On my last trip to Manhattan, a pressure cooker of vexation that makes me feel hypertense, overcaffeinated, slow, dumb and poor, I decided to stay somewhere that wouldn't turn my guts to hot-and-sour soup. A neighborhoody kind of place with tree-lined streets, restaurants where the cooks are mom and pop, not celebrity chefs, and museums that aren't overrun by hipsters with sushi-locator apps on their iPhones. Since Brooklyn has already gone cooler-than-thou, the choice was clear. Queens for a day, or two.
There is a disagreeable new genre of books telling us what monuments to see, golf holes to play and foods to taste before we die. I don't think visiting Queens is going to top anybody's bucket list, but if you go with the right attitude, it's fun. I wouldn't want to run with the bulls in Pamplona or bungee jump from the Taj Mahal anyway. Staying in my comfort zone is luxury, and Queens is as comfy as hand-knit socks. Plus, when people ask where you're staying, it's a real conversation starter. "Yes, seriously." "No, I didn't need a passport." "It's only 15 minutes from Times Square by subway." "How about those Mets?"
Queens, land of mystery and wonder, is the city's biggest borough and the most vibrant racial mishmash. It's home to Run DMC, Christopher Walken, Simon and Garfunkel, Lucy Liu, Jerry Seinfeld, Spider-Man and well-known plumbing supply salesman John Gotti. In Manhattan, ethnic enclaves exist like aloof principalities. Queens is a multicultural Mayberry. It's the most ethnically diverse county in the United States, and everybody just gets along. Lindsey Lusher, who directs the pro-pedestrian New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign, calls the scene "New York City's best street life."
In Jackson Heights, Argentine tango, Bangladeshi hip-hop and Bollywood remixes serenade folks in Gap, Muslim head scarves and saris. It's easy to find a pint of the black stuff in a proper Irish pub and a world-class taco next door. Small wonder that the Queens 7 train, skating the elevated tracks on its way west from Times Square to Flushing, is nicknamed "The International Express." Phileas Fogg, who traveled around the world in 80 days, could have saved tons of time and bother had he bought a Metrocard.
What this means for a weekend traveler is a profusion -- a confusion, frankly -- of dining options. The place is an adventurous eater's paradise. A glance at the Queens listings on foodie websites like Urbanspoon or Chowhound and you curse the gods for limiting each day to 24 hours. Should it be paella and icy Portuguese Sagres beer at O Lavrador, a Lisbon seafood house transplanted to Jamaica? Sour sausage with basil, mint, peanuts and pickled veggies at Chao Thai in Elmhurst? Or eenie-meenie-miney-moe at the Golden Shopping Mall, a bi-level labyrinth of authentic Chinese food stalls in Flushing? You could starve to death trying to decide. But you'll never be turned aside by a snooty maitre d'.
A world of art options
There are fine contemporary art museums here, too, largely clustered near the foot of the Queensboro Bridge (memorialized in "The 59th Street Bridge Song" and the opening sequence of the TV series "Taxi") and in nearby Astoria.
Start with PS1, an affiliate of the Museum of Modern Art, with a funkier, friendlier vibe. The three-story former elementary school serves as an exhibition space with constantly changing holdings. Here you will see the very artiest sort of art. I was there for a two-day fashion-themed show titled "MOVE!," partnering a dozen artists and clothing designers. Fashionista Cynthia Rowley and wild man Olaf Breuning offered a piece that dressed lissome models in denim frocks, led them to a plastic-walled enclosure, and dumped gallon cans of Valspar house paint over their heads. Designer Adam Kimmel presented a video of magician David Blaine in formal attire, submerged in water, being circled by a large, inquisitive shark. During the summer, there's the ridiculously popular Saturday WarmUp concert series, which packs PS1's courtyard like a rush-hour IRT train.
A few blocks north is the Sculpture Center, a converted trolley car factory housing oversized works and multimedia installations. The centerpiece was Dutch-born Lara Schnitger's "Two Masters and Her Vile Perfume," with towering figurative forms suggesting naughty postcards of Victorian ladies in their underwear. In the basement, Israeli provocateur Lior Shvil presented "The Kosher Butcher," a darkly humorous filmed commentary on Mideast politics in which he portrays a meatpacking Sweeney Todd.
A mile farther north you'll find the serene Noguchi Museum, a gallery/rock garden featuring scores of the Japanese-American sculptor's artfully hewn boulders. If the weather's fine, bask in the sun at Socrates Sculpture Park, a green peninsula with fine views of Midtown Manhattan. And don't you dare miss 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center, a warehouse designated as a workspace for graffiti artists. The spectacular spray-can murals covering its exterior will have your jaw on the curb.
Queens' Astoria Studios were once a filmmaking mecca (Charlie Chaplin worked there and built an English cottage nearby). The former production facility is now the Museum of the Moving Image, where fans of old movies can see memorabilia devoted to film, TV and video games. There's a fashion collection with four authentic Cosby sweaters, Ben-Hur's chariot, a sports broadcast booth, and a dubbing studio where you can make film characters say anything you want. This compact curiosity shop might be a good choice if you're chaperoning kids (free admission after 4 on Fridays). Just across the street is the hypermodern, $78 million Frank Sinatra High School of the Arts and Tony Bennett Concert Hall where student performances are as elaborate as Broadway productions.
Splash down at the spa
If I had to choose one don't-miss experience, it would be Spa Castle, a massive water palace in College Point. It's the Trump Tower version of the Korean jjimjilbang public bathhouse; a beautiful, spacious superspa, bar, massage center, food court, rooftop pool and baker's dozen of saunas all in one. It's about 20 minutes from both LaGuardia and JFK, and a morning there would be a better pre-departure relaxer than a Xanax.
After paying the entrance fee ($45 weekends, $35 weekdays) men and women part ways into their locker rooms where you are assigned a uniform of blue board shorts and a gray T-shirt for the common areas. The get-up makes everyone look like members of a strange cult, but it spares you the trauma of unsightly Speedos. The men's and women's spa room are strictly no-clothes areas. Respect the custom and get over it; you're about to have a wonderful time.
After a shower, you enter a high-tech bath/jacuzzi complex that could be part of the villain's lair in a Bond flick. On your right, there's a steam room, set at 133 degrees and beside that a dry sauna ready to cook rare roast beef at 180. Since you're supposed to alternate hot-cold-hot, your next stop is the cold bath, a hair-straightening 67 degrees. If hypothermia isn't your thing, you might prefer the other cool baths, 10 degrees warmer. Overhead is a series of power showers that will buffet you with firehose-strength streams of cool water, very good for easing cramped muscles. Clocks throughout the room will help you keep track of time as you move from warm whirlpools to rose-scented jet baths.
The Korean massage services are remarkable. My man worked me over with the laser-like focus of a Kia assembly line worker. For $95, I got an 80-minute scrub and rub tune-up that left me squeaky clean, baby smooth and as carefree as a calf in clover.
One floor up, the sexes congregate in their goofy uniforms amid various perspiration rooms. There is a kiln-like sauna with a floor of pink salt bricks mined in the Himalayas (good for the sinuses), one whose interior dome is lined with gold, another encrusted with jade, even an icebox cold enough to raise goosebumps in 30 seconds. To the side are lounging chairs, a massage area, a juice bar with tapioca bubble teas, and a sushi/yogurt/buffet bar.
Climb another set of steps to reach the outdoor heated pool, where you can sip a drink and watch the stars while marinating in bubbling 104-degree water. On this level you'll find a cafeteria turning out broths of Manila clams and noodles or grilled beef and scallions. The prices are steep, about $15 per serving, but the cooks were quick to offer seconds, and tickled to talk shop with customers. Also on this level is a full service bar, pricey at $6 for a naked shot to $15 for a mixed drink. There's also a fitness center available for an extra $5, but I was far too mellow to think of StairMasters. All in all, admission, massage, lunch, snacks and a drink or three set me back $190. If you're penny wise, pay the flat fee and stay as long as you like. It's a much better bargain than a street-corner Rolex.
Queens is like a relaxation tape beside the cacophony of Manhattan. Low buildings, big sky, sunny streets, low stress. Sure, New York is electric. Queens is like the off switch.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186