In previous years, my pre-Christmas travels have taken me abroad. I’ve brought home special handmade items from Christmas markets in Germany and Brussels, and I’ve reveled in attending plays and Christmas concerts in London. This year, my mother and I discovered a terrific domestic way to get into the holiday spirit: AAA Ohio Auto Club’s “Holiday Shopping Red Eye” motorcoach tour to New York City.
I was 12 the last time I made a proper visit to New York City. It left me with three impressions: roasted chestnuts; packed sidewalks; and scary people. For the last 30 years, I’ve been too timid to go back. I tried satisfying my curiosity about New York City a couple of years ago by watching Ric Burns’ epic documentary of New York. I loved all 1,040 minutes of it, so I bought and pored over the 575-page companion volume. But I still wasn’t ready to see New York for myself.
Last month, I decided that was silly. I’ve successfully dodged gypsies in Rome, emerged unscathed from a Chunnel crossing to Paris, and survived every mishap the Quiet Little Country Village had to offer. I could handle New York City for one day!
For the past few weeks, we’ve been researching New York City guidebooks, following the city’s museums and libraries on Twitter, and getting recommendations from others. We sketched out our itinerary of sightseeing destinations so we could make the most of our 14-hour visit. Some were skeptical that we could cover that much territory in such a short time. During Thanksgiving weekend, my cousin pronounced that we’d need two days alone to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Watch us!,” I thought to myself, as my aunt reminded him that he’d never traveled with us before.
Escorted by AAA’s Stephanie and Cindy, and with Kathy of Brewster Travel in Martinsburg, Ohio behind the wheel, our coach left AAA’s Worthington office on Friday evening and picked up fellow tour-goers in Mansfield. After watching “Elf,” we tucked ourselves in for the overnight drive. At 5:00 Saturday morning, we arrived at the Vince Lombardi service area on the New Jersey Turnpike, where our traveling companions undertook the most extraordinary example of “freshening up” we’d ever seen. I thought I’d seen plenty of preening during my 18 years of attending all-girls schools, but it was nothing like this.
At 6:30, we rolled into Manhattan. Disembarking at Rockefeller Center, our fellow travelers each went their separate ways. Some were bound for Battery Park, the Statue of Liberty and the 9/11 Memorial, others were planning to take the Staten Island Ferry and sightseeing tours, and a few were going to spend the day in the Garment District.
We chose to begin our day admiring the beautiful lighted Christmas tree and angels overlooking the famous ice skating rink. When the sun came up, we watched the “Today” show in progress and the first skaters take to the rink. After picking up a “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” souvenir for Nails at the NBC Experience Store, we walked across the street to admire the windows at Christie’s that advertised “The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor” exhibition tour. Stopping at St. Patrick’s Cathedral first, we began our walk up Fifth Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We stopped in our tracks at 57th Street, when we saw Tiffany & Co.’s magnificent windows decorated like antique carousels in gold and signature Tiffany Blue. Inside each window, beveled mirrors frame miniature scenes featuring Tiffany jewels.
On our way to 82nd Street, we walked past the Frick Collection, Henry Clay Frick’s marvelous New York residence at 70th Street. Arriving at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, our first stop was to see the towering evergreen tree in which 53 angels are suspended over a Neapolitan Baroque crèche. The annual display is from the collection of the late Loretta Hines Howard, whose mother gave her a small 18th century Neapolitan crèche of Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child as a wedding present in 1924. Over the years, she added more figures to the Nativity scene, eventually giving her collection to the museum in 1964. Her daughter, Linn Howard, and granddaughter, Andrea, continue her work, acquiring new figures and items and redesigning the landscape to accommodate them. Today, the collection exceeds 300 figures.
Dressed in colorful antique silk scarves and tunics, the graceful angels are made of tow and wire, with sculpted terracotta heads. The landscape below the tree is filled with figures of Neapolitans and travelers from the East who have come to visit the Christ Child. My favorites were a bejeweled noble lady arriving on a camel, bringing presents in a covered silver basket; and a wife carrying a basket of onions from market, dressed in bright blue silk, with gold and pearl earrings, and accompanied by her husband, who sports a bright blue neckerchief. Since we couldn’t take photos of the tree, click here to see it. The Angel Tree: Celebrating Christmas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Loretta Hines Howard Collection of Eighteenth-Century Neapolitan Crèche Figures, by Linn Howard and Mary Jane Pool, also features exquisite photographs of these beautiful angels and Neapolitan figures.
The angel tree was just the beginning of what we admired at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We marveled at the mantel that Augustus Saint-Gaudens created in the early 1880s for the entrance hall of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s home on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, with an overmantel mosaic featuring a Latin phrase of hospitality and two classical figures, representing Love and Peace, supporting an elaborately carved entablature. In the period rooms of the American Wing, we marveled at an 18th century quillwork sconce made of paper, shells, wire and mica. A harp-playing angel from the choir rail that once was in All Angels’ Church in New York City was the perfect prelude to the Musical Instruments gallery, where we saw spectacular harpsichords and pianos, harp-guitars, and an 18th century Tyrolean hook harp. We also saw accordions, mandolins and pochettes, pocket-sized fiddles that were used to teach 17th century young people how to dance. Before lunch, we regrouped over a cup of tea, looking out the windows at the beautiful views of Central Park, where countless people were enjoying the sunny day.
Next, we traveled back down Fifth Avenue to 28 East 20th Street, the four-story brownstone townhouse where President Theodore Roosevelt was born and spent the first 14 years of his life. Here, “Teedie” loved to read books on nature, adventure and history. He also learned taxidermy and started the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History” in his room. However, Teedie suffered from ill health. To help him improve, his father installed gymnasium equipment on the second-floor porch. We also saw the home’s parlor, library, dining room and bedrooms.
On our way to the New York Public Library, we stopped at Scandinavia House, home to The American-Scandinavian Foundation, where you can shop for Scandinavian imports, eat Scandinavian dishes, and admire Scandinavian art. But Winnie the Pooh was calling, so we continued our walk to the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. We were greeted by Patience and Fortitude, the two lion statues that symbolize the library. The real statues are made of pink Tennessee marble and stand guard outside the building, but there were also some special Lego versions of them inside the front door. We went right over to the Gottesman Exhibition Hall and said hello to the real Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, and Tigger – all owned by Christopher Robin Milne. We couldn’t take their picture, so click here to see how cute they are.
We wrapped up our day in New York City at Macy’s Herald Square, where holiday windows tell the “Yes, Virginia” story of Virginia O’Hanlon, who wrote to the New York Sun in 1897 to see if Santa was real. Deliberately making our way through the crowds on each of the packed floors, we finally found a fitting room to sit in and rest for a few minutes. Our greatest accomplishment was snaring two of the special shopping bags Macy’s used to promote this year’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, featuring illustrations from Melissa Sweet’s new Balloons Over Broadway book. Our itinerary was complete.
By 9:30, we were back on the coach for our overnight drive home. Propping up my throbbing feet, I thought about how my grandfather used to ask me if my “dogs were barking” whenever I did too much walking. I fell asleep before we got to the Lincoln Tunnel.
Returning home at 7:45 on Sunday morning, I felt victorious that I had finally conquered my fear of New York City. There was nothing to be apprehensive about at all. Policemen were virtually at every corner, and the New Yorkers we encoutered were helpful and polite. And there were so many wonderful sights to see! For my next visit, I’d like to see the Rockettes, Gracie Mansion, the Neue Galerie, Andrew Carnegie’s former home that houses the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Morgan Library, and Tender Buttons. Until then, I’ll tide myself over by making Cereal Milk from the Momofuki Milk Bar cookbook, baking New York’s Black and White cookies from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook, and watching that Ric Burns documentary all over again.
Another AAA “Holiday Shopping Red Eye” motorcoach tour is scheduled for this weekend. It’s tempting to see if there are any cancellations.