USA: Manhattan transfers in soft focus

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The Independent Online
European cities have had the monopoly on romance, but now that air fares to across the Atlantic are at their lowest ever, how about

New York for the ultimate hearthrob? Adam Shaw is convinced he made the

right choice

New York: Woody Allen adores it, Quentin Crisp is devoted to it, Damon Runyon immortalised it and Frank Sinatra named it twice. Here you can fall in love, become romantically attached to a Bloomingdales charge card, and take moonlit horse-drawn rides through Central Park.

Woody Allen tells this joke: "And, uh, tsch, I was depressed. I was ... in analysis, I, uh, was suicidal; as a matter of fact, uh, I would have killed myself, but I was in analysis with a strict Freudian and if you kill yourself ... they make you pay for the sessions you miss." Well that's typical New York: manic, comic and ironic.

So it seemed appropriate that trying to arrange a surprise romantic holiday in New York for myself and my girlfriend turned out to be fairly manic and comic itself. First, there was my concern that Nicolette might be arranging a surprise herself, and that on the appointed day I would serve her breakfast in bed with two tickets to New York beside the marmalade, only to find two tickets to Botswana resting on my pillow. We might then have been on opposite sides of the world: she watching the New York Giants while I was watching the African hippos. There was also the purely practical problem of trying to arrange the trip through travel agents who were told that under no circumstances were they to return my calls, lest the girlfriend answer. So I had a series of rushed and hushed telephone conversations from upstairs, to agents who thought I had lost my voice.

On the day of the surprise itself, I compiled a cryptic crossword puzzle that she would have to solve before discovering what the present was or where it was hidden. But she's no good at solving crosswords and, truth be told, I'm not much good at designing them, so in the end I just had to tell her where we were going.

There's no shortage of hotels in Manhattan, but I wanted to avoid the chains and go for something more individual. The Plaza and Waldorf hotels are great but expensive; the Paramount and Royalton are very different from the norm, but were full, so I decided to rent an apartment from a friend. Thirty floors up, two streets away from Times Square, the apartment offered a view of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings and the Hudson river. So we spent our first night in New York nursing jet lag, curled up in front of the stunning view, eating Chinese takeaway from those white boxes you see in Hollywood movies.

Having our own apartment, we were able to pretend to be New Yorkers for a week, jogging down to the corner to buy bagels for breakfast, picking up the papers from the doormat and becoming best friends with the doorman downstairs. Despite the city's brashness, we were amazed at how polite everyone was. Potholes may scar the streets, but you can't help looking kindly on a place whose problems are turned to advantage - eg a heating system that is so archaic that cracks let escaping steam form romantic white clouds rising above the streets.

Manhattan is roughly the size of Guernsey, yet in that small space it crams in more than 30 major museums, hundreds of restaurants, 43 theatres, scores of comedy venues and more bars and night clubs than it's possible to count. With a catchment area of millions - on Manhattan Island alone - there is a fair amount of competition for the best events. Fortunately, from London I had already booked tickets to Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk. This is no ordinary top-hat-and-tails tap show; it's what they call hoofing - the bad boy generation meets Gene Kelly in an amazing dance show about the history of black rhythm music.

Our first serious mission was to book ourselves up for the remaining evenings. New York, we reasoned, is home to Broadway, and Broadway is home to the musical. The hottest ticket in town is Chicago - in fact, it turned out to be too hot for us to find any tickets. There were plenty of other choices - though at a price.

You can expect to pay pounds 60-pounds 70 for a top-price Broadway ticket and pounds 100 if you buy it through an agent. You can get theatre listings from the New York Time Out magazine, published weekly in the UK. If you don't mind queuing for a few hours, and aren't too fussy about which particular show you see, there is a half-price ticket booth in Times Square for tickets sold on the day of the performance.

Apart from the big-name musicals there's Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway, and on this fringe of theatreland we found a real gem of a show. Stumbling out of a cellar bar, laden with shopping, we came across Tubes by the Blue Man Group - musical meets performance art. At the end of the show we and the rest of the audience were wrapped together in toilet paper while still sitting in our seats - which at least ensures a close - if not altogether romantic - end to the evening.

If being bound in Andrex doesn't suit you, there's the more laid-back charm of the Village, where we listened to soulful jazz at Sweet Basil, wandered round small shops buying hand-made cards, and drank coffee in small corner cafes. And, for a bit of hands-on experience, we visited Our Name Is Mud - a pottery shop where in addition to selling professionally made pots they allow you to make your own clay souvenir of a New York surprise.

Adam Shaw is a presenter of BBC2's

'Working Lunch'. He has just published a book with Lorraine Chase, called 'Money

and How to Make More of It'.

New York weekends: the fast facts

Getting there: London-New York is the busiest and most competitive international air route in the world, and since the start of this year fares have fallen to their lowest ever in real terms. At present the best deals are on Air India (daily from Heathrow to JFK), selling through discount agents for pounds 160-pounds 170 return. Fares on other airlines cost only a few pounds more.

New York weekends: the even faster facts

The world's only supersonic aircraft has been flying the north Atlantic for 22 years. When the first US-bound Concorde took off from Heathrow, the fare was pounds 431 return. The standard British Airways supersonic return fare has now risen to close on pounds 6,000. Yet breaking the speed of sound to New York can cost just a quarter of that - and include two nights in a Manhattan hotel.

The reason is that Air France has even more trouble than BA in filling seats on its daily service to JFK. The French airline is obliged to discount fares heavily by packaging them as part of weekend breaks to Manhattan. Before the end of March, Bridge Travel (01992 456176) will fly you out, club class, from your local airport (Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Manchester or Southampton) to Paris. The next segment, to New York, is in economy. But the journey home is in Concorde from JFK to Paris, with the last leg in club. For all this, you pay pounds 1,542. The offer reappears in July and August, when the price inevitably goes up - but only by pounds 31.

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