New York, city and state: The complete guide - Americas - Travel - The Independent

New York, city and state: The complete guide

There is much more to New York than Fifth Avenue, Central Park and the ghosts of the twin towers. New York also means the whole state, with its mighty rivers, mountains and Niagara Falls. By David Usborne

When is a good time to visit?

Today! Come to New York now and you will be showing solidarity with the city as it continues to get back on its feet after 11 September. Most visitors want to visitGround Zero, where the twin towers once stood, to take a look at the site of the world's worst terrorist attack. There is no shame in this, and recently the city opened a large viewing platform. You have to get free tickets for a time slot from the South Street Seaport Museum, 12 Fulton Street (001 212 732 7678). Moreover, the sudden drop in tourism in the city is good news for anyone who does come. Hotel rooms are cheaper, as are tickets to Broadway shows. You can get tables at restaurants that in the past had waiting lists three months long. And flights from London to New York in these deep-winter months are as cheap as they are ever likely to get. If you are thinking of combining a few days in the city with a trip to the rest of the state, this is a great time to go if you want to ski.

New York is also wonderful later in the spring, from about mid-April when the mercury begins to perk up and in the autumn. Beware of midsummer, however. July and August can be unbearable in Manhattan because of high temperatures and intense humidity.

Where should I stay?

Manhattan, first of all, as that's probably where you'll want to be. All the chain hotels can be found here. Best Western (0800 393130, www.bestwestern.com and Holiday Inn (0800 897121, www.6c.com) offer good value combined with good locations. Recently, though, there has been an explosion of so-called boutique hotels in Manhattan offering a more hip and individual experience. You might want to investigate places like Chambers (001 212 974 5656, www.chambershotel.com), the Dylan (001 212 338 0500, www.dylanhotel.com), City Club Hotel (001 212 921 5500, www.cityclubhotel.com), the Library (001 212 983 4500, www.libraryhotel.com) and the Mercer (001 212 966 6060, www.mercerhotel.com). All are in midtown, save the Mercer, which is in trendy SoHo. Also consider one of four new "W" hotels in town ( www.whotels.com). Though too big to be considered boutique hotels, they share the same quirky spirit and high-fashion furnishings.

How do I get around?

New York is great for walking, unlike most other US cities. But this is a big city, so don't try to walk, say, from your hotel in mid-town to Ground Zero. It's quite feasible to remain on foot if you're exploring particular areas, such as Fifth Avenue, Central Park, Times Square and the theatre district or SoHo. A friend's mother visited NYC for the first time at the age of 70 last year, and commented on what a nice city it was to walk around, especially on a Sunday, when the streets are quieter. The grid system makes it easy to find your way. Take the subway – no need to be nervous – and use the taxis, which are cheap by London standards. Don't forget to tip the driver 15 per cent or he may not be pleased. Same goes for bartenders, waiters, bellhops and so on.

To leave town you will need to hire a car; sadly, rental cars are more expensive in New York than anywhere else in the country. It is almost always cheaper and easier to arrange car hire from the UK, for example through Avis (0870 60 60 100, www.avis.co.uk), Budget (08701 56 56 56, www.budget.co.uk), Hertz (08705 99 66 99, www.hertz.co.uk) or Holiday Autos (0870 400 0000, www.holidayautos.com). If you want to hure one while there, try Rent-a-Wreck (1 800 535 1391).

What can I do as a weekend or day trip out of the city?

Don't wake up on Saturday morning in Manhattan and suggest to the family that you drive to Niagara Falls for the day. That would constitute a journey of 380 miles – or 760 miles return. New York State is enormous – at about 47,000 square miles, it's roughly the size of England. Long Island is good for getaways, although hotel space for any overnight stays are quite tough to find both on Fire Island and in the Hamptons. You may be hit with a two-night minimum. If you are invited to either place in the summer by friends, go for it. Otherwise, head north along the Hudson River. Just look at the Hudson and you get an idea of the scale of the geography. It makes the Thames in London look like a rather sad trickle. Those without very young children might consider a visit to Springwood in Hyde Park (001 845 229 8114, www.hvnet.com/houses/fdr), the estate that was once the country home of FDR and his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. (It is closed for much of the winter.) It occupies a beautiful spot on the Hudson's east bank and includes a good presidential museum.

TELL ME, WHAT IS 'UPSTATE NEW YORK'?

This is a tricky one and depends on who you ask. For those who dwell in New York City – all 8 million of them – upstate essentially means any part of the state outside the city that is not Long Island. Thus Westchester County, which lies immediately to the northeast of the city, is upstate to them. (But then in England, Watford is almost the North to residents of Sussex.) However, most New Yorkers, if they really stop and think about it, will conclude that upstate really constitutes the huge part of the state lying to the north and west of Albany, the state capital. If you decide on a holiday that is divided between time spent in the city and in parts of the state beyond it, you will almost definitely find yourself upstate at some point. Upstate includes the Catskill and Adirondack mountain regions, the Finger Lakes and Niagara Falls.

What about Long Island?

Some people confuse Long Island with Rhode Island and think that it's a state in its own right. However, it's actually part of New York. It is big, though. In fact, it's the biggest island in all of the US, with a population of 2.6 million, and stretches from Brooklyn and Queens – both boroughs of New York City in the west – all the way out to Montauk at its easternmost tip. It is a good three-hour drive from one end to the other – and that can become as much as six hours on traffic-clogged summer weekends.

Start out from the city on Long Island, and at first all you find are soulless suburbs. But go further. Fire Island, a spit of sand off the south shore with no cars and mighty beaches, is a favourite gay retreat in the summer. The posh and wealthy of New York travel a little further east to the string of exclusive communities collectively known as the Hamptons, including East Hampton, Bridgehampton and Sag Harbour. There are more beaches, extravagant houses and a staggering concentration of Mercedes and Porsche motor cars valet-parked outside the super-expensive restaurants.

It's worth having an ogle in the months between Memorial Day (early May) and Labor Day (early September), which is the official span of summer. You might even see residents such as Steven Spielberg or Alec Baldwin. Less pretentious and more remote is wonderful Shelter Island, sitting between the twin peninsulas that reach out at the eastern end of Long Island known as the South and North Forks. If you are couple without kids, try the romantic Chequit Inn (001 631 749 0018) for the night, an unpretentious but charming Victorian inn near the water. Also, the vineyards of the North Fork are worth exploring and most of them offer tastings in the summer. Those welcoming visitors include the Bedell Cellars (001 631 734 7537) and Pindar Vineyards (001 631 734 6200, www.pindarwines.com).

Any chance of meeting some hippies in Woodstock?

If you remember the three days of flower-power Utopia in a field in New York's Catskill Mountains, with a line-up of musicians that included Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Jimi Hendrix, you are revealing your age. The dates were 15-17 August 1969. The funny thing is, the hippie festival of the century that attracted half a million people happened just outside a town called Bethel, about 40 miles south-east of Woodstock itself. But of the two places, Woodstock is still the place to visit. The small town has that memorable incense smell and an alarming number of middle-aged men in sandals and tie-dyed shirts. It has since become a genuine artists' colony, however. Woodstock has just about avoided become quaint, although it has clearly been a close-run thing.

Overnight possibilities are limited, although there is nothing wrong with The Woodstock Inn on the Millstream (001 854 679 8211). It is essentially just a motel, but is more tranquil than most others of its genre. The entire Catskill region offers fantastic mountain scenery, with snow-tipped peaks well into the spring, and deep river gorges. In the summer, you can camp, ride horses, fish or just meander through a large number of towns and villages that cater to tourists. In the winter, the ski resorts, of which Hunter Mountain is the biggest, draw crowds of boarders and skiers from the city. It's not Aspen, but for a day's slithering, Hunter will do.

And Niagara?

The falls, located just to the north of the city of Buffalo, on the 37-mile Niagara River connecting Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, are the only thing likely to draw you into what is loosely called Western New York. If you are doing a grand driving tour of the state, Niagara is sure to be on your itinerary. But if you want to see the falls as part of a short break to New York City, consider flying. Jet Blue ( www.jetblue.com, 001 800 538 2583), a spiffy new start-up airline with nice planes and very cheap fares, offers frequent services to Buffalo from JFK airport.

So, the big question: which side – American or Canadian – offers the best views? By using the Rainbow Bridge ($2.50, about £1.70, round trip) you can actually sample both. The Canadian side gives you are a better panorama and gets you away from the worst of the tourist tat (and there is an awful lot of it). The town of Niagara on the US side is especially dismal. On the other hand, the viewing areas on the US side are much closer in and you are more likely to get wet and a real sense of the power of the cascading waters. Remember there are two waterfalls; the American Falls, which account for about 10 per cent of the flow, and the Canadian Horseshoe, that gets the other 90 per cent. (The overall volume of water used to be twice as much before a large part of the river was diverted to feed turbines providing about 15 per cent of New York's electricity.) Don't worry if you mess up your timing and get there late – the falls are floodlit in the evening.

There is also no point in being a snob about Niagara. Get seriously low-brow and take the Maid of the Mist tour, the boat that takes you perilously close to where the waters thunder into the river below. You get to wear silly coats, take lots of silly photographs of each other dripping and feel the extraordinary power of the falls at close quarters.

What about lakes and mountains?

There are lakes almost everywhere (including in Central Park). But two regions really beckon: the Finger Lakes region, which lies south of Lake Ontario and to the south-west of the mostly uninspiring town of Syracuse. This is the second-largest wine producing area of New York (the state is second only to California in terms of wine production). Most of the wineries are on the slopes running down to the shores of Seneca Lake. Seneca, like its neighbours, is a long and thin body of water.

A more dramatic landscape can be found in the Adirondack region, which lies about five hours directly north from New York City. This is where those chairs come from that look so uncomfortable but actually aren't. Lake George is the first lake you are likely to encounter, on the southern edge of the Adirondack National Park, while the most famous is Lake Placid, which was the site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, close to the Canadian border.

But there are numerous smaller lakes, each one a jewel beneath the lowering pine forests of the mountains. The park, by the way, accounts for 20 per cent of the entire state, with large swathes of wilderness. One thing you can be sure of. When you arrive at the house you have rented, one of those wooden chairs will be placed at the end of the garden overlooking the water. And all will be well with your soul.

Where should I go for a good deal?

There's no shortage of deals around at the moment. Trailfinders (020-7937 5400, www.trailfinders.com) has flights with American Airlines from Heathrow to JFK for £176 until 28 January. Airline Network (0800 727747, www.netflights.com) is offering flights from Heathrow with United for £180.80 until 28 January for travel before 28 February. If you book before 28 January and fly before 31 March, British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) is offering flights to JFK from Manchester for £209.

If you want to book a break with accommodation there are plenty around. Virgin Travel Store (0870 757 7767, www.virgin.com/travelstore) has flights plus two nights' (room only) accommodation at the Quality Hotel Broadway for £259 per person until 31 January, based on midweek travel. A supplement of £17 per person applies for weekends. You need to book by 28 January. Three nights at the Astor on the Park hotel with Worldwide Journeys (0870 709 3000, www.wwj.uk.com) costs £279 per person; the price includes room-only accommodation, flights from Gatwick or Heathrow, transfers and taxes, and is available until 28 February.

Bridge the World (0870 444 1716, www.bridgetheworld.com) is offering two nights at the Wellington Hotel, near Central Park, until 28 February for £279 per person, including accommodation and flights with British Airways from Heathrow.

If you can travel before 31 January, Trailfinders (020-7937 5400, www.trailfinders.com) is offering three nights at the Metropolitan Hotel and return flights with United Airlines from Heathrow for £306 per person.

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