If you’ve read my Unhelpful Guide to Boston (and if you haven’t, why not?!), you’ll know that I recently spent three weeks in the USA filming for one of the Science Channel’s longest-running TV shows. While I was there, I spent a lot of time working indoors and very little time at all doing any of the things the average traveller enjoys while on holiday.
Obviously this makes me completely unqualified to write a guide to the place. But I’m nothing if not determined, and I never let the facts get in the way of a good story (though I can promise there’s no Fake News here!*). So I’ve done it anyway, and here it is: my Unhelpful Guide to the next place we visited on our whistle-stop road trip: New York.
*That is, in fact, Fake News. There is some, but you’ll have to read on to find out what it is.
Where To Stay In New York (Part 1)
Of course, if you’re going to New York, you’ll want accommodation that’s as far from anything interesting as possible. I mean, why would you want to stay in the buzzing heart of Manhattan, when you can go somewhere that’s an hour and a half away?
At least, that’s clearly what the person making our bookings thought.
To be fair, there were, y’know, reasons. The main one being budget. Our filming involved doing interviews with various experts, for which we needed a large and quiet space where we could set up a studio. And the easiest way to find such a thing is on AirBnB, where for less than the price of an identikit room in a Travelodge you can get an entire house in a distant suburb that will serve as studio and hotel all-in-one, well away from the sirens and horns and engines of the city centre.
At least, that was the plan.
Spacious houses being either non-existent or butt-clenchingly expensive in Manhattan, we’d been booked into a place in an area called The Rockaways, right by the sea in a remote part of Queens. Since I knew we’d barely be leaving the house anyway, I wasn’t too fussed about being far from the city. I liked the sound of staying somewhere quiet, and if there was an actual beach I might even get a chance for a nice run along the promenade. Great stuff!
Until I looked it up on a map. Look, there it is: that long thin peninsula all the way down at the bottom is The Rockaways. So far from Manhattan it’s practically in the next state, but we do like to be beside the seaside, amirite?
But wait a second… what’s that major landmark just across the water from where we’ll be staying? See it, marked in blue? Take a closer look…
Ummm, not being funny, but that appears to be a major international airport. Not quite what I had in mind when I said ‘Please can we be somewhere quiet, we’ve got interviews to film’. I don’t know what you understand by the word ‘quiet’, but to me it means no busy traffic, no building sites, and definitely no planes taking off and landing every 90 seconds.
But when I raised my concern with the office, they brushed my fears aside. It’s fine, they said, we’ve contacted the owner of the property, and she’s assured us that it’s not underneath the flight path. It’s a lovely quiet area, she said…
And to be fair, when we arrived on a sunny afternoon, it was indeed quiet. If anything, too quiet.
This is Arverne by the Sea, an area of The Rockaways. Isn’t it creepy? Identical greige houses. Perfectly manicured patches of lawn. Precisely trimmed hedges. Barely a speck of dust on the pavements. Even the sky looks like it’s been painted on. Nobody in sight, and not a sound to be heard. I felt like I’d stepped into the Truman Show, and still can’t be 100% sure all those houses are actually real.
So if you do decide to come and stay down here, I recommend you book a real house, not one that just turns out to be a fake front propped up on struts.
Happily, ours did indeed turn out to be real. And whoever owns it clearly decided to rebel against the uniformity of the place when it came to the interior decor.
That’s my cameraman Orlando in the photo, putting tinfoil on the patio door. Because as everyone knows, the first thing you should do when you check into an AirBnB is cover all the windows with foil so that none of the fake neighbours can look in – and nor can the sun.
Don’t worry, we’re not vampires, and we’re not setting up a brothel. The foil is to shut out the daylight so we can turn the downstairs into a studio. Here’s what it looked like when we finished:
And so, with the windows blacked out and the lights set up, we were ready to go.
Until this happened.
Not under the flight path, they said. Nice and quiet, they said. I don’t know about you, but when you’ve got planes flying so low overhead you can see the tyre marks from their landing gear on the roof of your house, that seems pretty under-flight-pathy to me.
So here are my two top tips for where to stay in New York (also applicable for all destinations, actually):
- If you want somewhere quiet, it’s probably best not to be 100 yards from the end of the runway of a major international airport.
- And never EVER trust anything an AirBnB host tells you.
A Slightly Helpful Guide to The Rockaways
Disclaimer: This next section might actually contain a few bits of useful information. If that’s not what you came for, feel free to skip to another post. How about this unhelpful one about Bruges?
Still here? OK then. Here are a few things I learned about The Rockaways.
1/ As you now know, The Rockaways are a bajillion miles from Manhattan. This means that for a long time the only people who wanted to live here were the ones who were too poor to afford to live any closer. I could be wrong, but from the run-down high rises and empty plots of land I got the impression that this used to be a not-very-nice area at all.
2/ But the cost of living being what it is, and gentrification being what it is, people from Noo Yoik (that’s how they say it, right?) started looking further and further afield, and at some point some entrepreneurial developer looked at The Rockaways and thought, ‘Y’know what? It’s really not all THAT far! We can build a bunch of houses and market this place as a genteel, quiet neighbourhood and make a tonne of money! And that’s exactly what they did. So now you have this interesting mix of people who’ve lived there for ever in their run-down flats, and the out-of-towners who’ve bought their beachfront investment properties in the swanky Truman-show-eque new developments. Not dissimilar to many remote London boroughs, as it happens. Croydon IS the new Clapham, apparently.
3/ In case you hadn’t noticed, The Rockaways are by the sea. Not sure which sea this is; my very basic geography knowledge tells me it could well be the Atlantic, but maps sometimes have an annoying habit of playing tricks on me so it might also be some random bay or bit of sub-sea that no one’s ever heard of. But anyway, the area has a pretty decent sandy beach, and a fabulous long, wide promenade which I even managed to go for a run along. It was great. 10/10 would recommend.
4/ Even though it looks like quite a nice place to live, buying in The Rockaways could turn out to be a terrible investment. Sure, it might look sunny now, but if all those terrifying climate change predictions are correct, in about ten years your charming flatpack seaside house will be about three metres underwater. I can imagine it’s already not all that pleasant in winter, with the full force of the Atlantic lashing over your front porch. But for a summertime visit for a few days, it was actually pretty nice. If you enjoy the sound of planes roaring overhead, of course.
Where To Eat In Rockaway Beach
So you’ve arrived at your charming AirBnB just a smidge outside New York, you’ve relaxed to the calming sound of A380s and Boeing 787s as they lift gently skyward, and you’re starting to get a bit hungry. So what do you do?
If you’re like me, you initiate phase 2 of the ‘settling into a new AirBnB’ plan, which is to find the nearest supermarket. Ours turned out to be this one, just five minutes up the road, and my God, it was huge!
Yes, I know you probably think it’s a bit weird to take photos in supermarkets, but I find foreign supermarkets endlessly fascinating. In this one I was particularly amazed by the size and the range of fruit on offer. Apples so shiny you can see your face in them, strawberries the size of your fist, bags of cherries bigger than a sack of potatoes. Fruit in America is like a champion bodybuilder: insanely polished, alarmingly brightly coloured, implausibly pumped up, attractive yet deeply suspicious.
Of course supermarkets don’t only sell food. They supply for all your information needs too – as long as you don’t expect that information to contain any actual facts. Much like this post, in fact, so maybe that’s your thing.
In the news and magazines section I found this wonderful publication:
I absolutely love America’s obsession with our Royal Family, and the complete lack of evidence they need to publish complete fiction as though it’s fact. This edition is from June 2018, well before Meghan was even pregnant (she gave birth in May 2019, so that means that last June little baby Archie was no more than a twinkle in Harry’s eye). And yet here we have – FACT! – she’s pregnant with TWINS! And a quote from Harry himself, no less: ‘We’re naming the girl Diana’.
Gotta admire the creativity of some of these so-called journalists, don’t’cha? LOLS.
After I’d stocked up on the latest celeb gossip, strawberries the size of tennis balls and peaches that James would’ve been proud to call home, and Orlando had finished setting up his lights, we went for dinner.
Since it was sunny and we were by the sea, we decided to see if we could find somewhere with outside space. The Rockaways are still very up-and-coming, so there aren’t quite as many cute bars and restaurants as you might expect, but we did manage to find this place on the north side of the peninsula looking back towards Manhattan.
It’s called Bungalow. I wouldn’t have remembered this because unlike proper dedicated travel bloggers I wasn’t taking useful notes – but helpfully all the staff have it written on the back of their shirts. And in true US style it serves a vast array of enormous slabs of meat accompanied by huge portions of chips and salads swimming in creamy dressing. Healthy!
Because we are super glamorous, and were by the sea, Orlando ordered oysters. I’ve had oysters before once or twice, and TBH I think they’re overpriced and overhyped and taste like slimy clotted seawater, but I had one anyway. And was not remotely surprised to find they haven’t changed. But they look quite cool for a photo. Not sure that’s quite worth the price tag, mind you.
The thing I liked best about our dinner at Bungalow was the view. Ok, there’s an absolutely massive bridge in the way, but the sunset was rather nice, and all the way off in the distance you can see actual New York. See, it’s really not that far after all!
Where To Stay In New York (Part 2)
But, scenic though they were, the Rockaways still had one major issue: those planes. And try as we might, having to stop the interviewee midway through every single sentence to wait for the roar of a jumbo jet to fade away was not exactly conducive to Getting Shit Done.
So after struggling through for another day, the office decided to move us to the Bentley Hotel in Manhattan.
We were finally going to New York!
We were each put up in a suite, not because the office was feeling generous or because TV is glamorous (if you still think that, you clearly haven’t been paying attention), but because each suite comes with an itty bitty living space that’s just about big enough to build our mini studio in.
Still, the rooms were quite smart. Albeit a little cosy, but this is central New York, after all.
Side gripe: what is it with hotels always tucking in sheets so tightly you can’t get into bed? No one wants to feel like they’re sleeping in a straight jacket! I seem to spend my life wrestling furiously with the results of housekeeping’s aggressive tucking in…
… only for them to come the next day and put it all back again.
Like many higher end hotels, this one had a mini bar, full of the usual overpriced drinks and snacks designed to trick you into accidentally spending £££ without noticing. There was, however, one thing in the minibar selection that I’d never seen before…
Not quite sure what kind of hotel this is, but now I’m wondering if they rent their rooms by the hour…
Things To See And Do In New York
I have absolutely no idea. Empire State Building? Central Park? I’ve heard it’s also nice to go to New York at Christmas, but I can’t comment because I haven’t been then. I’m sure there are plenty of actual helpful guides you can search for, like this one about visiting New York for the first time. All I got to see was this street, at night, when we went out to get dinner. Not sure what street it is though. Or even if it’s a Street at all. It might be an Avenue.
I also saw this lovely underground car park, where I nearly got into a fight with the attendant when I tried to park the car myself, not realising I was supposed to get out and give him the keys so he could park it for me. So that was fun. Can Americans not be relied upon to park their own cars?
So all in all, my two days in New York were pretty thrilling. But all good things come to an end, and soon it was time to leave New York and move on to the next leg of our East Coast USA journey. There’ll be another Unhelpful Guide coming your way when I get round to it.
Have you been to New York or the Rockaways? What was your experience? Do you have any actually helpful tips? Leave them below!
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