Not many people stand under Brooklyn Bridge gazing across the East River at that most famous of skylines and realise that, like the Taj Mahal, this is one famous destination that does not disappoint.

And neither did I. For while I had a dream introduction to New York worked out in my head, when I got to the jetty below Brooklyn Bridge, I found it coned off and crowded with police, cameras, and a body sprawled on the boards.

In New York there's a surprise and delight around every corner.

Delight, because this was not a real body: this was a bit-part actress playing dead dressed in nothing but a strapless sequinned mermaid gown, and between takes being enthusiastically sprayed with water, while Gary Sinise and the rest of the CSI-NY team studied her dispassionately.

New York is Serendipity City: Wherever you go you will come across something unexpected, fascinating and entertaining.

I had thought, stopping off in Tahiti for a few days on the way, that the Tuamoto Islands were God's gift to the digital camera. But standing in Times Square I could have filled my memory card without moving.

It was my first trip to New York, I was on my own and I was a bit nervous. I had actually considered wearing my second-best watch.

So no-one was more surprised than me to find myself wandering around Grand Central Terminal's splendid interior near midnight on a Saturday, perfectly at ease, before wandering back along the dark streets to my hotel. I had got off to a good start the previous night, venturing into Times Square and finding it filled with other tourists waving cameras and helpful security guards scattered about.

Turning my back on the neon and digital dazzle, I came across the theatre where the Monty Python musical Spamalot was running, starring David Hyde Pierce from Frasier. It was particularly satisfying to apply knowledge I had acquired from watching that show to look for the cancellations queue, and, a mere 15 minutes later, find myself in possession of a centre front circle seat for a sell-out Broadway spectacular. See what I mean? Serendipity.

Of course preparation helps, but the great thing about New York is that the research is painless, because you have been doing it all your life: at night in front of the box or the big screen, you have been swotting it up. You know the names already, you've seen the pictures, so when you finally arrive, it's just a matter of fitting it all together. And that's easy too, because of the numbered grid system of the streets, the simplicity of the subway system and, above all, because of the helpfulness of the natives.

Stand on a corner and unfold a map and they come running. "I never get asked for help," one fellow beamed happily at me on the subway. "Have fun," said the old man in the hat by the Flatiron Building.

And I did have fun, as expected, marvelling at the 40km view from the top of the Empire State Building; negotiating the lanterns outside the shops in Chinatown; standing dwarfed under the dinosaur skeletons in the Natural History Museum. But also unexpected fun: Eating a hot dog in Central Park while a young guy did Tai Chi and squirrels scampered past; emerging from the subway into a snow shower that rubbed out the tops of the skyscrapers; and shrugging into a FDNY jacket for a photo with the crew of Engine 14. New York: Serendipity City.