Stay up and explore when you travel – especially in New York. In the city that never sleeps, neither should you
Hot Takeoff is a column about travel and cities by the editor of Billy.
The Benjamin Hotel holds out the promise of not just a good night’s sleep, but a great one.
The website features a man wearing pyjamas sitting in a meditation pose, blissing out on the pavement of a Manhattan street. We are to conclude that he has found inner peace – or at least enough tranquility to pray with mala beads on what could be Lexington Avenue – thanks to the hotel’s Rest and Renew program.
The Benjamin’s sleep system promises on-demand power nap kits, special bedtime bites under 200 calories, a menu of pillows chosen with the help of sleep expert Rebecca Robins, and an on-demand meditation service.
The hotel instituted the program in 2013, somewhat fortuitously ahead of a growing trend. Getting a certain quality and quantity of sleep has become one of those big lifestyle/wellness thingies, like gluten-free diets and hygge. The New York Times concluded that sleep is “the new status symbol,” while Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington positioned herself as the would-be leader of the conversation with her book The Sleep Revolution. It scolded the bourgeoisie for the “collective delusion that overwork and burnout are the price we must pay in order to succeed.”
(Which is easy for Huffington to say after she made her media millions … during an era of her life when she admits she was pushing herself to the limit.)
Peekaboo! It’s Arianna Huffington!
The New York Times reported on the myriad ways in which entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the sleeplessness of people with disposable income – from US$300 sleep-inducing goggles to a US$300-per-year sleep tracking service.
Which brings us back to the renewed focus on sleep at nicer hotels. There I was at an apparent leader in the field, tucking myself in at 11 p.m. on a Friday night in New York instead of exploring the town. I did this to myself because, as a lifestyle journalist, I imagined that someone who does believe in Huffington’s sleep revolution – and has around US$400 to spend per night on lodgings – might want to take part in the Rest and Renew program. I wanted to experience it for myself and report back to Billy readers.
I concluded that such a booking would generally prove to be a mistake.
Tossing and turning
There’s probably nothing more tedious to read than a customer service rant, so TL;DR: The Benjamin’s Rest and Renew program turned out to be a big Dud and Disappointment. The hotel simply wasn’t prepared to actually deliver what the website promised, whether it was meditation on demand (which turns out to be a phone number you call, which did not work during my visit) or a bedtime snack of peanut butter and jam.
One thought that keeps me up at night: How does a hotel run out of the necessary supplies for a peanut butter and jam sandwich?
As I later wrote to the hotel’s public relations team – which offered to read my concerns, but did not respond to them – I’m curious: Did I get unlucky and happen to experience an off night, or do so few people actually request anything from the Relax and Renew menu that the staff are not accustomed to it? They weren’t surly or anything, quite the contrary. I just got the sense that I caught them off guard, as if very few guests actually take part.
Meanwhile, the experience did leave me with an important realization about travel and cities. As I lay on top of the covers, passively watching CNN during a 55-minute wait for room service to bring a special pillow, I concluded that you shouldn’t travel to a big, nocturnal city only to spend a third or more of the time flopped on the bed. It’s a major missed opportunity, especially when that city is New York. Stay up late. Be tired. Who cares? The experience will likely be worth it and you won’t feel afterward as if you’ve missed something. I should have been out for a cocktail, which is what I would have wanted to do.
The city that never … you know
And how much more important is it to stay up late in – sing it with me now – the city that never sleeps? Is there another urban conglomeration that is more closely associated with nighttime than New York?
‘New York at night’ is a both a clichÃ© and a call to action
In his 2008 book New York Nocturne, William Chapman Sharpe explained that the city’s night owl image started taking hold back in the 1890s, when it leapt ahead of every other locale – including London and Paris – at switching from gas to electric street lighting.
By the 1930s, photographers including Vincent Lopez and Berenice Abbott had made the starry field of the New York skyline into an icon. While variations on their images would eventually metastasize into a cliché – the “New York at night” of postcards and calendars – there have been countless renewals and refreshments of the nocturnal New York trope, from the work of Edward Hopper to the important contributions of the Ghostbusters.
These are the Ghostbusters now. Get over it
Somewhere in the middle, Jack Kerouac captured the feeling of wandering the Manhattan darkness, aching to be part of whatever was going on. “Outside, in the street,” he wrote in his early short story New York Nite Club, “the sudden music which comes from the nite spot [sic] fills you with yearning for some intangible joy – and it can only be found in the smoky confines of the place.”
The sensation Kerouac identified is nowadays called fear of missing out, or FOMO. I can tell you from recent experience that it’s going to grip you like a post-pastrami heartburn if you travel to New York only to tuck yourself in at an honest farmer’s bedtime. An urban trip without exploring at night makes for a total snoozefest.
Sure, a solid slumber is the proper prescription for certain people, and certain occasions. It’s good advice for an ordinary day. But to properly experience New York, or any big city, is to get out and explore after dark (within the bounds of personal safety, of course). Check out the nightclubs and bars, the glow of lights and advertising, the night markets and nocturnal events. Like Kerouac, you owe it to yourself to chase that intangible joy.