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Your first bite. . .The Big Apple

The Big Apple can be intimidating to first-time visitors. But you would be amiss to miss Manhattan because it seems, well, too big. Within its boundaries are some of the world's finest museums and most famous places.

We can't hold your hand on your maiden voyage, but we can offer a beginner's course if you want to make your own arrangements.

If you don't, a travel agent can arrange a package tour for you.

Here are a few things we found on a recent visit. Keep in mind that January, when we were there, is a slow month so theater tickets were readily available (except for "The Lion King") and we got good deals on hotels that might not apply when the tourist season is at its peak.

For a rundown on the hotels, please see our Travel 101 column.

BROADWAY

Shows that are doing a brisk box office business this season include "The Lion King," "Ragtime," "Titanic" (the musical),"Rent," "Chicago" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel." "The King and I," which recently brought Marie Osmond on board as Anna, is closing Sunday, Feb. 22.

Tickets for "The Lion King" are virtually impossible to get. Availability depends on which broker you contact. One told us it had a few tickets in May, June and July. Another said the earliest available date was Feb. 22. Yet another said the show was sold out on weekends through 1998.

Box office phone numbers aren't in the public domain, which makes it difficult to find out which shows have available tickets.

You have a couple of strategies if you're making your own arrangements: Plan ahead and purchase tickets through a ticket broker before you go; or see what's available after you get there - a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants strategy, but one that will save you money.

Typically, if you buy tickets through a broker, you'll pay full price ($70 for an orchestra seat) plus a fee, which adds up to $90 or $95 a ticket.

If you purchase them after you get to New York City, you might save 50 percent, but your choice of shows and seats may be limited.

This reporter tried Plan B. I stood in line at the half-price TKTS booth at Broadway and 47th Street and purchased an orchestra-level ticket to "The Scarlet Pimpernel" for $40, which included a $2.50 fee. I arrived at the booth at about 7:20 p.m. It took me about a half-hour to get through the line, leaving me just enough time to walk to the nearby theater for the 8 p.m. performance.

The next day I bought a ticket to a matinee performance of "The King and I" at the TKTS booth for $37.95. The seat was on the front row on the far right and didn't have a clear line of sight, but that didn't detract from the show. I stood in that TKTS line for an hour.

The TKTS booth sells tickets for same-day performances.

Here are details about theater tickets.

Brokers

The Big Apple visitors guide published by the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau lists 17 ticket brokers. They include:

Edwards & Edwards, 800-223-6108 (www.globaltickets,com).

Keith Prowse & Co., 800-669-8687 (http://www.keithprowse.com).

Theatre Direct International, 800-334-8457 (http://www.theatredirect.com).

TKTS Booths

Manhattan has two TKTS booths that sell tickets for same-day performances at 25 percent to 50 percent discounts. Purchase them in person with cash or travelers checks. The booth at 47th Street and Broadway opens at 3 p.m. Mon.-Sat., and 11 a.m. on Sunday for the 3 p.m. matinees. It sells tickets for Wednesday and Saturday matinees from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The TKTS booth at 2 World Trade Center on the mezzanine level is open from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Mon.-Fri., and 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. According to local lore, the line at the World Trade Center TKTS booth is usually shorter than the one at the booth on Broadway.

When this reporter was there, half-price tickets for more than 12 shows were available including "Titanic," "Jekyll & Hyde," "The Scarlet Pimpernel," "The King and I" and "Cats."

Twofers

These are vouchers redeemable at the box office for two tickets for the price of one. We were told they are sometimes available at various locations around town including the Convention & Visitors Bureau at 2 Columbus Circle and at fast-food outlets. This reporter, however, didn't see any (although I wasn't looking for them at the time), and most of the New Yorkers I spoke to hadn't heard of them. Maybe you'll have better luck.

Rush tickets

Details are hard to get. From what we could gather, you stand in line at the box office the day of the performance to see if any seats are available.

If time is money, this is not the option for you.

One ticket broker we spoke to said seats are usually on the front row, which means you'll get an earful of the orchestra. Rush tickets usually sell for the bargain basement price of $20. The bad news is that the only way to find out about rush tickets is to go to the box office, unless you happen to see a notice about them in the New York papers. The box office line for "The Lion King" extends down the block, we were told.

FREE THINGS TO DO

- Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. When you're maneuvering through midtown's asphalt jungle, sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees. The Brooklyn Bridge is a good vantage point from which to view Manhattan's skyline. If you don't dawdle, it'll take you about 30 minutes to cross the bridge. You can get to the pedestrian walkway from the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall subway station.

- While you're in the neighborhood, visit Brooklyn Heights and its riverside promenade. New Yorkers we talked to raved about the view of the Financial District. The best time to go is early evening. Word on the street is that Brooklyn Heights has become a chichi neighborhood with great restaurants.

- Walk through Central Park. It sounds trite, but there's no better way to acquaint yourself with a city than by walking. Central Park is 21/2 miles long by a half-mile wide. It's a wonderland of lakes, bridges and walking paths. To be on the safe side, visit the park during daylight hours and don't go alone.

Central Park West, the street that parallels the park on the west side, is where some of the city's most famous inhabitants reside. According to the city guide who showed this reporter around, Madonna, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, Carroll O'Connor, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin, Robert De Niro, Mia Farrow and Michael Douglas are among the residents of Central Park West. The Dakota Building, where John Lennon was killed, has become a tourist attraction.

Fifth Avenue, which parallels the park on the east side, is where the Metropolitan Museum of Art is located. The apartment where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis lived is on Fifth Avenue across the street from Central Park.

- Walk Fifth Avenue from 59th Street to 34th Street and the Empire State Building. You'll pass a number of well-known buildings including St. Patrick's Cathedral, Rockefeller Center and Tiffany & Co.

- Take the Staten Island Ferry, which you catch at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal near Battery Park. New Yorkers told this reporter that you get a stunning view of the Statue of Liberty for free.

- Guide yourself around Rockefeller Center. Nineteen buildings cover about 22 acres. Maps are available at the center.

- Tour the New York Stock Exchange. The visitors center entrance is at 20 Broad Street. Tickets are distributed free for a same-day visit.

- Visit Macy's department store, which covers an entire block between Broadway and 7th Avenue and 34th and 35th streets. Billed as the world's largest department store, the original structure was built in 1901. The 1931 addition is Art Deco. You realize the historic significance of the store when you set foot on its wooden escalators.

GETTING TO AND FROM JFK

- Taxi stands are outside each terminal. Let the dispatcher hail a cab for you. The fixed price to Manhattan is $30 plus tolls and tip. (The toll for the Queens-Midtown Tunnel is $4. There is no toll for the 59th Street Bridge. Traffic may be more congested there because it's free, but you get a view of Manhattan that you don't get in the tunnel. The trip takes about 45 minutes, depending on traffic. A taxi becomes economical if you share it. This reporter split the fare with her airplane seatmate, a native New Yorker who now resides in Park City.

- Gray Line runs shuttles between JFK and midtown hotels and vice versa. When you arrive at JFK, proceed to the ground transportation desk and make a reservation with a Gray Line representative. You should be aboard a shuttle within half an hour. The price is $14. To be picked up at your hotel to return to the airport you must make an advance reservation (212-315-3006). The outbound price is $16.50.

- Carey runs buses from JFK to Penn Station, Grand Central Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. From there you could take a cab to your hotel. Catch the bus outside the terminal and pay the driver. The cost is $13. Buses run every 30 minutes between 6 a.m. and noon and every 20 minutes after that. Airport-bound buses leave from Penn Station and Grand Central Station. (800-678-1569).

TOURS

Double-decker buses

These give you a high vantage point from which to see the city. An onboard guide provides the narration. Board at any of the stops, which include major tourist attractions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Battery Park and Rockefeller Center. New York Apple, New York Double Decker and Gray Line operate double-decker tours. Information is available at the concierge desk of your hotel. You'll pay about $30 for the citywide tour, which consists of a look at downtown (the Financial District) and a tour uptown (Central Park, Columbia University and Harlem).

Big Apple Greeters

This is a non-profit organization that arranges for a New Yorker to take you on a two- to four-hour walking tour. Big Apple Greeters are knowledgeable volunteers who like to share their enthusiasm about the city. You'll get insights you wouldn't any other way and the service is free. Advance reservations required. Call 212-669-8159.

MUSEUMS

- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street. Suggested contribution $8. Closed Mondays. Highlights include the American Wing with paintings, sculpture and decorative arts that span three centuries; and full-scale room interiors including a replica of a living room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The European paintings and sculpture wings are a melting pot of artistic royalty: Rubens, Rembrandt, El Greco, Velazquez, Goya, Gainsborough, Turner, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas (lots of works by Degas), Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat and van Gogh.

The sculpture gallery is replete with works by Rodin.

Words don't do the place justice. It is, quite simply, one of the world's greatest art museums.

- The Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. (between Fifth and Sixth avenues) and 53rd Street. $8.50 admission. Open afternoons except Wednesdays, when it is closed.

- The Frick Collection, Park Avenue at 70th Street. Admission $5. Closed Mondays. Children under 10 not admitted. Decorative arts, furnishings and Old Masters are on display in a private mansion.

- The American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West between 77th and 81st streets. $8 admission. Open seven days a week. Outstanding displays include Indian totem poles, wildlife dioramas, gems and minerals, meteorites and dinosaurs. This has to be one of the best natural history museums there is.

*****

Additional Information

For information

To request a free "Big Apple Visitors, The Guide," published by the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau, call 1-800-NYC-VISIT. Plan ahead. This is a fulfillment house and you won't have the book in hand for about six weeks.

Information counselors (yes, they are real people) will try to answer any questions you might have. Call 212-484-1222, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern time.

Keep current. A calendar of events is available on the Internet at (http://www.nycvisit.com).