Secret Society - New York

Picture this: a pocket of New York City that is free from crowds and noise.

A private place where knowledgeable locals and the savviest of travellers can find respite from the city’s relentless buzz. A space where it’s possible to forget, even if it’s just briefly, about the teeming metropolis that surrounds you.

Sound far-fetched? These secret places do exist, and they’re yours to access with the right combination of time, money and persistence. The city that’s known for its in-your-face attractions has its share of under-the-radar experiences, too - from intimate dining rooms and secluded recreational facilities to quirky members’ organisations and quiet, leafy expanses. You just need to know where to look.

Swimming pool, The Greenwich Hotel

A swim at The Greenwich Hotel in TriBeCa is a transformative experience.

Step into the hushed indoor pool area and your eyes will be drawn first to the dark wood that frames the room. These pillars and beams are more than 250 years old: they are from a traditional Japanese farmhouse that was carefully taken apart piece by piece by a team of craftsmen, transported to New York and meticulously reassembled in the hotel’s basement.

Surveying the room, which is dimly lit by lanterns and fragrant with incense, it’s easy to picture yourself in the Japan of yesteryear. Submerge yourself in the water for a couple of lazy laps and you’ll feel invigorated. After a visit here, you may find yourself thinking about the act of swimming in more spiritual terms.

The pool adjoins the hotel’s serene Shibui Spa, which offers weary travellers a range of remedies, from a Japanese-style bath in white lotus milk to a dry brushing and massage with almond oil and peach kernel. Although the swimming pool is closed to the public, visitors to the spa may access it before or after their treatments. Otherwise, you must make a booking at the five-star Greenwich in order to take a dip. With just 88 rooms (no two are alike) and a devoted clientele of businesspeople as well as celebrities, you’ll need to plan ahead - and dig deep - to secure your lodgings at this extremely private hotel. But if you do manage to wrangle a room, the faultless staff will treat you like a true A-lister. 

Bowling alley, The Frick Collection

Most visitors to The Frick Collection know that the stately mansion it is housed in -adjoining Central Park, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side - was once the residence of industrialist Henry Clay Frick and his family. But few museum-goers realise that below the quiet street-level galleries, with their Goyas and Vermeers, lies a warren of corridors and rooms that the Fricks and their staff once used on a daily basis. The museum has repurposed many of these areas for administrative tasks, but one room remains in its original condition: the Frick family’s private bowling alley.

With its pine- and maple-wood panelling, moulded plaster ceilings and intricate light fixtures, this pristine space is a prime example of the time and money that Frick devoted to the construction of his family’s Manhattan home. Installed in 1916, the two lanes and wooden ball-return mechanism (which together cost $850, a substantial sum at the time), as well as a billiards table in an adjacent room, were only used for a few years before the patriarch’s death in 1919. Until 1933, the rooms housed daughter Helen Clay Frick’s Art Reference Library - they then sat gathering dust until the museum decided to restore both the alley and the billiards area in 1997.

Today, the bowling alley is closed to the general public because it does not have sufficient exits according to modern fire codes. Private tours are reserved for the museum’s most valued supporters - those known as Supporting Fellows, Sustaining Fellows and Patron Fellows, who contribute more than $5000 a year to The Frick. 

Boehmian

From the street, there’s not much to see: a nondescript Japanese butcher’s shop selling prime cuts to affluent downtowners. But if you step through the unmarked door to the left of the main entrance and walk down the low-lit corridor, you’ll arrive at Bohemian, a kakurega (or ‘hide-out’) that provides an intimate, exclusive dining experience for a select group of patrons.

Securing a table isn’t easy. Bohemian does not accept walk-ins or list its phone number online. Prospective guests must be referred by someone who has already dined at the restaurant. The reward for making it inside? Superbly executed Japanese and American comfort food, served by impeccably mannered staff in a dining room with just a handful of tables.

Despite the intimidating screening process, the restaurant itself is a warm, informal place, and it’s not unusual to see families seated at the larger tables. An impressionistic black-and-white map of the world adorns one wall, and there is a small wooden bar turning out spirits, sake and unfussy cocktails.

The food is similarly low-key: appetisers include a rich mac and cheese; romaine heart salad with lemon and gorgonzola; and beef tartare (from the butchers, of course) served with blue-cheese toast. Mains, such as miso black cod with grilled mushrooms and a simple beef burger, satisfy without being overbearing.

It’s possible to dine solely on Japanese dishes (the fried burdock root, torotaku roll, Japanese cabbage salad and sashimi are excellent), but it’s more fun to mix and match eastern and western flavours. 

Gramercy Park

New Yorkers in search of a bucolic escape have no shortage of enchanting green spaces to choose from. But for those seeking the Big Apple’s most sought-after commodity - total privacy, or at least an approximation of it - only one such spot will do. Gramercy Park, which sits in the middle of the neighbourhood of the same name, is Manhattan’s lone private park, and one of the most fiercely protected plots of land on the island.

This verdant retreat, and the townhouses surrounding it on all sides, were constructed in the 1830s. Since then, park-side residents have paid for the upkeep of their communal front yard. In return, they each receive a key that unlocks any of the four wrought-iron gates providing entrance to the leafy haven. Literary luminaries such as John Steinbeck and modern-day heavyweights including Julia Roberts and Karl Lagerfeld have all succumbed to the area’s charms and taken up residence on the park.

Inside, you’ll find lush manicured lawns, shaded benches, a fountain and several sculptures, including one by celebrated American artist Alexander Calder. A strict list of rules - no dogs, no smoking andno ball games - ensures that decorum is maintained. And because so many of the area’s current residents live glamorous, jet-setting lives, the park is often empty.

Short of purchasing a multi-million-dollar apartment, the best way to gain access to the park is to book a room at the Gramercy Park Hotel, which offers its guests plush, boho-chic rooms and endless celebrity-spotting opportunities, with a price tag to match. 

The Explorers Club

A giant stuffed polar bear from the Chukchi Sea. The remains of a rare four-tusked elephant. A narwhal’s lengthy front tooth. These artefacts can all be found in New York’s most bizarre clubhouse: a place where real-life adventurers, from Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to Edmund Hillary and James Cameron, have gathered to plot expeditions to some of the most remote places on earth.

The Explorers Club, which is hidden inside a nondescript six-storey townhouse on Manhattan’s wealthy Upper East Side, is overflowing with countless other intriguing items, including manuscripts written by Napoleon, a set of ancient voodoo drums from Haiti and - out on the sheltered terrace - stone columns from a 15th-century French monastery.

If you’re curious, you can gain access to some parts of the house by attending one of the club’s varied public lectures, which run on a weekly basis, or by hiring the event space on the second floor. But other areas, such as the epic fifth-floor trophy room, which is filled with the club’s most precious memorabilia, are the exclusive domain of members.

To gain full membership to the club, candidates must be active explorers (proof of a scientific expedition is required) and also be recommended by two current members. Luckily, some privileges - such as access to the club’s impressive collection of maps and rare tomes - are available to anyone who can demonstrate a genuine interest in exploration. Another way for laypeople to get a taste of the club is at the annual gala dinner, which is renowned for serving bizarre food (a recent menu included the flesh of a prehistoric mammoth that had been preserved under snow and ice). 

Words by Dan Stapleton - Published in Voyeur February 2015
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 8.3 million
Time Zone UTC -5
Languages English (official), Spanish, Native American
Currency American Dollar ($USD)
Electricity 110v - 60Hz
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