Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What Do Whoopi and Jerry and Kelli Have That We Don't?

Well friends, I haven't checked in here in a while, this being tour season and all. But I've received more than a few phone calls from people asking my opinion on today's article in the New York Times about pre-recorded tours of Central Park by celebrities available on your cell phone. First, I'm four-square behind the Central Park Conservancy and all the great work they've done and continue to do in Central Park. Second, I think this will be OK for licensed guides in New York. As interesting as these cell phone feeds are they can't answer a good follow-up question or paint a broader picture of the park like we can. And if this helps raise the profile of guides then I say, bravo!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

More Transportation Tips

So I was thinking about my previous post on the subways. Without a doubt the most frustrating thing about living or visiting New York City is getting from point A to point B. If you confine your travels to the midtown/Times Square/Rockefeller Center/Theatre District area you'll have no problems. But you do want to see more of New York City than just that, right?


OK, so you're on the West Side, say at 8th Avenue and 48th Street, it's dinnertime and you want to try that great restaurant you read about on First Avenue. So you hail a cab.


A great man once said that the only way to get across town in Manhattan at rush hour is to be born there. He was right. Now you may be one of the lucky ones that zips across town unimpeded by tunnel traffic at both sides of the island but that's pretty rare. More likely you'll watch the cab fare roll over more times than your dog begging for a tummy rub while you sit stalled in traffic listening to your driver talk on his cell phone in Urdu.

Now I think the subway system in New York City is great. But they created precious few options when it comes to getting from one side of Manhattan to the other. Particularly if you're above 50th Street. So here's what you do:

If you're on the West Side near 5oth Street grab the E train towards Queens. You can take that as far east as Lexington Avenue at 53rd Street.

If you're closer to 42nd Street take the Shuttle or the #7 train to Grand Central, also Lexington which is as far east as any subway will take you.

Above 50th Street your only options are crosstown buses at 57th, 66th, 72nd and 81st Streets.

Once you get off the subway (going either way) you'll probably have to walk some but hey, it's New York City. We all walk here. It's why we're so healthy even if we never do sleep.

As always check your bus and subway maps before you go and when in doubt, ask.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"Restrooms Are For Patrons Only"

It's a sign that sends shivers up the spine of anyone experiencing a full-body clench. Despite being a world-class city New York has never adequately addressed the public bathroom problem. Namely, we don't have any. There is currently a plan to install comfort stations in various locations around Manhattan but optimism does not run high. So, as with the occasional restaurant recommendation I will also be making occasional bathroom recommendations. On the whole I find the latter way more important than the former. And, as with the restaurant recommendations these are facilities that I have, shall we say, personally availed myself of their hospitality.

I don't know about you but I always find it a bit dicey to walk into a bar or restaurant to use the bathroom without having eaten or imbibed there. I always feel like I'm getting the evil eye from the bartender or wait staff. In reality a lot of bars and restaurants don't care but a lot of others do. I prefer not to deal with the anxiety unless I absolutely have to. And that's why, when I need a bathroom, I head for a hotel.

Hotel bathrooms are the best. I find them to be exceptionally clean, rarely crowded and usually stocked with comfortable paper. And because people are always coming and going at hotels you will never feel like you don't belong even if you don't. As long as you're dressed nicely and look presentable you can relax and do your business, which is as it should be. In general, always look for the bathrooms on the lobby floor.

In the Times Square area I recommend:

The Marriot Marquis, 1535 Broadway (45th Street). Very upscale. Not only do they have great bathrooms on the lobby level every banquet level leading up to the lobby has bathrooms, too. If there's no banquet or seminar going on you can feel like you're in your own private rest room. The elevators go to the lobby level. Take the escalators to get to the lower floors.

The Millenium Broadway, 145 W. 44th Street (off Broadway). A very nice bathroom on the lobby floor.

Both of these are in the heart of Times Square. A little further north I recommend:

The Hilton Garden Inn, 790 Eighth Avenue (48th Street). I very nice but smallish bathroom on the lobby level off to the right past the snack shop.

A note on Starbucks...virtually every Starbucks has a bathroom that is open to the public but I find most of them on the unsanitary side. In a pinch, though, go for it.

I'll have more recommendations in the future. In the meantime if you have a place my readers should know about please comment on it here. Thanks!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Good Eats


Def: How a New Yorker asks another New Yorker if they would like to go have a meal. Short for: "Did you eat?" Pronounced: "Jeet?"

The proper response to "Djeet?" is always: "I could eat."

There are approximately 17,000 restaurants in Manhattan. Every now and then I'll be making a recommendation. The restaurants I tell you about will always be places I've personally eaten at more than once, will probably be away from the usual tourist centers in the city (giving you an excuse to go see neighborhoods the usual tourist doesn't go to) and will not be throwing me free meals anytime soon. Every New York City tour book will tell you about Bubba Gump's, John's Pizzeria, the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood. Go there if you must but once inside I dare you to tell me what city you're in. And if you eat at McDonald's you will definitely make me cry.

So, if you like Thai food then head uptown to Sura on the Upper West Side. This new restaurant has excellent food, an attentive staff and an elegent decor. And it's very reasonably priced. Two people can easily eat a fine meal there for around $40. As of this writing they have a coupon for a free appetizer. Ask for it when you get there. Plus, and this is big, Sura has resisted the usual trend of blasting idiotically loud music into the dining area. You can actually converse with your dinner companion. Check it out.

Thai Urban Kitchen
2656 Broadway (101st Street)
Open until 10:45 during the week, 11:30 on weekends
No reservation necessary
#1 train to 103rd Street

Nearby - Columbia University, Riverside Park.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Those Darn MetroCards

If you plan to use the subways or buses on your trip to New York City you will need a MetroCard.

Every subway station has a machine where you can purchase a MetroCard. Most will take either cash or credit/debit cards. Many newsstands and corner stores also sell MetroCards. The basic fare on NYC transit is $2 per ride. There are pay-per-ride cards and unlimited ride cards. The fare/bonus structure when you buy pay-per-ride cards is too complex to go into here. Suffice it to say that if you go with a pay-per-ride card other than the basic $2 one-time-use card better bring an abacus or a 7-year-old math whiz to figure out how much cash will sit unused on your card after you're done with it. My advice, go with one of the following Unlimited Ride cards:

The 1-Day Fun Pass costs $7.50 and is good from first use until 3AM the following day.

The 7-Day Unlimited Ride card costs $25 and is good from first use until midnight 7 days later.

The 14-Day Unlimited Ride card costs $47 and is good from first use until midnight 14 days later.

The 30-Day Unlimited Ride card costs $81 and is good from first use until midnight 30 days later.

You can decide which card is best for you based on the length of your stay and the number of times you plan to ride the subways or buses.

The Swipe

OK, you have your MetroCard. Life Is Good. But you still have to get through the subway turnstile and this is where the MetroCard can turn testy. A deft and steady swipe through the card reader slot will get you the "Go" readout and release the turnstile. Too slow, too fast or too uneven and the "Please Swipe Again" message will appear. Now this is important, if you keep getting this message DO NOT move to another turnstile to try again. You will either lose your fare on a per-ride card or have to wait 18 minutes to use your unlimited ride card again. Keep trying at the same turnstile or better yet ask a native to swipe the card for you. If even that doesn't work go talk to the MTA employee in or nearby the token booth. They will reset your card and get you through.

Through no fault of your's the MetroCard readers can be quirky. Unlimited Ride cards do better than pay-per-ride cards because, as it was explained to me by an MTA employee (who purports to know these things as well as everything else) the machines perform fewer calculations on the Unlimited Ride cards as they move through the reader. One more reason to go with the Unlimited Ride cards.

You also get one free transfer from subway to bus, bus to subway or local bus to local bus within two hours from the time you first swiped your card.

MetroCards are good on all subways and buses throughout the system. Keep in mind that the Unlimited Ride card has a built-in limitation. As mentioned before, there's an 18 minute wait period between swipes. It keeps people from buying one card and passing it back to everyone in the group (not that you would ever do that). By the way, if you don't have a MetroCard the buses still take exact change. Also, up to three children 44 inches (1.1 meters) tall and under ride for free on subways and buses when accompanied by a fare-paying adult. So buy a card for yourself, bring a tape measure for the kiddies and remember, hang on!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Subways

Over the years I've seen tourists react to the subway in one of three ways: 1) as a dark, dangerous place filled with knife-wielding predators and possibly alligators if not dragons; 2) as an E-ticket ride at Disneyland with all the attendant shrieking one finds at the Matterhorn or Pirates of the Caribbean, or; 3) as a safe and reliable (albeit somewhat shmutzy) way to get from point A to point B.

I go with #3.

The NYC subway system is 104-years-old. It's continually being upgraded but like any 104-year-old it's creaky in some spots and smooth in others. Despite it's age it still transports over 5 million people per day to work, school, movies, the beach, golf courses, shopping, theatre, doctors' appointments, you-name-it. And it operates 24-hours-a-day. In the City That Never Sleeps that's a good thing to have.

Some tips:

1) Subway maps can be confusing. Don't be afraid to ask any New Yorker for help. But also expect six other New Yorkers to jump in with an opinion. We want to help because, honestly, even natives have to look at the map every now and then so we know it can be tough for you. Also remember that to a New Yorker the proper response to the question: "Where can I get the A train?" is: "Where do you want to go?" We're not being difficult. We just assume we know a better way.

2) Don't call the subways the "red line," the "blue line" or the "green line" unless you've just moved here from Iowa and want to show everyone that you've just moved here from Iowa. It's the only time you will ever get a blank stare from a New Yorker. Yes I know those are the colors of the lines on the map. Look, if all the lines were black that would be really confusing. Call the subways by their letter or number designations. We will love you for it.

3) Hang on! I can't tell you how many times I've seen tourists go flying when the train starts because they didn't get a seat and didn't grab on to a pole. They're in New York, they're on the subway, they're excited and they forget. I always tell my tour groups: it's a TRAIN. It starts with a jerk and it rocks and rolls and bounces and sways. So grab onto something before it starts and hang on. The people you don't crash into will appreciate it.

4) If you're a teenager don't shriek when the train starts. It's just a train. If you're an adult and you shriek, well, I can't help you.

5) If a packed train shows up with one virtually empty car it's not your lucky day. Either the air conditioning or heater is out or a homeless person is in residence and the smells will melt your fillings. Avoid it.

6) You will often see New Yorkers imitate the Flying Wallendas as they lean over the edge of the platform in a delicate and gravity-defying pose looking for signs of an approaching train. Over many generations we have developed a genetic predisposition that keeps us from falling onto the tracks. Unless you also have that gene I suggest feeling instead for the slight breeze on your skin that tells you that a train is approaching. Also, the noise. Plus, at some stations the tracks will give a tell-tale "clank" that tells you a train is approaching before you can see or hear it.

7) If you're in a large group don't stand in a clump by the door. Spread out so other people can get on and off. And because you're spread out make sure everyone knows the name of the stop where you will get off. If you're stuck by the door because the train is very crowded step off at each stop to let people get off then step back on.

8) If you're here on a weekend you must check before you take the subway. NYC does track and station work on the weekends and many trains are re-routed, skip stations or disappear altogether. You can also find helpful posters in the large map displays in each station but the small posters on the support beams are usually indecipherable. In any case, check the MTA website before you head underground.

9) Finally, if you really want to ride the subway like a native enter the first car and stare out the front window as the train hurtles down the track. It's fascinating, it's mesmerizing, it's geeky and after all these years I still do it.

Next entry: Those Darn Metro Cards.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Central Park

You may have noticed I have a thing for NYC parks. When the concrete and noise become overwhelming the parks become our refuge. Believe it or not, New York City has 29,000 acres of parkland across our five boroughs. Central Park, at 843 acres, isn't the largest (Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, 2,765 acres, wins that one) but at 25 million visitors a year it is the most active.

There's much to see in Central Park. The Lake (actually seven lakes), Bethesda Terrace, the Boathouse, Strawberry Fields, Tavern on the Green, Harlem Meer, The Mall and Literary Walk to name a few. All the statues. So how do you see Central Park like a native? Grab a lunch, enter the park at 5th Avenue and 59th Street, take a seat on a bench by The Pond and relax. On a weekend from Spring to early Fall enter the park at 103rd Street and Central Park West and walk to the North Meadow to watch high level baseball and some not-so-high-level softball games. The games move to the Great Lawn after Labor Day. On summer nights, if you can't get a ticket to Shakspeare in the Park, climb the steps to Belvedere Castle and listen to Hamlet coming from the Delacorte Theatre. Take the kids to one of the 21 children's playgrounds around the park or to see a show at the Marionette Theatre in the Swedish Cottage by West 79th Street. And to answer your question, yes, it's safe. A, B, C, D, F, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 trains depending on which part of the park you're going to. Walkable from most midtown hotels. Nearby - Metropolitan Museum of Art, Plaza Hotel, 5th Avenue. Photo by Tour Guide Mark.