Checking out the bright lights of New York

No one quite does Christmas like New York, with a wonderful festive feel and some cracking bargains to boot, writes Vickie Maye. 

Blame Elf. Home Alone 2. When Harry Met Sally. Miracle on 34th Street (both versions). All of them made me fall in love with New York, and more particularly Christmas in New York.

I had been to the city before. It had bookmarked my J1 summer in the States, one of the best of my life. I visited years later one May for work, on a story that would ultimately lead to me meeting my husband. 

So I had many reasons to appreciate New York. When you hold that many good memories, it’s only natural to want to return. But this time, I wanted to see another side to the city. My visits had only ever been balmy summertime ones; now I wanted to experience a crisp, cosy Christmas there.

And I had the perfect excuse.

My 40th birthday and wedding anniversary fell just 24 hours apart, two days after Christmas. So on December 27, the four children in the safe hands of granny (thank you, mum), we set off for Shannon for our direct flight to JFK.

The flights came in at just under €1,100 for us both with Aer Lingus, a reasonable rate, we concluded, considering the time of year. Others obviously agreed — the plane was full; shopping holidays to New York, it seems, are well and truly back.

The flight times worked in our favour too. Departing at noon, we landed roughly seven hours later — 2pm in New York thanks to the five-hour time difference.

We took the subway into Manhattan (we used the underground for our entire trip — a seven-day unlimited ticket cost just $32). The moment we emerged from the subway station, my neck began to crane, my mouth was agape. The first sight of those skyscrapers never fails to dazzle. New York yellow cabs were impatiently blasting their horns, those old familiar green street signs standing sentinel on every corner.

At long last, I was back.

According to the Hollywood take on New York in December, I should have been trudging through snow on arrival. Instead, it was unseasonably warm that first day, to the point that people were out jogging in t shirts and shorts.

(Those conditions were short lived, a biting cold wind there to accompany us on our tourist trails for the rest of our holiday.)

First stop was our hotel, the Roger Smith in midtown, on Lexington Avenue. It’s a great location, just a few blocks from Central Station. But we really chose it because the London Times had voted it one of the top 20 hotels in New York, rating its rooftop bar, Henry’s, one of the best in the area.

It’s only open in summer, unfortunately, but staff were kind enough to show us the space. 

With views of the Chrysler building, and lit by fairy lights, it made me yearn for one of my summertime visits. Even empty and abandoned it was sensational. The Roger Smith has 138 rooms spread over 16 floors. It’s a family run hotel, and its independence shines through — it’s beautifully kooky and full of character.

Built in 1929 this boutique getaway showcases art deco style at its finest. We stayed in a mini suite with a living room and bedroom. It was a perfect base, the second room giving us space and an oasis from the bustle of the city. 

The Roger Smith doesn’t serve breakfast, but there’s granola and yoghurt on tap at reception. There was also a fridge in the room, ideal for a chilled nightcap, or for families anxious to store snacks for hungry children. Rates are reasonable too, beginning at $150 in quiet months like January and February (our suite was around double that). Though prices will peak in summer.

Bags unpacked, we grabbed food in a nearby — and overpriced —restaurant. We knew Greenwich Village was home to some of the city’s best food, but day one, after a seven-hour flight, was all about convenience.

Wine, no matter where you are, is pricey too, especially with the current exchange rate. A glass averaged $15 in most restaurants (about the equivalent in euro), and it’s far too (dangerously) tempting when a cocktail costs the same.

From there, we followed in Kevin’s footsteps and headed for the tree at the Rockefeller Centre. It was nothing like the quiet refuge Macaulay Culkin found in Home Alone 2, however.

The streets were so packed with tourists and selfie sticks there were metal barriers and police on hand for crowd control. The famous ice skating rink at Rockefeller? 

You have to queue to watch the skaters, let alone get on the ice. From there we strolled to the window displays and light shows at Saks, and on to Times Square where podiums were erected and preparations were already under way for New Year’s Eve. 

After the crowds we had just fled we were relieved our flights were booked for home on December 30. Still though, there was no escaping the buzz. Passing Radio City, home to the annual Christmas spectacular, we agreed no one does Christmas like New York.

The great thing about our trip was we had both visited the city before, ticking many of the tourist musts — a view of the city from the Empire State Building; the Statue of Liberty; a Broadway show; Ellis Island. So this holiday felt leisurely. There was no pressure. And yet still, in a city like New York, our days were jam packed.

Day two, and we emerged to a much colder morning. We headed for the World Trade Center to see the memorial.

It was the silence that struck us.

We turned a corner from frantic rush-hour morning commuters and instantly there was a change, a stillness in the air. We knew we were standing on a graveyard.

We didn’t visit the museum. Instead we walked around ‘Reflecting Absence’, the two pools of water that were created where the towers once stood, the names of the victims engraved along the edges. It is a simple, stark and moving tribute to the people that died that day.

My husband and I parted ways then. He took advantage of the clear blue skies to explore Brooklyn Bridge. I headed for Century 21. If you thought TK Maxx guaranteed you a bargain, the store is in another league altogether. The designer area had labels like Maje reduced from $400 to $50. 

Two hours later, I left with a receipt stapled to my bag informing me that I had saved $435 on my purchases. And all of a sudden I didn’t mind missing the sight of Brooklyn Bridge again. I kept the shopping to a minimum.

I didn’t want it to dictate my break. A couple of hours at Century 21 and the same in Macys the following day was quite enough. It’s a fantastic time of year for a shopping trip though. 

I had been warned the big sales were after Thanksgiving, but I saw huge discounts emblazoned on shop windows across the city. Others had told me New York wouldn’t be very festive, that the city moves on from Christmas on December 26. I didn’t agree — while the focus was definitely on the new year, stores and streets were all beautifully decorated with white fairy lights and trees. It was magical.

Checking out the bright lights of New York

We grabbed lunch in a typical New York diner and headed for the Meatpacking District for a walk along The High Line. Thirty feet above the city, you can stroll, sit and picnic along an abandoned stretch of railway track.

There’s native-inspired landscaping and huge deckchairs for sunbathing in summer. It’s as if you are a world away from the madness of Manhattan. We walked it to end, a leisurely 90 minutes.

I did my research when it came to eating in the city, turning to The Irish Examiner’s food columnist Michelle Darmody. She’s a regular to the city. On her advice we headed for The Spotted Pig, a gastropub in Greenwich Village. They don’t take reservations. 

The trick is to get there early, grab a drink at the bar and wait to be called to your table. We had to wait two hours (try the gin cocktail while you’re there), and it was another hour before our food was served up. But it was worth every second. 

I had the best scallops of my life. A word of warning though, it’s a very cool, hipster venue so be ready for some very lax service. Dinner the next evening, again on Michelle’s recommendation, was ABC Kitchen at Union Square. They take names here, but were booked out the day we rang. We took the alternative option, arriving at 5.30pm for a high top table or seat at the bar. 

Think clean white interiors, dimmed lighting, superb service and sensational food. Both restaurants averaged around $20 to $30 for a main. On our last morning we ate breakfast at a low-key diner at the beautiful Central Station, and brought back my J1 memories of waitressing in Ocean City.

A stroll through a stark, bare Central Park and we were on the way for our 6.20pm flight. Again, brilliantly timed, we flew through the night, landing at 6am Irish time on New Year’s Eve.

Christmas in New York was every bit as good as the movies made it out to be. But those Times Square crowds left me relieved I wasn’t ringing in the New Year like Harry and Sally. Sometimes you can’t beat a bit of reality.

Aer Lingus flies six times weekly from Shannon to New York and twice daily from Dublin. Starting June 9 a third daily flight will be introduced departing Dublin at 7.50am, arriving New York at 10.20am. Each way fares start from €255 including taxes and charges.

WHERE TO STAY

We stayed at a midtown boutique hotel, The Roger Smith. Prices from $150 low season; www.rogersmith.com 

WHERE TO EAT

We loved ABC Kitchen, 35e 18th st New York, www.abchome.com with a Michelin chef and a farm-to-table ethos, they are advocates of the Slow Food movement. Book early.

The Spotted Pig (314 west 11th Street), www.thespottedpig.com. A very cool gastropub.

Other recommendations we received but couldn’t make included:

Greenwich Village classic Minetta Tavern.

Midtown’s Russian Tea Room with its opulent decor.

For pizza three of the best places to savour the genuine article are Totonno’s, in Coney Island, and Grimaldi’s and Juliana’s, both in DUMBO.

WHAT TO SEE

Check out www.visitusa.com for starters. Just make sure you while away one afternoon soaking up those skyscapers. Don’t miss The High Line.


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