Tuesday 17 September 2019

Escape to New York: Making the most of Manhattan is a doddle

From the Space Shuttle 'Enterprise' and Spoprano-worthy chicken parmigiana, Sophie White savours a visit to the Big Apple...

Times Square
Times Square
Sophie crosses the bridge into Brooklyn
Fitzpatrick's Manhattan
The Fitzpatrick Grand Central

Sophie White

An autumn getaway to New York is practically a rite of passage for couples in love.

However, romance was far from the agenda for my husband and I when we hit Manhattan in early October. We may have held hands on the plane but we were also each plugged into separate forms of entertainment as is the way with all heavily married couples.

When you're young and in love, you hit Manhattan with notions of staring in a romcom-style mini-break complete with carriage rides in Central Park, Meg Ryan-type meet cutes, culminating in an epic proposal story that'll keep you in dinner party anecdotes long after the passion and interest in each other runs dry.

When you're past the honeymoon phase, a trip to the City That Never Sleeps evolves into a completely different prospect. For starters, you've likely spent a good chunk of your firstborn's college fund on flights and used up every favour in the Family Favour Bank to leave your spawn in the care of someone else, therefore it is imperative that you make the most of your trip.

Making the most of any trip can fast become a bit of a tyranny, but making the most of New York is a doddle. Just stroll down any street and there's something fab. It's like New York has seen itself in the movies and is determined to live up to its celluloid portraits. At every turn, there's an obliging streetscape offering up Art Deco skyscrapers, yellow cabs and cinematic mist rising through sidewalk grates.

As it was my husband's first trip, we decided to do the classic New York experience, ticking all the crowd-pleasing boxes you can think of: Top Of The Rock, Statue of Liberty and Times Square...

Sophie crosses the bridge into Brooklyn
Sophie crosses the bridge into Brooklyn

Basing ourselves in Fitzpatrick's Hotel in Midtown, just five minutes from Central Park, we were perfectly located to explore the island on foot. The hotel is a legendary institution, one that has hosted every Irish celeb you can think of; their portraits are displayed in the inviting reception area. The staff are endlessly helpful, pointing us in the right direction and nabbing us cabs whenever we had that helpless tourist look, while the room was a haven at the end of each day spent pounding the pavements.

Our first day kicked of with a quintessential New York breakfast at Viand on Madison Avenue. The train carriage-style diner is tiny - but the menu and the portions are enormous.

You can easily imagine Nora Ephron doling out dating advice to her girlfriends over stacks of pancakes, gallons of maple syrup and eggs over easy in the snug booths.

Eager to walk off our first American breakfast, we struck out for the Guggenheim, drinking in the stunning buildings overlooking the Park on the Upper East Side.

The Guggenheim, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, still holds one's attention even in the cacophony of the surrounding city. Its cylindrical shape is reminiscent of a nautilus and inside, a vast atrium houses a spiralling ramp allowing exhibitions to be displayed in a continuous and cohesive manner. The audio tour of the building is full of vivid anecdotes about the space - from the protests at its unveiling in 1959 to the many inventive ways artists have engaged with the space since.

After the Guggenheim, we wandered through the lavish rooms of the Met Museum to check out the divine costumes displayed as part of the Heavenly Bodies exhibition. From there we strolled across the park, studiously avoiding lovers strolling arm-in-arm as we power-walked under trees bursting into glorious golds and reds - no time for postcard-perfect NYC-style romance, we had a tight schedule of making-the-most-of-it to adhere to.

Over on Central Park West, we visited the famous Dakota building formerly home to John Lennon and the scene of his murder in 1980. Other famous former residents include Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland and Boris Karloff.

A few blocks south, we found heaven in Parm, a casual neighbourhood eatery serving up all the Italian-American classics beloved by Tony and his cronies in The Sopranos. Finally, I got to sample the mythical "chicken pawwwwm" as Carmella always called it and my god, it was good. A plate the size of the table arrived featuring spicy pasta, crumbed chicken under a wedge of melted mozzarella and rich gravy (what we'd call tomato sauce).

Sufficiently stuffed, we hit the trail once more, this time heading down to frenetic Times Square, ticking yet another iconic landmark off the list and picking up some cut-price Broadway tickets at the TKTS ticket booths while we were at it. Taking in a Broadway show has to be the most New York New York activity of them all - and our vagabond shoes were longing to stray into Hamilton or one of the other hits on show.

We got a tip about the brand new musical wowing everyone this year. Head Over Heals is a boisterous re-telling of a 16th Century romance, which has been given a thoroughly inclusive update and set to the hits of Eighties all-female rock group the Go-Gos. It was funny, flirty and full of positivity.

Even better, it also afforded us our mandatory star-spotting experience in the shape of movie director John Waters (Hairspray, Pink Flamingos) in the audience.

The next morning we rose early and struck out for the Lower East Side with a serious mission in mind: to land a table in the cult favourite Prune.

The chef-owner of this low-key cafe, Gabrielle Hamilton, wrote a brilliant memoir a few years back called Blood, Bones & Butter which I devoured in one-sitting.

After feasting on her words, I wanted to feast on her food. Reservations for dinner are difficult to secure but on the weekends, you can queue for brunch and sample the smart dishes that go above and beyond the usual fare. We devoured the decadent Monte Christo sandwich, a riff on a Croque Monsieur, and a delicious Dutch pancake.

We then ambled further south through Chinatown with its vibrant stalls and raucous fish vendors with live fish on offer, past the sombre but stunning memorial to 9/11, two cascading square waterfalls occupying the footprints of the old World Trade Centres, and on down to Battery Park to catch the boat to Ellis Island.

The trip to Ellis Island incorporates a stop at the Statue of Liberty and is an absolute must. The museum on Ellis island takes visitors back over 100 years to when the island was a busy immigrant inspection station, processing 12m people in about 60 years. Displays of possessions brought by families from their homeland, accounts from people who remember arriving on the island, in some cases meeting fathers they'd never seen before, all bring the fascinating stories to life.

From one fascinating place to another, that night, after a bite to eat on the High Line - an elevated park on the old New York central railway - we checked into the fictional McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea for a performance of the famous site-specific experiential theatre show Sleep No More, based in part on Shakespeare's Macbeth.

What followed was a truly unforgettable night. Upon arrival in the former warehouse, we were separated, given masks and little else by way of explanation.

From there we were plunged into an individual adventure spanning five floors comprising everything from an antiquated asylum, a forest and an enormous cemetery while actors danced and played out multiple narratives around us. In short, it's a trip.

After only just coming back down to earth from Sleep No More, the next day we were on a high once more - first at the top of the Rockefeller Building to take in the incredible views over the city and then we shot over to see the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum where we toured a submarine and saw the first space shuttle, Enterprise.

Our return to sea level was sadly brief, as it was time to pack up and board the plane and bid farewell to the city so nice they named it twice.

Until next time, at least.

Take two: top attractions

CityPASS is a must

We used the official CityPASS (citypass.com/new-york) to gain entry to six of the most iconic attractions in the city. There’s also great ideas, including shopping, dining and sightseeing at nycgo.com

Hipster heaven

A trip to Brooklyn on the weekend offers a great change of pace. Wander through the outdoor food market, Smorgasburg — dubbed the “Woodstock of eating”, and sample all the latest hipster foodie trends... like the spaghetti doughnut

Getting there

Fitzpatrick's Manhattan

* Sophie stayed at the four-star Fitzpatrick Manhattan Hotel, 687 Lexington Avenue, New York. Located in the heart of New York City, the hotel is a short walk from Times Square, Central Park, Bloomingdale’s, and all of the world-class shopping found on Fifth Avenue.

* The Fitzpatrick Manhattan has 92 rooms and suites that were completely refurbished this year, featuring all new furniture and carpeting. See their new images at www.fitzpatrickhotels.com.

The Fitzpatrick Grand Central

* Exclusive OFFER Sunday Independent readers booking a stay at either the Fitzpatrick Grand Central or Fitzpatrick Manhattan Hotels, will get 10pc off the daily “Best Available Rate” for stays between January 2 and March 3, 2019 by using the special promo code SUNIND when booking on the hotel website: www.fitzpatrickhotels.com

NB: This article originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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