By Victor Block
Not hungry enough for a sit-down breakfast, I munched on Tibetan dumplings called "momos" purchased from a food truck decorated with a sign that touted "Himalayan Fresh Food." Lunch was a hurried affair at a modest five-table eatery where the menu special is yak meat washed down by salty-tasting yak milk tea.
For dinner, I chose a small restaurant that gives new meaning to the word "eclectic." The Ecuadorean-born chef transformed otherwise basic South American fare with hints of Spanish, Chinese and other cuisines from around the world.
This dining experience provided a perfect introduction to a virtual global tour without having to board a plane or ship. In the past, New York City's borough of Queens wasn't high on many people's "bucket list," but now it's earning high praise from respected sources. The Microsoft Money website has named it one of the "hottest" cities in America, and Conde Nast Traveler urged readers to visit there as soon as possible.
The proverbial icing on the cake was applied when Lonely Planet travel guides crowned Queens the "No. 1 U.S. travel destination for 2015." It praised the often-overlooked borough for its "truly global food culture," exciting museum and art scene, and seaside attractions. Based on that acclaim, the district's imaginative tourism promotion folks came up with the motto: "It's in Queens."
The list of "its" in Queens is long, varied and full of welcome surprises. For many, the most appealing attraction is the ethnic diversity. In that regard Queens ranks first among counties in the United States. More than half of its residents were born outside the United States, immigrated from over 120 counties and speak some 135 languages. The Tower of Babel had nothing on this enclave.
A good introduction to this cultural conglomeration comes during a stroll through some of the 50-plus distinct neighborhoods that are adjacent in terms of geography yet worlds apart in ambience and atmosphere. A stretch of Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights would be at home in Central and South America. The feeling, food and fun are very different in Flushing, the site of one of the largest Chinese enclaves outside of Asia, which is bigger than Chinatown in Manhattan. Exploring the Astoria area provides a personal and close-up introduction to authentic Greek culture, including magnificent Greek Orthodox churches and tavernas that serve up traditional meze appetizers.
Astoria also is dotted by mini-neighborhoods occupied by immigrants from India, Korea, Romania, the Dominican Republic and other far-flung countries. Given the name it's no surprise that the Jamaica area has strong roots in the Caribbean. Then there are sections known as Little Egypt, Little India, Little Guyana, Little Colombia and Little Manila.
In places, the cultural blending becomes apparent in the span of a single block. On one street, I spotted Cuban, Chinese and Italian restaurants that are next-door neighbors. Diners seeking sustenance on another block have a choice of Cypriot, Philippine, Czech and Peruvian fare.
As if choosing which cuisine to enjoy from a virtual United Nations of possibilities weren't challenge enough, the selection of things to see and do in Queens is equally daunting — in a good way.
Fans of baseball and tennis have a rare opportunity for behind-the-scenes looks at landmarks of those games. Guided tours of Citi Field, where the New York Mets play, include the dugout, playing field, and Mets Hall of Fame and Museum, which offers exhibits, videos and interactive kiosks.
The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open, provides an even more interactive experience. In addition to tours of its expansive facilities, it's possible to reserve time to play on the 12 indoor and 23 outdoor courts.
After several spirited games of tennis, what could be more inviting than a dip in the Atlantic Ocean? Many visitors are surprised to learn that several miles of inviting beaches line the Queens coast. Rockaway Beach has a seven-mile boardwalk and a designated area for surfboarders. Jacob Riis Beach offers shorter stretches of landscaped walkways. While swimming is officially prohibited at the isolated Breezy Point Tip of Rockaway Beach, broad stretches of sand, dunes and marshes provide an inviting setting.
Those who prefer indoor pursuits have a welcome choice of more than 30 museums, large and small. The Queens Museum is the logical place to begin. The building was erected to house the New York City Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair, and its permanent collection includes artifacts and memorabilia from both that and the 1964 exposition. Another highlight exhibit is an extensive collection of early Tiffany glass.
Most dramatic is the Panorama of New York City, a 9,335-square-foot model that encompasses some 900,000 tiny structures built in intricate detail to exact scale. In this mini-metropolis, the Statue of Liberty is less than 2 inches high, while the Empire State Building is a towering 15 inches.
Visitors to the Museum of the Moving Image are immersed in the history, technology and art of movies, television and even video games. Historic cameras, costumes, set designs and other exhibits are enhanced by unique experiences that include recording voice-over dialogue for a film, adding music to movie scenes and choosing sound effects for sequences from well-known movies and TV shows.
If you're still not convinced that Queens warrants a visit, or at least a day trip from Manhattan, add in a Resorts World Casino, a pre-Revolutionary house and working farm, one of the major sanctuaries in the Northeast for spotting resident and migrating birds, and a 24-square-block arts district.
A sightseeing itinerary also can include homes in which a virtual alphabet of celebrities once lived. Among them were Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, the Marx brothers, Mae West, Jackie Robinson and Malcolm X. I left Queens convinced that if it was good enough for them, it's great for me.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information about all that Queens has to offer visitors, visit www.itsinqueens.com.
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.