A whirlwind trip to NYC, Vineyard

Times Square in New York City is constantly alive with people in the city that never sleeps.

Doug Pardue

He’s my cousin. Honest!

I can’t remember how far removed, but at a family reunion a couple of years ago, I learned that I’m related to the “Naked Cowboy” of Times Square. I had forgotten all about that in late April when my wife, Judy, and I strolled through bustling Times Square while on vacation.

Suddenly, there atop a concrete pedestal stood my cousin wearing, well, nothing, except white briefs, a white cowboy hat and white cowboy boots. A guitar hung by a strap from his shoulders. When it’s properly positioned, he appears nude.

Without thinking about how it would look, I jumped up on the pedestal with him and promptly introduced myself as his cousin.

Judy debated whether to laugh, hide or take a photo. One person in a rapidly gathering crowd of onlookers pointed in my direction and asked Judy, “Does he really know him?” Judy replied, “They’re cousins. Really!” and snapped our photo.

Cousin Naked then snatched Judy off her feet, lifted her in his well-muscled arms and hoisted her up for the crowd to see and me to photograph.

“No charge for a relative,” he said, as I took the photo and several flashes went off from the crowd.

The Naked Cowboy, I was told, has been doing this gig for more than a dozen years, hot or cold, earning a healthy living off tourists, especially women, eager for a unique New York souvenir.

He sells franchise rights to other naked cowboys and naked cowgirls and sells product endorsements, such as New York’s Naked Cowboy Oysters. He’s also certified to perform weddings.

Ah! New York! New York!

The Big Apple is, in an exclamation made famous by sports fans, “Awesome!”

As much as I love my hometown of Charleston, standing in Times Square at Broadway, just a few blocks from MoMA, not far from the Empire State Building, Central Park, Greenwich Village, SoHo and the 9/11 Memorial, it’s understandable how New York City is such a popular travel destination.

Judy and I left ourselves sorely little time to take in as much of Manhattan as we would have liked — just three days out of a hastily arranged weeklong getaway. We planned the rest of the week to visit the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, the escape of presidents, politicians and rich folk.

In Manhattan, Judy and I set three goals: see a Broadway play, preferably “Orphans” with Alec Baldwin; visit the 9/11 Memorial; and dine at a great top-end restaurant.

We tried to book the play tickets online before we left, but the prices seemed prohibitive, jacked up by add-on fees. So we took the advice of friends who told us to go to Times Square and buy discounted tickets the day of the play at the TKTS booth there. However, the one day we could go to the play, the booth didn’t open until 2 in the afternoon.

Finally, we decided to just call the theater and see if we could buy tickets. Too bad we didn’t try that earlier: We got tickets for $127 each in the middle of the center row, five seats back from the stage. We literally could watch the sweat form on Baldwin’s brow.

While we found the play engaging, others, including a New York Times reviewer, didn’t. The availability of our excellent seats so late on the day of the show should have been a giveaway that the play was doomed by poor ticket sales. It closed a month early.

To visit the 9/11 Memorial, we took the subway from near our hotel at 54th Street and the Avenue of the Americas. It was a straight shot, taking almost no time.

You can get tickets to enter the memorial ahead of time online. The tickets are free, and they are used mainly to regulate the number of people. You also can get tickets at the gate. It just takes a little bit longer to get in.

The memorial consists of a tree-covered plaza with two massive sunken waterfalls in the foundations of the fallen Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The names of the nearly 3,000 killed are etched into railings around the fountains.

It’s designed for honoring those killed, remembrance and contemplation, but for now, it’s difficult to feel the full impact. The area still is largely a construction site surrounded by plywood partitions, workers and heavy equipment.

The soaring Freedom Tower, constructed to thumb the nation’s nose at the terrorists and other enemies, received its top spire the day after our visit. With the spire attached, the building symbolically reached 1,776 feet and became the tallest in the Western Hemisphere.

The restaurant we picked for our top-end meal was Le Bernardin at 155 W. 51st St., a short walk from our hotel. The wildly lauded French seafood restaurant is shepherded by chef Eric Ripert, who could make oyster shells taste grand.

To avoid the steeper dinner costs, we decided to go for lunch, when the food is equally elegant but slightly less extensive and costly.

Lunch is a three-course prix-fixe menu for $72. It offers a selection of “almost raw” and “barely touched” appetizers. I selected the six assorted oysters. Judy picked the ultra-rare seared tuna, marinated fennel, basil and capers.

For a main course, I dined on the wild striped bass, Bhutanese red rice, green papaya salad and ginger-red wine sauce. Judy had lobster. Then dessert: for me, caramelized phyllo, thyme gelee and salted milk chocolate ice cream, and for Judy, yogurt-tahiti vanilla panna cotta, verbena sauce and rhubarb sorbet.

On the morning of our fourth day in Manhattan, we rented a car and drove to the base of Cape Cod, where at Woods Hole we boarded a car ferry to the island of Martha’s Vineyard. A ferry reservation is a good idea and a virtual requirement during the high season.

The island has an excellent bus system and bicycle-friendly roads. But we opted to bring a car so we could drive leisurely among the island’s several distinct towns, which range from the native Indian hamlet of Aquinnah on the island’s western tip to Edgartown, where classic sea captain homes from the island’s whaling days line picturesque streets.

Our decision to bring a car proved a good one since Martha’s Vineyard also is the third largest island on the East Coast behind Long Island, N.Y., and Mount Desert Island, Maine. The Vineyard, as it often is called, is just slightly larger than South Carolina’s Johns Island, the fourth largest island on the East Coast.

Despite the island’s seemingly specific name, no one knows for sure who Martha was or whether she had a vineyard. But everyone, including the host at our inn, offered a selection of answers, getting progressively more absurd. One of the most likely tales is that a British explorer named it after his dead daughter.

The Vineyard achieved both fame and infamy as a retreat for the rich and famous. Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy on July 18, 1969, drove a car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island off the east end of the Vineyard, killing passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. And Steven Spielberg ruined the beach for millions of vacationers in 1974 when he used the island to film the movie “Jaws.”

We stayed in a dated but reasonably priced inn at the northern end of the island in the town of Vineyard Haven, also called Tisbury. Although the island has an airport, Vineyard Haven’s port serves as the main point of entry for goods and people. It’s a sleepy town with a couple of blocks of boutiques and restaurants.

The best restaurant scene lies six miles to the southeast in Edgartown, where you can sit at a waterfront table feasting on fresh seafood or chow down on a gourmet burger. It’s a “wet” town, which means you can purchase a mixed drink with your meal. Edgartown also serves as the island’s shopping mecca with numerous trendy and pricey shops.

Oak Bluffs, the island’s other “wet” town, enjoys a reputation for a party atmosphere. That vibe is enhanced by the town’s many carpenter gingerbread homes with multicolored paint jobs. Oak Bluffs also played a role for more than a century as a key vacation spot for notable and well-off blacks, especially those escaping the summer heat of Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.

The Vineyard typically enjoys warmer winter temperatures than nearby mainland cities and cooler summer weather.

Islanders say that despite the Vineyard’s reputation as a getaway for the wealthy and famous, their presence is not obvious.

The island tends to be low-key, and the wealth and fame tend to stay away from ordinary tourist haunts, down long roads and in ultra-private homes and yachts.

Here, islanders say, privacy gets respect.

Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558.