Getting out and about in a wintry New York is all kinds of cool, writes Helen Speirs

As Super Storm Stella bore down on the US East Coast in March, with at least 30cm of snow forecast for New York, the midtown Manhattan hotel where I and members of a New Zealand UN delegation were staying advised all guests to stock up on two days' worth of food in case the city ground to a halt.

Panic buying ensued. News bulletins covered little else. It felt an apocalyptic start to our visit in what was supposed to be a Northern Hemisphere spring.

The Art Deco Chrysler building, built in 1930 to house the car maker's headquarters, sits alongside newer buildings in midtown Manhattan. Photo / Helen Speirs
The Art Deco Chrysler building, built in 1930 to house the car maker's headquarters, sits alongside newer buildings in midtown Manhattan. Photo / Helen Speirs

While other states were inundated, New York City received only a few inches and lost one working day to the white stuff. For us, delegates at the Commission on the Status of Women, that meant a bonus day of sightseeing.


As we ventured out, workers with an array of contraptions were already in cleanup mode (fines are issued to homeowners, property managers, businesses and residents if snow isn't cleaned off New York City streets within four hours in some cases).

Piled into metres-high-and-wide drifts at the side of Manhattan's streets and avenues, and with not enough sun getting through the skyscraper-lined streets and avenues, the snow turned to black ice courtesy of the city's grime, and then to slush as it slowly melted over the following days and weeks. The city itself wasn't wasn't pretty, but Central Park was.

Cloaked in a snowy, muffling blanket, the park was a welcome — if bitterly cold — respite from the city's constant soundscape (a cacophony of construction noise, vehicle engines, horns and sirens). The park's lakes were completely frozen over and the scene was picture-perfect.

Despite the biting cold, runners and dog walkers were out in force. Old-fashioned streetlights, some of which were lit even during the day, contributed to the magical, olde-world feel, reminiscent of CS Lewis' Narnia.

My priority was the southwest corner of the park, containing Strawberry Fields, the living memorial to the late Beatle John Lennon. His widow Yoko Ono still lives in the Dakota building, outside which he was gunned down. It overlooks the mosaic memorial emblazoned with the word "Imagine", the title of Lennon's much-loved ode to peace.

We made the Central Park stop as part of an open-top hop-on, hop-off bus tour — bracing at that time of year, but still a great way to orientate yourself and quickly see the main sights.

I was surprised by how walkable Manhattan is, however. The densely populated island is only 59sq/km. You are always within sight of a well-known monument and, because of traffic, walking was often quicker and easier than using the omnipresent yellow cabs or buses — and even the subway for short distances.

Modern architecture sits alongside older buildings in a striking and complementary mix. I loved the triangular Flatiron Building, but my pick of the landmarks was the Chrysler Building. This striking Art Deco monument, with its terraced steel crown and eagles gracing its upper corners, became something of a touchstone (read obsession) for me, perhaps because it was the view I opened my hotel blind to immediately upon arrival. It was also a great navigational aid.

Fellow delegates on the opposite side of our hotel looked out on the commanding 102-storey Art Deco Empire State Building. A trip to the top of that central landmark is a must.

A couple of us went up late at night, a great time to see the lights of the city (the tower itself also provides a striking light show) but also to beat the worst of the queues. The 86th floor, with its outdoor observatory deck, offered a bitterly cold and blustery perspective, but the top-storey view is well worth the extra cost. There are 360-degree panoramic views of Manhattan and beyond and the internal lights are dimmed for better viewing and photographs.

The Statue of Liberty is another unmissable attraction, whether you go to the top or not. A free ride on the Staten Island commuter ferry offers a great sail-by option if time is limited, but a trip to Liberty and Ellis islands is worthwhile.

Make sure you leave half a day if you want to get the most out of the redeveloped Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island, the now-defunct centre where millions of immigrants were once processed across the water from Lady Liberty and in tantalising view of Manhattan. I found the experience unexpectedly moving, made particularly poignant given the current political climate under the Trump administration.

Equally moving is the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, also worth dedicating half a day to. It is a sobering experience, which feels at once gratuitous and respectful.

A walk across the iconic Brooklyn Bridge is a rite of passage for visitors. Photo / Helen Speirs
A walk across the iconic Brooklyn Bridge is a rite of passage for visitors. Photo / Helen Speirs

A group of us made our way to the site via the subway to the new transport hub, emerging into the new light-filled Oculus Building, which resembles a dove taking flight. The names of all those who died in the attacks are inscribed into panels edging two giant memorial pools, which are built on the footprints of the felled twin towers next to the memorial museum. Surrounded in water and glass, the area is a reflective one in every sense. Towering overhead is the new One World Trade Centre, now the tallest building in New York and the world's sixth-highest.

Hours can be spent in the Memorial Museum alone. It contains remnants from the towers, a crushed fire engine that carried some of the first responders and video clips about the victims.

A whole wall is dedicated to an artist's work depicting descriptions of the colour of the sky that fateful day. In large writing amid the sea of blues is a powerful quote by Virgil: "No day shall erase you from the memory of time."

Already moved, I was shocked to read a small plaque informing visitors that the remains of many who perished at the site lie behind the wall.

This is the financial heart of the city, of course, and any poignant thoughts are soon left behind with a visit to nearby Wall St, home to the New York Stock Exchange, the ultimate capitalist symbol.

While in the area, a walk across the iconic Brooklyn Bridge is a rite of passage for visitors. During the day when three of us stepped out, it was jam-packed with tourists and locals cycling between the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. It offers a refreshing sense of space after the claustrophobic streets and there are fantastic views back towards the Manhattan skyline. A saunter across at dusk when the city lights up would be stunning.

Another brilliant way to stretch your legs and take in the sights is on the High Line, a 2km walkway, described as a "linear park", created on an elevated section of disused railway line in the old Meatworks district.

I would love to see it in all its flowering glory, but even in autumn/winter it was interesting walking at a different level through an inspirationally redeveloped area. The project was part of the Global Designing Cities Initiative, now headed by former Dunedin woman Skye Duncan.

No visit to the Big Apple would be complete without a stroll up Broadway and around Times Square, renamed after the New York Times newspaper moved its headquarters there.

This is big, bold, bright and brash corporate America, where giant advertising billboards compete for attention, agents compete for the tourist dollar and world-famous shows compete for their slice of the cultural pie.

A Broadway show is a must. I treated myself to Sunset Boulevard at the Palace Theatre, starring Glenn Close. A seat in the gods was expensive even booking ahead, but bargains can be had if you are prepared to chance your luck on the day.

My sightseeing was crammed into evenings and a couple of weekends, so many cultural offerings sadly had to be sacrificed.

I made a speedy tour of the New York Public Library (largely to see the stunning restored ceiling in the Rose Reading Room), made a brief stop at the National Museum of the American Indian, couldn't fit in a visit to the Metropolitan Opera or the Museum of Modern Art, and had only an hour or so at the magnificent and vast Metropolitan Museum of Art (where you could easily lose yourself for weeks on end). The Guggenheim Museum, however, offers a perfect quickish visit.

Not only is the collection of modern masterpieces jaw-dropping, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed spiral building is worth a look in its own right.

You can easily shop till you drop in New York, but if you are pushed for time, as I was, a trip to Macy's flagship Herald Square department store ticks most of the famous fashion brand boxes.

Amid the sightseeing, food and drink stops are a must, and there is everything to choose from, from diners and delis to chic bistros and high-rise cocktail bars.

A favourite find was Momosan, a Japanese ramen and sake restaurant doors away from our hotel in a block where it seemed most nationalities and styles of food were available.

Also within five minutes' walk was the Grand Central Station market, where beautiful produce of all descriptions is on tantalising display.

The station itself is a stunning piece of architecture, too. Once inside, like everywhere in New York I found, it pays to look up ... you'll be starstruck.

Getting there: American Airlines flies from Auckland to New York, via Los Angeles.