29 August 2013

2013 NYC by Train 5 - The Gonk

We arrived to our hotel about 8pm, warmly greeted by the "confused" hotel clerk. Many apologies. Mike feeling weak, sat down in a comfy arm chair while I handled check-in. Without asking, a bell man appeared with a wine glass full of cool water. Mike guzzled. Some color returning. Check-in was smooth and we were soon headed to our 6th floor room.

We like lodging at places with historical significance and that's why we choose the Algonquin Hotel in the heart of NYC. It is famous in literary circles, even today. In 1919, "The Gonk" (as it was lovingly known) was located around the corner from the New Yorker Magazine offices.

A group of journalists, editors, and critics regularly lunched at one particular table in the lobby lounge and it became known as the Round Table. Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, and Edna Ferber were the core group, but actors, authors, and playwrights (such as Tallulah Bankhead, George S. Kaufman, Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, and Harpo Marx) joined on a "rotating" basis. 

Today the hotel is designated as a NYC Landmark (1987) , a Literary Landmark (1996) , and named as one of "America's Ten Great Historic Hotels" in Historic Travel Magazine's premier issue. See www.algonquinhotel.com/algonquin-hotel-times-square-autograph-collection and www.algonquinroundtable.org for more info.

Although the hotel was built in 1902, it had a huge makeover in 2012, which embodies the original spirit of the hotel. The decor is a mix of elegant 1920's and art deco. Color scheme is dark woods, earth tones, gold and black. There is a wonderful portrait of the prime Round Table members in the lobby lounge (see bar photo above) and a display case with some of their autographs.

And we didn't see the latest, but there has also been a series of hotel cats given full roaming privileges since the 1930's. All the male cats are named Hamlet and the females are Matilda. The current Matilda even has her own Facebook page: Matilda-The Algonquin Cat.

In the public hallways are original narrow staircases with wrought iron railings. Walls are decorated with framed and famed New Yorker Magazine covers. There are also framed copies of cartoons from the New Yorker. Mike and I had to laugh because we talked about how we often did not "get" the cartoons when we saw them in the magazine. We read them now as we waited for the elevator and said we STILL did not get them or at least did not find them so humorous. For the most part too wry, subtle, NYC "insider" for us to think funny.

Each room door has a plaque with a famous quote. Ours said, "I don't believe in astrology. The only stars I can blame for my failures are those that walk about the stage," by Noel Coward (the playwright). We had to laugh at that, as Deb is such a big theatre buff.

Our room was small, but fabulous. Although we usually get a king, we had a queen bed on this trip. Just enough room to walk around the bed at the foot, but adequate otherwise. We're thinking the room size was original and we were OK with that. Above the bed was a blown-up photograph of NYC street life. Very cool, because it was back-lit and offered a very theatrical effect. The reading lights were also intriguing as they were flat to the wall, but turned on when they were pivoted down. Quite clever.

The bathroom was minuscule (still not complaining, just "reporting"), but was luxurious. The shower might be the smallest we have ever experienced in a hotel room. Hard to reach your feet. The toilet was very modern with separate light and "heavy" flush buttons. Towels were plush and toiletries were deluxe.

We actually had three windows, but the views were not on the street side. Still we didn't mind. They were the backs of high-rises, the courtyard of a closed restaurant (tables, chairs, and planters piled high), and typical NYC fire escapes. A street view might have been better, but this was quite quiet. A plus for us.

Overall, we love-loved our room. Good service. No complaints. You felt really good there. We would definitely go back.

As an aside, when I was a little girl I would often visit my grandparents near downtown Chicago. After my afternoon naps, I would sit on my Gramma's lap and chit-chat until I fully awoke. At these times, she kiddingly called me Tallulah. We also had little fashion shows where I would dress up in some new outfit she bought and I was "Tallulah" then, too. I thought that was a silly made-up name, but a really cool name. I sometimes wished that was my real name. But later I figured she took it from Tallulah Bankhead, a pretty wild and rowdy woman for her day. Go to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tallulah_Bankhead for more info. To this day, I think maybe it fits (a little)!

27 August 2013

2013 NYC by Train 4 - Penn Station to Algonquin Hotel

Pennsylvania or Penn Station was not what we expected. It seemed old, dark, dirty, with questionable clientele interspersed with weary travelers. It is a major inter-city station and commuter rail hub, and services an amazing 300,000 passengers a day.

About an hour before we arrived into Penn Station, Mike got the queasies--sweats and nausea. This we guess from him being awake for 36 hours straight. When we arrived at the station he went into the restroom to splash cold water into his face. It helped a little, but I was quite concerned because we had about a 15 block walk to the hotel and we were dragging our wheelie bags. Not sure if Mike was ready for that. I suggested a cab, but he said to soldier on.

We labyrinthed our way up two levels to the street, one by escalator and one by stairs. Outdoors felt a little more refreshing after the stuffy train and claustrophobic train station. We were at 32nd and 8th Street and had to schlep our way north or uptown to 44 Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. 

I had studied the Manhattan map and I thought I knew which way to head, but decided to ask. Did not want to waste time getting Mikie to bed. Glad I asked because we would have gone the wrong way. (Darn, in this old age I'm losing my spot-on sense of direction.)

The streets were busy and crowded. We weren't the only ones trudging along with bags, but we sure weren't used to trekking through hoards of people with these awkward "pets" slothing along behind us and with worries of people toes being crushed underneath our wheels.

There was every type of human creature you can imagine--females of all ages in skimpy clothing, couples in formal attire and jewels headed to a Saturday night play, one sickly homeless guy laying on the street with his precious belongings scattered around him, heads together in confidence wrangling drug deals, kids running in play, everyday people headed home or shopping or leaning against walls taking it all in, some "normal," some suspicious. Me keeping an eye on Mike ahead and my trailing bag behind.

Eighth Ave was not a particular memorable street, at least at this particular moment in time. Mostly stores selling knock-off type jewelry, purses, luggage, cameras, knick-knack treasures, some higher end stores, but we were not in a shopping or sight-seeing kind of mood. Wall-to-wall people, unknown territory, sick husband. Get us to our hotel !!!

Twelve blocks later (at least they were short blocks) we turned right onto 44th. Ugh. The crowd got more dense with long, thick lines of people waiting to get into theaters. People huddled around ticket windows. Cabbies, dropping off fares. Street vendors lined up taking advantage of your tired, your hungry, your thirsty,... Oh, the hordes of humanity. OK, so now I'm being a bit flippant and a tad exaggerated, but geez.

It all peaked when we hit the crossroads of Broadway, 44th, and 7th--Times Square. I cannot imagine what New Year's Eve must be like here, as this was beyond anything we had experienced since Bangkok, Thailand. The lights. The battalions of people. The difference was I weirdly felt like I was in slow motion. Yes, there were hawkers and walkers, but for the most part everyone was standing still, with mouths open, looking at the dreamlike backdrop of a million-trillion lights illuminating the skyscraper-sized billboards. People mesmerized and trying to verbalize the panorama in every foreign language. Heck, I felt like a foreigner. No photo or TV show could portray the reality of this moment.

My brother-in-law Tom recently reminded me of the classic photo of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square after WWII. That historic scene never entered my mind, as this was so far removed from that moment in time. We were stuck in our own time warp, trying to take it all in. Overwhelming, but wonderful at the same time. Stop, stare, our mouths hung open, too; not sure where to look, high, low, American flag created in lights, animation, movement, flood of color, flood of humanity. Drowning?!

Oh, boy, back to reality. Catch breath. Mike white as a sheet. Where is our hotel? It should be nearby, but the building numbers were confusing. We need 59 West 44th. But the numbers kept bouncing high and low. 329, then 1109, the 244, then 1549. What the heck. Ask a cop. He should know (the hotel had only been open since 1902 and is quite famous for its literary history). "Could you direct us to the Algonquin Hotel?" He says we are going in the wrong way.

Head back across Times Square. Building numbers still not making sense. Go two blocks. Ask a few more people. Call the hotel. She says keep going, just a bit further. Go two more blocks. Ask a waitress at an outdoor cafe. She checks with the boss. Looks at our map. First person to really stop and take an honest moment to help us.

Sends us back the way we came. Go two blocks back. Worried. Crying. I ask Mike, "Are you ready for a cab?" No, just go. I trust that he is OK if he says he is OK. Call the hotel. Desk clerk confused. I thought it was just us. Says now to continue this way. Cross back across Times Square. By this time, it's not so foreign. Just hot, dense, and over the top, bordering on obnoxious. I tell Mike to rest and hold the bags, while I venture further to make sure we are still not an a wild goose chase. Two blocks later I see the sign. Hallelujah! We were almost there when we had talked to the cop. Just a block and a half beyond that point. Dang it!

OK, no matter now. Get Mike. Get to hotel. Get to room. Exhausted. Both. Get to bed. Happy now. Sweet dreams.

25 August 2013

2013 NYC by Train 3 - Trackin' Down the Rails

Our route began in the midnight darkness and continued that way until just past Cleveland. Could not see much except flashing lights and reflections. No details, no outlines, a bit boring. I was able to catch a few winks off and on, but really could not find a comfortable position to sleep in. We bought fresh new neck pillows to support our heads, but that really didn't take the place of our fave bed pillows. Mike just could not sleep for even a moment, but was entertained by his iPod and Kindle books.

Near Cleveland (6am), I was up for the count. We had visited Cleveland recently (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) and knew some other landmarks to look for (Cleveland Browns Stadium, wind turbine, Lake Erie, downtown skyline). It was still dark, but we could recognize a few. It's hard to get a good photo on the train, especially at night. The train is so bumpy, there are lots of unwanted reflections, and the windows are dirty/streaky.

Near Erie PA the sun burst through the clouds in a lovely sunrise and a sign of wonderful traveling days ahead. Around 6:30am we jolted our way to the dining car. It was a bustle. We got the last open table and were soon joined by Brett, an interesting man from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He and his son had sleeper-ette seats (not a sleeper room but reserved seats that completely recline to make a bed) and told us all about how that works. He owns a recording business and travels on the train a lot. We chatted about the interesting places we had all been to and experienced.

You had four choices for breakfast. I chose the scrambled egg and grits. I always get grits when they are available on vacation, cuz I never make them at home. Mike had pancakes. Our table mate had a spicy Mexican frittata. All the dishes and silverware were thin plastic, unlike the fancy china you see on trains in movies. I was expecting at least ceramic, but it did display the Amtrak logo. The food was not outstanding, but acceptable. The waiter was brusque, but likable. The coffee was excellent.

Back in our seats, we traveled along the Erie Canal with its numerous mini-locks. After seeing the Soo Locks earlier this year in upper Michigan, these seemed VERY small. Here's a photo of our two engines as we traveled around a wide curve. We figured there were nearly 20 cars on our train including the sleepers, lounge, dining, baggage and cargo storage, and reserve seat cars.
We saw train after freight train going in the opposite direction and some passing along side us in the same direction. I mean one at least every 10 minutes or so. One complaint of many avid train travelers seems to be that they feel Amtrak should own its own tracks rather than sharing with freight trains. I have to say many places along the way were very bumpy and sway-y. So bumpy at times that I was looking for my non-existent seat belt. I'm sure it is due to the heavy dual usage on this rail infrastructure. Mike compared this with his train experiences in Europe and commented "those Europeans must be appalled when they ride our rails."

Soon we got into the New York State area and views got a little more interesting. We traveled through the Mohawk River Valley, Berkshire Mountains, and the Hudson River Valley. We did not realized just how very wide the Hudson is. It is 315 miles long and must be over a mile wide in some areas. We saw at least four lighthouses along the river, conveyances of every kind (freighter, tug, Chinese junk, canoes, kayaks, speedboats, classic sailboats, sea-doos, ...). There were huge beautiful mansions cut into the hills with perfectly manicured emerald green lawns terraced down to the river's edge.

We went to lunch about 2pm and met two more interesting folks--a lady professor that was traveling from Seattle to upstate New York and a typical Italian New Yorker headed to Croton. One too chatty, the interesting one not so much. The prof had a sleeper room and gave us the low down on that. I asked about the meals. They are included if you have a sleeper or sleeper-ette. But there were only 4-5 choices for each meal and it turns out these are the same every single day. No changes. Ugh! Not good for foodie devotees like us. I had a veggie sandwich (very good) and Mike had penne and meatballs (good taste, too dry). 

Back to our seats. More interesting views included numerous vineyards and crops of soy, corn, etc. Although the water looked too brown for me, there were many swimmers and water enthusiasts. I imagine it was sanitary, but just "muddy" from the swift downstream current. We saw a bald eagle and lots of wild flowers. A few trees were beginning to turn red ALREADY! We saw a MetLife blimp hovering over the city of Rochester. There was lots of artful graffiti on the walls, tunnels, bridges, and boulders along the way. We saw interesting structures in the cities we passed--domes, churches, skyscrapers, modern, classic, abandoned factories, lots of junkyards, and fronts and backs of old houses in the smaller towns. We saw a cool farmer's market in Syracuse.
In Albany, the train let loose of those cars headed to Boston, as well as the cafe car (snack and bar car). We got a replacement engine and continued on our way to New York City. At this point our car was right behind the engine. We hadn't noticed it before, but we could now clearly hear the train whistle at most highway intersections. We continued to follow the Hudson for the last 2-1/2 hours to our New York City destination. Near the end we crossed over a few bridges and then through a tunnel under the Hudson River. We arrived at Penn Station near sunset and pretty much on time at 6:35pm.

23 August 2013

2013 NYC by Train 2 - An Away We Go

Travel prepped all day Friday (8/9)--cleaning (we like to come back to a clean home and especially clean sheets), cat set-up (dual litter boxes while we are gone, oversize water and food bowls, find all the cat toys, make sure good window viewing spots available, set-up neighbor to look in on Bella), juggling clothes and suitcase options (at least it will be all warm weather clothes instead of a mixture of hot/cold), balance checkbook and review finances, set-up mail hold by the P.O., gathering travel docs and tourist info, etc. etc.
Left home at 9:30pm Friday night for the drive to Elkhart, Indiana. The train station is only about 40 miles away, but on the mostly 2-lane roads it takes about 1-1/2 hours to get there. The cars in the free long-term parking lot looked more "presentable" (not raggedy and abandoned as they seemed on our previous trial run down here). So with that and advice from friend Carla, we decided it was OK to park there after all.

No one manned the ticket window as we entered the depot, but a handwritten note advised our train was running about 15 minutes late with a 12:37am departure. We were quite entertained by the cutsie train station while we waited. The wooden benches looked to be the originals and still in fine shape. The ceiling was arched and decorated like an old west train. Walls were lined with maps, guidelines, official statements about train procedure and security, and classic old train posters. There was a framed letter from Bob Hope and his wife saying how much they loved their stay in Elkhart. He must have been playing at the old Lerner Theatre we talked about previously. Three freight trains passed while we waited.

About 15 minutes before departure, passengers started ambling out to the tracks. The night was pleasant and had kind of a romantic glow from the night lights. There were maybe six others waiting and a few here to greets those getting off. We all talked in a quiet, confidential tone, so as not to disrupt the peacefulness. The scene reminded be of the Edward Hopper Nighthawks painting, but instead of a cafe it was a train station.

Two more trains passed before the lone headlight of our train slowly meandered into sight, closer and closer. About 30 de-trained, mostly Amish folks. Men with their long white beards, suspenders and broad-rimmed straw hats, and women demurely wearing "plain" calf-length dresses and white cap-bonnets. No one looked very happy, but maybe it was the hour.

The route we were taking included stops at Elkhart IN, Waterloo, Bryan OH, Toledo, Sandusky, Elyria, Cleveland, Erie PA, Buffalo NY, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady, Albany. In Albany, some of the cars split off and went to Boston, while we continued on to Poughkeepsie, Croton, and finally New York City at Penn Station. We were assigned seats as we boarded. Got a good location on the right side of the train with a nice window. Seemed roomy and comfortable enough (to start!). There was a foot rest, "calf rest," and the seat reclined way back, all adjustable.

We settled in and the click-clack of the train wheels on the track began our 18-hour journey.

07 August 2013

2013 NYC by Train 1 - Pre-Trip to Elkhart

Mike and I are going to New York City in August and plan to take Amtrak out of Elkhart, Indiana, to NYC-Penn Station. The train station in Kalamazoo is only a block away, but that train does not go direct to NYC. You have to take the train from here to Ann Arbor, then a bus to Toledo, Ohio, and then a direct to NYC from there. Adds a lot of hours and hassle, so we will board the train in Elkhart instead. That station is about 40 miles south of here, so not too far.

Not knowing anything about Elkhart, we decided to make a "pre-trip" down there to scope out the station, parking, luggage handling, etc. The ride is mostly back roads, so it took about 1-1/2 hours to get there, but a very pleasant drive. Once you hit Indiana, much of it is along the winding St. Joe River. As we got closer to Elkhart the farm houses turned into more modern ranch style homes, and then finally into old mansions as we got close to town.

We headed straight to the train station which took us through downtown Elkhart. Lots of older but nicely kept up buildings. The train station, originally built in 1900, sits across the tracks from the National New York Central Railroad Museum (www.nycrrmuseum.org). We didn't have time to browse the museum but it looks interesting enough for another trip.

We found nearby long-term parking but were not impressed. Parking is free, but no parking attendant. The cars parked there looked pretty run down, maybe abandoned. We drove downtown in hopes of an alternate parking plan.

Elkhart is a small, rustic town in the heart of Indiana Amish country. Both driving in and out, we saw their small black buggies and trotting horses traversing next to us along the roadside. The town grew out of an area inhabited by Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi Indian tribes and dates back to the early 1900's. It is located where the Elkhart River tributary runs into the St. Joe River.

In 1949, it was officially dubbed the "RV Capital of the World" because several RV manufacturing companies were located here. As a matter of fact, when we moved from San Francisco to Kalamazoo in 2003, we drove a rental RV and this town was the drop off point. That time we only saw the outskirts of the town and didn't realize how nice it was. It is also known for its past and current history of manufacturing musical instruments and its other nickname is the "Band Instrument Capital of the World."

As we walked the streets of downtown looking for an information sign, we could not miss the lovely Lerner Theatre, opened in 1924. It is in pristine condition after a total renovation, and has a seating capacity of 2,000. Although we did not see the inside, from the website www.thelerner.com/about.html it would rival any theatre in Chicago or New York.

Near the theatre was the Elkhart Visitors Center. We went in, grabbed a few brochures, and asked about parking. They had no idea!! 

Across the street was the Midwest Museum of American Art, located in a beautifully restored neo-classical style bank building (www.midwesternmuseum.us). We were impressed one more time. It houses over 2,500 works in its collection including some of my favorites--Rockwell, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Calder, and three generations of Weston family photographers. And only $5 to get in. BUT they didn't know anything about parking. They called City Hall for us and directed us there.

Well, actually they directed us to a court house (a ugly, blocky 50's building that did not fit into the rest of the quaint town) and THEY directed us to City Hall (1915 red brick structure). Outside was mundane, but inside was lovely with a grand staircase and marble everywhere. After some discussion and a few phone calls, they said all parking in town was free, but none was attended. They recommended a parking structure near the police station. We checked it out and decided that was the best spot.

By that time we were hungry. We asked for a recommendation and were directed to the 523 Tap and Grill (www.523tapandgrill.com). The person said just look for the green and white elk. What a pleasant surprise--classy and lots of interesting things on the menu. Mike had a perch sandwich and I had fish tacos with pesto sauce. Nice bar, too. Would definitely go back there.

Regarding the elk, Elkhart must have had an artsy elk decorating contest. All around town were elk "statues" painted in varied themes. Kind of like the taxis in Kalamazoo or the guitars in Cleveland (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), or the giant cherries in Traverse City.

Well, our trial run was over. Time to head home and wait for the day of our actual train trip to NYC.

PS - A couple of days later a friend advised she goes down to Elkhart all the time to catch the train to NYC. She parks her Mercedes in that long term lot behind the train station. After all that, guess we will, too.