Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Touring the Familiar: A Bike Tour Through Central Park

     Living within an hour’s drive of New York City is a fortunate location in which to live, as many people travel across the globe to visit this city, and we are a stone’s throw from all the things it has to offer. We have frequented this big city numerous times over the years to go to restaurants, Broadway shows, shop, go to famous landmarks, and enjoy holiday fun, but sometimes, things can be right in your own back yard and you never take advantage of it. So after all these years, we never rode bikes in Central Park, and not for any reason in particular, we just always had other plans. This summer we were determined to change this somehow overlooked activity, and tour the city we were so familiar with, but this time on bicycles.   
    My daughter and I decided to ride bikes in Central Park one weekend when my men were away on a father/son/grandpa weekend .  Now, there are many places that you can just rent bikes and traverse your own way through the park, but my daughter and I wanted our experience to be more personal.  We didn’t want to take a wrong turn and miss anything.  Not that we were tourist from afar that would never return, but we thought that taking a professional tour would be more fulfilling the first time around, so I searched the web for some tours options and decided to use the bike tours from the Central Park website. If you search the web, there a few other companies that offer bike tours, and most of them are within the same price range. One way to get a deal, albeit with limitations, is to purchase the New York Pass for $85, and you can get a FREE 9AM bike tour or a three-hour bike rental. This, however is only a deal if you will be using the New York Pass to do a few other touristy things in NYC, otherwise the bike tour fee from the Central Park Website is still the best price and experience overall.  
     As a frequent traveler, I know from experience that it’s easier to book excursions in advance, whenever possible, because it reduces time at the actual location you are visiting, ensures your entrance time, and more times than not you will be able to go directly to the front of the line when you arrive (score!).  So my daughter and I secured our tour time of 4PM, as we were not in a rush that day, and we wanted to avoid the blazing midday summer sun. After purchasing the Arts and Architecture Bike Tour tickets, we were instructed to pick up our bikes at a Broadway Bicycle shop at 1710 Broadway.  Perfect, we located a parking garage in the neighborhood and set the GPS.  

Broadway Bicycle Shop
     Upon arrival, as mentioned, it was much smoother to already have purchased tickets in hand to avoid any delays. Our tour guide, a lovely, lithe gentleman originating from Berlin named Wolfgang, asked us where we were from and was quite surprised when we said New Jersey. Being so close, he was surprised that we had never biked through Central Park before, but I explained that there were always other goals and destinations when we had visited previously. Plus,  since we live so close, there was never any tourist-like pressure to do all the must-see and do things all in one visit.
We were then outfitted with bikes and baskets, and Wolfgang asked us our biking experience, I guess to see if we would be able to keep up? We then embarked on our tour, which started with a brief ride in the bike lanes through New York before we arrived at the Columbus Circle entrance to the park.  We stopped to look at the park map, and Wolfgang pointed out the path we would peddle during our two-hour tour. (Anyone else humming the theme to Gilligan’s Island?) So away we peddled through the sea of people at 4PM on a Sunday afternoon.
 Since we were on the Arts and Architecture Tour, Wolfgang stopped to discuss how the park was originally created, he showed us the Mall and Literary Walk and how High Society used to parade up and down showing off their fashionable clothes. He showed us the statues, talked about the benefactors of the park, we saw the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, Wollman Rink (no ice in the summer), Conservatory Water, the Alice in Wonderland statue, Shakespeare Theater, Belvedere Castle, Sheep Meadow, the zoo, and the Boat House to name a few.  We also had opportunities to stop and take pictures and get an up close view of some of the sites we have all seen in the movies, which is why I wanted to take the guided tour for my first ride through the park!

People taking wedding photos at Bethesda Terrace under theMinton Tile Ceiling. 

People enjoying the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. 

Back to the peddling, the tour advertised riding through Central Park as EASY.  Ahh, this is not entirely correct, at least not the for the whole tour. The first quarter of the loop was lovely ride, the second quarter had a manageable hill, which was could be a little challenging to some, but my daughter and I alighted the hill mostly with ease. To those who are not in decent physical shape, the second quarter may seem more challenging. We were satisfied with ourselves as we coasted at top speed on a looping downslope amid other bikers and skateboarders.
With the wind blasting against our faces it looked like we were home free, but that was just the precursor to the HILL OF DEATH.  Three quarters of the way around the loop, Wolfgang pointed out this last inclined section was the most challenging.  Oh boy, so we started to ascend thinking that if we were able to tackle the previous hills this should be no problem. Not true.  My nineteen-year-old daughter and I were peddling in first gear, up and up, around and around, and just when you thought the hill would break and hit straight ground around the next turn, it just kept going up. My legs weren’t sore, but I found myself huffing and puffing. So I had to decide between being defeated by the HILL OF DEATH, or life.  I chose life, so my daughter and I walked the bikes up the last part of this most challenging, lung-shredding hill. 
As I looked around, we were not the only ones walking our bikes, so that made me feel a little better until we saw a sixtyish man peddling his unicycle, yes unicycle,  up the hill with great ease.  My daughter turned to me and said, “I bet that makes you feel good!”  Had I not still been trying to catch my breath, I know I would have had a better comeback other than the “be quiet,” my lungs managed to choke out. The last leg of the bike tour, after the aforementioned hill, was quite pleasant.  We stopped a few more times to see some of the sites, like the Belvedere Castle and Strawberry Fields, and then back to the bike shop we rode. 

Visting the John Lennon Memorial at the end of our bike tour.

A little over two hours of biking through Central Park, with our fantastic guide Wolfgang, made this first time experience not only enjoyable, but educational. All in all, I would definitely ride bikes in Central Park again, however, I will make sure to cut across the center of the park next time and leave the HILL OF DEATH to that unicycling senior citizen!