Elfing Our Way Through the Greatest City in the World: A Perfect Weekend for New York City Novices

“Young Nate” grew in strength in the heart of the Midwest (otherwise known as Hillsboro, Illinois), at which point he boarded a Greyhound and rode until the mountains rose up and the sky stretched as far as the eyes could see (Missoula, Montana). Once he was married to the lovely Terra and stopped finding excuses to continue his college education, he became “Young Adult Nate” and continued to venture further westward to the water’s edge (Washington) where he grew stronger still (particularly his triceps, inexplicably) and became “Middle Age Nate”.

There are many more twists and turns to the “allegory of Nate” but suffice to say my overall trajectory has been westward. Much like the settlers of a bygone era, I have been inexplicably pulled in this direction. The vast, open spaces have called out to me, promising an opportunity to create my own story. And create this story I have – in fact, many of them (Nate Stories™). 

As any fan of this blog knows, the past several years included many adventures, primarily of the European persuasion. During this time our interest in world history and resulting knowledge has exploded. I’ve found myself doing things Young Nate would have found boring, such as listening to a 55-episode podcast series on the French Revolution. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t work out well for – well, pretty much everyone.

Alas, diving into world history invariably leads to connections with United States history, which has served to highlight how little travel we’ve done in our own country – particularly in the areas that are most related to the formation of what we now know as the United States of America. It was great to spend two days in Washington, D.C. as a sixth grader, but I was probably more concerned about my seatmate giving me a wet willy than an in-depth historical analysis of the Lincoln Memorial.    

No city in our great country has captured our imagination quite like New York City, with considerable help from the many books, movies, and TV series that we have consumed. Recent examples abound including the historical fiction novel New York by Edward Rutherford, Trust by Hernan Diaz, and a couple of books by my current favorite writer, Amor TowlesRules of Civility and (perhaps my all-time favorite) The Lincoln Highway. Terra and I recently rewatched one of our favorite TV series, White Collar, a show about an art thief turned FBI consultant set in NYC in which the protagonist wears a tracking anklet and is given a two-mile radius from his apartment in Manhattan; as you can imagine, iconic buildings and epic views abound. If you only have a two-mile radius to work within it may as well be in the place with the most action!  

It’s not just recently that NYC entered my psyche. I have spent many moments wandering the streets with George, Jerry, Kramer, and Elaine and the rest of the Seinfeld gang. One of my favorite city moments from the show is when Kramer is lost in the city and on the phone with Jerry; when Jerry asks where he is located, he replies “On the corner of 1st and 1st, the nexus of the universe.” Anytime Terra or I feel a bit lost we invariably quote this.

Perhaps the most iconic NYC movie that we’ve come back to time and time again is Elf, starring the always ridiculous Will Ferrell. If you haven’t seen this holiday classic, it is about a man who thinks he’s an elf and grows up under the care of Santa in the North Pole. Once he discovers that he’s not an elf, he makes a journey to NYC to meet his estranged father, famously describing his journey like this: “I passed through the seven levels of the candy cane forest, through the sea of swirly-twirly gum drops, and then I walked through the Lincoln Tunnel.”

“Well,” I thought, “it’s time to tackle this marvelous city.” So off to the Big Apple we ventured, armed with Elf’s wisdom such as “The yellow ones don’t stop.”

Preparing For Our Swirly Twirly Adventure

Over years of experience, we have built up quite the travel muscle – equal or greater in strength to my aforementioned triceps. We successfully navigated the Paris metro with four 50+ pound suitcases and our 15-year-old dog, we thrived in France without knowing a lick of French at the outset, we navigated the French health system amid extreme illness, and more. But as I sat at home trying to figure out what to pack for our NYC adventure, I had a realization; I was nervous about navigating this enormous city. Would we finally be overmatched?

This is when I started identifying with Elf. For the last few years, we have lived in a peaceful spot in the Cascade mountains called Leavenworth. We spent much of the pandemic sitting on our deck watching deer, quail, black bear, and tourists go by. “Travelling” during this period was more like reaching the back edge of the lawn with a mower. And it wasn’t just us; I recall a dearth of airplanes in the sky for quite some time. I think nearly all of us probably lost a bit of both our triceps AND travel muscles during the pandemic.

View in the wintertime from our sleepy cabin during the pandemic

While I wouldn’t quite call myself a country bumpkin, we’ve mostly settled into a life that is low-key and predictable. Each day we snuggle with our puppies over coffee (yes, one puppy apparently wasn’t enough), I ride my bike each day on virtually the same route, and evenings include fun events such as live music at the local brewery. It is a great lifestyle, though mostly devoid of the uncertainty and excitement associated with travelling around foreign countries.

PUPPIES!!!

By now it may be clear what the made-up word ‘Elfing’ in the blog title means, but I have a couple of definitions ready to go since you won’t find this term in the dictionary.

Elfing (VERB) elf·​ing   (ˈelvz-niŋ) 

1: acting like a small often mischievous fairy

2: experiencing New York City wide-eyed and a bit overwhelmed

Of course, definition #2 could conceivably lead to definition #1, but for the sake of this post let’s stick with #2.

Failure Upon Entry: Our Lincoln Tunnel Experience

Planning transportation from point A to B in an unknown environment always fills me with anxiety. Upon arriving around midnight at the airport in Zadar, Croatia, we unknowingly entered a ‘black market taxi’ when the driver proceeded to take us on a route which contained a suspicious amount of ‘middle of nowhere’, at which point the vehicle stopped and a second driver replaced our original driver. At that moment I gave us equal chances to be delivered 1) to the correct location, 2) to the wrong location, or 3) to our creator. Fortunately, the gods were smiling on us that night.

“But we’re arriving at an airport in our own country this time,” I thought, “It can’t be that difficult.” I felt even better after reading a blog which indicated that taxis from JFK to Manhattan were price-controlled at around $50 – very reasonable indeed. Therefore, I didn’t plan much other than finding a taxi upon arrival.

We picked up our bags in JFK around 10:30pm on a Friday night, and with an unwarranted amount of confidence and a pep in my step I hurried towards the taxis. Just as we were about to exit the airport, a man was waving at people asking if they wanted a taxi. I briefly noticed that everyone was walking past this man and then shoved that realization to the back of my mind because, well, he was offering what I needed. So, like Will Ferrell’s character from Elf, I (metaphorically) threw myself into his arms and granted him full power over our next move.

The man hurriedly took us past several other official looking taxis, and we were placed into a luxury Mercedes with a young female driver. As we started moving, I had the distinct realization that there was no documentation of any sort in the front console. I nervously tried making chit chat to no avail. The good news, I realized as I checked Google Maps, is that we were on the correct route, and we were delivered to our spot successfully. But what was she going to charge us?

At that point she showed us what we would have paid had we used Uber, which initially may not sound like a bad outcome except for the fact that it was almost twice the amount of the payment we would have made with an official, cost-controlled taxi. At that point I had a choice – throw an absolute fit or just pay and move on. Well, you can guess what Elf would do, right?

Planning With an Anchor in Mind

Now that we’ve established that the entrance to NYC was a bit rough, let’s focus on the itinerary. Because we truly had about the most magical, fulfilling weekend an Elf-like novice NYC tourist could have.

As our time was short, I wanted to be situated in the right place in Manhattan – centrally located for all the activities without being in a chaotic environment. Thank goodness for friends who know more than I do, in this case steering us towards the Chelsea neighborhood. Specifically, we stayed at a hotel called INNSide New York NoMad. I am not sure what is up with all the capital letters in the hotel name, but the room was spacious and clean, the price was reasonable, the staff was friendly, and the location was spot on – so I have no complaints (as unusual nomenclature seems a bit picky).

Since our plane was arriving late on Friday, we had essentially two and a half days to spare. After further discussion with our NYC expert friends, we landed on a general plan to spend one day ‘uptown’ (i.e. around and about Central Park) and one day ‘downtown’ (i.e. closer to places in and around where we were staying in Chelsea), with the third half day open for whatever would interest us most at the time.

At Joy Adventuring, we focus on the ‘why’ of our travel planning in addition to the ‘what we did’ so that you, the reader, can take and apply any of the nuggets you’d like on your next adventure.  

One of these nuggets involves our planning process when embarking on an adventure to a new place, which we’ll call our ‘Anchor Event’ strategy (no, this does not involve going overboard). From experience, I can vouch that the worst two ways to plan a travel day in a new place are 1) winging it without any solid plan, and 2) over-planning the day such that there is not enough time to even grab an ice cream. Instead, I would recommend scheduling an ‘anchor’ event in the day, one that you can build the rest of your itinerary around. And if the anchor event is simply a meal, you may need to plan an additional event; that is, unless you are in France, where it is perfectly acceptable for a meal to be the main and only planned event. Note that I’m not counting casual events such as walking tours anchor events as these can easily be modified or cancelled.

This allows a couple of things to happen. First, you can pace your day depending on how you feel that day. Extra glasses of wine the night before lead to a headache in the morning? “Nothing to worry about,” you can say to yourself, “my anchor event isn’t until 3pm so I can take it easy and rest in the morning.” Second, you can be very flexible about what you end up doing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a great tip from a local that has led me to places I would’ve never known about and couldn’t have experienced if my day had been over-planned. Of course, this means that you may need to leave some activities undone and put them on your itinerary for the next time you visit.

Saturday: I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot at the Perfect Day

Before Will Ferrell’s character embarks on his grand adventure, Santa sits him down and gives him a few pointers, including this nugget: “You see gum on the street, leave it. It’s not free candy.” Oh, how I wish I had a Santa-in-a-box giving me pointers, because after failing with the taxi situation I promptly went out first thing Saturday morning and failed with the bagel situation.

The task at hand was quite simple: go find a delicious bagel to start the day out in the city where bagels are famous. I walked into the New York City Bagel & Coffee House, and I promptly panicked when I saw 42 different kinds of bagels and 56 kinds of cream cheese. My first selection was a cinnamon walnut bagel, and for the cream cheese I chose what exactly zero other people in the world would choose to go with that bagel: cinnamon walnut cream cheese. Then I moved on to my second choice, a blueberry bagel. And instead of learning from my mistake I doubled down by selecting blueberry cream cheese. I told this to my NYC expert friend later and she looked at me like I was speaking Dutch to her. Oh, how I wish Santa was with me for this adventure, as he would have said “Never, ever choose the same type of cream cheese as the bagel. When in doubt just choose the regular stuff.”

With my confidence at a low point, we ventured out for our first activity, a casual walk through Central Park. I promptly directed the Uber driver to possibly the busiest spot in all the entire park – Strawberry Fields. After climbing over, around, and through a few folks, we were able to start appreciating the beauty of this enormous and stunning park in the middle of New York City. And it was about that time that our tummies started rumbling as it was already early afternoon. It’s a good thing I had a plan for this inevitable moment. Although I didn’t have a specific restaurant in mind, my guiding principle was to find the best-looking Italian restaurant within walking distance. And our choice, Masseria East, did not disappoint!

Travel Tip: I recommend logging your travel itinerary in the Tripit app, and then adding restaurants and activities as you go so that you can easily recall your path. While the free version of Tripit has some limitations (such as only allowing up to three attachments for the entire trip) it is sufficient and is a great way to keep everything organized, both as you go and after the fact.

After lunch we meandered a bit back to the park, briefly checked out the inside of The Metropolitan, and Uber’ed back to our hotel. By this point you may be wondering what our ‘anchor event’ for the day was. Well, it just so happens that it was one of the most anticipated activities of our entire experience, seeing Hamilton on Broadway. And not only that, one of my best friends knew someone who happened to be the lead light and sound guy for the show, and he had agreed in advance to meet up with us and take us backstage!

We arrived about an hour early and met our contact, who was possibly one of the top five nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. He told us where to meet him after the show and insinuated that it would be easy to link up, at which point I thought “But you don’t really know Nate yet.” I decided to trust that the universe would not put this nice man into the orbit of a Nate story, and so I just smiled and nodded.

the Hamilton set at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, pre-show

The show was fantastic. For those of you who are true fans of the original cast, of course that group of talented individuals cannot be matched. But this group was quite strong, and (in particular) the actor who played Hamilton was phenomenal. I think it would be unfair to say he performed better than Mr. Manuel-Miranda, but he excelled in some different ways musically that allowed him to step out of Lin’s shadow and claim the role as his own.

After the show we went to the appointed spot where, after about 15 minutes, our contact met us and promptly took us backstage. He showed off the set pieces to us and talked about his experiences, and then the actor who played George Washington (and was also phenomenal) came up to greet us. He had just poured his heart and soul into the show and was totally happy to chat it up with us. I, of course, was nervous, and at one point he asked a question that I didn’t quite hear but confidently answered “No”. “Did you like the show?”, “What type of ice cream do you prefer?”, “How do you ride a bike?” It could’ve been any of these questions, but it seemed like my “No” hit the mark as he laughed and moved on to the next conversation. I am not a good conversationalist when I get nervous, that’s for sure.

Backstage!!!

When our tour was over, our contact thought it would be better if we went out the side door. I was not prepared for what we would face on the street – around 100 adoring fans waiting outside for autographs. Immediately upon exiting I felt some palpable excitement from the crowd which was immediately deflated once they didn’t recognize us. And that’s ok, I didn’t take it personally.

Sunday: In the NYC Groove

Sunday, possibly one of the best days of the week unless you hate your job and can only think about going to work the next day. This Sunday, I could tell, was going to be magical – and like the day prior it did not disappoint.

My first anchor event that I planned was inspired by one of our favorite Netflix shows, Somebody Feed Phil. Phil is a goofy, lovable man who was the writer on Everybody Loves Raymond. But the second act of his career is, in my opinion, much better than the first. For seven seasons he has eaten his way through numerous cities worldwide and somehow manages to still look like a stick figure, causing the viewer to wonder where all the food goes. In addition to the local food scene, viewers learn a lot about culture, and sweet, endearing characters and moments abound.

In the New York City episode in Season 2, Phil visits a farm and restaurant called Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located half an hour north of Manhattan, for a farm-to-table lunch. After a bit of research, I discovered that there is also a sister location in Manhattan called Family Meal, so I promptly booked a reservation for Sunday evening.

As I mentioned earlier, unless one is frolicking through the French countryside, any traveler to a new city should plan more than just a meal to anchor the day. This realization led me to think more about what our experience was missing, and a New York City Architecture cruise by boat seemed like it would be the perfect event. Many years ago, we had taken a similar cruise in Chicago and found it a fantastic way to get out of the city’s hustle and bustle and be able to view the beauty of the skyline from the water.

With my two anchor events firmly planned, and despite another inexcusable breakfast snafu which I won’t get into here, we walked confidently out of our hotel with the same thought in mind – “Where is the best Italian restaurant in walking distance?”. And once again we were not disappointed as we came across a beautiful restaurant called OLIO E PIU.

Our legs felt good after lunch, so we kept walking, heading towards the pier to catch our boat. Our route took us straight through the Chelsea Market. Note to self – spend more time in this place on our next NYC adventure! We kept walking until we got to 62 Chelsea Piers where we boarded our 1920’s style ship.

The tour was almost three hours long and was fantastic. The boat was beautiful with huge windows allowing for views in all directions, the guide was informative and interesting without being overbearing, and the views were unforgettable and stunning. I had high expectations for this event and the experience exceeded them.

Yes, Lady Liberty and my forehead are roughly the same size

After a stop back at the hotel to change, we went to our (gulp) 6-course meal at Blue Hill. The waiter explained that the food was sourced from their farm along with some local organic producers. Each of the courses were outstanding and inventive, and (this has never happened to me) I was unable to continue after course #4 as there was simply no more space in my belly. There is a reason for this which involves surgery and some other unpleasantries, but that all will be the subject of another blog (and quite possibly a book). In any case, they were happy to send us home with the final two courses. Although the aesthetic of the restaurant was a bit underwhelming, the staff was gracious, the food was fresh, and the experience was worth the relatively extravagant expense.

Yes, the meal was ALL of those items on the right hand side

We returned to the hotel late, thoroughly exhausted. A tremendous weekend was now in the books – what was there left to do on our last measly half day? More than you might expect!

Monday: All About Getting High

While we were out and about over the weekend, we kept seeing advertisements about the Edge at Hudson Yards. According to the website, Edge is a “one-of-a-kind design…suspended in mid-air, giving you the feeling of floating in the sky with 360-degree views you can’t get anywhere else.” Anyone who knows me well would realize this sounds terrifying and horrible. And yet, after such an amazing weekend I thought ‘pourquoi pas’ (why not) and off we went.

I won’t spend too many words on this experience as unfortunately it was a very hazy day. But on a clear day you I’m sure you could absolutely see for miles. I was mortified when Terra walked across the section which was clear glass looking down a ridiculous distance to the ground. We learned a bit about the plans to create a new eco-friendly city type that is planned in Hudson Yards in the coming years. Afterwards we went downstairs and came across a completely Spanish food court, which was a pleasant surprise. We lunched on some tapas and planned our next steps with our remaining time.

Me taking the picture, as far away from any ledge as possible

The other thing that people kept telling us we needed to experience was the ‘High Line’, which is essentially an elevated trail above the streets of the city, replete with benches, beautiful flora, and lots of people looking for a peaceful walking experience amid the craziness of the city. As it just happened to start at the base of the Edge building, we decided to walk along it for a while. We were a bit underwhelmed by this experience, perhaps because we are spoiled as we live at the base of a towering mountain and are surrounded by beautiful views all the time. That said, traversing the city without having to experience the smells of the street is certainly more pleasant!

A much more comfortable elevation for me

Closing Thoughts: In New York You Can Be a New Man (or Woman)

Hamilton focuses on the origin story of Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the British Isles who came to New York hoping for, and finding, a fresh start to life. This didn’t stop with Hamilton; as we drifted by Ellis Island on our boat tour we learned that nearly 12 million immigrants were processed there between the late 19th and mid-20th century.  Those immigrants populated entire sections of the city, such as Little Italy, creating a truly international scene that is unparalleled in our country. While I’m sure it didn’t turn out well for all of the 12 million, there is certainly a reason why Hamilton states in the musical that “In New York you can be a new man.”

In just two and a half days we experienced the palpable energy of the city and found ourselves enthralled. We heard as many people speaking other languages as English. We learned about how the city is literally reinventing itself during our time at Hudson Yards. We saw some amazing structures like the Vessel which is literally a giant set of staircases leading to nowhere. And you know the one word that comes to mind when I think of this city: panache.  So many countries and so many people are just trying to get by; New York City not only gets by, it does it with flair.

Vessel: Pointless or awesome?

New York City could very well be, in the words from the musical Hamilton, the “greatest city in the world.” We are so glad to have spent a tremendous weekend there and hope to go back many times to dig in deeper. This NYC weekend was at the beginning of a larger adventure, with the immediate next stop being New Jersey. Don’t worry – we went straight to the airport!