Thursday, December 31, 2015

New York - New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve was the piece de resistance of our trip, the day that we had all been waiting for.  And so naturally we stayed up until 2am the night before and woke up groggy and a little bit out of sorts.  That was okay, though, because all the action wouldn't start until the evening -- we had all day to leisurely eat a late breakfast of tacos, wander frozenly through SoHo, and have lunch with Eve, one of Justin's friends.
We met at Jane, one of my go-to brunch spots in Greenwich Village.  The food was as tasty as ever, but
the experience much diminished due to the incredible crowding of the tables.

After lunch, we made a beeline to Murray's Cheese.  We knew that we'd be up again until the wee hours, and we had no intention of doing so without substantial provisions of cheese, prosciutto, salami, fruit, and bread.

cheese and prosciutto counter -- surely one of Amanda's happy places
We brought our picnic fixings back to the hotel at Times Square, discovering that the streets had already been shut down in anticipation of the Times Square crowds later that night.

Fortunately, we had special passes that got us through all the barricades.
Back in the hotel, we took a restorative power naps and dressed for the evening.  And by "dressed for the evening", I mean it in the Edith Wharton/Downton Abbey way:  black tie and evening dress!  Which, let me just say, is a delightful process and best when done with others.  There's just something so elegant and grown-up in standing in a tuxedo at a wide mirror, tying your bowtie, next to a woman in evening gown who's touching up her makeup and putting on her jewelry.  I told Amanda it's what I imagined Mr. and Mrs. Darling doing before they went out and left their kids in the nursery with Peter Pan.  (Meanwhile Justin was in the main room figuring out how to tie his bowtie in record time.)

Once we had put the finishing touches on our bowties and makeup, we hailed a cab uptown for an early dinner at Boulud Sud, a fancy Mediterranean restaurant run by chef Daniel Boulud and conveniently located across the street from Lincoln Center.  They knew we had opera tickets and brought out a prix fixe menu right away.

They just can't keep their cameras off me!
Shrimp with salsa and focaccia
braised lamb tagine with apricots, turnip and sesame
grapefruit givree
(frozen grapefruit with grapefruit sorbet, jelly, and a sort of cotton candy
on top)

When dinner was done, we hurried across the street, eager to get to the Metropolitan Opera.  The big event had arrived!

We were seeing the New Year's Eve gala premiere of Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers).  Bizet wrote it in the mid-19th Century when he was only 25, and it was last performed at the Met in 1916, with the famous tenor Caruso singing the role of Nadir.  This was the premiere of the brand new production, with Diana Damrau, Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien.

We were up in the balcony but still had a great view
This was Justin's first time at the opera, ever.  We may have ruined him for life.

The first act was gorgeous.  Nothing really dramatic happens -- old friends meet, a girl shows up.  But the staging was magnificent (a modern seaside shantytown that could be anywhere in Southeast Asia) and the opening scene breathtaking (the stage was transformed into the ocean floor, with young men and women diving for pearls).  And the music was equally glorious.  The opera's famous tenor/baritone duet and tenor aria are both in the first act.  Here's a clip of rehearsal footage:

At intermission, we enjoyed seeing the tables set up for the gala dinner/ball that would follow the performance . . .

At $50,000 per table, we reluctantly decided to pass
. . . and we found a quiet spot in the foyer where we could watch the beautifully dressed people go by.

I thought this woman's dress was particularly lovely.
After a while we decided we deserved a moment in the limelight, so we stepped out and tried our luck with asking strangers to take our photo.  It's always a challenge to get someone with a good eye for framing, angle and lighting, but I think these give you a sense of the moment.

Unclear why he thought the low angle was necessary

The bells rang and we returned for the second and third acts of the opera (no more intermissions!).  When the final curtain fell, we emerged into the foyer and were gently encouraged to leave so that the gala could start.  We paused for a moment outside to revel in the beautiful purple and green party lights that transformed the place.

We lingered there for a while. soaking in the atmosphere and watching the famous fountain play.  But then we got cold and walked over to Eve's house for a quick appearance at her New Year's Eve party. We were delighted to discover that her friends were all super interesting and welcoming (two playwrights, an engineer, a graphic designer, a political scientist, and a professor of Chinese theatre). We decided we wanted to become good friends with them all.

But we also wanted to get back to the hotel before the ball dropped and the crowds became insane.  So we cut our visit short and headed back to midtown.  We made our way through the crowds . . .

. . . and into the hotel, where we posed for another round of photos.  Because who wants to take off the party clothes when they look this good!

It's hard to tell, but Justin's tux was a midnight blue.  Very nice.
And Amanda's dress is a custom dress that she had made by a company in India.
Back in the room, we broke out the feast of cheese and meats . . .

. . . and watched the ball drop.

We could see a bit of the crowd and part of one of the stages.
And with that the wild party began!  It basically consisted of sitting on the couch and untying our bowties and pulling faces.  We had a terrific time.

Wes Anderson style

The whole evening was completely wonderful, and definitely a highlight that will hold its own among our many travels.  We came away shocked that we hadn't done black tie sooner and resolved to do it again before long.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

New York - Theatre Day!

We knew that the bulk of our first full day in New York would be spent sitting in dark theaters -- we had tickets to both matinee and evening performances -- so we decided to start off with a hearty Belgian brunch at Le Pain Quotidien . . .

Belgian hot chocolate, which you make yourself by pouring
molten dark chocolate into hot milk
I had a turkey avocado tartine; the others had other, equally photogenic, meals
. . . followed by a walk through the New York Public Library, which afforded us the opportunity to practice with the selfie stick in front of the famous lions . . .

it's not as easy as it looks!
. . . but which left us very disappointed, when we discovered that the main reading room was closed for renovations.  We wandered dejectedly out back to the winter market in Bryant park and drowned our sorrows in French macarons . . .

Note how Justin managed to cut off my head, and yet still capture the woman in the counter through the mirror.

. . . and Belgian waffles.

If waffles are the consolation prize for a closed library, then I could get on board with
more regular closures.
We ate our waffles as we walked back over to Times Square in search of Something Rotten, which is a delightful musical about some fictional contemporaries of Shakespeare.  They consult a soothsayer to learn what Shakespeare's masterpiece will be, with the intention of writing it themselves.  Due to the limitations of soothsaying, they end up writing "Omelette, the Musical" and, naturally, much hilarity ensued.

The play ended up being an "omelette" of musical and Shakespearean references and
inside jokes.  It was incredibly tight and well-crafted.
After the musical, we had a window of time to grab a quick bite at the Kitchen . . .

and then track down some friends of mine from DC who happened to be in Times Square at that very moment.   Heather and Louie and their kids were some of my favorite people at church in DC, so I was delighted to be able to catch up with them and have them meet Amanda and Justin.  We chatted for quite a while -- long enough that we got cold and had to move inside the hotel -- and then pulled out the selfie stick for a group photo . . .

Is this thing working?
. . . only when we proved inept at operating the equipment, we resorted to making one of the kids take the photo for us, with much better results:

Eventually we parted ways -- the Martinez's needed to finish some shopping before the stores closed, and we needed to make our way down to Chelsea to see These Paper Bullets -- which turned out to be a rather odd adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing to a 1960s Beatles-style setting.   The adaptation was fun but inconsistent in quality.  It's hard to redo Shakespeare and come out ahead.

The theater was an old church in Chelsea

By the time we emerged from the theatre, it was raining and we were hungry.  We found the nearest French bistro we could find and enjoyed a late-night ham-and-cheese-and-cornichon sandwich before heading back to the hotel and bed.

Well, okay, not quite bed.  We sat on the bed, but just kept talking for a very long time.  Because who wants to go to bed early on vacation?

Yay, we got the selfie stick to work this time!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Hello, New York!

On Tuesday morning we left sunny San Juan and flew to New York.  I spent most of the 3.5-hour flight zonked out beneath my eye-mask (our dissolute vacation habits of getting roughly 5 hours of sleep each night were catching up to me) and landed at the Big Apple bright eyed and ready for the next adventure.

We caught the E line into the city at Jamaica Station, which brought back memories of meeting Ashley there on a cold winter's day during her mission approximately a million years ago.

Ashley said that if only she'd known we'd be passing through Jamaica, she could have
hooked us up with some delicious Dominican and Salvadorean food.  Next time!

 The ride into Manhattan went smoothly.  We emerged into crowds of people and made our way to the hotel.  We're staying in the Marriott on Times Square, where I saw my first Broadway musical almost 14 years ago.  I remember then thinking how cool it would be to stay here someday . . . .

The place is huge, with vertigo-inducing glass elevators running up and down
an internal shaft in the middle of the atrium.

After dropping our things off in the room, we headed out for a quick dinner at a new place that Amanda described as a "Hipster Food Court", and which was conveniently only a block away.

Nothing says "of the moment" like subway tiles, reclaimed wood, and exposed Edison bulbs

While Justin went for falafel, and Amanda had a burger, I opted for a spice bowl of ramen

There are few things more interesting than people-watching in New York.
This lunch counter was perfect for that.

Hipster doughnuts!  I got one covered in cinnamon and sugar.
Once we had eaten, we headed across town to the New York City Center to see the Alvin Ailey dance group perform.  They're a favorite of mine, and I was eager for Justin to see them dance.  They didn't disappoint:  Two pieces, in particular, stood out for me.  One was a male/female duet that I hadn't seen before, called "A Case of You", that was intensely lyrical and had some exquisite moments between the dancers.  The other was "Revelations", which they perform at nearly every concert -- it's a masterpiece and a crowd-pleaser, and for as many times as I've seen it, it's never lost its power to uplift and inspire.

As we emerged from the concert, we felt the rumblings of hunger.  Amanda led us to a little Indian shop she had discovered on a recent trip.  They sold tasty kati rolls and were open late -- perfect for a post-theatre snack!

I got a roll with chickpeas, and another with lamb; also a mango lassi

Justin takes great glee in capturing us photographing our food.
Then we walked back to the hotel for bed -- looking forward to tomorrow!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Puerto Rico - Beach day!

We only have two full days in Puerto Rico.  Since we spent the whole first day eating food and touring the old city, we devoted all of today to the beach.  Well, to the beach and eating food.

Puerto Rico is home to many famous beaches, including the celebrated Playa Flamenco -- reputed to be one of the best in the world.  Unfortunately, we discovered that getting to Playa Flamenco is not so easy.  Instead of risking unreliable ferries, we decided to stick to the beaches near San Juan.  

Playa Condado won.  That's partly because of the glowing reviews in the travel books, but also because that's where all the fancy hotels are.  We took a taxi to one of the biggest and fanciest, walked right through the lobby and took up residence in their beach chairs.  It's amazing what you can get away with when you act confidently as though there's nothing suspicious about what you're doing.  (That and the fact that, as mid-thirties white Americans, we fit completely with the clientele.)

When we arrived at the beach, the sun was out and we felt optimistic about a glorious day at the beach.

We pulled out the selfie stick long enough to prove that we'd been to the beach, and then settled in for some serious napping/tanning/reading/swimming.

With only a single day on the beach, we took it very seriously.  Started a little before 10am; we told ourselves we'd check in again at 3pm.  In the meantime, we had snacks to keep us from perishing.

Unfortunately, the glorious morning weather did not continue.  Soon ominous clouds rolled in . . .

. . . bringing rain and wind with them.  At least, that's what Amanda and Justin told me when I came back from a bathroom break and expressed my relief that it hadn't rained on us.  They gave me this photo as proof of the tempest.

But island weather is changeable, and before too long the clouds had departed.  The afternoon sun made the beach perfect again.

Three o-clock sounded and we had a decision to make:  Do we pack up and head back to Old San Juan for a 5pm reservation at a place we'd found the night before?  Or do we hang out a while longer and take our chances with restaurants in the neighborhood?

We looked at the lengthening shadows and our sun-kissed faces and opted to stick with our original plan of returning for an early dinner.  It's a good thing, too, because by the time we got to the restaurant everyone was starving.

The place is called Marmalade and had been written up in pretty much every guidebook we found.  When we passed the night before and inquired about their availability, we learned that they had openings only at 5pm and 10:30pm.  Taking that as a good sign, we booked it.

The main appeal for us was the fact that they offered only prix-fixe tasting menus.  Each person could choose between 4 and 6 dishes that would be served in successive courses through the evening.  We pored over the menu, delighted that nearly everything sounded tempting.  Eventually we placed our order and watched the dishes roll in.

My first course was a ceviche made of red snapper cured with local lime, grapefruit, avocado and smoked chili dressing,
served with basil infused tostones
My second course was homemade kale pasta seasoned with gruyere, parmigiano,
Italian sausage finished tableside with an organic white bean alfredo sauce 
Main course was a pasture raised hormone-free beef tenderloin served "jardiniere style"
with roasted garlic cauliflower-potato puree garden beans, tomato raisins & baby arugula
Dessert course:  almond crusted chocolate beignets served alongside a dark chocolate pot de crème laced with raspberry
(the whole point was to dunk the beignets into the pot de creme . . . mmm) 

The dinner was superb -- the first truly remarkable meal we've had on the trip so far.  The flavors were subtle and interesting, the portions appropriate, and the service and ambiance excellent.  We left happy that we had kept the reservation instead of staying longer at the beach.

We took advantage of the warm night to walk down to the port where the cruise ships dock . . . 

. . . and the replica Spanish galleon provides historic flair.

We passed the government building we had seen the day before, noting that it showed to much greater advantage from the waterside, where we had the perspective of the hill and neighboring buildings.

Crossing a small bridge, we found ourselves in the midst of a Christmas-themed carnival called "Navitown".

With lights and rides and blaring music, the first impression was of a garish state fair.  But as we wandered deeper, we noticed the festive feeling and all the local families gathered for evening fun.

There was a loud, incomprehensible announcement over the loudspeaker, and suddenly we found ourselves in the midst of a parade route.  The speakers blared the Mission Impossible theme song, and a troupe of insane elves scurried down the street pulling wagons laden with props.

Then, without warning, the heavens opened and torrents of rain came sheeting down.  The crowd fled for cover, and Amanda took shelter beneath her Macintosh Square . . .

. . . but when the gusts proved too much for even the Macintosh Square . . .

. . . we too joined the crowds beneath the pavilion (leaving, I assume, the poor crazy elves to dance by themselves).

Fortunately the party had only begun.  Music continued to play loudly from the speakers and Justin had flashbacks to his days on the International Folkdance Team at BYU.  We managed to persuade him to give us a show:

Eventually the rain stopped and it was time to go home.  We picked our way through the puddles and down the now-abandoned streets to the condo building, where we reveled in the air conditioning and began to pack for the next part of our trip -- in the morning we fly to New York!