Vincent, a native New Yorker who is 14 and debonair, sauntered off the cherry-colored jetliner and peered around the airport terminal. "So this Washington," he said, tugging at the vest of his unfamiliar three-piece suit, "I wanted to come here for a long time -- When I first heard about Washington I thought it was in Brooklyn."

Vincent, whose enthusiasm was obvious, and about 60 other youngsters, some of whom put some effort into suppressing their excitement, left the five New York City children's shelters where they live to fly here yesterday for dinner and an hour-long survey of Washington's monuments, which few had seen.

The youngster's excursion was one of many observances of Christmas in the Washington area that included special dinners for the poor and elderly and traditional family gatherings. Except for the outing, sponsored by New York Air, the New York youngsters, who range in age from 6 to 16, would have spent Christmas Day in the same institutions where they spend every other day.

Although some of the more streetwise youngsters seemed to suspect that they may have been participants in a public relations venture, there was little indication that they objected. For most, the visit clearly came as an unexpected and welcome pleasure, a gift of modest adventure to be savored now and shared later with friends at home.

"It was my first time on an airplane," said Richard, an impish 15-year old from Manhattan. "I really want to thank the airlines because if it wasn't for them, I would never have got [on] a plane 'cause I ain't got no money." Richard's counselor, Tony Marcial, agreed that "He enjoyed every minute of it, from the takeoff to the landing. As simple as that can be, it's the greatest thing in the world to some kids -- a ride on a plane, wow. I only feel bad that more kids couldn't come."

Those who did were driven around the city through streets lined with granite and marble edifices, gleaming like picture-book illustrations in the briliantly cold sunshine of a frigid day.

Through bus windows they spotted landmarks familiar only from newspapers or television, and at various times throughout the day they found themselves placed in front of newspaper or television cameras, which appeared to record almost every stop they made.

At the start of the excursion, after debarking from the jet, adorned with a New York Air "Big Apple" logo, the group piled into two school buses and headed for the aMarriott Twin Bridges Hotel, where they were entertained during dinner by a magic show, as well as each other's bemused reaction for formal dining.

"This is just like living rich," said Vincent, with a satisfied glance at the roomful of scurrying waiters.

But the other youngsters, whose high spirits were less irrepressible, mumbled occasional complaints at having to squint to finish their meals, as camera crews pointed bright lights at their plates to record their enjoyment for the evening news.

"This is the part that turns me off, when they [sponsors and media] go overboard," said one counselor, who asked not to be named.

"But you know, it's a compromise." the counselor added. "They [the youngsters] know why they're being singled out, and as long as the kids get something out of it, and they know what it is, I don't mind. I try to be honest with them. One of my kids came up to me and said, 'More pictures?' I said, 'Yeah, they've got to sell it.' But as long as they know."

Still, many of the youngsters spontaneously made clear their delight in the visit.

One of them, 16-year old Kirk, used up a roll of Polaroid film for his own scrapbook. "I'm gonna take lots of pictures so my friends will know I was really here," he said.