So I started to tell you a little about the Chateau Saint-Martin when I reviewed their beautiful two Michelin star restaurant, Le Saint-Martin. But there’s so much more to this place than the fabulous food.
A 30 minute drive through beautiful scenery from Nice Airport, the Chateau nestles atop a hillside overlooking the French Riviera and is surrounded by 35 acres of gardens, including 300 ancient olive trees (they make their own estate olive oil), tennis courts and a fabulous swimming pool. The ancient ruins, preserved by the Chateau, date back to Roman times, and were once home to the Knights Templar.
Transformed into a luxury hotel by the Oetker family (yes, the pizza ones – they also own the famous Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc on the Cap d’Antibes and Le Bristol in Paris) the Chateau has 51 luxurious suites and six sumptuous private villas, all available to hire. Staff are discrete and attentive – there’s not a hint of haughty Parisian-type service here.
As well as Le Saint-Martin, the Chateau has a Mediterranean restaurant, La Rosticceria (with shutters open over the most spectacular view of the Riviera) and a summer grill outside in the gardens called L’Oliveraie.
The Chateau boasts a pretty amazing wine list. We were lucky enough to experience a wine tasting in the cellar with the Sommelier, who was far too discrete to answer my questions about the most expensive bottle of wine. The website does hint that the cellar offers ‘some of the world’s most exclusive vintages’ and I certainly spotted some boxes of Petrus and Chateau Lafite Rothschild amongst the dusty bottles on the shelves.
The gorgeous spa, taking up two floors on one corner of the Chateau, offers a huge array of treatments featuring La Prairie and Bamford Body products. I opted for a La Prairie facial and it really was delicious. Delivered in a futuristic-looking treatment room with customisable coloured lighting (green for revitalising, blue for relaxing) I’m pretty sure I fell asleep, and wafted out afterwards on a heavenly scented cloud, heavy limbed and relaxed with skin that was plumped and glowing. I was given a sizeable collection of La Prairie product samples to try at home too (I can’t bring myself to use them).
Vence and Saint Paul de Vence
A short drive away in one of the Chateau’s Mercedes limousines (with a driver straight off a Gaultier advert), is Vence - a lovely little town and well worth a visit. Queue up for fresh baguettes, warm out of the oven, sit and sip a glass of rosé and watch the world go by, or pick up some gorgeous Provençal tableware in the little shops.
Nearby is the pretty, fortified town of Saint Paul de Vence. It’s a lovely place to sip a café au lait and watch the locals play boules, then take a wander up the stone streets and mooch around the galleries and tiny shops, all pretty much unchanged since Picasso and Matisse trod the same cobbles. Take time to visit the little cemetery perched overlooking the Mediterranean, where Chagall is buried, and follow the meandering streets to a little chapel overlooking the town. We also snuck a quick look inside the legendary La Colombe D’Or hotel – a great place to star spot, but notoriously difficult to bag a table in the restaurant.
Le Fondation Maeght
The Maeght Foundation is a private art gallery located at Saint Paul de Vence and is a must-see if you’re in the area. Visitors can wander the gardens and view paintings, sculptures and ceramics by artists such as Bonard, Chagall and Giacometti (my favourite is Giacometti’s ‘Dog’, said to have been created by him after getting caught in the rain) and many contemporary pieces too. There are often special exhibitions at the Foundation, which is open every day.
We returned refreshed and relaxed – even our ridiculous delay at Nice airport couldn’t take the shine off, and I’ll be returning as soon as I can. Not a budget option, admittedly, but three glorious days at Chateau Saint-Martin was as relaxing and pampering as two weeks in the Caribbean, and just an hour away from the UK.
The Knights Templar may have long gone, but they left all their treasure behind.
Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to stay for a few days at the utterly beautiful Chateau Saint-Martin in the pretty little town of Vence on the Côte d’Azur. For a luxury short break, the Chateau really has everything: it’s a scant 30 minute drive from Nice Airport (just over an hour’s hop from Gatwick), the accommodation is luxurious, the scenery breathtaking and the spa indulgent. Locally, you can wander around beautiful little French towns and walk in the footsteps of Matisse and Picasso. The Chateau has two restaurants, one of which, Le Saint Martin, has two Michelin stars thanks to the incredible talent of Yannick Franques, former student of Alain Ducasse and Meilleur Ouvrier de France (2004).
We ate in a beautiful private dining room with General Manager Frédéric Picard who happily waved away enquiries about food photography with a smile and ‘but of course – this is why we have a private dining room’. M Picard turned out to be charming company and happily answered all questions about the French menu.
If you’re not a fan of (badly lit) restaurant photography, I do understand why – it can be intrusive when people continually snap away at their dinner. However, this food was something extra special and I do feel it deserves to be shared.
We started with an appetiser which was served in a hollowed out, silvered eggshell: scrambled egg with delicate pieces of lobster and a crisp brioche ‘soldier’, and went on to enjoy six spectacular courses matched with some incredible wines. It’s a meal I’ll never forget:
Next up, more about the Chateau, the beautiful nearby towns of Vence and Saint Paul de Vence and a tour of Le Fondation Maeght.
So the newlyweds are back from their honeymoon, and very kindly offered to take me out to dinner to say thanks for my contribution to the wedding (which was basically getting so stressed over making two cupcake towers that I nearly cried and turned up at the service with buttercream still in my hair, but hey ho). Zaza is a small chain and the Berkhamsted one is quite new. My Dad and his wife (eek!) have been there a couple of times and really liked it, so I jumped at the chance to go.
The place is utterly delightful. It’s dotted all around with twinkle fairy lights and candles, and the decor is modern and sleek. Upstairs there is, apparently, a whole tree all decked with fairy lights too (you can see a picture of it on their website), but old grumpy pants didn’t want to sit upstairs (he’s a people watcher) and made the lovely staff move all their bookings around so we could sit downstairs (it was very busy and we noticed a couple of people being turned away – always a good sign on a Thursday night).
For a starter, I chose the Calamari Fritti – deliciously crispy coated, tender calamari, served with a tangy tartar sauce – the portion was so big I had to enlist help to finish it lest I didn’t eat my main course!
My Dad had the Paté di Fegato, a wild mushroom and chicken liver paté, served with an onion marmalade, which I didn’t try, but he said it was delicious.
For my main course, I went for the Coda di Rospo: a roasted fillet of monkfish, wrapped with Prosciutto on a bed of roasted seasonal vegetables with roasted vine cherry tomatoes (£15.90). The monkfish was TO DIE FOR, tender and succulent, and enhanced by the delightfully savoury proscuitto. My one teeny moan, and it’s a small one, is – as you can probably see – the seasonal vegetables were a bit overcooked, with a few burned bits which left a rather bitter taste in the mouth. But honestly, the monkfish was so good that I wasn’t bothered about leaving a few bits of veg.
All of this was washed down with a delightful bottle of Chiaretto Doc – Podere De Roveri (£18.90) a fresh, dry rosé (well, it is Spring at last).
We were all too stuffed for desserts, but with the bill, the waiter brought an ice cold bottle of Limoncello which is a delicious way to end a meal (I’m not a coffee lover) and after pouring me and Allison a teeny shot each, the Disreputable One scarfed the rest.
Well, he was paying…
Our verdict: a really stylish restaurant with lovely friendly staff, a classic Italian menu and beautifully presented food. I can’t wait to go back with English Dad. Next time I’m going to starve myself so I can have the chocolate fondant too.
I think the King’s Head in Ivinghoe is a bit of a hidden gem. If I ever mention it, people don’t seem to have heard of it, yet my Disreputable Dad adores the place (we clubbed together to buy him dinner there for his birthday), and I often drive past (it’s a stunning ivy-clad 16th century building) and think ‘one day’, despite the fact that the Jags and Bentleys parked outside give a clue to its usual clientele (not that I’m not worthy, or anything, it’s just that I drive a VW Polo…).
Anyhoo, I was delighted to receive an IOU from my Dad for my birthday, and a midweek lunch date was set. We drove in my Dad’s car (sorry, Polo, it’s just posher) and were soon ensconced in a lovely drawing room with oak beams, big comfy chairs, armfuls of fresh flowers and a roaring fire, sipping Bellinis and nibbling on delicious salty crunchy morsels while perusing the menu. Not wanting to bankrupt the old sod just before his wedding, we decided to stick to the luncheon menu (still a wide choice) from which I chose a chicken liver parfait with black onion marmalade and toast, and then a good old sirloin steak and chips.
We were led through to the beautiful dining room by our waiter (the ‘oh la la’ one – more of this later). The Kings Head does things properly: the service is very French (down to the ‘oh la la’ muttered by the waiter when he was having trouble cutting a chunk of (home made) butter for me), unobtrusive and incredibly attentive. The tablewear is all divine and the bread served is home made too – a choice of white, brown or a delicious cheddar and herb bread, still warm and utterly scrummy.
My parfait was delicious – light as air, smooth and beautifully savoury, with the black marmalade that was so intense it tasted almost figgy. I didn’t choose the wine but it was a very serviceable house Sauvignon Blanc – don’t worry, I drank my fair share (you have to be quick when dining with my Dad – luckily the waitress had no intention of letting him anywhere near the bottle).
My steak was very tender, served medium as requested – not exactly fat and juicy, but not quite minute steak either. It was served with a big Jenga stack of fat chips, a tomato Provencale, a green peppercorn sauce, and the most delightful thin, crisp, delicate onion rings I’ve ever tasted. Divine. I also had serious food envy at my Dad’s partner’s pan fried fillet of bream with tomato, little squares of chorizo, and amazingly fragrant basil and coriander salsa. No photos I’m afraid. The Disreputable One is a big ‘no phones at the table’ stickler, plus in such a quiet restaurant it’s just too difficult (and a bit rude, I think).
I had a deliciously light caramel meringue creamy cakey thing for dessert and my Dad chose from the biggest cheese board I’ve ever seen in my life. More of a cheese table really… While he was distracted by the cheese, I managed a shifty photo:
Verdict? Fantastic. Not cheap, I’m sure, but worth every penny (ok, so I didn’t pay, but hey, it was my birthday) for the sheer quality of the food, the gorgeous surroundings and the wondrous waiting staff. Dad, take note: I’d like to go again next year, please. Find the Kings Head Ivinghoe on Twitter: @KingsHeadIvingh
Back, then, from our wonderful weekend, we’ve had time to reflect upon Guernsey, and what it can offer the traveller – be they family, couple, group or solo.
The first thing that struck us both, having enjoyed each other’s company, sans children, for the first time in a good few years, is that it’s a wonderful place for a weekend getaway. But then, it’s good for everyone. Before I explain why, let me tell you a little about this teeny island nestled off the south coast of England, nearer, in fact, to Normandy than the UK:
Although Guernsey has strong ties with France (it was, in fact, French up until 1066, but I won’t bore you with a history lesson), Guernsey is not French. Nor, is it English: it’s a self governing crown dependency, if you must know. The population, and I found this amazing, is about the same as, say Rugby: 62,000, spread across an island that is just 30 square miles. Guernsey is a bit like a wedge of cheese, with high cliffs on the south east side, sloping down to level ground on the north west. There are huge tides here – meaning that the sea goes out a really long way, also meaning that the waters are very clear and clean, meaning awesome shellfish and happy sea bass, as well as making the water lovely for swimming.
Which brings me neatly on to why Guernsey is a fabulous summer destination for families. Just a 45 minute flight from Gatwick (we flew Aurigny, who were amazingly courteous, ran like clockwork, and cost about £100 return per person), or a short ferry ride, and you’re on an island that boasts better weather than the UK and the most glorious, clean beaches. What you won’t get is the ‘kiss me quick’ hat, tatty seaside resorts that put a lot of people off holidaying in the UK. Guernsey is, well, classy. In the harbour town of St Peter Port, the little boutique shops, restaurants, cafés and immaculate streets reminded me of Marlow, a well to do town, proud of itself, but in an understated way.
So I thought what I’d do is give you a perfect weekend in Guernsey (tried, tested and scoffed by my lubly Hubby and I) to give you a taster. If you can make it for a week, even better, but here’s my perfect weekend:
Getting there: fly Aurigny.com from Gatwick and pick up a hire car at the airport, or ferry over from Portsmouth with your own car.
Accommodation: there’s everything on Guernsey from very posh five star hotels to lovely B&Bs (for fab beachy holidays, check out Waves, which is very stylish self-catering accommodation on glorious Vazon Bay, or stay in St Peter Port where there is a wide range of hotels – check visitguernsey.com for more info). We based ourselves in St Peter Port, but being such a small island, everywhere is easily accessible.
On arrival, have a drive around the island – you can’t really get lost – if the sun’s out, seek out the glorious beaches, often hidden away down little ‘park and walk’ lanes, or strike out along the stunning cliff paths and on the way, check out all manner of Nazi bunkers (from the occupation, more of this later), Neolithic tombs, The Little Chapel and much more. Stop and see what people are selling in their ‘hedge veg’ stalls – makeshift shops where the locals sell their fruit, veg, flowers and – in lovely Mandy Girard’s case – cheese from her herd of Golden Guernsey Goats. For lunch try The Hideaway at the Best Western Moores Central Hotel, Le Pollet, St Peter Port, for excellent local crab sandwiches and home made cakes, all served on a gorgeously sunny outdoor terrace.
In the afternoon, have a wander around the cobbled streets of St Peter Port where there is amazing shopping. If you get tired, pop in to the Ship and Crown pub on the harbour front, for a pint of the local Rocquette cider and check out the shipwreck photos in the bar.
In the evening, book a table at Red Grill House on the harbour front. Be prepared to be stunned by their amazing wine list – several pages long – but don’t worry, the staff are very friendly and knowledgeable should you need help choosing. They also have a fabulous array of steaks, sold by weight, and generally have fresh fish of the day. Leave room to share their incredible tarte tatin before waddling along the twinkly harbour front back to your hotel.
Head to the beach!
Bimble over to Sausmarez Manor (pronounced ‘Summeray’, five minutes’ drive) where there is a great farmers’ market on a Saturday morning. Afterwards, explore the manor house and take a leisurely walk around the grounds where you’ll discover all manner of sculptures as well as beautiful gardens.
Head off to Herm Island (herm.com) on the ferry from the harbour and spend a day enjoying gorgeous, Caribbean-like beaches on a proper Famous Five island complete with bracken-edged cliff paths and azure water. There are no cars on Herm and only 60 odd residents, so it’s a really peaceful place to while away the day.
We were escorted around the island by the lovely, and very knowledgeable Jonathan Watson who showed us all the accommodation on the island: from the 40-bed White House Hotel, perched above the harbour, with its Conservatory Restaurant (amazing wine list) and its attached Ship Inn brasserie, to self catering cottages and log cabins. There’s also a campsite with shop facilities during the summer (they’ll even get your shopping in for you so it’s there when you arrive). You can walk the cliff paths around the island in about a couple of hours, or if you fancy a shorter walk, cut across.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, head to the Mermaid Tavern and order the home made fish finger doorsteps with fat chips, battered with the local Herm Ale – you won’t be disappointed). It’s a truly fabulous place to spend a holiday, where you really can let the kids have as much freedom as they want, but if you can’t manage it, do spend a day there (take note of the last ferry times, otherwise you’ll find yourself castaway!).
Back on Guernsey, book a table at Christie’s, tucked away on Lower Pollet (which runs parallel to the harbour front). There’s an amazing atmosphere on a Saturday evening (ask for a booth at the back overlooking the harbour terrace – make sure you book!) – order a dozen oysters while you peruse the menu (their Tennerfest menu – loads of the hotels and restaurants do menus for a tenner during this six week period – is completely fabulous).
If you’re up for a few cocktails, head back to Red (just two minutes’ walk) and go upstairs to their cocktail bar, where the doors to the terrace are open in the summer, and quaff a few cocktails while watching the boats bob on the harbour. I recommend the Bramble (gin, blackberry liqueur.. other stuff…). I do not recommend drinking three.
Nursing a slightly aching head, why not wander along the harbour to Castle Cornet, a real boys-own castle (hold your ears for the firing of the noon day gun!) complete with turrets and cannons. The castle houses five museums with all sorts of interactive stuff kids will love, plus, you can stand high up on the fortress roof surveying the sea and pretend to be Jack Sparrow (or not).
If you’re flagging, pop into Boulangerie Victor Hugo for amazing pastries (59 Lower Pollet, boulangerie.gg).
Don’t miss the La Vallette Underground Military Museum, also walking distance from the harbour. Set in actual tunnels used by the Nazis for storing fuel during the occupation, the place is an amazing trove of memorabilia, not just from WWII, but right back to Victorian times. Kids will love the plethora of uniforms, guns and medals and adults will, as we did, find some of the things (letters home from family members sent to prisoner of war camps and tales of life during the occupation) very poignant. A moving place and well worth a visit.
For your final lunch, head to Le Petit Bistro, just on the corner of Le Truchot and Lower Pollet where you’ll find good wines (or great coffee) and adorable French staff. Feast on ‘Le Club’ sandwiches with extra ham or smoked salmon and share some frites. Delightful.
Finally, head sadly to the airport and vow to return to spend time in the summer on some of those spectacular beaches.
For more information on Tennerfest, which runs until November 11th this year, click on tennerfest.com
Huge thanks for our Gold accredited guide Gill, who was a mine of information and answered all my stupid questions, and to Visit Guernsey for sharing their beautiful island with us. I’d keep quiet if it was mine.
For a while now we’ve been watching the new Carluccio’s Caffe take shape in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire… little noses pressed against the window, wishing the time away until the sign finally turned to ‘open’.
Finally, piles of delicious-looking meringues and lemon tarts appeared in the window, and we rang up to make a reservation. ’We only take reservations for 40% of the restaurant’, we were told. ’The other tables are first come, first served’. Seeing as there was only two of us, we decided to chance it, and happily, we were in luck. Be warned, though, a family of four were turned away, and there’s nowhere to sit and wait as the reception area doubles up as the shop so it’s likely you’ll be in the way wherever you stand. There’s no sitting and waiting at the bar area either, as people were eating there too. Next time, we’ll book early.
The interior is light, airy and modern, with a mix of semi-circular banquette seating and normal tables. The kitchen area is open and the whole place was bustling. The service was informative, mega-friendly and very efficient.
We started with marinated olives and a ‘bread tin’ with a mixture of different bread, from soft foccacia to thin Ligurian crisp bread. There was olive oil and balsamic for dunking and we sat, munching away, enjoying the atmosphere. Our lovely server recommended a 2011 Gravina (£23) which she said would be perfect teamed with seafood. Great choice. It was light, floral and indeed perfect. For a starter, we shared an ‘antipasto massimo’ plate which was a very generous selection of Italian meats, marinated olives, stuffed chicken, loads more bread, a delicious caponata and garlicky green bean salad.
For the main course, we both chose fritto misto with a green salad. With hindsight, this wasn’t a brilliant choice as, although the fritto misto was delicious, with crispy-coated squid, whitebait, prawns and seabass (again, MASSES of it) and a yummy garlic mayonnaise, we regretted our decision as after a while it all seemed rather heavy and samey. Our waitress expressed concern that we didn’t finish, but we were both a bit full up and a bit, well, bored with crunching through our dinners. Bad planning on our part.
Skipping dessert, we ended our meal with VERY good coffee. The whole lot coming to £80 including wine. You can eat a lot more cheaply though as they do a fixed price two courses for £9.95.
We’ll definitely go back again for dinner, and this time we’ll chose a bit more carefully. We loved Carluccio’s though, and decided to go back the next weekend for breakfast. It is to die for. Go there if you can. Again, the portions are generous, and we feasted on the most perfect grilled pancetta, creamy herby scrambled eggs and heavenly mushrooms all piled high on Italian bread. The hot chocolate is delicious and the coffee amazing. £55 for the four of us (well, the coffees were quite small so we all had two each) meant it was a treat rather than an every weekend sort of outing, but still. Worth every penny.
We’ll be back very soon. Our verdict? Favoloso!
Carluccio’s is in the old town hall, Berkhamsted, Herts. Tel: 01442 877807.
Today is a great day for my buddies at Gatwick Airport and the lovely Jamie Oliver. Today sees the opening of Jamie’s brand new restaurant at the North Terminal, as well as a new Jamie’s Italian Bakery and a Union Jack’s Bar.
The restaurant is a mahoosive version of Jamie’s other Italian restaurants, the largest at the airport, with really nice open (well, glass fronted) kitchens, a wood-fired pizza oven and a fab view over the runways. The bakery, which is a new concept, will serve yummy treats like bread baked freshly overnight, pizzas, sandwiches and cakes and cookies too. The pub is another first in the UK and will serve little snacks along with drinks and there’s an amazing all-British wine list as well as UK beers too.
As a member of the Gatwick Passenger Panel, I’m bloody delighted for Gatwick, and so proud that they’re listening to their passengers and providing really great places to eat and drink. Well done, guys.
We’ve had a bit of an up and down relationship with the Village Gate. We went there en famille (and we’re a grande famille, trust me) for my Mum’s birthday last year and had an excellent time. The place is absolutely gorgeous: a typical village pub revamped in a really clever, stylish way. The menu was great – creative and varied, the service fast and friendly and the food was as good as the menu promised.
So when we got an email through offering a table on New Year’s Eve for £30 a head we jumped at the chance and booked. The whole evening was a bit of disappointment, to be honest. Even though the restaurant was relatively quiet it took 45 minutes for our starters to come out (by which time we’d already finished one bottle of wine and frankly, were a bit past caring about the food), and then waited nearly as long for mains which were a bit disappointing. My sea bass was okay, but the tiny portion was full of bones and the crab crust made it difficult to catch them before you put them in your mouth, resulting in a bit of embarrassing hiding behind the napkin and fishing them out.
The desserts were disappointing too and to add insult to injury, we were charged £35 a head, not the promised £30. I emailed several times afterwards but never received a response.
But then, just when we’d given up hope, a new General Manager appeared on the scene. He’d read our email, he said, and would we please come back for a meal ‘on the house’ so he could show us what the restaurant could really do? ’Too right’, we said, leaping at the chance in an ungainly fashion.
And I’m happy to report that John (who is lovely, and very passionate about his food) has totally turned the place around. For one, it was packed (always a good sign), not just with diners but with people just in for a drink, giving the place a delightful background burble of happy conversation and chinking glasses. The menu is still fabulous – the Death Wish Dude and his dad were delighted to discover that the whitebait was still on the menu – and I was happy to see that John tries hard to source a lot of his produce locally (obviously not the whitebait, unless they came from the Grand Union Canal…). They also have creative gluten-free options.
My starter of bubble and squeak was topped with a perfectly poached egg and some delicious crispy pancetta, and was smothered in creamy hollandaise. It was absolutely massive, but that didn’t stop me polishing off the whole thing. The whitebait, I am assured, was delicious too.
For our mains, the Death Wish Dude and English Dad went for 28 day dry-aged Aberdeen Angus sirloin steaks which were cooked perfectly to order and were melt-in-the-mouth tender. The Prof went for beer-battered North Sea haddock, generously served with nice fat chips and a creamy pea and mint purée. All yummy. I went for the slow-roasted pork belly with a sweet potato dauphinoise, parsnip crisps and apple sauce. It was absolutely delicious, with tender flesh that pulled away in gorgeous flakes and an amazingly crisp crackling. Top drawer.
We were really a bit stuffed for the desserts, but the boys managed to force down a few of the ice cream flavours. All in all, we were delighted, and although we only paid for the drinks, we agreed that we would happily have paid for the whole lot. The service was friendly and attentive and John was around to give advice on the compact but very interesting wine list. We’ll definitely be back. Maybe even en famille. Brace yourself, John.
The Village Gate is in the beautiful Chiltern village of Wendover in Buckinghamshire. If you pop in, tell them English Mum sent you. Thanks to John and his staff.
So I keep meaning to tell you about part two of our journey. It seems such a long time ago now. But back then…
After a mahoosive party to celebrate sailing away, we settled into an endless round of eating, drinking and sunbathing (what? It was research). We slept like babies and awoke to a beautiful pink sunrise in Nassau. An hour later we were gliding into the dock:
Our day was spent exploring the beautiful resort of Atlantis, where we wiggled our toes in the sand, and swam in the clear, turquoise water:
If I was to go back, though, I’d spend the day exploring Nassau, which looked amazing (and that’s nothing to do with the fabulous shops we caught a tantalising glimpse of *cough*).
Back on the ship, exhausted after all that exertion, we came back just in time for cocktails before dinner.
The Disney Dream has some amazing restaurants. The adults-only Palo was, I have to say, my hands down favourite. Our dinner there was spectacular. But first, being girls, obviously we had to check out the bathrooms. We weren’t disappointed – gold sinks!:
The food was as spectacular as the bathrooms (not often you get to write that in a sentence), and we started with a selection of yummy nibbles: olives, little pizzas and charcuterie, before moving on to a delectable starter (I chose a trio of crispy calamari, prawns and portobello mushrooms (apologies for the photos – always the way with restaurant photography):
Moving on, my main course was a delectable tuna steak (it looks really pink in the photo, but it was cooked to perfection):
… and this was all rounded off with possibly the best chocolate soufflé I’ve ever tasted:
To say we were completely full was the understatement of the century and we waddled back to our staterooms before collapsing in a big heap.
The next day, we docked at Disney’s own private island, Castaway Cay. Sadly the weather wasn’t on our side and it was a bit grey and drizzly (but still lovely and warm). Here’s me in front of the ship in dock at Castaway Cay:
Still, we had a wonderful day – we did a bit of snorkelling, fed the stingrays (an amazing experience), indulged in a delicious barbecue (ribs to die for) and bobbed in the balmy bathwater-temperature water, collecting shells and having a good cackle.
That evening it was time for a pirate party. There was a fabulous firework display (check out Liz’s video here) and plenty of silly pirate antics. Arrrrrrrr.
TIP: Make sure you’re up on decks 11 and 12 for the firework display – you can’t watch the show from your cabin for safety reasons (being smashed in the face by a stray firework would be very Disney now would it).
My favourite, favourite thing of all though (if I was absolutely forced to pick one) would be the champagne brunch at Palo. We met Sarah there for a final blowout and my, was it worth it. The brunch is not only a mahoosive buffet of everything you can possibly imagine, sweet and savoury…
…but they also serve fantastic Mimosas and gorgeous eggs benedict. As we sat, replete and burping, feeling a bit like Mr Creosote, the waiter was determined to bring us something else. I actually worried about exploding.
Oh wait, no, my favouritest thing of all was the ‘Pink’ Champagne bar, where the decor is to die for and they serve scrummy pink champagne with a panacotta chaser…
Oh, I can’t decide.
This was actually our final day and we couldn’t believe it had gone so quickly. Saying goodbye was sad, but we had one more surprise to come. We were met at Port Canaveral by our very own VIP guide and town car, to have a private tour of any of the Walt Disney World parks we wanted to go. More of this very soon!
Big huge hugs and thanks go to the amazing team at Disney Destinations. Mwah xxx
11-night Caribbean Stay, Cruise and Stay from £999
Virgin Holidays Cruises offers seven nights at Rosen Inn Orlando on a room only basis, before joining the Disney Dream for four nights from Port Canaveral, Nassau, Castaway Cay and back to Port Canaveral. Prices are per person based on two adults travelling and sharing an inside cabin on a full-board basis and includes Virgin Atlantic flights from London Gatwick and car hire. Based on departure date 15 Jan 2012. Offer is subject to availability andincludes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change.
Start your holiday before you’ve even taken off in the v-room at Gatwick Airport and Manchester Airport…adults £20, kids £12.
To book: Visit www.virginholidayscruises.co.uk, call 0844 573 4398 or visit one of our 70 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.
If you want to see all the pictures from our trip, check out my Facebook page: www.facebook.com/englishmumdotcom
I’ve driven past this pub a million times in my lifetime, but it wasn’t until English Dad and the brevren popped in one lunchtime when I was in Dubai that we discovered what a little gem it is. They kept promising to take me and then, finally, when our anniversary came round and we were thinking of somewhere to go for a bit of a celebration, we remembered the Village Gate.
I was seriously impressed. The main dining room is really nice – light and airy with lovely high ceilings, but with a bit of a gentleman’s club vibe about it too:
The menu is compact, but perfect – we had trouble ordering as we couldn’t choose - and they catered incredibly well for the small fussy one who wanted ‘a burger with no salad and no sauce’. In fact, our waitress absolutely made our evening: she was attentive, funny and nothing was too much trouble. We fancied a bit of fizz to celebrate our special occasion and were recommended several affordable options before settling on a lovely sparkling rosé (again, forgot to note the name – slapped wrists!).
My red mullet was absolutely gorgeous, moist and delicate. The prawn risotto cake, although slightly odd sounding, was deliciously crispy on the outside and soft and creamy in the middle and the surrounding sauce was really nicely flavoured:
I also pinched quite a few of these little beauties:
Even though we were stuffed, there was a lovely plum dessert screaming out to be ordered (can’t remember what it was called now, but it was beautiful), and after a small glass of Taylor’s each you could have rolled us out like Violet Beauregarde.
All in all, The Village Gate delivers tasty, creative food without the ponciness or inflated prices of some of our local ‘gastropubs’. Add to that the friendly service and beautiful location and you’re on to a winner. We’ll be back.
The Village Gate, Wendover – tel: 01296 623884
With their latest Costa-bashing adverts (placed cheekily opposite the store itself) offering coffees (eat in or take away) for just a quid, The Akeman has been putting itself out there recently. We decided to head along for breakfast to check out the hype.
First impressions are, I have to say, rather fabulous. Having only ever been there for dinner and cocktails, the place takes on a completely different vibe during the day… people were lazing in comfy leather sofas, sipping cappuccinos, and there were plenty of mums with babies sitting in the lovely courtyard garden. I love the fact that the kitchen is open so you can see exactly what’s going on:
We were seated quickly and although it was just noon, assured that it was still okay to order breakfasts. The breakfast menu isn’t massive, but it covers the basics. My three men all went for a full English, and I ordered scrambled egg and bacon. Service is efficient and really friendly. When English Dad struggled with a pepper mill, someone was at his side instantly offering to help. Juices were fresh and ice cold and the coffees were ‘terrific’, apparently (I’m not a coffee drinker).
The full English breakfasts were pronounced excellent: really decent, meaty sausages, creamy, well-seasoned scrambled egg, lovely thick-cut bacon cooked properly (how I hate flaccid bacon) and delicious mushrooms. I got all the cherry tomatoes as nobody else liked them. My own bacon and scrambled egg was delicious, although we could have done with a bit more toast all round (to be fair, we didn’t ask as our waitress had momentarily disappeared):
The bill (with coffees and a couple of fill-ups of coke) came to £34.00 – under ten quid a head for breakfast not being bad for an occasional treat, we didn’t think. We were invited to ‘tweet the boss’ with our comments, which I did, but he doesn’t look like he keeps his Twitter account up to date, which seems a bit counter-productive.
It took a while to get the bill, but both people that served us were cheerful and friendly. So, a decent brekkie all round and a solid 7/10 for the Akeman.
The Akeman is at 9 Akeman Street, Tring, Herts.
I love Watford. Well, I love the mahoosive shopping centre, the Harlequin, in Watford. Apart from that, and considering it’s only 20 minutes from where I live, it’s not anywhere I would consider going in the evening.
Still, when the chaps at Ember Pub & Dining contacted me and asked if we’d like to visit their newly refurbished Essex Arms, just around the corner from The Grove, I could hardly say no. Especially when they’d invited us ‘en famille’.
First impressions were favourable – it was a lovely evening and there were loads of people milling around outside having a drink (and yes, that is the Death Wish Dude mucking about with English Grandma):
And this is the inside. The decor is lovely – a bit quirky and fun, and the tables aren’t set too close to each other, so you’re not constantly earwigging someone else’s conversations ( loved the goat). It was kind of like being in someone’s funky dining room:
A quick shufty showed a nice, creative menu, with care taken with regard to suppliers and ingredients. We nibbled on some fiery wasabi peas while we made our choices. The wine list was varied (and really reasonable – loads of choices under a tenner). We ended up plumping for our favourite Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc.
Starters arrived quickly and were utterly fabulous. The Prof’s crispy beer battered mushrooms were gorgeously crunchy on the outside with a very tasty smoky tomato sauce, and English Dad’s Severn and Wye Valley smoked salmon was delicious. Huge portions again. Grandma English and I shared a plate of antipasti, with the same salmon, Prosciutto, Somerset Brie (an enormous wodge of it), olives, bread and beetroot relish. Delicious.
For mains, Grandma English and I both plumped for specials: lemon sole with king prawns for Grandma (‘yummy!’):
and confit duck for me. Excuse the appalling photography, but my confit duck was amazing – tender and delicious with none of the greasiness sometimes associated with confit – served with a beautiful piquant red cabbage and creamy dauphinoise potatoes (could have done with a bit more of them, to be honest – lush)
The Death Wish Dude went for nice traditional gammon with fried eggs and the Prof plumped for a steak, which was perfectly cooked and really tender. English Dad’s fish pie was to die for, with large chunks of delicate fish in a really creamy sauce.
The dessert menu is incredible, and the portions are huge. Sadly, we were too full to really do our desserts justice, but seek out the treacle tart (amazing pastry – I wonder if Chef Tom would teach me?):
and the beautiful chocolate brownie. I was tempted by the banoffee pie, but my black forest gateau was moist, dense and gorgeous too.
After espressos we were, frankly, groaning, but we all gave it a whopping 9/10. Very rare to please everyone when you’re catering for a family from 13 to erm… retired. Our gripes were tiny – better veg, or maybe a salad, with the fish pie… but honestly, just niggles. We really couldn’t fault it.
You can find the Essex Arms website here. No need to book. Talking to some locals, I hear the Sunday lunch is fabulous too so we’ll definitely be back. Such good value so near to London is to be very much admired. I can see myself and English Grandma popping in for their enormous plate of scampi (under £7.00 – and I love scampi) and a glass of wine on the way home from the shops.
They also have a fixed price menu with a good choice of 4 or 5 each of starters, mains and desserts for just £11.50. Massive thanks to the lovely manager Kelly, who is rightly proud of her team, and who, apparently owes her Chef a drink. I’d buy him two.
So here, finally, is the review of The Forge Restaurant where we celebrated English Grandma’s 70th. We went with open minds because (let’s face it, like most restaurants) some of our friends had had fabulous experiences, and others not so good - we’d also heard tales of being rushed through desserts to free up tables, but when I phoned I spoke to a very friendly waitress who assured me that we could take as long as we needed.
First things first, then, it’s in an absolutely beautiful spot. Nestled in quite a rural location, but only about 5 minutes off the N3 (the main road between Kells and Cavan) and just 4 miles north of Kells. I’d guestimate that it’s probably just over an hour’s drive from Dublin. It’s a beautiful old stone building with plenty of parking, and we were given a very warm welcome by owner Irene, who was reassuringly present in the restaurant all evening, and the lovely smiley waitresses.
Obviously the first thing we did was order some wine and we weren’t disappointed with our South African Lookout Ridge Chenin Blanc ’08, which was fresh and zingy. The dinner menu (we booked at 7pm) is small but lovingly chosen, and Irene was more than happy to chat about the decisions behind the menu, their suppliers, where their seafood comes from, etc.
We got an amazing platter of warm home made bread while we were waiting, with some lovely spicy fruity walnut bread being my particular favourite. The fellas all chose a mussel casserole as a starter. The mussels were small and deliciously sweet, swimming in a generous broth of cream, white wine and onion (which was a bit too creamy for their tastes, but I thought was lovely – maybe in need of a bit more reduction, although I’m no expert):
Grandma and I both chose the smoked haddock fishcakes, which were exactly as promised: with chunks of soft smokey fish and a lovely crisp coating:
Everything was beautifully presented and absolutely scrummy.
For mains, Hubby and I both chose salmon with a crab Creole sauce, #2 went for a rib eye steak and #1 chose a rack of lamb. I can’t remember what Grandma chose (I blame the Chenin Blanc). Again, every meal was painstakingly decorated and lovingly presented: the lamb expertly cooked and just pink in the middle:
… the salmon moist and delicate (what? I stole some chips, okay?), nestled on the Creole crab which was amazingly sweet and warmly spiced:
… and the steak (what was left of it by the time we got a photo) huge, meltingly tender and perfectly cooked:
The side orders were beautiful, and generous: big fat chips, lovely creamy dauphinoise potatoes and fresh crisp vegetables. Most importantly, they were included in the price of the meal – it really annoys me when restaurants charge you 6 quid for a teeny plate of veg.
On to desserts, then. And although we were all feeling a bit like overstuffed cushions, the menu was so tempting that we had to go for it. Hubby and I shared a Baileys and mixed nut parfait in a hazelnut tuille with fruits of the forest coulis, which was first class. The parfait had an amazing texture and creamy flavour, and the tuille was light and crisp. Yum:
#2 naturally went for a big slab of squidgy chocolate roulade, complemented by a lovely sorbet (can’t remember what flavour but it was zingy and fruity and fabulously countered the richness of the chocolate roulade):
…and even the birthday girl managed to squeeze in a bit of sorbet:
All in all we were delighted. It’s not a cheap meal, but the care and attention taken with the sourcing, cooking and decorating of each plate of food means that you feel that you get proper value for money. The staff and owners are friendly and welcoming (even to little English boys with very loud, squeaky voices) and passionate about their product, the setting is divine and the restaurant is homely, warm and inviting. If you live in Ireland, do try and make the effort to head north and try out this absolute gem of a place, and if not, then next time you’re in Ireland, you must visit. In fact, you can pop in to English Towers and say hi at the same time.
The Forge Restaurant
Tel: 046 924 5003
Fax: 046 924 5917
So I thought rather than bore you to death with one big huge enormous Walt Disney World post, I’d break it down for you into more manageable bits (I’m good like that). Today, then, is part one of the reason that I came back from Disney looking 6 months pregnant (no, don’t get excited, Mum). I suppose a common preconception about visiting Disney (maybe even America in general) is that you’re going to have to survive on a fast food diet of chips, burger and pizza. But seriously, nothing is further from the truth. In fact, when our happy band of bloggers did happen to pass a rather enormous McDonalds in the bloggerbus, we were all begging Sarah (our very own Disney Mary Poppins) to let us stop. Happily, she had far nicer stuff in store for us:
First night, then, saw us wandering along Disney’s beautiful Boardwalk area, still dazed from our amazing upgraded flight (never EVER been upstairs in a plane before) and the fact that it was now 1am back home. The Boardwalk is a beautiful recreation of a 1940s seaside resort, where we walked, further dazzled by the beautiful lights twinklingly reflected in the water, into the stunning and very classy Flying Fish Café. We were even more gobsmacked when we found that Disney had created a restaurant menu just for us:
We started with cocktails (I had a Bay Breeze) and the chef brought us a little ‘amuse bouche’ of spiced seared tuna with a ‘carrot-coconut infusion’ (me neither but it was lubly) topped with sturgeon caviar (yellow and green – how do the Sturgeon do that?). I adored the caviar – I love the way it pops on your tongue. I tell you, thoughts of burgers were now seriously melting away:
We moved onto our appetisers. I chose beautifully tender crispy sesame and togarashi scented calamari, served with spiced green papaya (amazing) and an Asian dipping sauce. For entrées (no mains here, baby) the choice was vast – from fresh yellowfin tuna… scallops… red snapper… I went for a beautiful piece of oak-grilled North Atlantic salmon with puy lentils and American Sturgeon caviar which was fabulous, and in my eagerness to stuff it into my face, I actually forgot to take a picture of it. I did, though take a pic (and a couple of generously proffered forkfuls – I think it was the fact that I was drooling on her shoulder that did it) of Jane‘s beautiful hand harvested Maine scallops with a pea, Pecorino, basil and mascarpone laced risotto and weird triffid things. It tasted even better than it looked:
Too stuffed for desserts, we staggered back to our beautiful Beach Club Resort for a well earned rest.
Up bright and early to breakfast with Minnie, Goofy and Donald (more of this later). I actually still feel stuffed from the night before so settle for a reasonably ‘light’ breakfast of Mickey waffles with fruit, ignoring the vast array of bacon, sausages, fried potatoes, grits, yoghurts, and even desserts such as cobblers and crumbles:
Quick DISNEY FACT here: all around Walt Disney World there are what’s known as ‘hidden Mickeys’. There are even proper ‘hidden Mickey’ nerds that make it their life’s work to know where they all are. We spotted a couple, including a Mickey-shaped rivet in a manhole cover and a Mickey-shaped electricity pylon (no, honestly). This, obviously caused me to collapse in a heap laughing every time somebody mentioned it. Why? Because in Ireland a Mickey is another name for a man’s erm… oh, you know. And ‘hidden Mickey’ has all sorts of connotations to my filthy brain which prompted the snorting. Sorry…
Off in the bloggerbus (or ovenbus as it became known) to Typhoon Lagoon (more of this later too), then to Downtown Disney (you guessed it – more later), where we have an absolutely amazing cob salad in the Earl of Sandwich. I’ve never had one before, but it’s a rather delicious combination of chicken, cranberries, chunks of cheddar and masses of mixed leaves, all doused in a lovely dressing. See, even the takeouts are scrummy.
The evening found us hurling ourself upside down on various rides at Walt Disney’s Hollywood Studios Resort (sorry, but I’m going to have to keep saying ‘more of this later’) where we dined at the spectacular Hollywood Brown Derby, a pretty good approximation of the original Brown Derby, frequented by the stars and decorated with signed caricatures (I spotted Bette Davis’s and Fred Astaire’s).
The service, as usual, was impeccable: friendly, helpful, discreet and informative. The steaks were absolutely amazing (I think most of us ordered one):
Again, no room for dessert, but obviously we squeezed in a quick cocktail (made by the crappest cocktail waiter in the world, the lovely Craig, who took so long making our cocktails (checking his recipe every ten seconds), that we missed our showing of Fantasmic. In fact, as one of my fellow bloggers pointed out, this photo looks misleadingly like he was moving at speed. He wasn’t.
Instead, we retired back to our resort, Walt Disney’s Beach Club, to down more mojitos and get all sillly and giggly. Poor Sarah started to look vaguely scared, especially when a competition to see who could say motherf*cker the fastest got into full swing. We retire to bed a little tired and emotional (it’s the jet lag you see).
So that’s my first two days, then. But brace yourself, you’ve got the other five to come, plus roundups of the main resorts, plus the parks, Disney’s Dining Plan, prices, packages, some amazing Disney facts and some rather wondrous exclusive Disney scoops.
Here’s a final DISNEY FACT to keep you on your toes: Walt Disney’s brain is widely held to be kept in a secret location, cryogenically frozen. This is a load of horse poo. He was just buried like everybody else. See, you’re gagging for more now, I can tell….