My husband and I recently celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary with a trip to New York City. Normally, Dave plans our trips, but I booked this bus trip, which took place May 17-23, through the Volunteer Center @ RSVP.
About a month before the trip, I attended a meeting to pick up luggage tags and the itinerary, all arranged by Diamond Tours. I also met our tour guides, Sue Harshbarger and John Rowlett, who have traveled together on previous tours.
On May 17 we boarded the bus, heading east to our first destination, a Best Western in Harrisburg, Pa. The hotel was very close to Hershey's Chocolate World, and we spent the next morning there. We took Hershey's Great American Chocolate Tour, a free ride that explained the process of making and packaging the famous chocolate.
The huge complex also features Hershey Trolley Works, Hershey's Really Big 3-D Show and Hershey's Create Your Own Candy Bar Attraction, all of which cost extra.
It was nice to ship our purchases home, so we didn't have to worry about chocolate goodies melting during the trip.
That afternoon we saw the sights in Philadelphia, which really requires a whole day to experience. The long line that led to the Liberty Bell moved quickly, and we snapped several photos of the bell.
We did not have free timed tickets to see Independence Hall, however, as they go very quickly in the morning, but Dave and I toured Congress Hall and the West Wing, which adjoin Independence Hall. Congress Hall served as the seat of the U.S. Congress for about 10 years, while the West Wing houses surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, the Constitution of the United States and the ink stand used to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
I also was able to snap a few photos of Benjamin Franklin's gravesite through wrought-iron fencing because I refused to pay the $2 admission to enter the cemetery.
After Pennsylvania our group traveled to the Crown Plaza in Edison, N.J., which was our home-away-from-home for the next four nights. We really got to know group members during our hotel stay while eating breakfast with them and while playing cards at night.
The card players not only had traveled together before, but had common outside activities since they were retired. Dave mainly chatted with the euchre players, while the other group taught me how to play the card game golf. It was nice to be a part of this extended family, if only for a week.
To encourage camaraderie and fairness to all travelers, Harshbarger assigned seats on the bus so we all would take turns riding the bus up front, in back, on the right and on the left sides. The right side of the bus always exited first, though my husband never quite caught on to that concept.
A big plus on this trip was our American Heritage Trails bus driver, Mark Smothers. Though he had never driven in New York City, he drove like a pro, prompting compliments from even the most experienced traveler. Smothers also provided a much-needed bottle of Diet Mountain Dew on my husband's seat every morning — since Pepsi products were nonexistent from Philadelphia eastward.
The Big Apple
Once in New York City, the weather was sunny, maybe 80 degrees — good walking weather. Our bus stopped to pick up a city guide provided by Diamond Tours — John Comerford, an actor and native New Yorker.
He explained how Soho came into existence in the 1990s (anything south of Houston — pronounced howston — Street is Soho); how Brooklynites say, “Forget about it” to practically anything; and how that big “A” in a restaurant's window means you really do want to eat there.
Our first stop was Rockefeller Center. The massive building was impossible to capture in a single shot. Matter-of-fact, every building was massive. I couldn't get a complete picture of anything, it seemed, no matter how far away I stood.
At lunchtime, Comerford directed us to an authentic New York pizzeria, Pronto's, where one slice was almost as big as half the pizza.
Afterward, Dave and I walked to St. Patrick's Cathedral, where my purse was searched upon entering. Tourists were taking photos of the altar and Stations of the Cross. I started clicking, too, and then realized a Mass was taking place. I paused, but realized parishioners were not even fazed by the tourists' intrusion.
That afternoon we took in a matinee performance of the Broadway play, “Mama Mia,” which was so much better than the movie version starring Meryl Streep.
Our evening meal was at Ben's Deli. At every table was a bowl of pickles and cole slaw, which was the best cole slaw I have ever tasted. I had a turkey dinner, while Dave ate brisket. A selection of miniature desserts was served on a plate at each table.
We traveled to Ground Zero the next day. The 9/11 attacks still cause my husband to become very emotional, and he has kept up-to-date with rebuilding efforts. As Comerford talked about the 9/11 attacks, Dave began to cry, prompting women in the group to ask me if we knew someone who had died in the attacks.
After we shared a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park with another couple in the group, we traveled to Times Square to eat at Ginger's, an intimate restaurant in Double Tree Suites. Photos of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire adorned the walls, and the buffet-style dinner was scrumptious.
Afterward, we had little time to waste, as Dave and I were on a mission to walk to the Hard Rock Café a couple blocks away to buy a stuffed bear. We collect them from all Hard Rock Café locations, and we also buy pins that represent the city to put on the bear's sweatshirt.
I couldn't believe how good the weather was for us during the trip, that is, until we went to Ellis Island, which contains a wealth of information for genealogists whose relatives entered the country after 1894. Massive lines of people tried to get through inspection to board the ferry, and because of the rain, everyone was cramped inside the main level — no one sat on the top deck.
Dave braved the outside elements to get photos of the Statue of Liberty as we sailed by. Lady Liberty was closed for renovation, so all Dave could do was capture her majesty from a distance.
After Ellis Island and the ferry ride Comerford took us to St. Paul's Chapel, the Episcopal chapel that survived the 9/11 attacks and served as a refuge for rescue workers.
The chapel was spared because a beam from one of the towers hit a large sycamore tree located on its northwest corner. Tourists visit this chapel to leave messages, fire and police patches and other gifts at the historical displays within.
The chapel also is of historical importance because George Washington worshipped at this chapel on his Inauguration Day, April 30, 1789.
Afterward we traveled to Ristorante S.P.Q.R. (Senatus Populus-Que Romanus) in Little Italy, where all Diamond Tours groups met together for dinner and dancing.
On the last day, we were able to do activities that weren't included in the tour. For my husband, the 9/11 Memorial was a must-see. With free timed tickets in hand, the long line with multiple checkpoints went quickly and we were inside where the two fountains — representing the World Trade Center's twin towers — provided a beautiful cascade of serenity.
The north fountain contains etched names of people who died at that location, as well as passengers from American Airlines Flight 11 that crashed into that tower, while the south fountain contains etched names of people who died at that location, as well as passengers from United Airlines Flight 175 (which crashed into the south tower) and 93 (which crashed in Shanksville, Pa.) and American Airlines Flight 77 (which crashed into the Pentagon) and those who died at the Pentagon.
As I took photos of the names etched on the south fountain I was overcome with emotion, for the names represented fathers, brothers, sons, daughters and wives. Roses, commemorating a wedding anniversary, lay at the side of one name.
My husband didn't fare any better with his emotions, but the long trip home allowed us time to regroup.
This anniversary is one we'll not forget. We made new friends, saw the sights and came away with a better understanding of our nation.