A few friends as well as people who are simply readers of this blog have tried and enjoyed my first post about road trips, Ottawa to North Conway. Due to the positioning of cameras at the US Open Tennis match between Milos Raonic and Richard Gasquet, large numbers of people became aware that Julie and I travel to NYC at least once a year. Those who are not the biggest tennis fans were more interested in the trip itself, and since we’ve experimented with the Ottawa-Manhattan journey in almost every conceivable fashion (planes, trains, and automobiles) I decided to share our new favourite route, which we tried out for the first time this year.
First, let me address most of the alternatives. You can get a direct flight, and you’ll be in the air for less than 90 minutes. It will cost you about $1000 for two people. That’s a fair chunk of change, but the real issue is it takes more like 7 hours if you are realistic about what is involved at each end of the trip. And that 6 hours or so where you are not flying through the air is going to involve a lot of stress. Further, when you do arrive at Newark, LaGuardia, or JFK, you aren’t in Manhattan yet, so you’ve still got some work to do. Sometimes it is relatively painless, and sometimes it is very painful – every NYC airport has problems getting planes in and out on time. You can end up spending a lot of time on the tarmac, and the security lines are pretty notorious. Then you’ll have to taxi or bus.
You could drive door to door. There are many challenges to this, a major one being what “door” you are arriving at. Parking in Manhattan is at a premium, wherever you are staying, you are likely going to roll up like you are strolling into the Best Western Peterborough. Don’t even count on paid parking being available. But my biggest warning about making this drive is understanding that Ottawa to the outskirts of NYC is usually no big deal, but you could in fact spend hours in the home stretch (or trying to get out on your way home). Between construction and unbelievable volume, you can end up sitting on a bridge surrounded by relentless honking (locals in particular honk their horns even when kept waiting even when there is obviously nothing anyone can do). In other words, it’s not exactly relaxing. The drive can be made in 8 hours, but the only time I’ve accomplished this was when we left Manhattan at 1:30 am after a US Open rain delayed match. Don’t bother trying to figure out when “rush our” is. Manhattan is an island and people are coming and going all the time.
You can take the train the full route – VIA Rail to Montreal, and AMTRAK from Montreal into NYC Penn Station. The problem is, this takes a very long time. The Montreal-NYC service is pretty slow (11 hours) and of course you’ve got to get to Montreal for 9am at the latest in order to catch the AMTRAK. So we are realistically talking at least 14 hours when considering the needed buffers.
Something we’ve never tried (and probably won’t, due to my very long legs) is Greyhound bus service. If you don’t drive and/or you are on a low budget, this is definitely worth a look. It’s about $200 return trip, and depending when you travel, it’s reasonably quick. The overnight is less than 10 hours – but not everyone wants to do a red eye bus trip, in which case you are looking at more like 12 hours or more. That’s a lot of time on a bus, and you don’t have the freedom to stop when you want to. But if you’ve always wanted to go NYC and flying or driving is not an option, you can do it! The bus goes to the Port Authority, not Penn Station, but it’s pretty convenient from there.
So, what’s our favoured solution? Drive and train. And not just any drive, we took a scenic route through the Adirondacks to Albany, and followed it up with a scenic train ride through the Hudson River valley right into Penn Station. Another beauty of this route is crossing into the US by car at Prescott-Ogdensburg, which is typically the least painless way to travel over the worlds longest undefended border.
Here’s the route: drive south on the 416, and you’ll see the signs to continue south on to the US border (instead of going east or west on the 401). Just head to the right (west) on the 37 after the border, and then take a left down the 68. You’ll probably find yourselves alone on the road most of the time. As you make your way south through the park, the highway numbers will change but it’s very straightforward, the traffic is light, and the views continue to improve along the way.
Alternatively you can skirt the park to the west and south to get to our final car destination of the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station, but you will only save about 10 minutes, deal with a lot more cars, and without a doubt won’t enjoy the same quality of scenery.
About 3 hours after you’ve left Ottawa (taking our recommended route) you’ll find yourselves in the town of Tupper Lake, population 3000, and the urban hub of the area. Along Main Street as you pass through town you won’t have to divert from your route to get gas, fast food, or a sit down meal. Apparently the Irish pub is excellent. We stopped for gas across the street from there. It looked like the gas station has a pretty awesome deli going on in there, but we were concerned with making the train on time, so we kept moving.
We continue on south on the 30 until Long Lake and one of the few points of possible confusion. You are going to turn LEFT onto the 28N (something called the 28N sounds odd when you are ultimately heading south, but don’t worry, it goes east and south). You’ll travel past scenic lakes (many lovely rest stops complete with historical plaques can be found along the way) and then through thick mountainous forest. The road is of good quality and you are unlikely to experience much traffic. The exception would be traveling at night, in which case you have to watch for deer and bears.
From the 28N the 29 and the 19 will take you to the the 87 interstate where you head south and now you are little more than an hour from the train station.
Arriving at the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station you’ll easily find the long-term parking, a very affordable $6 per day. Just walk towards the station and follow the painted blue line. The trip is just 2.5 hours on the train and remarkably affordable at just $40 per person – return! The station is nice and calm with basic amenities and a cafe with good coffee. It’s modern and clean. Look for a seat on the right-hand side of the train when you board, as the views are quite spectacular. You will enjoy almost non-stop access to the Hudson River. It’s quite beautiful and the many bridges and lighthouses are also interesting to look at. The train has wifi and it worked very well for us along the way. We used it to learn more about what we were seeing. There’s a lot of history.
The train will take you right into Manhattan at Penn Station. Midtown Manhattan is the busiest single commercial district in the United States, and among the most intensely used pieces of real estate in the world. You now have access to multiple public transit options (subways that go anywhere as well as the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) which will take you to the US Open or to a Mets baseball game in 20 minutes) and of course the pedestrian options are great. Keep those elbows tucked in and keep your head up – the typical Ottawa rules about how to use a sidewalk or stairwell do NOT apply.
You probably won’t be surprised that accommodations in Manhattan are expensive. Everyone is there, it’s a supply and demand thing. And it’s not that you are being ripped-off, it is costing the hotel a lot of operate there too.
With our CAA card we were able to stay at the Best Western on 36th street (short walk from Penn) for $250 a night, which is actually quite a bargain. I won’t get into the hotel discussion, because that’s why things like Travelocity were invented. Same with food. The world is now at your doorstep, and whatever you want, whenever you want it, you can have it! Due to our schedule end up getting a lot of takeout. It’s quite a change from Ottawa where the post-midnight offerings tend to be pizza or pizza.
Although I think this car-train option ending up at Penn Station is great for anyone who wants to visit Manhattan, after 8 years of trying various arrangements, I also think it’s the best solution for attending the US Open, which is held in what is technically Flushing (Queens) but it’s really not an accessible area, other than by train or subway. There are few local accommodations that will allow you to access the tournament without some for of transportation – hotels near the area may advertise a shuttle service, but good luck with that, every guest will be trying to book it just when you want it too.
You can stay somewhere along the 7 train (subway – but mostly above ground on this line) but it’s not very comfortable and is particularly crowded at the end of the day, just when you’d rather not have your tired sweaty body crushed up against others like a Metallica mosh pit. And no, I’m not exaggerating. It’s all part of the fun, but after you’ve experienced it, you might not be craving it again and again.
The Long Island Rail Road is definitely the way to travel. Big comfortable seats with air conditioning that works beautifully, it never smells like urine, and it’s only two stops from Penn Station to Mets-Willets station (US Open). You come up the stairs and you are right there at the entrance. It’s awesome.
Attending the US Open itself is a whole different story. I know it’s impossible to appreciate from seeing it on TV. About 3/4 million (yep, 750,000!) attend this event over the course of two weeks, and it’s at times a frightening mass of humanity trying to squeeze into small courtside seating areas and stadiums. Most of the tournament doesn’t take place in the giant stadium shown on TV, and as a spectator that’s probably not where you’ll have your best memories either. In 2013 the most fun we had was in the old grandstand court (probably about 3000) and court 17 (about 2000). Depending on the schedule, you might even see a match on a court that has little more than standing room and three rows of benches – particularly if you are a doubles fan, you can easily see world class matches just a few feet from the players.
We’ve tried attending week one and week two (timing and finances make attending both weeks impossible) and week one is the best for anyone but the extremely wealthy. The matches in the big stadium are almost always mismatches in week one, so you can ignore them (and not worry about getting tickets) and with a grounds pass ($70 or so) you can see 12 hours or more of tennis every day, and the atmosphere will be awesome. The week one seats in the big stadium are full of nitwits who are more interested in their $15 Grey Goose than what is going on down on the court. They talk on their cell phones and carry on conversations about international finance.
If you want to live the dream of seeing the semi-finals and finals (where even the nitwits tend to shut their pie holes), unless you are willing to drop a thousand bucks on a good seat, you’ll be up in the nosebleeds (Arthur Ashe stadium is massive) and still pay in the hundreds. It can still be an enjoyable experience of course but we’ve decided it’s more fun to experience up close the first week of how the players got to the second week, and then watch week two on TV. In week two you won’t have a lot of choices of what to watch, and you might end up putting a lot of effort into seeing action that is not all that memorable.
Mind you, if I knew for sure I’d be seeing the the Djokovic-Wawrinka semi-final 2013, I’d find a way to get a ticket!