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A Michigan Girl In…New York City

Someone recently posted a question in a “Women Who Travel” Facebook group that I am a member of, asking for recommendations for a good place to travel at Christmas time for a woman from North Carolina to travel alone for 5-7 days. I had an immediate flashback to a solo trip I had taken just before Christmas 2015, to New York City. My one and only time there (so far). For some reason, I never sat down then to write this travel piece…and now, four years later while the memories are still very vivid, I am most thankful for social apps (especially Foursquare/Swarm) for allowing me to review the actual timetable!

I found myself in the east coast in Washington DC for a quick business trip for a client that month, to pitch an event coming to Michigan. They would fly me from Grand Rapids to DC, put me up for a night following the meeting, then fly me back. When I asked if the return flight could be a few days later, they had no problem as long as the price didn’t change too drastically. I immediately began making plans for a quick jaunt up to “The Big Apple” for two overnights (and what amounted to about 36 hours).

My brief meeting was on a Thursday afternoon, wrapped up in time for a late dinner with a Michigan friend who lives and works nearby. Then, Friday morning it was off to the Union Station for the 3-hour, $175 Amtrak ride to NYC (the return trip on Sunday was about $10 more). Once I arrived in Penn Station, I hailed a cab (doesn’t that just sound New York-ish) and went to check into the Sheridan Times Square (7th and 53rd). My dear friend Michael (who I had met in GR when he helped open the JW Marriott there 10 years prior) works as a concierge in the big city and he was helpful in my landing a lovely and affordable hotel in the heart of the city (between Central Park and Times Square). After throwing my bags in my room, downsizing my purse and changing into warmer socks and boots, I was back out the door. I had an aggressive list of places to go, people to see and things to do…and just two days to cram it all in.

I hailed another cab and made my way to Ground Zero. I wanted this to be my first stop of my trip before my head was buzzing with the sights and sounds of the city. The area around where the Twin Towers once stood and then crumbled on that fateful September 11, 2001 was an active construction zone with security scattered about and dozens – no, hundreds – of people walking around in quite reflection. They were taking pictures, reading names and it’s ironic that while I was inside that space, I don’t recall hearing any sounds. It was near silent, or at least that is how I remember it. I sat on a bench, took out a notebook and pen and scribbled some thoughts about being there…of what I felt, what I remembered from news broadcasts, what people had posted on social media over the years. I tried to comprehend the magnitude of what had happened in this spot, the chaos and the noise…but also the human compassion and strength that resulted from that tragedy. Even today, 18 years later, thinking about my visit there brings tears to my eyes…I can’t even imagine how those who suffered through the actual attacks and the days, weeks, months and years that followed must feel. Being there was probably the most profound experience of my life.

After that heavy load, I was ready for a drink and felt like walking. So, with my trusty iPhone map app in hand, I made my way to Tribeca Grill for a glass of wine and a bite to eat. It was a quick stop, because I had so much to see and sip. From there, it was a “Sugar n Spice” cocktail at Distilled before landing at Broome Street Bar to cross another thing off my list: a Manhattan in Manhattan. I was a woman on a mission, and was anxious for my next stop at Da Silvano (which I have just learned is now permanently closed)…but that night, it was full of life, bubbles and hugs from my dear friend Michael!

Up for more walking (and yes, I realize I was crisscrossing back and forth through the city, but I didn’t know and honestly didn’t care at the time). Although it was early (8:28pm), I ducked inside Terra Blues to soak up some deep jazz and blues music, along with a Cosmo or two (another item off my list…live music) before heading out to find dinner. A little over a mile away I stopped in my tracks, confused…standing outside Nancy Whiskey Pub! I don’t know if it is related to the popular Detroit pub, but I saw it as a sign and stepped inside for dinner. Lucky for me, there was a single spot open at the bar and I was in and seated in no time. A young English fellow was sitting next to me and after he ordered a Two Hearted Ale from Bell’s I was compelled to strike up a conversation (and later bought him another, because…well it was the Michigan thing to do). After a hearty dinner and at least one more glass of wine, I was starting to feel the effects of the day (travel, food and plenty of beverages), so I took a cab back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Saturday morning, I was up, showered, dressed and out of the hotel around 10. My first stop was brunch at the Russian Tea Room where bagels and lox (and mimosas) were on the menu! I couldn’t think of a better way to start the day! Sadly, I misjudged the hours…and had to kill sometime before they opened so I popped in and out of a handful of shops in the area to pick up a few last-minute Christmas gifts and strolled past Carnegie Hall but I didn’t wander too far as I wanted to be first in line when the restaurant opened its doors. As normal, I chose a seat at the bar and ordered my first of what would be four mimosas along with my bagel and lox, each bite more delicious than the first (and enough for at least two people).

Founded by members of the Russian Imperial Ballet in 1927, the iconic space was one of my favorite spots during my visit to town. I soaked up the lush and elegant atmosphere, listened to the music and imagined being there in the 1920s at night rubbing elbows with the city’s elite high society. According to their website, “Countless guests visiting from around the globe walk through the antique revolving doors to catch a glimpse of the booth Dustin Hoffman sat in when filming Tootsie; to see the inspiration that Woody Allen found for the movie Manhattan; to walk past the coat check where Madonna [from Saginaw, Michigan] worked before she found fame; or to try martinis like the cast of Gossip Girl recently did.”

After gorging myself, I was ready for a nice long walk and the 1.3 acre Central Park welcomed me with open arms! While some were taking horse-drawn carriage rides in and around the park, I tucked my hands in the pocket of my bright red coat and began walking briskly through the legendary park to enjoy the sunny day.

Along my walk, I encountered the Shakespeare Garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. I watched sea lions splash at the zoo and learned about the birds of Central Park (while thinking about my grandmother, who also loved birds. I walked past Strawberry Fields, a memorial on Central Park West and West 72nd Street outside The Dakota apartment building where one-time Beatle John Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980 after being shot five times by Mark David Chapman. I climbed the tower of the 1872 Belvedere Castle and watched a wedding party posing for pictures against the historic background. I dreamed of returning in the spring, when blossoms would be coloring the tips of all the trees and blooms would be popping up through the ground.

With a little googling, I found the building from Sex and the City the movie where Carrie and Mr. Big were buying their penthouse apartment and took a selfie outside! Hey, at least I didn’t take the full waling or bus tour to the series sites but the thought did cross my mind (if I had only had more time). My walk through Central Park was taking me to my ultimate destination…the Guggenheim (officially known as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum).

Designed by one of my favorite architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, this uniquely constructed museum opened on October 21, 1959 to house a rotating and impressive collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, early Modern and contemporary art. Its spiral design resembles a nautilus shell with a giant rotunda at the top to flood the space with natural light. Now, I don’t know much about modern art and architecture, but anything that FLW designed is worth a few hours of my time to explore.

Making my way back through the park late afternoon I came upon Tavern on the Green, a historic pub inside Central Park. It looked inviting and quaint…very English countryside…and after all that walking and art gazing, I was ready for a drink. The place was packed as tourists gathered to listen to the nostalgic sounds of a three-piece band singing classics from decades ago made popular by the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole The atmosphere was full of energy, the sounds of chatter against the musical backdrop and the shaking of cocktails. I wondered what it was like here in its heyday, when guests dressed up for happy hour and dinner.

As I sat there sipping my drink, I began googling the restaurant’s history. The structure was originally built in the 1880s to house the 700 or so Southdown sheep that grazed in the park’s “Sheep Meadow.” It transformed into a restaurant in 1934 (the year after the end of Prohibition) and it operated under several different owners since that time. According to its website, “the iconic view of the park, and the addition of a dance floor, outdoor seating, and a lavish menu, kept prominent actors, musicians, and public figures coming back to the restaurant to dine, drink, and celebrate.”

I also learned that the executive chef (at the time) was John Stevenson who was “born and raised on a farm in southeast Michigan [where he] acquired strong worth ethics and ambition within a close-knit farming community.” From MICHIGAN? What were the chances. I quickly found him on Twitter and whipped off a quick post. To my surprise, he responded something to the affect of “why didn’t you let me know you were here?” (I just wish I had a screenshot to prove it).

Well, the day of eating, drinking and walking had left me tired, so I decided to head back to the hotel for a nap before dinner and whatever activity I decided on for that evening. As I was exiting the park, I encountered a Christmas market full of vendors in tents lined up selling their wares. I resisted temptation to stop and shop, but it wasn’t easy.

A two-hour nap and a shower left me refreshed and famished. Not knowing exactly where I was going to land for dinner I zigged and zagged in and around Times Square, taking in the flashing neon and sounds of the city. It was an energy unlike anything I had experienced (a more intense immersion than Vegas when I visited there in 1991). Along my walk I would stop and read restaurant menus hung outside until I landed in front of Bond 45…an Italian steakhouse that was at the time on 45th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue (I was told they were moving to 46th Street in the near future, which appears to have happened).

No surprise, at 7:45 there was a 2-hour wait for a table, but I was invited to make my way to the packed bar and order a drink. With my glass of Riesling in hand I stood patiently, just as I do at some of my favorite places back home on Saturday nights. Suddenly one couple after another were called to their tables and within 10-15 minutes, I was the only one at the bar! And, bonus…I could order dinner and eat there too. After canceling my table reservation, I began eyeing the mouthwatering menu. I had saved for this trip (a year-end bonus to myself for a banner work year) and money wasn’t a concern (the size of my stomach, however, was).

I struck up a conversation with my bartender while the bar was empty and shared with her my love of food. I apologized in advance for ordering more than I could eat because there was so much that I wanted to try. She poured me a glass of Cab Franc and said it was nice to see a woman with a hearty appetite who wasn’t afraid to order more than salad or fish and who would in fact be eating the bread!

True to form, I ordered the 24-ounce prime dry-aged tomahawk ribeye (rare) with three sides. After taking my obligatory pictures, I asked her to bring me a box. I cut off a portion of the steak, loaded up some sides on my plate and boxed the rest. I offered it to her, which I know isn’t really allowed (yet I have plenty of bartender / server friends back home who think nothing of accepting this gift). I told her to make sure someone ate it and that it wasn’t thrown out…someone on staff, a homeless person who might go hungry, I didn’t care…I just didn’t want it discarded and I was leaving on the train (and then a plane) 12 hours later. People came and went at the bar over the next 90-minutes as I slowly ate and drank and chatted. That steak melted like butter in my mouth. The wine, an ideal pairing.

Heading back outside at 9:30, it was still “quiet” for a Saturday night in NYC. I made my way to Rockefeller Center…saw the giant Christmas tree and watched people skating (that rink really isn’t as big as it appears on TV). I strolled past Radio City Music Hall and wondered about the performances that have been held there over the years. I stopped to take video of the animated musical light display at Sak’s Fifth Avenue. I event bought a few souvenirs at the NBC store (being a fan of Today Show).

To end the night, I took the (less than) 50-second, 67-story elevator ride to the Top of the Rock (mainly because my kids suggested it…they had been there back in 2008 with their dad). Being afraid of heights, this was a big deal for me. The views…amazing to say the least! The dark sky with all the lights of the city in every direction…the people, so many people, yet it didn’t feel crowded.

Had I planned it better, I would have TRIED (likely unsuccessfully) to get on Saturday Night Live – that night, hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, with musical guest Bruce Springsteen. They were filming, but the process of standing in line to get tickets earlier in the day to go back and stand in line to get into the show and then staying up until 12:30 and beyond ironically didn’t interest me in the “city that never sleeps.” As I get older, my sense of adventure continues but so does my love of sleep.

I was back at my hotel in bed before midnight knowing that I had to be back at Penn Station to catch a 9am train back to DC.

In all, a mere 36 hours in NYC. No, I didn’t see a Broadway (or off-Broadway) show…there just wasn’t enough time. I also didn’t get to see a real burlesque show there…or get a drink at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Plaza (it was closed Saturday for a private event when I tried to go, had I known – I would have tried Friday night instead). A return trip is definitely in order someday so I can visit the Bronx Zoo, see the Statue of Liberty, walk the halls of the New York Public Library, take in a true burlesque show, have a drink in Greenwich Village and so much more.

For more pictures from my trip: