Whenever I visit a new city, I always pack my running shoes.
Not only is going for a run a great way to get some fresh air and work up an appetite for a hotel breakfast. It’s also a useful way to see the sights without getting stuck in traffic or climbing up and down the stairs to the subway or metro.
I’m doing the Southampton Half Marathon in a few weeks. So, I went for a sightseeing run on the first morning on our recent trip to New York City to explore some of Manhattan’s Lower West Side and get some training in.
Thanks to jet lag, I woke early. However, the clocks had moved forward an hour overnight for Eastern Daylight Time. So I didn’t manage to get out the hotel door until 7.30.
This shared-use path runs for 11 miles from the George Washington Bridge at Washington Heights to Battery Park near the financial district. It’s part of the 32-mile Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, which circles the island.
Once on the path I went south along the river over the Lincoln Tunnel. It was still pretty quiet on the streets. There were hardly any cars and only a few other runners, cyclists and rollerbladers using the path.
There are a few places where you have to stop to give way to traffic. Generally though, you can run for a prolonged period without stopping on this path. It certainly beats jogging along the inner city streets where you have to halt every few moments to cross roads.
As I continued towards downtown Manhattan I passed numerous piers on my right-hand side. Many of these are dilapidated with worn dock posts peaking out of the calm waters, harking back to a more prosperous past.
One of these is the infamous Pier 54, where the ship that picked up the survivors of the Titanic docked in 1912. All that’s left of it now is a rusting gateway and a bare expanse of concrete jutting into the Hudson.
Had it made the journey, Titanic would have arrived at Pier 59, a few hundred yards away. This is now part of the Chelsea Piers complex, which includes sports facilities such as a golf driving range and basketball courts as well as a marina and a television studio.
New York’s trapeze school is also nearby, housed in Pier 40. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the students practicing on the roof of the building. Today though, there was nobody flying through the air – all was quiet.
Away from the river’s edge, there are occasional glimpses of the Empire State Building through gaps in the cityscape to the west.
There are also some great views over the water to the skyscrapers in downtown Jersey City.
This group of buildings would get a hell of a lot more plaudits if it wasn’t vying for attention with the most famous skyline in the world across the river.
Naturally, the centrepiece of downtown Manhattan’s own skyline is the new One World Trade Center tower, which fills the gap in the sky left by the twin towers.
As I progressed, it rose higher and higher above the surrounding buildings as a constant reminder that I was nearing my half-way point.
The Statue of Liberty also came into view, obscured by a light sea mist that had moved into the bay.
To reach the 9/11 Memorial I left the Greenway path and followed the road past Stuyvesant High School. “Stuy”, as its known locally, is a government-run school. But students need to pass an exam to go there. Only 800 out of more than 28,000 entrants are accepted.
Actor Tim Robbins is one of many successful alumni. Other former students include four Nobel prize winners.
When I arrived at the 9/11 Memorial at the base of the tower the streets were still deserted. Strangely, the tower – the tallest building outside of Asia – didn’t seem that big alongside the many other colossal buildings that surround it.
I was more awestruck by the memorial itself. Here, two sunken pools with waterfalls are set within the footprints of the original towers. The names of those who died in the September 11 attacks, as well as the victims of the 1993 bombing at this site, are inscribed into the parapets around the edges of the pools.
I paused for a while at the site of the north tower. There was still nobody around and I felt an enormous sense of desolation as I read some of the names of the people who died that day. It was incredibly peaceful down there.
Early morning visitors began arriving at the plaza as I strolled over to the south tower memorial. As I got closer, I could see that many of them were firefighters.
Soon, there were tens then hundreds of them circling the memorials and putting flowers and small US flags into the inscriptions of fallen colleagues. It was an amazing sight.
They were there for the second annual New York City Firefighter Stair Climb. This honours the 343 FDNY firefighters who died on September 11 as well as others around the world who have died responding to disasters.
More than 300 firefighters were taking part in this year’s event. Their challenge was to climb the 72 floors of 4 World Trade Centre – a nearby skyscraper – in full firefighting gear. Suddenly, my own challenge of running back to my hotel after a few hours’ sleep didn’t seem so difficult.
The event eventually raised $72,000 for charity.
I could have stayed to soak up the unique atmosphere at the memorial plaza for hours. However, I was also keen to get back to freshen up and make the most of the day. So, I was soon retracing my steps north along the Greenway path.
The city had woken up a bit more by now and there were a few more people out enjoying the fresh Sunday morning air.
About half way back, I decided to duck into the Meatpacking District to pick up the High Line, an elevated urban park that traces part of a former railway line.
The city demolished most of the railway after it closed in 1980. However, a 1.5 mile section survived the chop. Over the years, this became a haven for wild flowers and grasses and was a favourite haunt of urban explorers who would access the structure illegally.
Then, after a long campaign spearheaded by a group, Friends of the High Line, a section of it opened as a park in 2011 with another section opening three years later. Yet another section is due to open in 2017.
I joined the High Line at its southernmost tip on Gansevoort Street, just past the Whitney art museum. There are access points at various intersections along the way.
The park’s designers have sought to protect the wild charm of the line following its demise. The pathway is made up of light-coloured concrete slabs that complement the grasses and plants that border it.
Long stretches of railway track are still in situ as a reminder of the park’s former incarnation. There are also several lawns and even a sunken viewing area with glass windows set into a viaduct.
Spring arrives late in New York. So the park looked a little bare today. However, it was still interesting to follow the path as it snaked through a mixture of residential and commercial buildings. It offered an unusual perspective of the Chelsea streets it crossed every few hundred yards.
At one point the High Line passes underneath the Standard Hotel. Later, it goes through the second floor of the Chelsea indoor market.
Here, hiding in the shadows, there was a gent selling an odd mix of artwork, t-shirts and scrap iron.
As well as the benches you’d expect to see in a park, there are also wooden sun loungers scattered along the route.
This definitely seems like a great place to escape the hubbub up the streets below and soak up some rays in the height of a New York summer.
When I hit the building site that signals the end of the High Lane, I rejoined the streets of Chelsea and negotiated the several blocks that stood between me and my hotel.
The city that never sleeps still hadn’t fully woken up. But I still had to stop regularly while I waited for the lights to change at each junction.
I used each pause to snatch a glance at the menus of the various bars and bistros that line this up-and-coming part of the city. A mixture of lethargy from my run and my jetlagged body telling me it was lunchtime (rather than 9.30am) soon had me salivating.
In all, it was a great start to my few days in the Big Apple.
Info: The 9/11 Memorial is open from 7.30am to 9pm every day. The High Line is open from 7am every day. It closes at 7pm in the winter and 10/11pm in spring and summer. Yotel New York is at 570 10th Ave, New York, NY 10036.