In our family, Christmas was tradition-bound in the "over the river and through the woods" way. So the prospect of flying cross-country to spend the holidays in a hotel in Midtown Manhattan risked serious emotional disruption. Instead of the spectre of "Home Alone 2 (Lost in New York"), it was one of the most joyous holidays ever. Waking up Christmas morning with a view of Saint Patrick's Cathedral and
Rockefeller Center and a block away from enchanting Fifth Avenue was a worthwhile tradeoff - at least this once - for the stockings hung by the chimney (at home) with care.
If you are thinking about changing up your holiday traditions for Christmas in New York, here are a few tips and lessons learned.
Lesson #1: Plan thoughtfully, choose wisely. New York is jammed over Christmas -- with a festive "we are the world" vibe. Our hotel, The New York Palace, echoed with accents from places like Australia, Italy, France, South Carolina and Texas. To understand that was to experience the line-up at the mostly to-go Pomme Palais patisserie downstairs, carved out on the street floor by multi-star chef Michel Richard.
Lesson #2: Book flights, hotels and special restaurants early but watch for hotel bargains up to the last minute.
- The Palace hotel was an exceptional find on Madison Avenue at East 50th Street and behind Saint Patrick's Cathedral a block east of Fifth Avenue. It was one of two Midtown choices I kept on hold up to the 7-day no-penalty cancellation window. It was a great decision -- the
infamous Leona Helmsley, who presided there during its Helmsley Palace era, clearly knew location and style when she saw it. The staff could not have been more hospitable - and with gentle firmness after being assigned the first night to a room on the wrong side of the hotel (facing east), I was thrilled with the high-floor corner room that offered a westward view along 50th Street to the Radio City Music Hall sign at Rockefeller Center.
- Scarpetta and Friend of a Farmer now top our growing list of Manhattan restaurants that must be experienced. I cannot remember a more beautiful Christmas Eve dinner than at Scarpetta on West 14th Street in the newly trendy Meatpacking District (centered around black cod with carmelized fennel and red snapper with braised brussel sprouts and pancetta and impeccable service). Nor a cozier December 23 evening than at Friend of a Farmer just south of Gramercy Park with easy warmth, wood fires and comfort food evoking the care of farm-to-table.
Lesson #3: Splurge, but be smart in your choices. A last minute impulse to see a Broadway show or other holiday highlight? The hotel concierge wanted $350 (through a booking agency) for one seat to the Rockette's Christmas Spectacular the next afternoon. The online booking service, Today Tix, which has an easy App, charged $49.50. Hmmm - with no waiting, no lines and an excellent price, guess who got my business? A "concierge" met me with my ticket on 6th Avenue, and I walked right in to my seat smack in the center of the orchestra for the not-to-be-missed 90-minute annual show.
Lesson #4: If you don't want to shop 'til you drop, do take the Fifth Avenue promenade. From the Plaza Hotel at 59th Street (the southern border of Central Park) and its mesmerizing food hall south past Bergdorf Goodman, Rockefeller Center to Saks Fifth Avenue is a most enchanting holiday tableaux, where window designers apparently have spared no expense to entice us. The world seems to have emerged for several days to view the elaborately designed windows - especially in Bergdorf's and Saks - where lines queue up for good reason. This nine-block stroll, even dodging umbrellas, was magical. It goes without saying that going into any store past the over-the-top window displays brings over-the-top bargains for planned or impulsive gift giving (including, of course, for yourself).
Lesson #5: Be prepared to be surprised. We spent the day after Christmas in the theater, viewing Bradley Cooper, Patricia Clarkson and Alessandro Nivolo in The Elephant Man, in its scheduled short run on Broadway. The tickets were a surprise family gift, and after a more traditional homestyle Christmas Day with family and friends, a superb way to wrap up a Christmas holiday in an intimate two hours at the theater with three familiar actors in astonishing and moving performances.