So you’ve booked your dream holiday: you’ve chosen a great hotel, maybe scoped out a couple of decent restaurants (you know how important this is to me) but what’s the best way to really get under the skin of your destination? Well, Virgin Holidays has come up with the brilliant idea of Virgin Holidays Experiences: a breathtaking range of over 300 experiences for everyone from foodies and shopaholics to the thrill-seekers and outdoorsy types, and even those in search of the perfect Instagram shot. These fab new experiences will enable all of us to create a bespoke holiday experience that truly reflects our interests and obsessions. So whether you’ve always dreamed of shopping with your own personal stylist in New York, fancy taking surf lessons in San Diego, a seaplane trip over Horseshoe Bay in Vancouver or discovering Chinatown in San Francisco, the world really is your oyster! I was lucky enough to travel to LA and San Diego with Virgin Holidays earlier this month to try out a few of the amazing new Virgin Holidays Experiences. First up, an incredible foodie tour of East LA.
Are we allowed to say ‘staycation’? Well, whatever we’re currently calling it, I had a bit of travel cancelled recently and was getting majorly itchy feet, so I suggested to Mr E that we take a little weekend trip to London. And what a lovely weekend it turned out to be. We stayed at the very lovely Dorsett Shepherds Bush, which is the perfect hotel for a city break: it’s literally a five minute walk from the tube station (and Westfield Shopping Centre), and we spent the whole weekend exploring and hopping on and off the tube.
I absolutely adore St Petersburg. The last time I visited, back in 2012, we really only had one day there and I was desperate to go back and really explore. I absolutely love its buzzy vibe, the gorgeous beaches and the way the downtown area absolutely comes alive at night, with restaurants, bars and cafés thronging with people. Even as recently as the 90s, Downtown St Pete was really quite unloved. Remember Cocoon? Jeff, our lovely guide told us that the movie was filmed in St Pete in the 1980s, and it was an area known as ‘God’s Waiting Room’, full of retirees and not a lot else. Slowly, though, the locals transformed their beloved neighbourhood, and now it’s such a creative, lively place to visit, with a wonderful arts scene and fabulous shops, restaurants, galleries, stunning museums like the beautiful new Morean Arts Centre and the Dali Museum, and beautiful open spaces. Read more
I’m back! I’ve had the most incredible few days with a group of really lovely people, and I’ve got so much to tell you about our wonderful trip, from flying to Florida with Norwegian’s state of the art Boeing 787 Dreamliners, a stay in the most ridiculously luxurious villa in Kissimmee, loads of really fun outdoorsy stuff like kayaking, climbing and swimming, and discovering pretty towns, gorgeous hotels, white sandy beaches and trendy towns with buzzy nightlife. Read more
From Boston, we drove south, through some utterly beautiful countryside, to get to our next destination, Plymouth. Plymouth, Massachusetts is a hugely famous and historically important town, well known for being America’s Hometown – the place where the Pilgrim passengers of the Mayflower first settled. It’s a gorgeous place, full of pretty, colourful houses, wide, tree-lined residential roads and beautiful beaches. Our destination, The Mirbeau Inn & Spa, took us by surprise, though, as we drove up the windy road, and came face to face with a pretty French style Chateau. The glowing, ochre manor house, inspired by the soft colours of the paintings of Claude Monet, even has elegant gardens and water features inspired by Monet’s own garden in Giverny. It’s a breathtaking sight, and the experience only gets better as you’re greeted by a polite doorman, who won’t let you carry a thing.
Oh, it’s a tough question. I’m not sure that I could ever choose my favourite Walt Disney World resort. I’ve often said that it’s gorgeous Animal Kingdom Lodge as I love the African styling, and the fact that you can see giraffes wandering outside your window. But then there’s the glorious Grand Floridian, and the quite incredible Contemporary Resort, and oh, I can’t have just one. I have to have at least five! Read more
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:
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!
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.)
It’s lovely to get away for a weekend, and Paris, especially at this time of year, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. So why visit this ravishing place, then stay in a bland hotel? I’m always tearing out bits and bobs from travel magazines and scribbling details about hotels I’m dying to stay in. Here are three of my favourites:
This hotel (above) has been on my wishlist since I tore an article about it out of a magazine when it first opened. The rooms are just incredible (and slightly barking), with space age details, amazing lighting, ‘floating’ beds… there’s even a 007 room.
Located on Rue Berthollet in Paris’ bohemian 5th arrondissement Latin Quarter, there’s all sorts to discover locally (take a wander along Boulevard St Michel – fab for people watching. In fact, keep going and visit the Pantheon, the Luxembourg Gardens and the gobsmacking Palais de Luxembourg).
It may well be a chain hotel, but there’s absolutely nothing bland about Le Dokhan’s. Quite apart from the fabulous location (it’s a short walk from the Eiffel Tower, L’Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysées, and right by the Trocadéro metro stop) this hotel is beautifully decorated, with sumptuous soft furnishings and marble bathrooms. There is even one suite with a balcony overlooking the Eiffel Tower: perfect for a romantic weekend away.
This seven storey Art Deco monster boasts a fabulous location on rue de Courcelles, just (as the name suggests) minutes from L’Arc de Triomphe. Not your budget option, admittedly, but one look at the incredible tropical garden at the centre of the building, and your credit card bill will be forgotten. The lobby of this hotel is just incredible – there’s nothing like a ‘take your breath away’ reception area to start your holiday in the right frame of mind!
You can find these hotels, and many more, on Holidaycheck, where you can also find more reviews if you need more insights into any of these amazing hotels.
Living, as we do, just a 45 minute train ride away from London, you’d think we’d be popping to the capital all the time. In fact, we very rarely do, so an invitation to come and spend the weekend in London at the Thistle Hotel, Marble Arch was the cause of much excitement here at English Towers. It was also, I have to say, a rare pleasure to spend an entire weekend together, blighted (or blessed) as we are with two teenagers with very active social lives.
Getting there was easy: train into Euston, then two quick tube rides took us to Marble Arch underground station (don’t throw things, but I honestly didn’t know that this was right on Oxford Street) and a short walk (literally less than 100 yards) and we were there. The Thistle is really tucked away (discrete signage is all you can see from the road), but it’s a real Art Deco beauty, with a proper ‘Gentleman’s Club’ vibe of polished wood, brass and leather and amazing glass ceilings in the lobby area.
Checking in was easy (and incredibly polite) and we were soon in our rooms: the boys in a lovely twin, and us two doors down in a double. I’m not sure if they’ve been recently refurbished but again the vibe is quite masculine – not unpleasantly so, just a nice mix of beiges, browns and creams with sumptuously thick curtains, dark wood and soft leather chairs. The bathrooms were spotless, very heavy on the marble and, I’d say, a bit dated, but still fabulous. The service is fantastic – within five minutes of checking in, one of the boys had put the iron (turned off, thankfully) onto his bed where it had unloaded a load of water all over the place, soaking his bedlinen. Someone arrived within five minutes, whisking the soggy stuff away and replacing it while he was in the shower – he didn’t even notice it had been done.
After a quick (complimentary) drink in the executive lounge, we headed down to the restaurant for dinner. The Marmor Grill has a compact menu at a pretty good value £21 for three courses including a glass of wine. We found it easy to pick something that everyone liked and again the service was immaculate and unobtrusive. My prawn and crayfish cocktail with avocado and whisky marie rose sauce was delicious and the beer battered cod with hand cut chips and mushy peas was top notch. We forced down dessert (well, there was bitter chocolate tart AND knickerbockerglories!) and waddled back up to the room. Obviously being right on Oxford Street, it’s not the quietest place in the world, but we slept well in our huge, comfy beds.
The next day saw breakfast served in the Executive Lounge (everything you could possibly want: coffee, fruit, pastries, full English…), buoying us up for a full day’s shopping (‘Nike Town! Adidas!’).
Although we only shopped, I’d say the Thistle would be a great base if you were headed to the capital for dinner and a show, or if you’re just chilling, it’s a short walk across Hyde Park to the Science Museum – something we’re definitely planning on coming back to do.
Massive thanks for Thistle for putting us up (and putting up with us).
A standard double at the Thistle Marble Arch is £130.80. Click here for more details or telephone 0871 376 9027
Executive lounge access is with executive rooms only and includes private check in/out and complimentary continental breakfast and bar.
So last weekend, we were lucky enough to be offered a hotel room in London for Cybermummy weekend. The hubby and I, after several long months apart, decided to have a quiet night on the first night, and headed to our hotel, the Thistle in Kensington Gardens, early on the Friday afternoon.
First impressions, I have to say, were slightly disappointing. The hotel is on Bayswater Road (an easy walk from Queensway Tube on the central line) and as soon as you glimpse the sign, all you see is a big petrol station. Happily, turning down the side street to the actual entrance, it just got better and better.
First off, it’s had a huge refurbishment, in the process elevating this fab little gem from a 3* to a 4*. The lovely Customer Relations Manager met us at the (sparkly) lifts and told us all about it. He also told us that we’d been upgraded to a suite. RESULT!
Those sparkly lifts caused quite a lot of hilarity. Firstly, they were teeny. On the sign it said you could fit 8 people, but honestly – we got stuck in there with a couple of sweaty German people and it was not pleasant. I should imagine 8 people in there would be akin to one of those Guinness record breaking ‘squeezing people into a Mini Cooper’ attempts. The other problem was that we were singularly useless at putting our room key in the slot and then pressing the button. Happily, the Concierge seemed to be well used to people going down instead of up and arriving in his lobby. He swiftly sorted out our card problems and send us soaring to the 7th floor.
Our suite was amazing, with a lovely lounge area complete with trendy grey wool sofas…
…a sparkly new bathroom:
and a bed as big as a bouncy castle (happily, as later, when the husband was all ‘tired and emotional’ after our two bottles of wine and conked out in an ungainly starfish position – I still had tons of room across the other side).
The views over Hyde Park were stunning (they even left us a little pair of binoculars so we could check out the Albert Hall and the Gherkin):
and as it was such a lovely evening, we headed out for a gorgeous walk – you’d never even know you were in the middle of London!
Obviously wishing to test the place as thoroughly as possible for you, my loyal reader, we then decided to check out the bar:
We weren’t disappointed. Our lovely waitress was not only chatty and friendly, she kept us topped up with gin and peanuts and told us a couple of nice places to try for drinks and dinner, all within easy walking distance of the hotel. Mind you, the menu looked so nice that we almost didn’t bother going out at all.
A short stroll took us to bustling Bayswater and a plethora of pubs, restaurants and bars. A packed Italian restaurant caught our eye and we feasted on beautifully tender salt and pepper squid, a lush rocket, tomato and avocado salad, and then huge prawns in a spicy tomato sauce and crispy fritto misto. Then came the two bottles of wine, the stagger home and the inevitable collapse.
The absolute selling point of the Thistle, Kensington Gardens, forgetting for a moment the beautiful decor and the great location, is the staff: from the amazingly helpful Concierge who helped me find a route home dodging around central line closures on the Sunday morning, not forgetting the polite and friendly breakfast staff who rushed to make me an omelette then checked twice to make sure I was enjoying it, to the lovely receptionists and the housekeeping staff who brought chocolates and wished us sweet dreams.
What a fabulous, fabulous place. We’ll definitely be back!
Thistle Kensington Gardens
104 Bayswater Road
London W2 3HL
Phone: 0871 376 9024 / +44 845 305 8324
Prices from £102 per room per night
From Tuesday 5th July, Thistle launches its national summer deal, offering guests an extra 30% off room-only stays with the option to add breakfast for only £10 extra. The offer runs across all Thistle’s 33 UK hotels. To book, and for more hotel package deals available, visit www.thistle.com/summer. Alternatively, call: 0871 971 1831
Thanks so much to Thistle Hotels for our fabulous break, and to everyone at Kensington Gardens for making us so welcome.
So Dubai, then. What springs to mind when you think of the place? For most of us I’d guess it’s that whole millionaire’s playground thing: fast cars, enormous luxury malls… oh and maybe you’d also worry about covering yourself up? Being arrested for kissing in the street?
Well that was more or less my view anyway. And I’m happy to admit that I couldn’t have been more wrong. I didn’t wear any of the stuff I’d packed to cover myself up, and the people are absolutely lovely – kind, respectful and courteous. And yes, you can hold hands (it’s pretty common for male friends to hold hands) and kiss your kids in the street, or your other half, with no problem at all. Real, full-on Public Displays of Affection (PDAs) would be considered pretty rude, but I don’t think many people anywhere would really want to pass people on the street full-on snogging would they? The Emirati are a peaceful, respectful bunch – they encourage tolerance (I was surprised to hear that every religion is encouraged here – you’ll find Hindu temples, Christian churches, everything you can think of) and we were welcomed inside the Jumeirah Mosque and encouraged to ask any questions we wanted (more of this later).
So what did we get up to? We had a packed schedule – we visited quite a few different hotels and apartments, all at different budgets – we went to a mosque, to an aquarium… an ice rink… on a desert jeep safari… an amazing variety. I really wanted to approach the trip with a view to bringing my family.
At the risk of boring the pants off you all, I thought I’d split this into sections. Here’s what I discovered:
We visited the whole gamut of accommodation, from self catering apartments to the amazing luxury of the Burj Al Arab (the one shaped like a sail).
Our hotel was at the Madinat Jumeirah – an enormous resort containing two hotels, villas, tons of restaurants, a souk and masses more. It’s all linked together by an amazing waterway system so you can get everywhere you like by just hailing an Abra (water taxi). We stayed in the Mina A’Salam – a beautiful boutique hotel with views over the Burj Al Arab.
Check out my room!
Here’s the view from my balcony:
There’s a great kids’ club there – with all-day facilities should you wish to leave your little ones. Their attention to safety is amazing – we counted three lifeguards around the baby pool alone:
They’re also in the process of building a climbing wall and a kids’ gym too.
This fabulous, wave-shaped hotel would be a great choice for anyone with school-aged kids, as the hotel is attached to the Wild Wadi water park and guests get free access (you can also access the water park from the Jumeirah Madinat by hailing one of the golf buggies that take people around the resorts). They’ve also got loads of amazing themed restaurants (wild west dining, anyone?) and the manager, Margaret Paul, was very keen to tell me that they’re not just a ‘chicken nuggets and chips’ kind of place (although of course you’ll find that on the menu too!).
This is the view from one of the rooms at the Jumeirah Beach overlooking the Wild Wadi water park – how cool is that?!
If you fancy going self-catering, a great affordable (but still luxe) option is to head to the Oasis Beach Tower (right next to Frankie’s – Marco Pierre White and Frankie Dettori’s joint venture restaurant) in the Jumeirah Beach area, very close to the lovely Dubai Marina area:
The apartments are huge, with two, three, or even four big bedrooms (each with a bathroom), a really well appointed kitchen (you can have a chef come in and cook for you if you’re feeling lazy – or of course there’s the miriad restaurants in the marina area):
We ate in the Thyme Mediterranean restaurant in the tower, and I have to say it was one of my favourite meals – a lovely mezze starter with tons of lovely Arabian bread to dip in was followed by a huge slab of beef from the carvery:
We all loved the creamy cabbage accompaniment so much that we had to ask the chef for the recipe, and the roasted herby pumpkin was just delicious. Finished off with a gooey chocolate fondant, we waddled out of the place replete and delighted. I’d go back tomorrow.
Of course if you want luxe luxe, then look no further than the beautiful, spectacular, amazing Burj Al Arab. Designed to look like the sail of a dow, it is luxe on such a major scale that some journalists have declared it 7 star (although they’re far too polite to actually say that themselves). We felt like such interlopers looking around – it was amazing. Each suite is a duplex, with living accommodation on one floor:
…and then your own stairs up to the bedrooms above:
This is the master suite:
and for the kids…
Check out the bathroom:
And oh, the food… these were only nibbles:
Nothing is too much trouble and the service is bloody amazing.
I won’t bore you with all my photos, but if you do fancy having a look, they’re on my Facebook page: www.facebook.com/englishmumdotcom
Do also check out my ‘ten amazing family activities in Dubai’ over at havealovelytime.com.
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