Fifth Avenue shows the best, brightest of New York for the holidays

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Walking down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan always makes me feel as if I'm in a movie. That's probably because almost every place you go in Manhattan has been in a movie.

Never is this more true than in December, when the city is aglow with the holiday spirit. For children, it is a winter wonderland, even better than how they first saw it in "Home Alone 2," "Big" and "Miracle on 34th Street." No other city has brighter lights, wittier store displays, taller Christmas trees or bigger menorahs.

Walking around the city -- and that's the best way to go in Manhattan -- also makes me feel I'm in the middle of a theme park, especially along Fifth Avenue, where every store, every street performer, every restaurant has a larger-than-life quality.

If you have just a weekend to spend in Manhattan, stay on Fifth Avenue, and you'll get to see the most and the best of the holiday season. In fact, the two weeks before Christmas, Fifth Avenue from 57th to 34th Street is closed to traffic. But if you want to venture beyond Fifth Avenue, there are also some impressive sights that are close by.

Start your trip at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, at the Plaza Hotel. That's where young Kevin exceeded his credit limit in "Home Alone 2." The lobby display with a Santa ice sculpture is stunning. From there, work your way south.

The snowflake decorations floating above Fifth Avenue are one of the most familiar sights of Manhattan, and they light up many of the intricate store windows. Each window displays a different story each year. Last year, Lord & Taylor's store window had "The Christmas Carol," played out by miniature puppets in lavishly decorated homes and streets. Lord & Taylor's windows are the most popular, but other stores on Fifth Avenue are also impressive: Macy's, Tiffany's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Steuben's.

That reminds me of the No. 2 reason why people come to Fifth Avenue for the holidays: shopping.

In the past few years, there's been an explosion of "company stores" along Fifth. These are the stores that are a combined theme park and logo lode. Newest is the Warner Bros. Store, and it is packed every day with kids. They like the Batman show and the elevator that has Superman pushing it. Other company stores worth crowding in to see are: FAO Schwartz, (58th Street at Fifth), the world's biggest toy store with the dance-upon keyboard featured in "Big"; Golden Books Showcase, (Rockefeller Center), filled with life-size sound-story books, Tootle the Train, and a talking Poky Little Puppy; and the Sony Store (near Fifth on Madison) with loads of electronic toys for the big and little guys.

There are also the theme park/restaurants that will wow the kids. Go up Fifth to 57th Street, then go two blocks over to Broadway where the two biggest rival theme/restaurants battle for long lines: Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood. For my burger money, Planet Hollywood has a nicer wait staff and decor. If the wait is too long at either place, try Mickey Mantle's Restaurant and Sports Bar at 42 Central Park South, or the Harley-Davidson Cafe (you'll love that revolving motorcycle).

The Rockefeller Center tree is formally lighted this Friday. As the tallest Christmas tree in the country, it is an awe-inspiring sight. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the trees are covered with 300-year-old figures from Neapolitan Baroque creches. Also claiming the biggest prize -- at 32 feet high -- is the menorah on 59th and Fifth.

Once you've grown tired of walking, it's time for a show. Best bet for kids is Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Spectacular. Actually, spectacle is more like it, for where else could you see a real-life nativity scene that comes with camels and sheep? The precision of the high-kicking Rockettes is something you can appreciate only in person.

Another show just for the holidays is the new musical, "A Christmas Carol," with music written by Alan Menken, of "Aladdin." The other hit with kids is Broadway's "Beauty and the Beast" production. Tickets start at $65. The night I went with my 3-year-old son, there were about 60 other kids under age 10. For discount tickets, try the TKTS booth (47th and Broadway) early on the day you plan to go.

Let's not forget what this season is all about. All over Manhattan, there is worshiping all month long in some of the world's most breathtaking temples and churches. Worth seeing are St. John the Divine, the world's largest Gothic cathedral, at 110th and Broadway; St. Patrick's Cathedral at 50th and Fifth; and Temple Emanu-El, at Fifth and 65th, the largest house of Jewish worship in New York.

With more than 58,000 hotel rooms, the saying goes, Manhattan never sells out. First, try the Hotel Reservation Network, (800) 964-6835), which offers rates as low as $59 at smaller hotels, and discounts at major hotel chains including the Marriott, the Sheraton and the Hyatt. When I go, there are two neighborhoods I look at: Times Square and Third Avenue east side. Along Broadway there's the Marriott Marquis, with a revolving bar, and the Guest Quarters. Both are extremely family-friendly, and you can ask for a child-proofed room. In the Guest Quarters, there is a huge playroom full of toys, arts and crafts and Nintendo games that was designed by the Please Touch Museum of Philadelphia.

You can even borrow many of the toys to take back to your room. Another family-friendly chain of hotels is the locally based Manhattan East Suite Hotels. Their rooms are a good size, and some suites sleep up to eight people. All of East Suite's properties are in residential neighborhoods.

Nighttime is the best time to look at the bright lights of the city: the Empire State Building lighted like a tree, the singing Christmas tree at the South Street Seaport, ice skating at Rockefeller Center or Wollman Rink in Central Park. Truly magnificent sights -- no matter what your age.

IF YOU GO . . .

Take New Jersey Turnpike to exit for Lincoln Tunnel or Holland Tunnel. Takes about four hours by car, three hours by train, 30 minutes by plane.

For free brochures, stop by the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau on west side of Central Park at 2 Columbus Circle. Call (212) 397-8222. Look for the free New York City Book of Bargains; it has many discount coupons.

L For free tours from a Manhattan expert, call (212) 669-2896.

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