With Mom’s 80th birthday wrapped up nicely at the end of January, it was time to turn my attention to Fernando’s, which is usually some kind of surprise. Bad for me, I also have a bad habit of setting the bar too high. For his 43rd, for example, I hit him out of nowhere with a trip to Playa del Carmen. And his March 2012 birthday was a milestone – 45. What to do?

Tapped after Dora’s birthday cruise, I opted for low cost, yet still fabulous. That meant taking advantage of our proximity to New York, particularly in that his best pal, Jenny Lopez, lives in the Bronx, and a visit with Jenny always makes him happy.

Hunting around, there were plenty of hotels to choose from in the $200-$300 range, thankfully. With a ballpark idea of what was on offer at Hotels.com, I zeroed in on our favorite chain, Kimpton. I wasn’t familiar with their newest New York property, Eventi, but it looked perfect. The location was central, it was two blocks from Penn Station, price was right and it looked amazing. I booked a larger king room for about $300 a night – in my experience, a Manhattan bargain. If I’ve made any good decisions so far this year, choosing Eventi was undoubtedly one of them.

First things first, however. We celebrated Fernando’s actual birthday on Wednesday with dinner at Ceiba. Three friends, Claudia, Ed and John, who couldn’t make New York, joined us. I chose Ceiba beause I needed a spot with churros on the menu. In Cozumel for the Dora cruise, his only request was to visit the churro cart in the town square. The complicated logistics, however, destroyed that dream. As we re-boarded the ship, I promised him in Scarlett “with God as my witness” O’Hara style that I would someday, somehow make it up to him. Dammit, I needed to get him a churro.

Just before dinner, I handed him tickets for the upcoming Saturday matinee of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in New York, so that cat was out of the bag. He knew he was getting dinner Wednesday, but Claudia knocking on the door before we left was a surprise. So were John and Ed, when they sat down, even if the hostess and I were speaking right in front of Fernando about the table for five. Of course, if it was some huge tricky chore to surprise Fernando, I wouldn’t do it. But that took care of his wonderful birthday dinner, with three of his favorite friends, followed by our waitress bringing out his celebratory birthday churros, perfectly complete with birthday candle.

With the NYC cat out of the bag, I didn’t need any subterfuge to get Fernando to Union Station midday Friday. He was getting suspicious, though. “Nobody else is coming? Really?” I gave no direct answers. “We’re meeting Jen in New York. I’m taking you to Priscilla. What more do you want from me?” But look, it’s John and Aaron here at the station! A & J joined us for a drink at Union Station’s Center Café, then headed off for their adjacent bus to New York. With time ticking down, however, where the heck were Will and Oscar? Texts confirmed our train-mates were on their way, but we were cutting it close and we still needed to collect our tickets. Being an “arrive two hours before your flight” kind of guy, I was sweating a little. So, minus Misters Oscar and Will, we headed to a ticket kiosk. And it didn’t work; I’d need to stand in line. But the train leaves in 10 minutes and the line is so long! But wait, here they are! And they’ve already gotten the tickets because they upgraded us to business seats! And follow Oscar, because he’s heavily tipping a porter to have us skip the line at the gate and walk right out a side door to the platform. Super! Even better, Will of Southern Living style has prepared a spread for the train, right down to perfect dirty martinis. This was not business class – it was first.

There’s something elegant even about the clock-watching at Union Station.

Tippling and texting at Center Cafe

Training Day with Oscar and Will

Arriving at Penn Station around 5 p.m., we made the quick walk to Eventi and continued our good moods. The gracious check-in was complemented by the complimentary cupcakes, berries and bottled water welcoming the birthday boy to the room. By Manhattan standards, this was also quite a room. Spacious. Huge marble bathroom with rain shower. Windows that open. Gloriously comfortable king bed. And a view that would’ve inspired E.M. Forster to write a sequel.

Eventi 1

Eventi’s warm welcome

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And warm bed!

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More of the lovely room

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Fernando inspecting his cupcakes, so that I may eat them.

Eventi 5

You really can’t get enough of this room, can you?

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You haven’t even seen the bathroom!

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It’s big. 

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It’s beautiful.

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And you’re gonna love it.

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And the view!

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Can’t quite touch the ESB, but close.

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And the Freedom Tower coming along nicely.

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You might not get our view, but you’ll definitely get a view.

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If you’re afraid of heights, you may not want to get this close. 

I’m really not sure how everyone else joined the party moving forward. I knew the Phils – Phil R. and Phillip M., of Hamilton, Ont. – were flying in and staying down the road. Brad and Sanj’s hotel room was about 10 feet from our own. John and Aaron would check in not long after us. And Jason and Jonathan. And Ben. And Dan. Who was I forgetting? Even Chris Kohatsu made a cameo appearance. Mike would represent the locals. I had no idea London-based, Florida college pal Jason would make a showing at the Eagle. Or that we’d bump into Trey there, too. At some breaking point, I was as surprised as Fernando. It was like celebrity sightings in a Muppets movie.

Friday

Welcome to the Hog Pit.

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Aaron happy, Ben sour

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Jonathan and Dan refuse to smile for the Hog Pit camera.

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Four in a row: John, Jason, Oscar and Will

Aside from the Eagle – which serendipitously coincided something called “Piggy Bear” – we hit the Hog Pit for its accessibility – seemingly a hit with the paleo-diet-minded Crossfitters at the table, and all the rest of us. As mentioned, Priscilla was on the agenda, and did not disappoint. Adding to the fun, we soon realized Jenny had never seen the movie. “It’s a play about a bus? What?” Afterward, urban Aaron had a sizable chunk of our collective working its way from Times Square to Hell’s Kitchen for Medi Wine Bar, which was sublime. I’ll take a bullet for any establishment whose cheese plate includes a ramekin of good honey. Regrouping later Saturday and heading to the West Village to hook up with the stragglers, first stop was Ofrenda, conveniently next door to the Stonewall Inn. We were going to eat dinner at the bar, but a zealous bartender and overzealous patron began a sort of seltzer-splashing, bromantic courtship that left Fernando’s quesadilla and mood soaked, so we left as quickly as we entered in hopes of hitting the reset button. (Though I’ve got to say that the single bite of the guacamole I managed before the exodus was perfection. I might sneak back when Fernando’s not looking.) We ended up at The Monster (fun), then Ty’s (perfectly laid back) and finally The Cock (sort of depressing after 3 a.m.).

Saturday 1

Jenny and Fernando after Priscilla

Saturday 2

And Aaron talks while Jonathan texts.

Phils

The Phils show off the Priscilla cocktail sippy cup.

Phils 2

Then they show off their Priscilla-inspired choreography for ‘Go West,’ but cannot agree which direction is west.

Jen snuck me into a post-play pic!

Ben toasting with one of Medi Wine Bar’s signature cocktails, the “9&53rd.”

FJ

Walking Jenny to her Bronx-bound train.

Sunday, we were able to take in a satisfactory brunch at Affinia Manhattan’s Niles, directly across from Penn Station. Then on to Acela for the quick ride home. All in all, a Big Apple birthday Fernando will likely long remember – in part, dare I say, thanks to the Ofrenda waterworks. It’s always good to collect a story.