Along the mighty Hudson, in a forest and through a maze, lies an enchanted kingdom called The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze. – Excerpt from “A Journey through The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze”
Everyone should get to experience kicking off the festive season by visiting the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze. Started as a local celebration in 2005, the event now includes 7,000 lit-up pumpkins on the grounds of the 18th century Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson. The Blaze also includes synchronized lighting and an original, hypnotic soundtrack. While I couldn’t picture wanting to raise my kids anywhere other than Hawaii, the east coast really spoiled me in terms of amazing experiences. There were so many awe-inspiring events just a car ride away. The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze is certainly at the top of that “amazing experiences” list.
I first heard about the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze in the fall of 2011. I jumped at the chance to get tickets. Unfortunately, to the dismay of children everywhere in Metro-NY, a fluke snowstorm hit the area right before Halloween. All the pumpkins from the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze were destroyed. Halloween was officially canceled that year as was the Blaze (we were refunded the money for our tickets).
When fall 2012 came around I bought tickets again. I assumed there was no way that a fluke storm would hit the area two years in a row. For those of you that didn’t live on the eastern seaboard at that time, I’d like to introduce you to a little something called Hurricane Sandy. Talk about bad timing for kids. For the second year in a row, Halloween was officially canceled. I assumed the Blaze was canceled as well. It was only when I tried to get my tickets refunded that I realized the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze was still running. How could that be? Volunteers secured all 7,000 pumpkins in a safe spot before Sandy. Then, they re-organized everything back outside after the hurricane left. How amazing is that? A hurricane was barreling down on Croton-on-Hudson and people saved the pumpkins!
That year, Bryan and I kicked off what would become our annual trek to the Blaze. We grabbed a bite to eat in one of the only restaurants that had electricity after the hurricane. Then, it was off to Van Cortlandt Manor.
The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze: The Details
Most of the dates and times for the Blaze sell out in advance so make sure you buy tickets early.
After finding parking in the ample lot of the Van Cortlandt Manor, visitors start their journey by making their way into tents selling holiday merchandise and food. Lots and lots of food. There are lots of items to nosh on, including soup, chili, donuts, pumpkin pie and my favorite… hot apple cider. Admittance is done on a timed basis in 30-minute intervals. Visitors wait in the aforementioned tents and enter the Blaze when their time is called. Note that the Blaze will undoubtedly be packed with a continuously long line. This long line is actually perfect since most visitors will spend their time in open-mouthed awe, gaping at the amazing carvings laid out in front of them.
When I was buying tickets for the first time, a part of me thought ‘how many traditional pumpkin-carved faces do people really need to see?’ I mean, 7,000 certainly seemed excessive. But as you can see already, they aren’t the normal carvings that you do at home with triangle eyes and a couple of teeth. Here in the Hudson Valley, they have recreated dinosaurs, scarecrows, insects, monsters, you name it. Even famous local and international landmarks abound.
According to the Hudson Valley website, “more than 1,000 volunteers help to scoop, carve, and light the pumpkins and every single jack o’ lantern is hand-carved on site by [a] team of professional artists.” While they do use some artificial pumpkins in their displays, each pumpkin is carved by one of the professional artists. And they still use real pumpkins as well. The artists end up carving throughout the festival in order to replace about a thousand pumpkins every week, according to an article in Westchester Magazine.
The last time we visited the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze, our plans to move back to Hawaii were already in the works. I’m glad that we went to the Blaze knowing that it might be our last time, because it really helped us to soak in all the amazing pumpkin designs… and also prompted me into shopping for souvenirs. “A Journey through The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze” by Suzanne Christine has become one of the family’s favorite Halloween children’s books.
New this year to the Blaze
Since I don’t want to be writing about things that aren’t still relevant, I did some research as to how the Jack O’Lantern Blaze is going this year. It turns out it has become even more amazing. They have created a twenty-foot working pumpkin carousel. Excuse me while I make plans to spend the Halloween festivities in New York next year. Even better? The designer of this one-of-a-kind carousel is William Dentzel, a descendant of one of the first carousel makers in America. Crazy right?
For all who enter this kingdom, it is bound to delight and amaze, beckoning return journeys through The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze. – Excerpt from “A Journey through The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze”
The most magical event takes place every August and September in Sterling Forest, New York: the New York Renaissance Faire. A recreation of a 16th-century Elizabethan village, you can spend your entire day watching plays and strolling musicians, cheer on your favorite knight in a joust or try your hand at archery. And don’t forget about the mead. You can drink a lot of mead.
I was introduced to this fascinating world of renaissance fairs due to an episode of The Girls Next Door (I used to be obsessed with that reality TV series). After seeing how much fun Hugh Hefner and his girlfriends had, I started looking into potential renaissance fairs near me and became determined to attend one. I even added it to my bucket list as something to do. When I found out that Sterling Forest was only an hour away from us and held one of the biggest renaissance fairs in the country, I knew I had to visit.
What to expect at the New York Renaissance Faire
As soon as you enter the gates of the Faire, it is like you’ve stepped back in time. Set within 65 acres of beautiful forest, the New York Renaissance Faire features countless performances, crafts, and shopping experiences. Maps of the Faire are sold at the entrance for $2 each or if you would like to save money, you can plan ahead and print out a copy from their website.
It’s true that the admission costs are nothing to laugh over, but that cost will let you see all the performances for free and the acting is amazing. They never break character. There are so many things to do and see that it’s worth taking a look at the schedule ahead of time to plan your day out appropriately. Even if you play it by ear, like Bryan and I did most of the time, it is fascinating just walking around the forest. There are so many things to discover and see, the New York Renaissance Faire has it all.
What to wear to the New York Renaissance Faire
The first year we went to the Faire we dressed in normal street clothes. After all, to go all out and get a costume would be so geeky, right? Well, maybe it is, but I felt so left out. I wanted to be one of the medieval ladies, pirate wrenches, or fairies that were wandering about. Costumes of all kinds were there. There was even a group dressed up like Doctor Who, Amy and Rory, which was a separate group from the gentleman that dressed up like the Fourth Doctor. Needless to say, I’ve been to the Faire numerous times since our first visit, and I went in costume every time.
The last year we went, Emily came with us, pink fairy costume and all.
While anything goes as it relates to costumes, keep in mind that there are special theme weekends such as a Heroes & Villians weekend, Pirate weekend, and Celtic weekend.
What to do at the New York Renaissance Faire
There are so many different things to do that you can spend more than a day here. Musicians serenade crowds with their folk tunes. Musical and comedic plays are performed throughout the day as well. My favorite was the Washing Well Wrenches that typically performed on the Pageant Wagon Stage.
You can try your hand at medieval games of skill. The most popular one was probably archery. I thought I could channel Katniss trying to survive in the arena, but I was horrible. A very sweet, toothless, elderly gentlemen taught me how to at least hit the bag…. Though not the bulls-eye.
You can also throw ninja stars, knives, and axes. See the ax closest to the bulls-eye? That was mine! I got the ax champion award of our group. (That’s the sticker I’m pointing at in the second picture.) No one else beside Bryan and me even got it lodged on the board. Yup, we are awesome.
There is medieval pageantry, including the arrival of the Queen, jousting tournaments, and parades.
Amongst their more interesting events are lessons on hawking and throwing tomatoes at a clown that will insult you.
And of course, no renaissance fair is complete without maypole dancing. Note to self: add “participate in a maypole dance” to my Bucket List.
What to buy at the New York Renaissance Faire
If you don’t want to buy a costume, you can always rent one for the day at the Faire. Additionally, there are shops that sell armor, glasses, candles, soaps, jewelry, you name it. You can even see a glass-blowing demonstration.
What to eat (and drink) at the New York Renaissance Faire
The food, oh the food. Everything you can imagine at a typical fair and more can be found at the Renaissance Faire. There was, pizza, chicken fingers, burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, french fries, fried cheese, jerky and gyros just to name a few. And of course turkey legs.
Several pubs are scattered throughout the park serving all kids of delectable treats, but I was partial to one drink more than others every time we went there…. mead!
The one thing I’ve never been brave enough to try while at the Renaissance Faire was the BBQ Sundae. Although, I guess it is just a really efficient way to eat BBQ.
Keep in mind that food tends to be expensive and typically only cash payment options exist. However, you are not allowed to bring in outside food, so either do not go hungry or prepared to spend your money.
Where to park at the New York Renaissance Faire
Get to the New York Renaissance Faire early. Parking is free (unless you want the preferred $15 parking) but fills up fast.
When we packed up to move across the country a couple years ago, we knew there was going to be A LOT of things we were going to miss about Connecticut and New York: our friends, the food, the cheaper travel options, heck even the weather (some of the time). But we were shocked to find out just how much we actually missed Manhattan. Sex and The City used to call NYC the fifth lady of the group. It took moving to realize just how much I had fallen in love with the city as well. So we decided to head back to the east coast for a vacation. Below you will find our 6-day foodie loving, toddler bringing New York City itinerary.
Our New York City Itinerary: A Summary
Flight from Honolulu to JFK with a 12 hour layover in Seattle!
Stay at the Novotel Hotel near Times Square.
Enjoy fancy-schmancy dinners at Sushi Yasuda, Per Se, Momofuku Ko and Eleven Madison Park.
Eat at all the places we miss going to now that we are in Hawaii, including Ippudo, Pick a Bagel, Chipotle, The Melting Pot, the Halal Guys and dirty water hot dogs
Visit Central Park and enjoy play dates, a carriage ride for the whole group, exploring the zoo and hunting for statues.
Take Emily to the American Museum of Natural History.
Hang out with friends in White Plains (NY), Hoboken (NJ) and Stamford (CT).
Return flight from JFK to Honolulu with another 12 hour layover in Seattle.
Getting out of Dodge Honolulu
Our trip back east started out with a red-eye flight out of Honolulu. Here is my best tip for air travel with a toddler. Book a red-eye flight. These flights were amazing for Emily (and I’m hoping for Leo as well). Toddlers are old enough to have a regular sleep schedule. Therefore, there is a good chance your tyke will conk out for the majority of the flight. However, toddlers are also old enough to be super restless when they are up. There’s nothing like a 5+ hour flight with an awake toddler to make you regret not opting for a flight with a guaranteed sleep time included.
One of the coolest things happened to us before we even left Honolulu. I’ll admit I have a love/hate relationship with TSA. I love that they are just trying to do their job to keep everyone safe. I just hate that they usually aren’t very pleasant to me while they do that. However, on the night of our red-eye, TSA made Emily’s night (if not year). You see that gold sticker on Emily’s shirt? It identifies her as a “Junior TSA Officer”. When we got to security, an agent took one look at her before quickly promoting her from traveler to officer. Emily took her new role very seriously, making sure that the whole family got through security quickly and quietly. What a change from the usual pushing and prodding that tended to happen whenever she had to walk through the metal detector / scanner. Thank you TSA!
I don’t think I will ever spend that much time in the Centurion Lounge ever again. However, the most amazing thing happened to us during our layover in the Centurion Lounge. It wasn’t the bells and whistles that came with the “luxury” accommodations. It was an older gentleman exiting the lounge carrying a dozen roses. He stopped all of a sudden, did a 180-degree turn, walked to Emily and handed her a rose. The gentleman quickly turned and walked away without saying a word.
Day 1 in New York City
1. Check into the Novotel Hotel
Twenty-seven hours after we left our home we finally arrived in NYC and were ready to start our vacation. To be frank, I picked the Novotel hotel because it was a) the most cost effective option I could find in b) a great location (Times Square) with c) decent reviews. It had a nondescript street entrance for such a large hotel. However, once you got up to the second floor where the reception was, it was like stepping into a night club with its neon lighting and open area leading directly to the bar.
In terms of location it was perfect for us. Located at 52nd and Broadway it took less than 10 minutes for us to walk to Central Park. As you’ll see below, we frequented Central Park ALL THE TIME. Since Times Square technically ends at 47th street, the Novotel hotel was still very close to one of the world’s busiest pedestrian areas and yet not smack dab in the middle of it.
2. Eat bagels and lox – the perfect NYC breakfast
The first year after I moved back to Honolulu, I couldn’t stomach the bagels. It just tasted so sub par to the amazing options in NYC. Nowadays, I have grown accustomed to Honolulu bagels and even have a favorite bagel location. However, I still made picking up a bagel and lox the first thing on our New York City Itinerary. We opted for Pick a Bagel on 8th Avenue but you really can’t go wrong no matter where you end up.
3. Wander through Times Square
Now that we were tourists instead of wannabe NYCers living in Connecticut, Times Square was one of our first stops. With no set plans until dinner we wandered through shops like Hershey Chocolate World, M&M’s World, the Disney Store and the Muji Store.
4. Kick off the week of fancy NYC dinners at Per Se… and Chipotle
Have those two places ever been linked together in the same sentence before? No? Good. I aim to be unique. Sad fact: Chipotle is not in Hawaii. We REALLY miss Chipotle. So there is probably a good chance you will be reading a lot about us visiting Chipotle whenever we travel to the mainland. Case in point, Bryan and Emily’s first dinner in NYC was take out from Chipotle. And now on to the fancy-schmancy stuff…
At first I shied away from posting too much about food on here. I’m a self proclaimed foodie but I did start a travel blog and not a restaurant review blog. However, Anthony Bourdain summarized my way of thinking the best, “food, culture, people and landscape are absolutely inseparable”. I do believe that finding amazing dining options is part of planning the perfect itinerary and typically spend hours researching favorite local establishments before our trips. I figured it would be a shame to cut that part out of my vacation recaps. And after all, eating in NYC was one of the main reasons for this vacation. Therefore you have been forewarned, there are a lot of food pictures to come, starting with my night out with my mom at Per Se.
One thing has always been on any New York City itinerary whenever our family came to visit. Go to Norma’s for a decadent breakfast. If money is no option to you, there is a lobster frittata with 10 oz of servuga caviar. All this can be had for the low, low cost of $2,000. Nope, that’s not a typo. But if you’d prefer to not walk out of breakfast a couple thousand poorer, my favorite options are the foie gras french toast or artychoked benedict.
2. Visit Central Park (Part 1)
I received a card from a family friend when my daughter was born. It said “I’m so excited for you to experience rediscovering the world through your daughter’s eyes”. That line has stuck with me ever since and was especially relatable during our times in Central Park. With a toddler in tow, of course Central Park was on my New York City itinerary… once. Turns out that Central Park is the most popular city park in America for a reason. One time at the park ended up not being enough for any of us and we spent the better part of the week discovering something new we had miss the day before.
I don’t know any other way to describe Central Park than to call it magical. An oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle that is Manhattan, Central Park is three avenues wide and stretches from 59th Street all the way up to 110th Street. There are so many different places to see and explore, from playgrounds to the Bethesda Fountain, from Belvedere Castle to Strawberry Fields with its black and white Imagine mosaic.
We even became the ultimate tourists and took a horse drawn carriage!
3. Eat at Sushi Yasuda… named the best sushi restaurant in America (by me)
1. Lions and Tigers and Bears… and Mountain Lions at the American Museum of Natural History
When planning this trip, there were two places on my “must take Emily to” list for New York City: one was Central Park and the other was the American Museum of Natural History. Located on the upper west side of Manhattan, AMNH is one of the largest museums in the world. Its collection of artifacts is so great that only a small portion can be displayed at a time. When I was planning our stop here I pictured showing Emily one display after another. I would open up her mind to the vast world on display thanks to AMNH. But kids will be kids and Emily proved that toddlers and labored over itineraries do not often mix. She was so enamored with the animal displays (especially the mountain lion) that we spent most of our time there.
2. Visit Central Park (Part II)
Another great thing about AMNH? It’s across the street from Central Park. So of course our walk back to our hotel from the museum included a stroll through our favorite part of Manhattan.
3. Ellen’s Stardust Diner – a huge win for our little one
Need a place to take the little ones in your party? This place is it. My mom and Emily took the 1-minute walk from the Novotel Hotel to the famed Ellen’s Stardust Diner. Emily loved watching the future stars of Broadway serenading her while she ate. A little kitchy sure, but any musical loving fan will love it.
1. Have a play date in… (you guessed it) Central Park
Once upon a time I was a 20-something year old and I had a friend that lived in Connecticut. We would do Connecticut things like go to soul cycle, drink in downtown Stamford, hop the train and drink in NYC, and grab coffee together. Then we both became 30-something year olds, popped out kids and moved away from Connecticut. But the stars aligned and she had moved to NYC for about a year and was still 1 month away from relocating to Miami when I went back to visit. So we grabbed coffee together (some things never change) and took our kids to Central Park.
Now, even before this vacation I had been to Central Park countless times before. However, I remained oblivious to the vast amount of playground structures until this trip. We only made it to the playgrounds in the southern section of the park and still felt like everywhere we turned was one more playground. Here is an extensive listing of playgrounds within all of Central Park.
2. Dinner at the world’s best restaurant – Eleven Madison Park
In 6 days of gorging myself, this was the only restaurant that I hadn’t been to before. Family and friends were singing EMP’s merits for years by this point and San Pellegrino had named this 3-Michelin Star Restaurant the best restaurant in the world. I was skeptical. I was actually cocky enough to think that there was no way that I didn’t already know about the best restaurant in New York. So we went to see what all the fuss was about. And you know what? I’m a big enough person to say when I’ve made a mistake. San Pellegrino, you knew what you were talking about. Read about my experience at EMP along with the other best restaurants in New York City.
3. Taking a (not quite) three-year-old to Broadway
When my mom decided to take Emily to a Broadway show I thought she was crazy. The closest Emily had come to sitting through a feature length performance before then was going to watch Finding Dory. We had to leave 45 minutes in when Emily got antsy. I couldn’t imagine the plan of taking Emily to a Broadway musical going well. But bless my generous mother, she bought them both tickets to Aladdin and decided to give it a try.
The results? They did have to leave at intermission, but not because of any worries that I had come up with. I thought Emily would get bored and want to walk around or that she would start talking loudly through the entire show. But from the moment the actors and actresses took the stage, they held Emily’s rapt attention. The reason they left at intermission was because Emily was scared of…. the Genie. I guess what is jovial and entertaining to adults is scary to a toddler. But other than the Genie she had a great time. In fact, she is now my constant companion at musicals, giving me another example about how amazing it is to let kids experience different things in the world. So a big THANK YOU to my mom for introducing her to the world of musical theater that I love so much.
Day 5 in New York City
1. Can you guess how we started our day? I bet you can. Visiting Central Park (Part IV)
My New York City itinerary had us visiting Brooklyn today. But Emily asked to go to Central Park again, and since she is CEO of our little family, away we went. This time we decided to check out the Central Park Zoo. Bryan and I stumbled upon the zoo one winter and had a wonderful time watching the animals. They were coming to life in the refreshing, colder air. It was a welcome change from the sleepy, wilted-in-the-sun animals at the zoo we were used to. However, given the much warmer temperatures this time around, I was worried if the zoo would hold as much awe for us. I was pleasantly surprised that the added enjoyment of watching Emily at the Tisch Children’s Zoo, where she was able to pet goats and sheep and crawl all over animal statues, kept this low key, tiny zoo as one of our favorites.
One of the things I’ve always loved to do in the park, whether I’m alone, with another adult or with kids in tow, is to search for the various statues littered throughout the 840 acre park. My favorites included the statue of Balto (pictured), Alice in Wonderland and Hans Christian Andersen as well as the austere literary walk where one can find the statues of four literary giants as well as Christopher Columbus.
2. Ippudo – the ramen joint that is well worth the wait
I love, love, love Ippudo. The entire family does. I still haven’t found a ramen place in Hawaii that I love as much as this place. So of course we had to include a trip to Ippudo in our New York City itinerary.
3. The suburbs of White Plains a.k.a. day trip #1 from the City
Fun (unfun?) fact: While part of going on our New York City vacation was to visit with friends, I can probably count on one hand the number of friends I have that still live in Manhattan. And I wouldn’t even need all five fingers. Rewind about a decade and that number would have been much higher. However, over the last 10 years, most of my friends got married, popped out babies and moved into the suburbs. And so, day five of our trip had Bryan and me heading north to White Plains to see our friends. Bryan headed off to a local bar to knock back beers with his old work buddies and I headed off to another one of my favorite franchises that isn’t in Hawaii… the Melting Pot.
Helpful hints for traveling the Metro-North Line
To get to White Plains (and back into Manhattan) we caught one of the Metro-North lines out of Grand Central Station. Here are some helpful (I hope) tips if you ever decide to visit a town on the Metro-North line. While you certainly can buy your ticket on board (and I have definitely done this before when I’ve been rushed for time), they charge you a premium and make you pay cash. The best option is to buy a round trip ticket before getting on the train.
Also, keep in mind what time you are traveling as the difference between peak and off-peak travel can be significant. Peak fares apply to weekday trains that arrive in Grand Central Station between 6 AM and 10 AM or that depart Grand Central Station between 4 PM and 8 PM. Peak fares are also charged for travel on any weekday train that leaves Grand Central Station between 6 AM and 9 AM.
The easiest thing to do is to download the onTime: MNR – MetroNorth Rail app onto your phone, select your to / from locations and quickly get a listing of all the train options and even what track the train will leave on.
One more fun fact to help with your commute: you can drink. For example, I’ve definitely purchased a 12-pack with my friends and took it on board the Metro-North line for some pre-gaming fun as we made our way south to the city. If you are less of a pre-planner and not afraid to splurge, you can grab a beer from the vendor that strategically parks himself in front of the various lines at the end of the workday for the many commuters that will fork over cash for an overpriced bud light in order to de-stress after a long day.
Day 6 in New Jersey and Connecticut
1. Take the ferry to New Jersey and enjoy some breathtaking views
Emily and I started off our day by taking the NY Waterway Ferry to New Jersey to visit friends. While the Path is the cheapest way to get to New Jersey, the ferry is definitely the prettiest. If there is something you want to see in New Jersey, I highly suggest you take the ferry route. Just make sure to verify you are at the correct stop before you get off. Emily and I definitely had to sprint back to the ferry after disembarking one stop too early.
2. Travel up to Stamford… the city that gives you huge tax breaks if you are a trashy talk show
We spent our evening in Stamford. My friend drove us there from New Jersey but the Metro-North Line from Grand Central Station is an easy (and much less trafficky) way to go. I had a great time driving by my old house, spending the evening with friends and eating at a couple of my favorite local joints. However, since I assume a synopsis of those events might not interest anyone that hasn’t spent 11 years living in Stamford, I figured I would talk to you about something that might cause you to visit Stamford: trashy talk shows.
In 2009, the Connecticut governor offered huge tax credits to Maury, The Jerry Springer Show, and The Steve Wilkos Show if they moved to Connecticut. He also offered a new $3 million studio facility in Stamford. Shocker of shockers, they all moved. I’ll admit, watching a taping of the Maury Show was one of the greatest highlights of my time in Stamford. I was just disappointed that no one cussed at me, yelling out “you don’t know me!” When my friends and I went we were the only ones that seemed to be local. The ladies behind us in line had just taken a bus in from North Carolina to see the taping. Let me tell you, a 45-minute train commute from NYC is MUCH closer than that.
3. Commuting to New Jersey by Train
Bryan headed to New Jersey for the evening via Penn Station. Penn Station is the busiest station in terms of commuter traffic but not the most visited (that would be Grand Central). This is the station that services the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and the New Jersey Transit (NJT). While the two stations aren’t connected it’s a very pretty and short walk between the two. And I should know, with an office right next to Penn Station, that used to be my commute every day for 2 years.
Travel Day Home
As it relates to our trip back east, that’s all folks. The next day we woke up early, jumped in a cab and made our way to JFK. We flew to Seattle for another 12 hours in the American Express lounge and then flew back to Honolulu.
For next time…
Ironically, as I type this, I’m planning my next trip to New York. It’s a much shorter trip (2 days) since the majority of our time will be spent on a cruise ship. However, reflecting back on my last time in NYC certainly gave me a lot to think about in terms of my next itinerary, which will include a lot more kid friendly restaurants but probably the same amount of Central Park visits.
What to see?
Museum of Illusions – Friends recently came back from New York City raving about this museum. The museum’s website reads: “enter the fascinating world of illusions which will trick your confidence in senses, but amaze you by doing it.” All I know is I want my own family pictures to include Bryan’s head on a plate or a gigantic Leo sitting next to a tiny Emily.
Spyscape – Another friends also just came back from NYC (seriously are all my Hawaii friends going to NYC without me?). She never got to visit but one of the places that she intended to stop by was Spyscape, where you can discover your inner spy. Considering that one of my favorite things to do on the annual trips I would take to Washington D.C., was to visit the International Spy Museum (and I have the Spy beanie to prove it), this seems right up my alley.
Hamilton – I am not throwing away my shot. I’ve been dreaming about going to Hamilton since before Lin Manual-Miranda won his first Tony for the musical. I always heard that NYC tickets were still very expensive versus the tour tickets in places like San Francisco and Chicago. However, since I am giving up hope on Hamilton ever coming to Honolulu I figured I could spring for the extra NYC price since it would still be cheaper than flying to the mainland and paying for a hotel room just to see the musical.
Currently tickets for the dates we will be in NYC are not yet being sold… so I’ll just keep searching every day in hopes of catching their next release. In case you were wondering how I was going to see Hamilton with two kids in tow, I’ll let you in on a little secret… Bryan isn’t the other Hamilton lover in the family. Emily is. Although she’s only ever listened to censored versions of the songs and believes that Burn stems from Alexander telling Eliza that he didn’t want to be her friend anymore (very understandable to a 5-year-old).
Where to Eat?
Sushi Yasuda – For our 2020 trip I intend to be with the kids 100% of the time. However, I’ll admit that writing about the high-end eateries that I’ve previously enjoyed in NYC has made me wistful of not getting to experience that level of foodie goodness this time around. But Sushi Yasuda does offer take out.
Ninja New York – Black-clad Ninjas putting on a show for you while you eat Japanese food? What more could you want? Emily is kind of a scaredy-cat so this may not be a good pick for us. However, she is obsessed with PJ Masks and therefore when I broached the topic of eating at this restaurant she jumped at the chance to be among the likes of Night Ninja and his Ninjalinos.
American Girl Cafe – When I was a little girl only the richest girl in the entire school had an American Girl Doll. The rest of us just borrowed the American Girl Series from the Library. Now it seems to be a right of passage that girls go to NYC and obtain their American Girl Doll. However, Emily doesn’t yet know that American Girl Dolls exist so maybe this will be a pass for 1 more year.
Alice’s Tea Cup – In October, one of Emily’s besties is having a princess tea birthday party. Emily is ecstatic. If that goes well I figure a stop at NYC’s most whimsical tea house will be in order.
Dirt Candy – I’m not sure how Emily is my child,the girl loves vegetables. Fish, chicken and meat are all maybes, chocolate is a definite no but vegetables are always welcome on her plate. Considering I’ve always wanted to eat at this vegetarian restaurant that spins out delicious vegetable dishes, I figured this might be a definite option… assuming Leo can behave.
Below you’ll find my recommendations for the best restaurants in NYC. Don’t get me wrong, there are many amazing restaurants in NYC that don’t cost an arm and a leg. For example, I am very partial to the $2 dirty water hot dogs sold outside of Grand Central Station. But that will be for a different post. This post is to discuss where you should go when you want to enjoy a fine dining experience and make sure that your hard earned cash does not go to waste.
For those of you scratching your head, thinking”I thought this was a travel blog…” It is. But being the lover of food that I am, I would never travel to a place and not want to try the local cuisine. Or find the hole in the wall joint that is the after work spot to gather. And being that this is about NYC, fine dining pretty much goes hand in hand with the city that never sleeps. Amazing chefs meet uncapped expense accounts and corporate cards. Or the wealthy. Or in the case of my husband and I and many of our friends, this is what we wanted to save up and spend our money on. An unforgettable dining experience.
By the time I ate at the 3 Michelin star Eleven Madison Park, family and friends had already been singing its praises for years. They were not alone. In 2017, San Pellegrino had named EMP the best restaurant in the world. I was skeptical. I had eaten in a lot of amazing restaurants, what made this one so special? It turns out the Michelin man and my friends and family all knew what they were talking about.
Located in the MetLife building across from Madison Square Park, EMP operates under a pay-in-advance model. Patrons prepay for their meal when they make reservations online (1-2 months in advance). I’ll admit it was a little hard to stomach the huge bill without knowing if the meal would even be worth it. However, now that I am on the opposite end of meal I can confirm that the 11-course 3.5 hour dinner was de finitely worth the splurge.
While the food was beyond compare, the service really made EMP one of the best restaurants in NYC. For example, when I asked the hostess where the ladies room was, I wasn’t given directions. I was escorted all the way to the bathroom door. Another example was when the meal was over. I was suffering from the worst case of bronchitis, so in a rare dining moment for me, I spent the night knocking back sodas. Meanwhile, prior to sitting down, Bryan ordered one drink at the bar. Before EMP sent us on our way they gave Bryan a complementary glass of brandy and provided sparkling (non-alcoholic) cider for yours truly. I am still floored by how impressive they were to pay attention to our orders like that.
When I first discovered David Chang’s Momofuku Ko it was a twelve-seater counter restaurant in the East Village. Reservations could only be made two weeks in advance and were incredibly hard to come by. Open reservations only lasted three seconds on average. It was rumored that even his parents were not able to score reservations. When I did get reservations at Momofuku Ko back then, I considered it one of my greatest accomplishments.
At the time, there wasn’t even the word “Ko” on the door to let you know you were in the right place, just a little peach in the middle of a lattice door.
However, in 2014 David Chang moved his restaurant to much larger digs. They added a bar option for walk in patrons and reservations can now be made 1 month in advance.
I’ll admit, I miss the coziness of the old location. Like it or not you certainly got close with the other 11 people that would eat with you that day. However, the new setup is much more welcoming to the masses. My father for example, loves the fine dining scene in NYC. He would never have stepped foot in Momofuku Ko back when it was filled with wooden no-back barstools in a cramped environment. But my father would have no issues feeling comfortable in the new setup. When Bryan and I sat at the counter on our last visit it almost seemed like we had our own romantic table for two. Even though they haven’t increased the amount of seats too much, the space between parties have to themselves is significant in comparison to the old environment.
Most importantly, even with the move, the food is still on point. I would be coming to this amazing restaurant in NYC for every big celebration if we still lived nearby.
I’ll admit it, I ate at Le Bernardin because I have a huge crush on Eric Ripert. Eating at Le Bernardin certainly did not damper that crush. The food was so good that I now almost regret eating here. Almost. I say this because Le Bernardin has cost me a lot of money. Not because of the price tag, although like every other restaurant on this list, a meal here is not cheap. No, I would have more money because after eating at Le Bernardin I’ve had to spend A LOT of money on a new and expensive habit, eating uni.
I had heard people gush over uni (sea urchin) for years. So much so that I would give it a try from time to time. No matter where I was, I constantly found uni to be the grossest thing I ever ate. Until the night that my husband ordered sea urchin risotto from Le Bernardin and offered me a bite. From then I was sold on the succulent, creamy little morsels. More’s the pity because I have since spent a small fortune on uni sushi, uni shooters, uni pasta, you name it. From the moment I had that first bite of sea urchin risotto, Le Bernardin was bumped up to foodie mecca and became one of the best restaurants in NYC in my mind.
I spent a lot of the earlier years in the 2000s obsessed with the Japanese version of Iron Chef. (The American version was a poor remake of that amazing show in my opinion). I even orchestrated an entire trip to Philadelphia to eat at Morimoto’s first restaurant before he opened this outpost in NYC.
On our visit to Morimoto’s in NYC, we went with the tasting menu but I feel we could have had just as enjoyable a time eating off of the main menu. All of the dishes we had were excellent but some shined more than others, so you might be better off picking a couple dishes you really want to try. For example, this restaurant made the best restaurant list specifically because I have so many dreams of eating the spiny lobster from Morimoto again.
To leave you with an anecdote, while we were there, the waitress showed us the Morimoto cookbook. They were trying to sell copies so we joked that we would only purchase the cookbook if it was personally signed by Chef Morimoto. The joke was on us. I am now the proud owner of a personalized inscription Morimoto cookbook. Additionally, it’s actually not that hard to make a decent dish following his recipes. I used to be obsessed collecting the cookbooks of famous chefs. I would try to replicate their recipes to disastrous failure. But the Morimoto cookbook wasn’t too difficult to replicate the easier dishes), which was a win in my book.
Cleary, I’ve watched too many Game of Thrones episodes this year. Nevertheless, Daniel is the first restaurant that Daniel Boulud opened with his own name in the title. It is also Chef Boulud’s most famous restaurant, located on the upper east side and touting 2 Michelin stars.
The first thing I remember about Daniel is that the moment I sat down a mini chair appeared for my purse to sit on. That is not a typo, my purse was given a chair. The next most memorable event was the specials on the menu, which included tête de veau (a.k.a. calf’s head). Several people in our party jumped at the chance to eat such a delicacy, causing the wait staff to very nicely verify that they truly understood what they were ordering. Not knowing how in the world one cooks tête de veau, I assume you have to be an extraordinary chef to pull it off. Needless to say, their plates were delicious as were my less risky duck foie gras with mango and lamb dishes.
Lastly, I always have to give restaurants credit when they create a fantastic dish out of something I hate. In this case, peas. I hate peas. I used to pick them out of anything served to me as a kid. Nowadays I suffer through them if they are on a dish I like, but I’d prefer to avoid them. I was less than pleased to find out that our amuse bouche would be a trio of peas. However, that first dish at Daniel turned out to be so amazing that I almost licked the bowl clean.
The late, great Anthony Bourdain was my personal foodie god. After I watched the No Reservations episode where he ate a sea urchin crostini covered in a layer of melted lardo, Marea made it onto my “Restaurant Bucket List” list. The next time we were looking for a fine dining night out I quickly opted for Marea. I was not disappointed. Marea is an Italian restaurant that offers a delectable selection of pasta dishes. More importantly than their pasta however, is their seafood dishes that are creative yet still delicious and filling.
But don’t just listen to my opinion on whether this is one of the best restaurants in NYC. A couple years ago there was a big event for the company I work for that resulted in several of our executives flying to meetings in Manhattan. They were looking for a restaurant to eat at together and asked local New Yorkers for recommendations. Fast-forward to the end of this story and the restaurant they celebrated the big event at was none other than Marea. And how did I learn this story? Because it was such a wonderful experience and great food that they came back singing its praises.
Without meaning to, this post could be a love letter to Restaurateur Danny Meyer. For those that haven’t heard of Danny Meyer, he is the pinnacle of best restaurants in NYC. He is the owner of Gramercy Tavern (included below) and Shake Shack (worthy of an entry in a less expensive listing of “can’t miss places to eat at” in NYC). He was also the previous owner of Eleven Madison Park (included above). But the restaurant that launched his acclaimed career in the hospitality business was Union Square Cafe.
Union Square brings a homey feel to its patrons with its wooden chairs and opened-collared wait staff. While not as fancy as some of the other restaurants, the level of service and food provided are still top-notch. And the less fancy atmosphere definitely appeals more to people like my husband that went from working in NYC in a mandatory suit and tie everyday to considering an aloha shirt and khakis to be formal attire. Needless to see, he now prefers dinners that don’t require a coat and tie. But whichever way you fall on the fashion spectrum, Union Square Cafe is a wonderful way to spend an evening.
Due to soaring rent hikes, Union Square Cafe actually closed at the end of 2015. Fortunately they opened again a year later in a larger location. And since the new location was only a couple blocks away they didn’t even need to change their name.
The restaurant that taught me to love soft-shelled crabs
Nougatine is Jean-Georges’ more casual sister. It is amazingly nice but still the Café Boulud to the Daniel, the Bouchon to the Per Se, the McDonald’s cheeseburger to the $30 Minetta Tavern Black Label Burger.
In regards to the food, everything was so imaginative. We had an amuse bouche of homemade mozzarella and asparagus soup and an appetizer of foie gras brule with strawberry jam. However, the star of the night was their soft shell crab with sugar snap pea remoulade. This was the dish that put soft shell crabs on the map for me. Similar to my experience with uni, I did not understand the appeal of soft shell crabs until Nougatine. This place certainly changed my mind, earning it a spot on my best restaurants in NYC.
Lastly, the service was impeccable. Note that this high praise is coming from what perhaps might have been their most irritating group in quite some time. Our group of four had a Broadway play to get to so we needed to be in and out of the restaurant as fast as possible. My husband meanwhile was having his own Comedy of Errors production trying to get to the restaurant and was pretty late showing up. The staff handled every request gracefully, did everything we asked, and we made it out the door at Nougatine with a lot of time to spare to get up to the Great White Way.
Gramercy Tavern was perhaps my first foray into the world of expensive restaurants in NYC. Until then we had never really broke the bank to eat out and didn’t really understand why people would do such a thing. This restaurant taught us why.
During one of my visits to Gramery Tavern, I ended up ordering their venison dish for my main meal. Until that moment I never understood reviews that described meat as “melting in [their] mouth like butter”. That statement made no sense to me, what a stupid simile. And then I ate the Venison at Gramercy Tavern and it melted in my mouth like butter.
The last time I ate at Gramercy Tavern I was about 30 minutes late. I showed up as a sweaty mess after sprinting over from my midtown office in the overbearing summer heat. The wait staff didn’t even blink an eye. They treated me to the same excellent level of service as those that arrived with coiffed hair and unwrinkled suits.
One final thing worth mentioning is their drink menu and bartender. I like to drink, plain and simple. However I can be content with a budlight or a $10 champagne from Costco. When it comes to alcohol, I’m easily impressed. Not so much on the mocktail front. For health reasons my husband doesn’t drink too much. Whenever we go out, he’ll be the one person in the group knocking back the iced tea. Until Gramercy Tavern. My father and I ordered the wine pairing during one of our visits. My husband ordered his iced tea. The waiter however countered and asked if he would like to try a non-alcoholic pairing instead. Despite the amazing food dishes we ate, Bryan spent the following weeks raving about all the drinks he got to enjoy.
The best sushi restaurant I’ve ever been to, and that’s saying something
Yet again another restaurant recommended by Anthony Bourdain. In my mind, Sushi Yasuda is not just one of the best restaurants in NYC. It has become the sushi restaurant that I compare all other sushi restaurants to. And those other restaurants continue to fall short. That is saying a lot considering I live in Honolulu, a place where a new sushi spot seems to pop-up every month in an already very saturated market.
Chef Yasuda has stated that it takes 10 years to become a sushi chef. It takes years just to learn how to prepare the rice. It shows. Every single bite I’ve ever had at Sushi Yasuda has been incomparable. On one visit I watched a younger sushi chef pass a plate of uncut fish down the row of chefs to the head chef. The head chef sliced the fish into sashimi-sized portions and sent it back down the row. I could only surmise that the young chef was not senior enough to be allowed to cut his own fish. That was the seriousness in which Sushi Yasuda takes their sushi preparation.
I’ve sat next to sushi-eating newbies that have been content with their california rolls and miso soup. But if you are game, I absolutely recommend ordering the omakase (chef’s choice) at the bar. And do not giving your sushi chef any limitations on what to make. My husband is not a big fan of ikura (salmon roe) or uni (sea urchin). He could go on and on to you about why they aren’t his favorite things to eat. But at Sushi Yasuda he orders both because it tastes completely different from anywhere else.
Thomas Keller was such a hero of Bryan’s that if Emily had been born a boy, he would have been named Keller. The price tag to dine at Per Se was outrageous but I knew Bryan really wanted to eat there. I saved up all year and took the 5:30 PM reservation offered on a Tuesday night in February. It was the only time I could get. I presented it to Bryan as his Christmas present. To this day, it might have been the best Christmas gift I ever got him.
That cold night in February was the most amazing experience we ever had at a restaurant. The dishes were one delicious plate after another and the service made us feel like royalty. We came back again to celebrate my father-in-law’s Kanreki and it was the same superb experience.
And then in 2016, Pete Wells from the New York Times knocked down Per Se from 4 stars to 2 stars. It was the demotion heard round the (foodie) world. In a trip back to New York after the review, I was initially hesitant to return to Per Se, but in the end I decided to take the plunge. I’ll admit it wasn’t as wonderful as that first (and second) trip. I actually was very undecided about whether to include Per Se on my list. However, in the end I realized that while Per Se may not be as great as it used to be, it is still one of the best restaurants in NYC. It is just no longer the sure front winner.
One of my favorite things to do when I lived in Connecticut was to come up with a list of places in Hawaii for my New England friends to visit. It started happening so often that I even made a word document. Whenever a friend reached out asking for advice on Hawaii, I would just send them that document. Now that I’ve moved back to Hawaii I get asked about once a year for my recommendations about New York City. I figured it was time I made a formal list for the Big Apple as well.
I’ll admit it, I’m biased. I used to work right next door to ground zero. I watched the rebuilding and eventual opening of One World Trade Center. However, this powerful and respectful memorial surpassed all my expectations. It did a superb job of being able to capture the devastation and loss while honoring the victims. A trip to New York City would be incomplete without a stop at this memorial. #NeverForget
On the anniversary of 9/11 you can also see the Tribute in Light. This is an art installation that creates two vertical columns of light to represent the Twin Towers.
You will certainly find people that are a lot more appreciative of art than myself. However, even I stand in awe when getting to see the likes of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory and Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans as well as 200,000 other items. I used to be obsessed with Vincent van Gogh. I dare you to watch Vincent and Me and not be as well. It was such a surreal experience to finally get to see The Starry Night on my first trip to the MOMA in New York City.
Can I just say one thing? Egyptian Temple of Dendur from 10 B.C. That’s correct 10 B.C. In this museum!
There is of course a plethora of other amazing pieces of artwork from various centuries and across the world. However, the Temple of Dendur remains my all-time favorite.
Not to date myself but since I already referenced one movie that was from the 1990s, here’s another one: The Thomas Crown Affair. I loved, loved, loved that movie and a big part of the plot took place around the Met and the artwork that it holds.
If all that hasn’t sold you, please note that the views of New York City from the rooftop bar on the top floor of the Met are stunning.
Clearly I’m now on a B-rated movie role now, so I’ll continue. How can you live in a post Night at the Museum world and not want to check out the real exhibits? Or here’s a little factoid for you super young Gen Xers or really old Millennials (aka my peer group that I assume is as well versed in the Friends universe as I am). Ross worked at AMNH as a paleontologist. (Come on – that’s cool stuff!). We took Emily to AMNH when we recently came back to New York City for a visit. She loved all the various animal displays.
I get why New Yorkers hate this place. Believe me, I do. I spent two years with a commute that took me smack dab through Times Square. It was so annoying to deal with the congested foot traffic of tourists that added to my commute time. But for the non-locals out there, you have to love this most recognizable of places in the US. This is New York City. Home to the naked cowboy and Broadway and the NYE ball drop. Want to get out of Times Square for some place a little cheaper? That is easy to due considering that so many of the subway lines converge at Times Square.
Lastly, this is the place that I always felt the most safe commuting through. I’ll admit, I’ve had to burn the midnight oil from time to time at the workplace. Even in relatively safe suburbs, I would get a twinge of fear when walking to my car late at night. I was always worried just how well monitored the parking garage would be. But I never had those fears walking from my midtown office to Grand Central Station. The barrage of tourists still out and about at all hours of the night definitely make you feel safe as they wander on passed you with their camera phone and selfie stick in hand.
The Great White Way
Yes, tickets to New York City’s Broadway plays are expensive. Yes, the talent of the cast will ruin local productions for you forever. But seeing a production on the Great White Way is an experience you shouldn’t miss. This part of New York City is home to 40 plus theaters and some are over 100 years old. I’ll admit, I’ve been to some huge misses over the years (I’m looking at you Lestat) but most were phenomenal. I used to celebrate my birthday every year by going to see Wicked. And come on, it’ll make you feel cultured AF.
Chelsea Market and the High Line
I’ll admit it, for years I thought this was just another office building complex in New York City. It wasn’t until I went to meet a friend who worked in the building that I realized it housed retail stores and a food hall. Fun fact about me: I love food halls. And when you’ve had your feel of shopping and stuffing your face, head over to walk the High Line. The views of the Hudson are fantastic.
This place is beautiful in any season.
When the snow falls, look to the steep hills to watch the kids sledding. Heck, join them as you can get a cheap plastic sled from any of the Duane Reade/Walgreens type of stores. You can also take your turn skating around Wollman Rink. I love the Central Park Zoo in the middle of winter, watching the animals come alive in the colder weather.
As the days grow longer and spring makes her welcoming appearance, you can sit and just take in the beautiful flowers blooming. Especially come to see the beautiful cherry blossom trees abloom with their varying shades of pink. Similarly, in the autumn one can come to take in the fall foliage. I’ve sat on a bench by myself in the late fall taking it all in and pinching myself that I lived there (okay a 40 minute train ride away but close enough).
And in the summer, you can make use of the various water activities, including gondola rides, paddle boating and model sailboat sailing.
Visit the Union Square Greenmarket
This farmers market is amazing. The food is so fresh and so varied with its rows of vendors selling everything from wine to roses. It continues to be the only place I’ve ever found squash blossoms. And the people watching is on point. My favorite was a local who would walk around the market getting his groceries with his cat calmly sitting on top of his head. No that wasn’t a typo. The cat just calmly stayed perched on his head while he shopped. If I ever win the lottery, one of the first things I’m going to do is to purchase an apartment near Union Square.
I know I just gushed about Central Park, but Bryant Park is actually my favorite park in New York City. Located right outside Times Square it was so refreshing to see this green oasis after all that hustle and bustle. There is so much to do there despite its size. There is a beautiful outside-seating restaurant, a carousel (called Le Carrousel), ice skating in the winter, putt putt golf in the summer and people watching any time of year.
At 42,500 square feet, the NYC Flatiron location Eataly is the largest artisanal Italian food and wine marketplace in the world. Now this market has spread across the globe with several spots in the U.S., but back when it first opened, there was only one other Eataly, in Italy. We primarily went to eat food from one of the many restaurants but we also loved just perusing the aisles to see what groceries we could get, like a $1,000 bottle of balsamic vinegar. We may not have gone for that version, but picking up bread, meat, cheese and normally priced olive oil and vinegar always made for a wonderful picnic spread later on.
Grand Central Station
Grand Central Station used to be the place I would stumble into half asleep from my early morning commute and wish I had found a job closer to home. If someone had told me then that someday I would be adding this commuting hub to my places to visit, I would have laughed in their face.
It took moving away from the area (and the commute) to realize just how impressive this place is. If you don’t believe me, believe all the other tourists. Grand Central Station doesn’t have the highest number of commuters in the nation (that would be Penn Station), but it does have the highest number of visitors. There are so many restaurants to eat in (from Shake Shack to the famed Grand Central Oyster Bar), stores to explore (check out the amazing Apple store that worked hard when it was being built to blend into its surroundings), the fun Whispering Gallery and the beautiful celestial ceiling with the zodiac painted backwards.
Nestled in suburban Queens is the Korean mega-spa, Spa Castle. When I was living on the east coast, Time Out New York was my bible of cannot miss things to do. TONY seemed to love Spa Castle and mentioned them constantly. However, I was still hesitant about a huge bathhouse in Queens with naked (non-coed) sections and little kids running around. Little kids that may or may not be potty-trained. I finally pulled the trigger after my hairdresser recommended it to me. She had just finished telling me that she had spent the previous weekend in Vegas partying with Jay-Z so I figured she was someone to listen to.
Photo credit: Spa Castle New York
Step 1: The Check-In Process at Spa Castle
Once we arrived at Spa Castle and checked in ($50/person on the weekdays and $60/person on the weekends for full access to the pools, saunas, and resting rooms) we were given a watch-looking device that worked as our locker keys and money. It definitely made for an extremely relaxing and hassle-free day. However, I was worried about just how much a hassle-free day would cost me. The prices for food and drinks were easy to see, but buying that last mudslide was a lot easier when it was just a flip of my wrist versus pulling out cash.
Stop 2: Bathhouse and Locker Lounge a.k.a. Naked Narnia
Once we got our wrist band and additional 21+alcohol bands it was time to enter into Disneyland for exhibitionists, the men’s and women’s locker room. This is where I found out that despite the fact that 9 times out of 10 I am the most inappropriate person in the room, I am quite the prude. Everywhere I looked, girls were air drying themselves by lying out on the locker room benches in all their glory or blow-drying their hair sans…. anything. I was the only one scampering around in a towel I brought from home (because the towels they lend you are the size of a washcloth).
Now for those of you as awkward about walking around stark naked as I am, that’s just for the locker room. You are given a t-shirt and shorts uniform to wear while you are outside the locker room. And it is a really comfortable uniform. Although not quite the height of fashion and in predictable pink for girls and blue for boys.
Now when I say “locker room” I don’t simply mean a place for you to put your belongings and change your clothes, I mean an amazing world of dry and wet sauna rooms, mineral pools, aqua-jets, and a healing room just to name a few. I dubbed it Naked Narnia.
Stop 3: Saunas a.k.a. World of Saunas at Spa Castle
Heading up the stairs from Naked Narnia (and into the co-ed sections of Spa Castle) we entered the World of Saunas (also dubbed by me, the real name is Sauna Valley). Pro-tip of the day: sauna is pronounced sow-na. Maybe that is common knowledge but I had no idea I had been pronouncing it wrong all my life until I stumbled upon a little informative pronunciation plaque over in World of Sauna.
Regardless of whether you call it saw-na or sow-na, just know… The World of Saunas is fantastic. There are eight themed saunas in all, arranged to look like a little village. They range from the very hot, never less than 185 degree sauna, to the very cold, never above 25 degrees sauna, and all the ones in between, which included infrared saunas, gold saunas and jeweled saunas.
Stop 4: All the Eating
Maybe we should have done our order a little differently in order to sweat off our lunch. In any case, after leaving the World of Saunas we went searching for food. There were sandwiches, dumplings, pizza, salad, you name it, including my favorite, the Korean plates offered on the top floor.
Stop 5: Indoor and Outdoor Pools at Spa Castle
One floor above the World of Saunas are a plethora of indoor and outdoor pools. The outdoor pools are heated and open year-round, meaning that even if you visit in the dead of winter the water is absolutely balmy and pleasant. However, being soaking wet and getting out of the pool into 25 degrees F weather can be less than pleasant. (We went in March.) But not to fear, there is also a sauna right next to the outdoor pools that freezing individuals such as yours truly can scamper into in order to drip dry.
Photo credit: Spa Castle New York
One of the indoor pools also comes with a swim-up / walk-up bar, which I used to inhale the aforementioned and delicious (anti-diet) mudslide. Spa Castle seemed pretty strict on alcohol consumption, as you are limited to 3 drinks per person. Pro-tip of the day: finagle your non-drinking cohort into getting a wristband so you can move on to drinking his allotted 3 drinks once you are finished with your own. You’re welcome.
Also, try to keep your uniform dry. As a rule, you cannot walk around the sauna area in your swimsuit. Therefore, after swimming, I put my uniform back on over my wet swimsuit and got the former wet as well. I was able to exchange them for a new/dry pair, but it took a lot of badgering and pleading. Needless to say, the Spa Castle workers were not thrilled with me.
Stop 6… really Stop 2 again: Naked Narnia 2.0
Having had our fill of pools (and mud-slides) we headed off back to the Naked Narnia locker room to get showered and changed. Be prepared for a total lack of privacy as there are no curtains in the shower area. Some of the best (or so I’ve been told) indoor bade spa pools are located in the locker room. However, they are very strict about their “must be naked” policy. I figured I could just be the only awkward one enjoying the pool in a swimsuit. After all, to each their own right? Wrong. It’s naked or nothing. I went with the “or nothing” route. Bryan had a lot fewer qualms than I did about Naked Narnia and tried out the various options. After a long sojourn, Bryan reported back that those pools, hot tubs, and saunas were the best at Spa Castle.
Stop 7: The Sleeping Room at Spa Castle
After getting our fill of Naked Narnia it was time to check out the sleeping and meditation rooms. It was basically a room full of reclining chairs. Bryan promptly passed out and I relaxed and caught up on my various social media threads. There was also a menu here of additional add-on services that you could request, like massages. And if you are so inclined (read: less lazy than the Hawaii Girl Travels fam) there is also a gym up on the top floor as well.
If you can get out to Queens hit this place up. The offerings are worth the entrance fee. I saw only a couple of children in the locker room and none in the co-ed sections, most likely because we went on a weekday (since we were trying to burn through some vacation days). You may end up seeing a lot of kids running around on the weekend since Spa Castle is always recommended as a great place for the entire family to enjoy.
Brooklyn had always been somewhat of a mystical place to me. So close to Manhattan and yet typically viewed as too far away for us to take the trek out there from Connecticut for a day trip. Finally, we decided to go all-in on experiencing this New York City Borough by celebrating our 7-year wedding anniversary weekend in the place first made known to me by Spot Collins in the Newsies.
Take Metro-North from Stamford, CT to Grand Central Station and then take the 4/5/6 Green Line downtown to Brooklyn from there.
Check into the Nu Hotel on Friday Night.
Enjoy the sites of Brooklyn on Saturday and Sunday.
Head in to Manhattan to enjoy The Book of Mormon on Sunday night.
Return to Stamford via Metro-North.
(Friday) Day 1 – Our arrival:
Full disclosure, I am a slow packer and in the end it got so late on Friday night that we called for a town car to drive us from Stamford to Brooklyn in order to turn a 2-hour exhausting commute of us and our many bags on public transportation systems into a 1-hour peaceful, chauffeured drive. But if you are looking for a cheap option… go the public transportation route. I love love love Metro-North.
When we finally got to Brooklyn we checked in at Nu Hotel, an awesome hotel in that it came with a room service list with more mixed drinks than food, free continental breakfast, a chalkboard wall in the bathroom, AND a hammock! The only downside was that it was located across from the Brooklyn detention center. But on a positive note, at least with all the cops swarming around we felt very protected.
That hammock was dangerous… at least in stopping me from being a couch potato! I sat in it while waiting for Bryan for 5 minutes. I woke up 2 hours later.
(Saturday) Day 2 (AM) – Promenade walks and crabs:
Our Saturday started out with a stroll through the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with gorgeous views of Manhattan. This picture doesn’t show it but there was free kayaking going on below, although free meant that there was a huge line! Since admittedly this vacation took place years ago I did a quick google search to make sure free kayaking was still a relevant option and it turns out that it is. Read Time Out’s synopsis of the 2019 kayaking season here.
Next up was brunch in Red Hook via the bus. Brooklyn Crab actually opens for lunch, but we made it our breakfast. This was a super cute restaurant across from the Red Hook Fairway that didn’t just serve up food but mini golf and corn holes as well.
The big sell of the day seemed to be their King Crab legs but they also had Maryland blue crabs. We were a little too lazy to do all the work that comes with eating crab meat straight from the shell and opted for crab and oyster sandwiches, which ended up being delicious.
Needing to walk off our gorge-fest we headed up a little ways to the Louis Valentino Jr Park and Pier. I had googled “romantic things to do in Brooklyn” when planning this trip and one of the main results was this park due to its small grassy area, pier for fishing off of, and views of the front of the Statue of Liberty. It was so cute and at the end of the pier there were indeed several fishermen catching their dinner for the night.
(SATURDAY) DAY 2 (PM) – SUPERHEROS AND ICE CREAM:
Since we had some time left before dinner, we figured we could enjoy one more stop along the way. Now, what goes with romantic walks in the park you ask? If you answered “a store for superheros” you would be correct.
Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. was absolutely amazing. When I first heard about the store I didn’t quite get it. A place that sold gag gifts as their sole product? How was it even still around let alone being revered in so many “must visit” articles I had read. Well, it turns out all was not what it seemed. The store was really a front for something else. A place with programs for students to foster writing and literacy, accessed through a secret door!!! The profits from the store were used to fund those programs. How cool is that?
Once we finished deciding if we just needed regular capes or the invisibility version, it was time for dinner. With that we headed off to the cutest little French Caribbean restaurant called Kaz An Nou in Prospect Heights. It was lovely, but sadly closed a little over a year after we ate there due to lease negotiation issues.
In an attempt to not be completely useless with food recommendations, I am happy to tell you that the delicious ice cream joint (Ample Hill Creamery) we stopped in for dessert after our dinner was a delicious hit and still seems to be doing well and thriving.
The wall at Ample Hill Creamery where you can leave recommendations of your ice cream flavor idea. This suggestion was my favorite.
(Sunday) Day 3 (AM) – more eating and walking that famous bridge
I’d say that my synopsis on Saturday’s events included quite enough food commentary to cover this entire post, but our Sunday morning kicked off with us visiting Smorgasburg in DUMBO. Smorgasburg touts itself as being the largest weekly open-air food market in America, attracting 20,000-30,000 people each weekend. They had everything from lumpia, asian tacos, and Bolivian sandwiches to donuts, BBQ, lobster rolls AND maple syrup covered bacon.
The Bolivian tent even had a Chuck Norris seal of approval.
We didn’t have too many plans after stuffing our faces at Smorgasburg so we just wandered around, checking out things like random art decorating the street.
We also decided to stroll the Brooklyn bridge. Weather.com lied to me, telling me it was supposed to be sunny all day but the views were still gorgeous. We walked into Manhattan and then back across the bridge in order to grab our bags and give Brooklyn one final good-bye.
(Sunday) Day 3 (PM) – A stopover in Manhattan before heading back to the city that works:
The last thing we had planned was to head into Manhattan and watch The Book of Mormon. I had wanted to see this musical for years but could never find a ticket price that wasn’t extremely expensive. The last time I had tried, ticketmaster stated the cheapest option was $400 / person. I was ecstatic that I found a reasonably priced ticket and could finally see the musical. So, did it exceed my every expectation? I was a little disappointed to be honest. My dad saw the musical when it first came out and hated it because of all the swearing. I’m definitely not that easily offended but it just wasn’t as enjoyable as some of the other musicals out there. (Yes, I’m talking about you… Wicked, Rent, Phantom…)
And with that we grabbed our bags (Bryan worked near Grand Central Station during this timeframe so we stashed our luggage in his office before going to Book of Mormon) and headed back to Connecticut, this time taking the much cheaper Metro-North option.
Brooklyn is a calm(ish) oasis next to the bustling Manhattan scene and is worth a trip out there to relax and be able to see all the sides that make up the wondrous New York City.