In my rural village of a hundred souls we wait for a deep spell of cold, with little snowfall, to produce sturdy, pristine ice on the canal. Our natural rinks, spontaneously cleared by locals, last a few hours or a few days, eventually kiboshed by fluctuating temperatures, freezing rain or heavy snowpack. But while they last, those precious days are some of the most magical of the year.
In New York City, little is left to volunteers and Mother Nature’s whims. According to schedule, spaces are cleared, ice-making equipment is tuned up, and private and public outdoor rinks throughout the city are constructed. Lessons are booked, pick-up hockey is organized, and lovers ice skate by the light of the moon. From November to March, residents and visitors fulfill their winter fantasies.
I packed my skates and mapped out a plan to visit a number of iconic and lesser-known New York City ice rinks. But Mother Nature triumphed spectacularly.
We were bumped to an evening flight due to torrential downpours and strong winds, one of the hundreds of cancelled flights in and out of La Guardia that day. The next morning we woke up to this:
Flash flooding lay waste to the outdoor rinks and my carefully laid plans. But, by the evening, a few snowflakes had begun to fall and, the following morning, we were blessed with this:
Jumping out of bed, I packed up and headed for a latte at Caffe Reggio, Greenwich Village’s iconic coffee house and home of the first cappuccino machine in America.
But it was a no go on the joe. Compliments of the Commissioner of the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, the place was shut up tight. Disappointed? Yes. Somehow spared? Who’s to know? Cannoli at Pasticceria Rocco more than sufficed, and I grabbed the Q train to Brooklyn.
At 10:00am on a Thursday, Prospect Park was empty except for an odd dog walker. Designed by Olmsted and Vaux, it is a mini-Central Park, created in the mid-19th century to attract the wealthy and accommodate the needs of the commuter suburb of Brooklyn, at the time, the third-largest city in the U.S. after NYC and Philadelphia.
I was the third person to step onto the immaculate ice surfaces at the LeFrak Centre, which includes two rinks, one covered and one open air with generous views of Prospect Lake. Maybe two dozen people showed up in total, but I was as good as alone. Plenty of room to skate my heart out to the piped-in tunes of Wham’s Last Christmas and the Eagles’ Take it Easy. ($6 adult entry fee, $6 skate rental)
I skipped a 37-stop bus ride to Brooklyn’s other outdoor rink, opting for Manhattan and the South Street Seaport, a micro-rink in the original port of NYC…
…a snowball’s throw from here:
It may not be the largest or fanciest of the outdoor rinks, but it’s worth checking out for the area’s East River location, history, architecture and artisanal stores and restaurants. ($10 entry fee; $6 skate rental – but I didn’t see a kiosk so I skated for free)
In the mid-winter cloak of early darkness, small children clung to oversized penguins for balance, chopping their way across the ice. Their parents sat rinkside with hot drinks, under the glow of heat lamps that made the breezy outdoors comfortable. The lounge, entered through bright yellow revolving doors, is separated from the elements by floor to ceiling glass and offers a helluva view of the inside and outside action. It’s lively and romantic. It would be the perfect place to try skating on a first date: intimate and easily accessible to alcohol.
We drank the most excellent mugs of hot chocolate and Bailey’s until Hayley and Tenzin showed up with their “baby” Zamboni. It’s really a modified golf cart, complete with plastic tanks of water and a switch-operated blade.
Of course I begged them to drive it, telling them it’s every Canadian’s dream. Americans dream of growing up to be President; we’re content to drive the Zamboni.
Hayley cleared the rink of the little people and their penguins and Tenzin gave me guidance. I drove in an ordered pattern, careful not to slide into the plexiglass boards. I would not be lying if I told you I shouted “I’m driving the Zamboni!!” at random passer-bys, who mostly chose to ignore me. Parents waited with their small kids by the rink wondering when the weirdo would get off the cart and let them skate already.
I ended by flooring the accelerator, pulling doughnuts in the middle of the tiny rink, and laughing maniacally. I don’t know, maybe it was kind of weird. A million thanks to DD and JG for making this slice of craziness happen. ($12 entry fee, $3 skate rental)
Midtown’s Bryant Park rink has a lot going for it, besides being free: It is ample in size, generous in its siting, convenient in its location and, at this time of year, surrounded by a Christmas market and food kiosks. It opens at 7am, much earlier than any other rink, so it’s possible to catch a skate while the sun rises, before heading off to work or in lieu of a morning run.
At midday, it was busy but not crowded, filled with school kids on skates for the first time, clinging to the boards, holding hands with their besties for balance, and grinning from ear to ear. The place overflowed with happiness.
Just seven blocks up 5th Avenue from Bryant Park, Rockefeller Centre, home of the world’s most famous skating rink, is world’s away in its experience.
I’m not a big fan of crowds, and this area of midtown, the epicentre of consumerism, is crazed at this time of the year. Turning onto 49th, I felt my mood souring. By the time I reached the rink, encircled and smothered in people, I was in a New York State of Mind, and not in a good way. Down the stairs I pressed, towards the tiny ticket office and a young staff member indifferent to my questions. 12:30pm – 45 minutes away – was the next open slot, and I wasn’t prepared to wait amidst the crowds for an opportunity to skate on a postcard-sized rink for $30 plus a bag check. It was less about the money and more about the opposite of happiness that was creeping up my gullet.
I turned and pushed my way back up the stairs, my patience and manners lost in the rush. I headed towards 6th and up to Central Park. I needed some space far more than I needed to scratch Rockefeller rink off my list.
Sixth Avenue ends at Central Park. I crossed 59th, avoiding the pedicab and horse drawn carriage solicitations, and headed straight into the park, curving slightly to the left, and then gently to the right. In just a few moments, the Trump Rink – or Wollman as everyone still calls it – appeared below, sheltered in a shallow bowl. Of course it is a perfect place for a skating rink; nothing in Central Park is left to chance.
It costs $11.25 for an adult to skate during the week, but it is Friday afternoon and, apparently, Friday afternoon is really the weekend, and so it is $18 even and $6 for a locker rental. No music blares; the sounds are of laughter and delightful conversation and a little traffic if you listen really closely. I can best describe them as the sounds of gratitude: for the sunny day, the rosy cheeks, the joy of being alive, of learning something new, of an old or new body moving, even slowly at first.
I could stay here all day but I am pulled by a schedule and other desires, as I always am. I trade a visit to the Lasker Rink at 110th in the Bronx for a short visit to the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Met to see Death Becomes Her and try hard to not think about what I’ve missed. (Stay in the moment, stay in the moment, stay in the moment and you will know you’ve made a good trade.)
I head down 5th with my magical skates thrown over my shoulder, and so many strangers smile in recognition. I toss them under the table in the bar where Husband and I sit down for a drink and they are a conversational opener.
“I’ve skated the city,” I tell Lisa and Charlie, who have inquired about my adventures. I give them my card and tell them this very story.