Category Archives: Travel Blog

5 Fun Day Trips in or near New York City (For Labor Day Weekend or Any Weekend)

New Yorkers love to get away from the city, especially on long weekends during the summer, but if you didn’t make plans, it’s not too late to have a fun three-day weekend. There a lots of interesting places to explore within the five boroughs of New York City, and there are plenty of easy day trips outside of the city that don’t require finding a “last minute”  car rental.

Here are five ideas for outdoor excersions that will feel like mini-vacations.

  1. Explore Manhattan’s Northern Tip

You can start by catching the A train to 207th Street. From there you can visit Fort Tryon Park. The park offers beautiful Hudson River views on winding paths. This is also where you can find visit The Cloisters. You can then walk to Inwood Hill Park, which offers hiking trails with old growth trees. There is also a Nature Center there where you can learn more about the local ecology. Sometimes there are additional activities sponsored by the Parks Department, such as kayaking.

Along the route from Fort Tryon Park to Inwood Hill Park there are other attractions like the Dykeman Farmhouse Museum – the only remaining Dutch colonial house in New York (circa 1764). There are several good restaurants in the neighborhood. I would recommend Indian Road Cafe and Bocaditos Bistro.

Inwood Hill Park

Adjacent to Inwood Hill Park is a small park, Isham Park. In Isham Park, you will find Bruce’s Garden. This is beautiful community flower garden named for Bruce Reynolds, a local policeman who was killed on 9/11.

You can see the rest of this post at Perfect English NYC.

A Night at the Opera, Another Night at the Theater, A Weekend at Home

The better half and I try to vacation at least three times a year — my birthday, his birthday, and our anniversary.  This being the Internet, I won’t tell you which one occurred last week, but we weren’t able to get away, and so decided to celebrate at home, in New York City.  Here’s what we did:

Wednesday:  Dinner at Hell’s Kitchen, a trendy “progressive”-Mexican place in (where else?), Hell’s Kitchen.  Being reluctant omnivores, we went for veggie choices.  A recent trip to Italy had made us more aware of the lovely artichoke, which is not on enough menus in the United States, so we started with the poached artichoke quesadilla with idiazabal cheese, roasted sweet corn, and poblano crema.  Yummy.  For main courses we ate light and shared family style:  We ordered  huitlacoche with avocado, and mascarpone cheese. Hutlacoche for the uninitiated is a truffle that grows on corn — or in simple terms a fungus.  It has a unique taste and texture, a bit smoky, a bit spongy.  We are fans.  Plus the cheese didn’t overwhelm the dish, which is one difference between “progressive” Mexican and run of the mill.  The crispiness of the taco created a perfect balance of textures.  As a second main, we had the burrito with wild mushroom,  guacamole and poblano sauce, which was also well balanced and delicious. The mushrooms tasted like they might have been sautéed with a teriyaki sauce, giving them a steak-like flavor.  We split a dessert, banana empanadas with chocolate sauce and fresh whipped cream.  The cream was unsweetened as it should be to help offset the sweetness of the sauce and the banana.  There were other dessert choices that sounded equally good.

Then we walked up to the Metropolitan Opera House to see La Traviata directed by Will Decker with Natalie Dessay, as Violetta, Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky is Germont,  I am an opera ignoramus.  The decision to go to the opera was made by my better-half, based on its being on both our bucket lists.  Neither of us had seen live “grand” opera before, except maybe once or twice on PBS.  We are now both fans, trying to figure out what we can sell to pay for season tickets next year.   We were expecting to be entertained.  We were expecting “theater.” What we got was an emotional wallop.  Even in the back of the orchestra where we were, when Gourmont slaps Alfredo and you hear him fall, there was more than a murmur in the audience.   To train the human voice to do what they do and do it while dancing, laughing, running and crying is amazing. To do it while acting is a miracle.  While we were expecting the tragedy of the lovers, Hyorostovsky’s nuanced performance made us feel Germont’s guilt and regret for separating them as well.  The stark set with its surreal clock ticking away the minutes of Violetta’s life, and the contemporary dress created a sense of timelessness.  This wasn’t a story about a nineteenth century courtesan, but about life, death, love and regret.

The following evening was theater night.  Ducking work, we got to TKTS at 2:20.  The main line was already huge, but the Play Express line was short.  By 3;15, we had two FRONT ROW seats to the Clybourne Park, which had opened earlier that week.   On the one hand, we were amazed at our luck; on the other, hand, it’s scary that almost all the non-musical plays had availability.  The play, itself has been described as a “sequel” to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.  More accurately it’s a re-imaging, with a first act taking place in 1959, the time when the original is set, and the second act fifty years later.  It’s been described as an  “uproariously funny”  comedy.  While it is that, it’s also an explosive drama.  There are several points at which violence seems imminent, and we weren’t prepared for the tragic tone of the first act.  When the curtain came down for intermission, my better half said, “After this, I’m going to need a drink.”  The second half is funnier, broader, more satiric, dealing with gentrification and reverse integration, but that too moves into dangerous territory.

We ate after the theater at Marseille, an unpretentious but stylish, French bistro on ninth avenue.  We ordered snails, of course.  Going carnivore, I ordered the honey glazed duck breast.  The better half had the mussels with fries.  Lots of mussels, and the best fries either of us had ever tasted, ever, in our lives.  We tried to figure out what made the fries so perfect.  Garlic might be one answer, but there was also the lack of grease and perfect crispiness.  The desserts are a bit more extensive than what’s on the posted menu.  We had something mousse-like with dark chocolate, so intensely rich that we were satisfied with just a few spoonfuls (rare for us).

We hardly left the house over the weekend, except for errands and long walks to local parks — Central Park, Fort Tryon, Morningside and Riverside, where everything seemed to be in bloom.  Saturday night, I started to read Just Kids,  Patti Smith’s memoir of her time in New York as a bookstore clerk/struggling artists/poet and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe.  I kept reading into Sunday morning when I finished. I mention it here because like our two nights out, the  book could only have taken place in New York, although the New York, Smith writes about where young artsy types could somehow eke out enough of a living to afford the smallest room in the Chelsea Hotel is long gone as are the bookstores where she worked Brentano’s and Scribner’sArgosy somehow survives.  Gotham Books which published her early work, gone as well.

Smith, herself, has been quoted as saying that New York is now beyond the means of struggling artists who would be better off going elsewhere. Still for those of us, artist and non-artist who remain or are just visiting, and have limited incomes, some discounts are available. Our two front row theater seats costs were about $60 a piece at TKTS, and though we paid full freight at the opera, discounts and standing room are available.  Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen offers many reasonably priced restaurants.  Walking is still free, as is browsing, and books remain here and elsewhere the most affordable form of entertainment going.

For those of you who might not make it to the Met this year, here’s a clip:

At Home She Feels Like a Tourist

Through a series of unfortunate circumstances we wound up not traveling this past anniversary, and instead decided to simply take a day or two off and do some stuff on the island in which we live.  We are not snobs and would have been happy to travel to the bigger long island nearby or even the mainland up north or to the west,  but as it turned out, we stayed close to home.

So, in case you may be visiting, here are few tips from our recent travels:

Getting Around

In really inclement weather, when especially tired, the better half and I have been known to hop into a cab.  Taxis are expensive and depending on where you are going and when, they can be slow, but they are plentiful.  Despite Sex in the City, most real people take trains and buses most of the time. The “yellow” cabs all use meters.  If you happen to be staying north of 110th street or in the boroughs, and a strange black car pulls up beside you, chances are the driver is not a serial killer.  If the license plate says: TLC, then it is a livery or “gypsy” cab.  It is technically illegal for them to stop and pick up passengers on the street, but it’s commonplace especially in neighborhoods that aren’t served by a lot of cabs. They have set prices although who knows what they are?  Generally, you can negotiate a bit with the driver.  They may not be willing to take you too far out of their comfort zone.

The subway is generally the best choice. There are parts of Manhattan that may be a few long blocks east or west from the station, but most New Yorkers are walkers and can handle it.  While the bus system is great, buses are amazingly slow and if I were a tourist with a limited amount of time, I’d avoid them altogether.  There used to be good discounts for buying Metrocards costing $20 or more. They’ve now lowered the discount to a flat 7% on all cards costing $10 or more, so those cards aren’t as much of a bargain.  If you think you’ll be using the system at least one round trip each day, then invest in a seven-day unlimited Metrocard for $29.

While I don’t want to get sued if you get stabbed or killed on the subway, I will tell you that the subway is very safe and runs frequently 24/7.  Weekends, however, things get weird as a lot of repair work gets done and this causes route changes and delays.  The MTA website offers updates and travel advisories. There are maps in every station and in most train cars.  You can use the “trip planner” on the MTA site or on HopStop for directions.  As a native, I’ve found both these sites a bit hinky, but Hopstop offers a little more flexibility.  You also should not be shy about ASKING a New Yorker if you aren’t sure what train to take. New Yorkers LOVE to talk and will be happy to give you directions. If they know languages, they LOVE to speak them, so even if you are a fluent in English, you can always mess with us by speaking something else and seeing if there’s anyone who can help you.


There’s no reason to see a film in New York City.  There are better things to do that you can’t do at home.  Back in the day, there were tons of revival and art houses in the city where one could watch film “classics” and foreign films on big screens.  The revival houses are long gone.  Most of the smaller art houses as well, but there are a couple of places left that still show foreign and indie films.  Our two favorites are the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Angelika Film CenterLincoln Plaza, which the better half and I have taken to calling the Lincoln Plaza Home for Adults, because it tends to skew old, is located near Lincoln Center, barely north of midtown on the southern tip of the Upper West Side. It’s not that far from us, but it’s not the one we’d be most likely to recommend to tourists.  Ever since the nearby Barnes & Noble closed, there’s not much to do if you get there early or need to meet someone. The lobby is small and crowded, and the employees tend to be a surly bunch.

Angelika on the other hand, makes a night at the movies a worthy destination.  It features a lobby level cafe with plenty of tables and no ticket required. Though the coffees may be overpriced, it’s located on Houston Street at the border between the East Village and Soho, with big glass walls that allow for street watching.  The staff is helpful and friendly.  When I balked at a $4.00 charge for bottled water, I was given a paper cup with cold water free of charge. While that may seem like a small thing, believe me in this town, it’s anything but.

Personally, I think they could better use the space, add a bookstore, or throw in a small laundry service where locals could drop off, go to a movie and pick up their stuff when they leave, but that’s just my obsession with maximizing real estate.  The theatres themselves are small, but well designed and clean.

Times Square and the Theater

I get it.  Most tourists want to go see a Broadway Show.  Whatever.  There’s a lot of live theatre to be seen in New York that’s not on Broadway.  Actors live here.  You can see plays that aren’t on  Broadway for the fraction of the price, but over the last few days, we went to see a Broadway show, so I’ll give you the scoop on discount tickets.

You’ve probably heard of the half-price day of the show, TKTS booth. Not all shows area available, and those that are, aren’t necessarily half-price, but it’s still a great resource. The website will even tell you what was available within the last week.  (There’s an app that gives you real time information about availability.) There are now satellite counters in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan that offer matinee tickets a day in advance.  The discounts range from 30-50%.  A particular show might only have a discount of 30% and only on the most expensive seats, so you still may wind up spending a lot, especially for musicals.

Even if the show you want to see has been available at TKTS, that doesn’t mean that the day you get on the line it will be available, so if you really want to see something specific, you might consider just getting your ticket online before you come to town.  Generally, on a weekday especially in lousy weather, if you get to the line 50 minutes before it opens, you won’t have to wait more than ten minutes once it opens.  If you arrive later, you could be waiting more than an hour.  If you do come later, some of what was available might be sold out, but sometimes new shows are added write before the curtain goes up.  One feature that’s relatively new, or that I didn’t know about is “Play Express.”  Play Express is a separate line for non-musical plays at discounted prices.  Because most tourists want to see musicals, the Play Express line tends to be very short, and availability is pretty good.  We saw Chinglish with 8th row orchestra seats, and completely enjoyed the show, which unfortunately will close January 29th.  So if you are a “culture vulture” who just wants to see great (non-musical) theatre and doesn’t want to spend your whole afternoon waiting in line, Play Express is the option for you.

Times Square itself is a nightmare.  It’s like some horrid outdoor mall in hell.  Gone is any trace of grit.  It is Disneyfied and family friendly, although absurdly overpriced.  There are no good restaurants in Times Square, but if you have to use the bathroom there are a couple of McDonald’s (including an extremely large one on 42nd street).  There is also a homey Starbucks with clean restrooms across from the TCKTS booth.  Feel free to ignore any signs suggesting that bathrooms are for customers’ use. If you’ve ever bought anything at a McDonald’s or a Starbucks, you are a customer.

I would avoid at all costs the “Discovery Store.” We got to Times Square before TCKTS opened, but then decided to use Play Express, so there was no need to wait on line. (In New York you wait on line. You skate in line.)  One of the giant billboards was hawking “the Dead Sea Scrolls” at Discovery Times Square, so we decided to check it out.  The admission was a whopping $27.00 for adults and $19.50 for kids 4-12.  Maybe it’s a great exhibition, but there are many terrific museums with outstanding regular collections and special exhibitions in this city.  None of them are this overpriced.  Some are by donations.  Some have special  “free” days or evenings.  By all means enjoy our museums, the real ones, not the Discovery Store or Madame Toussand’s.

(Tip: If you want to go to a museum between the time you pick up your evening tickets and get to the theater, MOMA is walking distance (or a very short cab ride) from the TKTS booth. They have “free” Friday nights starting at 4:00.  So if you get to TKTS before it opens at 3:00, and then go to the museum for a couple of hours, you’ll still have time for dinner before the show.)


Real New Yorkers are appalled by chains, with the possible exception of Dunkin Donuts which is local.  There are a few Applebee’s mostly in outer borough malls or Times Square.   There’s an Olive Garden in Chelsea that people eat at ironically, but I’m not sure that’s good for your digestion.  Generally, the better half and I go for ethnic food in Queens because chances are it will be more authentic, better and a whole lot cheaper than in Manhattan. However,  I’m trying to stick to our recent tourism, so  I’ll tell you where we ate this week.  On our movie night at Angelika we had planned to go to Angelica Kitchen, no relation, a popular vegan/organic place.  It was packed. I’m not sure whether or not they take reservations, but I’d recommend calling to check and/or being prepared to wait.  Because we couldn’t go there, we went to our favorite place for comfort food, Veselka’sVeselka’s describes itself as Ukranian soul food and was in the East Village when the East Village had edge — still easy on the wallet, and authentically delish.

When we went to the show, the plan was to dine after the theater, and we wanted to stay in the area.  This does not mean we would consider Times Square itself.  46th Street starting at 8th Avenue is known as New York’s “restaurant row” and is a short walk from the Broadway theaters.  There are some very good restaurants there that aren’t tourist traps.  MenuPages offers tips and “real people” reviews for almost all. .  We chose to avoid the row and head for 9th Avenue away from the hubbub. This is the area now called Clinton that used to be known as Hell’s Kitchen.  Like the rest of Manhattan, it’s ridiculously safe for a major city.  While plenty of people may go to 9th Avenue, it’s not a tourist trap.  We had a craving for Indonesian food which isn’t as ubiquitous as other cuisines.  We chose Bali Nusa Indah and were not disappointed.

Honestly, I don’t write enough about things to do in the city or getting around.  Seriously, if you are planning a trip and have some specific questions, write me, I’ll either blog about it or get back to you via email.

Write a Novel in 3 Days? Why Not?

For the past 3 years, I’ve been booked Labor Day weekend — no picnics, barbecues, hikes or drives to the country.  You’ll find me out on my balcony (weather permitting) with my laptop and a cup of weak coffee by my side, churning out a mini-masterpiece for the  International 3 Day Novel Contest.  It’s a simple premise — start and complete a novel over the 72 hour holiday weekend.

On the honor system.  It’s Canadian.

The first year I entered, I did  hope to achieve the ultimate prize: publication.  The first prize is a book contract with a small press.  They don’t announce the winners till January.  I drove myself nuts waiting.  It was a more intense experience than any previous contest I’d ever entered before.  The reason now seems clear.  This isn’t a normal situation where you enter using something that’ you wrote long ago.  The 3-Day demands that you create something new and create it under intense pressure.  You are allowed to write an outline in advance though mine have proven useless once I started.  One emerges at the end with a sense that one has been through, if not an ordeal, then at least an intense ritualistic experience.

In my case, I’m not the only one going through it.  My better half  has been a devoted partner, acting as a caregiver, cook, sounding board,  personal assistant , and massage therapist.   He’s also signed off on the “affirmation” statement that the novel was started and completed within the time frame.

This year life issues were getting in the way of the creative flow. Ten days before the big day, I had no clear idea about what I even wanted to write.  The BH demanded I show him some outlines and pick a plot so that I would not spend the first few hours staring in horror at blank screen.  I came up with two ideas — one was a sort of As I Lay Dying set in present day Queens, the other a strangely lighthearted lad-lit tale of a youngish man getting romantic advice from an old man/ghost haunting his basement apartment.   Thank goodness, he advised me to go for the latter.

Have I ever won?  Not exactly.  But winning isn’t everything; in fact, it’s not even relevant.  I’d compare it to entering the New York City Marathon.  It’s much more about personal best and achievement than it is about getting first place.  (Though it would be nice if like a marathon they gave prizes in categories.  I’d settle for best novel in the under 25k words category by a woman over 40.)  However, that’s not how I felt the first time I entered.

My first entry, The Death Trip came in at a bit above 20,000 words, barely a novella.  They say size doesn’t matter, but then they say it might be a factor.  I didn’t even make the shortlist.  My better-half who loved the story, is still bitter.  But here’s what I did get out of it:  I got a novella draft in need of little (but not much) revision.  I not only got it quick, but I got it with a story that I might never have bothered with otherwise.  I learned that I could crank out something coherent in 3 days.  I also used the obsession I developed waiting for the results as the basis for a story I told at the Narativ Story Workshop which was filmed, and then used by 3Day on their website.

I revised the novella and realized after a couple of rejections there wasn’t a big market for it at that length.  I had no desire to either shorten or expand it, so I decided to put it out as an e-book. To date I’ve had over 1,800 downloads.

My effort the second time around, Hungry Ghosts, actually made the short-list.  It too barely made it to 20k, but I fell in love with the story and although other projects have gotten in the way, I’m still working on expanding it to a full novel length.  With its combination of erotica and horror, I’m hoping it may even be commercially viable.   I’m sure it never would have been written without the contest. All I had of it before Labor Day was a first line (which I wound up changing), a premise that wasn’t completely thought out, and a list of characters.

This year, I promised myself I would somehow get up to 27k, and somehow made it to just that point.   Of course I’m still hoping that the third time is the charm, but even if I don’t make this year’s short list, I’m still feeling high from the writing.  As a way to jump start a first draft, the 3 Day can’t be beat.

It hasn’t gotten easier over time.  I had a tough first night or more literally morning this go-round,  but the spirit of the thing kicked in — the idea that in some way, I’d been “preparing,” anticipating this special weekend, reserving it for a purpose.   I felt like I had nothing to lose by continuing, so there was no reason not to push on to the end.

I wound up with something unlike anything I’d written before — a lighthearted view of gentrification that almost celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit of people who buy and develop property, a romance that might even work, a happy ending!

The process allows writers to take risks and encourages them to follow Elmore Leonard’s maxim and “skip the boring parts” because there’s simply no time to write them.  Whatever I think I learned getting my MFA is useless.  More useful is the storytelling  technique practiced at Narativ.  Although that method was designed for oral storytelling of true stories, the method of focusing on “what happened” and not explaining it, kept me from getting lost in my story and forced me to keep going, even when I wasn’t sure of where.

Thanks to the contest, I now have one novella out in the world attracting a little bit of attention, and I have two projects  that need development and expansion, so I don’t have to face the dreaded blank page.   I have confidence in my ability to crank out material under pressure and I’ve further honed my skills.  The contest allows you to turn your home into a writer’s retreat at a much lower cost than actually traveling to one.  It costs $50 to enter, waived if you got a prize or honorable mention the previous year.

So to anyone who writes fiction or has even thought about writing fiction mark your calendar now and start thinking  about the book you’ll be writing Labor Day Weekend 2011 (thinking is not against the rules).

Here’s the clip of me talking about my first  3- Day experience:

Helluva Town! Why Do People Think It’s Ok to Put Down New York?

Last September my better half and I were visiting Seattle. We were staying at a friendly B&B on Capital Hill where breakfast was served at a big table and all the guests could chat. One morning there was a couple across from us. She was from Sydney. He was a hometown boy, Seattle born and raised, who’d met her on a trip down under. Naturally they asked where we were from.

“New York,” said my better half.

“New York City?” Seattle replied.

We nodded.

“Come here for better life?” he asked without blinking.

Granted, Seattleites are known for a kind of  whacky boosterism completely out of proportion to their town’s place in the universe, but still. What’s up? This was not the first, or last time we heard someone casually put down our home. Why do people feel it’s perfectly ok to disrespect New York even when talking to New Yorkers? . I’ve traveled to some pretty awful places, but I’ve never said to a native, “Wow. It must suck being from here.”

Maybe it’s a popular culture thing.  Even people under fifty are somehow channeling the ghost of Kitty Genovese and the memory of the ungovernable years, but there’s something bizarre about otherwise polite folks from places that pride themselves on “friendliness” saying vile things about a city, things they’d never say about a race, or a nationality — at least not in public and to a person of that race or nationality.

Most of the gibes are complaints about crime and dirt, and of course our legendary rudeness.

New York is cleaner than many US cities, even smaller ones. It may not be Singapore but most people pick up after their dogs. It’s one of the safest urban areas in the world. It has by far the best mass transit in the US, not to mention museums, restaurants and ethnic neighborhoods that make you feel like a world traveler for the price of a metro-card.

There’s an incredible amount of parkland as well. Not just the massive Central Park but old growth forest in Inwood — Manhattan’s northern tip. You can see ospreys nesting in Jamaica Bay. My local dog walk involves a stop at the duck pond, and if we’re very lucky a sighting of the wild turkey of Morningside Park.

Mostly I love my city because there are still are neighborhoods here, distinct enclaves, filled with distinct types, and  despite the encroachment of Starbucks and the like,  independent coffee shops and even bookstores continue to exist. Unlike most small towns in America, you can go to the neighborhood hardware store and ask the owner for what you need instead of driving to Ye Ol” Mega Superstore twenty miles away.

The people, despite their reputation, are friendly and talkative. Always have been, even before 9/11. Conversation breaks out on buses and movie lines. When a tourist takes out a map, a crowd gathers to debate the best directions and where to go. Eccentricity is not just accepted, it’s expected.  We’re not rude to strangers, even those who describe “ground zero” as a must see destination and don’t realize it’s an open wound in our collective heart.

So if you’ve never been, please stop by, but leave the attitude home.