Thursday, 23 December 2010

Happy Christmas from Belfast!

Happy Christmas everyone :)

Tis the season to be jolly and after all the hard work of preparing for the day, hopefully it has been worth the effort for everyone. I'm (hopefully) not actually in Belfast on the big day as I hope to be visiting my family (if Belfast City Airport has it's flights running in the morning) but as I probably won't be blogging from Yorkshire this festive 'Happy Christmas' post is brought to you from chilly Belfast a day and a bit ahead of schedule.

I have to say I'm looking forward to this Christmas, lots of good TV seems to be on to distract us from the crazy cold temperatures and although the problems the freezing cold has given us, it's a nice reminder that this is winter. Why is that good, well, I think it's nice we can all appreciate how hard this time of year would have been for people in times gone by and why the winter Solstice and the lengthening of the daylight hours thereafter is a time for celebration. It's brilliant to live on planet Earth even if it does have a lot of man made issues for us all to work out but at Christmas time we have a reason to be happy, for some that might have adopted religious connotations since the party got branded with the Christmas tag, but sure, whatever floats your boat! If there is one thing that can bring everyone together... it's Elf!

Icy River Lagan near Christmas

Here is a festive photo of the Icy River Lagan from the 21st December, the day of the Winter Solstice to have a nosey at if you've taken a few minutes away from the festivities of what should be a fun long weekend :)

Roll on 2011 - catch y'all then if not before!

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Belfast's Big Freeze

Two Snow Sheep and a Snow ShepardYesterday I stood at a bus stop for 40 minutes waiting on a bus. In the end I conceded defeat when I couldn't feel my toes, fingers, nose or ears. The final straw came when I was shivering and my ears were starting to sting after I tried to warm them with my hands. So I shuffled off from the bus stop to defrost and to find some hot tea and some warm food to eat.

Trying to walk, my legs felt like they'd been holding heavy ice cubes as if I had a sports injury. From the records it looks to have been around -5. Smart work trousers, it turns out, are not suited to this cold weather, below 0 the cold really does bite and that those smart trousers don't cut it. So with this freezing cold experience in mind, I'll share some of the other cold treks into the snow and ice I've been making over the course of the last week with some sights of Belfast during what has turned out to be Northern Ireland's worst cold spell in quite some time.

The weather started to turn again on the night of the 16th; a little evening shopping at City Side Mall was greeted by a snow shower.

Snowy City Side Mall Carpark

The City Hall the next morning was looking sugar coated with this dusting of snow.

Belfast City Hall in the Snow

The Sheep at the Waterfront (at the top of this post) found themselves with a new wooly coat, all be it a very cold icy white jumper each. It might have been thawing a little but that was soon to change! It snowed most of the day and when I ended up at a bus stop outside the Kings Hall later that evening, here was the scene as the cold of night set in:

Snowy Kings Hall Belfast

Night time snowy N.I. road sign

Following this I found myself in town and there the statues of the City Hall were doing their very best Santa impressions with the fluffy white trim of snow.

Snow covered Canadian Voyageuer Statue

Eventually we hibernated with the ever decreasing credit on our gas meter ticking away. The next morning we woke with some serious shopping to be done. So into town again we went. First we took a wander into the 'under construction' St Anne's Square where the snow was looking quite festive with the pretty walls of this new build.

Snowy St Anne's Square in Belfast

On our way to collect some parcels from the sorting office, we crossed the street to see there was plenty of out of town car parking still available (if you have 4 wheel drive):

Parking on the Cavehill Belfast

The pigeons of Belfast had been busy making their mark on the fresh snow:

Bird foot prints in the snow

And the snow outside Customs House Square was helping take the building back to its Victorian roots with a scene not too far out of place of a Dickens novel... well, maybe if it wasn't for the 'Boat' now docked beside it.

Customs House Belfast

The Merchant Hotel's roof top statues were also joining in the Arctic look of this winters collection.

Snowy Merchant Hotel Belfast Statue

A couple of days and a snow flurry or two later, the snow and cold weather is still very much with us. The snow has largely turned to slush and then to ice. The softer snow still has a crunch underneath it and the pavements are quite slippy. Transport seems to be getting better rather than worse as things move from snow to ice and some of the roads outside the city centre are pretty bad. This would be bearable combined with the fun side of the cold weather, however, regrettably I've been unable to find time to make a cool snowman or some sort of snow creation as I like to. All work and no play make this blogger something something but needs have got in the way. I still think though we should all be making the most of the cold spell, kudos to anyone who has made a snowman to look over the winter solstice and lunar eclipse today. We're not the only species to embrace it, take for instance these Seagulls, they've sensed the possibilities of turning a simple rooftop into birdy ski slope:

Seagull Rooftop Slope

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Beautiful Central Park

Central Park sits serenely amid the frenzy that is life on the streets of New York City. An oasis of calm and place of recreation and relaxation. Our exploration of it came complete with hangover from the night before but that didn't take away from what has to be the most beautiful park I've ever had chance to walk around.

Reflections in the Boating Lake Central Park

Getting out of bed was hard. I felt like someone had crawled inside my head and spray painted my internal organs grey to make them all feel down and not want to pull together to make me function at a regular speed. I managed to get up so that was a start and the adrenalin of another day in New York was enough to get me showered, dressed and down the road to a diner. In the diner my ears were not quite in sync with my brain as the guy asked for our order. Not feeling up to anything hot, sweet or breakfast-like, I asked for a chicken salad. Turns out chicken salad in this context is Chicken Salad sandwich filling and not an actual Chicken salad. I think the guy asked what bread I wanted. Off the pace with reality, I internally made the decision 'no, too heavy' so I said "no thanks". In retrospect this really wasn't a valid answer. Credit to the dudes in the Diner though, they did their best to make a lettuce leaf and chicken mayo sandwich filling look nice on a plate by itself... and indeed taste very nice too - I may have inadvertently created a new meal for their menu!

Feeling a little more human after a bizarre breakfast but still not quite with it, we went about our plan for the day. A subway ride and short walk later and we were at the gates of Central Park up by Strawberry Fields. Even before we had entered the park I had my camera out trying to capture some of the amazing colours of the leaves on the trees. As with the previous day, the sun was bearing all skinny dipping in a clear blue sky. It was a warm 16 degrees centigrade which for November is quite toasty especially when out in the sunshine. It all made for quite a sight as we entered the park.

Strawberry Fields Towering Trees

First of all was Strawberry Fields. An area with lots of tall trees and exposed rock. A tribute to John Lennon is at its centre but a photo of the imagine mosaic with people sitting in the middle of it didn't seem very fitting so we gave it a miss. Norngirl explored some rocks in a shrubby area and I tried to get a photo of trees and buildings mirroring one another upwards.

Duck in Central Park New York

We then headed down towards and along the lake where we were met by some ducks and some foraging grey squirrels. The view over the lake was very pretty and even prettier from a bridge further along.

Central Park Boating Lake

We then wandered through some heavily wooded areas that are part of 'the Ramble' and took a break on a bench to have a drink of water and to give my still hungover head a minute to catch up with the body.

Central Park Trees in the Ramble

Once we got back under way we found ourselves heading up hill until we came across Belvedere Castle with a view of the Turtle Pond and the Great Lawn.

Belvedere Castle

Turtle Pond and Great Lawn in Central Park

From the aerial maps I was under the impression Central Park was pretty flat with all the ponds, lakes and lawns, however turns out, not so flat after all.

Romeo and Juliet Statue Central Park

We then passed some statues such as the Romeo and Juliet Statue before we made it out onto the Great Lawn where people were picnicking, laying out and having a rest, playing soccer, baseball, softball and frisbee to name a few.

Great Lawn Central Park

After we had strolled the lawn we stumbled across what I think were some Tai Chi enthusiasts before we headed up to the Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir where joggers and rollerbladers outnumbered slow pokes like ourselves.

Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir

The view over the reservoir was very pretty with the fountain casting a rainbow from its spray.

Fountain in the Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir

We didn't go any higher up the park as it's quite big and we had a lot more to cover even just heading down the other side. We made our way to a big obelisk and past the Alice in Wonderland Statue which was covered in kids the whole time we were looking at it.

Central Park Egyptian Obelisk

Alice in Wonderland Statue Central Park

It was then a question of refreshments by the model sail-boating pond called Conservatory Water. We were not very impressed by the service nor standard of food at the café but it was a nice spot to watch the people sail their boats.

Model Boats on Conservatory Water

Reflection on Conservatory Water

Then it was on to the Bethesda Fountain and the Mall which were swarming with people having a good time in the sun, enjoying performers and just generally taking in the atmosphere.

Bethesda Fountain Central Park

The trees along the Mall had very few leaves left and looked quite human with outstretched arms.

The Mall in Central Park

We then went in search of a toilet which we found down by the playground to the west of the Wollman Rink. It was then up to the Wollman Rink where scenes of ice skaters and cones reminded me of sprinkles on an ice cream.

Wollman Rink Central Park

We were planning to visit the zoo but time was getting on and our feet were throbbing from all the walking in the sun. We still had some extra walking to do through the urban forest surrounding this green space at the heart of a metropolis.

From just our whistle stop walk around the park I think we understood what makes the park such an icon in TV and movies and what makes people talk of it so fondly. It's a diverse taste of nature just where it is needed most, almost a merging of two worlds, the natural and the man-made. Though planned, maintained and built to function, it really is like a wilderness in a snow globe, a hidden gem waiting for you to peer into, tempting you to try to take your mind away from the grey and blandness of living inside boxes, a kaleidoscope of possibilities so accessible to so many people. I dunno about anyone else but I'd love a Central Park near me.

That night we curled up in bed after ordering a take away to our room and enjoyed a much needed rest.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

A visit to Happy Hour at the Brooklyn Brewery

Venturing away from Manhattan and a little off the tourist trail, we ventured into Brooklyn in the hopes of a good evening with lots of beer. This was my experience of Happy Hour at the Brooklyn Brewery.

Brooklyn Brewery Beer

We got off the subway and climbed the stairs up to the street. It was only early evening but it had been dark since we were at the top of the Empire State Building. When we had made it to street level, we stepped into the softly lit streets of Brooklyn.

The streets in the area we had arrived in reminded me more of home than the jungle of Manhattan. The first thing was that the buildings weren't quite so tall and more importantly the streets were quieter with a slower pace, most notably; less traffic and less people. Once we'd taken a moment to adjust our eyes, we realised we didn't actually know where exactly we were going. Norngirl had printed lots of maps but we hadn't called back to the hotel so we didn't have the one we needed with us. Oops. Not to worry though, Norngirl kinda of knew what we were looking for and with a bit of landmark spotting we picked the direction as being about right and set off to find Camelot; our own very silly place - or at least somewhere we certainly hoped could be after some beer.

We hadn't located the Brewery at the time but we were hungry. We called into a convenience store and bought some snacks that we wouldn't really find at home, a Bean Burrito in my case. Why I bought something containing Kidney beans, when I don't really like them, baffles me, but whatever sauce there was in that thing made it really quite tasty!

We lined our stomachs lined as we walked and before long we turned a street or two and found ourselves in sight of the Brewery. We couldn't tell from the end of the street but the queue outside it kinda gave it away.

We got in line. The accents around us seemed to be more local than those we'd been listening to the rest of the day which had been quite a mix of dialects from around the world. The people in line were also chatting about work, life, sports etc. This wasn't the tourist crowd we'd been around all day. I had the feeling like I was back at Uni, it wasn't a clubbing crowd either, it was the sort of crowd who enjoy a nice drink and chat with their friends - aka - my sort of place!

After a short wait, the doors opened and the line filtered into the building through a check of IDs at the door to make sure we were all 21 or over. Thankfully we still were and made our way inside.

Beer Token flip side and BeerInside there were some big vats and in front of them some bags of Malt and other beer making ingredients. We were a little confused for a second as there was a queue for a bar but also a queue for a small booth which had a display case of Brooklyn Brewery branded merchandise. The signs soon enlightened us that you buy tokens at the booth then go to the bar with them to get the beers in. We got our tokens and headed to the bar. There was a nice wee selection of Beers and Lagers on tap, from the standard low % Pilsener to a general Larger, to Brown Ale to some nommy high percentage beers... and I mean high percentage, 9.6% and 10.2% alcohol if my memory serves me correctly. The two strong Beers were called the Blast and the Detonation and cost 2 tokens each compared the regular beers at 1 token. Tokens at the time we were $4 but if you got 5 you got a 6th free, so $20 for 6 tokens or $3.33 (Approx £2.10) per drink or $6.66 (Approx £4.20 at the time) for the high percentage ones. I think it was the cheapest we found beer out of anywhere we went in our week in New York.

Beer Token and Beer
I started off with a Lager to get warmed up and Norngirl jumped into the deep end with a Blast.
I really like my Ales and Beers so I'm not sure why I began with a Lager and and not with a Brown Ale. Sadly we didn't get a Brown Ale at all that night, it's popular and the barrels had ran dry by the time we had got through the rest of the beers. This was happy hour but happy hour is the event rather than one specific hour of time; by the sounds it's most Fridays of the year from 6-11pm. Thankfully we did try the Brown Ale in a bar later in the week and it was very nice. That night though we gave the rest of them a try and my favourite was certainly the Blast. As Norngirl said in her blog post about this day, she preferred the Detonation Ale. Granted these probably aren't names that breweries have top of their marketing lists in Northern Ireland.

In the world of beers, Theakston's Old Peculiar is my favourite followed by Guinness and I wouldn't say no to a Speckled Hen or a Wells' Banana Bread either. I think that 'the Blast' would come in there after an Old Peculiar on tap in Yorkshire and a Guinness on tap from the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin - so a well positioned 3rd in my overall list. It had a nice rounded flavour to it that wasn't at all over powering for a beer with such a high percentage. I've had a couple of other beers in the past that were of a percentage as high as these and they didn't taste right at all. One of those was a German beer in one of the beer tents of the Christmas market at Belfast City Hall which had 'Santa' in the name somewhere but these in the Brooklyn Brewery were everything that beer wasn't as far as flavour and enjoyment go. The Detonation was nice too, it had a similar but stronger flavour but I just preferred what I felt was the subtler edge with the Blast.

The beer wasn't the only thing our happy few hours in the Brooklyn Brewery had going for it. Many people were sitting at tables and chairs laid out in main part of what was essentially one big room but we had taken up residency on some of the bags of Malt in the thin part of the room by the token booth and doorway, sat with the vats behind us. It was a very chilled atmosphere and although lively, everyone seemed to be able to hear one another talking. In all honesty I can't remember if there was any background music playing or not, I'm going with not but I could be wrong as Norngirl thinks there was, she is usually right. The only negative I can remember from our visit was that later into the evening, the toilets had gone down hill a little in the cleanliness stakes. Apart from that though it was all excellent and we had a nice time chatting away to one another only to be distracted by a few random things:

One random thing - (to me at least) was the arrival of several huge pizza boxes and many other take away packages. As Norngirl explained to me at the time and as I came to find out, unlike in stingy UK and Irish establishments, New York is very open when it comes to ordering take out to a place like this or to your hotel room, I was ever so slightly envious and intrigued by this.

Brooklyn Brewery Cat
Brooklyn Brewery Cat photo by Norngirl
The other random thing - was a cute cat which seems to be very much at home in the Brewery. I would think probably a helpful aid in making sure no pesky mice sneak in off the street to nom all the ingredients. The kitty seemed very used to the noise and all the attention. Other than mingling around the feet of people drinking their beer, it was jumping up on to the bags and onto the desk/counter of the tokens booth, positioning itself into prime stroking locations. I love cats and was eager to pet this one, as was everyone else - staff included. The kitty wasn't going to let anyone go home disappointed though saying that it did try to nom a bit of take away from one of the door men but the dude wanted the food more so it didn't get a stroke from him, more of a shooing away.

Enjoying our beer, the evening got away from us and at around 10.15 we decided we best head on back across the river to find ourselves a proper evening meal closer to our hotel, so sadly and with a heavy heart we had to leave the Brewery and its merriment behind.

Brooklyn Brewery Building during Happy Hour

Happily tipsy, we wandered back to Bedford Street Subway station and caught a subway back to Manhattan. We got off a few stops short of the hotel where Norngirl knew of a few restaurants she had heard good things about with her pre-trip research. We ended up in an Italian restaurant where we ate some very nice pasta which we washed down with some water and a carafe of wine (that's 1ltr of wine, or pretty much 2/3rds of a normal bottle each). It probably wasn't the brightest idea given our evenings alcohol consumption up to that point but nevertheless we drank most of it. It was a very-very-merry stroll back to the hotel. We hadn't gone past the point of no return like you'd see some people doing on the streets of Belfast on a Saturday night as we know our limits even if we do push the boundaries now and again. That night we were just to that very happy tipsy place where life is good and where it's hard to not find things funny but still in a place where we can be polite, work out the correct tip, walk in relatively straight lines and find our way around places we've never been before. We're happy drunks rather than depressives or angry ones you'll be glad to hear. We made it back before we knew it and jumped into bed.

My comeuppance to mixing the grain and the grape and having a brilliant night out was a pretty heavy hangover when I awoke the next morning. I ended up trying to remedy this with a lettuce leaf, a dollop of Chicken Mayo sandwich filling (ordered in a hungover daze) and a walk in Central Park but before I get onto that, I'd just like to pass on some fine advice from an American great and true hero. Some advice that may help you decide if you want to follow in our footsteps with a similar night out in the Empire State.

"To alcohol! The cause of... and solution to... all of life's problems " – Homer Simpson

So to summarise, the Happy Hour at Brooklyn Brewery was great and highly recommended. Having a carafe of wine in the same night is not such a good idea for keeping your liver in good condition or for feeling fresh and awake and trying to order a normal breakfast the next morning. Drink wisely my awesome, non-judgemental, kind-hearted blog readers, always drink responsibly.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Dusk on the Empire State Building

After our sea-level ride on the Staten Island ferry, we were already getting a good grasp of the size of Manhattan and it was bigger than I expected. So now it was time to get a better view of the rest of the city and the surrounding area. To do this we headed for the highest vantage point possible in New York City whilst still attached to the ground; the top of the Empire State Building.

Manhattan and New Jersey Skyline
Finding the Empire State Building is kinda like finding the Eiffel Tower in Paris, if you're not underground or stood under a lot of other buildings then it really is quite hard to miss. We were soon finding our way to the entrance but not before we had stopped for some drinks. I ended up with some fake imitation of an iced tea that was basically chilled liquid sugar. If you think the flavoured milk on Jamie Oliver's recent show were bad, these things took the biscuit, infact a pack of biscuits probably has less sugar in it. Normally an addict to the sugary goodness, after reading this label I refused to drink it all because I didn't want to fall into a dibetic coma half way up the building.

Empire State BuildingUpon entering the lobby of the Empire State Building it's all rather grand and exactly like you see in all the movies. In front of you is a big image of the skyscraper with signs lower down pointing the way to where you need to be.

We hadn't bought our tickets on-line like you can, however being nerds who like to tailor make our plans to our suit our whims, we had gone so far as to work out a good time to get there in order to see the daylight, any possible sunset and then night time too. On this day the time we were aiming for was... around 3.30 for a 4.30ish sunset. We were not too sure what was up there but we were looking forward to getting to the observation deck.

First of all it was an escalator. Then an empty looking queing hall to security. Once through there it was a relatively short queue up to the booths to buy the tickets. At the counter we chose to get the tickets which also take you up to the highest point, the 102nd floor. Once bought, we scurried down several long empty lines, sales stuff and around a few turns before reaching the elevators.

It wasn't long before we were heading up. The elevator stopped and we were then in another queue pretty high up the building with 3/4 blanked out windows so you couldn't see the view. Luckily I'm of a decent height and standing on tip toes, plus adding a small jump, were enough to see quite a pretty view of the city and beyond. Having to wait in a queue this wasn't a sustainable long term sightseeing plan and why they have to blank the windows in that queuing area I really don't know. I presume they're trying to save the wow factor of the view for higher up but since there is such a wait I can't see the harm in a little eye candy at least of the view from one side. Sure, since you're on your feet waiting for that next lift for as long as it takes, it would seem to me only fair that there is something to focus on other than relatively plain walls.

As it turns out Norngirl and I just chattered as we queued, the excitement was keeping us from worrying about how sore the feet might get later. Eventually we were in a lift and the next stop was indeed the 86th floor observation deck.

When we made it out of the door and onto the deck the view opened up from behind the bars. Apparently the fence around the 86th floor observation deck was put there in 1947 after a string of attempted suicides. It does take away from the view a little but the bars and diamond shaped fence do allow enough space to see a lot even when you aren't against the fence so they aren't much of a hindrance to the view.

New York Skyline

From taxis looking like snails to people like ants and planes like flies. It was awesome to look down and around over the city as if it were a part of a computer game, it was like playing Sim City again, especially with the night and day passing from one to the next as quickly as it happened to whilst we were there.

Small world down there

Empire State Building at Dusk

The view down was quite fun, peering over the edge maybe isn't something for anyone with vertigo but given the Art Deco style and layered architecture to the building looking down gives a view like this:

Long way down - Empire State Building

New York Skyline

It was still light as we planned to go higher. The quality of my experience on the 102nd floor observation deck however wasn't so good. We got the lift up to give us chance to see what was up there before the view changed. The lift man was very nice and chatted to us. He advised us to take a spin on the Staten Island ferry which we were proudly able to agree with having just been on the ferry that morning.

102 floor Empire State Building
Once on the 102nd floor, the view is a little different, the horizon stretches that little further but sadly it's all indoors and the glass or plastic in the slightly cramped room was quite smudged and dirty. That meant the photos obviously didn't come out quite so well as they did with only thin air as a barrier on the 86th. We were not too impressed given approx £5 each (give or take a little with the exchange rate) extra cost. I would personally only head to the 86th next time. To give it some credit, it is high and it was interesting to find out that the mast at the top of the building and the 102nd floor was originally intended to accommodate mooring Airships. It's just a shame it had the feel of the inside of an aircraft about it and nothing really special enough to justify the extra cost for us.

Empire State Building mast and flag

So we headed back down in the lift, a little disapointed but eager to see the setting sun dip over the hill and plunge the city into darkness. The urban sprawl below was already switching its lights on before the sun did set for us. Due to the height of 86th floor of the Empire State Building (1050ft up) we were almost peering over the hills to the West and so the city below was in shadow and darkness as we were still being bathed in a deep orange glow.

Manhattan at Sunset November 2010

Eventually the sun did set and quite a view it was too. The dusty city air gave the sunset a real kick.

New York Sunset

Once the sun had tipped over the point of no return, we took another walk or two around the observation deck to see the city at night. There was certainly lots to see, it was almost like seeing the view for the first time again. At night one of the most beautiful buildings in the city has to be the Chrysler building and it was shining bright, as was all of New York. Even the busy streets of brake lights and headlamps looked pretty.

Chrysler building at night

New York Cityscape at night

New York Cityscape at night

New York Cityscape at night

Suffice to say I enjoyed our trip up the Empire State Building, it is primarily just a photo opportunity and a view but to see New York City from it is quite something, the photos don't really do it justice.

The way down was a lot quicker, less queing though still a few to wait for lifts. There is a gift shop and photo opportunity places again on the way down too but we gave those a miss so not to blow all our spending money before we'd really found our feet in the city.

Our feet were at this point starting to ache from all the standing of the day. Thankfully for us there was a New York remedy to this problem for over 21s. We hurried back to the Subway and onwards to Brooklyn where Happy Hour at the Brooklyn Brewery awaited!


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