A Day Trip to Princeton, $66, Nap Included
A Day Trip to Princeton, $66, Nap Included
By SETH KUGEL, New York Times, 10/2/2102, original
Sometimes, when I’m at home in New York City, I get the feeling I don’t spend enough time in New Jersey. Not often. But sometimes.
So I recently decided to give our neighboring state a little of my time. Twelve hours of it, to be precise, for a low-cost, carless Saturday trip to Princeton, a college town that does what college towns do best: combine quaintness with substance.
Getting to Princeton costs $35 round trip from Penn Station — you take New Jersey Transit to Princeton Junction and then switch to a one-car shuttle train known as the Dinky that carries you right to the campus. And the trip takes just 88 minutes, unless perchance you fall asleep and snap to attention just as the train pulls out of Princeton Junction. In that case, get off at Hamilton, cross over the track and take the next train northbound.
Note to self: caffeinate next time.
But I was wandering alongside the Collegiate Gothic buildings of the campus by 10:30 a.m., in the thralls of a gloriously sunny fall day, with students riding bikes and playing volleyball and doing all they could to reinforce my idyllic and quite likely exaggerated memories of how wonderful college was.
The train arrives just across the street from perhaps Princeton’s most celebrated cultural attraction outside the university — the McCarter Theater. I saw that Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce were performing in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (which runs through Oct. 14), and called the number to see if there were any last-minute cheap tickets available. No luck, tickets were $75. But when I get my promotion to Lavish Traveler, I’ll be back.
Starving, I walked down Nassau Street, which was picturesque and tasteful despite its requisite pizza places and sweatshirteries and bedraggled students up at the ungodly hour of 11. I was looking for the legendary local breakfast spot called PJ’s Pancake House. But I saw its fearsome line before I saw it — some people (including some pregnant people and some with small children) might be willing to wait in line an hour for pancakes, but not me. Plus, when I checked the menu, the blueberry pancakes I was hankering for cost an eye-popping $9.65.
So I slipped off Nassau Street down a side street and into the year-old Infini-T Café and Spice Souk, a friendly and Silk Road-themed fair-trade teahouse, to regroup. Well, well, well: a plate of made-from-scratch, bursting-with-fresh-fruit blueberry pancakes for $7. And that came with over-the-top service. Did the party to my right need more syrup? A woman peering into her MacBook looked cold, did she need a throw? Sure, we have an iPhone charger you can borrow. A hibiscus and wild berry iced tea and tax brought the total to $10.75.
From there, on to explore the town, skipping the well-reviewed Princeton Walking Tours and making my way around with a map downloaded from the Visit Princeton Web site (pdf). My first stop was a swing through the Robeson Center, the headquarters and gallery space of the Arts Council in Princeton, named for the Princeton-raised actor who died in 1976. Some of the artworks there deal with the African-American history of the neighborhood Robeson grew up in. It’s also right across the street from the Princeton Cemetery, which you can tour with a map and online key.
Every American president to serve two nonconsecutive terms and every American vice president to kill a founding father are buried there. (Grover Cleveland, No. 7 on your map, and Aaron Burr, No. 9, respectively.)
I wandered back out Nassau Street to a striking — seemingly levitating — bust of Princeton’s most famous scholar, Albert Einstein, that was dedicated in 2005. Then I dropped by Morven, an 18th century estate that was, before Drumthwacket, the governor’s residence.
A tour of the house — filled with period furniture and portraits of many of its eminent inhabitants, which included a signer of the Declaration of Independence — cost $6. Also notable was the backyard re-creation of a Colonial Revival-style garden, which, when I arrived, contrasted anachronistically with dozens of yogis attending class on the adjoining grass.
Another spot that brings the past to mind is in the center of town just off Nassau Street: the Princeton Record Exchange. One could be forgiven for assuming that the exchange is some sort of historical re-creation of a thriving record store circa 1990, before people started file-sharing en masse and buying music online, what with the aisle crowded with customers browsing through music sorted in alphabetical order by genre, with the Smiths near the Smithereens, Jefferson Airplane near Jesus and Mary Chain.
“Do you like ZZ Top?” said one young man with moppy hair to his friend, as the Riviera sang over the speakers about having fun in the warm California sun. “Meh,” said another. I bought a $5.99 Louis Armstrong CD from the jazz section.
There was time for a late lunch, and on this occasion long lines would not prevent me from hitting the next campus classic, Hoagie Haven. In front of me, two high school girls were discussing the possibility of ordering an “extra-dirty Sanchez,” since “everyone in our school is always talking about it.” I briefly thought this might be the order for me — it’s only $5.50 — until I saw one being prepared: fried-chicken cutlet, fried mozzarella sticks and French fries stuffed into a hoagie. Instead, I went with the $4.50 chicken cheese steak, thrown together deliciously by the scrambling staff.
It was almost 3 and I had hardly even set foot on campus, so I wandered over to the Princeton University Art Museum, which is free and indistinguishable from a place you would pay good money to see. I headed straight for the small but impressive collection of 19th- and early-20th-century European Art, darting from Monet to Modigliani, Cezanne to Sisley, before moving on to some Warhol and Max Ernst before realizing I was going to be late for the last campus tour of the day, at 3:30.
I hurried to the Frist Campus Center, where tours leave on weekends, to find a very peppy pre-med religion major named Liz, who took us through main highlights of campus, like the sublime University Chapel, completed in 1928 in an English medieval style. That satisfied my desire to see the campus, but her main purpose was – as it should have been – to rave about life on campus to the families with prospective students, which made up most of the group.
To summarize, pretty much everything at the school is “awesome,” though a select few things are actually “amazing.” I did learn something I actually found awesome (though not particularly amazing): the back of the student center stands in for the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital during the opening credits of the TV series “House.”
By the end of the tour, there was just enough time for a snack before heading back to the Dinky. Princetonians love their ice cream, and there are three creameries in town compete for most beloved: Thomas Sweet, Halo Pub and the Bent Spoon. But I opted instead for a stop by the House of Cupcakes, which scored a recent victory in the television show “Cupcake Wars.” I don’t usually fall for that sort of TV endorsement, but am flexible when salted caramel frosting is involved. And it is, there, atop a chocolate cupcake for $2.25. That brought my total cost for the day, including the train, to $66.
Speaking of the train, once off the Dinky and onto the main line, I fell asleep almost instantly, and without a worry of missing my stop: Penn Station is the end of the line.