A bite out of the big apple

For two and a half years I called the United States home. During this time I visited some incredible cities – Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Miami – yet the one place I get asked about the most is New York City.  ‘Where’s the best place to eat?’ ‘What should I do?’ ‘Is the Rockefeller Center or Empire State Building best for views?’ So, straying from my typical style of writing, today I’m giving you my take on the city that never sleeps – which by the way is true, it never sleeps.

403
New York City from the Staten Island Ferry

TIMES SQUARE IS OVERRATED
Don’t get me wrong, the flashing lights and giant billboards can be mesmerising and it is worth seeing however don’t base your entire trip around Times Square. It is overpopulated and the restaurants on and around Times Square have long wait times and charge significantly more for regular menu items.

YOU HAVE NOT SEEN NEW YORK UNTIL YOU HAVE LEFT MANHATTAN
You’ll find that most people only associate New York City with Manhattan, however New York has SO much more to offer, including four other boroughs. That includes Brooklyn and Queens.

YOU CAN’T SEE EVERYTHING
If you’re visiting New York for the first time, be realistic, you won’t have time to see everything! I know a lot of people that feel overwhelmed when visiting the big apple as they feel they need to see/do all the major attractions. Just remember this, you can try and rush around to see as much as possible but take the time to consider what you want to see rather than attempting to tick everything off of some list that you found on the internet.

NYC TAXIS ARE SLOW
You know the movies where the guy calls a cab in New York and rushes to tell ‘the one’ that he loves her? You won’t make it in time in real life. Taxis are slow due to traffic and are generally very expensive. Sometimes, walking can actually be quicker; just don’t walk everywhere.

THE SUBWAY IS GREAT
Don’t be afraid to take the subway. It is one of the largest public transportation systems in the world and the primary mode of transportation for the majority of New Yorkers and tourists. (If you’re in New York for more than four days, it’s worth purchasing an unlimited metro card. A single ride costs $3, a seven-day unlimited metro card costs only $33.) For a comprehensive subway guide visit: https://www.wanderlustingk.com/travel-blog/nyc-subway-guide

DON’T EAT AT CHAIN RESTAURANTS
It is currently estimated that there are 24,000 restaurants in Manhattan alone which means there’s no shortage of places to eat. Lists of ‘the best places to eat in New York’ are ever-changing however constants include bagels, Chinese food, and New York-style pizza (don’t let anyone tell you that Chicago style is better, it’s not!)

THE HOLIDAY SEASON IS MAGICAL
There’s something about being in New York during the holiday season; the colourful balloons and floats of the Thanksgiving Day parade, the bright lights of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree and the incomparable excitement of watching the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
Having attended the Thanksgiving Day parade my advice is to arrive early for a good view and wear layers, it’s November and it is cold! (The next day you can enjoy all the amazing Black Friday deals!)
If you’re visiting over the Christmas period, be sure to visit the Christmas windows at some of the cities iconic department stores: Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales. Other things to do in New York during the Christmas season include ice skating (skip the Rockefeller Center and head to Central Park or Byrant Park), the renowned Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall (purchase your tickets as soon as you know you’re going), the festive Union Square Holiday Market and the iconic Rockefeller Christmas tree. When visiting for New Year’s I chose to avoid Times Square and celebrated like a native New Yorker on board a luxury yacht on the Hudson River! It was everything you’d think it would be and more.

WHAT TO SEE IN NYC

9/11 MEMORIAL & MUSEUM – Reflect on the terrible events of 11 September 2001, however, be respectful of those who lost their lives here. Don’t remove flowers or take smiling selfies. Pre-booking is suggested.

CHINATOWN – A vibrant, densely populated neighbourhood in downtown New York.

WALK THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE – I suggest taking the Subway across to Brooklyn and visiting the BROOKLYN PROMENADE for panoramic views of Manhattan before walking back across the bridge.

STATEN ISLAND FERRY – Head to Battery Park to pick up this free ferry service and take in amazing views of the STATUE OF LIBERTY. If you want to visit the island that the Statue of Liberty sits on, pre-purchase is essential!

WALK THE HIGH LINE – The High Line is a public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets of Manhattan’s West Side. (Allow yourself at least an hour.)

WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK – Known for its arch (honouring George Washington) and fountain, the park is the famous heart of GREENWICH VILLAGE.

GRAND CENTRAL STATION – The historic train station is one of New York’s most famous filming locations. TIP: Try and find the WHISPERING GALLERY.

NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY – With nearly 53 million items, the New York Public Library is the second-largest library in the United States. The marble ‘library lions’ have captured the affection of New Yorkers since the library opened in 1911.

CHRYSLER BUILDING – This art-deco skyscraper is a staple of the New York City skyline.

EMPIRE STATE BUILDING – The highest open-air observatory in New York. The observation deck on the 86th floor offers a 360-degree view of New York and beyond.

TOP OF THE ROCK – With sweeping, uninterrupted views of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline, including the Empire State Building, the Top of the Rock observation deck is my preferred viewing platform. (I personally prefer Top of the Rock to the Empire State Building and so if you had to chose just one, make it Top of the Rock).

MET STEPS – Get your Gossip Girl moment on the steps of the METROPOLITAN MUSEUM.

CENTRAL PARK – I recommend finding BELVEDERE CASTLE, BETHESDA TERRACE (if there are street performers, they’re worth watching) and THE BOATHOUSE. (Allow at least two hours to explore Central Park.)

FOOD & DRINK

SERENDIPITY III – An iconic establishment known for their Frozen Hot Chocolate – which by the way are amazing!

STICKY’S FINGER JOINT – Possibly NYC’S best chicken fingers. I went for the fried green beans and salted caramel pretzel chicken fingers and was not disappointed!

GRAY’S PAPAYA – Featured in one of my favourite movies ‘The Back-Up Plan,’ this New York hot dog joint is cheap and cheerful!

SHAKE SHACK – Shake Shack sprouted from a hot dog cart in Madison Square Park. Today they’re THE BEST burgers around.

SUGAR FACTORY – Self-proclaimed the sweetest place on earth, the cocktails at the Sugar Factory are incredible.

CHICK-FIL-A – I fell in LOVE with Chick-Fil-A when living in the US. It is THE HOME of the original chicken sandwich, and their waffles fries and homemade lemonade are to die for! If you’re visiting from overseas, I recommend sampling my favourite American fast food. TIP: The waffle fries and homemade lemonade are to die for!

CARLO’S BAKERY – From the hit TV show ‘Cake Boss’ the original Carlo’s Bakery is only a train ride away from Manhattan, otherwise, Cake Boss Cafe in Times Square sells the famous and delicious ‘Crumb Cake.’

FINAL THOUGHTS
New York City, no matter what time of year you visit, is magical. There’s a saying ‘Anything can happen in New York’ and it’s true! If you let it, New York will wear you down but if you allow the city to show itself to you, with its quirks, charm, and beauty, you’ll fall in love with it!

Call it magic

Pastel-hued deco design buildings, palm-fringed boulevards and sun-kissed bodies on white-sand beaches; Miami – the beating heart of the state of Florida.

During the two and a half years that I spent living and working in North Carolina, I was fortunate enough to experience the variety that the Sunshine State has to offer on numerous occasions; this included two separate trips to Miami. My first time in the aptly named ‘Magic City,’ I travelled with a friend, and we celebrated the New Year, hitting up the key attractions in South Beach and Downtown Miami. The second time I visited, I was by myself; I hired a car and ventured out a little further.

23785892338_bae79781ca_o
Ocean Drive
6013551C-5B3D-4542-BAED-71E1377F5756
Ocean Drive

Miami and its surrounding suburbs could almost be a world of their own, a melting pot of ethnicities from around the USA, the Caribbean and Latin America. Miami is one of the few genuinely international cities in the United States – over half the population is Latino and more than 60% speak predominantly Spanish – with so many different facets, it’s hard to believe they all fit in one place.

When tourists think of Miami, they generally consider Miami Beach to be a part of Miami when in fact it is a municipality of it its own. Miami is on the mainland, while Miami Beach is four miles east across the Biscayne Bay. Miami Beach, more specifically Ocean Drive in South Beach (1st to 11th Street) is everything that you see in the movies, white sand, art-deco design, cruising cars and in-line skaters.

The pastel shaded heart of South Beach is the world-famous Historic Art-Deco District. Stretching between 5th and 23rd Street, along Ocean Drive, Collins Drive and Washington Drive, the whimsical pastel buildings evoke the beauty of Miami and were, in the early 20th century, meant to arouse the future and futuristic modes of transport. Today, the 800 plus 1930s and 1940s art-deco structures have National Protection. Ocean Drive has some of the most striking art-deco architecture in Miami Beach. Between 11th and 14th streets you’ll see some of the best examples: the Congress Hotel  shows pristine symmetry in it’s three story exterior. The Tides is one of the most beautiful nautical themed hotels, and the Cavalier (pictured below) flaunts its seahorse theme, in stylised depictions of the sea creature.

Avalon Hotel, Ocean Drive
Cavalier Hotel, Ocean Drive

Dotting the shores of South Beach itself are the brightly coloured South Beach Lifeguard stands. Each stand has a unique art-deco design and features an array of bright colours. The stands were introduced after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida’s shores in the early 1990s and became a hallmark of Miami’s revival after the devastation. Today, there are 31 chimerical stands scattered along South Beach, and besides providing support to the Miami Beach Patrol Lifeguard staff, they’ve become a cherished symbol of Miami. Each lifeguard stand has its own charm, but my personal favourite is the lifeguard station at 13th street, (pictured below) painted red, white and blue, it depicts the beloved American flag.

shutterstock_58075429 (c) fotomak
5th Street Lifeguard Stand © fotomak
shutterstock_512234701 (c) Alexander Demyanenko
13th Street Lifeguard stand © Alexander Demyanenko
shutterstock_543302434
South Beach Aerial © Miami2you

South Beach offers much more than just white sand beaches and beautiful buildings. It is home to some of the best bars and restaurants in the whole of Miami, if not the world. Whenever I travel, I attempt to eat local cuisine that is low-cost. Nonetheless, I will always treat myself to at least one meal from an acclaimed restaurant. In Miami, I chose Hakkasan. Located on the top floor of the Fontainebleau Hotel’s spaceship-like tower, Hakkasan is a Michelin star, award-winning restaurant that offers modern Cantonese cuisine. Hakkasan has been rated within the top 20 restaurants in the world by Restaurant Magazine, and after dining here, it’s not hard to understand why. It’s as close to a perfect dining experience that one can have; from the 1930s Shanghai setting to the attentive waiters to the flavour infused food. My recommendation: Crispy Orange Chicken.

Another noteworthy restaurant in South Beach is the Sugar Factory. Located on Ocean Drive itself, Sugar Factory is an American Brasserie famous for its celebrity-inspired Couture Pops. Having dined at another of their locations in the Meatpacking district of New York City, I knew the standard of food would be high and the selection extensive. I wasn’t disappointed. After much contemplating, I ordered a S’mores Martini (non-alcoholic) and the Banana-Split waffle. The waffle was cooked perfectly, and the fruit so fresh and juicy. The martini, however, was unrivalled. The star of the show.

5D1F781D-1732-4B44-A757-F8472EC333A0
Sugar Factory Banana-Split Waffle
A05A4465-2A7C-4358-BF79-B087B068F171
Sugar Factory S’mores Martini

Across Biscayne Bay is Downtown Miami, the beating urban heart of Miami. The bustling epicentre is packed tightly with fluorescing skyscrapers, modern art galleries and a wealth of shops, bars and restaurants. Downtown Miami is a mix of old and new, a neighbourhood of layers and unlike other parts of Miami, you don’t need a car. Free public transport is available to shuttle you from place to place, and parts of downtown are walkable.

It was downtown, from the Bayside Marketplace, north of the Miami river, that my friend and I embarked on our cruise around the Miami Islands. A 90-minute narrated tour past the Downtown Miami skyline, the Port of Miami, Fisher Island, Miami Beach and Millionaires Row – an exclusive area of Miami known for its billion-dollar, star-studded homes. I found our cruise not only enjoyable but informative and marvelled at the grandeur of the houses sprinkled through the Miami islands.

Bayside Market Place © oneinchpunch
Shaquille O’neal’s House
Liz Taylor’s House

Little Havana is Miami’s vibrant Cuban heart and is the most prominent community of Cuban Americans in the United States. The district is a living, breathing, immigrant enclave and was one of the neighbourhoods I was most excited to explore. Cubans began migrating to Florida in the 1950s, but their numbers swelled after Castro came to power in 1959, and in the 1960s the area was named Little Havana. Its main drag, Calle Ocho, attracts tourists for authentic Latino food and music, however when I wandered off the main track, I saw the neighbourhood unfold.

My first time in Miami, I found a hole in the wall take out (Pinolandia, 119 NW 12th Ave, Miami) and in broken Spanish, I ordered the best Cuban/Nicaraguan food I have ever sampled. Strips of succulent steak, rice and beans and the most delicious Cuban toast. Upon returning to Miami a few years later, I visited the famous Versailles Restaurant, featured in one of my most loved movies, ‘CHEF.’ Versailles restaurant is ranked the number one restaurant for Cuban food in Miami year after year. Be sure to try the celebrated Cuban sandwich if dining at Versailles.

Located on the corner of Calle Ocho and 15th Avenue is Maximo Gomez Park, or as the locals call it ‘Domino Park.’ Named after the famous Cuban revolutionary commander, Maximo Gomez, the park is a quintessential hangout for Cuban veterans and families. It is where you’ll find the real Little Havana locals smoking Cuban cigars, talking over the latest headlines, all while playing a game of dominoes.

Calle Ocho
6563330333_22d4ae8584_o
Murals painted on the exterior wall of ‘La Esquina De La Fama.’
26732643453_862b0b432f_o (1)
Versaille’s Restaurant, 8th Street
6564434025_f267608d12_o (1)
Domino Park

When I visited Miami solo, I rented myself a car as it allowed me the freedom to explore further. If you head north, away from South Beach, you’ll find the Design District, a mecca for interior designers and home to dozens of galleries and furniture showrooms. Wynwood, the former warehouse district, has quickly become the standout arts hub of southern Florida. Starting with murals, street art and graffiti, today there are more than 70 galleries and museums housed in abandoned factories and warehouses. This thriving district centres around Wynwood Walls, a collection of murals and paintings laid out over an open courtyard. Wynwood walls is as unique as it is creative. Embellished in everything from life-size murals and graffiti quotes to abstract paintings and larger than life sculptures and although the galleries are significant, Wynwood is an outdoor art exhibit, and some of the best art can be found by simply wandering the streets.

Wynwood Walls
Wynwood Walls
Wynwood Walls
BBCCC650-B469-485B-8AAF-A0EF1D8C60F2
Wynwood
8DFBC1B0-6748-4E18-A584-CFBD2EFDFE94
Wynwood

Miami is a city of layers, and after visiting the city twice I feel that I have still only scratched the surface. I hope to return one day and explore Little Havana and Wynwood further but also venture to new neighbourhoods, including Coconut Grove.  Miami’s oldest neighbourhood; it is an upscale, leafy neighbourhood with relaxed sidewalk cafes, chic shops and bayfront views that exudes bohemian vibes. Little Haiti, steeped in the complex and rich cultural histories of the Afro-Caribbean immigrants that reside here, the neighbourhood is known for its global restaurants, colourful street murals and fruit stand. Nonetheless, Miami, the Magic City, truly offers something for everyone.

50 shades of stingray

“Legend has it that if you kiss a stingray, it will bring you seven years of good luck.” I don’t know how true this statement is, but it’s what I was told as I dipped my toes into the still-warm waters of the North Sound right before I touched down on the sand bar known as Stingray City.

Stingray City is a series of shallow sand bars found in the North Sound of Grand Cayman of the Cayman Islands. Southern Stingrays can be found in abundance here, and it was the local fishermen that first attracted the majestic marine animal to the area. At the end of their working day, the fishermen would set anchor on the sand bar and clean their catch, disposing of unwanted carcasses and unused bait overboard. Before long, they began to notice dark clouds floating across the seabed. The dark clouds were, of course, Stingray. The stingray started to associate the sound of a boat motor with food, and today the fishing boats have been replaced by tourists looking to interact with and feed these regal creatures.

1

From a young age, I’ve been intrigued by life under the sea, and I believe that’s down to my father and his love of diving and aquatic animals alike. At the age of 11, I was introduced to scuba diving, completing a PADI Seal course in a swimming pool in my home town. Since then I’ve sought out a life of a different nature in multiple countries; Australia, (The Great Barrier Reef) Egypt (The Red Sea) and Belize (The Hol Chan Marine Reserve) to name just a few. So when I uncovered “Stingray City” whilst visiting the Cayman Islands, I, of course, signed myself up for the half-day expedition.

We sail away from the jetty, cruising the calm Caribbean Seas, the sun is shining, warming my face. I listen to the waves lapping against the side of the boat, and I feel quite at peace with myself;  however, it’s not long before I feel an excitement swelling in me as we near the sand bars of the North Sound.

Up ahead I see dark shadows crawling across the sea bed like lost souls who only come into clear view as we draw closer – dozens of Southern Stingrays.

After the standard safety briefing, I’m standing waist-deep in water, which is uncommonly bright. I feel something brush my leg; however, the perpetrator has disappeared; this happens several times.

I’m living in the moment, taking everything in, enjoying this unique experience when our tour guide effortlessly picks up a stingray out of the azure blue sea. He chaperones him towards my face, and it is now that I am supposed to kiss this Southern Stingray.

2

In some ways, I feel like I’m reliving my first kiss all over again, I close my eyes, clench my fists and lean in. My lips are pressed up against the underside of a Stingray; my brain is trying to digest what is happening. It feels smooth and soft against my lips but also a little hard. The slime coating rubs off on my lips; the mucus that protects them against bacteria.

I have kissed a stingray. That’s not something I ever thought I would hear myself say: ‘I kissed a stingray.’ I imagine it’s similar to what it would feel like to a kiss a frog, except there is no handsome prince when you open your eyes or happily ever after. I’m also quite certain I didn’t get my seven years good luck.