Regardless of your beliefs, the holiday season has taken on more than just a religious meaning. That’s not to say that religion isn’t the impetus for this time of year. It’s just to say that the season has the added meaning of loving one another, the renewal of friendships, and taking the time to think about someone other than yourself through charity, and of course… presents!
Is it too bold of a statement to say that New York City is the Center of the American Holiday Universe? Well, we don’t think so. Network television doesn’t show the Rockefeller Center tree lighting live from Miami. FAO Schwartz isn’t located in Denver. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade isn’t marching through Los Angeles and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is definitely not in Dallas. Obviously all this and then some can be found right here in NYC.
We have a tendency of getting a little over excited about this time of year. It’s an enthusiasm that starts Thanksgiving Day (read Eat-a-Sode 46 for Thanksgiving fun) and doesn’t end until New Year’s. Each year we have our traditions. A visit to the tree at Rockefeller Center, CitiPond ice skating and browsing the Holiday Shops at Bryant Park (read Eat-a-Sode 13 for details on the Winter Wonderland at Bryant Park), a stroll around FAO Schwartz, window shopping (and sometimes even shopping shopping!) at Bergdorf Goodman on 5th Avenue (read Eat-a-Sode 36 for cocktails and shopping on this iconic street), the window displays at Sak’s and dinner at 21 Club… just to name a few. This year we added two new holiday themed events to the agenda.
As we’ve said in the past, the Hudson Valley is an oasis of tranquility located just an hour north of uptown Manhattan (read Eat-a-Sode 8 for our visit to the Hudson Valley). On the recommendation of two close friends, we booked a trip on The Little Wine Bus (Editor’s Note: The Little Wine Bus was a full on massive tour bus) to the Hudson Valley. The bus, which picks you up right in Times Square, brings you right to wine country for a fun filled day of wine drinking, eating, and vista viewing before dropping you back off in Times Square. Yes, you are required to wake up early and sit on a bus all day, and yes the wine is not so good… but there is no driving involved! We threw back way more wine than necessary and things started to get out of control with us in the back of the bus… but these things happen.
After pickling our livers the day before on the wine bus, we regrouped to take on the Amazing New York Race (Holiday Edition). A scaled down version of the TV Show, the New York Holiday Edition was a sweat filled, speed walking festival that included a visit to some of the most popular and famous NYC holiday locations, as well as a trip to an adult video store (don’t ask). Exhausted and in need of our beds, we finished the event in a respectable 16th place (out of 50 teams).
So read on below for the gruesome details of our crazy holiday weekend as well as some of our other holiday favorites.
The Little Wine Bus in the Hudson Valley (Holiday Edition)www.TheLittleWineBus.com 917-414-7947
Snacks, WINE!, From Manhattan to the Hudson Valley
When you hear “The Little Wine Bus,” one might think an intimate little jitney that will drive you around all day as you drink wine and snuggle up to your loved ones and friends. Well, our vision wasn’t completely off, but we must admit, we didn’t expect our little wine bus to be a massive coach with over 60 passengers.
As we boarded our elephantine wine chariot (perhaps this is a more appropriate name?) in the heart of Times Square, the jolly Christmas tunes and festive holiday flair put us in the mood… this was going to be a great day! We were told to head right to the back of the bus, and we complied… just sitting a few seats off the back. After sitting for only a moment, we faced a rather uncomfortable experience… we were forced… yes, forced… to move completely to the back, which included a pair of seats directly next to the bathroom, whose space was smaller and enclosed. As paying customers (2+2+2 on this day), we felt it unnecessary to uproot ourselves and sit in a less comfortable space… why us? Because we boarded first? The situation could have been diffused quickly and professionally… but instead, it was dealt with fiercely and rudely, putting a bad taste in our mouths for the remainder of the day.
We tried to shake it off by making each other laugh, participating in Karaoke, and creating our own fun. As the day went on, we started to forget about the 9am turn of events and only focused on being together with great friends, the beautiful scenery as we drove up the Hudson Valley, and the fact that NO ONE had to drive! After all, these were all of our reasons for participating in this activity in the first place!
We made our first stop at Warwick Winery & Distillery in Warwick, NY, just an hour and a half north of NYC. We descended from our gargantuan vino-mobile and headed into a cozy tasting room and gift shop for our first tasting, just minutes past 11am. And it began! We browsed the little country store and took note of all the little tchotchkes, spirit and wine selections, and snacks that we hoped to purchase after our tasting and lunch. We sampled an array of whites and reds, including a Sauv Blanc, Chardonnay, Cab Franc, and Merlot, all very typical for New York vintages. We also had an opportunity to taste their Crème de Cassis, a blackberry liquer, which was surprisingly super tasty! Once we sat for lunch, we decided to buy a bottle of the Pinot Noir, which we didn’t have a chance to taste, but came highly recommended. While not the best wine we had ever tasted, it was light and paired nicely with our pizza and salad lunch. The boys also went out on a limb and purchased Warwick’s infamous Doc’s Hard Apple Cider. The cider is au natural and one can taste its hints of sulfur. It’s an acquired taste. We did really enjoy their Pumpkin Spice Cider most of all… which we might have finished off on the bus in our complimentary tasting glass from Warwick. These were our perks sitting in the wayyyyy back of the bus.
On to the next winery… THE oldest professional vineyard in the Hudson Valley, Benmarl, in the town of Marlboro. The town itself was established in the late 1700s, paralleling the time that the U.S. won its independence. Award-winning Benmarl offers the ubiquitous vintages of Chardonnay and Merlot, in addition to more interesting vintages such as Frontenac and a French hybrid called Baco Noir. The prized view of the GORGES valley is perhaps Benmarl’s greatest asset. Grab your wine and head outside to take in the beautiful landscape, complete with vineyards, rolling hills, and the Hudson River down below. We also appreciated the novelty of Benmarl’s petite wine cellar, complete with a few barrels and ancient vintages…. we particularly loved “wine prison,” which it soon came to be named. It was the perfect spot for a photo op. And boy did we take advantage! After a round of tasting and a few more snacks, we boarded our behemoth vinous coach and headed to our last stop: Millbrook Winery.
We began our visit with a guided tour, as well as a case of the sillies. Perhaps we had consumed an outrageous amount of wine during the intervals between wineries in the wee back of our colossal terroir transport. Alas, we took countless (and priceless!) photos amongst the wine barrels and giggled in the background as we thoroughly entertained ourselves! We finally made it to tasting room (with more snacks!), which is on the second floor of the winery in a beautifully lit loft. After our round of tasting (and wine déjà vu) and myriad bites of cheese, we made our way out onto the patio for our final photographs… just in time for a setting sun backdrop. We snapped some priceless shots before boarding our vast vino vessel for the last time and departing for NYC.
With a plethora of bottles in tow, we had a few more rounds from our most recent stop, as we laughed along to a festive holiday movie (K’s fave!), Elf! We reminisced about the day, before drifting off to vino heaven (well, some of us!). A fun experience for a group of friends… Have we changed our minds about New York wines? Well, not really. But the bottom line is… we can always, ALWAYS make any experience wine-derful!
- Warwick Winery & Distillery – Warwick, NY - www.wvwinery.com
- Benmarl Winery – Marlborough, NY - www.benmarl.com
- Millbrook Winery – Millbrook, NY – www.millbrookwine.com
A: The moral of the story… wine makes everything better. The morning’s obnoxious and rude experience took many glasses of vino to get over, but by glass three is was a vague memory. The tour was well put together with each winery offering something different… lunch… snacks… a tour… a cellar… views. Plus lots of drunken wine activities on the bus. Great for groups, but not recommended for couples… they would feel out of place.
K: Though I can’t forget about how the day started, it’s not worth harping on… as we had some pretty hilarious and priceless moments along the way. Not sure if I would do it again necessarily, but I might recommend it to large groups who are looking for a unique activity.
L: Even bad wine tastes good after a few bottles.
M: Had a rough start, but in the end I enjoyed this a lot. One big reason is that I didn’t have to drive! This is a great time for groups. No driving + no worries = good times.
- Scene- Elephantine wine chariot (i.e. coach bus) decorated with holiday flair.
- Food/Drinks (Hudson Valley Wineries)-3: Pleasantly surprised.
- Tip Worthy (Little Wine Bus)- 2.5: Well organized with plenty of activities and variety, but the owner could sure use a lesson in customer service. First impressions count. Her snotty demeanor dropped their respectable score by a point.
- Coordinates- Make your way to Times Square and let your driver do the rest.
- Activity Return Rate- We might recommend it to large groups who can make their own fun.
Photo Race, Manhattan
We had been talking about doing a scavenger hunt together for months, and finally the time came to pick one and enter. With the holiday season in full stride, we thought it only appropriate to choose The Holiday Edition by The Amazing NY Race to be our first hunt together. After all the trips and time we have spent together, we knew teamwork would not be a problem and we wanted to see how we stacked up among other lovers of the big city.
On the day of the race, we arrived at the meeting spot 15 minutes before the start time. Of course we should have been there a little bit earlier. But who knew?! The place was packed with hundreds of people! It looked like teams had arrived 30 t0 60 minutes before start time. On this day, there were over 50 teams! Some looked as if they had done this before, dressing up with holiday flair, and others even had matching shirts. We didn’t know just how serious this would be?! We didn’t feel worried, though, as we love a challenge. We had to win! Losing was not an option! At the very least, we would try our best not to suck too much.
Finally after checking in, we waited for further instructions. We were given our sealed packet and were let out into the city for the Holiday race. We all looked over what we had to do in all the different categories, and then we tried to figure out our game plan. We needed to factor in the time that we had and what subways or buses (no cabs alllowed) we needed to take in order to get to the places that gave us the most amount of points. Channeling the real ‘Amazing Race’ TV show, the challenge included components like Detours and Roadblocks, as well as the addition of Photo Ops and the requirements to visit major landmarks.
A huge part of this game is walking, LOTS of walking, as well as the ability to be outgoing. You MUST be willing to talk to strangers and convince them to take a picture with four crazy New Yorkers who are not trying to rob them… which can be difficult when dealing with suspicious, first time tourists at the major attractions. We ran all over Times Square, Rockefeller Center, and even FAO Schwartz, checking off all the tasks and items, all verified with a picture including the four of us.
Without giving away too many clues, we can tell you this, BRING WATER AND GOOD SHOES. You will be exhausted and sweaty when it’s all over. At the end of it all, about 3 hours later, we eagerly met up with the rest of the teams at the starting point with our pictures and points tallied. We had tried our best to get everything, but time ran out with a single task left uncompleted. All of us tried to guess what place we came in. We knew we didn’t do that bad, but how good did we do?!
And the winner is…. Not us! What?! 16th Place out of 50 was not too bad for our first time. The winning team was a returning champ. Hey, was this thing fixed?! We hope the clues were changed from last year! We guess we will have to do this a couple of times and maybe we can keep moving up and win next time. There will definitely be a next time. Watch out for team 2 Plus 2. We’re coming prepared!
The Amazing NY Race offers many different races throughout the year: a Halloween theme, Singles, Couples, Dog Friendly, Movie Trivia, Museums, Gay Pride, Family, Personal Birthday races and more. Races include a Photo Hunt, Detour, Roadblock, and Hidden New York. Take a look at what you think would be the best for you and your crew… then, grab you camera, good running shoes, and a big personality.
- Taking a picture with everyone in the group with 5 silver haired men
- A photo of the group on the BIG Piano at FAO Schwartz
- Hopping around like a rabbit for 30 Seconds in a fast and furious game of Jenga
- A photo of the group in front of Gaga’s Workshop at Barneys
A: This was awesome! A super fun (although exhausting) afternoon and a great way to experience the city. Great for non-natives, too! Imagine you were actually picked for the Amazing Race TV show and take it seriously!! We were all about winning and were fierce competitors.
K: I thought this was a fun race; although, I thought the beginning was very disorganized and I thought it was a little unfair to let groups begin their “extra credit” before others even got there. It just put those who arrived extremely early (instructions said to arrive 30 minutes before the start time) at an unfair advantage. I’m no sore loser, but I’m all about everyone starting out on an equal footing.
L: I wouldn’t go back for the same scavenger hunt but definitely well worth it. A lot of running and a lot of fun. Like a running tour of New York during the holiday season. Next time I wont drink so much the day before.
M: I loved this! Sure we came in 16th, but it was a great time. It was like New York City Holiday 101. The best part was running up to strangers and talking them into taking a picture with us. Most people loved the idea, but some must have thought we might rob them. It was great. Can’t wait till the next one. I need to stretch. I still think the winners might have used cabs. How else could they have done everything on the list?
Our Rating Scales…
- Activity: 3.5- Great time, high energy, perfect way to see all the quintessential holiday faves in NYC or just explore the city
Activity- 2+2www.RockefellerCenter.com Park and Tourist Attraction, Manhattan
The epitome of Christmas in America… New York City’s Rockefeller Center. With the massive Christmas tree as its focal point and ice skaters floating past that iconic gold sculpture, the image of the Rock is one that most know from coast to coast, as it has played host to the annual lighting, including plenty of holiday big-name performances. No holiday season is complete without a visit to this NYC landmark.
Personally, we love picking up a hot chocolate from the subterranean Starbucks and then strolling through the square admiring the flags, nutcrackers and angels, as well as the lovely snowflake light display at its entrance. In the falling snow, there is nothing more romantic than a skate on a crisp evening or a marriage proposal under the tree (of which we have seen many!).
Throughout the year, visit this midtown park for great views of the city at the Top of the Rock Observation Deck, or a meal at The Sea Grill at the base of the ice rink, which transitions to an open air dining area in the summer. Plus, the plaza is full of tons of great shoppes and snacks like Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery and Dean and Deluca. And of course, you can’t forget the NBC studios, which is located right next door, further publicizing this famous address with our favorite comedy, 30 Rock, featuring Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin. A visit to Rockefeller Center will make any trip to New York complete.
K: It’s a beautiful scene… and the first thing any New Yorker thinks about when the holiday season begins in NYC. A must-see each season! I think I have a picture taken in front of that tree every year since infancy.
L: Classic New York. Worth a visit any time of year. Not much else to say.
M: Those people who say “What’s the big deal? It’s just a tree!” just suck. It’s THE Tree in Rockefeller Center! There is nothing like it. I still have not found the time to skate under it. One day I will! Maybe at the end of the season when there are less crowds.
Our Rating Scales…
- Scene- A defining New York destination emitting the essence of the city
- Coordinates- 5: Fun is right next door
- Restaurant Return Rate- Green light!!
Is there a Christmas in New York movie that doesn’t feature FAO Schwartz? Made (even more) famous by classic New York movies like Home Alone and Big, this massive, uptown toy store is a must-see if you have kids, and even if you don’t. None of us have any children and we are always excited to visit! Located on 5th Avenue just off Central Park South and across from the iconic Plaza Hotel, this three-story mega store is famous for giant sized stuffed animals, miniature kid-sized Lamborghinis and the BIG Piano utilized by Tom Hanks in that memorable scene. With its singing, real toy-soldiers, über amounts of candy, and more toys than a kid can play with, visitors young and old will be wide-eyed with a visit to this New York staple.
K: Another place from my youth that we went once per year… I always got to pick out ONE Bob Mackie Barbie Doll. I could get lost in here for hours… (Well, maybe not so much anymore. Now it kind of gives me hives.)
L: As a kid FAO Schwartz was like Disney Land in New York. I loved going there and playing with all the toys for hours. Too bad we could never afford to take any home. I still love going there today.
M: I have been here more times than I can remember. Don’t think I ever bought anything. But for some reason every year around this time I find myself walking in just to check it out. It’s just something that you have to do when you come here. Thank you Tom Hanks.
Our Rating Scales…
- Scene- An iconic, classic toy super store
- Coordinates- 5: Fun is right next door
- Restaurant Return Rate- Green light!