Like many cities, New York is suffering in the economic downturn, but few visitors enjoying the weak dollar this holiday shopping season would guess that.
Weak dollar makes New York a strong choice for shoppers
Hermès' lavish new store, Chanel, Prada and Manhattan's other hyper-luxe boutiques are all radiating prosperity.
The main shopping streets - Madison Avenue from 57th to 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue from 42nd St to 57th, and in the neighbourhood hotspots of the Meatpacking District, the West Village, SoHo, NoLita, Bowery, Tribeca, and the Lower East Side are thronged with tourists making the most of the advantageous exchange rates. Century 21, the famous discount designer department store that is a guilty pleasure for some, and the number one shopping destination for many more, is heaving, as ever.
At MOMA and the Met (the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan museum), the shops that are such fruitful sources of presents are busy. The megastores - Apple, Niketown, Juicy and Disney - seem permanently packed.
The flagship Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel stores are rammed with tourist teenagers and 20-somethings, and everyone's favourite, J Crew, is similarly jammed with smart 30- and 40-somethings. On a recent Saturday afternoon, about half the people strolling along the High- Line, the old abandoned stretch of elevated railway recently converted into a high-rise park running from Gansevoort Street to 20th St and now one of the key must-visits in the city, were holding carrier bags from one store or another.
The shops look quite magical in winter, decorated for Christmas. With fairy lights in the trees and salesmen hawking roasted chestnuts in the streets, shopping can be exhilarating at this time of year, especially with the odd snowflake in the air. There's so much to check out, though, that the trick is to have some idea of where you want to go before you arrive. Happily, many stores - in particular department stores such as Bloomingdale's and Bergdorf Goodman - maintain such agreeably informative websites that you can profitably spend a couple of hours browsing what's in store before you go.
When to shop
Shopping is the American way and New York wants you to shop and makes it easy to shop. It's the antithesis of Paris or Rome, where - the horror - shops shut at 6pm on Saturday and that's it till Tuesday.
Most shops are open seven days a week, from 10am to 7pm Monday to Saturday, and from 11 or 12 noon to 7pm on Sundays. Department stores have even better hours - weekdays from 10am until 9pm or 10pm, 11am to 7pm on Sunday. However, if you can you should shop on a weekday; weekends see the streets crammed with gum-chewing tourist hordes who've flown in from Dallas. If you need a personal shopper, a stylist such as Eric Launder can get you in after-hours (001 917 769 8978, ericlaunder.com). The limo service Valera Global is good for chauffeuring baggage-laden shopaholics (001 718 433 1111, www.valeraglobal.com). And if you spill something on a prized new purchase, go where Anna Wintour takes her dry cleaning -Madame Paulette (1255 2nd Ave, 001 347 689 7010, www.madamepaulette.com).
For a bargain
My heart skips a beat; I gasp aloud. No! I pull the box down off the shelf and peer inside. Yes! The label was not deceiving me. Black suede Gucci ballet flats. Last season, but right size, right colour, and - thank you, yet again, Century 21, home of the giant price reduction - the right price. Was US$400 now $85 (Dh312).
How anyone - well, anyone not in a position to shop without glancing at the price tags - can dismiss the world's finest discount designer-label department store as simply a hellish bazaar is beyond me. It's just a matter of knowing how to hunt here. Alone (no distractions), early (Century opens at 7.45am on a weekday), and with your inner falcon ready to spot and swoop on the choicest Prada, Dolce, Stella, Wang and Wu is the way to triumph at Century. Over the years, Tod's boots, Frette sheets, Ralph Lauren towels, perfectly cut Chloé trousers and countless cashmere sweaters have been star finds. But it's the serendipity that floors me every time.
Nowhere feels as manically festive as a New York department store in winter, and the best department stores should be an early port of call. For high-fashion - top labels, hard-to-find new designers - Barney's, on Madison Avenue at 61st St is best (001 212 826 8900, www.barneys.com). The grande dame is the peerlessly elegant, pale carpeted Bergdorf Goodman, on Fifth at 57th (001 212 753 7300, www.bergdorfgoodman.com). Its whole menswear building across from Tiffany's has the most charming salesmen in the city.
Saks Fifth Avenue at Fifth and 50th (001 212 753 4000, www.saksfifthavenue.com) is slightly more mid-market but has excellent sales staff and sells a huge number of designers without ever feeling as much a madhouse as Bloomingdale's, on Third Ave at 59th (001 212 705 2000, www.bloomingdales.com). And this last is, with its glamour, glitz and pizzazz and ferocious perfume salesmen squirting scent at you from every direction, quintessential New York. Ignore the rest.
Despite the take-no-prisoners march of the chain stores, New York is still home to the odd enchanting one-off store. The Aladdin's cave-like ABC Carpets and Home, a lamp-lit emporium of extravagantly beautiful bed-linens, towels, cushions, rugs and kitchen kitsch, and it has a delicious little cafe to slump in exhaustedly after you have explored (at 888 and 881 Broadway at 19th St; 001 212 473 3000, www.abchome.com).
Dylan's Candy Bar, meanwhile, brainchild of Ralph Lauren's daughter, Dylan, stocks just sweeties. Every colour, every type. Appealing bags mean it makes a good present-buying spot for children (www.dylanscandybar.com).
Anyone who loves handmade stationery with whimsical or elegant designs will feast on Terrapin Stationers (124 E37th St at Lexington Ave; 001 212 213 6912, by appointment only).
The city of hyper-grooming gives even Beirut girls a run for their money. US brands such as Philosophy, Clinique, Estée Lauder etc are tremendous bargains and Barney's beauty department has the best selection of harder to find international make-up lines. Jewel-box-like scent stores are scattered across the city. Le Labo custom makes perfume (233 Elizabeth St, 001 212 219 2230, www.lelabofragrances.com). Aedes de Venustas is the place for hard-to-find scents (001 212 206 8674, www.aedes.com). And Christopher Brosius' I Hate Perfume store, with his alcohol-free exquisite bespoke scents, is worth crossing to Brooklyn for (93 Wythe Ave at 10th St; 001 718 384 6890, www.cbihateperfume.com).
Three Custom Color is a brilliant little find - selling a zillion pigments for skin, lips and eyelids. If you go in with a favourite that's been discontinued, they'll whip up a copy for you (3F 54 W22nd St; 001 888 262 7714, www.threecustom.com). And the C O Bigelow pharmacy (414 Sixth Avenue, 001 212 533 2700, www.bigelowchemists.com), the oldest pharmacy in America, founded in 1838, is a retro must, with its old-fashioned stock, including iconic $5.50 tins of soothe-everything rose salve. Zitomers, though, is the pharmacy deluxe, crammed with powerful moisturisers and sunscreens (969 Madison Ave at E76th St; 001 212 737 2016, www.zitomers.com).
As one would expect, American names and labels provide the most gratifying buys. From young designers such as Alexander Wang, Jason
Wu and Tory Burch to long-established names such as Ralph Lauren and Diane von Furstenberg and everyone's favourite, Marc Jacobs, American designer clothing and accessories routinely sell at 50 per cent less in New York than in the UAE. (And that's before they end up at Century 21.) Every top label can be found at the department stores, but for something really special the insider's favourite is Maryam Nassir Zadeh, with her hard-to-find stable of cult labels (123 Norfolk St at Rivington; 001 212 673 6405, www.maryamnassirzadeh.com). And to go underneath, there's handmade lingerie from Jean Yu's 37=1 (by appointment; call 001 212 226 0067).
To some, however, it's New York's camera and electronics stores that exert the most powerful lure. The best place for cameras, computer equipment and any kind of electrics is B&H (at 34 St, www.bhphotoandvideo.com). It's huge, crowded, and chaotic, but everything is always in stock. A 16GB Apple Nano iPod costs $164 there.
Subway trains are straightforward to use and while a single journey costs $2.50, the seven-day Metro card - available at any station - offers unlimited travel for a week at $29 (www.mta.info). The yellow taxis that bounce cinematically over subway steam-vents charge an initial $2.50. And the new New York Water Taxis are fun, getting you around Lower Manhattan by river rather than road, with a one-day pass for $25 (nywatertaxi.com).
Where to stay
Numerous recent five-star hotel openings and refurbishments mean the well-heeled visitor is spoilt for choice. Rates tend to start at around $450 a night.
On the whole, uptown is old-school, downtown cool. Uptown, for sheer glamour, it is still hard to beat The Carlyle on Madison Avenue at E76th or the hard-edged, IM Pei-designed Four Seasons on E57th Street; both ooze American confidence and Manhattan style. The Mandarin Oriental, overlooking Central Park at 58th on Columbus Circle, has the city's most beautiful spa, while the recently refurbished Taj Pierre positively gleams. Midtown, the Andaz Fifth Avenue at E42nd Street is right in the middle of things, with a restaurant opening straight onto Fifth. Downtown, Robert de Niro's Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca, the shimmering Cooper Square Hotel in the East Village, and the 21-floor Hotel on Rivington all have glass-walled rooms allowing dramatic cityscapes.
In SoHo, the Crosby Street Hotel is arguably the most seductive hotel in the whole city, vibrating with colour and fun. And on Elizabeth Street, the just-opened Nolitan Hotel feels very happening, in the hotel desert north of boutique-lined Little Italy.
Where to eat
The smartest restaurants with the longest waiting lists are all bookable via a really good concierge: Thomas Keller's hallowed Per Se (10 Columbus Circle at 60th St, 001 212 823 9335, perseny.com), Daniel (60 E65th St, 001 212 288 0033, www.danielnyc.com) and Eleven Madison Park (11 Madison Ave at 24th St, 001 212 889 0905, www.elevenmadisonpark.com). Otherwise, hotel restaurants are very on-trend. David Burke Kitchen with his pretzel crab cake at the James on Grand Street; Ellabess and its addictive New American raw clam chowder at the new Nolitan; and CoOp Food and Drink, delivering raw fish and comfort food at Hotel on Rivington. At the Crosby Street Hotel, the Sunday evening Film Club is a lot of fun, with a film and dinner for $50 a head. And for the best burgers in New York, book a table at Le Caprice at the Taj hotel.
Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) and Emirates (www.emirates.com) both offer direct flights to New York from the UAE. The seductive little Luxe guide packs in a surprising amount of useful and wittily conveyed info (£4.99 (Dh28), www.luxeguides.com). New York magazine is a must-read. And the city's official site nycgo.com is packed with useful information.