Travel: Central Park, New York
THERE’S nothing like a long walk in New York’s Central Park to take your mind off what’s going on at a certain music festival closer to home
WHAT do you do when your firstborn goes to his inaugural T in the Park? You put as much distance between you and him as possible so you don’t get yourself a ticket and follow him around crying all weekend. That’s how I found myself on a plane to New York. Distraction was required and the Big Apple certainly delivered.
It was jaw-dropping from the get-go when an upgrade saw me bounced into a Virgin Atlantic first-class berth. As we settled in, pawing at the buttons on the seat/bed and inhaling glasses of fizz, the longest, skinniest pair of legs I’ve ever seen – sprouting from a pair of towering wedges and ending in buttock splitting Daisy Dukes – passed at eye level and folded themselves into an opposite berth. I tried not to stare, honest, but when I realised it was Alexa Chung, I couldn’t help nebbing as she demolished afternoon tea with gusto. There’s no justice. Biding my time till arrival, as we exited together I asked her if she’d like to talk to Scotland on Sunday. “No, I don’t really talk about myself. It’s boring, but thanks ...” and she picked up speed, and was off, long legs stretching out like a racehorse leaving this Shetland pony in its tracks.
No matter, another British model was hanging around the lobby when we got to our hotel, The Surrey on the Upper East Side. Kate Moss is the subject of a huge Chuck Close image that dominates the hall and sets the tone for this five-star hotel. Built in 1926 as a residence hotel, the original Surrey was the choice of JFK, Bette Davis and Claudette Colbert. Nowadays, Roger Federer stays here with his family when he plays the US Open and is adored by the staff, as we were to discover when he sent Andy Murray home to think again that weekend. You can see why he chooses The Surrey – which had a $60m renovation in 2009 – with its 190 rooms, celebrity chef Daniel Bouloud-owned bistro, private rooftop garden and ground floor spa.
The views are amazing too, all downtown laid out in front of you, and to be up off the sizzling streets was sublime.
Location is one The Surrey’s main attractions, with Central Park at the end of the street. This vast green space among the concrete grid of streets and buildings, with its huge trees, lent shade and I walked for a long time, people and pooch-watching as New Yorkers exercised their never-ending assortment of pedigree pets and bellowed into mobiles. Fearful of becoming lost in its vastness like Stuart Little, I retraced my steps to the safety of the hotel, just in time for a trip to the Whitney, five minutes round the corner in the other direction, on Madison Avenue.
Founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1931 with much of her private collection, the gallery showcases the best of modern American art, from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. Our free tour of the Signs and Symbols exhibition was a great way to get the most out of the experience, such was the guide’s knowledge of the artworks, although we only scratched the surface of the 19,000 exhibits from Angus Calder to Georgia O’Keefe. Memorable were an early work by Jackson Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner, a powerful, yet controlled and compact two-dimensional monochrome, and another she painted after Pollock died and she inherited his barn to spread in, resulting in a vast explosion of colour and expression. Well, he can’t have been easy to live with.
All that art made us thirsty, so we took a taxi downtown to The James, where the rooftop pool and bar make it Manhattan’s latest hangout – if people can get past the clipboard-toting security on the door that is. Some of our party were deemed beautiful enough and I tagged along too. I wouldn’t mind, but we were on the list. After being shown the room where Gossip Girl checked in to film, we headed for the trendy rooftop bar and watched, cocktails in hand, as the sun dropped behind the Statue of Liberty, the skyscrapers lit up – including the two being built to replace the Twin Towers – and beautiful lounge lizards slid in and out of the pool.
Less concerned about our own figures we ate at the hotel’s excellent David Burke kitchen, outside on the terrace, before a taxi dash to catch the last lift up the Rockefeller Centre at 11pm. Don’t bother queuing for the Empire State Building; the Top of the Rock late-night jaunt avoids the crowds and you get to admire the beauty of the iconic building from a distance. When a thunderstorm fractured the night sky and sent zig-zags of light down to the famous rooftop, all that was missing was King Kong and Faye Wray.
Over the next two days our gastronomic tour continued, with lunch at the Spice Kitchen in Meatpacking District followed by a much-needed walk along The Highline, an old train line that cuts through the redbrick and concrete and that has been transformed into gardens dotted with artworks. Drinks in the riotous Lower East Side, where the shenanigans around us made a Scottish music festival’s excesses look like a walk in the park, saw us in a pub so niche it was hidden behind an anonymous door in a greasy spoon and I never did catch its name. Hangovers were banished next morning with a gut-busting brunch at another Bouloud restaurant – he’s hard to avoid, not that you’d want to, as he has six restaurants in New York – @DBGB Kitchen and Bar, where you must try the sliders or speciality sausages, then a walk in the fresh air over the Brooklyn Bridge.
We wound up at Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, New York’s latest bo-ho destination where the fleamarket is another must. Apart from the street food, stalls stuffed with sepia photos of long-gone families, comics, antique furniture and clothing, there’s the best view in the city to be enjoyed. We stood and watched as the Hudson lapped the boardwalk and gazed back to a Big Apple steaming in the summer heat. Yet I couldn’t help thinking of the muddy corner of a foreign field that is forever Fife.
The Surrey, 20 E 76th St, New York (www.thesurrey.com).
Virgin Holidays + Hip Hotels is offering three nights at The Surrey (on a room only basis), Virgin Atlantic flights and private car transfers for £899pp when booked before Feb 28 for travel in March. If booked after 28 Feb for travel in March the price is £979pp. Prices are based on two adults travelling and sharing a Deluxe King Room. Price includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change (0844 573 2460, www.vhiphotels.co.uk).
Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street (www.whitney.org)