Travel: Mean streets - but great antiques

Simon O'Hagan felt a bit nervous when the cab dropped him off at his B&B in a gloomy Brooklyn street - but not for long

THE TAXI DRIVER was a bit dubious. "Wait in the car, sir," he said, and he opened his door and walked across the street to check out the gloomy brownstone that was supposed to be my home for the next three nights. He waited a long time for someone to answer, and then he came back and said, to his own surprise, "Yes sir, this is the house you wanted".

I was grateful to be in the hands of a New York cabbie who took his responsibilities so seriously. We were in a dimly lit street in Brooklyn where many of the buildings were run-down, and for a warm Saturday evening the area seemed very quiet - too quiet, in other words. It was here that I'd booked myself into a B&B that had come strongly recommended by a local, and having stayed in B&Bs in other parts of America, I knew what a refined, pleasurable experience it could be compared with the British equivalent, and considerably cheaper than hotels.

As it turned out, of course, both the taxi driver and I had been utterly misled by this B&B's somewhat off-putting exterior. Inside was a world straight out of Henry James - a riot of mahogany, fine china and exquisite 19th-century furnishings - and I soon reckoned I'd done the right thing after all.

This was Baisley House, in the Carroll Gardens district of Brooklyn, half-way between Brooklyn Bridge and Prospect Park, the oasis of greenery that is as cherished by Brooklynites as Central Park is by the people of Manhattan. The house was built in 1853, and a man called Harry Paul has restored it and turned it into a fabulous B&B, complete with walled garden.

Few visitors to New York think of staying anywhere except Manhattan. But Brooklyn is not much less convenient (15 minutes on the subway to downtown Manhattan), and in many ways is more authentic and manageable. Brooklyn is where real New Yorkers live, the kids idling away the hours on their front steps (known as stoops) in hot weather, the grown-ups chilling out in neighbourhood bars and restaurants.

Parts of Brooklyn - Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope - have the air of louche easy-living that was Notting Hill Gate before the prices went crazy, while the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and Brooklyn Academy of Music (which in the last year has played host to productions by both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Almeida Theatre) give the area its cultural cachet. And the promenade along the East River affords the classic, skyline view of Manhattan that you can't get when you're in the thick of Fifth Avenue.

Not that you won't want to visit the Whitney or shop at Crate and Barrell or go to a gig at the Knitting Factory or eat at Balthazar, all of which is another reason for staying in a B&B.

When New York makes so many more exciting demands on one's pocket, I've never seen the point of throwing away 150 quid a night on an indifferent mid-town hotel that you're only going to be in for a few hours in every 24. My single room at Baisley House cost $85 (about pounds 50) including breakfast. Mr Paul has a double room at $125 per night, which works out at about pounds 40 per person, and a two-roomed suite at $175 for two or $205 for three.

You also get to pretend to be a real New Yorker.

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