So if you’re a boy, second on your list of important things on the ship after being first in line for the FlowRider is sorting out where you’re going to stuff your face. Happily, on the Allure of the Seas (in fact, ANY Royal Caribbean cruise ship) you can pretty much eat 24 hours a day, with loads of choice too.
If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, I’m pretty sure that you’ve noticed we’ve been cruising on the Allure of the Seas around the Caribbean.
Royal Caribbean challenged the boys to have a really active high-adrenaline cruise and I think we managed it, what with zip-lining, surfing on the Flow-Rider, snorkelling, power rafting and much more. And while the boys were doing all this, it left us lots of lovely free time for lazing, eating out, sunbathing and a few cocktails too! Here’s how we got on:
Miami is a perfect destination for teenagers. Not only is it SUPER cool, it’s buzzing with activity, day and night, and there are so many things to see and do, so whether your teen is sporty, stylish, a beach bum or an animal lover, I’ve got the perfect activity: Read more
For food lovers, Italy is without a doubt one of the best places in the world for dining out. While the usual classics like pizza, pasta and ‘mamma’s tasty meatballs’ are indeed delicious, the culinary scene is vast and varied throughout the country. Italy boasts some incredible quality and a diverse range of flavours as each region has, over time, cultivated its own unique cuisine. In order to source the very best in Italian fare on a dreamy Tuscan city break or a fabulous Roman holiday, consider a few things to tantalise your taste buds.
Ratatouille is one of our favourite films. For some reason it’s become a bit of a Christmas tradition – we adore Rémy, and feisty Colette is so fab – I always get a bit teary when she falls in love with Linguini (I know – I cry at everything)…
So as you’ll see from part one of my cruise diary from my trip aboard the NCL Breakaway, we were mightily impressed with all the facilities on board. A big part of ‘cruising like a Norwegian’ is the amount of flexibility in the choices you have: gone are ‘formal nights’ and, indeed, formal dressing for most of the restaurants, and instead you’ll find informal dining at a time that suits you. That’s not to say you can’t push the boat out, dress up and have a proper evening out, oh no – they even have a name for it: Norwegian’s Night Out is your chance to get dolled up in your favourite outfit and have some fun, but if you want to wander to the buffet in your shorts, that’s fine too. Read more
So if you follow me on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook (and frankly, why wouldn’t you? There’s cake, beaches, ships and the lunatic whippet of mass destruction makes the odd appearance too), you’ll know that I’ve been visiting Walt Disney World, Florida. I have loads to tell you – there’s news of the opening of the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a review of the frankly beautiful Disney’s Wilderness Lodge resort, and masses of food, fun and breaking Disney news (Avatar!!).
Last year I visited Edinburgh, home of my fellow food-loving friend Erica. We toured some amazing restaurants and markets and decided to make our ‘Foodinburgh’ trip an annual occurrence. If you think Edinburgh is all haggis, neeps and tatties (not that there’s anything wrong with that – I had my first taste of haggis too, delicious!), then think again, it’s a serious destination for food lovers, with no less than five Michelin starred restaurants and a fabulous array of affordable restaurants and cafés. I’ve put together a list of my favourites so far, but I’ve got a feeling this could change – we’re already planning Foodinburgh 2014!
So we started January 2013 with a bit of excitement after my Dad’s Christmas Day proposal to his partner (by the way, the Dodgy Centre of Gravity reared its ugly head again after our cheese and wine tasting night when he’d had a few too many and fell over putting his shoes on at the end of the night).
In February, I travelled down to beautiful Blagdon to meet up with my Yeo Valley chums and have a nosey around their wonderful new HQ, and went on the adventure of a lifetime with my five bestest chums when we sailed the Caribbean on the frankly fantastic Liberty of the Seas (we’re Royal Mums, ambassadors for the Royal Caribbean brand and we take our job VERY seriously). As you know, I’m big on spending your time and money enjoying experiences that you can cherish, rather than stuff, and this was right up there, believe me. I came back with aching ribs from all the laughing (the horse riding through the surf in Jamaica might have added to that a bit, but oh, riding through an azure sea is one of my most treasured memories). I also felt incredibly lucky to have shared an incredible experience with such incredible friends. I love you guys.
April saw birthdays galore. Charlie turned 15:
And Sam celebrated his 18th with karting, a party at home and a pretty epic double chocolate curly wurly cake…
Then there was my Disreputable Dad’s wedding…
In May, I headed out to the Cote d’Azur to experience the gorgeous Chateau Saint Martin in Vence:
July was beautifully sunny and we spent a wonderful day aboard the Independence of the Seas. The boys adored the FlowRider and it was lovely to meet up with all my besties and their families:
I also spent a lovely weekend with my friend Erica doing an amazing foodie tour of Edinburgh. Foodinburgh 2014 is already in the early planning stages!
August was MENTAL with nearly three weeks of it spent abroad, in beautiful Brittany…
and then with the boys on the INCREDIBLE Disney Magic – a real trip of a lifetime:
We even managed to squeeze in a day in Barcelona with wonderful friends after desembarking:
In September, Mr English and I squeezed in a quick weekend at Nutfield Priory…
and then in October, we headed off on an immersive wine cruise of Europe on the really quite gorgeous Celebrity Infinity…
and then all that travelling squealed to an abrupt halt. Because this little dude came along…
In November, Glam C and I went to Hogwarts Christmas at the Warner Bros Studio Tour:
and before we knew it, it was freezing, wet December then… bloody January again! (to quote Flanders and Swann). We had a wonderful Christmas lunch at the Chequers Inn at Weston Turville: a seven course Christmas extravaganza with some amazing wine that really was festive, fun and very relaxing. My favourite course was this stonking turbot with a huge crevette:
So here’s to 2014. What’s on the agenda for this year, then? More travel, certainly, more time spent with family and friends, loads of exams for the boys, more eating, more cooking, more relaxing, walking in the woods with our gorgeous new pupster and… who knows? My wishlist still includes Las Vegas (Britney, b*tch!), Australia and Thailand.
Thank you to each and every person who has stopped by to have a read, followed me on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, or just blundered here via Google. I’m immensely grateful. Wishing you a very happy and restful New Year. May 2014 bring you peace, happiness and new experiences galore xx
And so we’re back: relaxed, revived and probably half pickled by now. On the bright side, we’ll probably never go mouldy as we’re about 99% alcohol. I’m keeping away from open flames for a few days, just in case.
Ah we had a fabulous time. We sailed from Harwich to Le Havre, La Rochelle and Bilbao in utter luxury and feel that we’ve learned so much about wine. The wine tour was hosted by the lovely Oz Clarke (who, I believe, is actually 100% alcohol) and the equally knowledgeable and fabulous Tom Forrest from the famous Vinopolis in London.
Luckily for you, I took notes during all the wine Masterclasses and I have some incredible wines to introduce you to, as well as some wonderful wine and food matches. Tom and Oz have a marvellous rapport (making it bloody impossible to take notes as they frequently finish each others’ sentences) and their wine masterclasses were hilarious, informative and, as you can imagine, a bit boozy. They weren’t at all snooty or snobby and spent a lot of time talking to us about wine, both during the masterclasses and also rather late into the night in the martini bar!
The Celebrity Infinity is a seriously luxurious Millennium Class ship (although it’s somewhat knocking on in cruise world terms, being the grand old age of 12 and a bit), holding over 2000 guests, with several speciality restaurants, including Qsine (where a cover charge of $45 applies), a quite incredible modern dining experience. At Qsine, you order an array of small plates (although they shouldn’t be called plates as the food arrives on everything but plates!) and then dive in and share, chat and scoff away while the waiters bring more and more delicious food to try. Highlights for me were the lobster escargot and an amazing Moroccan banquet served on a kind of culinary ‘block of flats’ type arrrangement – quite incredible. Plus, having two wine experts choosing wine to match your food choices made it all the more special!
People come back year after year for the Immersive Wine Cruises and we met some truly lovely people on board: Carol and David, Sharon and Bill, and new cruisers, Tony and Carla (who I managed to call ‘Sharon’ for a whole evening by mistake, and who was still nice to me). It was great to share experiences with the group as they were from really diverse backgrounds and varied from seasonal cruisers to cruise ‘virgins’. They all had a love of wine in common and it was a real treat to sample incredible wines, visit vineyards and enjoy food-matching dinners together. Lots of people on these cruises strike up friendships and return to meet up again next time.
Our one gripe (if you can call it a gripe) was with the drinks packages which were a bit confusing. The ‘classic’ package, for example, costs about £35 a day (costs vary) and entitles the cruiser to drinks, including coke, juice, tea, coffee, bottled water, beer, etc, up to $5.75. It also entitles you to wine by the glass, cocktails etc up to $9.25.
This can be confusing as, for example, if you fancy a glass of wine that costs $10 you can’t have it unless you pay the whole $10 for it. You can’t just pay the difference and add on £0.75 to your bill. It can be embarrassing if you order something over your package price by mistake (or on purpose if you’re prepared to pay the extra) and have the waiter say ‘I’m sorry, madam, that’s not on your package so you’ll be billed for that’, and it’s a pain to trawl through a wine list finding things you can ‘afford’.
Still, you don’t have to buy a package (my maths isn’t up to whether it’s better value than just buying your drinks as you go along – depends how much you drink, presumably), and we were incredibly lucky on the Immersive Wine Cruise to be treated to all sorts of fabulous wines from all around the globe, and had the added thrill of being guided through the tastings by Oz and Tom.
Being on a cruise brings a whole new meaning to the words ‘all inclusive’ though. Most nights we ate in the Trellis restaurant, where the food was superb. Highlights included a delicious slow-roasted dish of short ribs that just fell apart, a deliciously delicate sea bass, and a surf and turf dish with a steak so enormous that it beat even Mr English. Desserts were another highlight, and we felt it was lovely to dine at the table with proper waiter service. It made the experience seem really special. If you’d rather just eat buffet style, though, there’s the Ocean View Café up on deck ten where we ate breakfast (everything and anything you could possibly imagine, including eggs benedict made to order – yum).
We rather fell in love with a little place called ‘Bistro on 5′ ($5 cover charge) where they did lovely crepes, soups, salads and paninis. we popped in most days and got to know the staff who led us straight to our favourite corner. The decor is gorgeous, with muted gold leather sofas and dark wood. We also spent rather a lot of time at the Martini Bar where the bar is made of real ice and the bar staff make amazing drinks and entertain with all sorts of theatrical shenanigans, including pouring several martinis at once.
Away from the food and drink, there is a beautiful pool area with lots of different pools, whirlpools, etc, plus an indoor thalassotherapy pool which is gorgeously warm, even when the weather’s not up to much. There’s a wonderful AquaSpa, where I had my favourite Elemis tri-enzyme facial, but you can have anything from Keratin hair straightening to teeth whitening and botox if you so desire! Mr English chose to pound the treadmill in the gym a few times. I preferred a gentle walk around the deck or a coffee and a slice of cake in Café Al Bacio. Each to their own, I say!
Next up, then, it’s wine, wine and more wine. Brace yourself!
Join Celebrity Cruises’ (www.celebritycruises.co.uk; 0845 456 0523) Celebrity Infinityon a 12-night France and Iberian Discovery cruise-only from £736 per person (based on two people sharing an interior stateroom).
Price includes a 12-night cruise departing from Harwich (England) and calling at Paris (Le Havre, France), Bordeaux (La Rochelle, France), Bilbao (Spain), Vigo (Spain) and Porto (Leixoes, Portugal) before returning to Harwich; meals and entertainment onboard and all relevant cruise taxes/fees. Price based on 19 September 2014 departure.
For more information or to book call 0845 456 0523 or visitwww.celebritycruises.co.uk
So as you know, August was a busy one for me. First of all we whizzed around Britanny for two weeks in our lovely (borrowed) Honda CR-V, and then, with the most ridiculous timing known to man, we got home on the Friday night at 11pm and had to be at Heathrow at 5am the next morning to grab a flight to Barcelona to meet up with the Disney Magic, Disney’s wonderful cruise ship.
Are we mental? Yes, possibly, but this was a trip that I just couldn’t miss. Let me explain: the Disney Magic was Disney’s first cruise ship and is thought of especially fondly by everyone who loves Disney cruising (and Disney in general). The boys and I were lucky to cruise around the Mediterranean, visiting Villefranche in France, La Spezia, Civitavecchia and Naples in Italy, before returning to Barcelona (more of all these amazing shore adventures later). Shortly after this, the Magic was heading to Cadiz to undergo a complete transformation under Disney’s incredibly talented team of ‘Imagineers’ (I love this name).
The Disney Magic is 15 years old. FIFTEEN! But obviously you’d never know it because nothing has ever been allowed to get old – there are no bits of bare carpet or faded curtains aboard a Disney ship – everything is monitored very carefully and has been kept pristine over the years, but still, fashions change, technology moves on, and Disney Cruise Line felt that the Magic deserved a flashy new makeover!
While we were on board, as well as getting the chance to visit Monaco, Rome and Pompeii, we had a once in a lifetime chance to spend time with lovely Frank De Heer, basically the ‘Chief Imagineer’, but officially the Vice President of Disney Cruise Line Operations, and in charge of the Disney Magic’s incredible new look. We wandered corridors, looked at public areas, staterooms, restaurants and kids’ clubs, all the time listening to Frank telling us his grand plans for each area, getting all the insider info about how the ship is going to look, including exclusive peeks at the new designs. Here’s what I found out:
The Grand Atrium Lobby
This is the area where you first walk onto the ship (and where they introduce you and all the staff give you a round of applause, which always makes me cry). It’s going to be completely transformed into an elegant Art Deco wonder, inspired by the sea, with a gorgeous new chandelier, and opened out by losing one of the staircases, but the much-loved ‘Helmsman Mickey’ bronze statue will stay, receiving a buff and polish to give him back his shine!
The pool areas and upper decks
We’ll be waving goodbye to the lovely Mickey pool (sniff), but the whole area is going to be reimagined, with a Huey, Dewey and Louie theme. There’ll be a fabulous new ”AquaDunk’ slide, which will take up three storeys of the deck and extend 20 feet out over the edge of the ship (and yup, you guessed it, it’s transparent!), and for the tiddlers, there’ll be an interactive water playground with jets, fountains and bubbly things galore, oh and a smaller slide called the ‘Twist’n’Spout’ so they don’t miss out!
Here’s a sneaky peak at the new look ‘Aqua Lab’ (with kind permission of Disney Cruise Line):
One of the things I loved about the whole project to reimagine the Disney Magic was that there was a sense of not fixing what isn’t broken. The Animator’s Palate is one of my favourite places. I won’t spoil the surprise, but the black and white line drawings in the restaurant REALLY come alive at night, and it’s a huge favourite with the guests (the food is amazing), and so the place will stay the same, but with a bit of sprucing up: state of the art new high-def flat screens, new animation, and updated characters too, including Disney-Pixar favourites.
One place that is going to change is Parrot Cay, the restaurant that provides buffet dining for breakfast and lunch, then a full service experience in the evening. It’s going to be an AMAZING new, much bigger restaurant called Carioca’s (I’ve seen the pictures, oh my goodness), with a South American theme. In the evening, it’ll be like dining al fresco in Rio. It’s gorgeous, with softly lit windows and amazing lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
Other bars and restaurants are being reimagined, and there’s a whole newly designed adult entertainment district called After Hours. Ooh, and a new Irish pub and sports bar called O’Gills! Lastly but not least, my favourite restaurant, Palo, will receive its own sprinkle of pixie dust, with new stone floors and glass artwork in keeping with its Venetian theme.
The Kids’ Clubs
When we were on the Disney Dream, I was really impressed by the kids’ club spaces. The Disney Magic is going to take on a lot of those ideas, and more besides. As you know, Marvel have now joined the Disney family and Marvel’s Avengers Academy, where the kids get to train to be a super hero through special missions, looks set to be fabulous, including Captain America’s shield and IRON MAN’S SUIT!!!:
My favourite new space by far, though, is going to be ‘Andy’s Room’, featuring a huge version of Andy’s bed, complete with a Slinky Dog slide and an enormous Mr Potato Head and everyone’s favourite piggy, Hamm.
There will also be a new It’s a Small World Nursery for the youngest cruisers aged 3 months to 3 years, and Pixie Hollow for all the little fans of Tinker Bell (sadly, I’m too old) where there is a COSTUME CLOSET (be still my beating heart) shaped like Tinker Bell’s teapot house. The cuteness! It burns!
The already-gorgeous spa with incredible ocean views is being expanded and redesigned and will offer a special new Chill Spa especially for teenagers aged 13 to 17.
All the staterooms will be getting their own reimagineering too, with more space made available by clever imagineering like elevating the beds to provide storage underneath and obviously all-new soft furnishings and bathrooms.
All this work will be completed in Cadiz by October 10th and then in 2014 the Magic will be heading back to join the Disney Dream and the Disney Fantasy in Port Canaveral, Florida (the Disney Wonder home ports in Miami).
And what’s all this going to cost? I hear you cry?
‘Just enough‘, says Frank, with a twinkle in his eye, ‘and not a dime more‘.
7-night Disney Magic Mediterranean Cruise from £949 per adult and £699 per child. Virgin Holidays Cruises offers seven nights onboard Disney Magic from Barcelona, calling at Villefranche (for Nice, France), Pisa, Rome and Naples, including flights from London Gatwick and transfers. Prices are per person based on two adults and two children travelling and sharing an inside cabin on a full-board basis. Based on a departure on 30 August 2014. Offer is subject to availability and includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change.
To book: Visit www.virginholidayscruises.co.uk, call 0844 573 4398 or visit one of our stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.
One of my favourite moments aboard the Disney Magic was when I had the amazing opportunity for a one to one masterclass with the Executive Chef of the fine dining restaurant, Palo. Here I am (below, with lovely Jamie the cameraman – he works on the X Factor you know) doing my piece to camera VERY BADLY. Palo was my favourite restaurant aboard the Disney Dream, so I was really excited to see how the Palo on the Magic stacked up. Luckily the experience was just as incredible, and, with the film crew (film coming soon!), I got to see how Chef made his famous seared tuna with a potato risotto.
The Chef’s version was obviously much more complicated, with shaved truffles, artichokes and a beautiful veal reduction. However, he did tell me how to cook the creamy potato risotto and the wonderful seared tuna:
Potato Risotto (serves 4)
1kg waxy potatoes
1 fat clove garlic, grated
500ml stock (chicken or fish is fine)
Dash of double cream
So firstly, peel all the potatoes and chop them into about 2 cm cubes. It’s a bit laborious but well worth the effort (as you can see, mine weren’t very uniform – I’m terribly sloppy in the kitchen – what would Chef say?). As you chop them, pop them into a bowl of salted water so they don’t discolour. Heat a large knob of butter in a large, heavy frying pan and fry the garlic for a minute or so, then add in the potatoes. Stir well to cover them in the garlicky butter, then pour in the stock.
Bring to the boil and then reduce the heat and allow the potatoes to simmer very gently for about 15 minutes until just tender. Pour in a dash of double cream, stirring gently so you don’t break up the potatoes, and season to taste. Keep warm while you quickly sear the tuna.
Bring four decent sized tuna steaks, trimmed of any sinewy bits, to room temperature. Rub the tuna with a little oil and then season with salt and pepper. Heat a frying pan until it’s really hot, then fry the tuna steaks so that they’re golden on the outside but still retaining some pinkness in the middle.
Serve immediately on the potato risotto. Drizzle with a little truffle oil if liked.
Despite its Gothic looks, Nutfield Priory has never actually been a church, monastery or anything similar. The beautiful building was originally built in the late 19th century in the style of the Palace of Westminster by Member of Parliament Joshua Fielden as his private home. Over the years, it’s been commandeered for military use (during WW2) and has been used as a school too. It’s now a very beautiful hotel, full of original features including stunning stained glass, huge marble fireplaces and intricately carved woodwork.
The hotel, now part of Handpicked Hotels, sits in an incredible location, just near Redhill in Surrey and is an easy drive from the M25. I won’t lie, parts of the hotel are, well, let’s say faded. Some of the battleship grey corridors are a bit uninspiring, but I think that comes with the territory when converting a very old building. The main areas of the hotel are utterly beautiful and filled with glorious pieces of art (I was mesmerised by the painting of the beautiful woman on the main staircase) and, in the case of the magnificent Great Hall, a two-storey organ that apparently still works.
Our room was quite small but had obviously recently been refurbished, with a huge bed, enormous flat screen tv and marble bathroom. No noise from neighbouring rooms at all on either side, which is always a plus (I hate it when you can hear every time they flush their loo!). It was a beautiful sunny day so we dumped our bags and headed out on the stunning terrace to enjoy the view (the hills roll away and you can see Gatwick airport and beyond) and stuff ourselves with the most amazing sandwiches (share a portion, they really are enormous) and some particularly good triple cooked chips.
After our lunch, we wandered to the spa, which is in a separate, modern building just a short walk away, where Mr English headed to the pool and I had my very favourite Elemis facial, the Tri-Enzyme Booster facial – the one where it feels like your face is being dolloped with freezing cold custard, then you get to enjoy a phenomenal head, neck and shoulder massage before the therapist peels off the custard which has magically set into a masque (I’m sure Elemis would take issue with some of my technical terms, but you get the gist). The spa is lovely, with a huge, beautifully furnished lounge/waiting area with refreshments and lots of very well equipped therapy rooms. I have it on good authority that the fitness centre and pool is very good too.
After a lovely walk and a wallow in the bath (me) and a bit of telly (him), we wandered to the bar for a pre-dinner cocktail. The Nutfield Signature Cocktail is a delicious mix of Nutfield marmalade, Tanqueray and Triple Sec and isn’t remotely marmalade-like. I’d highly recommend it.
The Cloisters restaurant was once an open aired gallery area, now with an amazing wooden vaulted ceiling and tables looking out over the terrace and taking in that fantastic view.
The staff absolutely make the place – from Paddy in the bar to the lovely restaurant staff, everyone is friendly, happy and can’t do enough to make your stay enjoyable. I sent them into a panic when I didn’t like my starter (totally my fault, I didn’t realised the Asian poached pollock would be chilled and cold fish just isn’t really my thing) – it took us ages to convince them that we were fine and they didn’t need to bring me something else! We ate a delicious meal (£38 for three courses) with a very nice bottle of Spanish Bobal de SanJuan rosé. My fillet of Devon hake with basil and parmesan, pine nut quinoa, shaved radish and fennel was to die for – beautifully seasoned, artfully presented and cooked to perfection and Mr English’s pan fried whole Cornish sole was perfectly cooked and delicious. Desserts were small but delicious, and little works of art on the plate.
We liked: beautiful public areas, gorgeous terrace, friendly staff, heavenly triple cooked chips
We didn’t like: plug socket nowhere near a mirror (difficult to blow dry one’s hair, dahling). Breakfast was okay but nowhere near in the same league as dinner – requests for well done eggs/crispy bacon didn’t filter through (picky, I know, but that’s really all I’ve got).
Great for: romantic weekends away, gorgeous weddings, girly spa breaks
Top tip: book a room overlooking the terrace – from having a nose while walking around, they seem to be a bit bigger.
Recently, we were invited to visit the Canary Wharf branch of Camino London, perched right on the riverside next to Gaucho. First impressions were a little marred by the fact that we got horribly lost (there doesn’t seem to be any directions on the website, and not being Londoners we ended up going completely the wrong way out of the DLR station). No matter, we were soon seated and enjoying a cool glass of rosado (Beronia Rioja Tempranillo 2012) under the shady umbrellas on the terrace, watching the boats whooshing up the glinting river.
The menu is in Spanish (obviously) and unless you’re fluent you need a handy waiter to translate. Luckily we had Javi, who took us under his wing and explained all the dishes to us, giving us advice about roughly how many dishes we’d need for the four of us, and telling us what he recommended.
It’s best to just chill out and eat as the dishes come out, rather than wait until you get a big table-full, so we started with delicious, crispy squid with a garlicky alioli (chipirones), then some succulent tiger prawns, drowning in chilli, garlic, olive oil and white wine, all just begging to be mopped up with loads of bread.
Next up was a ‘mixto’ platter, with chorizo, Padron peppers, croquetas, olives and cangrejo (crab) in a delicious paprika-spiced oil with crispy bread for scooping. The next platter out was a mixed grill with some more chorizo, tender steak and flavoursome chicken. We also had a meaty monkfish dish with a leek gratin and a romesco sauce.
Moving on to cheese then (and feeling more than a little stuffed already), we ordered the platter, with blue Valdéon with moscatel grapes, a delicious salty Manchego and little cubes of plum jelly, amongst other things.
Finally, and rather unwisely, the boys talked us into ordering the dessert platter, with Crema Catalana: soft, creamy and fragrant with orange and cinnamon, and a really zingy crema de limón – a lemon cream topped with lime jellly and a shortbread biscuit. Javi also spoiled the boys by bringing out extra portions of their favourite: crispy on the outside, soft on the inside churros, with lashings of chocolate mousse for dipping. The surprise hit was the Tarta Santiago, a bakewell tart-reminiscent almond tart with a cakey texture and raspberry sauce. Delicious.
By now, Sam was complaining of stomach ache and I did worry one of us might pass out from overeating, but a nice strong coffee and a breezy ride back to Embankment on the river taxi woke us up again.
Our verdict: Fabulous. Mr English summed this place up when he said ‘I don’t have a bad word to say about it’ and we’ll definitely be back very soon.
Best for: lazy lunches and family dinners – don’t go if you’re in a hurry – linger over the dishes, sip wine, dip bread into sauces and savour every moment.
Massive thanks to Camino London for having us, and special thanks to Javi, our lovely waiter.
My lovely friend Erica and I share a love of food. We’ve been on loads of trips together, share (and publish) our favourite recipes, and generally spend far too much time thinking about dinner. Recently we’ve been talking about the food in her home town of Edinburgh, and Erica’s also planning a new website on the subject, so when she suggested I came up for a visit, I jumped at the chance. And so, Foodinburgh 2013 was born.
Erica’s a serious planner and had created a proper itinerary for our trip – a long weekend. We’d decided not to include fine dining restaurants basically to avoid bankrupting ourselves, but also to highlight the great range of casual dining options in the area, however I’m still planning on going back, especially to visit The Kitchin and Erica’s other recommendation, 21212, both with one Michelin star. She’d also planned visits to nice food shops and markets. I was raring to go!
Here are my recommendations (thanks to Erica) for a fabulous foodie weekend:
1. Castle Terrace Market
After flying in to Edinburgh on Saturday morning, we headed straight to our first stop, and I got my first glimpse of Edinburgh Castle. The farmers’ market, on Castle Terrace, has a great range of stalls and we spotted Edinburgh Gin, amazing seafood, and sampled Scottish tablet (a firm, sweet fudge) and local honey. I was slightly hampered by my hand-luggage-only 100ml allowance, otherwise I would have bought loads home!
2. The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile (or ‘high street’ if you’re a local) has loads of lovely shops and restaurants. We were lucky to bump into a proper piper (very exciting), popped into a fabulous Whisky shop and pressed our noses against the window of the famous Witchery restaurant. I loved Cranachan and Crowdie which is packed full of lovely bits for the kitchen and dining room, often with a Scottish theme and all sourced from the area.
We headed down Victoria Street (after ogling the very attractive kilted chap standing out the front of the Missoni hotel) and popped in to Oink for a massive pulled pork sandwich (ask for extra crackling), which Erica has recently reviewed and I was dying to visit.
After all that walking, we’d worked up enough appetite (just!) to pop into Mother India’s Café for some Indian tapas dishes. The café is bustling with all sorts of people and the interior is a great mix of traditional (flock wallpaper), and modern (glossy green tiling and stunning black and white images). This is a brilliant way to eat, picking lots of small dishes and trying lots of new things. We loved the chilli chicken dosas (served with an amazing daal), saag paneer and a fragrant type of korma called giri. The price was very reasonable (less than £15 each) and the setting is just delightful. Highly recommended.
5. A full Scottish
Sadly, I can’t recommend an establishment for this one as I was treated to a full Scottish breakfast by Erica’s lovely husband. We went for the full Scottish monty: gorgeous Scottish black pudding and a slice of haggis too (my first time – delicious). The potato scone was a lovely reminder of all our Irish breakfasts. Scrummy.
6. Stockbridge Market (photos at header)
This was one of the many highlights of our weekend. Stockbridge is in a beautiful part of Edinburgh, the sun was shining and the stalls were just amazing. We stocked up on delicious fudge and hand made salted caramel chocolate, admired fruit, veg and gleaming fresh fish and tasted fruit teas, cakes and marshmallows.
7. Harvey Nichols
Moving on to the newer part of Edinburgh, we headed to Harvey Nichols, which has an amazing top floor food hall. It’s worth a visit just for the diversity of produce, from every alcoholic drink you could possibly imagine, through every luxury item and diverse ingredient you’d ever need, to novelty things such as this delicious chocolate covered scorpion. Yum.
8. George Street
George Street is definitely worth a wander. We discovered Anthropologie – a huge store with the most AMAZING crockery and kitchen bits. We also popped in to Cath Kidston and a beautiful Scottish interiors shop called Anta where we lusted after the beautiful tartan interiors.
9. Café Andaluz
After all that window shopping, it was time for a late, lazy lunch (I know, AGAIN!) and out of the options Erica gave me, I chose the beautiful Café Andaluz, which is rather like stepping off George Street straight into a lovely Spanish courtyard tapas restaurant. The place is huge, and beautifully decorated, and the tapas was utterly delicious. Every single one of our choices: a stunning goat cheese dish with Seville orange, chilli and marmalade, paella, crisp chicken and potato croquettes, soft meaty pork cheeks, crispy chicken pieces with honey and mustard… were perfectly cooked and delicious. We stayed for ages, chatting and enjoying our food. 3 tapas plus dessert was just £14.95 too. Great value. Mr English would have particularly enjoyed Café Andaluz – a good excuse to return.
10. Mimi’s Bakehouse
Sadly before we knew it, the weekend was over. But we couldn’t leave without a visit to that famous baker of incredibly cakes, Mimi. Mimi’s Bakehouse is a beautiful place to visit and the selection of cakes was incredible. Erica and I chose a huge slab of soft, moist red velvet cake. Utterly delicious. Mimi’s also do incredible breakfasts, so I’ve heard!
I needed a good week to recover from my eating excesses, but we’re already planning Foodinburgh 2014 with MORE friends and MORE restaurants and MORE eating. Massive thanks to my generous hosts, Erica and her lovely family.
Look out for Erica’s new Foodinburgh project (@foodinburgh and www.foodinburgh.com), coming very soon.
So I started to tell you a little about the Chateau Saint-Martin when I reviewed their beautiful two Michelin star restaurant, Le Saint-Martin. But there’s so much more to this place than the fabulous food.
A 30 minute drive through beautiful scenery from Nice Airport, the Chateau nestles atop a hillside overlooking the French Riviera and is surrounded by 35 acres of gardens, including 300 ancient olive trees (they make their own estate olive oil), tennis courts and a fabulous swimming pool. The ancient ruins, preserved by the Chateau, date back to Roman times, and were once home to the Knights Templar.
Transformed into a luxury hotel by the Oetker family (yes, the pizza ones – they also own the famous Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc on the Cap d’Antibes and Le Bristol in Paris) the Chateau has 51 luxurious suites and six sumptuous private villas, all available to hire. Staff are discrete and attentive – there’s not a hint of haughty Parisian-type service here.
As well as Le Saint-Martin, the Chateau has a Mediterranean restaurant, La Rosticceria (with shutters open over the most spectacular view of the Riviera) and a summer grill outside in the gardens called L’Oliveraie.
The Chateau boasts a pretty amazing wine list. We were lucky enough to experience a wine tasting in the cellar with the Sommelier, who was far too discrete to answer my questions about the most expensive bottle of wine. The website does hint that the cellar offers ‘some of the world’s most exclusive vintages’ and I certainly spotted some boxes of Petrus and Chateau Lafite Rothschild amongst the dusty bottles on the shelves.
The gorgeous spa, taking up two floors on one corner of the Chateau, offers a huge array of treatments featuring La Prairie and Bamford Body products. I opted for a La Prairie facial and it really was delicious. Delivered in a futuristic-looking treatment room with customisable coloured lighting (green for revitalising, blue for relaxing) I’m pretty sure I fell asleep, and wafted out afterwards on a heavenly scented cloud, heavy limbed and relaxed with skin that was plumped and glowing. I was given a sizeable collection of La Prairie product samples to try at home too (I can’t bring myself to use them).
Vence and Saint Paul de Vence
A short drive away in one of the Chateau’s Mercedes limousines (with a driver straight off a Gaultier advert), is Vence - a lovely little town and well worth a visit. Queue up for fresh baguettes, warm out of the oven, sit and sip a glass of rosé and watch the world go by, or pick up some gorgeous Provençal tableware in the little shops.
Nearby is the pretty, fortified town of Saint Paul de Vence. It’s a lovely place to sip a café au lait and watch the locals play boules, then take a wander up the stone streets and mooch around the galleries and tiny shops, all pretty much unchanged since Picasso and Matisse trod the same cobbles. Take time to visit the little cemetery perched overlooking the Mediterranean, where Chagall is buried, and follow the meandering streets to a little chapel overlooking the town. We also snuck a quick look inside the legendary La Colombe D’Or hotel – a great place to star spot, but notoriously difficult to bag a table in the restaurant.
Le Fondation Maeght
The Maeght Foundation is a private art gallery located at Saint Paul de Vence and is a must-see if you’re in the area. Visitors can wander the gardens and view paintings, sculptures and ceramics by artists such as Bonard, Chagall and Giacometti (my favourite is Giacometti’s ‘Dog’, said to have been created by him after getting caught in the rain) and many contemporary pieces too. There are often special exhibitions at the Foundation, which is open every day.
We returned refreshed and relaxed – even our ridiculous delay at Nice airport couldn’t take the shine off, and I’ll be returning as soon as I can. Not a budget option, admittedly, but three glorious days at Chateau Saint-Martin was as relaxing and pampering as two weeks in the Caribbean, and just an hour away from the UK.
The Knights Templar may have long gone, but they left all their treasure behind.
Rates at Chateau Saint Martin & Spa start from €360 per room, per night including breakfast.
Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to stay for a few days at the utterly beautiful Chateau Saint-Martin in the pretty little town of Vence on the Côte d’Azur. For a luxury short break, the Chateau really has everything: it’s a scant 30 minute drive from Nice Airport (just over an hour’s hop from Gatwick), the accommodation is luxurious, the scenery breathtaking and the spa indulgent. Locally, you can wander around beautiful little French towns and walk in the footsteps of Matisse and Picasso. The Chateau has two restaurants, one of which, Le Saint Martin, has two Michelin stars thanks to the incredible talent of Yannick Franques, former student of Alain Ducasse and Meilleur Ouvrier de France (2004).
We ate in a beautiful private dining room with General Manager Frédéric Picard who happily waved away enquiries about food photography with a smile and ‘but of course – this is why we have a private dining room’. M Picard turned out to be charming company and happily answered all questions about the French menu.
If you’re not a fan of (badly lit) restaurant photography, I do understand why – it can be intrusive when people continually snap away at their dinner. However, this food was something extra special and I do feel it deserves to be shared.
We started with an appetiser which was served in a hollowed out, silvered eggshell: scrambled egg with delicate pieces of lobster and a crisp brioche ‘soldier’, and went on to enjoy six spectacular courses matched with some incredible wines. It’s a meal I’ll never forget:
Next up, more about the Chateau, the beautiful nearby towns of Vence and Saint Paul de Vence and a tour of Le Fondation Maeght.
I’ve noticed that I’ve been a bit remiss with the cocktails of late. And well, you know me, it’s not because I’ve not been DRINKING them, oh no, it’s just because I usually drink too many and then forget to take a photo!
This particular Bloody Mary (left) was served to my friend Laura and I at the Cassis American Brassierie in St Pete’s, Florida.
It came on the morning after the night before which featured far too many Lycheetinis, some very bad karaoke and a 3am finish. Followed by a very fuzzy 7am start.
Reader, we were hanging.
Happily, the Cassis came to our aid and medicated us back to reality with this incredible glass of hair of the dog. Plus a big huge durty burger about the size of our heads. They also provided oysters. They didn’t go down quite as well.
The Perfect Blooody Mary
The best Bloody Marys are strong. I”m talking 1/3 vodka to 2/3 tomato juice strong, but if you like, you can tone it down.
Start with a full cup of ice, pour over the vodka (any old vodka will do but if you can find Absolut Peppar it adds a welcome kick), then top up with tomato juice (Waitrose pressed tomato juice is good, so is V8 juice)
Then you want a nice couple of slugs of Worcestershire Sauce, and a few dashes of Tabasco for heat. We go for about half Tabasco to Worcestershire, but adjust to taste.
Some people add horseradish but I HATE the stuff. Feel free, though, if you’re that way inclined.
Now for the accoutrements. You can stick any old stuff in there really: the traditional ones being sticks of celery, but olives are good too. Maybe a wedge of lime.
Finish with a nice sprinkling of celery salt and you’re good to go. If you’re being posh, you can freeze the glasses, then run a lime around the rim and dip them in celery salt. But sprinkling is fine too. Serve, preferably with a huge plate of bacon and eggs, maybe a stack of pancakes too… but that’s just me.
One of the best things about cruising is the sheer variety of activities offered by this sort of holiday. As well as enjoying all the amenities a massive ship like the Liberty of the Seas has to offer (theatre shows, water-based fun like the FlowRider, ice spectaculars, fine dining, parades, a casino, climbing wall – I could go on), there is the added bonus of stopping off in different places (indeed, countries) along the way.
Of course there are hundreds of different cruises to choose from, but our itinerary was pretty typical of a five day Caribbean cruise:
Day 1: Embark (pm), then at sea
Day 2: At sea
Day 3: Labadee, Haiti
Day 4: Falmouth, Jamaica
Day 5: at sea
Day 6: at sea, then disembark (am)
Cast away on Malfini Beach
I’ll be honest, geography not being my strong point, I’d not heard of Labadee. I had, however, heard of Haiti, in fact, I’d raised money for it three years ago when it was struck by a horrendous earthquake and 1.5 million of its inhabitants were left homeless. Royal Caribbean has done sterling work with the people and infrastructure of Haiti (something it’s too modest to let me talk about), and Labadee is basically RCI’s own private part of Haiti.
There were all sorts of shore excursions: snorkeling, sightseeing, zip lining… but we finally decided on ‘Castaway at Malfini Beach’ costing a bargainous $65 each and lasting three hours.
It was absolutely incredible disembarking and getting our first real look at the mind-boggling size of the ship, without all the bits and bobs it was surrounded by at Port Everglades. We were also struck by just how strong the sun is (us bloggers are a pale bunch – we started sizzling pretty much instantly). After a short walk to a small pier (see what I did there?), we climbed aboard a motorboat and headed out to Malfini, a tiny, privately owned stretch of beautiful white beach, azure water and lush green shady spots. We lazed, swam, drank Malfini Punch out of coconuts, and basically had the most glorious beach day imaginable.
Sadly all too soon we were heading back towards the harbour, where we were treated to possibly the best barbecue ever (the logistics of feeding thousands of passengers at a beach barbecue make my head spin, but as usual the chefs had everything under control and everyone was fed delicious, hot food (with some AMAZING sticky ribs.. mmmm). Of course, you don’t have to join an excursion, and the beach at Labadee is lovely if you just want to swim and sunbathe.
Riding horses in the sea and climbing Dunns River Falls in Jamaica*
I have to say that this was by far my favourite day of our cruise. We disembarked relatively early and headed through a nice shopping area (making a note to come back later and grab some delicious jerk spices) to rendezvous with our guide and driver. Our guide Wilana was wonderful and soon had us all speaking Patois (Erica was best at this as Jamaica is her spiritual home, mon) and en route told us all some of the history of Jamaica. Our first stop, Papillion Cove, was where we saddled up and took an amazing horseback ride through old plantation land. Our guides were great fun and after a break and saddle-change, we rode our charges right out into the amazing Listerine-coloured waters. The best experience I’ve ever had.
After a scrummy jerk chicken lunch we were ready to get back in the minibus and head to Dunns River Falls, a 600′ high range of cascades and waterfalls that flow straight into the Caribbean. Climbing the falls was exhilarating, sometimes scary, but incredibly rewarding! You need shoes with a decent amount of grip (don’t worry, they hire them there if you don’t have any) and you need to be prepared to get VERY wet, but it’s the best fun. We often had to help each other up steep ledges, and there were areas where we dipped under waterfalls or where the guides had us falling backwards into the cool water. Just beautiful.
I scraped my leg, but when we got to the top about an hour later, limbs aching, looking like drowned rats and rinsing pebbles from our shoes, we were all absolutely beaming. It was akin to the best team bonding exercise ever and we drove back in the minibus chatting happily and even singing a few Bob Marley songs with Wilana.
Of course if you’re not into horses, or don’t fancy climbing the falls, there are lots of other things to do in Jamaica too. Some of the best excursions include tours of old plantation estates (including ruins of the great plantation houses), dolphin encounters, foodie adventures and plenty of different beach breaks, most with food included. My Jamaica experience was incredible: a wonderful, wonderful day that I’ll never forget. I’m determined to go back with my family so we can all experience it together. Thank you, Royal Caribbean.
*The Dunns River Falls/Papillion cove horseback ride, including bareback riding in the Caribbean sea costs $139 including Jamaican lunch and lasts approximately 7 hours
If you’re a food lover, eating and drinking are naturally a huge part of deciding where to go on holiday. I, myself was persuaded into staying in a massive half board hotel in Gran Canaria (something I wouldn’t normally do) by my Dad’s stories of epic Torres wine and amazing seafood restaurants along the coast in Maspalomas. I wasn’t disappointed.
On a Royal Caribbean holiday, the food is all-inclusive, meaning that you can eat in quite a few restaurants, including the VERY posh main dining rooms, without forking out (see what I did there?) any extra cash. Obviously if you’re going to order wine you have to pay for it, but RCI provide various wine packages, so you can pre-order wines that are then delivered to you at your table. If you don’t drink all the wines you can have them corked and saved, (which means that you can have a white and a red open at the same time) or take them back to your cabin.
I was really impressed by the wines on board. At various parts of our journey, we tried the following (excuse some of the pics – it can be dark in restaurants):
There are also several different dining options should you wish to pay a tiny bit extra. The lovely burger joint, Johnny Rockets where the waiters danced and sang, is definitely worth a trip – order the chocolate malt and burgers as big as your head! There’s no booking, so you might have a wait in the queue, but it’s only an extra $3.95 to eat here and it’s well worth it.
The Italian themed Portofino was our favourite restaurant by far. In fact, we loved it so much we went back again on the last night. The waiter was great fun and a real wine buff (although some of his recommendations were slightly out of our league!). We joked that we ate so much beef we were going to walk off the ship mooing, but it was just soooo good. The filet mignon was out of this world tender, and we also had massive fish skewers with salmon, prawns, lobster and scallops. Delicious ($20 extra charge per person).
Chops Grille is another high end restaurant where you pay $25 per head to dine. The surroundings again are really sumptuous – on a par with a really nice London restaurant, and the food again was excellent. We went for the beef again (I know, I know), but there were all sorts of other options too, honestly. This is where we had the amazing Belle Glos (two bottles in fact) and where I couldn’t remember that I’d had a dessert until, thumbing through my pictures from the night before, I came across a flaming crème brûlée!
We also had a chance to meet Executive Chef Garry Thomas and visit the ship’s galley (a rather insignificant term for the cavernous kitchen!). Garry and his chefs serve more than 18000 meals a day and we got the impression that Garry literally runs a tight ship. We loved that occasionally in the main dining room, the chefs were introduced by a Master of Ceremonies and came out into the dining room to rapturous applause. Well deserved, in my opinion.
I’ve also heard rumour that Royal Caribbean do wine cruises. That’ll be me next, then..
For a similar cruise aboard Liberty of the Seas (sailing out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA) prices start from £288 per person for a 4-night Western Caribbean cruise, calling at Cozumel, Mexico before returning to Fort Lauderdale. Departs 12 December 2013 and includes meals and entertainment on board and all relevant cruise taxes/fees. Obviously this doesn’t include flights. We flew British Airways to Miami.
So when I was in Jamaica on our Royal Caribbean cruise (I’m never going to tire of saying that), we spent a fabulous day riding horses around old plantation land and – amazingly – into the sea. After we’d dismounted (walking, it must be said, a bit like we’d soiled ourselves), we were served amazing spicy Jamaican jerk chicken, with rice and beans. Delicious.
Keen to recreate it at home, we popped into the little Jamaican food shop at Falmouth port to score some jerk seasoning. I came away with this little beauty:
Of course this recipe is really going to come into its own once it’s barbecue season again (I’ve got my eye on a new gas bbq from John Lewis for the summer). Jerk chicken gets a lot of its smoky flavour and deliciously crusty exterior from being grilled over the barby.
I’ve used breast here as I was slicing it into wraps with salad (and mayo mixed with the jerk sauce that I also brought home – too darned hot to use it on its own), but feel free to use the dark meat or, indeed a whole chicken either spatchcocked or cut into portions.
I often marinate chicken before cooking in buttermilk or yoghurt – left for half an hour or so before cooking, it tenderises the chicken and leaves it deliciously moist. Oh, and if you don’t have buttermilk, don’t despair. Use milk and squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. A quick stir, et voila, buttermilk.
250ml buttermilk (or milk + lemon juice)
4 pieces of chicken (breast, leg, whatever)
So firstly, if you’re using chicken legs, it’s best to get rid of the skin as you lose half the flavour if you don’t eat it. With chicken breasts, just drop them straight in to the buttermilk with a pinch of salt. Leave the chicken marinating for about half an hour. Preheat the oven to 180/gas 4.
Fish the chicken out and place on a baking tray. Sprinkle liberally with the spice, remembering to do both sides. If some of the chicken breasts are very thick, it’s worth slashing them a couple of times with a knife so that they all cook at the same time.
Cook for about 25 minutes (make sure you cut into them to make sure they’re cooked through before you serve). If barbecuing, I’d probably give them 40 minutes.
Of course if you don’t have jerk seasoning, this recipe works really well with other spices too: look out for different rubs and coatings (Cajun, curry… whatever), or make your own - there are loads of recipes for spice rubs online. I have cupboards stuffed with all sorts of herbs, spices and flavourings at the moment but will soon be investing in the convenience of a spice rack to sort myself out.
Oh, and while I’m here, I’d just like to say that if you ever get any leftover Parmesan going a bit hard or whatever, whizz it in the processor, or grate it and stash it in the freezer. Do the same with bread, and stash in the same bag. Then, instead of spices after the buttermilk marinade, you can push your chicken into the cheesy breadcrumbs, bake, and parmesan chicken can be yours.
As we got near Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale (in a massive coach which was laid on for all – wait for it – seven of us), we caught our first glimpses of the ship, rising up between cranes and tall buildings. It’s MASSIVE. We couldn’t quite believe we were going to be on there. And there were all sorts of worries too: will we be seasick… will we get enough peace and quiet.. will it be all old men in dinner jackets and old ladies smelling of mothballs…? You know the sort of thing. (Disclaimer: not that I’m saying that all old ladies smell of mothballs. I’m sure some of them smell of gin, or parma violets, or whatever).
The Nerdy Bit
The Liberty of the Seas is a ‘Freedom class’ vessel, registered in Nassau, Bahamas, built in Finland in 2007 and renovated in 2011. She (all ships are ‘she’ – apparently because a Portugese Prince once said that “like a woman, they take much powder and paint to keep them looking good”) has 15 decks, is 185′ wide (that’s wider than the White House is long) and is taller (if upended, duh) than the Eiffel Tower. The ship carries 3634 guests, plus 1360 crew and there can be as many as 58 different nationalities on board.
The Exciting Bit
The ship is packed to the gunnels (see what I did there?) with amazingly cool stuff. If you have kids there are amazing (indeed, award winning) kids’ clubs called Adventure Ocean (more of this later) from babies right up to teenagers. It also has (wait for it):
- a rock-climbing wall (look at the man in the purple shirt to get some perspective as to how tall it is)
- a nine hole miniature golf course
- a jogging path running around the whole of one deck
- a karaoke room
- a video games room
- an ice skating rink
The Wet Bit
If you fancy a bit of water action, there are loads of places to swim, bob, laze or whoosh. Check out me whooshing on the FlowRider Surf Simulator right here (thanks to Erica, our Videographer in Chief for this vid). I’ll have you know that it’s very hard to stand upright and both Karin, my FlowRider buddy, and I did very well. Although yes, it does rather look like I face planted after four seconds (that water is whooshing at 34 gallons per minute, by the way):
If you fancy getting wet in different ways, there are also:
- three pools
- six whirlpools
- a pool bar
- an adults only pool
- adults only jacuzzis
The Leisurely Bit
Don’t fancy lazing by the pool? No problem. The Liberty of the Seas boasts a wonderful spa and fitness centre (where I had an amazing Elemis anti-aging facial and Laura was blow-dried to look like Crystal Carrington, but that’s another story). There is a fabulous promenade boasting boutiques, shops, a pub and a cupcake shop (where we had a cupcake decorating lesson and made cupcake burgers), there’s also a library, an internet centre, an art and photo gallery (which has regular art auctions and seminars), a 1320 seat theatre (complete with circle) where we saw a fabulous performance of Saturday Night Fever and a wonderful modern dance/aerial ballet show, a florist, a massive casino, an ice rink (the shows are spectacular), a conference centre, and even a wedding chapel (yes, you can get married on board).
The Greedy/boozy Bit
The ship boasts a main dining room which seats over 2000 people and is utterly beautiful. It reminded me a bit of the Titanic (oh. Can I say that?): the menu was very ‘fine dining’ with immaculate, service and a pretty incredible wine list.
There are also other, smaller, dining rooms, but if you didn’t fancy that, there was also Sorrento’s – a pizza place, a proper American burger joint called Johnny Rockets (where the waiters suddenly break out into a song and dance routine to 60s music), a self-service buffet called the Windjammer Café, and two amazing fine dining restaurants, Portofino and Chops Grille (you need to pay a small extra charge for these – I think it’s about $30 a head). More of all of this later. There are also loads of other bars, cafés, a Starbucks, a wine bar called Vintages, a champagne bar, a cigar bar… a piano bar… a nightclub… I stopped counting in the end.
So that’s it, you’re fully acquainted with the beautiful Liberty of the Seas. I’ve probably missed loads of bits out, but I think it’s a good indication of what’s available (basically EVERYTHING except pavement). Oh, you do get lost a lot in the first day or so and find yourself at totally the wrong end of the ship occasionally (ahem), but the staff are amazingly friendly (we never saw one grumpy face. Not one. The entire week), and it’s amazing how quickly you find your way around.
Next: dining, things to do for teens, shore leave (oh yes, there is horse riding in the sea) and much more, including when I fell over climbing Dunns River Falls and tried unsuccessfully to style it out.
All this, and not a whiff of mothballs.
If you want to see blog posts, tweets and photos from the rest of the Royal Mums, check out our hashtag, #royalmums on Twitter.
I recently made a promise to myself that I would stop taking pictures of food in restaurants. My husband hates it (especially when I slap his hand away from his plate) and I’ve lost count of the times my friends have sighed as I snap away at their plates, trying to get the best angle by practically sitting in their laps. Annoying, much?
But it’s SO hard. I did, for example, break my rule for this AMAZING starter at one of my favourite Disney fine dining restaurants, the Flying Fish on Disney’s Boardwalk
So, as Roz would say in Frasier, I must attempt to ‘use my words’. So here goes – my all-time top ten Disney dining experiences (so far):
Disney do breakfast REALLY well. If you’re heading to Florida, make sure you book at least one character breakfast where you get to meet some of Disney’s stars up close and personal. My favourite character breakfast is at Tusker House at Disney’s Animal Kingdom resort. The setting is amazing – you can just imagine you’ve stopped for a quick break from your African safari – and the food is just fabulous. As well as all the usual breakfast choices – Mickey waffles (my personal favourite), bacon, eggs, etc, there are some traditional African choices to try (Bobotie for breakfast? Why not?) and don’t forget a yummy glass of Jungle Juice to wash it all down.
Another favourite of mine, both in terms of the resort itself and in particular The Wave restaurant, is Disney’s Contemporary Resort. The setting is great - a brief monorail ride straight into the parks – and, as the name suggests, the resort is modern and very classy. I’ve had both dinner and breakfast in the stunning Wave restaurant and can’t decide which I like best, but the delicious cheese and bacon grits and sweet potato pancakes both take some beating in the morning. They also serve a range of addictive smoothies too.
Onto lunch then, and this is often a case of grabbing something at one of the many quick service dining options. If you get the chance, though, do try and stop off at the iconic Hollywood Brown Derby based at the Hollywood Studios park. I know I’ve talked about the Brown Derby before, but its Cobb salad (it’s enormous – order one between the two of you) – a chopped salad made from avocado, blue cheese, turkey, tomatoes, bacon… you name it, is an absolute must, and the setting, based on the original Vine Street Brown Derby in Hollywood is proper old school glam. The waiting staff are amazing and although you can wander in dressed in your cut off shorts and t-shirt, half way round Hollywood Studios, you’re always made to feel really special.
If you’re grabbing lunch on the run at the Magic Kingdom, pop in to Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn & Café in Frontierland and stuff your face with one of their scrummy barbecue pulled pork rolls. You add your own salad at the little salad bars, which I really like too.
Disney excel at fine dining. I’m finding it really hard to pick my favourites here, but Citricos at the utterly beautiful Grand Floridian resort has to be experienced to be believed. The service is absolutely faultless (the waiting staff know EVERYTHING about every dish and even change your white napkin for a black one if you’re wearing dark colours and don’t want to risk getting any white lint on your outfit), the cocktails are exquisite and the wine list is incredible. The panadas, a starter of delicately spiced beef in a filo pastry shell with a sweet/sour tamarind dip were crisp on the outside and rich and meaty in the middle. The braised short ribs entrée is one I’ve had a couple of times and is always meltingly tender. Their steaks are always amazing and cooked perfectly, and don’t you dare eat so much that you miss out on one of their intricately decorated decadent chocolate desserts.
My final choice (touch and go between this one and the equally fabulous Kouzzina (you can read a previous review here) also on the Boardwalk is The Flying Fish Café. I adore the Boardwalk – there’s nothing nicer than wandering along by the water, watching the sideshows, then after your delicious dinner, wandering back to your hotel under the stars, pausing to watch the fireworks at neighbouring Epcot. Every evening I’ve had here has been magical, and everything I’ve ever eaten has been incredible: crispy sesame calamari, crunchy coated Jonah crab cakes… sea bass, salmon… it’s all perfectly prepared and wonderfully presented. If you’re not massively into fish, don’t despair. They also do a ridiculously tender New York strip steak. Oh and before you waddle out? Force down a slice of the Florida Tequila key lime Margarita Pie. You’ll thank me.
If you’re about to travel to Walt Disney World Resort Florida, or need any help planning your journey, or need more recommendations for dining or park options I’m always happy to help. Drop me a line!
I had such a lovely flight to Gran Canaria. It wasn’t particularly the plane (with Thomson now launching their new 787 Dreamliners – they start flights to Mexico and Florida in May next year – I wonder if this will free up some newer planes to replace the clunky old Boeing 757-200s that are still being used on the Gatwick-Gran Canaria route?) in fact, I spent takeoff and landing being dripped with icy water from the air conditioning … No, it was that I was sitting next to a really lovely retired couple (hello Brian and Gail!) who not only came to my aid with a copy of the Financial Times to use as an impromptu umbrella, but also made a very boring flight enjoyable chatting about their travels and family.
Still, as usual the Thomson crew were gracious and smiley (and provided wodges of tissue to dry me off!) and about four hours later we touched down in Gran Canaria.
Arriving at the Hotel Maspalomas Princess we were gobsmacked at the sheer size of the place : the mirror image of its sister hotel, the Hotel Tabaiba Princess (now a Thomson all-inclusive resort) the two form an enormous w-shape with 800 rooms between them over three floors. A slightly shambolic check-in followed (large reception desk combined with no visible queuing system) but we were soon away and up to our lovely third floor room which was spotless, modern, comfortable and with a lovely balcony overlooking the pools.
We chose this hotel because my Disreputable Dad and his partner have been going there for ten years – the waiters and dining room staff greeted them like old friends – and we wanted to see what was so great about it that it keeps attracting them back. And here’s what I discovered:
The staff are fab: they work and work and work to make sure everything is perfect. Happy hour in the piano bar is 5-6pm and we often sat around playing cards and chatting with the bar staff, some of whom we became really fond of. Oh, and that brings me on to my next point:
The drinks are very good value for a big hotel too. There were cocktails for just €3 and soft drinks were good value at about €1.90 a pop – important when you have teens with you guzzling soft drinks.
The food is excellent: obviously the main restaurant is enormous and yes, you occasionally have to join a small queue to wait for a table (bear in mind it was half term too), but there is a huge amount of choice, with some dishes being cooked in a ‘show kitchen’ by chefs while you watch, a decent selection of both local and international dishes, plus the ubiquitous chicken nuggets and chips for the kids. My one gripe was a lack of decent coffee and juice in the mornings – both were served out of machines and were a bit meh.
The wine list is small but there are some great Spanish wines on there (up to about €20ish – we tried some corkers). Mexican evening was FANTASTIC with a Mariachi and a magnificent spread of authentic Mexican dishes.
The kids clubs are amazing: this is another area where Thomson excel. We often bumped into a happy band of kids with their Thomson carers. I always watch the children’s reps and they’re just SO lovely with the kids. It would drive me mental, but they’re always patient, sweet and kind – even with the more… er… challenging of their charges! They have a lovely bright playroom inside and often take small groups outside in the lovely hotel grounds too.
The lunch choices were varied and excellent: it’s important when you’re staying somewhere on a half board basis that there’s a bit of choice when it comes to grabbing lunch. There is a large range of cafés, beach shacks, etc with reasonably priced toasties, burgers (ooh and lovely crab wraps), also a lovely poolside restaurant serving salads, pizza, pasta, etc.
Around the hotel
The place is huge so there is loads to do: mini golf, table tennis, pool, etc. There is a baby pool, a heated larger pool and then a huge two-part pool on an artificial beach (let down by foot-slicing grit as opposed to sand). The hotel grounds are lush and beautiful with stunning plants and foliage.
Out and about
If you want to explore, you can easily grab a taxi from the front of the hotel and go to the bustly Playa Del’Ingles. We didn’t really bother. Just out of the back gate and across the road (the route to the beach – a good half hour walk, unfortunately) there’s also a lovely café serving toasties, salads, and a decent jug of Sangria.
If you fancy splashing out, walk the route to the stunning white beach at Maspalomas and seek out the El Senador restaurant – a gorgeous, seafront place selling the most amazing seafood. We feasted on a fantastic fish soup, fresh garlicky prawns, paella and the most amazing fish, plus my dessert – a Galician almond cake with a Pedro Ximenez reduction was TO DIE FOR. After all this exertion, waddle to the beach and plonk yourself on a lounger (it’ll cost you €7.50 for two beds, though, so don’t do it too often). If you feel more like walking off your lunch, be careful where you wander, there’s a lot of nude sunbathing areas!
I’m not a huge fan of half board (I’d rather have been all-inclusive in the Tabaiba part of the hotel) as we did spend quite a bit of money, but I can’t complain because that was our choice so that we could be with my Dad, plus you don’t really have to go and stuff your face at lunchtime like we did. There are plenty of good value options to be had within the hotel. We had a wonderful time, ate some amazing food, and although we weren’t hugely lucky with the weather, it was warm the whole time and we still came back rested, a bit browner and yes, a bit fatter than we went.
Always the sign of a very good holiday.
Oh, and Brian and Gail heartily recommended their own holiday destination, the Lopesan Villa Del Conde, which, they said, had amazing food, lovely staff and a fabulous setting.
Huge thanks, as ever, to the team at TUI UK.
Thomson offers seven night Platinum holidays to Gran Canaria staying at the 5T Hotel Maspalomas Princess Thomson Platinum Resort on a half board basis, from £609 per adult, first child travels from £324 and from £389 for the second. Price is based on four sharing and includes flights departing from London Gatwick airport on 7 January 2013. To find out more about this holiday or to book visit your local Thomson travel shop, thomson.co.uk or call 0871 230 2555.
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