A look back at 2013

MX-5 Number Plate Changed
2013 has been another great year, at times it has been very full on trying to fit in work, holidays, house stuff and keeping some time for me, but I seemed to find a balance and have really enjoyed 2013. Aside from all the DIY skills I’ve picked up the new skill I’ve learnt is smoking on the BBQ, I’ve cooked some awesome ribs and am looking forward to trying pulled pork next summer. 2013 was also the year I got into watches, it started fairly innocently with a Casio GShock to replace my old watch which had broken, but ended up with buying an Oris Swiss automatic watch as a 30th birthday present to myself. Ooops.

Having friends round to see in 2013 meant that plans had been made to keep us busy over the next few months, the first thing we had arranged was a trip to the Autosport Show, which was a great way to fill the winter motorsport void. While I was there I had a few viewings on my flat – one of which lead to the sale, but more on that later! I also managed to break one of my wisdom teeth, which was probably the low point of my year, especially as I had to fly to Germany the next day. Fortunately after a few weeks of painkillers and soft food I was able to get the tooth removed and could get on with fun things again. Like travelling to Paris, this had been another of the new year plans I’d made with Partho, although we hadn’t planned on staying an extra day, which due to the bad weather we ended up having to do.

After Paris, the next few months were taken up with the biggest change of the year, selling my flat in Rugby and buying Jen’s granddad’s house (aka the 119 project) in Coventry (with Jen). Both the sale and purchase seemed to drag on, which gave us plenty of time to carry on with the renovations. The peak of the stress was the run up to easter weekend, when we had been told that we would be completing/moving, so we were juggling painting, fitting skirting boards, packing up my flat and dealing with carpet fitters, removal men and solicitors, only to find out the day before we were due to complete, that we wouldn’t. After the panic to get the house just about habitable, we decided that we would move anyway. It was sad leaving my flat, I’d lived there for five years and had many happy memories. We had a few weeks where we technically squatting, but eventually it all worked out. I lost a lot of money of my flat in the time I’d owned it, but it is great living in the house with Jen, we’ve now got off-street parking for both cars, can have BBQs in the garden and being able to walk to work means I’ve got more free time.

As I was walking to work my MX-5 wasn’t really getting much use, until the end of June/beginning of July, where we had back to back roadtrips planned. The first was to Scotland, for my wee brother’s graduation and a bit of exploring in the highlands, followed almost immediately with a trip to Devon, with a day trip to Cornwall thrown in too. That was almost 1,800 miles in about 10 days and the MX-5 had been faultless and fun to drive; the reality sunk in that I would only have the car for another 8 weeks – time to go car shopping!

The MK-5 was going to be a difficult car to replace, especially given my lowish budget, even though I’d said I didn’t want another MX-5, I was seriously tempted by a mk3, as my current car had been so good. They were just a little bit over budget for a good one, as were the Nissan 350z or the Lotus Elise I really wanted. While I was searching for a car, my criteria was that it would be suitable for travelling to Monaco, but I also wanted something fun, as the car would mainly be for fun drives out at the weekends. After looking at everything from Subaru Imprezas to old Mercedes SLs, I kept coming back to the mk3 MR2, despite the meagre luggage space it seemed to be the best car for what I wanted. After viewing a couple I eventually found a nice grey one locally, and for most of August I had two sports cars (the picture are the top of this post). Actually for the bank holiday weekend I had the choice of 3 sports cars, as I had a test car from work, which I took to North Wales, which was possibly my highlight of the year.

It was sad to see the MX-5 go back to the lease company, it was to be auctioned at Bruntingthorpe, so whoever bought OV11 EBO has got themselves a brilliant little car. Having said that, the MR2 is great, being mid-engined, it is snappier than the MX-5, but feels faster. One of its first trips out was to the PistonHeads Sunday Service at Silverstone, which for some reason I didn’t blog about, but included driving a few laps of the Grand Prix circuit, which was thoroughly enjoyable! Shortly after I bought my MR2, Evo magazine ran an article about which car to buy for £4k and the MR2 fared well. In the next issue they published a short write up of my 2012 trip to the Outer Hebrides in the MX-5, I was extremely proud to have my words and pictures in my favourite magazine.

In November things really cranked up a notch, I had another business trip to Germany, another business trip to Japan, including the Tokyo Motorshow, which I haven’t yet had a chance to blog about – or even look at my photos from. Then, after a day back home it was off to New York to celebrate my 30th birthday with Jen! We had an amazing time, ate lots of lovely food and saw the sights. We haven’t really stopped since, with work on the house, exciting projects at work, Christmas celebrations with colleagues, friends and my family before Christmas, then we spent Jen’s 30th and a lovely Christmas day with her family. The usual void between Christmas and New Year has been filled with decorating our front room and all of a sudden it is New Years Eve and I’m sat here writing this with an Edradour single malt (bought from the distillery earlier in the year) seeing the new year in with Jen & her best friend!

New York Days 5, 6 and 7: Brooklyn, Broadway, Empire State Building and Home

Great view from the top of the Empire State Building

I had actually written most of this post while I was waiting for our flight home, but the last few weeks have been so busy with work, Christmas, manflu and the 119 Project that I didn’t get round to uploading it. Sorry to those that have been left hanging!

Our last full day started with getting the subway to Brooklyn Bridge, so we could walk across the East River to Brooklyn. The bridge is well over 100 years old and at the time it was built was a real technological marvel. These days it looks 100 years old, the wooden walkway on reminded me of Llandudno pier, from our North Wales trip earlier in the year. When we got to Brooklyn it immediately felt different to Manhattan, there was a lot more space and everything seemed calmer.

After spending some time wandering around Brooklyn we took the subway to West Village and walked towards Chelsea and the Meat Packing district to find some lunch. We stopped at The Diner, opposite the Apple Store. As the name suggests it is a typical American diner, so to blend in, we both ordered burgers and cokes, which tasted lovely after a morning walking around.

After lunch we crossed the road and checked out Chelsea Market, which is foodie heaven in an old brick warehouse, somewhere we’d have liked to spend more time exploring. From Chelsea Market we got onto the Highline, a disused raised subway line, which has been turned into a park. We only had time to walk along a small section, but enjoyed the calmer atmosphere and people watching from above the traffic.

The reason we were pushed for time after lunch was that we wanted to get tickets to a Broadway show and discounted tickets are sold from 15:00 in Times Square. Unfortunately, when we got there, tickets for the shows we wanted to see weren’t available, so we tried going to the theaters directly and managed to get tickets to the Lion King, albeit at full price. After a bit of shopping on Times Square we went back to the hotel for cheese and wine and to chill out for a while before getting ready for the show.

On the way to the theater, we took a slight detour via the Rockefeller Center to see what the tree looked like with the lights on. Although, I must admit it looked pretty impressive I’m not sure it was worth all the fuss from the day before. I’m also not sure One Direction were worth camping out on the street next to the Rockefeller Center, as we saw some fans doing.

The show was better than expected, the costumes and props were particularly clever; and despite it finishing way past our New York bedtime we didn’t fall asleep. When we got back to the hotel we went up to the roof top bar for some cocktails to finish our night off in style.

We woke up to rain on our last day in New York, we only realised how much of a problem this was, when we couldn’t see the skyscraper a few blocks down from our hotel – we’d saved going up the Empire State Building until our last day. Fail! After yet another tasty breakfast at the Library Hotel, we took the short stroll down 5th Avenue to the Empire State Building, to our dismay, as we walked we noticed that the top of the tower was in the clouds. The upshot to this was that the dreaded queues we’d heard about weren’t there, so after passing through another round of airport style security, we were in the lift to the 80th floor. The 80th floor consists of the giftshop and an exhibit about the tower was built, which I found especially interesting as it was built in 1931, the same year as our little terraced house in Coventry! Later, I was told that some of the bricks used came from Nuneaton, Jen’s home town.

From the 80th floor it was only a short elevator ride to the 86th floor, for the outdoor viewing platform. We didn’t stay long, as you can see on the image at the top of this post, the visibility wasn’t great, we could barely see across the east river to Queens, but not only that – it was sleeting. We went back inside and to the original 1931 lift up to the 102nd floor, which was originally intended as an airship terminal. There wasn’t much room on the 102nd floor, so it was probably good that we were up there on a quiet day, even though we could barely see the ground. We decided that we’ll have to return to New York to go up the Empire State Building again.

After that, we went back to the hotel to check out, then out for some lunch before catching our bus to the airport. Earlier in the week we’d spied Le Relais de Venise, which we’d enjoyed a steak at when in Paris in March, so we thought we should see how the New York version compared. As in Paris, the steak frites was lovely and it all felt very French, even if there was a bit more space around the tables than in the Paris restaurant – we need to try the London branches in 2014!

After lunch we started our journey back to Coventry, as on the way to New York everything went smoothly at JFK and before we knew it was the next morning and we were back in the UK. After 4 long haul flights in 20 days I was looking forward to being home for a bit, but incase we had felt that Coventry was a bit too quiet after 5 days in New York, we’d arranged to meet Jen’s friend in Birmingham for some birthday drinks at the Christmas market. I can confirm that Birmingham Christmas maker is even busier than Times Square, which only a few days ago, I wouldn’t have said was possible! Also we seemed to have more transport issues getting to and from Birmingham, than we had getting to New York – it was good to be home!

New York Day 4: My Birthday

View downtown from Top of the Rock
The main plan for today had been to visit the Top of the Rock observation platform at the Rockefeller Center and to do some shopping.

We started off with the shopping, walking up Lexington Avenue to Bloomingdales, where we stopped for a New York cheese cake at Magnolia Bakery. From there we cut across to 5th Avenue, to the underground Apple shop, which we’d actually walked past on Monday without realising. The glass cube entrance was impressive, but would have been even better if it wasn’t full of scaffolding. I like how in a town of high rise buildings Apple built what is essentially a small green house.

Next to the Apple shop is FAO Schwarz, the famous toy shop, so we had a look in there for Christmas presents for our friends’ children, before braving Tiffany’s. I’d never seen so much jewellery in one place, the store was enormous and there must have been millions of dollars of diamonds there. Jen dropped some hints, luckily she thought a lot of it was too bling and not her style and I escaped with my wallet intact.

After advice from a few people who’d been to New York before, we decided to bring forward our trip to Top of the Rock, so that we would be up there for sunset, seeing the city both by day and night. As we were walking down 5th Avenue towards the Rockefeller Center, we noticed that the NYPD were out in force and that there appeared to be something happening at the Rockefeller Center. We got our tickets exchanged and thought no more of it.

After another morning with a lot of walking it was time for lunch. We’d spotted a few branches of Chipotle, a Mexican fast food chain, which seemed a lot like Barburrito, one of our favourite places at home, so we decided to go there for lunch. It did turn out to be like Barburrito, only with bigger portions – great! Just in case we got hungry later on we also stopped at Dunkin Donuts on the way back to the hotel – when in Rome and all that.

Later in the afternoon, as we walked back up to the Rockefeller Center it became apparent why the NYPD were out in force – the lights on the Rockefeller Center tree were being switched on. In the States this is a big deal and is televised nationwide. Large crowds had already begun to gather to see performances by Kelly Clarkson and Mariah Carey, amongst others – it was chaos!

We eventually got to the bottom of the lift for the Top of the Rock, after passing through more airport style security and having our picture taken we were stood in the lift about to go up 67 floors. As the lift started the lights went out to allow us to see the illuminated shaft we were travelling up through the clear ceiling. We got up to the outdoor viewing area on the 67th floor just before dusk, although the sky was quite hazy, so we could only just make out the Statue of Liberty in the distance. We were also able to see just how far we’d walked on day two, Central Park is enormous! It was fun using the augmented reality Top of the Rock app I’d downloaded to my iPhone to identify the various skyscrapers. It was strange looking down on the smaller buildings, then realising that they were still over ten stories high – higher than the tallest buildings in Coventry! Before it got dark we took the escalator, then stairs to the 69th floor, which was better for photos due to the lack of protective glass. As the sun dropped the lights on various buildings began to switch on and soon it was time to take some nighttime images. At night the view down town is better than the view to the north, over Central Park. The Empire State Building was lit up blue and white in honour of Chanukah and dominated the skyline.

When we got out of the Rockefeller Center we had to take a detour back to the hotel, due to road closures for the tree lighting ceremony. We tried a few places for dinner, but ended up at the hotel restaurant, Madison and Vine. The restaurant seemed really popular and we soon found out why, the food was great. I had meatloaf with mushrooms and mash and Jen had steak and chips. After dinner we tried to go to the hotel bar, but it was closed for a private function again so hopefully it’ll be third time lucky tomorrow!

New York Day 3: Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty
The last day of my twenties started with a subway ride from Times Square to the site of the World Trade Center. The subway didn’t seem as efficient as the London Underground, but probably wasn’t as busy as the underground would have been at 9:00 on a Tuesday morning. The new 104 story skyscraper they are building at the site of the World Trade Center, looked suitably impressive.

From there, we walked down past the American Stock Exchange, to Battery Park , to catch the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. Even though we were earlier than the time on our pre-booked tickets, we went straight through the airport style security and onto the boat. On the 15 minute crossing to Liberty island, we got to see the iconic Manhattan skyline and tick pretzels off our street food to do list.

The sun had come out by the time we disembarked, so I was able to take some photos of the statue, unfortunately the air was a bit hazy, so I’m not sure how well the photos back to Manhattan will turn out. We started off walking around the island, admiring the statue from all angles – it is a lot bigger close up, the pedestal alone is 10 stories high and when the statue was completed it was then the tallest building in New York! Then, after another round of airport style security we got inside the pedestal, where there’s a museum showing how the statue was build and financed, which was really interesting – a lot of the funding came from private individuals in both France and the United States, and not just the upper classes. In the museum there was also as 1:1 replica of one of Liberty’s feet, with the ankle being above head height it showed the scale of the statue really well. After the museum we decided to skip the queue for the lift and climbed the 195 steps up to the top of the pedestal, for a brilliant view across the harbour.

After leaving the statue we boarded the ferry to the immigration museum at Ellis island, where we had a quick look around before catching the ferry back to Battery Park on Manhattan island. At $17 each it seemed like a bit of a bargain for a full mornings sightseeing.

By this time we were hungry, so we got the subway up to Chinatown, then walked up to little Italy, with the intention of finding some cheap pizza slices. Unfortunately, little Italy was more serious restaurants, than street food, but nevertheless we had a great lunch at the Italian Food Center.

In the afternoon we took a look at the Chrysler building, with its impressive gargoyles, then chilled out for a bit, as the combination of big lunch, jet lag and a busy morning had caught up with us.

After more cheese and wine at the hotel it was time to go out for the last meal of my twenties – the venue for this was Hill Country, a Texan BBQ restaurant. After a 30 minute walk which helped our appetites we arrived and were given our meal tickets, it was buffet style, but everything we ate was to be recorded on our tickets. An unusual concept, but it seemed to work well, and meant you weren’t forced to eat a massive portion, as you paid by weight.

I went for pork rib, beef brisket and their homemade hot sausage, Jen had pork rib, beef rib and a quarter chicken. The food was really tasty, the pork ribs were almost as good as mine and the beef brisket gives me something to aim for next summer!

After the walk back, we tried to visit the rooftop bar at the hotel, but it was closed for a private party, so we’ll have to try again after our visit to the Rockefeller Center tomorrow.

New York Day 2: Central Park

Sea Lion

Our day started at the breakfast buffet at the Library Hotel, to fuel up on bagels as we would be doing a lot of walking. The breakfast selection was good, the only thing missing was pancakes – what I imagine to be the standard American breakfast. Luckily, we had those at the airport, so aren’t missing out completely.

Our plan for the morning was to walk up 5th Avenue to Central Park, to catch the penguin feeding at 10:30. Due to our date with the penguins, we weren’t able to stop at any of the shops on 5th Avenue, so will have to go back.

At the zoo, penguin feeding time was actually a bit of a let down, as the penguins were inside and being fed individually. However, the sea lion feeding more than made up for it, even before the keepers arrived with their food the sea lions were showing off to the crowd. When the keepers arrived the sea lions did everything they were told and are obviously very intelligent creatures. It was quite surreal seeing these sea mammals playing in their pool with skyscrapers in the background.

Other highlights of the zoo included Japanese snow monkeys, a favourite of mine, red pandas and Snow Leopard cubs. I must admit I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t a lion, hippo and giraffe like in the film Madagascar.

After the zoo we continued through the park to Belvedere castle and through the Ramble to Strawberry Fields, the area of the park dedicated to the memory of John Lennon. The park is an oasis of quiet in the middle of a busy city, with foraging squirrels seemingly the noisiest thing. For lunch we had a hotdog from a good cart in the park, another item ticked of our New York culinary to do list, it wasn’t as good as I’d been expecting, so may have to try another one to make sure.

Leaving the park we walked down Broadway to Macy’s, where I bought a Christmas present for my Mum. Then back to the hotel, via our first close up view of the Empire State Building and 5th Avenue.

Our evening started off with cheese and wine in the hotel, before heading back down 5th Avenue to Korea Way for a Korean BBQ. I’ve been to Korean BBQ restaurants a few times in Japan and had wanted to take Jen to one, but they aren’t very common in the UK, here in New York there’s a whole block of them. The idea is that there’s a gas burner in the middle of the table and raw meat is brought out to you, at this one the meat was cooked for us and accompanied by all sorts of salads and sauces, whereas in Japan you were left to cook your own meat. We had big plates of beef and pork, both were really tasty and we left with very full bellies – it was a good job we’d spent most of the day walking around the city!

New York Day 1: Times Square

Times Square

Our day started off with a 05:30 alarm, usually I’d say that’s way too early for a Sunday, but we had a flight to New York to catch! Check in and security were a breeze, although we did have to chuckle at the guy trying to take a blender in his carry on luggage…

Starting as we meant to go on; we had an American breakfast before we boarded the flight. If you’re ever at Heathrow terminal 3 at breakfast time, check out the bridge restaurant, I was really impressed with my bacon, sausage, egg and pancakes. The flight passed quickly, the inflight entertainment on the A330 was much better than on Virgins A340s which they use for the Heathrow to Tokyo route. I was even able to text my Dad from 37,000 feet above the Atlantic. Following the sad news of Paul Walker’s death I decided to watch Fast & Furious 6, which has been one of my favourite films of 2013. As the plane approached JFK I had a great view over Long Island and then caught a glimpse of the iconic manhattan skyline in the distance; time to start getting excited!

We’d been dreading immigration at JFK, as we’d heard a lot of bad things, but it was a really efficient system – much more so than Tokyo or Heathrow. We got a bus from outside the terminal to Grand Central station, one block away from our hotel. Again the excitement grew as we caught sight of that famous skyline getting nearer (and seeing all the American cars/trucks in my case).

In all, it took us less than 2 hours from touching down to checking into the Library Hotel, our base for the week.

Our room, (themed on dewy decimal code 1000.003 – encyclopaedias) is small, but well equipped. Free afternoon cheese and wine is a nice touch too! Based on our experience so far I’d recommend it to anyone visiting New York.

Due to jetlag, double jetlag (I was still in Japan 3 days ago) in my case, we didn’t want to venture too far from the hotel, so took a stroll down to Times Square, with neon signs, tourists, hot dog sellers and hundreds of yellow cabs it is exactly like New York on TV – a great way to start the trip. After Times Square we checked out Grand Central station, which exceeded all expectations. I’m not sure if it has been done up for its centenary year, but it is immaculate, the sort of station I’d image the Flying Scotsman or Orient Express to call at – despite being a commuter station. My thoughts go out to those involved in the crash this morning on their way in to Grand Central station.

We finished off the day with an amazing burger and milkshake at Shake Shack in Grand Central station (ironically we were served by a girl from Northampton) and then an early night, before sight seeing starts in earnest tomorrow!