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Mellow in Manhattan Do it like the New Yorkers do

NEW YORK -- I have this vision of the good life: regular sojourns to New York, London and Paris to "do the things I always do."

I'm well on my way to perfecting that formula in Paris and London.

It's the Big Apple that's been hard to pare down.

A little history here: New York and I go back to my college days on the East Coast when fast-talking New Yorkers scared me, the city's pace intimidated me and I got desperately lost amid the canyons of the tall buildings.

Then came the final indignity. A guy with whom I had been corresponding for a year while he was in Vietnam was finally going to appear in person, on the corner of Sixth Avenue. He would be holding a yellow rose.

That poor fella was kept waiting for hours. I had been swallowed by the subway, hurtling around underground on abrupt New Yorkers' bad directions.

When I finally staggered back into daylight, I found the guy with the wilted rose still standing on that corner of Sixth Avenue.

We were never meant to be. Nor did New York and I seem a match; I rarely visited after that, and then only with my husband or friends.

But this spring I decided to tackle my fears so I could add this city to my rolling itinerary.

My quest for Hometown New York was aided with a little help from my friends. Ironically, I have six very dear friends who live there.

So off I went, and after five days of plays, concerts, the opera and dining about, I'm here to report the Big Apple is as homey as apple pie.

You just have to know how to meet it.

Among my new tricks: I learned to avoid the throngs on Sixth Avenue by walking up Seventh Avenue instead. I ate in tiny restaurants, shopped in small stores, stayed in homey hotels in Midtown Manhattan and walked everywhere, getting to know "my neighborhood."

Midtown is the place to be -- walkable to so many things -- Broadway, restaurants, shopping, Central Park, Museum of Modern Art. Being a pedestrian helps me establish a mental map so that pretty soon I'm feeling more confident. And mingling with the conga-line of New Yorkers makes me feel part of the gang. In five days I had to take only two cabs, which are wonderful for their abundance, and the cost was $7 both times.

I chose to stay in Midtown hotels that were priced midrange, and looked to be good candidates for my annual sojourn. The Sofitel was pleasantly small and welcoming with a very comfortable room where I slept like a stone. I also loved my stay at the Algonquin, famous for the Round Table, where New Yorker magazine was birthed from Harold Ross' winnings at a poker game and where witty Dorothy Parker reigned queen for the writers' gatherings.

The staff at the Algonquin says "welcome back" the first time you return from an outing. Matilda the cat saunters around the living room-like lobby.

So there I was in my Midtown milieu, Fifth Avenue shopping a block away, and Broadway shows a few blocks the other direction. My friends kept showing up to go to shows and share meals.

Amy and Rose couldn't think of a better place than the Algonquin for breakfast in its upholstered chair-filled lobby. For a pre-theater dinner, David took me to the Hourglass Tavern, one of the tiniest restaurants I've ever seen. In crowded conditions, they turn the hourglass by your table upside down -- you're outta there when sand hits bottom. David also suggests avoiding meals at touristy places around Broadway. Walk a few blocks to Ninth Avenue or even 10th Avenue to eat in quiet, inexpensive restaurants where the locals go.

Frank and I sampled Cafe Nicole for a Sunday pre-matinee brunch.

Located a few floors up, it overlooks Seventh and Broadway and the terrace is the perfect viewing spot for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Cafe Nicole was comfortably empty, no crush of people at all. This is New York?

Off-Broadway shows are another way to avoid New York hype. Frank and I went to see "Privilege," in the 2econd Stage Theatre, formerly a bank and now an intimate theater. Frank is a theater critic, so as he was being greeted by people around us, I felt right at home.

My friend Joan and I enjoyed a lovely lunch at Triomphe, a favorite of hers, and again I was surprised by the small size of the room and large space between tables, though this is a trendy, upscale restaurant.

And it was located right next door to my home at the Algonquin.

It's not possible to avoid crowds altogether. They were thronged at the newly redesigned MoMA, and I was disappointed by the layout of the museum -- difficult to know where you had been and where to go next. One good trick, though, was skipping the ticket line. I used my New York CityPass and walked right in.

Sometimes you do have to fight the crowds in New York. My friend Judy, an artist, hasn't braved MoMA yet. She steers visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which she declares to be the "best art museum in the world." She notes that "there is an entire room filled with famous Rembrandt paintings and there is almost never anyone in it."

Judy and I went to the Puccini's "Turandot" at the Metropolitan Opera. Very cool how they do the translation -- it appears on a small digital screen on the seat in front of you. The opera was spectacular, and the Met, with its gold-domed ceilings and layer-caked balconies, is stunning.

But the audience was quite naughty. They began to exit before the performers took their bows. Judy expressed her contempt in a nice loud New York voice. "That is so rude," she said. "Do you know how hard these performers work? Can't you show a little appreciation?"

I liked Judy's forthrightness; New Yorkers do express their opinions.

I also liked the man who, passing a newsstand, berated the owner for displaying porn openly. "This is just wrong . . . there are children passing by here," he said, then turned to me and asked, "Do you think he should be able to do this?"

New Yorkers speak up, and they have worked hard to make their town the much friendlier place it is today than it was during my college days.

But I did find disappointments. I had been excited about shopping in Bloomingdale's and Macy's -- but who can keep their wits amid blaring hip-hop music, massive floors filled with merchandise, shoppers pressing against you in noisy groups -- plus cosmetic salespeople dressed like doctors thrusting cards at you?

I found Lord & Taylor much more user-friendly. Smaller stores on Fifth Avenue were also welcoming -- one shoe store was passing out cookies.

I didn't make it to Central Park this trip, but that's a comfort zone in the midst of city chaos, a lovely, green soothing sanctuary right in the middle of the city. My friend Joan suggests renting a rowboat on Central Park lake, and eating at the Boathouse.

So with kudos to my friends and my friendly Midtown hotels, this time I returned from New York happy and relaxed, yet dazzled by the visit.

And though it's been only a few months, I've been thinking it's time to go back to "do the things I always do."

> Mapping it out

Hotels

Sofitel, 45 W. 44th St. between Fifth and Sixth avenues; (212) 354-8844, www.sofitel.com.

The staff is professional and welcoming in this 398-room hotel. My room, small but typical size for New York hotels, was really comfortable. I especially like the little entry hall to the room; feng shui or who knows what, but if I can't see the door, I sleep better in hotels. And it was very quiet. Room rates start at $299 for standard rooms but I've seen the rate as low as $229 on Expedia.com and Orbitz.com.

The Algonquin, 59 W. 44th St. between Fifth and Sixth avenues; (866) 363-9011, visit www.algonquinhotel.com.

This 174-room hotel is comfortable and welcoming. At breakfast I saw a waiter greet a man with, "two eggs, over easy," delighting the guest with being remembered. Rooms are small and dated, but because it's a historic hotel, it's forgivable. The real draw is the lobby, where groupings of comfortable chairs draw laptoppers, and there is wireless access here. Room rates start at $299.

Less expensive Midtown hotels: The Comfort Inn, Holiday Inn and other budget hotels are located in Midtown. They're not snappy, but they get the job done of locating you where you want to be.

Money/time saver

New York CityPass

You can buy these online at http://citypass.com or by calling (707) 256-0490. Cost: $53 adult; $41 for kids. All the attractions are worthwhile -- Empire State Building Observatory, Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises, American Museum of Natural History, Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art and the Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum.

Dining

Triomphe, 49 W. 44th St. between Fifth and Sixth avenues in the Iroquois Hotel; (212) 453-4233. French with global twists; small, quiet dining room with attractively presented and tasty food. Expensive.

Cafe Nicole, 226 W. 52nd St., (212) 315-0100, Ext. 5820. Great location, spacious dining and my $14.75 tuna nicoise was quite good; the brunch menu would suit most tastes.

Hourglass Tavern, 373 W. 46th St., (212) 265-2060. Good inexpensive Italian food in a uniquely tiny restaurant with a neighborhood feel. The hourglass is upended when you take a table, so don't dally.

Theater tickets

For highly popular shows such as "Avenue Q," "Spamalot" or "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," call the box office and buy your tickets as far in advance as you can. Popular shows like these sell out weeks in advance.

To see what's playing on Broadway, go to www.broadway.com or www.playbill.com.

If you find yourself in New York and are eager to see a specific popular show, hotel concierges can sometimes work magic. Be sure to tip them accordingly. You can also try your luck at the theater's box office. Sometimes house seats designated for VIPs are returned to the box office 48 hours before the show.

The TKTS Half-Price Ticket Outlet is a nifty deal, but don't count on buying tickets to the hot shows. Booth is located on the center island of 47th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. You certainly can buy tickets for lots of fun shows here, and you might get less-desirable seats for popular shows. Matinee tickets go on sale at 10 a.m.; evening performance tickets at 3 p.m. for performances Monday through Saturday. Tickets go on sale Sunday at 11 a.m.

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