Friday, October 2, 2009

Best Shopping Towns

It's so much fun to discover the ins and outs of a new town. Or to return to a favorite place and see what shops and restaurants are still there, new, or gone.
Way before the age of the blog, I've kept personal visual journals in my head of my favorite towns. What makes them the best? For me, it's walkability, beautiful surroundings, interesting unique local businesses, and the friends I make along the way.

Each one has become a sort of "home" town for me, and I look forward to adding new ones to the list.
For instance, Westhampton Beach, on the South Shore of Long Island, NY, is a Hampton that's often overlooked when people think of The Hamptons.

But it's long combined upscale shopping and dining with a simple, everyday life kind of atmosphere, and hosts one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It's also the closest Hampton to NYC, so the train or car commute gets you there much quicker.

Westfield, NJ , is considered one of the Best Towns to live in the U.S.

It artfully combines unique local shops and restaurants with upscale mall stores, which makes it a destination shopping and dining town for out-of-town visitors as well as locals. The street layout breaks out of the grid by featuring streets that open out on a diagonal, adding to the breezy feel of downtown.

Nestled along the east bank of the majestic Hudson River, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY , is one of the Rivertowns of lower Westchester County, NY.

It's a little village that time forgot, in terms of its quaint, walkable charm. Yet it's filled with commuters at the top levels of every profession, along with a large population of artists, writers, and musicians, who bring the sophistication and savvy of Manhattan to Hastings' cultural life. Along with the riverfront and its iconic views of the Palisades cliffs, Hastings-on-Hudson preserves a beautiful forest, called Hillside Woods, and the Old Croton Aqueduct, a linear park that runs through the town as it winds towards Croton-on-Hudson.

Sarasota, FL , is a cultural and geographical gem, curving graciously along the Gulf Coast of southwest Florida.

With over 7 live theaters, the world-class Ringling Museum of Art, several colleges, beaches famous for their crystalline sands and nightly sunsets, international dining, and dedication to providing a beautiful setting for every park, mall, and downtown street, Sarasota feels like a small town that calls itself a city.
In order to make some visual sense out of these wonderful towns, I've created a Blog for each one of them. If you want to see the updates as they happen, sign up to "follow" the towns you like the best. It's fun and it's free. Just go to Best Places to Shop & Walk to see the current list.
If you'd like to suggest a town for the Blog series, please enter it in the "comments" box to the right, and I'll add it to my list. Thanks!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Good Old Urbanism - Westfield NJ

Lots of New Jersey transit towns are compact and walkable in their center. But they are usually only bedroom communities for the people who live there and work in New York City. What makes Westfield NJ different is that it's a destination town. Because of its free-flowing layout and intentional mix of unique local shops and restaurants with well-known, upscale mall brand stores, it's both commuter town and vacation-experience wrapped up into an appealing package that draws visitors from near and far.

While parking is often a challenge, because of the town's popularity, it's not that difficult to find a spot if you're willing to walk a block or two. For instance, you can park on E. Broad Street, near Mindowaskin Park, (except for rush hour--note the signs) and stroll into the core. Westfield is such a pretty town, that it's pleasant walking anywhere, so avoid the congestion and find a handy spot along the way.

The main shopping streets downtown are E. Broad Street, Elm Street, Quimby Street, Central Avenue and North Avenue. Parallel to North Avenue, on the other side of the railroad station, is South Street, which has numerous service businesses and restaurants. Perpendicular to E. Broad Street and North Avenue, is Prospect Street, where you'll find a few shops and two popular cafe/restaurants: 16 Prospect Wine Bar and Rockn' Joe coffeehouse.

The NJ Transit train station opens right onto the intersection of North Avenue and Elm Street, so you can walk from there to any number of charming restaurants on Elm and Quimby Streets, offering an international potpourri of cuisines. Some of them are BYOB, so first pick up a bottle of your favorite wine at Cool Vines on Elm Street.

Westfield is a fashion shopping day-trip destination, with name brands like Victoria's Secret, Ann Taylor, Aerosoles, Eileen Fisher, Chico's, Esprit, Gap, Gap Kids, Williams-Sonoma and more.

What makes it much more interesting than simply going to the mall, though, is the one-of-a-kind resources you'll find there. For instance, stop into Rhain accessories and gifts on E. Broad Street to find a full range of styles and items in every category. Menina on E. Broad Street and Anais Boutique on Elm Street offer sophisticated clothing and accessories. For kids' clothes, there's Pumpkins & Petunias, near the movie house, on E. Broad Street. And for kids' bedding and furniture, try Poppyfields Home on Elm Street. If you're a knitter, Knit a Bit is a charming yarn shop with a nicely edited selection and instruction available, too. It's upstairs above the shops, on Elm Street.

There are numerous shoe shops in Westfield, for women, men, and children. Also luggage, photography, coffee, and funky 60s-ware (at Funk & Standard on Central Avenue).

Because of the many restaurants and cafes downtown, you can start in the morning with breakfast at Panera Bread on E. Broad Street, stop for lunch at Rockn' Joe on Prospect Street, indulge in gelato at The Chocolate Bar on Quimby Street, and relax over dinner at Splash Thai on South Avenue or Mojave Grill on Elm Street. Eat, walk it off, eat, walk, etc.

For a break from the shopping and deciding, walk around Mindowaskin Park and release your mind to the sounds of quacking ducks and the beauty of the trees and the lake. If you prefer lunching with a sandwich or burrito, get takeout from Qdoba on Elm Street. Fresh, delicious, and affordable. Or pick up your order from Vicky's Diner on E. Broad Street and enjoy it al fresco sitting in the gazebo in Mindowaskin Park.

Along with all the shops and restaurants, the basics are also located right downtown: Post Office, UPS Store, MotoPhoto, a fun Trader Joe's market, supermarket, banks, cleaners, YMCA, etc. You can easily park once and walk to everything.

About 10 minutes away on E. Broad Street is the Westfield Public Library, with lots of Internet computers, free wifi, and comfortable wing chairs and study carrels, in case you're visiting with someone who'd rather read and surf than shop.