Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: New places, old traditions

Christmas ornament commemorates our new home

I love the holiday season and all it brings: the cherished memories and the new celebrations. Even with the seemingly never-ending list of to-do's to get done and the unpredictable weather which can change well-laid plans in a New-York-snow-squall-minute, it all works to a crescendo of festive fun times with family and friends with a mix of traditions, old and new.

New tree in its predestined corner

We knew last Spring, when we moved to our new condo, that Christmas would be mapped out a little differently than years past (22 to be exact). Gone is the four-bedroom colonial that could accommodate overnight guests with extra comfort and the large kitchen with an abundance of counter space for large pans of pasta and French silk pies. But, in its place, we have a much bigger "great room" with more seating and optimum views of the fireplace, the snow-covered woods through the back wall of windows, and the Christmas tree, with a corner all to itself. 

(In fact, the first time we saw the mostly vacant condo last year, before we had even formalized a bid to purchase, I knew exactly where the Christmas tree should reside - and it made it to its predestined spot earlier this month.) 

The "Under 40" group at Uncle Glenn's, the start of the Tour

But most of Christmas went the way of tried-and-true traditions. We started the Christmas Eve Tree Tour as we always do, at my brother Glenn's.  Along with eggnog and Foosball, the "under 40" crowd and the "(way) over 40 crowd" took turns lining up in front of the Christmas tree for group photos.

"Over 40" gang (but who would have guessed that?) at Glenn's

However, the tour missed one very special stop this year - our annual visit with Auntie Betty. She passed away last March and, although we would typically see my aunt many times throughout the year, Christmas Eve was always very special with this funny, outgoing, lady.

Final stop, the "new condo" and raising a toast to our family

My mom's youngest sister by one year, we've always been extremely close with Auntie Betty and her family. Growing up, our families spent all the holidays together, until us “kids” started having kids. When that transition took place, Christmas Eve belonged to my Mom and she hosted the annual bash with a home-cooked dinner and more tolerance and enthusiasm for a room full of grandchildren ripping open presents and putting on puppet shows than anyone I know.

My Mom surveying the fun chaos

Waiting for the Christmas eve dinner and treasure bath/chaos

At that time, she too, had moved out of the home I grew up in, and started anew in a condo with less bedrooms and a smaller kitchen, but with a much bigger great room with better views. 

That sounds familiar. .  .

My children knew of no other way to spend Christmas Eve except at Grandma's condo, so when she passed away in 2004, we decided to start some new traditions - hence the Christmas Tree Tour began and so did our stops at Auntie Betty's along the route.

Our favorite Christmas tree tour stop (circa 2014)

So, we move on to new traditions, but retain the wonderful memories of Christmas past.  (For a glimpse into how my Dad decorated for the season, see our blog story from 2012, "Visions of Sugar Plums unite generations with holiday traditions".)

As the Christmas tree tour finished at our house, (now the "new condo"), we held on to our customs of Secret Santa gift exchange and dining on lasagna and tasty pies. But, as we gathered round the new Christmas tree, in its designated corner, we raised our glasses (and our cups of tea!)  to toast our dear Auntie Betty, our Mom/Grandma, our Dad, and my Uncle and all those who, for whatever reason, can't be with us to celebrate Christmas.  Cheers to cherishing those great memories and the influence they have in  launching new ones.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Holiday Splendor Tea: A Splendid Tea with Friends!

Sharing a cup of tea with old and new friends for a good cause (both Barbs wearing red hats)

Tasty tea, delicious food, scenic views. giveaways, festive decor and  a good cause - could a Holiday Splendor  tea get any better?  Well, yes - if you add sharing the whole event with "old" and new friends and I was fortunate to do just that!

Last week, I was a patron of the Holiday Splendor Tea, a fundraiser for Farmington's Warner Mansion, held at Pine Lake Country Club in West Bloomfield. My friend, Barb Tabb told me about the event back in the summer and invited me to join her table. Lucky for me, she stays on top of things and sent me follow-up texts to make sure I got my ticket when I got back from vacation in October.

With Phyllis B. and Linda Pudlik, Tea Lady Extraordinaire

The tea event was hosted by "Tea Lady Extraordinaire", Linda Pudlik. (I must say, she, too, had sent me an email notification back in early Fall). 

Grand staircase at Pine Lake Country Club greets guests with the holiday spirit

The venue was spectacular. The grand staircase in the Country Club's lobby was festooned with fresh green garland, ornaments and red ribbons and welcomed guests with the holiday spirit right from the front door.

Beautiful views of tablescapes and Pine Lake

The dining area was filled with scenic views as well, from the tables donning white linen tablecloths accented with bright red napkins to the panoramic views of  Pine Lake visible from the walls of windows that line the room.

Festive tea courtesy Mary Jones (seated at the far right)

The yummy menu items included butternut squash soup, Asiago chicken and (what I live for!) dessert surprise. It was a mini chocolate bombe, beautifully decorated and absolutely scrumptious. All of this was accompanied by bottomless cups of "Christmas Sparrow Tea", a delicious black tea spice blend courtesy Mary Jones (also in attendance).

Menu and Agenda for the Holiday Splendor Tea

We started with butternut squash soup. . .

. . . and ended with dessert surprise!

In a gathering of friends, brought together through shared passions, Linda Pudlik's opening remarks rang true. She reminded us  how we have all come together through our common bond of tea.  I looked to my own table and around the room, and in this wonderful  world of tea enthusiasts, I have, indeed,  met some of the most amazing women.

Despite a chilly Michigan mid-week afternoon, when holiday obligations have us pulled in all directions, (not to mention all the work piling up at the office and home), we came together to share a cup of hot tea and to support not only a good cause, but each other.  

Linda Shewbridge won two gift baskets!

As if that wasn't enough, there were raffles and a Silent Auction with incredible items. Several guests won gift baskets and Barb T. hit the jackpot with an Amish-made quilt.

Barb T. shows off her silent auction win.

All guests received a party favor courtesy the Left/Right game, so everyone went home a winner. But, we all knew that when we arrived. To take time out, in the busiest month of the year, to share a cup of tea with old and new friends - well, it just doesn't get any better than that.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Venetian Holiday

Riding in the gondola (recommend donning attire to match your driver)

Venice is filled with canals, gondolas and  gift shops filled with Murano glass. It's also home to St. Mark's Square whose perimeter is lined with a palace, a church, numerous cafes and the Adriatic Sea.  Throw in a palace-like hotel and exquisite tea room and, yes, this was just about the most enchanting city we've ever visited.

Gondolier on the Grand Canal (his shirt looks familiar)

In September, we traveled to Italy and visited Rome, Florence and Venice. On the high-speed train, Venice is a short three-hour trip from Rome, and once off-board the rails. the flurry of activity on the Grand Canal is there to greet travelers. Water taxis, gondolas and shuttle "buses" speed along the wide span of  liquid road to navigate the labyrinth of canals throughout the city.

Chris and Rachel at Hotel Becher

It gave us a great first impression only to be exceeded by the next stop to our beautiful hotel. Our room at Hotel Becher  included a balcony overlooking the water, a crystal chandelier, comfy slippers and -  the ultimate - a buffet set up with a silver urn, china cups and tea! 

After a quick unpack and a relaxing cup of tea on the balcony, we took in the quintessential Venetian activity, a gondola ride.  It was a half hour of fun  taking in all the scenery while witnessing our gondolier move our floating vessel through the canals in "rush hour" traffic with ease.

After checking that box, we toured the city and stocked up on a bounty of beautiful Murano glass items. Rachel and I bought some necklaces and upscale bric-a-brace  while my husband Chris, enjoyed a little red wine in the Square.

Rachel inside one of the Murano glass  gift stores in St. Mark's Square

In the evening, our concierge recommended the restaurant, Vini da Pinto for dinner. It was here we had the "house specialty" of white fish baked in salt. It is presented in two stages:  first the fresh fish is brought to the table, then once fully covered and baked in its salty blanket, the waiter is back again with a mallet to crack it open for all to see.  Amazingly delicious and, surprisingly not salty, we gave it due pollici su!

Vini da Pinto is where we also collided with celebrity. Nick Reynolds of Alabama 3 was there visiting with his entourage and he graciously took photos with our ensemble.

Dining at Vini da Pinto

Our last day in Venice was spent having afternoon tea on the Square (a future blog story!), touring the Basilica of St. Mark, (where we visited a special room that contained fascinating and eerie relics of saints) and sampling every Venetian delicacy we could, including chocolate filled crepes at Gelato Di Natura.

Basilica of St. Marks

Venice is also home to the Masked Ball, a centuries-old grand affair where paupers and aristocrats celebrated together in anonymity. It fell out of favor at the turn of the last century, only to be revived in the late 1970's. Still going strong today, there are several merchants in Venice that specialize in wigs, masks and fancy attire for those who wish to attend the elaborate event in style.

I believe I've found my dress for the ball.

Venice  is a tribute to a city's strong will and resilience that, although experiencing a wild history of conflict and power struggles,  maintains beauty and charm that has attracted artists for centuries, including Mozart, Byron and Hemingway.

Oh solo mio. Oh, so Italian!

Venice has it all:  canals, gondolas, fancy gift shops, gourmet food and, yes, even tea! It truly is a magical city and we plan to be back. Adoriamo Venezia!

Balcony at our room at Hotel Becher

View from our hotel balcony pre rush hou


Taking a break at one of the many cafes in St. Mark's Square

Adoriamo Venezia! We will be back.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Westbury Hotel: Looking back at a most charming afternoon tea in Dublin

Afternoon tea at Dublin's Wesbury Hotel back in 2012.

In the "Entertainment and Travel" section of today's Detroit Free Press, "Dublin: Classic Cool" features our favorite tea room, The Westbury Hotel,  in our favorite city in Ireland.

The Wesbury Hotel, busting crowds outside but elegant and relaxing inside 

Reading about the unique artist markets, upscale stores and gourmet shops of Dublin today, it brought me back to our trek down Grafton street in 2012, when we made our way through the bustling crowds of the busy city to The Westbury Hotel for afternoon tea.

Chris and I enjoying the ambiance and comfy accommodations

Our trip to Ireland was memorable for so many reasons: visits to wonderful sites and the amazing personal connections, some of which I wrote about in our blog back in October of 2012 ("Travels in Ireland: tea, gold, and, yes, a bit of blarney").  It was a delightful family vacation with my husband, Chris, second eldest son, Matt, and daughter, Rachel.

Rachel and Matt relaxing in the luxurious environs

Although we visited Cork, Monaghan, Waterford, and Cobv, our "home" was Dublin and we walked from our hotel, just off O'Connell street, to many places in the city including Temple Bar, Kilmainham Gaol and Trinity College.

Excellent service at The Westbury Hotel

But, amid trains, planes and automobiles, we treated ourselves to an elegant and relaxing respite from the crowds in the form of  afternoon tea at The Westbury, a five star hotel in the heart of Dublin.

Enjoying a royal tea (adding champagne) by the marble fireplace

It's luxurious, but comfortable. The dining room is beautiful, with sumptuous couches, marble fireplaces and crystal chandeliers. The quiet and reserved environs are a startling contrast from the street scenes below, which can be viewed from the large windows that line one wall of the dining room.

Westbury's dining room, beautiful ambience

The service was excellent and our waiter served us champagne along with an artistic presentation of afternoon tea fare, including scones, sandwiches and scrumptious pastries.

Of course, we had tea as well - and it was absolutely delicious.

The Westbury provided us with a much needed break of quiet refinement. As noted in today's Free Press article, ". . . if you are looking for a good hotel base for some creative retail therapy and dining, you can do no better that the Westbury".

We wholeheartedly agree - and that's no blarney!

Matt and Rachel back at it on Grafton Street after tea
Repping the"D" at Westbury