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The most magical time to visit Manhattan

CHRISTMAS is a magical time to visit New York. The ice rink at the Rockefeller Centre. The Santa at Macy's. The jingle of the cash tills as Irish shoppers rush to bag a bargain to put under the tree.

My wife Sandra and I visited NYC in recent months (getting the festive shopping in very early, for once) and spent six nights in the city either side of a family wedding in upstate New York.

While Sandra had went on a girl's holiday to the city in November 2009, I had not been to New York since passing through it while on a college J1 working visa in the summer of 1998.

With it being such an extremely popular destination with Irish holidaymakers, one thing that we were not left short of were suggestions and advice from our friends about where to eat, drink and see. I quickly learned that everyone has their own favourite New York experience.

But what no one really mentioned to us was the splendour of Central Park – the place's cool vibe and feeling of being in an oasis of green in the city quite rightly dubbed a 'concrete jungle.'

After a hassle-free flight with Aer Lingus from Dublin, we touched down in JFK Airport where we got a 30-minute taxi from the airport to our fabulous hotel.

The Beacon, a hotel popular with Irish visitors to the city, is located on the Upper West Side of the sprawling city beside the famous Beacon Theatre which regularly hosts world famous musicians and comedians.

Check-in was friendly and prompt and we then went to our amazing top floor room – it was a suite with fabulous views of the skyline and the Hudson River (and if you don't believe me, just check out my picture on the facing page!)

It was very spacious and it catered for all types of holidaymakers as it had a fully equipped kitchenette. It's a handy option for those on a budget, not that we did any cooking during our stay and opened up the wallets.

And back to Central Park – the hotel is a 10-minute stroll from the vast expanses of the park and we quickly made our way there where we found a nice sheltered grass area and watched the world go by, on a chilly but beautiful day.

It was the perfect place to spend a couple of hours in the evening after a long day of travelling as we sat near the lake and later visited Strawberry Fields – a memorial to John Lennon who was shot dead close to the park in December 1980.

The Upper West side is a leafy, residential area and a perfect base to explore the many delights of New York City. The subway, which is located less than a five-minute walk from the Beacon Hotel, gets you to the brilliantly manic heart of New York – Times Square – in less than 10 minutes.

And the Beacon really was a super place for us to base ourselves we enjoyed tasty cocktails in the then newly renovated and stylish Beacon Bar at night-time and each morning we went to the bustling Fairway market which is directly across the road from the hotel where we enjoyed excellent American breakfasts in its restaurant.

We crammed as much as we could into our few days in the iconic city and some of the highlights included going to a musical on Broadway and a New York Yankees game at the amazing Yankees Stadium in the south Bronx. I don't have a clue about the rules of baseball and attending the game in in front of a frenzied home support, did not leave me much more enlightened but in truth it was a fantastic buzz just to be there as we soaked in the atmosphere.

It goes without saying that New York has bars, restaurants and clubs to cater for all tastes and we were inundated with so much advice that there was no way that we had time to visit even a quarter of the places that were recommended to us.

However we had some great experiences – in particular the steaks at Gallagher's Steak House located in Manhattan's Theatre District are out of this world and the restaurant is the perfect place to go to before going to a show at Broadway.

Another enjoyable meal was had at the Spotted Pig gastro pub at West Village – where you can't book your table in advance but it very much attracts a hip crowd. Speaking of a hip crowd, a cool bar to visit is the unique Back Room Bar on Lower East Side which is located down a little hidden alleyway with an unmarked door.

It gives you the feeling of what a so-called 'speakeasy' was like in prohibition era America in the 1920's when the sale of alcohol was illegal.

We got our cocktails in teacups and bottles of beer were hidden in brown bags in the funky, dimly lit bar.

Despite my fear of heights, I also braved going to the top of two of the tallest skyscrapers in the city. We visited the Rockefeller Centre during daylight and the Empire State Building by night.

The views were breathtaking on both occasions and it was great to have the contrast between night and day to gaze over the city that never sleeps.

New York is an amazing place albeit a very expensive place – even by Irish standards.