A new travel service arranges custom-tailored recommendations and offers you value-added services to enable you to enjoy the real New York – like a local
You’ve seen the city that never sleeps featured in a thousand movies. It’s big, brash, bold and busy, just like its people.
New York is a fascinating place and so diverse that every visitor will find something to thrill and enchant them. The skyline is a highlight in itself, and you have an almost endless choice of places to dine, catch a show or view world-class art and exhibitions.
There are a handful of parks too, of which the famous Central Park is surprisingly only the 5th largest in the city. Even just strolling around the streets can be a huge source of entertainment in this pulsating city, so take good walking shoes! New York sprawls across five boroughs: Manhattan and Staten Islands, Brooklyn and Queens on Long Island, and the Bronx on the mainland. Bridges, tunnels and ferries link everything.
Once you’ve taken a selfie in Times Square and heaved yourself up the Empire State Building, surely the bright lights of Broadway are next? Not this time. My first bite of an impossibly fluffy doughnut smothered in chocolate icing and multi-coloured sprinkles made one thing instantly clear: trusting travel company Localike with the organisation of my New York trip was definitely the right decision.
That morning, I had strolled out of the trendy new Hoxton hotel in Williamsburg unsure of what was ahead of me. The area, just across the East River from Manhattan, is known for being a cool hangout for locals, with hipster coffee spots and quirky independent stores. But with such a reputation, it’s difficult to know where to start.
That’s exactly where Localike comes in. Ahead of my trip to New York, the company asked me to complete an online questionnaire in order to find out what activities I enjoy, and whether I was an early bird or a night owl. Taking this information, the company then assembles tailor-made itineraries for visitors, filled with insider suggestions for places to eat and unusual activities to try.
That’s how you end up in tucked-away areas of the city, discovering secrets that only the locals know about – just like Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop in Greenpoint, an unassuming little bakery that sells delicacies such as red velvet doughnuts and s’mores at between $1 and $2 apiece.
A sugar rush started the day, and the evening began with yet another one – this time in the form of a passion-fruit cocktail enjoyed on the roof of Night of Joy, one of Brooklyn’s trendiest bars despite sporting decor reminiscent of your grandparents’ house.
A further 15-minute walk into South Williamsburg, you’ll find Shalom Japan– another spot you’d never accidentally stumble upon as a first-time visitor. It turned out to be a Japanese-Jewish gem of a restaurant serving up fresh tuna tataki for starters and hearty bowls of ramen with foie gras dumplings for mains.
And so concluded day one in New York, with tourist traps and rip-offs successfully dodged.
Most people who visit New York for a long weekend don’t tend to spend much time outside of Manhattan – after all, there is plenty to see on the island. But Localike responded to my desire to see “the real NYC” and sent me straight to Red Hook, Brooklyn. Only a 20-minute drive from Lower Manhattan, this laid-back neighbourhood is home to young families, artistic types and some really great spots to eat.
Set among slightly shabby-looking shipping warehouses is Hometown Bar-B-Que, another of the suggestions on my personalised itinerary. Sitting on benches and eating off metal trays, visitors get to enjoy a truly no-frills dining experience. When you get to the front of the queue, order the beef-brisket sandwich or the Korean BBQ wings – both are pit-smoked and melt-in-the-mouth delicious. Wash it down with a Brooklyn Brewery beer, then see if you’ve got space for the next stop on the tour of Red Hook.
You’ll have a brief chance to air the oak-wood smoke out of your clothes before you arrive at the waterfront and Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, which is minutes away from Hometown Bar-B-Que.Originally from Florida, key lime pies are one of America’s best-known desserts; owner Steve Turpin is himself a Key West native, serving up what many describe as the best pies in New York. They’re so good that Steve has a long waiting list of restaurants hoping to stock them. Take your pie to the water’s edge and gaze out at the Statue of Liberty in the distance, saving yourself the over-priced visit to Liberty Island itself.
While the looming skyscrapers and hectic streets of Manhattan have so far been evaded, no trip to New York would be complete without seeing what it’s all about. Starting the day at the brand-new Millennial-minded Moxy NYC Downtown hotel, you’re just a two-minute stroll from the 9/11 Memorial. Then, slowly meandering north past the fancy stores of SoHo and eclectic neighbourhood of NoHo, you’ll eventually reach Gramercy Park– the only private park in Manhattan. With only 400 keys to the gates in circulation, it’s a status symbol to own one. It’s completely out of bounds for the average tourist, but Localike can arrange for a long-time key holder to show you around the park. Having lived there since the ’60s, she regales visitors with tales about the park’s history and various antiquated rules.
Then, for a Manhattan night to remember, be sure to ask the company to book tickets to a show at the famed Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village – or tickets to an ice-hockey game at Madison Square Garden. Grab a slice of 99-cent pizza on the way home, or drop into The Up & Up,a speakeasy-style cocktail bar, for a nightcap to complete your “true local” night out in Manhattan.
City Guide – New York
SAA flies to New York from Johannesburg daily. Visit flysaa.com
John F Kennedy airport is in the Queens District, and a 30-60 minute ride to town, depending on traffic. The NYC Airporter Bus leaves every 30 minutes for Grand Central Station and Penn Station. The Express Shuttle USA runs to Manhattan and has a transportation desk in the terminal. There’s a subway station too, and car hire companies have offices at the airport.
When to go
Spring or autumn is the best time to visit. Avoid mid-winter – in January, the average temp is 2°C.
The weather can vary from day to day, but generally the spring in April and May brings light winds, rain and days that are cool to warm. Summer is hot and sunny and temperatures in July and August can reach 31oC. The autumn, or fall, is cool and crisp. Winter can be wicked with snowfalls and temperatures dropping to freezing point.
English is widely spoken
Currency & Costs
The US dollar is the currency, and you can change money in banks, hotels and forex bureaux. Credit and debit cards are just as common as actual cash. Tipping is considered normal, not optional.
Eating out is pretty expensive compared to South Africa, not to mention that the minimum tip in restaurants is 15%. When ordering a drink at the bar, the barman will expect a tip of $1-$2.
Tipping is almost obligatory to everyone all the time. A less expected, but more annoying cost is sales tax. The price tag will say one thing, but New York City sales tax will see the cashier add on almost 9% extra – except for food bought at grocery stores, prescription drugs and clothing costing under $110.
New York City is one of the safest large cities in the country. However, do not let yourself be lulled into a false sense of security. As in any large city, travelers in New York remain particularly easy marks for pickpockets and hustlers.
Never leave any bags unattended, and expect to have you and your possessions inspected thoroughly in such places as airports, sports stadiums, museums, and city buildings.
Keep jewelry out of sight on the street; better yet, leave valuables at home.
Men should carry their wallets in their front pants pocket rather than in their back pockets.
When in bars or restaurants, never hang your purse or bag on the back of a chair or put it underneath the table.
Avoid deserted blocks in unfamiliar neighborhoods.
A brisk, purposeful pace helps deter trouble wherever you go.
The subway runs round-the-clock and is generally well trafficked until midnight (and until at least 2 AM on Friday and Saturday nights), and overall it is very safe. If you do take the subway at night, ride in the center car, with the conductor, and wait on the center of the platform or right in front of the station agent. Watch out for unsavory characters lurking around the inside or outside of stations, particularly at night.
When waiting for a train, stand far away from the edge of the subway platform, especially when trains are entering or leaving the station. Once the train pulls into the station, avoid empty cars. While on the train don’t engage in verbal exchanges with aggressive riders, who may accuse others of anything from pushing to taking up too much space. If a fellow passenger makes you nervous while on the train, trust your instincts and change cars. When disembarking, stick with the crowd until you reach the street.
The individual who approaches you with a complicated story is probably playing a confidence game and hopes to get something from you.
Beware of people jostling you in crowds, or someone tapping your shoulder from behind.
Never play or place a bet on a sidewalk card game, shell game, or other guessing game — they are all rigged to get your cash, and they’re illegal.
Walk everywhere – it’s the best way to see the city and burn off all the delicious food you’ll eat.
The transport system is excellent, so you’ll have no problem getting around. Public transport networks run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) are vast and run around the clock, just like the city itself. Buy a MetroCard and load it with money from a subway station kiosk or a manned ticket booth. You can buy a pay-as-you go card and swipe it for each trip on a train or bus, or a card giving you unlimited trips for a week or a month. While the underground trains are faster, the buses are obviously more scenic. Info boards at the bus stops show when a bus should arrive and where it will go. For taxis, you can hail the famous yellow cabs in the street.
Mobile phone & Internet access
Hotspots are readily available in coffee shops, parks and libraries. Hotels usually have Wifi, and many have computers and printers available for guests.
What to eat
Don’t leave New York without having tried blueberry pancakes!
Where to stay
Situated in the “locals” neighbourhood of Williamsburg, The Hoxton is the latest of the boutique brand’s hotels, featuring stylish rooms with Manhattan views, a cool rooftop bar, and breakfast bags delivered to your door.
To be closer to the main attractions of Manhattan, grab a room at the Moxy NYC Downtown,which boasts compact bedrooms and a buzzing communal area with arcade games and even a basketball court.
What to do
For pretty much all the info you’ll ever need, try the New York tourism site www.nycgo.com. It has travel info, details of endless attractions, suggested itineraries and useful tips on getting around. If you have only a short time here, concentrate on Manhattan.
New York – like a local
+1 646 568 3171
Personal itineraries from $79.
WORDS Francesca Lynagh