Chasing art on vacation: Not just another gallery!

Erte's Manhattan Mary hanging in her permanent home above our fireplace -the shot doesn't do her justice!

We doubt that there is anyone among the discerning travelers of the world who has not spent inordinate amounts of time visiting museums and galleries when on vacation. This is perhaps especially so in Europe, but it can happen anywhere.  Whether it’s the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, or even – believe it or not – on a cruise ship, art has often been a memorable part of our travels.

It happened most recently last summer when we were visiting London for a few days before ticking a trans-Atlantic voyage on a Cunard Queen off our bucket list.  Patty had a yearning to visit the V & A to find a handbag once owned by Napoleon that was reported to be in the museum. Museum folks (and librarians) are among the most helpful of people and like nothing more than to be asked to help in a quest – the more obscure the better.  But alas, it was not to be.  We never did find that handbag (which plays a central role in a book she’s currently working on).  What we did find, however, was a piece of art that has great meaning for us.

The original design for the Equus horses' heads now on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London

Among the permanent exhibits at the V & A is their magnificent Theatre and Performance Galleries which include an extraordinary collection of artifacts from West End theatres in London.  One of the plays that featured among the most interesting was Equus.  You might be more familiar with a more recent revival of this play in 2007 on Broadway starring Daniel Radcliffe making his break-out debut post-Harry Potter.  But this exhibit was from the original play dating to the early 1970’s by playwright Peter Shaffer whose story is of a psychiatrist treating a teen-aged boy with a pathological fascination with horses – resulting in him blinding them.  A chill-inducing premise to say the least.  What we found in the display, however, we eerily reminiscent of a piece of art that hangs high on a wall in the great room of our home.

The Equus horse's head hanging in our home.

Created for Neptune Theatre’s production of Equus back in the late 1970’s by designer Linda Whitney, our piece resembles the original, stylized horse’s head costumes that were worn by actors playing the unfortunate horses.  It’s a piece of sculpture that Art had when we were married and has followed us from one abode to another since then.  To see it’s provenance during our travels was to feel connected to the wider world of art and culture that transcends international boundaries.

But there have also been other ways that art has played a part in our travels.

One of the aspects of cruise travel that we would caution anyone about is the art-at-sea spectacles.  Many of the cruise ships we’ve traveled on have carried on board large collections of artwork pieces of which are regularly auctioned through the week or ten days of the voyage.  The art auction typically consists of free champagne and lots of salesmanship – not to mention a collection of pieces that is eerily the same from one ship to another.  Every once in a while, though, a cruise ship actually has on board pieces that are more appropriate for the discerning art collector.

A few years ago, we were aboard the Regent Seven Seas Navigator on a Caribbean cruise when we happened on a piece of art that matched our aesthetic.  A limited edition, signed print, it was a piece of work by French artist and designer, Erté.  It had been created by him in the late 1970’s based on a series of works he had done much earlier in his life.  For reasons that you cannot possibly understand unless you know Patty’s alter-ego, the piece had to make it home to be with us.  Manhattan Mary was not among the pieces that were shown in the art auction – rather it was hanging in one of the stairwells and was framed in the most god-awful frame one could imagine.  After negotiating with the art rep and ensuring that the piece would be reframed in a more appropriate style, we had it shipped home. And now it hangs above our fireplace.

Although we don’t expect to find a piece of art to hang on a wall during our upcoming travels to three Hawaiian islands, one time in St. John’s, Antigua we did find a piece of art that hangs on a gold chain around Patty’s neck .  Maybe there’ll be another of those!

[A note: In Canada,  pieces of original art are not subject to duty.  If you are going to buy art work when you’re travelling, you should check in advance about customs and duty regulations in your country to save you a nasty surprise in the form of a whopping bill for duty owed.]

The art gallery on the Queen Mary 2
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The Crane, Barbados: A promise kept

2005
Our brief glmpse of The Crane in 2005.

It was 2005 and we were on our way to Antigua for a week of relaxation at the St. James’s Club.  Who knew that even in the early 21st century the airport on this beautiful Caribbean island didn’t have a landing guidance system that would safely land an aircraft in the fog?  In fact, who knew that Caribbean islands had fog?

After the third attempt and pull-up, it was clear to us that there was a problem.  The first stop after that was the island of Guadeloupe for fuel.  Sitting at the front of the aircraft, we got as far as the top of the steps to look out the open door and breathe in the warm, tropical air – and then we were off to Antigua again.  But to no avail.  The weather was just too bad so we would have to spend the night in Barbados.  We could hear the groans all around us.  Well, we thought, an adventure.

It was a credit to Air Canada that they were able to find overnight accommodation for everyone on a Saturday night in February within an hour or two.  We were among the lucky – or at least we chose to think that!

We were taken to The Crane, a residential (read: condo) resort on the rugged east coast of the island.  Since it was so late, the restaurant was closed – but the manager on duty roused the cook who got out of his bed and came to make hamburgers for the dozen or so of us who hadn’t eaten in so long we couldn’t quite remember at that point.  In the dark it was difficult to tell what the resort was like – but the next morning, it was clear that this was a place we would want to return to at some later date.  We made a promise to ourselves and kept it.

Overlooking the rugged Atlantic

Last winter’s cold temperatures here on the east coast of Canada sent us fleeing once again to a Caribbean cruise, and this time it was one that would leave from Bridgetown, Barbados.  So, before we boarded the Silver Cloud, we spent three days exploring The Crane.

Built on a rugged bluff above an extraordinary white sand beach, The Crane is billed as the oldest resort in the Caribbean.  Don’t be fooled, though.  The old mansion that was expanded into a hotel that opened in 1887 is still part of its charm and houses the spa and a few rooms.  But the rest of the place is a series of charming new buildings housing extraordinary suites/apartments – just the kind of place discerning travelers would love.

We booked ourselves into a one-bedroom suite because we had remembered the junior suite we had been housed in that fateful night years before.  And the rooms were just as lovely as we remembered with their four-poster mahogany beds, breathtakingly spacious bathrooms, breezy white cotton-covered sofas, dining room, kitchen, laundry and the list goes on.

Grand Jetee

The property itself has several wonderful pools. The oldest pool overlooks the beach and is just the kind of place where, if you squint just a little, you can picture early 20th century guests sitting about with parasols, fanning themselves daintily.  Throughout the property there are several wonderful pieces of sculpture.  One is a life-size bronze statue called Grande Jetee and if you know anything about ballet, you’ll recognize the form.  As parents of a son who is a ballet dancer, we were quite taken with it the first time we saw it and even more so the second time around.

There is a series of little shops and restaurants around a kind of town square within the complex and it houses, among other boutiques, a convenience shop.  We noted that many of the guests seemed to be buying stapes no doubt to use for their own meals in their residences.  As a result, the restaurants were practically empty most of the time.

One of the restaurants on the property, Zen, offers a Japanese-Thai menu and was the #1 Zagat-rated restaurant in Barbados in 2009 and 2010.  Its setting overlooking the Crane Beach, often counted among the world’s most beautiful, is something not to be missed.   But don’t forget the pizzeria onsite as well!

A series of connected pools

The pool area was practically deserted – many of the ground floor suites have their own plunge pools and it seemed that many guests simply stayed on their own lovely lanais.  We had a sense of privacy and luxury everywhere we looked.

We truly enjoyed our three days at The Crane, but did think that a longer visit would be a bit too laid back for us.  The resort isn’t within walking distance of anything and we do get a bit bored sitting around a pool all day!  That said we could use a few pool days right about now and certainly would go back to the Crane if we ever take another cruise out of Barbados. We kept our promise to return – and The Crane kept its promise – the promise it offered on one brief encounter.

Crane Beach from the resort above (there is an elevator and a staircase leading down — an up!)

Some photos of our suite…

Part of the wonderful bathroom in the suite
The bedroom of our suite at The Crane, Barbados

Good things come in small packages: A small-ship cruise

A picture is worth a thousand words - The Silver Cloud (on the right!)

For many people, bigger is better.  For us discerning travelers…not so much.  When the ship Oasis of the Seas launched in 2009, we took one look at its specs (close to 6000 passengers) and knew immediately it wasn’t for us.  The largest ship we’d been on at that time was just slightly over 2000 passengers, and we knew that was quite large enough.  But we wanted to go smaller.  So we looked to the self-described “six-star” experience.

It’s wonderful to be at that point in our lives (nudging ever closer to retirement and yet still with significant cash flow) so that we can travel in a way that allows us to be a bit more discerning than we used to be – because, self-described or not, the so-called six-star cruise lines cost.  And for us, there is one place where bigger is better when it comes to getting on a cruise ship; that place is the size of the stateroom.

On the occasion of our twentieth wedding anniversary some years ago, we decided to treat ourselves to a Royal Suite on a Celebrity cruise ship and we’ve never been able to go back to a smaller stateroom.  So, we are looking for value when we choose an experience.  In the case of moving to smaller ships, we first tried Regent – first the Navigator (490 passengers) and then the Mariner (700 passengers)[1] – then ended up earlier this year on a Silversea ship, the Silver Cloud with all of 296 passengers.  What an experience that was!  Even if you can’t afford a Silversea cruise, or a Silver suite on board, come along with us and we’ll tell you what it’s like.

Art in the suite dining room

We boarded the Silver Cloud in Bridgetown, Barbados at the cruise terminal.  We were greeted not by the usual line-ups and booths that face you when you go aboard a larger ship in places like Fort Lauderdale; rather there was a table with three of the ship’s personnel to greet us with our documents and a wave us to the pier.  Once on board, with a glass of champagne in hand, we had our ID photos taken and were whisked to our suite.

What made the ship so different than previous experiences was that you could stand in the bar at one end of the ship and look down its one corridor and see to the other end.  Then, as you walked along the corridors past occasionally open doors of suites (every stateroom aboard is at least a small suite) and see out both sides of the ship: there are no interior cabins; everyone has an outside suite and some 90% have verandahs.

Patty in the suite living room

The ship’s itinerary took us to several islands that we had never visited before either as an island vacation or as a cruise ship port.  These included Dominica, Bequia and St. Bart’s.  Some islands just don’t have the capability for one reason or another, to host the larger ships, so smaller is better when it comes to accessing them as ports.

We prefer just the two of us for dining companions on any given cruise ship.  In fact, when ships have set dinner times and tables, if we can’t be guaranteed a table for two, we won’t book.  We’ve been burned in the past by having to spend a meal or two in the company of loud wind-bags who like to hear themselves talk – not our idea of a relaxing meal.  On these small ships you just arrive at the dining room any time during dining hours and ask to be seated.  In our case, our requests each evening for a table-for-two were never a problem (unlike a previous experience on a Regent ship when the maître d’ simply could not seem to understand precisely what a table-for-two meant).  Despite our  preference for ‘twosomeness’ in dining, the ship is small enough that you would have to stay in your suite the entire cruise to not come in contact with just about everyone on board some time during the 10 days.  The amazing thing was that we found ourselves in the company of some 250 like-minded people.  These were people who could afford to travel well, but who were looking for an experience that assured them they had spent their money well.  They were not disappointed in this experience, nor were we.

One aspect of travel aboard these six-star ships a traveler needs to know is that people dress.  Some of the lines (Regent for example) have really moved away from truly formal evenings, however, every night on the Silver Cloud was like a cocktail party with cocktail attire expected – and you would certainly stick out if you chose not to dress up a bit.

Our invitation to dine with the Captain of the Silver Cloud

Of course, the food was wonderful and these are all-inclusive experiences.  Not once does a bar tender ask you to sign a bill.  There is no passing over your room key for anything to be added to your bill (except spa services and if you choose wines off the sommelier’s premium list).  Wine, drinks, and gratuities – they are all included in the price.

The entertainment was fairly low-key and yet there was always something to keep us amused.  We would not, however, like to have too many days at sea on such a small ship.  This kind of a cruise where there are five or six lovely ports to explore is the ideal way in our view to experience all the perks of small-ship cruising.

We ended up sharing our van and driver with several passengers from another larger cruise ship who were stranded at a beach on the island of St. Kitts.  When they asked us which ship we were from and we mentioned the Silver Cloud, one of them asked us what it was like on board such a small ship.  “I  heard that everything is included and you have a butler,” he said.  We nodded.  He sighed.  “I’m going on one of those someday,” he said.  “It looks like a private yacht.”  Couldn’t have said it better ourselves!

Bequia
Bequia

One perfect day – on the Med

The stern view from the perfect perch

I was sitting in our charter boat, sipping a glass of champagne and trying to see if I could bottle up the memory of this one perfect day so that I could take it out once in a while and relive it when I needed to.  Being able to do that takes really being in the moment – and a great still and video camera doesn’t hurt!

So, how did we get there that day?  It was last July and we were visiting our son in the south of France (we’ve often said that the main purpose of having children is for their entertainment value – and we have that in spades with our son who is a dancer with Les Ballets do Monte Carlo – yes, that Monte Carlo, Monaco).

We had seen along that part of the Riviera from Roquebrune just bordering Monaco to the east, as far as Cannes in the west as we visited from time to time on foot and by car.  Now, we wanted to see it all from the water.  So, as any discerning travelers would do, we started our research online.  We usually find that asking our friends is a recipe for disaster – many of them, as well-heeled as they might be – are unwilling to pay a bit more to get a bit more.  We are not.

To say that there are a lot of boat charter companies operating on the French Riviera would be a considerable understatement.  We narrowed the search down and emailed several.  The most personalized service, with the most interesting possibilities for planning our perfect day came from Boatbookings.com.  They were efficient and knew exactly how to provide us with what we were looking for (and they all speak English which made it so much easier!).  We settled on a 35-foot cruiser with a captain and catered lunch for an eight-hour cruise.

A glimpse of Monte Carlo -- from the harbor.

The young captain picked us up at the pier in Cap d’Ail where we always stay, and off we went for the day.  We stopped to anchor twice during the day – once for swimming off the boat, and once for our picnic lunch on board.  Of course, part of the perfection of the day was a result of the stellar weather – it could not have been nicer – or more luxurious.

In our continuing search for those luxurious experiences, this is one that will go down in our books as worth every penny (and euro) we spent.  It’s an experience that we’ll remember forever.