Cool New Hotel, an “Underwater” National Geographic Adventure and a Great Boat Tour: a fun NYC weekend

A cool hotel in a fabulous part of Manhattan. A new, educational attraction from National Geographic. And a thoroughly enjoyable boat ride around the southern tip of one of the world’s great cities.

A weekend in New York City is never a bad thing. This past weekend was better than most, owing to great weather (around 12 Celsius on Saturday) you wouldn’t normally expect in January.

My wife and I had two nights at the recently opened The Frederick Hotel in lower Tribeca. I don’t love the upper end of Tribeca with its fancy shops and hipsters, but this seemed much more of a “real” NYC neighborhood. Goodness, there was even a hardware store a few doors down from the hotel and a Whole Foods around the corner.

Rooms at The Frederick Hotel NYC are a bit small but quite stylish. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Our room was quite small (hey, it’s New York, not Calgary or some other new city) and there was no coffee machine. But Starbucks was literally eight steps outside the front door of the hotel and we did have a small fridge and a comfortable bed with a small desk, free Wi-Fi and nice, high ceilings that gave it a nice, airy feel. There was a lavender chair in a corner and a dark blue spread across the bed, with four cool photos displayed on the wall over the bed.

The bathroom wasn’t huge but there was a good-size rain shower with a wall of tiles displaying an old map of lower Manhattan. Fantastic! And they put out lovely Bigelow toiletries, so that’s a plus. And they have a cozy gym/workout room that appeared to have the basics.

The lobby is small but fine; with comfortable places to rest and sit and read some of the books they had left out, including a fantastic book of Linda McCartney’s photos of top 60s and 70’s music and entertainment stars and other slick, coffee table offerings. They had cool 60’s and 70’s music (and some more modern tunes) playing over the p.a. system, as well as a glass bowl filled with almond Hershey’s Kisses (I, ahem, seem to still have one or two in my knapsack. Can’t imagine how they got there.)

It’s an historic property operated by Triumph Hotels on lower West Broadway that dates to 1838 (it formerly operated as The Cosmopolitan Hotel), so there’s a definite cool feeling to the place. Intimate, but not too small (130 rooms).

“We know who’s here and who’s supposed to be here,” one of the hotel workers told me on a tour. And that’s a nice way to put it.

The Frederick Hotel lobby is colourful and comfortable. JIM BYERS PHOTO

They have a nice lobby bar on the way that will use reclaimed bricks found in the building’s vault, but it wasn’t open when we were there. Once they get it up and running, I think it will definitely add to the appeal of the place.

As I mentioned, it’s a wonderful neighborhood. The Chambers Street subway station is right, and I mean right, outside the front door. You can get to midtown in 10 minutes or 15 at most. Ditto for Brooklyn.

You could tell the area is quite popular with families, who seem to like the low-rise feel of the place and the neighborhood amenities. Zucker’s, a famous spot for bagels, is just a few doors away. Just two blocks up the road is an adorable restaurant and bar (it was too crowded both times we went) called Tiny’s, which is partly owned by New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, I’m told.

We had decent but unexciting Mexican food at a place nearby called Mariachi’s. The salsa and chips were probably the best part, along with the prices ($8 for a margarita that was somewhere between okay and pretty good).

The Frederick’s lobby connects to Serafina, a nice Italian spot that was filled with local families when we dined on a Friday night. The service was a tad slow, but it’s a pretty spot with big windows overlooking West Broadway and they give crayons to the kids to keep them busy.

We shared a good pizza with mushrooms and sausage and a nice salad with arugula and shaved parmesan, as well as a very nice dish of pasta with plenty of seafood (tons of clams and calamari). The price of the wine was a bit of a shock: $16 a glass for French Sancerre and a nice red from Tuscany. With two glasses of wine each, the salad and two mains (no dessert or coffee), our bill came to $150 with tax and tip.

National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey is a great place to take the kids in New York City. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The next day I got to check out National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey. Located a few steps from Times Square, it’s a marvellous change from the cheesy, neon-lit attractions you tend to find in the area. You start out by taking an escalator down to the main entrance, but they’ve added a misting device that features moving images of sea lions and other ocean animals. As I passed through the mist a large shark suddenly appeared in front of me, as if waiting to pounce from a few escalator steps below. Very cool.

There are no actual animals in the attraction, which seems about right given the National Geographic reputation for treatment of animals, but you’ll feel up-close and quite personal with a variety of critters as you pass through the various exhibits; manta rays, sharks, giant and sometimes violent squid and massive, gentle humpback whales.
The journey begins with a “trip” to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean, where you’ll stand on a floor with simulated manta rays sliding around beneath your feet and dolphins playing around a colourful reef. You also get to explore a pretend coral reef in a mock night setting, with bioluminescent creatures and glow-in-the-dark coral all around.

At one point you enter a room that’s almost completely dark and listen to the sound of ocean animals in the depths of the ocean, where the moonlight barely penetrates. You’ll hear eerie squeals and moans, as well as the rise-and-fall songs of whales and other animals. Another exhibit takes you to an area filled with giant Humboldt Squid, sometimes called red devils. They swoop and swirl on large screens on both sides of you, with massively long tentacles closing in and out in a search for food. They also engage in violent attacks on one another, so you might want to prepare sensitive kids for this one.

Guests finish up with a 3D trip to the kelp forests off the coast of California, where giant, swaying kelp (it’s actually a form of algae rather than a true plant, a narrator explains) reach up to the sun and where sea lions, dolphins and small fish dart to and fro. You’ll also spot thresher sharks that can sting their prey to death and giant whales, one of which supplies a fun and surprising ending.

A Circle Line Sightseeing tour is a fabulous way to see New York from the water. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The last part of the tour lets kids play educational games that teach them about conservation and ecology. If you answer a question correctly, you might be rewarded with a message that says, “Congratulations, a pod of dolphins just returned to your ocean.”

Of course, there’s also a nice gift shop at the end, where you can buy gorgeous National Geographic books, coffee mugs, t-shirts and kids’ books and toys.

I’ve taken the Circle Line tours in the past and always enjoyed them. The one we did was 90 minutes and took us from midtown to the Statue of Liberty and then up the East River past the Williamsburg Bridge. Our guide told stories about Ellis Island and Wall Street and other areas we cruised past. He told us that the handsome Brooklyn Bridge is the most photographed in the world, which of course nobody could ever prove. But what the heck.
He told us he doesn’t like to recommend particular restaurants. But he did say that Carmine’s on 44th St. is a fun family spot with good Italian food.

The Statue of Liberty is a don’t miss part of a Circle Line boat tour in New York City. JIM BYERS PHOTO

“It’s family style,” he said. “The portions are huge. If there are six of you, order for three people. You’ll still have a ton of food left. You won’t even be able to carry it. So they’ll sell you luggage to take it home with you.”

On Sunday we got up and went for a walk around the area, a booming part of New York the last few years, and then shopped and ate lunch at the newer NYC version of Eataly. (The original is near Union Square; this one is down by the new One World Observatory in lower Manhattan). I had one of the best pasta dishes of my life for about $20; circular, elongated pasta bits with butter and cheese and a light dusting of herbs and crumbled Italian sausage. I wish I had written it down as it was truly fantastic. We also had nice agnolotti with butter and truffle oil. But it wasn’t as good as the sausage dish.

They’re building one in downtown Toronto, so can’t wait for that!

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