New York

Sunday Express, February 20, 2011

On tour in Manhattan

DUNCAN CRAIG peels back the layers of the Big Apple on four amazing sightseeing trips, including exploring Greenwich Village on foot and taking to the skies

THE ROTARY CLUB

New York in all its vertiginous splendour can be a pain in the neck. Save yourself a trip to the chiropractor by taking to the air and surveying its imperious skyline from above. Helicopter Flight Services, operating out of Downtown Manhattan Heliport at the foot of the island, offers a range of tours. The whole process is pleasantly infantilising: you are led out in single file, strapped into an adapted seat and spend the next 15 minutes saucer-eyed and gurgling in astonishment.

Bag “shotgun” if you can. The best views are up front and you can also stare at the dials in bewilderment. Our airborne loop took in Brooklyn, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the immigration station through which the forebears of an estimated third of all Americans alive today passed. This was followed by a Hudson River-hugging spin up to Midtown, its skyscraper cluster still dominated by the octogenarian art deco icons of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. It was then back to Lower Manhattan, Trinity Church’s elegant spire visible deep amid the canyons of the Financial District.

Through ear protectors the pilot provides a robotic commentary. For all their unwavering professionalism you sense these guys would probably rather be flying Black Hawk missions over Afghanistan. The almost apologetic “yee-ha” as our gentle descent ended in an imperceptible touchdown nearly brought a tear to the eye.

  • Helicopter Flight Services (www.heliny.com) offers tours from £86 (two minimum).

TAKEN FOR A RIDE

National Express meets Knight Rider, pioneering bus tour The Ride casts passenger as both spectator and spectacle. The tiered lateral seating faces a glass side and roof, offering an uninterrupted perspective of Manhattan’s dazzling streets and skyline. Glass is two-way, meaning you’re also on show, never more so than during the New York, New York sing-along finale piped out to all and sundry. You’ll kick yourself but you’ll join in. It’s that sort of jaunt.

Most of the laughs, however, are at the expense of those thronging the sidewalks. In this you are assisted by actors who mingle with the unwitting crowds at various spots such as Times Square and Carnegie Hall along the 4.2-mile, 85-minute route. Through concealed headphones and microphones they interact with The Ride’s vivacious hosts “Scott” and “Jackie” and perform to music only those on board can hear. The freestyle rapper, mocking bemused passers-by with split-second improvisation, is worth the fare alone.

Considering the tour is at the mercy of one of the world’s least predictable traffic systems, it is impressively seamless while the self-deprecatory tone (ironic graphics put the boot into everything from the city’s ramshackle Subway system to the dubious gastronomy of its food carts) is a welcome antidote to that occasionally wearing Big Apple exuberance.

  • The Ride (www.experiencetheride.com) offers tickets from £40pp (Thursday to Sunday).

The freestyle rapper mocking bemused passers-by with split-second improvisation is worth the fare alone

ON FOOT PATROL

New York’s Finest Walking Tours. The name is not a measure of founder Paul Murphy’s self-regard but rather a play on the sobriquet of his former employer, the NYPD. Modest and erudite, Paul is the antithesis of the brash New York cop stereotype perpetuated by countless movies, and much the better guide for it. Historical titbits are augmented by a contemporary insight drawn from two decades on the beat.

“It was like shooting fish in a barrel,” he says ruefully of the regular drugs busts he once performed in Washington Square Park, our starting point. The atmosphere in this hub of Greenwich Village is still nonconformist, though less illicitly so. Our amble through its snow-drooped maples and elms was accompanied by the sounds of a piano prodigy busking beneath the park’s robust white arch. A few streets on we came to the Stonewall Inn, rows of rainbow flags fluttering above its neon sign. In 1969, a transvestite enraged by years of police-sponsored extortion attacked an officer here with his high heel. The agenda-changing riots this act sparked cemented the bar’s status as the spiritual home of gay rights.

Our walk took in New York’s thinnest house, 75½ Bedford Street (didn’t stop it fetching £2.3million), Arthur’s Tavern – the jazz bar where saxophonist Charlie Parker served his apprenticeship – and the White Horse Tavern, from which Dylan Thomas purportedly stumbled before uttering his immortal last words: “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record.” Conversation was just as meandering, touching on everything from the Mafia to the arrest of a naked German in a bank. “When I joined the force in the Eighties the homicide rate was 2,000 a year,” Paul said over a farewell coffee in a Greenwich diner. “Today New York is officially the safest big city in the US.” Like his tours, a job well done.

  • New York’s Finest Walking Tours (www.thefinestwalkingtours.com) offers 90-minute tours from £10pp.

SPOKES AND MIRRORS

You’d be nuts to saddle up in New York, right? Wrong. Green-hued mayor Michael Bloomberg is on a mission to introduce two wheels to the city. Motorists are said to be exasperated by the bike lanes materialising all over Manhattan but if they’re angry, they certainly don’t take it out on you, the humble cyclist. During my five-hour twilight tour I encountered not so much as an inflected syllable. Our tour guide Jesse, by contrast, was shouting at everything with four wheels or two feet to trumpet our presence: “This is New York. People only listen to yells,” he explained.

This was a leisurely, engaging tour that took us from NoHo (north of Houston), to TriBeCa (triangle below Canal) and over to Dumbo (down under Manhattan Bridge overpass). Yes, you’re nowhere in New York these days without an acronym. Barring a short stretch adjacent to the security-lockdown United Nations building, a “greenway” cycle path flows around the entire perimeter of Manhattan. We joined this by Pier 40, a former cargo depot converted into offshore sports fields, and freewheeled down to the Financial District, lit in a crepuscular glow.

Here our five-strong group warmed up with a cuppa at the Winter Garden, images of its shattered and splintered glass carcass following the 9/11 atrocities still fresh in the mind. From the observation platform inside, Jesse interpreted the bustling construction of Ground Zero, memorial pools filling the twin footprints of the obliterated World Trade Center. The finale was a ride across Brooklyn Bridge with its twinkling arches, past the anodyne global headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (no, we didn’t knock) and back through Chinatown, its salivating aromas presaging a well-earned post-ride feast.

  • Bike The Big Apple (www.bikethebigapple.com) offers twilight tours (Sundays only) from £50pp, including bike hire. Other tours available.

* GETTING THERE: Travelbag (0871 703 4240 /www.travelbag.co.uk) offers three nights at the four-star Carlton Hotel, Madison Avenue from £489 (two sharing), room only. Price includes return flights from Heathrow to New York.
For departures March 2011.
NYC & Company: 020 7367 0934/www.nycgo.com