Our Long-Haul Specialists pride themselves on their first-hand experience of the destinations we send school groups to.
So, when Alex joined the long-haul team (after 15 years with Halsbury arranging short-haul trips), Zoe knew his first trip should be to two of our most popular destinations in the US – New York City and Washington DC.
Zoe, Head of Long-Haul Tours here at Halsbury, knows her way around both cities and so was the perfect choice to show him around!
Here, Alex tells us what they got up to:
Our arrival in the Big Apple
After an early start and arriving at Heathrow Terminal 5 from our hotel by Pod (an early highlight of the trip, it must be said!) we had breakfast and a much-needed coffee and boarded the plane for our 09.35 British Airways flight to JFK.
I watched Bohemian Rhapsody on board and, luckily for the other passengers, managed to resist singing along.
After landing at JFK, we met up with one of our school groups, who would also be staying in our hotel, and boarded our coach to take us into New York City.
It wasn’t long before the world-famous skyscrapers and yellow taxis came into view, and that was when we knew that we’d arrived in the Big Apple!
Checking out the hotels
We soon arrived at the Heritage Hotel, which is well located in the Flatiron District, close to a number of subway stops.
After checking in, and a quick freshen up, Zoe and I headed out. It’s really important for us to visit the accommodation we send our groups to, so our first stop on arrival in NYC was the Holiday Inn Express Times Square South, where we were given a tour of the rooms and facilities. We were also able to complete an on-site audit.
First impressions of New York
Once we finished, we went for a walk around the local area to familiarise ourselves and take in the sights and sounds of the Big Apple!
Everywhere you look, there is something (or someone!) to grab your attention - it really is an assault on the senses.
One of many sights we passed as we walked along Fifth Avenue was Bryant Park which, I’m reliably informed, was famously featured on Sex and the City.
It was soon time for some food, so we headed to the Heartland Brewery for our evening meal. They offer a wide range of burgers, chicken and pasta - perfect for school groups. It’s also located at the base of our next visit…
Epic views of the city that never sleeps
The Empire State Building needs no introduction and is a highlight of any trip to New York City.
The panoramic views offered from its observation decks are the best way to see the city, especially at night, and it was a spectacular end to our first day in town. I really enjoyed it, although I have to confess that I am not the best with heights…
Calling in to Central Park
On the second day of our trip, we enjoyed a good breakfast at the hotel (including a coffee or two) before taking the subway up to Central Park.
There was a stark contrast between the hustle and bustle of the city and the relative calm of the park, which was looking beautiful in the spring sunshine.
I say ‘relative’ calm, because we soon arrived at Strawberry Fields, a section of the park dedicated to the memory of John Lennon. Here fans, tourists and the obligatory busker playing Beatles songs had all congregated around the famous ‘Imagine’ mosaic.
From here, we walked to the Dakota, where Lennon lived and was shot dead in 1980.
Heading to the Top of the Rock
Afterwards, we visited the Rockefeller Centre and the Top of the Rock observation deck. It is said that, although not the tallest building in the city, it offers the best view, as you can see the Empire State Building and right down into Central Park.
I understand there is something of a rivalry between the two, so it’s perhaps safest to sit on the fence as to which one I preferred!
The atmosphere outside the Rockefeller Centre was already starting to build for the Game of Thrones season premiere taking place later that night at the nearby Radio City Music Hall.
The crowds were starting to gather in front of the red carpet, and the main attraction for many was the Iron Throne, judging by the number of selfies taken in front of it.
Lunching New York style…
It was soon time for lunch, and we decided to visit Cranberry Café, a proper New York deli (well, when in Rome...!). We were spoilt for choice - you name it, they probably had it!
However, I suddenly felt very British, as I was surrounded by native New Yorkers and city workers on their lunch break, all frantically waving dollar bills around, seemingly without a queuing system in sight(!).
But it provided a real slice of the ‘real’ New York and is excellent for school groups looking to grab something quick to eat – you’re certainly not short of options and you’ll love the authentic experience. I had an Italian panini, just in case you were wondering.
We then decided to make the most of the weather, and visited Washington Square Park, close to the New York University, which is why there were plenty of students there enjoying the sunshine.
Be prepared to do some walking!
As easy as New York is to get around on the subway, the best way to actually see the city is to walk – and walk we did!
I think we surprised ourselves at the end of the day when we realised just how many steps we’d done – I would definitely advise that you invest in a comfortable pair of trainers before you go!
From Washington Square Park, we walked all the way Downtown, and visited the National September 11 Memorial - a poignant reminder of the tragic events which took place 18 years ago.
From here, we went to Wall Street, home of the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal Hall National Memorial.
Also nearby is the famous Charging Bull statue. It’s said that rubbing the bull or, rather, a certain part of its anatomy, brings good luck - I thought it only right to try it for myself!
We then walked the short distance down to Battery Park to get a quick view of the Statue of Liberty in the distance - we would get to see it a bit closer up in the next couple of days.
For our evening meal, we were welcomed by Bubba Gump’s in Times Square – again, an excellent choice for school groups (and of course, for Forrest Gump fans – Zoe and I did very well on the trivia quiz!).
Watching NBA basketball
Afterwards, we took the subway over to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the NBA basketball game - Brooklyn Nets v Toronto Raptors.
This was our first time attending a basketball game and we were both very impressed. The atmosphere was electric, and Toronto raced into an early lead.
The home fans, sensing the Nets needed some encouragement, made lots of noise throughout although, in the end, Brooklyn never clawed back the early deficit and were beaten 115-105.
This is a really exciting option for groups looking for an evening activity – and school groups more used to ‘soccer’ (as the Americans insist on calling it…!) will be in for a treat.
New York - the most filmed city in the world
The following day, and after another early start, we made our way up to Ellen’s Stardust Diner on Broadway to board the coach for the TV & Movie Locations Tour.
Our guide was really informative, and the tour provided a fascinating insight into some of the behind-the-scenes secrets of many well-known movies and shows filmed and set in New York - the most filmed city in the world.
The highlight of the tour for many on board the coach was the chance to have their photo taken outside FDNY Hook & Ladder 8 (aka the Ghostbusters’ firehouse), as well as visiting the apartment building from Friends.
The tour is a must for media studies students and drama groups, or for anyone looking for an alternative way to see different areas of the city, such as Greenwich Village, Chelsea, SoHo and Tribeca.
After the tour, we had lunch at Hard Rock Café - always a top choice for groups and rock fans like me!
Checking out more accommodation options
I then visited the Fairfield Inn, close to Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, to see for myself the facilities they have to offer. It’s a great base for our groups and, like our accommodation at the Heritage Hotel, is very well located.
Meeting all the stars
From here, I travelled the short distance back to Times Square and visited Madame Tussauds – where I ‘met’ Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian – all in the name of research, of course.
Catching a Broadway show
That evening, we met our Broadway ticket supplier, who arrange theatre tickets on our behalf.
After a quick bite to eat, it was time for us to see the musical Hadestown, which has just opened on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre (and has since been nominated for 14 Tony Awards).
It was my first experience of the theatre, and not a bad place to start! It was an excellent performance and comes highly recommended.
Taking in more panoramic views of NYC
On day 4 we had breakfast at the Freehand, which is housed in the former George Washington hotel.
In its former guise, it was home to artists and creative types, and it certainly retains that feel today, attracting something of a hipster clientele and featuring art pieces by local students. We were really impressed with the facilities and I would certainly be happy to stay here myself.
From here, we took the subway down to One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the western hemisphere.
The lift took us up 102 storeys in 42 seconds, and from there, we visited the observatory. Despite the dreadful weather, the views were spectacular. The moment the view first appears (I won’t spoil the surprise) was breath-taking.
Visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
After grabbing a quick bite to eat in Battery Park from one of the many street food vendors, it was time to catch the ferry over to Liberty Island which is home, of course, to the Statue of Liberty.
To see such an iconic symbol of America for myself, after seeing it countless times on television, was an experience I’ll never forget.
The ferry then took us to Ellis Island, home to the former immigration station, and the gateway to the United States for over 12 million immigrants.
It’s incredible to think of the people who passed through here, all with a unique story – which our history groups in particular will enjoy spending time learning about.
By this point, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, and Zoe and I were both glad to get back onto dry land and into the relative warmth of a subway station!
We headed over to the Fairfield Hotel on Henry Street, close to Chinatown, for another hotel visit. This is a favourite accommodation option for our groups, offering a great breakfast and located within walking distance of many neighbourhoods.
Dining out at Planet Hollywood
It was soon time for our evening meal and so we headed to Planet Hollywood, where we met up with our group on what was the last night of their tour.
A group of art students, they had spent the last four days visiting the many galleries New York has to offer, such as the Met, the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It was lovely to see the students give a thank you speech to their teachers for bringing them on tour.
Moving on to Washington DC…
After breakfast the following day, we said goodbye to the group and wished them a safe journey home, as they boarded their coach.
We decided to visit Grand Central Station, which is a tourist attraction in its own right. It was then time for us to depart New York - so we headed to Penn Station to board our train to Washington DC.
We arrived at Washington Union Station a little while later and jumped in a taxi to our hotel - the Cambria Suites. This hotel is used to catering for business guests and conferences, as well as school groups, so it’s very smart indeed and offers excellent facilities, including a gym and a pool.
That night, we had tickets to the Cherry Blossom Festival Fireworks Dinner Cruise on board the Spirit of Washington, where we enjoyed an all-you-can-eat meal, and views of fireworks overlooking Washington DC's monuments.
The DJ on board was keeping everyone entertained, although I thought it best not to show people up with my moves, which will now have to wait until the office Christmas party…
Walking tour of Washington DC
After breakfast, we checked out and walked down to Lafayette Square. There, we met our guide, Ruth, who also looks after our groups.
Our walk took us past the White House to the World War II Memorial, in front of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
From here, we walked to visit memorials to the soldiers of the Vietnam and Korean wars, where many school groups and veterans were paying their respects.
We then visited the Lincoln Memorial, and stood on the very spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
Standing there and looking out towards the Washington Monument in the exact place where such an important event in world history took place was quite a feeling.
From here we crossed the river across the Arlington Memorial Bridge to visit the Arlington National Cemetery, a US military cemetery containing over 400,000 graves, including that of former President John F. Kennedy.
After lunch, Ruth left us to explore Washington at our leisure, and we walked through the National Mall to the Capitol Building, and then back for a last view of the White House.
Washington DC is perfect for politics and history groups, particularly those studying civil rights, and is home to a number of museums, many of which are free of charge.
It was all too soon time to board our shuttle to Dulles Airport for our British Airways flight back to the UK.
Why visit both New York and Washington DC?
They are two very different cities and offer very different perspectives on the USA, so I would certainly recommend extending your tour to include both if possible.