New Year’s Eve Celebrations: Ringing in the new year away from home

happy new yearWe’re staying home this year for New Year’s. We’ll happily dine at ‘Blu’, one of our favourite Toronto restaurants, then crack open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, our favourite champagne when we get home around midnight. We’ll probably reminisce about this past year (and why we didn’t travel/blog as much – we moved) and then think about what the year ahead might bring (traveling to begin in precisely two weeks). But we’ll also pull out photos of two of our most memorable new year’s away from home. Just a couple of years ago we spent two very memorable first night celebrations in the one place in the world where they really know how to party with sophistication and elegance: Monaco.

The day begins with a visit to the local Carrefour. A gigantic grocery store that rivals Wal-Mart for its variety and Whole Foods for its quality, the place is a zoo at the best of times, but New Year’s Eve is special. We begin (and it has to be said, end) at the extensive wine section. The sheer array of French wines that begin at about 3 euros a bottle and go upward from there is dizzying. The problem is that we have rarely had a bottle from Carrefour hat we didn’t like. So how to choose from among all of these unknown bottles?

Our usual tactic involves stealth observation. Watching the men and women going up and down the aisle filling their baskets and carts to the brim with bottle after bottle is the best place to begin. Then we get a bit more discerning.

We look at how many bottles of each kind of bubbly make their way into how many baskets. Then we watch the individual purchasers. Are they old enough to have experienced a bottle or two? Is the twist of their scarves just stylish enough to imply a bit of je ne sais quoi? Are they assured enough of their choices that there is no waffling? When all systems are go, we swoop in and choose the right bottle of champagne – and make no mistake, it is always right. But then where to drink it? We’re getting to that.

The day is young so we’re inclined to wander a bit through the Monte Carlo Christmas market where we’ll indulge in the decadence of a glass of quality champagne outdoors from a plastic flute. We’ll watch the skaters take a turn around the temporary rink on the MC waterfront, as ludicrous as that seems.

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Casino Square in Monte Carlo makes a magical scene dressed for the Christmas season.

Then we head back to the hotel to get dressed. We’re going to the ballet this evening. We don our finery and make our way to the Grimaldi Forum with what appears to be the majority of the Monagasques themselves.  Situated on the shore of the Mediterranean, the building is actually built right into the Med with the main performance space where we’ll see Les Ballets de Monte Carlo dazzle their home crowd below sea level. Down, down, down, three very long escalators to reach the entrance to the orchestra seating. We sip more champagne while we people watch.  Can there be a more decadent place to people watch than MC?

We spot Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, D & G, Hermes, all milling around the bar dangling from shoulders and elbows. Then the bell chimes three times – five minutes to curtain time. As we take our seats Patty puts her handbag on the hook on the back of the seat in front of her. Such a thoughtful touch: the designers must have thought of all those expensive handbags that would grace their auditorium through the years. We then glance surreptitiously toward the royal box to see if Princess Caroline might be gracing New Year’s Eve with her presence since she is, after all, the president of the ballet company. Then the curtain rises, the orchestra begins, and we’re transported into the rarefied world of the ballet thanks to our son the dancer who is sharing the stage with his colleagues.

The ballet is over at 11:30, and all of us spill out into the Mediterranean night that is lit with hundreds of thousands of twinkling lights. We make our way up the hill to the casino square where side by side with the palm trees lit for the season are 50-foot high fir trees brought in and decorated so that the lights change colors. We are transported along with the crowd.

Once in the square which is already shoulder-to-shoulder full of well-dressed revelers, we get into the spirit of the night. The countdown begins. “Dix-neuf-huit-sept…deux-un! Bonne année!” And the corks begin flying! Pop! Pop! Pop! Then splash! As the champagne is poured from bottle to plastic flutes as everyone wishes anyone around a happy new year.

Coming as we do from North America, the very fact that it is perfectly acceptable for this crowd to pop their champagne corks in this very public place and enjoy a sip of New Year’s bubbly makes us just a bit giddy. We are delighted and know that it will be a good year, indeed.

Happy New Year to all our readers. We promise that we’ll resume our story telling in 2016.

[If you are a long-time reader and think you may have read about this New Year’s adventure before, you have. Much of this post is excerpted from our New Year’s post from 2012. But we still think it’s a great story. Hope you do too.]

Walking a city: The only way to get to know it

In October of this year the Tower lf London was home to a magnificent display of ceramic poppies to honor the WW I veterans.  A stroll around it was the only way to appreciate it.
In October of this year the Tower of London was home to a magnificent display of ceramic poppies to honor the WW I veterans. A stroll around it was the only way to appreciate it.

We’re now ensconced back home in Toronto and walking this beautiful downtown is how we get around: how we buy groceries, how we go out to dinner, how we appreciate all it has to offer.  This last consideration is one we take to heart when we travel abroad.

In October we revisited London (the fact that our youngest son makes his more there now is an added benefit).  Every time we venture across the pond to this other marvelous city, we stay at different hotels in different parts of the city.  In fact, in recent years, we’ve stayed at five different hotels each of which is centered in a different district or neighborhood of London.  On this last visit, we stayed at the wonderful Threadneedles Hotel.  Threadneedles is located right in the heart of the “City of London”, that single square mile of real London town.  Housed in a building that was originally home to the City Bank of London, this boutique property exudes a timeless elegance that draws you into the history of this venerable city.  On each of our three days there, we headed out in the morning to walk different directions – never treading the same street twice is our motto when walking a city.

A walk through the Borghese Gardens brings you to many delightful places you simply cannot see if you don't get out and walk.
A walk through the Borghese Gardens brings you to many delightful places you simply cannot see if you don’t get out and walk.

We then flew from London to Rome, a city we’ve visited several times before, each time for only a day trip from a Mediterranean cruise.  Although we had seen the highlights of the tourist sites: the Vatican (hours and hours spent there on one visit, the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps,  the Trevi Fountain etc.) – we had never really been able to get a feeling for the city of Rome.  This visit was different.  We walked.  In fact, one day we walked eight miles!  How do we know this?  We find it interesting to always wear a pedometer when we travel.  Knowing how far we walked is the best rationalization for all that wonderful pasta we ate and Barolo we drank.

Our last stop on this visit was the magnificent city of Istanbul.  We stayed at the fabulous new Marriott Hotel in the modern Istanbul, a couple of kilometers north of Taksim Square.  Although that might seem counter-intuitive to anyone who wants to spend time walking around the old city of Istanbul where the main historical sites are located, the fact that we weren’t confined to that relatively small area was a real bonus.  We walked around the modern city to get a feel for the everyday life of Istanbul’s 15 million residents!  Although we didn’t walk around the Asian side where a large proportion of the residents actually live, the modern city of Istanbul did provide us with a sense of the

A walk through the Spice Market in Istanbul uncovers more than spices!
A walk through the Spice Market in Istanbul uncovers more than spices!

city.  Of course, sitting high above the city each evening overlooking both the old and new parts of the city along the shores of the Golden Horn with the Blue Mosque shining in the distance was an added benefit from the top floor lounge in the hotel.

Then our driver and guide picked us up to take us to the historical sites (read about our fantastic private experience in Istanbul here).  We walked through museums, palaces, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, and market streets that cater only to the locals.  We would never have had that opportunity without our guide!  But with or without a guide, walking is our recommended method for seeing a city.

Get out of that taxi or off that bus.  And for heaven’s sakes, get above ground and out of that subway or tube!  You’ll never get to know a city that way.

It’s “cooler” along the coast: Day tripping in Halifax

We boarded our neighbor's boat on the Halifax waterfront.
We boarded our neighbor’s boat on the Halifax waterfront.

For those of us who live along Canada’s Atlantic coast, weather reports in the summer always tell us that it will be “cooler along the coast.”   But we just think that everything is cooler along a coast!  If you have yet to spend any of your travel time along Canada’s Atlantic coast, come along with us – yesterday we spent a wonderful afternoon on the water in Halifax harbor, seeing our city from that different point of view – it’s so much cooler to see things from the water!

It was fabulously sunny and breezy as our wonderful neighbors picked us up at Cable Wharf on one of the floating docks beside Halifax’s Murphy’s on the Water and we were off.  Murphy’s itself is a restaurant, event space and water tour company all wrapped up in one.  For discerning travelers who aren’t as lucky as we are to have friends with (large) boats for touring, you can book a tour at Murphy’s on any one of a variety of boats.  We had the private experience – and we were off!

Once onboard as we shared sandwiches and a bottle of wine, we were reminded momentarily of our perfect day on the Med a few years ago.  But we didn’t have to travel to Monaco for it.

Halifax's waterfront: Historic Properties, the Marriott Hotel and Purdy's Wharf office towers beyond.
Halifax’s waterfront: Historic Properties, the Marriott Hotel and Purdy’s Wharf office towers beyond.

If you’ve traveled widely and have had the good fortune to see other harbors around the world, Halifax might seem diminutive by comparison to, say, Sydney, Australia (click here to see our entry into Sydney Harbor by cruise ship last winter), but there is something about the very compactness of the city and the elegance of the two suspension bridge spans that join the two sides of the city.  The air is clear and clean, and the other water traffic varied and interesting.

Just off the dock and we motored past Theodore Tugboat of television fame.  It might surprise travelers with children who love Theodore to know that he is a product of Halifax.  Indeed, the harbor where this children’s TV celebrity plies his trade on any given foggy day is a replica of this very harbor.  (If you don’t know Theodore, read all the way to the bottom and then watch him in action!)

You can even tour the harbor on Theodore Too.
You can even tour the harbor on Theodore Too.

Then, of course there are the varied tour boats.  The first one we see is a large sailing vessel, followed by the inevitable amphibious vehicle that tours locals and tourists alike not only on the harbor water, but also on the city streets.  In Halifax it’s the Harbour Hippo.

Just past the waterfront Historic Properties , the Marriott Hotel and the casino, we motored past numerous naval vessels (Halifax is home to Canada’s Atlantic fleet) and pleasure craft of various kinds and sizes.  We motored under both bridges and around what’s called Bedford Basin then back past the downtown and around into what is known as the Northwest Arm.

The main downtown portion of the city is on a peninsula that runs between the harbor and the Arm which is home to waterfront mansions and the Yacht clubs where dozens of tiny sail boats scurried across in front of us – ten-year-olds at the helms as they learned the fine points of sailing.

The Harbour Hopper: need we say more?
The Harbour Hopper: need we say more?
Motoring into "The Arm."
Motoring into “The Arm.”

 

The best bargain way to see the city from the water is to hop on the Halifax-Dartmouth ferry for a return trip.
The best bargain way to see the city from the water is to hop on the Halifax-Dartmouth ferry for a return trip.

 

A "mansion" on the Arm
A “mansion” on the Arm
The "Dingle Tower" & looking back out to sea from the Northwest Arm.
The “Dingle Tower” & looking back out to sea from the Northwest Arm.

Coastal cities have a vibe that’s different from the land-locked variety.  Maybe it’s the salt air and the ubiquitous seagulls.  Maybe it’s the way the sun sparkles off the water creating a sheet of diamonds.  Or maybe it’s just that there’s a kind of romance to a coastal life.  We just think it’s ‘cooler.’

Now, if you’d like to see how Theodore Tugboat sees Halifax…

So many beaches, so little time: The travel dreams of many

The deserted beach ringing the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda just coming into view as we approach from Antigua via fast ferry.
The deserted beach ringing the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda just coming into view as we approach from Antigua via fast ferry.

What is it about beaches?  When we want to conjure relaxing thoughts, we often find our minds wandering to the sounds of the waves rolling in and out, the wind, the seagulls.  There’s just something about them, and this world is full of extraordinary swaths of sand that beckon travelers.  Our recent return from the South Pacific and Australia with the plethora of beaches inspired us to pause and consider beaches we’ve walked – because, make no mistake about it , we prefer to walk a beach rather than lie on one – and beaches we’ll walk in the future.

Our most recent beach experience was Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia, the subject of our most recent video.  An urban beach, it really does go for miles and the boardwalk is a magnificent way to see it in its entirety.  And Manly did remind us a bit of Waikiki, which for all it has to recommend it, is not one of our very favorites.  So, we started to think, what were our favorite beaches?

Barbuda
Barbuda

A few years back we spent some time at the St. James’s Club, a wonderful resort in Antigua.  With its crescent-shaped beach within a lagoon, it offered many of the beach-side amenities everyone craves.  However, it wasn’t especially long, had little wave action and was bordered by the resort.  That trip, however, did take us to a beach that holds some our best beach memories.  We decided to take a trip to Barbuda.

We embarked the fast ferry, known to us now as “the vomit comet” (we were thankfully among the few who did not…well, you know) that beached itself along the deserted shores of the tiny island of Barbuda.  Although there are a couple of small, low-rise hotels along the beach, for the most part it was completely deserted.  We walked for kilometers in the sun listening to the sea roll in and out.  It was heaven.  Even now, years later, as we think about that day at the beach, we relax and breathe deeply.

Another of our favorites is the beach along the Condado in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Stretching for several kilometers along the high-end neighborhood of the Condado, it is long, wide and sparsely populated – or at least it has been on the several occasions we visited San Juan.  Despite the hotels along this beach being a drive from Old San Juan, their proximity to this beach (just walk out the back door) makes them our choice when visiting Puerto Rico.

The beach in Philipsburg, St. Martin
The beach in Philipsburg, St. Martin

Two other beaches that are among our favorites are on that list for a different reason.  Rather than a day-long beach walk, they both offer interesting perspectives.

The beach at the Crane Resort on Barbados is often listed among the best in the world.  Well, that is clearly a subjective assessment, but it is beautiful and its location on the wild Atlantic side of the island does make its roaring waves mesmerizing.  Add onto this the fact that you reach it via either a steep staircase or the elevator (!) and you can get a sense of the kind of beach it is.

The other interesting one that brings a smile to our faces is the beach in downtown Phillipsburg, St. Martin.  The locals have built a magnificent boardwalk that divides the beach from a string of shops and restaurants.  Many of the restaurants offer beach chairs and buckets of beer for a lazy day taking in the activities in the harbor.  The sand is soft and the sun is hot.

Speaking of sand, our final two memorable beaches are memorable both for their locations and for their sand – we use that word loosely!

Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France
Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France

In the south of France, the grains of sand on the beaches cannot really be described as grains at all.  They are pebbles.  The beachfront in Nice is wonderful for a variety of reasons.  It is bordered by a several-kilometers-long walkway where people stroll, cycle and roller-skate, as well as some of the most interesting beach-front restaurants where you can sit on a lounger and sip champagne to while away the day.

Finally, if you ever have a chance to visit Canada’s most easterly province, grab a sweater and take a trip to Topsail Beach just outside the city of St. John’s in Newfoundland & Labrador.  Sit for a moment in the bracing breeze and pick up a few beach rocks to skim into the waves.  Listen to the seagulls and remember what Dennis Wilson of Beach Boys fame once said:  “On the beach, you can live in bliss.”

Have a few minutes, come along to Manly Beach with us.