Top 5 luxury travel gifts for the holidays

‘Tis the season of giving! Whether you’re looking for something that sparkles or maybe just something to set the mood, we’ve found a few things sure to please any intrepid traveler (especially those with a taste for the finer things). Of course, it might cost you a little extra, but isn’t the excitement worth it? We think so, which is why we’re naming our top five luxury travel items for the holidays:

luxury travelThe Oscar de la Renta iPad clutch in Red Python. Why should anyone with an iPad not have a designer iPad clutch to keep it safe and fashionable? It’s a logical question and we turned to our friends at Oscar de la Renta for the solution. The iPad clutches come in a few various colors and styles, but the red python certainly makes a statement. At $390, your iPad will be safe in the comforts of luxury.

LUXE Bespoke Travel Guides. Heading to a new destination and need a new guide? Go luxe! With LUXE Bespoke, you can choose your own exquisite handcrafted box and select from our range of 31 LUXE City Guides to fill it, making a truly personalized gift. The LUXE Bespoke Box in Red Velvet holds 5 LUXE City Guides and comes embossed with the gold LUXE logo. LUXE prices range from $55 to $125 (excluding gift wrap) + Shipping.VIP Las Vegas Experiences. If you’re going to do Las Vegas, you might as well do it in style. Total Experiences is offering an “Ultimate Holiday Gift” card that provides lucky recipients with an unforgettable VIP Las Vegas getaway to Caesars Palace, Paris Las Vegas or Planet Hollywood. This exclusive gift includes two nights’ accommodations, exclusive “Diamond Level” status, elite VIP treatment; $200 food & beverage credit for use at any of Harrah’s Entertainment’s Total Rewards resorts in Las Vegas; Round-trip limo transportation and their own personalized trip concierge to assist with all arrangements. The “Ultimate Holiday Gift” package is available for purchase through December 30, 2010, and costs $899 for stays at Caesars Palace, $749 for stays at Paris Las Vegas and $769 for stays at Planet Hollywood (two-night minimum).

luxury travel Noise-canceling earbuds from Shure. No one looks good in those big, bulky, black headphones. Sure, they cancel out the noise of the plane (and those aroundyou) but you can do better. Shure’s SE535 noise-canceling earbuds for $500are a much more fashionable way to fly, and you’ll look good, too.

Kelly van Halen luxury travel blankets. Everyone likes to be comfortable in flight, and Los Angeles interior designer Kelly van Halen has just released a new line of luxury travel blankets available exclusively at Fred Segal. The Kelly Van Halen Cashmere Travel Blankets are 4″x6″ and made of 2-ply cashmere. For $425, you can choose your color: black, charcoal gray, heather gray, chocolate brown, red, peony, light pink, blue, ivory and orange. (We’re partial to the ivory and red, but the options really are endless).

OK luxe-lovers… we’ve armed you with a few of our favorites, no go forth and purchase! Remember: a little luxe around the holidays (or anytime of year, really) is always a nice treat.

European cheeses: holiday entertaining with the taste of travel

European cheeseI work part-time in a cheese shop, and I’m also a contributing editor at culture, a consumer cheese magazine. I can’t help noticing that, despite a still-sluggish economy, people don’t want to do without their cheese. Especially if they’ve fallen for a specific type during their (usually European) travels.

Not everyone who bellies up to the counter is a globetrotter or a cheese geek, but they’re all eager to try new things and learn about the animals and cheesemakers responsible, and what, if any, cultural role certain cheeses play in their country of origin. It got me thinking: why not show Gadling readers how to do a bit of armchair travel to Europe via their local cheese shop?

Cheese has long been associated with revelry, in part because of its cozy compatibility with beer, wine, Champagne, and certain spirits. With the holiday season upon us, I put together a list of some delicious, versatile, affordable European imports that will make any small party more festive. The best part? You don’t need to be any kind of cheese wunderkind to put together a banging cheese plate (suggestions coming up).

[Photo credit: Flickr user cwbuecheler]

European cheeseI usually allow about an ounce of each cheese per person, assuming there’s more food. If you’re throwing a big party, it may not be financially feasible to purchase certain products (and there’s nothing wrong with serving a mass-produced Gruyere or Gouda). Note that some styles of cheese are less dense than others, so depending upon price, you can get more dairy for your dollar.

If you can’t find these cheeses at your nearest grocery, Whole Foods (which have generally excellent cheese departments), or specialty shop, try online sources Murray’s Cheese, Cowgirl Creamery, Formaggio Kitchen, and Artisanal Premium Cheese. Click here for a national cheese retailer directory by zipcode.

In addition to picking some of my own favorites, I turned to one of culture’s co-founders, cheesemonger Thalassa Skinner of Napa’s Oxbow Cheese Merchant, for advice:

The Cheeses

France
Langres (cow): Traditionally served with Champagne poured over it (those decadent French!), this well-priced washed-rind is a little bit stinky, with a dense, creamy interior and tangy lactic finish. From the Langres plateau in the Champagne-Ardenne region.
European cheese
Holland
Ewephoria (sheep): Nutty, rich, with a hint of crystallization, this butterscotchy Gouda will convert even the ambivalent into cheese aficionados.

Switzerland
Appenberger (cow): This buttery Alpine-style cheese from the Schweitzer Mittelland region has a faintly grassy tang. A surefire crowd-pleaser.

Italy
Robiola due latte (a blend of cow and sheep or goat’s milk): A rich, mold-ripened number with a slightly sour, mushroomy finish, from the dairy-rich Piedmont and Lombardy regions. Top imports include those by Perolari due Latti, Robiola Bosina, and Robiola delle Langhe.

Spain
Leonora (goat): A loaf-shaped, mold-ripened cheese from the northwestern village of León. Creamy, tangy, and delightful, with a blindingly white, dense, chewy interior.

Portugal
Azeitao (cow): Yeasty, full-flavored, with a slightly bitter finish; a beer-lover’s cheese. From the village of the same name, in the Arrabida Mountains, near Lisbon.European cheese

England
Stilton (cow): Colston-Bassett makes perhaps the finest version of this historic, earthy blue cheese. It’s a classic British holiday treat, produced in Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. Stichelton is the equally delicious, raw milk version; it’s a bit more fruity and crumbly. But for another British tradition, go for a robust Cheddar. Keen’s (cow) is buttery, with a horseradishy bite.

Ireland
Coolea (cow): This dense, buttery, Gouda-style from County Cork has a sharp, grassy finish. Unusual and delicious.

Belgium
Wavreumont (cow): A smooth, full-flavored, monastic-style washed rind. Trappist beer, anyone?

Cheese Plate 101

K.I.S.S.: This is a fun little acronym I learned in culinary school. It stands for, “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” A foofy, cluttered cheese plate with too many accompaniments just detracts from the headliner. You can keep sides as simple as some plain crackers or a baguette, or add toasted almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts, and some preserves, or honeycomb or dried frEuropean cheeseuit or grapes or slices of pear or apple (in summer, use stonefruit such as peaches or cherries, or berries).

You can also go the savory route with dry-cured or green olives (Picholine are my favorite) and some salumi (add grainy mustard, cornichons, and a hearty rye bread for a winter supper). Forget the sundried tomatoes, pickled onions, pepperoncini, artichoke hearts, tapenade, stuffed peppers, or whatever else the local deli has in its antipasti bar. It’s overkill.

Stick to three to four cheeses that increase in intensity of flavor. You can do whatever you want: all blues, or all goat cheeses. For a diverse, well-rounded plate, try: One creamy/mild; one semi-soft or semi-firm with some kick, or a washed-rind/ surface-ripened; one hard-aged; one blue or something really punchy (taste this last, because the stronger flavors will obscure your palate). Your cheesemonger can help you pick things out and explain these terms to you, or click here for a glossary.

When pairing cheese with beer or wine, a rule of thumb is to match the intensity of flavor of the cheese to that of the beverage. The following are some suggestions for some of the more tricky, assertive cheeses.

Goat cheese: A good rosé will almost always work, as will a light German beer like Hoegaarden.
European cheese
Big, stinky washed-rinds: Pair with sweet bubbly; the effervescence will help cleanse the palate and won’t compete with the flavor of the cheese. If you’re drinking beer, go with a light pilsner or lambic.

Blue cheeses: Go for a sweet dessert wine (not Port) or Lambic beer with fruit, such as framboise.

For additional cheese plate ideas, click here.

[Photo credits: Neal’s Yard, Flickr user foodmuse; Gouda, Flickr user manuel/MC; cow, Laurel Miller; grapes, Flickr user lakewentworth; goat, Laurel Miller]

SkyMall Monday: It’s my first Christmas tree, Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown Christmas Tree SkyMallToday is Cyber Monday. It’s the internet version of Black Friday. What does all this retail marketing speak mean? Well, it’s officially the holiday shopping season (with a special emphasis on the shopping). By now, your Thanksgiving leftovers have begun to spoil and your mind has replaced thoughts of turkey with lists of gifts for family, friends and coworkers. With so much emphasis on shopping, it’s easy to forget what the holidays are really about: togetherness, appreciation and, of course, fruit cake. You might find it odd for a snarky, sarcastic travel writer who was raised Jewish and then became agnostic to wax poetic about the holiday season when he’s supposed to be writing about SkyMall, but hear me out. Here in the SkyMall Monday headquarters, we just set up our Christmas tree. I love this tree. It has its origins in all the things that make this time of year so special: family, SkyMall and Charlie Brown. This week is a little bit different for SkyMall Monday. Rather than simply reviewing a product, I’d like to share with you my story of the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.As I mentioned above, I was raised Jewish. We were not a very observant family. Bacon cheeseburgers were enjoyed often and we only saw the inside of a synagogue when we were summoned to attend a bar mitzvah (including, oddly, my own) or a wedding. Sure, we’d light the menorah on Chanukah, but my extended family would gather at my aunt and uncle’s house for their annual holiday party on Christmas Eve. My aunt was Catholic, so it made sense. Also, no one had work the next day. Few offices tend to close for Chanukah and the adults usually enjoyed a fair amount of eggnog wine. My sister and I would receive our gifts on Christmas morning. Why? Well, probably so we could experience that special joy along with all the other kids around the world.

Over the years, my family evolved. My parents divorced, my father remarried and we all stopped attending my aunt and uncle’s holiday party because, well, that’s what happens with families. The holidays became far less formal. Now, I visit with my mother to exchange gifts and spoil my nieces with toys. I go to my father and stepmother’s home for dinner and exchange more gifts. All of these gatherings are done on arbitrary days selected only because everyone’s schedule is free. There’s no dressing up. No huge gatherings. Just immediate family, a new generation of children and lots of laughter. In my mind, things have improved. I’m with the people I love the most and get to spend Christmas Day in Chinatown stuffing my face.

My stepmother was raised Catholic and, as such, she and my father have a Christmas tree every year. She’s about as Catholic as we are Jewish, though, so there’s no nativity scene to be found in their house. Just plenty of holiday music and that great big tree. I’ve always cherished having that tree there. Not because it’s a symbol of Christmas or houses all of our gifts. I enjoy it simply because it means, after another long year, the people I love are together again.

Bigfoot Yeti Holiday Ornament SkyMall Christmas TreeLast year, under that very tree, was an oddly shaped, awkwardly wrapped box bearing my name. It was long, three-sided and strangely light for its size. When the time came to open our gifts, I immediately attacked that mystery package. Upon opening it, I was delighted. I was 30-years-old at the time, but easily could have been three based on my reaction. There, in my very secular hands, was a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.

That’s the very same tree that I set up this morning. The picture you see above? I took that five minutes before sitting down to write this. It’s not the musical version sold on SkyMall. The catalog used to sell the silent model that my father and stepmother bought for me but, like all things these days, even the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree has received a technological upgrade. I, however, prefer my simple tree.

It’s not really a celebration of Christmas. It’s certainly not a rejection of Chanukah or Judaism. It’s a reminder of what’s important. As you begin your holiday shopping, try to maintain some perspective about why this time of year is so special. Whatever your traditions may be, no matter how annoying your holiday travels are and regardless of your religious affiliation (including those who don’t have one at all), remember that this time of year is about family, giving thanks and Bigfoot Holiday Yeti Ornaments.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.

7 reasons to spend the holidays away from home

Christmas is traditionally a time for family, but it can also be the ideal time to travel. Who says you have to stay home for the holidays? Here are seven reasons to spend the holidays traveling.

Travel deals

While the holiday season can be one of the most expensive times to travel (especially with those annoying extra fees), it can also be a time of great deals to certain destinations. Especially when you compare what it might cost to fly home to visit family within the US, the price for flying to an international destination may seem downright cheap. Last year, it would have cost my husband and I $400 each to fly to Florida to spend time with my family. For $200 more per person, we opted to go to Spain for 10 days instead.

Check out last-minute flights both on and around the holiday and you might be surprised at what you find. And don’t be afraid to fly on Christmas Eve/Day or New Year’s Eve/Day. This year, I saved $400 on my ticket to South Africa by flying back at 11:30pm on New Year’s Eve.Experience Christmas in another culture
Stockings hung by the fire, leaving cookies out for Santa – these are great traditions to enjoy with your family, but why not try something new this year. So how Christmas is celebrated in Italy, or Mexico, or Russia. Spending time around the holidays in another country can provide you with a unique look at another culture as you see how those people celebrate this special time of year.

Free days off
Many companies shut down for a few days over the holidays, which means you can use a few extra free days to pad your supply of vacation days. A trip that may have used up seven days will only require four if you schedule it from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day.

The end of December is often a better time to request time off as well. Many offices that do stay open operate on only a skeleton crew due to slower business around the holidays.

No taking sides
For children of divorced parents, the holidays can be an exercise in juggling. Add in two sets of in-laws, and you’re looking at four holiday commitments over 48 hours. The rushing and clock-watching is enough to drive you straight into a vat of eggnog. And if you put your foot down and say you can only commit to one family per day, well then you’re playing favorites about the different families.

Instead of rushing from house to house, giving each party just a few hours, schedule a special day with different branches of your family tree before Christmas and then spend the holiday stress free.

Two words: Christmas bonus
If your office still gives out a holiday bonus (lucky you!), what better way to spend it than on an unforgettable trip. Before you have a chance to be “practical” and put the cash towards home improvements, or to slowly spend it on meals out and new clothes over the next few months, take that chunk of change and put it towards a trip you’ve been dreaming of.

Give back
The holidays are a time of giving, so why not use this time to take part in a voluntourism group. Spread your charity work around the globe by heading off a volunteer vacation.

Escape the commercialism
Christmas should have more meaning than presents and parties, but it’s hard to separate the meaning of the holiday from the commercialism that threatens to overtake it, especially when you are bombarded by ads reminding you daily just how many shopping days are left. Escape the onslaught and head to your version of paradise. Lounge on a deserted beach, go mountain climbing, trek through the dessert or just retreat to a little cabin in the woods.

And as a bonus, if you are traveling with a companion, you’ll now have one less person to buy gifts for. Just consider the trip a present to the both of you.

Berlin’s best way to shop for the holidays

Need a change of pace for your holiday shopping? Try Berlin! A new deal from the Hotel Concorde will make this year’s hunt for the perfect Christmas present more exciting than ever. The “Shop in the City” package starts with luxurious accommodations and includes plenty of discounts and other shopping perks to help you get the most from your trip.

The Hotel Concorde is right on Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm shopping boulevard, so you won’t have to go far to kick off the spending. In addition to staying in this part of town for two nights, the “Shop in the City” deal includes a buffet breakfast for two every day, dinner at Brasserie Le Faubourg and special gifts from Barbour and Lacoste. You’ll also get to enjoy a champagne reception and gift at the Bally boutique, a 10 percent discount at KaDeWe Berlin and 20 percent off at Galeries Lafayette — with a personal shopping appointment that you can wash down with a glass of champagne. Top it off with a 35 euro voucher at Montblanc.

Rates start at $275 a night. If you can’t make it in the next month and a half, don’t sweat it. Berlin’s Hotel Concorde is running it through the end of March.