By: Paula Wallis
We’ve all seen Miracle on 34th Street. New York City lit up like a Christmas tree, good cheer everywhere, Macy’s window displays. What could be more Christmas than New York City on Christmas Eve? So, I decided, a couple of Christmases ago, to surprise my husband with a last minute getaway to the Big Apple. (Did I really just use the word Christmas four – no – five times?)
We were scheduled to fly in on December 20th, leaving on Christmas Eve, just in time to arrive back home to spend the big day with family and friends. Didn’t quite work out that way; our flight was delayed by 8 hours, so we spent much of Christmas Eve at JFK airport, and then our connecting flight at Chicago O’Hare was canceled due to a white-out blizzard, so we booked the last room available at the Airport Hilton and spent the night there. Still one of the best Christmases I can remember. Since we had such a fabulous time, I’ve put together our itinerary, of sorts, for you and your loved ones to make the most of your holiday trip to the Big Apple.
We touched the ground at JFK with fingers crossed, hoping to be greeted by a blanket of snow covering the city. No such luck. It was cold, grey and windy. What little snow there was drifted across the tarmac in little swirls. No matter, we were there! We hopped a cab into Manhattan, where we had booked ourselves into the Paramount Hotel, walking distance from Times Square. I’m always leery about online bookings when it comes to cities I’ve never visited before; it’s a bit like a lottery, waiting to see what sort of lodgings you’re going to end up in. Part of the excitement, I think. We lucked out with the Paramount. We entered the funky little boutique hotel, lobby decked out with a giant tree and all the garland you could ask for. Classic Christmas carols drifted from the speakers as visitors and bellhops alike bustled through the lobby, arms loaded with suitcases overstuffed with Christmas shopping to bring home to their families.
On a recent trip to New York, my husband and I stopped by the Paramount to have a drink in their bar (one of my husband’s favorites) and were disappointed to see that the hotel had recently undergone renovations. Don’t get me wrong, it looks fantastic now, but we had fallen in love with the classic New York look of the place when we first visited. Still, I suppose a Times Square hotel must update now and then if they wish to remain competitive. I just wish they had kept the brocaded red velvet chair with the snarling Rottweiler motif in the lobby. Sigh.
We spent the first night there searching out (and finding) what we considered to be a typical New York all night diner. Bar stools at the counter, pie under a glass dome, and windows fogged with grease, this little joint in Hell’s Kitchen was exactly what we sought. I’d tell you the name, but sadly, I didn’t write it down. Don’t worry though, there’s plenty just like it to be found, if a greasy spoon diner is what you’re looking for. After wolfing down a couple of pastramis on rye and cold cokes to wash them down , we went in search of a little Irish snug to have a pint, an Irish coffee, and do some people watching. No problem finding that either. If there’s one thing New York is not lacking in, it’s Irish pubs.
After hitting a few pubs, we stopped at our hotel bar for a nightcap, which turned into several because of the cool ambience of the place. Dim lighting, low tables, big, comfy plush leather chairs and a DJ spinning house tracks kept us there for a martini or four. I sincerely hope that the bar there wasn’t part of the revamping of the hotel, but I think it was.
We woke up the next morning feeling energized and ready to explore this great city. What to do first? Well, every large tourist hub seems to have an abundance of hop-on, hop-off bus tours. New York City is no exception to this rule. Just a quick walk over to Times Square from the hotel and we found what we were looking for. If you’re ever in any big city and feeling a little overwhelmed by your options, I always recommend starting with a two day pass on the bus tours. Preferably the open-topped buses so you can get a 360 degree view as you move through the city. This allows you the option to pick and choose which stops you want to get off and explore without all the walking that usually goes along with it. And if you miss something on the first day, a two day pass will allow you to come back and visit that spot.
Bundled up warm, we picked our seats on the bus. It was a chilly, clear day in the city and we had the entire top deck to ourselves. Perfect. Our tour guide/comedian kept us entertained and informed for much of the ride. Pointing out all the sights and filling us in on local knowledge, he occasionally requested the driver pull up close to other bus tours so he could chat up the female tour guides and pass them his number. The tour took us through the Theatre District, Times Square, down Broadway, through SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown, down to Battery Park, past Liberty Island, Ground Zero, under the Brooklyn Bridge, past the UN Building, through a lovely tour of some gorgeous brownstone mansions, past Central Park, Rockefeller Center, and back into Midtown Manhattan.
We decided that day to disembark at Battery Park to take the ferry over and visit the Statue of Liberty. Standing in the line, which moved remarkably quickly, we were entertained by a dreadlocked street performer playing steel drum. After some quick photo-ops (it was cold and windy along the water!) and a hot chocolate, we ferried back over to Manhattan. We wandered along the waterfront a bit and admired some of the buildings and sculptures along the way.
Hopping back on the next bus that came along we decided to jump off near Empire State Building and do a bit of a walking tour from there, stopping of course at the Heartland Brew Pub at the base of Empire State for a pint and a pub lunch before ascending to the viewing deck.
After admiring the spectacular city views we did a walking tour through the Flatiron District, over to Macy’s to check out their Christmas window displays, which always draw a large crowd, stopped in to Macy’s for some shopping, of course, and then some shoe shopping on 5th Ave!
Our plan for that evening was to hit a Broadway show. Because it was Christmas, I wanted to see the Nutcracker Suite as performed by the New York City Ballet, but my husband had his heart set on the long running favorite, Phantom of the Opera. Since it was technically his trip, we decided on Phantom. We went to Times Square to purchase some discount tickets (big orange signs that say TKTS, right in the middle of Times Square – can’t miss it), stood in the incredibly long line-up that moved remarkably quickly, and we were on our way.
Housed in the gorgeous Majestic Theatre, which was originally built in 1927, Phantom seems right at home in this wonderfully maintained musical house. I was glad that we had gone with my husband’s pick.
If you’re planning on dining out before the show, arrive early or book ahead. We gave ourselves two hours for dinner before the show, thinking that would be more than enough, as the Italian restaurant we chose was very nearly across the street from The Majestic. It was incredibly packed with theatre patrons who’d had the same idea. Service was rushed, although pleasant, and food was slow. We had to remind our server a couple of times that we had a show to catch, but stopped when the manager came out and began berating the poor fellow right in front of us. The manager retrieved our dinners himself and we quickly saw why the server couldn’t bring it out when we asked. My chicken was practically raw. I shrugged, ate the salad and veggies around it, tipped the waiter generously (it wasn’t his fault) and rushed off to the show.
After the show, which we thoroughly enjoyed, we were still hungry (obviously) and chanced upon an open pizza joint right next door to our hotel. This became a regular stop for us on our way up to the room every night. Nothing like a slice of New York style pizza after a night on the town.
The next day our plan was to hit Rockefeller Centre, Central Park, and yes, more shopping! We hit the buffet breakfast at our hotel, which was fabulous, if a little on the pricey side, and then hit the streets to do some wandering around and photo-taking before heading off to our destination.
We absolutely loved the “New York-sized” Christmas decorations everywhere. Giant nutcracker dolls, giant trees, giant ornaments everywhere. Who cares if there was no snow; it still gave you that warm, fuzzy feeling.
We got to Rockefeller Center hoping to do some ice-skating on the rink there, but were put off by the tiny ice rink and the massive line-up of people waiting to get on it and skate in a tiny circle, along with hundreds of other people. So we took some pictures of the famous Christmas Tree there instead, along with the many other sights, and started off for Central Park. We hadn’t realized that Central Park also had an outdoor skating rink that was much larger with less than half the line-up. We spent a good couple of hours there, skating (badly) around, drinking hot chocolate, and listening to Bing Crosby from the loudspeakers singing of good cheer and white Christmases. Best. Day. Ever. Just don’t skate in the wrong direction. I’ve never seen so many small children get yelled at before by the “rink police.”
What else is there to do when in Central Park (besides ice skating) than take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the park. Of course we did just that. The movies always show two characters, cuddled together under a blanket, riding through the park for what seems like hours, while the driver (Is that what you call them?) discreetly pretends not to notice their undying declarations of love going on behind him. This was not our experience. I believe it was twenty minutes, the duration of which was spent (by me) listening to my husband and the driver discuss English premier league football.
After quite possibly the least romantic horse and carriage ride ever, we wandered back to Rockefeller Center, shopping a bit along the way of course, and found a little wine bar, grabbed a bench seat at the window, and sat down to warm up and indulge in some fine reds. Morrell’s Wine Bar at Rockefeller Plaza has an amazing selection, great view of the plaza, and choice menu items. You can’t go wrong. We returned there on our next trip to New York and were happy to discover that they hadn’t changed a single thing about it.
Possibly a few too many reds later, we thought it was time to retire to our room. On the way back we spotted a cycle rickshaw and thought maybe we should relive our horse and carriage ride from earlier, since it went so well. Silly us, we didn’t negotiate a price per distance before jumping in and had to shell out 30 bucks for a measly block and a half ride. Totally not worth the price. But, he did, conveniently, drop us in front of Rosie O’Grady’s Irish Pub, so, of course, once we were standing in front of the doors, the logic became, “Why not?” Great pub, great atmosphere!
Quick slice on the way up to the room after the pub, and we were done for the night.
We devoted the next day specifically to shopping, making time to stop for lunch and dinner and several pubs in between. Alright, so maybe we didn’t get a whole lot of shopping done. But we did find an amazing Beatles memorabilia collection housed in the Hard Rock Café on Broadway. Normally I try to avoid giant chain restaurants like this one and hit up more funky local haunts, but I’d heard rumor of their Beatles collection, and I wasn’t disappointed. George Harrison’s guitar, a touching shrine to John Lennon and the original doors from the Beatles Abbey Road Studio (that you can actually touch) gave this Beatles fanatic her fix. The only thing I didn’t manage to squeeze in on this trip, which I was dying to, was a trip over to the Dakota (John Lennon’s former home and the sight of his assassination) across from Central Park, and the memorial to him in Central Park. But I managed to get there on my next visit, so that’s okay.
Roaming around looking for a nice place for dinner that night, we happened across Ellen’s Stardust Diner on Broadway. Why hadn’t I heard of this place before? With singing waitstaff (most of them are aspiring broadway actors/singers), simple 50’s style fare, and an audience participation type atmosphere, this was a great place to end up our trip before leaving the next day. Staff dance along the back of your booths, singing 50’s, 60’s and 70’s hits, throwing in plenty of comic relief and encouraging audience/patrons to dance and sing along. They also did a smashing version of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.
Another great restaurant to check out if you’re in New York is Island Burgers in Hell’s Kitchen. We didn’t get there on this trip, but my brother and his wife steered us there on our next trip to NYC. It’s a tiny little surfer themed restaurant (hence the name) that boasts the best burgers and shakes in Hell’s Kitchen. They don’t lie. It was fantastic. Find them on 9th Ave and enjoy!
The next day was our last day there. We took one last walk through Times Square to do some last minute souvenir shopping, had one more slice of pizza and then it was time to cab it to JFK for our soon to be discovered debacle at the airport. While in the cab, trying to figure out the mystery of just why NewYork cab drivers are continuously honking their horns at seemingly nothing, we reflected on our trip there and decided another trip to New York was definitely in order.
There’s so much more to see and do in New York City. But that’s the great thing; it’s only a plane ride away, so you can go back as often as you like, to explore and enjoy. Now I get why everyone has those I heart New York t-shirts. In fact, I’m wearing mine right now.
About the author:
Paula Wallis makes her home in beautiful British Columbia in the Best City in The World, Vancouver. She spends her spare time seeking out the best beaches in the world and is a huge fan of hammocks. Follow her on fanaticnomadic.blogspot.com