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Family English on the Allure of the Seas

The Royal Caribbean Allure of the Seas: a guided tour

If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, I’m pretty sure that you’ve noticed we’ve been cruising on the Allure of the Seas around the Caribbean.

Royal Caribbean challenged the boys to have a really active high-adrenaline cruise and I think we managed it, what with zip-lining, surfing on the Flow-Rider, snorkelling, power rafting and much more.  And while the boys were doing all this, it left us lots of lovely free time for lazing, eating out, sunbathing and a few cocktails too!  Here’s how we got on:

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New horizons: every considered visiting Peru?

So you know that one of my biggest obsessions is about creating snapshots: when we’re old and grey, we should all be able to look back on our lives and have lots of memories stores away, snapshots of people and places that meant a lot to us.  My boys already love to travel and I really hope they both strike out into the world and have loads of magical experiences, the memories of which they can cherish forever.
Phones: so important when you travel.

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

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

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My piece in the Visit Guernsey brochure 2014

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

Guernsey Brochure page 2014

Beautiful Barcelona!

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

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

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

Barceloneta beach from the Port Cable Car

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

Hotel Miramar, Barcelona

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

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

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

Waterfall in the Joan Maragall Gardens

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

Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya waterfalls

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

Heaven.  I can’t wait to go back.

Buckets of G&T

The Immersive Wine Cruise on the Celebrity Infinity: part 1

Celebrity Infinity Bilbao

The Celebrity Infinity, Bilbao

And so we’re back: relaxed, revived and probably half pickled by now.  On the bright side, we’ll probably never go mouldy as we’re about 99% alcohol. I’m keeping away from open flames for a few days, just in case.

Ah we had a fabulous time.  We sailed from Harwich to Le Havre, La Rochelle and Bilbao in utter luxury and feel that we’ve learned so much about wine.  The wine tour was hosted by the lovely Oz Clarke (who, I believe, is actually 100% alcohol) and the equally knowledgeable and fabulous Tom Forrest from the famous Vinopolis in London.

Luckily for you, I took notes during all the wine Masterclasses and I have some incredible wines to introduce you to, as well as some wonderful wine and food matches.  Tom and Oz have a marvellous rapport (making it bloody impossible to take notes as they frequently finish each others’ sentences) and their wine masterclasses were hilarious, informative and, as you can imagine, a bit boozy.  They weren’t at all snooty or snobby and spent a lot of time talking to us about wine, both during the masterclasses and also rather late into the night in the martini bar!

iPad menu at Qsine

iPad menu at Qsine

The Celebrity Infinity is a seriously luxurious Millennium Class ship (although it’s somewhat knocking on in cruise world terms, being the grand old age of 12 and a bit), holding over 2000 guests, with several speciality restaurants, including Qsine (where a cover charge of $45 applies), a quite incredible modern dining experience.  At Qsine, you order an array of small plates (although they shouldn’t be called plates as the food arrives on everything but plates!) and then dive in and share, chat and scoff away while the waiters bring more and more delicious food to try.  Highlights for me were the lobster escargot and an amazing Moroccan banquet served on a kind of culinary ‘block of flats’ type arrrangement – quite incredible.  Plus, having two wine experts choosing wine to match your food choices made it all the more special!

Our stateroom on the Celebrity Infinity

Our stateroom on the Celebrity Infinity

People come back year after year for the Immersive Wine Cruises and we met some truly lovely people on board: Carol and David, Sharon and Bill, and new cruisers, Tony and Carla (who I managed to call ‘Sharon’ for a whole evening by mistake, and who was still nice to me).  It was great to share experiences with the group as they were from really diverse backgrounds and varied from seasonal cruisers to cruise ‘virgins’.  They all had a love of wine in common and it was a real treat to sample incredible wines, visit vineyards and enjoy food-matching dinners together.  Lots of people on these cruises strike up friendships and return to meet up again next time.

Our one gripe (if you can call it a gripe) was with the drinks packages which were a bit confusing.  The ‘classic’ package, for example, costs about £35 a day (costs vary) and entitles the cruiser to drinks, including coke, juice, tea, coffee, bottled water, beer, etc, up to $5.75.  It also entitles you to wine by the glass, cocktails etc up to $9.25.

The ‘three martini trick’ in the Martini Bar

This can be confusing as, for example, if you fancy a glass of wine that costs $10 you can’t have it unless you pay the whole $10 for it.  You can’t just pay the difference and add on £0.75 to your bill.  It can be embarrassing if you order something over your package price by mistake (or on purpose if you’re prepared to pay the extra) and have the waiter say ‘I’m sorry, madam, that’s not on your package so you’ll be billed for that’, and it’s a pain to trawl through a wine list finding things you can ‘afford’.

Still, you don’t have to buy a package (my maths isn’t up to whether it’s better value than just buying your drinks as you go along – depends how much you drink, presumably), and we were incredibly lucky on the Immersive Wine Cruise to be treated to all sorts of fabulous wines from all around the globe, and had the added thrill of being guided through the tastings by Oz and Tom.

Crepe Suzette in the Bistro on 5

Crepe Suzette in the Bistro on 5

Being on a cruise brings a whole new meaning to the words ‘all inclusive’ though.  Most nights we ate in the Trellis restaurant, where the food was superb.  Highlights included a delicious slow-roasted dish of short ribs that just fell apart, a deliciously delicate sea bass, and a surf and turf dish with a steak so enormous that it beat even Mr English.  Desserts were another highlight, and we felt it was lovely to dine at the table with proper waiter service.  It made the experience seem really special.  If you’d rather just eat buffet style, though, there’s the Ocean View Café up on deck ten where we ate breakfast (everything and anything you could possibly imagine, including eggs benedict made to order – yum).

We rather fell in love with a little place called ‘Bistro on 5′ ($5 cover charge) where they did lovely crepes, soups, salads and paninis.  we popped in most days and got to know the staff who led us straight to our favourite corner.  The decor is gorgeous, with muted gold leather sofas and dark wood. We also spent rather a lot of time at the Martini Bar where the bar is made of real ice and the bar staff make amazing drinks and entertain with all sorts of theatrical shenanigans, including pouring several martinis at once.

One of the gorgeous pool areas on deck

One of the gorgeous pool areas on deck

Away from the food and drink, there is a beautiful pool area with lots of different pools, whirlpools, etc, plus an indoor thalassotherapy pool which is gorgeously warm, even when the weather’s not up to much. There’s a wonderful AquaSpa, where I had my favourite Elemis tri-enzyme facial, but you can have anything from Keratin hair straightening to teeth whitening and botox if you so desire!  Mr English chose to pound the treadmill in the gym a few times.  I preferred a gentle walk around the deck or a coffee and a slice of cake in Café Al Bacio. Each to their own, I say!

Next up, then, it’s wine, wine and more wine.  Brace yourself!

 

Join Celebrity Cruises’ (www.celebritycruises.co.uk; 0845 456 0523) Celebrity Infinityon a 12-night France and Iberian Discovery cruise-only from £736 per person (based on two people sharing an interior stateroom).

Price includes a 12-night cruise departing from Harwich (England) and calling at Paris (Le Havre, France), Bordeaux (La Rochelle, France), Bilbao (Spain), Vigo (Spain) and Porto (Leixoes, Portugal) before returning to Harwich; meals and entertainment onboard and all relevant cruise taxes/fees. Price based on 19 September 2014 departure.

For more information or to book call 0845 456 0523 or visitwww.celebritycruises.co.uk

 

 

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

The last night on deck

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

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

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

1. Involve them in the choice of holiday

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

2. Teenagers need freedom

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

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

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

4. Think outside the box

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

5. Compromise compromise and compromise a bit more

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

6. City breaks can be really cool

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

7. Disney is part of everyone’s past

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

8. Consider doubling up

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

Chas pirate

9. Everybody loves the pirate party

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

10. Disney’s for everyone

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

 

7-night Disney Magic Mediterranean Cruise from £949 per adult and £699 per child.  Virgin Holidays Cruises offers seven nights onboard Disney Magic from Barcelona, calling at Villefranche (for Nice, France), Pisa, Rome and Naples, including flights from London Gatwick and transfers. Prices are per person based on two adults and two children travelling and sharing an inside cabin on a full-board basis. Based on a departure on 30 August 2014. Offer is subject to availability and includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change.
To book: Visit www.virginholidayscruises.co.uk, call 0844 573 4398 or visit one of our stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.

Brittany: sunshine, pastries and moules et frites

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

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




On test: meet and greet airport parking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A guide to flying with children – downloadable ebook

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

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

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

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

Guide to flying with children

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

 

A family friendly weekend at The Grove, Hertfordshire

Sam ruining a perfectly good picture

Sam ruining a perfectly good picture

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

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

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

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

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

Gardens at The Grove

Gardens at The Grove

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

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

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

Dining at The Grove

Dining at The Grove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

My top ten family activities in Florida

 

Empire of the Penguin

Empire of the Penguin

1 Meet Puck at Seaworld’s new Antarctica

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

2 Feed the giraffes on the Serengeti Safari at Busch Gardens

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

3 Drink butter beer at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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

4 Watch the fireworks at Epcot

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

'Gator spotting at Myakka

‘Gator spotting at Myakka

5 Spot gators at Myakka River State Park

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

6 Go circus crazy at the Ringling Museum

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

Me on a segway (oh the shame)

Me on a segway (oh the shame)

 

7 Segway around St Pete’s

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

8 Visit historic John’s Pass Village

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

Kennedy Space Center

Kennedy Space Center

 

Encounter Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center

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

10 Surfs up at Cocoa Beach

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

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

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

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Green travel: slow holidays

Pic: (c) Inntravel

Pic: (c) Inntravel

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

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

Cycling holidays

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

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

Walking holidays

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

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

Giveaway: win a holiday in Walt Disney World Florida with park tickets! (COMPETITION ENDED)

Disney's Art of Animation Resort: ÒBig BlueÓ Pool

Disney’s Art of Animation Resort: ‘Big Blue’ Pool

If you follow me on Facebook (if not, why not? We’re a lovely gang and have all sorts of waffly conversations), you’ll know that a while back, my chums at Disney offered me the most FABULOUS prize for you, my lovely readers: a 7 night holiday in a Walt Disney World Resort, Florida, complete with park tickets.  I, of course, bit their arms off (not literally – you don’t bite Mickey, it’s just not done), but then, disappointingly, we couldn’t persuade anyone to offer flights (it’s the end of the financial year, times are tough, blah blah) so I faltered.  I wondered if people would be disgruntled with a competition that wasn’t a WHOLE holiday as it didn’t include the flights.  But people commented, in their droves, to say that it didn’t matter, that they’d definitely enter a competition.  And hey, it’s a fabulous holiday, worth a ton of money.  So here it is, in all its glory.

The prize (squee!)

Disney will provide one winner with a vacation package for four people for seven nights and eight days at Disney’s wonderful Art of Animation resort consisting of accommodation (one standard room for four people for seven nights), PLUS four 8-day Magic Your Way tickets with Park Hopper® option (EXCLUDING flights).

How do I enter? I hear you cry!

My favourite attraction at Walt Disney World is Pirates of the Caribbean.  I’ve always loved it.  So just leave a comment and tell me: what’s the attraction you’ll be heading to first if you win this amazing prize?

(New commenters please note yours won’t show up until it’s been approved.)

For an extra chance to win, just comment and let me know that you’ve tweeted the phrase:

I’ve entered @EnglishMum’s Walt Disney World Florida holiday giveaway #visitMickeywithEnglishMum

Disney's Art of Animation Resort Entrance

Disney’s Art of Animation Resort entrance

The small print

There’s quite a lot of small print, I’ll admit, but hey, giving away a holiday is quite complicated, so I’d be really grateful if you have a read through and make sure you agree before entering. Ta muchly

  • Usual English Mum competition rules apply.  This competition is open to the residents of UK and Ireland.  You must be over 18 years of age.  The prizes offered are not transferable (and may not be sold, traded, transferred or refunded) or exchangeable for cash.  The winner will be chosen at random.
  • Items that are not included as part of the winning vacation package are: meals, hotel room service, laundry service, alcoholic beverages, merchandise/souvenirs etc, local and long distance telephone calls, tips, gratuities, service charges or taxes, all other charges and items not offered as the main prize, and the big one: FLIGHTS. Entrants must arrange their own air travel.
  • The winners are responsible for arranging visas, travel insurance, transfers, etc.
  • The competition ends at midnight on Saturday 6th April 2013. No entries received after this time will be considered.
  • Winners will be asked to provide 3 dates when they can travel, but departure date and accommodations are subject to availability; certain restrictions and block-out dates may apply.  Prize to be taken within a year, subject to availability.
  • Disney, its parent, related, affiliated and subsidiary companies and their respective officers, directors, agents, employees and assigns shall be released and discharged from any and all legal claims, losses, injuries, demands, damages, actions, and/or causes of actions that arise out of and/or in any way related to the prize, the receipt, use and/or enjoyment of the prize and/or the promotion.
  • Oh and lastly – don’t cheat!  One entry plus one bonus Twitter entry per person The system picks up on duplicate entries ;)

THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED. THE WINNER, CHOSEN BY AN ONLINE RANDOMISER, IS CAROLINE CAVANAGH – CONGRATULATIONS! THANKS FOR ALL YOUR ENTRIES – MORE COMPETITIONS VERY SOON XX

Royal Caribbean Liberty of the Seas: our amazing adventure

As I sit here  at my desk, slightly groggy with jetlag and with cankles the size of tree trunks, I can hardly believe that this time last week I was joining the cruise ship Liberty of the Seas with five friends to start the adventure of a lifetime.

I have so much to tell you!  I surfed the Flow Rider, sunbathed on a private white sand beach in Haiti, rode horses in the sea and climbed Dunns River Falls In Jamaica.  I saw incredible shows, including an ice skating spectacular (yes, there was an ice rink on the ship), a gasp-inducing modern dance production and bellowed along to Saturday Night Fever in a massive theatre.  I got pampered in the spa, drank cocktails, sipped fine wines and dined out in restaurants that would give the Titanic’s chandeliers a run for their money.  I even shook my booty in a nightclub!

I also stood alone on the top deck of a ship containing 3000 people and felt like I was the only person in the middle of a glittering turquoise ocean.

I cried tears of laughter (and some of sheer emotion) and came to realise that holidays aren’t just holidays.  If you choose wisely, they allow you to really relax – I mean, deep down, fall-asleep-with-your-mouth-open – type relax, discover new things about yourself, discover the world (and bookmark a couple of places to come back to) and return full of enthusiasm and a new-found appreciation for everything around you.

Now until my head stops moving to the rhythm of the ocean (yes, even though I’m in Buckinghamshire), and these ankles return to their normal size, I’ll leave you with a few snapshots.  Enjoy!

Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s private peninsular, Haiti

Liberty of the Seas, docked at Labadee, Haiti

Liberty of the Seas, docked at Labadee, Haiti

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

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

 

 

Afternoon tea at Royal Horseguards Hotel with Royal Caribbean International

This week, I travelled into London to meet up with a few of my blogging buddies and the lovely chaps at Royal Caribbean cruises.  We were there to hear more about the fabulous facilities that Royal Caribbean can offer families on board their fleet of cruise ships.

Royal Horseguards afternoon teaFirst, though, there was the matter of a rather delicious afternoon tea, complete with champers!  There were plenty of ‘ooh, posh!’ type exclamations as the terribly polite (and spookily stealthy) waiters appeared with stacks of dainty finger sandwiches, savoury choux pastries, pretty macaroons and teeny tiny mini cupcakes.  After that there were fresh scones with home made jam and Cornish clotted cream.

While we were scoffing, we heard more about the Royal Caribbean fleet, including the fact that one of the ships, the ridiculously huge Allure of the Seas can carry over 6000 people (6000!) and has a ‘central park’ area with over 12,000 live plants and trees. plus two ‘FlowRiders’, which are basically on-board wave-machines where you can body board and even surf!  Oh, and did I mention the zipwire?  Yup, really.

The ships travel around the Caribbean (the clue’s in the name), but we found out you can also travel to Canada, Alaska, Asia and even Australia and New Zealand.  For families, Royal Caribbean have teamed up with DreamWorks so you can see plenty of Shrek (on a huge screen, in 3D) and Kung Fu Panda, with plenty of opportunities to meet the characters while on board too.

I’m really looking forward to learning more about Royal Caribbean (we’re launching a new #RoyalMums ambassador programme soon) and hopefully I’ll be heading out to sea shortly too (well, I need to know EXACTLY what it’s like so I can report back to you.  Right?

If you want to follow us on our journey as Royal Caribbean ambassadors, check out #royalmums and @myroyalUK on Twitter.

 

A winter wonderland at Center Parcs this Christmas

What does Christmas mean to you? For me it’s the scent of pine, frosty walks, tinsel and glitter, cinnamon and spice, the odd present or two and food food food! It’s different for everyone: maybe you’re planning a big get together, musing about going away or maybe it’s just the two of you, planning a quiet day.

If you’re undecided, I think I’ve found the perfect Christmas break. Center Parcs open right through the festive season, so you can go for a weekend to build up a bit of excitement for the big day, meet friends and family, or stay over Christmas.  They’ve got really lovely festive things going on across all the Parcs, including *gulp* real, live reindeer!

You can stay in a villa, a luxury lodge or even – and I’m seriously tempted by this – a treehouse! (at Sherwood Forest and Longleat Forest).  All the different types of accommodation have well equipped kitchens, but if you don’t fancy cooking, the different restaurants, including Café Rouge, Bella Italia and the Grand Café, to name but a few (they differ depending on the parc) have special menus, including Christmas lunch and New Year’s Eve dinners.

Each parc is planning their own pantomime (Christmas wouldn’t be the same without a bit of ‘he’s BEHIND you!’), the kids can visit Santa in his very own Woodland Workshop, and there are spectacular fireworks to round off a magical stay.

Now who’s going to take me to Center Parcs for Christmas? Come on, hands up…

For more information on weekend breaks and Christmas holidays at Center Parcs, just follow the links.

 

Getting ready for holidays – my top toiletry tips

It’s just six weeks – SIX WEEKS! – until we’re off on our holidays with my Disreputable Dad and his partner to Gran Canaria for a week.  I think we’re probably at the stage where, with Sam being 17, our days of enjoying holidays as a family are numbered, so I’m determined to enjoy every second, especially as there’ll be three generations all holidaying together.  When we booked a few months ago, we went through different websites to find the perfect holiday in Spain that would suit ages 14 to 70*coughsomething* and in the end we found ourselves back at our old favourite First Choice‘s website, for something that pleased everyone: lovely pool, scrummy food, short walk to a lovely beach.. you name it.

I’m really excited and, as always, I’m enjoying the planning (and purchasing) almost as much as the holiday.

Here’s my current tick-list:

High factor sun cream.  I always take a variety of brands as different family members like different things.  I prefer non-sticky and spray on.  Remember you should use at least a shot glass per application.

Facial sunblock: I suffer from hyperpigmentation so always pack a sunblock specifically for the face. And a hat.

Multi-use items.  I like the Lavera organic shampoo/shower gel, and Dr Bronner’s liquid soap is brilliant – you can use it for shampoo, shower gel and even to hand wash your clothes.

Conditioner: treat your hair to a nightly conditioning treatment to combat all that sun, sea and chlorine.

Solid antiperspirant stick – much smaller and easier to transport than a spray.  Plus you can pop it in your beach bag to freshen up after a swim, too.

Wipes: great for travelling and handy for removing make-up.  If you get the non-greasy ones they’re quite useful to remove spots on clothes too (if you get messy with your bolognaise).  There are also some lovely freshener/perfume wipes about.  The 4711 ones are gorgeously fresh and remind me of my childhood.

Perfumed candle: not really toiletries, but an essential for me – lovely to light in the evening to scent your hotel room.

So I’ll be the sweet smelling one smothered in suncream, with freshly conditioned hair (and hat), second sunbed to the left.

 

Sunvil’s sunny baklava recipe

Sunvil are a lovely travel company who have over 40 years’ experience and an amazing amount of expertise on all aspects of the Greek islands. They’re passionate about their destinations: their people, their culture and, of course, their food, so they’ve decided to start posting a recipe every month on their website to celebrate the wonderful food of the area.  Baklava hails originally from Crete and seems a rather lovely place to start.  I’ve never actually made baklava, so when Sunvil challenged me to give it a go as part of the new Sunvil Supper Club, I jumped at the chance.

First of all, I’d say don’t be daunted by filo pastry.  I think I dithered a bit too long trying to make sure that every part of every sheet was brushed with the butter/oil mixture, which allowed the waiting pastry to dry out a little bit. Cover your pastry in a piece of damp kitchen towel, and you’ll be fine.

This lovely recipe really doesn’t take long to prepare and is a total showstopper. I also loved bubbling away the sugar syrup to make the final caramel-coloured honeyed syrup which is spooned over the warm baklava.  Utterly delicious.

If you’d like to have a go at making the baklava yourself, the recipe is on the Sunvil Supper Club page on the Sunvil website, and for more information on holidays to Crete, click here.

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.

 

Five things to photograph in Berlin

If you were asked in which European cities you’d find interesting architecture, art galleries, monuments, fountains and statues, you’d probably reply London, Paris or Rome.  Berlin would probably be somewhere down your list.

However, when it comes to thinking about where to go on your holidays, Germany’s capital city is an extremely under-rated tourist attraction. Those who visit will discover a past unlike anywhere else in Europe. From its tree-lined boulevards and sprawling parks, to its historic buildings and network of waterways, Berlin really is a magnificent city with which to spend a few days.

It doesn’t cost much to visit the city either – particularly if you stay in one of the many campsites in Germany on Zoover.co.uk.

With that in mind, we thought we’d put together a list of Berlin’s five most important sights worth photographing.  From the things you really must see to the most important palaces, viewpoints and memorials of the capital’s hidden places.

Photo #1 – Brandenburg Gate

Perhaps the most famous of all Berlin’s sights, the only remaining city gate of Berlin used to represent the separation of the city between East and West Berlin. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the Brandenburg Gate has now come to symbolise German unity.

Made of sandstone and built in 1791, the Gate one of the finest examples of German classicism. On both sides, there are six Doric columns supporting the 11 metre-deep transverse beam, which divide the gate into five passages. Since October 2002 the Brandenburg Gate has been closed for traffic, including buses and taxis.

Photo #2 – Alexanderplatz

Alexanderplatz is one of the most famous squares in Berlin and certainly the largest.

Named after the Russian Tsar Alexander I, who visited the capital of Prussia in 1805, the square became a traffic hub when a train station was established there in 1882.  Alexanderplatz took on its present form in the 1960s after it had been largely destroyed in World War II.  During this time, Alexanderplatz was converted into a pedestrian zone with traffic being diverted round it via a four lane street. Also during this time the former Centrum department store was built as well as the Alex Passages and the Berliner Fernsehturm (Berlin TV Tower).

Photo #3 – Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie is a must-see – the scene of several thrillers and espionage novels ranging from James Bond’s “Octopussy” to “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”.

The most famous East German-West German border crossing, Checkpoint Charlie was a a transition point for the members of the Allied forces.  In 1961 it was the scene of a famous tank ‘stand-off’ between the USA and USSR.  Nearby you can find the Berlin Wall Museum – Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, which has a replica of the first Allied guardhouse set up on the median strip of the Friedrichstraße.

Photo #4 – Charlottenburg Palace

The Charlottenburg Palace is the largest palace in Berlin and is the only surviving royal residence in the city.  Built at the end of the 17th century and expanded in the 18th century, it includes exotic internal decoration in both Baroque and Rococo styles.

Behind the Palace you’ll find a large formal garden surrounded by woodland. Designed in 1697 by Simeon Godeau, who was behind the design of the gardens at Versailles, it’s the perfect place for a leisurely stroll.

Photo #5 – The Reichstag

The final sight on our list has to be The Reichstag – a scene of so many important moments in history.  Built in 1894, it was the scene of the declaration of the new Weimar Republic in 1918.  On 27 February 1933 (under mysterious circumstances that still have yet to be explained), the Reichstag was set on fire, paving the way for the Nazi Regime to take hold.

After being destroyed in WW2, the Reichstag was rebuilt in a much more simplified form. Between 1994 and 1999, the Reichstag was redesigned and expanded with today’s glass dome by the British architect Sir Norman Foster while retaining its extensive, historical dimensions.  The dome, which initially generated a lot of controversy, has since become one of the landmarks of Berlin. Since 1999, the German Bundestag has been convening in the Reichstag building.

So there we have it – five of the most sought-after photos from Germany’s capital city.  If you’re planning your holiday, why not give Berlin a whirl?

 

English Mum’s holiday snaps: Ice’s family Eurostar giveaway!

So this is very exciting!!  In the run up to the peak holiday season, Ice, a new and exciting loyalty scheme, has decided to give English Mum readers the chance to win a family Eurostar ticket to the destination of your choice!*

About Ice

Ice is a flexible and generous loyalty scheme that rewards shoppers for buying from companies carefully selected for their environmental credentials. Ice identifies sustainable products and services, which range across a variety of sectors such as food, fashion, beauty, and of course travel, presents them to customers in a one-stop shop (www.myice.com), and rewards customers generously with Ice points that can be redeemed against future purchases. **

Customers will get the same or cheapest deal available from the retailer for the particular product or service they are purchasing, and will also collect Ice points to spend or put towards, other products available on myice.com. What’s more, customers can collect up to 11 points for every £1 spent, making it all the worthwhile.

About the competition

To be in for a chance of winning, all you need to do is send me your fabbest holiday photo and email it to me at english[dot]towers[at]gmail[dot]com, telling me who you are and where the photo was taken.  Entries must be received by midnight on the closing date, which is 8th June, so basically you’ve got the whole of half term to send me your perfect holiday picture!

If you’re a blogger, please link back to this post, and if you’re a tweeter, please use the hashtag #englishmumsholidaysnaps

Extra points will obviously be awarded if you can get food in your picture somewhere :)

The small print:

*Eurostar is a brand partner of myIce.com and the family ticket comprises 2x Adult and 2x Child
tickets, up to the value of £400

** every Ice point collected  is worth 1p

There is no cash alternative to the prize.  The winner will be chosen at random after midnight, 8th June 2012.

 

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:

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