The Disney Magic

Disney Cruise Line’s amazing new ‘Frozen’ destinations for 2015

I’m a huge Disney Cruise Line fan, as you know.  We were on the Disney Magic last year cruising around the Mediterranean and it was just absolutely magical.  Of course, the Magic has now had an incredible revamp and is ready, all sparkly and new, to set sail along with the Fantasy and Wonder for new destinations in the summer of 2015.

Read more

Phones: so important when you travel.

The one where I turn detective in my quest for cheaper mobile data bills while travelling

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I’ve been having a bit of a moan about mobile data roaming when travelling abroad.  Obviously, being online and staying in  contact is really important when, like me, it’s your business, but just generally, most people want to be able to stay in touch when they’re abroad (although obviously tweeting when you’re on the beach is generally only the preserve of nutters like me).

Read more

Indian tapas at Mother India's Café

Edinburgh for food lovers

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!

Read more

Dubai beach

My top 5 tips for keeping your travelling costs low

You know me.  I love, love, love to travel.  Whether it’s a gorgeous English country hotel like The Grove, a city break, or a Caribbean cruise – I love them all.  Being somewhat overenthusiastic about it, though, has its downsides – mostly financial.  Here’s how a keep a lid on my holiday spending, before I’ve even walked up the steps of the plane:

Read more

Artifacts (and a person) in storage at Pompeii

Sorrento, and visiting Pompeii with children

The trouble with holidays is that everyone wants something different.  In any family, you’ll get the one who wants to lie in the sun all day, the active one, the sightseer, the adventurer…  Mixing all these requirements into one holiday is often a challenge, so it’s sometimes best to book a holiday with a little bit of everything.  I always think Italy is good for this.  Pick somewhere like Sorrento and you should be able to please everybody.  The summer months are scorchio, there’s fabulous shopping, amazing food, and a fascinating old town with loads of bars  and cafés perfect for people watching.  Choose your hotel well, not all resorts have beaches as the coastline tends to be a bit rocky – I like the Hotel Atlantic Palace ( First Choice have holidays here) as it’s got a gorgeous pool area, plus a shuttle bus that will drop you at the nearest beach.  It’s also just a 40 minute train ride from the incredible ancient ruins at Pompeii.

Read more

Disney's Boardwalk

My top five Walt Disney World Florida resort hotels

Some lovely friends of mine were in Florida recently, staying at the gorgeous Animal Kingdom Lodge and I happened to comment on one of their Facebook pictures ‘oh, that’s my FAVOURITE Walt Disney World resort!’.  I love the African styling, and the fact that you can see giraffes wandering outside your window.  But then I thought about the glorious Grand Floridian, and the quite incredible Contemporary Resort, and I realised, I can’t have just one.  I have to have at least five! Read more

My piece in the Visit Guernsey brochure 2014

So as you’ll probably remember, Mr English and I had a wonderful few days in Guernsey earlier this year.  Recently, the lovely chaps at Visit Guernsey asked if I would be interested in contributing to their 2014 brochure and of course I was delighted.  They’ve just sent me my page and I’m so delighted with it, I asked if I could share it with you.  Isn’t it amazing?  The styling is fabulous and I’m so proud and pleased to have been asked.  Do try and get over to Guernsey very soon, it really is a beautiful place.

Guernsey Brochure page 2014

A 2013 roundup: one wedding, a few ships, beaches, restaurants and lots of cake

The last night on deck

With the boys on the deck of the Disney Magic

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.

Myself and my fellow cruise buddies with the Captain (Laura, Erica, Liz, Karin, Me, Capt Per, Tara)

Myself and my fellow cruise buddies with the Captain of the Liberty of the Seas (Laura, Erica, Liz, Karin, Me, Capt Per, Tara)

The ladies chillin' on deck with a cocktail

The ladies chillin’ on deck with a cocktail

The Liberty of the Seas at Labadee

The Liberty of the Seas at Labadee

April saw birthdays galore.   Charlie turned 15:

Charlie with his cake

Charlie’s 15th birthday

And Sam celebrated his 18th with karting, a party at home and a pretty epic double chocolate curly wurly cake

The gang at Rogue Racing

Sam’s friends at Rogue Racing for his 18th birthday party

 

Painstaking Curly Wurly application

Sam painstakingly adding the Curly Wurlies to his birthday cake

Then there was my Disreputable Dad’s wedding

De brevren on the dance floor

De brevren hogging the dance floor at their Grandad’s wedding

The boys with their beautiful cousin, Turtle

The boys with their beautiful cousin, Turtle, at my Dad’s wedding

In May, I headed out to the Cote d’Azur to experience the gorgeous Chateau Saint Martin in Vence:

Cocktails on the terrace before lunch

Cocktails on the terrace at Chateau Saint Martin, Vence

and then in June, we reviewed the Funky Fiat 500 and spent a wonderful family weekend at The Grove hotel with an exciting visit to the Warner Bros Studio Tour thrown in…

Gardens at The Grove

Gardens at The Grove

 

The boys on the Knight Bus at the Warner Bros Studio Tour

The boys on the Knight Bus at the Warner Bros Studio Tour

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:

On deck

On the deck of the Independence of the Seas

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!

Stockbridge Market, Edinburgh

Red velvet cake at Mimi's Bakehouse

Red velvet cake at Mimi’s Bakehouse

August was MENTAL with nearly three weeks of it spent abroad, in beautiful Brittany

Catching a glace with the fam in Brittany

Catching a glace with the fam in Brittany

and then with the boys on the INCREDIBLE Disney Magic – a real trip of a lifetime:

Minnie Mouse

With Minnie on the Disney Magic

 

'Jazz hands!' Charlie meets Stitch

‘Jazz hands!’ Charlie meets Stitch

We even managed to squeeze in a day in Barcelona with wonderful friends after desembarking:

Hotel Miramar, Barcelona

At Hotel Miramar in Barcelona with the boys

In September, Mr English and I squeezed in a quick weekend at Nutfield Priory

Terrace at Nutfield Priory

A sunny spot on the terrace at Nutfield Priory

and then in October, we headed off on an immersive wine cruise of Europe on the really quite gorgeous Celebrity Infinity…

Mr English

Mr English on the deck of the Celebrity Infinity in Bilbao

and then all that travelling squealed to an abrupt halt.  Because this little dude came along…

Little Boo

Our new little pupster

In November, Glam C and I went to Hogwarts Christmas at the Warner Bros Studio Tour:

With beautiful, snowy Hogwarts

With beautiful, snowy Hogwarts

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:

Turbot and crevette

Turbot and 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

My 2014 mantra

My 2014 mantra

 

Hogwarts at Christmas: The Warner Bros Studio Tour London

The Great Hall

So this week I took my lovely friend Glam C to the sneak preview of the brand new Hogwarts at Christmas event at The Warner Bros Studio Tour just near me at the Leavesden Studios.

As you know, I’ve visited the tour before (click here for my top ten tips for visiting the tour) but this time was extra special as everything has been decorated for Christmas.

I’m not going to give you too many spoilers, but Hogwarts in the snow is breathtaking, especially with the time lapse day to night lighting.  Look for the teeny footprints.  NOT flattering taking pictures lit from behind but hey ho…

With beautiful, snowy Hogwarts

Ooh, and we bumped into Amanda Holden too (rubbish photo – it was a bit dark), who is lovely.

With Amanda Holden

Originally Friday 15th November to Monday 6th January 2014, Hogwarts in the Snow has now been extended due to popular demand and runs until 12th January. Warner Bros tell me they’re nearly sold out so if you want to go, BOOK NOW!

Beautiful Barcelona!

One of my favourite days on the Disney Magic was, unbelievably, the day we got off.  We were dreading it as we had to disembark pretty early and our flight from Barcelona back to the UK wasn’t until 7pm.  I had no idea what to do or where to go.

Happily, it turned out that our lovely friends Drew and David are huge Barcelona fans and have been to the area loads of times.  They offered to show us around for the day, avoiding the tourist traps and it turned out to be such an incredible day, we just can’t wait to go back and spend longer in this amazing city.

We were dropped off by our coach right by the enormous ‘El Peix’ fish sculpture just at the Port Olimpic, and took a leisurely walk along Barceloneta Beach.  It was ridiculously scorchio and although we were dressed in jeans, we rolled them up and had a paddle (well, you just have to).  Our bimble along the beach led us to the rather awe inspiring Port Cable Car, or to give it its full title: the Transbordador Aeri del Port, which was slightly intimidating, but took us waaaay up above Barcelona.  The views are incredible – we could even see the little tiny Disney Magic docked in the port to our left!

Barceloneta beach from the Port Cable Car

The cable car takes you up to the most beautiful gardens, with dancing fountains and more amazing views of the city.  The hotel here is called the Miramar and we’d absolutely love to come back and stay here, it looks stunning.  Here we are, standing outside the hotel:

Hotel Miramar, Barcelona

After that, Dave and Drew had promised us a special treat.  We took a gentle walk from the Miramar Gardens and couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw this, through a little gap in a fence:

Two perfect squares of shimmering Listerine water, with barely a soul about.  You might recognise these pools, officially the Piscines Municipals de Montjuïc, from Kylie’s ‘Slow’ video.  They really are stunning and apart from a few locals they were practically empty. We hadn’t brought any swimming stuff but the boys stripped off and swam in their boxers – I have to say, I was mighty jealous as it was really steaming hot.  What a beautiful experience, though, even if I could only dip my toes in the water!  The pools are only open for a short time during the summer, but at €6 for entry, they’re a total bargain and again have a stunning view over the city. Just gorgeous and one of my favourite memories from the day.

After a couple of hours swimming and lazing, we decided to head back into the city for a well deserved G&T. We walked through the beautiful Joan Maragall Gardens – an absolutely lush oasis – you just wouldn’t believe they were so near a bustling city – they were completely empty too.  The Albéniz Palace is in the gardens and there are amazing waterfalls and features dotted all around it:

Waterfall in the Joan Maragall Gardens

The meandering walk eventually took us around to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, from which steps (and some escalators) lead right back down to the city centre.  The waterfalls on the way down are spectacular:

Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya waterfalls

Following Dave and Drew, we headed into the city to the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes and into the huge Arenas shopping centre, which used to be the bullring in the centre of Barcelona.   The old facade hides a new, glossy shopping centre, and trying not to look at several floors of shops, we whizzed up in a glass lift right to the top of the building, which is encircled by the most amazing terrace packed full of restaurants, bars and cafés.  We ended our day with goldfish bowl sized glasses of gin and tonic, made perfect with the addition of a scoop of lemon sorbet.

Heaven.  I can’t wait to go back.

Buckets of G&T

The Immersive Wine Cruise on the Celebrity Infinity: part 1

Celebrity Infinity Bilbao

The Celebrity Infinity, Bilbao

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!

iPad menu at Qsine

iPad menu at Qsine

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!

Our stateroom on the Celebrity Infinity

Our stateroom on the Celebrity Infinity

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.

The ‘three martini trick’ in the Martini Bar

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.

Crepe Suzette in the Bistro on 5

Crepe Suzette in the Bistro on 5

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.

One of the gorgeous pool areas on deck

One of the gorgeous pool areas on deck

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

 

 

Considering a Disney Cruise with teenagers? Here are my top tips!

The last night on deck

So as you know, I’m a huge Disney fan.  I adore Minnie Mouse, regularly weep over my ancient Beauty and the Beast DVD and could walk you around Walt Disney World blindfolded telling you all about my favourite rides.  I love the films, the characters, the parks, the food (Disney dining is second to none, but cupcakes are my speciality – ask me anything).  The boys have grown up with Hercules, Toy Story, Stitch and Pirates of the Caribbean, and Disney has been a part of all our lives for as long as we can all remember.

This summer we were ridiculously excited to be invited for an amazing trip aboard the Disney Magic as it cruised around the Mediterranean for one of the last times before heading to dry dock for a spectacular new makeover and with an 18 year old and a 15 year old in tow, I was interested to see how we’d get on.

Let’s be clear: there are as many different types of teens as there are holidays.  You’ve got your adventurous ones, your quiet ones, your sociable ones, your ‘not talk to anyone at all’ ones…  So what’s the best way to choose a holiday that will suit your teenagers AND the rest of you?

1. Involve them in the choice of holiday

As I write about travel, we tend to go on holiday a lot.  My teenagers have been on all sorts of trips but the ones that are the best received are always the ones where they’ve had some choice in the matter.  Make it a treat: head out for a burger (this is our standard meeting place as it guarantees at least a few minutes of silence where I can get my point across) and flump a big pile of brochures on the table (obviously you can tip the odds in your favour by adding in your favourites).  Arguing will no doubt ensue, but you’ll also be able to gather who wants what from a holiday.

2. Teenagers need freedom

Cruises are perfect for families.  Think about it: there’s buckets of fun for the little ones, plus the teenagers can’t really wander off and there are a gazillion activities for them to do.  You can stay by the pool, head to the beach or sightsee on shore days, watch the latest Disney films (either on the amazing ‘Tunnel Vision’, an outdoor screen, or in a proper cinema), catch a show (the shows are INCREDIBLE – I always cry), play a game of basketball or table tennis… a Disney cruise is like 10 holidays in one and their kids’ clubs are amazing.

3. Which brings me to a word about kids’ clubs

Teen Clubs are really hard to get right.  It helps if the age groups are well thought out (young teens and old teens is the best split: no 17 year old wants their style cramped by a 13 year old) and the leadership needs to be friendly and non-patronising.  ‘Teen disco’ tends to strike fear into the heart of any teenager, but generally by day four or five they’ll be there, hanging about looking like they don’t really want to be there, but actually enjoying themselves.  By day seven, they’ll be cruising around in a huge pack, annoying everyone.  Teen clubs also allow them more access to the facilities: Charlie wanted to go into the gym, but it’s over 18s only.  Turns out the teen club organise group visits to the gym.  Result: happy Charlie.

4. Think outside the box

Our Disney Magic cruise took us to Spain, Italy and France, but maybe you fancy going further afield, or you’ve ‘done’ Rome already?  No problem.  Disney Cruises go to the most amazing places: cruise the Caribbean, or swoosh along the California coastline.  Next on my list?  Alaska!

5. Compromise compromise and compromise a bit more

Want to schlep around Pompeii on your shore day but have kids who want to lie by the pool plugged in to their iPhones?  It’s all about the compromise.  There are some absolutely amazing shore excursions – you don’t have to spend hours in a coach or traipsing round cathedrals.  Let them choose what they want to do – I wanted to see Monaco, so we chose a trip with a visit to the Top Car Museum in Monte Carlo, which suited all of us.  Also, maybe consider splitting up.  We find this works well: I might head off on a trip with one, leaving Dad slobbing on the deck with the other.

6. City breaks can be really cool

We weren’t looking forward to our last day in Barcelona.  We were disembarking at 9am and had all day to kill before our evening flight.  We were lucky to team up with friends we’d made who knew it inside out and showed us around some really cool places.   It turned out to be one of our favourite days.

7. Disney is part of everyone’s past

Some of our favourite moments were really unexpected.  We bumped into Stitch – a huge favourite from their childhood, and one evening we sat and watched Hercules up on the deck, singing along to our favourite songs from the film and reminiscing about when it was their favourite film (‘nice catch, jerkules!’).  Lovely moments to share.

8. Consider doubling up

Know another family with kids a similar age? Think about holidaying together.  Not only is it fun to have a Disney adventure with friends, but it’s a lot easier walking into that kids’ club on the first day if they’re doing it with someone they know.  It also means that you have more adults to mingle with too!

Chas pirate

9. Everybody loves the pirate party

Trust me: nobody is ever too old for pirate night.  Everyone on the ship dresses up as pirates (whole families bring their costumes with them), there are pirate themed dinners and then a massive party on the deck afterwards, with the best firework display ever and then a DJ until the early hours.  There is nothing better than dancing to amazing tunes out on the deck at ridiculous o’clock in the morning under the biggest sky full of stars you ever saw.

10. Disney’s for everyone

Think Disney’s just for young ones? Think again.  One of my happiest moments after we came back from the cruise was overhearing Sam talking to a friend describing the cruise: ‘I’m going every year if I can, mate, you can’t beat Disney’.  Nothing makes me happier than to know I’ve passed my love of everything Disney onto my children.

 

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.

The reimagineering of the Disney Magic Cruise Ship – a sneaky peak (with video!)

The beautiful Disney Magic in port at Villefranche, France – ENGLISH MUM

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.

Our favourite sunbeds on the deck

Our favourite sunbeds on the deck

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!

'Jazz hands!' Charlie meets Stitch

‘Jazz hands!’ Charlie meets Stitch

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!

How the new atrium lobby will look pic: (c) Disney Cruise Line

How the new atrium lobby will look. Pic: (c) Disney Cruise Line

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!

Children's pool area

The current children’s pool area – we’ll be waving goodbye to Mickey! – ENGLISH MUM

Here’s a sneaky peak at the new look ‘Aqua Lab’ (with kind permission of Disney Cruise Line):

The new Aqua Lab water playground. Pic (c) Disney Cruise Line

The new Aqua Lab water playground. Pic (c) Disney Cruise Line

Restaurant areas

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 Animator’s Palate – ENGLISH MUM

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!!!:

DM-Avengers-Academy-640x288

The new Marvel’s Avengers Academy. Pic (c) Disney Cruise Line

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.

Andy's Room. Pic (c) Disney Cruise Line

Andy’s Room. Pic (c) Disney Cruise Line

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 Spa

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.

The Staterooms

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.

The new staterooms. Pic: (c) Disney Cruise Line

The new staterooms. Pic: (c) Disney Cruise Line

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.

Palo seared tuna with potato risotto

Seared tuna with potato risotto

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

Butter

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.

Seared 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.

Doing my 'piece to camera'

 

The Honda CR-V test drive – a two week trip to Brittany

Honda CR-V

With our holiday to Brittany booked at the end of last year, we started to look around at transport options to get us there. I’m not a fan of ferry travel, being a bit of a puker, and flights meant that we would have had to hire a car – quite an expensive option.  In the end, we settled for a MyFerryLink transfer from Dover to Calais (fast and efficient, and with crossings starting at £30 a very reasonably priced choice – they also have a very large shopping boutique online, which pleased me).  Honda then stepped in and offered to lend us one of their new CR-V diesel 4WD cars for the holiday, which pleased me even more.

Before we start

As usual with our car reviews, I’m not Jeremy Clarkson so there won’t be much stuff about drag coefficients or torque, but if you’re choosing a car and considering the Honda, we’ll tell you what we liked and what we didn’t like. What was fun and what wasn’t.  Simples.

First impressions

The Honda is a lovely looking car.  There’s something about the lights that make it look like it has wide eyes with long lashes (or is that just me?).  We loved the pearlescent paint and it looked roomy enough to accommodate us and our luggage.  We were lucky enough to have the highest spec EX version with some really handy extras – more of those later, but for now, we were packed and ready to go…

Packed and ready to go!

What we liked

With a 500 mile slog ahead of us, we were happy to find that the seats were really comfy.  The boot is huge (589 litres, whatever that means) and the rear seats fold down with a single pull of a lever. Handy.  There are tons of cupholders and storage spaces

The keyless access (available with the EX – you just keep the fob in your pocket) is really clever and there’s just a push button to start.  You can also open and close the windows with it (a great show off trick).

The integrated Sat Nav with turn by turn function (also standard on the EX) was great and worked well in France, although we felt it was slow on roundabouts and until we got used to it there was some confusion about which exit to take.

The rear parking video display is amazing – once you’ve worked out which line is which, parking is effortless (although Mr English missed his ‘beep beep’ reversing sensor).

With an average 43mpg on our journey we managed Calais to Brittany on one tank, which was really impressive and fabulous for the lazy amongst us who hate filling up.  There’s also an eco function that has a green light on the dash which shows you when you’re driving in the most economic manner.

The stereo was fabulous, and with loads of connections in the central arm rest (USB/AUX etc) everyone could have turns at being a DJ. You can also connect your phone via BlueTooth.

The aircon is fantastic and very efficient, causing loads of arguments as I hate having freezing cold air blowing on me, but the rest of the family love it.  The boys had their own aircon vents in the back.

We took the Honda to the beach on a regular basis and found the boot liner so handy.  When we got back to the villa we just unpacked and then removed the liner to shake off all the sand.  I should imagine it’s wonderful for dogs and muddy football boots too.  The boot lid closes with one touch of a button which we loved. You can also open and close it from the driver’s seat and the fob (and yes, it stops closing if you put your head in it – we tested it with Charlie’s head).

CR-V at the beach

The EX also had a spectacular panoramic glass roof which made the whole car feel really light and airy, although you can close it on a hot day when the sun’s really beating down to keep the interior cooler.

What we didn’t like

In our usual slap dash style, we omitted to read the manual and a few things took some getting used to, like every time the driver got out of the car, the seat went back, then you had to push your pre-programmed button to put it back into position.  We’re not sure if it’s always like that (to allow easy exit and entry) or if we were doing something wrong.

We also worried that we were scratching the hard plastic on the door by putting the key fob in there every time. It’s probably better kept somewhere else.

The verdict

What a fab car.  We all loved it and felt quite sad to see it go after sharing a couple of weeks and over a thousand miles together.  We thought it looked beautiful and was really functional as a family car (and boy, did we test it).  The Honda is built in Swindon too.

A word of warning though: do read the instruction manual.  It took us 8 hours to do the drive from Calais to Brittany as we had inadvertently got the Sat Nav set to avoid toll roads.  It was 2 hours quicker on the way back.

The vehicle we tested was the Honda CR-V 2.2i-Dtec EX 4WD manual in White Orchid Pearl, OTR £30,995 or £31,495 with the pearlescent paint.

Massive thanks to Honda (UK) for their generosity, patience and time.  You can find more information on the Honda CR-V here.

Review: Nutfield Priory Hotel and Spa, Nutfield, Surrey

Nutfield PrioryDespite 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.Standard bedroom at Nutfield Priory

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.

Cocktail at Nutfield PrioryAfter 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.

Hake at Nutfield Priory

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.

Brittany: sunshine, pastries and moules et frites

We’re having such a wonderful time.  Long, lazy lie-ins and then a trip to the local boulangerie for baguettes (there is no better smell on earth than a boulangerie first thing in the morning – it draws you in) and, our new ‘thing’ a different type of patisserie every day. Just to try. We’ve been SO lucky with the weather – cloudy mornings, but warm enough to stay on the beach, then in the afternoon the clouds seem to lift and it’s blue, blue, blue… a couple of days we’ve had ‘our’ beach to ourselves and we’ve snoozed and the boys have played football and I’ve read about four books already. I even swam! Well, paddled – the water’s a bit cold!  In the evening we’ve tried a different restaurant every night – beautiful pink crevettes, garlicky scallops, moules et frites, and even the odd hamburger have been merrily scoffed. Then it’s back to our little villa for shouty games of cards, the odd movie and a few beers (or in my case, rosé).

Happy, happy days. Don’t make me come home!




My family holiday packing checklist – download it here!

Vence

Ah, La Belle France

We’re off on our travels!

I’m off to Brittany with my lovely family (and a new Honda CR-V that we’re test driving) for two weeks of sunshine, beaches and seafood (hopefully!).  I’ve been a bit poorly, which unfortunately coincided with the Mr being on duty, but my big strapping boys, both now taller than me but still the givers of the best hugs, have stepped up, cooked dinner, made tea, mowed the lawn and generally looked after me.  They’re looking forward to beach days, lie ins, moules et frites, no exams, no revision… I’m excited for cheese, French markets (napkins, tablecloths and tablewear on my list, as well as the food!), gentle walks into town for fresh baguettes and pains au chocolat, lazy restaurant dinners, discovering local wine, persuading someone to visit the odd Chateau with me, and yes, maybe a dip in the sea.  I’m exhausted and happy and excited all at the same time.  Also secretly hoping that this won’t be our last holiday together – just the four of us (when is it that they decide holidaying with the parentals is no longer the done thing?). Got my hair done too!

New hair

Talking of holidays, last week I had a great girly chat with lovely Jenni from NonStopMama who was interviewing me for a podcast.  We got talking about all things travel related and I told her about my packing spreadsheet.  I know, nerdy right?  I have a spreadsheet, which I print out every time I’m about to go away and tick things off as they go into the suitcase.  Okay, so it sounds a bit over the top but when you’re rushing to catch an early flight and your mind is all over the place, it’s nice to have a list so you don’t sail off down the M25 towards the airport with your toothbrush still sitting by the sink and your carefully chosen bikinis still lying on your bed.  It happens, people.

Jenni was quite interested in my spreadsheet, so I thought you might be too.  I’ve made it into a pdf so it’s now easy to download, then print out.  I’ve left some room for extra stuff if you want to amend it, but I’d love it to be a work in progress, so if you think I’ve missed anything vitally important, do let me know, and we’ll keep updating it.

PS: Don’t forget your travel insurance.  Find out more about family travel insurance from Debenhams here!

Anyway, you know me: I’m sure I’ll nab a bit of free wifi along the way and pop back and say hi.  You can follow our travels on TwitterFacebook and Instagram, otherwise, enjoy the sunshine and I’ll see you very soon!

 

English Mum's family holiday packing checklist

www.etsplc.com

On test: meet and greet airport parking

SuitcaseI think one of the worst things about flying is actually getting yourself to the airport.  From where we live there are few options that aren’t a massive pain.  You can get a coach, but you have to drive to the bus station, so where do you park your car for two weeks?  You can train it, but after struggling up stairs with a massive suitcase at Clapham Junction when the lift was out of order, I vowed never to do it again.  So basically this leaves me with driving, which is my preferred option.

When we’ve used airport parking before, we’ve always used the system where you park in a car park a way away from the airport, then hop on a bus to the terminal.  Sometimes this works really well, but on the return journey, when you’re freezing cold, haven’t slept after a night flight, and you’re the 57th stop on a packed bus, it can be a bit of a pain.

Let’s hear it for Stress Free Airport Parking, then.  The clue’s in the title, but basically they offer a service (at every major UK airport) where you drive to the airport, they meet you right by the terminal, you hand over your car to them, they store it, and then pick you up when you land.

I was keen to try it out, but had a few worries.  Firstly, at Luton (my local airport and the biggest pain in the bum to drop anyone off or pick them up) they charge you £2 JUST TO DROP SOMEONE OFF.  I’ve never encountered this charge at any other airport, but yep, you have to pay.  And if you don’t pay, the camera vans regularly on patrol will spy you dropping passengers off on the approach road and charge you.  I know this because I’ve been caught.  Not worth the £80 fine.  So how would Stress Free Airport Parking get round that?  Also, where do they take your car? Do they look after it?  Who drives it? What if I’m delayed?

So I tried it out.  And I have to say, I was mightily impressed.  You ring when you’re 20 minutes away from the airport, drive into the short stay car park and take a ticket, then a very nice driver meets you in a specially allocated bay.  You do a walk round of the car with him (so there’s no disputes afterwards about whether a certain mark or scratch was there before) and they mark down the mileage.  They guarantee they’ll do less than x amount of miles on your car (I think at Luton it was 20, but can’t remember exactly).  The driver (who is fully insured – I double checked this) then takes your car away to secure storage while you tootle off on your holiday.  When you return, you give them a ring as you collect your baggage and when you step out of the terminal, your car is magically waiting for you – car park ticket paid, ready for you to drive home.

The drivers were uniformed, polite and efficient, my car was immaculate, and had less than ten miles added to the mileage, and the whole experience was completely stress-free.  I asked my driver what happens if you’re delayed, and because they’ve got your flight number, they keep a track of flights so they know if you’re going to be in late and expect you at the right time. No expensive calls and text from foreign airports, then.

Our verdict: brilliant.  I’ve used it twice since our test and I’ll be booking again when I fly from Heathrow next month.  It really is the only way to travel!

Many thanks to Stress Free Airport Parking for inviting me to try out their service.

Driving in France – what you need to know

Teenager Tetris

So we’re counting the days until our holiday now -  we’ve paid the final payment on our (hopefully) lovely villa, the car ferry to France is booked, and work on the packing list has commenced.  As always, I’m slightly nervous about driving in France (I stick a post-it note on the dashboard which says ‘on the right, IN the right’ lest I forget), so before we go I’m getting everything organised.  What’s the big deal? Well, there are a couple of things you need to do before you travel.  Here’s my list:

Get your documents in order

Most important on any trip, this – make sure your travel insurance is up to date and take the documents with you, along with your car insurance and breakdown cover.

Get your car ready

GB sticker: you’ll need to show your country of origin clearly, so make sure that your car number plate shows either the GB Euroflag, or you’ve got a GB sticker on your car.

Headlamp converters: because you drive on the right in France, your headlights can dazzle oncoming traffic and must be converted with a simple sticker that fixes directly to the headlight.  They can be a bit tricky to fit, but if you pop in to most motorists’ centres he day before you leave and smile sweetly at them, they’ll fit them for you.

Sort out your in-car kit

In France, you need to have certain items in your car at all times.  These include:

Breathalyser: this must carry the French ‘NF’ mark of approval. You can buy packs of two on Ebay quite cheaply, so if you use one, you’ve got another spare.  Check the expiry date too.

Hi-viz jacket: at least one, but ideally one for everyone in the car.

Spare lamps: you’re supposed to carry spare lamps for every light that can be easily changed.  Obviously, if it takes a mechanic to remove a complicated headlamp unit, then this kind of negates the need for them, but anything easily changeable should have a replacement handy.

Warning triangle: a lot of modern cars already carry these, but double check or buy a folding one to stash in the boot.

First aid kit: this isn’t a legal requirement, but it’s handy to check to see whether your car has a first aid kit, or make up a simple one and pop it in the boot, just in case

Fire extinguisher: again, not a legal requirement, but worth considering.

Remember, legal requirements change so do check before you travel.  And that’s it - ferry trip deals sorted, car packed and paperwork in order.  Just remember:  ON THE RIGHT, IN THE RIGHT.  Oh and don’t forget to pack the kids!

A tour of Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas

As you probably know, I’m a ‘Royal Mum’ – (a Royal Caribbean International Official Family Ambassador, to give me my full title, don’t you know), and last week saw us whooshing down to Southampton on a very sweaty, packed commuter train (‘there was some unwanted bodily contact’, as Charlie put it). Still, when we’d finished playing sardines, we arrived at a hotel in the port just in time to catch up with all my fellow Royal Mums, Tara, Erica, Laura and Karin: the same group, if you’ll remember, that earlier this year took a divine trip on the Liberty of the Seas around the Caribbean. This time we were here with our families, and we brought along a few other families that we know, to enjoy a tour of Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas while she was in dock in Southampton for the day before heading out on another Mediterranean cruise.

Happily, we picked the hottest day of the year so far and headed straight to the FlowRider, which was opened especially for us! We were all delighted to meet celebrity Royal Mum and Royal Caribbean Ambassador Sally Gunnell, who was there with her kids (FlowRider experts!) too. What a lovely lady.

After my ungainly few seconds, the boys were determined to do better, but actually it’s pretty tricky to stand up while the water whooshes underneath you! Here’s Charlie having a go:

Charlie flowrider

But of course it’s not just about the FlowRider – we also had a delicious meal in the main restaurant (as always, their steaks are AMAZING). And I’ve actually asked for the recipe of the scrummy, spicy fish terrine that we were served with some crispy toasts. Yum.

Next it was off for cupcake decoration at the Cupcake Cupboard (a BIG favourite with the kids) and then a taster version of Independence’s AMAZING ice show, which we watched while sipping rum punches. Heaven.

Ice show

It was also nice to chat to the Captain, who told us that he never ceases to be amazed by how the 1000+ kids on board seem to disappear before his very eyes to clubs/pools/activities, leaving parents to enjoy the holiday without worrying about entertaining the smalls (in fact, we know from experience that it’s actually quite difficult to tear them away!).

Last but not least, we headed up to the amazing H2O Zone, where kids of all ages (ahem) enjoyed a little splash about in this incredible water play park:

H2O Zone small

Honestly, it was the hardest thing ever to disembark that day after having such fun with old friends and new, knowing that the passengers were heading off on a sublime cruise around the Med in the sunshine.

Still, an amazing day and an absolutely wonderful ship. I hope we’ll see the Independence of the Sea again very soon.

(For all the pics and action from the day, check out the #royalmums hashtag on Twitter. Follow Royal Caribbean International: @myroyalUK)

Ten top tips for visiting the Warner Bros Studio Tour, London, and tickets to win!

The boys on the Knight Bus at the Warner Bros Studio TourOn our recent trip to The Grove Hotel, we’d arranged a visit to the Warner Bros Studio Tour - The Making of Harry Potter at Leavesden Studios.  The tour, based in the studios originally used to film the series, has some absolutely amazing things to see and do – loads of props and costumes, sneaky peeks behind the scenes and much more.  It’s a difficult one to review as I’m conscious that I don’t want to spoil it for you if you’re planning a visit yourself, but here’s our top ten tips for visiting the Warner Bros Studio Tour:

1. BOOK!

If you want to visit the tour, you MUST book.  They don’t accept any walk-ins at all and we saw quite a few people who had paid a lot of money to travel from London who were turned away at the ticket office.  You cannot buy a ticket at the studios.

2. Check prices

There are options for family tickets which work out better value than buying single tickets.  At the moment, the adult ticket is £29, child is £21.50 (age 5 to 15) and under 4s are free.  The family ticket (two adults, two children or one adult, three children) is £85.

3. Invest in the audio visual guide

The guide costs £4.95 and basically narrates your journey around the tour to you through headphones.  It’s narrated by Draco Malfoy, which is a rather lovely voice to have in your ear as you wander round the tour.  It’s invaluable as it stops you missing bits out and also is full of really interesting facts too.  Oh, and if you buy the guidebook, don’t look at it as you’re queuing – it contains lots of spoilers!

4. Check the website before you book

There are often special events – for example over the summer holidays (Friday 26th July to Monday 2nd September) there’s the ‘Summer Spells’ special events where you can learn more about some of the famous spells from the series and take part in wand choreography lessons.

5.  Be prepared to queue

The staff let about 100 people in every half hour, so you might queue for a short while.

6. Take your time

The tour is SO exciting, and there’s so much to see that the temptation is to rush round everything.  However, once you’ve left the first studio, you can’t go back in, so if you discover you’re pretty quick round the second part, you can’t go back!  This is another reason why the audio visual tour thingy is worth the money as it encourages you to pace yourself.

7. Hogwarts Castle

Don’t rush past the model (you won’t want to anyway, it’s beautiful) as the lighting is adjusted from night to day over a 4 minute cycle – perfect for pictures.

8. The shop

Be aware that the tour filters you out into the shop, so you’re going to have to be prepared to run the ‘can I have this? Can I have that?’ gauntlet.  If you’ve got younger children it’s worth setting a budget before they’re exposed to all the goodies!

9. Food and drink

There’s a café in the foyer which serves decent food and drink, but if it’s a nice day, bring a picnic as there’s a nice picnic area by the carpark that you can use.  You can also buy a drink and a snack in the outside area after the first studio – you can also buy butterbeer here and see the Dudleys’ house and the Knight bus where you can hop on and take photos!

10. Look out for hotel deals or store your luggage

The deal we reviewed was an overnight stay at The Grove.  You’ll find more information, and prices, here.

Whether you’re travelling locally or you’re flying in from abroad, ABC Selfstore in Camden have a range of luggage storage facilities to make your trip around the Warner Bros studios more enjoyable and less weighed down!

I’ve also got a family ticket for the Warner Bros. Studio Tour to give away courtesy of the Current Accounts team at NatWest!  Just leave a comment, telling me your favourite scene/quote/character from the Harry Potter movie series and the winner will be chosen at random.  Usual English Mum giveaway rules apply. Giveaway ends at midnight on Friday 2nd August 2013.

**THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED – THANKS FOR YOUR ENTRIES – THE WINNER OF THE FAMILY TICKET WAS JOANNE BLUNT**

Fun in the sun: sun creams on test!

Sun creams on test!  Testing sun creams so you don’t have to

At this time of year there’s a huge choice of sun protection on offer: creams, sprays, aerosols, lotions, milks and more. We took a selection of different products and compared them over a week, using them while swimming, sunbathing, playing sport (the boys, not me, obviously) and much more.  Here are our (very non-scientific) findings:

 

We triedRiemann P20 SPF 50+ clear spray £19.99 (200ml)

What we thought: this brilliant product provides 10 hours’ protection from one generous application.  It’s a spray, but it’s quite heavy, and you do feel rather like a cross-channel ferry being larded up while you’re applying it, but then that’s kind of the point, because once it’s on, it stays on.  This is brilliant for situations when kids are out in the hot sun playing a football match, or off on a school trip and you can’t get to them (or indeed trust them) to apply more cream.  I wouldn’t imagine it’s perfect on a beach holiday as I think you’d end up with rather a lot of sand stuck to you, but it’s perfect for sports/by the pool (it’s classified as ‘very water resistant’ so doesn’t need reapplying after swimming), etc.  It’s also lovely to put on your legs as it gives them a really nice sheen.  Oh and don’t get it on your clothes – it can stain lighter fabrics.

The small print: ‘P20 has both UVA and UVB filters.  Very water resistant.’

 

We tried: the Hawaiian Tropic  SPF20 Protective Dry Spray Oil, £12.29 (200ml)

What we thought: I love the smell of Hawaiian Tropic. It takes me right back to walking along the beach as a kid and getting a coconutty waft of that heady scent, which, unfortunately, is why the kids don’t like it that much.  I guess teenage boys don’t really want to smell of ‘exotic island botanicals’.  But hey, sod them, because I’m keeping this one anyway.  The dry oil spray is easy to apply with minimal rubbing in and leaves a lovely sheen on the skin.

The small print: ‘water resistant, advanced UVA/UVB protection’

 

We tried: Nivea Sun SPF 30 Invisible Protection Transparent Spray, £11.00 (200ml)

What we thought: big hit with the boys this one – a non greasy spray that rubs in quite easily and is perfect for active fellas as it provices immediate protection.  I was’t so keen on this one as I didn’t find it very moisturising and on application it’s got a bit of a chemically smell to it, but it’s perfect for, say, a day trip, when you don’t want to be all greasy all day and be transferring it onto bag/sunglasses/phone etc.  The spray mechanism is a bit dodgy unless you’re holding it upright which is a bit of a pain for hard-to-reach areas, still, not rocket science to spray it into your hand first.

The small print: water resistant, UVA and UVB filters.

 

We tried: Boots No 7 Anti-Ageing Sun Protection spray SPF30, £12.95 (200ml)

What we thought: obviously just for me this one as the teenagers don’t need much anti-ageing other than normal sunscreen.  It’s smells pleasant and is quite a light lotion, so nice and easy to rub in, although the spray has a mind of its own and tends to rocket out, splattering everything and everyone around you.  It’s a bit sticky for a while but does sink in eventually.  Definitely does leave skin nice and smooth.

The small print: ‘broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection helps guard against skin damaging effects of both ageing and burning UV rays. With daily use skin is left feeling and looking smoother.  Water resistant and non pore blocking.’

 

We tried: Apivita Anti-spot Face Cream SPF50, £20.31

What we thought: I’m prone to dark patches on my face if I’m in the sun, so I always wear a really high SPF.  The downside of that is that often they’re quite greasy and can clog pores, causing spots.  This is a beautiful product containing loads of natural goodies including sea lavender, sea fennel and propolis, a natural substance collected by bees and used in hive production.  It’s so light that I found I could layer it over my normal moisturiser, but for those with less dry skin it can be used on its own. Leaves a nice sheen and sinks in completely.  Smells lovely too.

The small print: hypoallergenic, water resistant, protection against UVA and UVB radiation with photostable combination of filters and sea lavender’.

 

We tried: ultrasun High 30SPF Super Sensitive: family formula £19 (100ml)

What we thought: This is a light cream in a smart, pump action dispenser.  It’s another once-a-day application but isn’t at all heavy and rubbed in really easily.  It’s quite pricey at £19 for the 100ml pump but we really liked it.  There’s also a High 30SPF face version which is anti-aging (£20 for 50ml) which was just as light and moisturising with no greasy film.  Fabulous products.

The small print: ‘UVA 93% and UVB SPF30) with just one application per day. Its super sensitive formulation is ideal for very sensitive and children’s skin and helps to prevent ‘prickly heat’ reactions’. Water-resistant and free from perfume, emulsifiers and preservatives.

 

We tried: Dead Sea Spa Magik Sunsafe SPF50 £16.95 (150ml)

What we thought: this was my favourite of the ‘splurge it all over’ body creams as it smells yummy and is really moisturising, without being sticky, with anti-ageing benefits too.  It’s organic and waterproof for 8 hours.

The small print: ‘UVA and UVB protection, suitable for sensitive skin, 8 hour waterproof’.

 

We tried: Proactiv Solution Daily Protection Plus Sunscreen SPF30 £11.95 (118ml)

What we thought: this cream is prt of the proactiv solution range of products for spot-prone skin.  The boys used this before they played American football on a particularly hot day and initially thought it was a bit greasy on application, however, it did sink in and didn’t seem to irritate at all.  It’s not water-resistant and needs reapplying after swimming, etc, but if you’re prone to spots this is a good moisturiser to use in the sun.

The small print: ‘provides UVA/UVB protection, non comedogenic’

 

 

We tried: Korres Antispot hand cream with organic Almond oil and vitamin C SPF15 £9 (75ml)

What we thought: this is a hand cream specifically developed to protect hands from developing new sun spots and treat and minimise existing ones while providing SPF15 protection.  I LOVED this and have been slathering it on during the hot weather.

The small print: ‘suitable for everyday use, non oily light texture, dermatologically tested’

A guide to flying with children – downloadable ebook

I’ve had my fair share of travel disasters over the years: lost passports, hours spent waiting for delayed planes, spaghetti vomit, you name it.  Admittedly, as in the case of our extra week in Morocco due to the Icelandic ash cloud, there are some things you can’t plan for, but generally forewarned is forearmed when it comes to flying.

My best advice has always been plan, plan and plan a bit more.  I have a list that comes out every time I’m packing which gets amended depending on where I’m going and for how long, and then sits by my suitcase until everything is ticked off.  It’s amazing how easy it is to forget toothbrushes, phone chargers and all those last minute things, so it’s best to tick them off as they go in the case, so you can see exactly what’s left to pack.

Of course, flying with the family can be stressful, but I’ve got together with Cheapflights.co.uk to bring you a brilliant ebook guide to flying with children because, let’s face it, the more prepared you are, the less stressed you’ll all feel.  The advice covers planning, booking, preparing and packing for your flight, as well as tips for when you’re at the airport and on the plane and covers babies, 3-6 years and 7 and beyond.  There’s even advice and inspiration from celebrity mums and dads who, let’s face it, are most likely to walk down the steps looking fresh as a daisy, rather than the rest of us who are often crumpled, hot and flustered.

So without further ado, I present to you… A guide to flying with children.  Enjoy!

Guide to flying with children

 Massive thanks to Cheapflights.co.uk for their time and patience!