Saturday, March 13, 2010

My Top 10 Things To Do In NYC

Okay so I'm going to take a quick break from Paris to offer some ideas to friends heading to New York. I'm often asked by people what they should do and see when they visit the Big Apple. My answer is usually the same, it depends what you want to experience, because it really is all there for the taking... whatever you want to see, do or experience, chances are you can do it in New York. It also depends whether it's your first trip or if you are a regular visitor and just looking to share some ideas, because my lists would be completely different for both. I'm going to offer some suggestions though from column A and from column B.

1) If this is your first trip to New York it is going to be absolutely overwelming, so my first suggestion is to take a ride on the hop on/hop off buses. A good place to catch them is Times Square (personally one of the places I try to avoid when visiting - it is a sea of tourists all jostling along the sidewalks with their eyes focussed everywhere, except where they are walking - but you probably should visit it at least once – it’s prettier at night, but also a madhouse). The buses are lined up along 8th avenue, and are a great way to explore the city – there are two main tour bus companies, the Blue City Sights and the Gray Line Double Decker red buses (my personal favourite because of all the different places you can go). You get a guided tour of the city (from a live person), that is full of interesting tidbits you probably never knew before. Because it is a hop on/hop off bus you are able to stop where you want to explore an area or landmark a little closer.
And because this will let you see all the biggies; The Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, Ground Zero etc. I don't have to use up the rest of my list on them.

2) Whether it is your first trip to NYC or your hundredth, you should always pay homage to the oasis in the city and visit Central Park. It really is something you must do everytime you visit New York. Whether it is simply a stroll along one of the footpaths to see Strawberry Fields and the tribute to John Lennon or to take a jog around the reservoir or to bring the kids to see all the turtles in the turtle pond... just do it! Oh but do the horses a favour, and don't take a carriage ride through the park, as romantic as it may be, I’m sure they would rather be grazing in a field someplace than dodging traffic around Columbus Circle.

3) There's another park that I usually try to visit every time I'm in midtown - Bryant Park. A lot of people just think of it as the square where they erect the tents for New York Fashion Week, or as the park behind the Library. But it's a great place to chill. In the summer, the park is a hub of activity, and usually features musical concerts of some sort, and in the winter it is flooded and set up as an amazing outdoor skating rink. And while it is just a few blocks from Rockefeller Center, you won't have to skate like a hockey defenceman to take a spin on the rink.  They also set up dozens of cute little shops around the skating rink selling arts and crafts that are New York focussed.

4) Restaurants… what can you say. What do you want to eat? It’s here. Now you might want to check out the window for the Zagat rating sign. But just a warning… just because it doesn’t have a Zagat rating doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be bad, just like if it has a rating, doesn’t mean it’s going to be great (but it helps). I’ve already told you about my favourite lunch place… Chelsea Market. But dinner is something else… I had a great time and a great pizza at Iron Chef Mario Battali’s OTTO Enoteca Pizzaria on 8th street. I celebrated my birthday 2 years ago at Chef Alex Guarnaschelli’s restaurant Butter on Lafayette, and it was delicious. I spent my last birthday at Chef Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne, home of the world famous Original db BURGER – a Sirloin Burger Filled with Braised Short Ribs & Foie Gras and worth the $32 price tag. But I’ve also picked up a great French style baguette sandwich at a deli along Broadway. A delicious plate of spaghetti and meat sauce at a bar/restaurant on Columbus, that I can’t remember the name of, but it was loud and friendly and I almost ended up on the floor when the legs on my chair gave way. Funny how those are the best holiday memories.

5) And as for transportation, I wouldn't suggest renting a car and driving yourself around. Parking is non-existent in Manhattan and unless you are a zen master you will end up going home more stressed than when you arrived. But don't be afraid of the subway. It's one of the most efficient ways to get around, as long as it's running (there tend to be delays and cancellations when it rains) . Go into any subway station, and buy a Metropass from any of the automatic kiosks... load it up for as many trips as you think you will need... slide it through the turnstile and you are on your way. Get a map to find out how to get to where you want to go, or just look it up online. You can't visit NYC without a ride in a Yellow Taxi either. Nothing spectacular, but it's still an experience, depending on your driver.
6) Everyone who visits New York is looking for a different shopping experience. Some folks will be content to go home with their ‘I heart NY’ T-shirts… but you’re in one of the fashion capitals of the world… expand your horizons. I’m not saying you should go boutique hopping along 5th Avenue (unless that’s what you really want to do) but at least do some window shopping as you stumble from one landmark to another. My personal favourites are Macy’s – for department store shopping you can’t beat the variety, but more than that, Macy’s turns into a holiday mecca at Christmas (though some say it’s more like Christmas vomits all over Macy’s every holiday season). From the antique wooden escalators to the holiday windows reflecting ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ it’s a must see, if visiting from mid November to New Years. (don’t forget to get your visitor discount card that gives you an automatic 10% off).   For bargain shopping, you can’t beat Century 21 near Ground Zero… but make sure you are in a fighting mood, especially on weekends… it can be a madhouse. Oh and guys, you can only use the dressing room if you are trying on a suit, so do what I did and stand behind a rack trying on my clothes, that seemed to have started a trend, when others saw what I was doing, pretty soon half a dozen of us were crowded behind a rack changing clothes. Another bargain hotspot is Filenes, though not quite the same intensity of the Century 21 crowd.
But just window shopping along any of Manhattan’s main thoroughfares or tucked in among the thousands of side streets, is an adventure unto itself, that’s not to be missed.

7) Another must see in New York is The Village… well both Villages really. There’s the West Village or Greenwich Village – the more famous, trendy, gentrified neighbourhood, full of cool boutiques next to coffee houses, bookstores and bakeries. But the East Village and the Bowery are not to be missed either. It is focussed on alternative culture, with neon tattoo shops next to funky retro clothing stores, record stores and bars. A hit with the punk crowd during the 80’s, it hasn’t lost it’s allure.

8) Now you should probably be somewhat of a ‘foodie’ to appreciate my next favourite… the Chelsea Market. Dozens of shops filled with every delicacy you can imagine blended with eateries where you can sample delicious foods from around the world. Check out the Fat Witch Bakery for gooey brownies. It probably helps that Food TV is in the building… makes everyone step it up a bit.

9) If you have time, you should try to visit one of the burroughs... and my choice is Brooklyn... especially Williamsburg. A quaint little neighborhood full of unique shops and restaurants, that appeals to a young, bohemian crowd.

10) And finally, visit as many New York neighbourhoods as your legs can stand. Wander the side streets in Chinatown for an explosion of sights, sounds and flavours… if you’ve ever been to Hong Kong, New York’s Chinatown is the closest to Wanchai I’ve ever experienced. Check out Little Italy for its fragrant food shops and restaurants, Chelsea and SoHo for their funky clothing stores and galleries, the Financial District for the South Street Seaport, Battery Park, Ground Zero,  and don't miss Greenwich Village, the East Village and Harlem. And don’t forget about the Upper East Side for Museum Mile and the most fashionable shops, most expensive hotels and apartment co-ops in all of Manhattan - it's also the place to see New York high society in their day to day routines. Across the park on the Upper West Side, it's more residential but a chance to immerse yourself as a real New Yorker. Wander down Broadway from Colombia University on the weekend to see the real character of the city shine.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Getting a Workout In Paris

When faced with a veritable feast everywhere you turn in Paris, it's tough to stick to the diet, luckily it's an active city and you do a lot of walking.  But sometimes you need to kick it up a notch and give yourself a workout.  If you are planning to stay in a hotel, there are many in Paris that feature gyms, and in fact has some great links to all the hotels in Paris where you can get a workout.  But if you are staying in a hostel, in an apartment, or couchsurfing, you are going to want to find some place that is convenient.  Luckily there are about a dozen gyms scattered around Paris, and you can track down the closest to you by going to . I checked out Club Quartier Latin in the Latin Quartier and managed to squeeze in a pretty good workout. Squeeze in, because the weights room is very small (space is at a premium in Paris) and there were about a dozen others trying to work through their routines in very tight quarters - by the way, you'll need to know 'musculation' is the weights area.  Still it was possible, and there is a separate studio for cardio and even squash courts and a swimming pool.    Not just any swimming pool, but the historic Piscine Pointoise.  Built in the 1930's, it's most famous swimming enthusiast was Jacques Cousteau.  It's a spectacular structure, with a giant skylight roof and surrounded by cabanas on 3 sides, and windows into the gym and other studios as well.  Still it wasn't cheap, it was 20 euros for one day.  If you really plan to use it a lot they have a special rate of 160 euros for 10 visits (or 140euros for a monthly pass??).The rules are the same in Parisien gyms as everywhere else - be courteous and you'll find most people are friendly and helpful and more than willing to let you share the equiptment.

There's something to be said for getting a workout while exploring the city. You can take the stairs at the Eiffel Tower - not to the very top but to 2em etage, which is a pretty tough workout, especially if you RUN the stairs.  I chose a slightly rainy day so there were not a lot of people to dodge on the way up, but watch out because the iron stairs can get slippery.
If cycling is your thing... there are a number of options.  There are a number of bicycle rental shops across Paris, but by far the best option is the Velib system. Run by the city, there are bike racks all over the city.  It costs 1euro for the first half hour, 1euro for the second half hour and 2 euros for each half hour after that.  BUT if you pick up and drop off your bike within 30 minutes you don't have to pay that second half hour... you can simply grab another bike and ride off.  You can ride all day for 1 euro if you hopscotch between Velib racks every half hour.  Just plug in your location info on the website and they'll tell you where the closest Velib bike rack is located.
Another option is to take the Big Fat Bike Tour of some of the Parisien historic sites.  There are numerous options, but the most popular are the Day and Night Tours. Other options are Versailles, DDay Beaches Tour, Wine Tasting and a Monet Tour.   
It's easy to hook up with them. For the day tour, everyone meets up at the Eiffel Tower South Leg (Pilier Sud) at 11am, and they escort you over to the nearby office to pickup your bike and last minute instructions. The ride is awesome. It's 10.5km and takes you around all the hotspots: Eiffel Tower, Napoleon's Tomb, The Louvre, Tuilieries Gardens, Ecole Militaire, Les Invalides, Alexander III bridge, and a lot more... learning about the history of the city and the role that these manmade structures played.  
The 3 or 4 guides I met all had great personalities.   Our guide Devin is originally from California but spent some time in Paris as a boy and decided to come back after University. Despite degrees in engineering, he was having a great time as a bike tour guide through Paris. 
The ride will go on - rain or shine- so be prepared.  The day I went, it was raining lightly... until it started to pour!  Luckily it was fairly warm so it was more fun than a challenge. 
Of course you don't really have a lot of control over the group of people you are with, I got very lucky and had an amazing group.  And you never know who you'll meet.  Actress Stana Katic from the TV show Castle was along for the ride, trying to look inconspicious. 

A Taste of Paris

Everyone knows Paris is a food lover's paradise. The spices and flavours of the world all converge on Paris to be manipulated into one endless feast. Everyone who goes there, for a few days, a few weeks or a few years, has their own favourites, so I am only going to tell you the things you should not miss, whether you consider yourself a food critic or a sidewalk diner.
If you eat nothing else in Paris you must simply buy a baguette from just about any food shop or street vendor throughout the city. After stopping for your morning cafe and a flaky buttery croissant (another must have in the city that invented them), check out the display of baguettes, usually filled simply. My personal favourite is creamy brie and thinly sliced ham or smoked salmon. Just pack it into your backpack to pull out as you explore Paris' hidden treasures. You can feel like a true Parisienne when you stop at a park bench and pull out your baguette for a mid day snack.

So you've had your croissant, and nibbled on your baguette... what you need now is a sugar fix and you can't turn around in Paris without being tempted by every kind of pastry, cake, cookie, candy you can imagine. Stop into one of the thousands of Boulangeries along any of the city's thoroughfares and sidestreets... feed your temptation, it's all there for the eating. But don't return home from Paris without tasting one of the infamous Macarons. That's MACARON not macaroon! Believe me there is a world of difference. They can best be described as almond flavoured meringue cookies with a creamy sandwich filling. And the number of colours and flavours is mindboggling. The grand-daddy of the Macaron is Laduree. There are a number of stores in Paris selling not only macarons but some of the most tempting pastries you will ever see. The main flagship shop is on the Champs Elysee, with a covered outdoor patio to allow diners to sample its famous fare sitting beside one of the world's most famous thoroughfares. For dessert I had the Ispahan (roses, raspberries on a giant macaron). But beware the pricetag... I bought a few boxes of Macarons to take home with me and ended up paying 120 euros and the meringues didn't travel well. By the time I got home many were broken and dried out. Best to eat them fresh, unfortunately few places make them outside Paris.

As famous as Paris is for the Macarons, one of its' lesser known achievements is ice cream. It makes sense that they would be able to turn something so simple into something so amazingly decadent. And probably the king of Parisien ice cream is Berthillon. It's sorbets and luxury creme glace's are known the world over... consider some of their flavours: lemon praline with coriander, cafe with whisky, or rum raisin and whisky, nougat and honey or caramel ginger. Of course they have all the old standbys, and always encourage you to mix and match. One word of advice, you don't have to line-up (sometimes for over a block) outside the main Berthillon shop on Ile Saint Louis. Stores sell most, if not all the Berthillon flavours throughout Paris, some even right across the street from the Berthillon shop. And you can always pick up a pint of your favourite in a Paris market.
After a day of shopping the fashionable streets of Paris, stop off at any of the sidewalk cafes that are set up across the city, you can't beat those in Le Marais. Just pull up a seat, turn it out so you face the street, you don't want to miss any of the action, and order a glass of beaujolais, or be a little adventurous. I got my first taste of a Parisien Mohito, usually made with rum and mint and lime... try it with champagne sometime!
Don't ignore the street fairs that seem to pop up everywhere. One was even held in Notre Dame square. There was a beach volleyball court set up in front of the Cathedral.... with a giant red and white tent for the Fete du Pain- only in Paris would they have a festival celebrating bread and pastry. I had a baguette with Brie that melted in your mouth like butter, I washed it down with a glass of ice cold milk and menthe syrup – delicious. I finished it off with a piece of chocolate with dried fruit that was heaven… then a pastry with small apricots roasted on top!
I found another street fair in the Latin Quartier, as local merchants set up their wares along the sidewalks, mingling with residents who were selling their own things, like a big yard street sale. And there was lots to eat too. I grabbed a bag of almonds roasted and caramelized at a street side stall, and then had a triple chocolate ice cream cone that made me weak in the knees from Jeff des Bruges Mouffetard, a chocolatier who knows what he's doing. (incidentally THIS was my favourite Parisien ice cream... sorry Berthillon) . Then just after polishing that off, I decided I needed something savoury and more substantial, so I stopped for a chicken shwarma and frites with a homemade spicy ketchup… hours later I was still reliving my gastronomic adventure.
Now I do have to share a few of my favourite restaurants. And number one on my list is not a place you will find on any other lists. It's a tiny little middle eastern restaurant in the Latin Quartier. Savannah CafĂ©- is just around the corner from Ste. Etienne de Mont. We had 2 plates of various hors d’oevres – hummus, baba ganouch, tabbuleh salad, pickled carrots, and lots of wine. Then for dessert we had a spectacular cream with orange perfume and cinnamon… absolutely amazing. The owner was friendly and helpful as well very friendly, chatting to us in English.
One restaurant that is a Paris institution (in this city that is filled with them) is Les Deux Magots – a world famous hangout for artists and writers, like Picasso, Hemingway, Jean Paul Sartre, on Saint Germain des Pres. But, while this once legendary cafe/restaurant was a hangout for the literary elite, it is now a tourist hotspot. Nevertheless, the people watching at this busy intersection is worth the higher than average prices.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Renting a Paris apartment for vacation

When most people start planning a vacation to one of the world's most famous tourist cities, there are a few options for accommodation... everything from an expensive luxury hotel to a budget hotel or staying in a hostel.  But you shouldn't ignore the possibility of renting an apartment for your stay.  You can take a place for a week or a month, depending how long you plan to visit.  On a recent two week trip to Paris, I checked out a number of different rental agencies and opted to give Paris Attitude a try.  I checked out their website and surfed through a wide range of accommodation available.  I wasn't looking for much, just a nice clean place with a bed and a washroom.  I submitted my request for a couple of different places, first, second and third choices.  I was asked to fill out an application form along with a deposit for the dates I requested... and they sent over an immediate confirmation. That was it. 
When I arrived in Paris, I took a car service from the airport (pricey at 80E- but a luxury I was willing to pay for) and the driver called the landlord of the apartment that we were nearby. She was there to greet me, give me a quick tour of the apartment and finish exchanging cash and signatures.  

What I ended up with was a quaint little flat right on Ile Saint Louis, right in the middle of the Seine, between the Latin Quartier in the 5th arr. and Le Marais in the 4th arr.! It's the very first apartment as you cross from the Latin Quartier to the Ile… and the windows open up onto an amazing view of the Pont de la Tournelle, the Seine, the Pantheon and the Institut du Monde Arabe!!
The furnishings and fixtures were all fresh, clean and new... there was a dishwasher and washer and dryer, plus a stove and fridge... and the bathroom was better than I'd seen in some 4 star hotels.  And the price was certainly reasonable... about the same as the average hotel room about 750E per week.  The one downfall was the climb... while it was only 2e etage - french second floor - but up 62 steep winding stairs... not for everyone.  
But if you really want to explore a city like Paris, the best way to do it is to move in and live like a Parisienne, something you can't do while staying in a hotel.

Here are some more online links for Paris apartment rental services: