Samantha arrived at the airport about twenty seconds after me, and Dana removed our cases from the car. Edward handed over the dog, as Dana was Grandpa on Duty for the weekend, and we took our three bags inside the terminal. Our plan had been to take one large case, and a carry on. We were travelling with Southwest for the first leg of the journey, and they do not charge for checked bags. However, the second leg and, therefore, the first leg of our return journey was with Air Tran. When I called the previous day, the latter company's representative told me that I would have to pay to check bags, as the first leg of our return flight was with them. I had returned home and transferred our belongings into three smaller cases. We checked in, and the very pleasant lady told us that if any part of the journey was with Southwest, we could check bags without cost. Fortunately, the only items that I had left out of the luggage (in case we did not have the room if we had to use carry-ons on the way home) was a pair of boots, and a couple of Samantha's aerosols.
We sailed through security and bought a cup of coffee and a coke before boarding the plane. The seats on Southwest are not assigned, but everyone is given a boarding number to determine who goes first. Although many had entered the plane before us, no one had taken the bulkhead seats (listening to conversations, many believe they were reserved) so we sat down, and were quite comfortable with a lot of legroom. The flight was incredibly quick, and we only managed to watch about a third of the film Samantha had brought with for our in flight entertainment, before touching down in Atlanta, Georgia.
There were several dogs on the next flight. Most were small enough to fit into baskets, but Champ was a a rather bulky bulldog who had his own passport and was labelled, 'working dog'. Samantha wanted to call to him, 'Come on Champ, come here puppy', but we decided not to risk being refused entry onto the plane, due to causing mass disruption. The second flight was slightly longer, and with our complimentary plastic glass of juice, we enjoyed our homemade breakfast tacos, which I had lovingly prepared just before leaving home. We knitted, and watched Despicable Me (which is highly amusing) and then took photos as we circled around New York City, which was covered in snow. Champ behaved very well, and was not deterred by the screaming child who sat (or didn't) in the seat ahead.
Our bags came out very quickly, and we made our way outside to the taxi rank. London Taxis undergo an 'overhaul' every year to ensure that they are in pristine condition, and roadworthy. We were not in London. The yellow cab that we got into had not only seen better days, it was probably the very taxi that appeared in every movie ever made in the Big Apple! Not the taxi that was hailed by the big movie stars, who graciously stood on the sidewalk waiting for a beautifully clean and well manicured car to pull up, but the one that was involved in every crash scene from every gangster, or apocalyptic, film that has ever been made! Apart from the lack lustre appearance, it seemed to be suffering from a very heavy cold! With several construction sites along the way, our journey took longer than we would have liked, but despite the driver not understanding very many words of English, he knew where he was going!
If the hotel was given a school report, it would have read, 'tries very hard'. The lobby was very sparse, and there was just one lift, but the rooms were very large. The man behind the desk asked to see our ID, and was pleasantly surprised when we presented him with Texas Driving Licenses. During his time in the military, he was stationed at Fort Hood and travelled into Austin on a regular basis. A bond was formed, especially when I announced that Dana, too, had been stationed there, although about twenty years before our duty Manager. We were given key cards to The Penthouse! Although all the rooms appeared to have a bedroom, living room and fully functioning kitchen (like I was going to use the dishwasher!), we had the addition of a balcony. Ten floors up, and covered in hard snow, the sign, 'Balcony not in use due to inclement weather conditions', did nothing to deter Samantha from checking it out! I was slightly more trepid, and stood at the door, looking across at the car park opposite, and surrounding buildings. 'Take a picture of me on the sunbed', was something I could do, as it did not require me to venture out and experience the height related vertigo that I knew would overtake!
Charlotte and Natalie, my cousin Lesley's daughters, came to inspect the Penthouse, and after the initial hugs, we gave them a guided tour of our room at the top! Lesley arrived shortly afterwards, and we swapped wares. She gave me my dark chocolate McVities digestive biscuits, and Samantha her English Mars bars, and I handed over the barbecue sauce and candy-corn M and M's! With the formalities out of the way, we took our outer-wear and all met up in Lesley's room, before going out to paint the town red! The hotel was situated a few blocks away from the Rockefeller Center, and not too far from Times Square. After walking for about 30 minutes, we decided to stop for an aperitif in the rather sophisticated Renaissance Hotel, and sat for quite some time, in a very poorly (by design!) lit room, which did nothing to keep us all awake. The British party were fighting jet lag, (early morning start coupled with a five hour time difference) and the Texas Two, although only an hour ahead of normal time, had also been up at an unearthly hour! However, we braved the elements, and left the warmth of the bar in search of a restaurant. The food was very good, and the portions were enormous. I was prepared for a sharp increase in price compared to Austin, and paid the equivalent of a month's rent (only slight exaggeration) for Samantha's hot dog, and my burger. In defense of the restaurant, both came with fries! We received the sustenance needed to return to the hotel, and were greeted by the evening receptionist, who told us that tea and coffee were available all day in the breakfast room, and provided us with an array of information, to make our trip more pleasant!
I didn't sleep very well on the first night. Samantha had opted to sleep on the sofabed in the living room, and as their was no television guide, I followed her lead, and watched a programme which featured a retired pageant show child, with her parents and siblings. After wondering why this was so popular, I drifted off into fitful slumbers and dreamed very strange images, before getting up shortly after 6am. Samantha and I went downstairs for our complimentary breakfast, at 7am, and went back to our room to tidy up, before returning to the dining area to meet up with the rest of the gang.
We had purchased tickets the previous evening, for one of the city's 'Hop-on, hop off', buses, and made our way to the stop, after everyone patiently waited for me to put on a dozen layers, which included a waistcoat (vest), hooded cardigan, (my Texans hoody, made by my very talented daughter,) coat, two scarves, shawl, ear muffs and hat. Although we have been suffering a longer cold spell than usual in our southern city, I still have not re-acclimatised to the cold weather. Before reaching the bus stop, we were accosted by several young men, with ticket machines, each trying to gain our custom, and each promoting their bus service as being 'the best'. Once we had explained that the tickets had been reserved, and the deposit paid, they skulked away, only to return to let us know that we had made a mistake, and by purchasing the tickets at the hotel, we had not only prevented them from being able to give us their schpeel, but had further prevented their opponent from gaining his commission! I failed to accept the reprimand, as the commission went to the deserved party, namely our after hours duty manager.
The first bus had a young man, of Ukrainian descent (probably not first generation) giving us a guided tour of Manhattan. Upstairs was completely covered with perspex glass, and it was rather comfortable. Unfortunately, for some reason we were required to change vehicles, and the top deck of the second bus was only partly covered, and the back seats were caked in solid snow. Fortunately, we were permitted to return to our original source of transportation, and our Eastern European guide, whose pronunciation of every single word was extended, and almost highlighted! We reached the end of the line and de-bused, at the stop for the ferry to take us to Liberty Island. Most of the paths to the boat had been cleared, and were not too treacherous, although some were still very slippery. Many people came to my rescue as my feet left the ground and I landed on my very padded derriere. My decision, mid air, not to tense my body, was both surprising and well thought out, in the split second I had to make it, as the only part that actually received any pain was my hand, which I had put down to break the fall. Cushioned by two pairs of gloves (did I fail to mention the two pairs of gloves when I listed my anti weather items), the pain was momentary, and soon forgotten. Thanking my rescuers, I turned my attention to the horizon, thankful that my two scarves and shawl covered the redness I could feel rising up from my neck to my eyes! Negotiating the security area was rather more difficult than the airport, as I had to remove all layers, but at least I could keep on my boots! I was somewhat concerned that I had not thought to bring my motion sickness prevention wristbands, and made my way to the open aired seating area on top of the boat. The water was not too choppy, and we de-boated with ease. Lady Liberty stood tall to the side of us, and after fighting off several other tourists, we gained poll position at the water's edge and took our time in taking group and individual photographs. 'One for the grandmas', was shouted out as Samantha, Charlotte and Natalie had a photo taken, followed by the three girls calling to Lesley and me, 'Now one for the sisters!', the sisters and grandmas being one in the same! Although Samantha had brought her mini-tripod, the opportunity for taking a new photograph by the statue was not as easy, as there were far more people around than that of two years ago. We did ask a passer-by, who appeared to have a good deal of photography-savvy (both by the pictures he was taking, and the serious nature of his camera) but even though he agreed, and clicked several times, we perceived a negative attitude by the result of the images. The lady was not present in any shot! A young man with a similar camera to mine came forth and offered his services, and he captured exactly what we had imagined, which only goes to show (in my case) that it is not the camera that is defective, just the user! I did manage to take some relatively good shots of Samantha running in the snowy grounds before we headed back to the ferry for our return journey. I managed to stay on my feet once back on the mainland and we made our way to the area that was formerly known as 'Ground Zero', the site that was formerly formerly the Twin Towers. We were too late to acquire tickets for the Memorial Gardens, but were told that we could return the following day, but as there was no charge for the entrance, it was recommended that we arrive early. As we had already planned an early visit to the Empire State Building, this hindered our schedule, but there was an option to reserve tickets online, with a $2 booking fee, which went towards the upkeep of the area. We chose to e-book and left to go shopping instead! Century 21 is a very large department store, with many floors, and excellent bargains, and advantage that was taken by our English cousins.
I was not disappointed that we chose not to go back to the hotel and change for dinner on two counts; the first being that it was rather late, and the second being that as I was unsure of how we would get all our luggage home, I did not pack additional clothing! We hopped on, another bus, and to our delight saw that our guide was the Ukrainian, who directed us to the stop where we could pick up the 'Night tourbus'.
It was cold. In fact the temperature had not risen above freezing since we had arrived, and sitting on the top deck of the double decker had several disadvantages, one being the prolific breeze that whipped around the uncovered section at the back. However, when wishing to achieve the Pulitzer prize photograph, one must suffer, and Samantha bore the responsibility to take all the pictures with her new professional camera. It was not a good time to take a phone call from Dana, and I felt rather mean asking him if I could call back at a more convenient time, but the view crossing the Brooklyn Bridge is spectacular, and one that needed to be viewed with a camera in my double gloved hand! He was very understanding and suggested I call later with a full synopsis of the day's events when I had a chance.
Dinner was at the Olive Garden, the waiting line for which was about 45 minutes, but enough time to gather our thoughts, and enjoy a short period of calm before being shown to our table. I asked the waiter if there were any special deals on the menu and he very obligingly brought me the 'two for $38' menu. Samantha and I laughed out loud at this and explained to our companions that in Austin, this was 'two for $25'. I would point out that I am not obsessed with the price difference, just making a comparison, as it was a very reasonable meal to the rest of our party. We enjoyed our soup and salad, and the main dish was so large that we had to ask for a take out box to carry our dessert back to the hotel. The 'complimentary' wine sample was enjoyed by all, as our waited filled virtually half a glass each, which was probably a quarter of a glass too much for me! We returned back to our home a little before midnight, and agreed to meet the next morning, at 8, so that we could catch the early bus downtown!
With a late night cup of tea, (made from boiling water courtesy of the kettle, placed on the stove in our room!) I settled down to watch the (non)preferred evenings entertainment, which included people being taken to the Emergency Room after robust bedroom activities. Curious as to why anyone would want to be televised during these procedures, I watched for a while, and dozed just as a young boy was being catapulted across the room by his girlfriend's father. Reality or fake?
I made it to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, mostly by elevator, and then walking up six flights of stairs. Bravely, I clicked away at the views, and stood rather too close to the edge for my comfort, despite there being a high wall and wired fencing. Walking down the six flights to the 80th level was somewhat discombobulating as I could see the ground floor on the turn of the stairwell. Singing, 'I have confidence' to myself did little to deter the terror, but having to concentrate on the words took away the edge. Our next stop was the Memorial Gardens. It was not as solemn as I had expected, especially as the construction work for the replacement buildings is still underway. Perhaps when all is complete, the level of soberness will be more apparent.
After being told to 'move along', as we were blocking the exit to the gift shop, (I had found a tourist guide which featured a 'free gift when you show this', advert for Century 21, and was handing out the said booklets to my party) we made our way to Starbucks to enjoy a rather luscious cup of hot chocolate. As the queue for the ladies appeared to be for both sexes, I opted to go next door into the Sheraton Hotel, which had a very relaxing restroom area. I returned to my beverage, and for about the fourth time was handed my ear muffs, which I kept dropping, perhaps due to the large number of apparel items I had to put on and take off during the course of our trip. My daughter suggested that we take a walk around the surrounding area and look in some gift shops for a couple of 'must have' items she wanted to purchase. I agreed, but we found it a little intimidating being alone in a strange part of town, and returned poste haste to the department store, and collected our shopping bag free gift, the value of which is priceless now that Austin stores are forbidden to supply plastic!
We walked back to Macy's Department store, which took far longer than we expected. Not entirely sure whether it was four or five miles, as we did zig zag for part of the way, we separated into groups and my group of two made our way to the seating area on the mezzanine level until it was time to leave. I called Dana to check in and undressed down to the sweater and jeans level! We met up around an hour later, and designated Samantha to be the one to tell Charlotte and Natalie that, once again, we were not going to go back to the hotel to change for dinner. We all agreed that by the time we made it back, we would probably not want to venture out again! Without deviation, hesitation or repetition, Samantha stated what was going to happen and did not receive a negative response from anyone! After a quick trip into Victoria Secrets, we made our way to Red Lobster, and put our name on the waiting list.
I should know better than to say 'yes', when offered a sip of a Margarita, but I was on vacation! After two gulps I was unable to close my eyes, and after three I failed to keep composure. I started to tell a story with an hilarious ending! Unfortunately, no one got to hear the hysterical finale, as I could not stop giggling. Everything seemed to be very funny, and I found myself howling, uncontrollably, at most things that were said. Samantha attempted to remove the fish bowl that contained the offending beverage, whilst everyone else found my performance to be rather amusing and insisted I have 'just one more sip'! I lost it several times on the way home, although I did behave myself in a reasonable manner as we passed the Rockefeller ice-skating rink and witnessed a proposal. When back at the hotel, we said our 'goodnights' and went our separate ways.
The snow started to fall around 6:30pm on Sunday evening. We were going to meet in the lobby at 8:30pm and get a taxi to the STK restaurant, Midtown, for what was going to be a very understated, surprise, 'hen' party for Samantha. We had been able to relax (with a cup of tea) for about half an hour, but I knew Samantha would not be happy until she had experienced the fullness of the white flakes! We dressed in our travelling clothes (there were enough heaters to ensure they dried in time) and walked the block. Just along from our hotel was a large square area, outside a bank, which was covered thickly. No one noticed as my daughter lay down on the ground, and made snow angels, as they were all hurrying to get home, or to their destination, as the snow started to fall heavily. Snow angels, and snowmen, preceded us all around the block and we got back to the hotel considerably more damp than when we had left! We ventured out onto our balcony and made some more angels as well as a snowman, which was decorated with a pretzel face, a small scarf, and a bobble for a hat (courtesy of excess wool). My snow angel was not as 'complete' as Samantha's but I did manage to hurl a few snowballs across the great divide to the car park, opposite. The people in the building to the side of us were either unaware, or completely unbothered by our behaviour! Our adventure still left us a little time to relax before emerging, once again, into the white abyss!
Having been a London cabbie, I still find it amazing that no other city offers the equivalent courtesy of cab drivers with a 'knoweldge' of their city. 'Where is it', was bad enough, but having difficulty with finding the road was unacceptable. However, having a mobile phone that works in all 50 states makes life a little easier. We were able to direct the driver, and arrived on time. I am sure that other restaurants in the chain are worthy of their high end status, and Charlotte and Natalie were most complimentary about those in Las Vegas and London. I could tell you the age of every cut of meat on the menu. I could tell you where the fish was caught. I could tell you how proud the waiters are of their chefs. I could also tell you the added ingredients in the bread, and how well the salad would enhance our meal. After approximately 20 minutes of dissecting the menu, we lost our waiter until it was time to sell us the desserts. Two between seven was highly disappointing, but we were not overly impressed. I am sure that with today's technology, it would not be difficult to separate the checks, (Olive Garden and Red Lobster did not find it hard,) but it seemed to be an insult to suggest it to our waiter. We did not think that 'we can work it out at the end', meant that WE could work it out at the end. The final amount was presented to us, with a recommendation of a tip of 18, 20 and 22 percent. 'Service charge' probably should have been reworded to a simple, 'extras'. Before Charlotte took herself to another table with the calculator app open on her phone, I explained that the gratuity should be added to the price before tax, and a standard 15% would cover the third of an hour synopsis of the menu. I did not wish to insult the waiter, but at the same time there was little service from him! Taking a photo by the fireplace, and phoning for a couple of cabs were now definitely not included in the price, and we departed from the restaurant without a 'by your leave!' We did enjoy our meal, but no one in the restaurant knew, as they never asked!
Samantha and I had already packed, and brought our cases to reception in the morning, and then went to Ellen Stardust, a diner where the wait staff perform show tunes while you eat. It was very entertaining, and we enjoyed a last meal together. We hugged and said 'cheerio's' to the 'returning to England' sect, and Samantha and I made our way back to the hotel, arriving shortly before our car, which took us swiftly to the airport. We checked in and made our way through security, after packing our coats, scarves, gloves and beloved ear muffs, which were still, surprisingly, in my possession! We watched the end of the movie we had started in Atlanta, and then boarded the plane. We enjoyed the second part of our deli sandwich with another plastic glass of liquid.
The hour delay at Altanta, for the flight back to Austin turned to two, and then two and a half, and we chose to have a leisurely meal in the Longhorn Steakhouse. We were greeted by a smiling, chatty, and delightful hostess, who told us that there was a 15 minute wait. She called us just after 10 minutes, as the person before us on the list was a 'no show', but then apologised profusely as they appeared. She thanked us for our patience. Oh how I loved being south of the Mason Dixon line! When we were finally called, I explained to the hostess that we had been to New York City for the weekend, and while the restaurant staff were, in the main, very polite and friendly, nothing beats the reception of a Southerner and I thanked her for being so sincere. She responded in kind and laughed heartily. We sat next to a couple going back to Ohio, having been in Jamaica for a week, and the female enquired as to the reason for our delay. 'Probably drizzle in Austin', I said flippantly, but it was understood that 'deep in the heart of Texas', we don't do 'inclement'!
Those waiting for the plane were very good humoured. We were going back to Texas. What was a couple of hours delay compared to a lifetime of Texas! We could cope! Samantha and I watched a movie and curled up on some very comfortable armchairs before boarding for our final destination. Once again, no one took advantage of the bulkhead seats, and we sat ourselves down ready for the two and a half hour trip. I believe I slept for most of the way, accepting the offer of a beverage early on.
Dana collected me from the airport, and Edward arrived a little before him. We said our farewells, and Dana handed back the dog, who was incredibly excited. I slept very well and went into the office after a delicious cup of Joe's! It was a fantastic weekend, and we are already looking forward to the next one! My good mood continued along the week, and on Tuesday I was given the go ahead to tell everyone that around August time, my son and daughter-in-law are going to make me a grandma! The secret that I have had to keep for a couple of months will no doubt be ..... another story!