Guacamole at La Malinche

The UK does Macy’s: my top five things to do in Sarasota

So if you pop in occasionally, you’ll know that Mr English and I recently spent a while in Florida, visiting the Macy’s stores in both Orlando and Sarasota.  We particularly loved Sarasota – it’s a beautiful area and there’s bags of stuff to do as well as a really cool foodie scene.  We whittled our favourite experiences down to five really fab experiences:

Christmas at Macy's

Christmas at Macy’s

1. Macy’s and the Mall at UTC

Well of course the first thing you MUST do is visit the new Macy’s at the brand new sparkly Mall at University Town Centre.  Get there early, grab a coffee in the new Starbucks and then head straight to the Visitors Center to pick up your Passport to Shopping which is packed with discounts and special offers.

2. The Ringling

I’m not a big circus fan, I’ll be honest, but there’s something about this place that I find really magical.  Even if you skip the circus museum, take time to wander around the divine Ca’d’Zan, The Ringling’s quite incredibly lavish mansion, sitting right on the edge of Sarasota Bay.  When we visited it was decorated for Christmas.  You can take a tour (an extra $5 – if you don’t mind being barked at by the somewhat over-zealous guides – I was told off for touching a door after the guide let it shut in my face), or just wander around yourself, but you won’t be able to see the upstairs. There’s also the Museum of Art, a huge space which is packed full of all manner of art, from old masters to stunning modern pieces.

Ca'd'Zan at The Ringling

Ca’d’Zan at The Ringling

3. St Armand’s Circle

When we were in Sarasota we found ourselves coming back to this lovely area over and over again- sometimes for lunch AND dinner!  It’s a gorgeous area of shops and restaurants surrounding a central circle.  There was also a huge modern art fair when we were there, which was fab fun to wander around.  It’s right on Sarasota Bay, so you can visit the beach, shop ’til you drop or just sit in a café or restaurant and watch the world go by.

La Malinche, St Armands Circle

La Malinche, St Armands Circle

4. La Malinche

Our favourite restaurant at St Armands Circle, this Mexican restaurant is so welcoming, the owner even let us share his iPhone wifi, and the barmen are great fun.  Share the wonderful guacamole and nachos, then tuck into the molcajetes (a stone dish filled with meat, onions, peppers, salsa and tomatoes, served with fresh tortillas).  I recommend the mixed steak and chicken, but beware, it’s massive, so order one between too. Perfect with a Negra Modela amber beer.

Guacamole at La Malinche

Guacamole at La Malinche

Molcajetes at La Malinche

Molcajetes at La Malinche

5. The Artisan Cheese Company, Downtown Sarasota

We weren’t particularly lucky with the weather, so we ended up scanning Twitter on our last evening in Sarasota for something indoor to do.  We came across a tweet about a lovely cheese shop that served wine, so we hailed a taxi in the pouring rain and headed over.  We weren’t disappointed. The lovely staff created a fabulous cheese platter for us, with some delicious pickles, dried and fresh fruits.  Plus they even managed to bag us a taxi back to our hotel afterwards.  Massive selection of cheese, fabulous desserts and lovely people (hello Derek and Natalie!).  If I had one complaint it would be that they could do with a bit more choice of wine, but the one we had was perfectly nice.  I still keep in touch with the owner now on Instagram. We’re definitely going back again.

American cheese platter at the Artisan Cheese Company

American cheese platter at the Artisan Cheese Company

For more information about Macy’s, follow #UKdoesMacys on Twitter, because two other lovely bloggers are heading out to San Francisco and New York to discover the Macy’s stores there. Lucky things.

If you’re planning a trip to the USA and would like to know more about Macy’s, check out Visit Macy’s USA – you’ll even find me there!

Bobbi Brown at Macy's UTC

The UK does Macy’s – the new Macy’s at UTC Sarasota

So next on our wonderful trip to Florida, we hopped back into our amazing Mustang and headed down to Sarasota, to the brand new Mall at University Town Centre (UTC for short).  The brand new Macy’s there is utterly fantastic, and very state of the art.  We joined store manager Kerry Yelle for a tour of the store.  She’s understandably pretty proud of the place and pointed out several really cool features that are unique to this ‘smart store’.  The lighting, for example, has been designed to be sustainable and the lamps don’t need replacing, plus the changing rooms have lights that only come on when you enter, to save energy.

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The Diagon Alley dragon

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Having shopped until we dropped at Macy’s, we decided to grab a couple of hours at Universal Orlando (well, seeing as we were so close…).  I was desperate to visit the new Diagon Alley section of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, so we headed straight to Universal’s Islands of Adventure on the complimentary shuttle bus from the Cabana Bay Beach Resort and headed straight to Hogsmeade Station to wait for the Hogwarts Express:

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SushiSamba, Miami Beach

One of my favourite places in Miami is Lincoln Road.  It’s a huge, pedestrianised area stuffed with shops, restaurants, cafés, and on certain days there are market stalls and food stalls too.  After working up an appetite on our cycling tour of Miami Beach, we headed to SushiSamba and flumped down in the shade of their gorgeous orange brollies to do a bit of nibbling and people watching.

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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

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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.

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My Florida diary, part 4: How do you poo in space? The Kennedy Space Center, The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel and dinner at Kouzzina

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 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.

For more information, check out the Visit Florida Facebook page.

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:, 0844 557 3859 or visit one of their 90 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide


Embarking on a holiday to Florida with under 5s

Florida is famous for beaches, sunshine and, of course, the theme parks. Children and adults alike will love the chance to be able to explore the world-renowned resorts of Disney, Universal, Epcot, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the others. All the theme parks are great at catering for families, especially those with young children who may be too small to ride on a lot of the rollercoasters.

Each of the Disney parks has several great attractions for young children. Head over to Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom to ride on Dumbo, the Flying Elephant. This gentle ride is a lovely experience and kids will love being able to control how high their Dumbo can fly. Also in the Magic Kingdom is The Barnstormer. This junior rollercoaster is a great ride for any little daredevils in your family as it has a few twists and turns!
If your child loved being able to fly on an elephant, you could try Cinderella’s Golden Carousel, a charming old fashioned merry-go-round where the children can sit on horses, and there is an option of a bench carriage if they prefer. Fans of Nemo can go and visit Epcot and search the seas to find him in a ‘clamobile’ . From there you can visit the seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion, home to one of the largest man-made ocean environments in the world.

Kids love seeing their favourite characters come to life, so why not head over to Hollywood Studios to see Playhouse Disney, an interactive live performance that combines awesome effects and puppetry and gives your children the chance to sing and dance along with Mickey!

If you want a slightly more relaxing break, there are plenty of beaches in Florida for kids to run around on, making sandcastles and splashing in the waves. Clearwater, Florida is home to some beautiful white beaches and is very family-friendly. Children of all ages will love the chance to be able to jump aboard a pirate ship on Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise. Or visit Destin on the Emerald Coast for a quieter and more relaxing family-orientated beach.

Cosmos’ holidays to Florida give you the freedom to tailor your trip to your family needs. You can choose to spend your entire trip exploring the theme parks or opt for a Twin Centre holiday and split your time between two different parts of Florida. The possibilities are endless and you can guarantee that you and your family will never have a dull moment in the Sunshine State.

Cosmos Holidays are a leading UK tour operator. Find out more about Disneyland holidays with Cosmos by visiting their website.


My Florida diary, part 3: Myakka State Park, the Ringling Museum of Art and The Helmsley Sandcastle

The next morning we grudgingly leave the fabulous breakfast burritos in the Sunset Café at the Sunset Vistas behind and head south down the gulf coast, through Manatee County and down into Sarasota, eventually entering the lush Myakka State Park.

Myakka is hot, hot, hot.  We sit, quietly melting, waiting for our boat trip to start.  But as soon as we’re under the shade of the boat’s canopy and slipping slowly through the water, it’s fabulous.  And the breeze is wonderful.  Our guide, Captain Dick (a Vietnam vet), is great – his talk is full of gentle humour (‘see those massive ugly black birds over there that look like vultures?’  We all nod politely.  ‘Well, they’re vultures’) and tons of interesting information.  The river winds 14 shallow miles around the state park (the shallowness is one reason why we see the big gators – there are lots of areas in the river where they just can’t submerge).

We see wild pigs, all manner of cranes and herons, and – obviously – TONS of alligators.  We even spot an eagle, stopping to eat his catch in a tree.

Every so often a fish pings up onto the deck of the boat (they seem very athletic, flipping about in the water) and John reaches for his trusty fishslice to flip them back in.  At one stage our boat hits one of massive gators that slide ominously past us.  There is a terrific thud.  ‘Don’t mind him’, John says, ‘he won’t feel a thing’.

This place is an absolute must-see.  And park entry is really cheap at just $6 per car.  People come here to bike, hike, kayak and camp, and we could see why, it’s a stunning place.

After the sweaty excitement of all this gator spotting, we head back to the blogger bus for some slightly more sedate tourism in the shape of a private tour of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, with Public Relations Manager, Scott Gardiner.  Don’t be fooled by the title into thinking that the Ringling is some sort of stuffy musuem with creaky floorboards and dusty portraits.  All told, the Ringling covers some 20 acres of gorgeous Sarasota seafront and includes, amongst beautiful gardens, John and Mable’s breathtaking mansion, Ca d’Zan (literally ‘house of John’), kept lovingly as it was when they lived there, along with the fabulous Circus Museum (including the amazing miniature circus, an epic reproduction of one of the enormous circuses pioneered by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from the War years, created by Howard Tibbals (who we actually bumped into while we were there!).

When I take the fellas back to Sarasota (oh and I will, I’m planning it already), I’ll stay at the Ringling for an entire day, have lunch in the beautiful gardens, and spend hours just soaking up the view from the terrace of the spectacular mansion.  It really deserves to be savoured.  The circus museum is tremendous fun as well and there are some amazing original pieces.  We ran out of time, which was a terrible shame, but hey, an excuse to go back too.

Last stop for the night is the Helmsley Sandcastle.  I was really looking forward to this proper ‘old Florida’ beauty as I’ve read about its original owners, millionaire philanthropists and property tycoons, Leona and Harry Helmsley (once owners of the Empire State Building).  The Helmsley Sandcastle is now owned by the Helmsley Trust and was built in the late 50s, then added to in  1966.  The hotel oozes vintage 60s charm and the endless white sand private beach is completely empty.  The Helmsley has a private car and driver that will drop you in to St Armand’s Circle, then pick you up after dinner.  The rooms are still 1960s in style, so it’s maybe not for you if you’re looking for uber-modern accommodation, but for me, this somehow adds to its charm, and the setting takes a lot of beating. I loved it.

For more information, check out the Visit Florida Facebook page.

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:, 0844 557 3859 or visit one of our 90 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.

My Florida diary, part 2: Clearwater, St Pete’s and segway madness!

Next stop on our whirlwind tour of Florida was Clearwater. Driving across the Frankland Bridge from Tampa, we were all struck dumb by the beautiful turquoise water, with the fabulous waterfront homes gleaming on the shores. Our first stop was Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of ‘Winter’, the dolphin made famous by ‘Dolphin Tale’, the movie. The poor creature got caught in a crab line when she was just a tiny thing and was rescued by the CMA. Sadly they couldn’t save her tail but have helped her with a permanent home, physical therapy and a succession of prosthetic tails, kindly donated by a company that usually makes human prosthetics. At first sight, it’s a little saddening to see her bobbing around (she doesn’t wear the tails all the time), but the staff love her with a passion and give her the best life possible, and of course now she’s famous, everyone wants to come and visit:

After visiting Winter (and the miriad turtles, otters and other dolphins), we stopped in the utterly gorgeous St Petersburg (think white sand beaches, Riviera chic palm-lined streets and sun-drenched outdoor cafés) for lunch. The Cassis American Brasserie is something of a St Pete’s institution, with a famous bakery attached (apple tart TO DIE FOR) as well. We worked off the excesses of the previous night’s lycheetinis and karaoke (another day, I promise) by diving in to gorgeous fresh oysters, bloody marys and mahoosive burgers. Everything was delicious and the location, right on the sidewalk on Beach Drive, shaded by enormous umbrellas, was just fabulous:

Fully restored, we took a gentle sunny amble along Beach Drive to the Chihuly Collection where lovely director, Wayne Atherholt, showed us around these frankly stunning glass pieces. If you’re around St Pete’s you MUST visit. I promise you’ll stand awestruck in front of these phenomenal, complex glass sculptures:

Another quick drive took us to the amazing Dalí Museum. Our wonderfully eccentric and terrifically knowledgeable guide, Janice (complete with Dalí inspired shoe hat) steered us around hundreds of Dalí pieces, pointing out specific things in the paintings we would never have spotted, and explaining the thinking behind the paintings. Without a guide, you’ll still have a great time, but trust me when I say I learned more than I ever thought possible with Janice’s help. Don’t miss the beautiful gardens, cleverly named, of course, the ‘Avant Gardens’, with the enormous Dalíesque moustache and Wish Tree, where people have been writing their wishes on scraps of paper and tying them to the tree for years. By the way, if you want to add a wish to the tree, the museum will do it for you if you tweet your wish to #Daliwishtree.

We fell in love with Janice. In fact, so much that we couldn’t bear to leave her at the Dalí and persuaded her to join us (after a slight altercation between her car and a bollard – the bollard won) on our segway tour of St Pete. The segways are a little tricky to master, but with the help of the wonderful David Boston from St Pete’s guided segway tour company, Gyroglides, we were soon whizzing along in a happy troupe along St Pete’s pier, Janice merrily shouting explanations for her Dalí shoe hat as we glided past stunned passers by. Here I am looking utterly ridiculous on a segway:

And here’s Janice. In her multicoloured coat. On a segway. With her shoe hat on. Surreal (Dalí would surely have loved it):

After all that excitement, we were delighted to check into our evening accommodation, the delightful Sunset Vistas Beachfront Suites, located smack bang on the gorgeous Treasure Island beach, and chill on the balcony overlooking the ocean, sipping a cold glass of champagne generously left in our fridge (the condos are huge and really well equipped with washing machines, huge kitchens and two large bedrooms and two bathrooms as well as a sofa bed (three bed apartments are also available).

The condos are a fab idea if you want to go to Florida and have a bit more freedom. Self catering is a breeze with a café on site plus a huge supermarket within half a mile and plenty of lovely restaurants within easy walking distance (I highly recommend Sloppy Joe’s – order the firecracker shrimp – you won’t be disappointed!). If you’re staying a little longer in the area, George Hoch, the General Manager, recommends a trip to John’s Pass village, a lovely historical fishing village with loads of things to do and some fabulous seafood.

Here’s the inside of our condo:



And here’s the view from the balcony.  With my cankles:

For more information, visit the St Petersburg/Clearwater Facebook page, or the Visit Florida Facebook page.

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: , 0844 557 3859 or visit one of our 90 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.



My Florida diary, part 1: Orlando and Universal Studios including the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

I have so much to tell you about our trip.  This means that it’s probably best to break it into several sections to prevent you falling asleep at your laptop and waking up with little keyboard-shaped indentations in your forehead.

First stop, then, was the fabulous Virgin V Room at London Gatwick Airport.  I met up with a couple of my fellow travellers, Kash from Budget Traveller and Victoria, otherwise known as Pommie Travels, plus Claire, our lovely and long-suffering PR.  We started as we meant to go on with enormous plates of eggs benedict and a refreshing 9am cocktail (what? we were on holiday):

A very comfortable flight and a very sweaty queue through US immigration later and we were reunited with Laura, and met Lily from Visit Florida, our guide for the weeks’ adventures.

First stop was the Hilton Bonnet Creek.  The place is enormous (1000 rooms!) and sits next to its twin, the equally fabulous Waldorf Astoria.  Here’s my room, already becoming sullied by the contents of my somewhat overstuffed suitcase.  The bathroom had a gorgeous double width/wetroom shower thingy (a thing of beauty) and possibly the biggest, most comfy bed ever:

We ate in the beautiful La Luce restaurant, created by the very famous Napa Valley chef, Donna Scala, where I nearly died and went to heaven sampling the crispest, most delicious frito misto with a crunchy, sweet, beet salad (sigh):

There was also a butterscotch dessert so gorgeous and so heavenly that there was total silence around the table apart from the odd contented sigh.  The dessert is so amazing it even has its own Facebook page (I kid you not):

The next day, we were very excitedly heading out to Universal Studios.  The studios are split into three main areas: the City Walk, which is an amazing strip of all sorts of bars, shops and restaurants before you get to the main entrances, then the Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Our absolute faves were:

Islands of Adventure

The Incredible Hulk Coaster – just amazing (and a bit scary)

The Jurassic Park River Adventure – fab dinosaurs and whooshy raft action – be warned, you get wet!

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The Dragon Challenge – a feet-dangling-free terror ride upon a dualling dragon

Butter beer – taste it and immediately fall in love (oh, that frothy topping…)

Top tip: ask the guard of the Hogwart’s Express where he’s from!

Seuss Landing

If you’re a fan of Dr Seuss you’ll love this whole area – it’s like being dropped into the set of The Cat in the Hat

And at Universal Studios:

We spent far too long at the Islands of Adventure to properly check out everything at Universal, but don’t miss:

The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit – my neck STILL hurts (this is my own fault – I didn’t want to take my hair clip out so rode the entire vertical-up and vertical-down section of this terrifying ride craning my neck away from my headrest. What a dunce.)

Universal’s Superstar Parade: check out the parade, if only for Spongebob and the dancing Minions from Despicable Me. Hilarious and gorgeous.

Next up is beautiful St Petersburg, the bonkers Dali Museum and some unseemly horsing about on segways.  Stay tuned, viewers!


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: , 0844 557 3859 or visit one of our 90 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.






Jetlag, sausage feet, flamingos, missed exams and discovering Florida

So we’re back.  After an hour delay (and an upgrade!) we finally touched back down at Gatwick at 10am this morning.  My legs are a bit wobbly (and enormous – stuffing my feet back into my Birkenstocks after we landed was akin to wedging a large sausage into a thimble) and I’m pretty sure I fell asleep against the shoulder of a man I was sitting next to at Clapham Junction, but apart from that it’s all good.

We had such a wonderful time in Florida – I can’t wait to tell you all about discovering amazing new places (St Pete’s and Sarasota spring to mind – the BEACHES!) and visiting old friends (down on the Boardwalk at Disney and new attractions at Seaworld) and fabulous food (firecracker shrimp *drooool*).

Our group bonded amazingly well and apart from the odd car accident or two (minor) and small screeching session when it was discovered that a teenager back home had slept through his A level (mine – ‘WHERE ARE YOU?!’), the whole thing went incredibly smoothly.  The boys were delighted with their chocolate frogs from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, their freeze dried astronaut ice cream from the Kennedy Space Centre and their watermelon chewing gum (from the service station) and nobody’s burnt, destroyed, broken or maimed anything or anyone in my absence, which is always a bonus.

Back soon with excitement, things to make you go ‘ooh’ and about 15,000 pictures of flamingos (you know how I love those salmon pink beauties).  You’ve been warned.

Ooh. A new Wet’n’Wild Kids’ Park at Universal

Interesting news reached the English Mum Newsdesk (okay, the kitchen worktop, but just use your imagination, okay?) this week.  Turns out that Universal are opening a mahoosive big new attraction this summer.

Contained within the site of their huge Wet’n’Wild Florida waterpark  (where you can experience every sort of water-based ride known to man), the new Kids’ Park will cover more than an acre and feature all sorts of fun including slides (17 of them), water cannons, jets and all manner of water-based fun.  They’re paying attention to the surrounding landscaping too (think ‘lush and tropical’ (perfect for the parents to hang out while the little ones go and get wet) and the entire sandcastle-themed area will have one separate entrance, meaning it’s nice and safe and an easy way of keeping track of everyone too.

Tickets for  Wet ‘n Wild cost from £27 for adults and £22 for children at Attraction Tickets Direct (valid for up to 14 consecutive days) or you can visit all of the Universal Orlando packs with a ‘ 3-Park Bonus Ticket’ costing from £113 per adult which covers entrance to Universal Studios, Wet ‘n Wild, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Universal CityWalk.



Yo ho yo ho a pirate’s life for me: The Disney Dream (part uno)

Where to begin?

Well, after champers in the V Room at London Gatwick and an easy flight into Orlando (I love Virgin Atlantic, I do) and the excitement of being picked up by Disney’s VIP service (woo!), we headed to our hotel for the night, the Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa.  The place is absolutely vast – 65 acres to be precise – and has an equestrian theme, based on a real place called Saratoga Springs which was famous in New York in the 1800s.  The resort is made up of lots of different self-catering villas all set in lush landscapes around a huge lake. It’s just beautiful:

We headed out to Epcot at Walt Disney World to the Hacienda restaurant based in the Mexico part of the park.  The food was amazeballs, as you can imagine.  And check out the margaritas!  The one on the left was mango, blueberry and basil, and mine was an avocado margarita (yes, really) with Tequila, melon liqueur, fresh avocado, agave nectar and fresh lime.  It had an amazing Hibiscus salt rim as well.  Yummers:

The next morning, after a really lush breakfast, we headed off to Port Canaveral to board the ship (don’t call it a boat, you just upset the crew!).  This was our first glimpse:

It really is a huge beast.  And by this time we were so excited there was quite a bit of squeaking coming from Liz and I.  Through customs, we were welcomed into the foyer by no other than Minnie Mouse:

About the Disney Dream

  • The ship itself takes about 4,500 passengers and weighs 128000 tons.
  • It’s all-inclusive on board, apart from booze and some of the adults only fine dining experiences (oh, the food – I’ve got a lot to tell you about the food).  There are 6 restaurants, plus 3 food court areas including a pizza restaurant, fast food joint and ice cream parlour open ALL DAY!  So basically you can stuff yourself silly all day (which we did, of course).
  • It’s home to the Aquaduck, the world’s first on-ship ‘water coaster': a 765ft water ride, a section of which actually goes out over the side of the ship.
  • There are 1,250 staterooms (that’s what you call the cabins, although I managed to show myself up by calling ours a ‘chalet’ on several occasions).
  • There are three pools: an adults-only, two children’s pools – one Mickey-shaped one for tiddlers, plus a lovely splash area for tiddlers with little fountains and jets.
  • There is an amazing adults-only entertainment area with nightclubs, lounges and bars.
  • There are tons of kids clubs, from a nursery for teeny guests (3 months to 3 years), through the Oceaneer Club and Lab (3 to ten years), Edge (for ‘tweens’), right up to the amazing Vibe – an entire area for teenagers 14 – 17, including a club, a great outdoor area with pools, and dedicated entertainment staff.  Once registered, teens get a special card which opens the teens-only door – no adults allowed!
  • It’s a cash-free ship.  Everything is charged to your ‘Key to the World’ room key, and settled up at the end of the cruise by cash or credit card (but watch out, the shops are fabulous).

The staterooms are certainly compact, but you don’t spend any time in them.  There’s one of those beds in the ceiling too which is great fun to sleep in and has a starry ceiling!:

‘Sailing Away’ is absolutely phenomenal. There’s a huge party on deck with a show (and lots of characters, naturally) and loads of people line up on the shore to wave goodbye (including a police car with its lights flashing).  As the ship glides out of Port Canaveral the ship’s horn parps the first few notes of ‘When you wish upon a star’.  It’s just amazing (we were there with a film crew – this is Paddy the Producer’s ear):

So we were off!  LOADS more to tell you, but in the meantime, if you want to see more photos from our Disney Dream trip – check out my Facebook page:

Top Ten Animal Encounters: The ‘SeaWorld 6′ go wild!

From left to right: Laura (, Erica (, me, Apollo the Sea Lion,Tara (, Jo ( and Liz (

So finally, after ash clouds and delays, weeks of waiting, a very pleasant flight on Virgin Atlantic and three slightly less pleasant hours stuck melting in the baggage reclaim at Orlando Airport because it was, apparently, ‘too hot’ to get our suitcases off, and then having to go through security AGAIN (‘do you have any liquids, Ma’am?’ ‘No, I think I just used my very last drop of saliva’), we finally arrived in Florida for our fantastic trip to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, the beautiful Discovery Cove and Aquatica.

I’ve got so much to show you – about a million photos (stop yawning at the back there), tales of enormous hotel beds, gobsmacking rides, cackly laughter, mojitos and fantastic food, but I’m going to start you off with the best bit: my top ten animal encounters. Enjoy!

1. The Dolphin Experience at Discovery Cove

What can I say?  Meeting the dolphins was one of those moments that I’ll never ever forget.  Bobbing gently in shimmering water, we were treated to the most amazing one-to-one experience – including a rather exhilarating tow, whilst holding onto the dolphin’s dorsal fin:

…and we were even treated to a little kiss which took my breath away.  Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive resort, limited to 1000 guests a day, with a mahoosive man-made lagoon where the dolphins live, a wonderful lazy river encircling much of the resort and beautiful white sandy beaches.  It really is just paradise.

After this, we were all speechless (a very rare event in itself) – grinning at each other like loons.

2. Feeding the Giraffes on the Serengeti Safari at Busch Gardens

Busch Gardens is just the most beautiful place. One of my favourite areas was the 65 acre Serengeti Plain, where we drove past grazing zebra and antelopes in an open topped truck and fed the serene and rather gorgeous giraffes with lettuce leaves:

3. The Elephant Keeper Experience at Busch Gardens

Imagine the scene: 6 excited bloggers (plus two equally excited PRs) rushing around hiding apples, pears and palm fronts, stuffing leaves into huge balls and tipping out enormous frozen ‘elephant popsicles’, then rushing to hide as the elephants thunder up to find their prizes. Really one of the most exhilarating experiences. There were countless squeaks of ‘I hid that!’ when the elephants picked out a particular piece of well-hidden fruit or veg.

4. ‘Believe’: The Killer Whale Show at SeaWorld

Everyone thinks they know all about SeaWorld’s killer whale show. And although I was initially sceptical, this really is an amazing experience. Although the trainers no longer get in the water with the Orcas (following the death of a trainer earlier this year), I think that actually makes it a more ‘natural’ experience – watching these enormous animals rocket round, splashing their tails and occasionally leaping clear of the water is awe inspiring.  I wonder if it was just me that felt a sense of sadness still hanging over the stadium, though.

5. Meeting Apollo the Sea Lion at ‘Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island’

Who’d have thought that Sea Lions are so incredibly intelligent? The Sea Lions stole the show, getting their own laughs by going off-script. Afterwards, we ‘met’ one of the stars, Apollo, who happily drenched me with a flipper as we were lining up for a photo.

6. Manatee Rescue

We were lucky enough to go behind the scenes with Steve Lehr, who has worked at SeaWorld for over 30 years, to see some of the sick animals and hear all about SeaWorld’s work in rescue and conservation.  We felt really lucky and just a bit humble too.

7. Feeding the Sea Lions at Pacific Point Preserve

Okay, so lobbing handfuls of slimy, wet fish at hungry Sea Lions isn’t everyone’s idea of fun.  And yes, Erica’s gagging did make for a somewhat unusual background noise to this particular adventure, and yes, being unable to get the fish just in front of the blind one and continually whacking it on the head with them instead was a little frustrating (don’t worry, they feed it by hand – if they had to rely on us it would have expired through hunger) but how much fun did we have?  Loads, that’s how much.

8. Meeting ‘Midas’, the King Penguin

We were so lucky to be able to go behind the scenes in a lot of the places, but understandably, SeaWorld didn’t really want us to take pictures.  All bets were off, though, when we encountered this beautiful chap, the adorable Midas (they’re all named after some kind of king, if you hadn’t guessed), and adorable Cole, the fluffy chick, who sang a mean (and incredibly loud) song.  He did however, cover me in fishy dribble when he gave his head a good shake.  Apart from that, though, I quite liked him.

9. Hand feeding the kangaroos and wallabies at Busch Gardens

There’s a really cute part of Busch Gardens called Walkabout Way where you can get really close to some fab Australian animals.  We had a quick laugh with a Kookaburra and tried (but mostly failed) to feed the kangaroos and wallabies.  This porker ate everyone’s food as none of the others could be bothered to get up from their sunbathing.

10.  The Leafy Sea Dragons at the Manta Aquariums

As you’re queuing up to be terrified out of your wits on Manta, the most evil, face-down roller coaster known to man, you get to wander through 10 amazing aquariums.  I know this wouldn’t be everyone’s choice for an animal to be included in their top ten, but look at this dude (or dudette, it’s not immediately apparent) – isn’t s/he amazing?  He checked us out, while little helicopter blades hovered away either side of his head.  I want one.

Travel tips for the disaster-prone

So hot on the heels of my pretty darned wondrous trip to Disneyland Paris, I’m off again shortly. Sunday sees us heading off to Morocco for a lovely week’s family holiday (‘this is what I did on my holidays’ pictures will surely follow – apart from the aforementioned Pilsbury Dough Boy/small Zebra/Russell Brand genetic mutation that is me in my bikini).

I’m not good at organising stuff, so have decided in advance to make a really good ‘what to take on holiday’ list, which will be really useful should you ever feel the need to travel with a teenager, a tweenager, a grumpy husband and a mildly bonkers mother:

1. Factor 50 suncream: I’m a really strange cocktail of English, Scottish and Irish roots, which manifests itself in skin so pale it’s practically blue. I do tan, but this is only when my freckles get so big they kind of merge together to cover some of the red. This happens in odd splodges on my face too – giving me a kind of embarrassed Dalmatian look. Not the most flattering.

2. A first aid kit the size of Wales. There will be vomiting. There always is. When we went on holiday to Goa, #1 decided to be violently sick on Christmas Day. I read the instructions on the rehydration sachets wrong and tried to get him to whoof down a whole glass of it every time he was sick. Hence, he was sick even more. We’ll also need lots of plasters because someone (generally The Death Wish Child) will do a backflip in about 3″ of water and scrape all the skin off his spine, or impale himself upon a piece of broken shell or something. Happily, in India we needn’t have worried because it turns out that you can buy just about any prescription medicine (and probably crack cocaine too) over the counter just by vaguely describing your symptoms with hand-signals and gurning. I kid you not. The Hubby got two packs of Valium for his bad shoulder (and being the hysterical type, I flushed it, just in case he got the habit).

3. Five sunhats. They always disappear, and I’m prone to burnt partings which then fester and finally peel, making me look like I have a horrible attack of scabies (on the plus-side, I can always get a sunbed). My sister in law told me recently that she’s always horrified when she remembers once waving lovely little Turtle and Jackson off on a camel ride with some random beach guy when they were toddlers. The camel guy could have been a trader in little blonde twins and she would have been none the wiser. Happily, he came back with them. Turtle, however, was minus her sunhat, which had blown away towards a man on the beach who had picked it up and then, just when she thought he was bringing it to her, had promptly pocketed it and walked off.

4. Everybody’s passport. It’s in my genes: as a family, we have passport-related lunacy in our blood. My Disreputable Dad once got all the way to the actual check-in desk at London Gatwick before realising that he had in fact got his passport and his spare passport, rather than his other half’s. Luckily, my Dad usually aims to get to the airport a good 12 hours before the flight (he’s a forward planner of epic proportions – many a time I can remember childhood holidays commencing with being bundled sleepily into a taxi at 4am – very exciting when you’re a kid, but I now realise the flight probably didn’t leave until tea-time), so he had time to bimble all the way home (an hour and a half), leaving his seething girlfriend waiting anxiously at the counter, pick up the passport and pootle all the way back again without missing the flight.

5. My phone. And no, I won’t be allowed to use it (not at £1.37 per minute roaming I won’t be), it’s purely for the music. I like to sing along, but I seem to have a very bad case of malapropitis when it comes to lyrics. The Brethren constantly despair of my inability to remember the words to any song, and it absolutely kills them when I fill in my own instead.    I also use it to drown out the sound of other people’s children (I’m toddler intolerant).  Hence, I shall be happily grilling myself to a crisp on the beach, singing ‘I kissed a girl and I liked it, the taste of her cherry chopsticks’, or ‘let’s pee on a corner… let’s pee on a spot.. light… choosing my religionnnnnn’ while my children go bright red and wander off to choose some other, less embarrassing parents to sit near.

Then finally, when I’m nice and red and crispy and slightly flaky, I will be home for just one day of confusion and then I’m off to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, the beautiful Discovery Cove and Aquatica in Florida with a raggle taggle (but gorgeous) bunch of fellow bloggers: Erica, Liz, Laura, Linda and Jo.  I predict snorty laughter, screaming on roller coasters and other aquatic shenanigans.  Watch this space…