Biking the car-less streets of New York City after Hurricane Irene

I’ve suddenly found myself stuck in New York City after my 3-day Rome trip canceled. Watching the news last night, it looked like Manhattan would be without power and struggling even to survive the ‘storm of a lifetime’ on Saturday.

Instead, after Hurricane Irene passed through the city earlier this morning there was an erie calm. As I woke up, I wondered if we were in the eye of the storm.

It turns out, Irene may have some strong winds on the back side, but for now, a little fun could be had by biking through the empty streets of the city.

Here’s what I found at 5th Avenue, Central Park, Times Square, Grand Central Terminal, the U.N. Building the Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and the East River. Wide open streets and unencumbered riding! A video is the best way for me to describe the morning:


There was a atmosphere in the city today. One biker told me he saw people playing Wiffle Ball in Times Square. Tourists, with nothing else to do, gathered on Broadway, umbrellas in hand, just to look at the streets.


New York is an amazing city, but after a snow storm or situation like we had today, the break in monotonous city life offers a chance look around them and see just how great this place is.

I thought I’d had enough of Irene after experiencing it from the air, but today Irene brought many of us a pleasant surprise, and some time to reflect on how thankful we are that it wasn’t worse.

Marriott Renaissance New York Times Square: Manhattan’s hidden hotel treasure

There’s a lot to love about Times Square. The bright lights of Broadway, the scrolling marquees, endless restaurants and bars, TKTS booth and on any given occasion, a live street performance. Times Square is the epicenter of New York – the convergence of everything – the mecca of Manhattan.

Tourists come in droves, book Times Square hotels and spend the majority of their time walking Broadway and 7th, snapping photos and looking for anyone of the morning talk show hosts on their way to Rockefeller Center. Those of us in the know, though, know to stay elsewhere. Times Square can be chaotic to the nth degree and at the end of the night, when even you have to get some shut eye in the city that never sleeps, the last thing you want are blinking lights from the billboard across the street shining through your hotel room window. When I booked a last-minute at a Time Square hotel I was admittedly hesitant. My hesitation, however, quickly turned to eagerness when I walked into the Renaissance New York Times Square.

Located in the heart of Times Square, this New York hotel is, quite literally, in the middle of it all. At the corner of 7th and W. 48th Street, and one block from Broadway, the hotel is in the perfect location for walking to 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall and the subway. The best part? You’d never know you were staying in Time Square.

Check-in and Lobby

If you aren’t paying attention, you’ll miss the entrance to the hotel. The glass doors are hidden under an awning that helps shade the hotel from the bright lights of Times Square. Note your surroundings: the famous M&M store is right next door and thanks to the giant green M&M on 48th street, it’s hard to miss your mark. This hidden element, however, is the part of the allure of the Renaissance Times Square. Walking through the glass doors is a retreat from the chaos of the streets.

The first floor entrance is dimly lit to help level the mood and a quick chat with the check-in desk will have you on your way up to the official ‘lobby’ level. The lobby of this hotel is part jazz club, part business conference room. The lobby was recently redone to appeal to various personalities, but with a common theme of serenity. The lounge area is set in dark wood with dark blue, purple and brown furniture throughout. There are alcoves (dubbed the “technology niche”) with computers for those who want to work on the hotel’s free WiFi system, or you can plug in at the lobby’s workstation — a long brown table with outlets at each chair, positioned perfectly across from the lobby bar and in front of a large flat-screen TV.

Order from the bar menu or just relax with a cup of coffee and your laptop. A blend of funk, jazz and pop music rotate over the sound system throughout the day, providing a mellow vibe for visitors.The Rooms

The 310 guest rooms are spread throughout 26 floors of the building. I slid my key into room 1903 and entered the hotel room overlooking the giant billboard of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ in Times Square.

The guest rooms are available with king-sized or two double beds. Complimentary coffee an tea is available and the mini-bar is stocked with snacks (candy, peanuts and Power Bars) and select liquors. WiFi is available in all rooms for a fee ($16.95 a day), or free of charge if you’re a Marriott or Ritz-Carlton Platinum rewards member.

Beds feature Revive bedding and organic Aveda products are available in the bathrooms. The decor is simple and understated – dark wood with gold and blue accents – but let’s be honest, you’re not in New York to spend time in your hotel room. The best part? All rooms are soundproof, which means the hustle and bustle of Times Square remains on the street, and not as background noise in your room.

There’s no turn-down service at the hotel, but on occasion you’ll come back to your room and find a few chocolates on the pillow.

Dining

With all the dining options in New York it’s hard to justify dining in the hotel, but thanks to the renovations that included the opening of R Lounge at Two Times Square and a partnership with Blue Ribbon Restaurants, it’s no shame to hang in the hotel for dinner and drinks one night.

R Lounge boasts panoramic views of Times Square and the Broadway theater district, and features unique offerings from Blue Ribbon and a custom created menu from the hotel chef (I highly suggest the tempura green beans, french onion soup, burgers and calamari). A perfect start to your New York night can start with a martini or glass of wine in R Lounge before hitting the NYC scene. Be careful, though, because the lounge has a way of sucking you in. If you didn’t get tickets to a Broadway show, you can be sure you’ll see plenty of sights from one of the window seats at R Lounge.

In addition to the bar area, the VIVID lounge is open daily for breakfast serving a buffet or a la carte menu. One thing to note:
The hotel doesn’t have a concierge level, but rewards members can enjoy free continental breakfasts in R Lounge in the morning.

Amenities

While I didn’t take advantage of the amenities, the hotel does offer a fitness center and boardroom facilities. A concierge is on duty 24 hours a day to help with show tickets, transportation or dinner reservations.

The Bottom Line

As far as Marriott’s go, this hotel has a lot of soul. While the guest rooms could use a bit of a touch up, the renovations the hotel made to the check-in, lobby and restaurant areas far outweigh the need for a fresh coat of paint in the rooms (though we suspect that’s coming soon). This little hotel on 48th Street is nothing short of a hidden gem – a secret hideaway from the chaos and commotion of Times Square, but a perfection location for New York visitors who want to be in the heart of it all.

Top ten overrated U.S. travel destinations/attractions

Whether or not you’re an American, there are certain places that are on almost everyone’s must-visit list. Some tourist traps, like the Grand Canyon or Disneyland, are worth joining the masses and ponying up the entrance fee (although I just checked the Magic Kingdom’s website, and Mickey and friends are bilking the parents of children under nine for $68 a pop).

Other much-lauded, highly anticipated hot-spots are simply not worth the time and expense. This is, of course, highly subjective: one man’s Las Vegas dream vacation is another’s Third Circle of Hell. It can also be fun to visit certain craptacular or iconic landmarks.

The below list is a compilation of my picks, as well as those of other Gadling contributors, in no particular order. You may be offended, but don’t say you weren’t warned.

1. Hollywood
Unless you love freaks, junkies, hookers, crappy chain restaurants and stores, and stepping over human feces on the star-inlaid sidewalks, give it a miss.

2. Las Vegas
I understand the appeal of a lost weekend in Sin City, really. And I will not dispute the utter coolness of the Rat Pack, Vegas of yore. But in the name of all that is sacred and holy, why does the current incarnation of glorified excess and wasted natural resources exist, especially as a so-called family destination?

[Photo credit: Flickr user Douglas Carter Cole]3. Times Square
A dash of Hollywood Boulevard with a splash of Vegas and Orlando.

4. South Beach, Miami
At what point does silicone become redundant?

5. Atlantic City, New Jersey
The poor man’s Vegas

6. Orlando
Toll roads, herds of tourists, shrieking children, an abundance of nursing homes, and tacky corporate America, all in one tidy package.

7. Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco
It’s hard to hate on San Francisco, but the once-glorious Wharf is a shadow of its former self. Hooter’s, Pier 39, seafood stands hawking overpriced, previously-frozen Dungeness crab cocktail, aggressive panhandling, and vulgar souvenir shops kill the mood.

8. The Washington Monument
The nation’s preeminent phallic symbol is admittedly an impressive piece of architecture. It’s also possible to get a great view from the car en route to other, more interesting historic sites and tourist attractions.

9. Waikiki
There is so much more to Hawaii, including beaches that aren’t man-made.

10. Mt. Rushmore
Faces carved into rock. Moving on…

[Photo credits: Times Square, Flickr user Falling Heavens; Waikiki, Flickr user DiazWerks]

Times Square Fairfield Inn to celebrate “straight 10s” with Shake Shack

If you kept track of my Shake Shack odyssey a few weeks ago and built up an appetite, you’re a few weeks from being able to satisfy it. On October 10, 2010 … that’s 10-10-10, in case you didn’t realize it … the Fairfield Inn & Suites New York Times Square is going to make it easy for you. To celebrate the day of straight 10s, the hotel will give a $10 gift card per room for guests to use a few blocks away at the Shake Shack on 44th Street and Eighth Avenue (the last stop on my trip).

This deal is pretty wild. Too often, hotels try to ship you over to local tourist trap restaurants, where you really don’t experience the best the city has to offer. Fairfield Inn, on the other hand, is working with a Manhattan institution, making it easier for guests from out of town to dine like a local.

So, is the midtown Shake Shack the “tourist” one? Well, I can tell you from personal experience that it isn’t. This Shack can hang with the other three in Manhattan, and the staff uses the same techniques that it employs at the other locations (e.g., providing menus to customers when the line is long) to keep the process moving easily.

There is one catch, however. Keep your receipt: you may need it to get into the bathroom!

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5 reasons to be a tourist


After three months living in Istanbul, I’ve gained a stable of a few dozen Turkish words to string into awkward sentences; learned some local intel on what soccer teams to root for, where to get the best mantı, and the best Turkish insults (maganda is the local equivalent of guido); and have come to avoid Sultanahmet with the same disdain I used to reserve for Times Square when I lived in New York. Then a funny thing happened while wandering the Asian side or the city with some visiting friends: I stopped worrying and learned to love being a tourist. Letting your guard down and realizing you will ultimately always be a tourist no matter how “local” and “authentic” you can live, no matter how long you explore a place, is remarkably liberating, even fun. The old traveler vs. tourist debate is one of the most pernicious and tiresome in the travel world, and while there’s a lot of truth and value in being an independent traveler, tourists are a good thing, and being a tourist can be a lot less annoying and worthwhile than the travel snobs would have you believe.

  1. Get unabashedly lost – When I make a wrong turn in Istanbul, I’m so self-conscious about being “caught” as someone who doesn’t belong here, I find myself hiding in alleys furtively studying maps, seeking out street signs from the corners of my eyes, and acting as if that wrong turn was entirely planned for and intentional. Yet on a recent trip to Prague, I was on the hunt for a cafe recommended to me by David Farley, and after giving up on the hopes of finding a wifi connection, I started going into bars and shops and asking directions. Eventually I found the (excellent) Meduza Cafe, saw some interesting dive bars/casinos along the way, and got over my shame of toting a map around.
  2. Do something you could do at home - Sure, you came to Paris to see the Louvre and absorb the cafe atmosphere, not to sit in your hotel room and watch pay-per-view movies, but seeing the everyday abroad can be a great window into another culture. I’ve wandered malls in Buenos Aires, gone to the movies in Turkey, and had coffee at a Chilean McDonald’s (I’m also a big fan of zoos). Each place I have been surrounded by locals and experienced a surreal clash of the foreign familiar.
  3. Eat foreign foreign food - Sushi is great in Tokyo, but so is Korean, Chinese, Indian, and Italian; pretty much everything other than Mexican, which for some reason is a total fail in Japan. Just because something isn’t a “native” dish doesn’t mean it isn’t widely enjoyed by locals or “authentic” to the region. If you are insistent on only eating the national foods, you could miss out on great pizza in Colombia or cheap French food in Lebanon.
  4. Speak English - Learning please and thank you in a foreign language will get you a long way and it’s always a good idea to know a few key words, but English has become the lingua franca of the world and using it abroad is often easier and can lead to good conversations. My fractured Turkish is often met with English responses and I’ve met shopkeepers, bartenders, and taxi drivers eager to practice their English, discuss politics (apparently many Turks would like Bill Clinton to be president of their country, who knew?), or ask if the cafe they frequented while studying abroad in Raleigh is still around.
  5. Stop, gawk, and take pictures of stupid things – Another thing New York instills in you is to not look up, watch street performers, or act as if even the most ludicrous spectacle is anything other than commonplace. Remember when virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell played in the D.C. Metro? I’d bet that more tourists than locals stopped to listen. Or what if I’d let my embarrassment prevent Mike Barish from taking a picture of this sign in my neighborhood subway station? Could have been tragic. Soak up as much of the sublime and the ridiculous as you can.

Maybe one day we can eschew the traveler and tourist labels, shed our fanny packs and backpacks, realize we’re all a little obnoxious, and embrace the wonder and fun of exploring a new place in whatever way we want.