ICONIC New York City moments abound during a fantastic short break to the Big Apple, finds Alison Gray
Tomorrow I’ll be flipping through all the random sports channels I never normally pay any attention to, searching for coverage of the TCS New York City Marathon. One of the most popular marathons in the world, the route is a visual feast for those who love looking at the Big Apple. Starting on Staten Island and taking in boroughs including the Bronx, and Queens, with a glory finish in the iconic surroundings of Central Park, it’s the perfect race for armchair sports fans.
I’ve yet to sign up – one day? – but I have got something in common with tomorrow’s elite athletes, in that I have experienced the thrill of trotting around that most famous of city parks, in the company of fellow Lycra lovers, roller bladers and speed walkers.
Never mind the shopping (we’ll get to that) a tour of Central Park with one of the volunteers who help to manage Manhattan’s 843 acre green lung was the surprise hit of a mini break to NYC which also took in a Broadway show and the Empire State Building. Rich in everything from social history – the park might be rectangular but there is not a straight path within its borders, the designers wanted visitors to relax and meander – to celebrity, where else do you find a reservoir named after Jacqueline Onassis or struggle to locate the fictional location of Central Perk from Friends? – it’s beyond fascinating. And if your visit coincides with the aforementioned marathon you will also be lucky enough to see it as the glorious trees shed their leaves in the romance of Fall. There are countless museums to explore in this city, but there’s not a quicker way to feel immersed in New York culture than by taking a guided trip around this green space.
If, like me, you’re sold on the park, an ideal base is the Loews Regency Hotel, located in the heart of midtown Manhattan on Park Avenue. There’s more history to enjoy here – the hotel originally opened its doors in 1963, but a recent refurb (they spent $100 million in 2014) means it really does blend modern style with classic design. And there are some great stories.
The claim to fame from the early days is that the infamous NYC Power Breakfast concept was informally introduced at the Loews Regency in 1975 during that year’s financial crisis when Loews Corporation co-chairman and co-CEO Bob Tisch began inviting leaders from the public and private sectors to the restaurant to discuss ways to help the city recover. The power breakfast forever changed how business was done, ending the era of the Don Draper three martini lunch in favour of morning meetings that could take place before the official work day began.
The hotel keeps the story alive – and continues to organise breakfast events, but it’s funny how times have changed. Today breakfast is eaten on the run – even at the Loews Regency which boasts a fantastic adjoining coffee and pastry bar run by Sant Ambroeus Cafe where people sip lattes and nibble pain au chocolat leaning against a counter – there are places to perch, rather than seats.
Dinner at the hotel is an altogether more glamorous affair however. You might have booked an appointment at in-hotel celebrity stylist Julien Farel’s chic salon for a blow out – that’s NY speak for getting your hair done – the real blow out comes when you get to the menu at The Regency Bar and Grill. You can kid yourself by having a light dish as an appetizer, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the red quinoa salad with shaved asparagus, pecans, arugula and pomegranate vinaigrette, but the USP of this place is American cuisine and when you get to the entrées, there’s no way you are going to be able to resist the rib steak for two (36 oz).
The food in NY is amazing and you can have anything you want, but sometimes what you want is pastrami on rye in a diner washed down by a cream soda. We were lucky enough to stumble upon this quintessential eating experience – which could only have been bettered had New York State of Mind by Billy Joel been playing gently in the background. Sadly it wasn’t. But there was an off duty cop at a corner table.
All this dining, fine and otherwise, requires exercise and thanks to the gridiron street pattern that NYC has in common with Glasgow, it’s more difficult to get lost on foot here than in much smaller cities.
The High Line offers another opportunity to experience green space in the heart of the city. Following the route of a disused New York Central Railroad spur called the West Side Line, this is a different kind of park, a long thin walkway that leads through some of the city’s more grungy areas around the Meatpacking District, but with your birds’ eye view you feel quite safe. You also get to see lofts mid-conversion. The final section of the route only opened in 2014 so much of the planting is not yet mature, but the longer it’s here, the more magical it will become as shrubs become more established.
If you want to do one of the more traditional sights, on a clear day the Empire State Building is totally worth it. Like all the tourist attractions in this pulsing city there’s a pretty serious looking queue, sorry, line, but it’s very well organised and you will be up there looking out over the Manhattan skyline in no time.
Shopping is intense and you have to be up for it. I love shopping but on this trip there wasn’t time to hunt out the cool Soho boutiques or make a pilgrimage to the legendary designer bargain emporium that is Century 21. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I had to ask a security guard for directions to the nearest exit in Bloomingdales as I was getting overwhelmed by choice in the perfume department. The contrasts to Scottish shopping are just too extreme – we don’t even have a branch of cult Japanese superlabel Uniqlo, while the flagship store on Fifth Avenue is so big (over 89,000 square feet of shopping space) that it’s got a Starbucks in the middle of it.
I might sound like I’m getting my cities confused, but for my money there’s only one musical to see in New York, and that’s Chicago. The second longest running show in Broadway history, (only Phantom has run for longer) it’s the perfect musical for the Big Apple, with naked ambition at the heart of the plot, along with more than a few classic showtunes and a cracking ensemble cast. This season Bruce Willis’s eldest daughter with Demi Moore, Rumer Willis is taking the role of merry murderess Roxie Hart at the Ambassador Theatre, in the show’s 19th year. I wonder what they’ve got planned for the 20th? I wonder if there are any tickets left?
• KLM (www.klm.com) flies daily from Edinburgh to New York City via Amsterdam. Return fares start from £408 including all taxes and fees.The lead in rate for the Loews Regency Hotel (loewshotels.com/regency-hotel) for November is from $589/£382 per night; centralparknyc.org; www.esbnyc.com; thehighline.org; www.chicagothemusical.com