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New York: A place where anything goes… if you know who to ask

The great cities of the world have been written about, reported on and reviewed to death, in a never ending series of travel shows, guide books, newspaper columns and TripAdvisor reviews.

As the world becomes increasingly more connected and informed, so too do our travel experiences become homogenized. With everyone visiting the same cities, following the same itineraries, and coming away with the same results, the romance and excitement of travel has been lost.

CNN International’s new monthly travel programme, ‘In 24 Hours’ uncovers one action packed days’ worth  of unique, exclusive and unheard of experiences in some of the most famous cities in the world.

The inaugural episode takes viewers to the self-declared ‘capital of the world’ – New York City.  The lesson I learnt whilst filming is that there’s more than meets the eye to even the most talked-about of cities. New York is brimming with secrets. Hidden locations, clandestine clubs and an anything goes attitude offering unrestricted access – as long as you know who to ask.

Perhaps no location sums this up more, than New York’s Grand Central Terminal – Manhattan’s iconic transportation hub. Few know that hidden nearby, rests a train platform built exclusively for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  It was intentionally left off of train charts to protect its secrecy. All the while, it was hidden directly beneath one of New York’s finest hotels, the Waldorf Astoria. And sitting there to this day, abandoned to time, rests FDR’s train car, itself built to protect his own biggest secret – a debilitating illness.

Its thick steel walls, heavily armoured, and painted an industrial navy blue, are riddled with rectangular openings. A safety precaution, to allow the President’s Secret Service detail to fire on any would-be attackers. I pull myself up and inside, using torchlight to guide my way. Brushing off the dirt that now covers its entire surface, a testament to its seventy years abandoned here, I push aside the old papers that scatter the floor. Moving further inside, to the location where FDR himself once rode, I stand and stare, in awe at history itself.

Later, from the depths of the city, we travel just a few blocks south to the top of one of New York’s most beloved landmarks: the Empire State Building. Almost every tourist that visits this city makes the pilgrimage to the observation deck on the 86th floor. Yet few are aware that near the building’s very top is a secret outdoor viewing platform. It’s seventeen floors higher than the main tourist area, just less than a meter across, and wide open to the elements. Only a handful of people can fit outside at any one time, yet the sweeping 360 degree views all the way to the horizon are inimitable. Special permission needs to be granted to access the 103rd floor – and it’s not easy to get – but if you can, it’s the most awe inspiring place to watch the sunset anywhere on the island.

These are just two of the many activities we uncovered in New York. And after spending one frantic day in the city that never sleeps – overwhelmingly, one feeling pervades: relief. It’s a relief to know that even in the most written about, pored over and mythologised cities in the world, there can still be experiences that are uniquely yours. You just have to know where to look.

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