The lottery winners who took Manhattan

They got lucky -- so then they took Manhattan. What do lottery winners -- many of them first-time visitors -- want to see and do on a trip to New York

Thu, Dec 26, 2013, 13:46

A man with an upright piano is playing on West 14th street as his terrier trots up and down on top, barking along to the music. “I don’t want money, just take my card and like me on Facebook,” says pianist Dotan Negrin (PianoAcrossAmerica.com) as we walk down to the street from the High Line, a park on a disused elevated railway line in mid-Manhattan.

Up on the High Line we’ve passed a boy, whose sign reads “Will do Shakespeare Monologues for $2”, chatting to a bunch of happy tourists. It’s hard to see how any tourist could not be happy in New York city. There’s something here for everyone, whether it’s shopping, visiting galleries and museums, going to a show, eating and drinking, or just plain gawking at the sights.

Street theatre – like the piano man and his dog or a trio of boys doing acrobatics along with a comic routine on the edge of Central Park, or even the cops in Times Square posing with tourists – is one of the unexpected delights you stumble across as you make your way around Manhattan.

For a first-time visitor it’s a particular delight, whatever your age. And in spite of Ireland’s love affair with the city, there are still a lot of us who’ve never been there before: more than half of the 78 people who visited there recently after winning a prize of the trip on the National Lottery’s Big Money Game show were first-timers.

The 39 winners (and their friends or partners) stayed in a plush hotel, the Sofitel on West 44th Street, were given €2,500 to spend, a clutch of maps and guidebooks (Top 10 New York City, published by DK Eyewitness Travel, dk.com, is excellent) and let loose in downtown Manhattan for five days. Nearly a week later they heaved suitcases bulging with bargains onto the airport bus, chatting happily about that cliche – a trip of a lifetime.

So, what would a lottery winner’s guide to New York include?

A trip to the Top of the Rock, the observation deck on top of the Rockefeller Center, which has unobstructed views over Manhattan and beyond – and views of the Empire State Building, too.

A visit to Macy’s mid-price department store at Herald Square. An hour-long bus trip to Jersey Gardens outlet mall.

A night-time boat trip on the Hudson to the Statue of Liberty or a night bus trip around Lower Manhattan, looking back at the glamorous, glittering city skyline.

Walking across Brooklyn Bridge in the daytime for more amazing views, and a stroll around Brooklyn Heights, a leafy neighbourhood of old brownstones and chic coffee shops.

It could include coffee in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library – and a visit to the library. A stroll in Central Park. A visit to the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero and a visit to St Paul’s, Manhattan’s oldest church, a block away: there is a moving exhibit in the church which became a place of rest for 9/11 recovery workers.

Full-on sung High Mass in St Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue. A visit to a Broadway show – the prize included an outing to long-running Jersey Boys.

Lethal cocktails – or at least coffee – in the Algonquin Hotel of Dorothy Parker and round table fame.

Not to mention a visit to an Irish pub for those feeling a little homesick: Connolly’s, a street away from the winners’ hotel, proved one of the most popular but it seems you can’t throw a stone in New York without hitting an Irish bar.

Everyone walked their feet off because New York is a great walking city, easy to navigate once you get the hang of its grid system. Once you realise that Fifth Avenue divides east from west, and know the correct address of where you’re going, it would be hard to get lost. And if you do, the famous yellow cabs are a cheap enough way to find your way home.

City blocks are not so long and it takes only an hour or so to walk from, say, 14th to 44th Street – with plenty of parks to rest in along the way: the number of green spaces in this bustling city is another surprise.

And anyone with even a passing interest in architecture will marvel at the mix of Beaux Arts and Art Deco buildings and soaring modern skyscrapers such as Grand Central Station, the Chrysler building, Carnegie Hall, Columbia University, Trump Tower, and the Conde Nast building in Times Square.

Eating out is a delight, whether it’s in a glitzy, expensive restaurant, a traditional deli or a pizza place where you can get two huge pizza slices and a soft drink for €5.

A gala meal for winners in the Michelin-starred River Cafe, on the waterfront underneath Brooklyn Bridge, looking back at the city lights, was a highlight for most: cool jazz and great food made this a perfect evening out. It’s only open for private events at present as it repairs damage done by Hurricane Sandy last year).

Ninja, a restaurant in the Tribeca neighbourhood of Lower Manhattan, was the most fun: entering by lift into a dark warren of booths and small dining areas, customers hear bloodcurdling cries, then jump as ninja waiters leap out at them.

The experience triggered a series of bad ninja jokes – but the best came from one of the waiters. “What’s an Irish ninja?” Flourish of arms – “a Ginja!” The concept seems a little bizarre, but it works (although we wondered how toddlers in the high chairs stacked around the place might handle eating here). The food, ranging from sushi to rib-eye steaks, was excellent.

For a lot of visitors, New York is all about shopping. Two young Carlow cousins , visiting for the first time, were agog at the value to be had, from Tommy Hilfiger to Hollister to MAC makeup. The current rate of exchange is very much to our advantage (lop about one-third off given prices). Even with sales tax, prices in New York are considerably lower than here.

It’s fun visiting department stores like Bloomingdales and Bergdorf Goodman, looking in at Tiffany’s, going to make-up chain Sephora. All the shops there – H&M, Zara, Abercrombie&Fitch – are here too, so cost comparisons are easy. And most of the big US stores offer a 10 per cent discount to foreign visitors (although not on all items) and bigger discounts if you spend more than a few hundred dollars.

But there’s so much more to New York than shopping: for first-timers bus or walking tours of a city are a great way to get an idea of what’s on offer.

There are helicopter tours, any number of hop-on/hop-off bus tours, cruises on the Hudson, bike tours and bike rentals, Sex and the City tours, tours of Harlem with a Gospel service thrown in, a pizza tour in Brooklyn, even free walking tours (you tip your guide whatever you want to). Visit the tourist office at 810 Seventh Avenue, between 52nd and 53rd Avenue West, to get all the information or see nycgo.com.

Most of us wanted to see Ellis Island and its immigration museum, but it is closed at the moment due to work necessitated by Hurricane Sandy. But what a wealth of others to choose from –- MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which recreates brilliantly how early immigrants lived in the city.

There’s the Intrepid, an aircraft carrier moored on the Hudson, where the public can look at fighter planes, helicopters, the Space Shuttle, and beside it a decommissioned nuclear submarine to walk through.

There are whole neighbourhoods to be discovered – Chinatown, TriBeCa, SoHo, Greenwich Village, the Meatpacking district . . . all you have to do is walk. It’s perfectly feasible to stroll much of the island of Manhattan in a few days, discovering places for yourself; watching people.

New York can be expensive, of course, but there’s plenty to enjoy for free: it costs nothing, for example, to visit places like the American Museum of Natural History (as seen in the movie Night at the Museum). It’s beside Central Park West, between 77th and 81st Street. And of course strolling around this huge, beautiful city park costs nothing too. You’ve been there at the movies or watching TV countless times, but actually being there, looking at towering skyscrapers from the oasis that is Central Park – that’s something else.

New York, New York – a helluva town.

Frances O’Rourke travelled to New York as a guest of the National Lottery


NEW YORK - WHERE TO
STAY
Sofitel Hotel, 45 West 44th St, +212 3548844, sofitel.com. From €350 a night for a double. Art deco elegance and super-comfortable beds in a French-owned hotel in an excellent location between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

Salisbury Hotel, 123 West 57th St, +212 2461300,
nycsalisbury.com. From €185 a night for a double. Quiet, comfortable hotel opposite Carnegie Hall.

Herald Square Hotel, 19 West 31st St, +212 2794017, heraldsquarehotel.com. From €190 a night for double room. Renovated Beaux Arts building three blocks from Macy’s .

EAT, DRINK

Beauty and Essex, 146 Essex St, lower East Side, +212 6140146, beautyandessex.com. Posh but funky restaurant.

Ninja, 25 Hudson St, TriBeCa, +212 2748500, ninjaanewyork.com. Ninja waiters, Japanese cuisine (includes steaks) with a guy who does magic tricks

230 Fifth, on Fifth Avenue corner 27th St, +212 7254300, 230-fifth.com. Buzzy heated rooftop bar, cocktails and nibbles

The Campbell Apartment, Grand Central Station, 89 East 42nd St, +212 9530409, grandcentralterminal.com. Tycoon’s office revamped as plush cocktail bar in Grand Central Station.

ENTERTAINMENT

Want to find a comedy club, an off off-Broadway show, a concert, a musical? Bewildered by choice? See timeout.com/newyork.


GET THERE

Aer Lingus to JFK airport, from about €600 return, aerlingus.com

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