New York glories: In the most hectic, urban space on the planet, Emma Townshend unearths some surprisingly tranquil spots to take a break and refresh the spirit

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The Independent Online

With the dollar hovering around the extraordinary 50p mark, all we are hearing at the moment are tales of nauseating bargains and British Airways adding ever more flights to its JFK run. It has always been a mystery to me how people can say they saved £500 by spending £2,000, but there we go.

If you are planning to hit the Manhattan sales, there might come a point where you find yourself fancying a little fresh air, which is where I come in. New York has some of the most famous open spaces in the world, starting of course with Central Park; it also possesses two of the greatest botanic gardens (Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and New York Botanic Garden, in the Bronx. Both are open for the short winter daylight hours, except on Mondays). But let me recommend three lesser-known spots to shake off the winter blues and rest your tired little shopping legs.

One of New York's most elegant, and secret, open spaces sits on the site of the old Stork Club. Walter Winchell, virtual inventor of the gossip column, once referred to the club as 'the New Yorkiest spot in New York', and if you want a haven from smart but frenzied sale shopping, here's your spot. Sitting on 53rd Street, smack bang between Fifth and Madison, you can sit and imagine the heyday of the club, when a doorman behind a solid-gold chain policed the entrance, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier hobnobbed inside.

The Stork Club closed and was demolished in the mid-1960s, and it is to that stylish moment in the city's history that this little space owes its stark, modern feel. William Paley, who was one of the founders of CBS, established the gap in the Midtown fabric as a public park in memory of his father, Samuel Paley, who was memorably (and sonorously) described as a 'Cigar Tsar'. Paley senior died in 1963, the park was finished by the architects Robert Zion and Harold Breen in 1967, but you would hardly believe it to see it today, because it is as stark and minimal as many more recent projects.

Unlike some urban spaces, it is sparklingly beautiful in winter, when the 12 little honey locust tree trunks are exposed, and the cascade backdrop looks like a mountain stream rushing in full flood down the front of a skyscraper. With its Harry Bertoia chairs and iconic Eero Saarinen tables, the park is a tiny jewel.

If you have the energy to go a little further, Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Queens commemorates the life and work of one of Japan and America's most important designers of space. It's open daily from Wednesday to Sunday, and at the weekends there's a half-hour shuttle bus from Manhattan to take you all the way there (for more information, see www.noguchi.org).

Noguchi is sometimes seen as a sculptor, at others as a landscape designer, but he is always recognised as a genius. Many people are familiar with his work through his little 'Akari' lanterns, made from mulberry paper and looking like delicate seedheads lit by autumnal light. As the son of a Japanese poet and an American editor, his was a strange childhood lived between two vastly different countries, in neither of which he ever felt truly at home.

In the garden that forms a central part of the museum, you will find work Noguchi made in response to the ancient Buddhist gardens of Japan that he so admired. 'The Well', for example, is a version of that element of a Zen garden called a tsukubai, a basin for ritual hand-washing.

Finally, for real gardeners, an inspiring experience. In the afternoon from Wednesday to Sunday, while you shake down the shops of SoHo in search of even more bargains, why not pause for a moment opposite the Stüssy store on Wooster Street. Look for the hard-to-find buzzer marked 'The New York Earth Room', and then run up the flight of stairs to find an entire floor of an old-fashioned SoHo building, entirely filled with earth. The smell of warm, moist soil, ready to grow anything you like, fills the air. This space seems pregnant with possibility, yet curators have spent 20 years weekly raking out anything actually growing in it. Ponder Walter de Maria's mysterious comment on growth, death and life, and then return to the shops, knowing you'll go home feeling you've enriched your soul, too.

Samuel Paley Plaza, East 53rd Street between 5th and Madison Avenues, New York City; Isamu Noguchi Museum, 9-01 33rd Road, Long Island City; The New York Earth Room, 141 Wooster Street, New York City

If you do one thing... write your garden memoirs

Even if youhaven't managed to make any New Year's resolutions yet, make some right now for your garden. Buy a diary just for garden notes - get one cheap, in the sales - to keep a record of things you plant and where, what day certain things flowered, jobs still to do. Write the resolutions inside the front cover, and think for the long term; keeping the list for a year often means that by the end of it, you've got an amazing number of things ticked off. Go on - it's a really good feeling for the start of the year.

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