A stay at the relatively new TWA Hotel at JFK airport, an extended layover in Istanbul, and a 2 week small group tour through the highlights of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The countries of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan slipped into my radar a while ago because I closely follow the sport of figure skating whose top level athletes have included several from those countries including Denis Ten, Tatiana Malinina, and Misha Ge among others. Although aware of the region, I can't say I felt a huge desire to actually visit there. But as my travel horizons continued to expand, I started to become more and more interested in spending some time visiting a bunch of the 'Stans.
I often grapple between the competing desires of traveling to as many countries as possible and spending some in-depth time exploring a single country. Usually the destination ends up making that decision for me. For example, New Zealand was a country where the challenge was limiting the places that piqued my interest to those I could manage to cover during a 2 week visit (the maximum amount of time I can take off from work). But Central Asia was more culturally and geographically unknown to me so I thought it might be more suitable to try to sample a variety of places so I could learn more about the area. I researched a tour company that a social media friend had used to travel to the region and their tour visiting 5 'Stans (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) was wonderfully intriguing in the variety of experiences it offered. The itinerary was certainly consistent with my unofficial 2019 goal of aggressively expanding my travel horizons. I was still dealing with too much depression and anxiety to organize a trip myself, so that was another reason it made sense for me to sign up for another group tour.
Working with the travel company was wonderful. They took care of all the paperwork required for Visas or Letters of Invitation required to enter some of the countries, and their email communication was excellent. As the departure time grew nearer, I found out that my group would be super small- just 5 travelers (they max out at 12). I think this means that we won't get a dedicated tour guide traveling with us, but all the same activities and transfers would be included.
When researching airfare, the best deal seemed to be using Turkish Air. Having never visited Turkey, I scheduled an extended layover in Istanbul (which fortunately I could fit in without taking off any additional days from work). I booked a private tour that boasts great reviews on TripAdvisor because I had a stellar experience taking a similar tour (from a totally different company) on my previous year's layover in Casablanca. As of this writing, rain unfortunately appears to be in the forecast for Istanbul on the day of my visit. I'll just have to make the best of whatever happens, with the knowledge that I can visit again in the future. Everyone tells me one day is not enough for Istanbul, anyway.
I've done little, if any, research into the areas I am traveling beyond the literature from the tour company so I'm looking forward to approaching my adventure with minimal preconceived expectations. Glancing through pictures on the tour company's website, I've been very intrigued by both exotic architecture and bucolic landscapes. We are scheduled to spend one night camping by a burning crater which will not only be exciting but it should also be a good test of whether I can handle trips that include multiple nights in such basic accommodations. (I figure I can handle just about anything for one night- and I've definitely wanted to try camping close to nature) It's going to be a very fast paced trip- obviously, since there are so many countries to cover in just a couple of weeks- and I look forward to all the stories that will unfold.
After trying to figure out the logistics of getting to JFK airport in time for my Saturday flight which was scheduled to depart at 12:30pm, I came to the conclusion that if I had to rely on public transit, I'd have to get up stupid early and feel rushed to make connections. I knew I'd be much more comfortable if I could get into the area on Friday night. I'd considered staying at the relatively new TWA hotel which had piqued my interest ever since it had been announced, but by the time I was ready to make plans it was sold out. As is typical for me when I want something, I persisted in checking periodically… and 2 days before my anticipated arrival, I managed to book a room! I was unable to book a runway view which I would have preferred, but I was super excited to be able to check out the hotel. It seemed like a fun and convenient way to start my adventure.
After I wrapped up work for the day, I ordered a ride through Lyft since I had a coupon to use. This was my first time using a ride service from home and I was a little nervous about getting a pick up in my suburban location. The app said that a vehicle was 10 minutes away- great! But then the estimated time failed to decrease… and the map showed the car taking some odd turns, such as getting on a highway when it was already in the neighborhood.
In all, it took about 30 minutes for my ride to arrive. I figured it would save a bit of money to head to Trenton station instead of my usual Hamilton, and I arrived there just in the nick of time to make it onto a pleasantly uncrowded express train to Penn Station, NYC. This leg of the journey was totally in my comfort zone since I'm used to taking the same route when I see Broadway shows.
I'd considered hanging out a bit in the NYC station for dinner but ultimately decided to try one of the restaurant hotels. Once on the train, I was able to estimate my arrival time and I snagged a reservation that I felt would allow for a very comfortable buffer in case of minor delays. So once I arrived in the city, I made my way through the station to take a Long Island Railroad (LIRR) train to Jamaica, Queens. I'd already downloaded the app to use to purchase tickets; it's amazing how much more convenient travel is with the internet and smart phones than it was when I first started going on solo trips.
I was only on the LIRR for a very short time so I didn't feel too guilty about taking up an extra seat with my roller bag. Once I arrived at Jamaica station, I started to feel my adventure kicking into a higher gear since I'd never been there before. Exploring unknown transit particularly appeals to my inner geek. At any rate, it was very easy to follow the signs to the JFK AirTrain where I reloaded my Metrocard with enough value to cover a round trip journey. At this point, I couldn't wait to reach my destination- I was super excited and it felt like the trip was taking forever. But I was glad to be making the journey when not pressed to arrive at a specific time.
To get to the TWA hotel, you take the AirTrain to Terminal 5, and then follow the signs to the JetBlue terminal and then head to the bag claim area. The sight of an elevator in the corner with the TWA logo on the door brought a smile to my face… one that grew even brighter as I embarked and hit the button for "1960s TWA Hotel" (the other option, which I came from, was labeled "Present Day JetBlue") From there, directions on a window instruct you to talk through a tube and then veer left to the Arrivals Hall. With its bright red carpet and stark white curved walls, the corridor sets the perfect mood for being transported to an era when airplane transit was at its height of glamour. I felt like a little kid who was about to get the best present ever, and that joyful mood continued throughout my stay at the hotel. In researching this entry I've discovered that there is a more direct way to reach the hotel from the AirTrain by walking outside and bypassing the terminal… but that method was not publicized at the time, and it's surely not as fun.
The front desk looks exactly like the check-in area in an airport terminal. There's even a conveyer belt in the back which apparently is used for luggage storage/delivery. Each station has a self serve touch screen area that you can use to check in and activate your key. I later noticed some staff at the far end of the counters who I assume could help, but taking care of this task myself suited me. As I went through the process, a screen prompted me with the question of whether I wanted to upgrade to a runway view for an additional $30. HELL YES I did! My trip was definitely off to a magical start. I grabbed one of everything that wasn't nailed down- including a branded red sharpie and a card with a rough map of the hotel's common areas- and headed to my room… trying not to get too distracted by the amazingness of the decor; I had to remind myself that it would be much easier to marvel at everything when not encumbered with my bags… and when I could have my DSLR around my neck.
One of the most intriguing features of the hotel is how it gracefully combines nostalgia with modern technology. That motif was strong in a room with a sleek decor that contained such modern conveniences as a wireless phone charger (which I'd never previously seen in a hotel room) juxtaposed with old-fashioned items like a rotary phone. I loved all the TWA branded touches including vintage posters, drinking glasses, and a terry bathrobe you can use during your stay. But perhaps the best feature is that the rooms have modern sound-proof windows that extend from floor to ceiling; not a noise from outside disturbed my stay despite being just across from an airport runway.
Some critiques of the room have mentioned a lack of drawers and closet space but had I not read those reviews, I wouldn't have noticed. Let's be real here- most people staying at an airport hotel are only there for a night (or less; day rates are available). I don't think I ever use hotel drawers for a stay of less than a week. If you need to unpack for a 1 night stay, I think you may be doing it wrong. The room is not the largest, but again I don't need a spacious environment for such a brief visit- even if I am not solo. It's very comfortable and tastefully decorated. If it was up to me, I'd probably add some more whimsical touches… but my sense of style runs far from the current trend of clean and simple lines. (that's a nice way of saying that I am fond of decor that many would consider loud or tacky)
Freed from my bags, I had about an hour until my dinner reservation and used that time to explore as much of the public areas as possible. There was so much to take in- a true feast for the senses! A soundtrack of classic instrumental tunes such as "New York, New York", helped create a mood that you'd stepped into a different era. That feeling was accentuated by the clicking of letters changing on 2 large old fashioned faux arrival/departure boards. These did not display any accurate airport information (although any times were current to the clock), but both their visual and aural qualities were essential in unconsciously reminding the visitor that they had entered a world of the past. Plus, they created a pulse.. a sense of constant energy, even at times when there were few guests milling around.
The TWA hotel is housed in a space that was a fully functional airport terminal from 1962 to 2002. The architecture of this building- full of curves, slants, and open spaces- is incredibly unique and awe inspiring. Just walking around the space was a treat. Oozing with character, it's the antithesis to a typical, boxy, cookie cutter hotel. The centerpiece of the lobby is surely the expansive Sunken Lounge. With plush seats and carpet colored in the standard TWA red, it boldly stands out as a welcoming venue to sit and gaze out windows that extend vertically the entire height of the building. This lounge is home to one of the departure/arrival click boards. Rather than displaying faux flight information, this one alternates through various designs that include TWA, JFK, 1962, "Welcome" in various languages, and a US flag. Drink service was available though I did not have a chance to partake.
While the high level design would be incredible enough, the hotel is enriched by detailed and creative uses of the space that are in line with the overall 1960's feel. The most visually fun might be the Twister room with walls, floor, and ceiling all decorated with colored circles reminiscent of the iconic game- with a giant spinner on the wall. The photo booth room, wallpapered in squares of vintage (or possibly vintage inspired) photos is another great little area. It even features a fully functional old fashioned photo booth which, in a modern twist, will email you the photos you pose for. There was a slot for print-outs but either that was just for decoration or it wasn't working during my stay. Since I'd rather have electronic photos anyway, it wasn't a big deal. In any case, it was free so naturally I tried it out a few times- why not?
Wandering around, I delighted in other fun touches such as hotel phones themed as 10 cent rotary pay phones, snack kiosks themed with 1960's era magazines and newspapers, and a series of shoe shine stands. One corner of the mezzanine features a museum-like display of various TWA flight attendant uniforms, many by famous designers. A favorite corridor of mine was lined with vintage TWA posters which enticed the viewer to marvel what it might have been like to travel to the depicted destinations in simpler times.
The Food Hall, which is lined with quick serve kiosks that were mostly closed during my visit, is decorated with large black and white vintage cutouts alongside colorful old fashioned luggage and cargo uniforms. There are even TWA carts and a powder blue Chrysler sedan. This area was formerly used as a departures hall, and the stands maintain the design of a series of gateside check in desks.
Perhaps the most intriguing use of space is the Connie, a 1958 Lockheed Constellation airplane that has been converted into a cocktail lounge. To reach it, you have to walk outside and around the hotel, passing a luggage vehicle which adds just the right visual touch to make it feel like you are approaching a passenger jet that will soon be off to its next destination. I was a little nervous about boarding since I'd come to realize that there was a large event at the hotel and I wasn't sure if perhaps the lounge had been reserved for them. Nonetheless, I climbed a stairwell bearing the phrase "Up Up and Away With TWA" to take a peek around. I didn't have enough time to sit and enjoy a drink, which is definitely something I'd like to do in the future. But I was glad just to be able to walk up and down the interior aisle marveling at the mixture of vintage seats and more plush side facing sofa banks. You can also check out a genuine looking cockpit area. The Connie is truly unique and well worth even a quick look.
At some point when I was walking around with my camera and enjoying the sights, someone asked me if I'd be taking pictures the next day. Well, of course I would! Just not for whatever event they were associated with. I always chuckle at the respect I get for walking around with a big camera… despite the fact that I am such an amateur.
Finally it was about time for my dinner reservation and I was starved! The Paris Cafe is located on one of the mezzanine areas and like every other area, it was a visual delight. I decided to start my journey off with a toast but was disappointed that the Lychee Raspberry Bellini was not available; the server offered me a Strawberry Bellini as an alternative. I enjoyed my drink but I couldn't help but wonder what the lychee raspberry version might have tasted like.
The menu was decidedly modern. Although I quite enjoyed the unique taste of my Black Truffle Pizza with egg on it, I tend to agree with the reviews mentioning a wish the restaurant served more of a 1960's menu. But then again, the current offerings are consistent with the hotel's fusion of modern touches with a classic background.
My food took about 30 minutes to be served, during which time I was drooling at the scent of fries at an adjacent table populated by a group who'd arrived after me. I was nervous about ordering something outside my typical comfort foods but, as mentioned above, it turned out to be a fabulous choice. I hadn't intended to order dessert… but when there is a Warm Chocolate Chip Cookie on the menu, there's basically a law that I must try it. Alas, it was slightly disappointing as I wished it had been served at a warmer temperature… but it's hard to totally mess up a cookie so I still enjoyed it.
One of the tiniest details I appreciated was how the bottom of the check for my meal included the typed line "Have A Great Flight". I was satisfied with my meal overall, although the service could have been more prompt. It was definitely not cheap, but sometimes you just need to splurge and go with it- especially when celebrating the start of a vacation!
It was pretty late when I was done eating, but I spent a little time exploring a couple of exhibits at the end of the corridor leading to the wing of rooms where I was staying. This area included a model of the terminal and a small corner that was fashioned as a design office of architect Eero Saarinen, complete with blueprints. But my favorite part was the colorful recreation of a 1962 era living room! You could walk around this area freely and I was surprised how many items there didn't appear to be bolted down at all; the cynic in me wondered how long some of them might be around. The level of detail in the room was truly amazing.
At about 11pm, I headed up to my room to go to bed. I planned to awaken early the next morning to take advantage of as much daylight time as I could for further exploration before heading off for my flight. I'd been nervous when I'd headed out, especially since I had to take an uncharted path of transit, but the TWA hotel truly brought me into the mindset of a traveler eager to head out into the world, open to whatever adventures were waiting for me. I was so glad I was able to spend the night there.
I thought it would be fun to watch the sunrise from the rooftop pool but the viewing area didn't open until 7am. When I awoke to my 6:30am alarm, the sky already was brightening with color even though the sunrise was technically just before 7. It was pretty cool watching some planes take off into the nascent morning sun from the vantage point of my room.
After taking a shower, I arrived at the rooftop pool just after it had opened. I made myself comfortable on a lounge chair and was thankful to be able to use the beach towel that had been rolled up on it as a makeshift blanket. It was quite chilly out and my light sweatshirt wasn't nearly warm enough. Despite the temperature, I enjoyed lazing by the pool, eating a breakfast bar, and watching one plane then another take off for parts unknown. Clouds of steam drifted upward from the heated infinity pool which added a surreal feeling to the landscape I enjoyed in a solitary peace.
After eating, I walked around the perimeter of the roof. In one corner, there is a pool bar which serves light meals and snacks but it wouldn't be open until later in the day. One side provided a great view into the hotel lobby, with the tables from the Paris Cafe and Lisbon Lounge clearly visible. I mostly had the area to myself… or, more accurately, I was the only person crazy enough to sit outside on a blustery fall morning! I wasn't insane enough to take a dip into the pool, although I did dip my fingers in ever so briefly.
There is a small indoor area by the elevator which, as one might expect, was decorated with attention to detail. The walls featured blown up ads which were spot-on thematically: 2 featured people enjoying vacations by a pool; a couple others depicted people watching aircraft fly by.
When I felt I'd seen enough (and craved some warmth), I decided to revisit some other areas of the hotel to take photos with better light. In particular, the exhibit of flight attendant uniforms was much more photogenic during the daytime. I also was able to visit the TWA store which was just opening at 8am; I believe it had been closed by the time I'd arrived the previous evening. They sold a lot of cute items, but none seemed essential enough to carry around for a 2 week adventure.
I once again braved the chill and ventured outside again to take a few photos of Connie in the daylight. It was too early for the lounge to be open, of course, which is why I'd visited the previous evening despite being pressed for time. I also poked my head outside the front of the hotel for a couple minutes and saw that a vintage convertible was stationed there. I loved how the uniforms of the parking attendants resembled airline maintenance crew jumpsuits.
All too soon, it was time to head back to my hotel room one more time to gather up my belongings to head out. While taking some photos of the room with planes taking off in the background, I was glad I'd chosen to sleep in the bed furthest from the windows; this way, I could take pictures with a pristine bed in the foreground.
One last detail to enjoy was a re-creation of former owner Howard Hughes' office just by the entrance to the terminal. I hated leaving the hotel but I vowed to be back. Given how often I've flown from JFK, I figured it would be easy to work in a return visit where I could include the things I missed such as enjoying a cocktail in Connie, ordering a snack by the pool, and just having a little more time to relax. Soon after my stay, the hotel announced a seasonal ice rink with nightly performances also appealed to me. Alas, as of this writing, Covid has put any thoughts of leisure travel on hold… but hopefully some day…!
The TWA hotel is an absolute must to visit if you are a travel nerd like me, but I think most anyone could enjoy their stay. The level of detail is so outstanding that I can't possibly describe it with words. If not traveling solo, you could have a ball posing for fun photos.
Some of the initial issues described from the May opening seemed to have been worked out by the time of my stay, although I felt the restaurant service could still stand some improvement. There were some complaints about the long corridors and lack of luggage service, neither of which bothered me at all since I'd packed with the aim of being able to manage my luggage through multiple borders and fast paced movement. (and I did see someone helping a guest by wheeling a cart with her luggage so the hotel may have upped their game with that kind of service). On surface, the hotel seems expensive… but it compares favorably with prices for hotels that have much less character in Manhattan. And of course it's super convenient for a morning flight from JFK.
I'd definitely had a more relaxing morning than if I'd had to schlep all the way from home, so my hotel stay was as practical as it was fun. It was quick and easy to take the AirTrain to Terminal 1 where I needed to check in for my Turkish Air flight to Istanbul. Arriving at the terminal, I was struck by a 9/11 commemorative sculpture. When a nice lady saw me take a photo of it, she offered to take one of me and I figured why not.
There was nothing noteworthy about my time waiting to board my flight. I'd arrived quite early and had no major waits for check in or security.
The flight to Istanbul was scheduled to take just under 10 hours- so while it was a long flight, it wasn't nearly as crazy long as some others I've taken. Like other Asian airlines, Turkish Air provided a higher level of service than American carriers- notably giving out a small packet of travel items to those in economy like me. Although the flight attendants were skeptical of my claims that the first one they gave me had a stuck zipper, they did eventually replace it.
The food was ok- I had pasta for the main meal, and scrambled eggs before landing. The cheesecake served with my entrée was a highlight. It felt classy to be eating with regular silverware despite traveling in coach class.
There was a screaming toddler on the plane but fortunately I got some sleep. Rest was essential because I had a 15 hour layover ahead of me in Istanbul during which time I'd booked a private tour of city highlights. I definitely wanted to be able to be awake enough to appreciate my first visit to this intriguing city.