Thursday, February 16, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #8


I contemplated saying "fuhgetaboutit," but I always thought that was rather stupid because so few people speak in that clich├ęd accent anymore. This is perhaps the advice that I most often want to implore visitors to heed. I know that often they wouldn't listen to me, or worse, they have no choice in the matter.

If you and your group are using a tour director to help plan your daily itineraries, he or she will very likely give you far, far too much to do. They'll tell you a dollar amount for their package and say, "just look at all the amazing things you'll see for that low price!" What they won't tell you is that you'll be running around like a chicken with its head cut off, on what will feel like a sped-up movie montage of a scavenger hunt. [For the record, decapitated chickens don't actually keep running, they just kind of flop around on the ground.]

This marketing strategy has a number of unfortunate consequences besides being entirely unrealistic. The saddest, in my opinion, is that you're trying to see so many things that, in the end, you're not actually seeing anything. Most of New York's major tourist sites are so for a reason. They're huge, impressive, beautiful, comprehensive, historically important, or just simply magical. If you're racing through them at top speed to check them off your list before racing off to the next one, you can hardly be experiencing what makes these places so fascinating. You have no time to explore, no time to really look at anything, no time to discover the hidden treats that could make your visit something special.

Another thing this kind of planning does is makes your trip about as stressful as it possibly could be. A trip to a Caribbean island, where one's goal is to turn off the cellphone and drink margaritas on the beach, is relaxing. Camping and hiking through the woods before skinny-dipping in a mountain stream can be energetic but also exhilarating. A vacation to a major city like this one, especially for people from smaller towns, can be intense and overwhelming. You have to allow your brain the time and leisure to process all the incoming information or it will be much less enjoyable.

This kind of vacation is tiring work. I'll discuss the amount of walking later. Adding to your exhaustion, you took a red-eye flight that made it impossible to sleep or were on a bus with screaming kids for the past thirty-seven hours. You'll be awake every night until midnight because you're seeing every last musical on Broadway, and up at the crack of dawn to stand around freezing to death outside the Today Show studio. You'd never live your life like this at home, so don't do it here. It's a holiday; enjoy yourself. Quality, not quantity.

I wish I had a dime for every person who has quite literally fallen asleep as soon as I had somewhere for them to sit down. If you're physically unable to stay awake, then clearly you aren't experiencing what you've paid so much hard-earned money to see. If you're so tired you're about to collapse, your brain can't possibly be absorbing or processing any of the incredible things to be found here. When your adrenaline kicks in, you'll be alternately cranky, ornery, spastic, and borderline insane. Chaperones entrusted with twenty-five kids should be especially aware of this: no picnic.

If you take nothing else from what I've said here, I will summarize in two words: SLOW DOWN. You want to return home with clear and inspiring mental pictures that you can describe accurately and with enthusiasm, "remember when we saw this/ did that??? That was so awesome!" You don't want to come home with blurred memories like from a week-long ride on a haunted carousel gone berserk. Three to five things in a day--one in the morning, two or three in the afternoon, occasionally one at night--will be more than enough, believe me. Some things may only take an hour. On the other side of it, you could literally spend three days in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and still not see its entire collection.

If you're traveling through the night, are coming from a wildly different time zone, or your travel method could be especially grueling, plan a lot less stuff to do on your first day. I'd even suggest doing nothing on your first night here. You may very well need it for sleep, and your second day will be a lot more enjoyable if you've had sufficient rest.

I recommend the following strategy if your group has choices of what to see and what not, and especially if the group is larger. Ask everyone in your group to visit a website like this one that lists the top New York destinations [the ordering of that particular list is strange, and doesn't appear to be arranged by popularity, check all four pages]. Have each person put the sites in their order of preference from least important to most important. Least to most means that the number for each destination on people's lists will correspond to the importance level they've given it. Add up all these numbers to assign each destination a value for the group. Save the sites rated highest by your group onto a Google Map (or similar).

See the most important things first. This may seem like an idiotically simple suggestion. You'd be shocked how many people show up to where I work, without a reservation, two hours before they have to get on the airplane home, and get all pissed off when we're sold out or things are unavailable. I mean, I've seen grown men and women throw actual temper tantrums. "But we're leaving tonight!!! We can't come back later!!!" Well, then you should have done this first and not last, Einstein.

Good advice for any trip, but in addition to what you most want to see, also plan to see the outdoor sites at the start of your visit. This way, if it rains the first three days you're here, you have the option to replace them with indoor activities and move up the outdoor ones a day or two in your schedule. Visit the sites most important to you in the mornings, so that if you run out of time one day, you won't be as disappointed by missing that last one. This may seem a great recipe for days that start out really fun and get steadily less fun as they wind down. I don't think so. The sites you're most excited about have a higher potential to disappoint, while the ones you're less enthusiastic about have a much better chance to pleasantly surprise you. I have plenty of visitors who arrive already bored before I've even started speaking, but by the end, say things like "I had no idea this was going to be so cool!"

As time consuming as it may be without a tour planner doing it for you, check hours and days of operation ahead of time for everything you want to see. This is considerably easier now that we have the internet. It used to be a simple rule that, for instance, museums were closed on Mondays. Art galleries still are. But many of the tourist destinations have purposely chosen different days to be closed so that they can capitalize off of the schedules of all the rest. A lot of places are free or "pay what you wish" at a certain time of day once a week, but be aware that they'll be much more crowded at those times. If you have a larger group, make a reservation everywhere that will take one.

©2012, Ryan Witte

9a. The Food Problem


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