Armed with a US passport, I fly to New York for just two days to interview John McWhorter, an African American professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is America’s fast-rising star of the anti-woke movement and I am there to talk to him about his brave and funny new book, Woke Racism. I zip over to meet him on one of dozens of daily flights between Heathrow and JFK in advance of America’s reopening on 8 November. The good news is that, after 8 November, the rest of Europe's jet setters can join me.
It is strange flying transatlantic in the final days before the US reopens after nearly two years: there are almost as many planes as passengers. This is particularly true on the route from London to JFK – my destination, thanks to a US passport – where British Airways alone flies six flights a day, two of them leaving just five minutes apart. This is, I gather, so that they can keep their airport slots, which will be essential when the full flux of travel, fueled by enormous pent-up demand, cranks into gear next month. And so I find myself flying nearly alone in BA’s premium economy on what, pre-pandemic, must have been one of their busiest red-eye routes.
New York is ready and waiting and, so long as you have proof of vaccination, in fine fettle. McWhorter lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, which has become a must-visit destination for the foodie traveler, and is easy to get to from Manhattan. If you have 48 hours in the city, here’s how to spend it, Queens included.
To begin the weekend, New York art museums' collections of modern, contemporary, and especially American work are a perennial must. MoMA midtown has my favourite collection of 20th century photography and painting. The Picturing America gallery’s Wyeth, Sheeler and Hopper portraits, and Walker Evans’ searing photos commissioned by the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, are standouts in the permanent collection, while the Automania exhibition (showing until January) offers a fascinating take on 20th century ‘car culture’.
Pair the midtown experience with MoMa PS1, its Queens non-profit counterpart devoted to contemporary art. There’s plenty of right-on commentary with the outdoor installations, but inside the gallery – an attractively scuffed warehouse building – there is a fascinating, rich selection of photography, sculpture, video art and painting for an exhibition called ‘Greater New York’ with work from a rigorously international array of artists working in the city over the past century.
The Met is always a joy, but its new Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibition (until 30 January) is a standout. Brilliant and compact, its emphasis is on surrealist movements – intellectual and artistic – everywhere from Haiti to Japan to North Africa, thus illuminating just how far beyond Europe the movement spread. There are some startling pieces, like Remedios Varos’s Homo Rodans from 1959, a figure whose bottom half becomes a giant chariot wheel, made entirely of chicken and fishbones collected after a dinner party, and the Picasso-esque ‘Coups de Batons’ (Baton Blows) by ‘Mayo’ that emerged from Egyptian surrealism. Work by the Ethopian Skunder Boghossian and the Philippino Hernando Ocampo is also fascinating and technically impressive.
Some shopping is mandatory while in New York: if you go to just one store, make it D.S & Durga’s delectable perfume and candle shop on Mulberry Street on the lower east side: my favourite scent is Radio Bombay, which, inspired by the heat of Mumbai’s glamorous Bandra district, is a startling perfume of peach, musk, cedar and musk. Seasonal offerings include a ‘prime’ Channukah candle with ‘verdant olive flowering through consecrated incense’ apparently in honour of the 2nd century Maccabees. It’s a fun, marvelous and gift-tastic shop, with plenty of other cool boutiques nearby.
Dine like the Sussexes
It’s worth the short trip across to Jackson Heights in Queens, especially if you're going to PS1, for an ethnically diverse lunch: urban, melting-pot America at its best. Queens is home to New York’s highest density of Himalayan outlets, replete with little shops selling ‘momos’ (Nepali dumplings – delicious), and is especially strong for Latin American food. Don’t miss the seafood cocktail at La Esquina del Camaron Mexicano on a quiet street off Roosevelt Avenue, a legendary helping of shrimp and octopus that, for $16, comes swimming in a special red elixir of tomato juice, clam juice, orange juice, olive oil and salt. You get it out of a hole in the wall in the back of a bodega, and sit munching – hard tortillas to hand – with Spanish-speaking workmen on a bench facing the brick wall of the building. Arepa Lady on bustling 37th Ave serves the large and soft corn tortillas drizzled in hot sauce, folded around melt-in-mouth pork belly, black beans and shavings of cheese (the shredded chicken is also good).
Back in Manhattan, the pre-dinner drink not to miss is at the legendary Bemelman’s at the Carlyle, whose charms the Sussexes recently highlighted on their much-papped recent trip to New York for the UN General Assembly. The dark upholstered bar has famous impressionist murals from 1947 and is always crowded: think men in Hermes scarves yodeling for more caviar and Manhattans, and glamorous 50-something women having pink martinis.
A pianist intermittently plays to rapturous applause (a cover charge of $25 applies once the proper jazz piano acts start at 9pm) and the drinks are amazingly generous: Eartha is a vodka martini infused with pink peppercorn, Noilly Pratt and sea salt, supplied with a top-up beaker containing the whole thing over again. For dinner, the Carlyle has just reopened its restaurant after a playful, chic refurb, or for a refreshing change of scene, SoHO favourite The Dutch is an easy lurch downtown on the subway, where warm jalapeno cornbread with aioli, buttermilk fried chicken and maple-soaked biscuits, and steak with kimchi fried rice, are must-haves. For breakfast on the run, nothing betters a toasted bagel with lox spread (or one of dozens of other spreads) and a piece of seran-wrapped coffee cake from Pick-A-Bagel, which has outlets throughout the city.
Where to sleep off the jet lag
The Baccarat Hotel is ideal for a short stay, due to its combination of ruthless convenience – it’s right opposite MoMA in Midtown Manhattan – and completely unapologetic glamour. The whole hotel is a homage to Baccarat crystal. Everything from the Harcourt glasses in the lobby to the chandeliers and lamps add glinting opulence. Think cashmere-soft blankets and feather quills. The spa is La Mer (a 60-minute facial, which costs $235, lends energy on such a short and possibly jetlagged trip), and there’s a full-length pool with black-and-green diamonds painted on the floor. Baccarat toiletries are ambrosial, and the service is incredibly friendly, with a whip-smart concierge who seems to anticipate the demanding guests’ every thought. Rooms cost from $1095 per night this winter.
British Airways flies from London Heathrow to JFK for £330 in World Traveller (no checked luggage) and from £628 return in World Traveller Plus.