06/16/2018 - 06/20/2018
We were still woozy from our huge lunch at Montréal's Atwater Market when we retrieved Mei Ling's mother from the motel in Plattsburgh. She seemed to have weathered three days in solitary none the worse for wear. Soon afterwards, we stopped at Ausable Chasm for a quick look at the canyon and the waterfall. There's plenty of trails and hikes available with an option for rafting or tubing at the bottom, but it wasn't an option with young kids.
We didn't stop again until we reached Great Barrington, in the Berkshires area of Western Massachusetts. We were more interested in the Lenox area to the north, but during my search for an Airbnb I came across a place that I couldn't resist. It was a genuine log cabin with a second-story deck and a stone fireplace. Despite its rustic appearance, it was very modern and comfortable on the inside and everyone loved it.
Great Barrington didn't feel as exclusive as I expected from the Berkshires, perhaps because it was a little to the south of the most affluent areas of Lenox and Stockbridge. The town itself was tiny with most of the restaurants being clustered in a single area near the main road. We took the two older kids to Cafe Adam, the best upscale restaurant in the area, and had an excellent dinner at the only table on the front patio.
The next morning we drove to Lenox and just beat the rush at a very popular brunch restaurant. We checked out a local toy store and a couple of boutiques but we were eager to get on to the day's main event and then proceed to our favorite city in the world, NYC.
The most well-known sight in Lenox is The Mount, the former residence of the turn-of-the-century American novelist Edith Wharton. Wharton helped to design and oversaw construction of the grand mansion herself, and it was where she completed most of the works she is best known for. This summer, the estate was hosting a sculpture exhibition which added a surreal quality to the thickly-wooded grounds.
The gardens were gorgeous and very well-maintained, rivaling some of the most beautiful estates in Europe. The best part was that I didn't have to watch the kids' every move to be sure they weren't about to destroy some precious artifact.
The same couldn't be said about the mansion itself. We eschewed the tour and ushered our manic brood through the elegant home as quickly as we could before enjoying drinks and sorbet at the cafe on the terrace. I ordered a glass of wine for Mei Ling and our waitress told us we were welcome to drink the rest of the bottle, which was still half full. We must have looked like we needed it.
Driving back through Lenox on our way to the main road, we encountered a small girl with a lemonade stand at the curb in front of her house. It was too small town America to ignore, so we pulled over and I bought a Dixie cup of lemonade for the rather obscene price of five dollars. I was also offered the opportunity to buy one of her tiny Play-Doh versions of vegetables for a dollar, which I felt too guilty to refuse. The lemonade was actually an artificially-sweetened drink mix which I poured out discreetly once I got back to the driver's side of the car, and one of the kids immediately rolled the Play-Doh into a pea which was more recognizable as a vegetable than what the little girl had given me. During the whole interaction, there was no sign whatsoever of any parent despite the fact that the girl couldn't have been more than seven and had her stand right at the curb. I couldn't imagine leaving Cleo out on her own in that kind of situation, even in an upscale area, where anyone could drive by in a minivan and snatch her away in a second. Different parenting styles, I suppose, or maybe I'm just paranoid.
For a few years, Airbnb was an amazing deal in NYC given the insane price of hotels. However, it seems that hosts have now wised up and the price of accommodation has risen to meet demand. Increasing restrictions from landlords and condo boards has also probably chilled the supply. We had hoped to stay in Midtown but the prices for two bedroom apartments were crazy, so we settled on East Harlem instead. When I was growing up in New York City in the 80's this was a pretty bad area, but like many other places it's been gentrified and is now a relatively safe, colorful, and diverse neighborhood. The main negative was the distance from downtown Manhattan, but we were planning to spend most of our time in Midtown and Queens anyway. Once we arrived, I realized parking was going to be a major issue so we made a spur of the moment decision to return the minivan early. Aside from the parking concerns, the La Guardia auto rental agencies are separated from the airport itself by two shuttles which totally negates the convenience of returning the car at the airport. We decided to drive to our favorite place to eat in NYC, the food court at New World Mall, before returning the car. There we met up with my college roommate George and his wife and enjoyed a huge and delicious selection of dishes from the most appetizing stalls.
The car dropoff was an exhausting experience, mainly because the first Uber driver we called came and left without us. We were waiting inside the agency office and he called us from outside the gate. We asked him to come inside the lot and pick us up at the office but instead he took off and collected a no-show payment. In order to prevent the next guy from doing the same thing, we had to walk out to the gate and sit on the sidewalk until he showed up. Of course, the second Uber driver had trouble locating the agency and I watched him circle the area three or four times before I was finally able to flag him down. The car-free portion of our trip wasn't beginning auspiciously. However, it was good to get to our Airbnb and walk straight in without having to hunt for a parking place.
In the morning, we split into two groups. Mei Ling, her Mom and Spenser went to meet up with some of her old work friends and I took Cleo and Ian to the American Museum of Natural History. I hadn't been there since my own childhood, and I had eagerly anticipated taking my own kids there and reacquainting myself with old memories of field trips and scavenger hunts. In retrospect, I may have rushed it because I think the kids only got about a quarter of what I hoped they would out of the visit. It didn't help that the museum was absolutely packed despite it being a Monday morning, probably because it was early in the summer vacation season. They spent more time chasing each other around and disappearing into the crowds than they did perusing the exhibitions, although they did seem to enjoy the more interactive exhibits.
We walked back to the East Side through Central Park, but it had become quite hot outside while we were in the museum and the Belvedere Castle turned out to be closed for renovations. I noticed an amazing skyscraper to the south of the park that was the only building visible over the treeline. It turned out to be 432 Park Ave, which had been completed in 2015 and was now the tallest residential building in the Western hemisphere. I don't think that when I was a kid I could have imagined that one day it would be possible to live in an apartment where you could look down on the top of the Empire State Building. The building's relative skinniness and the lack to buildings of similar size around it make it seem even taller. The ultramodern gridlike design gives the skyscraper a surreal beauty that has made it an instant NYC landmark.
The kids were overheated and irritable after the walk through the park, so I decided to cab it back to the Airbnb and let them rest until it was time to head downtown for the evening. We had timed our visit to coincide with the wedding of one of Mei Ling's co-workers, and the reception was being held in Chinatown. We took the subway all the way downtown and then waited in the crowded ballroom about two hours before the actual reception started. The kids had some fun up on the stage, but by the time things were over the stores outside had all closed and we weren't able to enjoy Chinatown at all.
The next day we spent the morning in Greenwich Village, one of the few downtown neighborhoods I'd never taken Mei Ling. We had an enjoyable morning strolling around before we ended up at Washington Square Park. The park had undergone an impressive facelift since the last time I'd visited, which must have been more than ten years ago. The hard dirt and concrete were mostly gone, replaced by lawns and a pleasantly-contoured children's playground. Young people and families were sprawled around the grass, seemingly having forgiven the park for its recent history as a haven for vagrants and drug addicts.
For our last evening in New York City and the finale of the road trip, we'd bought tickets to the Spongebob SquarePants musical on Broadway. It seemed like a great way to introduce the kids to live theater and the reviews were great. I hadn't seen a Broadway show since I was a kid, and it would be the first time for Mei Ling. Once we were inside, what struck me immediately was how many adults were there unaccompanied by children. Of course, there were more kids than one might expect at the usual Broadway show but nowhere near as many as I anticipated. I guess nostalgia is a powerful motivator, but I would never have chosen to go to a musical based on a kids' TV show if I wasn't bringing my children. The show came off pretty well, thanks to the talent and enthusiasm of the actors. One of the best decisions the creators made was not having the actors hide themselves in elaborate and bulky animal costumes, but rather have clothing items and a hairstyle that evoked their characters. Mr. Krabs wore oversize boxing gloves that really looked like claws, Squidward had pants with an extra set of legs, and SpongeBob himself just wore suspenders with pants that were too short and revealed his striped socks. On the other hand, the musical pieces were a little disappointing without any numbers as memorable as The Campfire Song or The Best Day Ever. After the show, we spilled out onto Broadway which is truly an amazing and overwhelming sight at night.
There was too much energy in the air for us to just call it a night, so we took an hour to wander around Times Square and then a little bit of Midtown, including Rockefeller Center. We tried the obligatory pushcart sausages and pretzels, and marveled at the enormous buildings and elaborate decorative displays that were ubiquitous in the area. As much as I love the ethnic and artistic culture of Downtown, it's really Midtown that embodies the magic and majesty of New York City the best.
In the morning we had one last view of 432 Park Avenue from across the river in Queens on our way to the airport. Mei Ling was speculating that if we decided to retire in New York City we might one day live in that building, but a quick look online revealed that the cheapest studio apartment was four million. It was a healthy reminder that even though travel makes us feel like Masters of the Universe, we're just little fish in a place like NYC. On the positive side, we only had to face a three hour flight back home to Miami. Even if NYC isn't affordable for us right now, it's good to know we can come back as often as we want.