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Touring New York through a child's eyes

(ran PT, CI, HT)

If you're looking for a terrific gift or special adventure for your grandchildren, consider taking them on a trip to New York City.

Whether you are a former resident or have never set foot in the Big Apple, you will see the city for the first time when you do it through the eyes of children.

An indispensable guide for this adventure is Frommer's Family Travel Guide: New York City With Kids (Prentice Hall Travel, New York, $18).

Written by grandmother Marilyn "Bubbles" Fisher and formerly published under the title Candy Apple, this book supplies everything you need to know about getting around and pointing out things that interest kids.

It includes detailed maps of various neighborhoods from lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village to Chinatown and the upper East and West Sides.

You'll find information, prices and operation hours of all the major tourist attractions such as the Statue of Liberty, Museum of Natural History and Bronx Zoo.

Those, you'd expect in any travel guide. But this one goes much further, explaining, for example, how to dodge a rainstorm by cutting through the lobbies of major skyscrapers _ along with complete descriptions of the buildings and the architects who designed them.

I used this guide as my bible on a recent weekend jaunt with my two sons, ages 7 and 11. We arrived at Pennsylvania Station around noon on Friday, allowing me a chance to point out the adjacent Madison Square Garden, home of the city's major sporting events, during a colorful, if at times rather seedy, taxi ride through midtown Manhattan.

After stopping at our hotel just long enough to drop off our luggage, we headed south to Battery City Park at the tip of Manhattan for a ferry ride past the Statue of Liberty and on to the renovated Ellis Island museum.

The gateway for immigrant passengers to the United States from 1892 through 1954, Ellis Island is a must-see attraction.

A 30-minute documentary, "Island of Hope, Island of Tears," dramatically depicts why so many people left their homelands for the United States during one of the world's biggest waves of immigration, and what it must have been like to land on a foreign shore, destitute, afraid and often unable to speak the new language.

Photographs on the walls of the museum proclaim the diversity of those who came and capture the poignancy of how they braved the journey and the hard work that faced them when they arrived.

One quotation paraphrases an old Italian story about coming to America. An immigrant recalls how before he came, he thought the streets were paved with gold. When he got here, he found out three things: "The streets weren't paved with gold. In fact, they weren't paved at all. And I was expected to pave them."

The exhibits include huge piles of stray baggage _from European straw trunks to Middle Eastern carpet bags _ representing the millions of people who passed through these doors.

Visitors can explore the rooms where immigrants were examined _ and sometimes rejected _ before being allowed to cross over to the U.S. mainland or sent back across the ocean. A Wall of Honor includes the names of immigrants immortalized by their descendants in bronze plaques _ descendants who now account for about 40 percent of the U.S. population.

Generally, New York is a great walking city by day, logically laid out and easy to get around.

For longer distances or nighttime travel, taxis are a safe bet and relatively affordable. Fares start at $1.50 as soon as you enter the cab, with no extra charge for additional passengers. Depending on traffic and your destination, many cab rides can cost as little as $5 _ about the same as subway fares for three people.

Over the weekend, we saw a Broadway show, wandered through Rockefeller Center watching ice skaters in the midst of the annual New York City Flower and Garden Show, and visited St. Patrick's Cathedral, a magnificent edifice of carved granite and stained glass facing Fifth Avenue.

We window-shopped and watched street performers, usually acrobats or dancers who passed the hat at the end of their act.

A carriage ride through Central Park was an extravagance ($34 for a half-hour) but a luxury that briefly let us leave the honking horns and city noise behind, trading them for the sound of clopping hooves.

I could honestly have thought I was a time traveler transported to the 19th century with my top-hatted, costumed livery driver _ if not for the discreet brass plaque on our carriage informing us that cellular telephones were available upon request.

We visited the famous Plaza Hotel at the corner of Central Park South and Fifth Avenue, paying homage to the portrait of Eloise, the precocious storybook character of Kay Thompson's 1955 book of the same name who lived at the hotel and caused constant mischief.

My boys were more impressed that it was the same hotel where "Kevin" (MacCauley Caulkin) stayed in the movie Home Alone II: Lost In New York.

There were so many more kid-friendly things to see and do _ like visiting the Guinness World Records Exhibit Hall located in the Empire State Building or stopping at Rumplemayer's for an ice cream sundae _ that we decided we'll just have to come back and try again.

For more information about the city that never sleeps, contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau of New York City, 2 Columbus Circle, Broadway and 59th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019; telephone (212) 397-8222.

Mary Beth Franklin is a Maturity News Service reporter.