People watcher's paradise

Sat, Nov 3, 2012, 00:00

It’s the luck of the draw as KATHY SHERIDANjoins a group of 78 National Lottery scratchcard winners and guests on a trip to New York

FOR THE BLACK youth with the screaming blonde highlights, the excitement is too much to bear. “For my Fall hair, I wanna wear it down. Oh yessss. And for my summer look – oh my GAHD – my sawmmer look! Get. This. It’s gonna be liderally, lid-er-ally, SAWMMER!”, he squeaks. I peer over the top of my paper. His large, female companion is transfixed. Liderally.

The vignette is being played out in Bryant Park, 10 acres of parkland wrapped around the New York Public Library at the heart of Fifth Avenue. It’s around 5pm on a golden autumn day and a people-watcher’s paradise.

Hipster-ish backpackers snooze on the grass; svelte young couples in cashmere and Tod’s loafers nibble at take-away salads; Jacqui Kennedy lookalikes are squired by gallants with hooded eyes. In one corner, under falling leaves, an extraordinary racial and generational mix plays petanque. At another, intense, silent battles are being fought over custom-made chess and dice tables. A smart concession stand sells good quality drinks and sandwiches, and off to the side, there’s a pretty carousel.

But the most amazing feature of beautiful, thriving Bryant Park is the most mundane: the hundreds and hundreds of folding metal tables and chairs, spread randomly under the trees and across the park. Somewhere to sit – imagine that – while relaxing, eating, watching and listening and wondering idly how long the folding seats would last in ( . . . insert city/town). Comfort, beauty, safety and perpetual street theatre. And all free.

The point is that amid the fuss about New York’s shopping and tourist magnets, sometimes a dry day, a good coffee, somewhere to sit, and functioning ears are all you need. Because that’s the essential beauty of New York. Deeply familiar yet strangely foreign. A multiplicity of languages yet easily understood. A vast streetscape of skyscrapers and canyons yet easily negotiable. In short, a speeded-up, blazing Technicolor version of the heart-racing movie carried in our heads and hearts since childhood.

It’s why, after various permutations and market research, the organisers of the National Lottery Big Money TV gameshow settled on New York as the preferred destination for its annual, all-expenses-paid, feature trip – aka living the dream for 39 scratchcard winners and their guests. The cost of living the dream does not come cheap, of course. According to the NL’s public relations manager, Paula McEvoy, it comes in at around $9,000 – $10,000 a head, between flights, events and spending money. So they’ve worked hard to get it right.

Out of 78 people, inevitably, some will never have flown before. Many will never have been further than London or Spain. Ages range from 18 to 80, and they’re not all partnered couples. On this year’s trip, for example, several daughters took along their mothers, a brother took his sister, a nephew his aunt.

So how do you cater for such diverse tastes on a trip that holds out such expectations ? First provide some planning tools. Winners are sent guide books and itineraries plus a cheque for €2,500 well before departure. On the trip, security, reassurance and advice are available 24/7 from the four-strong NL team, as well as a daily travel information service.

Destinations in the past have included European cities, cruises on the QM2, as well as long-hauls to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. South Africa and safaris were considered. But the trick, they found, is to combine security and familiarity with an entertainment factor and lots of popular cultural references. So in LA, the chosen hotel was the Beverly Wiltshire – the setting for Pretty Woman, where lottery trippers caught sight of Joan Collins, Shaquille O’Neal and Mohammed Ali. On the downside, LA has no core. And while Rodeo Drive is a shopping icon, it’s beyond most people’s budgets (even with the €2,500 cheque). Plus, you need a cab to get home.

In New York, by contrast, it was the Sofitel, a comfortable, French-owned four-star, with walk-in showers (a small but important detail), a few doors down from the legendary Algonquin, in the heart of Manhattan. The frisson, let’s say, lies in the knowledge that this is where Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of attacking a chambermaid.

For the lottery trippers, a little familiar pixie dust was scattered by the presence of the TV game-show hosts Brian Ormond and Sinead Kennedy and Ormond’s model spouse, Pippa O’Connor.

The objective, then, is to combine the stardust factor with negotiable food and language. “Commonality of language is very, very important because then you can start to enjoy everything straightaway,” says Paula McEvoy. “In New York, you can have steak or lobster – or go for a sandwich and you know what’s in it.”

On this trip, everything is carefully calibrated, from the ideal flight distance, to the ideal length of stay – six days max, to the informal buffet dinner in the hotel, straight off the plane. Events are laid on every second night of the trip (the fabulous Jersey Boys on Broadway, a night-time cruise on the Hudson, dinner in the River Café). Otherwise, trippers have great tracts of free time to meet US-based relatives (many did), or go shopping (one wife came back brandishing a diamond ring) or travel out to Ellis Island or Ground Zero, or listen to the whispering walls of the magnificent Grand Central Station. Or just sit in Bryant Park and marvel that those metal chairs and tables aren’t just spirited away . . .

Aer Lingus flies twice daily to New York, seven days a week. Flights from €259 each way. See aerlingus.com

New York stay and eat

TINY HOTEL BEDROOMS don’t go down well with Americans as any trawl through Trip Advisor will tell you, but when the rooms are as cute as those at Yotel, by Times Square, it’s a different matter. Called cabins in fact, they’re neat and shipshape, with a bed that glides out from the wall at the press of a button, a power shower with a view of the street, and storage in the form of shelves, recesses and hooks designed to take everything from a washbag to an iPhone. The hotel’s common areas are great with a big outdoor terrace where you can take breakfast – free coffee and muffins – and a lobby with several meeting pods that are available to guests. Room rates fluctuate depending on the time of year. We found a January rate of $169 but December rates were over $300 for the same room. See yotel.com

At the other end of the price scale is the London Hotel at West 54th Street where Irish designer David Collins’s stamp is everywhere, particularly in the fabulous art deco-style restaurant called Maze by Gordon Ramsay.

Blake Lively and crew from Gossip Girl are often to be found here, nibbling on butter lettuce and Amish chicken while avoiding the boxes of delicious hand made chocolates that come with coffee. See gordonramsay.com.

A good burger is surprisingly hard to come by in NYC, but we found ours in the Bowery, at DBGB Kitchen and Bar, an outpost of Michelin chef Daniel Boulud’s empire, where he serves big hefty dishes of sausage and meat, with lashings of gravy – all washed down with over 22 varieties of beer. The decor is oh so stylish, with open shelves filled with copper pans donated by the (other) great chefs of the world. The burger was epic, with its topping of smoky pulled pork, and crispy fries on the side. danielnyc.com

Both venues participate in NYC Restaurant Week, when scores of well-known eateries drop their prices to fixed rates – a three course lunch set at $24 and dinner at $35 plus tip and tax, Monday to Friday. The next Restaurant Week (which in fact usually runs for four weeks) will be from January 14th to February 8th.

For more on where to stay and eat, in New York City, check out nycgo.com, where details of Restaurant Week offers will be published nearer the date.


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