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!
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:
So we started January 2013 with a bit of excitement after my Dad’s Christmas Day proposal to his partner (by the way, the Dodgy Centre of Gravity reared its ugly head again after our cheese and wine tasting night when he’d had a few too many and fell over putting his shoes on at the end of the night).
In February, I travelled down to beautiful Blagdon to meet up with my Yeo Valley chums and have a nosey around their wonderful new HQ, and went on the adventure of a lifetime with my five bestest chums when we sailed the Caribbean on the frankly fantastic Liberty of the Seas (we’re Royal Mums, ambassadors for the Royal Caribbean brand and we take our job VERY seriously). As you know, I’m big on spending your time and money enjoying experiences that you can cherish, rather than stuff, and this was right up there, believe me. I came back with aching ribs from all the laughing (the horse riding through the surf in Jamaica might have added to that a bit, but oh, riding through an azure sea is one of my most treasured memories). I also felt incredibly lucky to have shared an incredible experience with such incredible friends. I love you guys.
April saw birthdays galore. Charlie turned 15:
And Sam celebrated his 18th with karting, a party at home and a pretty epic double chocolate curly wurly cake…
Then there was my Disreputable Dad’s wedding…
In May, I headed out to the Cote d’Azur to experience the gorgeous Chateau Saint Martin in Vence:
July was beautifully sunny and we spent a wonderful day aboard the Independence of the Seas. The boys adored the FlowRider and it was lovely to meet up with all my besties and their families:
I also spent a lovely weekend with my friend Erica doing an amazing foodie tour of Edinburgh. Foodinburgh 2014 is already in the early planning stages!
August was MENTAL with nearly three weeks of it spent abroad, in beautiful Brittany…
and then with the boys on the INCREDIBLE Disney Magic – a real trip of a lifetime:
We even managed to squeeze in a day in Barcelona with wonderful friends after desembarking:
In September, Mr English and I squeezed in a quick weekend at Nutfield Priory…
and then in October, we headed off on an immersive wine cruise of Europe on the really quite gorgeous Celebrity Infinity…
and then all that travelling squealed to an abrupt halt. Because this little dude came along…
In November, Glam C and I went to Hogwarts Christmas at the Warner Bros Studio Tour:
and before we knew it, it was freezing, wet December then… bloody January again! (to quote Flanders and Swann). We had a wonderful Christmas lunch at the Chequers Inn at Weston Turville: a seven course Christmas extravaganza with some amazing wine that really was festive, fun and very relaxing. My favourite course was this stonking turbot with a huge crevette:
So here’s to 2014. What’s on the agenda for this year, then? More travel, certainly, more time spent with family and friends, loads of exams for the boys, more eating, more cooking, more relaxing, walking in the woods with our gorgeous new pupster and… who knows? My wishlist still includes Las Vegas (Britney, b*tch!), Australia and Thailand.
Thank you to each and every person who has stopped by to have a read, followed me on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, or just blundered here via Google. I’m immensely grateful. Wishing you a very happy and restful New Year. May 2014 bring you peace, happiness and new experiences galore xx
So we’re counting the days until our holiday now – we’ve paid the final payment on our (hopefully) lovely villa, the ferry 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.
Just remember: ON THE RIGHT, IN THE RIGHT. Oh and don’t forget to pack the kids!
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:
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.
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:
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.
If you’ve ever stood at the conveyor belt at luggage reclaim, watching all the identical black suitcases going round and round, wondering which is yours, you could benefit from Kittags. They’re brightly coloured luggage tags made in durable seatbelt-style webbing and can be monogrammed as well. I spotted my bright orange one a mile away and it was much admired by my fellow travellers. A great idea for school bags as well. Kittags are currently offering a 15% summer discount at the moment too – just add SUMMER2013 in the voucher box.
Clarins’ new BB Skin Perfecting Cream(£28.00) is absolutely brilliant. Rather than take a moisturiser AND foundation on holiday, just pack this little beauty. It gives really good coverage, isn’t greasy and has an SPF of 25. My favourite beauty website, Escentual, do it for £22.40.
Lucy from Nelly Noops hand makes all sorts of gorgeous fabric goodies like aprons for kids and adults and gorgeous bunting. She sent me an absolutely gorgeous beach bag in the most glorious ‘a day at the beach’ fabric. The bags are fully lined and have a handy magnetic closure and, I think, are a snip at just £20. Bag yourself one right away (see what I did there?).
Coconut Oil is huge news at the moment (my niece told me the other day that she uses it on her hair) and Essential Care have got some gorgeous coconut products. I’m a bit addicted to the Organic Coconut Candy Scrub – a bit pricey at £28 but it lasts forever and leaves your skin feeling amazingly soft. It smells delicious (and is, in fact edible!) and makes a fabulous pre-holiday skin prep to prepare your skin for tanning. I’m also addicted to their Creamy Coconut Cleanser, £14.50 (or it comes in a handy travel size £6.00) which leaves skin really soft and smells amazing.
Lastly, and not strictly travel-related, but certainly in the beachy spirit, I’m loving my new Yankee Candle Pure Radiance candle in ‘Seaglass’ – the fragrance is white tea and sandalwood with a delicious hint of sea air. There are six in the new selection. I love the new shapes too.
So I started to tell you a little about the Chateau Saint-Martin when I reviewed their beautiful two Michelin star restaurant, Le Saint-Martin. But there’s so much more to this place than the fabulous food.
A 30 minute drive through beautiful scenery from Nice Airport, the Chateau nestles atop a hillside overlooking the French Riviera and is surrounded by 35 acres of gardens, including 300 ancient olive trees (they make their own estate olive oil), tennis courts and a fabulous swimming pool. The ancient ruins, preserved by the Chateau, date back to Roman times, and were once home to the Knights Templar.
Transformed into a luxury hotel by the Oetker family (yes, the pizza ones – they also own the famous Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc on the Cap d’Antibes and Le Bristol in Paris) the Chateau has 51 luxurious suites and six sumptuous private villas, all available to hire. Staff are discrete and attentive – there’s not a hint of haughty Parisian-type service here.
As well as Le Saint-Martin, the Chateau has a Mediterranean restaurant, La Rosticceria (with shutters open over the most spectacular view of the Riviera) and a summer grill outside in the gardens called L’Oliveraie.
The Chateau boasts a pretty amazing wine list. We were lucky enough to experience a wine tasting in the cellar with the Sommelier, who was far too discrete to answer my questions about the most expensive bottle of wine. The website does hint that the cellar offers ‘some of the world’s most exclusive vintages’ and I certainly spotted some boxes of Petrus and Chateau Lafite Rothschild amongst the dusty bottles on the shelves.
The gorgeous spa, taking up two floors on one corner of the Chateau, offers a huge array of treatments featuring La Prairie and Bamford Body products. I opted for a La Prairie facial and it really was delicious. Delivered in a futuristic-looking treatment room with customisable coloured lighting (green for revitalising, blue for relaxing) I’m pretty sure I fell asleep, and wafted out afterwards on a heavenly scented cloud, heavy limbed and relaxed with skin that was plumped and glowing. I was given a sizeable collection of La Prairie product samples to try at home too (I can’t bring myself to use them).
Vence and Saint Paul de Vence
A short drive away in one of the Chateau’s Mercedes limousines (with a driver straight off a Gaultier advert), is Vence – a lovely little town and well worth a visit. Queue up for fresh baguettes, warm out of the oven, sit and sip a glass of rosé and watch the world go by, or pick up some gorgeous Provençal tableware in the little shops.
Nearby is the pretty, fortified town of Saint Paul de Vence. It’s a lovely place to sip a café au lait and watch the locals play boules, then take a wander up the stone streets and mooch around the galleries and tiny shops, all pretty much unchanged since Picasso and Matisse trod the same cobbles. Take time to visit the little cemetery perched overlooking the Mediterranean, where Chagall is buried, and follow the meandering streets to a little chapel overlooking the town. We also snuck a quick look inside the legendary La Colombe D’Or hotel – a great place to star spot, but notoriously difficult to bag a table in the restaurant.
Le Fondation Maeght
The Maeght Foundation is a private art gallery located at Saint Paul de Vence and is a must-see if you’re in the area. Visitors can wander the gardens and view paintings, sculptures and ceramics by artists such as Bonard, Chagall and Giacometti (my favourite is Giacometti’s ‘Dog’, said to have been created by him after getting caught in the rain) and many contemporary pieces too. There are often special exhibitions at the Foundation, which is open every day.
We returned refreshed and relaxed – even our ridiculous delay at Nice airport couldn’t take the shine off, and I’ll be returning as soon as I can. Not a budget option, admittedly, but three glorious days at Chateau Saint-Martin was as relaxing and pampering as two weeks in the Caribbean, and just an hour away from the UK.
The Knights Templar may have long gone, but they left all their treasure behind.
Rates at Chateau Saint Martin & Spa start from €360 per room, per night including breakfast.
This week I’ve been in the Côte d’Azur, at possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever stayed. Whilst there, you’ll be pleased to hear that I had several epic adventures including:
Seeing more tiny teacup dogs than I ever thought possible, and feeling the need to say ‘Monsieur, I need to poop!’ Each time in the style of ‘What Women Want’.
Replying to a French shopkeeper in my schoolgirl French, and somehow giving them the impression that I’m fluent in the language, then not understanding a word they said to me and having to nod dumbly as they chatted away happily.
Walking down the marble stairs to reception before my spa treatment in my robe and flip-flops, enjoying the fact that each flip-flopped step was making the most incredibly loud echoey slapping sound, before realising that all eyes in reception were turned towards me.
Reaching into my bag, grabbing my phone and putting it on the table at dinner, not realising that there was, in fact, a panty liner stuck to it. The waiter continued to pour the wine with classic French charm.
Giggling inappropriately about the VERY attractive driver like teenagers in the back of our chauffeur driven Mercedes.
Bursting into a spontaneous version of ‘we’re knights of the round table, we dance whenever able’ after being told that the chateau was once occupied by the Knights Templar. Then feeling slightly stupid.
Yoga on the lawn at the Chateau, taught by a rather stern Eastern European lady who told us that ‘zere vill be no talking during ze yoga’ and proceeded to torture us with the most punishing set of exercises I’ve ever done, including lying flat whist holding our straight legs up in the air for two minutes (try it). All of us reported back the next day with stories of being in so much pain that sneezing was agony. I myself nearly cried trying to lie down in the bath, such was the pain in my abs.
Conducting a ridiculous ‘catch the pigeon’ comedy caper through Nice Airport after our easyJet flight was cancelled and we were told it was first come first served at the easyJet desk for remaining spaces on the one other flight that day. This involved the entire passenger list racing around the airport to get to the desk to bag the seats. My favourite moments included: all of us going the wrong way and coming to a locked door then having to reverse up, one man actually hurdling a small child, and one lady being completely taken out by an elderly French lady and her suspiciously fit walking stick-toting husband, who then limboed under all the barriers and elbowed their way to the front of the queue. I laughed so much I was nearly sick.
Driving home from Gatwick at midnight with the windows open, singing along to ‘In the Air Tonight’ with Phil Collins on Heart FM trying desperately to keep myself awake (I have a mortal fear of falling asleep at the wheel and killing someone).
English Mum. Embarrassing herself since 2006 (and well beyond) so you don’t have to.
(By the way, more gorgeous pictures, incredible 2 Michelin starred food and beautiful little French towns to follow shortly).
Every so often someone comes up with an idea that’s just so brilliant, I’m amazed I haven’t heard of it before. Wimdu is one of those things. It’s a website (or ‘accommodation platform’ to use the technical term) that brings travellers together with people around the world who have accommodation. It’s not small, either. They currently list over 150,000 properties in over 50 countries around the world.
So what do they offer? I asked Wimdu’s lovely Joshua Goodwin to tell us more about it:
‘We offer a range of accommodation. Anything from a small private room in a Berliner’s flat to a villa in rural Spain. We list many unusual properties too but the vast majority of our business comes through city breaks and beach holidays. We are the number one alternative to hotels.’
So why choose Wimdu?
‘People stay with us because they prefer the comfort and authenticity of a home over a faceless hotel chain which they can stay at anywhere in the world.’
And what are the benefits of choosing Wimdu to book your accommodation?
‘People can decide to take a room in an apartment or the whole property which means we can suit almost all budgets. We want people to take a classic villa by the sea over an overpriced and over subscribed hotel you get with a package holiday. We want to show people that the extra comfort and authenticity does not come at extra cost and the average family will save money through us.’
I LOVE this idea. And presumably local people in these resorts benefit too?
‘Absolutely. I like how it takes a lot of tourism money away from the multinational hotels and puts the money back into local hands. It encourages people to mix with locals more, as you can often find yourself just surrrounded by fellow natives and it can really water down the culture which is a shame.’
So who are your hosts? Are they posh people with grand villas by the sea, or just ordinary folk?
‘You don’t have to own a second home to make a bit of money, just a spare room in the house or perhaps your child is away at uni or moved out and its a great way to make a bit of income.’
And to celebrate this absolutely FABULOUS idea, Wimdu have given me two £200 vouchers to give away.
As usual, there are a few ways to enter:
1. Leave a comment saying which accommodation you would choose on the Wimdu website (I would choose the stunningly beautiful modern apartment overlooking Lake d’Orta pictured above)
Then for an extra entry:
2. Like Wimdu on Facebook
And for another chance to win:
3. Tweet ‘I want to win holiday vouchers with @wimdu and @englishmum’.
Usual English Mum competition rules apply. Competition ends Saturday 23rd February at midnight.
* THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED. WELL DONE TO STACEY GUILLIAT and ERICA PRICE. THANK YOU FOR ALL YOUR ENTRIES*
My friend and fellow travel nut Laura recently told me about this little beauty: Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2013. This fab special edition, released to celebrate Lonely Planet’s 40th anniversary, is packed with tons of recommendations for destinations, looks into travel trends for 2013 and showcases some incredible journeys. Inspirational, and with photos to die for. I want to do it all.
I love Michael Palin, and even if you didn’t catch his latest epic BBC series, Brazil, I think you’ll adore the book that accompanies the series. Palin’s writing is very much like his presenting: full of warmth and humour. A fascinating read.
If you were on the edge of your seat watching Liam Neeson in The Grey and, like me, think wolves are just the most incredible, powerful animals, you might like the next one up on my pile of ‘to read’ books by my bedside: Wolves in the Land of Salmon, by David Moskowitz. Okay, not strictly a travel book, but Moskowitz’s adventure across British Columbia tracking these beautiful creatures promises to be an incredible read.
Fuchsia Dunlop is one of my favourite food writers. I’m really looking forward to reading her latest book: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. Dunlop studied at a cooking school in China and vowed to eat anything and everything that was offered to her. I can’t wait to dive into this book: I bet it’s an absolute blast.
Last on my list is Calcutta: Two Years in the City. I’m desperate to visit India, and this looks incredible. Amit Chaudhuri was born in Calcutta and this book documents his return (in 1999) and subsequent two years, as the name suggests. Obviously as it’s not published yet I don’t know exactly what it’s like, but I’ve heard great things about Chaudhuri’s wonderfully moving and descriptive writing. Out Feb 14th.
When you’re planing a holiday, it’s really handy to be able to chat to someone who’s been to that destination before – even better if they can give you a few hints and tips to get the most out of your holiday.
Here’s what I’ve got so far:
Tenerife, for me, is the stuff of childhood holidays: my first experience of holidays ‘abroad’, warm sunshine, sandy beaches, blue sea and fantastic food. Tenerife is a great place to bring the family as the flight is a manageable length and, whether you want a beach holiday, or want a more active holiday, there is such diversity here, there’s something for everyone. The climate is amazing all year round (it’s known as the ‘Island of Eternal Spring’) and even in the winter, you can experience temperatures in the 20s, with very little rain at any time of the year.
What to pack
Packing for a Tenerife holiday is easy as the temperature stays pretty warm during the day. During winter and into the spring, night time temperatures can dip down to 16 degrees, so pack a few extra layers for when you’re out and about during the evening. Tenerife has excellent shopping right across the island, so, especially if you’ve got small children, consider buying some of your essentials, like nappies, when you arrive rather than clogging up your suitcase. Suncream, hats and full-cover swimsuits for the youngsters are a must all year round and especially during the summer and autumn months when temperatures can climb into the high 20s (and have been known to hit the 30s).
Hand luggage helpers
- When travelling with children, pack them a little rucksack of their own with interesting things to do on the journey. It’s also worth packing a few ‘surprise’ items in your own hand luggage to whip out if they start to get bored.
- Make sure you’ve photocopied everyone’s passport, your tickets and any other information, such as travel insurance. Pop it into a different bag, just in case one gets lost.
- Don’t pack enormous hand luggage bags – your fellow passengers (and your family!) won’t thank you when you take ten minutes to squeeze it into the overhead locker, and generally, once it’s there, you won’t want to bother taking it down again. Think about what you’ll really use: iPad, headphones, maybe a book, and leave the rest at home.
Tenerife really is an island of two halves. There are resorts in the very south of the island, and some in the very north. If you want to explore, think about hiring a car (consider arranging it with your travel agent when booking). The main road between the north and south circles the island and is well signposted and easy to navigate. If you’re heading ‘off piste’ be aware that some of the roads may be less well cared for (and marked), especially if you’re heading up towards Teide when there are some mountain roads next to steep drops (worth attempting, though, as the scenery is amazing). Public transport is really good: the bus system is modern and inexpensive, plus you can buy tickets called ‘Bono Bus’ for discounted travel if you’re planning on using the bus system quite a bit.
In the south of the island, don’t miss beautiful Siam Park, a huge Thai-themed water park. For well-priced tickets, try www.attractionticketsdirect.com – also look out for the free double decker buses that run from most of the major southern resorts. Try also to head up to Teide National Park, where the strange lunar landscape has been the backdrop of many a feature film. If you want, you can head up to the summit (well, within 500ft of the summit – you need a permit to go all the way up) in a cable car, but go prepared: wear sturdy shoes and take warm clothing – it’s very cold up there!
In the north, head to Loro Parque. I find the best way to see the parquet is to do all the animal shows back to back as soon as you get to the park : sealion, dolphin and then orca. The shows are more crowded, but the atmosphere is fantastic and this then leaves you with the whole afternoon to tootle about the rest of the park, which is beautiful. The food in the park is very good as well: try the barbecued pork skewers – delicious!
- Don’t visit Tenerife without trying the lovely salty papas arugadas (literally ‘wrinkled potatoes’) and the delicious accompanying mojo sauces
- Tenerife also produces some stunning wines (mostly exported to the USA, sadly), but you’ll often find small producers selling their wares locally.
- Kids will love another local delicacy called simply ‘flan’. It’s similar to creme caramel and is served in moreish custardy slabs, sometimes with the dark caramel sauce but often just plain.
Like a Local
In Tenerife, locals don’t tend to invite people into their houses, so often you’ll see families and friends congregating in local squares in the evening, chatting and laughing together. They’re incredibly friendly people and will often chat to you – especially If you have small children! It’s worth looking out for where the locals drink as they’re often much cheaper than the tourist bars.
Do remember, especially in the older, less touristy parts of Tenerife, that businesses will close in the afternoon for a siesta, reopening at about 4.30pm for the evening. If you’re buying postcards, ask in the shop for stamps to save you visiting the post office separately.
Tipping in restaurants is about the same as here In the UK – about 10% should be fine. If you’re drinking at a table in a café or bar, the waiter will tend to wait for you to finish before bringing you the whole bill, rather than paying for drinks as you buy them. Rounding up the bill or leaving some loose change is always appreciated.
Phrases you should know
I do recommend that you take an English/Spanish language book with you. Although most locals, especially in tourist areas, speak excellent English, they always appreciate it (and will often help you with pronunciation etc) if you have a go at a few simple phrases like: sí (yes) – it’s just no for no- buenos días (good morning), por favor (please) and gracias (thank you).
So there you have it, these are my top tips. Anything to add?
Christmas treats for kids don’t get much better than going to Lapland and meeting the real Santa Claus. Children will fall in love with this wonderland where the deep, velvety snow is dotted with frosty pine trees and (if you’re lucky) illuminated by waves of blue light. If you’re fortunate enough to be planning one of these enchanting breaks, there are ways to make the most out of visiting Santa’s homeland. There are tons of things to consider: the best age to take the kids, how long to stay, which company to pick and where exactly to go. Here’s how to make seeing jolly red himself a little easier and give you some much-needed tips for any Lapland holiday:
There are many tour operators offering some great deals on breaks to Lapland; prices are competitive so root around and dig out the best deal for you and your family. Christmas is an expensive time of year as it is and with the added financial hardship at the moment, many companies will be struggling to sell these Christmas trips. Esprit Holidays (although actually their site is called Santa’s Lapland) offer a range of decent deals for short breaks for families with quite hefty reductions.
Once you’ve got your package right, then shop around to compare various travel insurance prices in order to find the right family solution. At this time of year, every penny saved can make the difference, after all.
Consider day trips carefully
It seems to be all the rage to take a day trip to Lapland but I am wondering why parents inflict this upon themselves. Yes it’s cheaper, but it comes with many downsides: firstly your kids will be up a the crack of dawn, fly three and a half hours, have an afternoon in Lapland, fly three and a half hours back and arrive home in the early hours of the next day. It sounds like a recipe for bad moods and temper tantrums. Plus there is no room for error – if you miss your plane, the bus breaks down, or your flight is delayed then you will enjoy no day trip whatsoever.
By far the best way to see Santa is on a short break, for a two or three night stay. You will have plenty of time to go sledging, ride snowmobiles, toboggan and have husky-dog rides. A couple of nights will give you time to relish the blue tinted stretches of snow and possibly catch the Northern Lights. Though they are more expensive than day trips they are better value; try Transun for an impressive deal.
The main commercial resort in Lapland is Rovaniemi; a small city with Santa Claus village, which is the heart of the Santa industry. However there are other, smaller villages, which are less commercial and utterly picturesque – these include Karesuando and Saariselka.
The window of opportunity for taking an authentic Santa trip is relatively small; too young and they won’t remember it and might not enjoy the cold. Too old and the Santa gig is up and it will lose its magic. Roughly between the ages of five and eight is pretty perfect for a visit to Father Christmas.
Check the deal you are buying carefully and ask yourself these questions: will we get a private meeting with the man in red? Will it be special and not tacky? How will we get there? Nordic Experience is great for trips that aren’t commercial and they always add something special to the holiday, for example they can organize Santa to have your child’s wish list and a present from you.
Lastly remember to kit yourselves out in proper winter gear: thermals, big boots, waterproofs, thick hats… you name it you need it. All that’s left to do is plan your magical trip to Santa’s secret grotto. Oh, and put in a good word for me, won’t you?
I had such a lovely flight to Gran Canaria. It wasn’t particularly the plane (with Thomson now launching their new 787 Dreamliners – they start flights to Mexico and Florida in May next year – I wonder if this will free up some newer planes to replace the clunky old Boeing 757-200s that are still being used on the Gatwick-Gran Canaria route?) in fact, I spent takeoff and landing being dripped with icy water from the air conditioning … No, it was that I was sitting next to a really lovely retired couple (hello Brian and Gail!) who not only came to my aid with a copy of the Financial Times to use as an impromptu umbrella, but also made a very boring flight enjoyable chatting about their travels and family.
Still, as usual the Thomson crew were gracious and smiley (and provided wodges of tissue to dry me off!) and about four hours later we touched down in Gran Canaria.
Arriving at the Hotel Maspalomas Princess we were gobsmacked at the sheer size of the place : the mirror image of its sister hotel, the Hotel Tabaiba Princess (now a Thomson all-inclusive resort) the two form an enormous w-shape with 800 rooms between them over three floors. A slightly shambolic check-in followed (large reception desk combined with no visible queuing system) but we were soon away and up to our lovely third floor room which was spotless, modern, comfortable and with a lovely balcony overlooking the pools.
We chose this hotel because my Disreputable Dad and his partner have been going there for ten years – the waiters and dining room staff greeted them like old friends – and we wanted to see what was so great about it that it keeps attracting them back. And here’s what I discovered:
The staff are fab: they work and work and work to make sure everything is perfect. Happy hour in the piano bar is 5-6pm and we often sat around playing cards and chatting with the bar staff, some of whom we became really fond of. Oh, and that brings me on to my next point:
The drinks are very good value for a big hotel too. There were cocktails for just €3 and soft drinks were good value at about €1.90 a pop – important when you have teens with you guzzling soft drinks.
The food is excellent: obviously the main restaurant is enormous and yes, you occasionally have to join a small queue to wait for a table (bear in mind it was half term too), but there is a huge amount of choice, with some dishes being cooked in a ‘show kitchen’ by chefs while you watch, a decent selection of both local and international dishes, plus the ubiquitous chicken nuggets and chips for the kids. My one gripe was a lack of decent coffee and juice in the mornings – both were served out of machines and were a bit meh.
The wine list is small but there are some great Spanish wines on there (up to about €20ish – we tried some corkers). Mexican evening was FANTASTIC with a Mariachi and a magnificent spread of authentic Mexican dishes.
The kids clubs are amazing: this is another area where Thomson excel. We often bumped into a happy band of kids with their Thomson carers. I always watch the children’s reps and they’re just SO lovely with the kids. It would drive me mental, but they’re always patient, sweet and kind – even with the more… er… challenging of their charges! They have a lovely bright playroom inside and often take small groups outside in the lovely hotel grounds too.
The lunch choices were varied and excellent: it’s important when you’re staying somewhere on a half board basis that there’s a bit of choice when it comes to grabbing lunch. There is a large range of cafés, beach shacks, etc with reasonably priced toasties, burgers (ooh and lovely crab wraps), also a lovely poolside restaurant serving salads, pizza, pasta, etc.
Around the hotel
The place is huge so there is loads to do: mini golf, table tennis, pool, etc. There is a baby pool, a heated larger pool and then a huge two-part pool on an artificial beach (let down by foot-slicing grit as opposed to sand). The hotel grounds are lush and beautiful with stunning plants and foliage.
Out and about
If you want to explore, you can easily grab a taxi from the front of the hotel and go to the bustly Playa Del’Ingles. We didn’t really bother. Just out of the back gate and across the road (the route to the beach – a good half hour walk, unfortunately) there’s also a lovely café serving toasties, salads, and a decent jug of Sangria.
If you fancy splashing out, walk the route to the stunning white beach at Maspalomas and seek out the El Senador restaurant – a gorgeous, seafront place selling the most amazing seafood. We feasted on a fantastic fish soup, fresh garlicky prawns, paella and the most amazing fish, plus my dessert – a Galician almond cake with a Pedro Ximenez reduction was TO DIE FOR. After all this exertion, waddle to the beach and plonk yourself on a lounger (it’ll cost you €7.50 for two beds, though, so don’t do it too often). If you feel more like walking off your lunch, be careful where you wander, there’s a lot of nude sunbathing areas!
I’m not a huge fan of half board (I’d rather have been all-inclusive in the Tabaiba part of the hotel) as we did spend quite a bit of money, but I can’t complain because that was our choice so that we could be with my Dad, plus you don’t really have to go and stuff your face at lunchtime like we did. There are plenty of good value options to be had within the hotel. We had a wonderful time, ate some amazing food, and although we weren’t hugely lucky with the weather, it was warm the whole time and we still came back rested, a bit browner and yes, a bit fatter than we went.
Always the sign of a very good holiday.
Oh, and Brian and Gail heartily recommended their own holiday destination, the Lopesan Villa Del Conde, which, they said, had amazing food, lovely staff and a fabulous setting.
Huge thanks, as ever, to the team at TUI UK.
Thomson offers seven night Platinum holidays to Gran Canaria staying at the 5T Hotel Maspalomas Princess Thomson Platinum Resort on a half board basis, from £609 per adult, first child travels from £324 and from £389 for the second. Price is based on four sharing and includes flights departing from London Gatwick airport on 7 January 2013. To find out more about this holiday or to book visit your local Thomson travel shop, thomson.co.uk or call 0871 230 2555.
Back, then, from our wonderful weekend, we’ve had time to reflect upon Guernsey, and what it can offer the traveller – be they family, couple, group or solo.
The first thing that struck us both, having enjoyed each other’s company, sans children, for the first time in a good few years, is that it’s a wonderful place for a weekend getaway. But then, it’s good for everyone. Before I explain why, let me tell you a little about this teeny island nestled off the south coast of England, nearer, in fact, to Normandy than the UK:
Although Guernsey has strong ties with France (it was, in fact, French up until 1066, but I won’t bore you with a history lesson), Guernsey is not French. Nor, is it English: it’s a self governing crown dependency, if you must know. The population, and I found this amazing, is about the same as, say Rugby: 62,000, spread across an island that is just 30 square miles. Guernsey is a bit like a wedge of cheese, with high cliffs on the south east side, sloping down to level ground on the north west. There are huge tides here – meaning that the sea goes out a really long way, also meaning that the waters are very clear and clean, meaning awesome shellfish and happy sea bass, as well as making the water lovely for swimming.
Which brings me neatly on to why Guernsey is a fabulous summer destination for families. Just a 45 minute flight from Gatwick (we flew Aurigny, who were amazingly courteous, ran like clockwork, and cost about £100 return per person), or a short ferry ride, and you’re on an island that boasts better weather than the UK and the most glorious, clean beaches. What you won’t get is the ‘kiss me quick’ hat, tatty seaside resorts that put a lot of people off holidaying in the UK. Guernsey is, well, classy. In the harbour town of St Peter Port, the little boutique shops, restaurants, cafés and immaculate streets reminded me of Marlow, a well to do town, proud of itself, but in an understated way.
So I thought what I’d do is give you a perfect weekend in Guernsey (tried, tested and scoffed by my lubly Hubby and I) to give you a taster. If you can make it for a week, even better, but here’s my perfect weekend:
Getting there: fly Aurigny.com from Gatwick and pick up a hire car at the airport, or ferry over from Portsmouth with your own car.
Accommodation: there’s everything on Guernsey from very posh five star hotels to lovely B&Bs (for fab beachy holidays, check out Waves, which is very stylish self-catering accommodation on glorious Vazon Bay, or stay in St Peter Port where there is a wide range of hotels – check visitguernsey.com for more info). We based ourselves in St Peter Port, but being such a small island, everywhere is easily accessible.
On arrival, have a drive around the island – you can’t really get lost – if the sun’s out, seek out the glorious beaches, often hidden away down little ‘park and walk’ lanes, or strike out along the stunning cliff paths and on the way, check out all manner of Nazi bunkers (from the occupation, more of this later), Neolithic tombs, The Little Chapel and much more. Stop and see what people are selling in their ‘hedge veg’ stalls – makeshift shops where the locals sell their fruit, veg, flowers and – in lovely Mandy Girard’s case – cheese from her herd of Golden Guernsey Goats. For lunch try The Hideaway at the Best Western Moores Central Hotel, Le Pollet, St Peter Port, for excellent local crab sandwiches and home made cakes, all served on a gorgeously sunny outdoor terrace.
In the afternoon, have a wander around the cobbled streets of St Peter Port where there is amazing shopping. If you get tired, pop in to the Ship and Crown pub on the harbour front, for a pint of the local Rocquette cider and check out the shipwreck photos in the bar.
In the evening, book a table at Red Grill House on the harbour front. Be prepared to be stunned by their amazing wine list – several pages long – but don’t worry, the staff are very friendly and knowledgeable should you need help choosing. They also have a fabulous array of steaks, sold by weight, and generally have fresh fish of the day. Leave room to share their incredible tarte tatin before waddling along the twinkly harbour front back to your hotel.
Head to the beach!
Bimble over to Sausmarez Manor (pronounced ‘Summeray’, five minutes’ drive) where there is a great farmers’ market on a Saturday morning. Afterwards, explore the manor house and take a leisurely walk around the grounds where you’ll discover all manner of sculptures as well as beautiful gardens.
Head off to Herm Island (herm.com) on the ferry from the harbour and spend a day enjoying gorgeous, Caribbean-like beaches on a proper Famous Five island complete with bracken-edged cliff paths and azure water. There are no cars on Herm and only 60 odd residents, so it’s a really peaceful place to while away the day.
We were escorted around the island by the lovely, and very knowledgeable Jonathan Watson who showed us all the accommodation on the island: from the 40-bed White House Hotel, perched above the harbour, with its Conservatory Restaurant (amazing wine list) and its attached Ship Inn brasserie, to self catering cottages and log cabins. There’s also a campsite with shop facilities during the summer (they’ll even get your shopping in for you so it’s there when you arrive). You can walk the cliff paths around the island in about a couple of hours, or if you fancy a shorter walk, cut across.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, head to the Mermaid Tavern and order the home made fish finger doorsteps with fat chips, battered with the local Herm Ale – you won’t be disappointed). It’s a truly fabulous place to spend a holiday, where you really can let the kids have as much freedom as they want, but if you can’t manage it, do spend a day there (take note of the last ferry times, otherwise you’ll find yourself castaway!).
Back on Guernsey, book a table at Christie’s, tucked away on Lower Pollet (which runs parallel to the harbour front). There’s an amazing atmosphere on a Saturday evening (ask for a booth at the back overlooking the harbour terrace – make sure you book!) – order a dozen oysters while you peruse the menu (their Tennerfest menu – loads of the hotels and restaurants do menus for a tenner during this six week period – is completely fabulous).
If you’re up for a few cocktails, head back to Red (just two minutes’ walk) and go upstairs to their cocktail bar, where the doors to the terrace are open in the summer, and quaff a few cocktails while watching the boats bob on the harbour. I recommend the Bramble (gin, blackberry liqueur.. other stuff…). I do not recommend drinking three.
Nursing a slightly aching head, why not wander along the harbour to Castle Cornet, a real boys-own castle (hold your ears for the firing of the noon day gun!) complete with turrets and cannons. The castle houses five museums with all sorts of interactive stuff kids will love, plus, you can stand high up on the fortress roof surveying the sea and pretend to be Jack Sparrow (or not).
If you’re flagging, pop into Boulangerie Victor Hugo for amazing pastries (59 Lower Pollet, boulangerie.gg).
Don’t miss the La Vallette Underground Military Museum, also walking distance from the harbour. Set in actual tunnels used by the Nazis for storing fuel during the occupation, the place is an amazing trove of memorabilia, not just from WWII, but right back to Victorian times. Kids will love the plethora of uniforms, guns and medals and adults will, as we did, find some of the things (letters home from family members sent to prisoner of war camps and tales of life during the occupation) very poignant. A moving place and well worth a visit.
For your final lunch, head to Le Petit Bistro, just on the corner of Le Truchot and Lower Pollet where you’ll find good wines (or great coffee) and adorable French staff. Feast on ‘Le Club’ sandwiches with extra ham or smoked salmon and share some frites. Delightful.
Finally, head sadly to the airport and vow to return to spend time in the summer on some of those spectacular beaches.
For more information on Tennerfest, which runs until November 11th this year, click on tennerfest.com
Huge thanks for our Gold accredited guide Gill, who was a mine of information and answered all my stupid questions, and to Visit Guernsey for sharing their beautiful island with us. I’d keep quiet if it was mine.
After a restful night at the gorgeous retro Helmsley, we set off early towards the east and the Space Coast. Arriving a little late, we had to nip in the back at our scheduled lunch with an astronaut. If you’re visiting, don’t miss this amazing experience. To be accurate, it’s not like an intimate lunch, it’s more a big, full restaurant, one person talking at the front kind of lunch. Still, this suited us fine and we were happy to listen to the amazing Bob Springer, veteran of both Space Shuttle Atlantis and Space Shuttle Discovery and and all round good guy. There aren’t many times you hear ‘and this is a photo of earth I took out the window of the shuttle…’ We shared the lunch with an enormous party of Chinese school children. They were very well behaved, but of course Bob had to field the ubiquitous ‘how do you poo in space?’ question, which he fielded bravely, and with pictures (if you really want to know it’s all done with suction. And leg straps). We were all impressed.
The Apollo/Saturn 5 Center is also AWESOME. The films are humbling and actually quite emotional, plus you get to sit in a galleried area and watch as an entire countdown to launch is re-enacted in an actual mission control centre. We also got to visit the huge launch area complete with the biggest single storey building in the world, a hangar so huge that looking at the ceiling nearly makes you fall over backwards. Our gorgeous guide, the incredibly knowledgeable Andrea Farmer, PR for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex let us into a secret too: Atlantis is going to be permanently exhibited at Kennedy, the planned date being summer 2013. I’m SO going back. Check out kennedyspacecenter.com or follow them on Twitter @ExplorespaceKSC.
Our home for the night was the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel, my favourite, I think, of all our Florida accommodation. The rooms were beautiful, and the actual hotel (well, hotels, there’s Swan and there’s obviously Dolphin) feels slick and classy, but is child-friendly too. Quite a feat. There are bars and restaurants galore, a white sandy beach, stunning waterfalls and lush gardens. In the evening, we wandered along Disney’s Boardwalk (one of my favourite places) to Kouzzina by Cat Cora, a frankly fabulous Greek restaurant. The food was ridiculously good: we started with amazing dips: tzatziki, a spicy aubergine dip, taramasalata and hitipiti (red pepper and feta) served with delicious warm breads, followed by gorgeous melty Kasseri, a sheep’s milk cheese flamed so it’s lusciously gooey, served with toasted ciabatta. Our mains were a tasting trio of braised short rib with feta mashed potato, lamb slider and a fisherman’s stew, and we finished off with an oozy chocolate centred budino cake, baklava and outstanding sorbets. The wines were stunning too, and we staggered out just in time to watch the fireworks over the water before waddling back to the Swan, replete.
I travelled to Florida with Visit Florida and Virgin Holidays. If you’d like to recreate my trip, here’s some information about a very similar seven nights in Orlando from £949
Seven nights in Orlando with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick or Manchester direct to Orlando, two nights accommodation at the 5V Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, two nights accommodation at the 3V+ Sunset Vista Beachfront Suites, two nights at the 5V Longboat Key Club & Resort and one night at the 5V Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotel, all on a room only basis with car hire included starts from £949. Prices are per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a standard room, price includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Prices are based on departures 12 – 14 Nov 2012.
Start your holiday before you’ve even taken off in the v-room at Gatwick Airport or Manchester Airport; Adults £20, Kids £12
Virgin Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected
To book: www.virginholidays.co.uk, 0844 557 3859 or visit one of their 90 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide
When we were discussing the Olympics Games at the last Gatwick Passenger Panel meeting, one of the things that came up a lot was how helpful technology can be when you’re visiting a new place. With London (and the UK generally) set to see a huge increase in visitors for the Olympic Games, and hopefully continuing afterwards, I thought the following might be helpful. Most are available for iPad, iPod and iPhone unless stated.
Tips to live like a local (apps for loads of different cities and counties all across the UK) – things to do, places to stay and eat.
Find NT places near you – great tips for coastline, gardens, houses to visit.
Still the best hotel iPad app in my opinion.
Over 500 places – search by what’s near/what’s hot etc
If you want to get a real feel for England, this is the app you’ll need. Loads of historic castles, beautiful gardens and unusual places to go. iPhone only.
All London bus times, in real time.
7. London Tube
Journey planner/nearest tube etc
Unusual/quirky places in London away from the usual tourist trail (also check out Royal London/Horrible London)
9. Top Table
Restaurant finder and table bookings along with discounts and offers.
Lovely app showing the location of the 850 blue plaques in London with pictures and stories behind the plaques.
For other things to do in London, try Smartsave.
If you discover any new ones or want to recommend any good ones, please feel free to comment!
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