One of the world’s best: New York Botanical Garden

For years I have wanted to visit the New York Botanical Garden. On previous visits to New York City I have not been able to carve out enough time from my business commitments or I could not convince my friends that it was more interesting than say, the Statue of Liberty.  At last, I was able to spend about 3 hours in this world class botanical garden. I could have spent all day.

Largest Victorian glasshouse in USA
Largest Victorian glasshouse in USA

I entered at the Mosholu gate and proceeded to the nearest cafe. The view of the Conservatory from the terrace was breathtaking. I was overheated from my bike ride so I opted for the air-conditioned indoor dining. The chicken waldorf salad was satisfying and I poured over the garden map while I chewed.

The challenge of NYBG is choosing how to spend your time because there is so much to see and do. In an ideal visit, I would have time to just sit and relax by the soothing lily pond. (How do they grow pineapples in large pots?) And wander through the native plant garden.

Lily pond in Conservatory courtyard.
Lily pond in Conservatory courtyard.

A sure sign of the level of excellence of an institution is the quality of the staff and exhibits. NYBG manages to combine the best of both. I was lucky to visit on the last weekend of “Wild Medicine” in the Conservatory.  The exhibits packed a lot of fascinating information in a readable, entertaining way. I was torn between reading every word and pressing on to see more of the Garden.  Then they took it to another level and offered interactive booths with very knowledgeable docents giving demonstrations on tea and chocolate with samples!

Docent knew as much about tea as the best Napa winery pourer knows about wine!
Docent knew as much about tea as the best Napa winery pourer knows about wine!

I kept moving because I had only scratched the surface of the Garden and it closes at 6 pm.  I walked toward the visitor center and admired the mature plants. I have visited a number of botanical gardens and the younger gardens are at a disadvantage because a well cared for garden improves with age.  NYBG has the added advantage that due to the foresight of the founders, they even have original forest from pre-development Bronx.

Visitor Center has a second cafe and a terrific gift shop.
Visitor Center has a second cafe and a terrific gift shop.

Plus they take advantage of existing buildings like the Stone Mill. Even the more modern buildings are designed to complement the Garden. The impressive library, the gracious visitor center, and even the modern research center are all signs that the Garden is well supported by the community.

With still so much to see, I hopped on the tram and rode it through the rest of the Garden. You can hop on and off, or stay on and get a windshield tour in about 30 minutes.  I am glad I did this or I would have missed my favorite plant in the garden–the Turkey Oak.

Favorite tree in garden. Reminds me of the wonderful Moreton Bay Fig.
Favorite tree in garden. Reminds me of the wonderful Moreton Bay Fig.

My last stop before closing was at the Library. There are special films shown at designated times during the day along with special collections. My mouth dropped open at the beauty of the rotunda. I wished I had more time and promised myself that I would come back and spend the entire day. To think that at one point I thought I would visit both the Garden and the Bronx Zoo (nearby). Ha!

Beautiful library--they do not build them like this anymore.
Beautiful library–they do not build them like this anymore.

Since my visit I have been thinking about my favorite gardens. NYBG stands in a class above the rest with Kew and Missouri Botanical Garden. All the same I have enjoyed some other gardens, including:

1. Huntington Library (and gardens) in San Marino, California (near Los Angeles)

2. Filoli county estate and gardens in Woodside, California (south of San Francisco)

3. The interesting (although a little worn around edges) Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma, California.

4. Chelsea Flower Show temporary, yet amazing gardens in London each May (May 20-24, 2014)

5. Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden at the White House and Martha Washington’s garden at Mount Vernon both in Washington, DC area.

6. Powerscourt Garden in Dublin, Ireland. Also has a tempting gift shop.

7. Bilbo Baggins’ garden at Hobbiton near Matamata, New Zealand.

8. Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top Farm in the Lake District, England.

Honorable mention: whimsical garden at Belfast Castle–lovely memories of searching for all of the “cats” and the cut flowers at the University of Portland Farmers Market.

And if I could go to any garden, real or imaginary I would go to Prince Charles’ garden at Highgrove, or the Secret Garden in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s imagination.  And my wanderlust will someday take me to Versailles, Amsterdam Flower Mart/Show, the Philadelphia Flower Show, Longwood, and Victoria, British Columbia.

What would you recommend?

Bicycling to the Botanical Gardens

Entry to Hudson River Greenway
Entry to Hudson River Greenway

After a late night on Saturday, I was not up bright and early. I pushed off about 11:30 a.m. on a 80 degree day. It was a little humid with a slight breeze along the Hudson River.

My goal was the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Google Maps gave me a very direct route that would take 1 hour 16 minutes on a 12 mile route up 8th Avenue and along the west side of Central Park. My friend recommended using the Hudson River Parkway instead. So I pedaled North along the river until the far end of Riverside Park at 125th Street. The greenway was packed with cyclists, roller bladers, walkers with and without strollers. The cyclists ride like New Yorkers drive; that is, they abide by the rules of the road occasionally. It kept me on my toes and my thumb on Black Beauty’s bell.

Take a bite of the big apple on your bike.
Take a bite of the big apple on your bike.

I stopped along the way and bought a Aquafina and Diet Pepsi from a vending machine and enjoyed the view.

There are only a few opportunities to cross the westside highway to get back into Manhattan. I crossed under the highway at 125th Street and found myself in Harlem.

As to safety in NYC, it was broad daylight and I never felt truly unsafe. Riding in a very urban environment is a challenge for me as I ride mostly in Davis, California and environs. This is like training for a mountain ride at sea level on the flat. I was worried about getting lost because I was using my phone and Google Maps app and in the sunshine it was a challenge to read.

I read the book BikeNYC for advice and I was most worried about getting “doored”.  There is also a lot of different paving and a plethora of manhole covers and other kinds of metal covers on the street.

My original plan was to borrow my friend’s lock, but this went awry because he does not ever leave his bike away from home. So I knew that wherever I went I’d need to fold my bike and push it rather than leave it locked.

My Brompton bike attracts attention and at one point two guys in a tricked out Mercedes followed me slowly. It crossed my mind that someone might steal my bike out from under me, so I practiced defensive riding. I spotted a guy taking photos ahead on the sidewalk. I stopped by him, got off and walked in a new direction on the sidewalk for a block. It was enough to shake them.

Harlem is not scary
Harlem is not scary

Let’s face it, New York City is a far cry from the scary legends I heard when I was growing up. The real challenge was finding my way across the Macombs Dam Bridge.

By the time I crossed the bridge and entered the Bronx I had been riding Black Beauty for almost 2 hours with only short breaks. I was wearing jeans, not bike shorts, so it is official: my Brooks bike seat is fantastically comfortable.

The other good news: New York is almost as flat as Sacramento, California.  I was feeling pretty good and more mentally tired from watching for car doors opening and trying to find my way along.  My daughter rode across the USA with Bike and Build and I remembered how they navigated and realized why it was a great way to stay on course. They just typed out the directions on a small piece of paper and taped it to their handle bars. My route would look something like:

Turn right on Hudson River Greenway, ride 9 miles.

Turn right on 125th Street.

Turn left on St. Nicholas Street…

and so on. Good lesson for the next ride.

The new Yankee Stadium at game time.
The new Yankee Stadium at game time.

Crossing the bridge was far from intuitive, so I asked the policewoman who was directing traffic how to cross on a bicycle and she did not know. A lot of people bicycle in New York but I guess it still is a novelty to some.

I was rewarded with a great view of Yankee Stadium once I crossed the bridge. A game had just started and people were still pouring into the stadium. I love visiting ballparks and I was tempted to stop and try to buy a ticket. As a Giants fan and secondarily as a Red Sox fan I felt slightly guilty. Plus I have been trying to get to the New York Botanical Garden for years. I checked Google maps and pedaled on.

Riding along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx
Riding along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx

Again, the reputation of the Bronx is much worse than current reality. My main beef was with all of the drivers who viewed the beautiful bike lane as “reserved parking” and twice I had to brake hard as a cab darted in just in front of me to drop off a fare.

I was getting closer to the Garden and my mental focus was wearing down. Google Maps had me ride to Bedford Park Boulevard and enter the NY Botanical Garden from the Bedford Park Gate.

The New York Botanical Garden website encourages you to ride your bike and provides some guidance on how to arrive. It does say that you can not ride your bike in the grounds; however, I thought if I folded up my bike I could push it around like a stroller. I should have probably folded it up before approaching the ticket booth. The staff would not let me take my bike in and suggested I leave it in the parking garage a half block away.

Close to Botanical Garden train stop and parking garage
Close to Botanical Garden train stop and parking garage

I rode to the parking garage and discovered that instead of bike lockers there is just a classic s-shape bike rack. I was close to tears now as I was so close to the Garden but could not get inside.

I saw an official looking man driving a golf cart and I asked him if there was any other bike parking. My lucky day: it was Mark, the head of NYBG security. He listened as I told him my tale of woe and he came to my rescue. He asked me to fold up my bike and put it on his cart. He whisked me over to the Moshulu Gate and locked my bike in his security hut and assured me that the nearby security guard would help me retrieve it when I was ready to leave. What a stand up guy!  My day went from catastrophe to brilliant. With some parting advice from him on the best things to see, I started my garden adventure.

Pointer: Bring a bike lock! And there is a more visible bike rack at the Moshulu Gate right by the security guard station.

I rode the train to Grand Central Station and cabbed it to my friend’s house to make it back in time for dinner plans. My Black Beauty is easy to take on train, and folded she fits easily in the cab’s trunk.

It felt great to reach my goal of riding from Chelsea to the NYBG, although I wish I started earlier so I had most of the day at the Garden. And the next day when I went to the Bicycle Habitat shop in Chelsea the staff person said that the way I rode was probably 20 miles!

Chelsea, baby

High Line Hotel, Chelsea
High Line Hotel, Chelsea

I love Chelsea. Mainly because I love my friend Ray and he lives in and adores Chelsea and his laugh and loves are infectious.

Chelsea Market interior
Chelsea Market interioOn our way to the Chelsea Market one Saturday morning, Ray spied something new: the recently opened High Line Hotel on 10th Avenue.  

I have stayed in different hotels when Ray has family staying in his home already. I like the Gem Hotel but it does not always have rooms availalble. I was thrilled to discover a new (albeit more expensive alternative) in a former Seminary building. You have to love a hotel that offers bikes for loan and a view (for now) of The High Line garden walkway.

It is also just a block or so from the Chelsea Market and surrounded by great restaurants. And every morning you could roll out of bed, hit the exquisite looking coffee bar in the lobby and take a relaxing walk along the High Line.

The High Line is a wonderful reinvention of the elevated railroad.  It is listed in “New York’s 50 best places to find Peace and Quiet.” Not so much on a Saturday.

High Line

At times it was packed with people making it a great place to people watch. The art along the way is thought provoking. And there is an elevator if you have a stroller or need to avoid several flights of stairs. (Although the elevator on 23rd St. was out of order on the day we were there.) The views of Chelsea also give you a different perspective on living in this part of the City.

Colin Powell and his "proof" of WMD
Colin Powell and his “proof” of WMD

We ate later that night at The Park named for its interior that feels like an exterior. The food was adequate and the atmosphere was perfect for our group of 8. Our reservation was for 9:30, so by the time we finished our roast chicken, salmon, octopus salad, turkey burgers, gnocchi and lamb sausage pizza the pop music was pumping and there was a line to get into the dance club and bar. We retired to “Club Ray” where conversation was easier and the drinks are free.

Chelsea is also a great access point for the Hudson River Greenway, which runs the length of Manhattan on the westside.  If you need bike support, I recommend Bicycle Habitat (228 7th Avenue).

Maiden Journey with Black Beauty

Unfolded with bag
Unfolded with bag

My goal is to learn to travel with my Brompton bike so that it is as simple as taking a carryon.  My ultimate purpose is to take my “Black Beauty” to Europe next summer as I follow the Tour de France.

When I recently bought my Brompton foldable bike in Portland I brought it home on the plane; however, it was not a fair test of ease-of-travel because I also had a suitcase and a backpack.  This trip I am on the go with just my bike, my Baggalini purse and my Brompton bag that slides conveniently on the front (like a basket).

It is not a big challenge to pack light—just the clothes I absolutely need for a weekend in New York City–mostly casual clothes for biking around Manhattan with at least one excursion to the Bronx for the Botanical Garden.  I also brought a dress for dinner out with my friend Ray.  My bag was fairly light until I added my MacBook and all my recharging cords.  (I wish Apple would join the universal charger revolution.)

I did not bring my bike lock because it is heavy and I want to try to bring my bike along wherever I ride.  Nor did I pack my bike helmet. I am hoping I can borrow one. The size and inflexibility of a helmet is a “pack-light” challenge.  While packing, I discovered quite a few pieces in my wardrobe that are beyond their expiration date. No worries: I am going to New York City. Shopping is always on the agenda.  And I have time on Monday to ship a box home if necessary.

Getting from the parking garage to the gate I abandoned the supposedly easy method of pulling it completely folded, with bag on front using bag handle.  With any real weight in the bag it seems to be dragging on something.  So I removed the Brompton bag and brought the handle bars up and continued on my way carrying the Brompton bag in one hand and wheeling the bike by the handlebars with the other. Even that proved tricky and I ended up controlling the bike from the fork of the handlebars.

Getting through security was very straightforward. The folded bike glides through easily. At the gate I removed the clamps and the seat and put them in my bag, then wrapped the bungee cord I brought for the purpose. As I gave the Southwest staff my ticket at the gate she asked me what I was bringing aboard. Instead of saying it was a bike, I replied, “It fits in the overhead compartment. And if it does not I will check it.”  She offered to let me try and then if not, ask to put it in the closet for wheelchairs. (!) This was much friendlier than the staff at Portland.

Black Beauty folded

Lucky me, this Southwest plane is a modern Boeing 700 and the overhead compartments are just big enough. The gentleman behind me saved the day: with his extra height he was able to slide my bike in and close the door. It works when the wheels are facing out. Hooray!

It is more exhausting than I thought it would be and I am hoping that I get accustomed to the weight and the mechanics of it as I go along.  I was able to load my bike in the overhead easily by myself from Denver to Newark. When I got off in Newark I stopped immediately and unfolded Black Beauty and reattached the seat and clamps.  I had two fascinated airport workers with lots of questions watching me. I put my Brompton bag on and pushed along. This is a much better solution because people find the novelty of a bicycle in the airport amusing and it takes much less physical effort. Plus if there is an opportunity to ride (through an empty baggage claim area to the women’s restroom in Timbuktu) I can just hop on (just sayin’).

The rest of the trip became a typical travel f-up. The plane was delayed leaving Denver so we arrived at Newark at 12:15. The AirTrain was on reduced schedule after midnight. Instead of waiting for another one in 15 minutes, I hopped on Black Beauty and rode from Terminal A to Terminal C. The staff at the AirTrain stations were all terrific and walked with me until they could show me exactly where I needed to go. The cool air and light exercise was refreshing.

Unfortunately the only way to get to the Rail Station is by AirTrain. Eventually I got there, but the trains never did. Electrical problems had all of the trains woefully behind schedule. Now it is 1 a.m. I was supposed to be at Penn Station by now in my original plan.  At 1:30 a.m. a group of us gave up and reboarded the AirTrain for Terminal C to catch cabs. And my final travel indignity: getting reamed by the cabfare: $51 to Chelsea plus round trip tolls of $18 plus tip—on top of my train ticket.  Makes me rethink my enthusiasm for flying into Newark.

The true measure  of traveling with my bike is how much I enjoy Black Beauty as transportation when I get to Chelsea.

 

Ready for Take Off

In anticipation of the day when my blog design will be complete and I will officially crack a bottle of champagne on my MacBook and launch Adventures of American Julie, I have been banking blogs of my summer adventures.  However, these first few posts will be “live from New York City.”  New York City is a great place to start: I have a dear friend to visit in Chelsea, several specific sites I want to see, some shopping to do, and my new Brompton foldable bike to try.

I took advantage of a screaming Southwest airfare sale this summer and so I am flying to Newark, New Jersey.  I catch the “easy train ride” into Penn Station, arriving just after midnight on Friday night.

Already Serendipity has blessed me with an encounter in my home airport. I saw a former colleague and friend who flew in from San Diego for a fishing weekend with old friends.  We had a good, brief catch up and headed on our separate directions.  I just love travel.