Is Val Day the Best Day in New York?

We were going to drink champagne on a boat, and nothing, including seasickness, was going to stop us.

New York City skyline, Valentine's Day napkin, boat interior.
Kaitlyn Tiffany / The Atlantic

Sign up for Kaitlyn and Lizzie’s newsletter here.

Kaitlyn: Years ago, our friend Tamar was seeing a boy who had three or four odd qualities. I’m only going to state one of them here because otherwise he will be instantly identifiable and may become angry: He wouldn’t say “Valentine’s Day”; instead he said “Val Day,” which we absolutely loved.

Now, look, I grew up in the suburbs, and like everyone else I have trauma from never receiving a carnation from my crush during homeroom and never being offered a promise ring or whatever by my one true love. Valentine’s Day as a teenager is brutality. Val Day in New York City, however, is a different story. They sell roses in tents by the subway. They sell teddy bears out of the backs of vans. The restaurants have cupids and arrows painted on the windows … grown-ups eat candy and heart-shaped baguettes! Oh, and my eyes just fill with tears because Val Day in New York City is for everyone; it is so beautiful, and we call it Val Day because a boy with odd qualities offered us the term and then, after some weeks, sweetly disappeared from our lives.

So imagine all that, and then, I’m sorry to ask, imagine it is 20 degrees and windy and you’re headed down to the water in the dark.

Lizzie: A cold, questionable journey toward an icy body of water that could swallow you alive without anyone noticing feels a lot closer to how I’ve always experienced Val Day in New York City than my bright-eyed friend Kaitlyn here. I don’t mean to sound cynical—I understand the appeal of gooey, medicinal-tasting chocolates in a heart-shaped box, and I appreciate the unearned glow of early infatuation, but I also find it hard to love anything at all about the month of February, and roses just remind me of funerals. My mind is a battlefield.

This frigid walk to the water we’re alluding to is the one from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River, which you have to do if you wanted to, for example, go on a Valentine’s Day cruise in New York Harbor. And we did. We were going to drink champagne on a boat called the Manhattan II, and nothing—not frozen ears, seasickness, public makeout sessions, or technical difficulties—was going to stop us.

Kaitlyn: The cost of two tickets on Classic Harbor Line’s Valentine’s Day Champagne Tasting Cruise, including tax and a reasonable tip, is $346. If you’ve ever been outside your house you know that this is more money than basically any 90-minute activity other than surgery should cost, and also enough money to buy a very nice dinner inside a building.

But there is a time in some of our lives—if we appear to be young men who work in finance, for example—when we want to spend a ludicrous amount of money on our special someones and provide them with an experience that we did not have to put any effort into planning, yet can conceivably be labeled “romantic” and “thoughtful.” During those dear, brief days, $346 is just the right price, and Pier 62 in 20-degree weather is just the right place. Maybe! (Or, as was the case for me and Lizzie, maybe we just want to do something new and odd in the city we love.)

Pier 62 is on the river at 22nd Street, and an enormous gymnastics gym is there as well. While we stood around, Lizzie and I watched through the window as 10-year-olds did front flips. We shivered and stomped our feet, saying how terrible it was to be a child and have no control over how you spend your time. Though the children looked warm. And one of them was doing oblique crunches while she waited for her turn to use some apparatus, so I guess she liked being there and was dedicated to her craft. We were still glad to be spending our time precisely as we’d chosen to: freezing to death among other adults, including a young woman who was wearing a dress and no tights, a young woman who was flopping backwards into her boyfriend and pulling his hands into her coat pockets, a young woman who was holding a dozen yellow roses and looking grim, and a bunch of young men in nice jackets.

Lizzie: As is often the case with activities involving departure times, our ticket instructions dictated that we should plan to arrive at the dock anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes early, for no real reason other than to raise the stakes of our journey with a little frostbite play. We were supposed to board five minutes prior to our scheduled departure, but this didn’t happen. Everyone was antsy. When a nearby boat blew its little horn, some enterprising ticket-holders decided that it must have been a call for us to board, and they lined up accordingly. Kaitlyn and I muttered that this seemed a little overconfident. These were not boat people—as a viewer of Bravo’s various Below Deck franchises, I can promise you that—and the boat with the horn wasn’t even that close to us.

The man in the ticket booth (a boat person) had to announce that we were, in fact, being too eager. Our boat was having some technical difficulties, but they hoped to have us boarding “in a matter of time.” Perceptive readers might recognize that this is not actually a meaningful measurement of time—everything that has ever happened has happened in a matter of time. In reality, it was about 10 more minutes before we boarded.

The Manhattan II seems to take its design inspiration from Bass Pro Shops: a lot of light wood, dark-green upholstery, and vintage-looking floatation devices. We sat at our designated table, shielded from our serious-looking young tablemates by a sheet of plexiglass.

Kaitlyn: Todd, who described himself as our second mate, gave a speech about the ways in which this boat was “a little different than a land restaurant.” The key differences were that we needed to remember where the life jackets were and that we were to treat our champagne glasses as our “pet rocks,” meaning we had to take them with us if we went out onto the deck or into the bathroom, so that they couldn’t slide around and shatter in our absence. Also, we were to wear masks. Needless to say, several couples heard this last directive and then totally ignored it—some so that they could make out, which is one thing, but others just so they could sit there without masks on, for whatever reason they were telling themselves, which is another.

Lizzie: By this time, I started to notice a small surge of nausea starting to creep up, and it wasn’t from seeing the lower half of our shipmates’ faces. We were experiencing a classic case of boat turbulence, but not one I was prepared for. Luckily, Kait found some pretzels and an unmarked blister pack of chewable tablets loose at the bottom of her tote bag that she thought might be Dramamine. I love Dramamine. Can’t get enough of the stuff. I Googled the active ingredient listed on the foil packaging: “​​Alcohol: Avoid. Very serious interactions can occur.” I popped one and let the chalky generic berryness settle in my molars, ready to taste some champagne …

Kaitlyn: The first glass was a pretty good sparkling Chardonnay from the Hudson Valley. I enjoyed it but I was disoriented by my utter ignorance of where we were in physical space. First, I incorrectly identified what must have been New Jersey as Brooklyn, thinking that we were in the East River, even though that wouldn’t make any sense. I then incorrectly identified the Empire State Building as the Freedom Tower. At one point, Lizzie saved us by recognizing the Colgate clock, but we were soon lost again. It didn’t help that the boat made several sharp turns.

Before our second glass of champagne, a server dropped off a little cup of water crackers and told us we were at a very lucky table. “The people who sat there on the last cruise got engaged,” he said.

Lizzie: He clearly intended this nugget of information to make us feel special, to encourage us to believe in the romantic power of the yacht, and perhaps even to feel as if we had been struck by the fishing spear of Nautical Cupid ourselves. Mostly it just made us feel like we missed our only chance to experience a major Valentine’s Day moment, all due to a circumstance of scheduling. What if we had booked the earlier boat ride? What if they had booked the later one? Like ships in the night, I tell you!

The water crackers our server gave us were followed by a plate of three cheeses, each meant to pair with our next three glasses of champagne. The cheese plate, like me and Kaitlyn after we found out we missed a front-row seat to a marriage proposal, was a little deflated. The cheeses sat on a thin bed of no more than five pieces of wilted arugula, surrounded by a bird’s handful of dried goji berries, three olives, and two pieces of dried peach. The cheeses had the kind of pungent aroma capable of completely derailing a romantic evening, but we were starving, and so we dutifully ate what we could. There was something “airplane meal” about it all. Like eating a cheese plate in a spacious Boeing with an area rug, going around in circles.

A sad cheese plate with arugula.
A cheese plate with arugula. (Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tiffany)

Kaitlyn: I don’t think we wanted or expected a lot more, but we had expected some chocolate. Chocolate was specifically mentioned on the website.

Of course, what we were really there for was a $346 experience, not $346 worth of snacks. And suddenly we were directly under the Statue of Liberty. After struggling for a few minutes to take selfies in which she was visible through the boat windows, almost everyone abandoned their pet-rock champagne glasses and raced out to the deck.

“That was the opposite of worth it,” one well-dressed man grumbled to his date while we were on our way out there and he was on his way back in. Don’t say that to your Valentine! It was very cold, and Lizzie and I were drunk. I couldn’t hold my pen to write in my tiny Atlantic notebook with its tiny cartoon Poseidon on the front. “There’s our captain,” Lizzie said, pointing up at the captain in his little room above our heads. “The water looks nice,” she said, pointing down at the black waves. It was really too dark for pictures.

Lizzie: These are the kinds of conversation starters I’m bringing to the table. You can’t teach that kind of stuff.

Back inside, we wondered how we were going to fit two more glasses of champagne into the remaining 20 minutes of the ride. It turns out, we weren’t really. Our final glass—a lambrusco, which we were told pairs well with “rich Italian dishes” and “dark-chocolate ganache”—was poured right before docking. By the time I came back from a trip to the WC (also airplane-like), we were already being encouraged to depart the vessel, and I hadn’t even had a sip of the ’brusco.

Kaitlyn: The couple across the plexiglass from us were really in distress because they had paid the optional $50 or something for a whole special bottle of champagne in addition to the four glasses per person that everyone was served in what turned out to be less than one hour. They were not going to have time to drink it. “Chug,” the boy said to his date. They chugged. They didn’t finish. They put on their coats. He said, not meanly but not nicely, “Never ask me how much this cost.” I thought she could easily find out how much it cost without asking him, but I didn’t say anything.

I was busy listening to Liza Minnelli’s version of “New York, New York,” which was playing over the sound system. It was our cue—Get off the boat because there is another group of people waiting to get on. Oh, and my eyes just filled with tears!

After we debarked, we leaped over the rats on 22nd Street (I screamed and Lizzie said, “What a shriek”), and then we asked ourselves: Was ours the longest relationship present on the 7:15 Champagne Tasting Cruise around New York Harbor? And, not to be rude, maybe the only one that will “go the distance”? It absolutely had to be, if only because everyone else was so, so young.

Lizzie: Inspired by Kaitlyn, I kept an eye out for the magic of Val Day on my way home. At West Fourth, there was a fight on the subway platform: two men screaming at each other. At Fulton, our conductor announced that we should “consider taking another train because … uhhh … we’re not moving.” I saw only two people with flowers, but they did look happy to have them.

Later, I couldn’t get my contact out of my right eye. I kept squishing around in there until my eye was a Valentine’s Day shade of pink. Eventually, I noticed the contact sitting in the sink, where I guess it landed after I’d pried it out without realizing it. I think Valentine’s Day is kind of like that: prodding yourself in the eyeball until it hurts a little bit, looking for clarity that you’ll probably end up finding somewhere else entirely.