Posts from the ‘Romantic’ category

Avoid the Tourist Crowds in Paris

by Jacob Aldridge

Everyone wants to go to Paris, but too many people ask “How can I avoid the tourist attractions in Paris?

The only guaranteed way is to:

  1. find yourself accommodation in the outer suburbs of Paris, and
  2. spend your whole trip there smoking and drinking red wine.

BUT, if you can accept bumping into a few tourists among the locals, and it’s the less popular Paris sights you wish to see, then join us!

Today’s Experience

We’ve already established that Montmartre is the best arrondissement to stay in, well away from the crowds of the Champs Elysee and the Eiffel Tower. There’s also a village feel up here, so rather than another cafe breakfast let’s explore the market options.

Now I don’t care what your clean eating plan says about carbs – in Paris, you eat bread, and at Le Grenier a Pain (or any of the boulangeries in this area) your hardest choice will be limiting your selection.

Perhaps also a croissant? To mix with the cheeses we’re going to purchase and the slices of ham. Add some fresh strawberries for a heavenly breakfast – all acquired along Rue Lepic, wedged between the Sacre Coeur and the Moulin Rouge but a world away from where the bus tours take people.

Croissants from Paris, perfect for breakfast.

No matter how tempting, do NOT add Nutella to this meal!

We can’t avoid the Metro entirely today, but we do choose to walk to the Paris Opera House again rather than change lines, before boarding Line 3 in the direction of Gallieni.

We alight at Pere Lachaise – home to a Sparrow and a Door.

Pere Lachaise Cemetery

Perhaps the most famous cemetery in Paris, Pere Lachaise was created at the same time as the Catacombs were filled with the bones of earlier cemeteries, emptied to allow for urban sprawl. At the start of the 19th century, no self-respecting Paris resident wanted to be interred this far out of town. This forced the administrators implemented one of the finest marketing strategies death has ever seen: they organised for several dead celebrities (including the lovers Abélard and Heloïse) to be moved here!

We’re here to pay our respects to some of the famous, more-recent residents; the celebrity trick has worked, as Pere Lachaise now has a waiting list.

Viewed appropriately, cemeteries are beautiful spaces to visit – designed with serenity and dignity in mind, they provide a parkland filled with the most personal of monuments to those loved (as we all hope to be) at the end of their lives. Rituals have developed around some of these monuments. Will you join the legion fans who kiss the tomb of Oscar Wilde?

Kissing Oscar Wilde's Tomb, Paris

The glass screen was added in 2012 to help protect the sculpture; now fans kiss both!

Throw a flower to Edith Piaf, the little sparrow?

Edith Piaf's grave, Pere Lachaise Paris

Bonus points for having her songs on your iPod and weeping while you’re here.

Or fornicate among the paraphernalia on Jim Morrison’s grave? (We didn’t see anyone doing this, but that’s the story!)

Where is Jim Morrison buried in Paris France?

Not the best preserved grave site – riders on the storm to blame?

I’m off in pursuit of Sarah Bernhardt, the great French actress. Walk and explore – you never know who you might run into.

Zombie Apocalypse Paris, or just an awesome headstone?

Does Georges Rodenbach foreshadow the zombie apocalypse?

French Canals

For lunch, we thought we’d take you for a walk along the pretty waterfront of the Canal St Martin. We catch the Metro back to Republique and head north – less than 2 kilometres (3 miles) from the endless chatter of the Louvre, here the conversation is sedate and almost exclusively en francais.

Canal St Martin, Paris France

You won’t see streets this empty for the rest of our 3 days in Paris

We’re on the lookout for an attractive cafe targeting the locals, not the tourists – and at Ten Belles (just off the Canal’s eastern side, on rue de la Grange aux Belles) we’ve found it. Fabulous coffee and premium sandwiches we can enjoy here, or take with us as we continue our walk.

The benefit of the Paris Metro having stops so awkwardly close together is that whenever our feet get tired, there’s likely a station nearby. It might require 2-3 interchanges, but it will take us to our next destination.

Map of Paris highlighting Metro stations

(M) Stands for either Metro or “Maybe I’ll walk another 500 Metres”

The Religion of Peace

Still looking for some peace and quiet in a city that draws 28 million tourists per year? Then get on the Metro to Place Monge, and join us in the tearoom of the Grand Mosque.

The Grand Mosque of Paris was built in the 1920s to honour the tens of thousands of Muslims who died during the First World War. A monument to peace … and peaceful it truly is.

Exterior of the Grand Mosquee de Paris

Exterior of the Grand Mosquee de Paris

We spend half an hour wandering the gardens inside, its intricacies modelled on the famous Muslim castle complex the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Taking a seat for an afternoon mint tea, we could still be in Morocco rather than this bustling European capital.

For those seeking the ultimate relaxation experience, the Mosque is adjacent to a Hammam – we won’t take you through the entire spa, sauna and massage process, but this review is worth reading before you visit.

Interior gardens of the Grand Mosque of Paris

Interior gardens of the Grand Mosque

Au Revoir, Paris

You can’t be a tourist here and not see any other tourists, but it’s certainly possible to spend an entire day experiencing Paris the way the residents do. And for our final evening, we intend to continue that experience.

There are many more streets to wander; countless cafes and bars to step inside; and returning to Montmartre after dinner, there’s an entire nightlife we can choose to immerse ourselves in.

And another bottle of french red wine to empty before we leave the apartment in the morning.

Paris – merci beaucoup!

Bridge over the River Seine, Paris France

Bridge over the River Seine

Paris without the crowds, avoiding the tourists, and loving it

Paris without the crowds, avoiding the tourists, and loving it

French Red Wine, drunk in Paris France

French Red Wine – there’s an entire day in Paris could be spent right here!

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Pere Lachaise Cemetery’s website  offers an interactive map (and a virtual tour); if you’d like a printable version to help with your walking, here’s the one we used.
  • Ten trip tickets on the Paris Metro are usually a safe bet for stays of 3 days or more. You’ll love walking around Paris, and the love of walking will mean you’ll suddenly find yourselves on the far side of the city and needing to metro to the next destination.
  • Entry to the Grand Mosque is free; food costs are reasonable; massages increase from €15 for 10 minutes to a complete spa package for only €58.

Have you visited Paris? Share your hidden gems in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.

Paris When it Sizzles

by Jacob Aldridge

For day 2 of our 3 days in Paris, we start and end in the Montmartre area where we are staying.

In between, we offer five centuries of nudity, and the sweetest Parisian competition imaginable.

Today’s Experience

We’ll power it all with our breakfast and coffee from Boulangerie Coquelicot, on the nearby rue des Abbesses. Scarily, I ordered the regular coffee – and I think I got you the large!

Enjoying a french coffee in Montmartre, Paris France

It’s worth drinking London coffee, just to make French coffee even more magnificent!

Hidden from us but just ten minutes walk away is the Sacre Coeur, the century-old basilica (that’s young!) built atop the highest point of Paris. The cloudless sky means extra heat as we make our way up the hill and through the square of artists offering us caricatures; once we reach the glistening white church we are thankful for the crisp and clear blue morning.

Paris's Basilica Sacre Coeur against a blue sky

Sacre Bleu c’est le Sacre Coeur!

Most people ascend to the Sacre Coeur via the stairs – the streets of Montmartre are a much better option. The grand Romano-Byzantine style makes Sacré-Cœur an impressive construction inside and out; having experience two other churches yesterday, we’re more impressed to note the statue of St Joan of Arc on the exterior façade – and of course to take in both the elevated view and the people-watching.

Did you know Paris has such a power over Japanese love-birds that there is a disease called Paris Syndrome, created when the reality fails to meet the expectations. This article suggests McDonalds as a cure; we suspect that’s the last thing on the mind for this group of wedding brochure photographers.

Asian wedding promotional photo shoot, Sacre Coeur Montmartre Paris France

Not as uncommon a sight as you might think!

We Promised You Nudity

and we plan to deliver, as we head (by Metro this time) to Palais Royal-Musee du Louvre.

If museums bore you, then you need to be aware that you can ‘do’ the Louvre in less than 6 minutes. At least, that’s the tongue-in-cheek world record, where the rules are solely that you have to view the ‘big 3’ – the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

At the other extreme, of course, it is actually impossible to do the Louvre even across all of the 3 days we have in Paris. Some middle ground must be found – so over the next 2 hours, let’s seize this opportunity to take in those most-famous sights (and the crowds surrounding them) and whatever else takes our eye.

The mostly 'armless Venus de Milo in the Louvre, Paris

Don’t mind Venus, she’s ‘armless! #louvre #dad’sjokes #killmenow

Mona Lisa Up Close and No Crowds Louvre Paris

It is possible to photograph yourself and the Mona Lisa without crowds – just be patient.

Canova's 'Pyche revived by Cupid's kiss in the Louvre, Paris France

A heart for Cupid and Psyche.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace, well lit and shot from below in the Louvre

The Winged Victory of Samothrace – only one wing is original, can you tell which?

There’s more to the Louvre than classical paintings, of course. There’s the Ancient Egyptology

That is a Grand Sphinx!

That is a Grand Sphinx!

and the architecture, both modern and classic

The Louvre's glass pyramid from inside.

The Louvre’s glass pyramid from inside.

With light streaming in to the painted vaulted ceiling, You can see why this is the Palais Louvre.

You can see why this is the Palais Louvre.

and remnants of the medieval fortress, the original construction on the site

A helmet from the Louvre's time as a defensive fortress in Paris

The foundations and moat can also be accessed during your visit.

As for naked ladies and gents? We’ve got plenty of them

Lady looking directly at the naked archer

Follow the lady’s eyeline…hmmm…

Classic. Stylish. Nude. Painting in the Louvre

Classic. Stylish. Nude.

And just when you think you’ve seen enough painting, sculpting, and architecture for this lifetime, we exit the Louvre for a walk through the springtime Jardin des Tuileries.

Face Palm statue in the Jardin des Tuileries, gardens in Paris France

“PANTS! I forgot PANTS!”

The Sweetest Thing

Who has the best macarons in Paris? It’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves since our ‘Feels Like Home in Paris‘ hosts provided a taster set of macarons upon our arrival.

What is a macaron?

What is a macaron? Ganache filled fantasticness!

We ask ourselves again as we head for lunch at Ladurée, the patisserie that’s been serving Parisians (and tourists) sweets for more than 150 years and (in some versions of history) was the site where the macaron was created; the other contenders today are:

  • Pierre Herme: A deserved reputation, and the most popular choice
  • Arnaud Larher: Absinthe macaron defines Montmartre perfection
  • Pierre Marcolini: Better known as a Belgian chocolatier, and my personal selection

Ultimately, the only winner is this competition … is you – as you choose from flavours that can sound more botanic, or floral, or like the inside of a liquor cabinet, than ganache-filled brilliance. And if you can’t choose a winner (even after a second round)?

Well head back to Ladurée to drown your equivocation in a Saint-Honoré Rose. We’ve ordered one for you in anticipation.

Sainte Honore Rose at Laduree, Paris France

You better claim it now, or I WILL eat them both.

Kick up your Heels

Disappointed that the nudity so far has only been in marble and watercolours? Tonight offers so much more, told through the art of dance at the Moulin Rouge.

The Moulin Rouge, light up in red lights at night in Montmartre Paris

Red Light District, then and now.

There’s no doubt Nicole Kidman’s film helped reinvigorate the fame of the Red Windmill, the Belle Epoque cabaret, the haunt of Toulouse-Lautrec (and it’s a little crass to mention the Australian film, though it seems half the dancers tonight are antipodeans!). But don’t come here expecting Ewan McGregor to sweep you off your feet: tonight is a cabaret, swinging frenetically from “dancey dance” to snake wrestling to laugh-out-loud mime (the latter being a speciality exclusive to France).

And since this is a family website, we can’t show you any stills from the dancing itself – just know that you can expect wall-to-wall topless dancers for most of the numbers in the two-hour main production.

Most of our group have glowing reviews for the Moulin Rogue spectacle – and also suggest that adding on the dinner package to make it a longer experience is definitely worth the extra investment.

Personally, I found the Moulin Rouge to be the most excruciating four hours of my life. Travel is all about leaping into the world with no regrets … but if I could change one thing, I would have skipped Moulin Rouge.

Especially if I could have had another Ladurée dessert instead.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Macarons are best enjoyed fresh – though the ganache filling will keep them moist even as the exterior dries a little.
  • Avoid the Louvre queues by buying your €12.10 ticket online (note: you have to collect this in advance, most easily from the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysée). Plan your visit if you wish to experience specific pieces (like the Mona Lisa) without spending the whole day wandering the wings.
  • Reserve your Moulin Rouge tickets online – the show plus a half bottle of champagne is €105; add dinner and attend the earlier performance from €175. Or don’t, I’m just saying.

Calling all francophiles – what are your favourite experiences of Paris? Let all of our readers know in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.

3 Days in Paris, Day One

by Jacob Aldridge

Humphrey Bogart’s Rick escaped occupied Paris for Casablanca. We’ve gone the other way, arriving last night super energised for three amazing days in the city of lights.

Who doesn’t love Paris in the Springtime?!

Le Tour Eiffel as seen from Montmartre, Paris

Welcome to Paris!

Today’s Experience

We’re staying in the Montmartre district, in the north of Paris. A city of stunning arrondissements, if you talk to five friends about where to stay in Paris you are guaranteed at least five different suggestions!

For us, Montmartre offers the same bohemian feel that made it famous at the turn of last century, and reasonably-priced apartment accommodation (we found ours through Feels Like Home in Paris).

The streets of Montmartre, Paris France, with the Sacre Coeur beyond

The streets of Montmartre, with the Sacre Coeur beyond

 

Conveniently located near the Abbesses (line twelve) and Pigalle (lines two and twelve) on the Paris Metro (famous for having stops only 500 metres / one-third of a mile apart) we know from New York and London that the best way to experience these world cities is to ignore the underground and set forth on foot.

Getting to Know You

For the first morning of our three days in Paris, our aim is to acquaint ourselves with this amazing city. Our first stop, then, is the Galeries Lafayette on the boulevard Haussmann – a department store with a famed interior dome, that is known to locals as the best place to escape for your lunch hour. Here’s why:

View from the roof terrace of the Galeries Lafayette to the Eiffel Tower

View from the roof terrace

Remarkably, these sweeping views aren’t well known to fellow tourists, giving us ample opportunities to view the vista and spy the sights.

Immediately in front of us in the Paris Opera; you can spy the twin towers on the facade of the Notre Dame Cathedral; and of course, breaking through in the distance, is the most famous Parisian icon of them all, the Eiffel Tower.

From here, we continue our walk through the streets, attempting to breath it all in. We’re planning a boat cruise with Bateaux-Mouches along the Seine River, which cuts through Paris.

A map of the route the Bateaux Mouches boat cruise takes on the Seine River, Paris France.

Loosely, the route the boat cruise takes.

The city is named after the Parisii tribe, which inhabited the islands in the middle of the Seine at the time of Julius Caesar. Drifting past, we see the modern day inhabitants – or, more accurately, the modern day visitors queuing for Notre Dame beside a statue of the French Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne.

View from the Seine River of the Charlemagne statue and the Notre Dame Cathedral Paris

Charlemagne is the one in green.

Our boat also takes us under the Passerelle des Arts, a bridge now famous for the many locks lovers have placed here to signify their enduring relationship. (In honesty, this has become a tourist fad – you’ll see it in cities from Paris to Cologne, and even in the hills of Italy’s Cinque Terre. Moreover, local councils are forced to fund the removal of these locks lest they overwhelm the infrastructure they are attached to. On Passerelle des Arts, you won’t find padlocks that pre-date 2011 – assuming you want your love to last more than the next two years, be a sustainable tourist and avoid this cliché.)

Bridge of Lovers - Padlocks on Passerelle des Arts, Bridge across the Seine River Paris

Bridge of Lovers – Padlocks on Passerelle des Arts.

We turn, moving back past the famous museums of the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay. In front of the Louvre, the Jardins Tuliere is just starting to show its springtime colours.

And as we sweep around the river, past the shops and streets we look forward to exploring later, the Eiffel Tower comes into view. Famously built as a temporary structure in 1889, we’re happy to admit that it’s another Parisian tourist cliché that we still suggest everyone visits at least once.

A plane flies over the Eiffel Tower in Paris

Can you ever tire of this view?

Shopping in the Golden Triangle

The shopping begins near where the boat releases us. It’s effortless to spend three days in Paris and do nothing except go shopping; for our first visit, we want to mix it up a little, and that means limiting ourselves to the best shopping in the city: The golden Triangle d’or.

The triangle is named for the three streets that form the boundary – avenue Montaigne, avenue Georges V, and the Champes Elysees. Within this pocket are the French (and Italian) names you have come to associate with haute couture – Givenchy, Chanel, Gaultier, Dior, Vuitton, and more. If your credit card is going to melt at any point during our three days in Paris, here is the likely location!

Coco Chanel Quote after shopping in the Golden Triangle d'or Paris

The Greatest Stained Glass Windows in the World

Time now for something slightly more pious, though just as bright as a Gaultier spring collection. Even tourists jaded by the quantity of churches on their European jaunts have to admit that nothing compares to the chapel Sainte Chapelle.

The lower chapel, where we first enter, is impressive in its own way – move past the giftshop here, and look for the Virgin Mary mural above the door: this is the oldest fresco in Paris.

But upstairs is why we are here.

Stepping into Sainte Chapelle. The stained glass windows are worth the money.Stepping into Sainte Chapelle.

Stepping into Sainte Chapelle.

These incredible windows, recently restored, tell the tale of the Old and New Testaments, through to the life of Christ and the ultimate acquisition of several Christian relics – including a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns – by the 13th Century King Louis IX.

Most visitors seek to take a seat and absorb the colours. The more religious may attempt to follow the stories – Christian iconography can be a fascinating field.

Those of us who like big words, enjoy pointing out that the very final window tells its story “boustrophedon style” (that means, instead of reading left to right, it flows l-to-r and r-to-l as you move upwards).

The high altar and more of the famous stained glass windows in Sainte Chapelle.

The high altar in Sainte Chapelle.

Nearby Notre Dame is perhaps the better known church on Île de la Cité – by this time of day, the queue to enter looks long, but the lack of entry fee means it moves fast. It’s also an opportunity to admire the French Gothic style of the construction – distinctive on a global scale, though common to cathedrals of a similar age in Northern France.

Quite quickly we find ourselves inside, eight centuries of history distilled into key moments – this is where Napoleon crowned himself Holy Roman Emperor (1,000 years after Charlemagne); you’ve likely heard of Quasimodo, though your age will determine whether it was through Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame book or the similarly-titled Disney film.

Even after Sainte Chapelle, the stained glass of the Rose Window is breathtaking. Less obvious, but also grand, is the opportunity afterwards to spend a few moments in the park behind Notre Dame admiring the flying buttresses of its design.

The Notre Dame Cathedral's Rose Window. One of the most famous windows in Paris, France, and the world

The Notre Dame Cathedral’s Rose Window.

From here, it’s a leisurely walk along the waterfront to see Gustav Eiffel’s most famous creation. But we’ll need some afternoon sustenance for the journey, so we start by crossing over from the Île de la Cité to the Seine’s other island, the Île Saint-Louis.

We are search of Paris’s best known ice-cream, from Maison Berthillon. The original store is located at 31 Rue Saint-Louis en l’Île; but so popular are the sixty flavour creations that four separate stores are open here. In summer, they are easier to find because of the queues that stretch around the corner in each location – today, thankfully, there’s a much shorter wait for caramel and salted butter, lavender, or earl grey tea.

Actually, the queues for Maison Bethillon ice-cream glaces and sorbets are here even in March!

Actually, the queues are here even in March!

Le Tour Eiffel

We’ve booked tickets for the Eiffel Tower climb to coincide with sunset. Having arrived a little early, we skip the people milling around the Parc du Champ-de-Mars beneath it and cross the river instead to the Jardins du Trocadero. Here, particularly as we climb up the concrete stairs to the balcony, we have a great view of the Tower … and the city of light beginning to shine in the early evening.

Jardins de Trocadero in the foreground of an Eiffel Tower photo, Paris

Jardins de Trocadero in the foreground. You probably recognise the thing behind them!

Why climb the Eiffel Tower at sunset? Because now is an opportunity to watch the tower itself shift colour, from the silver-grey of photographs to the bronze-gold it takes as the setting sunlight envelopes it. Taking the elevator up creates a sense of being present inside history – few buildings in the world have the same effect on so many travellers.

Our first stop is the second level, best for a closer inspection of the city beneath us. It’s remarkable at this height how uniform Paris begins to look. All of those alleys of shops and ice-creams suddenly appear as matching, six-storey high buildings with white roofs.

From this view atop the Eiffel Tower you can see Les Invalides (the dome) is obvious - can you also spot the Louvre, Notre Dame, or the Musee D'Orsay

Les Invalides (the dome) is obvious – can you also spot the Louvre, Notre Dame, or the Musee D’Orsay

One benefit is the ease with which city monuments expose themselves among the sea of white. And not just the horrible Tour Montparnasse, we can spot the Arc de Triomphe, Les Invalides where Napoleon is buried, Notre Dame where we were today, and more.

Taking the elevator to the very top exposes an even grander view. Though the structures are less distinct from our height, now 1,000 feet above the ground we feel ourselves to be the centre of a grand and beautiful universe.

The last of the setting sun disappears, in the direction of Paris’s newer (and taller) business district. And this gives us a chance to turn our attention to the older Paris, the Paris of French monarchs from Clovis to Marie Antoinette, the Paris of Renoir, Rodin and of Edith Piaf.

And as if it feels us remembering its stars, the Eiffel Tower lights erupt. Night falls on Paris, and on us high above its streets.

The lights turn on le Tour Eiffel Tower

We are permitted to show you a photo of the lights. We can’t legally show you a recording of the light show, as it is protected by copyright!

There is much to consider as we end our evening walking along its most famous street, the Champes-Elysee. From the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde to the Arc di Triomphe this glittering strip is more 21st century neon than 19th century romance, but my goodness it’s grand to walk along it and feel part of Paris.

Bonsoir, à demain. (Head straight to Day Two here, or skip to Day Three’s experience avoiding the crowds.)

Arc de Triomphe, at one end of the Champs Elysees. Photographed at night

Arc de Triomphe, at one end of the Champs Elysees

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Love Parisian fashion? Every Friday you can take a seat at a genuine Paris fashion show at Galleries Lafayette – call 09 6939 7575 in advance, though, to reserve your seats (French is not necessary – but always appreciated).
  • Entry to Sainte Chapelle costs €6.50; entry to Notre Dame is free.
  • A slightly more obscure Notre Dame moment – it was on these steps in 1450 that the Wolves of Paris, allegedly responsible for the deaths of forty people, were finally cornered and killed.
  • See all sixty of Maison Berthillon’s flavours in this pdf on their website.
  • Unless you love the long queues that come from spontaneity, book your Eiffel Tower tickets in advance!

Casablanca doesn’t count as a Parisian film, but we want to know which of your favourite films does feature Paris – we’re having this conversation now on our Facebook page.

Going underneath the awesome power of Niagara Falls

We leave the hustle and pace and crowds of the Big Apple behind after three days in New York (Day One, Day Two, Day Three) for the comparative serenity of Toronto, on the east coast of that fair northern land – Canada.

But we’re not long in the city before Christine, our Toronto local guide, hustles us into her car and we’re out on the road.

Seems that New York isn’t the only town with hustle.

Today’s Itinerary

  • a lovely drive along Lake Ontario towards…
  • one of the world’s most well-known natural wonders – Niagara Falls
  • warm up afterwards with a Canadian national beverage
  • fit in a spot of bargain outlet shopping, then
  • sample some of the strangest wine in the world

The meandering drive from Toronto to Niagara Falls follows the curves of Lake Ontario as we leave the city. It’s mainly highways for the first part of the trip, but we are treated to views of the massive lake extended long out into the horizon in the morning sunlight.

Gradually the development begins to become less apparent and our expectations perk up. Niagara Falls, such a renowned natural wonder, is sure to be set in a location of spectacular natural beauty itself, showcasing the landscape and wildlife of southern Canada. Surely?

Not quite.

Natural Wonder + Casino

Niagara Falls is actually very heavily developed – to the point of absurdity, really.

We approach the falls from the Canadian side, which has the best view (no, really – it does – sorry USA) and instead of being gradually led through forests and mountainside to see the towering falls up gradually appearing in the distance behind sun-dappled trees, we just suddenly arrive smack bang in the middle of a miniature Las Vegas.

It feels a bit “oh yeah, there are some big waterfalls around here somewhere – but wouldn’t you rather play another hand of blackjack”.

No.

We shouldn’t be surprised, though. According to the Niagara Parks agency, there was an admission fee to see the falls back in 1832. They say;

The first enclosed stairs were built in 1818, and a spiral staircase was constructed in 1832 for visitors to enter what was then called the “Sheet of Falling Water” attraction. The admission fee was $1, and for an additional dollar, certificates were presented to those who had completed the trip behind the Falls.

Being a tourist attraction is old hat for Niagara Falls.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

The pristine view that we were expecting at Niagara Falls. Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

We don’t have any photographs to share of the long line of casinos and massive hotels that line the upper banks along the Falls, because who wants to see that? Just prepare yourselves, is all we’re saying – if you’re expecting Niagara Falls to be remote and untouched, you’re going to be disappointed.

Now that is out of the way – we can talk about the Niagara Falls waterfalls.

One word – woah.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

The sun is out and the wind is up a little, and everywhere around the falls there are miniature rainbows following you around.

If the world was just we’d be spotting pots of gold everywhere we looked, and little leprechauns would be carrying our things for us and calling us ‘Sir’, but the world isn’t just and this is Canada, not Ireland. No gold today.

Rainbows need water, by the way, and they’re caused by the sheer volume of water pouring over the edge of the falls and being picked up by the wind. It means that it is seriously wet around here – yes, even two hundred metres away from the falls. We would have been smart to bring an umbrella, or a waterproof jacket with us. This is definitely a sun shower – no clouds needed.

Photo by paul (dex) bica, Licensed under CC.

Photo by paul (dex) bica, Licensed under CC.

The archetypal Niagara Falls image, like the amazing photograph above, is found on the Canadian side of the border between Canada and the USA, close to the Horseshoe Falls. As we get close to the guard railings it is almost too hard to process the sheer power and volume of the water that must be rushing through the falls every second. The long curve of the Horseshoe gives an incredible perspective to the vivid green water contrasting against the pure white of the voluminous spray.

Christine turns to us and asks; want to get closer?

Not really, we think.

Behind the Niagara Falls

Somewhere in the vicinity of four milion cubic feet of water go over the falls every minute (we used Imperial because it sounds bigger; in Metric it’s around 100,000 cubic metres).

Christine grabs our tickets for the Journey Behind the Falls experience. We’re handed a (biodegradable) waterproof poncho and squash into an elevator that feels like it was part of the very first tourist attraction in Niagara Falls that we mentioned earlier.

We descend in the depths of the rock before the door creak open and we step out into tunnels built as far back as 1889. “They’re safe” we’re assured.

The noise, the roar from the falls is more than sound. You can feel the pressure and deep, low thrum generated by these elemental forces, and it is especially overawing as you get closer to the tunnel exit and begin to glimpse the tonnes of water rushing past at sixty-five kilometres an hour.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

As you can see in the photograph, there are no real barriers to stop you from getting as close as you wish to the waterfall. Of course, most people, us including, are keeping a very, very respectful distance away from the edge of that ledge. We’re around one-third of the way down the waterfall but that is still a drop of 34 metres.

At the mouth of another tunnel exit, we head outside underneath a platform to get a better view of the waterfall, and are numbed by the relentless spray and the perspective that this view affords.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

It is an awe-inspiring view. Cold; but awe-inspiring.

Warming back up

We’d be remise if we didn’t mention, at this point, one of Canada’s national drinks.

Tim Horton’s, the Canadian version of Starbucks crossed with Dunkin’ Donuts, is exactly what we need to warm up. The Vanilla Cappuccino goes down a treat…as does the second.

Finally some warmth returns to our extremities, and it’s time to move on to our next activity.

In the mood for a bargain?

The Canada One outlet stores near Niagara Falls are a must-visit if you’re looking to grab some bargains while you’re in Canada. We managed to pick up discounted Coach, Ralph Lauren Polo, Colorado, and Nike gear – so much that our poor little car complained the whole way back to Toronto.

It’s Cold in Canada, hey. Ice Wine, hey.

Christine drives us away from the commercialised, yet naturally compelling, Niagara Falls and promises a unique taste experience next.

We’re on the way to the Jackson-Triggs winery, in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Canada is one of few nations in the world who can produce a type of wine known a ice-wine. The tradition originally comes from Germany, with whom Canada competes with for ice-wine supremacy. Of Canada’s annual production, most comes from Ontario, and the micro-climates of Niagara-on-the-Lake make this an ideal location to sample this unusual type of wine.

Photo by Graham, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Graham, Licensed under CC.

Invented by accident by those crazy Germans, the point is to leave the grapes on the vine through several frost-thaw cycles, and when pressing them, to aim for an optimal mix of thawed and semi-frozen grapes. Too cold, and you could break your winepress, as this NYTimes article describes.

Pressing the grapes while they are semi-frozen means that the water is crystallised and remains behind, leaving a concentrated cocktail of sugars to be put into the barrel.

Producing ice-wine is a risky business – there’s frost, disease, and calamity to contend with, but as the first golden drops is poured into our glass it becomes clear why this is a risk worth taking. The aroma is of caramel, vanilla, and apricots, and we debate whether there’s a hint of musk.

Better have another to check.

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3 Days in New York, Day One

By Jacob Aldridge

It’s an early flight, but as we descend over Manhattan with the sun still just rising there’s no doubt Alicia Keys and Jay-Z are correct: “These streets will make you feel brand new.”

Our flight from Florida to New York actually takes us into Newark, New Jersey – but from there it’s an easy train journey into Penn Station, right in the heart of New York, New York!

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Overlooking Downtown Manhattan, New York, from top of the Empire State Building

Author Jacob Aldridge overlooking New York City. All photos in this article are Copyright, All Rights Reserved, permission granted by the artist.

Today’s Experience

If the idea of a New York subway ride terrifies you, then we’ve got great news – you’re living in the past, and we’re going to help you face those fears right now! Penn Station is on 34th Street, part of the famous New York grid system that makes exploring this enormous island so easy. We’re staying in an apartment on the Upper West Side, and 96th Street is a long walk from 34th!

View of the East River from the Upper West Side, Manhattan, New York, New York USA.

View of the Hudson River from the Upper West Side.

Like the great underground railways of other world cities, the key to New York’s subway success is frequency. No checking timetables, we walk down to the Red line Uptown and two minutes later we’re on an express car north. At the other end is Steve – a southern-boy-cum-New-York-local, and the man behind our magic for the next 3 days.

“Leave your bags,” he says. “The city is meant to be seen above ground, and on foot.”

Central Park

Central Park is a ridiculous oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle where dreams are made, yet this $528 billion real estate opportunity is the beating heart of the city. Our walk through the park, with spring greenery just starting to show in places, takes us past the top end of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. This is an overwhelming moment, the first opportunity to fully appreciate the size of New York (well, really, just the size of Manhattan – we have to remind ourselves this is just one of five boroughs).

Around most of the city, the tall buildings allow you to feel insulated, part of this block, this neighbourhood, this community. Even entering the park, the trees have a similar, insulating effect.

New York city views over the Jaqueline Onassis Kennedy Reservoir, Central Park.

New York city views over the Jaqueline Onassis Kennedy Reservoir, Central Park.

Suddenly, at the top of the reservoir with nothing to block our view … we are confronted by size. By space. By magnitude. Way, way off in the distance, across this expanse of water, are the first of the skyscrapers. Trump Tower. Rockefeller Centre. The pinnacle of the Empire State Building. We know these buildings, we know their size, we know that beyond them, way beyond them in face, is downtown, where more skyscrapers stand, where the World Trade Centre stood, but we can’t even see that far from here.

This city is enormous. And yet, also, so very quiet.

Museum Mile

Steve is just taking us across Central Park right now, and before long we find ourselves on Fifth Avenue. It’s the fancy Upper East Side, and as we turn south toward the city we enter the Museum Mile – a stretch home to many of the city’s (nay, the world’s) best museums.

Our destination is the one museum most travellers miss; it’s the one that offers the most to people like us who like good art … but really have no idea what we’re talking about!

The Guggenheim Museum stands out along the Museum Mile, Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side, New York

The Guggenheim Museum stands out along the Museum Mile, Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side, New York

So we pass, and appreciate the bold architecture, of the Guggenheim. We see the masses of art students sketching on the stairs of the grand Metropolitan Museum of Art (yes, even on a Monday when it’s closed!). And we stop to note a building that’s more house than museum – because that’s exactly how it was originally built.

The Frick Collection, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 70th Street, is housed in the home of the industrialist Henry Clay Frick. A collector of art, particularly European masterpieces in paint, porcelain, and sculpture, after his death in 1919 Frick’s wife and their daughter Helen worked to open the works and the home up to the public.

The Frick Collection is an impressive experience. It is not as overwhelming as a large museum, and unlike collections created by a succession of curators this very much represents the varied interests of one man. The audio guide, which is free with entry, allows you to pick and choose to learn more about the works that impress you most, from Rembrandt to Rodin. While it’s closed Monday, we’ll be back here to take it in later in our trip.

The Frick Collection, formerly the Frick family mansion, upper east side New York City.

The Frick Collection, formerly the Frick family mansion.

If you don’t want to wait, you can take the virtual tour right now. Look for the paintings by American artists – only two of the 137 masterpieces Frick acquired were painted in the New World.

Strawberry Fields and Chocolate Concretes

We could follow Fifth Avenue further down, but Steve is pulling us back into Central Park. We’re crossing over it again, and 27 blocks further south it’s a lot busier here. The buzz of the crowd seems to increase as we approach the west side of the park once more – suddenly there are more people, more bikes, and more touts selling sketches they’ve made and city photographs they haven’t.

Steve reveals why – this is the area of Central Park now known as Strawberry Fields, dedicated to John Lennon who was shot dead in front of his nearby apartment. The focal point is the ‘Imagine circle’, a mosaic almost continually filled with flowers left by fans of Lennon, and those who continue to spread his message of peace.

The Imagine Circle, Strawberry Fields, Central Park New York City. No 3 days in New York are complete without it.

The Imagine Circle, Strawberry Fields.

For lunch, we’re heading to the nearby Shake Shack – for an experience that’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t been to a burger joint that was created by a fine dining chef (in this case, Union Square Cafe’s Danny Meyer). Let’s just say, this ain’t McDonalds, the vegetarian option is actually as sensational as the bacon-laden SmokeShack, and you’re a fool if you don’t also order one of the Concretes (frozen custards) as part of your meal.

Muppets and Diamonds

Manhattan has featured in countless films – we’re running a question on our Facebook page about which New York films you think are best. One of our favourites is The Muppets Take Manhattan, so we figured if they’re here … then we must find them!

The WhatNot Workshop, FAO Schwarz New York.  The best New York Souvenir.

Found them! The WhatNot Workshop, FAO Schwarz New York.

So after a longer wander to the bottom of Central Park we find ourselves standing in front of the life-size toy soldiers at FAO Schwarz. Tom Hanks fans will be rushing inside and upstairs – yes, the big piano that featured in the film Big is here … and yes, you can have a turn on it if you want!

Big, the Tom Hanks film, featured this very piano.

You may have to wait for the kids to get off first!

Just some of the WhatNot options at the Make your own Muppet Workshop.

Just some of the WhatNot options at the Make your own Muppet Workshop.
Keep reading to see what I will make – yes, given all of these choices and an infinite Muppet world, I’m chosing to make a WhatNot that looks like me!

When you’re done, we’ll be downstairs at the What Not workshop. What Nots are the Muppets you see in the background – they were the audience for the Muppet Show, and they joined the famous Muppets (like Ernie and Bert) for the wedding scene of Manhattan. This workshop is the only place in the world where you can make your own Muppet.

Yes, we said it … You. Can. Make. Your. Own. Muppet.

The recommended ages of 5-12 are ridiculous – this is totally an adult experience, and before we know it we’re consumed in the debate about whether to go with an oval or pointed nose, and whether to dress our What Not in the Princess Outfit or the Statue of Liberty costume!

Undoubtedly the most awesome souvenir you can acquire on your New York Trip, but not the priciest. For that you have to head two blocks south, and back onto Fifth Avenue. What were we saying about great New York movies? That’s a list that isn’t complete until you add the most fabulous movie of them all, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Outside Tiffany & Co, on Fifth Avenue. Grab your croissant and coffee, and make your own Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Outside Tiffany & Co, on Fifth Avenue.

We’re sure the great folk at Tiffany’s won’t appreciate us saying this, but after you get your requisite photo outside, it’s worth walking inside just to take in this experience. Nowadays, when there’s a Tiffany store on every corner (Tiffany’s Bondi Junction, seriously?) it’s nice to breathe in the rarefied air of the 176-year-old flagship store that started it all.

There’s plenty more shopping down here on street level, but night is falling … and we have an appointment much higher up!

Top of the Rock

Most tourists head to the top of the Empire State Building, the only vista of New York where you can’t see its most famous building (because you’re standing on it!). So we’ll let you in on a little secret – Rockefeller Centre, made famous most recently as the home of TV show 30 Rock, offers a ‘Top of the Rock’ experience where you can head to the summit of this 259m high building…and see it all.

Preparing to enter 30 Rock before our climb to the Top of the Rock, Rockefeller Centre New York

Preparing to enter 30 Rock.

Wow – be prepared for the bracing breeze as you step outside at the top! February in New York is colder at night, and 70 stories up! And then take in the panorama – first, looking out across Central Park where we walked today. Again, the size of Manhattan becomes apparent when even from this view we can barely see the other end of the park.

And then walking around, the geography of the city becomes clearer. Heading to the right, we can see past the Chrysler Building to the East River that separates Manhattan from Queens and Brooklyn. The East River Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge now come into sight, exposing us for the first time to Downtown Manhattan.

Then there’s the Empire State Building itself, lit tonight in Red, White, and Blue. MidTown New York becomes obvious here, the expanse of smaller, more residential buildings that fill the space between the Empire State Building and the towers down toward Wall Street at the the bottom of Manhattan.

View Downtown in New York, from the top of Rockefeller Center. The Empire State Building is lit up.

View Downtown in New York, from the top of Rockefeller Plaza

The brightness of Times Square stands out as we keep moving around, and beyond it over the Hudson River we can see the lights of Jersey – including Newark Airport where we arrived what feels like a lifetime ago. Returning to where we first began, and the night is setting in. Central Park is now most noticeable as an empty blackness in the heart of street and building lights. We feel you New York.

Broadway

And there’s only one more experience to make this day complete, and that’s taking in a show along the world’s most famous theatre stretch – Broadway.

We have tickets to the current Broadway sensation, Newsies. Centring a Broadway musical on a mostly male cast and based on a Disney film whose success is best described as ‘cult following’ was a gamble … and this production is a jackpot!

Times Square Advertisement for Newsies, the Musical. Currently a Tony Award Winning Broadway Sensation, and we loved it!

Times Square Advertisement for Newsies, the Musical

The story of the 19th Century strike by newspaper boys against the capital excesses of the time has struck a chord in the middle of this global financial crisis. But this is not just right story, right time – this is a production that will have you humming the tune to The World Will Know and King of New York before you even realise it.

Our takeaway is also the power of male dance – put a group of guys on stage and dress them in khaki and grey and the audience has no choice but to marvel at the strength and technique these guys have.

Jaws drop. Feet tap. And as the audience empties onto the street at the end of the performance we get a feeling for why this is a city that never sleeps.

We could do anything. Mostly, we just want to play with our FAO Schwarz Muppets!

We could do anything. Mostly, we just want to play with our Muppets! (And yes, that is the Wedding Scene from The Muppets Take Manhattan playing in the background.)

There’s so much more we could be doing, right now. And you can do it, right now – click here to read Day Two in New York…

Want to go? Need to know!

  • New York is serviced by two major airports – JFK (out past Brooklyn) and Newark, New Jersey. You don’t want to spend time in either. Worse still, you do want to allow yourself plenty of time to get to either – public transport is more reliable than a taxi (in case of traffic issues).
  • Get a Metro Card (valid on both Subways and buses) and download a copy of the Subway map. If you’re staying for more than 5 days, just get a weekly card – sure, you want to walk around the city as much as possibly, but having unlimited weekly travel means never having to think about whether you can take that subway ride to squeeze in dinner at that great restaurant people keep telling you about.
  • If you have more time, or museums are a more important part of your travelling, take in the Met. Entry is free BUT they will try to force you into the standard donation of $25. If you can afford that, make the contribution to the future of this institution – but if you can’t, you are able to let them know that and walk right in.
  • Accommodation in New York is not cheap. If you ever meet a New Yorker in your travels, befriend them immediately! (Firstly, because they’re likely friendly and fabulous; prime real estate is a secondary benefit.) Airbnb was actually created in response to finding New York accommodation.

Have you decided which New York movie you love most yet? Tell us over on our Facebook page.