America: New York, New York

"Welcome to New York," proclaims our taxi driver, Joseph, with a hint of disapproval as he waves his hand towards rubbish bags piled high along the pavement. He's ferried us two hours north from Philadelphia and we've left richly tree-tapestried countryside for the filthy, loud, busy big city. We're excited though, and a bit of litter isn't going to dampen our spirits.

We're staying in East Village, a lively enclave east of Broadway crowded with independent bars, food shops, cafes and redbrick facades that look like 'Snakes and Ladders' boards thanks to their fire escapes. Not far from the apartment, a healthy vegan lunch of green juice and lentil, avocado and beetroot salad at the ironically named The Butcher's Daughter sets us up nicely. But the weather is hostile - driving, cold rain - and puts paid to our explorations for the afternoon. Instead, we cosy up in Jin Soon East Village, a natural hand and foot spa, where we enjoy simply fantastic manicures that deploy milk, honey, essential oils, lashings of warm lotion and hot towels to leave our digits soft and nourished.

The following day, the sky gleams cerulean behind the buildings opposite: it's weather for walking. And walk we do - 17km of it. We meander around West Village, which is smarter, leafier and more quaintly residential than its eastern counterpart, with quiet streets flanked by those iconic brownstone townhouses. We do the touristy thing and seek out Carrie Bradshaw's apartment and the Friends apartment, then chomp down on a 'cronut' at the Dominique Ansel Bakery - it's like a very creamy doughnut and Tim loves it.

Uptown and further down, there's the sense of being in a deep mountain gorge - the buildings are so high that in places no sunlight reaches the pavement, resulting in a sharp juxtaposition between light and dark, for, if you look up, the buildings gleam golden. It's fascinating: occasional historic facades are bundled between glossy, mirrored skyscrapers. It is better still admired from the perimeter. We view the financial district from Brooklyn Bridge and are captivated by the layers of geometric structures stretching skywards in a serene collage. The city looks equally placid from the 'Top of the Rock', 70 floors up atop the Rockefeller Center, far above the honking, fumes, litter and throngs of people. We're amazed by the sea of skyscrapers rippling out in a mosaic all around us, broken only by Central Park and the Hudson River. The Empire State Building rises elegant and magnificent, while the Chrysler building is intricately artistic.

We much prefer it up there to on Times Square, which is loud and in-your-face, a must-see but a must-leave-as-quickly-as-possible too. The Staten Island Ferry is more our scene, and we enjoy a creamily delicious brownie from Financier Patisserie while sailing past the Statue of Liberty. We stroll through the financial district and are incredibly moved by the National September 11 Memorial pools, black granite pits engraved with the victims' names and located at the site of the World Trade Towers. Water trickles unceasingly down the stone and into a seemingly neverending square hole at the centre, while trees dapple sunlight across the square.

As we pass through the Art Deco Grand Central Terminal, for no other reason than to admire its barrel-vaulted ceiling painted with the 2,500 stars of the winter night sky shown back to front, we coincide with the Tournament of Champions - a real treat for Tim, who is a big squash fan. Then, what better way to end our brief visit than The Lion King at the Minskoff Theatre? It's a riotous display of colour and creativity threaded through with the kind of singing that gives you goose pimples. New York. I really didn't know what to expect, even though I'd seen it so much on TV or in films or books. Yes, it's filthy. And it stinks of exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke. And it's loud and hectic, and not a little claustrophobic. But its dynamism, and sense of being in a state of constant reinvention, and of possibility, is tangibly intoxicating. I've never been anywhere quite like it.
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