Skipping Christmas (at home): On the road for the holidays

nice dressed 2
Nice dressed for the festive season

We’re spending Christmas right here in beautiful Toronto this year: an unusual situation for two people who have spent more Christmas’s in hotels than in their own living room! Our son has just returned to Canada so it’s a home Christmas for these discerning travelers. But we’ve been reminiscing about how we’ve been able to make hotels and cruise ships wonderful Christmas experiences in past years. 

Here’s a bit of a round-up of some of our most memorable Christmas & New Year’s experiences:

 

There’s no place like home for the holidays: For discerning travelers, not so much!

Travel for Christmas? You bet!

A Merry Christmas cruise!

Christmas shopping in Nice: It’s better on the Riviera

Ringing in the new year Monte Carlo style

Have a very Merry Christmas and we’ll be back to blogging in the new year! See you in 2017! ~ A & P

There’s no place like home for the holidays? For discerning travelers, not so much

And so the season is upon us, and the discerning travelers are preparing for Christmas – at home? Yes, at home for the first time in many years. Most people would think that wasn’t so odd – they spend the festive season out-of-town with relatives every year. We, however, usually spend it in a hotel. And what’s more, we like it that way!

London is dressed for the holidays and for our Christmas last year.
London is dressed for the holidays and for our Christmas last year.

This time last year, we offered you Travel for Christmas? You bet! where we explained how this seemingly odd situation came to be, and gave you a few tips for spending the holiday season far away from home. Two years ago, we shared our story A Merry Christmas Cruise, the most memorable Christmas experience we ever had as a family. But last year’s Christmas season was so memorable, we have to share a bit of the story with you.

As far as we are concerned, there is no place like a big city for the holidays! Last year that big city was London, and merry it was! Here’s how it happened…

Early in 2013 our son, the twenty-something performing artist decided to leave his long-term contract with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo to return to his original roots: musical theater. An accomplished dancer and singer, he decided to start at the top: he would move to London and audition for the West End. So he did, and so he debuted in the West End at the Savoy Theatre in the revival of Cabaret in the fall of last year. So, where would the discerning travelers spend Christmas? In jolly old London, of course.

We checked into the Marriott Park Lane just before Christmas to find ourselves surrounded by crowds of people all celebrating the season. Children were having their photos taken in front of the glittering Christmas tree in the lobby; parents were enjoying a festive cocktail in front of the roaring fireplace. All this seems so normal – but most of these people were from the Middle East, and few of them were even Christians. As we have always said, the Spirit of Santa Claus transcends any religious affiliation at this time of year! They were having fun.

Who could mind a rainy Christmas evening if you can spend it in London?
Who could mind a rainy Christmas evening if you can spend it in London?

And so were we. Two days before Christmas we treated ourselves to an afternoon of the English National Ballet’s Nutcracker. As anyone who knows us, or reads us regularly will know, The Nutcracker has been the cornerstone of many a Christmas season – just ask anyone with a child who is a ballet dancer. We had seen son Ian in many performances of the National Ballet of Canada’s Nutcracker from the time he was 11 years old until his second year with the company at the age of 20. The English National Ballet’s was lovely – wonderful dancing, the beautiful Tchaikovsky score and the traditional story. Even at that, though, it had little on the NBoC’s spectacle that has something for everyone – even those who (horror) do not appreciate ballet as a form of entertainment. But we had a memorable afternoon, imbibing champagne at the interval and enjoying a traditional holiday treat.

On Christmas Eve we made our way up the street to the Marriott Grosvenor House to eat (one thing we know to be true: you can always find an open restaurant on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day at a lovely hotel!). Upon our return to our own hotel room after a wonderful meal, we found that Santa had left a stocking filled with chocolates on our door knob (thanks, Marriott elves!).

Marriott elves helped Santa Claus last year!
Marriott elves helped Santa Claus last year!

The next morning found London at its best – empty. What a treat to take a walk along the storied streets with hardly a living soul about. We didn’t mind the rain at all.

Later we repaired to the dining room for some live entertainment and a stupendous Christmas meal that included turkey with all the regular trimmings and a few surprises.

Having someone else madly shop for groceries, plan the day to the letter, sweat over a hot oven, serve up meals for everyone may not be everyone’s cup of tea – but it is ours. That said, we are looking forward to Christmas here on the bay this year. Then a mere four weeks until we head to the South Pacific. We wish a wonderful holiday season to all our regular readers– and those who happen by.

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.