In 2012, I took my first mommy vacation to visit my sister in New York. I arrived on the Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend, so the Monday was a public holiday, and I left for JFK early on the Tuesday morning.
I loved, loved, LOVED Manhattan. At the time, my sister was living in a shared apartment in the West Village. I arrived in her tree-lined, facebrick, quiet, gorgeous street and decided that this was better than the movies. Not even hauling my suitcase up five flights of stairs could put me off. Naturally, her apartment – shared by three twenty-somethings – was minute. But it was irrelevant. We were hardly there. We had brunch at the Gramercy Park Hotel, ran in Central Park, shopped at Lulu Lemon, ate sustainable, free-range eggs at Bubby’s, dined on brown rice sushi at Dean & Deluca and swanned around The Met. It was divine.
When I returned to New York last month, however, all of my senses went into shock. Mainly my ears though. Manhattan on Memorial Day weekend was a very different place to Manhattan in late July. The place was LOUD. It felt as though the whole of Manhattan was “under construction”. My sister had moved to the “vibier” (read noisier) Lower East Side, and buildings were being razed right there on her road.
So the tips below were heavily influenced by my current phase of life: I hate noise, I don’t do crowds but I do love acquiring beautiful books, clothes and bags and eating yummy food in trendy establishments. This is how I’d recommend negotiating Manhattan for anyone with similar proclivities:
Like death, you can’t avoid the 8.875% New York sales tax. No matter what the dodgy midtown salesman tells you about not charging you tax but shipping your bill to your distant cousin in another state. (He forgets to mention that your cousin will be liable for the tax). The annoying part is that tax is not included in the marked price – unlike VAT in SA – so it’s hard to remember to include it when have your hand on a beautiful handbag that is borderline in terms of budget…
Bloomingdales, however, has mercy on foreign shoppers. I was offered a 10% discount to negate the sales tax when a very proactive and helpful salesgirl picked up my accent.
Hotel taxes come to more than 8.875% – around 15-% if I’m not mistaken, which I omitted to factor in when I booked The Standard online. Sure, the site said the price quoted excluded tax but I figured the amount would be negligible. Ahem, not so.
(My sister’s stylish French friend met us for lunch at Cafe Gitane at The Jane Hotel in the West Village and proffered this handy tip: The Jane costs around $220 per night – inclusive of tax – which is unusual for a boutique hotel in a fabulous location, within walking distance to the High Line and cute shops in the Meatpacking district. It’s also well-positioned if you want to go for a run along the Hudson River, all the way into the financial district. There are lots of runners but there’s also lots of place to run, walk and cycle and the area is well kept and clean.)
2. When You Gotta Go
My romantic notions of strolling along Fifth Avenue, holding David’s hand and exclaiming ” Oh my God, would you look at that gorgeous jacket/ bag/ dress!” were crushed in seconds. Sure, the shops are amazing but when you’re on the “sidewalks” you may as well be on London’s Oxford Street – ie it’s MANIC!!! This is where I figured out that the best places to “spend a penny” (the McDonalds staff keep an eye-out for non-consumers using their restrooms) were in the beautiful old department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodmans. (I could live in these stores). Which brings me to my next tip…
3. Books at Bergdorfs
On my way out of the restrooms at Bergdorfs, I happened upon the children’s section and couldn’t resist taking a peak. One item of designer kid’s clothing would feed our household for a month, but the books sell for the recommended retail price on their dust jackets and they are magnificent. I could run my hands over the silky paper all day. Here’s what I picked up for the kids:
4. Shop till you drop
Something I noticed was that some branded items cost exactly the same as they do in SA. I don’t know how this works with SA’s import duties, but a pair of Nike running pants purchased at Totalsports in Joburg in June compared with the exact same pair I saw at a sports store in New York in July, cost the same (give or take a few cents for the Rand/ Dollar exchange rate on the day). I also compared the price of an I-pod Touch which was a bit cheaper in New York, but honestly not a saving to write home about.
To shop at places like Zara & H&M, make sure you have your big girl panties on, because you are going to need them. I’m talking, chaos, crowd control, queues for change rooms, queues to pay… Not to mention the fact that I was literally policed by shop assistants for trying on a cardigan on the shop floor. Apparently this is not allowed. The prices at Zara in SA might be higher but I’d say it’s worth it for the shopping experience.
5. Far From the Madding Crowds in the West Village
My neighbour did me a huge favour when she put in an order for a Marc Jacobs tote. My sister could see that I wasn’t coping well with the crowds and suggested that we hit the mini designer stores in the West Village instead. Sure, you won’t get the range that you’d get in a huge department store and not all the brands are there by far, but it’s a really pleasant experience compared to the madness of Soho, Broadway and Fifth Ave.
6. Sharing is Caring
Vanity aside, there is a reason there are no fat people in Manhattan (I blogged about this in 2012): it just isn’t practical. According to a 2013 census, 1.6million people live on the 59 square km island – excluding the additional 2.3 million commuters who come in on business days. Often, the tables in little cafes were so close together, I literally didn’t think I would fit through them sideways – or certainly not without knocking over my neighbour’s latte. So I had to get used to feeling like I was also having brunch with the table next to me. It is completely impossible not to hear every single word they say to one another but sometimes this comes in handy – like when they see you eyeing their banana bread, hear you and your sister contemplating ordering some and they feel obliged to share their experience of it with you. Hell, the setting is so intimate at one point I though they were going to offer us a taste and was inwardly panicking re the appropriate response. But that’s the other reason Manhattanites aren’t fat – the portions aren’t huge – so sharing does have its limits.
7. BYOB on Broadway
I’m told there are more affordable Broadway shows and less affordable ones. (I was told this after booking tickets). For the show Book of Mormon there are only two ticket prices: unbelievably effing expensive and literally double that. We got over that before leaving SA but thought nothing of grabbing a drink at the theatre’s bar before the start of the show. The damage for two average double whiskeys and a sparkling water was no less than $76. And when David balked and asked the barman to please repeat, he shouted back “That’s RIGHT! Seventy six AMERICAN dollars!” That, really, was the cherry on top and David vows he’ll never set foot on Broadway again.
8. The World of Water in the States
I absolutely LOVE the fact that it is perfectly acceptable to ask for tap water in all types of American restaurants. And when you’re on the run, you can totally buy bottled still water anywhere. But sometimes, when I really want to let my hair down, I do like some bubbles. Unlike SA, however, where every affordable brand of still water (Valpre, Bon Aqua, Woolworths, you name it) has an affordable bubbly equivalent, in the States sparkling water equals Perrier equals imported from France equals really expensive.
8. Modern Art
The beauty of New York is that most of the waiters/ bellhops/ hostesses/ receptionists double up as struggling actors/ writers/ artists. We learnt that Jeff Koons was having a solo exhibition at The Whitney thanks to a waiter at The Standard. The exhibition blew my mind. Jeff Koons chose a Polish-Italian porn star as a muse, fell in love with her and married her, she somehow became a member of parliament (only in Italy) and he shocked the world with their sexually explicit “art” (basically pornographic photography) but otherwise most of his work is fun, fabulous, playful, ironic, over the top and, in short, like nothing I’ve ever seen. I loved the experience.
Something to note is that The Met is moving most of its modern art collection to The Whitney and The Whitney is moving from the Upper East Side to new premises near the start of the High-Line in the Meatpacking District. As a result, there is currently hardly any modern art available to view at The Met (it’s all in the process of being packed etc) but then there is always the Guggenheim and MOMA which I am gutted I didn’t get to see.
9. Flats Are the New Black
My sister told me that flats are totally acceptable in lieu of high heels in NY and I must say I did notice a definite trend. Heels still seem to be the footwear of choice amongst girls fresh off the boat, lining up for the night club on the top floor of The Standard, but otherwise, I did feel kinda last season in my heels – tragic, as I only bust them out for really special occasions.
10. Top of the Standard
Undoubtedly, the most beautiful bar in the whole wide world. The almost 360 degree views of the city are just spectacular. Even the sexy little dolly bird waitresses in their silk mini dresses whom you just expect to be bitches are SUPER nice (and actually really fast and efficient). And then the foie gras mini burgers with truffle oil are possibly the most delicious of any food I have ever tasted. And thanks to the new fashion, you can even go in flats…
Finally, some quintessential NY pics: