22 April 2011

What we did in New York

After the previous blog post, in which I wrote about our flights to and from New York, some people have asked what did we do whilst there. So this time I will try to show you what we did. It is possible that some of the days have things in the wrong order, or the wrong activity on the wrong day, but no matter the detail!

We arrived at JFK just after noon local time, which according to our body clocks was closer to 8pm, so we took a taxi to the apartment. We could have done Airtrain/subway, but we had plenty of luggage and a small tired boy to transport, who actually fell asleep in the cab. It was after his regular bedtime after all. Added to that Tam was still not feeling well from the flight. This would turn out to be our only yellow cab ride in the city. We had a talkative driver, originally from Afghanistan, who'd been in the USA since the Russian invasion. He had never been back, but had often visited India, where he'd got a love of cricket from. As mentioned before, all the yellow taxis are now hybrids, so in the heavy traffic the engine cuts out and the electric motor takes over. Also, all taxis accept credit cards (the cost of some fares, this is needed!) and ours also had an on-board tv, that you could watch for $5, or a Google map interface showing your current location.

We arrived at the apartment to find John, the owner, was inside - he said he would meet us there, but with noone around we waited outside for a few minutes until he came out of the door.
This is the apartment:
Also here:
My review is posted.
After John had explained the subway and bus maps, shown us the apartment, he took me on a quick tour of the local area (just the block really, as I needed to get back to put Matthew to bed). There was a grocery store, some delis, cafes, takeaways, a Dunkin Donuts, a KFC and a laundrette, as well as the subway all within 200m. We actually only ended up using the subway and the grocery store. Anyway, we put Matthew to bed and Tam too turned in. I went to the grocery store to stock up. For being such a small shop (approx 1/2 the size of the Dereham Rd Co-op) they certainly had stock in the place! Products were jammed in. Also of note was that most things seemed more expensive than at home, though not by much (though it was a convenience store. I'm sure Walmart would be cheaper), and that most things came in very large packets or sizes. And, the gluten free selection was very impressive for in effect a convenience store. Anyway, I got some GF pasta, milk, tea bags, bacon, eggs, breakfast cereal (not even the most brightly coloured one!), fruit, ham, cheese, and plenty of orange juice. The next morning, Tam was still not feeling great, so I took Matthew to another store I'd read about as having a very good gluten free selection: Trader Joe's, which was in downtown Brooklyn. I carried his pushchair up and down the subway stairs, the first of many times, and bought Tam and I a weekly subway (and bus) pass, at $29 each - only a little more than the London system's one day travelcard. We took the subway and found Trader Joe's, which seemed more of an upmarket, "organic" type of shop. With some more purchases, we were ready to head back to the apartment. It seems that the company is actually owned by the German group who also own Aldi - from one extreme to the other! Also, there was a sign saying that somewhere in the store was hidden a soft toy pizza - if any children found it, they could claim a small prize. Very innovative.

We returned to the apartment, had lunch (by this time Tam had woken) and we all headed into Manhattan. This was Tam's first time in New York, first time in the USA and first time anywhere with a major (3+ hours) time difference. Anyway, we took the subway to Times Square, and on exiting, were greeted with the typical scene - hoards of people, massive skyscrapers, yellow taxis, tour busses, street food hawkers, neons signs - everything typical. She was enthralled! We spent some time there taking photos, before heading towards Bryant Park and the Central Library. Apparently this was in some women's film recently. We had a look inside, before heading up 5th Ave, stopping in Starbucks in a Barnes and Noble for a drink. (B&N is one of the few places with free wifi in the city). Their GF selection was very poor compared to the UK, with no signage apart from the calorie content of the cakes, and they charged nearly $4 for a cup of soy milk for Matty. After this, we continued up 5th Ave to Central Park, along the edge of the park to Columbus Circle and the subway back to the apartment. Most of our evenings consisted of and early self-cooked dinner with Matty, putting him to bed and a little TV until we too retired for the night.

Monday morning, we slept in late, not leaving until lunchtime. This time we took the bus from the next street, which went to downtown Brooklyn near Brooklyn Bridge. We then walked over the bridge, admiring the views of the East River, Manhattan, and the Statue of Liberty in the distance. It seemed that there were hundreds of padlocks attached to the bridge, some with names or initials and dates scratched into them. Once we arrived in Manhattan, we made our way to a specialist bakery in the Lower East Side near Chinatown, where we spent a fortune on gluten free cupcakes and doughnuts - the cupcakes were ok, but the doughnuts were worth every cent, I am reliably informed! (Babycakes, listed here: http://www.coeliaclist.co.uk/world.html) We then went to a local park, the WG Seward Park, so Tam could sit and enjoy the confectioney and Matthew could play. Eventually it was getting late, so back on the subway to the apartment.

On Tuesday morning, Tam was still not so well, so Matthew and I took the subway into the Chelsea Market, which has several high-quality delis and cafes, to buy a gluten free sandwich from one of the delis there that I'd researched before. The market itself is more of an indoor mall, with just food shops - looks very nice, though quite expensive. On taking the sandwich back to Tam, Matthew needed a late morning sleep, so with both of them in bed I went into Brooklyn to the New York Transit Museum. I spend an interesting hour there looking at the displays and the old subway cars on the lower level, which is an actual disused subway station. After lunch at the apartment, we headed to lower Manhattan, to the World Trade Centre site. Tam was especially touched by the informative displays at Trinity Church. We then visited Century 21, the original in a chain of cheap department stores, before walking down Wall St to the Bowling Green (New York's first green public space, even if it is the size of a bowling green), Fraunces Tavern, and Battery Park. Matthew played here for a bit whilst Tam took pictures of the harbour - and an inquisitive squirrel climbed onto Matt's pushchair.

On Wednesday, I took Matthew for a play in the small playground opposite the apartment. The wind must have changed, as today there was lots of aerial traffic, I think heading into La Guardia airport, and each time a plane passed over Matt stopped and watched it :) Later on that day, we went to the American Museum of Natural History, famous for the dinosaur skeletons and where Ross from "Friends" works. On the way there we saw the Dakota building, outside which John Lennon was shot, and the garden inside Central Park created in his honour: Strawberry Fields. We bought Matthew some plastic dinosaurs to play with, and for dinner we ate out at a traditional American diner, one that I'd found that had a good GF selection, including GF burger buns. Of course we had to have burgers, and they were 12oz ones - aparently that's 3/4 of a pound! Matthew had a grilled chicken sandwich (also on GF bread). They were so big we had to take the leftovers back with us.

On Thursday, we headed to the posh part of the city, the Upper East Side, to see how the other half live. We saw the Guggenheim museum, but didn't think it fair to make Matthew endure that, So we went down to 59th St and the Roosvelt Island Aerial Tramway. Basically a cable car that crosses to an island in the river, it climbs quite high up on the way, to enable shipping to pass underneath. On returning to Manhattan, we let Matt free in the small park at the bottom of the tramway, but all he wanted to do was climb the stairs up to it again! Sorry Matt, but once is enough! We walked back to 5th Ave, through Bloomingdales (which resembled more of a shopping mall than a store), and I left Tam to go to Tiffany's and other shops, whilst I took Matt to the official Central Park playground. It was huge, with slides going into a big sand pit, which he loved but we ended up spending ages clearing his shoes of sand!

Our last day was Friday, and I had wanted to go on the Staten Island ferry, but Tam was worried about the swell and feeling seasick, so she stayed behind in the morning to clean and tidy the apartment, and to pack, whilst Matt and I went on the boat. We returned to the apartment via a bus over the Verrazano Narrows bridge, and subway. Whilst Matt had a sleep, I returned to Brooklyn to search for some gifts for people, notably peanut butter M&Ms that nowhere seemed to have a large bag of, only the small bag size. I eventually found some in a pharmacy! Anyway, after lunch we headed out to Greenwich Village, where the building seen in the Friends exterior pictures is located. Downstairs where Central Perk is supposed to be is actually a fancy, and expensive, restaurant. We took some pictures and looked around the Village - Tam said that this was the "nicest" residential area of Manhattan, after the posh Upper East Side and down-at-heal Lower East Side and Chinatown. We had thought about going up the Rockefeller Center at this point, but it was getting late and becoming gloomy, so we wouldn't have been able to see much anyway. So we headed back, going to bed early for our 5am taxi pickup the next morning, when we returned home.

There are some photos on my Facebook page.

15 April 2011

New York April 2011


With our son nearing 2 years old, we knew that from that point he would have to pay a child's fare whenever we flew, but before then he would be eligable for an infant fare. Therefore we wanted to go on a last long-haul trip before this. We had thought Australia, but available annual leave, and finance (and the necessity to have the child on our laps!) we decided to go somewhere closer. Added to this, was the fact that I had sufficient Air Miles (www.airmiles.co.uk) earned from my last 5 years' shopping at Tesco, and petrol purchases from them, for a completely free flight as far as zone 5. By free, they do mean free - all taxes and fees are taken care of. Zone 5 is as far as the northeast USA, Moscow, North Africa and the Middle East to Dubai. As my wife has never been to the USA, but has always wanted to go to New York, we chose there as a destination. I booked both my ticket (free), baby Matthew's ticket (half the regular infant fare, half miles) and my wife's fare (cash) on the Air Miles website. Total cost was 5250 miles, plus £375, for the 3 of us. I also entered our BA Executive Club numbers, but the booking classes were too low for any BA miles at all.

We then found that hotels in Manhattan are ridiculously expensive, so we decided on a rental apartment in Brooklyn, both for space per $, convenience, and having a more quiet area to stay in. We also booked a night at the Heathrow Central Travelodge the night before, as we needed to be at the airport at 8am the next day, and we live 2.5 - 3.5 hours away depending on traffic. We also arranged to leave our car at my brother in law's flat, in Earlsfield.

Our day of departure (from the house) arrived, and we spent some time packing cases and loading the car. We had wanted to leave after lunch, when Matthew would be having his afternoon sleep, but we ended up not leaving until 4pm. We picked up my brother in law from Hounslow West tube station, and proceeded to Nandos in Feltham for food, especially late in Matthew's case! Then on to the hotel to unload, and put the boy to bed. Unfortunately they had no baby cots (despite them telling me on a previous visit not to bother booking one, they always have plenty) so we set up the spare mattress on the floor for him. He eventually slept on the floor itself on a duvet, between the bed and the mentioned matress! I took Blake (the brother in law) home and left the car there, and came back by train and bus, and we had a good night's sleep. We were woken at 6 by an alarm, as we wanted to catch a bus to the terminals just before 7 (we spashed out on the Hotel Hoppa bus, so we wouldn't have to carry our cases to the local bus stop, and irritate regular passengers with them). Outside, Matthew looked in awe at the heavies landing almost directly above us on 27R - he looked frightened for the first one, but then loved it, saying each time "Big plane! Big plane!" Unfortunately we just missed the desired bus (H7) and were resigned to wait there for another 30 minutes, but 10 mins later another arrived, that went directly to T4 and T5 (H54), that was not advertised on the posters! This would save us the shuttle train to T5 so we boarded it, and the driver was happy to accept our ticket to T5 (our ticket was to T3).

Outward flight

On arrival at T5, we tried to use the kiosk to check in (I'd tried to use mobile checkin but it failed), but this failed so we had to queue at a manual desk. This appeared to be because we had an infant with us, so we had been allocated a bulkhead seat with a little extra room. We left our luggage there, and proceeded through security. After buying some food in Boots, we took the shuttle train to T5B, to wait for the flight. We were approached by a gate agent, along with another family with a small child, and an elderly lady in a wheelchair, to be pre-boarded. My wife was "chosen randomly" for extra security screening, so she went downstairs towards the gate with the agent, whilst I waited for the lift with Matthew's pushchair. It arrived, we descended, and met my wife who's screening had already passed. Can't have been more than 30 seconds! We then proceeded down the jetway to the aircraft, picking up a newspaper on the way.

We settled ourselves into our window, bulkhead seats and gave Matthew some toys. We had lots of toys in small cloth bags, a few in each, that we could give him as he became bored with each, which hopefully would last the flight. We were also given a small plastic suitcase containing a colouring book and crayons, by the crew. At this point though Matthew was more interested in looking out of the window. Eventually everyone was on board, and with a full load we pushed back. It was a long taxi as we took off from 27L, climbing slowly and headed westwards. Matthew was fine, sitting on my lap, and once the seatbelt sign was switched off he sat on the floor and played with his toys. Food came round fairly soon, my wife's gluten free meal came first, a gf-pasta dish, followed by the regular meals. I chose pasta, with a spicy bbq chicken,
which I was pleasantly surprised by.

At one point turbulence became quite bad, my wife was sick (which lasted a few days into the holiday, when combined with morning sickness which she was free of for the week before we left). Matthew sat on my lap and watched some TV on the miniature screen, Cbeebies, the BBC channel for toddlers. He reacted angrily though to the headphones to hear what the TV characters were saying, but he seemed happy to watch in silence!

We kept ourselves hydrated, and especially Matthew, so we took his empty Fruit Shoot bottle to the galley and filled it with a mix of apple juice and water. I had a chat with the steward whilst there, with him saying New York is one of his favourite destinations.

Soon after, the pre-arrival snack was brought around. My wife's arrived first (as usual) and consisted of a gf-roll and a bowl of fruit salad. Mine came, and was a sandwich and mini KitKat bar. This too was very tasty. It has to be said, that no infant food was provided, not that we expected any (the only airline to provide infant food was SAA, which provided two jars of baby food and a carton of fruit juice).

By now we were descending, so back on my lap for Matthew. As well as looking out of the window of the views of Long Island, he played with the plastic suitcase from earlier, and a sheet of animal stickers, which we stuck on the case. We landed smoothly on 31R, and the taxi to Terminal 7 was very quick.

Unfortunately, the pushchair was not in the jetway on exiting the aircraft - we had let everyone else off first was we knew we would take some time to arrange all our stuff. Staff there told us it would be on the carousel (which it was, eventually). We walked down towards the immigration desks, but then Matthew had a meltdown. He cried and screamed, and nothing we could do would make him stop. We tried food, drinks, toys, I held him but he wanted his Mummy to hold him but even then he cried (and she couldn't hold him for much time as she was still feeling sick). After moving about 20m in the very long queue in about 20 minutes, we were asked to come forward to the front. We apologised to the staff, they were ok with it and took our fingerprints (our ESTA visas approved online the week before they started charging!) We exited these desks to the baggage reclaim, where we saw one of our cases and the pushchair. The airport was asking $5 to rent a trolley, so we decided that to walk the short distance to the taxi rank we would cope. We had 2 cases, one large rucksack, hand baggage and a pushchair with a boy. I had the large rucksack on my back, a bag on the pushchair handle, boy in it, and pulled one case, my wife had another small rucksack on, pulling the 2nd case and holding the 3rd hand luggage back. We exited and got a taxi to the apartment in Brooklyn we had rented. (Very impressed with the hybrid taxis in New York, gliding to the taxi queue in silence!)

After a great week in New York, it was time to come home. The owner of the apartment gave us the phone number of a taxi firm, so we booked a taxi for the following morning at 5am, in time for our flight at 8.

Return flight

We checked in at a kisok, no problem this time! Again we didn't spend $5 on a luggage trolley to move our bags less than 50m from the kerbside, to checkin kiosk, to luggage drop. Matthew was very tired, and starting to get antsy, so when we went through the security checkpoint (my first and so far only experience of the infamous "TSA"), he started moaning. We passed through ok, but my wife had to explain the baby foods and bottles, and despite carrying a crying baby we were not allowed to give him his milk until the agent had checked all the bottles (annoying as he had already checked the milk!) Anyway, once they were all checked and cleared, we gave Matthew the milk and he was happy. It was only 6am by this time, 2h to departure, so we went to find some breakfast. Not many of the open cafes had anything gluten free (for my wife), not least Starbucks, as their UK operation has at least 2 GF cakes, and some other snacks, whereas here nothing, and nothing on the labels saying their allergens (but they did say the exact number of calories per cake!) So, McDonalds got our business, for my wife a bacon and egg sandwich minus the bread, the same for me with. Their hash browns are ok. We fed Matthew with some cereal with made up formula milk.

My wife went to the duty free shop to buy some perfume, and was surprised when they didn't give it to her but said they would deliver it to the gate. They did so, so she was relieved. We, along with the other few parents, were called forward first to board, and we went down the jetway to the aircraft. After asking to confirm if we would get the pushchair back on exiting the aircraft or on the baggage carousel, we were told we could take in on and use an overhead locker - as the flight was far from full there would be room. This eastbound daytime flight was clearly not the busiest for BA! Again we had a window side bulkhead seat, with an older Yorkshire gentleman next to us. The checkin agent had said there were 60 spare seats on board, so we offered him the chance to move, but he was happy - there was a little extra legroom, and he had grandchildren so wasn't worried about Matthew. He was travelling with another 4 guys (including his son) who were in the middle section accross the aisle. I did notice that the bulkhead curtain rail was stuck together with gaffer tape - not exactly a good impression! There was no child gift this time, but we buckled up and got ready to depart. There was a long taxi to runway 04L, where we took off. We followed the coast of Long Island, where we got some nice shots of Fire Island except the dirty windows smudged them somewhat. After spotting Nantucket, we headed out to sea. I forget what my wife's meal was, but I was offered omlette or vege lasagne - I took the lasagne as I'd already eaten breakfast. It was surprisingly good! Although there was more turbulance - enough to make the drinks spill from the table, my wife didn't feel sick this time.

After an hour or two, Matthew started getting overtired, and he cried for 5 minutes until he finally fell asleep on my wife's lap, where he stayed comatose for 3 hours. He woke shortly before the pre-landing snack was distributed - my wife had another fruit salad, and a muffin for the rest of us. Matthew continued to play, and we landed on 09L on time. Overall a good flight, once we left the US coastal turbulance.

We deboarded the aircraft and made our way to the little train shuttle to the main hall of T5, passed immigration without a problem and picked up our bags. I left my wife with the luggage (on a trolley!) to sit in a cafe whilst I took Matthew to the bus stops to catch a bus to Feltham, the train to Earlsfield back to my brother in law's to pick up the car - he was in Paris himself, running his first marathon. We returned to T5, picked up my wife and drove home, getting in at 2am, but this was only 9pm on our body clocks. A good holiday, a first time change for Matthew who has taken about 4 days to get back into his normal routine, and my wife enjoyed her time in New York.