Words by Sarah Kelleher, Photographs by Liz Schaffer.
Armed with a list of recommendations as long as my arm and travel companions who were already familiar with New York, I stepped off the plane at JFK. My first glimpse of the city was suitably fitting – late at night, through the window of a yellow taxi cab I could see the outline of towering buildings and neon lights. Exhausted by the flight, I had just enough energy to register the glorious eccentricity of the lobby at The Jane Hotel, originally built as a hotel on the banks of the Hudson River for sailors on shore-leave, complete with bellhops in maroon outfits with brass buttons, dark wood panelling and a pair of antlers.
Rising much refreshed from my bunk the next day (the rooms at The Jane were built to resemble cabins on a ship) I breakfasted in Café Gitane, next to the hotel’s lobby. The décor is French, as the name would suggest, and the European/ North African/ Middle Eastern cuisine is delicious, perfect fuel for urban adventurers. I was surprised by the continental flavour of the café, but came to realise that this is very typical of New York, a city that simultaneously wears its immigrant heart on its sleeve whilst remaining distinctly American.
After that first meal my feet hardly touched the ground. I was lucky enough to be in New York in the spring when the city is at its most romantic, the square lines of tenement builds softened by the pink and white blossom hanging from the roadside trees. A lifelong bookworm and confirmed geek, I couldn’t pass up on the chance to visit some of the city’s bookshops and took in the Strand, an enormous family-run independent bookstore, and Forbidden Planet, a famous comic book emporium. Having satisfied one appetite I turned to another, and had lunch at Veselka, a Ukrainian restaurant and New York institution that serves tasty pierogi and sweet raspberry pancakes.
A visit to Central Park was in order, so I found my way to this oasis in Manhattan. Central Park is just extraordinary – a long rectangle of green space carved out of New York’s urban jungle. You can see the city’s skyscrapers closing in from almost all points in the park, but they seem curiously far away when you’re surrounded by so much nature. A quiet wander up and down the paths, past New York joggers and tiny dog-walking Manhattanites, followed by a trip to Café Lalo of You’ve Got Mail fame blew away the last cobwebs of jet lag.
My first taste of the city was short-lived, as I had another plane to catch to New Mexico and a road-trip to complete. Late at night, tucked up in my cabin bed at The Jane, I consoled myself with the thought that I’d be returning to New York in a matter of weeks on my way home. When I closed my eyes, all I could see were skyscraper lights.
Two weeks later, and New York had progressed from the chill and damp of early spring to the first hints of summer. Returning to The Jane felt like a homecoming of sorts, and I wasted no time in ensconcing myself back in Café Gitane for a coffee and plotting session. My first stop was to meet up with a friend who was serendipitously in New York at the same time as me; she suggested the High Line.
The High Line is a remarkable piece of New York history – a living monument to the city’s transport past. Originally a railroad running on an elevated track through the Chelsea district on Manhattan’s West Side, it closed in 1980, only to re-open in 2009 as a public landscape. Carefully planted with perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees, the planting design is based on the wildlife that sprang up after the tracks fell into disuse. After ambling through Chelsea Market we ascended to the High Line; on a sunny spring Saturday locals and tourists were out in force, wandering through the trees and tracks and enjoying the views over the city.
If attractions such as the High Line and Top of the Rock demonstrate anything, it’s that you can always find a fresh vantage point to enjoy New York from. There are so many ways to see this city, whether you’re at the pinnacle of the Rockefeller Centre, matching up the buildings with your map, or down on the streets, wending your way through beeping yellow taxi cabs. In the evenings, though, I was after a different kind of spectacle.
At the top of my list for New York was written ‘must see the New York City Ballet’. This world-famous, and world-class ballet company was founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein in 1948 and resides at the Lincoln Centre. Balanchine, who served as Ballet Master of the company until his death in 1983, choreographed numerous ballets in which he pioneered a new, athletic style, such as Jewels, the one I’d chosen to watch.
I’d picked Jewels for a number of reasons: partly because it was typically Balanchine, energetic and thematic instead of having a traditional plot with a happy or tragic ending, and partly because I was drawn to the story behind the ballet. Enamoured with the jewellery on display at New York stores like Harry Winston, Balanchine envisioned a ballet where the acts were named after jewels: emerald, ruby and diamond. Each act embodied different types of music and ballet: the Emerald act was set to Fauré and was choreographed in the French manner, the Ruby act featured Stravinsky and a spiky modern American technique and the Diamond act was danced to Tchaikovsky in the Russian style. Of all the sights I saw in New York, this was one of the most spectacular – the dancers leaped higher than I thought possible, and danced in formations that did indeed look like glittering ropes of jewels strung together.
I could continue to wax lyrical about everything I saw in New York – tea at the Plaza (decadent, luxurious), a trip to the Tenement Museum to learn about New York’s immigrant history and lunch at Tableau One followed by a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, where I stood, transfixed, in front of Picasso’s ‘Starry Night’ for a good twenty minutes. At some point though, I had to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to see everything the city had to offer, that I had simply run out of time. In the end it didn’t matter too much – after all, it wasn’t a case of if I’d return to New York, but when.