My last visit, however, was different. When the moment came to take a tactical break from the Big Apple, I hopped on to a train in Grand Central station. The plan: to meander up the east coast across from Long Island to one of New England's hidden gems, the Yale University campus town of New Haven in Connecticut.
We trundled into New York's faded outskirts, through places I'd only ever seen in Seventies blaxploitation flicks; 125th Street, Fordham, Pelham slid by until the landscape broke into the wooded greenery of New England. Two hours later we rolled into New Haven, and straight into my first shock: rather than the dreaming spires of the US's answer to Oxford, I was standing in a grey industrial town, more like Scunthorpe than the seat of one of America's educational crown jewels.
This is a town with a split personality. In fact, if you splurged Scunthorpe and Oxford together you'd end up with a pretty close approximation to New Haven. Although New Haven can evoke images of dreaming spires in the US's more ambitious schoolchildren, in recent years an influx of drugs has brought gangland violence to the town's large industrial zone (although visitors have to be aware that the problem exists, it remains concentrated in the seedier part of town and you're unlikely to come to grief around the campus).
After a quick taxi ride into the campus, I spent the rest of my first day wandering with some other New York refugees among the dozens of Gothic spires. In this respect, New Haven at least shares one characteristic with New York: both places are largely illusions. New York is little more than a gigantic film set. New Haven's spires on the other hand, which help to give the place its feeling of great age, were mostly built this century. The town's historical pedigree, though genuine, is for the most part skin deep. Even some of the houses edging on to the campus are built in the traditional Little House on the Prairie style, adding to the place's quaint feel.
One of the few places that really is as old as the town is New Haven Green, which you will eventually stumble across even if you don't go looking for it: all roads seem to lead there. An open, grass-covered square a quarter of a mile on each side, it appears in many early paintings and illustrations of the town and is a perfect place to while away a sunny afternoon.
However, the fact remains that New Haven is just about as old as America gets. It was established in 1638, only 18 years after the country's Founding Fathers arrived on the Mayflower. Just how old the place is has been highlighted most recently by the fact that it was the centre of much of the action for the Amistad trials which took place in 1839, and now the subject of Steven Spielberg's new film. Since the film of the same name opened in America there has been an influx of visitors from all over the country. Although none of the original buildings where the slaves were imprisoned and put on trial survive, many of the lawyers involved in the case were members of the three churches which stand on New Haven Green, and the local historical society is running an exhibition outlining the story of the Amistad slaves. "We've noticed a huge surge of interest in the town since Amistad opened here," admits the society's Robert Egleston. "Although - apart from the churches - there isn't much left that was here in those days, people still like to come and soak up the sense of history."
While in town, be sure to leave a couple of hours for Yale University's art gallery, deservedly renowned for the range of its European and US art collections which includes Van Goghs, Pollocks, Manets and Magrittes. Aside from its permanent collections, it has regular temporary exhibitions.
If you're taking some kids along, try to work the Peabody Museum on Whitney Avenue into your schedule. Its collection of dinosaur fossils - the centrepiece filling the museum's main hall is one of the best Brontosaurus skeletons outside the Smithsonian. The museum also hosts a spectacular array of Indian artefacts and an interactive workshop for children. It is also worth catching a show in the theatre when you're here. Yale is something of a showbiz hatching ground by dint of the fact that some of Hollywood's biggest stars such as Jodie Foster cut their teeth in the campus theatre while they were students.
But the town's real claim to fame, as no visitor to the town can possibly fail to discover, is pizza. To some it's the pizza capital of America. I headed down to Wooster Street, home of two of the bestknown pie shops (as they're known here) in America: Pepe's and, my favourite, Sally's. As soon as I sat down, I ordered a cup of hot chocolate. It came topped with a lump of cream the size of a fist and a sprinkling of cinnamon. Make sure you have plenty of time to spare if you're planning a visit to these pizza shrines. If you've only ever tasted the sorry attempts at pizza Britain can produce, it is worth spending an hour or two in Sally's to see how it should be done. A paper-thin base, baked in a stone pizza oven until the underside has just started to char, topped with finely topped tomato, tangy cheese and topped with fresh mushroom. Every pizza I eat in the future will have to measure up to this, and they will be found lacking. I should point out, though, that my judgement may be tainted. Sally's is, after all, Frank Sinatra's choice of restaurant when he's in town.
If you came by train as I did, it can be awkward to make your way to the other tourist attractions in the state, although as the article below describes, it is well worth taking the time.
But it's funny how the grass is always greener. After a short stay, the refined solitude of this slice of US history began to seem a little too quiet. The howling neon of New York beckoned once more...
q Steven Spielberg's 'Amistad' opens at UK cinemas this Friday.
new haven fact file
There are regular trains every day from New York to New Haven from New York's Grand Central station. The town is reached by road from New York on Interstate 95.
Where to stay
Hotel Duncan (203 562 4138). A hotel on the edge of campus with a wonderful Fifties feel about it. Prices start at around $40.
What to See
Yale University runs free guided tours for visitors twice daily on weekdays at 10.30am and 2pm, and weekends at 1.30pm. The tours are hosted by students and last about an hour, tel: 203 432 2300 for details. Special tours can also be arranged.
The New Haven Historical Society, 114 Whitney Ave (203 562 4183), is open Tues-Fri 10am-5pm and Sat-Sun 2pm-5pm.
The Peabody Museum of Natural History, 170 Whitney Ave, (203 432 5050) is open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 12pm-5pm.