Ice Skating



It's the most wonderful time of the year, and more so in Manhattan. Christmas in New York City is something to be cherished. Of course there are crowds, idling tourists, plunging temperatures, but then there are Fifth Avenue stores wrapped in bundles and blazes of seasonal lights, noses nipped and cheeks of scarlet, piercing blue skies and a white sun casting frozen shadows long into the city.

And there's ice skating in New York City, falling flight on your backside while surrounded by some of the most iconic sights on the planet. Some venues struggle to fight back the crowds, but there are others where you'll share the occasion with a handful of locals, especially if it's early. 

Most people head to one of two venues - either the Wollman Rink in Central Park, or Rockefeller Plaza with 30 Rock soaring high above. Both are heavingly popular for ice skating in New York City, although Wollman Rink is larger and arguably more picturesque with the instantly recognisable skyline of 59th St to the south. Prepare your purse-strings for an assault, though - Rockefeller Plaza will charge up to $21 admission and then $10 for skate hire. 

Bryant Park has a large seasonal rink, The Pond, just a block from Times Square at 6th Avenue and 42nd St. Admission is free, but you'll still have to pay $14 for skate hire. The Standard Hotel in the Meatpacking District also has a temporary rink beneath the increasingly popular High Line park - it's a good excuse to check out the independent stores and boutiques in the neighbourhood. Admission plus skate hire costs $15 in total.

If you want explore somewhere new, there are a few other options for ice skating in NYC. Central Park has another ice rink that's off the radar of most tourists because it edges close to the border of Harlem. You'll find Lasker Rink between 106th and 108th street, a stone's throw from the picturesque Harlem Meer, a glorious lake in the top-right corner of Central Park that the crowds rarely stumble upon. 

Another option for outdoor ice skating in New York City means a trip on the free ferry from Manhattan's Battery Park to Staten Island, and then the S61 bus to the War Memorial Ice Skating Rink in Clove Hills Park. It's not really a trip for first-time visitors - it'll take a lot out of your day and there's plenty to see on your first trip round - but the park offers a rugged, natural landscape that's worth a visit on a later date.

Finally, Brooklyn's Coney Island is a little out the way for Manhattan-centric tourists, and the indoor Abe Stark Rink is hardly as picturesque as a Central Park setting. On the plus side, you're next door to the towering red skeleton of the Parachute Jump, a fairground ride that was originally part of the 1939 World's Fair in Queens - and you're only footsteps from the beach and the Atlantic Ocean.  In all cases, check times and conditions before visiting any ice rink in NYC; opening times vary significantly from venue to venue, and unseasonal weather isn't uncommon in New York - an unlikely thaw will quickly scupper your plans.


"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

St Patrick's Day



A thick-fisted gent brayed the bar and cheered as I flung the third shot of bourbon down my raw throat. The big hand said feck o’clock in the morning. My stomach said blurgh. The celebrations had somehow lost their way. Or perhaps they hadn’t. Perhaps I was going to be sick instead. Yes, that was more likely.

Such was the messy culmination of my first St. Patrick's Day spent in New York City, although I was hardly the first to raise three too many glasses in celebration. The parade first weaved through the streets of New York City in 1762; today it is the largest parade in the world with 200,000 marchers and 2 million spectators. During the late 1840s the southern ports of Manhattan were swamped by tens of thousands of Irish refugees escaping their homeland's deadly potato famine. The city's Emerald lineage means everyone's an Irishman in the days leading up to March 17th; foam hats adorn bemused grandmothers and frat boys alike, Midtown's Irish bars can't keep up with tourist demand for the black stuff.

The day before I found myself on the wrong end of that Guinness and bourbon-topped binge, I travelled across the city in search an altogether more authentic Irish experience, one that I would discover in the Bronx. Catch the MTA train from the palatial Grand Central station and you'll be plunged into the cavernous steel underworld of the city, emerging nearly 60 blocks later on the Upper East Side as it melts into Harlem, before crossing into the Bronx. Seven stops later and the conductor calls for Woodlawn, a neighbourhood at the northern limits of the city, miles from the lights and sights of Manhattan. What you'll find is a gentler, suburban side to New York City;
 free-flowing, care-free traffic; unobstructed views of the horizon.

The modern-day Irish who emigrate to New York often move to Woodlawn; around two thirds of the neighbourhood’s 8,000 residents are Irish or Irish-American; many new arrivals often live with friends and family in the neighbourhood while working in the city. My host Rachael, a fiery Irish twenty-something red of hair and green of eye, moved to Woodlawn to live with her cousin and friends: "You feel you're in a community which understands you and why you've come here. It's nice to think that, as corny as it sounds, there will be people here to look out for us if we need it."

Undiluted Irish accents wash across Katonah Avenue, a long stagger up a short hill from the MTA station and the main drag through Woodlawn. The Traditional Irish Bakery to the left and Sean's Quality Deli over the road are the first of a near-endless procession of Irish stores and bars. Riley’s Carpets, Behan’s Pub, the Emerald Pharmacy - if Disney ever set about building a theme park they couldn’t make it more Irish, save for dressing everyone as a Leprechaun.

We strolled along Katonah for late supper at The Rambling House, a modern single storey building with a faux-traditional restaurant sat alongside a darkened rectangular bar. I waded into their special mixed grill, beaten back only by the liver, which left a little room for a Guinness with the regulars. The evening before Saint Patrick’s Day and
  the good people of  Woodlawn were singing, drinking, laughing anddancing. And smoking, as if it the ban in New York had never existed.

"It’s not just here, the police turn a blind eye everywhere in Woodlawn," pointed out regular bar-prop Kieron, "so long as everyone's enjoying themselves and there's no trouble, but better you don’t talkabout it, eh?"

I promised never to mention it again and ordered a round of drinks for Rachael and the school friends she’d spotted across the bar and not seen for a decade. It wasn’t that unusual to chance upon a familiar face from the back home, explained Rachael: "On my second night here, I met a woman in a restaurant who came from the same village in Ireland as my dad," Rachael added, “her sister was my babysitter twenty years ago."

Irish blood often seems thicker than most, and in Woodlawn that sense of family matters more than anything. There isn't the legacy of Harlem
 or the shopping of Soho, but on the edge of the Bronx is a neighbourhood as unique as any other in New York City, and one the Irish truly call home on St. Patrick's Day.


Dive bars


The night Elvis introduced himself, he'd just ordered another free hot dog criss-crossed with ketchup and mustard, served near instantly over the bar on a limp paper plate. 
"Did you put this on the jukebox?" quizzed the crumpled-up stranger, crowding into me on the next stool. 

"....yes?" I had, but I'd hesitated because Rudy's didn't seem like a bar that'd embrace a little Burning Love.

"Cool. I love Elvis. My name's Elvis, too. My mom was watching his movie when I was born, made her cry."

"The birth, or the film," I asked.

Elvis the parking attendant chewed up his hot dog and decided it was the former that'd made mom weep (Presley wasn't a great actor, after all) before taking off onto 9th Avenue. The King had left the building, and another of Rudy's equally colourful regulars took his place and eyeballed me.

If you're a stickler for uber-slick lounges selling trendy bottled lager and chilled Pinot Grigio, you're best staying clear of Manhattan's dive bars. If you're keen to sample real life amongst the fizzy lights of New York, this is as real as it gets; in a city where people live on every corner rather than faraway suburbs, these are the bars they choose for chugging down beers and chewing the fat. They're a godawful mess of black ceilings, untreated brickwork and bulging red neon, but they charm you with the cheapest drinks in town, some provide free snacks and most have jukeboxes that'll take you on a magic carpet ride.

Rudy's (9th Ave, between 44th St and 45th St) provides a fun introduction to the genre and is my favourite bar, bar none. It's not a place you'd cross the threshold of in daylight, or while sober. A man-sized statue of Porky Pig eyes you up outside, while inside the year-round Christmas lights and sodium bulbs cast shadows over the clientele; ancient rockers crowded in the tight booths, clocked-out office kids giggling over vanilla stolis and off-duty taxi drivers putting the world right at the far end of the bar.

Uniting them all, pitchers of Budweiser for $9 and pints of real ale for just $3, and of course the free hot dogs, too. There's always a buzzing evening crowd, and every trip of mine to NYC begins at Rudy's with a beer and a shot, and a catch-up with Gary the Glaswegian barman. There's also a beer garden out-back, something of a rarity given the scarcity of space in NYC. 

It was one night in Rudy's that I met Abi and Carole - two of NYPD's finest - who'd dropped by on their evening off for a bourbon and sprite. They suggested Niagra in the East Village (corner of 7th St and Ave A). Niagra is what happens when rich kids want to build an authentic dive bar from scratch. It's a little too shiny, full of East Village hipsters who love the concept of dive bar drinking, as long as it serves Merlot. That said, this long thin slip of bar looking across Tompkins Square Park was perfect to begin a trawl of East Side drinking dens. An added attraction (if you're a fan of The Clash, at least) is a mural of Joe Strummer on the outside wall, which features in the video to Strummer's cover of Redemption Song.

The Three Of Cups (1st Ave, between 5th St and 6th St) and The Library (Ave A, between 1st St and 2nd St) can either be considered as enlightening, or downright nasty. The cellar of The Three Of Cups hasn't seen an interior decorator for 20 years and you'd swear the regular in the boiler suit has killed before. They might be an acquired taste, but both promise a random and colourful end to a night out.

Carole also suggested I take in 1 Fifty 1 (151 Rivington between Suffolk and Clayton) in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Only a dirty bass line grumbling through your feet and the giant in black at the bottom of the cellar stairs suggests any sign of life to the signless venue. Inside, spotlights guide you to the bar and your nose leads you to the bathroom. The DJ behind the decks breaks two key rules of the dive bar - no jukebox and a questionable taste in music - otherwise 1 Fifty 1 stacks up well. Very much a bar for local people, I was warned to keep 1 Fifty 1 to myself.

"This bar is perfect as it is," suggested James the PR man from the East Village, "if too many out-of-towners and tourists find out, we'll all lose something special." 

I'd swore never to tell another soul and went on my way.

Manhattan's fashionable SoHo is a less likely destination for a dive, but Miladys (corner of Prince and Thompson) was the recommendation of Doctor Shannon, a local practitioner of wellness I met in The Three Of Cups.

"Last night, Natalie Portman was in there," the loose-lipped doctor imparted, "but on any evening you'll find local alcoholics in one corner and Prada models in the other."

The two rooms are reasonably well-lit by dive bar standards (I could read the drinks board without the aid of carrots) and Alex - whom the good doctor had promised would "look after me" - was not on shift. The A-listers had also made other plans on the night I visited, but the crowd - college kids and well-off locals - were in high spirits. A pint of Budweiser for $4 in a SoHo bar meant I was, too.

Rough-and-tumble dive bars in NYC always over-deliver. They won't compete with the multi-million dollar boutique venues or attract the rich and rarely-famous, but you'll find a very honest snapshot of New York living - they're a lot sweeter on the pocket and you might just stumble across Elvis.




"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.


NYC kayak


David Whitley gets a very different view of New York City whilst paddling along the Hudson River in a kayak.

It hardly needs saying that the Manhattan skyline is spectacular from pretty much any angle you look at it. But sitting just above the bobbing waters of the Hudson River adds a whole new perspective. From a kayak, New York looks profoundly intimidating. The race for the sky can be put in context; hundreds of separate developments trying to put their own brush strokes on an already hyper-detailed canvas. There’s a temptation to just stare at it, and let your paddle slide off towards the Atlantic. 

Kayaking probably isn’t the most immediately obvious form of transport in New York. Instinct says that the water is liable to be far too cold and that the waterways are liable to be far too busy. The former is mercifully inaccurate, although it all starts to get interesting once you attempt a pier-to-pier dash across a busy ferry terminal.

We have small lights on the fronts of our vessels, but there’s a strong suspicion that a ferry pilot will mistake them for reflections of moonlight on the water and mow on straight through. As such, the chicken run becomes a judicious exercise in granting right of way and waiting for a gap in the traffic. Think of it as being a little bit like walking into the middle of a busy road and waiting for brief respite to appear in the second lane before racing across.

From the boathouse on Pier 66, numerous options are available. According to our guide, Alex, it’d take eight or nine hours to circumnavigate Manhattan, “depending on how strong your arm muscles are”. Another popular option is to do a loop around the Statue of Liberty, which takes around three hours.
My group isn’t that ambitious; we’re going for a 90 minute after dark paddle. It’s an opportunity for an unusual perspective on the city, with the sun down, skyscraper lights on and the water plunged into a murky blackness.

I’m regarded as intermediate purely because I’ve been in a kayak before, while my cohorts are absolute beginners. One girl grabs her paddle as if it’s a spitting cobra and has neglected to bring a change of clothing. Silly mistake, but what do you expect – these guys are native New Yorkers, and most locals probably haven’t even considered seeing the city this way.

But part of the simplistic joy of kayaking is that it’s pretty easy to pick up the basics. Soon enough, the group is gliding in convoy, awed by the sun setting over the New Jersey skyline and the lights sparking into life on Manhattan’s skyscrapers. Of these, the most striking is the Empire State Building. The top of it is lit up in lurid colour. First there’s a swathe of orange, then a band of shocking yellow, and the red spire tops it off. It looks like one of those multi-coloured ice-lollies that is packed with E-numbers and marketed at hyperactive children.

Other, lesser-known buildings stand out too. One Worldwide Plaza looks like a giant, fat pencil – its sharpened end is lit up in a moody blue, with the lead at the very end acting as a yellow beacon.Also illuminated is the USS Intrepid, an enormous decommissioned aircraft carrier that monopolises Pier 86, further up the Hudson. Sidling up alongside it, we realise that the ferries are just small fry. A temptation to grab on to the ladders and board the museum ship pirate-style is wisely resisted.

Ferries aside, kayaking on New York’s waterways is remarkably peaceful. You start to notice things that you’d never see from street level. Take, for example, the night sky. On first glance, it appears sprinkled with stars. Then you notice the stars moving and make a mental note to never apply for a job at air traffic control in New York. The ‘stars’ are, in fact, scores of circulating planes, pirouetting in the skies at marginally different heights. They appear to be spiralling in formation, like water going down a sink after the plug is pulled.

New York may be the city that never sleeps, but gently rocking on the Hudson, it appears to be at rest. The car horns, the flashing signs and the sirens are stripped out to leave a more manageable whole. It becomes more of a singular great beast, and the low hum of traffic rumble, generators and ferry motors becomes its breathing pattern.

And we, the humble kayakers, are the tiny fly that can land on the beast’s back unnoticed.


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Oldest bars



Want to taste 19th Century New York City? Finding a traditional ale house stuck in the past is easy enough; finding the oldest is more problematic, since those bars in a position to make such a claim choose their titles carefully. Which venue is the victor of protracted penmanship is largely irrelevant since they're all worth a pulling up a stool in, so here's a selection of the best:

McSorely’s Old Ale House (7th St between 2nd and 3rd Avenue) swung open its doors in 1854, and claims the title of "New York City's oldest continuously operated saloon". It certainly smells that way. Except for the staff, little has changed in the East Village ale house. Sawdust on the floor. Dust as thick as your thigh. Only two types of ale on tap, light and dark (don't embarrass yourself by asking for a Bud). No wines, no spirits and until 1970, no woman. The walls are cluttered with decades of trinkets and propaganda, sepia-tone photographs of generations dead. A pair of Houdini’s handcuffs rust away on the bar's foot rail. 

The menu, while grudgingly doffing its hat to more contemporary additions, serves up a timeless classic for just a few dollars; a block of ferocious cheddar and crackers, together with a whole onion and complimented by a half-pint glass of mustard so strong it could kill a horse. McSorley's is always popular; stay away in the evenings unless you want to risk wearing your drink. Head there at lunchtime, or early afternoon at the latest - then it’ll be you and the locals, maybe one or two tourists. Take a table in the back, let your eyes play over the memorabilia and fall into the past for an hour or two.

Pete's Tavern (corner of Irving Place and 18th St) claims to be "the oldest continuously operating restaurant and bar in New York City", although nobody stepped up to the bar until 1864. During prohibition in the early 20th century, the bar continued to sneak beer to patrons while posing as a florists. Pete's is just a minute's walk from the spectacle of Gramercy Park and inside is equally as impressive, with the original tin roof and crowded booths. Toothsome grins of A-list patrons line the walls, and faded photos of American author O. Henry greet customers at the table where he penned short stories. Lunchtimes are quiet, so take full advantage of the lull and get stuck into the menu - the burger with bleu cheese will satisfy the most capacious of appetites.

A short stagger from Pete's is Old Town Bar (18th St between Broadway and Park Ave). In nearly 120 years, almost none of the fixtures and fittings have been changed. It's by no means the oldest bar in New York City but certainly a great example - you'll struggle to get seated downstairs so head up the elderly staircase to the first floor restaurant. 

If you want to raise a glass to the "oldest food and/or drinking establishment on the same site in New York" then wander down to Brooklyn Bridge and head to the Bridge Cafe (279 Water Street), the oldest business in NYC. While the name has changed over the centuries, the building has been at the corner of Water Street in Downtown Manhattan since 1794. At that time it was on the banks of the East River but landfill means the river is now two blocks distant. The oldest business in NYC has also dabbled with the oldest profession - the bar served as a brothel for many years in the late 19th century, and was a regular haunt for pirates that terrorised the East River.

Two more shoreline bars of yesteryear are the Ear Inn (326 Spring Street) and the Landmark Tavern (corner of 11th Ave and 46th St). The Ear Inn is a designated Landmark of the City of New York, built in 1817 as a home to an aide of George Washington. It became a bar in the mid-19th century, but renamed nameless and known only to locals as 'The Green Door'. Officially christening the bar would have meant a lengthy review because of its landmark status, so in 1977 the owners painted the curves of the earlier neon BAR sign. The sign then read EAR - the name of the magazine published upstairs at the time - and the inn has been known as such ever since. It's a cramped space with a jaunty nautical theme, but if you can squeeze in you can enjoy live music most nights of the week.

In the 19th Century, the Landmark Tavern served rowdy rabbles of Irish dockworkers who supped at the water's edge in Hell's Kitchen, a neighbourhood dominated at the time by timberyards and slaughterhouses. Landfill means the tavern is now over a block away from the Hudson, and a little lost amongst the axle grease and recent construction work. You should still seek it out, though; the bar brims with character, the restaurant is wholesome, and the building is haunted by a former confederate soldier who was knifed to death in a bar brawl. 

While there are glimpses into Manhattan's 400 year old history scattered across the borough, it's rare to find many amongst the rioting skyline of the Financial District. Little seems to have a sense of history here, but tucked away near Manhattan's southernmost tip, is the island's oldest building. 
The Fraunces Tavern (corner of Pearl Street and Broad Street) has stood in one form or another since 1762. The tavern is best known for the part it played in the American Revolution; a pre-presidential George Washington based himself here after seeing off the British, after which the building provided offices for Congress. The age of the tavern is subject to small print; parts of the building has been torn down and undergone significant modernisation over the centuries; the claim of Manhattan's oldest building is one set by the tavern's own museum.


"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.