Miles of Museums

by Continental Club on September 2, 2008

Not entirely unexpectedly, breakfast did not feature as a priority the following morning. With the sun shining and the Saturday city altogether fresher and weekend-relaxed, we headed North along a shady and breezy Central Park East to the Guggenheim Museum. Our arrival coincided with the removal of the scaffolding which has shrouded the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece for half a decade, although the painters were still present atop a copse of cherrypickers.

Previous visits have tended to reinforce my opinion that it is the architecture which is the principal draw to the Gugg, and this one was no exception. The spiralling galleries contained, to my untrained eye, a varied selection of trash and pretence which serve only to remind that art is always a matter of personal opinion. We had a nice scone in the cafe however, and exited reasonably swiftly into the warming morning. The decorators had been busy and had almost finished their works as we re-admired the overhanging invert conical ramparts. Indeed, their painting would appear to be rather more impressive than those hanging inside.

Next stop on Museum Mile would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an institution which I have so far managed always to miss on New York trips. Not this time though, as we maximised the value of our City Passes and we were swiftly inside and touring the galleries. This is probably one of the more difficult museums to plot a sensible route around, so we found ourselves backtracking a good deal. That said, we found much to interest and delight, alongside the inevitable but thankfully limited amount of right old dross.

We lunched at the Ground Floor Petrie Court which was buzzy and efficient, enjoying tasty Panini and a couple of ice cream sundaes, before venturing back up to the roof to take in the views of Central Park and the fantastic Jeff Koons sculpture installations, which I thought magnificent.

Then, not quite like Clark Kent and Lois swooping down from inner orbit, we took the express lift groundward once again to take in the Superheroes Exhibition, the highlight of which undoubtedly being one of Wonder Woman’s original (if faded) outfits.

The day’s cultural immersion would end with another New York first for me – the Frick Collection. Although there were certainly many impressive hangings in the museum, I have to say that for me, the more interesting facet of the visit was actually just being inside one of the few remaining mansion houses in Manhattan. There’s a very charming lily-ponded garden outside and a very relaxing internal courtyard with playing fountains and benches. The trickling water is not for those faint of bladder however, so do make sure that you’ve identified the fairly anonymous door to the subterranean salles des bains before need overtakes available searching time.

 

And so, with that, a diagonal line through Central Park to Columbus Circle takes the stroller past tea houses and coffee shops, baseball grounds and skating rinks, lawns and trees to experience the juxtaposition of urban retreat and high-octane activity that is this busy amenity, in contrast to the far more laid-back Hudson River Park of the previous day.

 

Then, back along Central Park South, passing the Essex House and scene of that first flirtation with the interweb for travel planning, past Mickey Mantle’s Sports Diner which remains a long-time favourite for American staples and the newly refurbished Plaza Hotel.

The St Regis had all flags flying to welcome us back for a pre-dinner freshen. Our reservation for this evening, a deliberately early one, had been made by the concierge once again and upon recommendation at Trattoria Dell’Arte, opposite the Carnegie Hall on 7th Avenue. Despite being obscured somewhat by scaffolding, it was easy enough to find and just a 10 minute walk from 55th at 5th.

The restaurant’s principal feature is a quite spectacular antipasti bar, from which one can point and choose, or sit and order from the menu. Even at 7.30pm, the sidewalk, front and rear dining rooms were busy with families, singles, couples and groups, all contributing to the energetic atmosphere. The antipasti bar provided numerous choices for MCC, although the menu in general was varied and interesting. After the previous evening’s haute cuisine, she settled on deep-fried artichokes and I upon a mixed seafood selection from the bar. We both ordered pizza main courses, which were huge, spectacularly light and crispy and topped with the most flavoursome delights. The bill was very reasonable indeed and we left at shortly after 9pm, happy, replete and fuelled for some last minute nocturnal sightseeing.

 

First stop was the bright lights of Times Square but then, the highlight of the evening and in some ways the whole trip, beckoned. Since discovering that by far the best time to visit the Eiffel Tower is in after-dinner darkness, I’ve been a fan of night time observation decks. So, we crossed town again to the Rockefeller Center and the recently reopened Top Of The Rock attraction. Although significantly shorter than the more famous Empire State, the Rock benefits from a number of significant trump cards over the ESB.

Firstly, the queues are much less long – fast track or not. Secondly, the interior of the building is newly refurbished and not the continuous building site of its taller neighbour. Thirdly, the ascendency to viewing level is far less tortuous and then, when you’re there, the design of the decks means that the vistas are uncompromised by barriers, railings and grilles. The final and probably most significant differentiator (at least at night) is that the Rock affords a great view of the ESB which is, of course, invisible to itself. Since the Rockefeller is not as striking an edifice as its near neighbour, it’s far more interesting to be on it looking up at the floodlit Empire State than vice versa. With the lights twinkling all around though, it was soon time to head back down to street level, the hotel and our last night in the Big Apple.

Our final morning dawned even brighter and bluer so, after our butler-delivered coffee, we struck out for Lou’s and a pavement table in the sun. Well fed and juiced, we were ideally located for our last big culture hit – MoMA. Unlike the Guggenheim, I do like MoMA. I always find new things that I definitely like or don’t like, but seem to find myself more engaged with. The Sculpture Garden is a most interesting place and it’s fascinating to look up and around and see all the different downtown styles of architecture jostling for space. Indeed, from here, the Beaux Arts St Regis even gets a look-in.

 

The galleries do offer up one or two dead ends, but otherwise it’s an easy museum to tour around methodically with hugely interesting, esoteric and relatively traditional exhibits.

 

Cafe 2 is a good place to stop for lunch. It’s a hybrid self/waiter served refectory-style troughing shop, but the Italian-influenced food is just ideal for fuelling a day on foot, as long as quiet respite is not required.

So, cultured and cuisine-out, we made our way back to the St Regis for the last time, taking advantage of our pre-arranged late checkout.

Needless to say, of course, our keycards didn’t work when we got back, so it was a bit of a hike back to Reception for a re-activation and grovelling apology. We had ample time to pack and relax before heading down once again to settle up, passing the little bit of home that is the oil painting of Durham Cathedral and Castle behind the Concierge Desk and the doorman letting us know that our Lincoln Limousine Town Car was already there and waiting, well ahead of time.

We bade farewell and jumped in the car which, thanks to a beige and cream interior, was showing up the marks of well-use, but was otherwise reasonably new and quite comfortable for our trip back to JFK. Once again, the driver seemed well-versed in the detours and diversions needed to avoid the worst of the traffic and, within 55 minutes on a Sunday afternoon teatime, we drew up outside British Airways’ Terminal Seven.

 

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