2015 Vacation Destinations: Central Park, New York City

When my parents and I went to New York City in 1988, we spent part of one day in Central Park. As I recall, we walked up the west side of the park to about 79th Street, then walked across the park.  We thought about going into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but decided against it because the recommended entrance fee was too steep.  Then we went to a Czech restaurant (I think it was Vasata, which is now closed) and then back down the east side of the park and back to our hotel.  This little bit of exposure to the park (which was not nearly as frightening as books and movies of the 1970s and early 1980s had led me to believe it should have been) only whetted my appetite to explore the whole thing.

As a result, when we went on our 2015 vacation, I set aside one whole day to explore the park. On the walk from our hotel, I gave Alex just a smidge of the history of the park.  I talked about how Frederick Law Olmsted started with smaller trees, with a view towards how they would look when they became bigger trees.  We had just seen some more of Olmsted’s work in 2013, when we went to the Biltmore Estate (more on that in what will probably be a couple of weeks when I get to our past North Carolina trips).  I also told him that they’ve filmed a bunch of movies, television shows, and commercials in the park and that it’s likely that he’s already seen parts of Central Park but was unaware that was what he’d seen.

My plan was to walk up the west side of the park, visit The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, and then walk down the eastern side of the park.  As fate would have it, however, Alex was not feeling 100%, so we ended up having to change our plans a bit.

We started out at Columbus Circle.  My original hope was to make it all the way around before the zoo closed and then visit the zoo.  My top walking speed is around four miles (6.44 kilometers) per hour, but about two miles (3.21 kilometers) per hour is a good, comfortable, walking speed for me.  If we were able to keep it around two miles per hour, we could do the entire park, or at least the outer edge, in around three hours.  With stops, that might go to four or five hours.  If we started at around 10:00 a.m. we’d be back to the zoo by 4:00 p.m. easily, even taking an hour off to explore the church.  That would give us at least an hour to explore the zoo, which would be more than enough time.

Once we started out, though, Alex ended up wanting pretty frequent rests.  So we bumped the zoo up to the beginning of the day, since I didn’t think we’d get around to the other side of the park at all that day, and certainly not before the zoo closed.  So we walked a path parallel to 65th Street and went to the zoo (which will get its own entry).

After the zoo, we walked a path on the other side of 65th Street, along the Sheep Meadow, on the way back to where we started from, and then took a break to have lunch.  I in no way felt like I looked good enough to go into the Tavern on the Green, but they have this little Green to Go carry-out place with its own little patio.  We ordered their version of a BLT (though without either mayonnaise or avocado, since neither of us like them), which comes on ciabatta bread.  We then had a nice lunch on the patio before heading out into the park again.

We made a very serendipitous wrong turn at the intersection of West Drive and Terrace Drive.  I missed the part where West Drive goes back north and we ended up by the Bethesda Fountain.  I love the movie “Godspell,” so I always have a special fondness for the Bethesda Fountain and the lake, which are the locations of the baptism scenes. I spent the rest of the day “God Save the People” stuck in my head.

There were some kind of street performers doing a thing there, and Alex wanted to watch for a while.  Once we were done at the fountain, we took Terrace Drive back west and caught West Drive going north again.  At about 85th Street, we took a path that led out of the park.  Turns out Alex was just about done with the park, so I negotiated a compromise.  I really wanted to visit St. John the Divine, so I offered that if we took the street level those last 24 blocks and did the cathedral, we could take the subway back to the hotel.  He agreed to this and so we stayed on the street until we reached 110th Street.

Our final full day in New York was a sort of flex day, when we were able to catch up on things that we had missed the rest of the week.  We returned to cover the east side of the park on that day.  It was unseasonably hot (the heat index was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius) and we had already done the Circle Tour (more on that later, as well) in the early part of the afternoon, so we needed to go back to the hotel to cool down for an hour or so.  I also knew that I wouldn’t feel much like walking from our hotel and the park then the length of the park to get to 110th Street and then walk that same distance all over again in that heat, so we once again hit the subway.  We took the 2/3 train to 110th Street and then walked around the north side of Harlem Meer and then south down the paths that paralleled Fifth Avenue.  As the day got later, I was more reluctant to get too far from Fifth Avenue.  The park is safer than it was back in the 1970s, but I was not enthusiastic about being in there too long after dark.  As it turns out, we emerged at 59th Street just about sunset, so we still had quite a bit of sunlight left for me to take a few final pictures before we headed back to our hotel.

Along the way, we passed the Untermeyer Fountain, the Conservatory Gardens, the reservoir (I took pictures while Alex once again rested).  We saw the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but both were closed when we were there.  This was actually fortunate.  There is no way that we would have had the energy to do either museum justice, so since they were closed, I feel no guilt about passing them up.  We took pictures of the obelisk that is one of the three known as “Cleopatra’s Needle” (I have now seen all three of them)  and stopped for a while at Conservatory Water (the model boat pond) and the Alice in Wonderland and Hans Christian Andersen statues.  As we left the park for the day we passed, once again, the zoo.  The zoo was also closed, so it was nice that we went to the zoo that first day.


Cleopatra's Needle -- Central Park
Central Park’s version of Cleopatra’s Needle

We also noticed that the gates of the Park have names.  We first noticed this at the Engineers’ Gate (which is where Alex rested while I took pictures of the reservoir), and then again when we passed the Artist’s Gate.   It turns out that the gates had always had those names, given to them to reflect the people who would hopefully make use of the park, but that no signs had been put up reflecting these names until the 1990s.

I wish I could say that I got enough of Central Park in those two days, but I didn’t.  I still have never seen the northwest corner or the center of the park.  Fortunately, Central Park is not going anywhere. I will get back someday and then, finally, I may have seen enough of Central Park.  For the first time, at least.