In London, the landmark Hotel Savoy underwent a three year, $354 million refit including new crystal chandeliers, gold leaf and polished marble floors, while the city’s exclusive Hotel Connaught has been renewed to the tune of £70 million, including a new wing with an Aman Spa. In Paris. the splendid public rooms of the Four Seasons George V remain unchanged, while the 245 guest rooms have been brought into the 21st century.
Meanwhile, in New York, where greed rules, the legendary Waldorf-Astoria is slated to be closed next spring and many/most of its 1,413 rooms turned into pricy condominiums. In a real twist of irony, the owner is Anbang Insurance, located in the Communist-in-name-only People’s Republic of China. Cost to purchase the hotel: $1.9 billion. The plan to condo-ize it is an ultimately capitalist move. New York’s legendary Plaza Hotel underwent such a conversion — good for investors and condo owners but said for the city.
Even though the mother ship will close, the Waldorf’s prestigious name presumably will live on dozen resort hotels from Florida to Hawaii, two in China, two in Puerto Rico, five in Europe, three in the Middle East and one in Panama. Also the Waldorf Towers, a luxury residential tower, in New York is slated to remain open. For now, at least.
I recently returned from Cuba, flying a Sun Country charter between Miami and Havana. Charter flights are something of a sham to get around the shrinking prohibitions against American travel to Cuba. Here’s another crack in the travel restrictions, and it’s great news. JetBlue has announced that it is inaugurating scheduled service between New York and Havana beginning on July 3. The new flight will be between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, departing New York each Friday at 12 noon and returning from Havana to at 4:30 p.m. Reservations need to be made through Cuba Travel Service. Back in the charter camp, Island Tours is offering itineraries from Miami, Tampa and starting in July, from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
This big break for independent travelers comes soon after Airbnb announced that it is now booking accommodations in Cuba. It started last month listing “only” about 1,000 properties, mostly in picturesque Old Havana. Budget-wise and people-to-people-wise, a stay in somebody’s home costs less than a hotel and also directly promotes travel in a way that that “won’t pave over Cuba’s unique character, forged by decades of isolation from its northern neighbor,” said Nathan Blecharczyk, Airbnb cofounder and chief technology officer. Challenging Internet access and a separate tourist currency (the CUC) do not appear to be great hurdles to booking or staying.
He added that “the idea here is to support growth in travel that isn’t disruptive, that actually celebrates and preserves Cuba as a distinct destination. The Airbnb style of travel was already thriving.” Even before Airbnb appeared on the scene, the concept of staying in a casa particular was entrenched, and “Room for Rent” signs appear on many an Old Havana building.
World’s biggest Ferris Wheel derivative is Sin City’s newest attraction.
In Las Vegas, the house always wins. It is the site of the world’s largest “observation wheel,” several generations removed from the old-time Ferris wheel. With the inauguration of the High Roller launched yesterday with champagne-bottle-breaking fanfare, Las Vegas has won bragging rights for the world’s largest observation wheel for now.
It is 550 feet high with 28 40-passenger stand-up glass cabins suspended on the outside of the wheel so as not to obstruct the view. The cabins are designed to revolve around SkyVue, an enormous LED screen promoted as “one of the most effective advertising platforms in the world….With over 100,000 square feet of high definition LED screen, SkyVue integrates the bright lights of Times Square with the eye popping views with the London Eye.”
If eyeballs from pedestrians and people in vehicles the ground aren’t enough, SkyVue screen on the High Roller is visible to more than 39 million airline passengers a year as they take off and land at nearby McCarran Airport, along with guests at high-rise hotels whose rooms look toward it. Caesar’s Entertainment, the High Roller’s developer, sold the naming rights to SkyVue for $1.2 million.
VitalVegas.com, an award-winning local blog, has tempered its enthusiasm for this spectacular attraction, noting:
“SkyVue, plagued by rumors of financial problems and construction delays, was considered by some to be an unlikely candidate to get naming rights to what industry insiders consider “a competing attraction.” Caesars Entertainment, however, felt otherwise. Caesars Entertainment has not been without financial turmoil of its own. The company has approximately $24.5 billion (yes, billion) in debt, or about what it would cost to purchase Paraguay.”
Still, the waiting line for the inaugural day of the super-sized observation wheel was measured at five hours — but maybe that was just to be the first to ride it. The cost is $30 for a 30-minute ride. Each cabin can accommodate a roll-in bar for an intimate private party — even a modest wedding. Reports are that the first marriage proposal occurred on opening day.
This Vegas attraction is the latest entry in what I think of as the “wonder wheel wars.” In the US, contenders are the High Roller (550 feet) and 190 meter (623 feet) the New York Wheel (623 feet), which was scheduled to start construction “early in 2014” on, of all places, Staten Island. Elsewhere, the Singapore Flyer (541 feet), the Star of Nanchang in southeastern China (525 feet) and the London Eye (443 feet) reign over their respective landscapes. Construction was supposed to begin last April on Bluewaters Island, a new island that I believe was recently completed in Dubai, will be the site of The Dubai Eye (650 feet), which will surpass its existing and planned rivals — until China or someone else comes up with an even bigger one.
It is not Las Vegas’s first High Roller — and I’m not counting humans. In 1996, a steel roller coaster called the High Roller opened on top of the 909-foot Stratosphere Tower, the tallest free-standing observation tower in the country. It wasn’t all that popular, was difficult to maintain and was dismantled in 2005.
Rockefeller Center tree festooned with LED lights powered by solar energy
The 2013 Christmas tree that will grace Rockefeller Center is a 76-foot Norway spruce from my home state of Connecticut — specifically from Shelton, a town in northeastern Fairfield County. The tree is green in the traditional sense of the word, and the 30,000 lights that will illuminate it between December 4 and January 7. It is also going to be green in the 21st century eco-sense –for the first time in its history, festooned with a new set of energy-efficient LED lights fully powered by solar panels being installed on top atop 45 Rockefeller Plaza — a 60 percent reduction in consumption. After the holidays, the power from 363 General Electric Solar panels will be fed back into the building to help reduce the peak energy demand from the grid.
A lifetime ago, I lived at 309 West 57th Street in New York, so I perked right up when I received a press release indicating that the new Viceroy New
York has opened at #120, “feeding off the vibrancy of the city that never sleeps and the iconic bustle of West 57th Street.” In words and photos, I see that the new hotel in the old ‘hood is all about fine design and opulent luxury, which the press release continues to note makes it “a game-changing hotel that breaks the mold of typical midtown properties, catering to the most discerning tastemakers and trendsetters through a unique downtown aesthetic – without compromising on uptown sophistication.” Just two blocks west, I lived in an early 20th-century building with a Gothic-inspired exterior and solid but undistinguished apartments, mostly one-bedrooms.
My old building had 16 or 17 floors, now all shadowed by Hearst Publishing’s skyscraper plunked on top of the façade of an older structure. The release continues, “Viceroy New York offers 240 luxury guest rooms throughout 29 stories, many of which showcase sprawling views of Central Park. With floor-to-ceiling windows tailored in exotic woods, supple leather and a mix of metal accents, each room features top-of-the-line amenities, including Beats by Dr. Dre Beatbox Portable audio sound systems, Sferra linens, Neil George spa products, illy coffee machines and custom curated mini-bars featuring top-shelf offerings like Vosges Haut-chocolat, Mash soft drinks and Hudson Whiskey. Guest rooms also provide hotel-branded smartphones with Viceroy Connect, a custom app that allows guests to control every aspect of their stay – including in-room elements, outside communication and concierge services. The hotel will also provide guests with personal training services.”
The hotel restaurant, Kingside, opens on Monday, October 28 featuring “an extensive raw and crudo bar, a variety of toasts, charcuterie and cheeses, salads and small plates, as well as larger entrees for sharing such as pastas, fish and meats. Complementing the variety of inventive dishes are classic cocktails like a custom barrel-aged Manhattan made with Michter’s Rye, Canparo Antica and Angostura Bitters, and the Aviation, made with Bombay Gin, Maraschino Liqeur, Crème De Violette and fresh lemon juice. The venue also serves fresh cold-pressed juices from Liquiteria.” When I lived at #309, a Chock Full ‘O Nuts luncheonette occupied the near corner. Hot dogs and cream cheese on date and nut bread were 35 cents.
In-season room rates at Viceroy New York start from $559, based on double occupancy, with a special weekend rate of $459. My rent-controlled apartment was $157 a month — in old money. What a difference a few decades make. For more information about the Viceroy or to make a reservation, contact 212-830-8000..
Months of special events highlight the grand old terminal’s 100th year
I spent a lot of my younger years on the New Haven Railroad between my home in southern Connecticut to New York and also to Boston, where I went to college. New York was closer and so I traveled through Grand Central Terminal countless times. I took the Grand Concourse for granted. It was grand, but the grandeur was hidden. What pulled the eye in those days was not the soaring ceiling painted with the constellations, the famous clock-topped information booth or the grand proportions. It was the huge advertising presence.
Life changed. I moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, taking the bus into Manhattan’s Port Authority bus terminal. And then, I moved to Colorado. My main connection with Grand Central was during American Society of Journalists & Authors board meetings and annual meeting — always at a hotel near the station. The long distance trains that once departed from the westernmost tracks with its own waiting room were history. The sturdy wooden benches had long since been removed from the 42nd Street side waiting room, which had been turned in exhibition and event space. Many ticket windows closed as ticket sales became ever more automated. The Lower Concourse now holds a food court. Here are a couple of then and now photos:
Grand Central Terminal has seen the best of times and worst of times, but unlike historic Penn Station across town, it was not demolished but has survived to celebrate its centennial. It was saved from the wrecking ball largely through the efforts of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
With the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island still closed, harbor cruises are the only choice
I grew up in Connecticut, and my first visit to the Statue of Liberty was as child, climbing up into the crown with an aunt and uncle who lived in New York. I visited again during school field trips and later when I lived in New York as an adult, enjoying excursions with visitors from out of town and out of the country.
After Liberty State Park opened in Jersey City, ferry service eventually was added, and the ride from there was shorter and cheaper than from New York, so I did that too. In 1988, just as I was ready to move to Colorado, I took my then 5-year-old son and one of his kindergarten classmates to the Statue of Liberty– not because I thought he’d remember much, but because I felt I should. The ideals that the Statue stands for are, to me, more of what America is about than the anti-immigrant sentiment abroad in the land today.
It was only on my most recent visit to New York that I finally set foot on Ellis Island, the first point of entry for some 12 million passed through the island between 1892 and 1924. Today, more than 40 percent of Americans have at least one ancestor who entered the country through Ellis Island, and the poignant Ellis Island Immigration Museum told their story in images and words.
Due to Hurricane Sandy last fall, both Liberty and Ellis Islands are still closed to visitors while ongoing repair and restoration work is taking place. Meanwhile, Statue Cruises is filling in the gap to an extent with 14 daily Harbor Tour departures, giving visitors the chance for up-close views of the Statue of Liberty and other historic New York City landmarks. It’s not the same as disembarking on these islands, to climb the statue or visit the museum, but for now, it will have to do. During the narrated tour, the boats pass the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, as well as such other landmarks as the 9-11 Memorial, the South Street Seaport, Governors Island, the Brooklyn Bridge and more. The hour-long tours depart from Battery Park at the foot of Manhattan every 30 minutes, seven days a week, even at this time of year.
Tickets are $24 (adults), $17 (seniors) and $12 (children). Tickets can be purchased online at www.statuecruises.com, by phone at 201-604-2800 or at the seawall in Battery Park.
The Big Apple is the big winner in the “Worst Airports” category
Travel + Leisure just revealed its list of the country’s Best and Worst Airports. When it comes to the worst, the Big Apple’s three airports earn rotten apple honors by occupying three of the top (or is it bottom?) spots on the magazine’s Worst list. That includes the (un)coveted top place that goes to LaGuardia — outdated, unserved by any kind of rail system, inconvenient public buses, and with a deteriorating infrastructure. Every time in the last 12 years or so that I’ve been to LaGuardia in the rain (which seems every time I fly use it), the concourse roof has had multiple leaks. And did I mention the confusing signs?
The T+L writeup actually didn’t mention any of those flaws. The reasons given for LGA’s ranking were described thus: “Dilapidated La Guardia hasn’t aged well. The airport has the dubious honor of ranking the worst for the check-in and security process, the worst for baggage handling, the worst when it comes to providing Wi-Fi, the worst at staff communication, and the worst design and cleanliness. If there was a ray of hope, its location, which ranked 16th, was considered superior to six other airports.” The only bright light on the LGA picture appears to be the NYC Airporter, which claims to offer “free WiFi and a relaxing, stress-free airport ride on a climate controlled, hybrid vehicle to or from NYC’s Airports” from midtown Manhattan, costing “from $12.” I’ve never used that service because I try to avoid LGA.
The way “location” is valued is interesting. Although it is seriously flawed by most measures, LGA is considered “superior,” locationwise, because it is “close” to Manhattan. It is in miles, but methinks the respondents to the T+L survey never sat in a bus or taxi crawling toward the Queens Midtown Tunnel, the 59th Street Bridge or the Triborough Bridge — and if the latter by taxi, having to pay the toll in addition to the sky-high cab fare.
By contrast (and what a contrast it is!), Denver International Airport ranked #9 in the Best Airports listing. What pulled it down was “location,” because it is multi-miles from downtown Denver. But those miles are easy — a straight shot on Interstate 70, which is sometimes slow here and there but nothing like endless New York jams, and then onto Denver city streets that also are not as constipated as New York city streets. Lightrail is being extended from downtown Denver to DIA, and meanwhile, RTD’s SkyRide charges $11 one-way to the downtown Market Street Station.
In reading these survey results, I realized that one of the reasons I have visited New York less in the past five years than any during my previous 15 years in Colorado is the sheer unpleasantness of getting there and leaving via any of the city’s three airports, most especially LGA. Art-filled, light-filled DIA always provides a pleasant departure venue (except for the secruity checkpoint part) and a better welcome home.
Unpleasantness, delays & road rage as part of the New York travel experience
I lived in the New York area for more than 20 years before moving to Colorado. I always look forward to my visits to New York for business and/or pleasure, but inevitably, I’m happy to get out of there once I’ve done what I need to, visit with friends and see and do things that I can’t do here. My departure on Thursday, September 29 reached new lows just to get out of the city to catch what was supposed to be a 5:10 p.m. flight from Newark Airport. Here goes:
At 2: 15 p.m., I towed my roll-aboard bag to bus stop at 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue for bus that would take me to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Got there just as a bus whisked in and out. Before I could ask whether it went to the Port Authority, the driver slammed door in my face and pulled out. Took next bus.
Newark Airport Express stops on 41st Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, under the passageway between the north and south portions of the terminal. Judging by the smell, this covered street shelters homeless people. Drivers do not turn off engines, so fumes from idling buses provide more aroma. And did I mention the motor noise and the blaring horns from 8th Avenue?
Airport Express makes two Manhattan stops before loading at the Port Authority, meaning buses already have passengers on board and luggage in the bays. First bus full. Waited 15 minutes for next bus, for which I was first in line.
Driver asked which terminal. “A, please,” I replied, to which he answered “F-ck!” He already had a full A-bay and was not happy.
Third-world ticketing system. Ticket seller/taker comes on board only after bus is loaded to sell/collect tickets, adding a good 10 minutes to the wait.
By the time we pulled out, it had started pouring — not drizzling or raining but pouring. The two blocks to the Lincoln Tunnel entrance took 12 minutes. Lincoln Tunnel jammed to a crawl. Viaduct also at a crawl. Entire ride to wider road near Route 1 & 9 interchange also at a crawl.
Crawl accelerated to slow drive. Bus driver decided that small white pickup truck filled with construction material had cut him off. He pulled into the breakdown lane next to the pickup, opened his window and yelled, “You f-cking f-gg-t!” The bus driver then semi-turned around and said mildly to the passengers, “Excuse me, but did you see what he did?” The pickup truck driver accelerated again, and the bus driver pulled up again, and once more yelled, “You f-cking f-gg-t! Get out of that truck!” Just what travelers want — a bus driver given to road rage.
I would have reported him if there had been enough time at the airport for me to get his name tag (if he had one) or at least bus number. But we pulled up to Terminal A at 5:08 p.m. It had stopped raining, but the storm had been as quick as it was severe. I figured I’d have time to get my flight, but I didn’t know whether the delay would be short or long, or how long the security line would be.
Of course, there was a major flight delay. When I checked in, the 5:12 p.m. departure wasalready posted for 7:00 p.m. We actually boarded at 7:20, waited at the gate for a bit and then got into EWR’s eternal, infernal conga line. I can’t reemember the last on-time departure from a New York airport.
Arrived at Denver International nearly 3 hours late with yet another wait — 40 minutes for Boulder bus. But I was happy to breathe clean air (even at an airport).
Bottom line is that I’m happy to be in New York for a few days at a time but even happier to leave.
Walking on New York’s greenery-lined linear park, a triumph of urban design
The High Line was built along Manhattan’s west side in the 1930s as part of a massive public-private infrastructure project that elevated freight trains 30 feet above the streets of what was then Manhattan’s largest industrial district. Its history reflects the industrialization and de-industrialization not just of New York but other American cities too. As urban manufacturing all but disappeared, the rail line became obsolete. No trains have run there since 1980, and the infrastructure was threatened with demolition. Meanwhile, the dim streets and sidewalks under the elevated tracks were really creepy.
The infrastructure has come to life again, thanks to the Friends of the High Line, a community-based non-profit group formed in 1999 when the historic structure was under threat of demolition. Friends of the High Line work in partnership with the City of New York to preserve and maintain the structure as an elevated public park. Construction began in 2006. The first section between Gansevoort Street and West 20th Street opened in June 2009, and the second between West 20th Street and West 30th Street opened earlier this year. Think of it as the urban counterpart to a rural Rails to Trails project — but without bikes.
New York’s newest park is also its most creative, taking an industrial wasteland and turning it into a paved strip lined with trees, shrubs, ornamental grasses, lawns, seating areas. In a part of the city that is especially starved for greenery and recreational space (Chelsea Piers notwithstanding), the High Line is a godsend.
Special events, including this summer’s train movies, are scheduled along The High Line, but mainly, it seems geared for locals and visitors to stroll between street and sky and breathe (relatively) clean air. The High Line measures out to just under 1½ miles. I wish it were longer, and I’ll bet the locals do too.
Award-winning travel blog. Colorado-based Claire Walter shares travel news and first-hand destination information from around the corner, around the country and around the world.