A Mother-Daughter Cote d’Azur Adventure On Azamara Club Cruises

Last week I embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure: a seven-day mother-daughter trip to Europe. While variations on The Family Bonding Trip exist­­—father-son, grandparents-grandkids—the mother-daughter voyage is a special breed. It’s a time when diets are broken, shoes are bought, and the Oh-my-gosh-I’ve-become-my-mother realization hits around day five. But what made my mother-daughter trip special was its setting: we were aboard the small, luxury cruise line Azamara, en route to some of the greatest cities of the Côte d’Azur: Saint Tropez, Monte Carlo, Nice, and Cannes. And they’re all they’re cracked up to be.

Being that Azamara was a "maiden voyage" for both my Mom and me, we anticipated the typical cruise crowd of bridge players, buffet enthusiasts, and shuffleboard champions. And while we did meet gaggles of bridge players at breakfast (overheard: “Playing bridge overlooking Monte Carlo. Does it get any classier than this, girls?”), we also discovered one surprising fact: Azamara loves its nightlife – both on the ship (if you’re into really good ABBA and Beatles nights), and especially at the destinations you boarded the ship to see.

Instead of leaving cities at the usual 5pm or 8pm cruise curfew, Azamara keeps the night young in all of its destinations, like Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo, giving time to explore until 10pm and even all night long, since it frequently stays in the more cosmopolitan spots like Monte Carlo and Nice overnight. And thanks to its uniquely small size, it can venture to ports other big cruises can’t—such as Seville in Spain, Langkawi Geopark in Malaysia, and the island-village Vila do Abraão of Brazil.

During our voyage, Mom and I stayed out late every night, feasting on fresh sea bass and cantaloupe grappa at L’Auberge de Maures in Saint Tropez, peeking into the private Monte Carlo Casino rooms with their mermaid-inspired mosaic bars, spreading foie gras on baguettes at Café de Paris, and sipping rosé at Le Statu,co in Nice. Mom surprised me with her wine consumption, I surprised her with my thrice-daily croissant cravings. Our relationship blossomed under the Mediterranean sun.

And the adventures of our nights trickled into our days. Azamara arranged trips to the sun-drenched, golden town of Aix-en-Provence to see the greenery and shops that inspired artists like Van Gogh and Cezanne, the Domaine de La Croix Winery near Saint Tropez for an afternoon rosé tasting, and to Saint Tropez’ serene cobblestone village Ramatuelle, which I suspect is the "small provincial town" Belle from Beauty and the Beast sings about. With 500 inhabitants year-round, and a Sunday morning flea market full of sheer-white blouses and pottery, it’s the small-town respite from the nearby Saint Tropez glam.

Every night of our seven-day trip, we hit our pillows gleefully exhausted, our outfits—attempts at blending in with the effortlessly fashionable French—stained with gnocchi cream sauce and dirt from places like Nice’s hilltop medieval village St. Paul de Vence, and Cezanne’s rustic Provence studio, where his paint-splattered smocks still hang from their wall hooks.

To relax, I wrote some music at the piano in the Cabaret Room and hit Azamara Quest’s spa, where a masseuse named Amber dug into my back like a miner with some really hot stones, and nearly sold me on purchasing the warming Elemis oil. Mom was tempted to take a dip in the ship’s outdoor hot tubs and pool overlooking the Mediterranean, but the breakfast buffet and flea market excursions took priority.

While our mother-daughter trip was certainly peppered with Mom’s usual classics—"Bonnie, you should learn a language," "Cover your mouth when you yawn," and "How do I log onto the wi-fi"—it was also flush with the trip’s number one question: "What city are we waking up in today?" And what a way to get up and go.

Over the course of seven days, I discovered both the beauty of the French coast and how great of a traveling companion a parent can be. Sure, you both nag, frustrate, argue—but they still wake up your parent and you their kid—and let’s be frank: the same can’t be said of friends on a seven-day voyage across six cities with limited wi-fi and occasional bouts of indigestion.

This trip on Azamara will be something Mom and I talk about for years—at Thanksgivings, birthdays, get-togethers—all to the utmost irritation of our family members who can’t relate. But who cares. It will be our adventure, memories between just the two of us. And that’s what I call bonding.

Read more about Azamara Club Cruises, BlackBook’s Côte d’Azur Guide, & follow Bonnie on Twitter here.

Singapore Takes to the Streets

Singapore is hosting the first-ever Formula 1 night race, and the 3.15-mile Grand Prix is a crash course in Singapore architecture. The Singapore River and the Singapore Flyer (like the London Eye on steroids) will serve as the blurry landscape zipping past the million-dollar racing machines. The whole Speed Raceresque shebang — track, cars and landscape — will take place under 2,000-watt floodlamps, making the whole “night” part of the race a metaphor at best. Play along for a chance to see the action in real time by racing virtual cars on the Singapore Racer site. The virtual winner will be gifted an all-expense-paid trip to the Singapore Grand Prix on September 28. In case you don’t win, book a package to make the race.

Leaving (and flying to) Las Vegas

The problem with gambling addictions is that once you book your expensive plane ticket to Vegas, that’s about eight percent less of your wife’s savings you get to blow. That’s why the thoughtful folks at Virgin America have decided to sell non-stop flights from New York’s JFK Airport directly to Las Vegas for low fares starting at $159. The fun begins on September 4th, because why destroy your marriage at a ticket counter when you can do it at a roulette table?

Out of Africa

McGregor, taking a break from his motorcycling, Simien Mountains, Ethiopia.

When we finished Long Way Round,” says Charley Boorman, son of Deliverance director John Boorman, “Ewan [McGregor] and I went back to our offices and pulled out a map of Africa. I think we had already decided before we came back from our trip that we were going to do Africa.” Says McGregor of their mission, “’One of the things that we wanted to do was to show the true and real side of Africa, all its many faces. We think of famine and we think of wildlife, and Africa’s got everything in between. What we found was that every country had its own identity, and is very, very different from the last.”

In May of last year, after 12 months of preparation, the duo set off from John O’ Groats, Scotland, along with director-producers David Alexanian and Russ Malkin, a small crew, and minimal provisions, to make their odyssey a reality.

“We were never in real danger, but very close to areas of conflict—like North Uganda, near Congo, and Northern Ethiopia, near the Eritrean border,” says Alexanian. “We traveled through Sudan, but were miles from Darfur.”

The journey—which lasted two months and ended in Cape Town, South Africa—took them through 15 countries, and a great deal of the sun-baked Simien Mountains. The Fox Reality channel will debut Long Way Down on August 2.

Looking back on the unlikely road trip, McGregor says, “It’s been incredible, a real privilege. You just don’t see some of the remote villages that we have ridden through, unless you are an aid worker. These are mud-hut, thatched-roof villages—not really places that tourists get to go.” Reflecting further, he continues, “We have had our ups and downs, though, as you would expect.”

image Boorman, meeting the locals.

Boorman adds: “We know how lucky we are. Apart from anything else, it’s been great fun to have been able to see all of this around us every day, to be with your mate, to be riding bikes through Africa.”

“We have faced the complexity of Africa,” says McGregor. “Some of the places you pass through are beautiful, like something out of an Indiana Jones film or National Geographic.”

For a famous Hollywood movie star to be freed of excess baggage seemed a relief to him. “You only have what you can carry,” he says. “There is something liberating about just having what you need, on your bike. A tent, a roll mat, a little bit of food, a bit of petrol in your tank, and a vague idea of where you’re going. There is something beautiful about that.”

image McGregor and Boorman taking a turn on a Simien Mountain pass in Ethiopia.

But Boorman is already feeling cabin fever, and wanderlust. “It’s been great,” he says, “but I’m starting to worry about stopping it, you know, because our lives for the last 12 weeks have been just riding the bikes, watching the landscape change around us, meeting people, and doing amazing things. And it’s going to stop. I’m starting to worry a little about that, you know? The idea of it ending is kind of sad. But it’s good: We’re here, and we’ve done it.”

Berlin by Night till Dawn & Then Some

“New York is sooo over,” says recent New Yorker-turned-Berlin transplant Jordan Nassar, gesturing at me with a cigarette as the smooth voice of jazz musician Lisa Bassenge fills the smoky back room of Pampero Apartment, where a few dozen Berliners crowd on a handful of sofas nursing dark beers and making me feel hopelessly conventional. “That’s my quote.” It’s my first night in Berlin, and I’m tagging along with former Gridskipper writer and current expat Emilie Trice as she makes her rounds through an underground nightlife scene that’s rapidly putting New York to shame.

First stop, the weekly word-of-mouth jazz, dinner, and DJ party, well-hidden in a seemingly vacant building whose name I can neither reveal nor pronounce. As the Manhattan club scene becomes increasingly overrun with bottle service, corporate-sponsored parties, and Jagger Daggers, Deutschland’s formally impoverished capital city offers an eerie looking-glass into a pre-Rachel Zoe-definition Bohemia where landlords routinely barter space for artwork, party invites come from freely distributed street fliers instead of personal assistants, and there’s no translation for “last call” because, well, bars don’t close.

The scene inside is just as trippy, as fabulously extravagant drag queens float through a sea of impossibly cool art-world elite, sipping drinks served by topless bartenders and surveying the “20 boxes.” The boxes are cages of performance art, ranging from miniature hanging nooses to a day-glo mural of Flava Flav. The trance-techno sounds of “Edie Sedgwick Rebirth” thunk, thunk, thunk all around us. I am Alice in this haunted-house Wonderland that successfully fuses utter chaos and stereotypical German structure. A well-groomed blond gallerist named Gregor articulates the city’s unique equilibrium of East Berlin Bohemians and the surge of art-hungry Western European money, while beside us, a 6’5” drag queen in a gold prom dress dances to Bowie.

We escape Enklavkonfigur, and after a quick carb boost via the Ostenbahnhof station McDonald’s, it’s off to Bar 25, the (appropriately) circus-themed Friedrichshain outdoor club that lines the Spree river and welcomes party-seekers from Thursday night through Monday morning. The photo booth and stage are striped cotton-candy pink and blue, and distractions like a rope swing, bronze pony, and bonfire make it easy to see how patrons routinely stay for days on end. Trice warns me she once stopped in with a boyfriend for a drink Thursday night, only to stumble out Sunday morning. Those not satisfied with the outdoor toys can duck into the rustic-log-cabin-style covered bar, complete with trance-happy DJ and retro-disco ball dance floor.

Despite my best efforts, I fail to keep up with Trice’s merry band of expats and artists; I overhear plans to power through till the next afternoon, when Badeschiff, an artificial pool built in the Spree, opens its bar to sunbathers next to an S&M accessories show. Like CBGB before it, Bar 25 is in danger of being shut down due to looming corporate construction, which serves as a delightfully easy metaphor for the city’s impending gentrification.

Upon exiting Enklavkonfigur, Nassar uses Warhol’s famous line — “I am deeply superficial” — to defend himself against a friend’s teasing. Berlin may offer a refreshing rabbit hole to a bygone world of free love and artistic freedom, but (as a New Yorker, I can’t help but add) the Edie Sedgwick, Bowie, and Warhol references suggest that a nostalgia for past-times New York has survived the city’s rumored death-by-corporation. The kinderspielplatz (playground) may have changed, the spirit remains the same.

Gowanus is the New Park Slope (With Used Condoms)!

Stereotypes often exist for a reason, especially when it comes to broad-stroke descriptions of neighborhoods. There are a lot of scary folk near Bed-Stuy. Tapered denim has overtaken Williamsburg. Young married couples aren’t using condoms in Park Slope, which is notorious for its sea of strollers and lesbians. You know where they are using condoms? In Gowanus, that’s where. And each day, on my walk to and from the subway, I’m reminded of it.

If there were tracks to separate idyllic Park Slope from its ugly orphan equivalent in Gowanus, they’d cut somewhere across Fourth Avenue. Above: cutesy gardens with homemade signs; vegan dishes served by biodegradable waiters; vintage clothing for every shape and obesity. Below, on Razor Blade Row: used condoms; broken glass bottles; one resolute hooker without teeth who just won’t leave. Ah, home.

In light of recent articles in The New York Times and on New York‘s “Daily Intelligencer,” both of which address the apathy with which Park Slope haters now drip, I’ve decided to shed light on the hamlet of Gowanus.

Nestled among an industrial wasteland that consists of some sort of seedy textile operation, a once thriving box factory, and a whole pack of friendly attacks dogs contained by barbed wire, lies Gowanus. There is nary a kid in sight. There are few restaurants, and only one decent bar (but it serves popcorn, and you can bring your own burger meat and the tenders will cook it). There are plently of colorful locals that give me nightmares as I rest my head on my pillow at night. There’s even a canal to separate us from the yuppie assholes over in Carroll Gardens (and we love it, even if it’s more diseased than Jerri Blank’s ovaries).

Openings: MGM Grand at Foxwoods

imageAnd you thought Connecticut was all Talbot sweaters and tennis on Tuesdays. In fact, not only is Bridgeport America’s #1 destination for violent crime, but good old CT even has its own little version of Sin City. And as of May 17, the Foxwoods Resort Casino, perennial host to Cheap Trick reunions, dwindling comedy careers, and couples desperately trying to rekindle the magic, gets a luxurious new MGM Grand — 825 pricey rooms, a 4000-seat theater, and a 5500-square-foot-outdoor pool. (Size doesn’t matter? Please.) And NY chef extraordinaire Tom Colicchio adds to his crafty dining empire here with a swanky new branch of Craftsteak. Management likens the new partnership to the airline alliance trend. Only here, it’s the customers who will be plunging into bankruptcy. Mommy’s alright, daddy’s alright …

Nouvelle Prague!

imageFollowing a recent onslaught of trendy everythings in the once scruffy Czech capital, comes now a pair of gleaming 21st Century hotels. The sleek new 305-room Hilton Prague Old Town flaunts David Collins interiors inspired by Czech Modernism and Cubism, as well as an outpost of London’s Maze eatery, Gordon Ramsay’s first foray into the East. And the new Imperial Hotel, an Art Deco masterpiece that had faded into a grubby but weirdly opulent student flop, has just been glamorously gussied up.

Its dazzling, listed interiors left unscathed, it now has elegant furnishings and five-star service. The mosaic-lined Café Imperial, which recently appeared alongside Edward Norton in The Illusionist, has been reverently preserved. Au revoir, la bohème!