Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Month: July 2017

Governors Island, New York

While I failed to land on Governor’s Island when I started researching this national monument for a previous New York City visit in 2014 I was able to make the short ferry ride from the Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan during a recent visit so wanted to share it’s unique physical and historical place in New York Harbour.

I started my day with a 9 AM visit to One World Trade Observatory which offers a great view of Governor’s Island which was officially named by the British in 1784 as the colonial assembly reserved it exclusively for the use of New York’s royal governors.

The short walk through the Trinity Church cemetery and past Wall Street leads to the historic Battery Maritime Building with its ornate arches and decoration.

The Battery Maritime Building, completed in 1909 when ferries were still a vital means of transportation in New York City, is the last surviving East River ferry building from an era when 17 ferry lines plied the waters between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The short ferry ride ends at Soissons Landing at the southern end of this 172-acre island which lies only 800 yards off Lower Manhattan and even closer to Brooklyn. Ferry service runs seasonally while the island is open to visitors  which in 2017 is May 1st – 21st October. Roundtrip rides are $2 per adult except Saturdays and Sunday before 11:30 when there’s no charge.

The scorching hot day offered ideal conditions to photograph the Manhattan skyline and watch the Staten Island Ferry and harbour traffic glide past.

The view from the island of Lower Manhattan is massively memorable and unlike any I’d encountered on previous visits to New York.

A sail boat with sails unfurled made its way past but under power as there was barely a breath of a breeze to fill its canvas.

The Statue of Liberty is just off to the west as is neighboring Ellis Island that welcomed millions of immigrants from the mid 1800’s through the 1920’s helping shape not only New York City but the Unites States.


Having only 2 hours I opted to explore on foot the more developed and historic northeast end of the island but on a return trip with cooler weather would stay longer and rent a bike. There is 7 miles of car-free biking on Governors Island and bikes may be rented near the ferry landing while select bicycle rentals are free from Blazing Saddles weekdays morning 10 AM to Noon for up to 1 hour.

I did enjoy the leafy shade of Colonels Row with its stately officers houses.

Nearby is Castle Williams which was originally a fort built in 1807 along with the nearby Fort Jay to protect New York harbour before becoming a military prison in the in the U.S. Civil War, a role it retained for a century until 1965. Visitors are able to walk the interior and peer from the small casement windows at the city and reflect on how prisoners must’ve felt watching the world go on around them. Castle Williams and a surrounding 150-acre area are the Governors Island National Monument and so a National Park Service officer was on hand to answer questions and said most of the prisoners held at Castle Williams were short-timers serving on average less than a year.

Castle Williams which was designed by Jonathan Williams, first superintendent of West Point and commander of Corps of Engineers and who Williamsburg, Brooklyn is named for.

The scale of the forts, castles on Governors Island and the views of the city skyline from its shores are all large but off to one side I noticed a small memorial to a fallen sergeant on the grass and it helped humanize the island’s U.S. Army post which was in service from 1783 to 1966.

After Governors Island ceased being an Army post it was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1966 who used it for maritime search and rescue until 1996. Since its transfer in 2003 by the U.S. government to the people of New York state the lower 22-acres with its historic forts and buildings are administered by the National Park Service while the remaining mostly undeveloped 150-acres are administered by administered by a joint city-state agency, the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC).

Visiting Governors Island is well worth a detour for those visitors in New York during Summer as until 2003 it was off-limits to all but service personnel and remained an enigma to millions of New Yorkers who lived their lives beside it without having ever set foot on it. So close yet so far.

There is an excellent scrolling timeline of Governors Island history here and an PDF map below.


The High Line, New York

I’ve come to regard New York City not as the clichéd “Big Apple” but rather a giant onion with layer upon layer of places to discover and things to experience on every return visit and such was the case one recent scorching Summer day as I spent a half day enjoying a leisurely stroll on the High Line.

Truth be told I was actually on the High Line once previously but in polar opposite weather conditions as that January visit saw the mercury plunge as low as -20 °C making lengthy outdoor walking tours virtually impossible in the lighter clothes I’d packed expecting relatively warmer weather.

If necessity is the mother of invention, the High Line was born from an early 1930’s need to elevate the ground level tracks which ran along 10th Avenue to end the frequent fatal collisions between trains, cars and pedestrians as the stretch had become so dangerous it was nicknamed “Death Avenue”.

Decades later as the freight industry shifted from rail to road with the rise of interstate trucking, the fortunes of the High Line declined to the point where a section of it was pulled down in the 1960’s and the last train ran in 1980.

After almost two decades of abandonment a group of Chelsea residents and property owners began lobbying for the derelict tracks demolition but encountered resistance from some neighborhood residents most notably Robert Hammond and Joshua David who saw the space not as urban industrial blight but as a “park in the sky”.  After meeting at a community event in 1999 and finding no other organizations working to save the railway Hammond & David formed Friends of the High Line and after enlisting celebrities such as actors Ethan Hawke and Edward Norton and designer Diane von Furstenberg persuaded the incoming New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to set aside the demolition order of former mayor Rudy Giuliani.

A series of design competitions followed and the winning design by landscape architects Field Operations and Diller, Scofido + Renfro was chosen to emulate the example set by the Promenade Plantée in Paris and rebuild the High Line as a long overhead public park with a number of entry points and green space with lawns, trees and manicured foliage native to New England.

After the railway line’s owners CSX donated the High Line to the city of New York in late 2005 ground-breaking ceremonies soon followed leading to the 2009 opening of the first section from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street with Section 2 from West 20th Street to West 30th Street opening  in 2011. Section 3 around the Hudson Rail Yards opens to the public in 2014 bringing the High Line to its current 2.3 KM length. 

That the experiment in pragmatic civic planning would work out so spectacularly well is something even its most ardent proponents probably could never have imagined as the High Line has become a beloved city landmark drawing an estimated 5 millions visitors a year and helping transform once gritty industrial areas into trendy sought-after addresses. This neighborhood transformation was spurred by 2005 city re-zoning that not only allowed the park itself but allowed construction of new developments alongside the tracks.

While there 11 entrances along the High Line for those wanting to walk it’s whole length I would recommend starting at the northern end at West 34th Street & 11th Avenue and strolling south through Chelsea ending in the heart of the Meatpacking District with its red brick former warehouses housing trendy shops and restaurants.  

My starting point is the CSX Gate on West 34th Street which is the only spot where the High Line reaches ground level before rises gently to offer a commanding view over the West Side Highway and Hudson River with Weehawken, New Jersey on the opposite shore.

photo by author

photo by author

The High Line bends around Hudson Yards at this point and a field of idle subway cars shimmer in the Summer sun.

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The railway tracks here and in other spots have been left exposed to remind visitors the history of this public space.

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It’s not hard to imagine at some spots along the High Line what it must’ve been like to like to live within metres of a railway.

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The redevelopment of the area lead to the design of residential buildings by so called ‘starchitects’, architects who’ve achieved a certain level of notoriety or celebrity status including the late Zaha Hadid whose design for 520 West 28th is “largely defined by graceful curves inspired by nature”. 

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There is more about Hadid who is the only female recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Prize for Architecture since it’s 1979 inception and the  first and only woman to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects at the Artsy webpage.

The sinuous curves of the building are enough to stop most High Line pedestrians and left me pondering the transformation of a neighborhood built purely for industrial function into one whose form is celebrated as much as its function. This recent devotion to design is cited as having been sparked by the High Line’s rebirth.

Creative Commons Licence
“The high line’s responsible for New York’s best upcoming architecture” by Dezeen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Walking through the Chelsea Thicket on the High Line between West 21 st and West 22nd Streets  is one of the closest experiences you’ll have to being in a forest in lower  Manhattan as this short stretch features densely-planted dogwoods, bottlebrush buckeye, giant pussy willow, American hollies, winterberries, and roses.

photo by author

Public art has always been incorporated into the High Line and the current year-long exhibit is entitled Mutations which “explores the relationship between man and nature, looking at how the boundaries between the natural world and culture are defined, crossed, and obliterated.”

photo by author

photo by author

One of the most beloved spots along the High Line has become the 10th Avenue Square with it’s wooden amphitheatre bench seating allowing visitors to perch and watch the traffic flow down West 17th Street under the viaduct through big Plexiglas windows cut into the iron railing.

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The view from this vantage point at dusk with the river of red brake lights glowing and city lights twinkling is worth a return visit.

A short walk away the High Line detours  through the former National Biscuit Company  (Nabisco) factory which was reborn 20 years ago as the Chelsea Market and now houses an eclectic variety of eateries in a food hall, a micro-brew, café, bookstore and kitchen supply company. The sprawling factory that witnessed the creation of the Oreo cookie in 1912 grew to occupy an entire city block and was built on the railway because of its proximity to butchers’ larder within the Meatpacking District in the 1890’s. At its height the factory produced half of the biscuits consumed in the United States before production was moved to the suburbs in 1958. There is a staircase from the High Line to street level at the Chelsea Market.

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The  rustic feel of the former factory with its exposed brick and wood floors is part of the charm of the Chelsea Market and is well worth a stopover for a bite and a beer for High Line walkers. My choice was the Zero Gravity Green State Lager brewed in Vermont and it proved a superb Summer beer with a crisp, clean taste.

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Just beyond the Chelsea Market is the Diller-von Furstenberg Sundeck & Water Feature with wood lounge chairs resting on the tracks and a gurgling water feature attracting kids and parched adults anxious to enjoy the water in a record heat wave that scorched the city.

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The cool, shady spot of the sundeck proved hard to leave after a short siesta.

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For New Yorkers living in small studio apartments this outdoor living room offers a space to hang out and socialize or ignore the masses for some alone time with a hand-held device.

The High Line ends at Gansevoort Street with the Renzo Piano designed Whitney Museum of American Art which opened in its current location in 2015 and focuses on 20th and 21st-century American art. There are several outdoor observation decks at the Whitney offering dramatic Hudson River and High Line views so ending a walking tour of this community corridor with a view from above offers a fine end to a fine day.

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There is an excellent pocket guide to the High Line and map of the line for visitors but part of the appeal is to aimlessly stroll the green space taking in the foliage and art at a leisurely pace.

Hotel review: 11 Howard, New York City

For the century-old SoHo – an acronym meaning South of Houston Street – building at 11 Howard Street that’s seen many uses including a post office and Holiday Inn its recent reincarnation as a five-star luxury hotel at a crossroads of Lower Manhattan neighborhoods is what drew me for a recent two-night stay and left me wanting more.

Boasting an excellent location straddling Chinatown, the Lower East Side , the East Village and Little Italy 11 Howard underwent a complete redesign by Danish firm Space Copenhagen and Anda Andrei who for almost three decades was the design guru behind Ian Schrager’s ground-breaking boutique hotel projects. Andrei talks more about the hotel’s design and how she thinks it’ll look better not worse in five years in this video. Unlike contemporary hip hotels that defy convention with garish colours and loud music 11 Howard has a more muted motif of neutral tones and natural materials in a Danish modern minimalism that has an understated elegance.

As civic zoning bylaws prohibit SoHo hotels from having more than 1,000 square feet of hotel function space on the ground floor designers decided to eliminate the traditional lobby front  desk in favor or staff checking in guests from a tablet. Stepping into the little lobby it’s not immediately apparent who’s a hotel employee and who’s a guest but I was warmly greeted within a minute or two by a staffer who had a suitably hip designer uniform with high pant hems and leather loafers.

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11 Howard is a member of the Starwood Hotel & Resorts allowing me to confirm a two-night stay using Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty award for a Howard Queen room but upon check-in was advised I’d been upgraded to an accessible Howard King, a move which netted me an extra 10 square feet which is probably the difference in bed sizes.

Room 618 is at the end of a dimly lit corridor but in contrast is a light and airy space with large windows overlooking Howard Street, light brown oak floors and 11 foot ceiling that makes it feel much larger than its listed 200 square feet although it may well be slightly larger with it being an accessible room. The king bed doesn’t feel outsized and there’s ample room between it and the small desk and the easy chair by the window so has good flow.

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While not large the desk does have a handy wall shelf above it which works as a spot to perch devices while recharging.

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The wooden night stand is a cube of rescued wood beam with a crack running top to bottom and hols a small phone and small tablet and recharging station. The tablet come preloaded with hotel services that can be ordered as well as a neighborhood guide but came in very handy to surf the net to check weather forecasts or plan New York subway trips. Having the tablet personalized with the guest’s name is a nice touch.

photo by author

photo by author

The accessible bathroom is larger than usual and has bars on the walls but is without a vanity to hold toiletries. There is a small gold framed shelf beside the bathtub but as its stocked with  towels and tissues only has a small storage capacity. There are hooks on the bathroom door  which proved handy to hang my toiletries bag but more shelf space would’ve been good.

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For a hotel intent on showing its modernity the brass faucets seem more retro than contemporary. The tub & shower taps took some time to master its settings but for luckily for those guests more gifted with technology than bathroom taps there’s a “How To” video on the room’s tablet so guests aren’t scalded.

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The closet opposite the bathroom has a mini-fridge and laptop size safe but only a small space to hang clothes which for my short stay in Summer wasn’t an issue but could be for seriously hip guests with a large wardrobe on a longer visit in Winter.

A neighborhood roof top view from the large window but there are some Howard King rooms on this floor that feature an Empire State Building view.

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While I would’ve preferred a regular Howard Queen category room over the Accessible King room the higher floor location of the latter did have the advantage of being unaffected by the noise from subway lines that run beneath the building as many guests on lower floors have reported. The sound from other rooms was also not an issue during my stay and so both helped provide excellent sleep quality.

The second floor of 11 Howard is where the dining & lounge are clustered with access via elevators or a spiral staircase that has an edgy industrial design softened with blond wood handrails.

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The best part of ascending the staircase is looking up to see the completely unexpected Dan Attoe neon artwork on the ceiling that reads “We are just complicated animals”.

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On the second floor is The Library, a casual hang-out food & drinks zone for socializing over cocktails or catching up on some work that feels more like a living room with its variety of sofas and easy chairs. Complimentary wine is served here Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday 6 – 7 PM and a breakfast and all day menu is available daily.

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To one side of The Library is the hotel’s lounge, the blond, with its undulating blue velour banquette running the length of the room under windows overlooking Howard Street.

photo by author

photo by author

The morning emptiness of the blond in my photos is replaced by a packed place come evening as the lounge has become one of the trendy spots in SoHo since the hotel opened in April, 2016. Note the blond hours are only 5 – 10 PM daily except Sunday so those wanting drinks before these times can visit The Library and after at any one of the numerous lounges off-site around SoHo.

Guests hungry for fine French cuisine can visit Le Coucou and sample acclaimed chef Daniel Rose’s creations. The restaurant entrance is just around one side of the building from the lobby on  Lafayette Street but given 11 Howard’s location there are scores of notable eateries within blocks in Little Italy and Chinatown.

Beyond just making 11 Howard look good its creators wanted to make the hotel do good as well and adopted a “conscious hospitality” motto that sees a portion of the revenue donated to the Global Poverty Project, an international education and advocacy organisation working to end extreme poverty. The community and young artists were invited to participate in the painting of a 150-foot mural on the side of the building, a project overseen by artist Jeff Koons. There’s more about the mural’s inspiration and creation in this video.

While the positives far outweigh the negatives at 11 Howard there are some issues I found during my stay including dimly lit hallways, an unmarked service elevator I mistook for a guest elevator, small room closet, a lack of a vanity and low tub although these last two items are likely due to it being an accessible room and may not be the same in all rooms.

11 Howard is a funky luxury boutique hotel and welcome in such a vibrant part of Manhattan so I would definitely recommend it as a completely comfortable corner from which to  experience this dynamic city the best way possible – by walking its streets. Room rates range from USD$250 – $459 + tax for a Howard Queen room with the upgrade to a Howard King room on a quieter higher floor with a better view running between $30 – $60 per room per night.  

Why The Economy Airline Seat Is Shrinking

The trend in aviation in recent years has been to maximize the number of economy seats on aircraft which inevitably means minimizing room for passengers and it’s a trend that isn’t likely to stop as the airlines look for every square inch to squeeze out profits.

Here in Canada, WestJet has quietly retrofitted most of its Boeing 737 fleet in the last year to add up to five more seats but contends passengers won’t notice any difference as the new Wi-Fi enabled slim-line Recaro seats will actually increase seat pitch by an inch. WestJet’s economy seat pitch across it’s 119 aircraft fleet varies from 30 inches on the regional Encore Bombardier Q400 turboprop planes to 31 – 33 inches with seat width averaging 17 inches across it’s Boeing 737 and 767 aircraft.

As of 31st December 2016 Air Canada’s fleet numbered 346 aircraft including its regional Air Canada Express commuter carrier and has a far greater number of aircraft types than WestJet. Seat pitch varies between 30 inches on it’s no-frills charter airline-like subsidiary Air Canada Rouge to 34 inches on its Embraer regional and trans border jets with seat width between 17 and 18 inches. Worth noting however is that Air Canada’s long-haul Boeing 777 aircraft has only 31 inch economy seat pitch which on a 13-hour flight Vancouver – Hong Kong for example may be more confining than expected.

Air Transat had a reputation as a charter airline that tightly packed its planes but heeded its passenger complaints and actually removed seats earlier this decade to bring its seat pitch inline with its scheduled airline competition. Their fleet of Airbus aircraft features economy seat pitch between 32 and 33 inches with seat with at 17 inches except on the older Airbus A310 planes where seat with is a more narrow 16.5 inches.

Among Canadian airlines Sunwing has the tightest seat pitch at 29 inches on its Boeing 737 aircraft with 17 inch seat width. Like most of its competitors, Sunwing has a roomier section of seats at the front of its flight with seat pitch of up to 35 inches but unlike the others the price premium to confirm these Sunwing seats is fairly low at $100 roundtrip per person which is a fraction of the price of Air Canada’s Premium Economy or WestJet’s Plus seats.

These size stat.’s have been taken from airline websites or Seat Guru except Sunwing which is here and are for regular economy seats excluding seats in emergency exit rows that feature several inches more room.

Does the trend of shrinking economy airline seats sit well with you? Post a comment.

The ABC’s of my NYC celebrity encounter

After a number of visits to New York City I’ve failed to spot any of the real or pseudo-celebrities the city is known for but that all changed one blisteringly hot afternoon recently in the East Village.

I was in the neighborhood to join a walking cocktail history tour but being a little early took a spot on a shady Tompkins Square park bench to try and escape the oppressive 105 Fahrenheit or 41 Celsius heat when I noticed what looked like a film, movie or video shoot underway nearby. The actors in the ensemble cast included Cookie Monster, Grover and Count von Count, often known simply as “the Count”, but sadly wasn’t able to get too close to the celebrities as the small army of production crew members kept us amateur paparazzi at a safe distance as the shoot continued.

In speaking with some of the neighborhood parents who like me and their children watched on with juvenile fascination it seems other Sesame Street luminaries such as Ernie & Bert and Big Bird were also involved in the four-day shoot which wasn’t for the TV show itself but rather a Chrysler commercial and that made sense given the full-size van being used in the production. I thought how hot I was and felt for the crew and puppeteers working for days in the heat wave.

photo by author

photo by author

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Sesame street scene

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I enjoyed seeing the four part commercial series finished product after having seen a fraction of the work that went into its production.

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