Monday, August 17, 2009

It all comes falling down

14th Aug

A day spent sightseeing in downtown New York. Statue of Liberty, Merrill bull, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge ticked off the To-do list. The stand out moment though was the lunch of chicken and lamb gyro rice bought from a street cart on the intersection of Broad & Pearl street as we walked from Battery park towards the bull for the mandatory photo-op (in a haphazard pattern followed by most tourists without maps :).

The fragrance of the stuff being cooked assailed our sense as we talked 4-5 feet away from the van and that was enough for us to get into the queue to sample the delicacies and were we in for a treat.

On the 14th night we took the bus to travel to Niagara. Not wanting to lug our backpacks across the New York state we tried to sweet talk Crowne Plaza into keeping our luggage for 2 days but they invoked their post 9/11 policy of not keeping any baggage overnight. Candlewood Suites, where we were planning to stay after our trip back from Niagara were kind enough to look after our stuff till we got back, which literally took a whole weight off our back for at least 2 days.

15th Aug

We reached Niagara at 7:15am, right on schedule and were hoping that we might get an early check-in to recharge and catch up on a bit of sleep before we hit the attractions on the US side of the falls. Unfortunately sleep continued to remain a precious commodity on this trip as the hotel was full the previous night and the earliest they promised us a room was post lunch. The Crowne Plaza in Niagara had a preposterous policy of a 4pm check-in which they kept using as a negotiating tool with us while we were requesting them for a room.

After freshening up and following that with a nice heavy breakfast at Denny's we hit one of the main attractions at Niagara, the Maid of the Mist. The early start did turn out to be advantageous as we hardly had to queue up to get on the boat that has been carrying visitors to the base of the American falls and the Horse-Shoe falls for over a 100 years. The spray as we went past the American Falls was impressive but nothing could have prepared us for the spray, noise and the sheer monstrosity of the horse-shoe falls as the boat strained its throttle in the rapids to maintain its position at the base of the falls. The wonder that you feel is extremely hard to describe in words so i wont even try but will post a video soon to give an idea of what it was like.

Next it was time for a trip to the cave of the winds, the other major attraction on the US side of the falls. By then it was close to noon and crowds had built up which meant a queue of close to an hour before we got to the elevator that took us 18 floors down to the base of the Bridal Veil falls. The Bridal Veils falls are the smallest from among the 3 falls but the viewing deck that has been constructed at the base of the falls was by far our moment of the trip. Having already done the Maid of the Mist, we found that the souvenir rain-coats provided did the job of keeping you dry but nothing prepared us for the Hurricane deck. After getting off the elevator, we walked down a tunnel to come out besides the falls. Then we walked up a specially constructed walkway that gradually climbed up past the rocks at the base to right under the falls to the platform called the Hurricane deck. Each step brought us ever closer to the falling sheet of water till standing on the Hurricane deck, we were right under the falls being smashed (in the most enjoyable sense of the word) by the falling water. I am sure words are hardly doing any justice but it is something that will literally take your breath away when you stand there in the middle of the wonders that is the Niagara Falls.

We reached back at the hotel by 3:30, tired but exhilarated, and were informed that our room was not yet ready. The hotel had decided not to check in any guests till all rooms were made available by house keeping and that led me to completely blow my top. The intensity of my tirade was enough for the front desk person to call the manager. The manager tried to explain to us that check-in was at 4 and that the rooms were not ready for everyone to check-in.

Guests had been checking out since 7 in the morning when we got there and had continued to do so throughout the day. With 12 noon being the official check-out time it is safe to assume that by 1 more than 90% of the rooms that were supposed to have been vacated would have been vacated. With neither the arrival or departure of guests nor the cleaning of rooms being a batch process, i failed to understand why the hotel would adopt the policy of being 'fair' to all guests by keeping anyone from checking in before 4pm when all rooms were ready. They could easily with a bit more teamwork and collaboration between the Housekeeping & front desk teams adopt a FIFO policy for checking-in guests as and when the rooms were cleaned and ready for occupation. This is generally done in most other hotels that i have been to and you would think that a hotel chain such as Crowne Plaza would have perfected such practices that are a part of the daily challenge in the hotel industry across locations. The Manager did not really have any sort of a convincing answer for my questions but did ask the front desk to check us in (as the room was already ready....)

We slept through the afternoon and the alarm that had been set for 6:00pm. Finally got up at 8:30pm and by the time we made it back to the falls the weekend fireworks on the Canadian side were long over. The spectacle of the flood-lit falls still is worth the evening trip and i got some nice pictures of the falls lit up at night.

What was surprising for me was the depressing nature of the town on the US side. Given that the Niagara is one of the biggest attraction in the US attracting thousands of people daily, i would have expected the town to be much more lively. There were hardly any people walking around in the town except for in the National Park or any nice restaurants or shops to spend time in and a mall right opposite the visitors Center had shut down presumably due to a lack of business.

All in all it was an awesome day and while i would have preferred to stay another day and take in the falls from the Canadian side as well, if that is not an option due to visa & such issues, i would still recommend making the trip to just the US side.

16th Aug

A day to recharge our batteries as we spent the entire day on the bus, leaving Niagara at 8am and arriving in New York at 7pm. Read Grisham's Playing for Pizza and Amit Varma's My Friend Sancho on the bus. Playing for Pizza is the first non-courtroom book from Grisham that i have read and it was quite decent. The book is set in the Italian town of Parma and the detailed description of life in Italian towns was enough for me to start dreaming of planning the next holiday in Italy :)

Met up with Kapil & Shipra in the evening for dinner at the hotel itself. It was nice to catch up with old friends after more than a year and hopefully we can watch the US Open again this year together just like last year. My last look out of the window before i fell asleep was of the Empire State Building lit up in saffron, white & green to commemorate India's Independence day, 8000 miles away from home. Happy (belated) Independence Day everyone.

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