I’ve never been to New York before and it was never high on my list of dream destinations. But since there was the last ever chance to see the Bowie Is exhibition in Brooklyn it was on my radar and when hubby said it would be his treat if I bought the tickets for Bowie exhibition it looks like I would be heading to the USA for the first time in 14 years.
The trip started from the moment we left home as we were chauffeured to Heathrow in a brand-new Tesla with white leather seats and red exterior. If I had ordered my dream car this would come very close. Listening to Absolute 80’s on the radio and having a friendly driver made it even better. When we arrived at Heathrow there was no queuing so we could check in straight away despite being early for our flight. We handed over our cases and headed for the Clubhouse with Virgin. Wow – what a fabulous experience it was. Dedicated staff to attend our needs, spa, food to order, Wi-Fi and charging points made it my dream experience. I am a nervous flyer so didn’t eat that much but did have some ice cream and some nibbles. Oh, and a vodka and coke to calm my nerves!
Soon enough it was time to get on the plane. Staff were so friendly – a million miles away from my horrific British Airways experience. We had paid for a window seat as this was something I had never experienced on my previous flights to the USA. I loved that the plane was called Lady Stardust. It was a perfect name for a Bowie trip. My husband would also celebrate his birthday when we were out there and when we mentioned this to the staff – two glasses of champagne followed. It was just perfect and I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be. Thanks be to Virgin Airlines!
As we landed I couldn’t help but have songs running through my head. Lazarus by David Bowie ‘By the time I got to New York, I was living like a king’, Frank Sinatra’s New York New York and of course the soundtrack to On The Town, but most of all a song that was always a big song in my life Gerald Kenny’s New York which was used in one of my first stage appearances when I was about 11 years old.
Sadly, the transfer was a poor choice and we had to chase it three times to get them to turn up (over an hour later) and they weren’t happy when we chose NOT to tip them. Yes, lets mention tips. In the USA not only is tax added to everything afterwards, but then most places expect a tip of 15-25%. Not the merge 10% that most people offer in the uk. So, no they were not pleased but frankly I don’t tip for bad service and was glad we had not booked them for the journey back.
Our hotel was The Benjamin and it was a beautiful hotel in Midtown. The room was fabulous, we paid for a king size and it included a kitchenette and a safe in the double wardrobe. The mirrors were also massive so I could check how I looked before I went out. It also used Elemis products which I loved. Staff were helpful and when we had a problem with our water heating up someone came to our room within 10 minutes! Breakfast was not included so we found a small place less that 100 yards away called New York Luncheonette. Its not much to look at from the outside but trust me – people queue here for breakfast so its worth the wait. We ate here everyday and chatted to people on the tables next to us. We met some interesting people and I felt sad on my last day to say to the family run staff that we were leaving.
Our first full day there we had pre-booked the 911 museum. The official website to pre-book is confusing but take my word, all you need is the museum. You do not need a tour around the free memorials which are outside where the towers used to stand. They are accessible to all, but do pre-book the museum because it gets busy. This was something I felt I needed to do. It’s not a touristy thing in my opinion but rather to pay my respects. I still remember where I was when I first saw that shocking footage and it has never left me. I can tell you that its shocking and very emotional. It includes The Pentagon and Flight 93. There was a recording of a woman saying her plane has been hijacked but she is okay and sending her love. Of course, we all know what happened to flight 93 so I was properly sobbing my heart out by this time. After the 911 museum we needed some light relief so we went shopping at Century 21; it was just a quick visit but enough for us to know we needed to dedicate some time here. We decided to come back later in the week as this amazing superstore offers huge discounts. We walked down Wall Street right to the bottom of Manhattan to see the Statue of Liberty. You will not be surprised to hear my phone tells me I did 20k on this day. It was a struggle as I was not used to it (I’m probably the most unfit person you know) but I wore comfortable trainers and that helped. We had heard about Ellen’s Stardust Diner and decided to try it out for dinner. We had no idea what we let ourselves in for but it was a blast. You don’t go there for the quality of the food, you go there for the amazing musical numbers sung by the waiters and waitress. It has a walkway and be warned the tables are so tightly packed in that you need to pull the table out to get to your seat. However, this is all totally worth it. I was picked on for a song and had a waiter sing Barry Manilow’s Mandy to me with such passion that he dragged my husbands chair away to get closer and at the end pelted me with straws. I was laughing so hard and everyone cheered and clapped us both. It wouldn’t surprise me if there is YouTube footage of this! If you are a fan of musicals you have to visit!
Today was Hubby’s birthday. We had pre-booked the Empire State Building but with hindsight this was a mistake. It was pouring and I got soaked just getting there at 8am. Normally it sees 20k visitors a day but today it was more like 20 as there was officially no view. We were unable to change the ticket as it was pre-booked so we went up anyway. It’s a stunning building with such lovely art deco touches. The staff are all friendly and we chatted to them. One of the security guards, Julius, said how they get training to spot people who may jump off the top. I had never even considered that people will do this – he told me a story of someone who did but fell onto a ledge below and broke a leg. He had to call 911 on his mobile to get help. It was interesting and lovely that it wasn’t crowded. It felt like it was a private tour. Very special for his birthday – the only thing missing was the view!
After this we went to see Grand Central Station. It really is a sight to behold. A few weeks before we flew there was a three-part documentary about New York and they did a big piece on how the station has been restored. And by chance we met one of the staff members who featured in the documentary. She was so chuffed we had seen her on TV. She chatted to us not caring about the queue behind us. We made her day! I took my husband to eat across the road at Pershing Square but felt it was a bit overpriced and was disappointed at how keen they were for us to leave our table once we had paid our bill despite still having drinks on our table and I had just popped to the ladies when they were already clearing the table! From then I carefully suggested we head for Soho/Greenwich. I knew that Lafayette subway was having a special Bowie feature but was it asking too much to visit on Hubby’s birthday? Surprisingly he agreed and my poor husband spent his birthday afternoon taking photos of me with Bowie. He did a good job as one of the photos really looks like he is holding my hand. I felt very lucky that this was happening during my stay.
Thursday was always going to be Bowie day. It was my ticket to the Bowie Is exhibition. I have written a separate review of this. After the exhibition we met up with a friend who showed us around Brooklyn and walked across Brooklyn bridge. The bikes go very fast so make sure you keep to the pedestrian side. Brooklyn allows you to see the whole Manhattan skyline so its worth visiting. That evening we visited Times Square. I had never been to the rock-hard café so we went in but it was so overcrowded and full of teenagers that I said to find somewhere else to eat. Across the road was a place called Brooklyn diner and not only could they fit us in (seated in a booth) but the service was excellent as was the food. I was delighted to find this hidden gem and can’t get over the size of my Hubby’s pie! It was also the best burger I had throughout my stay.
Friday, we spent the day travelling in Chinatown and little Italy. We found Lombardi’s which was the first Italian American pizza place in New York and still uses the same oven which is over 100 years old. We did eat here on our last night but its very busy here so book or go early. I’m not a huge pizza lover so probably not the best person to ask about pizza. We searched for this amazing little bakery called Ferrara’s but couldn’t find it. On our last night we did and can say it’s definitely worth visiting. It’s the best cake place in New York. Anyway I digress, back to Friday - we travelled on the Roosevelt cable car to Roosevelt Island which is the same cost as a normal subway ride but you get amazing views so worth a go although there isn’t much to see on the Island. I was feeling tired after all our walking so suggested we eat somewhere close our hotel. I googled Trip Advisor to see what was recommended locally. A small Italian came up just a few blocks away (see how I have adapted to the lingo – blocks not streets!). La Gioconda was like eating in someone’s front room it was so tiny – but that made it feel exclusive and the food was out of this world.
I felt obliged to try the cheesecake in almost everywhere we ate. I hope you appreciate that I did this for you so you don’t have to! New York cheesecake is supposed to be special so I went out of my way to taste it for you. I can tell you the best cheesecake was not Lindy’s as expected (in fact don’t bother visiting – it felt tired and grubby). The best cheesecake was actually found by chance just down the road from where David Bowie used to eat in Soho. A tiny place called Fanelli’s that has a home made strawberry cheesecake. We also were impressed with the soup.
Saturday I was planning to meet my Swedish penpal that I had started writing to when I was 13. She married and Italian and moved to NY many years ago now. We had never met in all these years and to begin with it felt a bit like a first date. She met me and we all walked around central park together. It was lovely and she felt like an old friend rather than a stranger. It was touching to visit John Lennon’s memorial and the famous Alice In Wonderland statue as well as Hans Christian Andersson. There were kids playing baseball in the park and an Eyewitness News van passed us by. I really felt like I was in a film! It was all so surreal. After we said goodbye, we strolled away from Central Park and I had the biggest pastrami on rye sandwich I had ever had! Even I couldn’t eat it all and I have an appetite.
We decided to visit the upper west side as Hubby had read about a Bazaar which was a bit like a posh car boot – but even the stalls ask for tax/tip on top of the price quoted. We visited a tiny café for lunch. It was called New Wave Café (we like new wave music so it suited us) and its huge menu offered a range of things but I opted for the chicken soup which was amazing. As we left we noticed a board outside with all famous faces that have eaten here – including The Sopranos! Who knew!! Whatcha gonna do?! It was a perfect surprise. We visited a record shop but there was not much Bowie on offer…shame as I had hoped to bring some home with me. By the way we had trouble working out the subway on a weekend as there was a reduced service and a lot of the trains weren’t running but we did eventually get where we need to be. I took a photo of a homeless man sleeping on the train – the woman next to me told me not to do that as she has seen people beat up for worse but in New York you can really see the difference between the genuine homeless and the guy who walks on the subway with his smartphone saying he needs to feed his daughter and he is a veteran. Not convinced about him as much as the guy with no shoes who is so cold and dirty that he doesn’t even ask for money. Who would you give your money to?
Monday came around too soon and it was the day we were leaving – I was genuinely sad. Without knowing it I had fallen in love with New York. Maybe it’s the Londoner in me but it felt like home and I understood why Bowie had loved it. Goodbye New York – I will miss the people and the food, (especially the bagels) and the sights. It’s a perfect city break. As we had not booked a transfer back the hotel organised one for us. We liked the lady who drove us to JFK so much she gave us her personal card to contact her direct next time we are in the area. If you need a transfer contact Astrid on firstname.lastname@example.org
I feel this will not be my last visit to New York…but next stop is Las Vegas. Watch this space!
(All information correct at time of first published in 2018)