Forget the Empire State Building and Time Square. Jayne Watson strays from the tourist trail to explore New York’s hidden gems.
The first visit to New York is a milestone in anybody’s life. But what do you do when you go back again, and you’ve done all the familiar sights?
You’ve taken Manhattan; you’ve got enough Central Park photographs; you’re pretty familiar with The Village.
You’ve done the Empire State and the Statue of Liberty, and once you’ve winkled your family away from the sale rails in Macy’s - where now?
It’s time to leave the Manhattan rectangle of Central Park, Times Square, SoHo and the Battery, and strike out for new territories. A $29 seven-day unlimited subway pass may seem expensive (except by London standards) but it’s worth it if you’re staying even for three or four days; determination to get your money’s worth is a good motivator to get exploring.
Go south. Head for the Brooklyn Bridge - everyone does, but most tourists just take the picture and go north again.
If you’re there for a Sunday, get right down to the tip of Manhattan Island and the old Fulton Street Fish Market. The original relocated to The Bronx in 2005, but after a few years the old stalls next to Pier 17 got a new lease of life in the form of a farmers’ and produce market where you can mooch around grazing on samples of artisan cheeses, salamis, fruit, breads, pickles and honeys until you finally pick a stall to get lunch from.
We chose lobster rolls from Lots O’Lobstah, which were delicious, and a salted caramel ice cream which got the member of the party who “never eats ice cream” stealing shameless spoonfuls.
Stalls vary according to the season - winter comfort foods included Poffertjes (little light Dutch cakes, cooked to order) and curried cauliflower pickles at Sour Puss Pickles.
Now cross one of those two bridges into the remarkably named Dumbo (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) - this is your entry to Brooklyn, and really rather a ritzy one.
Not only is it a boutique-y shopping area, home of New York’s best pizzeria, Grimaldi’s, and a famous chocolatier (Jacques Torres, Hudson Street), but since September 2011, there’s a new and really rather bizarre addition to the Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Jane’s Carousel is an immaculately restored, working 1920s fairground gem, shielded from the elements by a $9 million acrylic pavilion through which riders and gawkers can see both the Manhattan and the Brooklyn bridges and the skyscraper skyline, all surreally wobbling.
The ‘Jane’ who gives it her name is artist Jane Walentas, who spent 20 years restoring it. Once you know she was art director at Estee Lauder, and her husband David C Walentas is one of NYC’s ‘Lords of Dumbo’ developers, who turned this once run-down warehousing area into a piece of gold-plated real estate, then the genuine gold leaf on the carousel ponies begins to make sense.
Keep going, down into Brooklyn itself and the gold leaf gets a bit thinner, the waistlines not so Manhattan wasp-y, and the accents a lot thicker.
The famous Brooklyn vowel sounds (‘toity poiple boids’) still identify natives of Kings County. In 17th century New York we Brits, having taken over from the original Dutch colonialists, split the town up into 12 counties, including Kings for King Charles II, and, of course, Queens.
Brooklyn is low-rise, compared to Manhattan, and still very much an area of distinct ethnic communities, with their own specialist food shops and restaurants. If, like us, you go to the USA with the explicit intention of eating yourselves silly, then it is an excellent destination.
Even better, you can book yourself on to a Best of Brooklyn Food and Culture Tour, from All New York Tours, where the strolls between the bus stops work off some of the calories piled on by traditional Jewish potato dumplings, Cuban sandwiches, Polish sausage... and so on.
All the online reviews said ‘Don’t eat before you go’, (don’t do Fulton Street Market and this on the same day) and that Isaac the tour guide was a star.
We can endorse both of those comments. We went out of season, and most people on our bus were Americans, equally fascinated and equally delighted by the food.
An elderly Jewish gentleman almost wept over the knish (potato dumplings) from the Yona Schimmel Knishery on the Lower East Side, where we started our tour. The taste of his childhood, he said, and offered to eat any leftovers. There weren’t many, despite their legendarily filling quality.
The Hasidic community of Williamsburg isn’t mad keen on being gawped at by tourists, and who can blame them, but the ride through the area was illuminated by Isaac’s fast-talking commentary.
“Really,” he said, as we stopped at the lights to let a huge family surge across in front of us. “We’re Amish with cellphones.”
On another brilliantly fine fall day, we took the subway down to Coney Island, shut up for the winter and weirdly beautiful.
The shoreline and the boardwalk were virtually deserted; the rides, including the famous Cyclones rollercoaster, caged like dinosaurs behind security fencing.
Nathan’s Hotdogs (founded 1916) stays open all year round, but the melancholy beauty of any resort out of season seems more poignant here, somehow, thanks to America’s extraordinary skill at mythologising its recent past.
Walk about a mile along from the Coney Island Terminal, though, and you seem briefly to leave America altogether.
It begins with the cafe on the boardwalk called Moscow - Russia On The Beach. Heavily built older men in leather jackets and women in puffa coats and dark glasses sit outside in the sunshine; walking frames and wheelchairs parked beside them.
This is Brighton Beach, otherwise known as Little Odessa, where waves of Russian emigres settled in the last century, and virtually every printed or handwritten sign is in Russian.
If you have a liking for peculiarly tasteless souvenirs, Brighton Beach is something special. I still think wistfully about that metre-tall ceramic vodka presentation bottle, in the shape of a uniformed cat holding a Kalashnikov.
Back in Manhattan and the sun not quite set. It’s a good time to walk the High Line, the enormously popular linear park created from the old elevated freight rail tracks.
A second section opened in June 2011, making it a mile long altogether, connecting three Manhattan neighbourhoods, from the Meatpacking District (getting more fashionable and expensive, it seems, by the minute) to West 30th Street.
Fundraising is under way to renovate a third section which will take it up to West 34th.
This is a purely gorgeous - sorry, New York speak is catching - piece of imaginative public landscaping that lets New Yorkers and visitors stroll (generally too crowded to move at a faster pace) at about four-storey height, parallel with the Hudson River, up through West Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen.
At sunset, when the plate glass and the skyscraper windows blaze orange, and the grasses and trees rustle in the wind from the river, it’s quite a walk, in a city that rewards curious visitors who want to work up an appetite.
Key facts - New York
:: Best for: Fascinating neighbourhoods with specialist food markets, stores and cafes.
:: Time to go: Almost any time of year but spring and fall (Autumn) are great for walking - not too hot or cold.
:: Don’t miss: Cuban sandwiches in Brooklyn.
:: Need to know: Plan your activities and don’t leave museums and galleries for Monday - most of them are shut.
:: Don’t forget: A subway map.
Jayne Watson stayed at Best Western Bowery Hanbee in Chinatown at 231 Grand Street, New York 10013. Reservations at 001-212 925 1177 and www.bw-boweryhanbeehotel.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org
BA Holidays offers three nights’ room-only at the three-star Jolly Madison Towers from £599, with selected deps in August, ex-Heathrow with BA.
BA Holidays reservations: 0844 493 0758 and ba.com/newyork.
Reg deps include Manchester from £689, Glasgow from £679.
The Best of Brooklyn Sightseeing, Food and Culture Tour is bookable in advance in the UK through Viator at £60.07 per person. Viator arrange tours in more than 150 countries worldwide.
Viator reservations: 0203 318 0421 and www.viator.com