An Interview with Tour Guide Bryce Hill – New York City!

November 23, 2011 at 10:21 pm

California Tours features a series of interviews with the tour guides who lead our tours around the US. They’ll share funny stories, travel tips, and details about the destinations that they visit so often.

Bryce Hill is a tour guide based in the New York area, with expertise in New York City, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New England and Montreal.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
My background includes BA degrees in Speech/English/History and a MA degree in Theatre Directing.  For over 20 years I ran the theatre department at a Performing Arts summer camp.  Several of my former students are currently on Broadway.  I also got the opportunity to work at a Relais Chateau hotel property doing special events.

So how did you get started as a tour guide? 
While online looking for a new career path, Tour Directing popped up.  It encompassed several of my personal passions: directing, teaching, travel and meeting new people.  It seemed liked the perfect fit for me.

How did you end up in New York?
When I was 5 years old I saw the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV in color for the first time.  When the Radio City Rockettes arrived with Santa, I walked up to the TV screen and announced to my family that I was moving to NYC.  From that moment on it was just a matter of time.  Three of my former students are now Rockettes!

What do you like about being a tour guide?
Sharing the places I love with others and being the first to show it to them.

What is challenging about it?
Trying to remember what it was like when I first saw something and trying to give my guests that first “wow” moment.

How do you prepare your trips?
First, I get the logistics part of the trip out of the way, the nitty gritty stuff – how to get from point A to point B on time.  Then I focus on the “fun” stuff of the trip – these are the things that my guests will always remember.

What is the “creative process” for a tour guide?
This is really the best part of being a Tour Guide.  We get to bring each place to life for our guests.  It is really similar to putting on a play.  Everything has to have a beginning, middle, and end. People really want to hear the stories about each place, not just see the places.  It is the stories that they remember.

Can you recommend any getaways, outdoors or otherwise, near New York?
I recommend a side trip to West Point, the military academy, which is just over an hour away from Midtown Manhattan.  It is a beautiful drive up the Hudson River into the mountains (who knew NYC is less than an hour away from mountains!). It is beautiful any time of year.  The campus is on a dramatic cliff above the river.  The best day to go is on a Sunday, when you can have Sunday Brunch with the Cadets at the historic Hotel Thayer right on the campus.

What is your dream itinerary for New York and the surrounding area?
I would hope that you have at least 4 days, if not a week.  But the must-see places include a trip to: Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Wall Street, the World Trade Center and the 9/11 Memorial. Chinatown, Soho and Greenwich Village. Times Square, the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station and Rockefeller Center. Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And make sure to see at least two Broadway shows! If you have more time, then I would recommend walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and exploring Brooklyn. Other sights that take you out of Manhattan include Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Zoo, the Staten Island Ferry and Coney Island!

Visit these links on the travel blogosphere for more on New York:


Above the 86th Floor — The Empire State Building

October 28, 2011 at 8:27 pm

California Tours - Empire State BuildingYears before I lived in New York City and worked at the Empire State Building, I was a new tourist, navigating the overwhelming streets for the first time, my head continuously tilted back to take in the towering view above me.

My first stop in the city was the top of the Empire State Building. My mom and I got up early to be at the front of the line for the ear-popping ride up 86 floors. Immortalized in movies from King Kong to Sleepless in Seattle, the classic art deco icon stands so tall, you can walk past it on the street level without noticing. But from far away, it is a beacon, marking midtown and standing as a reminder of New York’s grand past when tall buildings, such as the Chrysler Building and 30 Rockefeller Center, were shaping New York’s skyline. In New England towns, it’s the church steeples that stick up above the rooftops and connect a town to its past – in New York, it’s the radio spire of the Empire State Building.

Now I work in the 34th floor of the Empire State Building, and the platform at the top is one of my favorite corners of the city where I frequently take visiting friends and relatives. It is on this level that you can go outside into the New York breeze above pigeon level and water towers and skyscrapers. The entire city is stretched out to the horizon and up into the sky. The old-fashioned view finders stand at the corners, witnesses to how many people must have gazed out over the city, trying to spot the distant figure of the Statue of Liberty.

The Empire State Building lights up for Christmas

The Empire State Building lights up for Christmas

Yellow dots of taxis fill the narrow streets below. You can pick out the bridges to Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and New Jersey, and point out rooftop swimming pools and restaurants. Central Park is a patch of green against the city gray; the curve of Madison Square Garden peeks around 34th St.; 30 Rockefeller Center stretches high; the top of the Chrysler building gleams. And through the buildings, just a flicker of Times Square lights flash. You can see how the skyline dips lower between the skyscrapers of Midtown and the tall buildings of downtown. At night, the lights spread for miles. In the winter, tiny moving figures glide across the skating rinks in Bryant Park and Central Park.

Tourists from around the world gather to pick out their favorite sites in Manhattan, or to see the sites for the first time – from over 86 stories up.

This is not quite the top, though. Another small, old-fashioned elevator goes into the needle. An elevator operator pulls the gate shut and takes visitors up 16 stories, answering questions if there are any. One kind operator even held my friend’s hand as she braved her way to the top, although she was terrified of heights.

The needle is smaller, enclosed, and quieter. I find it to be the most peaceful place in the city. You duck around steel beams to get a 360 degree view out the windows of the city spread below. The taxis are even smaller, the harbor even further. It is truly the highest spot you can go in the city – and the swirl of the streets is that much farther away.

California Tours - Empire State Building

The Empire State Building by day

I found a postcard of the Empire State Building from my grandfather to his father in 1936, describing in his yellowed cursive being above the clouds after the fog rolled in and covered the “wonderful view.” I imagine the view from the Empire State Building has changed dramatically since he was there – buildings have risen and some have fallen. But the Empire State Building itself seems to never change.

I often leave work late, through the quiet, polished lobby where men are buffing the floors and shining the classic adornments. They are prepping the building for another day, keeping it fresh for the next batch of new faces to pass through the halls.

Drake Lucas is a former journalist based in Brooklyn, now working in communications for a non-profit organization. She loves a good travel adventure wherever it comes, whether it’s a spontaneous safari in India or stumbling onto a movie set during a hike in Yosemite. Follow her on Twitter: @drake_lucas.

California Tours offers customizable vacation packages to New York. For more information, please visit New York Vacation Packages by California Tours.

Travel Tips and Activity Ideas for Thanksgiving

October 14, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Autumn Leaves at ThanksgivingLet’s admit it: American Thanksgiving has changed drastically from a hallowed day of giving thanks and celebrating the pilgrims’ discovery of North America, to a commercialized occasion for eating egregiously and flailing over football. However, one thing that has not changed about Thanksgiving, held on the fourth Thursday of November, is the tradition of Americans spending time with their loved ones — consequently ramping up travel business by driving or flying hundreds of miles per capita over a mere four days.

Travel tips
Because Thanksgiving is a hectic time for travel, we suggest finalizing your plans now. Advance tickets and accommodations are more available in October than they will be even in early November. Furthermore, planes will be stuffed like a traditional turkey with all the passengers jetting cross-country, so pack light to eliminate checked bag fees and ensure you have space in the overhead bins. Roads will be more crowded on Thursday for trips under 100 miles, so consider driving on Wednesday for short distances. Likewise, airport and road traffic will be heavy Sunday, so plan accordingly!

Thanksgiving Traditions

Thanksgiving - Travel Tips for the Holiday

Turkey Trots and Football
Americans often gain several pounds from November to January — after all, can you really refuse Nana’s third offering of mashed potatoes with gravy? Tripwolf’s blog paints a caricature of the typical Thanksgiving post-prandial state: “TV and movies don’t usually show the very unsexy parts of Thanksgiving where you’re watching football in a half-comatose state after having covertly unbuttoned your jeans.” So get out of that house or hotel!

Burn off those two (ok, three) slices of pumpkin pie by finding a Turkey Trot run or race near you. This is great for family bonding and guilt reduction, and many events allow you to run for a good cause. Check’s event listings for a race in your city. You might also opt to start a friendly game of (American!) football in lieu of watching the NFL game on TV with 39 million others — to kill time while the chefs are in the kitchen!

Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in New York - Snoopy Balloon

© musicwala

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York
The famous parade of performers, floats and giant cartoon characters is a Thanksgiving tradition for many families as they anticipate the evening meal. For those not in New York, catch the parade on TV from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Thursday. For a good seat when viewing in person, layer up, arrive as early as 6 a.m., and sip on hot chocolate while you wait. For less stress, head to the Museum of Natural History at Columbus and 77th on Wednesday around 4 p.m. to watch the giant balloons being inflated!

Black Friday and Cyber Monday
On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, try your luck alongside the millions of others nationwide who will line up early for store sales beginning at 5 AM, but be safe! Overly enthusiastic shoppers have been known to trample and fight others just to get their deal. Cyber Monday, an online discount shopping event following Thanksgiving weekend, should prove slightly more calm!

Travel Extras

What are your plans for Thanksgiving? Any advice for the best travel at this time of year?

New York: Unique Eats on the Lower East Side

September 30, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Lower East SideVisitors to New York must strategically plan their energy – if you shop all day in SoHo and then drop when you get to the hotel, food can seem like too large an undertaking. But in New York, food is one of the greatest attractions of all. Luckily, the Lower East Side is snugly nestled between SoHo, the East Village and Chinatown – all sweet little cake toppers on this larger smorgasbord of visual and cultural delight. The Lower East Side represents a culturally rich corner that has always drawn attention, from the Europeans populating its tenement-littered ghetto in the early 1900s, to the hipsters and Hispanic communities of today who rule the increasingly trendy bar and foodie scene.

In the LES, a clever bit of detouring can make the most boring or hectic city errands into sweet treats: after snagging a few necessities, I stopped at Doughnut Plant to taste a few exotic variations on New York’s second favorite dessert (the first being, of course, the ever-popular cupcake). Recommended doughnut taste test: tres leches and crystallized ginger, two nods to the area’s heavy Hispanic and Chinese influences.

Clinton Street Bakery

Clinton Street Baking Company: the best place in New York for inventive pancakes

I also came across the Clinton St. Baking Co., which hosts a Pancake Month in February and also delights year-round, with amazing dishes like pancakes with fresh blackberries, pecan streusel and maple butter – heaven! They’re open until well into the night for prime-time craving relief, and the mere thought of their inventive pancake creations will forever be my Pavlovian bell… pancakes with crunchy bananas and cinnamon-chili-chocolate sauce – where can I begin my praises?

ABC No Rio

Cogs and wheels in public art on the LES.

Even ignoring the food – although this is highly discouraged! – the LES is bursting with endless cultural and historical venues to discover. I toured an old tenement house from the early days of Ellis Island immigration, where painfully poor Jewish immigrants endured stifling heat and cramped quarters just to have a slice of the American Dream. The neighborhood also has some fantastic public art, notably in the Hispanic area. Avenue C was even given a second name, Loisaida Ave., for the Hispanic pronunciation of “Lower East Side.” The display at left can be found at ABC No Rio, whose website says, “ABC No Rio is a collectively-run center for art and activism. We are known internationally as a venue for oppositional culture.”

My wanderings led me to the recently-defunct Café Charbon, a longtime favorite of the neighborhood and always a pleasant sight to behold when meandering nearby, with its authentic French mailbox, window of (fake) cheese, and recreation of the classic French tabac (smoke shop). Now visitors of the francophile persusasion will surely gravitate down the block to Les Enfants Terribles, a Moroccan/French fusion restaurant. From corner to corner, the Lower East Side is truly a place to witness the fabled “melting pot” that is New York City.

Cheese window at old Cafe Charbon

Cheese wheels in the now-defunct Cafe Charbon

After so much walking, my mind was set on the highly-anticipated end note of the trip: Rice to Riches. Rice pudding and snark bundled together like me and my favorite blanket on a cold day. I got the hazelnut, which tasted a little like plain chocolate, but still good, with whipped cream, but the flavors and topping possibilities are endless (Cinnamon Sling? Fluent in French Toast? Why must New York offer so many choices when we have so little time to explore?). I’ll leave you with this delightful image from the inside of Rice to Riches. Now, how to decide if I have room for spicy grilled corn and tacos at my favorite corner Cuban joint, Café Habana… For a day of foodie indulgence, anything goes.

Snark inside Rice to Riches

“Eat all you want… you’re already fat.”

Doughnut Plant
, 379 Grand St.

Clinton St. Baking Co., 4 Clinton St.
ABC No Rio, 156 Rivington St.
Rice to Riches, 37 Spring St.
Café Habana, 17 Prince St.

Bonus recommendations:

Photos © A. Furukawa