Saturday, June 11, 2016

A Fun + Informative Walking Tour of New York's Secret Gardens

As cities go, New York is a walker’s paradise. And, as a native New Yorker, I’ve signed up for a slew of walking tours of my home town to uncover its hidden side. Sadly, most  have fallen into two distinct categories: the uber informative that are lacking the fun factor, and what I call the slacker tour where you walk and eat but not only do you not come away any smarter, but some of the dining experiences are hardly appetizing or noteworthy. My experience with Local Expeditions that bills itself as a community-driven adventure company was completely different. My two-hour walk through secret gardens in Soho was smart, entertaining, and fun-filled, thanks to our social group of 13 people and, more importantly, Rebecca, the gregarious and affable host who’s a well-respected garden designer. (Rebecca has landscaped rooftop and other gardens all over the city, making her the perfect host.) If all their adventures are like this one, I’ll gladly sign up for another. (In fact, it might very well be one of the most fun expeditions around.)

Local Expeditions uses a sharing model whereby knowledgeable locals share what they know best with visitors and residents alike. They're paid for their efforts, with 5% of the total fee going to a local non-profit of the host’s choosing, making this company even more appealing.

We meet outside the luxe Soho Grand Hotel, at their gated Dog Park -- who knew? -- where Rebecca’s tells us that it once was the only hotel with a private dog park. No surprise this hotel is so dog friendly, considering the owner is Hartz, as in Hartz flea and tick collars. I’m hardly a connoisseur of dog parks but this is a beautifully landscaped park, for dogs and humans alike, in the style of an English garden melding with an urban aesthetic. The garden is designed around a rectangular swath of lawn, lined with benches (perfect for dogs and their humans), and clusters of bamboo, boxwood, euonymus, and cherry trees. Of course, no dog park is complete without a fire hydrant; this one has a pair: one yellow and the other red. (Rebecca informed us that it’s illegal to buy fire hydrants in New York.)

Walking to the south side of the Soho Grand, we turn onto an alley with a vibrant courtyard restaurant -- Gilligan’s -- that’s brimming with a tropical motif, so much so that it’s as if we've been transported to a Caribbean island. A pergola dripping with ferns that hang from rustic ropes hovers above the U-shaped bar. Behind the loungy whitewashed banquette is a lush backdrop of palms, crotons, rubber plants, and white bird-of-paradise. With the temperature high in the 80s, Rebecca gave us time to sip an icy watermelon margarita. Who wouldn't want to indulge in this botanical delight but more natural treasures await.

A short walk brings us to the boutique, art-centric James New York Hotel where Rebecca designed the roof garden that feels more like a park. Located on the second-floor rooftop, she reveals that she’s an advocate of green rooftops that are livable. In other words, not only does the green roof provide environmental benefits by improving air quality, and holding water as a storm management strategy, but it also gives both city dwellers and hotel guests access to an peaceful green space at the push of an elevator button. (One wonders why Manhattan, with its abundance of rooftops, doesn't indulge in more green roofs like this one.) The garden is multi-tiered with a section growing thyme, dill, cilantro and other herbs used in the David Burke restaurant. Boston ivy climbs beside a handrail as we climb a series of steps to a grassy patch where you could lounge with your dog and gaze at the river birch trees that easily bend with the wind. Another level is decorated with a massive chess board that’s laid out beside a dense swatch of birch. Even more surprising is that this urban oasis is open to the public.

As we wind up our walk, we wander to a couple of other venues, ending at Rebecca’s Soho apartment where she offers us a refreshing glass of crisp rose as we relax in her urban garden, a tranquil and petit oasis. It was hard to leave the placid venue and the convivial company. But I'm hoping to sign up for another expedition with Rebecca, one that focuses on Manhattan's Flower District, an area that seems difficult to grasp even for a native New Yorker.