Manhattan Project

The destination was a New York restaurant. Ground zero: Baltimore. Four intrepid reporters set out by plane, bus, car and rail. Who would get there first, and for least

TRAINS ... Total oneway time and round-trip cost: 3.5 hours / $203


For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for Travel's sake. The great affair is to move.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Our inspiration was obvious: Baltimore was getting two new ways to visit New York.

First, Southwest Airlines announced it would start offering flights to New York for as little as $88 round-trip. The catch was that travelers would fly from Baltimore-Washington International into MacArthur Airport in Islip, Long Island, a good distance from the attractions that draw most Baltimoreans to New York City for a day.

Then, in October, Amtrak will roll out a 150-mph train that promises to shave 30 minutes off the trip to Manhattan, making it a two-hour train journey.

We started wondering: What's the best way to get to Manhattan?

A simple plan was hatched: Four reporters would set out on an agreed April Saturday by plane, train, bus and Automobile to find out how the trips compared in time, cost and convenience. The only requirement was that each reporter must make a 1 p.m. lunch rendezvous at Grand Central Terminal, at the new Michael Jordan's restaurant.

Who had the best trip? The answer may depend on whether you're a control freak, rail geek -- or just really cheap. Here are their diaries from the day.

The boarding pass was teal. The flight attendants wore khakis and ended sentences with y'all. The ground threat of a conga line hung over Gate B-1 at BWI, as Southwest Airlines Flight 314 prepared to depart at 8: 50 a.m.

Ten minutes later, the pilot -- possibly wearing chaps and a 10-gallon hat -- announced: "We had the plane break on us." Just need a quick "plug-in part" and we'll be on our way, y'all. "Plug that wing back in -- it fell off," said a passenger in beach sandals. He laughed. We faked the return laugh.

Said part was plugged in. "We're out of here, y'all. Check those seat belts and enjoy the ride!" yelped the flight attendant. Ride 'em, Boeing 737! Islip, here we come!

Islip is on Long Island, which conveniently is in the same hemisphere as Manhattan. Southwest has begun $88 flights to Long Island from BWI. It would then be my job to travel the 50 miles to Manhattan by 1 p.m. for a fat lunch.

The one-hour flight was swift and uncomplicated. The teal boarding pass allowed us to sit anywhere except in the cockpit (perhaps requiring the mauve boarding pass). Orange juice or coffee was offered. The in-flight magazine featured a sizzling article called "Steakhouses Go Brazilian." A couple behind us smooched, broke, then re-smooched. Southwest must put something in the O.J.

Regardless of the airlines or fare, air travel follows the same intricate pattern. 1. Plane goes up. 2. Ears pop. 3. Plane comes down. So, at 10: 10 a.m., Southwest Flight 314 landed in "Town Islip: The Recycling Capital of America." Southwest's parting words were, "Go out and enjoy the sunshine and have a great weekend, y'all."

Resembling a recycled high school gym, MacArthur Airport is an $8, 10-minute cab ride to the Long Island Railroad at Ronkonkoma station, where we have missed the 10: 10 train to Penn Station. We buy a ticket for the 11: 10 train and spend two bucks on two glazed doughnuts and coffee at Dunkin' Donuts. Looking to bust The Sun's expense account wide open.

Finally, "this is the 11: 10 Local train to New York." And we shoot through Long Island neighborhoods, passing fields of soccer tryouts and homes like our own. Early nips of green in the trees: Spring's pointillism. Time would fly by if it wasn't interrupted by all these stops. Notes reflect that the Long Island Railroad stops 112 times between Islip and Manhattan.

In other words, the ride is one hour and 25 minutes -- nearly one-half hour longer than the flight.

Finally, "Penn Station. Last stop." Emerging like mole people, we found ourselves in sunny Joe Louis Plaza, hunting wild taxi outside Madison Square Garden. Time: 12: 43. We need to travel 5 miles to Grand Central Station by 1 p.m. No problem.

Inside our taxi, a posted "Bills of Rights" says we can expect "1. A driver who knows and obeys all traffic laws. 2. A clean trunk. 3. A radio-free (silent) trip." We careen down (up?) 8th Avenue honking maniacally at any car stopped within a five-mile radius. Notes reflect the following conversation with the cab driver: " ."

Ten minutes and $5 later, we're dropped at Grand Central Terminal, although we never did see an actual sign saying "Grand Central Terminal." It must be down in there somewhere. Piecing together four sets of hospitable yet useless directions, we find Michael Jordan's Steak House, where we reunite with four suspicious characters.

And a swell lunch it was. But there must be a better way to get there, y'all.

Pub Date: 4/17/99

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