In one respect, I am my seven-year-old son's worst nightmare. A parent whose idea of a dream family holiday revolves around a secluded farmhouse in Corsica. His, of course, bears no resemblance to mine. George respects fast, loud and way, way over the top. At a recent do-I-bribe- or-compromise impasse, we sought common ground and found it in New York City.
Now I know what you're thinking. Been there. Seen it. Done it. Well, I doubt it. Millions claim to know this city well, but the conspicuous attractions of the Statue of Liberty, Broadway, Times Square and Macy's don't altogether do it justice. The word on the sidewalk these days is discretion. Those in the know are drawn to anonymous hideaways that, as often as not, have no name on the entrance and are scarcely distinguishable from the offices and buildings that surround them.
On a mission to discover a side of this city on offer nowhere else, our first step was to do as the natives do - and get ourselves "oriented". Must-have pop-up map, a guidebook and Starbucks coffee in hand, we set out for New York's most discreet toy shop. The owner loves secrets so much, in fact, that she has no sign above her 20- year-old toy shop. Granted if you are looking down, and looking really hard, you might just notice the name Dinosaur Hill spelled out in marbles. Still, the outside simply reflects the inside: offbeat. With shelf upon shelf of kooky collectibles and stuffed toys, fuzzy fur puppets, not to mention Razzy (the resident pet Schnoodle), this is as near a Dr Seuss set-up as you could ever hope to stumble upon.
After lunch our seasoned taxi driver took us to a park less travelled. Prospect Park, a heavenly 562-acre enclave, is the Central Park of Brooklyn, only with none of the crowds, and it's something of a local secret for sport devotees. George larked about for three hours in the five prime playgrounds, zoo, boathouse centre and carousel. And never queued once. Equally rare and just as gratifying, our afternoon at the 65-acre Alley Pond Environmental Center in Queens provided a free-for-all jumble of wetland pathways for a crowd of budding herbology students (a la Harry Potter). Next morning we hit New York's hidden museums. Crammed into a narrow slot of a building in between two commercial giants, the Children's Museum of the Arts was less art, more scribble. Endearingly so. Gleaming wood floors, lofty tin ceilings, endless easels, sculptures, collages and mobiles. George plunged right in and elbowed his way out again clutching a convincing cardboard dragon.
I reckoned the CMA was a tough one to beat until we chanced upon galleries full of engrossed children at the Children's Museum of Manhattan. (That's CMOM to the initiated.) You may not be familiar with William Wegman's weimaraners nor Elizabeth Murray's cartoon shoes, cups and doorknobs, but kids find this kind of art irresistible - more so when they are invited not only to go ahead and touch the exhibits, but also to star in their own giant 3D versions of them. Directly opposite the museum, Cafe Lalo served us a typical New York brunch. A stroll around the corner on to Amsterdam Avenue laid bare an eclectic mix of shops, street stalls, cheap eats and pocket-money souvenirs. At the Children's Place I even prised George into some street-savvy clothes at (mums, take note) throwaway prices.
The day was such a success that I promised George a repeat trip on our last remaining day. But we hadn't figured on torrential rain. Convinced that both the CMOM and CMA would be mobbed - the wetlands evidently too wet - we tried the Brooklyn Children's Museum. Here four levels of open- plan, subterranean space delivered high- energy, hands-on learning. A rollicking combo of puzzles and games, wet play and wildlife, hemmed in by workshops and topped by a playground that paraded highway signs, a science greenhouse, a mini silo, and a walk-through "people tube" that sluiced water, swirls of neon, and us. …