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Pleased to meet you, Lady Liberty

By GAIL CHOOCHAN, The Free Lance-Star

After seven hours of driving through the winding, hills-are-alive roads of upstate New York and Pennsylvania, we found ourselves trapped in Jersey City.

 We were just a few minutes away from New York City, the last stop on our mini  family vacation. Only one thing stood in the way: the Holland Tunnel.

One of the major connections to Manhattan, the Holland Tunnel offers an excellent opportunity to practice sharing the road. Several lanes merge, with cars practically on top of one another, until they are pared down to two (yep, two) lanes through the tunnel.

On this hot Saturday afternoon, parents had reason to be especially proud of the drivers they raised, with hardly a spray of obscenities or even a heavy-handed honk. I aimed to set a good example—after all, Mom and Dad were in the car.

The day had started at 10 a.m. in Niagara Falls—the New York half.

With an aunt visiting America for the first time, my parents had decided  to show off a couple of the country’s most prized landmarks: that waterfall tourist trap (don’t get me wrong, it is lovely) and the Statue of Liberty.

Now, two hours later, I can hear the GPS mocking me. The countdown to our final destination (Club Quarters World Trade Center) has stopped forever ago. I turn it off.  I’m tired and hungry, and if I hear “recalculating” one more time, this boxy back-seat driver is going to hit the sidewalk.

The Financial District is not as frantic as Times Square to the north, but it’s still buzzing with fast cars, even faster taxis and hordes of tourists. My new hotel find is right smack next to the World Trade Center memorial, and with all the construction and closed-off streets, finding a parking space is an adventure.

I manage.

After a short power nap, I rallied my elderly travel partners for dinner in Chinatown, just a few subway stops away. As we waited for the N train, I discovered that my father had never been on the subway before. I was filled with proud-daughter joy, knowing I was a part of this great life moment. Meanwhile, Dad sat back quietly as if it was no big thing.

Chinatown was surprisingly chill on this particular night. We passed street hawkers with fake Vuittons and Pradas and an elderly Chinese man cracking coconuts for those seeking instant refreshment as we slowly made our way along Canal Street.

There’s a terrific restaurant, Hop Kee, on Mott Street, but my relatives were too hungry and tired for trekking. My hopes for a fine family meal were dashed as we stood in front of a semi-packed eatery with large pictures of its specialties taped to the window.

“I want Chinese fried rice,”  Mom said, pointing to a slightly Photoshopped dish. Looks like we found a winner.

It may have been bedtime for Chinatown, but Times Square was in full swing. The billboards were blinding and the music pulsating as we joined the cattle-like stream of tourists from the subway station. Another magical moment: It was Dad’s first time there, too.

With no plan other than to wander aimlessly like everyone else, we paused to take photos in front of everything in different familial combinations. Dad and Mom. Dad, Mom and Daughter. Dad, Mom and Aunt. Mom, Aunt and Daughter. Sometimes we added a blurry kid or another picture-snapper to our family portrait.

We  hailed  a cab driven by a very nice man from Bangladesh (“Put on your seat belt,” he warned  as I slid in next to him) and returned to our hotel room. We’d be meeting Lady Liberty the next morning.

It’s a short walk to Battery Park, where the ferries depart about every 20 minutes. The narrow side streets through Lower Manhattan were quiet. We passed the solemn greenery of Trinity Church, mostly unharmed during the Sept. 11 attacks and a stark contrast to the tall, glistening skyscrapers.

 We passed the bull in front of Wall Street, where at least 40 tourists, mostly adolescent, were taking turns having their photos taken with the animal’s backside.

As soon as we reached Battery Park and saw the rapidly growing line for Statue of Liberty walk-ups, I was grateful I had remembered to purchase tickets online. (There’s a separate line for reserve ticket holders.)

We paused for a few minutes on a nearby bench, and when our time was called we paraded down our special line like rock stars, avoiding glares from those standing in the other line.

The Statue of Liberty is impressive up close, and I’m disappointed in myself for not meeting her earlier.

 Our history together has been primarily cinematic. I’ve watched her serve as the battlefield for warring mutants in “X–Men,” and helplessly destroyed by monstrous waves in “Deep Impact.” She did take a stand in “Ghostbusters 2” in a quest to defend the great city of New York.

Before our journey home, we visited the 9/11 memorial with free passes secured at our hotel. The site, a beautiful and haunting remembrance of those who lost their lives, features pools where the 110-floor World Trade Center towers once stood.

 Etched in bronze framing the pools are the names of nearly 3,000 people killed in those attacks as well as in the earlier bombing on Feb. 26, 1993.

I took in the 32-foot waterfalls that disappear into a dark center, stopping from time to time to read the names of the victims and wonder who they were and what they may have left behind.

The memorial and its opportunity for reflection provided a fitting way to end our short journey.

It was almost 4 p.m. Not wanting to face my archenemy, the Holland Tunnel, I decide to exit Manhattan via the nearby Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel.

As long as the New Jersey Turnpike was kind, we were home free.

Gail Choochan: 540/374-5430

gchoochan@freelancestar.com

WANT TO GO?

STATUE OF LIBERTY cruise departs 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Battery Park; $17 adults, $14 seniors 62 and older, $9 ages 4–12, free under 4. Additional access from Liberty State Park, N.J. Advance ticket purchase highly recommended; statuecruises.com.

SEPT. 11 MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM open daily 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Oct. 8, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Dec. 31. Reserve free tickets online at 911memorial.org.

CLUB QUARTERS WORLD TRADE CENTER 140 Washington St., between Albany and Cedar streets. Accommodations include  standard rooms, suites with kitchenette, studio apartments. Rooftop bar and restaurant. $150 and up. Discount parking available. 212/577-1133; clubquarters.com.

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