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Brighton Beach: The Boardwalk, the bathouses and the grub

Tatiana offers a slice of Russian culture to

Tatiana offers a slice of Russian culture to visitors. (Flickr/Paul Lowry) Credit: Tatiana offers a slice of Russian culture to visitors. (Flickr/Paul Lowry)

New York City winters are long, and while they're never too cold for too long, the drab colors and the shortened days can often get you down.

This may run counter to traditional thinking, but winter is actually a great time to take a trip to one of the city's beaches. You can take in the natural surroundings in a way you can't when you and hundreds of others are vying for the same sandy spot.

The place to start is Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which was spared much of the damage Superstorm Sandy wrought on the nearby Rockaways and Coney Island. There's the beach, but there's also the neighborhood, which is as rich as the borscht you should definitely try on your visit.

The neighborhood has long been a Russian enclave, and the area has the stores and restaurants to prove it. Like most of the neighborhoods in New York City, the strong identity of Brighton Beach is a point of pride for its residents.

The Brighton Beach Boardwalk begins where Coney Island ends, at Ocean Parkway, and continues for about 10 blocks. The boardwalk gives you the best of so many worlds. It's perfect for people watching. All you need is a spot on one of the many benches that line the strip and you'll be entertained and wowed by your fellow New Yorkers. It's a bit quieter than its amusement-park loving neighbor, though in a way, it's just as "freaky."

The boardwalk also offers prime Atlantic Ocean viewing. Looking out at the water, the city can feel very far away, indeed ... until birds swoop down and eat trash off the sand instead of fish out of the ocean.

After the boardwalk, it's time for a schvitz. Bathhouses, or banyas, are an important cultural tradition and a place where the community gathers to sweat, relax and decompress. The steam rooms and saunas are especially beneficial in the winter for both health and cosmetic purposes. There are Russian and Turkish bathhouses all over the city, and one close by.

Mermaid Spa (3703 Mermaid Ave., 347-462-2166, is located in Sea Gate, a private community on the western side of Coney Island. It features cold and hot dunk pools, saunas and steam rooms, a cafe and the traditional platza treatment, in which you are scrubbed with soapy water and exfoliated with oak leaves that are tied tightly together and resemble the end of a broom.

All along Brighton Beach Avenue are food shops and cafes. Between the chains and cellphone stores are neighborhood gems worth stumbling into.

Café Glechik (3159 Coney Island Ave., 718-616-0494, opened in 1998. The kitschy decor is fun, and the food, from stuffed cabbage to borscht to dumplings, is spot-on.

Gold Label Grocery (281-285 Brighton Beach Ave., 718-743-3900) is the place to hit up if you want to ogle all the different Russian delicacies and delights. This large market has it all, from cheese with cherries to strudel to pickled fish. Don't forget to check out all the beautifully wrapped candies. They may look foreign, but the sweet flavors aren't.

And if you're really looking for a raucous time, fueled by Russian vodka, head to Tatiana Restaurant, (3152 Brighton 6th St., 718-891-5151, Known for live cabaret shows, vodka that runs freely like water, dancing and of course, large Russian dinners, Tatiana is a mainstay of Brighton Beach and is considered by some to be a truly New York (by way of Russia) experience.

How to get there: Take the B or Q train to the Brighton Beach stop. The ocean and boardwalk are just one block south.

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