Friday 26 May 2017

New York: Empire State of Mind

American holidays

Taking in the ever-changing colours of Manhattan from the new man-made hills on Governors Island
Taking in the ever-changing colours of Manhattan from the new man-made hills on Governors Island
Donal takes to the water in Manhattan
The art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Secret Loft holds parties for grown-ups
The Brooklyn Museum
Best grub in town: Cheese burger

Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch hits up the best Halloween and autumn activities in The Big Apple, off the beaten tourist track.

It's been five years ago this month since I moved back from New York and it's always the autumn when pangs for the city's sweaty grimy embrace seem most acute.

This little oasis between Jack- o'-lanterns and Christmas stockings is the time of the year to be there. The stifling heat of summer - it feels like ten million degrees to go with the ten million people  - gives way to the blazing colours of autumn and the temperatures become much more bearable (although they are actually having an unseasonably warm 'Fall' at the moment). The coolness always seemed to bring a kind of peacefulness with it.

For travelling it's a little trickier however. 

The change in seasons means you basically have to bring everything you own to wear. I spent one autumn living in Manhattan trying to tell myself that I didn't need an air conditioner only to belatedly buy one, to assemble it in a pool of my own sweat and eventually lodge it in the window frame where it was suspended (I swear) only by the will of God.

No sooner had I got it in than the winter arrived and I was rushing out to buy blankets in my shorts. So, don't listen to those people who suggest you might be confusing your luggage needs with those of Elizabeth Taylor or Elton John. You need all that stuff.

The art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
The art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Do listen to people who warn you about your phone and the perils of North America. It used to be that the worst thing about transatlantic travel were the airports and security checks. But these are now a familiar doddle. They have been replaced by the abject horror of dealing with the phone companies.

My mobile died on the way to New York and when I plugged it in at the hotel it came back on and I immediately switched the data roaming off. I was not quick enough for my mobile service provider however, who sent me a series of texts throughout the following day telling me that in those five minutes I had racked up jaw dropping roaming charges because of "apps possibly on in the background" (just Gmail and WhatsApp on my phone). On another trip to Canada more recently I dropped my phone on the way and had to get it repaired.

Sure enough, when I picked it up from the shop there was another message from my service provider saying that will be €60 please. Being a customer for years, paying them thousands every year and the charges being an obvious mistake cut no ice with the baffled call centre person in India. Even after the phone had been switched off completely messages continued to come through for days saying there were further charges. How much longer will they be able to get away with practices like this?

But something which makes travelling to New York easier is Aer Lingus's new Newark route. The airport felt a tiny bit further away than JKF - but the airport is far smaller and a joy to negotiate.

When my heart rate returned to New York levels, I remembered I was in town, in part, to watch the US Open tennis, which takes place in late August and early September every year, bringing out the stars (Beyonce cheered on her friend Serena Williams while we were there) and the Labor Day crowds. Tennis is a great sport to see live because the court is foreshortened by the angles generally used on television. In real life, particularly from the side or from one of the corners, you get a much better sense of the athleticism and jaw-dropping geometry of the sport.

The location of the tennis centre in Flushing Meadows (never could there be a less apt name for a place - it is just miles of concrete) also makes it perfect for sampling the food delights of Queens, which is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the entire US. I'd particularly single out the Thai restaurants that cluster along the route of the 7 train from Manhattan. The food they make is inexpensive, authentic and memorable. Southern barbecue is a big trend in New York at the moment and the versions in Dublin are borderline inedible by comparison. For the real deal - melt-in-the-mouth meat, candied parsnip bake and dreamily unctuous red-winey beans - check out Fette Sau (German for "fat pig", which is what you'll feel like, but it will be worth it) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or Mighty Quinn's down the Houston Street end of Second Avenue in Manhattan.

I'm a sucker for a decent New York bagel - yet again you get the poor man's version in Ireland - and there are obviously many options, but Black Seed on First Avenue at 10th Street has East Village locals raving, as does Tompkins Square Bagels (located in Alphabet City just across the street from a church built by famine immigrants).

New York is a great place to take in the street art as you stroll around. The iconic murals of The Notorious B.I.G. and Lil Kim have sadly fallen victim to condo development in Queens but there are other highlights for sharp-eyed art buffs. Stunning likenesses of Warhol and Basquiat share wall space on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn's Williamsburg. There also is a street art trail - constructed by an Irishman (and Vietnam vet) Jim "Mosaic Man" Power - which begins on the west side of the park and runs east in a series of wonderfully kaleidoscopic pieces, which were themselves recently declared state monuments in New York.

I stayed in a wonderful hotel called the Intercontinental Barclay where we received royal treatment. Rates were also very competitive - especially given the fairly dismal exchange rate we're experiencing at the moment - and the beds were very soft. The breakfast was also epic and we got a wonderful tour of the hotel's presidential suite - complete with panic room but without a toupee room (they may be fairly confident that won't be necessary now).

And I got to meet Simona Halep (fifth seed at the US Open) in the lift and freak her out with a fanboy moment.

If you really want to experience the sweaty grimy soul of the city I'd recommend trying to get somewhere to stay Downtown. New York solved its debt issues in the 1990s by "cleaning up" the city but the result is that midtown is now a little too clean - some say it's a soulless theme park for tourists. US author and public speaker Fran Lebowitz says she would solve this problem by allowing anyone who wants to come to New York to come - as long as they agree to stay. You get the real NYC experience Downtown.

Manhattan is where all the people who fancy themselves as the funniest person in their small town come to try to make it as professional comedians. The city is overrun with improv groups (when we were there the cover story in The New Yorker dealt with their proliferation) and aspiring stand-ups, who hope to be spotted by talent scouts from the television networks. There are wonderful (and expensive) clubs like Caroline's on Broadway at 50th Street and The Comedy Cellar on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, but it's also worth checking out smaller (and cheaper, if not entirely free) venues, such as Housing Works (on Houston Street) where you can see established stars, (like Janeane Garofalo, who frequently performs there) mix with aspiring talents.

Housing Works also contains one of the last independent bookshops in Manhattan, and the cafe there has a wonderful atmosphere.

Part of the theme of our trip was finding things to do in New York off the beaten track in Manhattan. Before leaving the island you should know that there are parts of it less travelled, however. It is only two miles wide (at its widest point) but 12 miles long, and at its northernmost reaches there is what looks like a national park - miles of forest and biking trails. It's well worth renting a bike, taking it up the cycling and running path that hugs the west side of the island - and just continuing north until you hit what looks like countryside.

The best views of the Manhattan skyline are from outside Manhattan, however. If you want a romantic dinner I'd skip the Empire State or Central Park and instead book a table at the River Cafe in Brooklyn, which is owned by prominent Irish-American Michael Buzzy O'Keeffe.

You probably think you've already seen the best of Governors Island, but recently the site's newest attraction - four man-made hills that allow you a 70ft high view of Manhattan - opened to the public recently and are well worth a look. A Dutch architecture firm designed the landscape with curving paths and gentle slopes to hide sightlines and create an element of surprise. The extra height may also play a key part in the park's survival - rising sea levels is a serious concern when you're on an island, so adding height to the land allays concerns of it ending up entirely submerged by future storms. Either way it is one of the more spectacular views in New York.

As the temperature begins to plummet in the city many Manhattanites like to spend their days off at spas where they get pampered. An even more authentic New York experience comes from my old neighbours at the Russian and Turkish bathhouse on 10th street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A. The 124-year-old bathhouse has long been a New York institution, a steaming melting pot, where the sweat of celebrities mixes with that of rabbis and taxi drivers. It's where Orthodox Jewish men go to huddle, or to hide from their wives. It's a sort of gentleman's club for those who care more about how they feel than how they look.

There's an Irish Famine-era church right on the corner of this street but in the steam of the bathhouse it feels like its own kind of sacred experience.

My stint in the Big Apple was all too short this time - barely 72 hours - but its briefness was made bearable by the glory of business class on Aer Lingus's new Newark route.

"Leaving New York's never easy," as Michael Stipe once sang, but it's a hell of a lot more bearable when you can lie flat out on a bed all the way back to dismal normality.

Getting there

Aer Lingus recently launched a new daily direct service from Dublin to Newark, New Jersey, which is only 40 minutes from Downtown Manhattan.

Each-way fares from Dublin to Newark start from €219, including taxes and charges.

Aer Lingus passengers can complete US Customs and Border pre-clearance at Dublin and Shannon Airports, ensuring their arrival into the US is speedy and queue-free.

Aer Lingus transatlantic fares are all-inclusive, offering free 23kg baggage allowance, and complimentary meal and drinks during the flight.

Its aircraft offer 120 hours of entertainment via the very latest inflight system.

For further information visit aerlingus.com.

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Donal takes to the water in Manhattan

Donal takes to the water in Manhattan

Take Three: Top attractions

Iggy in the nude

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The Brooklyn Museum
 

Earlier this year, Iggy Pop was the guest model for a nude life drawing session at the New York Academy Of Art as part of a project conceived by Jeremy Deller. The drawings from that session, which were created by 21 artists, will remain on display at the Brooklyn Museum, above, until the end of March. The drawings will also be featured in a book that’s out at the end of this week. Visit brooklynmuseum.org

Best burger in town

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Best grub in town: Cheese burger
 

This a clash of vibes to rival Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten skyline mishmash. You emerge from the cool, museum-like chicness of the Meridien’s lobby into a raucous, timeworn burger joint, which just happens to have some of the best grub in town. Great music and dive bar decor makes this an oasis of cool in the otherwise staid and corporate midtown.

Visit parkermeridien.com/eat/burger-joint/

Secret Loft party

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Secret Loft holds parties for grown-ups
 

As the recession really took hold so Dublin’s after-party scene came to life, and a similar scene exploded across the Atlantic. Secret Loft hosts parties for grown-ups who like to know where they’re going and that it will be safe, but still want that sulphurous, under-the-radar feel of a speakeasy. There’s a monthly party, above, with comedians, a dance party and, free pizza. You have to sign up to their Facebook in advance.

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