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.

Cruise ships and their photographers: It can be fun to use them!

The “boarding portrait”: More than a bit on the tacky side, but as you can see, on that occasion we did buy it!

If you have ever been on a cruise then you know what we’re talking about: cruise lines hire photographers to take photos of practically everything and everybody.  Opinions on these photographers seem to fall into one of two camps:

  • Those who love them and step into camera range at every opportunity;
  • Those who loathe them and wish they would just go away.

But even within these two groups, the extent to which cruisers buy the photos varies considerably.  Some of those who love to have their picture taken never actually buy them; at the same time there are those who complain but who do buy the pictures.

We can still remember our very first encounter with a cruise-line photographer.  We had just checked into our cruise aboard the Carnival Triumph with our then ten-year-old son.  We had our key cards in hand and were about to walk across the gangway to board, but before we were ‘permitted’ to do so, we (and everyone else in the line) had to stop  behind a life preserver emblazoned with the ship’s name and the Carnival logos to have our picture taken.  We had just flown from Toronto and looked a bit dazed – as did everyone else getting their boarding photo taken.  At that point we had no idea where, or if, we would ever see that photo.  It wasn’t long, however, before we learned about the photo gallery on board cruise ships.  No, these are not galleries of professional, artistic photographs for our viewing pleasure.  These galleries have portable, foldable walls that come out every evening to display all of the photos that the onboard photographers have taken that day – and some of them are a sight to see!

Oh so tacky: the roving dining room photographer provides us with a reminder of our Christmas dinner on Holland America’s Zuiderdam. But we bought again!

As that first cruise progressed we found ourselves accosted by photographers in all manner of locations.  Over the years we’ve learned that cruise ship photographers will inevitably take your picture in the following places and at the following times:

  • When you are boarding on the first day.
  • At the end of the gangway every single solitary time you disembark at a port (this happens much less in Europe we might add, all the time in the Caribbean).
  • Sometimes at the end of the pier with the ship in the background when you arrive in a port (this is a newer incarnation).
  • On your way to and/or from dinner on formal nights.  They will offer atrium and/or grand staircase backgrounds or those weird phony ones like in front of the Titanic staircase. On these nights the photographers will inevitably tell you how to stand, where to put your arms etc. and some of this looks very odd.  We often argue with them;  we usually win, but it isn’t easy and they have told us that they are instructed to do this.
  • During dinner with or without your dining companions in the shot.
A prime example of a fake background on semi-formal night aboard the Celebrity Century where we celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary a few years ago.

Some time the next day, these will all appear on the walls of the ship’s photo gallery.  You can buy them or ditch them – it’s up to you.  Ten cruises later, and we’re here to tell you that you need to take control of your photo experience on board – and we’re delighted to be able to tell you that as you become more discerning in your travel choices and graduate to the high-end cruise lines, there will no longer be any photographers.  That being said, it can be a lot of fun if you take control of the experience.

Based on our personal experiences on a variety of cruise lines (Carnival, thankfully only once, Holland American we believe three times, several times on Celebrity – all of that before Regent and Silversea who have wisely ditched their photographers), we have some advice for making the best use of the service.

  • Think of this as an opportunity for that really nice, formal family or individual portrait.  Put yourself in front of every photographer whose backdrop you like on formal nights.  You don’t have to pay a sitting fee as you would if you did this with a photographer at home.  Then when you see the ones you like the next day, you simply buy them.  We recommend waiting until the end of the cruise before making a final decision, unless you are convinced that you want the one from the first night.  These are usually 8 X 10’s and cost around $20.00 each.
  • Buy only the photos you really love or think are very fun!
  • Especially if you have children or it’s a special occasion, take advantage of the opportunity for a group photo somewhere fun – like at the end of the gangway in the Bahamas or Jamaica.  Work the cost into your on-board budget in advance if you need to.
  • Just say no – and be firm – if you do not want your photo taken, especially at the end of the gangway at every port.  This is the place where it becomes tired fastest in our view.  Do you really want your photo with a very large, stuffed lobster?  Last winter as we walked along the pier from the Silver Spirit (which wisely does not employ these photographers) in St. Martin we were accosted by a ship’s photographer – from an NCL ship that was on the other side of the pier.  We demurred, he insisted.  We said no, he cajoled.  We then pointed to the Silversea ship and he let us go.  Be very firm.
  • When you are really sick of the whole idea, switch to an ultra-luxury line.  No one will ever accost you again!
A family portrait aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 last summer. It’s the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son. A great opportunity when we’re all dressed up.

The cruise ship dining experience: The mains and the specialties

The view from our table in the man dining room of the Celebrity Millennium.

There was a time in cruise ship history when the only dining option aboard was the main dining room.  We were mulling this over while on our most recent cruise as we were again puzzled by the inner workings of booking reservations in alternative (specialty) dining rooms; and it’s been a puzzle on almost every ship we’ve ever traveled on.  But before we get to that…let’s take a bit of a trip through the regular dining choices on cruise ships these days – and in the past.

The ‘main dining’ experience

Patty’s very first cruise experience was a down-market ship (from a cruise line that can now not be remembered), that picked her up in Halifax, of all places to board, and deposited her and a girlfriend in New York City – many years ago.  The single most vivid dining memory of that cruise was her introduction to the parade of the Baked Alaska and all the napkin waving that induced.  And what about those low ceilings? (Although to be fair, some of the dining rooms on the smaller, luxury cruise ships are quite low these days — but much more elaborate!)

The low-ceilinged dining room in the old Mercator One which was the Regina Maris when this photo was taken.

And low ceilings were the hallmark of the main dining room on the Mercator One, Art’s first cruise experience in the late 1970’s – and one on which he was actually one of the ship’s officers: he was the doctor on board.  Although he, too, had the Baked Alaska experience which is still a highlight (for lack of a better word) of cruise dining these days, oh how dining rooms themselves have changed since then!

Many cruise lines these days still adhere to the ‘traditional’ fixed-seating dining.  That means that if you request and are assigned the late seating (which is our personal preference) you’ll dine every evening at 8 pm or 8:30 pm depending on the line.  And you have to request the size of table you prefer.  We prefer to eat at a table for two and have no problem with this kind of fixed dining time – then we can get to know our serving staff and they can get to know us.  And we can bow out to an alternative dining space whenever we choose to do so (see below).

These days, however, there are more permutations and combinations of this kind of dining than we can even keep  up with as cruise lines try desperately to please everyone (an impossible feat).  Some lines have some kind of “freestyle” experience which sound to us like a bit of a free-for-all, to be avoided at all costs.

The exquisite Queen’s Grill dining room on the Queen Mary 2 as we did the trans-Atlantic voyage last summer.

Several of the six-star luxury lines have a variation on that, allowing you to dine at any time you like within the dining room hours. We had this experience on both Regent and Silversea, although Cunard does it best.  When traveling in a Queen’s Grill suite, you dine in the exclusive Queen’s Grill dining room where you have your reserved table awaiting you at any time you choose to appear for each meal.    It is your table for the duration of the cruise – no one else will sit there at all.  Bliss!

But, of course, you can dine in other places…

The ‘specialty dining experience’

Just as cruises offer more and more diversions to keep everyone happy, they have moved to offer more and more alternatives for dining.  Bearing an additional charge that varies from the nominal to the pricey ($25 to $75 per person for dinner), these specialty experiences can certainly add to your enjoyment of a cruise.  But we’ve always wondered: Since reservations are necessary (and often hard to get), why is it that there are so many empty tables at these venues.  Our case in point…

In February we boarded the Celebrity Summit in Puerto Rico and were immediately asked if we’d like to dine in one of the alternative dining venues that evening (see our post on the suite experiment).

After much wrangling about times and locations, we finally had our reservation and arrived at the beautiful Qsine restaurant at 7 pm. We had been told initially that there were reservations available only at 6 pm and 9 pm.  When we arrived the place was half empty and stayed that way for the duration of our evening.  This is not the first time we noticed that specialty dining spaces are usually half empty, and yet at the same time there are no tables available when you call.The first time we noticed this was aboard a Holland America ship in their Pinnacle Grill some years ago.  We could not get a reservation at all one evening, yet when we walked by, the place was more than half empty.  So annoyed, we finally had to find out what the problem was.

The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit where we dined in April, 2012.

We thought that they must keep empty tables for their highest-paying guests.  Well, that couldn’t be right since we are now among that group.  So, what was it?

We took our questions to the Summit’s Hotel Manager, Ugo Vaccalluzzo and his Guest Relations Manager, Simona Stumberger, both of whom graciously welcomed us into their inner sanctum..

We asked them simply what were the protocols for assigning reservations, and why were there always empty seats in these venues despite the unavailability of reservations on any given evening? They were both mystified that this should be the situation.  They did, however, promise to look into why this occurred.  And they did.

Several days later we sat down with the delightfully guest-oriented Simona who, along with Ugo, had approached the maître d’ of one of the specialty restaurants to find out what was happening.  It seems that there is a deep-seated desire to ensure that the wait staff and kitchen on any given evening in these restaurants are able to more than fully satisfy the guests, so much so that they will not run the risk of being over-crowded.  We asked the maître d’ in the Normandie restaurant ourselves and he indicated that they plan to serve only 20-30 guests despite the fact that there are two or three times that number of seats in the dining room.

All of this is understandable, but the optics are off-putting.  Perhaps it’s time that the mainstream cruise lines do what lines like Silversea do: have only four tables in that specialty dining room!

By the way, the food and service at these restaurants are by and large divine – some of the best dining experiences around.  The very inventive Qsine aboard the Celebrity Summit was a very special experience – we’ll tell you about it in detail later.

Photo credit:

Mercator One dining room (as the Regina Maris)

A Merry Christmas Cruise

Unless you live under a rock, you probably get the message that the “Christmas experience” of choice is to go home for the holidays.  “I’ll be home for Christmas.” “Driving home for Christmas.” “There’s no place like home for the holidays.”  It’s kind of hard to miss.  But for these discerning travelers, Christmas beside the hearth at home hasn’t been in the cards for many years – not since our then-eleven-year-old son spent his first Christmas away from home performing in the National Ballet of Canada’s Nutcracker – and Christmas has never been the same since.

Many hotel rooms have played host to us on Christmas morning – and this year will be no different as we head to the French Riviera to spend the season once again with now twenty-two year old Ian who is once again dancing through the holidays.  But—one of the most memorable Christmases we spent as a little family was the year the three of us (almost) skipped Christmas.  We boarded a Holland America cruise ship at Port Everglades in Florida and sailed away to the Caribbean for the festivities.

Christmas Eve on Half Moon Cay

From the beginning of the cruise it was clear that you couldn’t really “skip” Christmas by taking a cruise (despite what the Cranks might suggest!).  We were just taking Christmas with us.  I had a personal, long-standing wish to spend Christmas under a palm tree I used to say.

Well, on Christmas Eve we found ourselves on Half Moon Cay, Holland America’s private island in the Bahamas, enjoying the pristine almost unreal beach, palm trees swaying overhead and Santa Claus para-sailing.  Yes, that’s right.  In full Santa regalia, he soared back and forth across the tiny bay.  We even have photos!

The Christmas present issue was one of the most fun.  We had a family agreement: we would each buy one present for the other two.  The catch was that the presents – and the wrapping – had to be procured on the ship. No cheating.

So, Christmas shopping took place on Christmas Eve as we all split up and sneaked around the shelves laden with the inevitable perfume, jewelry (both fine and other), T-shirts, cruise-line emblazoned mugs and all the rest of the bits and pieces that the boutiques sell.  The wrapping was very interesting as we cajoled the shop people into parting with a few Christmas decorations to adorn the boxes.  It was wonderful!  Even sixteen-year-old Ian took his job seriously.

Ian didn't have to miss The Nutcracker after all!

Christmas day was one for the memory books as well.  It started with a lazy breakfast in the specialty restaurant The Pinnacle (we were staying in a suite so this was our breakfast room).  Later in the morning, after opening the presents under our table-top Christmas tree that we had arranged to have in the suite before boarding, we made our way to the grand foyer where passengers arranged themselves on three or four levels to imbibe eggnog and participate in a carol sing.  Now, ordinarily carol sings are not our ‘thing,’ but on this occasion, we all took part happily, and when Santa arrived (via helicopter according to the captain), it was wonderful to see the children on board.  Their excitement was contagious.

Later that day we decided that our Christmas day activity would be to count the Christmas trees on board.  The public spaces were adorned at every corner it seemed with the most wonderful Christmas trees.  So we toured the ship looking for trees and stopping for a drink here and there.

Then it was time to dress up – something we do love to do.  Resplendent in format attire, we repaired to the dining rom and had our Christmas dinner.

The whole cruise was one to remember – and something that all three of us decided we’d do again sometime.  Instead of skipping Christmas, we enriched the experience.  Highly recommended!

The tiniest Christmas tree!