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Train ride to the big city is a great time with the gals

We walked out of Macy's Herald Square at closing time, arms full of shopping bags.

"Hey," I said to my friends. "I have a crazy idea. The Empire State Building is open until midnight. Let's go up and see the lights of New York City." The girls loved the idea and it was probably one of the most beautiful sights we saw during our three-day adventure in New York City.

What brought us, four middle-age, suburban Buffalo moms, to the Big Apple? Three of us -- Mary, Linda and me -- celebrated a milestone birthday this year. Our customary lunch wasn't enough -- we wanted to do something special, too.

A trip out of town was in order. No kids, no hubby, no chores, just hanging out together to shop, eat and sightsee for a few days. We decided on New York City. Since I really, really hate to fly, and none of us wanted to drive there, we decided to do something we've never done before: travel by train.

Joining us on our adventure was Trish, Linda's friend who loves to travel and who has been to New York several times.

While we picked our travel dates earlier in the year, we also did a little planning about a month before our trip. We were overwhelmed with all there was to see and do.

We made our train reservations online; however, you usually can buy tickets at the station just prior to departure. As to everything else to see and do, we knew we wanted to go on one of the double-decker bus tours, see a play and do some shopping. We decided that rather than planning our trip minute-by minute, we would have a basic plan and do most things spur-of-the moment.

>All aboard

Bleary-eyed, we boarded the Amtrak train at the nearly deserted Depew station at 4:20 a.m. After the initial excitement, we tried to catch some shut-eye -- not the most comfortable thing to do in coach seats. When the sun came up, we watched the scenery fly past. Once we passed Albany, the tracks follow the Hudson River all the way to New York.

We brought along some snacks and beverages. However, if you don't bring your own provisions, there is a snack car on the train.

Arriving at New York's Penn Station about 12:30 p.m., we were amazed at the number of people traveling by train. We definitely were not in Depew anymore! With luggage in tow, we walked the two blocks to our hotel, La Quinta Inn Manhattan, located in New York's Little Korea section.

Our rooms were spacious and reasonably priced, at least by New York standards. In addition to being close to the train station, it was just around the corner from the Empire State Building and Macy's, and only a 20-minute walk to Times Square. We spent a little more than $300 per night, per room, with two people sharing a room, which fit our budget. If you want to splurge, you can spend a lot more at some of the more luxurious accommodations closer to Times Square.

We wanted to see a Broadway play, so we checked out TKTS, the half-price ticket office. We arrived just before the office opened at 3 p.m. and there were already hundreds of people in line. There was no guarantee we'd get tickets to the show we wanted or get four seats together. So we bit the bullet, pulled out a cell phone and called Ticketmaster to order full-priced tickets to "Hairspray." It was a wonderful performance and we had really good seats considering we bought them only hours before.

Since traffic seemed to be in perpetual gridlock, it was actually faster to walk than take a cab or bus. Plus, walking was a great way to discover the city. Our group especially enjoyed walking through Times Square at night, which was much different than the last time I was in New York, more than 30 years ago. Back then, I found it rather seedy and kind of frightening.

Today, the area has changed for the better, with all sorts of shops, restaurants and throngs of people. Most of the restaurants and shops, including Hershey's Times Square, the M & M Store and a huge Toys R Us with an indoor Ferris wheel, are open until midnight. On impulse, on our way back from the theater, we stopped for pizza, something we probably wouldn't do at 11 p.m. at home.

The next day, we wanted to see the city from the top of one of the popular double-decker buses, a tour I highly recommend. We got tickets for the hop-on, hop-off "all loops" tour offered by Gray Line, a good deal at $49 per person. Plus, tickets are good for 48 hours, so you have two days to see the city.

We got the tickets for the bus right around the corner from our hotel. Just look for the guides with the red vests near the Gray Line bus stops. While you can get tickets at most hotels and at the Gray Line Visitors Center, these "red vests" work for commission, and they really do work hard for their money.

We did get our seats on top and began the tour at the Empire State Building and got to see many of New York's neighborhoods, including Greenwich Village, SOHO, Chinatown, the World Trade Center site, South Street Seaport and the East Village. Since we had done quite a bit of walking the day before, we were content to just sit and ride. The ride is narrated by knowledgeable guides, so we learned many facts about the city.

>Time to explore

When we got to the Central Park stop, Linda suggested that we get off to see the park, since it was such a nice day. We spent several hours exploring the park. It was hard to believe that we were in the middle of a bustling city. One of the highlights was seeing Strawberry Fields and the Imagine memorial to the late John Lennon, which is located near the Dakota apartment building where he lived.

Our stomachs started to rumble, so we hopped back on the tour bus and headed to Little Italy, which is surrounded by Chinatown. As soon as we got off the bus in Chinatown, street vendors tried to sell us knock-off purses. There were also numerous sidewalk vendors and shops offering inexpensive items like jewelry, sunglasses, ties and more handbags. Food shops had all sorts of raw seafood displayed. Chinatown is interesting, but definitely a bit edgier than some of the other neighborhoods.

Once we reached Little Italy, a charming one block area along Mulberry Street, we had a hard time deciding on a restaurant, since they all looked good. Maitre d's from each restaurant stood on the sidewalk and turned on the charm as they tried to lure us in.

"Ladies, I have a good table for you right here, no waiting. We have the best pasta in town."

We finally decided on Napoli's Cafe, which had very good food.

Afterward, we stopped at Ferrara's Bakery, one of Little Italy's best-known landmarks, and picked up some cookies to eat back at the hotel. Then it was back through Chinatown, past the annoying purse vendors, to get back on the bus.

Our next stop was further uptown, St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. We were all impressed by the beauty and architecture of the Gothic-style cathedral, which opened in 1879.

The rest of the evening was spent shopping, first in Times Square and then at Macy's on 34th Street, the world's largest store. We spent several hours browsing and buying. We then headed up the Empire State Building for an incredible view.

You would think that by now these middle-age moms would call it a night. But since our hotel had an open-air, rooftop bar, we thought we would check it out. Sipping wine and whiskey sours, we talked about our day and enjoyed the great view of the Empire State Building.

The next morning we got an early start to see "The Today Show" because Bruce Springsteen was the featured performer outside on the plaza. Being part of the crowd was a lot of fun.
Afterward, more shopping was in order, including shops on Fifth Avenue and the American Girl store (Trish's daughter is a collector).

We also went inside Sak's Fifth Avenue. Although it was fun to look, I found most of the merchandise to be well beyond my budget. If we had more time, we might have window shopped at some of the more exclusive shops further up Fifth Avenue and on Madison Avenue. If we were in the market for diamonds, we could have shopped along 47th Street, which actually has street lights shaped like diamonds.

Since we only had a few more hours before our train departed, we sought out a deli, got some sandwiches and ate them in the park in Herald Square, right by Macy's. We had time for one more quick visit to Macy's before retrieving our luggage from the hotel and heading to the train station.

After the train pulled out of the station, the conductor asked us if we wanted to make reservations for the dining car. We figured, why not? It was actually quite nice, with tablecloths, flowers on the tables and real dishes and silverware. Mary said she felt like she was on the Orient Express. The food, which was cooked to order in the train's small kitchen, was really good and not too expensive.

After dinner, we headed back to our seats, and drifted off to sleep until we arrived back in Buffalo.

>For women only

Girlfriend getaways, women vacationing with close friends or female relatives, are becoming increasingly popular. A recent AAA survey showed that 24 percent of American women have gone away with friends in the past three years and another 39 percent plan on taking a trip with their girlfriends.

There's even a national magazine, Girlfriend Getaways, from the same publisher of Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, which focuses exclusively on destinations perfect for women's getaways.

In Western New York, Simply Just for the Girls, a business operated by Suzanne Wright of Canandaigua, helps women plan their trips. For a small fee, Wright will organize a customized women's getaway in the Finger Lakes wine country or in upstate New York. For more information: (585) 393-9365,

>If you go

Amtrak: (800) 872-7245,

New York Convention & Visitor's Bureau Information Center, 810 Seventh Ave., between West 52nd and West 53rd, New York City; (212) 484-1222.

Gray Line Visitor's Center, 777 Eighth Ave., New York City; (800) 669-0051, (212) 445-0848; Offers double-decker bus tours of the city. Tickets can be purchased at the visitor's center, as well as at most hotels and at each bus stop from red-vested guides. A two-day, all loops pass costs $49.

Empire State Building, Fifth Avenue at 34th Street, New York City; (212) 736-3100, Open daily 8 a.m.-midnight.

La Quinta Inn Manhattan, 17 West 32nd St., New York City; (212) 736-1600.
TKTS discount ticket booths:

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