Last year, Carl and I had the blessed opportunity to go on a whirlwind adventure through the USA. Since we, together with the rest of the world, are stuck at home this year, I thought I would reminisce about our adventure with you.
In part 1 and part 2 we traveled to San Francisco, took a road trip north to Portland, spent a few days in a cabin at Mount Rainier and explored Seattle. From Seattle we flew back to New York, to start the final leg of our adventure.
I had the privilege of spending about six weeks in New York in 2016 on a clinical rotation at SUNY College of Optometry and fell in love with the city. NY is truly the city that never sleeps, with something to explore or discover around every corner. I couldn’t wait to share this experience with Carl.
If you’ve never traveled across North America, you might not know that it is humongous. It takes a six-hour flight to cross from west to east (not mentioning north to south). With the multiple time zones, it could mean that you are effectively travelling for a whole day to get from the one side to the other. So, early Saturday morning we boarded our flight in Seattle, and only reached New York late Saturday evening.
Our Airbnb was spacious by NYC standards, but, also true to local real estate, it was up four flights of old wooden stairs with no elevator in sight. Once we were settled, we grabbed some take away from across the street – the largest roast chicken which lasted us for three meals – and collapsed into bed.
On Sunday morning we found a small bagel cafe, before making our way to Queens for church. It was lovely to be back in the congregation, who had since moved into their new church, and to see a few friendly faces. We decided to have a “rest day” but this resolution did not last long.
After changing at the apartment, we went for a picnic at Central Park, one of my favourite places. There were throngs of people enjoying the New York summer’s day, each looking for a shady spot to relax. We made some space on the lawn where we sat and recharged before taking a stroll to explore a small piece of this expansive park.
But, true to our adventurous style, we could not sit still for long, deciding to make our way downtown to the World Trade Center to admire the remnants of the Twin Towers at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The museum closed early on a Sunday, so we admired the pools outside which marks the location of the Twin Towers. Every day roses are placed by the names of victims who would’ve celebrated their birthdays on the day. We also roamed around the luxury mall known as Westfield World Trade Center until sunset. During the summer month the days are very long along the east coast, so it was quite late by the time we got back to our apartment.
About four months before we were to go on our trip, we pre-booked our place on the ferry that takes you to the Statue of Liberty, as well as entrance into the statue up to the crown. There is no way to secure this booking closer to the time, or even once you are on the island. Monday was the day we had pre-booked, and we made our way to Battery Park, once again battling hordes of tourists. I was so grateful for Carl’s foresight on this booking. We were shocked by the level of security checks, which rivaled the stringent measures at the airport, but we cleared it easily, but irritated.
It was a scorching day on Liberty Island and climbing the 22 stories to the top of the crown is no joke, especially in close quarters with no ventilation. But the view from the crown, and the fact that you are actually in the crown of Lady Liberty, is well worth the effort. The Statue of Liberty was a gift from the people of France to the new republic of the USA in the late 1800s. Auguste Bartholdi spent ten years designing and manufacturing the statue in France, before shipping it to the small island in the New York harbour and assembling it piece by piece, before it was unveiled in 1886. The iron skeleton was designed by Gustav Eiffel (who also designed the Eiffel tower in France) and is wrapped in a copper skin attached by flexible but strong metal bars. Interesting facts like these are relayed to visitors through a free audio guide which helps gain the most out of this experience.
From the Statue, the ferry goes to Ellis Island where we learned about the immigrant experience in the early days of New York. If only it was that easy to move to the States these days.
True to our character, we over-booked the day again and had tickets to a New York Yankees baseball game for the evening. What an experience! We had hot dogs and beers (which required our IDs) while the Yankees battled the Toronto Blue Jays, and eventually won. Even though we know very little about baseball, the game was very exciting, but we had to make our way back to our apartment by 10 pm, because we had nothing left in our energy tanks. While on the train, other supporters were listening on their phones and Canada was beaten by the time we reached our stop.
The next morning, we woke up to a humid and wet New York, and decided the weather was ideal for a day at the American Museum of Natural History and a Broadway show. First, we had to buy tickets for the evening show of Oklahoma at the TKTS booth. This is a service where you can buy last minute tickets to some of the best Broadway shows at a fraction of the price. For the popular shows you have to go and stand in line since you can’t book online. We chose the Lincoln Center booth since it is usually less crowded than the Time Square branch. We still stood in the line for more than an hour though, but we saved about 50% on our tickets which is a significant sum if you are paying in South African Rand.
From downtown, we made our way north to the museum. The Natural History Museum was made famous by the “Night at the Museum” movies, and is probably the most amazing museum you will ever visit. From life-size skeletons of dinosaurs, to the remnants of meteorites and very realistic nature displays, this museum has something for everyone. Included in our CityPass entrance ticket was a selection of shows we could choose from, and we selected the Deep Blue documentary which was a fascinating exploration of the deep ocean (and a welcome relief from all the walking). You can spend a week at this museum but we only had an afternoon. They have an app you can download, and via Bluetooth, the app gives you information regarding the displays you are looking at. My favourite area of the museum is the dioramas of animals across a vast array of ages and continents in their natural habitats. (On a side note – they have virtual exhibits during the lockdown, and I highly recommend taking a virtual tour.)
After a very quick refresh and reboot at our apartment, we took on the lights and buzz of Time Square. We would have loved to see the acclaimed Hamilton show, but there is no way we could justify spending the equivalent of our whole trip’s spending money on one show. So, Oklahoma was the next choice and I think it was an excellent decision. The set is designed to be below the audience, and resembles that of a barn with tables set up all around. The first row of the audience even sits on stage at these tables. It gives the whole production an intimate feeling and creates the impression that you are part of the action. We even got chilly and corn bread during the intermission! Carl thought it was a joke at first, but once we got our share it was delicious.
We took our time getting back to our apartment as Time Square is a sight to behold at night, even for seasoned tourists.
Wednesday morning was a beautiful clear morning, so we made our way to Brooklyn to get our Insta-shots of the Bridge and surrounding Dumbo area. We were very glad for the early start as it gets very hot on the bridge and there is no shade or shelter. It is a very popular tourist destination, so the earlier you can get there the better.
Once you cross the Brooklyn Bridge, you are in lower Manhattan, so it only made sense to make our way back to the 9/11 Memorial, since we missed the opening times on the Sunday. This is also a very well-designed museum and tells the story of 9/11 through artifacts; imagery, personal stories, and interactive technology that take you right back to September 11, 2001. Perhaps the most touching area is the In Memoriam section, where all the photos of the 2977 individuals, varying from ages 2 and a half to 85, from more than 90 nations killed in the 1993 and 2001, can be viewed, as well as a short video about who they were. I felt deeply moved by these stories and couldn’t help but pray for the souls gone too soon and their families left behind.
Less than 100 meters from Ground Zero is St. Paul’s Chapel. This little church was left untouched after the 9/11 bombings and has since become known as “The Little Chapel That Stood”. It has since become a haven for volunteers in the recovery mission. It is also the oldest remaining church in Manhattan, dating back to 1766.
Our legs were pudding after all the walking we did since that morning, so we felt like we deserved some proper sustenance. We found a small burger cafe’ down a side street that was very quiet and proved to be a great choice. It was exactly what we needed to build up our strength for the rest of the day.
After lunch we took a stroll through Hudson yards to the High Line, a park built around an old railroad track. The scenery is stunning and provides great views of the NYC skyline.
Our evening date was with dear friends who invited us to a braai (not a BBQ) at their home in New Rochelle, which is about an hour’s express train ride from Grand Central Station. Clinton is an ex-South African Carl knew from his youth days in Cape Town, who moved to the USA and married the beautiful Kristen. I met him during my stay in New York. Clinton built his own braai to remind him of home, and together we enjoyed a bottle of Pinotage and shared our stories from our trip and the old days in South Africa.
On our way home we were completely exhausted, but, unbeknownst to us, our day was far from over. When we got back to the apartment we realized that we had locked the keys in the apartment in our hurry to make the train on time. We were homeless in New York. If we weren’t dog-tired, we might have explored the nightlife, but we were shattered as it was the second last day of our three week adventure, and we had very little left to give. So we tried to look for a place to sleep, and eventually found a room at the Holiday Inn near Times Square. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs, but it didn’t matter, we had a cool, comfortable place to sleep, and boy, did we sleep! We woke up late and took advantage of the hotel breakfast included before making our way back to meet our host at our apartment. It was embarrassing to say the least. No one can accuse our trips of being boring. Needless to say, our mothers back home only heard this story once we were safe on home soil.
Since it was our last day in NYC (and the USA) we had to make the most of it. So we quickly showered, put on a hat so we could have bad hair and no cares, and took the train to midtown to admire the skyline of New York from the top of the Empire State Building. The entrance was also included in our CityPass. There are many places where you can admire the view of the Big Apple, but they are all more or less the same price, so we went with the most iconic.
Once we were back on the ground, we walked around the city streets, soaking up the last bit of New York to take home with us. We took a walk through St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, admiring the organ and the Gothic architecture. I attempted to do some shopping while on this iconic isle but I wasn’t really in the mood and my credit card protested.
For lunch we got sandwiches from Columbus Circle and had our last picnic on the lawns of Central Park. It was the perfect end to an exhausting but spectacular adventure.
The morning we were scheduled to fly home started bright and early. We took a Taxi to the airport with tired but satisfied hearts, relieved that we (coincidentally) missed the Pride parade by one day, as we saw the preparations across the city.
This trip was an adventure we will remember for the rest of our lives. It came at a time when we needed a change in perspective – literally and figuratively. I cannot recommend travelling and adventure enough. It changes you, and it changes your relationship with the people you travel with. It is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
America, we will definitely be back!