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The Buffalo News

Nov. 25, 2007

Train Ride to the Big City is a Great Time with the Girls
By Christine A. Smyczynski

The four of us walked out of Macy’s Herald Square in New York City at closing time, arms full of shopping bags. “Hey,” I said to my friends, “I have a crazy idea. The Empire State Building is open until Midnight, let’s go up and see the lights of New York City.” The girls loved the idea and it was probably one of the most beautiful sights we saw during our three day adventure in New York.


What brought us, four middle-age, suburban Buffalo moms to the Big Apple? Three of us, Mary, Linda, and me celebrated a milestone birthday this year. We wanted to do something special, in addition to our customary going out to lunch.


It was decided that a trip out of town was in order; no kids, no hubby, no chores, just hanging out together to shop, eat and sightsee for a few days. After kicking around a few ideas, we decided on New York City. However, since I really, really hate to fly, and none of us wanted to drive there, we decided to do something we’ve never done before, travel by train.


Joining us on our adventure was Trish, Linda’s friend who loves to travel and who has been to New York several times. Bleary-eyed, the four of us boarded the Amtrak train at the nearly deserted Depew station at 4:20 am. After the initial excitement, we tried to catch some shut-eye; not the most comfortable thing to do in coach seats. When the sun came up, we watched the scenery fly past; once we passed Albany, the tracks follow the Hudson River all the way to New York.


We brought along some snacks and beverages, since there’s no three ounce limit like on the airlines. However, if you don’t bring your own provisions, there is a snack car on the train.


Arriving at New York’s Penn Station about 12:30, we were amazed at the number of people traveling by train. We definitely were not in Depew anymore! With luggage in tow, we walked the two blocks to our hotel, La Quinta Inn Manhattan, located in New York’s Little Korea section.


Our rooms were spacious and reasonably priced, at least by New York standards. In addition to being close to the train station, it was just around the corner from the Empire State Building and Macy’s, and only a 20 minute walk to Times Square. We spent a little over $300 per night, per room, with two people sharing a room, which is what we budgeted for. If you want to splurge, you can spend a lot more at some of the more luxurious accommodations closer to Times Square.


While we picked the dates earlier in the year, about a month prior to our trip we did a little planning as to what we were going to actually do. One night we converged at Mary’s house and sat in front of her computer, looking at all sorts of information about New York. Linda’s daughter-in-law, who grew up in New York had also put together a packet of information. We were literally overwhelmed with all there was to see and do.


We made our train reservations online; however, you usually can buy tickets at the station just prior to departure. As to everything else to see and do, we knew we wanted to go on one of the double-decker bus tours, see a play and do some shopping. However, we decided that rather than planning our trip minute-by minute, we would have a basic plan and do most things spur-of-the moment.


We wanted to see a Broadway play the day we arrived, so we checked out TKTS, the half-price ticket office, temporarily located in the lobby of the Marriott Marquis at Broadway and 46th Street. (By the time this article goes to press, the TKTS booths, which were closed for renovation, may be re-opened in Duffy Square, at Broadway and 47th Street) We arrived there just before the office opened at 3pm and there were already hundreds of people in line.


There was no guarantee we’d get tickets to the show we wanted or get four seats together. We bit the bullet, pulled out one of our cell phones and called Ticketmaster and ordered full priced tickets to Hairspray. It turned out to be a wonderful performance and we had really good seats considering we bought them only hours before.


We found that it was actually faster to walk than take a cab or bus, since traffic seemed to be in perpetual gridlock. Plus, walking was a great way to discover the city. Our group especially enjoyed walking through Times Square at night, which was much different than the last time I was in New York, over thirty years ago. Back then, I found it rather seedy and kind of frightening.




Today, the area has changed for the better, with all sorts of shops, restaurants and throngs of people. Most of the shops, including Hershey’s Times Square, the M & M Store and a huge Toys R Us with an indoor ferris wheel, are open until midnight. Many of the restaurants are open all night. On impulse, on our way back from the theater, we stopped for pizza, something we probably wouldn’t do at 11:00 pm at home.


The next day, we didn’t really have any set schedule; however, we knew we wanted to see the city from the top of one of the popular double-decker buses, a tour I highly recommend. We got tickets for the hop-on; hop-off “all loops” tour offered by Grayline, a good deal at $49 per person, because tickets are good for 48 hours, so you have two days to see the city.


We got the tickets for the bus right around the corner from our hotel, near the Empire State Building. Just look for the guides with the red vests near the Grayline bus stops. While you can get tickets at most hotels and at the Grayline Visitors Center, these “red vests” work for commission and they really do work hard for their money. Of course, we sat on top, this is the only way to see the city on these tours.


We began the tour at the Empire State Building and got to see many of New York’s neighborhoods including Greenwich Village, SOHO, Chinatown, the World Trade Center Site, South Street Seaport and the East Village. Since we had done quite a bit of walking the day before, we were content to just sit and ride. The ride is narrated by knowledgeable guides, so we learned many little-known facts about the city.


However, when we got to the Central Park stop, Linda suggested that we get off to see the park, since it was such a nice day. Once inside the park, it was hard to believe that we were in the middle of a bustling city. We spent several hours exploring the park. One of the highlights was seeing Strawberry Fields and the Imagine memorial to the late John Lennon, which is located near the Dakota apartment building where he lived.


Our stomachs started to rumble, so we hopped back on the tour bus and headed to Little Italy, which is surrounded by Chinatown. As soon as we got off the bus in Chinatown, street vendors tried to sell us knock-off purses. There were also numerous sidewalk vendors and shops offering inexpensive items, like jewelry, sunglasses, ties, and more handbags. We even saw food shops with all sorts of raw seafood displayed. Chinatown is interesting, but definitely a bit edgier than some of the other neighborhoods.


Once we reached Little Italy, a charming one block area along Mulberry Street, we had a hard time deciding which restaurant to eat in, as they all looked good. Maitre D’s from each restaurant were standing on the sidewalk and turning on the charm as they tried to lure us in. “Ladies, I have a good table for you right here, no waiting. We have the best pasta in town.” We finally decided on Napoli’s Café, which had very good food.


Afterwards, we stopped at Ferrara’s Bakery, one of Little Italy’s best-known landmarks, and picked up some cookies to eat back at the hotel. Then it was back through Chinatown, past the annoying purse vendors, to get back on the bus.


Our next stop was further uptown, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue. All of us were impressed by the beauty and architecture of the Gothic-style cathedral, which opened in 1879.




The rest of the evening was spent shopping, first in Times Square and then at Macy’s, the world’s largest store, which is located on 34th Street. We spent several hours browsing, and buying. We then headed up the Empire State Building for an incredible view.


You would think that by now, these four middle-aged moms would call it a night. But no, since our hotel had an open-air, roof-top bar, we figured, what the heck, it’s a nice night, let’s check it out. Sipping wine and whiskey sours, we talked about our day and enjoyed the great view of the Empire State Building.


The next morning we got an early start to see the Today Show, because Bruce Springsteen was the featured performer outside on the plaza. Being part of the crowd was a lot of fun. Afterwards, more shopping was in order, including shops on 5th Avenue.


We followed Trish to the American Girl store; since her daughter is a collector, she had to be sure to make a stop there. We also went inside Sak’s 5th Avenue. I found most of the merchandise to be well beyond my budget, although it was fun to look.


If we had more time, we might have window shopped at some of the more exclusive shops further up 5th Avenue and on Madison Avenue; maybe next time. If we were in the market for diamonds, we could have shopped along 47th Street, which actually has street lights shaped like diamonds.


Since we only had a few more hours before our train departed, we sought out a deli, got some sandwiches and ate them in the park in Herald Square, right by Macy’s We had time for one more quick visit to Macy’s, before retrieving out luggage from the hotel and heading to the train station.


I have to admit that we had a few anxious moments trying to find the right place to be to get our train. However, we were lucky; one of the “red caps” saw the panicked looks on our faces and asked if we needed help. He loaded our luggage on a cart, took us down the elevator and we arrived at the track just as our train did. Mary referred to him as our angel with his wings tucked in and said it was a beautiful thing to get on an empty train and have someone load your baggage. He even told us to sit on the left so we’d get a better view of the Hudson River.


After the train pulled out of the station, the conductor asked us if we wanted to make reservations for the dining car; we figured, why not? It was actually quite nice, with tablecloths, flowers on the tables and real dishes and silverware. Mary said she felt like she was on the Orient Express. The food, which was cooked to order in the small kitchen on the train, was really good and not too expensive. After diner, we headed back to our seats, and drifted off to sleep until we arrived back in Buffalo.


If you go
Amtrak (1-800-872-7245;
New York Convention & Visitor’s Bureau Information Center (212-484-1222) 810 Seventh Ave., between W. 52nd and W. 53rd, New York.

Gray Line Visitor’s Center (1-800-669-0051, 212-445-0848; ) 777 Eighth Avenue, New York. Offers double-decker bus tours of the city. Tickets can be purchased at the visitor’s center, as well as at most hotels and at each bus stop from red vested guides. A two-day, all loops pass costs $49.

Empire State Building (212-736-3100; ) 5th Avenue @ 34th Street, New York. Open daily 8am-midnight.

La Quinta Inn Manhattan (212-736-1600) 17 West 32nd Street, NY, NY

Spend some quality time with your best friends.

Girlfriend getaways, women vacationing with close friends or female relatives, are becoming increasingly popular. A recent survey conducted by the AAA showed that 24% of American women have gone away with friends in the past three years and another 39% plan on taking a trip with their girlfriends in the near future.


Personally, I know of at least three groups of women who are planning trips to New York City in the next few months. Another woman I know, who has several friends scattered around the northeast, has made arrangements for all of them to meet at a bed & breakfast inn in the Finger Lakes Region for a getaway.


There’s even a national magazine, Girlfriend Getaways, from the same publisher of Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, which focuses exclusively on destinations perfect for women’s getaways.


In western New York, Simply Just for the Girls, a business operated by Suzanne Wright of Canandaigua, helps women plan their trips. For a small fee, Suzanne will organize a customized women’s getaway in the Finger Lakes wine country or anywhere in upstate New York. Just tell her what you’d like to do and she’ll take care of all the details and reservations. For more information see or call 585-393-9365.