New York, New York

Travel Fact File: Getting there | Getting around | Security | Staying | Climate and Crowds | Tipping

Bumper stickers declaring "I (heart symbol) NY" are conspicuously missing from the streets of New York. One suspects that's because New Yorkers have forgotten that the rest of the world exists. Most of them certainly can't conceive of living anywhere else. We visitors can only look about in amazement at the wonders and squalor that come together in the Big Apple.

New York is so much part of our lives, through television, film, books and music that most of us have clear preconceptions about the city. Indeed, we can hold several views simultaneously. On one hand, there's a "Barefoot in the Park", "Miracle on 34th Street" idealised view of New York's glittering spires as the golden city of Oz. On the other, there's the nightmare "Taxi Driver", "Escape from New York" vision of the city as the representation of the collapse of the modern city into dark and dangerous, lawless concrete canyons.

So, one arrives with feelings of exhilaration and trepidation. The first view of the city won't disappoint because the city's three airports (La Guardia, Newark and JFK) ring the city so from each there's a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline before touchdown. It's one of the most magical sights in the world and seeing it for the first time takes on the significance of a rite of passage.

Then reality intrudes as you load your bag into an ungainly and unkempt yellow cab and head for the city. The boroughs' nasal accents slice through the air like a cat fight.

Here is my first piece of advice - stay in the best New York hotel you can afford. I say this as a veteran of three visits to the city. The first time I was poor, I stayed in a dump, I found the people rude and the city filthy. An article I wrote nearly 20 years ago concluded: "New York might be a nice place for rich people. But I wasn't, so I left."

As it transpired, the only thing poorer than an Australian motor cycling lawyer surviving as an itinerant journalist was the City of New York. It went broke soon after I left - and the rubbish piled even higher.

However, like its entrepreneurs, New York bounced back. When I returned in 1989, the city was looking much better. Partly, this was a personal reaction. I stayed in two hotels, both members of Leading Hotels of the World. One was the exquisite Hotel Plaza Athenee (I was there just after Princess Di checked out) and the other was the Westbury, both on the Upper East Side.

The whole city was not only cleaner in 1989, there was a new attitude abroad. For example, when I returned to the Westbury to collect my bags hours after I checked out, I had been soaked by an unexpected summer shower. The hotel found me a spare room to shower and change in, arranged to have a shirt and suit rush pressed, sent up a warming cup of tea - and didn't charge me a cent. That was just an extreme example of the sort of hospitality I experienced on the streets. I started to fall in love with the city.

The old New York survives, however. The day I arrived, a New York court ruled that witchcraft was a legitimate religion for taxation purposes.

I was in New York again last December. This time I stayed in the Peninsula, a smaller sibling of the Peninsula in Hong Kong. Besides offering the sort of luxury one would expect from this illustrious heritage, the Peninsula New York is perfectly located on 5th Avenue between the Rockefeller Centre and Central Park. This is Ground Zero, the epicentre for any serious shopping or sightseeing.

The staff at the Peninsula were preening themselves on victory in a luxury hotels' Christmas competition to make the best gingerbread house. Their winning entry was soon to be sold for charity - it came complete with a tiny black chocolate grand piano and elaborate chocolate parquetry floor.

My love affair with New York grew apace. Winter softens the city's hard edge as ice skaters take to the open air rinks, giant toy soldiers guard store entrances, the horse carriages run through a snowy Central Park, steam rises from street vents and chestnut sellers jostle with charity Santas for sidewalk space.

Day or night, I felt quite safe in Manhattan this trip. Later, I discovered that there has been a 300 per cent increase in policing the streets and a $40 million facelift for midtown (plus $12 million spent on Central Park) that includes better street lighting, more civic cleaning, new subway carriages and new buses. It shows.

The seedy side of the Big Apple still exists - it's just been pushed beyond the main tourist areas. New York has always had a split personality from the close juxtaposition of blatant consumer opulence and abject poverty. The line has just moved further out. I asked a taxi driver if he felt safe in the job. His reply was revealing: "Hell, man. Anyone who can afford to live on Manhattan - even in Harlem - has more money than me. But I won't work places like the Bronx: it's like armed warfare out there."

For corporate war games, one can't go past Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange. There's free admission to the viewing room looking over the trading floor. Its bustle and paper-strewn floor, giant cables and running clerks is a long way from modern, soulless computer trading in Australia. By the way, it's called Wall Street because in 1633 the Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant ordered a wall built here to keep the Indians out. It clearly failed to repel corporate raiders. Of course you can buy souvenir NYSE mugs and T-shirts.

Around the corner, the city's eccentricity comes to full bloom at the McDonalds at 160 Broadway. It's like none you've ever seen. One is welcomed by a smiling doorman in a felt hat and inside there are marble tables and hostesses. For the local office workers there is a "fax your Macs" service. Most surprisingly, there's a grand piano being played by a distinguished gentleman named Danny Deaver who is the spitting image of the opposition icon, Colonel Sanders of KFC fame. Upstairs, inevitably, there's a souvenir shop.

While down this end of town (the pointy end of Manhattan) you should visit the Statue of Liberty: at 100 metres high it's the world's tallest statue. If a close-up of the lady's copper skin isn't attraction enough, the ferry trip out to Liberty Island where she stands provides a great view of the downtown Manhattan skyline. Alternatively, you can sail past on the Staten Island ferry, have the same view and pay just 50 cents for the return trip.

From the Hudson River, the dominant structures of the spectacular skyline are the twin towers of the World Trade Centre soaring to 1110 floors high. There's a public observation deck inside on floor 107 and outside on floor 110. From here, the whole urban expanse lies at your feet like a map. At night, it glitters like a carpet of diamonds intermingled by coloured gems.

Up the other end of town is the viewing platform that's been used by everyone from King Kong down since it opened in 1931. Nothing can prepare you for the Art Deco spectacle that is the Empire State Building. Much of its marble, brass and mosaics is beautiful, some is crass but the whole effect, inside and out, is remarkable. In December, the exterior is lit up as a Christmas tree. The lifts (oops, elevators) rise to the 80th floor, then there's another to the viewing area on the 86th floor. In good weather you can take a third lift to the enclosed observatory on the 102 level. The view from these levels down Manhattan Island and across to the Chrysler Building is worth two visits - one by day and another by night. While marvelling one evening I heard a clear Australian voice talking into a telephone behind me: "Hi, Mum. Guess where I'm calling from?"

If possible, visit the Chrysler Building itself, if only to see the intricate Art Deco foyer, and the doors and interiors of its lifts. Before abandoning the edifice complex that Manhattan induces, there are a few other buildings particularly worthy of note. Students of devolution may be interested to visit the Trump Tower (5th Ave at 57th St) that is a bronzed mirror glass monument to 1980s excess. Inside you'll find a pink marble shopping emporium and a 25 metre waterfall.

Prince Charles has stated that contemporary architects have done more damage to London than the Germans did in the Blitz. He should be grateful for American Independence. Forget modern architecture and wallow in the golden age of New York architecture in the first half of this century.

"Where exactly is Rockefeller Center?" you may well ask as you stand on 5th Avenue. It all is - that's the simple answer. Rockefeller centre is the cluster of skyscrapers, artworks, concourse and plaza that fills the blocks between 5th and 7th Avenues and 47th and 52nd Streets. That's about nine hectares of central Manhattan that was developed in the 1940s. The tallest building that rises from the gardens is the RCA Building. Radio City Music Hall and the Museum of Modern Art are two of the major public attractions.

There is a museum in New York for every interest. The Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum (The Met) and the Museum of Modern Art are just the internationally renowned tip of the iceberg. Whether it's craft, Jewish history, photography, American Indians, Maritime or Black studies you want, you'll find one here. That's what we travel writer have to say. I must confess that I have never been into any New York museum - there's just too much to see and experience out and about.

New York comes down to a matter of priorities. It attracts 5.5 million visitors each year. Some 81,000 Australians came to New York in 1992 (that was up 10 per cent on the previous year) and, on average, they stayed for nine nights. It has been suggested that your first day is best spent taking a Gray Line 4.5 hour bus tour in the morning, a Circle Line boat cruise in the afternoon and spend the evening at a show on Broadway or the Lincoln Centre. That would certainly be a good overview. But it misses the nitty gritty of the city.

Take Condomania in Greenwich Village, for example. Apart from fulfilling a vital role in this HIV age, it's worth a visit for anyone with a prurient sense of humour. In the novelty shelves are "real man condoms" made out of steel wool, ones that glow in the dark and even Santa condoms. "Rubber Necks" that are condom bow ties made me laugh. But the item I most wanted to buy was a T-shirt that said "So you're an actor - which restaurant?"

The mainstream shopping strip is midtown 5th Avenue. Cartier, Tiffany, FAO Schwarz (the world's greatest toy store), Saks, and the extremely pretentious Bergdorf Goodman are all within a few blocks of each other. Bloomingdales is over on Lexington, Macy's the other direction - on Broadway, and the newest New York department store is Barneys on Madison Avenue. Visitors should note that the lift in the Warner Bros store on 5th Ave operates in a clear perspex tube so you can see that Superman is pushing from underneath.

I find it constantly surprising that so many of the sights of New York are within walking distance of each other. The archetypal Big City is a series of human scale neighbourhoods. Indeed, the whole of Manhattan Island is only 20 km long and from 1.2 to 4 km wide - and that includes Central Park and Harlem. The city is like one of those video images that starts wide from somewhere near Alpha Centauri and finishes focused on a cafe in Times Square.

In the wide, New York is the name of the whole state. Hence the line "New York, New York, so good they said it twice". The city of New York encompasses the five boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Manhattan. The total city population is 7.3 million but Manhattan has just 1.5 million of these. This island that holds most fascination for visitors is 60 square kilometres of the city's total 780 square miles. Big Apple! It's hardly a cherry tomato.

Why is it called the Big Apple anyway? I asked the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau and have what I think is the definitive answer. In the 1920s, jazz musicians used the term as shorthand for saying the big time, roughly: "there are many apples on the tree but New York is the Big Apple". In 1971, Charles Gillett, president of the bureau revived the expression for a PR campaign. It certainly worked. The term is now used universally.

Every city is the creation of its past. But few show the high tide line of each passing fashion as clearly as New York. Coming here to visit the Bleeker Street of which Simon and Garfunkel sang? Head for Greenwich Village (which is something of a disappointment) and you'll find hippies who look like they haven't bought new clothes since Bob Dylan went electric. They're mingling with New Agers seeking the perfect crystal, and students tossing up between a new rap CD or dinner. For a change of pace, the spirit of Gordon Gecko is alive and well on Wall Street where cell phone aerials positively bristle. In mail order shops, Jewish proprietors enact every Woody Allen gesture. And there are enough fur coats on 5th Avenue to give it the appearance of an animal migration path. In the 1990s!

In the teeming masses of New York the grand gesture rules. So limousines cruise Broadway like a flotilla of ocean liners, the subway crazies are louder and coarser that anywhere else, and street corner newspaper vendors have a line of patter to beat David Letterman.

Letterman himself, the Great White Hope of late night television, can be seen by visitors who plan well ahead to be in the studio audience. Other shows that welcome enquiries about passes are Joan Rivers, Phil Donahue and Saturday Night Live. For the lowest common denominator, see Geraldo and you'll never complain about Australian television again.

Lovers of opera, jazz, rock, theatre or musicals will find what they want in New York. If it's not on now, it'll be in town next week. Buy a copy of New York and New Yorker magazines and scan the music and theatre listings. Like the Saturday New York Times, these magazines can be found in some Australian newsagents.

One freezing clear winter afternoon I stood at the front of the Staten Island ferry watching the Statue of Liberty glide past and the familiar Manhattan skyline loom ahead. To my left was Ellis Island where millions of immigrants first set foot on American soil in response to the words at Liberty's feet: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free". Despite many months in the US, I've never wanted to live there. Still, New York engenders a feeling of excitement - there's an edge to the city that make you want to succeed.

Perhaps the last word should go to that perennial New Yorker, Frank Sinatra intoning "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere." That achievement may be simply feeling comfortable in this dynamic city.

Travel Fact File

Getting There

Since April, Northwest Airlines operates one flight a week from Sydney to New York via Osaka and Detroit. From New York, you can make connection to any of Northwest's 90 ports across the USA. Northwest can be contacted on (02) 290 4455 or (008) 221 714.

Alternatively, you can fly to Los Angeles with Qantas and then use Qantas' joint service with American Airlines across to New York. For more information, call Qantas on (02) 957 0111 or (008) 808 506.

Return economy fares to New York cost from $2000.

Getting Around

Walking is a good way of exploring New York. The major hazards are sore feet and a kink in your neck from peering at towering buildings. Traffic jams make daytime taxi use costly. However, a taxi is the best way from the airport: the cost from JFK should be about $US30, from Newark about $US35 and La Guardia about $US20. Make sure you use a Yellow Cab (the only registered ones) and pay a tip.

Whether the New York subway has improved dramatically or I've experienced a personality shift, I now find it no more threatening than the London tube or the Paris Metro. People even ask each other for directions, for goodness sake. I doubt if I'd travel on it late at night carrying an expensive camera but during the day it's convenient and fast.

A safer, if slower, option that still lets you take in the scenery is the urban bus network. You'll need exact change of $1.25 or tokens that you can buy at subway stations. The buses can be very crowded in peak hours.

Security

Be aware of pickpockets - especially on crowded public transport or in stores. Don't put your parcels or bags down out of sight. Avoid street scammers and leave expensive jewellery at home. (Anyway, unless you have the Koh-i-noor diamond handy you won't be able to compete with New Yorkers' overstated displays of wealth.)

There are a few common tricks used by thieves in New York streets. If someone bumps into you or spills something on you, they may be trying to divert you while an accomplice rifles your bags or pockets. The same applies to cash dropped in the street.

Staying

In a city as daunting as New York, a good boutique hotel provides the ideal refuge. The three hotels in this article all offer excellent accommodation. All can be booked through Leading Hotels of the World, tel (02) 233 8422 or (008) 222 033, fax (02) 223 5372.

The Plaza Athenee represents a slice of Belle Epoque France dropped into New York. The Westbury has the atmosphere of an exclusive private club - with lots of dark wood and furnishings.

My personal favourite in New York is the Peninsula Hotel. The location on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street is superb. Many times I consulted a map to find where my next meeting or excursion was - and found it was in close walking distance. But the hotel itself is a delight. Besides featuring the most high tech telephone/room control unit in the world, the Peninsula rooms are perfectly quiet while still allowing you to check on the weather or the traffic on 5th Avenue before leaving the room.

From the doorman and the front desk clerks to the maid who turned down my bed while telling me about Phil Collins' sweet little daughter down the corridor, the Peninsula staff successfully set out to make the hotel feel like home.

Climate & Crowds

I suggest avoiding New York in mid summer when it's hot and uncomfortable and everyone is irritable. Far better to go in spring or autumn (fall) when the crowds have cleared and the locals have relaxed.

The Christmas season is superb: you are not just in the heartland of blatant consumerism but New Yorkers take the Christmas experience very seriously. Carols radiate from every open door and Christmas trees light the night. I even had the unusual experience of being serenaded by three girls dressed as Christmas trees as I walked through Macy's.

Be aware that the World Cup soccer will fill New York from mid June to mid July this year.

Tipping

In New York, no matter what your personal principles, you have to tip. Have a stash of dollar notes for doormen, porters, etc. Add 15-20 per cent to restaurant bills - and at least 15 per cent to taxi fares.

Further Information

Contact the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau at 2 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019, tel (212) 484 1200, fax (212) 245 5943. The NYCVB is the essential first stop when you arrive in town but you may wish to contact it in advance for a copy of its brochure on reserving seats for the taping of television shows.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd