Tropical Staycation: Warm-Weather Escapes in Wintertime NYC
by Alyssa Grossman, 02/25/2014
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New York City has seen more than its fair share of snow and cold temperatures this winter, but those looking to defrost needn't ship off to the Caribbean. Just in time for spring break, we've rounded up some cultural, dining and nightlife destinations that can transport you to the tropics without leaving NYC—four of whose boroughs, you should know, are located on islands. Just wait 'til you're indoors before changing into those board shorts.
Arts and Culture
Fasten your seatbelts (er…swipe your MetroCard) and get ready for takeoff. Check that coat at the door and enter the Butterfly Conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History. Real butterflies and moths flutter around this colorful paradise, where it's a balmy 80 degrees all winter long. Animals of a different kind inhabit Conservation Hall at the New York Aquarium. Gaze at rays, eels and a rainbow of fish from Belize, and learn about the river creatures that inhabit Brazil's Amazon forest. If you put your nose close to the glass and kick the boots off your feet, you can almost imagine you're snorkeling in the Caribbean. Over in the Bronx, it's no wonder the Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Garden gets so much hype—this year's exhibition travels to Key West, surrounding visitors with lush, colorful displays, music and poetry that channel Florida's southernmost point. Tropical flora flourishes in Staten Island too, inside the Carl Grillo Glass House at Snug Harbor. Just board the Staten Island Ferry and think of the East River as a stand-in for the Caribbean—after a relaxing boat (and subsequent bus) ride, you'll be surrounded by warmth and tropical plants.
Swimming? In winter? In New York City? It is possible—if you know where to look. Dig that swimsuit out of storage and paddle to your heart's content at these spots guaranteed to melt the stress (and ice) away from memory. There's no denying the charm of Central Park in the snow, but to see that snow from the comfort of the heated rooftop pool at Gravity, a health club inside Le Parker Meridien hotel? That's really something. There's no shame in ignoring the free weights and making a beeline straight for the water, which is open from 7am to 10:30pm on weekdays and 8am to 8:45pm on weekends. A day pass costs $100, but the option of sunbathing on lounge chairs overlooking New York City's most famous park in winter may be priceless. Another fitness center, the New York Health and Racquet Club, also knows a thing or two about channeling the tropics. Palm trees just inside the front door are only the beginning at the club's Cooper Square location. Downstairs, relax in the whirlpool—which comes complete with its own waterfall. For the more adventurous, there's also a bouldering wall. The gym has saltwater pools at several other locations, where a day pass costs $50 (it's $35 at Cooper Square).
New York City is home to nearly every culture under the sun, so you don't need to board a plane to taste the cuisine of a steamier climate. Case in point: Elsie's Caribbean Café in Harlem, an eatery known for its warm and friendly service as much as savory menu options like goat roti, jerk chicken and codfish cakes. Over in Queens, Latin American eats reign supreme at Delicias Tropical in Jackson Heights. Dig into Colombian dishes like vegetable and seafood soup, chicken stew, and grilled churrasco with rice, beans and fried sweet rice. The decor only adds to the experience, with artwork, plants and flowers adorning every inch of the restaurant. If you'd rather stay stateside in spirit, head to Staten Island for a taste of New Orleans at French Quarter–inspired Bayou, where you can fill up on gumbo and jambalaya and wash it all down with a hurricane. In Greenwich Village, the Jamaican-themed Miss Lily's Favourite Cakes has diners noshing on jerk chicken and ackee dip with plantains while taking in the beach-inspired vibe. Beverage options include Red Stripe, coconut water and Ting—a fizzy grapefruit drink from Jamaica. And although East Village spot Mayahuel has gained a reputation for its tequila- and mescal-based cocktails, the food is capable of transporting your taste buds to Mexico on its own. Shareable snacks like popcorn livened up by cotija cheese, chili and lime—and heartier plates like a paella with seared shrimp, scallops and chorizo—will have you thinking more about sandy beaches than snowy sidewalks.
Bars and Nightlife
NYC has a flair for taking things over the top, so when an eatery labels itself as "tropical" or "Caribbean themed," you can be certain that it goes well past putting tiny umbrellas in its drinks. Sail to Staten Island for the jungle-centric Drunken Monkey, a lounge that capitalizes on kitschy decor, bamboo and paintings of martini-drinking chimps. Cocktails are equally festive (think beer with banana liqueur) and DJs take over the lounge on weekends. Over in Little Italy, night owls at Tropical 128 are greeted by a dimly lit space, accented by a fish tank and faux palm trees lining the floor. Cocktails like the guava mimosa and Manhattan mai tai keep the vacation vibe going all night. Pack the menu with rum-based drinks, cover the space with tiki decorations, add live music, put it in the East Village and voilà, you have Otto's Shrunken Head. There's nothing subtle about this place—the bartender might even light your drink on fire.
The yellow surfboard outside should be your first clue of what's in store at Réunion Surf Bar, named after a volcanic island in the Indian Ocean. Take a quick flight (of stairs) down to a world of bartenders dressed for the beach, a giant fish tank and surf-themed decorations, including a handful of boards. Drink options include Corona slushies, tropical shots and house-flavored rum infused with the likes of Earl Grey, jalapeño and hazelnut. For a totally different kind of escape, duck inside Bowlmor Times Square, where Coney Island–style carnival games provide a taste of warmer days. The space also features a lounge and dance floor where you can let loose in between rounds of Whac-a-Mole.
Cafés and Bakeries
Whether you're recovering from a tropical night on the town or in search of a treat on the go, these cafés and bakeries specialize in temporarily transporting you to a warmer place. Disclaimer: the creator of Taste the Tropics, a Flatbush ice cream shop, is actually from Brooklyn (and makes that quite amusingly clear on the store's website). But owner Al's loyal followers don't seem to worry about his origins while digging into flavors like rum raisin, coconut and rummy nut. Bikini Bar, on the other hand, was founded by a surfer and a diving instructor. The TriBeCa spot takes its cues from Hawaii with surf photos, boards propped up on the wall and a jukebox in the corner. Refuel with a coconut-milk espresso or acai bowl while perusing the merchandise at the attached swimwear shop or ordering a custom surfboard. The New York Times named Kingston Tropical Bakery as a standout Caribbean bakery back in 2005, and it's clear this place is around for the long haul. For more than four decades, hungry residents have been stopping at the Bronx institution for fruit and coconut bread, patties and bulla cake—a Jamaican treat made with molasses and spices.
Music and Dance
No tropical vacation would be complete without a soundtrack, and NYC has no shortage of sunny sounds. Through March 16, the Brazil Festival at the Joyce Theater transports audiences to Rio de Janeiro by way of dance. Four companies are set to perform over the span of three weeks. Among them: the celebrated Dance Brazil, a troupe that incorporates contemporary, capoeira and Afro-Brazilian styles. Up in Harlem, Shrine World Music Venue welcomes several bands a night—some of whom play hot-climate music such as reggae and soukous. Finally, in Queens, Flushing Town Hall celebrates Carnival and calypso on March 7 with a performance dedicated to Harry Belafonte, the man best known for "Day O" (aka "The Banana Boat Song").