Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

I love my new New York

A guy gets a fresh perspective when he travels with five women

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NEW YORK — We came out of the subway at Canal street, and before we reached the sidewalk the  hawker was upon us.

"Handbag! Handbag! Handbag!"

My sister Debbie and her friend Jaylene nodded yes, they were interested. So we were off, scurrying up one street, down another, then up a third before stopping in front of a nondescript storefront.

A shifty guy with a walkie-talkie quickly surveyed the street, then gave our guide the OK. We were hustled inside, she put her shoulder into a wall, and voila, a hidden door magically opened, leading to a stairway to the basement.

Down the stairs and a couple more turns, and we were ushered inside a room filled with fake designer purses. Gucci, Prada, Chanel -- you name it, they were there, and for $35 or $50 instead of the grand or five you'd pay for the real deal.

You could even get them cheaper, if you knew how to bargain. Jaylene -- "Jaylene of the Safeway," as she's known in Winnipeg -- would slice 25 per cent off everything, then stand her ground. If the seller wouldn't budge, she'd throw her hands up and announce "I'm walkin' away! I'm walkin' away!" Time and time again, the bootleg vendors would cave and she would come out with a bag full of booty.

The problem was, she walked out with half a dozen purses in a big black garbage bag, and had to lug them around all day. Hence she decided that the time to shop on Canal Street was the late afternoon, just before you were about to return to your hotel for a little rest.

This was one of the pearls of wisdom I gleaned on a recent five-day foray to New York city with my sister and four of her friends, Jaylene, Susan, Caroline and Muriel.

Debbie and Susan were turning 50, and decided to celebrate with a trip to the Big Apple. The husbands weren't invited along, but for some reason, I was.

Going to New York with five 50-something women was a lot different from my other trips to New York. They didn't want to go to any baseball games! But hitting all the hot shopping areas and doing the full-on tourist deal turned out to be a gas.

Normally I would never do anything as touristy as take the Gray Line "hop on, hop off" double-decker tour bus. But it's a great way to see the city.

The upper floor is open air, which gives you a great convertible-style view of Manhattan's mind-boggling collection of skyscrapers. You're also at the same level as many of the bas-relief sculptures and gargoyles on New York's countless 1900-era buildings, so you see tons of stuff you'd never notice from street level.

At one point we hopped off at the bottom of Manhattan, intent on doing a boat cruise. There are several options, including a boat that goes to the Statue of Liberty. We opted to take a tour that cruises around the harbour for an hour, going by the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the Brooklyn Bridge without landing on them. It's a great way to go -- you're ferried to the sights, snap a few pics and are back on shore before you get seasick. You also get a chance to rest your feet.

This is key, because New York is best seen by foot. Bring runners -- "sneakers" to New Yorkers -- because you'll find yourself walking more than you ever have in your life. I lost five pounds the first two days.

Our hotel was in midtown, the Affinia 50 at 155 East 50th and 3rd. It's a converted apartment block, which means you get fairly sizable suites, many with real bedrooms. In early May, we were paying $221 US per night for a room with two queen beds and a couch with a hideaway bed in the living room. This is a bargain in Manhattan, where you can easily spend $500 US for a room the size of the back seat in your car.

(The last time I was in New York, I stayed in a place with bunk beds and a shared washroom for $120 US. I'd recommend it, too, although it's changed its name from the Pickwick Arms to The Pod, trying to cash in on the iPod generation).

The eastern side of midtown is a great place to stay, because it's out of the non-stop crowds, traffic and general madness of much of Manhattan. The population of Manhattan is 1.6 million, but a couple of million more come in to work, shop or party every day -- everywhere you look, there are people.

Our location was great for walking to Rockefeller Center, an art deco marvel consisting of 14 buildings spread over several blocks. The centrepiece is the 70-storey GE Building, which is the headquarters of NBC and is nicknamed 30 Rock after its address, 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The lobby features a famous mural, American Progress, by Jose Maria Sert, but the girls were more interested in the NBC store, where you pose beside giant photos of the stars. And can get T-shirts for the folks back home.

Rockefeller Center is the largest privately held complex of its kind in the world. New York tends to do things big.

Times Square doesn't have any "world's biggest" titles, but it has to be the world's flashiest corner. It's best seen at night, when all the flashing video screens and electronic billboards are on full-tilt boogie. Everybody liked the dancing M&M's video screen, and they were impressed that Sean Coombs (aka Puff Daddy, P-Diddy, Puffy or Diddy) had his own multi-storey sign.

Sadly, we didn't run into Puff Daddy at Spice Market (403 W 13th), the trendy restaurant where we ate in Chelsea.

The 12,000-square-foot converted warehouse features a mixture of Asian food (Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese), put together by celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who recently opened two restaurants in Vancouver's Shangri-La hotel. We ordered the 10-course special for $48, and it didn't disappoint. A homeless guy looked like the happiest man in New York when Jaylene gave him our leftover chicken.

Mind you, I personally favour eating at one of New York's many classic diners. While the gals were shopping on the Upper West Side one day, I nipped into a place called Big Nicks (70 W 71st), which looked like it had the same decor as the day it opened in 1962. There were all sorts of hilarious eight-by-10 glossies of New York celebrities you've never heard of on the walls (wrestlers, comics, et al), and bacon and eggs with hashbrowns and toast cost $5.

To properly chow down at a place like Big Nick's you need a paper. Being a university-educated intellectual, naturally I purchased the New York Times each morning. But being of white-trash heritage, I snuck tabloids such as the Daily News or the New York Post inside the broadsheet, cause that's where you find the great lurid New York stories.

We wandered around the Upper West Side, where we checked out the Dakota (1 W 72nd), which recently was cleaned, and unfortunately has lost the beautiful patina it had when John Lennon lived there. We strolled through Central Park, which is utterly gorgeous but totally unnatural, by Canadian standards. We took plenty of photos of the Guggenheim (1071 5th Ave at 89th), which has an amazing design by Frank Lloyd Wright but is not nearly as happening inside as the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd ).

Enough of the museum stuff. The most fun you have in New York is just walking around and coming across something like The French Building (551 5th Ave. at 45th St.), a relatively unheralded art deco building with a unbelievably elaborate lobby. The Empire State Building (350 5th Ave) is a must, if just to go up to the top floor observation deck and check out how many yellow cabs there are on the streets.

But the nicest art deco building in New York, or the world, is the Chrysler Building (405 Lexington Ave.), an elegant skyscraper topped by a luminous silver spire that rises in terraced arches. It was the tallest building in the world when it was built in 1930, but was surpassed by the Empire State within a year. No matter -- eight decades later, it's still breathtaking.

Mind you, the girls got a bigger kick out of ducking into the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria (301 Park Ave), the legendary luxury hotel. The night we were there, they were shooting an episode of Ugly Betty in one of the ballrooms. The staff of the Waldorf didn't seem to mind me snapping photos. Some kids having their high school grad came up to Caroline and asked if I was paparazzi. She said I was a photographer for the Times, and they excitedly crowded around for a snapshot.

It seemed cruel to tell them I was actually from Vancouver, but it was worth it just to hear them say "Vancoooo-vuh."

-- Canwest News Service



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2009 E1

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