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New York Art Escape: NYC and Bear Mountain State Park

Author: soliteyah (More Trip Reviews by soliteyah)
Date of Trip: June 2011

For the past several years, my mom and I have traveled together to various places around the U.S., including Santa Fe, San Francisco and Boston. This year we decided we didn't want to fly, so instead we planned an art-centric escape to New York City, with a side trip to Bear Mountain State Park (because we love hiking too!). Between museums and sculpture gardens, we packed as much art as we possibly could into five short days.

First thing in the morning we took the NJ Transit train to New York City's Penn Station, only a few blocks' walk from our hotel, the Hampton 35th St.-Empire State Building. At $200 a night including tax, the hotel was more expensive than what I'd normally spend, but that's New York City for you. It was worth the price for the location and the room: two comfy double beds, a big flat-screen TV with a dizzying array of channels, and a nice clean bathroom. There was no view to speak of, and bizarrely the black-out curtains didn't go all the way across the windows, just the white linen sheer. Not so hot for a) changing clothes or b) sleeping! But fortunately the way the room was facing (and the huge building next to ours) blocked most of the morning light, so we slept just fine. The computer in the lobby, which offered free printing and Internet was a great perk, as was the complimentary hot breakfast.

flower cloister cloisters museum new york cityAfter we dropping off our suitcases, we headed back to Penn Station to catch the A subway train up to the Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that houses its medieval art collection. There was some nail biting on my part over whether the A "express" train would stop at our station (190th Street), but fortunately it skipped a bunch of lower-numbered stations and then stopped at most of the higher ones, including ours.

We emerged into Fort Tryon Park, a large leafy garden/park overlooking the Hudson River from a high hill. Birds and butterflies flitted among the flowers -- hydrangeas, poppies, miniature roses. We had bought sandwiches at a Midtown Starbucks because we weren't sure what kind of food might await in or around the museum. It turned out to be a good call: the sandwiches were nothing special, but being able to pull up a shady bench and eat with a view of flowers, trees and the Hudson couldn't be beat.

The museum was an absolutely gorgeous space -- every gallery featured stone walls, soaring ceilings, stained-glass windows, etc. to mimic the types of spaces where the art (lots and lots of altar pieces, tapestries, religious paintings) would originally have been displayed. To be honest, medieval art generally isn't my thing, but the setting really elevated it. And they weren't kidding with the name: there are multiple cloisters here, serene and sunny spaces with flowering plants and bubbling fountains. Beautiful.

We grabbed tea and sweets (brownie for Mom, pound cake for me) at the Trie Cafe, which had tables surrounding one of the gardens. The food was overpriced, of course, but the setting made it worthwhile.

We walked back to the subway and rode all the way down to the South Ferry stop (switching subway lines at 59th). As soon as we exited the subway station, we were greeted by a mammoth STATEN ISLAND FERRY sign -- and that terminal was exactly where we were headed. We climbed aboard a big orange boat and rode out past the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ... for free! The weather was perfect too: nice breeze, not too hot, sun beaming through the clouds.

After the roundtrip ride, we took the subway to 23rd Street to find a place my aunt had raved about, Eataly. It's basically a huge Italian market with produce, pasta, meat, cheese, olives, desserts, etc., plus a restaurant (with mostly meat dishes), several "seating spots" (seafood, vegetarian) and a standing-room-only area where folks seemed to be sampling various small dishes. I didn't really want to stand, so we put our names in for the seafood station. After about 20 minutes, we were given a table.

Mom and I both ordered insalata del fruits de mar with potatoes and peas, plus a side of Swiss chard. We were given bread to start, which Mom noticed had mold on it. Lovely! They brought us a couple of new pieces, which seemed fine. Then the meals arrived, and honestly? A disappointment. I'd been hoping "seasonal seafood" meant shrimp, scallops or crab, and that insalata meant salad with greens, but neither of these was the case. We had mussels, clams, oysters, and squid/octopus-looking things in a truly meager proportion, with a couple dozen peas and three or four mini-potatoes. The Swiss chard ($5 extra) was a substantive portion, but tasted just okay. The meal set us back $73, with no dessert (sorry, have to go to a different part of Eataly for that), appetizers or drinks. Meh. Our server was nice, but otherwise it was underwhelming and overpriced.

Mom picked up some fruit for the next few days from the produce market, and then we were out of there, walking about 12 blocks back to our hotel. I was feeling a little cranky after the loud crowds and Eataly, but it was a nice walk back in the last hour or so of fading daylight.

We got off to a later start than I wanted and didn't get to the Brooklyn Museum till 10:55 (I was aiming for 10), but that turned out to be lucky because our guidebook had the opening hours wrong! So we only had a 5-minute wait before we could get in. We bought combo tickets with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden next door (for a slight savings), and then headed to the 5th-floor American collection. There was lots of good stuff there, including paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe and Thomas Cole, but my favorite part was the Visible Storage area, which was like a peek into the museum's attic -- a cool, darkened space with shelves upon shelves of paintings, pottery, furniture, silver ... some really nice pieces. And in one corner were drawers of miniature goodies like silvery jewelry and Hopi tiles -- it was like opening surprise Christmas gifts each time I slid a drawer open to see what was inside. I loved the sense of looking behind the scenes of the museum.

We took a break for lunch in the museum cafe, whose puke-green color scheme could use a bit of a facelift. The food options were okay -- we got salads that were generous at least, if not gourmet.

judy chicago dinner party sojourner truth plate brooklyn museum of artThen it was back upstairs to the 4th floor, where we got our treat of the day: Judy Chicago's "Dinner Party," a large-scale installation in the museum's Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art. It starts with several banners inviting the viewer in with words about equality, and then you enter a darkened room with a triangle-shaped table with 39 place settings, each for a woman (real or imagined) who made an impact on history. They ranged from Kali, Ishtar and Sappho to Margaret Sanger, Emily Dickinson and Georgia O'Keeffe. Each setting had a hand-painted plate (typically featuring an image of a vagina in some level of abstraction) and accompanying table runner evoking the qualities or accomplishments for which she was known. (The design on Sanger's plate was as red as menstrual blood, for example, while one of the first female astronomers had a plate resting on a bed of stars.) The floor/platform on which the tables rested was scrawled with the names of 999 more influential women who related to the main 39 in some way. You could learn more about all of them on the heritage panels in the next room, which made for absolutely fascinating reading (with pics too). The whole thing was very powerful -- worth the price of admission in and of itself.

After that we checked out the European paintings on the 3rd floor, which were cool, but we'd been at the museum nearly 4 hours at that point and were feeling a bit art-ed out -- plus we wanted time for the botanical garden next door. So we headed there next, and wow, it was massive! The rose garden was in bloom and looked gorgeous; there was also a Japanese-style garden on a pond with colorful koi, a huge Italian-style formal garden, herbs and veggies, wildflowers, etc. etc. (And don't forget the indoor conservatories with orchids, bonsai, succulents, etc.) The rose garden and nearby summer blooms were my favorite part, although the Japanese garden had what would've been a serene charm if not for all the kids squealing over the koi.

yellow flowers brooklyn botanic gardenOne cool moment: a mother duck and her ducklings came up to us on one of the paths, so close that the ducklings were pecking at my tennis shoes! (Mom leaned down to pet them and got her finger nipped for her troubles.) I couldn't believe how calm Mama Duck was over her babies getting so close to humans, but I guess she's used to it. Mom also had a butterfly land right on her shoe.

We quickly stopped in at the Brooklyn Public Library just down the street; it was an imposing building with gold designs on the facade and a big plaza in front with tables and fountains (complete with kids jumping in them). If we hadn't been so exhausted we might have explored the stacks a bit, but instead we quickly scanned the gallery of Brooklyn-themed art and photos in the main room and then headed back to Manhattan in search of a decent dinner.

My guidebook listed a Middle Eastern and a Turkish restaurant within a few blocks of Times Square, so we ended up there for a few minutes en route from the subway, and ugh. Just ugh. So crowded and touristy and awful! Fortunately once we got onto 45th Street things cleared up, and we stumbled upon a Turkish/Mediterranean place called Antalia -- not one of the two in my guidebook, but small and quite lovely. Mom and I both ordered the price fixe menu: $19.95 for an appetizer (we ordered hummus and baba ghanoush), a main dish (we both got salmon kebabs wrapped in grape leaves), and dessert (baklava with chestnuts). Everything was fantastic, and the whole thing only cost us $53!

temple of dendur metropolitan museum of art egyptianWe got up on time this morning, checked out of our hotel and took the subway to the Met, where we were greeted with a lengthy line waiting for the museum to open. Fortunately it moved fast once the doors opened, and soon we were perusing the rather intimidating floor plan. We headed first to the American Wing, since we knew we wanted to see the Tiffany stained glass. On the way we passed through the amazing Temple of Dendur exhibit, a full-scale Egyptian temple in a lofty glass atrium -- stunning. We also wandered through some period rooms, colonial-era paintings, etc., before we found a room with stained glass. Even better was the atrium of that wing, featuring at least a dozen sculptures and a few of the most gorgeous stained-glass pieces I've ever seen. A richly colored autumnal landscape by a woman from Tiffany's studio was my favorite work of the day.

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