Thursday, 27 February 2014

New York 2.0

When I last visited New York nearly five years ago, we bought a New York Pass and did our best to knock off as many tourist to-dos as possible - Times Square, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, Rockefeller Centre, MoMA, The Met, Guggenheim, etc. It was exhausting, but we managed to get through most of it.

Despite this, we simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to pop down to the Big Apple the first chance we could. Why? Well, it's New York, and it was only a 3.5 hour drive away from Boston. I mean, that's like driving from Auckland to Turangi. Don't get me wrong, Turangi has awesome pies and the best mini golf course in the country, but we don't exactly get the chance to drive to cities like NYC for the weekend back home.

So what do you do in New York if you've already seen the main sights? While I would have loved to have gone up the Top of the Rock again, we decided to save the $27 per person and spend it on something else. Discount theatre tickets, perhaps! Unfortunately that idea went out the window as soon as we got to the TKTS booth at Times Square and saw the length of the queue. Of course, we still climbed the famous red steps to take a few pics
Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be Justin Bieber or One Direction? Perhaps a little bit like this? We got a taste when we were standing on those very steps and a group of teen girls were let loose in Times Square. They spotted the top of the steps, and simultaneously decided they all had to get there as quickly as possible while screaming at the top of their lungs. It's probably always terrifying to have a horde of people run at you, but the fact that they were teenaged girls made it that much scarier.

After that, we decided to decamp to less touristy locations and visit the High Line park, another place we missed last time. On the way, we went past Madison Square Garden. For some reason, we both had a mental image of it looking like this:
So imagine our immense disappointment when we got there and saw this instead:
Now, I'm sure you think it's absolutely ridiculous that we thought a real life building would look the same as how it's portrayed in a cartoon set 1000 years in the future, but we seriously did look for a cube shaped building for several minutes before we realised our mistake. Oops. I just hope that in 3014, they really do have a Madison Cube Garden, because it would look a heck of a lot more impressive than the current structure!

In some ways, the High Line was also slightly less impressive than I'd imagined it, probably because it was winter and all the plants were dead. Still, it was an interesting walk above the street level, and yielded some awesome views down the various streets and avenues criss-crossing Manhattan.
With plenty of seating and things like an outdoor projector, I could also see how it would be an amazing space for the community in summer - when it wasn't covered in snow, of course.
At the southern end of the High Line stands the imposing Standard Hotel, with floor to ceiling views of the city, and cultural events like art exhibitions featuring abstract sausage sculptures and talks from guests like Benedict freaking Cumberbatch. Needless to say I would've loved to have stayed here, but unfortunately it was a bit out of our budget. At least I got a photo.
There's been talk of converting the disused Nelson Street motorway offramp in Auckland into a similar park, which would be brilliant. As long as they also include some crazy art, like this.
Later, we ventured to Central Park, where the plants were also mostly dead, but the frozen ponds gave it a winter wonderlandish air.
One thing we'd done before but certainly didn't mind doing again was walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, especially as our hotel was actually in Brooklyn anyway. It was bitterly cold, but worth it to get some amazing views of the skyline at night.
The next morning, we actually did it again to get into town for the 9/11 memorial, since we had the time to spare anyway.
One major change since our last visit was that the 9/11 Memorial was now open, so it was a definite must-visit on this trip. Unfortunately, they don't exactly make it easy for everyone. I suppose it's all for security reasons, but it all seemed a bit over the top, really. First, you have to pre-book tickets online (or queue for hours to get one on site). Upon arrival, it takes a good five minutes to even find and get to the actual point of entry. It doesn't end there, though - everyone is corralled into a twisty maze of crowd control barriers, and eventually get to the security screening. Apart from having to remove your shoes it's pretty much the same as US airport security, all coats and bags go through an x-ray while you walk through a metal detector. After another long walk around the block, you finally get to the memorial itself.

The first thing that hits you is the sheer scale of the memorial pools - which makes sense, as each one is the actual footprint of the original World Trade Centre towers.
The people on the other side look tiny, which gives you a sense of scale
Catching a reflection in the pool
The largest man made waterfall in the US, apparently
The names of the nearly 3,000 victims, including those on the flights and at the Pentagon, are inscribed around the pools. It's very sobering to realise that, on that fateful day, they were all just going about their daily lives. They had no clue as to what was about to unfold, and that one day their names would be carved into stone at a memorial.

It's a shame that the Freedom Tower is not yet open for visitors, as it would've given an amazing new vantage point for the city.
After the visit, we headed to Rockefeller Plaza to find some lunch and check out the famous ice skating rink.
One thing which was either a new addition to the area or merely something we overlooked last time was the Lego store. I absolutely loved this amazing recreation of the surrounding area - just look at all the detail!
By now we were winding down and preparing to head back to Boston, but not before also swinging by the extremely impressive NY Public Library (again, missed it last time).
And because I couldn't think of anywhere else to put them, here are some random pics of steam stacks creating a bit of atmosphere.
Even after this, there still plenty of new things to do in the city, so I'm sure we'll be back again in the not too distant future!

[Flickr set here]

Monday, 24 February 2014

Boston - Public Transport & Snow

We've been living in Boston for three weeks now, and I'm finally starting to not feel lost when wandering around our local neighbourhood - South End. It's fairly flat and all the streets are pretty much in a grid layout, so you'd think it would be easy, but by the same token, everything looks the same, especially with all the red bricked terraced (or as they call it here, 'brownstone') residences lining both sides of the road.
Just the day before yesterday we managed to board the Orange Line T (subway train) going in the wrong direction, due to some confusion over what constituted 'Outbound' versus 'Inbound'. Still! We're slowly getting there, and it's not as if I haven't seen locals puzzle over T maps before.

Apparently, one of Boston's nicknames is 'The Walking City'. No doubt the image of a massive, two legged metropolis strolling down the coast is easily conjured up, but this is obviously in reference to how easy it is to get around without a car, both via walking (or as my family used to call it, the '#11 Bus') and public transport. The difficulty of driving is exacerbated by the dearth of parking in the city. On the sides of most streets, you're likely to be faced with a confusing medley of parking restriction signs. In winter, if you're dumb enough to ignore a 'space saver' (e.g. a deck chair) placed by a resident who has carefully shoveled the snow from 'their' parking space, you'll likely be in need of a good panel beater.
Overall, the T is very reliable and gets to a pretty wide area, even outside of the main city. Unfortunately, the system doesn't exactly exude a sense of modernity or cleanliness, especially when compared with Asian subways like in Hong Kong or Singapore. I still haven't even managed to get myself an RFID card for payment, as it turns out you can only purchase these at very few locations, not every station. But I can't really complain - waiting a maximum of usually 8 minutes per train is a far cry from sitting forlornly at an Auckland bus stop for over half an hour, wondering if your ride will ever arrive.

The major thing we've had to adjust to here is, of course, the snow. While lounging in the sun in Cancun, we had heard reports of massive snowstorms up the East Coast, and braced ourselves accordingly for our arrival into Boston. Surprisingly, apart from the brisk cold air, we didn't see a hint of white on the ground. In fact, I was almost a bit disappointed as I'd actually been looking forward to experiencing the quintessential Boston winter weather. 

Well, I didn't have long to wait - a mere two days later, Boston officially declared a 'snow emergency', which makes it sound a lot more dramatic than it really was - in fact, snow emergencies are so common that there's even permanent signs on the side of the road which forbid roadside parking. Apart from office workers telecommuting, and endless reports on the local news about the weather (actually, I think that happens all the time anyway), life seemed to go on as usual here - most shops remained open and nobody seemed too worried.

When I stepped outside just after the snowfall had begun, my face spontaneously broke out in a massive grin. It just looked and felt so magical! Soon, everything from parks to parked cars was blanketed in white powder. It was great! I didn't understand until later why locals despise the stuff so much, and sometimes wistfully mention moving somewhere warmer.
First, once it starts snowing, you have to shovel it. Constantly. On sidewalks, if you don't shovel the fresh powder immediately, continual footsteps have a compacting effect, making it even more difficult to remove later on. Secondly, snow melts into puddles of water, which then refreezes into ice overnight - a major slipping hazard, as I found out from personal experience numerous times. And if your car's been parked on the side of the road, you'll need to add 5-10 minutes to your commute time, when you're clearing the stuff off your vehicle before you can even start driving.
Finally, the massive mounds of snow which are piled onto the kerb between the road and the sidewalk take a long time to melt, and when they do (as they are now), they look like some disgusting blend of black dirt, rubbish, and slushy ice. In fact, it's so gross I'm not even including a photo of it. Trust me, it's not pleasant.

I've now come to the conclusion that snow is a bit like fish - amazing when it's fresh, but almost sickening when it's gone off and become putrid. Over the past few days, the weather's been positively balmy - up to around 10°C, and melting a lot of the previous weeks' dumpings, but apparently the 'Polar Vortex' is back later this week, with further chance of snow. I'm sure the locals are dreading it, but personally, the novelty value is still far from wearing off, and I really hope I see a few more flurries before spring kicks in properly.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014


Québec was founded by the French explorer Champlain in the early 17th century. It is the only North American city to have preserved its ramparts, together with the numerous bastions, gates and defensive works which still surround Old Québec. The Upper Town, built on the cliff, has remained the religious and administrative centre, with its churches, convents and other monuments like the Dauphine Redoubt, the Citadel and Château Frontenac. Together with the Lower Town and its ancient districts, it forms an urban ensemble which is one of the best examples of a fortified colonial city
UNESCO sites are few and far between in North America, especially within driving distance of Boston. However, there was one place we knew we couldn't miss - Quebec City. It was even the right time of year for their famous annual winter carinval! Plus it was President's Day on Monday, creating a long weekend - perfect for letting us fit in the six to seven hour drive each way. On Friday afternoon, we set off from Boston for the first leg to Magog, a town about 30 minutes north of the border, planning to get up bright and early to arrive in Quebec City the next morning.

After a long drive through the snowy darkness to arrive at our Magog motel, with less than an hour to spare before it was too late to check in, we dumped our bags and made our way to McDonald's for a late Valentine's dinner. Sure, not the most romantic setting, but it was almost like dining at a French restaurant, in that the whole menu was in French, and everyone greeted us in French. Fortunately they could speak English too, otherwise ordering would have been a rather awkward ordeal.

If you're not familiar with poutine, besides bacon and maple syrup, it seems to be Canada's national dish - french fries smothered with meaty gravy and dotted with cheese curds, half whole, half gooey and melted, It's a gloriously delicious mess, and I'd been introduced to it in a new Canadian style deli back home in Auckland. So I was delighted to find that you could swap out regular fries with poutine in McD's Canada. Here it is. 
Apart from the fact that poutine usually uses thicker fries, not shoestring, it was actually delicious - the perfect winter comfort food.

We were a bit lazy with the getting out of bed the next day, so by the time we got to Quebec City it was already lunchtime. Again, we ditched the car and luggage at our hotel in the old part of town, then tottered down the hill toward Le Petit Champlain, a historic pedestrian street full of shops and restaurants.
Being the last weekend of the winter carnival, the place was thick with tourists, all snapping photos and marvelling at the picture perfect wintry scene. The light snowflakes drifting from the sky were the icing (sugar) on the cake - it was almost too charming, as if even the weather had been manipulated for visitors. I can't complain though, it was wonderful to sit huddled in the warmth of the delightful French bistro we were in for lunch, while snowflakes and marching bands drifted past just outside the window.
After lunch, we found the funicular. I love funiculars, possibly because it has the word 'fun' in it - also, you usually get to avoid a strenuous climb uphill by taking them. This one was a bargain at only $2.25 a pop, so we duly took a trip up to the top.
Disappointing, this is not a real ancient castle, but was built as a hotel to attract luxury tourism
For some reason, slowly moving ice makes the river seem colder than if it were completely frozen
It was while trying to take photos of the famous Chateau Frontenac and St Lawrence river that we started to realise just how freezing it was. After a mere minute of having any fingers exposed to the air, and not safely ensconced in gloves and/or pockets, they would become somehow painfully numb.

We shuffled through the snow on the Governer's Promenade and eventually made it to the main Winter Carnival grounds on the 'Plains of Abraham', a big park along the river's edge. It quickly became clear that there were just as many visitors here as in Le Petit Champlain, with long, stretching queues for each activity. By now, we were really starting to feel the cold, so we decided to retreat back to our hotel, change into our thermals, and venture back out later to see the night parade.

As the temperature dived over the evening and the following day, we did our best to layer up before going outside. In fact, we were pretty much wearing snowboarding or skiing clothes the whole time. Of course, once you step into any building you immediately have to peel off your big coats because everything is well insulated and centrally heated - unlike New Zealand houses! Also, most places thoughtfully have a double door system, kind of like an airlock, which prevents drafts and gives you a chance to disrobe and shake off the excess snow from your shoes.

So, the night parade. To be honest, it was a bit of a disaster, and I'm not even sure if it's one of the ones which make a funny travel story. Long story short, due to a lack of knowledge about the parade schedule (which I helpfully found after the fact right here) we spent three hours standing in the freezing snow, wondering if we were suffering from the early stages of frostbite.

The parade itself was alright, kind of similar to the Farmer's Santa Parade, but with Bonhomme, the carnival's official mascot, as the climax instead of Father Christmas. Boy, did the crowd go wild when they saw him. He's such an integral part of the event that the entry 'ticket' is even a little 'effigy' (hey, that's the word they use) of him.
We also got to visit Bonhomme's 'house', which was an interesting experience...
Being a snowman, it makes sense his house is made of ice
I'd like to see how he boils water without melting the stove itself...
This is the part where it got weird - heaps of photos of Bonhomme around the world, I especially liked this one
Is it just me or does this look like some sort of sadistic ritual?
Bonhomme 'effigies' from previous carnivals
By the time we stumbled into the welcome warmth of another bistro for a dinner at close to 10pm, the pain I experienced from the blood trying to get back into my thawing extremities was excruciating. Fortunately, the meal was delicious, our waiter was the very embodiment of French charm, and by the time we left, we had managed to feel less like ice blocks and more like warm blooded humans again.
An icy seat outside the restaurant
A super impressive mural in the old town
We were even brave enough to venture toward the waterfront to snap some night shots of the Chateau from below, which is just as well as I finally managed to find a UNESCO logo, which had been eluding us so far the entire time.
Could barely contain my excitement when I spotted this!
Blue skies greeted us the next day, and we returned to the carnival grounds with renewed zeal. First up, admiring the snow sculptures, some of which were decidedly... nightmarish.
Strange, but okay, impressive...
Wow, very lifelike, pretty awesome
This elephant is pretty cool, one of my faves
Okay, this thing is a bit... weird, but fine
What nightmare did this creature claw its way out of??
There were still hordes of visitors, mostly families, enjoying the festivities, but the queue for the ferris wheel seemed to be moving quickly enough to be worth joining. We got a great view of the grounds from the top, and that's when I spotted the dog sled track.
When else would I ever get a chance to get a ride on a dog sled? I simply couldn't pass up the opportunity. My only complaint was that the ride was too short, and judging by the reaction of the dogs whenever they had to stand and wait for passengers to be changed, they thought so too.
On our way back to the main part of town for lunch, we decided to climb up the massive snow bank piled against the old city wall, with some great views over the city. Obviously many other people had had the same idea, and there was even a 'track' from people sliding down the steep slope, which turned out to be both slightly terrifying and extremely fun.
As cold as we were the entire time we were outside in Quebec, it was hard not to also really enjoy playing around in the soft, powdery snow like little kids. No wonder the locals like to celebrate it with a two week party! Plus it would get pretty depressing otherwise.
One last thing we did before we left the next morning was to drive over to the ferry terminal on the other side of the river, in lieu of actually taking a ferry ride. We managed to get a couple of great shots of the city but gave up quickly before our fingers froze too much.
Next time we return to Quebec City, I'll be trying to get a booking at their ice hotel, and we'll definitely check the parade schedule more carefully!