There's no place like New York City for the holidays

One of the holiday windows at Saks Fifth Avenue. Saks' window displays this season are themed on classic fairy tales.
One of the holiday windows at Saks Fifth Avenue. Saks' window displays this season are themed on classic fairy tales. AP

NEW YORK — The Big Apple is a metropolis for all seasons. In a 2000 film, Richard Gere and Winona Ryder spent Autumn in New York. Sex in the City's fab four — Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte, in their flowery frocks and strappy sandals — seem to live in a perpetual Manhattan spring/summer.

But for me, there's no better time to be in New York than the winter. Or more specifically, during the dazzling, delightful holiday season. From that enormous Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center (the one we wait with bated breath to see switched on) to visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads (the NYC Ballet's Nutcracker is arguably the country's most famous), New York is a big, beautifully wrapped package stamped with the words Please Do Open Before Christmas.

I did just that on an early December trip. Like an impatient toddler on Christmas morning, I tore off the wrappings to reveal a four-day extravaganza of great restaurants, luxe hotels, cultural gems and world-class shopping. It didn't matter that I'll probably be paying for it until spring; it's Christmas and it's New York.

Actually, it turned out that one of my favorite activities didn't cost a thing — gaping at the windows of the city's famed shopping emporiums. From Bloomingdale's to Bergdorf-Goodman, the holiday decorations are works of art.

Louis Vuitton's flagship store sported multi-colored chevrons, which criss-crossed the building, mimicking a stylized Christmas tree. Tiffany's had massive jewels pasted on its Art Deco façade, and a gigantic twinkling star suspended above the intersection of 5th Avenue and 57th Street.

Barneys mined the fertile and flamboyant mind of Australian film director Baz Luhrmann (remember Moulin Rouge?) for its Fifth Avenue windows. The display, Baz Dazzled, was just that — dazzling, and countless gawkers were appropriately dazzled.

Sadly, on the day I was among the gawkers, the ice princess Celestina, who emerges hourly from a cave to twirl around an ice rink, was temporarily sidelined due to a glitch in the mechanics.

My favorite windows have to be the ones at Saks' Fifth Avenue. Throngs of fascinated sightseers file by, admiring themed windows taking a modern slant on classic fairy tales, with titles that would do justice to the SNL writing team.

"It was the night of the ball when Cinderella fell madly in love with a pair of designer pumps," is the caption of a window showing Prince Charming placing a glass slipper on her foot.

Another window, showing an ugly troll next to a spinning wheel, is captioned, "Rumpelstiltskin was the most feared spin class instructor in the land."

Once I finished admiring the windows, I headed for Rockefeller Center, grabbed a table at Rock Café and sipped hot chocolate while watching skaters glide around the rink under the vigilant gaze of Prometheus.

A cultural cornucopia

From star-studded Broadway plays to the high-kicking Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, New York's cultural institutions offer performances to suit every taste.

I love opera and have attended performances at opera houses around the world, from London to Sydney. However, until this trip, I had never been to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.

I rectified that by scoring tickets to Franco Zeffirelli's production of La Bohème, which my opera aficionado friend Ruth insists is the best she's ever seen, especially the audience-pleasing Act II. Appropriately set during Christmas, the Met's lavish Latin Quarter scene features 222 performers on stage at one time, along with a surprisingly unfazed horse and donkey.

The ambience equaled the production, from the glittering 18-foot wide starburst Swarovski crystal chandelier that rises above the audience to signal the start of the performance to the catwalk overlooking the lobby where patrons gather for a glass of champagne between acts.

Culinary paradise

The holidays are a time for gorging ourselves, and during my New York sojourn, if eating was an Olympic sport, I would have taken the gold. From brunch in a landmark hotel to dinner with a view, exquisite cuisine was the order of the day.

The legendary Waldorf Astoria's Peacock Alley (301 Park Avenue) proved so enticing that I made it there twice in four days, once for a leisurely three-hour midday meal that would have made Dorothy Parker and her Algonquin lunch bunch green with envy, and again for the hotel's matchless Sunday brunch (a veritable groaning board stretching the length of the lobby, featuring some 100 items.)

As an homage to the season, Peacock Alley was a collage of tinkling champagne glasses, reflections from holiday ornaments and the soft thrum of a harp. Start with a glass of bubbly; end with the Waldorf's signature red velvet cupcakes and bask in the Christmas spirit.

There's no more respected name on the New York culinary scene than Sirio Maccioni. Regular patrons at his iconic restaurant Le Cirque (151 E. 58th) include A-listers from every profession. The glamour of its patrons is reflected in the restaurant's décor — an Adam Tihany-designed giant dome-shaped light shade resembling a circus tent.

Service is as attentive as one would expect. Nicola, my waiter, promptly whisked the white napkin from my plate and returned with a black one, "to complement your outfit," he said with a smile. Wow!

Circus tent ceilings and fashion appropriate napkins aside, it's the food of executive chef Raphael Francois that is the real draw. I started with the Blue Crab "Simplissime" and followed that with roasted chicken with black truffles. I wish I had saved room for the signature dessert: chocolate stove cake (yes, it comes in the shape of a small stove), paired with Woodford Reserve bourbon.

From Italian to Asian requires only a walk from the Bloomberg building on 58th where Le Cirque is located to a brownstone at 149 East 57th, home of Le Colonial.

Enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail in the upstairs bar where glass mirrors, rattan chairs, ceiling fans and potted plants create a sultry ambience reminiscent of Indochine.

Dinner showcases French/Vietnamese food whose vibrant flavor palettes you won't soon forget. Start with Goi Ga, a chicken and green papaya salad with star fruit carpaccio and chili lime vinaigrette; follow with Shrimp Galanga, a spicy mélange of wok-fried shrimp and mussels, sugar snap peas, fresh chilies and coconut sauce, and end your meal with a refreshing green tea crepe.

Le Colonial's 3-course prix fixe menu, priced at $38, is one of the city's best bargains.

For another taste of Asia, head to the West Side and Asiate, the elegant restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (80 Columbus Circle at 60th.) Request a table by the window, as you'll get an unobstructed view of Central Park from the hotel's 35th floor.

Asiate's interior is pretty fabulous too, with a glittering tree branch sculpture suspended from the ceiling, and a wall of wine showcasing 1,500 bottles. Then, there's the food. The roasted cauliflower appetizer with toasted almonds and cheddar beer béarnaise was so delicious that, had I not been in such a high-class establishment, I might have licked my plate. Entrees feature everything from wagyu beef to Maine lobster, and do shell out an extra $60 for the white truffles.

It is Christmas after all.