Travel `98: December New York

From outdoor skating in Central Park to the rink preferred by Marlon Brando on one floor of a Manhattan town-house, New York's ice-rinks are the places to be seen, says Hamish Mykura
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In a cold winter, New York is an ice city. Snow is bulldozed into banks on the corners of streets, where it freezes and refreezes into gnarled glassy pyramids. Ice bulges over the ornate lintels of Thirties skyscrapers, while creamy floes of it clunk down the Hudson and jostle in the slate- grey waters of the harbour around the toes of the Statue of Liberty.

Visitors used to the city in summer can find the change of landscape unsettling. Gone are the food-stalls and lolling crowds, the Latin music blaring from passing cars. In their place are monochrome streets, where steam leaks from manholes, and the crowds are focused and rapid. But, really, the character of the place is just the same.

New York is a city with an unerring instinct for the very best ways of showing off. The same brash, edgy energy that's on display in the swimming pools and street corner basketball courts in summer transfers to the open- air ice-skating rinks. New Yorkers understand that the rinks are ideal places for posing. While the sensitive performers and groomed fashion victims twirl on the ice, the brassy capitalists capture their audience by donating and naming the rinks, or renovating them in high-profile campaigns.

If you're looking for a place to start, take a walk through the southern part of Central Park on one of New York's brilliant clear winter days. Pick up the tinselly sound of distant disco music and follow it towards a plume of white steam rising through the trees - a sure sign of a refrigeration plant. Suddenly, the Wollman rink emerges. It's a great example of the way that the efforts of the city's rich to commemorate themselves and their families have resulted in some of the best buildings and views in town. This rink, given to the city in 1951, is a lozenge of ice in a rocky wooded hollow set off by a backdrop of immense skyscrapers beyond the trees. It's one of the most spectacular and most filmed locations in Manhattan.

The open-air rinks are open to the public and well-run, and skates can be hired with ease. But pick your rink carefully. The amount of glamour varies a lot from place to place. The glitziest is the Art-Deco fantasy of Rockefeller Center. There are two elegant and atmospheric rinks in Central Park; or head for the "stink rink", a well-appointed place built over a sewage reclamation plant in Harlem.

Skating also solves one of the great irritations facing tourists in New York - what to do on the other side of the Staten Island Ferry. The trip across the harbour may be spectacular, but the ferry terminal on the other side has all the glamour of a disused multi-storey car park. The answer is a bus or taxi ride to the peaceful War Memorial ice-rink, one of several suburban rinks that are ideal places to skate and see New York in all its diversity. The best of these is in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where groups of Orthodox Jews whirl round in tight groups with their black coats and beards streaming behind them. The Jewish boys stay strictly segregated from the girls, while the black and Latino teenagers whizz effortlessly amongst them.

The show-offy history of skating in New York began in 1858, when skaters first gathered on a pond in the south-east corner of Central Park. The city's monied classes were soon in the grip of a full-scale craze. As with so many New York crazes, its main attraction seems to have been as a ploy for picking up a date. By the end of the first season, society was sufficiently shocked by the sight of members of opposing sexes falling on top of each other, that when the lake froze the following winter it was strictly segregated by gender. Within 10 years, the craze had fizzled out.

New refrigeration technology in the 1920s revived interest with a new gimmick - indoor rinks. The Iceland rink on West 50th Street had its own orchestra, restaurant, and ice carnival. But the big moment for outdoor skating came on Christmas Day 1936. The Rockefeller Center opened, astonishingly modern, with the world's tallest buildings in a teeming cluster around the centrepiece ice-rink.

It's still the city's best - the absolute centre of New York City, watched over by the brassy statue of reclining Prometheus and so many office windows that it is one of the world's great places to pose. And the office workers who flood on to the rink at lunchtime love to be watched. Princessy girls in look-at-me red tights pirouette and, in the afternoon, out-of-work actors and performers mingle with the day-trippers, all acting cool and keenly checking each other out.

One of the greatest pieces of showing-off in New York's crowded history was achieved by Donald Trump at the Wollman Rink in 1986, and he didn't even need to step on to the ice to do it. An attempt by New York City to renovate the rink had foundered, after five years, pounds 8m (twice the original estimate) and a series of truly spectacular bungles with excuses that would have done credit to British Rail, including the "wrong type of concrete", "wrong refrigeration system" and "wrong depth of ice". So Trump, the flamboyant property developer and casino owner, took the project over. He began with a series of press conferences at the rink to launch the project. The coverage was good. TV stations began using the words "Trump" and "philanthropist" in the same sentence. So Trump moved up a gear. He had a "completion of the laying of the pipes" press conference, followed by a "pouring the cement" conference the next day. Then the parks department objected to the big new sign that read "OWNER - TRUMP ICE INC" on the basis that they still actually owned the place. Trump's response was a rinkside debate with the parks commissioner, followed by a press conference. He then declared the place open at a press conference where he cut the ribbon with a three-foot pair of scissors, and concluded his performance by announcing that the railings round the ice were made by the builders of the Onassis yacht. Trump then staggered off, gorged on favourable publicity. But New Yorkers didn't mind. Trump had done it all in four-and-a-half months, for pounds 1.5m.

When the weather gets too bracing, there are several indoor rinks that shouldn't be missed. The most memorable is the Ice Studio - one floor of a townhouse on Lexington Avenue. If you point out to the attendants that it isn't really a rink, more just a big room in someone's house, they get sensitive about size: "It's 60ft by 40ft, buddy. You got a problem with that?" Celebrities from Marlon Brando to Michael J Fox have taken lessons in the discreet atmosphere of the Ice Studio.

But it's never really too cold to skate outdoors. When the temperature plummets and the wind picks up flurries of powder from the rink, and maple leaves hang frozen beneath the translucent surface as if in amber, travelling on skates is the only way to go

How to get there

Get your skates on if you want a Christmas in Manhattan - planes are already filling fast. But in early December, you could pay as little as pounds 200 return.

Rockefeller Center Ice Rink, between 49th and 50th Streets (001 212 757 5731). Wollman Rink, Central Park Southeast entrance at 63rd Street (212 517 4800). Lasker Rink, Central Park near 106th Street (212 517 4800). Riverbank Park Ice Rink, 145th Street and Riverside Drive, Harlem (212 694 3642). The Ice Studio, 1034 Lexington Ave at 73rd Street (212 535 0304). Rinks outside Manhattan: War Memorial Ice Rink, Staten Island (718 720 1010). Prospect Park Ice Rink, East Drive, Prospect Park, Brooklyn (718 282 7789).

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