Aviva Lowy gets a New York experience without the Manhattan price tag - across the bridge in Brooklyn.
When people talk of New York, they think of the famous Manhattan skyline the skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty, the elegance of Fifth Avenue. But the best place to enjoy that skyline is not in the city itself. It's in Brooklyn, on the other side of the East River.
In the past few years, locals and tourists have discovered many more reasons to cross the famous Brooklyn Bridge and stay there. With better-value accommodation and a lively mix of neighbourhoods, Brooklyn is now in demand as a cheaper, more liveable alternative to the high prices, huge crowds and extremely long queues inManhattan.
And thanks to New York's excellent subway network, landmarks such as the Empire State Building, Fifth Avenue and Central Park are only 20 to 30 minutes away.
The pleasures of staying in Brooklyn are far richer, however, than saving time and money. The borough is a microcosm of New York itself and offers the visitor numerous attractions far from the maddening crowds of Manhattan.
First, there's the history and community. Saturday Night Fever, the disco film of the 1970s that launched John Travolta to superstardom, was set in Brooklyn, so too was the book-film Sophie's Choice and Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing . In fact, some of the US's greatest writers and filmmakers choose to live in this 'hood for thecommunity.
Ordinary locals will quickly tell you that up until the 1880s, Brooklyn was a city in its own right, the third-largest in the US (after Manhattan and Philadelphia). When the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, it became one of the five boroughs of greater New York (with Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island).
This independence is not mere boasting. It means that while Manhattan was growing into a huge metropolis over the past century, so too was Brooklyn, with its array of restaurants, parks, galleries, sports teams and other cultural icons.
Some of these are world-famous, even today. The Brooklyn Bridge, which was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was built, remains a landmark of New York and the elegant steel-wire design has thrilled millions who have walked across it.
On a clear, sunny day you can enjoy the best that New York has to offer by setting off from Manhattan and walking across the bridge into Brooklyn, stopping for lunch at Junior's Restaurant, about 10 minutes' walk from the bridge in Fort Greene.
Junior's is a classic old-style diner, with large comfy booths and generous sandwiches (two adults can easily share one meal). Though two more Junior's have opened, in Times Square and Grand Central, this one is the original, dating back to 1950.
As do some of its customs. My son returned from the bathroom to the table, saying: "You'll never in a million years guess what happened to me in there." Naturally, I feared the worst. It turned out that an attendant, who had set up "shop" in the bathroom, had washed and dried my son's hands. All the menin our group went in to check out the story and said it was true. The attendant had photos of his family, a ghetto blaster and had generally tricked up his little service centre.
Junior's is also famous for its cheesecake, billed as "the world's most fabulous" in a city where many bakeries make that claim. Orders for the cakes are mailed across the country. When I went in to buy one on New Year's Eve, there were several hundred piled high in the windows, all variations on the cheesecake theme with berry toppings here and chocolate swirls there. People who had been queuing out the door in the bitter cold were purchasing two and three at a time.
Coney Island became the world's best-known amusement park during the early 1900s and has been copied at both Sydney and Melbourne's Luna parks. It is still an enjoyable day trip, especially after strolling along the boardwalk from the Brighton Beach subway terminal. Brighton is a real beach after Bondi's heart, with grand ocean views.
The annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade is a hip costume-and-float event and the park also hosts the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest.
Over the past decades Brighton Beach, which was celebrated in the memoirs of playwright Neil Simon, has become known as Little Odessa due to the large Russian community that has grown there. To walk along its streets is to be transported to another time and place, somewhere around the Black Sea in the 1980s. Nearly all signage is in Russian; you don't hear much English spoken. Elderly men wear leather coats and peaked caps, women sparkle with gold teeth and furs. The shops reflect this opulent fashion preference along with rather unusual selections of goods: an electronics store houses a caviar counter.
Delicatessens and restaurants offer Russian and Eastern menus. At the Taste of Russia deli, I had to point to my selection of veal stroganoff, with neither the counter staff nor I sharing a common language. The food, when consumed that evening, was deeply delicious and much cheaper than Manhattan fare. It's remarkable to think that all this is just half an hour away from Wall Street.
Closer to Manhattan, six or so subway stops from the Brooklyn Bridge, lies the neighbourhood of Williamsburg. For many years this has been home to orthodox Jewish communities. Catch the subway to the area at the corner of Lee Avenue and Hewes Street (subway stop at Broadway and Hewes) and you're soon seeing men dressed in big black hats, sporting long beards and curled ringlets from beneath their hats. Here the language spoken is Yiddish and some cafes insist on a modest dress code. Kosher delicatessens, bakers and restaurants abound. In winter, a hot potato knish is the perfect savoury pastry to warm your hands and belly. Here it feels like a small part of the European Middle Ages is still alive. There are other orthodox centres in nearby Borough Park and Crown Heights.
Yet just a few streets away, another part of Williamsburg has turned into a hip centre, with a music, art and shopping scene that lures Manhattanites across the river. Whether it's the boutiques, cafes or galleries around North 6th Street (between Kent and Bedford avenues) or the jazz clubs nearby, Williamsburg has become an "it" zone. What began with artists fleeing SoHo's steep rents in the mid-1990s has grown into a fully fledged cultural centre, with more than 10,000 artists, many coming from overseas.
Backing this up is the Brooklyn Museum, which opened in 1897 and is the second-largest public art museum in the US, after the Met. It holds more than 1.5 million objects, from ancient Egyptian treasures to contemporary works, including a collection of feminist art.
There's also the Brooklyn Academy of Music, nicknamed BAM in the Fort Greene neighbourhood. The complex houses a 2100-seat theatre, with performances of everything from dance to opera and theatre, as well as cinemas, exhibitions, talks and poetry readings. It draws top US and international performers.
When the weather is good and it's time to enjoy the great outdoors, Brooklyn locals swap the museum for Prospect Park. This is to Brooklyn what Central Park is to Manhattan, though slightly wilder and less structured.
Designed by the same two architects, Prospect Park has plenty of amenities of its own: a zoo and wildlife centre, pedal boats, a carousel, tennis centre, skating rink and bandstand where live music festivals are held every summer.
Finally, at the wonderful address of 1 Water Street, Vinegar Hill, nestled under the Brooklyn Bridge, is the famed River Cafe where, for more than 30 years, fine chefs have made their reputations. Even without its excellent food, the cafe would still draw crowds, poised as it is on the East River with unhindered views of the Manhattan skyline.
Dinner would have to be the booking of choice, with the restaurant decked out in fairy lights and Manhattan putting on its own spectacular light show. Most diners use the word "magical" to recallthe experience.
Qantas flies from Sydney to New York seven times a week, with a brief stopover in Los Angeles. See qantas.com.au.
New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge, 333 Adams Street, Brooklyn, king rooms $US240 ($335) a night, see marriott.com. NU Hotel Brooklyn, 85 Smith Street, Brooklyn, rooms from $US285, see nuhotelbrooklyn.com.
Junior's Most Fabulous Cheesecake & Desserts, 386 Flatbush Avenue extension at DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn, see juniorscheesecake.com, subway: De Kalb (Q Line). The River Cafe, 1 Water Street, Brooklyn (right next to the Brooklyn Bridge), see rivercafe.com.