Once More In The Big Apple

by Continental Club on September 2, 2008

In January 1997, I arrived at the Essex House Hotel to check in on my first ever trip to the Big Apple. Much more momentous an event than that however, was the fact that this was the first time I’d ever booked a hotel room online. It had taken days, if not weeks, of preparation, was painfully slow and was the result of research which had still been undertaken through printed matter. I rocked up to Reception and they had no idea who I was. Worse still, they didn’t know who my boss was. It didn’t mark an auspicious start to our relationship with the web, nor his with his whipper-snapper of an assistant.

11 years later and it’s easy to take for granted just what can be achieved online. Within 43 minutes of logging on to book our flights, I had e-tickets and seat assignments, confirmed reservations for return Town Car transfers, had printed out a voucher which would afford us fast-track access to most of the main tourist attractions in town, made dinner reservations and secured overnight en-route accommodation at Heathrow. In fact, the only thing I hadn’t been able to complete online was the main hotel booking, which required a quick phone call to access a special rate. That done, emails arranged some housekeeping requirements and confirmed arrival and departure times. Another alerted the hotel to the fact that this would be a birthday celebration trip – well, why not?

And, slotted in with my little file of confirmations, I had an email from a good friend with another list of hints and tips.

Any lunchtime arrivals at JFK Terminal 7 are fairly rare and the middle of the day is a quieter time for the airport in general. So we were treated to a very slick inbound taxi and jetty connection. In fact, it was quite a job to be up and organised to gallop off the plane. The crew bade cheery goodbyes and, through the stuffy warrens to Immigration, we were treated to zero queues whatsoever.

The entirely charm-free officer asked only a couple of quick questions, relating briefly to both this and our last trip, and then we were off to the baggage belt. Even more welcome than the lack of Immigration congestion was the appearance of our bags within the first half dozen to emerge, so the delayed touchdown was now completely wiped out by being in the Arrivals Hall somewhat earlier than anticipated.

The driver from Lincoln Limousine presented himself and gathered up our bags to take us to the car, which was parked on the ground floor of the multi-storey immediately outside. He asked us whether we preferred windows or air con and off we set for Manhattan in that most American of motors, a reasonably new Lincoln Town Car. The car was fitted with Sat Nav, which our man did his best to totally ignore as he was clearly far more in tune with the prevailing traffic patterns. With some nifty re-routing, he had us heading over the East River remarkably quickly, the only downside being, I guess, that MCC’s first impressions of New York were not of the most salubrious suburbs. Not that any approach is all that charming.

The first sight of those iconic spikes on the horizon – the Chrysler, the Empire State, the Woolworth and more – is always an inspiration, no matter how many times that Manhattan skyline is glimpsed. MCC was visibly rapt as the driver piloted us across the Queensboro Bridge and on to the island. The very last mile was, understandably, the slowest but we drew up at the corner of 5th and 55th in a frankly amazing 50 minutes. The standard Yellow Cab fare from JFK is $45, so this pre-booked service was more than competitive at $55, plus a standard 20% gratuity applied to the credit card payment. Tolls etc are extra for both cab and Town Car.

Our lodgings would be, for my second time, the St Regis Hotel. Although the side of the property runs along Fifth, it’s not all that obvious to the passer-by, so for those unsure it is opposite the Peninsula and four blocks South of Central Park. It’s a great location for walking and cabbing, the only slight downside being that there’s not an immediately adjacent Subway station, if that’s your thing.

The St Regis is a Beaux Arts landmark, the tallest hotel in the city upon its construction by Titanic victim John Jacob Astor in 1904, and enlarged by his son Vincent in 1925. It is a city hotel very much in the traditional mode; intimate, a retreat, not a place to watch C-List celebrities theatrically attempt to brush away the paparazzi that they’ve ensured that their people have invited. Richly carpeted steps lead up from the canopied pavement to the polished brass revolving doors and sturdy columns support the frescoed ceiling from which the chandeliers drip.

Our far-earlier than anticipated arrival coincides with a full-house the previous evening, so we’re unable to check in immediately. The King Cole Bar beckons therefore, where we take a comfortable seat and order complimentary tea, while we take in the view of the stunning Maxwell Parrish mural which adorns the main wall of this, the birthplace of the Bloody Mary.

The Receptionist calls to check that we are comfortable and keep us updated on progress and then, bang on the button of when he said the room would be ready, the phone rings and we’re invited back to the desk. We have a Grand Deluxe room on the 12th Floor, which is the third grade up from base in the hotel.

It has a 55th Street view (nothing much to speak of, but not a bin store at least) and is quietly insulated from the outside world, with a seating area and 32″ LCD TV which rises from the ottoman at the foot of the beds.

The bathroom is opulent with bath, separate shower and a smaller LCD TV.

The decor is a contemporary and light interpretation of the traditional, and it’s a restful place to recharge in between city sightseeing. On a summer weekend, it’s fairly easy to access an ‘SPG50’ rate, which knocks 50% off the full (rack) rate and about 20% off the hotel’s ‘best available rate’ on the lowest grade of room, bringing the charge in at $550 plus tax per night, undercutting anything comparable in the area and offering full Starpoints, stays and prevailing promotional bonuses.

Washed, showered and raring to go, the decision is made to walk down to Grand Central for MCC’s first taste of the mean streets of Gotham. Which turn out to be a good deal meaner than might otherwise have been anticipated as the skies darken and, above the screeches and groans, wheezes and horns of the city, loud cracks of thunder rattle down the concrete canyons, seemingly pushing before them warm draughts of forceful breeze.

And then, just as the shelter of the scaffolding surrounding a Lexington Avenue office refurbishment project is reached, the clouds give up their struggles and relinquish their burdens with flashing fury. Within seconds, the roads are awash to kerb level and crossing pedestrians are marooned on central reservations. A few time-pressured ladies who risk wading from their mid-stream islands lose their dainty flip-flops and end up flailing around in the ankle deep waters desperately trying to retrieve their submerged Choos. The yellow cabs are slowed to a crawl, pushing bow waves ahead of them and creating wakes which break over the kerbstones. Those at the end of their rides wait at the roadsides, their passengers unwilling to risk the lashings from above or stepping into the flowing gutters below. It’s quite the show.

The storm abates as quickly as it blew up and already there’s a freshness to the air as we dodge the remaining drips from rooftops high above to dart into the Helmsley Building and down into the Grand Central Concourse. It’s rush hour and the activity is frenetic so it’s a challenge to stay upright and un-bumped as the famous back-to-front celestial ceiling is gazed upon from beneath. The best vantage point is from the stairs up to the bar at the Eastern end, from where not only is the mural clearly viewed, but also the vastness of the concourse and the bee-like swarms of commuters passing through. Diving beneath the ground level, a whole world of dining and shopping opportunities is revealed, including the World-famous Oyster Bar – Grand Central’s oldest business – and the abundantly stocked fresh foods market. As an introduction to New York at work and on the move, it’s a fascinating way to spend a couple of hours.

As the day’s time-zone induced extension starts to be felt, we head West across to Fifth and walk back towards the hotel to rest, regroup and, if spared, prepare for the onslaught of sights and sounds which will fill the coming days. Not before the butler knocks however, gliding in with a birthday bottle from the hotel to wish me a Happy Birthday. It’s a nice gesture and certainly accelerates the path to unconsciousness.

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