“We are born with two innate fears: falling and loud noises,” says my guide, Tommy December, who’s trying to reassure me that the jelly-leg inducing fear I am experiencing is normal.
I’m stood on an open-air platform 1,271 feet above the ground, near the top of skyscraper 30 Hudson Yards – located on Manhattan’s West Side – as part of New York’s newest attraction, City Climb (tickets are currently $185/£137.90).
After clambering 161 steps at a 45-degree incline along the exterior of the glass building, while strapped in a harness, I now have the chance to lean out from the building and look down.
Below, I can see people visiting Edge, the highest outdoor sky deck in the Western Hemisphere. Slowly, my palms start to feel less clammy – it’s like I’m acclimatising to being so high up and exposed. Next up, though, is the biggest challenge.
I take a deep breath and squat down into my harness at the edge of the platform. Pushing with my feet, I lean back, and fling my arms out into the air, the Empire State Building glimmering behind me in the November sunshine. It’s only for a few seconds, but I’ve never felt anything like it. Knowing you’re currently higher than anyone else in New York City, it’s like you’re suddenly suspended in the centre of the world.
When we landed at JFK just over 24 hours earlier, it was a historic moment, to say the least. Since March last year, most UK nationals have been unable to fly to the US – but on November 8, the travel ban was lifted for all travellers who are double jabbed.
To celebrate, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways organised a dual take-off from parallel runways at Heathrow. Seeing flight BA001 soaring alongside us nearly brings me to tears, especially after hearing stories of fellow passengers flying out to meet grandchildren for the first time.
In many ways, the sounds, smells and sights of New York are just the same as when I last visited 12 years ago. I revel in hearing yellow taxis tooting their horns, am mesmerised by the colours of Central Park’s trees as I cycle amongst the groups of morning joggers, and find insanely tasty bagels once again (try one oozing with crispy bacon, egg, and American-style cheese from Finn’s Bagels on 10th Ave, £7.80).
But there’s no doubt that post-Covid, NYC feels quieter – more reserved, even. The arrivals area at JFK airport was eerily empty, and less traffic heading into the city meant an unusually speedy transfer (less than an hour).
Many of the tourist hotspots are also much quieter than usual. In Times Square, for example, there was barely a soul taking a selfie.
At Bryant Park’s seasonal Winter Village, a few teenagers are whizzing around the free ice-skating rink, while young professionals sit at the scattered outdoor tables, drinking coffee and tapping at laptops.
There are dozens of kiosks perfect for festive shopping hauls. At one, called HoneyGramz, I get chatting to 22-year-old Michael Campese, who’s working at the pop-up after graduating from university in the summer.
He hails from Queens and gives a sense of how it feels to see his city starting to bounce back; he seems positive that business is beginning to boom again.
“When lockdown started, you could walk through Times Square, and there was no one on the street,” he recalls.
“It was pretty eerie, actually. All the lights were on, all the billboards were on, but that just made it feel more like an apocalypse movie.”
One place where you can feel a real sense of New York’s energy and pace returning is Hudson Yards – a development built five years ago, where I’m staying at the Pendry Manhattan West. There’s a buzz about the neighbourhood, which boasts the mind-bending new spiral staircase and public artwork Vessel, immersive arts centre The Shed, and a seven-storey indoor shopping mall.
Highlights of the hotel, which only opened in September, include floor-to-ceiling windows in the bedrooms (some suites have views of the Statue of Liberty), Peloton bikes on request, and the views from the rooftop, which opens next spring. On one side, there’s a don’t-miss-out photo opportunity in front of the Empire State Building.
That evening, I head to secret garden-themed rooftop Gallow Green, at the McKittrick Hotel (an eight-minute walk from Pendry Manhattan West), where I order the shaved brussels sprouts, served with bacon, parmesan, parsley and Caesar dressing (£14.15), and the fried calamari (£14.15). I wash it down with a signature Sleep No More (£13.42) cocktail of vodka, elderflower, butterfly-pea flowers, citrus and cider. It’s named after an immersive theatre spectacle held at the hotel, which was originally created by British theatre company Punchdrunk, and will return to the venue in February 2022.
Any hints of a hangover the next day are banished with a walk on the High Line, the must-see attraction which doesn’t require a brave appetite for heights. An elevated public park that’s free to visit, it runs for 1.45 miles along Manhattan’s West Side.
Fascinatingly, it’s built on a freight rail line that was in operation from 1934 to 1980 (my favourite part is seeing remnants of the tracks in places) and was saved from demolition by locals and the City of New York. No reservations are needed, and there are several access points – but the northern end starts at 34th Street in Hudson Yards.
Time it right and you can stroll – down to the other end, at Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District – towards the sunset, an orange glow burning through the hazy sky over the Hudson River.
Don’t rush, as there’s a lot to see along the way: ever-changing art projects, colourfully contrasting architecture, and 100,000 plants, trees and shrubs. You’ll lose count of the number of times you want to stop and capture what feels like a whole new perspective on the city.
Knowing how New York was so abandoned, so untouched, during Covid makes it feel even more special somehow. I’m so grateful to be back travelling, I reckon I’d even scale another skyscraper again.
How to plan your trip
Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com; 0344 8747 747) flies direct between London Heathrow and New York JFK from £358.72 per person.
Rooms at the Pendry Manhattan West (pendry.com/manhattan-west; +1 212 933 7000) start from $625/£465 plus tax per night.