Empire state of mind

Cormac Byrne

IT'S a concrete jungle and, like any jungle, it's vast and beautiful but it's the hidden gems, those little nooks you discover that ignite the imagination and arouse the senses that make New York 'a hell of a town'.

Like most New York newbies, my limited exposure to the Big Apple amounted to novels, Law and Order, CSI New York and movies, most of which included explosions, giant lizards, alien invasions and tough NYPD detectives with short fuses and loose tongues.

So unless I was solving a series of murders, foiling an alien invasion or falling in love with Meg Ryan, it would be my own little unique adventure and voyage of discovery.

During an aimless wander around lower Manhattan on a Saturday evening, I stumbled across a little piece of heaven -- Stone Street.

A short walk from pier 18, this closed off cobbled street will be the first place that enters my head when I think of Manhattan. You eat outdoors and move indoors if it's alcohol and televised sport you're after. Mexican, Italian and Cuban restaurants and Irish bars with good food on offer abound.

We found a deal for a one-and-a-half-pound lobster with baked potato and corn on the cob for $18 (€14 give or take) and we tucked into it, drank copious amounts of alcohol and conversed and laughed with anyone who came within a five-metre radius.

When I return to this metropolis, I'll be staying in lower Manhattan, away from the hustle and bustle of Midtown and the heaving masses of Times Square. It's easily accessible by subway and the ingenious NYC grid system means you'll never get lost.

The Gild Hall Hotel on Gold Street is a classy boutique establishment and a good base from which to explore. And with rooms on tablethotels.com from $215 (€156) in November, it's certainly good value.

A great way to get a feel for the history of the island and in particular lower Manhattan, is a walking tour. Big Onion Tours were very impressive but were reluctant to bring us to the World Trade Center site, which is worth seeing to comprehend the sheer size and scale of what stood there before and to acknowledge the innocent people and brave emergency service personnel who died in the attacks a decade ago.

If you're coming for a short weekend break to see as much as you can and immerse yourself in the madness, then staying in Midtown is your best bet. I stayed at the Intercontinental on Times Square. Barely a year old, this hotel is superbly located on the edge of 'Hell's Kitchen' and has wonderful dining, is within walking distance of Broadway and it's a short cab ride to Central Park. It's steep enough at $440 (€320) a night, but you won't be disappointed. I have never been so comfortable.

If a short break catches your fancy, then you will most likely be bringing the apple of your eye to the Big Apple and a trip aboard the World Yacht could win you even more brownie points. For $70 (€50) you can enjoy a three-hour yacht ride around the Island including a four-course dinner and corny jazz music. With views of the Washington, Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, you'll gasp in amazement as darkness descends over Manhattan and the city that never sleeps opens it eyes.

After your meal you can come out on deck and the yacht gets so close to Lady Liberty you could see up her nostrils if she had any. The stunning Chrysler and Empire State buildings must be seen to be believed.

I also discovered the only way to fly, Continental Airlines Business First is the best mode of transport I've ever experienced. An award- winning dining service and the pièce de résistance are the 180-degree flat-bed seats.

Only for a friendly stewardess tapping me on the shoulder on our descent, I could still be onboard. Great trip.