Welcome to Queens

With a bulky luggage and a backpack to lug around between train stations and platforms, I knew my commute from Jersey City to Manhattan to Queens was not going to be easy. Lack of upper body strength, meet several flight of stairs. You’re not going to like each other. (Actually, stairs won’t really care.)

When I reached Midtown, my friend F who just came from a run in Central Park told me to stay put in the train station where I was and that she would just meet me there. I was so happy to see her because (1) I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years and (2) extra pair of arms! Take that, subway stairs! (Nope, not really. The luggage lugging on the stairs was still not the most convenient morning activity.)

Finally, when we got to 30th Avenue Station in Astoria, Queens, my friend and I decided to let the other luggage-less folks go down the flights of stairs ahead of us so that two tiny Filipinas carrying one luggage won’t block their way. We waited a few meters away from stairs, letting other people pass ahead of us when a guy asked us if we needed help. After two stations,  four flights of stairs (yes, I counted) and throngs of train passengers you try not to block, when this guy asked us if he could help us, I must have looked like I had just seen the birth of Jesus. I nodded, while I picked up my jaw from the floor. My friend from Queens just smiled sweetly, nonplussed, and said a chirpy, “Okay, thanks!”

The guy carried our bag down two flights of stairs onto the sidewalk. I thanked him profusely and I think I bowed at one point. He waved his hand, which we all know is the universal language for ‘Don’t worry about it’ and went on his way.

And with that, my friend turned to me and said: “Welcome to Queens.”

From the track

From the track in Astoria Park

To say that my friend loves her neighborhood (and the NYC borough she now calls home) was an understatement. And with that kind of ‘welcome’ I wasn’t surprised why.

From the station, we walked down 30th Avenue, which revealed a quieter, less glossy and more relaxed neighborhood compared to most of the places I saw in Manhattan.  There was a cafe in the corner (named, surprise, Coffee Corner), a neighborhood grocery store with fruit stands outside, a no-frills diner (“30 Rock shot there,” my friend told me), a Filipino store (with names of the children of the owner on the side of the sign–very Pinoy!), a Mexican store, several eateries serving cuisines as diverse as the folks walking down the streets, there was a school  with kids playing in front, and rows of quaint two-story houses on sleepy residential streets. I instantly liked the place.

I didn’t get to see a lot of Queens, but I enjoyed the few afternoons and evenings I did get to explore a tiny part of it. Here are three of my favorites. (Topped only by the helpful guy in the subway, and the teenage boy I saw cross the street and ask a dad with a baby in a stroller by the subway stairs if he needed help bringing the stroller to the platform; there’s hope for humanity!)

Promenade by the East River

Promenade along the East River

Astoria Park. Overlooking the East River with the Triborough and Hell Gate Bridges located nearby, this park is supposedly one of the largest open spaces in Queens. It’s known to have New York City’s oldest and largest swimming pool but my friend and I ventured towards the track a field (with the Triborough bridge looming over it) and the walkway along the East River.

astoria-bridge2

You can see the skyline of the Upper West Side of Manhattan from the park’s promenade running along the East River

Gantry Plaza State Park in Hunter’s Point, Long Island City. Here’s another park in Queens sitting on the banks of the East River. And it has a more stunning view of Manhattan (forgive the photo below) with the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in the skyline (the UN building is the one in the middle).

Gantry Park has four lovely piers, pretty pocket gardens, and wooden benches and chairs perfect for lounging so you can spoil yourself with the view. And as its name implies, there are also the restored gantries, which I only learned after were used to load and unload barges and rail car floats as the area used to be an industrial part of Queens. Or as real estate site, Curbed, described  the park: “the once-gross waterfront”. Now the ugly duckling is a swan and it’s surrounded by new, spanking high-rise condos, and trendy restos… you know that gentrification is almost complete.

From Gentry... in Long Island City

The evening midtown Manhattan skyline from Gantry Plaza State Park

fromLIC2

Part of the Gantry Plaza State Park was a Pepsi bottling plant. The lovely 1936, 120-foot neon sign was moved from the plant and preserved in a part of the park

Oh, the Greek restaurants! When my friend F told me she lived in Astoria, another friend mentioned that it had a big Greek population…and a lot of good Greek restaurants! On my last evening in New York, F proved it by taking me to Taverna Kyclades. This Greek restaurant is the best in Queens, she said. And it’s also not a secret. Apparently, Taverna Kyclades is the first Michelin-rated restaurant in Queens and it’s a consistent Zagat list topper. So of course, like anything worth waiting for, there was a line.

Taverna Kyclades...best greek resto

Taverna Kyclades

When we were finally seated at past nine in the evening–achy feet and almost half-asleep–we couldn’t decide what seafood dish to order so we ended up ordering the Kyclades Special. It had a lobster tail, fillet of sole, scallops, stuffed clams and stuffed shrimps. Everything was cooked perfectly. The flavors were rich, but they didn’t overpower the taste of each and every delicate seafood. We had bread to go with this plate of mouthwatering goodness and in between bites of seafood, I would soak pieces of bread on the juices left on the plate. It was the best meal I had in New York.

Taverna Kyclades's seafood platter

Kyclades Special of assorted and perfectly cooked seafood

Did I mention that Queens also has beer gardens? Beer gardens! Where people just hang out and drink beer before the sun goes down! Having missed this makes me abuse exclamation points! It was one of the many places I sadly didn’t get to go to. And the Museum of the Moving Image. Did I mention the beer gardens? Good thing, my last dinner in New York made up for all the glasses of beer that I didn’t get to drink. Cheers, Queens!

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