass up and down the lifts and a round trip of only an hour. The five hour wait was out of the question, so it was either a cancellation of the whole thing (and a subsequent set of long faces from Jeanie and the kids) or another opening of the wallet in what was becoming an expensive three days in New York. We chose the latter as we just had no idea when we would ever be back here and it is truly a must-do experience when visiting New York.
The fast passes worked a charm and we were up and down in the blink of an eye. The only downside was the sub-zero temperatures 100 floors up on the platform, but we suffered through that for some amazing views of the city as we watched dusk fall and all the lights came on. Sadly the sun was hidden behind an overcast, leaden sky but it didn’t detract from a very worthwhile experience.
Our final night in New York was spent at yet another over-priced pub for our Christmas dinner, a quick stop at SuperDry for some clothes shopping and then a final Ben and Jerries before returning to the hotel where we would have to shove three weeks of dirty laundry into our bags (which I would suggest had shrunk over the time we were away) and prepare for the long haul back to Cape Town.
It was certainly the most amazing holiday for our family and every aspect had so many interesting things for the kids and for Jeanie and I. It will be long remembered when we return to some semblance of reality back home.