Welcome to the second of my occasional Brian’s Travel Spot series (or the fourth, depending on how you count them!). The first Travel Spot recounted my adventures in the summer of 2015 as I flew to New England, travelled across America by train and then spent a week in the Pacific Northwest (the whole trip took three weeks, so I split the Travel Spot into three parts, hence this might be the fourth).
Semantics apart, the aim, as in the previous Travel Spots, is to provide a record of my travels, something a little different from posting the actual Coffee Spots I visit (which always takes place after the event). This trip is taking me to old stomping grounds: New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, back to New York and then on to Providence and, finally, Boston. As before, I’m flying with British Airways and all the internal travel in on Amtrak, the US national rail network.
I say old stomping grounds since this is (and I think I’ve counted correctly) my 13th trip to the New England/New York/DC area (my fourth with my Coffee Spot hat on). While it will only be my third visit to the likes of Philadelphia and Providence, it’s easily 10+ for New York and Boston. The first part of my trip consisted of:
- Monday, 8th February: Flying from Manchester
- Monday, 8th February: Flying to Newark
- Tuesday, 9th February: New York City, Day 1
- Wednesday, 10th February: New York City, Day 2
- Thursday, 11th February: To Philadelphia
Monday, 8th February: Flying from Manchester
Although I’ll be in familiar territory in the States, how I’m getting there is breaking all sorts of new ground for me. Normally, I fly direct from Heathrow. I know you can save a few pounds by flying via various hubs, either with a European airline (flying via Amsterdam or Frankfurt seem popular options) or flying with one of the American airlines to their hub before taking a local flight to your destination. Despite the potential savings, this has always struck me as more trouble than it’s worth, particularly given how much longer it makes the journey. Plus I’ve heard far too many horror stories of friends’ journeys disrupted by late flights and missed connections (particularly when US hubs are involved). However, for this trip, I’m doing just that…
For various reasons, I needed to visit my parents in North Wales the weekend before I left, so I looked into flying from Manchester, an airport I’ve never been to. To start with, it turns out it’s only slightly more difficult/expensive to get to Manchester airport form my parents’ by public transport than it is to get from my home in Guildford to Heathrow. So far, so good.
It also turns out that, much to my surprise, flying from Manchester costs pretty much the same as flying from Heathrow and, in some cases, is even cheaper. Unfortunately, these cases all involve flying with a US carrier, either booking directly or on a codeshare with a UK airline. Now, I’ve flown on US carriers before, once having booked directly (never again) and once through an accidental code share (never again). Equally unfortunately, only the US carriers fly direct to the States from Manchester.
So, reluctantly, I looked at flying via Heathrow. The good news is that the whole trip can be booked direct with one airline (in this case, British Airways) and wasn’t going to cost me anything extra. So, with some trepidation and a click of my mouse, I made the reservations.
I’m writing this, by the way, on Sunday evening (but won’t post it until Tuesday). I fly from Manchester at noon tomorrow. Since I’m at my parents’, I don’t have access to a printer, so I’m doing another first for me, e-Boarding passes on my phone. Normally I’m a print-everything-out kind of person, but so far I’m rather enjoying the experience. The BA app on my phone kindly reminded me to check in at noon today and using the app was even easier than doing it online. I’ve got my favoured aisle seat on the Manchester flight and my (pre-selected, pre-paid) exit-row seat on the transatlantic flight, I’ve downloaded the boarding passes and, I think, I’m ready to go. Wish me luck!
Overall, my Manchester airport experience was pretty positive. Everything went smoothly, the BA app with its boarding passes worked like a dream, and Manchester has the best security system I’ve seen. Instead of queuing up one at a time and fighting to get everything onto the conveyor belt, Manchester has five parallel bays. You step up to whichever one is free, get a tray from underneath, fill it up, then pop it on the conveyor belt. It works incredibly smoothly.
The downsides. It’s an airport and a large one at that and intrinsically dislike large airports, which seem designed to make you queue up as often as possible, with far too much waiting around. That said, it was no worse than any other large airport.
Just be warned, if you’re travelling by train and flying to/from Terminal 3, it’s a long walk. There are the usual lifts/escalators, plus the obligatory travellators and then you arrive in a nice terminal building. Ah, you think, that wasn’t so bad. Except this is Terminal 1. So you follow the signs to Terminal 3, and, right at the far end of Terminal 1, you find a lift. Down you go and suddenly you find yourself outside. Exposed to the elements. And since this is Manchester, it’s raining. At this point, it looks like Terminal 3 is a bit of an afterthought, dropped down the back of the sofa where no-one can find it, but when you finally get there, five minutes later, it’s actually not at all bad. But really, Manchester, there’s got to be a better way of getting there than this.
After the usual hanging around at the gate, we boarded the plane quickly enough and were all ready to go just a few minutes after our scheduled take-off time of 12:05. Then the pilot made an announcement. Due to disruption around Heathrow caused by that morning’s storm, we weren’t scheduled for take-off until 2:50… Oh joy, almost three hours sat on a plane going nowhere. Plus my flight to Newark was scheduled to leave at 3:15. This, I thought, will be interesting…
Five minutes later, the pilot came back on the intercom with an announcement. We had a take-off slot for 12:25 and would only be half an hour late into Heathrow. Woo hoo!
Monday, 8th February: Flying to Newark
The flight itself was short and uneventful, with a landing that was impressively smooth, particularly considering how bumpy it had been on the approach. I retrieved my bags from the overhead locker, got off the plane and all was going well until the man who had been sitting in the next seat caught up with me, tapped me on the shoulder and handed over my laptop, which I’d managed to leave behind in the seat pocket! Now that was a close shave!
Heathrow Terminal 5 was a joy, as ever. From being reunited with my laptop, to arriving at my gate for the flight to Newark, took all of 15 minutes at the most. Now this is how airports are supposed to work.
Of course, there was then the usual gate chaos/frustration. The flight was at 3:15 and, with the signs on the departure boards exhorting me to go to the gate straight away, I’d skipped the usual hanging around in departures and went straight there. Arriving at 2 o’clock, I found it empty. I know that airlines don’t want everyone leaving it until the last minute, but exhorting you to go to the gate when there’s simply no point just makes me more likely to leave it until the last minute and, in that respect, it’s utterly counter-productive. However, until airlines find a more efficient way of getting people onto a plane, I think we’re stuck with it…
The good news is that these days (at least at Terminal 5) there’s plenty of things to do at the gates, so hanging around for 45 minutes wasn’t a big issue. The flight itself was less than half full, so boarding was quick. However, having booked (and paid for) my exit-row seat, I was disappointed to find that British Airways had changed the aircraft since I’d booked, so my seat was now four rows back from the exit…
Fortunately, the crew were happy to reseat me and I got the perfect spot, the aisle seat on the exit row on the right-hand side. These days, with at-seat power, it really is worth paying for an exit-row seat to get the extra space. It lets me spread out and use the laptop properly, something I can’t do in a normal economy seat, especially if the person in front of me reclines the seat… Once again, I got loads done and you can thank British Airways for letting me write up the rest of the Coffee Spots that I’ll be publishing this week…
I also brought along my Aeropress, Porlex-mini hand-grinder and a pre-weighed dose of beans. On my flight back from Seattle last year, I got told off for grinding my beans too loudly (and no, that’s not a euphemism!) so this time I took my grinder into the loo to dull the noise. Then it was back to the galley for some hot water.
Since I last travelled, I’ve added my Aeropress funnel to my travelling kit, which makes plunging so much easier. The top of the Aeropress fits into the wide part of the funnel, the spout fits into your receptacle of choice and suddenly, you have a very stable base.
Talking of receptacles, I was inspired by an article from John of Brewing Coffee Manually to take my small, metal milk-frothing jug with me on this trip. This has already made things so much easier. With two receptacles, my jug and my Upper Cup, I can do things like rinse the Aeropress filter paper, an almost impossible task when I just had my cup with me. So, thanks to John, it’s now a permanent addition to the kit.
The rest of the flight went exceedingly well, we landed on time, there was (miracle of miracles) no queue at US immigration and my bag was one of the first on the carousel. What an excellent start to my trip!
Find out what happened on my first day when I went into New York City after the gallery.
Tuesday, 9th February: New York City, Day 1
I was staying with friends out in Wayne, New Jersey, pretty much due east of New York City. The plan was to head into the city for the first two days (Tuesday and Wednesday), but there was snow forecast, so I woke up on Tuesday morning feeling a little bit of trepidation. However, I needn’t have worried: other than a light dusting, the forecast snow had failed to materialise, so it was off to catch the 198 bus (or the 197, but the 198 came first) to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd and 8th Avenue. At $16 return for a 45-minute bus ride, it’s a great way to get into the city!
My plan had been to start at the New York City branch of Taylor Street Baristas, which someone had told me had recently opened. However, after a fruitless search of the supposed location, 285 Madison Avenue, I discovered that I was in the right place, but at the wrong time! I’d been misinformed and it hadn’t opened yet…
Swallowing my disappointment, I indulged my love of US train stations with a quick turn around Grand Central Terminal before falling back onto plan B and catching the metro to Queens. 10 minutes later, I emerged into strong winter sunlight (Manhattan had been cloudy!) and a few minutes after that, I was sitting in the sun in the original branch of Sweetleaf. I’d visited Sweetleaf’s Williamsburg branch on my previous visit in 2015 and loved it, so naturally wanted to try out the original. Needless to say that I loved it too, perhaps even more than the Williamsburg branch!
From there I hopped on a bus (I was going walk, but I was a little short of time) down to Williamsburg, going past both Sweetleaf’s third location and the Williamsburg branch. However, I was looking for another Coffee Spot I’d visited on my previous trip, Daily Press Coffee on Havemeyer Street. Since then it had changed hands and somewhat disappeared off the social media map. The short (and good news) story is that it’s alive and well, now going by the name of Northerly Coffee.
From there, I walked down Havemeyer Street on the way to my final destination, when my eye was caught by an interesting sign. Parlor Coffee, it said, and promised great coffee, but only if you ventured through a barbers shop to a little room at the back. I almost walked on by, but I remembered that my friend Greg (who I’m meeting in Philadelphia in a couple of days) had said good things about it a while back, so I doubled back and went in.
I’m rather glad that I did. Parlor Coffee is a delightful little spot, an instant contender for this year’s Smallest Coffee Spot Award. It also had a delightful one-group Kees van der Westen Speedster. I had a swift espresso, expertly made by the barista, Vanessa, and then was on my way again to my final stop, Gimme Coffee on Roebling Street. Gimme Coffee’s branch on Mott Street in Manhattan was one of the first New York Coffee Spots I wrote about back in 2013, so I was keen to visit another branch three years on. Once again, I was not disappointed and, having started off the day with Coffee Spot failure, it was a very positive note to end it on.
From there, I headed down to the East River, where I’d hoped to catch the ferry across to Midtown and walk back to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. However, for whatever reason, there was no ferry, at least not when I was there, so I had to hightail it back to the metro for a mad scramble to get my bus, which I made with two minutes to spare!
It was only when I got back to New Jersey that I realised that I’d spent Pancake Day in New York and not had any pancakes, a major oversight, I’m sure you’ll agree!
You can see what I got up to during my second day in New York City after the gallery.
Wednesday, 10th February: New York City, Day 2
My second day in New York saw me back on the 198 bus to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. This time I’d decided to stay in Manhattan and I made my first port of call Café Grumpy on W 39th Street in the Fashion District, just around the corner from the terminal. I’d visited Café Grumpy’s Chelsea branch on W 20th Street on my previous visit and had really liked it. The Garment District branch is very different, but charming in its own way and it was great to get my day going with a proper flat white, still something of a rarity in New York.
From there, I rectified to my pancake error with a trip to Tick Tock diner on 8th Avenue (thanks to the staff at Café Grumpy for the recommendation) before heading to the Ace Hotel on W 29th Street. I’d been there three years ago, on my first Coffee Spot visit to New York, where I’d met with Greg Cohen of Coffee Guru App fame. The Ace Hotel has a famous Stumptown coffee bar, and I’d always wanted to go back, but for various reasons I’d never quite made it, including being put off by the massive queue, which, three years ago, had snaked out into the lobby!
Fortunately there was no queue when I arrived (although by the time I left, they were queuing into the lobby again: clearly word of my visit had got around!) so I grabbed a quick espresso and headed on my way. Next stop was over on 9th Avenue and Pushcart Coffee. I’d been there the year before, but hadn’t really liked it. However, Greg had also visited and had given it such a write up that I thought I should give it a go. I’m glad I did as I had one of the best pour-overs I’ve had in a long time!
I think my issue with Pushcart is that it’s not the original Pushcart Coffee, which was on East Broadway. I loved that place and was upset when it closed. The new Pushcart is very different and I suspect that I was annoyed because it wasn’t like the old one. This time, I took it for what it was, not resenting it for not being something else (I’ve since learnt that the Pushcart on 9th Avenue has reopened as an Aussie-inspired restaurant Citizens of Chelsea).
From Pushcart, I jumped onto the High Line, New York’s elevated walkway that runs along the route of an old, disused freight railway, and made my way down to Blue Bottle Coffee’s Chelsea branch to deliver a Coffee Spot Awards certificate, Blue Bottle having finished as runner-up for the 2015 Best Cake Award.
The staff were so impressed that they gave me some cake as a thank you, including a cranberry buckle, a cousin of the brandy-poached apple buckle with walnut streusel that won the award. This got me thinking: maybe this year I should introduce a “Biggest Pile of Cash” Award for next year…
From Blue Bottle I headed back uptown, bypassing Intelligentsia at the High Line Hotel, which I visited last year. Instead I was heading for Underline Coffee, an appropriately-named coffee shop just across the road on W 20th Street and right under the High Line. It set my Coffee Spot radar off last year, but I didn’t have time to visit, so this year I was determined to catch it. What’s more, when I was in Shrewsbury, seeing my friend’s Cherie Jerrard’s exhibition of café life illustrations, we popped into The Bird’s Nest where the owner recommended Underline as one place to visit in New York. You’ll have to wait until I write it up to find out exactly what I made of it, but let’s say I wasn’t disappointed!
You can see what happened on the second part of my trip, down to Philadelphia, after the gallery.
Thursday, 11th February: To Philadelphia
Thursday morning dawned bright, but cold (-6⁰C) in Wayne, New Jersey, and my friends dropped me off at the Wayne Transportation Center, where I was to get a first for me, New Jersey Transit’s Commuter Rail service. This took me down to Newark, where the Newark Light Rail (another first!) linked up with Newark Penn Station and my Amtrak train to Philadelphia.
Newark’s Penn Station was like a smaller version of many grand American stations. For example, Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, which is where I was going, is a masterpiece of the type, built at an age when America’s railroads were still the backbone of long-distance passenger transport and stations were a statement of intent, rather than today’s somewhat utilitarian buildings.
I had 30 minutes to wait at Newark, but it was a slightly uncomfortable time. The station is used as an ad hoc (and very unofficial) shelter for the area’s homeless; when it’s -6C outside, it’s hard to criticise anyone seeking somewhere warm and dry. I should also say that at no point did I feel unsafe or threatened in any way, even by the person in the Bat Man costume who kept up a constant monologue about how no-one understood his powers…
The train ride itself was fine; in a little over an hour, I was in Philadelphia. Amtrak generally gets a bad reputation, but along the east-coast corridor, from Boston to Washington DC, I find it a very convenient and, if booked in advance, cost-effective, way to travel. The on-train Wifi can be a bit hit-and-miss (it wasn’t working on this train) but generally the trains have at-seat power, and, compared to UK trains, there is so much space, which makes working on my laptop a breeze.
The last two times I’ve been in Philadelphia, I’ve stayed at the Penn’s View Hotel, a lovely old spot right down by the riverfront. However, on this trip, I was doing it on a budget, so selected the Society Hill Hotel instead. This isn’t far away, on the corner of 3rd and Chestnut, with the added bonus of being closer to one of my favourite Philadelphia Coffee Spots, Menagerie Coffee. The deciding factor for this trip is that it was half the price of Penn’s View.
The Society Hill Hotel is the sort of place that I would expect to like. It’s old, a bit ramshackle and has bags of character. My room was on the top floor, overlooking a park and actually consisted of two rooms, joined together by a bathroom. The back room had a large double-bed, closest and chest of drawers, the in the other, there was a table, a couple of chairs and a bed that could double as a sofa. Ideal, I thought. In fact, I was really happy with it. And there was free Wifi too.
So, off I went to explore Philadelphia, returning at about eight o’clock in the evening. By then it was about -7⁰C outside. Unfortunately, inside wasn’t much warmer…
As far as I could tell, the hotel had no working heating system. I made the bed habitable by getting the two spare blankets out of the chest of drawers, raiding the second bed for its bedding and sleeping in my thermals (in fairness, it was quite cosy). When it came to using my laptop, I took off my hat, coat and scarf, but otherwise that was it. I had to resort to using the hairdryer on full blast to keep myself from freezing.
The Wifi, by the way, was relatively solid, but the broadband connection behind it was as flaky as anything, frequently dropping, disconnecting or providing incredibly slow connection speeds. It (and the heating) were no better the following evening and, while I did go down to the office to complain, there was no-one there.
In defence of the hotel, it was clean, I felt safe at all times, and there was a bountiful supply of hot water. The staff, when they were there, were friendly and helpful, However, I doubt that I’ll ever be staying there again and, in 25 years of independent travelling, that’s not something I say very often…
As to what happened in Philadelphia itself, you’ll need to read Part II of the Travel Spot.
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