“Most real New Yorkers wouldn’t be caught dead on a tour bus or walking around with a group of tourists.”
— Margot Adler
Once upon a time I wanted to visit an historic spot located far outside the city. Although it was possible to make the trip using public transportation, doing so appeared to be extremely complicated and time consuming. With all the transfers and waiting involved, just getting there and back would have taken up most of the day, leaving little time to actually see the place.
However, while researching transportation alternatives, I learned that a few private companies offered one-day guided excursions. The price was about twice that of public transportation, but the tour sounded great — instead of spending most of the day in train stations, I’d have hours to explore my destination, plus a knowledgeable guide. Although I’d never been on a guided tour (and didn’t know anyone under retirement age who had), it appeared to be my best option, so I went ahead and bought a ticket.
The distance involved required us to board the bus early in the day for what was advertised as a four-hour drive. Two hours later the bus pulled into a particularly charmless roadside restaurant and souvenir shop while the guide explained that, for our convenience, we were now going to stop for an hour.
We finally arrived more than five hours after leaving the city. As soon as we stepped into the parking lot, our guide announced that we must stay together; she didn’t want anyone wandering off during the tour. As she hustled us from spot to spot, reeling off names, dates and numbers, along with frequent shrill admonitions that we “stay together!,” we soon realized that quite a bit of the information she spouted differed from the accounts most of us had learned in school. When a few members of the group questioned her version of the facts, she grew querulous and strident, insisting that she knew what she was talking about, “Or I wouldn’t have this job, would I?”
An hour after we arrived, the guide announced that we were going to have lunch and led us to a small caféteria where the food was inedible and the prices shockingly high. We stayed there for more than an hour, returned to the site for a brief visit, and were then herded back onto the bus. The return trip to the city included another extended stay at the souvenir stand we’d visited in the morning. A more experienced traveler attributed the forced stops for our convenience to the tour company having a financial interest in the place.
As it turned out, we who participated in the outing would have been better served had we traveled on our own and carried good guidebooks. After that waste of time and money, I vowed to avoid all guided tours.
Then, today, I ran into Justin Ferate, who changed my mind about what a tour could be. Justin, a charming, erudite, hyperkinetic storyteller, leads walking tours around New York, including a free, weekly excursion in midtown Manhattan dubbed The Grand Tour.
Today I joined the crowd following Ferrate while he led a Grand Tour. Although it begins near Grand Central Terminal, this isn’t simply a walk through the famed train station; it is a jaunt around the storied neighborhood with a man who is clearly in love with his subject.
He regaled his audience with a narrative that effortlessly wove together stories and trivia about subjects as diverse as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, how to buy a great cheesecake, the delicate sensibilities of Victorian traveling women, Barbra Streisand’s unsuccessful attempt to buy an apartment on Fifth Avenue, the history of Spanish tile-making, instructions on making an egg cream, fine points of Greek mythology, the architecture of modern airports and the best cleanser for removing tobacco stains from a painted ceiling.
Of course, the tour appeals to the out-of-towners who make up most of the crowd, but the depth and breadth of Ferate’s knowledge, combined with his rapid-fire professorial/comedic style, is guaranteed to impress even know-it-all real New Yorkers, including me.
If you ever find yourself in midtown on a Friday afternoon, do yourself a favor and join one of Ferate’s excursions. Um, did I mention that the Grand Tour is free?