Greetings from the United States! Last week we left off from Down Under. This week we travel to Connecticut for my favorite weekend of the year. After all the festivities there, we take a short train ride into New York City to visit friends. We also hop on a new helicopter service that takes American Airlines passengers inside the JFK gates -- making the trip to the airport ever so easy. If you want to come for the ride pack your shorts and your red-white-and-blue clothes, because we're off on an East Coast holiday weekend.
Memorial Day Weekend
I grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut. After relocating to Southern California for college, I never moved back. However, I visited often -- especially when my mom was sick for 3 years in the late 90's. Back then, I visited every 10 days. A couple of years after my mom passed away, my father sold our house and moved to western Pennsylvania. My visits to Connecticut diminished. I returned every few months to see other family members and friends. Now that I've been traveling overseas a lot, I've learned the best cure for "homesickness" is to return to your roots. I hadn't been back in over two months, and I hadn't seen my father since February -- way too long an absence. We all agreed to meet over Memorial Day weekend. That's my favorite weekend of the year -- and not just because my birthday (May 31) often occurs during it. People who grew up on the East Coast or in the Midwest probably have the same feelings I do. That's because Memorial Day weekend is the (unofficial) first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. It's the time of year when the weather is finally warm, the landscape is full of color, the beaches are open, boats are put in the water and everyone is in a great mood, walking around in summer clothes.
Many of my friends and family live in a section of Norwalk called Rowayton. Anyone with ties to Rowayton knows there is no better time of year to come back than Memorial Day. Besides all the reasons listed above, this is the weekend everyone who grew up here adopted as homecoming. Natives travel from all over to make it back for this one special weekend, which kicks off with a Martini Party on East Beach. The weekend is filled with countless barbecues and soirees.
The granddaddy of all the parties -- the Memorial Day Parade -- begins at high noon on Sunday. The parade is small -- it lasts maybe 20 minutes -- but it's special. The best part is that practically everyone knows everyone who marches. Marchers range from the Rowayton Fire Department to the nationally renowned Brien McMahon High School band (they've performed at huge venues like the Rose Bowl and Yankee Stadium). After the parade, an emotional ceremony takes place at the cannon. Everyone takes their hats off, puts their hands on their chests and pays tribute to our fallen soldiers, as well as those guarding our freedom right now. If the playing of "Taps" doesn't give you goose bumps, I don't know what will. After a timely flyby by the Air Force, everyone walks over to the firehouse for free hot dogs and soda.
After filling our bellies, my friends and I head to the field where we play our annual stickball game. Growing up, we played every day in the summer. Now, this is the only time we play all year. The field felt so much more special when it was perfectly lined with huge full oak trees. But the trees are slowly disappearing (kind of like my hair), and the field has been turned into a dog park. Nonetheless this is still the highlight, as the old-timers take on the young guns. Of course, we're not that young and the old-timers aren't that old. Just a few years separate the teams. We young guns won by one run. That's enough for bragging rights for the rest of the year (usually done by email). After the parade it's off to another fun party, where everyone plays softball and eats more food.
Time to Say Goodbye
By the time Monday rolls around, the town is all partied out. It's time to relax on Bayley Beach and say goodbye to all the locals. (On weekends non-residents pay $20 to park -- most beaches in Connecticut are private). My dad and his wife Nancy accompanied me into New York City. We walked around Central Park, grabbed a slice of pizza (there's nothing like New York pizza, is there?) and took a taxi to the Downtown Manhattan Heliport (near Wall Street).
Shakespeare in the Park
A good time to visit Rowayton this year is between June 15 and July 2, when Shakespeare on the Sound puts on Macbeth at Pinkney Park. Every summer they stage a free production (suggested donation: $15). Get there early, grab a spot on the sloping lawn, and enjoy some theatre. For more information, click here.
Getting to JFK
Everyone who lives in the tri-state area knows that getting to Kennedy Airport is a nightmare. You never know how traffic or security is going to be, so you always leave extra-early. Without traffic (I'm speaking hypothetically), it takes 30 minutes from Manhattan. It costs $55 by taxi, or a lower-end car service like Carmel (212-666-6666) or Tel Aviv (212-777-7777). A much more reliable high-end car service costs much more. A connecting subway/train service called AirTrain costs only $7.50, but it's confusing for first timers and not easy for anyone with a lot of bags. (Speaking of taxis, I'm glad to see the city is finally cracking down on cabbies who take visitors for a "ride." Read this article.)
U.S. Helicopter Service
The solution: American Airlines has partnered with US Helicopter to introduce a new service to JFK. I checked in for my 7 p.m. flight to Los Angeles (LAX) at 5:40 -- at the downtown Manhattan helipad. The US Helicopter agents gave me boarding passes for both my helicopter and American Airlines flights. I checked my luggage and went through TSA security just like at the airport. The only difference was -- there was no line! At 5:50 the helicopter arrived. One of the two pilots came out, and gave a five-minute safety briefing to all seven passengers. We were then escorted out to the helicopter, a state-of-the-art Sikorsky S76 aircraft that holds eight passengers. After we took non-assigned seats, the pilot quickly showed us where the life preservers and emergency handles were. Then we were off.
Eight Minutes to JFK
Guess how long it took to get to JFK? Eight minutes! And we had an awesome view of the city. I felt like I was dreaming when I looked out and saw all the traffic that we were cruising at 175 m.p.h. over. Even better was landing in a secure area so we didn't have to go through security again. We were escorted into the building, smack into the middle of the American Airlines terminal. The Admiral Club entrance was right there (day passes are available for $50). Surprisingly, this service is not even that expensive (especially if you're on an expense account). The cost is $159 one way. Note: US Helicopter flies Monday through Friday, every hour on the hour from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. It does not operate on weekends or holidays. US Helicopter: 877-262-7676.
After landing, I went into the Admirals Club to get a better picture of the helicopter and check out the lounge (it looked good, with plenty of comfortable chairs and work space, but a mediocre array of snacks). As soon as I turned around I bumped into one of my old Connecticut friends, who is now a bigwig on Wall Street. He said he was flying out to L.A. for one meeting, then returning the next day with his team. He asked where I was sitting. I saw his nice Business Class ticket and said with a slight frown, "Just a few rows from you." As we were walking out of the club one of his young colleagues said, "Look, there's Debra Messing" (from "Will and Grace"). My friend predicted she would be on our flight. I joked, "Yeah, she'll probably sit next to me." I knew my friend's colleagues thought, Sure -- keep dreaming! Like she's flying coach? I didn't tell these guys I had a first class ticket. You should've seen their reaction when they got on the plane and saw you-know-who sitting next to Debra Messing. It was priceless!
Here's a 2-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Connecticut and NYC, and the helicopter service to JFK. With high-speed the video takes about one minute to load; with dial-up, please allow up to three weeks.
Next week we get back on a plane and fly 5,650 miles on an international airline that I had never been on. It should be fun. I sit next to another Hollywood star -- and this time I get a picture.
- Admirals Club
- American Airlines
- Bayley Beach
- Carmel Car Service
- Debra Messing
- Shakespeare on the Sound
- Tel Aviv
- U.S. Helicopter
Readers' Comments on Last Week's Column
- You truly have the best job ever! Wish I had thought of it! Debbie H, Boston, MA
- Great trip coverage the past few weeks. Keep up the great stories and exotic locales. Some like Orpheus Island might be a little too remote for me, but I really enjoyed seeing every picture. Geof O'Connor, San Francisco
- I love your travel newsletters -- You sure have a lot of fun ! BJ, Texas
- Awesome as usual! Thanks for sharing your journey to the land down under! In response to where in the world is Johnny next week? How about the aloha state -- Hawaii? Dan S.
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John E. DiScala (aka Johnny Jet), is the founder of www.johnnyjet.com, the ultimate travel website and weekly newsletter. He logs over 150,000 miles a year, has been featured in over 800 articles (including Frommers.com, USA Today, Time, Fortune, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post), and has appeared on ABC, CBS, CNBC, MSNBC, NBC, FOX News Channel, and PBS. Sign up for Johnny Jet's Travel News, Tips and Stories at www.johnnyjet.com.