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.

DSC00325
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.]

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Ringing in the New Year: Monte Carlo Style!

Casino Square, Monte Carlo on New Year's Eve.
Casino Square, Monte Carlo on New Year’s Eve.

There’s something about New Year’s Eve. It doesn’t seem to matter how often you say that a quiet evening at home with a good bottle of champagne is the ideal way to ring in a new year, given the opportunity to do something truly memorable, most of us would jump at the chance. The question is: precisely what constitutes a memorable New Year’s Eve?

As these discerning travelers contemplate a quiet New Year’s Eve at home for the first time in four or five years, we’re transported to three years ago when we spent the first of a couple of first nights in what is arguably the land of the most conspicuous consumption on the planet: Monte Carlo.

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, also end) at the extensive wine section. The sheer array of French wines that begin at about 3 euros a bottle (we kid you not), and go upward from there is dizzying. And the problem is that we have rarely had a bottle from Carrefour that 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 arrangement of their scarves just stylish enough to imply a bit of je ne sais quoi? Are they secure enough in their choice 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.

Grabbing a glass of bubbly at the Monte Carlo Christmas market.
Grabbing a glass of bubbly at the Monte Carlo Christmas market.

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

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. Then the bell chimes three times — time for the curtain. We take our seats and 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 – or perhaps Prince Albert (that was before he married Charlene).  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.

The champagne is flowing!
The champagne is flowing!

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 the experience all that more decadent (there’s that word again!). We are delighted and know that it will be a good year, indeed.

Happy 2013 everyone!

Travel for Christmas? You bet!

Big cities are exciting at Christmas! The Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto is always dressed for the season and when you can walk through after hours, the Swarovski tree gleams just for you.

It’s that time of year when everyone we know starts turning their attention to home & hearth.  Not these discerning travelers—our excitement is just starting to build as we anticipate the travel season ahead.  And that travel season begins with Christmas away.

This morning’s Globe and Mail greeted us with a travel section headlined “Six Destinations to Get Your Christmas On!” and they weren’t talking about department stores.  So, I guess we’re not alone, but people often ask us how we do it.  When everyone is running around from family obligation to grocery store to the kitchen and back, we might find ourselves in a hot tub at a hotel, basking on a pristine tropical beach or experiencing white-glove service at a wonderful restaurant with a view of the Mediterranean.  All of these are things we’ve done on Christmas Eve over the past years.

It’s been a long time since we spent Christmas at home, and we’re not going to start this year!  It all started back when our now 23-year-old son was eleven.  He was a student at the National Ballet School of Canada, a two-hour trip by plane from where we lived.  It had never occurred to us that when the students performed with the National Ballet of Canada in the annual Nutcracker that it would run over Christmas, and that the students could not go home.  So we adapted.

Ian and a Nutcracker aboard our Holland America Christmas cruise.

That first holiday season away, spending Christmas in a hotel with a child, taught us many things about ourselves and the season.  It taught us that breaking with tradition can be liberating (Christmas Eve celebrations with the family were fine, but year after year after year of the same thing can begin to wear on one).  It taught us that we could be more creative with the Christmas morning ritual under the Christmas tree opening presents (the hotel staff even helped us as we sent Ian on a scavenger hunt all over the hotel to find his Christmas present that first year).  It taught us that having Christmas dinner in a hotel is not without its upside (impeccable service, incredible food and no clean-up: what’s not to like?).  And over the years, it has taught us that experiences are far more important than presents.

After several Christmases in downtown Toronto at a hotel, Ian finally had a year when he didn’t have to perform.  Rather than spending it at home, we took a Christmas cruise (which we’ve talked about before).  The most important lesson from that trip (apart from how utterly amazing it is to spend Christmas eve on a private island in the Caribbean under a palm tree), that the presents are secondary and are only as important as the sentiment behind them.

That Christmas we had a family agreement: one present for each other person, bought after the ship sailed from Fort Lauderdale – and they had to be wrapped.   Streamlining those Christmas presents gave us time to really think about each present and each person.  It was wonderful.

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

Then there were three recent Christmases in Monte Carlo and the French Riviera.  There were so many wonderful memories that we made together as a little family.  Without the stress of the extended family activities, we have been able to focus on enjoying what the season has to offer – and on the Riviera, there was much to enjoy.  The Christmas market in Nice, the incredible decorations in Casino Square in Monte Carlo, the streets lined with trees highlighted with fake snow, the outdoor champagne bar at Christmas Land on the waterfront in Monaco, the chance to see Les Ballets de Monte Carlo performing on their home stage with Princess Caroline in the royal box, Revéillons (Christmas Eve dinner) at the Fairmont in Monte Carlo.

And now we will prepare for our upcoming Christmas in London.  We’ll take in the English National Ballet’s Nutcracker, several fabulous dinners; we’ll visit the Christmas windows on Oxford Street and visit the Christmas markets.  And the memories will be our presents.

Art takes in the Christmas ambience in Nice, France.

So, how do you get away from the expectations that your extended family has of you over the holidays (for those of you who have often thought about doing just that)?

  • Start getting them warmed up to the idea many months before.  By the time Christmas comes, they’ll think it’s always been that way.  Okay, there will be a few who will balk – but that’s only because they won’t have you to share their misery.
  • Get your little travel group to set some family ground rules. Activities? Budget?
  • Take our advice, agree to one present each.
  • Set up all the important parts in advance.  If Christmas dinner is important, get on it several months before.  You’d be amazed how many people eat out on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, not to mention how many restaurants are not open.  Hotels are your best bet.
  • Do something completely different from what you’ve done before on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  One Christmas we went to a movie at a theater in a mall late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve.  There were exactly four other people in the theater and when the movie was over, we emerged into a completely quiet mall that had only hours before been pandemonium.  It was like taking a deep cleansing breath.
  • Don’t think that you have to go far away.  Get in the car, drive for a couple of hours, and you’re away for Christmas.
  • Remember to Skype your family at home – and don’t gloat!
Nice dressed for Christmas.

All the world’s a stage: Travel and theater do mix

The Discerning Travelers off to the ballet in Monte Carlo.

We’re counting down now – to London, that is.  In about 10 days we’re off to celebrate two very important milestones in the lives of the Discerning Travelers.

On October 10 we’ll spend our 25th wedding anniversary (OK, we weren’t exactly ingénues when we married!) at a very special theatrical performance.  When you have offspring who are performers (and we have two), there are many memorable performances through the years, but this one is especially poignant.  Our now 23-year-old ballet dancer son has moved on – from Monte Carlo to London – to revisit the reason he started dancing in the first place.  He’s a triple-threat musical theater performer.  No longer even a wannabe performer, he is currently touring the UK in the newest remount of Cabaret starring pop idol Will Young, a production that opens in London’s West End at the Savoy Theatre on October 3.  And on October 10 we’ll celebrate our son’s debut and 25 years of wonderful marriage.  We’ll be having a glass or two of champagne late that evening for sure!

This planning has made us consider the joys of taking the time to see theatre productions when traveling.  We can’t now remember the first time we attended a theatrical performance when away, but it was probably Cats in New York on Broadway (the US equivalent to London’s famed West End).

We’ve had a number of very memorable experiences.  The first was on a trip in 2006 to London.  It was spring break and we had son Ian with us.  Seventeen-years old at the time, he was at the National Ballet School (Canada) and of course we had to plan on taking in a number of performances.  Usually when we travel we don’t ever book theater tickets of any kind for the first day or night of arrival – you can never tell when you’ll be delayed and these tickets can be astronomically expensive.  This time we took a chance, though.  After applying some adolescent persuasion to his parents, Ian convinced us that we had to see famed French ballerina Sylvie Guillem in the Royal Ballet’s production of Romeo & Juliet at Covent Garden.  The only hitch was that her very last performance was the evening that we arrived on an overnight flight very early that morning.

Ian takes in the beautiful interior of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in London.

Our usual approach to dealing with potential jet lag is to immediately get ourselves on the new time zone and carry on through the day as normally as possible, going to bed fairly early so that we can make up for lost sleep (no matter how much we spend on airline tickets to have space and flat-out beds, sleeping is usually a fleeting dream).  If we were going to experience this R & J, however, we’d have to prop our eyes open for some hours that night – which we did.

What a terrific experience – but it will go down in our family history as the time we coined the phrase “DTP” – in other words, “drink the poison.”  This particular production of R & J is excruciating for one particular scene at the very end of the ballet.  Romeo takes so long to decide to “drink the poison” as he writhes in the pain of seeing his Juliet dead (at least he believes she’s dead – we all know the sordid story).  All we could think of as we watched him on stage was, “For the love of God, Romeo, just drink the poison and put us out of our misery.  We all know how this ends!”   Well, of course he did drink it, he died, Juliet woke up, writhed in anguish and stabbed herself to death.  Then we could sleep!

Ian at 17 in front of the Victoria Palace Theatre in London where we saw Billy Elliott. In just over a week he’ll make his own West End debut just down the road at the Savoy Theatre.

Over the years we’ve seen musicals like Thoroughly Modern Millie and Wicked in New York; Billy Elliott and Phantom of the Opera in London (actually we’ve seen Phantom several different places), and its sequel Love Never Dies.  We’ve seen The Thirty Nine Steps in London (highly recommend that one), and ballets galore.  One of the most memorable for us was the Matthew Bourne rendition of Swan Lake that we happened upon when we arrived in New York last year.  As we sat in the bar at the Renaissance Times Square where we were staying, we noticed a very large billboard outside the window advertising this production, and it was in town for only a few days while were  were there.  This production is the one that Billy Elliott is in during the final frames of the movie and casts men as the swans.  We had to see it.

We approached the concierge and asked him if it might be possible to procure tickets.  With a twinkle in his eye, he told us that “anything is possible.”  And so he did.  But at the same time, we also learned that the concierges in New York hotels have access to online coupons that you can use for same-day tickets at the theaters thus avoiding that horrible, long line at the TKTS both in Times Square.  It was worth every cent we paid.

Of course, we can’t forget all of the ballets we have seen in Monte Carlo when Ian danced there for three years.  That included world premieres of Scheherazade on New Year’s Eve 2010, and last year’s new Swan Lake.   And then we followed the company to Los Angeles last year and saw them on tour.

Theater experiences when traveling are entertaining and illuminating for more than just experiencing the production itself.  The theater buildings themselves are so very interesting.  The old (Covent Garden in London,  The Garnier in the Casino building in Monte Carlo, most Broadway and West End theaters), the new (The Grimaldi Forum in Monte Carlo, the Marquis on Broadway, the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts in Orange County California – so impressive).

Then of course there is the audience.  Audiences around the world are also interestingly different.  Ask anyone who has performed in live theater of dance in different countries and they’ll tell you that the response of the audience is very cultural.  In some countries, at a ballet, there is no applause whatsoever between scenes or at the end of specific performances – the applause comes at the end of the act.  This can be unnerving for audience members who are used to applauding whenever impressed by a performance, and you can just imagine what the performers must be thinking.  In some places, a standing ovation is extremely uncommon, saved for only the most astonishing performances; in other places, it seems any performance short of god-awful inspires the audience members to jump to their feet.  You just have to go along with the prevailing cultural response.

Les Ballets de Monte Carlo takes a bow at the end of the world premiere of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Swan Lake at the Grimaldi Forum in Monte Carlo in late 2011.

We usually buy our most important theater tickets online before we leave to avoid disappointment.  Often these days you can simply print off the ticket and the bar code is right there, like an online boarding pass.  If you have time, you can have the tickets mailed, but that can be dicey if you don’t leave enough time.  You can also pick them up at the theater when you get there – but remember to take with you some identification and the credit card you used to purchase online.  And remember to book it into your day’s plans unless you want to wait in that line at the theater before the performance.

However you buy your tickets, just do it.  It will be one of the most memorable parts of your travel experiences.