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

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

 

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

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)

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!

 

A family friendly weekend at The Grove, Hertfordshire

Sam ruining a perfectly good picture

Sam ruining a perfectly good picture

I live relatively near to The Grove and have often wondered what it’s like when I pass it on the way to do a spot of shopping at The Harlequin shopping centre.  I hear about it quite regularly as it’s often in the news when the latest celeb stays, or the England team pop in to train there.  I’ve always thought of it more as a ‘posh’ getaway – somewhere to escape for a romantic weekend, rather than take the kids, but their latest packages includes tickets to the nearby Warner Bros Studio Tour, and I was delighted to be invited to try it out WITH the teenagers. Gulp.

The journey was rather fraught as Sam had been on a field trip to Wales and dropped his phone into a rockpool so wasn’t able to text us his return time.  I’d arranged a tour of the gardens with Head Gardener David Roberts and as it got later and later I got more and more worried.

Still, we finally got there well after our arranged time to find lovely David still waiting for me.  After checking in and once again giving the boys the ‘representing me, not getting into mischief, noise/mobiles/sodding around blah blah’ lecture, they headed off to check out the pool while I wandered the beautiful grounds with David.

The original part of the house dates from the 18th century and, most famously, was owned by the 5th Earl of Clarendon who often entertained Queen Victoria (The Times apparently coined the term ‘Weekend Break’ to describe her visits there).  We were very generously given deluxe rooms in the ‘new’ part of the building, added about 10 years ago (and very nice they were too – you can see my Instagram video of my room here).  David and his team of 12 keep the gardens immaculate.  There are often weddings and other functions so there’s never any ‘down’ time. Everything has to look perfect.  But, as David pointed out, the gardens are there to be enjoyed, and there are plenty of fun, quirky features that will delight you (and certainly your kids) as you walk round.

The walled garden was my favourite part, and not just because of the massive topiary giraffe that peeks over the fence at you.  The walls are lined with roses and fruit trees and there’s a beautiful outdoor pool (heated) with a beach area complete with volleyball court, as well as a lovely glass building called modestly ‘the potting shed’ with all sorts of fun things to do – little areas for reading, a table tennis table and snooker.  David also encourages visitors to wander around the wonderful vegetable garden where fresh produce is grown for the restaurant kitchens:

Gardens at The Grove

Gardens at The Grove

You can also borrow bikes to whizz around the 300 acres, and David and his team are happy to show you around (David is a mine of information about the history of the grounds and gardens – I won’t spoil it all but there’s WW2 action and secret tunnels too!).  Plus of course there’s the tiny matter of one of the world’s finest championship golf courses…

The Sequoia Spa is absolutely beautiful.  Sadly we were a bit pushed for time as we were off to the Warner Bros Studio Tour on the Sunday morning, but I’d absolutely come back and try some of their fabulous sounding treatments.  The boys ADORED the pool (which is dark blue and a work of art in itself) and again the staff were all lovely and not at all bossy or stern with them (always a good sign, I think).

We ate in The Glasshouse restaurant (after panicking about what to wear, it was actually a very casual affair – for a special occasion there is Colette’s, The Grove’s fine dining restaurant).  The food is served ‘buffet style’ but the term doesn’t really do justice to the huge amount of choice, including tapas, charcuterie, a seafood bar, a carvery section with all sorts of roasted meat, a ‘live wok station’  with a chef who makes whatever stir-fry you like to order (here’s a video of my own personal stir-fry being created), a selection of curries, every dessert you could possibly think of, AMAZING cheeses (I might have had seconds… okay, thirds) plus… wait for it… a white chocolate fountain complete with fruit and home-made marshmallows ready for dunking!

Dining at The Grove

Dining at The Grove

The staff are wonderful.  In fact, they are just one reason why The Grove is really special.  At breakfast, I watched a young mum carrying a baby looking a bit lost at all the different buffet sections.  She was approached by a friendly chef who asked what her baby normally eats for breakfast.  When she explained (porridge with whole milk), he asked exactly how she liked it and rushed off to make it.  Nothing is too much trouble.  The Glasshouse costs £49 per person, with children aged 3-12 charged 50% and children 2 and under dining free.

After dinner we headed to the lovely cosy lounge areas where there are loads of different rooms and cosy places to sit and sip a drink.

Like the gardens, the corridors, rooms and public areas are filled with amazing, quirky art (look for the naughty gardener in the lounge areas and the tennis playing bunnies) – perspex tables filled with feathers, tiny plastic men fishing on the walls…

Our verdict?  Of course, The Grove is a luxury hotel, so it IS posh, but it’s not intimidating, sniffy posh, it’s friendly, luxury, ‘WOW, I deserve this treat’ posh.  I’ll definitely come back and spend longer here again.  Plus, I should imagine it’s a stunning place to visit at Christmas.

Massive thanks to David, Rod and everyone at The Grove for inviting us and making our stay so special.

Luxury summer breaks at The Grove with Warner Bros. Studio Tour start from £350 per night inc VAT, including: accommodation in a superior room, Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter tickets for two adults and breakfast in The Glasshouse.

or from £498 per night inc VAT, for a deluxe family room accommodating two adults and two children under 12 years, Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter tickets for two adults and two children under 16 and breakfast in The Glasshouse for two adults and two children.

(Please make your reservation at least 7 days in advance to ensure Warner Bros. Studio tour tickets are available.)

 

 

 

My top ten family activities in Florida

 

Empire of the Penguin

Empire of the Penguin

1 Meet Puck at Seaworld’s new Antarctica

Seaworld’s brand new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin attraction is now open. Visit the frozen South Pole with Puck the baby Gentoo penguin, who is ready to tell you all about penguin life in this brand new area complete with icy winds, icebergs and hundreds of penguins in the largest artificial penguin habitat ever built. A new 8 seater trackless ride whooshes you through this frozen land.

2 Feed the giraffes on the Serengeti Safari at Busch Gardens

You might be in Florida, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a proper African adventure. Book the Serengeti Safari and you can travel in an open truck across the 65 acres of Serengeti Plain, spotting zebra, ostriches and all sorts of other wildlife. There’s also an opportunity to hand feed the giraffes – one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had.

3 Drink butter beer at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

A visit to Florida isn’t complete without a visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park, one of two areas that make up Universal Orlando Resort. Stop and grab a butter beer at the cart before charging off to choose your dragon on the Dragon Challenge coaster, or wander through Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on the magical ‘Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey’ ride.

4 Watch the fireworks at Epcot

One of my favourite parts of any Florida trip is watching the beautiful IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth show at Disney’s Epcot. The show is a 14-minute extravaganza of fireworks, lasers and water effects that melts even the hardest of hearts. The show takes place every night at the World Showcase area.

'Gator spotting at Myakka

‘Gator spotting at Myakka

5 Spot gators at Myakka River State Park

Of course Florida is so much more than just theme parks. Sarasota boasts stylish shopping, fabulous white sandy beaches and the Myakka River State Park, one of Florida’s oldest state parks, stretching across 57 square miles of woodland, wetland and prairie. The area is great for camping, fishing and cycling, but my top tip is to take one of the amazing boat trips where you can see alligators, eagles and all manner of wildlife. Entry to the park is just $6 a car.

6 Go circus crazy at the Ringling Museum

While you’re in Sarasota, don’t miss the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Don’t be fooled by the title, the Ringling is the most incredible place, with 20 acres of gorgeous Sarasota seafront, the most beautiful, breathtaking mansion, an interactive Circus Museum and a breathtaking model circus.

Me on a segway (oh the shame)

Me on a segway (oh the shame)

 

7 Segway around St Pete’s

St Petersburg is located on a peninsula curling out into the Gulf of Mexico and is attached to Tampa by a causeway. One of the best ways to see this beautiful area is to take a Segway tour. Tours are suitable for families (but children need to be minimum 75lb) and will take you both into the city and along the pier.

8 Visit historic John’s Pass Village

While you’re at St Pete’s take time to visit John’s Pass, a beautiful old fishing village where you can shop ‘til you drop, go on a boat tour or even hire jetskis. If you’re lucky enough to visit in October there’s a wonderful seafood festival (October 25/26/27, 2013), but at other times, get your seafood fix at the iconic Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

Kennedy Space Center

Kennedy Space Center

 

Encounter Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center

Over on the Space Coast there are more incredible beaches, plus the Kennedy Space Center. Take a guided tour, indulge in some astronaut training, watch an entire launch countdown re-enacted in an actual mission control centre, and from later this month you can visit Space Shuttle Atlantis which is going to be permanently exhibited at Kennedy, jam packed with interactive encounters, simulators and exhibits. A once in a lifetime experience.

10 Surfs up at Cocoa Beach

While you’re on the space coast, take time to spend a day at beautiful Cocoa Beach, visit the famous Ron Jon Surf Shop to kit yourself out, then hit the surf! Later on, take a wander along historic Cocoa Beach Pier for dinner and drinks as the sun goes down. Heaven.

For more information, Visit Florida has loads of information about the area.

Monarch Airlines offers plenty of flights to Orlando Sanford airport from London Gatwick and Manchester

EM thumbnail

 

Templar treasure: a luxe short break at the Château Saint-Martin on the Côte d’Azur

The path down to the pool

The path down to the pool

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.

Wine tasting in the cellar

Wine tasting in the cellar

View of the Chateau from one of the villas

View of the Chateau from one of the villas

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 Spa

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).

The cobbled streets of Saint Paul de Vence

The cobbled streets of Saint Paul de Vence

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.

Giacometti's 'Dog'

Giacometti’s ‘Dog’

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.

The Maldives: A Family Holiday Paradise

Kani Maldives (c) clubmed.co.uk

The island nation of the Maldives is located in the Indian Ocean and consists of a double chain of twenty-six atolls.  Its turquoise waters, white sandy beaches and isolated location makes it an ideal destination for holidaymakers looking to escape the daily grind.

According to the Maldives tourist board, the islands enjoy an average temperature of around 30 degrees Celsius throughout the year with constant sunshine on most days.  What’s more, the balmy mornings, calm evenings and beautiful sunsets make the Maldives a truly special place to visit.

Club Med holidays in the Maldives are perfect for families looking to experience a little piece of paradise.  While kids can enjoy a host of activities like swimming, beach football and kayaking, parents are able to relax and unwind on an immaculate beach next to a soothing ocean.

Kani resort

The resort of Kani is a truly majestic destination, featuring 75 individual suites set amid the sparkling water.  Positioned on stilts, these truly special habitats allow guests to dive straight into the sea from their rooms or simply admire a magnificent lagoon view.

Guests also have the option of staying closer to the resort’s lush foliage in luxurious bungalows.  Dotted throughout the island, these idyllic spaces remain a stone’s throw from the tempting ocean.

Bars and restaurants

With dishes ranging from traditional Asian cuisine to fresh crayfish specialities, you are spoilt for choice at Kani’s fine restaurants.  Low-calorie options are also available to ensure you return home looking even more healthy and refreshed.

The resort’s bars give holidaymakers the opportunity to lounge beside the swimming pool while watching the sun go down.  At night, guests can sip a cocktail while gazing at the starry night sky above.  Families can also have refreshments on the edge of the lagoon or in the shade of a coconut tree. Water, fruit juices, soda, spirits and wines are all fully inclusive.

Activities

With stunning coral reef and plentiful marine life, scuba diving or snorkelling is highly recommended if you visit the Maldives.  Qualified instructors are on hand to introduce beginners to scuba diving, where guests can bear witness to sharks, groupers, manta rays, lionfish and moray eels in the greatest natural aquarium there is.

There are also a plethora of activities available on the beach, including football, volleyball and badminton.  You can have fun in the water with sailing and kayaking, or take part in yoga, aqua fitness and cardiovascular exercise at the Club Med gym.

Wellness Centre

Although spending time with the family is a priority, there is also the opportunity to look after number one, and Kani’s Wellness Centre has a range of treatments available administered by professional beauty and massage therapists.

With packages designed for both men and women, you may want to take advantage of a duo room for tandem treatments!

EM thumbnail

Green travel: slow holidays

Pic: (c) Inntravel

Pic: (c) Inntravel

So you’ve heard of slow food, right?  Slow food is all about eating fresh, local, sustainable food – thinking about what you eat and how your choices affect the environment and support farmers and businesses.  It’s a great way to shop and eat, and it’s rewarding too – knowing that you’re eating thoughtfully, and making a difference.

But have you ever thought of applying similar rules to how you holiday?  We jet off to foreign climes, race around theme parks and whizz around on jet skis (and yes, as a frequent traveller I certainly have guilt about my own carbon footprint), but it’s not just about the environment – how about considering a slower holiday?

Cycling holidays

Cycling is a wonderful way to really immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of your holiday destination.  Many holiday companies will arrange for decent bikes to be available on arrival, and will either provide a guide, or plan routes and provide maps so you can make your own way around, arranging for manageable rides between hotels (you can choose how far and how challenging the ride will be – perfect if you’re travelling with kids), and transferring your luggage along the way, meaning that you can travel at your own page.  Routes are well thought out and stick to quieter roads and country lanes wherever possible.

I love the idea of cycling around the Loire Valley, taking in vineyards  (with a little wine tasting thrown in, obviously) and châteaux along the way (try Inntravel for cycling holidays like this).

Walking holidays

If you imagine a walking holiday to be a nightmarish daily trudge from one hotel to another, you’re quite a way away from the reality.  Walks are planned for you in advance, with routes and maps provided, and again you can choose the level of walk you’re comfortable with.  Centred walking holidays focus on one or two base hotels, with planned walks of different grades provided from your base location(s) so you can explore the local area.  In Croatia (an area I’ve always wanted to visit), you can explore the Dalmatian coast with walks that take in Croatia’s beautiful olive groves and medieval towns, as well as plenty of time to relax by the sea.

As you can see, I’m not suggesting that we all give up flying.  I know that’s never going to happen, but cycling and walking holidays can be a fabulous way to really slow things down once you reach your destination, take it easy and soak up more of the area you’re visiting.

Travel news: what’s new at the Florida parks

Hogwarts at Universal's Islands of Adventure

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley

Universal Studios have just announced a huge new project, bringing London, and more specifically, Diagon Alley to the resort in 2014.  Work has already started on the new experience, which will stretch across both Universal Orlando theme parks and offer lots of new experiences including, it’s rumoured, a trip on the Hogwart’s Express to Hogsmeade (from one park to the other) and a ride through Gringott’s Bank.

Springfield Comes to Universal Orlando this SummerAlso at Universal Studios, The Simpsons’ home town, Springfield is coming to Orlando this summer.  There’s a whole new Simpsons area, with a The Simpson’s Ride, and food too – you might even bump into Krusty the Clown while you’re scoffing your Krusty Burger, or need to dodge Sideshow Bob at Moe’s Tavern.

 

Empire of the PenguinSeaworld’s new Empire of the Penguin

Open from May 24th, Seaworld’s newest project mixes a brand new family ride through Antarctica with incredible new animal encounters.  This HUGE new attraction, covering an area over 4 square acres, features icebergs, hundreds of penguins in a brand new area (the largest artificial penguin habitat even built) and an incredible new 8 seater trackless ride that slides through the penguin habitat, plus a new café and gift shop.

Pic: WDW News

Pic: WDW News

Disney’s Brave new Princess

Disney have crowned their newest Princess, Merida from Brave, at a sparkling ceremony held at Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World Resort, Florida.  Merida’s meet and greet spot is situated just by Cinderella Castle inside Fairytale Garden, where guests will have a chance to meet Merida and her three ‘baby bear’ brothers and even get an archery lesson!  The area is decorated with beautiful new, original tapestries and artwork inspired by the movie.

If you’re planning a trip to Florida, check out Florida Tix  - a really handy site where you can pre-book park tickets before your holiday.

EM thumbnail

Le Saint Martin at Chateau Saint-Martin, Vence, Côte d’Azur

 

Le Chateau Saint-Martin

Le Chateau Saint-Martin

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:

[slideshow_deploy id='15973']

Next up, more about the Chateau, the beautiful nearby towns of Vence and Saint Paul de Vence and a tour of Le Fondation Maeght.