Text and Photos by Cheryl Levitan
oronavirus, wildfires, blackouts, canceled travel — there’s not been much to love about 2020. Plans to fly to Maryland to celebrate my spunky mom’s 95th birthday? Ditched. Desires to travel somewhere unique to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary? Given that we’re still visiting each other masked and outdoors, just holding either grandchild unmasked would be unique enough.
Despite all the negatives, the bizarre life thrust upon us this year was not without its silver lining. Our family remained well, and our grandson came to treasure a baby sister as a playmate (albeit an unskilled one).
Dean and I discovered the positive aspects of a less hectic life. I honed my haircutting skills (after embracing the occasional donning of a hat and realizing that the difference between a good haircut and a bad one was about five days). My long-forgotten enjoyment of cooking was re-awakened, and walks throughout Visalia led to a new appreciation of our town.
With no thought that the current crisis would linger, we had ambitious travel plans. That old Yiddish proverb, “We plan … God laughs,” has never been truer as cruises and trips were canceled one by one, and sailing across Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca (at 12,500 feet) will probably follow suit.
But in retrospect, the planning and anticipation of those trips was enjoyable in itself. My mind was transported to a different place, and the anticipation of experiencing things only seen in pictures was invigorating. And, oddly, we didn’t bemoan those cancellations as much as we thought we would. Those places and our interest in them won’t disappear; they’ll just have to wait until international travel is back.
Experts encourage this “future-mindedness” as a source of happiness, the belief that better things are coming (they have to be better, right?) and travel is one of those good things. So while this virus may interrupt our travel today, it can’t stop our travel dreams. Imagining and anticipating, those can be the best things to foster optimism and, when this is all behind us, be ready to embark on that trip of a lifetime.
Truth be told, Dean and I have undertaken many “trips of a lifetime.” Memories and experiences gained through exotic travel have always meant more to me than acquiring possessions. But when sorting through far-flung places that we’ve visited as possible “dream” destinations, I kept coming up empty. With experts predicting that the coronavirus could continue to plague the world for much of 2021, far-flung spots seemed awfully far-fetched.
This pandemic has already taught me that setting my sights on the worlds remote destinations made me often overlook the hidden treasures right under my nose. By tapping into my “traveler on a quest” thinking (eyes wide open and mind receptive to see with new eyes), we had weeks of “travel experiences” just walking through Visalia.
I had evolved into tourist mode, seeking out novel adventures when on a recent California road trip as if I were someone arriving from distant shores. I just needed to engage that same energy into writing about a destination that was relatively get-to-able once travel was more do-able.
While reading an author known for weaving New York history and iconic sights into her novels, I found the spot, one I had always enjoyed but hadn’t really “seen” — Central Park. Even better, it’s perfect to experience online today while planning a future trip.
First image shows the park from the Library of Congress in Midtown Manhattan. The Upper West Side is to the left, Upper East Side to the right.
Popular park features shown above: Conservatory Water’s model boat pond, Herb’s Boathouse (headquarters for the Central Park Model Yacht Club) with rentable remote-control sailboats; Strawberry Fields, a 2.5-acre park dedicated to the memory of John Lennon, with an Imagine mosaic tribute located near the historic West Side Dakota building where Lennon was killed; Belvedere Castle; The Conservatory Garden; and a tribute to Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland.
An 843-acre rectangular green space smack dab in the middle of Manhattan, Central Park splits the Upper East and Upper West Side neighborhoods with Harlem at the north and Midtown Manhattan to the south. It’s 2.5 miles long and half a mile wide, and you could spend days there and still not discover all there is to see. No longer the largest park in New York City, it still serves as a model for landscape architects. Filled with trails, 21 playgrounds, two ice rinks, 51 sculptures, unexpected structures, sports fields galore, educational and performance facilities … there’s even a world famous zoo.
Fortunately, it also has 900 benches to allow you to rest along the way! From the Philharmonic Orchestra playing on the Great Lawn to Shakespeare in the Park and Summer Stage, Central Park offers an endless array of things outdoors to do, see, hear — and, with lots of dining and snacking opportunities — taste! You can visit the Shakespeare Garden, take in a performance at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre, take a ride on the carousel — or just sit and people watch at Bethesda Terrace.
Once swampland, the park is completely manmade. The soil, trees, even the water were brought in from elsewhere. The only things still original to the site are the boulders and rocks (and many of those were moved). The brainchild of landscape architects Frederick Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, the park was constructed between 1858 and 1873. As America’s first major landscaped public park, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963 and is still considered one of the world’s premier urban public parks. With more than 42 million visitors annually, it’s also been the site for untold movie scenes and television episodes.
Remarkably, even traffic flow was taken into consideration with its four transverse roadways greatly hidden by tunneling through rock and lowering them below ground level. Thirty-seven bridges cross overtop — some for bridle paths, others for bicycles and still others for pedestrians. Many go relatively unnoticed, but Bow Bridge is one of the most photographed and filmed locations in the park. Spanning 87 feet over the Lake, it is one of the most beautiful cast-iron bridges in the world, with views of rowboats gliding by as well as the 5th Avenue skyline rising above the trees.
Given its size, it’s easy to get turned around while exploring. Luckily, there are identification plates on lamp posts to serve as orientation. The first two numbers indicate the nearest cross street and the last two show which side of the city is closer (even numbers indicating the East Side along 5th Avenue and odd numbers for the West Side along Central Park West). There are maps available online and at any of the five visitor centers. And finally there are nine, yes NINE, mobile apps for discovering each nook and cranny interactively.
MY FAVORITE SPOTS?
Conservatory Garden: The only formal gardens in the park, it’s also one of eight designated “quiet zones.” An oasis within an oasis at 105th street and 5th Avenue, its grand entrance is the wrought-iron Vanderbilt Gate, which once graced 5th Avenue’s Vanderbilt mansion. It has three distinct gardens — Italian, French and English; the latterhas a lily pond fountain memorializing the children in “The Secret Garden.”
The Ravine: With meandering paths, streams, a dense canopy of trees and cascading waterfalls, this evokes the wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains.
Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre: This houses one of the few public marionette companies left in the country. Writing, designing and producing its own shows, it even constructs the puppets. Now online with activities for children and link to past performances, go to cityparksfoundation.org.
Conservatory Water: Better known as the model boat pond (made famous by E.B. White’s classic book and eventual movie, “Stuart Little”), radio- and wind-controlled sailboats can be rented at nearby Kerb’s Boathouse (pictured below). Two children’s authors are memorialized by nearby bronze statues: Hans Christian Andersen sits with one of his most beloved children’s books and creation “The Ugly Duckling,” and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” features an 11-foot-tall Alice sitting atop a mushroom surrounded by well-known characters enjoying a tea party.
Bethesda Terrace: Considered the heart of Central Park,it stands at the end of a tree-lined promenade from 66th to 72nd streets known as the Mall (or Literary Walk). As the only deliberate straight line in the park, the south end features statues of famous writers and one just added to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The first sculpture here to honor historic women, it includes Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth.
Loeb Boathouse: Just beyond Bethesda Terrace, the boathouse is situated on the tranquil 22-acre lake. Renting a boat and rowing through Central Park, it’s hard to believe that you’re in a bustling city. If that’s a bit too much activity, you can rent a gondola and have the gondolier do all the work or simply choose to watch it all while dining at the landmark Boathouse Restaurant.
Belvedere Castle: It was built as a folly (a building constructed not for practicality but for decoration) atop Vista Rock; its turret is the highest point in the park. Completely restored in 2018-19, the castle is surrounded by the woodlands of the Ramble and serves as a visitor center, gift shop, and center for stargazing and wildlife education.
Thankfully, you don’t need to leave home to enjoy this magnificent green space. The Central Park Conservancy’s website (centralparknyc.org) has the perfect map to begin your exploration. With volumes of information, photos, a general video and five Zoom tours of areas within the park, this is a fabulous website. YouTube offers the “History of Bethesda Terrace” and “Twelve Hidden Secrets in Central Park.” At centralpark.org, you can visit the top 10 destinations and take a virtual tour of the Shakespeare Garden (centralpark.org/shakespeare-garden-360-view/).