ACROSS THE HUDSON
Look beyond Manhattan for a great time in New York at Christmas, suggests Amelia Torode
THERE is a famous New Yorker magazine cover from the 1970s called View of the World From 9th Avenue. Manhattan is in focus and everything to the west of the Hudson River is just an irrelevant cartoon blur, tiny, receding into the distance.
Thirty years on the message still resonates loudly: New York is Manhattan. Manhattan is the centre of the world; nothing else matters. Having been an expatriate in New York for almost six years, I could not disagree more strongly. For a more authentic New York experience you have to leave Manhattan, especially in the Christmas period, when the outer boroughs come into their own.
Start off in the Bronx on City Island. This tight-knit fishing community feels more like rural New England than urban US. City Island is tiny, just 2.4km long by 800m wide. It has one main street, City Island Avenue, on which stands the island’s only hotel, Le Refuge Inn, a beautiful six-room Victorian mansion. There you can relax, revel in the Christmas lights and watch the sailboats docked on Eastchester Bay.
Pop into any of the local restaurants and feast on succulent clams and lobsters, explore the local history museum, browse the antique stores or head to the sailing club and rent a boat. Only the occasional sound of a car alarm drifting over from the mainland brings you back to earth.
Deeper in the Bronx there is a bluecollar area, Arthur Avenue, aka the real Little Italy. Unlike Manhattan’s touristy version, Arthur Avenue is utterly genuine: imagine Goodfellas meets The Sopranos . As you might guess, they take Christmas very seriously (they insist on using the word Christmas; no ‘‘ happy holidays’’ here). The restaurants and characters are great. Restaurants have menus but no one uses them; instead, you ask what the chef recommends. It is strongly advisable not to disagree with him, because they do know their food.
Last time I was there we ate plates heaped with mouth-watering eggplant parmesan, freshly made pastas, tender cuts of veal and thinly cut bresaola. At the end of the meal your waiter decides how much he would like you to pay. Our bill came to an utterly arbitrary, though very reasonable, $201 for five of us to eat and drink past the point of gluttony.
Don’t forget Brooklyn. These neighbourhoods have a vibrancy that can’t help but draw you in and are best explored on foot. Time Out New York recently published its Best Block edition, and the block that won was in Fort Greene, which used to be a drug-riddled nightmare during the 1970s and ’ 80s but is now a culturally and ethnically diverse middle-class utopia.
It has managed to retain a flavour the filmmaker Spike Lee, Fort Greene’s most famous son, would be proud of. Take the subway to Lafayette Avenue and start with the streets around Fort Greene Park: Portland, Oxford, Cumberland and Adelphi are the most beautiful.
There are literally hundreds of Greek revival, romanesque and Renaissance-style row houses of virtually original appearance, many decorated with trees, lights and other Christmas paraphernalia.
The area comes into its own at weekends when, even in winter, the world sits out on its stoop with coffee and TheNew York Times . Stroll down to Juniors, a Brooklyn institution since 1950, where offduty cops, Japanese tourists, AfricanAmerican families and locals enjoy New York’s best cheesecake. It doesn’t get more Brooklyn than this.
If you are in the mood for something a bit trendier, Williamsburg is the place. Just one stop from Manhattan, the area around Bedford Avenue is littered with small,
Snow transforms the streets of Brooklyn’s BedfordStuyvesant neighbourhood trendy art galleries and one-off boutiques, perfect for picking up cool presents. Try some of the fabulous bars and restaurants, many in old converted spaces. There’s Relish, a diner in a disused ’ 30s railroad car; Union Pool, an old swimming pool store; and SEA, a former meat-packing warehouse. It can be a bit too cool for school, but it’s a great place to explore.
It used to be that the expression ‘‘ bridge and tunnel’’ was a disparaging phrase used by Manhattanites to talk about those who streamed into the city at the weekend. Now it’s used by people to describe the flow from people leaving Manhattan to go to their bars, restaurants and boutiques across the river.
For a genuine New York Christmas experience this year, it is all happening across the Hudson and the East River, no matter what The New Yorker says. The Spectator www.lerefugeinn.com www.iloveny.com