Christmas in New York City – The Top 5 Experiences

Christmas in New York City

Exploring New York City at Christmastime is a dream for many travelers. This year I finally made it to the Big Apple to experience all that the holiday season has to offer. Here are my top 5 things to do while rocking around NYC during the most wonderful time of the year.

The Christmas Spectacular Show Starring the Radio City Rockettes

Radio City Music Hall
Radio City Music Hall is ready for Christmas!

The famous Rockettes have been around since 1925, and have appeared at Radio City Music Hall since 1932. Luckily, it’s not the same set of women who are doing those fantastic high kicks! The Rockettes anchor the Christmas Spectacular with their synchronized dancing and I couldn’t help wondering when they danced in a long line why they were all the same height. Did they only let women join the group who were exactly 5 feet 9 inches tall? The show also features a medley of Christmas songs, a live orchestra, a 3D appearance by Santa and his reindeer, and amazing video effects throughout the theater. The show was fast paced and very entertaining.

Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza
The magnificent Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza

The Giant Christmas Tree and Skating at Rockefeller Center
The Christmas tree display is at Rockefeller Plaza, between West 48th and 51st Streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenue. I walked past the tree several times while in New York and every time it was mobbed by tourists taking selfies. Upwards of half a million people pass by the tree very day. That’s a lot of holiday shoppers. This year the Christmas tree is 75 feet tall. I wouldn’t want to be the person who had to put the star on top of it.

The Rink at Rockefeller Center is an iconic attraction in NYC around Christmastime. I had big plans to show off my triple axel skills on the ice, but due to the cold weather and the long lines I decided to save myself the embarrassment of repeatedly falling on my butt in front of people from all over the country. Yes, I grew in the frozen northland of Minnesota, but I don’t really know how to skate…

Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas windows
Can you name the Seven Dwarfs?

Fifth Avenue Window Displays and Christmas Shopping

The fancy department stores on Fifth Avenue have spectacular window displays at Christmastime. The Saks Fifth Avenue store on Fifth between East 49th Street and East 50th Street has a holiday light show on the side of the building at night. This year the window displays at Saks celebrate the 80th anniversary of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Other great window displays include Bergdorf Goodman (on Fifth Avenue between East 57th Street and East 58th Street), Bloomingdale’s (on Lexington Avenue between East 59th Street and East 60th Street), and Tiffany & Co. (on Fifth Avenue at East 57th Street. While you’re window shopping, you might as well go into some of the stores for the big Christmas sales.

One World Trade Center midtown view
A view of Midtown Manhattan from the One World Trade Center Observatory

City Views from One of the Skyscrapers

No trip to New York City is complete without at least one outing to a skyscraper’s observation deck to see the city from above.  Thirty years ago I visited the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center several times. On this trip back to New York I definitely wanted to see the new World Trade Center complex that was rebuilt after the 911 terror attacks. The observatory at the new One World Trace Center (at 285 Fulton Street) is on the 101st floor and provides incredible views of the surrounding area. During Christmastime the observatory hosts a Winter Onederland (That’s pronounced like Wonderland, not Oh-knee-der-land), complete with Ollie the snow owl, a glacier cave, and Santa’s Village.

Unfortunately, the day I went to the observatory the sky was overcast and then it started snowing, so photographs of the day are somewhat dreary. I also didn’t get to tell Santa what I wanted for Christmas, since I heard he called in sick because of a spiked eggnog hangover.

View from World Trade Center
Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge

If you don’t want to go downtown, other sky high vantage points are in Midtown at the Empire State Building’s 102nd floor observatory (on Fifth Avenue between East 33rd Street and East 34th Street) and the Top of the Rock observation deck in Rockefeller Center.

One World Trade Center view
The World Trade Center tower from the Hudson River

Nighttime River Cruise around Manhattan

It may be cold out, but taking a river cruise on the Hudson and East Rivers is a great way to see the city lights from sea level. Most of the time you can sit inside by the heater and have a drink, but occasionally you should venture out to the bow of the ship to brave the wind chill for the perfect photo op. Classic Harbor Line at Pier 62 in Chelsea, Eleventh Avenue and West 23rd Street) has happy hour cruises that are a good way to kick off your night on the town.

Statue of Liberty at night
Still standing for freedom.

Honorable mention: For a nice break while walking around Greenwich Village, get a scrumptious cookie and a hot chocolate or a latte at the Milk and Cookies Bakery at 19 Commerce Street. This tiny place was inundated with Girl Scouts when I arrived. After answering their survey questions about my preferences in cookies, they cleared out and I could finally get to the counter. I had difficulty choosing from among the decadent desserts, but eventually went into a chocolate chip cookie coma…

 

For more great tips on the best of NYC, see Best Things to do in New York

Center map
Traffic
Bicycling
Transit

Top 3 Pros and Cons of Traveling to French Polynesia

Bora Bora lagoon view

Taking a vacation to the islands of French Polynesia has long been on my travel bucket list. Recently I spent my two week honeymoon there and was surprised by what I found.

Pro #1: South Pacific Beauty

The islands of the South Pacific are well known for their beauty and mystery. Ever since the explorer days of Captain Cook, the allure of islands has captivated westerners. Because the islands are atolls formed from volcanoes, they typically have mountainous centers jutting dramatically into the sky. The mountains are covered in the lush landscape of the tropics, and surrounded by those fantastic lagoons. The view of the night sky is outstanding and for the first time in my life I saw the Milky Way, as well as thousands of stars. There are few places on Earth that rival French Polynesia in natural beauty.

Mt. Otemanu on Bora Bora
Mt. Otemanu on Bora Bora

Pro #2: Lagoon blues

The blue waters of the lagoons in French Polynesia are simply amazing. When you see photos of the water you automatically think that the photos have been edited and overly saturated with color. However, the water actually looks like that! The water is very clear and because white sandy bottoms are underneath the shallow water of the lagoons, the properties of physics applied to light waves through water results in those incredible blues. The darker areas of the lagoons are regions of coral reefs. In the Tahaa lagoon I drifted through the reefs along with the current while snorkeling. I floated past hundreds of brightly colored fish and saw unreal looking blue, green, and purple clams.

Bora Bora lagoon view
Those blues are real! No filters…

Pro #3: Over Water Bungalows (OWBs)

If you go to French Polynesia, if at all possible you must stay in an OWB. They’re more expensive than staying in a beach bungalow or a garden bungalow, but they’re worth it. Staying in an OWB is a pleasure perhaps best reserved for a special occasion like a honeymoon or a big anniversary. It can be a magical experience. The bungalows are spacious and have high end amenities, including decks, sitting areas, and offer spectacular views. Many OWBs have coffee tables with glass top surfaces so that you can see the fish swimming below you. At night you can turn on the under-bungalow lights to attract the fish and feed them.

over water bungalow
A luxury over water bungalow (OWB) on Tahaa.
OWB bedroom
A unique coffee table at the end of the bed with a view of the fish below.
OWB bathtub on Tahaa
Anyone ready for a bath?

Con #1: Expense!

The islands of French Polynesia are very expensive to visit. The islands are in one of the most remote areas of the world. There is little competition among airlines so the airfares are typically high. Almost everything on the islands have to be shipped in or flown in. Accordingly, prices for food and drinks are high. For example, I shopped at a small market on Bora Bora and bought a medium sized bag of Doritos for $7 and a 1 ½ liter bottle of Coca-Cola for $6. Of course, the prices at any of the four star and five star resorts are very high also, such as $26 cocktails, $24 burgers, $45 breakfast buffets, and $5 cans of soft drinks. An average meal for two at an island restaurant easily goes over $100.

Bora Bora beach bungalows
Beach Bungalows on Bora Bora.

Con #2: Infrastructure

In driving around the islands of Tahiti, Tahaa, Bora Bora, and Moorea, I was struck by the extreme disparity between the five star resorts and the poverty of the local population. It’s true that the big resorts provide the main source of employment for the locals, but it seemed that the rest of the local economy is in shambles. There didn’t seem to be any middle class, and the islands have very few shops, restaurants, and businesses. Locals typically live in rundown houses and shacks, some with corrugated tin roofs. Dogs run at large all over the island, with some unkempt dogs sleeping on the sides of the roads. It didn’t seem unsafe, just decrepit. Since the business infrastructure is so lacking, when it rains (as it did for four days when I was on Bora Bora) there isn’t much to do.

motu by Bora Bora airport
Not much on this motu….

Con #3: Inaccessibility

Because French Polynesia is thousands of miles from anywhere else on Earth, it is hard to get to, and traveling to one of the resorts can be an ordeal. A North American or a European traveler must first get to Los Angeles.  Flights to Papeete on Tahiti, the capital and main city of French Polynesia, leave late at night and take about 7 ½ hours. Since Papeete is east of the international date line, you don’t lose a day, but do gain three hours. With the overnight flight and time change, flights arrive in the early morning, such as 5:30am. If you are traveling the same day to a resort on Bora Bora or another smaller island, which is what most travelers do, you’ll have to wait around the miniscule Papeete airport for a few hours, since flights to the other islands leave mid-morning. After an approximately 30 minute flight to the smaller island, you’ll take a boat to the resort. Depending on water conditions and the resort being visited, the boat ride can take 30 to 45 minutes. By the time you are checked into the resort and finally collapse on your bed, you will be tired.

Intercontinental Moorea beach view
The beach at the Intercontinental Moorea.

Despite the disadvantages, I think traveling to French Polynesia was worth the expense and effort. It was a trip of a lifetime that was uniquely rewarding.

(During this trip I stayed at the Le Tahaa Island Resort and Spa, the Intercontinental Bora Bora Le Moana Resort, and the Intercontinental Moorea).

Center map
Traffic
Bicycling
Transit

Swimming with Dolphins in Anguilla

dolphin flipper wave

Aischa popped out of the water and thrust her snout up to my cheek. She wanted a kiss. She held herself still in that position until I obliged by putting my lips on her face. Now happy, she tilted her head up and then slid down into the water and swam away.

dolphin kiss
Getting a kiss from Aischa the bottlenose dolphin.

I had never thought about interacting with a dolphin before; I thought that was something that would be more interesting for kids. However, on a recent cruise I signed up for a dolphin encounter excursion. I assumed it would be little more than a short photo opportunity in a big swimming pool where a dolphin would be confined like in an aquatic zoo. I was wrong. It turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip.

dolphin discovery
The beach and boardwalk at Dolphin Discovery on Anguilla.

The cruise ship stopped in St. Maarten and from there I sailed for an hour over to the neighboring island of Anguilla. After a short bus ride, I arrived at the Dolphin Discovery facility. These bottlenose dolphins live not in an artificial environment (e.g., a swimming pool) like at Sea World, but in a large fenced in area of the ocean. I walked on a long boardwalk out to the man-made lagoon and got in the water.

Scientists think that dolphins are one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. They’re highly social animals, living in groups (called pods) of up to a dozen members. They establish strong social bonds; they will stay with injured or ill pod members, even helping them breathe by bringing them to the surface to breathe if needed; and they have been known to protect swimmers from sharks. They are great communicators – by clicks, whistles, and other vocalizations, and by non-audible touch and posturing movements.

My guide’s name was Jose, and he was working with a young female dolphin named Aischa. Jose was a new trainer and he was still building up a rapport with the rambunctious teenager. Aischa had learned her dolphin encounter behaviors, but she sometimes disobeyed Jose and swam away to the other side of the lagoon to be with her boyfriend. Sounds just like a human being, doesn’t it?

happy dolphin
Aischa flipping into the air.

The dolphins at this facility were trained for at least four behaviors when interacting with guests.

The first behavior is the kiss. Jose instructed me to hold my hands together in a cupped fashion, extending my arms out in front of me. Jose blew his whistle and in response Aischa swam up to me and held her position with her head out of the water until I smooched her.

Next, I held my hands up high above my head. Aischa came out of the water vertically and, while balancing on her tail, waved her flippers at me. She seemed to be smiling and laughing at me as she nodded her head in unison with the flipper movements. It was so charming…

dolphin flipper wave
Doing the dolphin flipper wave!

For the next two behaviors I swam out into the lagoon. As instructed, I floated with my feet down in the water and held out my right arm while I put my left arm across my chest. On Jose’s command, Aischa swam in a circle around me until she approached me from behind. Right before she bumped into me, she flipped over onto her back and extended her flippers to either side. I grabbed on to the base of each flipper with my hands and away we went! She gave me a fast ride for about 10 yards until she started to turn back to her stomach and I let go. It was exhilarating to feel the strength of the animal as it powered through the water pulling my extra weight.

dolphin ride
Going for a ride on Aischa!

Finally, I floated with the upper half of my body on a boogie board. I straightened my legs, pointed my toes down and stayed motionless. Aischa swam around me in a circle again and approached me from behind. She pushed her snout into the sole of one of my feet and pushed hard. I shot forward like a cannon ball! She propelled me across the water for about 10 yards and then let go.

dolphin ride
Getting a big push!!

It is amazing to me that these animals like humans enough to cooperate with these behaviors. Of course, the sushi they get from the trainers as rewards help to persuade them.

Center map
Traffic
Bicycling
Transit

Falling for the Cash Payment Scam in Cabo San Lucas

More cabo rocks

“Good afternoon, sir! Is this your first time in Cabo?” asked the polite young man standing near the taxi counter in the San Jose del Cabo international airport.

“Yes, it is,” I replied. I had just picked up my suitcase from the baggage claim carousel and needed to get a ride to the coastal town of Cabo San Lucas, 45 kilometers away. I usually arrange my arrival transportation before leaving home, but for this quick trip to the beach I thought I would wing it. I’m an experienced world traveler after all.

“If you would like a taxi, the cost is $85 to Cabo San Lucas for up to three people.”

I thought that sounded pretty steep. I hesitated.

cabo beach
A walk on the beach in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

“Or you can take a shuttle for only $17 one way,” said the man. Calculating the cost savings in my head I quickly realized how taking the shuttle was a much better deal, even when I had to pay for myself and my traveling companion. We could get to the hotel for $34 and save $51! That’s at least five margaritas! Maybe ten at happy hour!

“Sure, we’ll take the shuttle,” I said.

“Will you be needing a return ride to the airport at the end of your trip, sir?” asked the man.

I don’t know. I might just spend the rest of my life here in Mexico relaxing in a comfortable lounger next to the pool, with the sound of ocean surf reaching my ears, and a waiter at my beck and call bringing me an endless supply of margaritas and nachos. I might never go back home.

Cabo resort
Palm trees, pool, ocean, and sunny warm weather!

“Yes, I need a ride back to the airport on Sunday,” I said.

“OK, here is the very good deal for you sir. You can pre-pay today for your shuttle ride back to the airport. I will give you a voucher to give to your shuttle driver on Sunday. In addition, you will get free breakfast tomorrow and a 50% discount on selected excursions from the Cabo marina. You can pay for today’s ride in cash or by credit card, but you pay for the return ride in cash.”

That sounded like a decent deal. I handed over my credit card. The man processed the transaction and gave me a ticket to give to the driver for today’s ride. I gave him two twenty dollar bills and he promptly gave me $6 in change along with the return voucher, which I stuffed into my backpack.

Cabo land's end rocks
Rocks at Land’s End in Cabo.

The ride to Cabo took about an hour. It was reasonably comfortable in the van and the views of the countryside were nice. I was stuck next to two girls who carried on the most inane conversation I had heard in years. I couldn’t figure out if they were drunk already or just uncommonly stupid. They were holding half empty Coronas.

First girl: “I see some water! Is that the Indian Ocean?”

Second girl: “I dunno…”

Cabo land's end rocks boat view
A view of the rocks at Land’s End from a boat.

A couple of nights later I was wandering around the small town of Cabo and decided to stop in a tequila factory outlet store. I had already drunk a few margaritas at a semi-famous bar called Cabo Wabo. I wasn’t at my sharpest mental acuity.

“Hello!” said the woman behind the counter. “Would you like to taste some tequila?”

Yes, I would indeed. Bring it on.

She brought out a dozen bottles and gave me many small tasting cups. I had never known that there were so many varieties of tequila. Some were delicious, some were disgusting, but most were somewhere in between.

I picked out a couple of bottles of tequila to buy and took them to the counter. The sign on the shelf listed the price as $35 per bottle.

“That will be $80,” said the woman.

Wait a minute, said my brain. I just saw a sign that said $35. I know that 35 times two is only 70.

“Uhh, I thought these were $35 each?” I asked.

“Yes, but there is a $10 tasting fee that you have to pay in cash,” said the woman.

I was thinking hard about how I was going to find my way through the streets of Cabo back to the resort as I gave her my credit card and a ten dollar bill. She expertly packaged my tequila bottles so they wouldn’t break on the flight back home.

More cabo rocks
I wisely did not try to climb these rocks.

The next morning I was stretching out on the lounger by the pool, contemplating the mysteries of life, when it hit me like a thunderbolt. There was no tasting fee. She had taken me for $10 and pocketed the cash. The purchase of the tequila bottles had a paper trail via the credit card transaction. The purported tasting fee became a nice tip. How many tipsy gringos could she get with that scam every night? Probably more than one.

Cabo Arch
The Arch at Land’s End in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

This got me thinking about the shuttle ride back to the airport. I didn’t go to the free breakfast and I hadn’t tried to get a discounted boat ride. I dug out the voucher that the guy at the airport had given me. It was a generic form for some vacation resort. The guy had filled it in with the return date to the airport, the free breakfast, and the discount offer. The form, however, did not have any information about the shuttle company. No name, no address, no phone number. I had nothing. The guy had gotten me a legitimate shuttle ride to the resort, but had kept the $34 cash for the return.

I had unwittingly fallen for the cash payment scam not once, but twice!

(for a story about another Mexican scam, check out The Mexican Police Holdup

Center map
Traffic
Bicycling
Transit

Searching for U2 in Dublin

Temple Bar

I’ve always been a big U2 fan. I loved their early music of the 1980s, tuned out a bit in the 1990s, and reengaged with their uneven albums of the past 15 years. I’ve seen them in concert a few times. They always put on a great show, but the concerts earlier in their career were more spontaneous, energetic, and thrilling. They’re getting old now, and in my opinion the recent shows are too over-the-top huge and overly programmed down to the last millisecond.

early U2 photo
U2 in the early days…

Back in 1983, the Irish band U2 was on the War tour across the US.  On Sunday, May 22, they played Northrop Auditorium on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. This was back in the day when the band played 5,000 seat venues and stadium tours were sometime in their future. I was a college student at the U of MN and months in advance I went with my best friend Laurance to the ticket office very early on the day tickets for the show went on sale. We were excited when we got tickets in the third row. I had finally atoned for my blunder the year before when I didn’t go early enough to buy tickets for the October tour date in Minneapolis. It sold out before I got there.

The show was fantastic, Bono climbed into the audience and sang part of song right in front of us, the Edge’s guitar work was amazing, and the crowd went crazy. When the show was over, Laurance suggested that we go outside to the back of Northrop Auditorium. He had heard that sometimes bands would go out the rear stage door when they left the building. So we hiked around the huge hall and found the stage door.

Irish pub
Traditional Irish pub in the Temple Bar neighborhood of Dublin, Ireland.

A small crowd of young people were standing by the stage door. We waited and waited. Nothing happened. The crowd thinned. People decided they had better things to do than wait any longer. After a long period of time we talked about leaving. But we were diehard U2 fans. This was our one chance to meet them. Only two girls remained with us.

The door opened and Bono, the Edge, and Adam Clayton, the bass player, emerged into the night air. They were friendly and talked with us for 10 or 15 minutes. We didn’t have a camera (smart phones weren’t invented yet), so the only image of the event I have is my memory. I remember that Edge was really short!

Me: “What does your Mom think of your success?”

Adam Clayton: “I dunno. She must like it.”

So much for my expert journalistic instincts in interviewing.

Girl #1 to Bono: “Do you know Mick Jagger?”

Bono, laughing: “Uh, no.”

Girl #2 to Edge: “Did you know Elvis Presley before he died?”

Meeting three of the members of U2 has been one of only three brief encounters with celebrities in my lifetime, along with seeing Wilt Chamberlain lean over a café counter (that dude was tall!), and urinating next to Walter Mondale in the Newark Airport men’s room.

Guinness sign
Yes, every day is a lovely day for a Guinness!

This summer I finally traveled to Dublin, home of Ireland’s favorite musical sons. I wondered if anything related to U2 existed in the city as an attraction. The only information I had was that they came from a North Dublin neighborhood.

In a tourist brochure I found a reference to a “U2 graffiti wall.” The wall was supposed to be on a street called Hanover Quay near the Grand Canal docks in the Dublin Docklands area. The Grand Canal was linked to the River Liffey, which runs through Dublin. It is one of the older parts of the city and quite run down.

Dublin graffiti
Thanks Dublin!

I navigated to the proper spot according to the map in the brochure but there was almost nothing left of the U2 graffiti wall. Many of the old buildings on the street were torn down and new condo towers were being constructed in their place. Only a couple of wall fragments were left. Across the street from this spot was a large anchor mounted in a concrete block. The anchor and the surrounding old brick had some U2 graffiti on them, perhaps as an afterthought when the wall was torn down…

Windmill Lane graffiti
The remnant of the Windmill Lane Studios.

A few blocks away from Hanover Quay is a small street called Windmill Lane. A recording studio was started there in 1978. U2’s early music was recorded at Windmill Lane Studios, culminating in the 1987 masterpiece that was The Joshua Tree. The studio moved to a different location in Dublin in 2006.

Windmill Lane RIP
Windmill Lane Studios former home is gone.

The site has been popular for music fans to visit and leave their creative mark. Because the area is being redeveloped, the building which housed the Windmill Lane Studios was demolished in April 2015, a few weeks before I visited. However, a section of one outer wall still stands, pending a decision on what to do with it. One idea is to preserve it and move it to another location.

Windmill Lane graffiti
More Windmill Lane graffiti.
Guinness barrels
Barrels of beer at the Guinness brewery.

I never made it to North Dublin to see the neighborhoods where the band members grew up. Instead, like everyone else I visited the Guinness brewery, took the touristy factory tour, and drank Guinness from the seventh floor bar (overlooking the unimpressive city skyline of Dublin).  Each night I made the touristic pub crawl through the Temple Bar area. Drinking Guinness beer and listening to live music in a series of small Irish pubs is a most excellent way to spend an evening in Dublin.

The band in every pub played U2 music at least once or twice in every set. That was OK with me, because I still haven’t found what I am looking for.

Temple Bar
The Temple Bar in Dublin.
Center map
Traffic
Bicycling
Transit