Champagne dreams of…Manchester UK?

DSC03375No travel experience would be complete without a bit of champagne, don’t you think?  When we visited the champagne district in France a few years ago, in addition to our unforgettable visit to the Veuve Clicquot caves (if you read our blog regularly, you’ll know that it is our preferred brand), we visited the resting place of the monk Dom Perignon who is credited with “discovering” champagne.  Upon first tasting his concoction, he is reported as having said to a fellow monk, “Come quickly! I am tasting the stars…”

There really is something special about the experience of champagne; something a bit festive – a feeling that these discerning travelers relish when taking in new travel experiences.  Perhaps it’s the bubbles; or it might be the sparkle of a pristine flute.  Or maybe it’s that pop of the cork that has us conditioned to expect something a bit more special than our ordinary lives.  Whatever it is, that notion of something beyond our everyday existence is at the heart of discerning travel experiences in our view.  And we’ve just returned from yet another remarkable trip that started in – of all the unexpected places – Manchester, UK.  But the champagne connection…we’re getting to that.

When we were spending wonderful afternoons sipping champagne at the Veuve Clicquot champagne bar on a trans-Atlantic voyage on the Queen Mary 2 a couple of years ago, we never considered that a visit to Manchester (as a prelude to a tour of Ireland) to see our son in the UK tour of Cats, the musical that we’d find ourselves visiting a champagne bar three times in five days.  But there nestled on the second floor of a rather modern building among the history in Manchester is the unexpectedly wonderful Épernay.

The Opera House in Mahchester
The Opera House in Manchester

Named for the city 130 km northeast of Paris in the Champagne district of France where you can find the cellars of famed champagne producers Perrier-Jouët and Moët& Chandon, among others, this Épernay is a real find.

We stumbled upon it at the end of a long day of a self-directed walking tour covering the entire downtown are of this interesting city.  We first spied the lights outlining the bottom of the second-floor windows and looked up to see tables topped with sparkling glasses which set us off in search of the entrance around the corner.  It turned out that had we approached it from the opposite direction we would have found that it was a stone’s throw away from the Opera House where Cats was in residence for the better part of the month of April.


Epernay Champagne Bar in Manchester, UK by night
Epernay Champagne Bar in Manchester, UK by night

We ventured up the stairs and emerged into an outer bar area which led into the charming main area decorated by a line of empty champagne bottles of every label and vintage.  We settled into leather seats by the floor-to-ceiling windows and ordered a glass of Veuve and a plate of pitta (their spelling) bread and dips.  While savoring our reward for a wonderful day of new city experiences, we struck up a conversation with one of the very personable servers who recommended a champagne cocktail.  Oddly, we had never experienced a classic champagne cocktail before that time, always wanting to savor champagne in its purest form.  Of course we’d had Bellini’s, Kir Royale and other concoctions, but never a classic one.  And so we ordered.

We have discovered a new cocktail experience, enjoying it so much that we took our son back there after a performance two nights later so that he could have his first one.  Why have we never had one before?  And it’s so simple.  A sugar cube is placed in the bottom of a champagne flute, a few drops of bitters are added and then the cube is soaked in cognac.  Fill up the glass with champagne, and you have heaven in a glass.

Or maybe it’s just the thought of a those bubbles.  F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have been moved by drinking champagne saying: “I had taken two finger-bowls of Champagne, and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental and profound.”  That’s it: significant & profound, as every discerning travel experience should be.

Patty enjoying a champagne cocktail at Epernay Champagne Bar, Manchester
Patty enjoying a champagne cocktail at Epernay Champagne Bar, Manchester

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!

Five tips for finding your perfect, private, personalized, dream tour

We all have our obsessions.  Obviously, travel is one of ours, and along with that goes our obsession with personalizing our holidays.  Gone are the days of pre-arranged group shore excursions from cruise ships, and gone are the days of European bus tours with 42 other well-intentioned travelers for us (but we did have a wonderful time all those years ago on a whirlwind tour of Europe with a ten-year-old  – maybe we’ll tell you about it sometime!).

In our quest for personalization, we’re becoming experts on finding tour operators who specialize in bespoke experiences, and finding those tour companies online – a tricky and anxiety-inducing prospect as you lighten your wallet by a considerable sum before even setting foot in the country to which you are traveling.  For what it’s worth, then, we offer you our five tips for finding that perfect (for you), private, personalized dream tour.  First, the story of how we discovered these tips.

It all started a few months before when we began our search for a bespoke tour of the countryside outside Paris.  That search led us to À Paris Travel and a wonderful woman named Sue Lillie.  With considerable trepidation, we had started an online search for tour companies specializing in European travel, and soon found that there were too many to wade through with any degree of certainty about their quality.  So we narrowed our search to specialists in visiting France and stumbled on this wonderful company.  But we didn’t know that it would be wonderful at that time.

We decided that we’d focus on one of our obsessions – champagne – and more specifically in Patty’s case Veuve Clicquot champagne.  This led us to create a tour of the champagne district that would include a visit to the Veuve caves and a champagne tasting or two.  Before we were willing to pay the complete upfront amount, however, rather than conducting all of the transactions through email and the web site, we decided that a chat with the proprietor might put our minds at ease.  And so it did.  After a very pleasant conversation with US-based Lille (late of Montreal as it turned out), we felt quite comfortable paying in advance for the tour (which is required for most of these companies).  Then all we had to do was hope that a car and driver showed up on the appointed day at the appointed time.

Moet & Chandon in Epernay, France.

Early one gray morning in Paris we made our way to the front door of our hotel on the Champs Elysees to find Pascale leaning against his car awaiting our arrival.  And so we were off.

After a few brief questions about our interests, Pascale was quite sure he know just where to take us.  He’d take us to one champagne house, and then make arrangements for the other.  First, we’d visit Épernay where we would take a tour and tasting at the venerable Moet & Chandon, and then we’d venture to Reims, the largest city in the Champagne district and home to the Veuve caves.  Between the two, Pascale would drop us off at a favorite lunch spot where we’d join the locals for a bite to eat.

Patty at the champagne-tasting bar at Veuve Clicquot in Reims, France.

With just the three of us on board, we had all the freedom that a group tour just doesn’t offer.  The itinerary was ours alone and if we decided to veer off course at any point during the day, we could.  It was another of those days that you mark down in your memory as ‘perfect.’  In fact, it was so perfect that we relaxed a bit about the second tour we had booked during that trip (yes, we took a chance and booked two).  When tiny Caroline picked us up in her massive Mercedes in Villefranche on the French Riviera two weeks later, we knew that we were in for the time of our lives thanks to À Paris Travel and our willingness to take a risk.

Tip # 1: Be specific about exactly where you want the tour to take you.

We were quite clear that we wanted to visit Champagne, rather than simply saying that we’d like to take a day trip out of Paris which is the thought we had initially.

Tip #2: Decide what kind of experiences you’d like (follow your obsessions for example), and then keep an open mind.

We had other ideas when Pascale picked us up that morning, but other than the visit to Veuve, we were open-minded and let him guide us.  These kinds of open-minded approaches have led us to many wonderful experiences over the years.  And these guides are truly wonderful resources.  Use them!

Tip #3: Do your online research carefully and consider it to be part of the experience.

This is so important.  You need to do a lot of research, and you should consider not thinking of it as work; rather you might see it as part of the learning experience that travel ought to be.  We actually consider research prior to a trip a part of the trip resulting in a much longer experience than the week or three that are actually away.

Champagne, vintage 1906, in the caves.

Tip #4: Do your due diligence.

For us that means that as often as possible, getting these tour operators on the telephone.  Even if it’s as simple as booking a limo drive from a cruise terminal, try to speak to someone in person once you’ve gathered all the information you can from the web.  You can learn a lot by that more personal contact.  If you have a gut feeling that this isn’t for you, you are very likely right.  Sue Lillie put us very much at ease as she told us about how her company had developed and her own passion for French travel.

You can also use online travel forums such as TripAdvisor (we’re contributors to this one), but remember that everyone is different.  Read the contributors’ pieces carefully and note the outliers – in other words, is it the only one that had a problem with the tour operator, or the only one that didn’t.  In either case, that one might not provide you with as helpful information as you might think.  Also, read reviews to see if they are specific, or if they are just subjective assessments (e.g. It was wonderful! Terrible!  etc. without concrete descriptions of exactly what made it so wonderful or terrible letting the reader then decide.).  In the end, a traveler review on a site such as TripAdvisor is based largely on the contributor’s expectations going in.  If we were to review some of the hotels that others find wonderful, we’d find them barely acceptable for a variety of reasons all based on what we’re looking for.

Tip #5: Make your decision, pay your money, and don’t look back.

Don’t second guess yourself.  After you make a decision, go with it.  File away other interesting information about other tour companies for the future, but don’t keep comparing what one might have offered.  You’ve made a decision, and it is very likely that if you did your homework, it will be the right one for you.

If you’ve hit on a truly terrific one, perhaps you’ll do what we did and book again with that tour operator.  We’d love to know how people make out with personalized tours.  If you have five minutes, come along with us as we follow our obsession with Veuve Clicquot from the caves in France to the Veuve bar aboard the Queen Mary 2.