Queens

 

 

"So which of you chose this place?" asked one of New York City's most revered food critics, beady of eye and round of tummy.

 

"Me!" My friend Aileen raised her hand, excited to welcome such a gastronomic luminary to our lunchtime plans, anxious as to hear whether her choice would receive his approval.

 

The critic grinned. "Well done for picking the weirdest restaurant in New York!"

 

The setting could easily have been plucked out of downtown Shanghai; garish signs promoted a confusion of Asian script; food carts and holes-in-the-wall served up fish balls and chicken gizzards. Crowded streets, exotic music, languages spoke in a dozen tongues. In fact we were in Flushing, Queens, a far-flung neighbourhood east of Manhattan that few outsiders ever stray into. Ever heard the often-quoted factoid about Manhattan's Chinatown being the largest Chinese population outside Asia? Flushing rivals it in terms of culture and political power, and is regarded as the most ethnically and religiously diverse community in the world.

 

We mooched outside the Minzhongle restaurant and waited for others to arrive. "I haven't eaten here," admitted the critic, "but I know somebody that has. Great reviews. They specialise in cuisine from the north-east border provinces of China."

 

Noting the sign on the door, Minzhongle also appeared to specialise in watch and cell phone repairs. In fact there was a small, living room-sized mall comprising of three other businesses inside; a repair stall, a booth selling assorted lingerie and adult products and a derelict takeaway closed down by city health inspectors. Fortunately the restaurant hadn't suffered any such fate; it was plain enough, clean, that timeless Chinese restaurant style that style passed by. Nine of us crammed round a Lazy Susan and perused the menus while Aileen's friend Ning dusted off his Mandarin to guide us through the dishes.

 

Several of the guests, myself included, were having seconds thoughts about Sunday lunch. We'd originally arranged to sample the best Dim Sum that Flushing had to offer. Then a friend of Aileen's connected her with the NYC food critic, and the bar had been raised accordingly. There were organs on the menu. Lots of organs. I couldn't stomach steak and kidney pie, and the texture of liver made me heave.

 

Ning and our special guest deliberated over the menu and and minutes later the plates arrived; lamb in cumin, blood sausage, tripe, sheep's testicles and fried bull's penis, 12 pieces for just ten dollars. At least I was spared the steamed pig elbows and "sheep muscle", whichever muscle that happened to be.

 

I tackled the bull's penis first. Each piece was a circular slice of brown gristle girdled by lighter fat, the size of a large coin, several pieces per skewer. Dipped in an accompanying spicy sauce (I didn't ask) I placed a piece in my mouth and hoped the best. "There's no muscle to speak of in the penis," explained the critic, "it's a purely hydraulic action. This is just cartilage." To be fair to the bull it was reasonably tasty cartilage, a meaty chew, like well-cooked beef fat . It looked far more appealing than the tripe, which was a piled-up mess of red guts and peppers, as if a plate had been slid underneath a freshly disemboweled cow. I also passed on the sheep's testicle since it was of a size and shape identical to my own. The surprise dish was the taro, a common Asian plant stem, fried and dressed with caramelised sugar. It had the look and texture of tofu pieces, the crucial difference been that it also had taste.

 

In the mood to celebrate not being sick in my own lap, we took to Main Street and lost ourselves in the crowds. A fog of aroma hugged the sidewalks, street food boiled and fried everywhere, a hatch on the corner served up steamed pork buns - four for a buck twenty five. Down a flight of stairs we went, into the Golden Mall, a Blade Runner-ensue vision of vendors crowded into booths beneath sterile lighting. Workers cast noodles into their mouths at speed, piles of fried duck heads caught the eye of unsuspecting passersby.

 

Across Kissena Boulevard, we stopped by an Irish bar to check on the Knicks score. Save for the barmaid, every face was Asian, every one of them hollering at both the basketball and a single screen showing horseracing results. At the far end of the finger-thin premises, a throng of customers exchanged money with one another. A door marked PRIVATE opened and a dozen men shuffled out, more disappeared inside. The door marked PRIVATE swung shut.

 

Eating organs and stumbling upon gambling dens isn't everyone's idea of a Sunday afternoon well spent, but my trip to Flushing was the embodiment of everything I adore about New York. There are so many faces to the city, such a cauldron of culture and language, architecture and tastes. Whatever your personal comfort zone, there's a New York City waiting for you, but be brave and you'll find a place like no other on Earth.

 

   
"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.

MOMA & The Met

 

 

 

You won’t find many guide books or articles that don’t include a visit to the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) as a highlight of a visit to New York. Between them these two museums are considered to hold some of the world’s greatest art collections and are frequently touted as a ‘can’t miss’ attraction, even for those who prefer to consume their culture with a spoon from a yoghurt pot.

 

I have to admit to being one of these uncivilised folks. Long ago I accepted that I was born bereft of the art appreciation gene, although I’ve learned recently that many others suffer from the same affliction. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a nice painting (one that represents something I vaguely recognise). My struggle, and that of others, is that I find it hard to interpret what the creators of abstract work are trying communicate and too often it leaves me cold and disinterested.

 

 

Having been many times to New York and always found other things to do that kept me from these two star attractions, this time I was determined to find out for myself what all the fuss is about.

 

 

The Met

 

The exhibits of the Met span different eras from the Greeks and Egyptians through to modern times and cover an enormous geographical spread. But for me the greatest work of art in the Met is the building itself. The museum has been created in such a way that the design of each room reflects the art that is contained within. Roman statues sit in a bright and spacious atrium; religious art is found in a room that looks and feels like a Latin American church; the modern American collection meanwhile is housed within a large space that includes a façade of a traditional American bank.

 

 

The Met appears to be designed with the uncommitted visitor in mind (all too often an oversight in museums) and once the grand designs draw you into another section of the enormous building, you’re bound to linger on some of the displayed artefacts. A genuine surprise and I only wish I’d allowed more time to see more.

 

 

MoMA

 

While the Met may have done a great job in accommodating people from the full art loving spectrum, MoMA is not a place to waste your energy if you’re missing that magic gene. For those who can interpret and appreciate a blank white square or a large red rectangle with a few vertical lines, MoMA will hold hours of fun and intellectual stimulation. For me however walking through the many halls was akin to watching a slow-moving film in a foreign language without subtitles. Even the building, a clean minimalist open-plan construction, could not hold my attention for long.

 

 

 

No-one of course should feel pressured into visiting anything that doesn’t appeal, but if you’re thinking of visiting one of ‘the Big Two’ on your next New York visit I’d recommend you turn your attention to the Met – unless of course you like looking at the type of art that would have had Picasso scratching his head in bewilderment.

 

Andy visited the Met and MoMA using a New York CityPASS courtesy of NYC Go


 

You can get the USA included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW

New Jersey

 

 

 

"I dunno. I'll admit I'm no engineer, but I'd have second thoughts about building ships out of concrete."

 

It was difficult to disagree with my friend Perry as we plodded across Sunset Beach, the fine, airy sand spilling into our trainers. Concrete is hardly renowned for its buoyant qualities, a fact seemingly underlined by the sight of the SS Atlantus ahead of us, its broken grey hulk jutting from the choppy Atlantic waters. It was one of a dozen experimental vessels built of concrete due to a steel shortage during World War I. It didn't sink, however - the ship served to transport American troops back home from Europe and was to live on as a ferry before breaking its moorings during a storm and running aground off the coast.

 

Numerous attempts to refloat the Atlantus failed, and now the shattered, century-old hull is one of several curiosities and attractions found in the New Jersey resort of Cape May. Not all of the state is rusting industry and anonymous freeways, despite the sorry scenes that greet passengers at Newark International. Cape May City, some three hours' drive south of New York, is the USA's oldest seaside resort, a town with a population of barely 4,000 that swells by over 50,000 in the summer months.

 

The resort's reputation owes plenty to the buttercup-yellow Congress Hall, a 19th century hotel with two pillared wings of suites framing a palatial lawn that rolls out to the sea front. Before US presidents retreated to Camp David for rest and relaxation, they would reside at Congress Hall. President Benjamin Harrison lived at the hotel during the summer months and would conduct affairs of state from there.

 

Our day trip began with brunch at Congress Hall in the Blue Pig Tavern. Perry and his wife Devon regularly take road trips out of NYC and Cape May was a favourite destination. The tavern's sausage and biscuits in gravy, poached eggs and potatoes also came highly recommended by my two guides. We don't cherish gravy in the UK quite like our US brethren who'll willingly pour it on everything, and together with the rich sausage and the sweet biscuit, a little ketchup and a trickle of runny yolk, I felt a genuine pang of sadness when I realised there was only a mouthful left on my plate. The complimentary bowl of salt-water taffy, which originated further up the coast in Atlantic City, barely helped ease my pain.

 

Cape May offered plenty of opportunities to walk off the calories. The beaches are regularly voted among the best in the country and stretch for miles along and around the cape. We ploughed through the golden dunes to Cape May Point, our path eventually blocked by towers of grey-green concrete, abandoned and in disrepair, perilously close to the encroaching tide. The possibility of submarine attacks during the second world war led the United States Navy to establish a significant presence in Cape May. 

 

Their horseshoe-shaped bunker served as a gun emplacement to protect coastal shipping and originally stood nearly 300 metres from the sea-front, but Cape May has suffered coastal erosion like few other towns. Shifting sands and violent storms destroyed the township of South Cape May in the early 20th century - only a handful of homes were saved and moved elsewhere inland. The pilings that the bunker rests upon were only ever meant to stabilise the structure - how long before thousands of tons of concrete collapses into the sea?

 

The bunker is part of Cape May Point State Park, as is the nearby Cape May Lighthouse. We paid our $7 entry fee and a series of grey-haired volunteers pointed the way to the 199 steps up the spiral staircase, where we were greeted by the bearded lighthouse keeper, clad in stereotypical navy sweater and peaked cotton cap and looking not disimilar to a villain from Scooby Doo. In fact there's a reasonable chance he was; Cape May City is famous for its hauntings, and the nearby freshwater Lake Lilly is not only a renowned birdwatching spot, but in the 19th century was a meeting place for pirates. Local legend has it that the treasure of Captain Kidd remains hidden beneath the mud and silt.

 

A further walk along the shore and we arrived at Sunset Beach and caught sight of the SS Atlantus. There was a scattering of other visitors, all of them eager treasure hunters probing and scooping up sand. Some involved their children, others worked in pairs, some stared intensely into the beach as if possessing x-ray vision. The lost treasure of Captain Kidd was still lost, after all.

 

The Sunset Beach gift shop was deserted, as were the streets of Cape May City when we eventually limped back into town. All that will change once summer breaths warmth back into the sea breeze. The broad, flat beaches and low-rise skyline guarantee sunshine from dawn til dusk. The marina offers festivals and whale-watching tours. The centre of town is the stuff of picture postcards; colourful Victorian houses and quaint local stores, trolley rides, clean streets, friendly locals. It may be the butt of jokes across the nation but Cape May proves there's real beauty to be found in New Jersey, and plenty more besides.

 

 

   
"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.

Atlantic City

 

 

Standing alone beneath the pier at twilight, the encroaching tide my only company, it was difficult not to imagine spying a bloated corpse, or soon becoming one. Skulking in the shadows of the pylons was the ideal setting for acts of senseless violence, where any evidence of the crime would be carried away by the carefree waters of the sea. I'd seen the TV show, I knew what happened if you crossed the kingpins of Atlantic City. Fortunately there were no bodies to stumble over and no assassins to rub me out, but neither could I find what I was searching for - the remains of perhaps the grandest street address ever served by the US Post Office: No. 1 Atlantic Ocean.

 

We all romanticise about our travels before we step foot out the front door. We daydream about the adventures we might have, about sights we'll see and who we might encounter along the way. If you're a fan of the TV show Boardwalk Empire, you might hope to take a rolling chair along Atlantic City's beachfront, peer through the windows of boutiques and take in a broadway show, stare out across the sea to fairground rides balanced on distant piers.

That very much remains the experience to be had today, except the world has moved on since the Roaring Twenties.  The show has prompted a deluge of fans to visit, some expecting to find a town preserved in amber, but instead of a colourful panorama of Victorian and Art Deco architecture, the legalisation of gambling in the 1970s means megalithic casinos tower above and flood the boardwalk with neon. Atlantic City has evolved, as all cities do, so what remains, if anything of Nucky Thompson's boardwalk empire?

Although it's now a condominium, the 18 story red-brick Ritz-Carlton Hotel built on Iowa Avenue still looks out across the ocean. Opened in 1921, it was the palatial residence of the real-life corrupt city treasurer Enoch 'Nucky' Johnson, as it is of his fictional counterpart played by Steve Buscemi. From the hotel's ninth floor, Johnson bribed his way through public office, ensuring Altantic City's bars and gentlemen's clubs never ran dry during Prohibition. A short walk away is the colossal Boardwalk Hall, built in 1926 and still home music and sporting events including the Atlantic City Rodeo. Johnson may have found himself admiring the ladies at the Miss America beauty pageant, which was founded in the city in 1921 and later hosted at Boardwalk Hall.

Nearby stands the pride of local businessman Captain John Young, Million Dollar Pier. Stretching over 500 metres into the sea, its extravagance and ornate design attracted movie stars and presidents who would dine at Young's marble villa perched at the pier's end. Its official address on the US postal service route - No. 1 Atlantic Ocean. The pier changed hands several times, fires claimed parts of the original structure and now in its place stands an upscale shopping mall with lavish restaurants and luxury brands. Beneath the pier at the water's edge, any remains of Young's million dollar dream are lost to the waters.

One of the more recognisable stores seen in Boardwalk Empire is Fralinger's Salt Water Taffy, which was first produced and sold in Atlantic City in the late 19th century. The original store and factory are still open, the oldest continuously operating business in the city; Fralinger's merged with a competitor and is now called James, but gift boxes of Fralinger's Salt Water Taffy sell in their thousands and a series of black and white photographs inside the store lead visitors through its history. There's precious little else on the boardwalk left from the era, save for the boardwalk itself. Its path has shifted as a century of landfill and tides crafted the shoreline of Absecon Island (Atlantic City is on a barrier island separate from the mainland) but it's been a permanent fixture on the seafront since 1870; the rolling chairs still offer visitors a leisurely tour along its length, too.

Step back from the ocean and there are other remnants of an earlier age. Absecon Lighthouse was built in 1857 and is the third tallest in the United States - during the days of Prohibition it punctured the skyline and ensured incoming cargoes of illicit booze arrived safely. The lighthouse no longer provides navigational aid for shipping but is lit every night and offers views stretching across the island. On Pacific Avenue stand St. Nicholas of Tolentine Roman Catholic Church and the First Presbyterian Church which would have welcomed locals and visitors alike to prayer, as they still do today. At the intersection of Pacific Avenue and Atlantic Avenue is the Knife and Fork Inn where Nucky Johnson was a regular to dinner. It began life as an exclusive gentleman's club; ladies of discretion waited on the second floor for the rich and powerful to summon them, while the third and fourth floors witnessed events of ill-repute. The family that now owns the Knife and Fork Inn opened Dock's Oyster House in 1897, the second oldest business in town and another restaurant noted for its fine dining.

Finally, the most bizarre throwback is to be found further west in Margate, once South Atlantic City. Lucy the Elephant was built in the late 19th century by James Lafferty, one of three elephant shaped buildings constructed at sites along along the US East Coast (including the famous Elephant Hotel on New York's Coney Island). Standing six stories tall, its interior was a bar during the 1920s; folklore says the lanterns in its eyes would change colour from green to red to warn smugglers if it was safe to dock.

Many of the buildings have been razed, but everything Atlantic City was in terms of spirit is there to enjoy. Like the Roaring Twenties you're free to be yourself, or pretend to be somebody else and become lost in revelry and excess. Nucky Johnson's legacy, if not his empire still lives on.

 

 



   
"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.

DC museums

 



David Whitley braves an all day downpour to go and indulge his geek tendencies in Washington DC

And if there’s a better collection of museums, monuments and downright fascinating stuff anywhere in the world, he’d like to see it. It took a single look out of the window for my heart to sink. It was pelting it down in almost Biblical proportions, and the only pedestrians I could see were fighting a losing battle with thoroughly inadequate umbrellas
 

It was the sort of day that you just want to write off, staying in the hotel and developing an unhealthy fascination with cable TV. Unfortunately, my time in Washington DC was somewhat limited, and I really had no choice but go out there and brave the elements. Even if the Washington Monument did look like the main mast of a giant shipwreck, slowly sinking into a storm-ravaged sea.

Mercifully, there can be few better cities in the world for indoor attractions. Washington is geek heaven, and even people who really don’t like museums can probably find half a dozen that they’re absolutely fascinated by. Many of these are strung out along the National Mall, a 1.9 mile stretch of grassland that includes roughly 4,000 attractions that would be the showpiece highlight of any other city. The obvious big hitters are the Capitol Building at one end, the Lincoln Memorial at the other and the hilariously phallic Washington Memorial in the middle. 

But flanking the wide open space in the middle are a series of pompously self-important buildings, all devoted to a theme, ranging from natural history to American Indians and African Art. Amazingly, almost all of them are free to enter as well.

So, with the National Mall looking more like the National Boating Lake, I decided to make myself a willing sacrifice on this altar of worthiness. And you know what, there’s something to be said for losing yourself in a bombardment of information and Very Cool Stuff for a day. 

That’s Very Cool Stuff in a never-kissed-a-girl-and-unlikely-to way, incidentally. I’m not going to try and fight the “museums are sexy” battle here – but you can’t do sexy all the time, can you? Sometimes, it’s OK to settle for the loving embrace of an exhibition about a man who paints portraits using fruit (National Gallery of Art) or the glass of wine and game of Scrabble on the sofa that is the history of Nylon. The latter can be found in the National Museum of American History which, as all of these museums are, is enormous and covers far too much for your tiny mind to take in.

The best bit is probably the surprisingly stirring story of the American national anthem, which Americans seem to treat as a minor deity. Analysed, it’s a load of mawkish nonsense about a man who saw a big flag from a boat in 1814. What is incredible is that said Star-Spangled Banner still exists in a special protected chamber. And, to say it was handmade by one woman from Baltimore, it is absolutely gigantic.

But the daddy of the Mall’s museums has to be the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Hundreds of the exhibits in here would be worthy of a museum devoted to themselves elsewhere. You’re bombarded with space rockets spanning three floors, landing modules from the Apollo missions, space suits worn by Neil Armstrong and the get-up used for the first ever space walk.

That’s before you even get onto closer-to-home achievements.  We have the Kevlar ‘basket’ from the Breitling Orbiter 3 (the first balloon to fly non-stop around the world), the first plane to fly non-stop across the Atlantic and – amazingly – the Wright Flyer. For the uninitiated, this was the plane used by the Wright Brothers for the first ever powered flight in 1903. The simple wood and fabric construction in the forerunner of the jumbo jets that we take for granted nowadays; as a token of history, it is virtually unsurpassable.

This love letter to Washington’s museums could go on for months. For anyone of an even vaguely nerdy persuasion, the museums of the National Mall are rainy day nirvana. All they need now is a covered walkway between them…

Photos here