THIS is a West Side story, a chance for a 24-hour romance with Manhattan. Yes, I have been here many times -- and the Port of New York's cruise terminal at 55th Street and the Hudson River isn't in the most scenic part of town. But there's always a bit of romance in the air with cruise ships in the neighborhood.
I started with a walking tour of Hell's Kitchen, roughly between 40th and 59th streets, with 9th and 10th avenues as the main north-south arteries. Formerly filled with tenements, it's a bit gritty but not scary. I encountered homeless people and street characters, but I never felt threatened. Even as gentrification occurs and good restaurants move in, ethnic cafes and small storefronts continue to give the area its earthy character.
Pier 83 at 42nd Street, an easy walk from the cruise terminal, is the departure point for Circle Line sightseeing cruises. I've taken this trip several times and have never been disappointed. Choose the two-hour semicircle cruise that covers the highlights, including the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. In winter, take the 4 p.m. and watch lights twinkle on in the city's skyscrapers. These cruises are popular, even in winter, so arrive at least 45 minutes before sailing. Two crosstown buses, the M42 and the M50, run between the port and the pier.
A Gray Line hop-on, hop-off, double-decker bus tour offers a quickie overview of the city. The two-hour uptown loop leaves from the visitor center at 777 8th Ave. between 47th and 48th streets. What you'll see: Lincoln Center, the Apollo Theater, Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and more.
Because the city has good public transportation and taxis are plentiful, you don't need to find a hotel close to the port (a good thing, because pickings are slim there). On my visit in December, I chose two West Side (west of Fifth Avenue) hotels: one young and avant-garde and close to Times Square and the theater district, the other a traditional hotel convenient to Fifth Avenue shops and Rockefeller Center.
The demographic skews young at Hotel QT on West 45th, part of the Andre Balazs hotel empire that includes West Hollywood's Chateau Marmont. It's wedged between pubs, there's no lobby to speak of and a magazine kiosk doubles as the front desk. This is cheap chic (at least cheap by Manhattan standards). A big selling point is the indoor pool with a swim-up bar. My room in the back of the hotel was small but quiet, with a divinely comfortable king platform bed and a ladder to a bed above. Reaching the window entailed crawling over my bed. I also stayed at the Warwick, which some might call old-fashioned (floral draperies in the room, armoire with TV). But the room was a nice size and had a bit of a city view. The hotel has two dining options, Murals on 54 and the clubby Randolph's Bar.
If you decide to stay near the cruise terminal, try the stylish Hudson Hotel, which has stunning public spaces, including a library-pool room with fireplace and contemporary bar. But the typical room I was shown was small, with a minuscule bathroom separated from the bedroom by a filmy curtain.
Just up from the Circle Line dock on 42nd Street is the Travel Inn. I almost walked on -- the neighborhood is off-putting -- but reconsidered after I ducked in and found large, clean rooms and an outdoor pool. There's a small coffee shop next door, and a block away is the 42nd Street Pizza Corp., a reasonably priced, full-menu restaurant that's been there since the 1930s.
Another cost-conscious lodging option is the perfectly fine, if not exceptional, Holiday Inn-Midtown on West 57th Street.
Sushi bars, Greek restaurants, kebab cafes and noodle shops are all part of the restaurant mix in Hell's Kitchen (which city fathers prefer to call Clinton, not for the former president but for a prominent New York family). I had a good salad lunch at the smartly contemporary 44 & X, where waiters' brown T-shirts read "Heaven in Hell." The menu features such items as goat cheese pistachio souffle and lobster tacos.
Another winner is Whym, a spiffy minimalist space on 9th Avenue, which serves an excellent brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The dinner menu includes chipotle-spiked meatloaf and lamb shanks with saffron orzo. For homemade pasta in a convivial atmosphere, there's the neighborhood favorite, Puttanesca, nearby. If you're on the go, a quick deli sandwich or salad from the salad bar at the upscale Amish Market might be in order.
Farther afield on the Lower West Side and decidedly pricier is Spice Market on West 13th Street in the gentrified Meatpacking District. It's a restaurant, not a market, easily reached by cab or by the A, C or E subway trains from Times Square. Upscale Southeast Asian street food dominates at this big, bustling site that's decked out with Indian carvings, silk lanterns and palms. Dishes are infused with chili and curry, and reservations are a must.
Chic shopping is decidedly limited in Hell's Kitchen, but I found two great little shops: Delphinium Home for original gifts and bath and kitchen accessories; and Domus, where you can find woolen throws and handmade toys.
Visiting sports fans might score tickets to a Knicks or Rangers game at Madison Square Garden. Music lovers might catch a performance -- or take a tour of -- Lincoln Center, which is home to the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, the New York City Ballet and the New York Philharmonic.
The West Side isn't the only stepping-off point for cruises. Last April, the N.Y. port opened the Brooklyn cruise terminal, which has lured some Princess and Cunard lines.
The terminal, at Pier 12 off Bowne Street in the Red Hook area, isn't a neighborhood you want to stroll around after dark.
The best bet for staying overnight near the terminal is the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge, which has big, comfortable rooms and a good restaurant, Archives. The other feasible (but less enticing) option is the Holiday Inn Express, farther away in Park Slope. It's no great shakes, but a good, inexpensive choice.
One of the best things to do is the most obvious: Take a walk on the historic Brooklyn Bridge for classic views of the Manhattan skyline from the pedestrian walkway above traffic. It takes 30 to 40 minutes to cross, or you can cheat and walk halfway and back. From the Marriott, turn right on Adams and continue to the waterfront, about a 15-minute walk. There's no public transportation available to the port terminal.
The Brooklyn Historical Society, in an 1881 Queen Anne building, and historic Montague Street are both a short walk from the Marriott. The historical society holds the papers of abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, who preached at Brooklyn's Plymouth Church, and memorabilia about the long-gone Brooklyn Dodgers. At the end of Montague Street is a knockout view of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. Gardeners may want to check out the 52-acre Brooklyn Botanic Garden at 1000 Washington Ave., which has a bonsai museum and an outstanding orchid collection.
For a little local color, I ate one night at Frankie's 457 Spuntino in Carroll Gardens. It's a friendly brick-walled neighborhood place with good salads and pastas.
Another night I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express and found the delightful Moutarde a few blocks away. The menu is very French -- onion soup, mussels, pot au feu, beef Burgundy -- as is the bistro ambience.
Nearby Park Slope has delightful boutiques, such as Nest, for cutting-edge jewelry, tableware and toys. Bird sells high-end fashion for women.
LaGuardia is the most convenient airport; JFK is a close second.
From LAX, American flies nonstop to LaGuardia. Continental, Delta, Northwest and AirTran have connecting flights (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares start at $278.
Where to stay: the details
Hotel QT, 125 W. 45th St.; (212) 354-2323, www.hotelqt.com. From $175 for two, including continental breakfast.
Hudson Hotel, 356 W. 58th St.; (212) 554-6000, www.hudsonhotel.com. Doubles from $225.
The Warwick, 65 W. 54th St.; (212) 247-2700, www.warwickhotels.com. Doubles from $225.
Travel Inn, 515 W. 42nd St.; (212) 695-7171, www.newyorkhotel.com. Doubles from $250.
Holiday Inn-Midtown, 440 W. 57th St.; (212) 581-8100, www.holidayinn.com. Doubles from $150.
New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge, 333 Adams St.; (718) 246-7000, www.marriott.com. Doubles from $199.
Holiday Inn Express, 625 Union St., Brooklyn; (718) 797-1133, www.holidayinn.com. From $149, including continental breakfast.
Where to eat: the details
Spice Market, 403 W. 13 St.; (212) 675-2322; www.jean-georges.com. Main dishes $16-$34.
44 & X, 622 10th Ave.; (212) 977-1170, www.44andx.com. Main dishes $14-$30.
Whym, 889 9th Ave.; (212) 315-0088, www.whymnyc.com. Main dishes $16-$25.
Puttanesca, 859 9th Ave.; (212) 581-4177, www.puttanesca.com. Main dishes, $9-$21.
Frankie's 457 Spuntino, 457 Court St., Brooklyn; (718) 403-0033; www.frankiesspuntino.com. Main dishes $12-$16.
Moutarde, 239 Fifth Ave., Brooklyn; (718) 623-3600, www.restaurantmoutarde.com. Main dishes $14-$22.
To learn more:
NYC & Co., 810 7th Ave.; (212) 484-1200, www.nycvisit.com.
Brooklyn Tourism & Visitors Center, 209 Joralemon St.; (718) 802-3846, www.visitbrooklyn.org.
New York Cruise Terminal, (212) 246-5450; www.nycruiseterminal.com.
Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, (718) 246-2794; www.brooklyncruiseguide.com.
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Cruising two boroughs
Circle Line Tours, Pier 83, West 42nd Street, Manhattan; (212) 563-3200, www.circleline42.com. Three-hour cruise, $29; semicircle cruise, $24. Seasonal schedules.
Gray Line Tours, depart from visitors center, 777 8th Ave., Manhattan; (800) 669-0051, www.coachusa.com/newyorksightseeing. Uptown hop-on, hop-off loop by double-decker bus, 8:30 a.m.5 p.m. daily, $39.
Madison Square Garden, 7th Avenue between 31st and 33rd streets; (212) 465-6741 or www.thegarden.com for event schedule.
Lincoln Center, between 62nd and 65th streets off Broadway; (212) 721-6500, www.lincolncenter.org. One-hour guided tours at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30, 2:30 and 4:30 p.m. daily. $13.50.
Brooklyn Historical Society, 128 Pierrepont St., Brooklyn; (718) 222-4111, www.brooklynhistory.org. Open noon-5 p.m. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1000 Washington Ave., Brooklyn; (718) 623-7200, www.bbg.org. Hours fluctuate by season; closed Mondays except holidays.
-- Beverly Beyette