Did my son like New York? is Manhattan an island?

There's a wonderfully family friendly side to New York City. All you need, says Helen Truszkowski, is a little local knowledge and a sense of adventure

In one respect, I am my seven-year-old son's worst nightmare. A parent whose idea of a dream family holiday revolves around a secluded farmhouse in Corsica. His, of course, bears no resemblance to mine. George respects fast, loud and way, way over the top. At a recent do-I-bribe-or-compromise impasse, we sought common ground and found it in New York City.

In one respect, I am my seven-year-old son's worst nightmare. A parent whose idea of a dream family holiday revolves around a secluded farmhouse in Corsica. His, of course, bears no resemblance to mine. George respects fast, loud and way, way over the top. At a recent do-I-bribe-or-compromise impasse, we sought common ground and found it in New York City.

Now I know what you're thinking. Been there. Seen it. Done it. Well, I doubt it. Millions claim to know this city well, but the conspicuous attractions of the Statue of Liberty, Broadway, Times Square and Macy's don't altogether do it justice. The word on the sidewalk these days is discretion. Those in the know are drawn to anonymous hideaways that, as often as not, have no name on the entrance and are scarcely distinguishable from the offices and buildings that surround them.

On a mission to discover a side of this city on offer nowhere else, our first step was to do as the natives do - and get ourselves "oriented". Must-have pop-up map, a guidebook and Starbucks coffee in hand, we set out for New York's most discreet toy shop. The owner loves secrets so much, in fact, that she has no sign above her 20-year-old toy shop. Granted if you are looking down, and looking really hard, you might just notice the name Dinosaur Hill spelled out in marbles. Still, the outside simply reflects the inside: offbeat. With shelf upon shelf of kooky collectibles and stuffed toys, fuzzy fur puppets, not to mention Razzy (the resident pet Schnoodle), this is as near a Dr Seuss set-up as you could ever hope to stumble upon.

After lunch our seasoned taxi driver took us to a park less travelled. Prospect Park, a heavenly 562-acre enclave, is the Central Park of Brooklyn, only with none of the crowds, and it's something of a local secret for sport devotees. George larked about for three hours in the five prime playgrounds, zoo, boathouse centre and carousel. And never queued once. Equally rare and just as gratifying, our afternoon at the 65-acre Alley Pond Environmental Center in Queens provided a free-for-all jumble of wetland pathways for a crowd of budding herbology students (à la Harry Potter). Next morning we hit New York's hidden museums. Crammed into a narrow slot of a building in between two commercial giants, the Children's Museum of the Arts was less art, more scribble. Endearingly so. Gleaming wood floors, lofty tin ceilings, endless easels, sculptures, collages and mobiles. George plunged right in and elbowed his way out again clutching a convincing cardboard dragon.

I reckoned the CMA was a tough one to beat until we chanced upon galleries full of engrossed children at the Children's Museum of Manhattan. (That's CMOM to the initiated.) You may not be familiar with William Wegman's weimaraners nor Elizabeth Murray's cartoon shoes, cups and doorknobs, but kids find this kind of art irresistible - more so when they are invited not only to go ahead and touch the exhibits, but also to star in their own giant 3D versions of them. Directly opposite the museum, Café Lalo served us a typical New York brunch. A stroll around the corner on to Amsterdam Avenue laid bare an eclectic mix of shops, street stalls, cheap eats and pocket-money souvenirs. At the Children's Place I even prised George into some street-savvy clothes at (mums, take note) throwaway prices.

The day was such a success that I promised George a repeat trip on our last remaining day. But we hadn't figured on torrential rain. Convinced that both the CMOM and CMA would be mobbed - the wetlands evidently too wet - we tried the Brooklyn Children's Museum. Here four levels of open-plan, subterranean space delivered high-energy, hands-on learning. A rollicking combo of puzzles and games, wet play and wildlife, hemmed in by workshops and topped by a playground that paraded highway signs, a science greenhouse, a mini silo, and a walk-through "people tube" that sluiced water, swirls of neon, and us.

Thanks to the hotel's concierge, George heard that Mars 2112 was the "rad fad" for dinner. He heard right. We arrived at 7pm, were escorted to a full-sized flying saucer and subjected to a bumpy ride through a Translunar Wormhole all within the space of five minutes. A waitress clad in Federation uniform recommended the Terraforming Tuna Tostada and Ziggy Stardust Spaghetti, while a bug-eyed Martian mooched past our table seeking photo ops. As for dessert, I had earmarked Dylan's Candy Bar store. More custom-made candy than George could shake a stick at and the chance to reach unsurpassed levels of indulgence as I drooled over the crystal-encrusted Pez holders and home spa goodies. I finally settled on a bar of chocolate soap and some bubble gum bath fizz. What's a confectionery hedonist to do?

On a taxi ride back to our hotel we took a detour past Manhattan's less easily overlooked sights: the Art Deco Rockefeller Center; Radio City Music Hall, home of the high-kicking Rockettes; the Gotham City-proportioned Chrysler Building with its glistening spire; the vast St Patrick's Cathedral and cutting-edge Museum of Modern Art. George only had to look up for living testimony to his Lego sets' potential, here in the form of blatant, brick on brick edifices: the Empire State, Flatiron Building, Trump Tower et al. (Sculptor Eric Harshbarger was evidently so inspired by New York's architecture that he created a homage to its skyscrapers using an incredible 60,000 Lego pieces.) My son probably summed it up best: "Blimey, New York looks so small on the map, but it's all huge buildings with even huger secrets inside." Mum's the word, George.

The facts

Getting there

Flightcatchers.com (0871 872 8357; www.flightcatchers.com) is an online travel service offering discounted rates for flights, accommodation, car-hire and insurance worldwide. It offers flights to New York from £199 per adult and £175 per child. Direct flights with Kuwait Airways depart from London Heathrow arriving into JFK. Flights with Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and United Airlines start at £434 per adult and £312 per child.

Le Parker Meridien, 118 West 57th Street (001 212 245 5000; www.ghotw.com) has a rooftop swimming pool, a dedicated kids' concierge and award-winning Norma's eatery. Extras include copious licorice sticks, cartoons playing in the lifts and PlayStation consoles in the stylish rooms. You can even borrow a scooter for the day. Doubles from $335 (£223) per night.

The Mark, Madison Avenue, East 77th Street (001 212 744 4300; www.mandarinoriental.com) is an exquisite yet understated hotel that is big on privacy. The staff cannot do enough for you, the location opposite Central Park is sublime and the superb babysitters they book come armed with enough entertainment to sink a battleship. Doubles from $420 (£280) per night.

Being there

Dinosaur Hill, 306 East 9th Street (001 212 473 5850; www.dinosaurhill.com).

Prospect Park, Grand Army Plaza (001 718 965 8999; www.prospectpark.org).

The Alley Pond Environmental Center, 228-06 Northern Boulevard Douglaston, Queens (001 718 229 4000; www.alleypond.com).

Children's Museum of the Arts, 182 Lafayette Street (001 212 941 9198; www.cmany.org).

Children's Museum of Manhattan, 212 West 83rd Street (001 212 721 1234; www.cmom.org).

Café Lalo, 201 West 83rd Street (001 212 496 6031; www.cafelalo.com).

The Children's Place, 2039 Broadway, via Amsterdam Avenue (001 917 441 2374; www.childrensplace.com).

The Brooklyn Children's Museum, 145 Brooklyn Avenue at St Marks Avenue (001 718 735 4400; www.bchildmus.org). Mars 2112, 1633 Broadway at 51st Street (00 1 212 582 2112; www.mars2112.com).

Dylan's Candy Bar,

1011 Third Avenue at 60th Street

(001 646 735 0078; www.dylanscandybar.com).

Further information

For a different take on it all, in Lego, visit

www.ericharshbarger.org/lego/nyc_ skyline.html.

A commercial-free, live radio show for eight to 12-year-olds is broadcast Sunday night, 6pm-8 pm on WNYC AM 820.

New York City with Kids by Ellen R Shapiro (Crown, £12.99).

Purple Parking (020-8813 8130; www.purpleparking.com) at Heathrow Airport offers leisure parking from as little as £6.95 a day, including minibus transfers to all terminals and chauffeur parking.

For more information on New York, contact NYC & Co (020-7202 6368; www.nycvisit.com).

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