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…

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La Jolla Concours D’Elegance

Porsche 356C

Recently I visited La Jolla, California and was delighted to find that the 10th annual La Jolla Concours D’Elegance was being held the same weekend I was there. I didn’t go into the main competition area, but there were many classic cars on display in the scenic village of La Jolla. Sprinkled among the Ferarris, Corvettes, Shelby Cobras, and Rolls Royces were a selection of my favorite classic roadsters like the Porsche 356 and the MG.

Porsche 356B
1962 Porsche 356B Coupe
Rear view of 1965 Porsche 356C Cabriolet.
Rear view of 1965 Porsche 356C Cabriolet.
Porsche 356C
1965 Porsche 356C Cabriolet
1959 MG
1959 MG A Roadster
1961 Porsche 356C
1961 Porsche 356B Cabriolet
1961 Porsche 356B Cabriolet
Rear view of the 1961 Porsche 356B Cabriolet (1600 Super)
Austin Healey
Austin Healey, a classic British sports car

More photos of Porsches from my trip to the Porsche Museum near Stuttgart, Germany are here.

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Las Vegas With Kids?

Cirque Du Soleil sign

This is the time of year when many people take road trips.  Load up the car with the family, pack some games and snacks, and hit the open road.  There are many great places to go in the US.  If you have kids, is Las Vegas one of them?

I was asked this question recently by a friend.  My first thought was that Las Vegas is Sin City, the adult playground.  Why would anyone even think of taking the kids?  On second thought, there are a few things worth seeing in Las Vegas even if you’re under the legal drinking and gambling age.

Las Vegas Strip
How did she get here?

The Cirque du Soleil shows are definitely worth seeing when you’re in Vegas, no matter what your age.  On my last trip I saw the show called KA.  I thought it was amazing, engrossing, and thoroughly entertaining.  The stunts done in that show are unbelievable. When I go back I will try to see one of the other Cirque du Soleil shows.  These shows are quite expensive, but in my opinion are worth the experience.

Cirque Du Soleil sign
The KA adventure.

There are a variety of magic shows held around the Strip every night, including one by the longstanding crowd favorites, Penn & Teller.  I once saw Penn & Teller perform in a small off-Broadway theater in 1986.  Before the show they were out front chatting with the guests as they walked in.  They probably don’t do that anymore. Kids might actually enjoy magic shows more than cynical adults.  They might not spend every minute of the show trying to determine how each trick was done (like I do). (Looking for a place to stay? Why not try ARIA Las Vegas?)

If you want to give an older kid a thrill, or perhaps see a younger child hurl his Cheerios from the top of a tall building, go to the Stratosphere Hotel.  The highest thrill rides in the world have names like X-Scream and Insanity.  Just the names are enough to make me queasy.

No visit to Vegas is complete without watching the fountain show in front of the Bellagio Hotel.   The show is figured prominently in one of my favorite movies Oceans 11. Who doesn’t like fountains? But why are they so popular in the desert?

Bellagio fountains
That’s a lot of water.

Finally, the Hoover Dam is a few miles outside of the city.  An engineering marvel of the Great Depression, the dam created the largest reservoir in the US.  One gruesome fact is that 112 people died building the dam. I’m not sure if any of them actually fell into the concrete mix and are still there or if that is just a myth.

Hoover Dam
That’s a lot of water and a lot of cement.

My final advice was that Vegas might be worth a stop for a day or maybe two only if it is on the way to somewhere else (such as Los Angeles, Yosemite, or Phoenix).  I wouldn’t have it as my final destination.  Unless you want to see Prince Harry play pool.  In that case, leave the kids at home.

A Zombie in Las Vegas?

Las Vegas Boulevard

I was looking to my left at the stretch party limo slowly cruising neck and neck with the yellow Lamborghini when the man bumped into me from the right.  He didn’t say anything, he merely grunted and stared at me with a glazed look in his eyes.

He was dressed in raggedy old clothes, layer upon layer to retain warmth. It can actually get cold in the desert at night.  I thought he must be one of our unfortunate citizens who live on the streets and scrounge for beer money by redeeming cans and bottles.  He smelled like a vomit and gangrene cocktail.  His hands were filthy and what was left of his wild brown hair stuck out in tufts on one side of his head.  The other side was a bare wasteland of cuts, bruises, and old scars from fighting for the last drop from the wine jug.

It was his face that screamed for help.  It was covered in blood.  The blood had congealed somewhat around his nose and eyebrows, but otherwise was still fresh and dripped down his jaw to pool on the collar of his stained shirt.

What happened to this guy?  Should I call 911?

Before I could do anything he grunted some more and shuffled ahead of me.  I silently trailed him while I tried to think about my options. The sidewalk crowds were heavy and the man had to push his way through.  Most people coming from the other way glanced at him, did a double take, and then avoided getting anywhere near him as they passed.

Then a group of rowdy young men, who had obviously been drinking heavily, crossed the guy’s path.  They looked at the bum and then at each other and I thought there might be some trouble brewing.  Maybe these tough looking dudes thought beating up a wino would be fun.  Instead they broke into wide sloppy grins and started giving the guy “high fives.”

“Way to go dude!” said one of the young men.  “That’s awesome!” said another. “You’re the best zombie on the Strip tonight!” said a third.

The guy smiled, grunted, and shuffled along.

This scenario was repeated many times as I walked behind the guy from the MGM Grand all the way to the Venetian.

Just another Saturday night in Las Vegas.  Where the Walking Dead go to party.

Do not forget to make sure you have a valid ESTA before your trip to the US!

Las Vegas Boulevard
Part of the Las Vegas Strip

Can You Still Get Your Kicks On Route 66?

map of Route 66

“Uncle, where is Route 66? Can we go see it?”

I started to think. Route 66, Route 66… that sounds familiar.  There must have been a movie or a TV show about it way back before I was born.  From the back corners of my brain’s database I recalled a vague phrase about getting your kicks on Route 66.  Yet I had to have an answer for my niece Dorota, who was visiting from Poland (she was our tour guide at the Polska Polka Party and in Krakow).

map of Route 66
Route 66

“I don’t know Dorota. I’m not sure where it is.  I think it goes through northern Arizona.  Perhaps on the drive to the Grand Canyon we’ll find it.”

“I work with a man at the bakery who is obsessed with Route 66,” she said.  “He reads about it all the time.  He collects things about Route 66 that he displays in the office.  I want to go there and bring him something from Route 66.”

Not to be outdone in the knowledge of Americana by a Polish bakery manager, I knew I had some research to do.

Route 66 is known as the Main Street of America.  It runs from Chicago to Los Angeles.  Established in 1926, it served as the main highway for the people who migrated west to California, especially those fleeing the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  It was also a main vacation route for millions.  Route 66 was popularized by a hit song and a TV show in the 1960s.

The highway ran through many small towns across the west.  The travelers along the route provided economic vitality to these small towns.  In the 1950s and early 1960s, the towns were bypassed by the new Interstate Highway System.  Nobody had any reason to drive the route through the towns when the interstate was so much faster.  As a result, the towns of Route 66 faded away or were stuck in a time warp.

As I analyzed the map, I saw that Route 66 goes through the small town of Williams, Arizona.  Great!  We’re going to stay overnight in Williams.  We’ll have a look around and see what we can obtain for the European Route 66 fanatic.

Route 66 in Williams, Arizona
The last bypass.

When we got to Williams, we checked into our motel on the edge of town.  The motel was a little run down.  The TV in the lobby was tuned to the old western movie channel.  There were giant piles of snow still in the parking lot from the late winter snowstorm that hit a few days ago.  The desk clerk was asleep at the counter.  She was an old woman who looked like she had been there since the 1940s. It was that kind of town.

I rang the bell on the desk a few more times than was necessary.

“Can you check us in and give us a restaurant recommendation?  We’re starved.” I asked.

“No need to get uppity!” she said. “I’m right here and I can hear you. The best place to go is the diner down the street on the right hand side. You can’t miss it.”

“Thanks.  Can you also tell us where Route 66 is?” I asked.

“You’re on it,” she said, and promptly put her head back down on the counter and instantly fell asleep.

We drove down Main Street.  There were a few stores still in business, a gas station, and several decrepit motels serving the Grand Canyon tourists.  There was even the World Famous Sultana Bar!  I’d never heard of it, but then I am not very knowledgeable about cocktails.

Sultana bar in Williams, AZ
It certainly is world famous...

It looked like any number of old west towns on a Friday night.  There was nothing to see and nothing to do.  Nobody was kicking anything.

And then on right was the diner, just like the old woman said.  Cruisers!  It was lit up in bright red neon and it had a 1956 Chevy sticking out of the roof of the restaurant like Godzilla had thrown it there once upon a time.  The décor was fantastic.  There were old gas pumps, advertising signs, posters, and car parts.  It was 1950s Americana, only it was too perfect, like a movie set designer had scoured the country for just the right things to set the mood.  I expected Fonzie to pop his head around the corner at any time and say “heyyyyyyyyyyyy!”

neon sign for Cafe 66 in Williams, AZ
Any kicks to be had in here?

It would have been cool if the waiter matched the décor.  Instead he wore board shorts, skater shoes and his arms were covered with tattoos.  Apparently he didn’t get the memo about the ’50s diner theme.

The food was mediocre, the service was slow, and they didn’t even play ’50s rock and roll over the sound system.  Lady Gaga in a ’50s diner doesn’t cut it. However, they had the mother of all Route 66 souvenir shops in the adjoining store.

“Hey Dorota! They have everything you could possibly want to buy for your co-worker that has Route 66 on it.”

Shirts, hats, mugs, shot glasses, cards, posters, signs, ashtrays, you name it, they had it.  The store was packed full of Route 66 memorabilia.  Unfortunately, everything was made in China and was probably manufactured in the past few months.  I imagined a factory town somewhere in the Chinese interior with many large factories churning out all of this stuff.  I think the Chinese workers have no idea what Route 66 is, nor do they care.

After scouring the store she eventually bought a Route 66 placemat for the Polish bakery manager to add to his collection.  The placemat showed the route across the American West.  Williams, Arizona was not on it.

I learned that there are not many kicks left to be had on old Route 66.  It’s all gone now.  The only thing left are faux 50s diners and tacky gift shops.  But at least we found out where Elvis has been hiding all these years.

Statue of Elvis in Williams, AZ
Elvis and two of his fans.