The Big Apple, all polished for the holidays

BECKY KRYSTAL
Last updated 10:01 20/12/2013
new York
Smita Sharma

THE BIG APPLE: The holidays are a prime time to visit Trump Rink in New York's Central Park.

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Up to this point, it had felt as if nothing was going right on my just-begun trip to New York.

I'd already encountered problems with transportation, accommodations and recreation - a late train, hotel room problems, a cancelled bus tour.

Things were finally turning around, though. As I glided around Central Park's Trump Rink on ice skates with two friends, I started to feel as if everything was finally going to be okay.

That's the thing about the Big Apple. Like a fickle lover, it can break your heart in a New York minute and then come back the next one asking to be forgiven. And you always forgive New York.

It's especially easy to do in November and December, when the city puts on its holiday finest.

Since I was in town on the early side of the season, I decided to fill the now-gaping hole in my itinerary with a preview of the holiday attractions before the biggest crowds descended.

My spirits began to recover as my college friend and I lingered at Bouchon Bakery in the Shops at Columbus Circle in the Time Warner Center.

Our table gave us a great view over the mall's expansive "great room."

For the length of the winter holiday season, a dozen 14-foot illuminated stars hang from the ceiling and change colours in sync with a rotating selection of holiday tunes. Cheesy, yes. Enchanting nonetheless.

Joined by a former co-worker of mine, we had no problem polishing off a pizza that in actuality was probably nothing mind-blowing but somehow tasted better consumed in a clattering Italian dining room in New York on a crisp fall evening.

With its closing time quickly approaching, we scurried to the Central Park ice rink and each forked over about US$25 (NZD$29) - cash only, people! - for the privilege of an hour of skating time and our rentals. Trump Rink, indeed.

The price hadn't deterred the largely teenish crowd zipping around the ice. To a soundtrack of pop - or what I guessed was pop because I may have been too old to know what it was - the bolder skaters wove in and out among the more cautious ones.

Some loitered along the walls of the rink, stealing PG-rated PDA. A few rink guards were showboating, making moves the rest of us could only stare at in envy.

I felt no need to impress. Being there was enough.

Despite the protests of my feet, I laced up the next morning for a spin at the smaller ice rink in Bryant Park (en route, another mini-crisis: spilled chai latte on the peacoat).

The crowd skewed younger, the music - Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter - older. Small children in helmets and brightly collared outerwear held hands, unsteady in their balance. It was a reversal of the previous night: I was the avoider rather than the avoidee.

It felt more like Christmas here. The holiday pop-up shops were being assembled, tantalizing food aromas permeated the air. I was primed to keep the seasonal spirit going.

Soon I found myself in the Bronx in another sea of pint-size people at the New York Botanical Garden, where the annual holiday train show had just opened its 22nd year.

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Imagine the model train set of your youth. Now totally forget about it, because not much can prepare you for the artistry and scale of the garden's display.

There are models of more than 140 New York (state, not just city) buildings positioned around almost a quarter-mile of track. The buildings aren't exact replicas, though.

They're whimsical imitations created by landscape architect Paul Busse and his team at Applied Imagination, constructed out of pine cones, twigs, fruit and other materials salvaged from nature.

I had fun keeping a mental tally of all the places displayed that I had been to - among them, the Empire State Building, Yankee Stadium, St. Patrick's Cathedral and Olana, the painter Frederic Church's lavish Persian-style mansion in Hudson.

The exhibit stretches through several rooms of the garden's glass conservatory. Bottlenecks formed as the line snaked through the enclosure, not a bad thing if you want to examine the miniature architecture closely, as I did.

I'll admit to rubbernecking beneath the intricately graceful bridges stretching overhead, including Roebling's masterful Brooklyn Bridge.

Around me, visitors clicked their photo-taking phones, and parents snatched their children back from pawing the art.

Ah, the holidays. Shiny objects and grubby, cherubic tots. Bring it on.

Back in Manhattan, I learned about how the more adult crowd may have celebrated a whirlwind winter season in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: parties, lots of parties, preferably with ridiculously over-the-top costumes.

"Gilded New York" at the Museum of the City of New York explores how the upper crust of city society flaunted their wealth at balls, at hotels and at home. Fittingly, the exhibit resides in the new Tiffany & Co. Foundation Gallery.

This time I was the one with hands that needed curbing. I'm sure I left my fair share of fingerprints, leaning over the glass displays holding precious antiques, including, yes, a good number of bejewelled baubles from Tiffany's.

An 1883 gown worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, a.k.a. Alice Claypoole Gwynne, almost screamed to be touched.

It was supposed to represent "Electric Light," all satin and velvet with silvery fringe and shoulders. You go, girl. (I looked up pictures online of her wearing it. She owned it.)

Those people knew how to throw a party. But the setting, this wondrous mishmash of a city, didn't hurt, either.

As I learned, New York is always the consummate hostess.

STAYING THERE

Ace Hotel, 20 W. 29th St. Rates vary by room size and day of the week, but a "mini" during the rest of the holiday season starts at $159.

EATING THERE

Angelo's Pizza, 117 W. 57th St. Perfect for pre-gaming your skating session at Trump Rink. Large pies from around $20.

Bouchon Bakery, One Rockefeller Plaza. Grab a pastry from Thomas Keller's sweet gem before walking to the Bryant Park rink. Baked goods from less than $5.

PLAYING THERE

Trump Rink, Central Park (enter from West 59th Street and Sixth Avenue). Public skating hours 10 am to 2:30 pm. Monday and Tuesday, 10 am to 10 pm. Wednesday and Thursday, 10 am to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday, 10 am to 9 pm. Sunday. Extended hours on Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Admission US$11.25 (NZD$17.8)  Monday-Thursday, US$18 (NZD$22) Friday-Sunday and holidays (discounts for youth and seniors). Skate rental US$8 (NZD$10). Cash only.

Winter Village at Bryant Park Rink, West 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue. 8 am to 10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 8 am to midnight Friday-Saturday. General admission free. Skate rental US$15 (NZD$18).

New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Blvd., Bronx. Holiday train show runs through Jan. 12. Tickets, which include access to the entire garden, are $25 on weekends and peak days (Dec. 16-Jan. 1) and $20 Tuesday-Friday (discounts for seniors, students and children).

Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave. "Gilded New York" is a new, ongoing exhibit. Daily 10 am to 6 pm. Suggested admission US$10 (NZD$12), seniors and students US$6 (NZD$7), ages 12 and younger free.

MORE INFORMATION nycgo.com

- The Washington Post

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