Sunday 25 September 2016

New York with Kids: How one family got the best out of the Big Apple

American Holidays

Orla Neligan

Published 18/09/2016 | 02:30

The view from the Empire State building is a highlight for kids
The view from the Empire State building is a highlight for kids
Kids enjoying art
NEW YORK: Fossils from a Tyrannosaurus rex at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images
The well-loved park, the Highline
The Hamptons

Orla Neligan takes her family to New York. But can she combine city culture with the benefits of the beach?

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'New York with three small children?"

The US Customs and Border Protection Officer at Dublin Airport looks at my husband and I and our three toddlers. "I salute you."

I laugh nervously, recalling our first family holiday: a three-hour flight delay, toilet breaks on my lap and a general feeling that I was travelling with some really drunk friends - one vomiting, one starting a fight, one rummaging through a fellow-passenger's handbag.

But this time it was going to be different, right? 

Call it mawkish nostalgia, but I wanted my children to see the city where my husband and I had shared so many great memories. The key to being intrepid with kids is to go with the flow. But is that possible in a city with infinite attractions and the frenetic energy of eight million inhabitants?

Kids enjoying art
Kids enjoying art

Dragging kids around a city can be a high-friction slog, so we decided to split our week between Shelter Island, Long Island and Brooklyn. Having secured two spacious and cosy Airbnb houses thanks to local friends, our plan was to experience the city with the benefits of the beach.

Shelter is a small island (70km²) in eastern Long Island. As we depart the ferry, inhaling the briny air and surveying the tidy shingled houses and dramatic dunes, it feels exactly how I imagined the Hamptons, but more humble and slow-paced (the island speed limit is 35mph).

Sure, there are placid bays and beautiful beaches, but it has the edge on charming quirks and friendliness.

"Nobody locks their door here," says a local in Marie Eiffel's café (marieeiffelmarket.com) in Dering Harbour. She gives me a run-down of her favourite island activities: Mashomack Nature Preserve with peek-a-boo displays explaining life in the forest; Sylvester Manor - a historic plantation; and Pridwin Hotel's Wednesday night family barbecue; biking, kayaking, beachcombing.

The Hamptons
The Hamptons

We quickly fall into an agreeable rhythm of mornings in the pool and afternoons exploring. We hire bikes from Picozzi's garage (jwpicozzi.com) in Dering Harbour and find hidden inlets and beaches. We venture off the island to Greenport where the kids ride the waterfront carousel, to Bridgehampton for ice-cream at family favourite The Candy Kitchen, before hitting Hampton Beach - a spectacular strand of sugary sand where the kids hunted for seashells and yelled into the wind as the sun set over the necklace of million-dollar beachfront houses.

On our last night, we splurge on dinner at Sunset Beach (sunsetbeachli.com) - a tastefully transformed 1960s motel that draws the moneyed Hampton crowd at weekends. It's Tuesday, so there's a quiet lull as we tuck into fat juicy prawns.

The following day, a friend sails us to Sag Harbour to catch the Hampton Jitney bus back to the city. We enjoy one last swim in the warm waters and hit The Dock House (dockhouseny.com) for fish and chips and lobster rolls in the historic whaling town.

Disembarking the Jitney that evening in Manhattan, skin silvery with salt from our swim, we feel like a bunch of surfers gate crashing a black tie party. "Mum, can we go swimming?" asks my daughter. Although not wanting to admit it, I miss the easy charm and fresh-air freedom of Long Island. "We've got dinosaurs to see," I say enthusiastically.

NEW YORK: Fossils from a Tyrannosaurus rex at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images
NEW YORK: Fossils from a Tyrannosaurus rex at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images

The next morning, we arrive just as The Natural History Museum opens equipped with our NYC City Passes, which bump us to the top of the queue. The first thing we meet is a massive Barosaurus skeleton in the entrance hall. "Diiiinoooosaaaaur," shouts my son.

Two hours later, we've seen the life-size model of a blue whale, incredibly realistic animal dioramas and explored meteorites at the planetarium. The kids are enthralled, and starving, so we retire to nearby Alice's Teacup (alicesteacup.com) for tea, cake and a sprinkle of fairy dust from our 'winged' waitress.

Last stop is the Empire State via Central Park. It's 5pm, the kids are lagging, but Martha "really wants to see the Eiffel Tower". Half an hour later we're savouring the view from the top, her big blue eyes as round as quarters. "Mum, you can see the whole world from up here."

The next day we stay local at Prospect Park, Brooklyn's untamed version of Central Park, where the kids splash about in the water jets at the Le Frac centre and we take a pedalo out on the lake ($25 for an hour).

 We start our last day with a slow stroll through the Highline - the elevated former railroad that has become Manhattan's second best-loved park. As we exit at Gansevoort Ave, the kids are at half mast, so we hire bikes from Blazing Saddles (blazingsaddles.com).

The well-loved park, the Highline
The well-loved park, the Highline

My son falls asleep in his carrier as we cross Brooklyn Bridge, but wakes when he sniffs Grimaldis pizza at the other side. Some say its reputation rests on the dough whose crucial ingredient is rumoured to be Brooklyn water - whatever that means - but it's the perfect New York slice.

That evening is spent on the stoop of our beautifully restored Victorian Airbnb home. On the street, a group of Hispanic teenagers practise their dance routine for a sweet 16th party. Kids play football with a dog and homemade lemonade is being sold at a makeshift stand. The kids sit mesmerised; who needs attractions when you've got a real slice of New York life?

As we bed down for our return Aer Lingus flight, a steward asks my daughters what their favourite memory is of New York.

"The swimming pool," answers Ruby without hesitation, while Martha muses for a few minutes before replying, "Well, we finally got to see the Eiffel Tower."

Top Tips

Kids under 44in in height go free on the subway. NYC City Passes (newyorkpass.com) skip queues and save up to 70pc on entry fees for major attractions. The Staten Island ferry is free, as are freetoursbyfoot.com. The Natural History Museum is free to visit for the last hour (4.45- 5.45pm).

Get there

Orla flew with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com; from €249 each-way), which operates daily services from Dublin and Shannon to JFK, along with a new, daily service from Dublin to Newark.

The Hampton Jitney bus (hamptonjitney.com; tickets from $19) connects airports, Brooklyn and Manhattan with the Hamptons.

Where to stay

Orla stayed at Airbnb (airbnb.ie) properties owned by The Mooneys, an extremely hospitable and informed Irish family living in New York. Their properties are in Brooklyn (ref. 8776329) and on Shelter Island (ref. 8793131).

See nycgo.com for more family tips in New York.

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