Monday, 26 May 2014

Tervets in Manhattan

When the Lonely Planet authors described New York as exhausting, they weren't kidding. Admittedly, we've hurled ourselves onto one sightseeing tour after another, but this entrancing city grabs your attention every time you pause for breath - or, at least, there's a dubious-looking salesperson in your face determined to convince you that their bus tour, comedy show, bike ride or street art is a) legitimate and b) worth opening your wallet for.

Speaking of bus tours, we've been racking them up. If there's anyone in New York who's put a 48-hour all-loops sightseeing pass to better use than us, I'd like to meet them.

Who knew, for example, there was a megastore dedicated to M&Ms, or, indeed, there are so many M&Ms in the entire world? This was the scene that greeted us when we stepped into this kingdom of chocolate and tat.

The uptown loop of the bus tour took us through Harlem and along the east side of Central Park before dropping us back in the city centre.

We swapped land for water and cruised round the southernmost tip of Manhattan...

...out to the Statue of Liberty...

...and all the way around the island before returning to our jetty a couple of hours later. It was a good way to size up Manhattan, the population of which - our tour guide said - rises from three million to five million on a work day.

Our insatiable appetite for tours had us on a night bus later that day, as the lights on the skyscrapers began to come on. I've rarely seen crowds like those in Times Square (above) - only Oxford Street in London compares, to be honest. Watching the masses from our seat on the bus was certainly preferable to tackling the scrum at first-hand, as we had on the evening of our arrival.

Lower sank the sun and on drove the bus, affording us this view of the famous Brooklyn Bridge, about which our guide waxed lyrical. The world's first suspension bridge is one of several connecting Manhattan with Brooklyn, and it's certainly the prettiest.

We alighted at Times Square - by now fully illuminated by gaudy overhead signs and filled by traffic, tourists and tradesmen. The place known as the Crossroads of the World leaves you not knowing which way to turn, or - in my case - feel. The congestion, the heat, the unrelenting pace and the inability to gather your thoughts - and bearings - even for a moment, should repel me, but I'm fixated by the place and I want more of it. Times Square; intoxicating.

New York never sleeps, and we almost haven't. A few hours later we were up again, polishing off the hotel's continental breakfast and striding out of the lobby hoping to beat the queue for the Empire State Building. We succeeded, in part, having been told the night before that we faced a three-hour wait to get to the top. In daylight, and with many of those revellers still in bed, it took only 30 minutes before we we were navigating the final barrier rope and rocketing up 86 floors in a crowded elevator to the observatory deck.

The view downtown to the financial district was stunning...

...uptown, Central Park and the Hudson River didn't look too shabby either...

...our early start had been vindicated.

Next stop was Ground Zero, where one of these huge water features stands on the site of each of the twin towers. Was it really 13 years ago that I sat on the bus home from college and overheard rumours of planes crashing into buildings on the other side of the Atlantic? The names of every person who died that day are engraved on the memorial and, of course, there were hundreds of people on site paying their respects.

The new World Trade Center is nearing completion and it dominates the New York skyline, as its predecessors did. At 1,776 feet tall, it is the tallest building in the United States and it yells defiance in the face of terrorism. What happened here on 9/11 will never be forgotten and it's only served to fortify the American spirit.

Standing between the two memorial sites and the foot of the new, glistening tower evoked a feeling that defies description, really.

I'm glad we went.

I doubt there's a building around these parts which oozes more class than the aptly-named Grand Central Station (above). It's more of a tourist attraction than a transport hub these days, although trains do still run out of there to the suburbs.

But the jewel in this particular crown is the superb array of food emporiums in the station's basement. Dishes from all over the world at cracking prices - well, the Chinese seafood and noodles certainly represented excellent value for money.

The only shame was we couldn't try the Thai as well. Good job we don't leave until tomorrow.

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