Group takes a bite of the Big Apple

For those of us who ventured in June from the plains of Kansas to the streets of New York City, the four-day trip seemed to place us in an entirely different world.

For me, the Big Apple was nearly as foreign as other major world population centers I have visited. The traffic signs, advertisements and at least some of the words spoken around us were in English, but that fact did not fully balance the constant assault on our senses of normalcy.

From the moment we set foot on our new territory, we knew, like our friend Dorothy said, we were not in the Sunflower State anymore.

My wife and I had the privilege of escorting nine young?well, mostly youngish?ladies on this tour put together by Smithsonian Student Travel. Some were high school juniors and seniors from Hillsboro and western Kansas; a couple were area women who took advantage of the opportunity to voyage to a place they had never seen. We couldn?t have asked for a better group of travelers.

The flights from Wichita to Atlanta and from Atlanta to New York?s LaGuardia Airport went smoothly. A few from our group were infrequent fliers. In fact, a couple of them had never flown before. So, air sickness was a definite possibility. As it turned out, we overcame some bouts of queasiness, and our connection went seamlessly.

I recommend that you book your flights through Atlanta with AirTran rather than Delta if possible because you will greatly cut down your airport scramble time. Atlanta is Delta?s hub, so, if you fly that airline, you have no idea what gate you will need to find?let alone what terminal?in what is commonly referred to as the world?s busiest airport.

AirTran has only one terminal and, thus, only a fraction of the variables to mess up on a short layover. In my experience, Wichita flights through Atlanta have a notoriously short connection time. Anything under 90 minutes is cutting it too close.

Upon arriving in New York City?technically, LaGuardia is in Queens, one of the five boroughs that make up the NYC metro area?we were met by tour guide Cathy Nail, who would be with us for the entirety of our stay. We soon discovered she was an expert on the Big Apple and, additionally, on every movie ever made there.

We spent a couple of hours waiting for the rest of our entourage, a student group from El Paso, Texas, to arrive. In order to make these types of tours more affordable, Smith?sonian combines travelers from different parts of the country into one big, happy (it is hoped) family.

Our friends from Texas tried our patience a few times, but, overall, we got along well. Most were younger than our group, and we occasionally found ourselves wishing they would move a bit more quickly. There is only so much time to cross a busy street, and Cathy?s No. 1 rule was ?no crossing against the light.?

We traveled by chartered coach into the heart of Manhattan for our first look at the city of 19 million. With more than 800 languages spoken there, NYC is the most culturally diverse city in the world. By comparison, the Kansas City metro area is about 2.1 million. Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States, boasts a population of about 12 million.

Our senses immediately went into overload mode. We started our tour with a drive past the United Nations building. Since the world leaders were not meeting at the moment, however, the flags that usually line the street were not being displayed. So, photo opportunities were limited to a couple of sculptures. One looked like a metal globe that had been dropped from a significant height. The other was a huge pistol with its barrel tied in a knot.

Next stop was Rockefeller Plaza, home of NBC Studios at ?30 Rock.? We hung around a while, soaking in the busyness of the place, a prime tourist attraction. There is a Lego store with giant figures made from the miniature building blocks. Fans can buy Legos by the bag as well as by the box.

In the main plaza, flags of all the countries of the world surround a sunken area where skaters glide in the winter and diners gather for lunch in summer. The NBC store is located in one corner of the network?s office building. We were promised a return to the area later in the week.

The afternoon was turning to evening, so we headed for a supper stop before coming face-to-face with the granddaddy of all NYC structures, the Empire State Building.

Since we already had tickets, we bypassed much of the crowd and headed for the elevators. We crammed inside and zipped up to the 80th floor, the staging area for the next lift to the observation area six stories higher. We were told the wait for a ride would be at least 30 minutes, so we opted for the stairs and a shorter 10-minute climb.

I?m not going to lie. By the time we reached our destination, I was winded. The view was well worth it, however, despite the human traffic jam that surrounded the top of the second tallest building in the city.

The crowding was further exacerbated by a film crew at work. We found out later we were within a few feet of Tom Cruise, who was being filmed for a movie. A couple of members of our group, who were heights challenged and stayed down below, saw him being hustled through the lobby.

Though it was already late evening, the people just kept coming. The building is open until 2 a.m. daily. At $23 per ticket, somebody is making a lot of money.

Just after sunset, we returned to our bus, and driver George pointed the coach toward Totowa, N.J., our home away from home. The daily drive in and out took about 30-45 minutes, depending on traffic. It was a nice way to wind down after time in the city and build excitement at the start of the day.

The next morning, we headed back through the Holland Tunnel and onto the island of Manhattan. Along the way, we passed the Meadowlands sports complex and an indoor ski facility. We learned that buses going into the city from New Jersey have their own lane. Actually, it was more like their own street. Many drivers make two trips a day to transport workers to and from NYC.

First stop of the day was the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. We looked around a while, then crossed the street to the Hungarian Pastry Shop, where we bought a cherry pastry of some sort. I don?t remember exactly what it was called, but it was delicious.

We loaded the coach and cruised through some of the famous neighborhoods of New York, including Harlem. Cathy tried to explain how the different parts of the metropolitan area are divided officially into boroughs, but they are also set up as neighborhoods, such as Chinatown, Upper Manhattan, Lower Manhattan, the Upper East Side, the Lower East Side, and so on. Each has its own history and characteristics. Harlem is home to the famous Apollo Theater, where many African American musicians from Ella Fitzgerald to James Brown to Stevie Wonder began their careers.

George dropped us off near Central Park for lunch at a Gray?s Papaya at 72nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue. This famous hot dog store, one of which TV personality Regis Philbin purportedly frequents for lunch, offers what is considered one of the best meal deals in the city: two hotdogs and a fruit drink for $4.95.

Interestingly, New York does not charge sales tax on food and clothing. So, I wondered, why not set the price at an even $5 so the proprietors would not have to fumble with the nickel change on each transaction?

The combination of dogs and fruit juice made for an interesting taste experience. Wife Kathy and I also purchased a kebob from a street vendor to round out the meal. It was chunks of beef, grilled and skewered on a wooden stick, then covered with sauce. It honestly didn?t have much flavor, and it was messy to eat.

We sat in a small park across the street, but the rain invaded our picnic and cancelled our planned walk through Central Park. Cathy contacted George, and he brought the bus around. The radar on our smart phones didn?t look promising, so the afternoon plan shifted to time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

We had only a couple of hours to see as much as we could, so we put Kathy, an expert map reader, in charge of the Kansas contingent. We did walk-by viewings of pieces by virtually every famous artist from Picasso to Warhol. We saw paintings, sculptures, musical instruments, suits of armor and even a container from Italy that housed Mary Magdalene?s tooth, roots and all.

From the museum, we moved on to Broadway and a production of ?Sister Act,? starring Raven Symone. I remember her from the Nickelodeon show ?That?s So Raven.? She was also Olivia on ?The Cosby Show.? But, I digress. It?s no secret that I am not a huge fan of musicals. This, however, was a whole new ballgame. These people are good. The sets were amazing, and the acting and singing were phenomenal.

After the show, it was back to Totowa for a short night?s rest. We had a date with Lady Liberty early the next morning.

More on that and the rest of the trip in my next column.

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