I recently got invited by Virgin Atlantic and Marriott hotels to travel to New York as part of a Familiarisation Tour with a group of travel consultants from Tourvest Travel Services. Naturally, I grabbed this opportunity with both hands didn’t let go – it is New York City after all.
The process began with the visa application, which surprisingly was smoother than expected. You complete the application and make an appointment online. Once you make payment, you go for your interview (takes like 5 minutes) and in a few days, you’ve got your passport and a ten-year visa (if you’ve passed the application obviously). The earliest appointment available was 6 weeks after the application date, so if you’re planning on travelling to the USA and require a visa, ensure you allow for enough time. Check with a visa operator (I used Visas International) for the approximate waiting period for an appointment.
The day finally arrived and I met the rest of the travelling group at the airport where Virgin Atlantic’s representative assisted us smoothly through check-in and escorted us to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse (departure lounge). We snacked a bit and discussed the upcoming adventure before it was time to board.
Boarding the flight, we turned left to Upper Class (Business Class) and were directed towards our seats, but the first thing you notice in Upper Class is the awesome walk-up bar. Complete with a few bar-stools (fixed of course) and well stocked with all the favourites. As a non-drinker, I got some water and headed to my cocoon – that’s what your seat feels like.
Some delicious on-board food and a good-night’s sleep were on the agenda and boy do Virgin Atlantic deliver. First Class service from the crew made us feel like regulars.
Sadly, on our connecting flight from London to New York, Upper Class was fully booked so this experience was not to be repeated. Economy Class however still had quite a few seats available – just shows how popular the Upper Class is that it gets booked out before Economy. I was smart enough to head right to be back of the aircraft as soon as I boarded, and hogged a 4-seater hoping no one reserved them. Once the aircraft doors closed and there was nobody left walking down the aisles, I knew they were mine. A quick lift of the armrests and I had myself a suitable bed for the night.
I arrived in New York at around 11:45pm and it was easy enough to catch a taxi from the airport to the hotel. There as a slight delay getting through customs – but hey it was Trumps America – so I only got to the hotel at around 1am and it had been raining all day. We were staying at the New York Marriott Marquis, which is located right in the heart of Times Square.
Check-in was brilliant – in fact, due to my late (or early… depends how you look at it) arrival, the Marriott representative that was travelling with the group ensured that I was pre-checked in and thus, once I presented my passport, I got my room key – easy peasy!
At 1am, you’d think that I was tired and ready to hit the sack – on the contrary – once I got to my room, I had a quick look around and thought – “Rooms great! Let’s get outside”.
As brilliant as the room was – fully equipped with everything you’d need as well as the legendary Marriott bed (the best bed in any hotel I’ve stayed in) – outside was better. I was just a few steps away from Times Square – and since it had been raining all day and night (only just stopped when I got to the hotel – must have been a sign), there was no better time.
Standing at the legendary steps in Times Square, with nobody else in sight was surreal. I cannot express the feeling. It had nothing to do with the time of day – more like my luck to get there after a downpour that lasted all day & night. Every other night, Times Square was its usual crazy self, no matter the time.
Back to the hotel – My highlights of the hotel included:
Right in the heart of Times Square, doesn’t get better than that in New York does it?
The Gym / Fitness Centre
Blessed with a view over Times Square, the hotel’s gym is also available to outside visitors who sign up as members. At 6am, it’s pretty well packed. It has everything a modern gym needs, including fitness instructors.
The View Restaurant and Lounge
New York’s only revolving restaurant and lounge with spectacular views of the city, coupled with irresistible cuisine. On the second evening the hotel management hosted our group and put on quite a show.
I Stayed in a Superior Room which had a king-size bed and a view of Times Square. Rooms are carpeted (a bit old fashioned maybe) but very spacious and offer a generous bathroom.
What to do with limited time in NYC?
New York is such an iconic city, that many brands create products that you will only find in New York. So while in some cases, the price might be the same or even higher than other parts of the world, the product itself is unique to New York and you won’t find it anywhere else on earth.
A $30 return bus ticket got us from the city to Woodbury Commons in an hour. Initially, we found it weird that the other passengers on the bus had luggage with them, but once we got there, we quickly found out why – you need something to put all your stuff in.
Woodbury Commons is a popular outlet shopping centre. All in all, I walked about 15kms in under 4 hours – that should give you an idea as to how big this place is. So here is a guide of the kind of stuff that caught my eye (and in some cases, my wallet!):
NIKE, ADIDAS, PUMA, CONVERSE
Once we converted the prices back to Rands, they were pretty much the same as back home, however, Converse did have a few items exclusive to New York. I already have enough Converse thank you very much.
So I got some trainers for my daughter for just $30. Slightly cheaper than back home, but the style was unique. The best part was when I was at the pay-point, the cashier asked “Where’s the other one?” – Confused, I asked what he was on about – there was an in-store promotion – Buy-One-Get-One-Free. How awesome, I walked out with 4-pairs of trainers.
The trainers looked ordinary but at the entrance, they had T-Shirts on sale – 3 for $10 – bargain! I grabbed 6, all in different colours.
This brand is huge back home, but clearly not in the US. I got T-shirts for $15 and hoodies for just $25. If I had more cash, I would’ve taken some jeans and winter jackets – compared to prices back home, or even the actual brand store on Times Square, it was half the price.
Buy 2 Get 1 Free – and the price was $30 a pair of jeans. Not my brand so no thanks.
Amazing store! Full of sports stuff – mostly hats – you can even get them customised where they embroider whatever you want on it – takes a day and is not cheap – but it’s original and awesome.
Prices were so much lower than the store in Times Square. I found a Star Wars full costume for the character Rey & Kylo Ren for just $20 each. That’s like 80% off!
PRADA, LUIS VUITON, CHANEL and other high end brands
they had 75% off sales but if you consider the original price, even 25% is way out of my budget LOL!
There were loads of other stores and deals to be had and 4-hours was probably too little time. Pro shoppers would have an absolute field day. As a novice shopper, even I had to buy some extra luggage to cart my stuff home. I decided to wait until the end of the trip so I would know how big the bag needs to be, and just as well I did, because I found Century 21. It’s a multi-level store located opposite Ground Zero and is a great place to shop as well. By the time I got there, the funds were a wee bit low, but luckily I had enough to get a gigantic hard shell suitcase. Complete with a cool New York City design, TSA Lock and just $60 – bargain!
We pre-booked a Studio Tour of 30 Rock – that’s 30 Rockefeller Centre. It’s the home of NBC Studios where legendary shows like The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live, the Seth Myers Show, The Voice and other shows are made. The Tour starts in the lobby where you collect your tickets at the NBC Store. You get to see the different studios for news & sport and depending on availability, 2 other studios. On our tour, we got to see the Tonight Show studio while the Roots (band) were busy rehearsing. We briefly got to go into the Saturday Night Live studio but since Taylor Swift was rehearsing, we had to quickly head out – at least we got to see her a bit. Once we were in the building, past security, the tour guide explained it’s just your luck who you bump into and we almost ran into mark Wahlberg and his entourage. They did wave at us – LOL!
Top Tip: Just hang around the store for a while (in the morning), we got approached by an intern who needed a test audience – we gladly obliged and were selected to attend a rehearsal for the Seth Myers show – FREE OF CHARGE – we got to meet Seth who chatted to us briefly before starting his sketch and monologue. It was great fun helping the writers decide which jokes were funny and which were not.
If you do the tour, it’s a good idea to do Top of The Rock at the same time, since it’s right there and the wait isn’t as long as the Empire State Building. You get pretty much the same view of New York City, but the best part – you’ve got a direct line of site to the Empire State Building itself!
We had an All Loops Hop-on-Hop-off bus ticket which we used to do a half day trip around the city. The problem was that it was the coldest November in New York’s history. At -10 Celsius, the open top bus was not great – in fact it was better just walking and once we got to Little Italy, we warmed up with some (average) pizza before walking all the way down Broadway en-route to Battery Park. It was fantastic just walking around Manhattan, we visited Wall Street (it’s really smaller than I imagined), we also got to Ground Zero and the 911 Memorial and witnessed a ceremony where the Navy handed over a flag to a family – very moving ceremony.
At Battery Park we could see the Statue of Liberty, took some selfies and after all that walking, decided on trying the subway. Easy enough and 15 minutes later we were back uptown at Times Square.
Even though I got to tick off a number of items from my list of things to do in New York, there is much more left which means, sometime in the future, another trip is on the cards. I cannot wait. I finally realise that the person who came up with the caption I Love NY did so upon leaving, because that is exactly how I felt as my flight ascended to the skies. I’ll be back New York, I promise!