driving new york crazy

what's it like driving in new york city? and how can you make visiting there a trip to remember? jonathan crouch and family set off to the big apple to find out.

driving new york crazy

This one's only for the brave, the courageous and, dare I say it, the really foolhardy. Getting behind the wheel of a car in New York City simply has to be one of the world's most challenging driving experiences. It would test your reactions, your awareness and your skill in a way that no Amazonian jungle track or desert trail ever could.

There's no real reason for any foreign visitor to mix it with the nearly three quarters of a million vehicles that descend on the tiny island of Manhattan every day. But if you choose to visit, you can get to see the experts take on the world's densest automotive jungle first hand by doing something very simple: hailing a Yellow Taxi cab. You'll need to frequently do this if you're to quickly get about the place. After all, though the Subway's very good (best advice is to buy an 'unlimited use' Metro ticket that'll cost you around $30 a week), it leaves vast areas of the city uncovered. Which, unless you use a taxi, will often mean a long and traffic dodging walk to your final destination. True, the major tourist spots are well served with reasonably close subway stations, but on my visit, I was determined to get away from the well-beaten holiday trail and show my family the real New York, which meant a lot of Yellow cab rides - and a real opportunity to pound the streets of this bustling urban metropolis.

"A driving experience that doesn't require the stress of driving"

And not only the streets. No visit here is really complete without pounding the waterways too, namely the Hudson River that surrounds the city's main Manhattan island and offers arguably the best way to view famous sites like the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the imposing Freedom Tower that's been constructed from the ashes of the World Trade Centre. If you are going to hit the Hudson, go large, as we did, and try 'the Beast, a fast, fun and frantic powerboat ride that takes in all the major landmarks and will leave you breathless, exhilarated - and almost certainly very wet! You can check it out on www.ridethebeast.com.

The only other New York routes not really covered by Yellow cabs are those in Central Park, the Big Apple's iconic shimmering green square of Uptown real estate. These are generally restricted to pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages and the pedal bikes that are now everywhere around the city. Getting on two wheels is certainly the best way of exploring Central Park: unless you really are a dedicated walker and have plenty of time, it's too vast a place to properly experience on foot. We chose to take a two hour guided tour with www.bikenewyorkcity.com, a modest investment well worth making if you're to fully ejoy everything the Park has to offer. There can be few nicer roadgoing experiences than cycling its leafy avenues on a sultry Summer's day. Particularly on a bicycle made for two.

Before returning to the roadways of the city, we couldn't resist the allure of its airways - which must be some of the busiest in the world, crammed with tourist helicopter traffic. You can see why: it's a great way to view the city from an entirely different perspective, especially at night. We tried a tour with www.heliNY.com, which offers an affordable way to see an awful lot in an awfully short time. It's probably a 'must do' on any Big Apple visit.

But to really get to know America's busiest city, you need to get up close and personal with its people. Hail a cab, hit the streets and see the place the way New Yorkers see it. Perhaps the easiest way to do that is to eat where they eat. Residents take their food extremely seriously and, as with any modern city, you have to know where to go to get it, otherwise your culinary memories of the place will be little different to those you'd have had if you'd stayed at home. We sought advice from the ever-helpful tourist board (www.nycgo.com) from whom it's also worth getting the so-called 'City Pass' (www.citypass.com) that offers useful discounts on most major attractions. Their main website offers almost endless restaurant selections but, after a lot of deliberation and quite a lot of advice, we narrowed these down to a favoured place for locals to eat, an ideal place if you're seeking a treat and a great choice for the inevitable, but of course essential, all-American Diner.

The first of these, EDI & The Wolf, required a Downtown trip to Manhattan's thriving East Village under the direct of a Bangladeshi Yellow cab driver who artfully dodged the errant bikers, trucks and jay walkers as he recounted his experiences of surviving 9/11. Driving myself, I'd have had a coronary long before I reached the restaurant. As it was, I was able to properly enjoy a leisurely brunch of homemade house granola, a wild mushroom frittata omelette and 'Kaiserschmarrn' - caramelized pancake bits with strawberries and cinnamon sugar. Owner Edi used to cook for the Austrian ambassador in London. He's learnt his trade will - to the point where you may have to visit the www.ediandthewolf.com website well in advance to get a table.

Another place New Yorkers meet - this time for a bit more of a treat - is The Porterhouse Restaurant at the Fraunces Tavern museum of New York history (www.ThePorterhouseNYC.com), down in Pearl Street, right at the southernmost tip of Manhattan near the Staten Island Ferry. On the way there, my Yellow cab driver explained some of the driving rules peculiar to the Big Apple. Here, unlike in the rest of the USA, it's rarely possible to turn right on a red light and on many avenues, you can't turn left either during certain hours. Drivers also have to watch out for fast-changing yellow lights which switch to red in less than four seconds. This makes it easy to incur a hefty fine from the city's vast, over-staffed, officious police force if you don't risk the honking wrath of the queued-up traffic behind you by stopping immediately the green light goes out. Honking by the way, one of the city's most iconic sounds, is no longer legal, though no one here seems to know that..

Once you've made it to The Porterhouse, you'll find it an excellent place to relax from the frantic pace of city life. Oats cheese and orange salad, a perfectly cooked Porterhouse steak and a house souffle to die for all proved to be excellent choices from the tempting menu.

Of course, there are also days when you'll not want to take your dining quite as seriously and, for such moments, there's nothing much better than a classic all-American New York Diner. One of the very best of these, I was assured, is the 'Big Daddy's' chain (www.bigdaddysnyc.com) , which in Manhattan can be found at 239 Park Avenue South, a place which I'd have struggled to find without a Yellow cab. The Ghanaian driver was in a talkative mood, cheerfully observing that the city's universal 30mph speed limit would be completely ignored, were it not necessitated by the appalling traffic. He also informed me that pedestrians always have right of way - before nearly collecting several on the way to our restaurant, a place right famed for its burgers, shakes and so-called fried 'potato tots'.

If you don't have much time for your visit, you'll want to plan your accommodation as carefully as your itinerary. Ideally, you'll need somewhere central in Midtown Manhattan like the hotel we chose, DoubleTree Suites in Times Square. Rooms in Manhattan are notoriously expensive, so an affordable suite of two rooms that'll comfortably take a family of five is a good way to maximise your budget (rates at www.doubletree.hilton.com/Times_Square ) .

So there you have it. A driving experience that doesn't require the stress of driving. And a city visit that, if planned carefully, you and your family will always remember.

NEW YORK - FACTS AT A GLANCE

Driving Here - use the Subway to reach your district, then enjoy the streets in a Yellow cab taxi

Staying Here - for something affordable and central on a family budget, try DoubleTree Suites in Times Square (www.doubletree.hilton.com/Times_Square)

Eating Here - 'Eat like a local' - try 'EDI & The Wolf' in the East Village (www.ediandthewolf.com)

- 'Eat for a treat' - try The Porterhouse Restaurant at Fraunces Tavern near South Ferry (www.thePorterhouseNYC.com)

- 'Classic US Diner' - try 'Big Daddy's' on 239 Park Ave South (www.bigdaddysnyc.com)

Viewing NYC - By Air - try a helicopter tour - www.heliny.com

By Road - try a Bicycle Tour - www.bikenewyorkcity.com

By Water - try a river ride - www.ridethebeast.com

Finding out more - go to www.nycgo.com