Feel at home with the familiar sites of New York City
THERE is something very familiar about New York City.
Maybe it's the result of so many years spent watching American TV shows.
But 15,000km from home, it took just 24 hours to feel right at home in the Big Apple.
Considering it boasts a population of more than eight million, I was pleasantly surprised to feel so comfortable.
Even walking into the iconic Times Square had a feeling of deja vu.
Oh sure, the place many Americans refer to as "the crossroads of the world" is unique, with its massive electronic billboards turning night into day and an endless stream of tourists.
But I'd swear that singing cowboy wearing nothing but a pair of underpants looks familiar and the celebrity faces and products being advertised in all their larger-than-life, full-colour, high-octane glory are as much a part of our culture as they are America's.
The power bill for just one night is astronomical but so is the income derived from the giant billboards.
Our guide on a free walking tour informs us that one tall building in the heart of Times Square is actually empty because its owners make more money from advertising rights than they ever could from the messy business of having tenants.
The square, which is the focus of America's New Year's Eve celebrations, is also the heart of the Broadway theatre district and more traditional non-electronic billboards advertise familiar treats such as The Lion King, Mamma Mia, Wicked and Jersey Boys.
New York might be big and busy but it's surprisingly easy to get around.
Its subway system (another "old friend" I have met through TV shows) is brilliant and easy to use, putting the entire city within easy reach.
We used it constantly for trips ranging from just a few minutes to an hour.
Even the city's streets have familiar names: Fifth Ave, Park Ave, Madison Ave, Broadway, 42nd St.
Everywhere we looked, there were slices of American life that were instantly familiar.
In Chelsea, old men sat on the steps of three-storey townhouses packed side-by-side on streets lined with elm trees.
I'm sure I've walked by before ... or maybe it was in a movie.
Packed in beside the houses is the local primary school, its students spilling out of the building to play in the streets during recess.
It could be straight out of Sesame Street.
A trip on the Staten Island Ferry takes us past the most American of icons, the Statue of Liberty, with the equally iconic Brooklyn Bridge in the distance.
We join the queues to visit the site of the World Trade Center, where the two towers have been replaced by huge inverted waterfalls.
It's a sobering visit but the memories of 9/11 aren't hard to find throughout the city.
On Eighth Ave, just around the corner from our Times Square hotel, is a small, brick fire station that is home to Engine 54 and Ladder 4 crews of the Ninth Battalion.
In years gone by, you would have walked past without giving it a second glance.
But 15 men from that building lost their lives on 9/11 and a steady stream of people now stop at a small footpath shrine to pay their respects.
Every fire engine you see in New York carries the names of the men and women who died that day, a stark reminder of what happened in this city on what began as a day like any other.
It's a city full of memories, even if you haven't been there before.
There's the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and the Rockefeller Plaza where the forecourt is turned into a skating rink every winter.
But on the autumn day we visit, it has just played host to an impromptu performance by rock star Pink.
New York's that sort of city.
Everywhere we go in New York City, we uncover three constants: crowds, yellow taxis and food.
Hot dogs and pretzels are the staple of the street vendors and there is, quite literally, a Starbucks coffee shop on every block.
But it is the iconic New York deli that provides much of our daily sustenance ... cream-cheese bagels, grilled sandwiches, Philly steak and cheese, and slices of pizza larger than a dinner plate.
Healthy? Not really.
And strangely familiar.
Just like New York.
GOOD TO KNOW
Getting to New York and home again has never been easier, with Qantas last year entering into an arrangement with American Airlines.
It means travellers are able to step aboard a Qantas jumbo in Brisbane, make a quick stop in Sydney and then fly direct to Los Angeles before the final short hop across the country to the Big Apple.
Coming home, American Airlines flies to Dallas/Fort Worth where there is just enough time to board the Qantas jumbo again and be homeward bound - straight into Brisbane.
While the American Airlines flight was nothing fancy, everyone in the new arrangement plays their part perfectly and the whole experience could not be simpler or easier.