Grand Manhattan Getaway Now? Deals Too Good To Pass Up

Low-budget stimulus package for mind, mood and appetite

Photos and article by Robin Tierney

I spent the first morning of spring inside a snowglobe.

It felt that way as fat flakes swirled around skyscrapers outside the windows of the quiet Sky Lounge on the 39th floor of the New Yorker Hotel. The snowfall gave way to a crisp long weekend of vigorous, soul-satisfying re-visitations. Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, art from world masterworks to freshly erupted manifestos to amusing visual jabs at celebrities and common citizenry.

The budget for this stimulus package is so low that recession-weary culture-lovers can swing a breakaway without breaking the bank.

Which shatters stereotype #1: that doing Manhattan in style is just too expensive. It’s not, once you discover ways to indulge your senses at a fraction of the price.

When the New Yorker opened its doors at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue in 1930, it was Manhattan’s largest hotel. It was also the Great Depression.

Ironically, the hotel’s colossal $70 million renovation wrapped up just in time for our not-so-great recession. The executives smartly decided to be flexible on price, choosing casual, attainable elegance over four-star grandeur. A family or group of friends can find a suite package with breakfast for under $179; a cozy “Metro” room goes for much less. And breakfast is a real deal, with the on-site 24-hour Tick Tock Diner serving homemade pancakes good enough to eat them naked (we mean pancakes, though I did spy one guest donning a robe).

Taking the train saves time and money—look for Amtrak Acela deals. Vacation starts in the “Quiet Car” where cell phone use is banned. Sometimes, you can find a 15 discount at the New Yorker when booking via Amtrak.

Affordability explains the sweat-suited seniors, toddler-toting parents, and backpack-laden 20-somethings crossing the lobby’s original marble floors (buried for decades beneath carpet). Staff are easy to spot; they’re the sharply dressed folks. Art deco touches include the centerpiece chandelier, sconces, and a cool mural painted by SoHo artists.

The efficient, clean rooms get extra credit for the digital thermostats (total climate control!), free WiFi and spectacular views. The 912 guest quarters are on the top 21 floors above commercial tenants. The hotel’s storied past includes being bought from receivership in 1976 for $5.6 million by the Unification Church, which used the property as dormitories.

At night, you can see “NEW YORKER” glow red from miles away. The six-story-tall sign atop the tiered skyscraper was restored with LED lights. The biggest sign of its kind in North America, yet its nightly energy consumption barely rivals that of a hairdryer.

Now to smash stereotype #2: one must spend a fortune on cabs. No way. New York City is immensely walkable—I strolled to restaurants, Broadway and Central Park. Even alone, I felt perfectly secure in this oasis of landscaped paths, hills and lakes rimmed by classic buildings.

On Broadway, look for the TKTS discount booths that sell half-price tickets to all kinds of shows.

To zip all around the metropolis, get a $7.50 FunPass that grants you unlimited subway rides for 24 hours—or a full week for $25. My “dirty-scary” recollections from years ago vanished once I descended the subway stairs outside the hotel lobby.

I easily make sense of the spaghetti strands of routes with the mini fold-up pocket map from NYCgo.com (besides the website, the tourist bureau has locations across town). Whenever I looked confused, a local would volunteer help. One Brooklynite even chased me down to hand me a scarf I’d dropped while sprinting from the subway to the Statue of Liberty ferry.

So goes the “unfriendly, pushy, elitist” stereotype.

NYC museum and site admission fees add up fast. The antidote: CityPass (http://www.citypass.com), a booklet of tickets to seven excellent attractions. Valid for nine days from first use, a $74 CityPass ($54 for kids) saves more than 50 percent on admission, lets you bypass general admission lines and includes free audio tours at some venues.

Opt for the audio tours; they’re rich with fascinating tidbits. How was the physical size of Manhattan expanded during its early years? How many immigrants were turned away at Ellis Island? Could a malformed fingernail really get you booted back to the homeland? How did a newspaper publisher get average citizens to finance the foundation for the Statue of Liberty? (Hint: it was built on spare change!) You’ll be well on your way to “know-it-all” status.

Visiting landmarks gets better with age, I realized, while entranced in the Empire State Building’s 360-degree views and staring up Miss Liberty’s skirt. Gustave Eiffel’s ingenious framework and spiral staircase combine to form a dizzying modernist scene. And the seemingly solid statue is hollow; the oxidized copper skin is just the width of two pennies.

Take the Statue ferry on to Ellis Island, whether or not your ancestors passed through this storied depot. You’re wisked back in time with narrative about harsh realities without the sugar-coating.

Twelve million people processed, eyes examined with buttonhooks, crude mental fitness tests, chalk marking their status—such ordeals made the difference between a new life and the nightmare of entry denied.

Photo displays capture horrors some faced in their homelands, such as deadly pogroms launched against Russian Jews for four decades after 1881. Sheet music exhibits include “novelty songs” from “Yes! We have no bananas” to borderline bigotry. News clips described quotas imposed to discriminate and to alleviate fears of losing jobs to newcomers—these muted the nobility of the Statue of Liberty poem into a quaint notion.

CityPass next took me to the American Museum of Animal History. Cosmic collisions? Watch recreations in the Hayden Planetarium. Camels in Nebraska? A mastodon’s body preserved 11,000 years underwater in New York ever since the poor big guy sunk 11,000 years ago in a bog? Galleries run the gamut of ancient creatures to life in outer space.

Artwise, CityPass includes the Museum of Modern Art, where my planned two-hour stopover turned into a four-hour excursion through some truly eccentric imaginations, including that of spotlight artist Martin Kippenberger, who has romped through nearly every medium lambasting the vagaries of modern culture. Consider “Psycho buildings” and the sprawling portrayal of a job interview as sporting event—complete with bleachers and cheerleaders. You also get a free ticket to use another day at P.S. 1, a contemporary/indie art haven two subway stops east in Queens.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I drifted from Renaissance to contemporary art, examining Pierre Bonnard’s graphic shorthand of dots, dashes, loops, spirals and zigzags. He used these marks to record images and to compose paintings.

Another temporary exhibition, “Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard,” compelled strangers to strike up conversations about arcana of Americana. The superstar photographer honed his cropping skills and compositional genius through his work with postcards, and then worked decades to help this humble genre get respect as an art.

Culled from Walker’s collection of 9,000 postcards are portraits of beach towns, main streets, train depots, river ports, even a death-dealing artifact from Sing Sing prison. The sepia-toned and hand-colored images captured sense of place—these mostly unnamed, unsung photographers shaped the way we picture the towns and landscapes that make up America. Take a look before the exhibition closes May 25. You may spot a favorite vacation spot or an ancestor’s hometown.

One stereotype holds true: the food’s good here. In the Broadway area, Molyvo’s star chef Jim Botsacos combines classical French training with grandma’s stove-side teachings into new Greek cuisine. The reasonable prices have universal appeal, and veg lovers will enjoy his Melitzanosalata (wood grilled eggplant salad), homemade olive bread, stuffed peppers. Kudos to the server for suggesting a dry red Agriorgitiko and the heavenly homemade sorbet.

The New Yorker breaks the “hotel food” stereotype as evidenced by the locals filling tables at its Tick Tock Diner and Cooper’s Tavern. The former puts a fresh twist on comfort food (go for the fresh-foods-filled sandwiches and free coffee refills; skip the skimpy slice of pie). Cooper’s accents local, seasonal ingredients with deliciously eccentric touches; a fellow tavern diner raved about a meal “that cost less than TGIFridays.”

How to justify such pleasure-tripping during a recession? Easy. A few dollars well-spent is sustainable, soul-satisfying entertainment—and you’ll be stimulating the economy.

Manhattan Trip Planning

Events, visit planning, transportation, tips, maps and more:

* NYCgo
212.484.1200 in NYC
202.530.0222 DC office
* CityPass
888.299.6633
* Subway FunPass
* New Yorker Hotel
866.800.3088
* Amtrak
NYC Penn Station
800.USA.RAIL
* Molyvos
871 Seventh Avenue
212.582.7500

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