BQE Tours is run by husband-and-wife team John and Elissa Garay, two dedicated tourism professionals who are seriously passionate about their NYC hometown. Lifelong New Yorkers, both originally hail from Queens, and are now happily settled in South Slope, Brooklyn (check them out in the photo here, getting hitched in DUMBO, Brooklyn).
They currently live on the top floor of a 115-year-old brick house, and can see Lady Liberty waving at them from the harbor when they stroll down their sloping, tree-lined street, set just two blocks from the polluted Gowanus Canal and bustling Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Smell the roses and the toxic vapors—yep, that’s the special scent of New York City.
John, a licensed NYC sightseeing guide, and Elissa, a well-established travel journalist, are constantly amazed and engaged by the seemingly endless cultural offerings and changing aspects of life here in Gotham. BQE Tours is a natural extension of their passions, as an instrument to share their new discoveries and old-time go-tos from their favorite city in the world.
Their lifelong witness to NYC’s rapidly changing face allows for tour itineraries and commentary that are rich in unique local perspective and insight—John knows well the neighborhoods he leads his tours through, sharing engaging beyond-the-guidebook stories that reflect on his personal connections with the local streets, adding context to the communities’ fast-evolving characters.
The Garays also claim a shared NYC experience as children of immigrants here, which has granted them deep roots in and sincere affection for Brooklyn and Queens’ standing as melting-pot meccas. They have personal understanding of the immigrant experience that defines so many of the city’s ethnically diverse neighborhoods.
In 2012, the Garays gave up their apartment, threw all of their belongings into storage, and set out on an epic 15-month globe-trekking adventure, taking in 37 countries, enriching their knowledge of the world, and sharing an adventure of a lifetime. At some point during that experiment in nomadism came the genesis of the concept behind BQE Tours: To enrich the lives of fellow travelers by helping them make worthwhile memories, with equal measure of knowledge and fun; and to welcome strangers as much as they had been made welcome in many strange lands.
John (aka “Johnny Noir”) really loves his city, where he was born in Queens to immigrant parents with life journeys straight out of a South American novel of magic realism—his mother is Native American (Quechuan), the daughter of a medicine woman from a village tucked high in the Peruvian Andes; his father is a multilingual Chilean of Spanish Basque ancestry who grew up in the streets of Santiago, just a couple of blocks from Pablo Neruda’s enchanted house, La Chascona.
John was raised in a NYC much different than the safe and cleaner metropolis we know today, a 1970s and ’80s NYC that, although filled with danger, also possessed distinct character and offered inimitable cultural treasure. In the 1980s, as a teenager going to Brooklyn Technical High School, he became fascinated with a borough that would fill many of his days and nights with misadventures, mayhem, and gloriously fond memories, and eventually be a place he would call home. Having come of age in rough-and-tumble New York, John has many stories to tell, some of them not so pretty and nice. But all of it, the good and bad, are part of what he likes to call his NYC DNA: “If you cut my veins, I bleed New York City,” he’s been known to say.
Citywide, whether it was exploring the streets of Red Hook, Jackson Heights, Chinatown, etc.; dancing at legendary clubs at the height of NYC cool; or navigating a Times Square filled with drugs and peep shows as a child-actor out on auditions; John’s recollections of NYC are something that he weaves naturally into the stories of the neighborhoods visited on his tours.
John has the unfortunate distinction of being an eyewitness to horribly devastating terrorist attacks in two separate countries that weigh heavily on his memories. In Lima, Peru, he just escaped injury at the 1992 ‘Tarata bombing.’ In NYC, working as an intake supervisor for the emergency room and admitting department at NYU Downtown Hospital, just three blocks from ‘Ground Zero,’ John experienced, up-close, the tragedy that occurred on September 11, 2001. The events of that day have deepened his relationship with his city and understanding of its place in world history.
John is a published writer and photographer, primarily focused on travel, culture, and urban exploration.
Having traveled regularly since childhood, exploring the world remains one of John’s great passions. His other interests include literature, cinema, art, street photography, baseball, hiking, mixed martial arts, and dancing tango, and sometimes those interests connect with tour itineraries. John, forever “just a guy from Queens,” cheers for the Mets and Jets . . . both of those teams suck.
John is currently working on what he’s dubbed a “NYCentric” comic book series, as well as a screenplay that he hopes will have Hollywood calling.
An eccentric but sincere person who loves to make human connections, he’s the guy to take you on a trip through NYC, the real NYC.
Elissa is also very connected to NYC’s “immigrant experience,” born in the Astoria section of Queens to a father of Greek ancestry, and an American mother with deep roots in New York City as a descendant of Irish and German immigrants.
In her teens, Elissa’s visit to her father’s homeland in Greece marked her first trip out of the United States; this experience, along with her college year of study abroad in Europe, sparked in her the inspiration for a lifetime of travel and exploration. Elissa has spent spells living in France, Denmark, Holland, England, and Argentina, where she was welcomed and treated with great kindness. Upon returning home, that experience heightened her awareness of the unique melting pot that is NYC and strengthened her sense of duty to always be a welcoming and thoughtful host and ambassador for her city.
Elissa has worked as a professional travel editor and journalist since 2001, whose expert travel advice, articles, and travelers’ itineraries have been published in Fodor’s, Yahoo, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and more. She is also the Manhattan travel expert for leading web resource About.com. Elissa has been featured as a travel expert on television and radio, and has traveled to and reported on some 60 countries and 25 cruise lines around the globe. Along the way, she’s sampled some of the world’s very best walking tour companies, taking notes applicable for BQE Tours all the while. She thrives on guiding visitors to new destinations, most especially her NYC hometown.
Elissa has spent many years studying various spiritual disciplines in her efforts to deepen her knowledge of life and the energies that drive and bind us. To her, travel is a natural extension of this searching—just as the mind and body seeks adventure and expansion, so does the spirit. A wonderful tour, although not exactly a mystical experience, is one which connects fellow travelers and spotlights certain aspects of the human experience, and she thinks that’s a pretty awesome thing. It is her hopes that participants in the “Brooklyn Queens Experience” will leave enriched, with mind and spirit lifted, and new insight gained from encountering this unique little corner of the world.
See these two feline beauties? They were sister strays, rescued from a parking lot in Queens, who now live quite comfortably (translation: John and Elissa are their slaves) in their shared Brooklyn home. Like the Garays, these kitties are intrinsically tied to both boroughs, through memory, action, and attitude. A couple of cool cats, indeed.
As ardent animal lovers, John and Elissa do volunteer work for a Brooklyn-Queens animal rescue organization—caring for strays is one of their ‘pet’ causes . . . they also like humorous puns.