Helen Van Berkel wakes up in the city that never sleeps.

Eleven storeys below my hotel room, a large crowd hurried by. Something Was Happening. I rushed downstairs and joined the unsmiling throng as it flowed up Seventh Avenue. Where were these people going? There were fat ones, short ones, pretty ones, well-dressed ones, a United Nations of humanity on the move. No one was smiling but almost all were headed in the same direction. First stop seemed to be Times Square, where the crowd paused to worship the neon gods sprawling and writhing across the building fronts. A kaleidoscope of colour flowed like a pixelated tide up and down the walls of stone. Buy! Drink! Wear! Watch! The crowd pushed against barricades where more people with cameras and lights and sound booms milled around a lineup of women who may or not have been famous.

I had expected New York to be like this, but with more jostling and more beaten-up taxis. Sorry, I mean cabs. Instead, the famous yellow icons were shiny, clean and modern: although a Prius painted bright yellow simply doesn't look like a Prius. And, as in every movie ever made about New York, my progress towards Central Park was accompanied by a cacophony of car horns, clouds of steam swirling from white and orange chimneys in the street and the underground rumbling of rushing subway trains.
It's a city that is familiar. It was my first visit to the Big Apple but it felt like I'd seen it before: streets made into canyons by cliffs of office-block windows; the Plaza Hotel, the Chrysler Building, the Rockefeller Centre, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, the green railings of the subway.

I was staying in the Moxy Times Square, a micro-hotel on 36th Street in Midtown Manhattan. By the time I was crossing 42nd Street, I was ignoring the red hand along with the locals and not taking photographs of black-clothed cops with guns. As I threaded through the bumper-to-bumper traffic to cross 49th Street against the lights, a grey-bearded driver yelled "asshole!" at me as he lurched his yellow cab from one lane to another without warning. I couldn't help grinning — I really was in New York!

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Times Square, Midtown Manhattan. Photo / NYC &Company/Brittany Petronella
Times Square, Midtown Manhattan. Photo / NYC &Company/Brittany Petronella

I only had a few days in the City that Never Sleeps, I was on foot and I had nowhere near long enough to see everything this greatest of cities has to offer. I was determined to see what I could.

The grid pattern of streets makes Manhattan easy to navigate: the streets run roughly east to west and the avenues north to south. There are more streets than avenues because Manhattan is roughly sausage-shaped and lies on a more-or-less north-south axis bounded by the East, Hudson and Harlem Rivers. And it is one of the most filmed cities in the world.

So many of the sounds I was hearing and scenes I was seeing for the first time, I had seen and heard before. Subway stairs emerged at occasional street corners, disgorging gouts of hurrying humanity.

No-one seemed concerned at the beggars who lined the streets, handwritten cardboard signs propped against their knees. A tragic number of bearded, hollow-eyed old-young military veterans sat cross-legged, their signs apologetic: "I wouldn't do this if I didn't have to" read one. "I served this country" read another, outside a souvenir shop crammed with "I [heart] NY" caps and T-shirts. I gave him my lunch leftovers from Tao, a rather nice Thai restaurant in the neighbourhood. He took it without a glance or a word of thanks.

It was almost a surprise to emerge from the canyon of skyscrapers at one of the many entrances to Central Park. Horse-drawn carriages lined the street waiting for those seeking a romantic interlude in one of the best-known parks in the world. I had a park map but decided to follow my feet. The paths were wide and squirrels scampered through the trees as I walked. I crossed bridges edged with low stone balustrades and took shelter from the sporadic rain underneath picturesque arches. A saxophonist played gentle jazz and violinists with long ponytails and short leather skirts stomped and danced to their own interpretation of music.

As I neared the Bethesda Fountain, a heavyset bulldog cruised nonchalantly by on a skateboard. I did a double take: yes, it was a bulldog and yes, it was on a skateboard. The dog powered itself along using its back legs before jumping back on and carrying on its way.

Occasionally under the trees just starting to change into their autumn wardrobes, great humps of grey and black rock heaved out of the grass like the slick backs of diving sea creatures.

For a while I fancied I was exploring original Manhattan when the Canarsee Indians walked the island before the Dutch and English arrived. But alas: Central Park is extensively landscaped and curated. And although in large swathes of it you can almost pretend you are truly in the countryside, every now again another skyscraper will loom over the treetops, its windows like eyes staring back at you. Even the pretty little lakes are man-made.

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Emerging from the Ramble and seeing the sun glint on the golden buildings of 5th Avenue, across the Jackie Onassis Reservoir, I realised the sun was starting to set and I was half a park and 20 blocks from my hotel. I scurried back through the gathering darkness. But it wasn't fear that I felt at being alone, in the dark, in Central Park, New York — it was exhilaration. And I was footsore.

In fact, I never felt afraid in the heart of New York City — which boasts one of the lowest crime rates of any major US city. Even deciding to go up the Empire State Building shortly after midnight and a few drinks in the Moxy's Magic Hour rooftop bar that night, I and a companion felt 100 per cent safe on our dash in the dark — although we were disappointed as the doors closed minutes before we got there.

I got my second chance on my last morning in New York. I wanted to see the Statue of Liberty as well, but was running out of time. I rationalised that I'd be able to see the lady and her lantern from the top of the State.

It was a cold, wet morning as I hurried to be first in the queue when the door opened at 8am. There are two observation levels, an inside one on the 86th floor and an outside one on the 102nd. From the top of the Empire State Building, the streets of Manhattan look like a giant sculpture of carefully placed Lego blocks.

Neon billboards several storeys high added vibrant life as taxis honked and crawled 64 storeys below.

Central Park, Manhattan. Photo / NYC & Company/Tagger Yancey
Central Park, Manhattan. Photo / NYC & Company/Tagger Yancey

The Statue of Liberty was an almost indiscernable hazy shape on its little island about 10km to the south. Also to the south the 22-storey Flatiron building, a vertical cliff splitting 5th Avenue and Broadway (the part of the street before it becomes famous). The apartment blocks of Stuyvesant Town were a tetris of roofs towards the east. Tank farms and tunnels proliferated as I continued northeast around the viewing deck towards the swooping eyebrows that top the Chrysler Building. Each time I circled the viewing deck I saw something different: the tiny apartment buildings almost lost in the shadows of giant neighbours; recessed balconies, greenery flourishing on a rooftop, empty, seemingly abandoned lots awaiting development; a tangle of roads that coiled like snakes and disappeared into what could only be one of the road tunnels connecting Manhattan to Long Island.

Back in the street I had a few minutes to walk the seven blocks to the Rockefeller Centre, the birthplace of television in America. The centre is actually about 20 separate buildings with the Rockefeller Plaza at the heart of the complex. NBC has its studios here and, of course, the tiered towers have served as a background for many a movie.

Only a handful of skaters were on the artificial ice rink surrounded by the row of flags representing the member nations of the UN. As I passed by, the New Zealand flag unfurled in a passing gust — a reminder that it was time to go home.

FACT FILE

GETTING THERE

Auckland to New York return

Economy Class flights

, flying Qantas, are from $1399pp.

STAYING THERE
Moxy NYC Times Square, 485 7th Ave.

DETAILS
visittheusa.com