New York always finds a way to surprise you, and in a city so packed with cultural, culinary, artistic, and genetic diversity, you never know what waits around the next corner.
A spontaneous decision to take a solo trip to New York can easily turn into a colourful adventure, and when your dates coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which led to the birth of the Gay Pride movement in the Big Apple, a sensory overload is guaranteed.
Rainbows were everywhere in Manhattan in late June. Dangling from flagpoles; styled into messages of love and acceptance in shop windows, on ice-cream-parlour menus and happy-hour sandwich boards; flashing on Times Square’s billboards.
Even within the business-first aura that characterises these streets, Pride Month sprinkled gaiety, quirkiness and rainbow plumage like fairy dust over Manhattan, making a solo traveller of any persuasion feel that adventure was afoot.
Summer In New York
Summer in New York is sticky and hot, and a visit to Coney Island, where the original American amusement park overlooks the beach, is a camp treat on a random Tuesday.
Here you can take a genteel ride in the world’s tallest Ferris wheel, or scream your lungs out on the Cyclone, the 80-year-old wooden-framed roller coaster that is still considered the granddaddy of them all.
The boardwalk is great for a seaside stroll and people watching, and when your stomach rumbles, there’s Nathan’s, famous for the Nathan’s hot-dog-eating contest, which has taken place on July 4th every year since 1916.
As hot dogs go, the basic beef frank in a bun is delicious after you’ve queued for it… undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that you are eating it! On! The! Coney! Island! Boardwalk!
Coney Island camp is a different beast to the Lady Gaga fashionista camp that NY Pride visitors could go marvel at in the venerable Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Camp: Notes on Fashion”, the Costume Institute’s spring/summer exhibition, was based on Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”, and took visitors on a tour through pastel-hued rooms, over-the-top garments, and iconic fashion imagery and narrations, painting a rich picture of a concept that’s been dragged, bitching and kvetching, from the underground into the mainstream.
And of course, the real Gaga was in NY for Pride too… you could find yourself waiting in a crowd of buff men outside the Stonewall Inn on the day of the 50th anniversary, 28 June, in response to a rumour that Gaga was on her way. “Born this way,” the crowd chanted, rainbow headbands around toned biceps.
And she did come, after Whoopi Goldberg and Donatella Versace’s speeches; wearing thigh-high boots and choking up as she paid homage to the LGBTQI community: “I would take a bullet for you!” No singing, though… clearly, said one punter, she’s saving her voice for the official concert with the high-price tickets.
Nonetheless, the free ticket that NY gifted the solo traveller that day did deliver a thrill: Alicia Keys, live, and the chance to sing along, as she belted “New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of…” Karaoke, stone-cold sober, in the street – only in New York!
A rooftop sundowner in the shadow of the Empire State Building, followed by Michelin-star ramen in Korea Town; then walking home to the Airbnb in Nolita, stopping by Van Leeuwen’s for pistachio ice cream.
Stepping into a theatre under Broadway marquee lights; taking your seat and waiting for the curtain… and for Annette Bening/Nathan Lane/John Lithgow to step onto the stage, voice warmed up and knowing a whole script off by heart, for your entertainment.
A tuna burger at the chichi members-only Soho House in Dumbo (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass), the once-industrial Brooklyn neighbourhood that’s been transformed into an artsy hotspot.
Swiping your Metro card and descending into the belly of the city for a subway uptown or downtown, whipping past neon-lit stations with gleaming tiles and grubby platforms. “Stand clear of the closing doors,” cautions the recording at each station, a refrain that echoes in your head long after you are home.
The Sunday of the World Pride march breaks bright and sunny. We prep the recommended cute outfit, comfortable shoes, sunscreen, hat, water… and the badge with the face of our darling friend Hayden who’d have killed to be there, but who couldn’t make it because, as it turns out, he passed away exactly three months ago that Sunday.
The subway is packed with people wearing big smiles and rainbows; a middle-aged couple wearing bright bandanas and “He’s mine” and “I’m his” T-shirts peer at their phones, a toddler in a rainbow tutu holds her mom’s hand.
We join the march amid the 100 or so floats that will make their way across 30 city blocks.
Around us are boys in frocks, in rainbow suits, unicorn horns; disabled people on motorised wheelchairs wearing tutus and neon wigs; girls in glitter and butterfly wings; old people, children, clowns, divas… everyone’s welcome.
Trailing behind a float on 5th Avenue with a gaggle of rainbow-bedecked festivalgoers in feathers and spandex has to count as one of the most thrilling travel experiences New York has dished up yet, but the only thing that’s certain is that next time, there will be another surprise. That’s just the way New York operates.
Get a $34 weekly unlimited MetroCard for the subway and buses. Just $7.75 to take the subway from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Manhattan; shared shuttle: around $25; cab/Uber: $65.
NYC KickMap offers a detailed, offline subway map.
Staying In Touch
Avoid roaming charges with a local sim: T-Mobile’s tourist package, around $38, provides data for 21 days.
Where To Stay
For a “local” experience, stay downtown in Greenwich Village, Chelsea, East Village. A solo traveller can get a private room in a shared flat on Airbnb for around R1 800/night.
SAA flies directly to New York from Johannesburg daily, a 16-hour flight.
Words by Melinda Shaw