Best-kept Secrets

New York: When you feel you've been there and done that, look again. You still haven't seen the best the city has to offer.

January 30, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

So you've climbed to the top of the Statue of Liberty, shopped at Bergdorf's, seen four Broadway plays and three concerts and meandered through dozens of art galleries. What's left? Plenty, of course.

Now may be a good time to try a few activities that perhaps weren't at the top of your "absolutely-must-do" list. Sometimes the best way to experience a city is simply to sit on a bench in a favorite park and people-watch -- or dog-watch. Or, maybe you could calm your city-jangled nerves by visiting a walled herb garden (yes, there is such a thing in New York City). And, of course, you can always amuse yourself by eating. Here are just a few suggestions of things to do in the city, just when you are starting to feel that you you've already done it all:

Visit the herb garden at the Cloisters

You must use a rusty iron ring instead of a knob to open the door. It swings slowly outward to reveal a tiny, walled herb garden. Brick paths form neat walkways leading to orderly plots filled with fernlike dill, scarlet pimpernel and Scotch broom. In the fall, fat, red pomegranates dangle heavily from curving tree limbs, and beyond them, still more trees are laden with golden-green pears. If you peer outward, beyond the stone walls that protect the garden, you will see the wide, green Hudson River as it ripples past.

It feels like a secret garden, but this small, peaceful patch of green is part of the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to the art and architecture of medieval times. To get to the garden, you must wander through the museum -- by paintings and illuminated manuscripts, through cavernous rooms filled with stained glass windows and golden treasures, and past the extraordinary Unicorn Tapestries, which tell a metaphoric tale of a mythical beast.

The herb garden is one of three at the Cloisters, and is filled with nearly 300 kinds of plants that were used during the Middle Ages for cooking, for medicines, for making dyes and for casting spells, says Susan Moody, who heads the horticultural department. "It really is a spot of serenity in the middle of the city."

Many of the plants will remind you of childhood storybooks. There is rampion, whose roots were boiled and eaten like turnips and for which Rapunzel is named. There is rue, which enables you to see witches and is useful if weaving a spell of your own. And there is comfrey, which is good for you, and foxglove, which is not.

Watch the dogs at Washington Square

Whenever I have spare time in New York City, I go to Washington Square. In the 1700s, it was used as a potter's field and as a place for public executions. But things have improved since then. In 1880, Henry James used the park as the setting for his novel "Washington Square." And in the early 1890s, the Washington Arch, which resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, was built to commemorate the first presidential inauguration.

Now anyone looking for a chess game comes here: There is always a handful of games being played and a string of would-be players waiting. Here, too, buskers from jugglers to singers entertain any who wish to stand and watch. And with its mix of residents, tourists and students from the nearby New York University, the square is a great place to people-watch.

But I go for the dogs.

Picture a dog playground. A run, really. A gravelly yard that is fenced off from the park. A canine-friendly space with shade trees and benches for weary humans. Today, a middle-aged woman is here with her fuzzy Pomeranian; a man wearing sandals with socks accompanies a fluffy, black chow and another man with a ponytail kisses his German shepherd on the head just before removing his leash and setting him free.

In the center of the yard, a French bulldog, white except for a fine pair of black ears, plays chase with a spindly-legged elk hound. A thin man sits on a bench and throws a red rubber ball across the yard. His dog, an elderly collie, looks at the ball, at the man and at the ball. Then he closes his eyes.

But a little gray dog grabs the ball, and the chase is on. A golden cocker spaniel, a chocolate lab, an apricot poodle, a blue tick hound and a brown dog wearing a red harness gallop after him. The little dog, mouth stuffed with ball, glances over his shoulder as he runs.

Not all the dogs want to play, though. A basset hound rolls contentedly in the dust. To his left, two Gordon setters, their silky black-and-tan fur combed to glistening perfection, run along the fence, noses outstretched as though to capture every scent. And a Jack Russell terrier walks, stiff-legged, toward a Rottweiler, baring his teeth. The Rottweiler doesn't notice. "Whoa, that dog has a Napoleon complex," says a man in a black Harley T-shirt to his brown Chihuahua. "But we don't, do we?"

Have tea at St. Regis Hotel

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