HOOSE a base: You’ve saved money on your flight, now be just as canny with your accommodation. Not everyone has the budget to stay in the Plaza Hotel’s presidential suite and, frankly, we think the money could be better funnelled elsewhere . . . like into designer dress shops. The Affinia Shelburne, a boutique beauty that has just emerged from a $US25 million ($30m) renovation, offers a range of extremely affordable guestrooms and suites and a Lexington Avenue location five minutes’ walk from the transport hub of Grand Central station. Special opening rates range from $US189 to $US230 and for a bolthole that’s offering the city’s most comfortable beds — each one handmade in Sweden at $US10,000 a pop — it’s a bargain in anybody’s language.
There are all the mod cons, including wireless highspeed internet, flat-screen televisions, in-room spa treatments and more; the concierge can arrange discounts and deals at several local attractions, including restaurants, bars and clubs. My Affinia, a customised guest service program, lets you pre-organise aspects of your stay online: have everything from a guitar, yoga mat or a city walk tour kit delivered to your room in advance. Your profile can be used at Affinia’s four other New York hotels (there are also properties in Washington and Chicago).
I love the cute and quirky designs from Shelly Klein dotted about the place, including a mural that wraps around the lift banks, and the gorgeously detailed pillows on the beds. The rooftop bar, offering panoramic views of one of the world’s most incredible skylines, isn’t bad, either. www.affinia.com.
Get your bearings: You’ve unpacked your suitcase and are ready to hit the streets. First stop should be the Official NYC Information Centre (810 Seventh Ave, Midtown West), which is so hi-tech you’ll think you’ve stumbled into Google headquarters. This sleek, white space is punctuated with a couple of giant tables that, on closer inspection, reveal themselves as computer touch screens. If you’re keen to find out more about the Meatpacking District, as I am, for example, simply touch the area on the interactive city map and watch the screen home in on that neighbourhood. A few more taps of the finger reveals a plethora of dining, shopping and visitor options in the vicinity.
You can save your favourites as you go and, once your itinerary is sorted, it can be printed out as a map (after you’ve had the whole thing projected on to a screen on the centre’s back wall so you can admire your handiwork). You also can download the itinerary to personal digital assistant devices. One downside is that only member organisations feature in listings so you won’t get every dining or shopping option in the city. $US140. The best option for cheap travel is the sevenday MTA MetroCard, which enables you to take the subway or bus as many times as you like within that period, for $US27. Customised subway and bus directions: www.tripplanner.mta.info. www.citypass.com; www.mta.info; www.tripplanner.mta.info.
Pick a neighbourhood: If you’re on a whistlestop tour, make the best use of your time by choosing an area and sticking to it. The Meatpacking District — a 20-square block to the west of Manhattan bordered by Chelsea Market and Gansevoort Street — is top of my itinerary and just a few minutes by subway from my Lexington Avenue base. Formerly a rundown slaughterhouse and packing district, it became better known as a magnet for drug addicts, prostitutes and transvestites in the 1980s before its fortunes changed in the early noughties and suddenly it was trendy.
Today the Meatpacking District’s cobbled streets are lined with shops and galleries. Diane von Furstenberg has her flagship outlet here, alongside the likes of Stella McCartney, Nicole Farhi, the fantastic designer department store Jeffrey New York and the largest Apple store in Manhattan. I’m impressed by cute-as-a-button boutique Darling on Horatio Street and almost have to be dragged kicking and screaming from so-chic Charles Nolan, with its eclectic mix of designer garments and homewares trinkets. www.meatpacking-district.com; www.darlingnyc.com; www.charlesnolan.com.
Size up the culinary landscape: There are restaurants and cafes to suit every mood. Keith McNally’s Parisian bistro Pastis (corner Ninth Avenue and Little West 12th Street) is an institution in the Meatpacking District and is packed with diners at weekends. McNally has recently taken over the Minetta Tavern in the nearby West Village and it, too, looks set to be a regular haunt for those seeking a buzzy scene and decent food.
Pastis has been joined in the neighbourhood more recently by the likes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Asian street food outfit Spice Market, Tom Colicchio’s steakhouse and raw bar CraftSteak and Mario Batali’s Del Posto Ristorante, a collaboration with fellow celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich and her son Joseph.
For more casual options, nearby Chelsea Market, a melting pot of gourmet food retailers, from bakers to butchers, and bars, is a must visit. If you’re suffering withdrawal symptoms, you can even get a good coffee here, at Ninth Street Espresso, which is quite a discovery in a city not renowned for its prowess with a percolator.
By way of hitting home the new-found street cred of this once dodgy district, after lunch I almost stumble on to a film set involving a ridiculously long-legged 20-something starlet holding two great danes at bay, in Gansevoort Street. The Meatpacking District has morphed like a butterfly from its super-seedy past and is now officially too cool for school. www.pastisny.com; www.chelseamarket.com; www.spicemarketnewyork.com; www.craftrestaurant.com; www.delposto.com.
Check out New York’s newest attraction: If the lineup of chic boutiques and dining spots is not enough to lure you to the Meatpacking District, the new High Line will certainly do the trick. This inspired repurposing of a derelict and overgrown railway line into an elevated sweep of parkland linking several neighbourhoods has been the talk of New York since it opened in June.
I stroll to the end of Gansevoort Street to climb the steps up to the 2.4km promenade, which sits 9m above Walk in the park: Gardens flourish along New York’s High Line, a once derelict rail track, main picture; Manhattan skyline, above; dining terrace at the Affinia Shelburne, right street level, and am stunned to see so many people making use of this new public open space.
Originally built in 1934 to lift dangerous freight trains above the streets of New York, the High Line railway ferried goods from the wharves to factories and warehouses until 1980, when the last train, apparently carrying three carloads of frozen turkeys to the Meatpacking District, trundled along its rails.
The line fell into disrepair and was under threat of demolition but in 1999 a lobby group, Friends of the High Line, was founded by local residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond and the fight began to preserve the railway line and turn it into public open space.