Winter Windmill Weekend

Night vision!

OK, so it wasn’t strictly a weekend but nothing wrong with a bit of poetic license! Below is where we should have been for the OH’s birthday celebrations, but Covid messed that one up, again!!

Photo: Elena Pellecchia, our Italian neighbour

To say I was excited for this mini-break, staycation getaway was an understatement. After another lockdown, a clean eating 28 day detox, and working from home, which is basically the same as sleeping at work, I was ready to get out. The ‘will we, won’t we’ trauma before we knew if we would be able to go wasn’t fun, but thank goodness it was Tier 2 all round and we got the green light a week before.

This trip was for the OH’s birthday, usually we manage a lovely weekend break in Europe, often based around where Chelsea are playing in the Champions League, and more often than not, it’s a surprise for him, and this year, due to the Covid pandemic, it really was a surprise for both of us, not knowing what the virus would allow us to do, if we could go, where we could go, but I hedged my bets and pre booked a surprise trip to somewhere a bit different just in case.  And how different it was…………a converted windmill!!

I found the Windmill at Blackthorn Hill through an online search, can’t remember which one, but I searched for unusual overnight stays and this came up.  I think they can be found on most online accommodation sites.

We set off on our adventure around lunchtime and started with a little detour through Richmond, one advantage of the lockdown was that we were able to get a table for lunch very easily at the well renowned Petersham Nurseries.  What a treat that was.  We parked in Ham Street car park and had a lovely 15 minute walk by the river to the cafe.  There is minimal parking at Petersham Nurseries so be warned.  It was fairly busy when we arrived.  Such beautiful surroundings, a number of connected greenhouses with virgin earth to complement the greenery all around, as well as the necessary overhead heaters, we really felt like we were eating in beautiful gardens, and as we arrived at 3pm, it wasn’t long before it got dark and all Christmassy with the lights in all the trees around us. 

BB – Big Boss, Birthday Boy, Branton Bamford!!!

We ate gorgeous food with an Italian twist, arancini, gnodi which was their take on gnocchi but without potatoes, made up of spinach, leeks and ricotta cheese instead, just delicious.  Dover sole for the main course and sadly we were too full for dessert. They also served one of our favourite Tuscan wines and we bought one of their olive oils to take away, so it was just a perfect start to celebrating 53 years of my one and only!  The walk back was far from romantic, pitch black, with the exception of some rather festive boat lights, I had some new bovva boots on, which had already given me excruciating blisters, so I walked back on my heels and tip toes most of the way!

At this point we decided to pop in to Bicester Village, as you do, which was 5 minutes from the windmill and closed at 8pm.  We got there for 7pm. OH isn’t one for a big shop so this was perfect for him.  I wanted to buy him a little birthday treat, so we slipped into a parking space right outside (I had heard that the traffic first thing that morning was back to the A41) we split up, he went his way, I went mine, and an hour later we met up, with a few purchases each, and made our way to the windmill.

Very easy to find, with great communication and instructions from the owners Alan & Cristina, it was set back from the road, and a perfect Covid safe destination for us to spend the next few days.  Contactless arrival, keys hidden, codes for the gates, we pulled up in front of the windmill adorned with its exterior lighting, always something we notice with BB (big boss or his initials depending on what mood I’m in) being a specialist, and I assume the colours were set for a Christmas theme, being mainly red and green. 

When we stepped inside we were faced with a Christmas wreath on the door straight ahead and lovely red bows and greenery twisted round the rope handrails up the stairs. I hate Christmas, bah humbug, but this was a lovely touch and an example of all the attention to detail that only enhanced the ambiance of the place.  And then there were stairs, and more stairs, and more stairs.  Each time you went up a flight, you thought you’d reached your room of choice, but no, there were more stairs.  Just as well dogs weren’t allowed as our 2 little French bulldogs would never have made it up to the top, which is where the main lounge was!  And they definitely wouldn’t have made it back down without injury!

The design and architecture of the interior was so well thought out.  On the first floor was the bedroom, a divine but small double room, with a small en-suite shower and toilet.  Despite there being limited space, within that limited space was a place for everything, hangers to hang, shelves to store, bedside tables and lights, nothing was missing.  I always pack in zip up packing cases now, so I didn’t need space anyway, as all my things stayed in one place.  An abundance of pillows and fresh towels. My only criticism of this room was that the bed legs needed to be cushioned, I’ve come away with 2 lovely new bruises from two of the 4 times I either stubbed my toe or banged my leg. The bath towels could be slightly bigger, barely covered BB’s naughty bits, and although there was a lovely hand soap by the sink, for those who don’t travel with shower gel, it would have been handy to have a small bottle of that too.

Next level up was the kitchen, again considering its size, it was very well stocked with everything you could possibly need and more. A small fridge, with a carton of milk, a freezer with ready made ice cubes, a dishwasher, all the utensils you never knew you needed. There was space to cook and eat if you so desired, we had had such a big lunch, that dinner wasn’t necessary, and we always travel with scooby snacks and refreshments anyway!!

Football was on that evening, so up we went to our favourite space in the windmill, the lounge, where we were quite happy to snuggle up, with 360 degrees of windows and an abundance of cushions, blankets and TV entertainment to make for a very happy evening.  It wasn’t at all cold, there’s a lovely little iPad which you can use to control the heating, and any issue we had, Alan was on hand at the other end of the phone to try to help us resolve it.   The main one being, we couldn’t find a beer bottle opener, but it was there! Even though it’s a stone building the rooms we spent time in were always warm.  The stairway was cool, but the windows needed to be slightly open to prevent damp I assume, and nobody spends time in the stairway, so that really didn’t affect our stay. 

For our full day here, we had plans to go for lovely long walks and maybe have a nice lunch somewhere outside, but the weather was rubbish and once BB had surfaced with a sore head, the prospect of staying put under the blankets watching old Elizabeth Taylor movies was a much better one. We had dinner plans that evening, and it was very hard to tear ourselves away, but I’m glad we did. A 15 minute drive away was a gorgeous pub, The Trigger Pond. We had made a reservation and were given a lovely little table in the corner of the bar, distanced from everyone and right by the fire. The food was much nicer than traditional pub fare, a lot of thought had gone into the menu, salmon and prawn terrine for me and sticky chicken wings for him, followed by bangers and mash and an oxtail pie, the landlord and lady ever present to check everything was ok with our meals. Then it was back to the windmill for another film and off down (that was weird going down to bed) to the cosy bedroom for a good night’s sleep.

My main criticism of this place is that they make you leave! I could have stayed another few days at least, a wonderful retreat from all the rubbish that’s going on right now. And as an added bonus, on returning home I realised just how much exercise we had done without actually leaving the windmill, my thighs felt like I’d done a marathon from going up and down those stairs so many times, yet another plus from such a spectacular and unique trip.

Cotswolds Covid Minibreak

I have debated blogging about travel over these last few months, as it really didn’t feel right to do so, so many people have been unable or unwilling to travel, and it’s almost like saying, here we are, where are you? But………on the other hand, I think that it’s good to see how the world has adapted to travel during a pandemic, whether people agree with it or not, it has to be down to one’s personal choice and the level of risk that each individual is prepared to take, and as long as we try our best to keep people safe as well as ourselves, then no one should judge anyone’s choices. So I’m going for it and publishing a few blogs that have been sitting here since July.

Although, this wasn’t the reason we went to the Cotswolds, it felt like this was a babymoon. Not for me, that ship sailed long ago, but for our much loved 5yr old dog Gracie Mae! You see, we were days away from getting a new addition to the family, another French bulldog, a playmate for Gracie and something to help keep us sane during these unprecedented times, so we decided to go on a dog friendly holiday so that she could enjoy her last few days of being the centre of our attention. We also had my 11yr old step daughter with us, we’d intended to be in Italy, but obviously Covid put a stop to that one yet again!

For the first four months of the Covid outbreak, I was very cautious on what I did and who I saw. My level of anxiety increased dramatically, and I rarely went out. As it got close to the Summer, we decided to brave it and drive to Italy. So glad we did and I ended up spending about 9 weeks there. It was the best 9 weeks of the year, I was very lucky to have been able to have had them, we stayed in a small village, with locals who had been locked down for quite some time and the numbers were significantly less than UK numbers, so we spent some time in hotels which we knew were Covid friendly, and the rest of the time we spent 99% of our time either in our apartment or eating and drinking outside. When we returned (we had to fly as things were changing even then), I decided I was going to try to live my life a little less in fear, and focus on ‘self-care’ for myself and my family as much as I could.

We booked the Double Tree in Cheltenham, as Hilton Diamond members with thousands of points, it’s always a first option for us to find a Hilton, and this seemed the best option in the area. It had an indoor pool, a spa, bar and restaurant, and from experience on our last trip the chain seemed to have handled the Covid regulations with due care and attention.

We left on a rainy Tuesday morning, and decided to stop at one or two of the villages en route to the hotel first. First stop was Burford and we headed for the famous Burford Garden Centre. Walked up to the entrance, very well organised with a one way system, and were then sent away because they don’t take dogs!! I found that rather strange, but hey ho! Sent the OH back to the car whilst we had a little look around. We were looking for wellies, but there only seemed to be high end brands for sale, so we exited and then the OH took his turn. 45 minutes later (!), he comes out with his hands full of goodies, how nice, I thought, he’s bought us presents. But no, his arms were full of boxes of solar lights, all different varieties, bought for research purposes only, he’s an exterior lighting specialist and is still trying to find a solar light that has some longevity and does what it’s supposed to. So off we went, purchase-less, (is there such a word)to find an alternative destination for a late lunch.

We found the Highway Inn by accident, mainly because we parked at the top of Burford village, got out and stopped at the first place we could find that served food. The Inn, is actually a hotel and restaurant, and what a delightful place it was. Excellent covid control, hand sanitiser as you walk through the entrance, obligatory masks until we sat down. It was just before last food orders at 3pm, so we quickly ordered and had a delicious lunch. Avocado and hummus salad for me and fish finger sandwiches for them, although they were more like a giant piece of cod in a burger bun! Looking online later, this looks like a quaint little hotel too if you’re looking for a place to stay.

After a little mooch, successful for them, unsuccessful for me, we made our way to the hotel. Again, hand sanitizer at the main entrance and a 2m distance check in. We had actually checked in online and had a digital key, so went straight to our room! We had a family room which had a large double bed and a large sofa bed next to it. Enough room for the 3 of us as well as a good corner for the dog! We went down to the bar for pre-drinks before going out for dinner, one way in one way out, I spotted a few people wandering round the reception without masks, which did infuriate me somewhat, but it was my choice to be down there, so I had to suck it up. We weren’t near anyone else in the bar.

Dinner was at the Hollow Bottom that evening, a great, spacious pub serving more than typical pub fare. A table in the corner, and we felt very comfortable. Good food and all were happy.

The following day and Broadway was the first stop. This was one of my old favourites, and I hadn’t actually been there for years and years! It hadn’t changed much, with the exception of lots of antique shops changing to gift shops and coffee shops. It was raining quite heavily, but luckily it faded out during our walk.

The stone houses and hotels were still as beautiful as I remembered! It still felt like we were stepping back in time, and even though changes had been made, the authenticity and historical look of the village still remained.

The streets were quite busy, but most people walked with respect, at a distance, and I didn’t feel the need to wear my mask outdoors at this point. We stopped at the Broadway Hotel for a bite to eat, the other half and step daughter had had a large breakfast, me not so large, The hotel was very busy, and after a little ops investigation, the OH reported back that the breakfast was a buffet and that it was busy. A buffet?! How can that possibly be Covid friendly? So it was a direct no from me, so back he went, to get a tray full of food and bring it back to the room. I ordered 2 hard boiled eggs, the safest option for me, still in their shells! They had a cooked breakfast.

So at this point in the day, I was a bit peckish, they weren’t. They ordered a sticky toffee pudding, a hot chocolate and a raspberry cheesecake. I had a lovely slice of quiche and salad. The only thing I didn’t like about this place was when we were waiting to be seated, the maitre d’ said “excuse me, I just need to breathe”; turned away; pulled his mask down; took a breath and then replaced it over his mouth. Epic fail!! I wasn’t sure I’d actually seen that correctly, so said nothing, but in hindsight, what he was doing was breathing out his germs for us all to share and then putting them away again. Defeating the purpose of mask wearing, and I hope we won’t suffer the consequences of his reckless actions! This only demonstrated what I have always been afraid of during these times, you can’t control what other people do, nor can you rely on other people to be as sensible as you may feel you are being. So if these things are really going to bother you then stay at home.

By the time we finished lunch it had started to pour again, so it was back to the car, a quick drive by of Stow-on-the-Wold, and then Bourton-on-the-Water. It was absolutely mobbed, so we drove on by and decided to try it the next day instead.

That evening was dinner at 131 The Promenade. This was my favourite! A lovely outdoor area, covered, with heaters and blankets on the chairs. It also had a walk-in Gin bar, but as we were with an 11-yr old, didn’t feel it was appropriate to stop there! We were shown to our table, which was through the outside area and actually inside the hotel. I was a bit disappointed. If ever I’m given the option of an outdoor table I’ll always take it, but the other two suffer from the cold, they’re Southerners, that says it all, so we stayed indoors. Also lovely, but lacking a bit of atmosphere.

131 The Promenade, outside now under cover

Dinner was enjoyable, service was excellent, and tables were distanced. Food was delicious! Risotto for me, and an asparagus and quinoa salad, the avocado and hummus starter was doubled up and a great main course for step daughter and the OH had the perfectly cooked duck. If we had to find a place in Cheltenham to stay again, I’d definitely stay here. 9.45pm and the bill arrived, so it was back to the hotel for an after dinner Baileys. Or not. We forgot the 10pm curfew was also for hotels, and the bar was well and truly closed for business, so we made do with some digestive biscuits and fizzy water!

The next day it was breakfast downstairs. The hotel was a lot quieter, and I sat myself in a corner and got the other two to queue for hot food and toast! I felt perfectly safe in my corner bubble. Ridiculous I know, as the people I’m with are doing it differently to me, but it’s just the way I’m rolling at the minute, and if this is how it has to be in order for me to be able to travel a bit, then so be it.

No need to check out as we did it automatically, so we left the hotel by a side door. Although we had intended to, we didn’t made use of the pool and spa facilities, the hotel was too full for us to feel comfortable swimming, and you had to book set times, which we didn’t want to be restricted to, but it didn’t really matter as there was plenty to do outside the hotel.

We returned to Bourton-on-the-Water, and although it was still exceptionally busy we parked and got out for a wander. I actually kept my mask on here, as it wasn’t possible to be too far apart from people on the narrow streets. This is the most picturesque of villages in my opinion, and we had a lovely walk through the village before stopping at a perfect find for lunch. Everywhere with food options had people queuing outside for tables, fish and chips, cream teas, cafes etc. Just off the main road was The Dial House, another lovely looking hotel, with a restaurant. We got one of the last few tables available, were served by a young guy with his mask under his nose (plonker) they ran out of barrelled beer and hadn’t put the gorgeous looking log fire on and didn’t ask people leaving the restaurant to wear their masks, but apart from that we had no complaints! The staff were all relatively young, so we put it all down to their inexperience.

All in all, this was a lovely few days away, can’t imagine what it would be like peak season, as it was very busy this week, it was half-term though! And now, another lockdown is looming and it’s back home to prepare for the dark and gloomy month ahead of us. But at least we have this little bundle of fun to keep us busy!

Life On The Ocean Waves

View from the beach

We had had this sailing trip with 6 strangers booked with TradeWinds for the last year so had plenty of time to think about what to expect, but my better half always says ‘if you don’t have any expectations then you won’t be disappointed’ so I decided to go with his philosophy, especially as I have a genuine fear of water and had also not long recovered from major abdominal surgery which restricted some movement and things I’d be able to do.

The Sail

We arrived to a mele of Caribbean chaos, all ready to board the boat, except one of the gang had forgotten their phone!! NOBODY wants to be without their mobile, especially when there may be nothing else to do but play games that don’t require Wi-fi if you don’t get on with your fellow sailors! So the rest of us sat with our first cocktail of the week waiting for the lovely Andrew (as we later found out), to return from retrieving said phone. We were also waiting for our final two passengers to arrive, their flight had been delayed so would no doubt arrive in a flurry of stress. (So actually they didn’t, that would be me that would have been stressed, they were as cool as cucumbers, they knew we had cocktails and they knew we wouldn’t be going anywhere without them…..oh to think positively, I must try that some time!)

First introduction was the crew, we had Amy, our captain, a lovely 25 year young girl with an infectious personality, an obvious joy for life on the ocean and the ability to make everybody feel very comfortable. She was a fellow Brit, originally from Plymouth and an avid water girl. Then we had Jose, our Spanish first mate and chef, who turned out to be Amy’s stepdad, married to Amy’s Mum, who usually works with her as her first mate and chef, but was temporarily injured, so Jose stepped in. I later found out he was no gentleman when it came to playing my new favourite game ‘Spoons’, he didn’t half nudge me out the way to grab one for himself so he could stay in the game!!

Usually that would be the total crew for a boat with 8 guests, but we were so lucky to have an extra 2 crew members with us who were in training, Jake from London and Orla from Ireland. All fabulous and full of the enthusiasm that you would want from a team you’re going to be spending a week with, who are responsible for your safety as well as your brain!!

Now to the guests: first we had Todd and Andrew, a married couple from Chicago who you just knew were going to be fun when Todd arrived with his own captains hat on! With them came Jennifer and Kara, two friends from New York, who were also the long term besties of Todd and Andrew, a lovely foursome who seemed to enjoy life to the full with a special love of Prosecco and Baileys. Finally, once landed and on board, we had Dennis and Leslie, a 60 something lovely couple from Albuquerque, New Mexico, otherwise known as the Breaking Bad desert, the most mature couple on board and I don’t mean because of their age. Lesley was great at keeping us all in tow with her daily mantras. With all eight on board, we started to relax, the anticipation subsiding, replaced by the feeling that we were in for a good week together on the water.

For the first night, we sailed out a tiny weeny bit (about 10 minutes) to the middle of the water, this reminded me of the time when one of my kids went for his first overnight camping with the school, wanting him to feel like he was going on a real adventure (rather than knowing they were in a field only 10 minutes down the road from home) we drove him round in circles for an hour before reaching the ‘campsite’ so he thought he was far away from home’!! Anyway, dinner was served, a beautiful marinated Mahi-Mahi with stir fry vegetables and an array of salads. De-Li-Cous! The trip was an all inclusive one, with an endless supply of food and drinks. Slimming World was definitely going to be put on hold for the week.

The conversation flowed and we didn’t need any icebreakers, which was a relief, don’t you hate those? I’d been preparing a few answers just in case this happened, but so far so good. I didn’t need to tell everybody something that others didn’t know about me, (not much left to be honest, I’m quite an open book), or tell them what I loved about myself and what I hated about myself, I’d have had the floor for quite some time on the latter! Though the outlook of Leslie was one which I really hoped to adopt when I left the boat. No self-loathing to start with!

Dining at sea

After one or three too many, one by one, people quietly sloped off to bed (I was one of the first), hoping that no one would notice or think they were a party pooper! This became a trend each evening, and seemed to get earlier and earlier, there’s something about boat life that makes you forget time, everything rolls into one and the evenings seem to be so chilled you feel like its much later than it is. By the end of the trip I felt like I’d been on a gap year with my new friends rather than a week at sea!

Our first day of sailing was so amazing. I surprised myself. I’m not a water baby and was really dubious about spending a week on a boat, but so far so good. We didn’t have to do any of the actual sailing, (unlike the last time when we actually went on a holiday to learn how to sail, which obviously ended in an argument every day), so we just watched the crew do their stuff, with little effort (or so it seemed) whilst we did our stuff, also with little effort. Our first stop was in the waters of Anguilla. I had been here about 16 years ago in a former life. I have a very bad memory but can remember this place vividly, pure white sands, turquoise beaches and it hadn’t changed a bit. It’s always the Caribbean island I would recommend to people when asked which one to go to, (look out for my upcoming blog on Antigua to see if I’ve changed my mind) and although it is probably one of the smaller Caribbean islands, it’s also the most beautiful, in my opinion. We all took a swim from the boat up to a little cove with a small beach, some went exploring others just sat and took it all in, and then it was back to the boat for our Salad Nicoise lunch.

The boys talking tactics!

After lunch it was time for another little sail, or motor as the wind hadn’t picked up at this point, to a beach a bit further along Anguilla with a couple of small shops and a beach bar where we stopped for a rum punch. After our on-boat cocktails a bit later, we were whisked off again, if you can be whisked off in a dinghy, to Elvis’s beach bar (not that one!) for some more pre dinner cocktails and a game of corn hole. Being English, we had no clue what this was but once we got into the swing of things it was actually quite fun. It’s all about getting a hole in one. with a bean bag and a wooden hole. I didn’t have my glasses on so was nowhere near the hole, although thinking about it even if I did have my glasses on I wouldn’t have got a hole in one. I was rubbish at hand eye co ordination sports at school and obviously still am. Leslie on the other hand excelled herself, with her glasses on, and got a hole in one quite early on, so at this point I quit and went to the other side of the table to watch the game ‘hooked’. A simple game, launching a hook on a piece of string towards another hook tied to a wooden pole, seemed simple enough but actually it wasn’t simple at all, and without the patience of two saints, we all gave up on that one pretty swiftly. Another lady, maybe a local, then had a go and managed to get hooked many times, using many different positions, from the front, from behind, I didn’t see her try from the side. At this point, when she realised we were all watching her in awe, she looked to the side and announced ‘that’s why they call me The Hooker’!!!! Right then!!! Moving swiftly on……… , back to the boat for dinner and lots more food including rum punch pie!!

On offer next was a trip back to St Maarten into Grand Cass. This part of the island seemed to have been hit really badly by Hurricane Irma in 2018, some of the buildings which had clearly been so beautiful, have never recovered and there was something quite sad about our walk through the town, which used to be a haven for beautiful restaurants, and now, despite a few restaurants still open, seemed to only have a handful to choose from. It was still a colourful part of the Island and you could feel the determination to get back to normal from its inhabitants.

Unbeknown to us, whilst we were perusing the island, the crew were busy preparing our very own wine tasting evening. Jose had prepared charcuterie, his own take on salmon blinis, a flat and delicious ham and cheese empanada, some duck a l’orange and teriyaki marinated tuna sashimi. Just delicious, I missed the start of dinner and didn’t realise this was only the canapé part of dinner, so filled my plate to the brim, only to hear someone mention they were full and didn’t think they could handle another course. And sure enough, true to TradeWinds style, Jose simply offered to put our next course on hold until the next evening if we didn’t feel like it and made us all a lovely green salad instead. I really want my very own Jose in my kitchen at home at all times!!

Where’s Jen?

The wines were delicious, some french, some Argentinian, some American, but to my dismay, as an Italian citizen, no Italian. But we all managed to polish off goodness knows how many bottles. It was amazing how well the group had gelled, ranging from 20’s (crew) to 30’s, 40’s 50’s and 60+, we all seemed very happy in each other’s company, I particularly warmed to Leslie and her amazingly positive outlook on life, and felt I could actually come away learning something from her and her wonderful attitude, No shame, no blame, no self loathing, only love. Everybody has choices. Act don’t react. I think I’m going to try living by some of these affirmations for a while to come.

All dietary requirements are catered for on the boats, gluten free, no carbs, no fish, whatever you want, it really was just perfect.

One early morning (9am) we had the option of a massage at the bow of the boat, Kara and I patiently waited for our turn and as the boys stepped down, obviously relaxed and stating that ‘island life’ was the life to have, we got on the beds and awaited the same feeling only to be met by a rain shower. Never having had a massage in the rain it was an interesting experience, oil and water definitely don’t mix and there was no feeling of ‘island life’ for us, but only relief when it was over!

St Barths

During the trip, the company do try to sell you points to become members so that you can enjoy the lifestyle for many years to come, but it’s not a hard sell at all, and was the butt of a lot of jokes during the trip. Tempting as it was, we already have many other commitments for a few years to come, so whilst having a chat with the lovely Leslie and Dennis about it, we agreed it was a few years too soon for us and as Leslie said, ‘it’s 10 years too late for us! ‘ Shame all round.

There were a few nights when we had dinner on land and ate more delicious island food at Simpson Bay and also Marigot town both in St Martin. On the sail to St Barths the next day, the other half’s hat flew off into the sea during a hairy crossing, thinking he’d lost it for good, we then watched Captain Amy stop the boat, point to the hat in the water, and turn around to get it, the lovely Orla hooked it out the water and put it back on Branton’s head. The crew were beyond excellent stating ‘no one gets sunstroke on my watch’! At this point the very entertaining Todd shouts down the boat, ‘can we turn back to Simpson Bay, I think I left my dignity!!’

The mid generation gang

I could go on and on giving you an hour by hour account of what we did, where we went, about each dive and snorkel and swim, but I never want to ruin the fun for others who choose to go on and experience the same. Safe to say, this was possibly one of the more entertaining holidays we’ve had in a while, largely helped by the great combination of the people on board, including the crew and the beautiful Caribbean islands and weather. Usually we don’t speak to anyone when we’re away!

We had a pub quiz, a game of Spoons, played Would You Rather and Left Center Right, all great games, My most memorable snorkel was when as soon as we got into the water and towards the rocks, my other half decided to give me the divers sign for shark!! At this point I hastily swam back to the boat to safety on board, only for him to declare that he had signed ‘follow me’ and not ‘shark’. Welcome to life with a dyslexic, even underwater!!

I can only describe the trip as a bitter sweet one, I loved it, yet also hated some things about it, but all were tolerable when you weighed up how much fun was had. When it ended it was literally like being cut from the umbilical cord, we had been so used to having every need and desire catered for and doing very little for ourselves, we didn’t know how to get to the airport, how to order a taxi, Amy best described it from her point of view as having 8 new baby pets every week!!

In conclusion: I loved sleeping to the lull of the boat, yet hated feeling like I was still on the boat when on dry land.

I loved waking up to the sound of laughter on the galley before breakfast, yet hated waking up to the sounds of laughter from the galley before breakfast.

I loved air con time (2 hours at night for this class of boat). For menopausal women like me this was the equivalent to happy hour for alcoholics.

I loved cocktails and canapes at 5, hated that there was so much delicious food my tummy swelled like the ocean!

I loved boat life, I hated boat toilets.

We left the boat a week later, completely full of food, alcohol and laughter, with offers of hospitality from our new found friends. We then made our way back to our hotel for the night, delighted to completely unpack, have somewhere to put ALL our things and proceeded to sleep, undisturbed for the next 13 hours!! Till the next time…….

Was this grafitti on our boat??

Truffle hunting in Tuscany

Fried quails eggs with truffle shavings

I’ve been coming and going to and from Tuscany for a few years now, since we found our cute little bolt hole in a 16th century village on top of a hill. We’ve tested a few ‘experiences’, from cooking pasta and pizza classes to wine tasting and today we experienced something a bit different. Truffle hunting. Tartufo, a beautiful Italian delicacy which is rather like marmite, you either love it or you hate it. You get 3 types through the year in Tuscany, Bianco, the most valuable, and found during November/December, the Marzuolo (Spring) truffles, January to April, and finally the more recognised one, the black truffle, July to October. So the experience can be had any time of year in Tuscany. I love it, my other half hates it and his 10 year old who joined us today thought it was just OK. To learn more about the difference, the costs, the way to cook etc, you must do the tour, I’m not going to spoil it here.

For the tour we teamed up with a local tartufaio and his trained dog to see what we could find in the woods. Now we thought they used pigs, and apparently they still do in France, but here, they think the pigs are too lazy and more likely to eat them rather than find and retrieve. On our way into the woods, we spotted another truffle hunter and his dog coming out. You have to have a license to hunt here and its frowned upon if you don’t and you can be arrested.

The relationship between the tartufaio and his dog is wonderful to watch, Sky, our finder of the day, was a boisterous, bouncy dog, he couldn’t wait to get started and the tartufaio had to be strong in order to control him before the start, then all of a sudden he bent down, let the dog loose, looked him in the eye and instead of running wild as we expected, the dog looked back, listened to the instruction, stood still for at least 10 seconds, and once given the command………off he went. Sky does this for love. He has been very well trained, has a value of around £18,000 (is not for sale) and does this for the appreciation only, not for treats or rewards, only for love. The tartufaio has 8-10 dogs at a time, so he must have a lot of love to go round when trained this way.

As we moved along our wet and slippy trail, Sky came across a few areas where he sniffed, dug, moved the leaves and branches out the way and then left the area for his trainer to find the truffle. For the first few times, the hole had already been dug, not re-covered (a very important and respectful part of truffle hunting) and there was no truffle buried there. It soon transpired that the previous man and his dog hadn’t been one of the licensed hunters and had in fact come to ‘steal’ the truffles. This was a matter of great excitement and despair for the landowner and his truffle hunter, and a seek and find mission was ordered, to track him down and retrieve the truffles. Between licensed tartufaio here the rule is he/she who finds owns.

In the meantime, Sky kept digging, we all kept peering over them both, the anticipation tangible. Then eventually, the hunter started giving Sky hugs and kisses and lots of attention, and bingo! We had our very own white truffle! Phew! We could now have our lunch with truffle as part of each course. Hurrying back to the Agriturismo (basically an Italian ‘farm stay’, but they are so much more than that nowadays) and the kitchen, and it was handed over to Nonna (Grandma) and she started cooking for us.

Our first course, was a cheese fondue with truffle shavings on crostini, cheese and salami with truffle honey, steak tartare with grated truffle on top and finally a warm fried quails egg on crostini with grated truffle. This was my favourite, the contrast of the warm egg, the crusty crostini and the truffle shavings was delicious! To keep the rich flavour of the white truffle, it’s recommended not to cook it, simply to grate it into sauces, onto foods etc.

For the main course, it was spaghetti with truffle and for dessert, warm custard with chocolate sauce and……….you guessed it, truffle shavings. Absolutely delicious. Some beautiful vino rosso from the vineyard on the land and aptly named after the owner’s son.

That’s it in a nutshell but I’d highly recommend you experience this for yourself if you find the time whilst in Tuscany. We get all our tours organised by the lovely Arianna who owns the tour agency Arianna & Friends. She’s based in La Rosa, very near Pisa and has a multitude of tours on offer, including the most popular one, tickets and travel to Andrea Bocelli’s annual Summer concert in his home town of Lajatico, just up the road from us! If you go there tell her I sent you and she’ll look after you. And when you next order truffles from an Italian restaurant, you won’t now wonder why they are so expensive after seeing how hard the dog and his trainer work to find them.

Seville, Sangria and Winter Sun

Plaze D’Espana

Before we left for this trip packing was quite an important part of it. Two destinations, 4 flights, one hand luggage only trip and the other the full monty hold luggage.  We were off to Seville for pleasure and Valencia for football . Some may think football is a pleasure and usually it is but when you top and tail it with a nice meal and some vino, but I hate away matches.  We’re often caged in like animals, nobody sits in their allocated seats and every one smokes! Surrounded by armed police in riot gear, although saying that, I do remember going to a match in Madrid and the police there were all exceptionally handsome so that’s something to look forward to.

As I was unable to carry more than 3 kilos it was down to the other half to get the luggage from A to B then C to D then back to C and finally back from B to A!  We had one 23kg and one 15kg bag.  I gave him my special luggage weighing scales and he reports back that one bag is 40 and the other 19! Now I do like to pack for every eventuality, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a 40kg bag. However he was insistent so back on my knees I went to try to downsize and repack.  Fifteen minutes later weigh in again, nope still not right.  I unpacked again, he weighed again. Nope. No good. So I decided to take a little control back and asked him to put his glasses on! I didn’t notice he wasn’t wearing them, and he didn’t seem to notice a problem. Sure enough it was calculating pounds not kilos, so fuming (and swearing), I repacked for the third time and off we went.

Hampton by Hilton, Gatwick Airport

It was an early start from Gatwick and feeling way too old for 4.30am wake ups we booked a room at the Hampton By Hilton in the North terminal. It was sparkling and still smelt new. The rooms were  lovely but the pillows were terrible and I regretted not squashing my bamboo pillow in the suitcase. On the plus side there was no noise from the outside flights and it took us just 15 minutes to get from the hotel room, to the bag drop, through security and sat at our table having breakfast!  Very impressed. 

During the flight I started thinking about how lovely it would be to just follow, my other half sat next to me with not a clue of the hotels we were staying in or the things I had planned. Even though this was a birthday trip, it wasn’t a surprise, and this is the case wherever we go.  I’m the planner in this couple, and as much as I’d love to be able to just arrive somewhere, I wouldn’t be relaxed not knowing where we were staying, the location and type of hotel or any of the itinerary including bars and restaurants.  He’s so laid back, a part of his character I was instantly attracted to when we first met and one which often annoys the hell out of me now!!  Of course, I don’t plan every minute of every day, we always have what I like to call ‘free time’, for a day or so.  He loves to get under the skin of any city we visit and after many years of screaming rows because of this I know better now and just follow him down the less travelled streets rather than get anxious and panic that we’re going to get lost or attacked or murdered!!  He usually leads us to some well-hidden local taverna that tourists have yet to discover.

First night in Seville at the Hotel Las Casas de la Juderia. What a gorgeous place this is. Right in the centre, don’t drive there unless you’re accustomed to driving through a drainpipe. The roads are so narrow and all one way. Ubers are plentiful and cheap. The hotel is both charming and different.  It’s not for those who love symmetry, full of winding open pathways and arches with rooms randomly dotted around where you least expect one to be. It has a rooftop pool, too cold for this time of year, but good to know for our next visit. 

We went out for a wander and lunch. I subconsciously gravitated back to a tapas bar I’d visited before, La Catedral on the Calle Gago, THE street to walk down when looking for lunchtime tapas, the food was delicious 6 dishes for 2 of us, more than enough for lunch then a meander through the cobbled streets and a little pit stop along the way. 13,500 steps! I love the way of life there. It has a great vibe with Tapas bars on every street and corner, with most people happy to stand outside and have a drink whilst they wait for a table and no sense of urgency. We, however, weren’t those people. 

It’s a cuttlefish cigar!!!

We went to Eslava for dinner. This was somewhere I’d seen the last time I visited with my girlfriends but didn’t stop at. The queue for a table was way too long for us oldies.  It was 9pm and we were both hangry.  Lucky for us attached to the tapas bar was a gorgeous little restaurant with the same kitchen. There were only 2 occupied tables when we arrived and I was a bit dubious about the menu but thanks to an amazing maitre d’ who selected 3 tapas and 2 main courses for us, it was absolutely delicious, especially the cuttlefish cigar with bechamel sauce, and by the time we left  at 11pm there were no empty tables. 

At this point of our trip I’ll skip a few days.  We had an early am flight to Valencia for the Chelsea champions league match. With only one full day there I don’t feel a review is appropriate as we certainly didn’t do it justice.  This is a place that truly deserves a proper three-day city break so we will be returning , probably during the summer so we can enjoy the wonderful beaches and when we have more time to peruse. If I had to sum up Valencia in one sentence it would be this; beautiful beaches, sexy policemen in full riot gear, wonderful architecture and delicious tapas! If you’re going to watch the football do your own research rather than rely on your partner to tell you the colour of the opposite team, otherwise, like me, you will sit in the away side looking like you support the home team!

Back to Seville and our next meal was at El Rinconcillo, the oldest tapas bar in Seville. This was one that had been highly recommended as a must try.  However, this was my most disappointing meal of the trip.  The place was mobbed, décor was old and gorgeously traditional, which was the nicest thing about it.  Luckily we had booked a table as most people were standing and eating, quite a Spanish thing to do but not one I like doing.  The waiter who showed us to our table was beyond rude, as were most of the staff there.  To ask for anything you had to speak really, really quickly, or he was gone before you had finished your request.  He wasn’t concentrating on us when taking our order, always looking elsewhere and when asked for his recommendation he just said ‘all is good’.  Couldn’t really find any decent tapas to share so we went for single plates and ended up having more Italian style food than Spanish.  He had squid ink rice with cuttlefish and I had mushroom risotto.  Presentation was non existent and it tasted just OK.  It didn’t help that our waiter had the most terrible body odour and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.  Shame. It’s reputation is obviously all it needs and I doubt my negative opinion will make any difference to its success, it must be doing something right to have been going for 4 centuries!

Hmm

We did a tour of the bullring which was very interesting.  I hate doing these kinds of things with my other half.  He spends hours looking, staring and reading, despite having the audio guide, and I just like to listen, glance and wander through.  He’s so frustrating that even the guide was getting impatient, he was the last one out of every room we went in to!

Lovely place for lunch after this which has outside seating on the main road parallel to the river but set back far enough for the fumes not to be an issue.  Fluvial, we had mixed croquettes then he had an amazing giant prawn and I had a chicken Milanese salad.  I could eat all that again in a heartbeat.

The rest of the weekend was spent doing a bit of sight seeing, Plaza D’Espana is a must see as is the Alcazar Palace and gardens, I suggest buying skip the line tickets in advance for this one, a great time saver as the queues are always long, even in December.  A few more bars were visited, we bought crisps in a cone from a stand to go with our drinks and even had a few jugs of Sangria, it’s not just for the Summer you know.

We spotted Jesus on his cross and mobile phone (!) and discovered a few lovely places to eat that we’d never heard of.  Sunday lunch was spent at Miss Tem, a gorgeous little place with a lovely interior (it had been raining at this point), more delicious food and not too expensive either,  and I wondered why I had put on weight when I got back home!  Our last lunch was a bit of a splash out at the Ena restaurant at the Hotel Alfonso XIII.  We sat outside on the terrace underneath the heaters and watched the world and the horse and carriages go by.  A lovely end to a wonderful trip, and I can safely say that Seville is right up there as one of my top European destinations to visit.

A Norfolk Staycation

For my 4-week anniversary of having 2 for 1 BOGOF abdominal surgery my other half and I decided enough is enough. He was fed up of responding to the ring of my ‘Cabana Boy’ bell when I needed something and I was fed up of looking at the same 4 walls day in day out, with my only entertainment being to see how long it would take me to pick up the post with my grabber every day.

So we went online to find somewhere that wasn’t too far in the car (so I could recline all the way with my full body pillow and neck pillow), and somewhere near the sea. It had to be a place that was nice enough for us to spend quite a lot of time in the hotel just chilling, watching Netflix and enjoying some time together and somewhere that we could venture on short drives out and about to enjoy a sea view and some well needed change of scenery.

I was told to get my things ready so he could pack for me. I’m not sure if he thought he was onto a good thing by organizing this weekend jaunt, or whether he was being compassionate (not like him!) but all I could think of was whether I could fit my recliner in the car as well as the entire contents of my bedside table and medicine cabinet including my trapped wind and constipation medication and not forgetting my new favourite friend George the Grabber, probably a tool once used by Bob the Builder.

Anyway, we got on our way and 2 hours later (with a quick pit stop at a lovely pub The George Inn near Newmarket for lunch) we arrived at Strattons Hotel in Swaffham Norfolk.

PHotography from Strattons Hotel

From the second we turned off the high street I knew we’d found yet another hidden gem and this time not too far away from home. Nestled away from the hustle and bustle of the small town was this stunning old, yet modern, boutique style hotel. Don’t let the town put you off, it’s a bit grim, with a few pubs and a chemist but the hotel is the jewel in the crown here.

Family run with an award-winning restaurant on-site, Cocoes cafe deli, and also a gorgeous lifestyle shop, it really was an oasis of calm which was exactly what I needed to continue my long and boring recovery.

On arrival there was an issue with the room we booked to do with a leaky bath, so they offered us an upgrade to a beautiful suite for a few nights, with tea and petit fours, with the intention to move us to our original booked room over the weekend. No problem for us and excellent customer service.

Our upgraded room had a beautiful lounge, bathroom and double bed, a bit small for me, him and my body pillow, but the excitement of us being able to actually sleep in the same bed after a month of me sleeping in the spare room because our bed was too high, was enough for us to work out the space issues. However, on our first night all squashed in, I did laugh to myself when in the middle of the night, my toe accidentally dropped over my body pillow and onto his leg. He was so used to having the whole bed to himself boy did he jump out his skin!! Our lounge was divinely decorated, loved it so much we managed to source the cushion material and design our new lounge around that!

For our first evening meal we decided to try the Dabbling Duck in Great Massingham, a favourite of Wills & Catherine apparently. They weren’t there when we arrived, they were on their way back from their tour of Pakistan (wonder if she’d do a review for us?!). Apart from not having a record of our reservation the evening went without hitch. We both went for the comfort food of bangers and mash and a nice bottle of Malbec from Mendoza. Service was spot on, a warm atmosphere with the locals and their dogs. It was quite busy for a Thursday night, and about a 15 min (taxi) ride from the hotel.

Next day we were woken up a tad early for breakfast by various fighter jets flying overhead for an hour or so. The next town along hosted an RAF base and a bit further from there is Sandhurst so I guess it should have been expected. Breakfast was served each morning in Cocoes cafe. A delicious smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for me and a full English for him. It was packed with locals who had popped in for breakfast after the school drop off, or as a pit stop on their morning cycle, and again, a warm environment to eat in.

Breakfast at Cocoes

After breakfast, a little time out to re charge my batteries for our little trip out to Blakeney to see the seals. Sadly, it was either a 7 mile walk or rocky boat trip to find them but the boats only run at the weekend and I wasn’t even ready for a 7 minute walk never mind 7 miles! We busied ourselves with a few pit stops in between a little wander, a chat with a local artist in a studio (hut) hidden away down a back street, and regular sit downs on a beach bench, it was soon back to base for an afternoon of bed rest for me and a movie for him in our lovely suite.

Dinner that night was in the hotel restaurant Afterfive, which was another culinary delight with a bottle of crisp and dry Gavi di Gavi alongside. Take a look at the photos on their website as they speak for themselves. Apparently, Saturday night is always their busiest night, this was a Friday and still comfortably busy. I went for the slow roast leg of lamb, still in need of comfort food, and he had the pan-fried seasonal fish, and the main thing I love about a hotel restaurant when you’re staying there is it’s never too far to get home.

The next day, before we left for some more exploring, they moved us to our original booked room, obviously not as large as our upgrade but the decor was still easy on the eye and the bath had been fixed! It is a small hotel and in this new room we could hear our neighbour running a bath and then having a sing in it before dinner. She was easy to spot at breakfast the next morning as her talking voice was the same as her singing voice! However, we had no complaints and would definitely escape back there again.

Another day another village this time Burnham Market, a pretty little town otherwise known as Chelsea- on-Sea, mainly because of the Jack Wills store, another London based yuppy store that I’d never heard of, and a large handful of 4×4’s. There were a few pretty interiors shops, an abundance of tea and drinking holes and it was a lovely way to spend an hour or two. After that meander and feeling adventurous I braved it to Wells-Next-The-Sea (and no I haven’t missed a word out there). This was a bit of a ‘Kiss me quick’ town with fish and chip shops, ice cream parlours, amusements arcades and luckily a lovely little place for lunch called Sands, its main restaurant was upstairs with a view of the bay. My mussels were perfect, not too big and served with warm, crusty bread to soak up the cream, wine and garlic sauce.

Saturday night dinner was in the George & Dragon, a newly renovated pub with decent food but terrible acoustics! It’s the best gastropub option on offer. The local village of Swaffham where the hotel is based doesn’t have too many options, so this was a good choice for another evening outside the hotel.

Sunday was most definitely a day of rest. I had zero energy at this point and needed a day in bed to recover from all the walking and eating that I hadn’t been used to doing for the last month. We decided to watch a mini-series then have afternoon tea downstairs and then back upstairs for the football on the laptop (had to keep him happy!).

Afternoon tea is clearly a thing there as on both days over the weekend, all the tables in the gorgeous lounge were setup for the pre-booked sittings. They put on a different themed tea each month. This month was Halloween and we were served orange and green cakes and sandwiches with a ghost attached on a stick! It was all delicious and considering I only ever allow myself one indulgence of afternoon tea a year I was full to the brim and needed to get horizontal again pretty soon after!

In a nutshell, this was a gorgeous place to stay if you don’t want to do too much except relax, eat and drink and snuggle up in front of a fire during the winter or visit the different beaches during the summer. I’ve had my fair share of stay-cations this year, Wales, Rye and now Norfolk, but I have to say, health permitting, I’m a travel geek, and although we do have some lovely places to choose from in the UK, I’m still an abroad kind of girl!

Iceland in Winter – One of My First Blogs

A very special place to take my 3 adult kids.


4 nights, 3 days. Just enough time to see most things of interest. We stayed at the Hilton Nordica. It’s about a 15 minute walk into the Centre, taxis were a fortune, around £15 for an 8 minute trip. There’s a Hop on Hop off bus with a stop right outside the hotel, perfect for us as my then 17 year old son decided he didn’t need to bring a jacket?! This was a good and cheaper way to get around Reykjavik and the cold didn’t seem to be an issue as they were all prepared. Obviously there wasn’t an open top at this time of year. The hotel was also a great location as all the bus tours (Grayline being the main one) stop there to collect and drop off. Pre-arrange your transfer to and from the airport as that can also work out very costly.

Inside the Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is definitely a must. Beware buying anything at the Blue Lagoon (over £100 for a sandwich and snack lunch for 4!) its the most expensive place of them all. The basic package is absolutely fine, enter communal changing rooms, get your lockers, go out, swim in the lagoon and back in to change. Or if it’s a special occasion you can book their executive package, this is a private changing room, a beautiful indoor area with a view over the lagoon, and a private entrance from there in and out to the lagoon, with champagne and cosy seats for after. I’ve done both. Executive with my partner and basic with my kids.

Outside the Lagoon

A great tip for a reasonable and delicious meal to warm you up, try to find the Grull Svarta Kaffid restaurant on the main shopping street for soup in a bread roll. Reindeer or vegetable. Don’t think there was anything else on the menu. It was just delicious! Also HAMBORGAFABRIKKAN; http://fabrikkan.is/en/english/

Vegetable Soup

We did the Golden Circle express tour. 6 hours, 3 stops, that was enough for us we used Viator who I always recommend when travelling. We didn’t feel we missed out not stopping at the other places on offer for the tours, we still passed them and learnt about them. The people are just lovely and go out of their way to help you. Queue at the hotdog stand behind the Radisson Blu, absolutely worth the wait and if it’s your main meal then buy two! Lovely places there to just eat and walk around. September to March is the best time to go there especially if you want to spot the Northern Lights. Other activities are dog sledding, snowmobiling or a 4×4 jeep tour.  We did manage to see the lights, and although it wasn’t the amazing light show we expected it was still special to watch and we stood for over an hour just watching the green glow move and change. Only 3 hours of daylight this time of year which is hard on the eyes! It wasn’t that cold really. Got to -7 at the waterfalls and geysers but as long as you’re wrapped up warm it’s fine. Overall a different but special holiday destination that has to be done.

The Scottish Highlands

“Let me take you away for your up coming birthday” he said. A feeling of dread consumed me. You see the only times he’s ever booked trips he’s either arrived for flights on the wrong day, booked flights for the wrong month, arranged flights to the Canary Islands via Spain or got on the plane to Malaga when we were supposed to be going to Majorca. Also the sun is my preferred climate, but our birthdays are in December, so I was a bit apprehensive.

However I left it to him. The only time we could get away was actually on HIS birthday and as the hours went by it suddenly dawned on me that this was actually more a trip for him than me.

Starting off with a flight to Glasgow, we arrived at the airport when he realised he’d forgotten his file of things he’d organised. Frankly I was impressed he’d actually put together a file in the first place, and in hindsight I needn’t have worried as I realised the only things the file had in it was the confirmation for the car hire and for one out of 3 hotels booked!

Arriving in Glasgow, we picked up the car, a large, swanky 4 wheel drive type. Clearly he knew what was ahead. After a lovely birthday (his) meal at the fabulous Hutchesons in Glasgow, we awoke the next day to face the 6.5 hour drive ahead to our first overnight stop.

Hutchesons Glasgow

Passing through the roads along the west coast to Fort William (our first pit stop) via Loch Lomond the scenery was breathtaking. Four seasons in one, a combination of pine forests, orange, yellow and red moorlands, with streams flowing down the middle of the mountains and sea mist coming in over the Loch, it was both a photographer’s and painter’s paradise. Simple houses built into the hills on the water front with their reflection glistening in the water. Not many places to stop to take photos as the roads were too long and windy, one minute 5 degrees and Autumnal, the next -1 degree with snow and ice on the ground. Green and brown forests in the hills with the contour of a snowy summit of Ben Nevis behind them.

My biggest tip for this drive is plan ahead. Get there before it gets dark. Make sure there are no road closures, otherwise the drive can turn into a scene from a hideous horror movie. We (he) didn’t plan ahead, so all of the above applied to us. As we drove along the mountain road over to Applecross, the highest mountain pass along the West Coast awaited us. Apparently it’s truly spectacular, but we will have to YouTube it instead. It’s called Bealach Na Ba for those who want to see it before you experience it. At this point I was both furious and delighted it was dark! Not sure we could have handled another screaming row about his driving, after realising just how high, narrow and icy it was. However one of the bonuses of driving in pitch black is that the Stag’s and other rare wildlife came out to play. One of the pitfalls of driving with a potential bird watcher and wildlife fanatic is that each time he saw something he thought was exciting, he would gasp loudly, leading me to believe we’d either hit something large and furry or there was a masked murderer with an axe on our roof!!

If you like the rugged outdoors (and indoors) then this first stop is for you. The AppleCross Inn. Gorgeously remote yet very basic. Delicious pub fare, fish pie, dressed crab and oxtail stew some of the choices, as well as comfort desserts like Eton mess, fruit crumble and sticky toffee pudding. It also had a great gin and tonic menu! It’s the type of establishment where everyone can hear you unzip your suitcase or take a shower, and you have to whisper at breakfast or they’ll hear what you’re talking about, which is usually them! The Inn was cosy and never empty, it’s reputation ensures it’s always full, and I’d highly recommend it as a stopover to Skye or as a base to discover this part of the Highlands

After a little exploratory walk first thing in the morning, we got back in the truck for part two of our adventure towards Skye.

Once I realised just how remote the area we were driving through was, I seemed to get more and more nervous about it, which wasn’t good for the in car entertainment! So I soon learnt how to zip it when I realised we still had another 3 hours together in the car!

We took the opposite route back down from whence we came, towards Sheildig, so there was no worrying drive back ‘over the pass’ as the locals say. Once I spotted the other half’s binoculars and bird spotting book I knew that he knew he was in for a treat! I can’t tell you about any of the birds (maybe Eagles and Sea Eagles) or deadly rabbits (Pine Martins I think) he saw but I can tell you this was actually the most  beautiful scenery of the whole trip. Even more colourful than yesterday’s drive, even more varied, and even more remote.

We didn’t see any other cars for at least 10-15 miles at a time and the local Highland cows soon became our friends, and also our most annoying hazard, blocking the narrow roads. Even the satnav got lost, taking us down dead ends, and turning itself upside down so our destination got further and further away! It was like driving through the Black Forest, the Alps and the Nevada desert all in the one trip.

Skye was over the bridge and far away and obviously my other half had chosen the most stunning little place for my big birthday, but it was as far North as you could go before dropping off the end! Not his fault I guess but still a further hour and a half away. The views were almost like those aerial views you see from a plane, flat fields, with high hills, little streams coming down from the hills. I have to say even though I was told Skye was the most stunning to look at, so far the West coast route was winning hands down for me. We had, however, the best weather they’ve had for a while on the Isle with beautiful blue skies which made the drive easier and not at all boring.

Skye has more of a finer vista. Mini waterfalls in the dark rocks of the hillside, with the well defined contours of the mountains behind. The perspective and contrast of the blue water, with the green pine forests in the background was still appreciated, however there was a lot of the same there, making it much less dramatic and often quite bleak. 

The hotel The Three Chimneys is one that most culinary experts would aspire to work in or eat in. The restaurant came first, it used to be a tea room, and the small hotel soon followed. A small but perfect menu, with a 3 course a la carte or a land and sea 8 course tasting menu with wine pairing to chose from. As we had 2 nights here we tried both menus and there wasn’t one thing to complain about (not that we do anyway, as we’re British!). With only 8 rooms it was never overcrowded and the restaurant had a great atmosphere, with impeccable service and a lovely young workforce.

A gorgeous bedroom, with split levels, sitting area and lounge on the lower and bed and dressing area on the upper. Tastefully decorated with lovely little touches to make you feel relaxed, rested and well fed. Small tea light candle in the bathroom (brought that one home, not stolen but gifted), Bose speakers for our music and a small terrace to sit out (in the Summer).

Beer or wine tastings late afternoon, followed by afternoon tea and cake in our room or in the small lounge area. Once we were back in the room after dinner, a flask of hot milk and mugs with chocolate truffles and spices, had been left for us to make our own bedtime drink. 2 nights were not enough, but sadly we needed the rest of the week to get ourselves back to Glasgow airport! In hindsight Inverness would have been the shorter drive but maybe not as scenic. As our visit was the middle of Winter, a lot of the restaurants and usual attractions were closed, but there were enough little galleries and whisky distilleries for us to visit to keep entertained whilst it poured with rain for the next two days. Apparently May is the best month to go to Skye, that’s when it rains the least! But the rain squalls only added to the atmosphere of the scenery.

Some of the locals told us they feel Skye is being ruined by day trippers who visit in a hurry, they want visitors to take their time there, to stay and get to know their treasured island better.

After a wonderful cooked breakfast and a table with a view, it was back to the roads for the final night of our Northern adventure, down through Glencoe and The Trossochs.

So now we were on our penultimate car journey to Glasgow with a stop over in the Trossachs and Loch Lomond area. We had made some friends at our various tastings at the Three Chimneys who were from Glencoe, so picked their brains for the best places to stop for our 5.5 hour journey.

First stop, 3 hours from Skye, we found Inverlochy Castle Hotel on the outskirts of Fort William. Worth a stop just for a look but luckily for us afternoon tea service had just started so we sat ourselves down in the main lobby right in front of the crackling fire and whilst waiting for our tea and cakes and sandwiches and mousses (is there a plural for mousse?) we took in the delights of the ceiling decor, their Xmas decorations and enormous Xmas tree.

Tea was perfect considering we weren’t actually that hungry. Can’t remember the last time we had afternoon tea and it was truly scrumptious. Rooms there start at around £400 a night which I’d like to think included dinner and breakfast, and I got a fright when I looked at the wine list. £14 for a 125ml glass of wine. Who has 125ml glssses nowadays?! Anyway it was soon time to leave as darkness drew in. It was only 3.20, but at this time of year the sun sets early which is why the Scots say they drink so much! 

So back on the road and this is definitely not a trip for the faint hearted when it’s pouring with rain and dark and you’re driving on long, windy narrow roads with oncoming lorries passing by and momentarily blinding you with their wake! There was no radio signal so the only way to entertain ourselves was by reading the road signs in our bestest Scottish accent possible . Kilmahog in Trossachs was my best one! Then picture the scene, one minute it was silent and we’re doing a risky overtaking manoever over a summit the next a woman says in a very loud Scottish accent ‘Hello my name is Margaret and I run a pasty shop!’ The radio signal was back. Adverts and all. Her timing was perfect!

The next stop suggested was the Clachaig inn which is a Climbers pub at the bottom of a mountain. But we never got there! I’d had enough of navigating in the dark and was keen to have a lie down!

Our final stop was Callendar, a small unassuming village but with a delightful guest house to set down in for the night. Yet more squeaky floorboards, and sneezing from the room above us, there were only 8 rooms, 4 of which were occupied. Run by a young Italian couple who had moved from Rome 10 years ago. Why, I asked him. It was their dream to run a B&B in Corwall, but it was way out of their reach so they settled in Scotland instead and love it.

I’d recommend the Lubnaig Guest House to anyone looking for a reasonable place to stay to explore this part of Scotland. I think they open a small restaurant in the  summer but during winter months there’s little demand so we had to make do with the local pub for fish and chips. Breakfast here was wonderful and I really wish it had turned into brunch!

The tea rooms and fish and chip shop in Mhor were the places to be according to our new friends, but closed at night.

A great night’s sleep, lovely cotton sheets and comfortable mattress, it was up and out after breakfast for our final and I’m glad to say uneventful car journey back to Glasgow Airport then home for a rest!

December in Dublin

River Liffy

Winter in Dublin: This year was a tricky one to organise for our biannual family trip with my 3 adult children when looking for another Winter destination. We’ve done Iceland, Newcastle, Tenerife, New York and Vegas, so where could we go that would suit us all and that none of us had really ‘done’. I couldn’t bring myself to take them to Amsterdam considering I don’t even behave like a grown up when I’m here, so we all decided on Dublin! Not too far away and something for everyone!

As a Hilton member, I chose the Hilton Garden Inn at Custom House which is right on the River Liffy. A great position, contemporary hotel with newly refurbished rooms and views of the river. We took a 20/25 minute walk most days into the centre, but that’s what City breaks are all about, counting the steps.

Christmas was a great time to go, with a huge array of Christmas city lighting, moving light installations on buildings and bridges, mulled ciders (though we couldn’t find a mulled Guinness) and everyone still in party mode, waiting for New Year’s Eve.

There’s quite a lot to do in Dublin, we started at the interactive Emmigration museum which was right next door to our hotel. Took about an hour and a half to get round and the highlight for me was seeing my 21yr old follow the painted footsteps of an Irish dancer whilst the violins and accordions were playing him round doing his jig!

Epic, The Emmigration Museum

After a quick bite to eat at the very casual but actually very nice High Street Café called SoMa (self-service ordering delivered to the table), we then hopped on the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus, always one of my highlights on a City break and one I’m not usually allowed to do because him indoors thinks they’re too touristy! I think they’re a great way to get round a city, and also a way of getting your bearings and seeing what to visit next.

Our second tourist attraction was of course the Guinness Storehouse, chosen as an afternoon activity in case we all had a bit too much of a taster and needed a lie down before dinner, however, it was not to be. I hate Guinness, so does my daughter and so does my youngest son, so we all did the polite thing, had a taste, ordered our free pint, and gave them all to the 21yr old Irish dancer! It was set out on 6 floors, round and apparently in the shape of a Guinness glass, with the rooftop bar as the climax, another fun place to visit with adult kids.

Obligatory beer moustache photo

Dublin isn’t cheap, couldn’t really get an evening meal for 4 under 100 euros with no alcohol, (which didn’t happen very often, the no alcohol bit I mean), so it’s definitely not a bargain city. We discovered a lovely Italian restaurant, Caverna, which was probably the cheapest of our dinners, nothing to look at from the outside, but definitely one of the nicest. Temple Bar was as expected, but definitely worth a visit, buzzing and full of the young, reminded me a bit of Newcastle town centre on a Saturday night. It’s definitely a place for the younger generation, but those my age can blend in quite well.

Gaol

We visited the Gaol, which was so fascinating, kids loved that one, and finally an escape room. That’s our thing, that’s what we do when we’re all together, and the kids usually just tell me to sit down and shut up whilst they get us out, and I usually end up showing them the way! It was very tempting for us all to leave the 21yr old Guinness drinking Irish jigger handcuffed to a chair for the duration of the experience, but guilt took over and we found the key to release him. We got out of this one with 5 minutes to spare and joined the other 30% who managed to escape.

Had a delicious brunch at Sophie’s at the top of The Dean Hotel, I would recommend the hotel, it looked like a lovely boutique style place to stay, in the St Stephen’s Green area, delicious brunch and a lovely outdoor area which is probably heaving in the Summer.

For our grand finale, we took a trip out of Dublin up to the highest pub in Ireland, Johnnie Fox’s established in 1798. Luckily for us they have their Hooley on a Saturday night, top class Irish singers and dancers set to entertain you whilst sitting on long school dinner type table and eating a delicious four course meal. Very touristy, but in the room that night were people from Cuba, Iran, Lithuania, Belarus, Germany, Canada, London and Dublin! Another great experience, and you always know you’re onto a winner when the kids change their mind about their most favourite experience there!

Punta Del Este – Rest & Relaxation

Arriving after a 4 hour car journey in to Punta Del Este, known as the Ibiza of South America, it was evident just how different Uruguay is from Argentina, This was our middle week of the trip and a time to re group and re charge our batteries for our final week at Rio Carnival. 

Unfortunately our driver didn’t speak any English, or I’m sure he would have been able to share a lot with us about the area, as it’s where he was from.  This is a common problem in a lot of South American countries, they aren’t really taught proper English in schools so it’s rarely spoken. If we found one server in a restaurant who understood us, we were very lucky.  The drive down to the coast was a very pretty one.  Coming out of Colonia there was one long road, framed with beautiful tall trees either side (don’t know what type of trees they were, that’s not my thing, and I couldn’t ask BB, the other half, as he was listening to a podcast about football)!

I had no idea what to expect but it wasn’t this.  One man we met on our travels had told us how much he preferred the streets of Montevideo (the Capital of Uruguay), to those of Buenos Aires as everything seemed much more clean and organised, and he was right.  Every house on the street was different. There didn’t seem to be any such thing as planning regulations. From multi coloured hostels (actually yellow with a red roof so at first I thought it was the Uruguayan version of McDonalds) to thatched cottages to modern houses with wall to ceiling glass sides, high rise apartments some with individual tiny pools on each balcony, the architecture was eye opening.  The lawns were perfectly manicured and in front of them were lovely coastlines with wide beaches.  The area is on a peninsula, so we could pick one side of beaches for sunrise, though we were never up in time for those, and the other side of beaches for sunset, and we always made sure we were in position for those.  It was quite hard to get our bearings here, but Google Maps helped immensely!  I normally have a good sense of direction but here I was well and truly flummoxed!

This time, I had booked an Airbnb.  A small studio apartment in a modern high rise, with 24hr concierge, gym (no idea where that was!) and roof top pool, within walking to distance to the beaches. We had 5 days here and that meant we were able to unpack and do some washing!!  I’d never been so excited to put a wash on, especially as they had the fabulous open top giant machines here, ridiculous really, as washing is obviously not my favourite job at home. The only downside was that the machines were in the basement, so as usual, my imagination ran wild and I wouldn’t go down there unless the other half accompanied me, which he thankfully did, probably because he needed to wash all of his 8 white linen shirts that he’d brought with him.  Yup, all white, not one colour, not even white with a hint of a dot, spot, stripe or flower.  Just plain old white, but I guess that’s what happens when you pack for a 3 week trip 30 minutes before you’re due leave the house!

Anyway, I digress.   Now speaking of beaches I feel I need to give anyone considering going to South America a public warning!  I have definitely been the odd one out on this trip as I have yet to find someone else who has a bikini that covers their bottom!  I honestly feel conscious that my bottom is covered!!  How hysterical is that!!  The smallest one I’ve seen (bikini not bottom) has the teeniest of triangles at the top and the rest was just string, imagine a Toblerone size triangle placed at the top of a bottom and there you have it, and I’m not saying all those bottoms were beautiful, let me tell you, 60% were absolutely NOT beautiful, they were big and bouncy and wobbly and dimply, yet they’re still out in the open!!  So be warned! 

My advice is find a nice beach club. Some are reasonable some are not.  The bottoms are still there though, but it’s better than buying a towel and finding a little sandy spot to sit on.  I hate that!  The busiest beach club on the Punte Del Este coastline is OVO, attached to the Enjoy hotel (Vegas style hotel, with large Casino, nightclub, pool club and beach club).  In the Summer there are many concerts and celeb DJ’s playing. In one of the beach bars we were sitting at someone was rehearsing and doing a sound check for that evening. At first I thought he was terrible, shouty singing, and kept stopping and laughing. I thought he’d forgotten the words. However, we soon realised he must have been famous because all of a sudden a large crowd gathered trying to peer through the plastic walls where he was rehearsing and they were all taking photos.  He eventually came out and could only be described as a South American Ed Sheeran. He posed for photos with everyone and when he left and went back in, all the girls ran off screaming!! I remember those days stalking Duran Duran, Haircut 100 and Japan, the beauty of living up North, you always knew where the band would be staying and how to grab a quick photo and kiss!!  

Party time!!!

If you’re that way inclined, check if anyone is playing before you go or when you get there.  We managed to get ourselves tickets for a night with the world famous DJ Bob Sinclar.  When I say a night, what I actually mean is early am, he started at 3am, we lasted till 4 and that was only because we had a 3 hour disco nap beforehand!

If you have a car (we Ubered but if we had been there longer we would definitely have hired a car) take a drive down the coast, another very scenic route, leading to La Barra and then on to the slightly more upmarket area of Jose Ignacius.   Here you’ll find La Susana Beach Club.  A gorgeous restaurant and beach club to spend the day on if it’s not windy; like it was the day we went; which meant we had to spend the 4 hours in the restaurant overlooking the sand, listening to the DJ, and watching the weekend crowds gather.  Obviously no hardship there.  La Barra comes before Jose Ignacio and comprises of a small street of bars, shops and restaurants and more lovely wide beaches, it’s another area which may be good to be based in and we even got a bus back to our base when there were no Uber’s to be seen.  That was a journey not to be repeated, we seem to have had a few of those!  Doors opening before the bus stopped, bus moving before the people sat down, speeds usually seen at a Grand Prix, but it all seemed very normal to everyone else so we just rolled with it.

There’s a port in Punte Del Este with lovely restaurants and also wild sea lions.  Now they were entertaining.  Not satisfied with eating the fish in the water, they’d heave themselves up and out onto the quay and walk down past the fishermen to see what was on offer there.  A great photo opportunity, although keep your distance, as they may look cute but they’re not friendly and their breath smells, but if you’re close enough to smell that you’re in danger!

It’s very safe in Uruguay, we walked back to our apartment at 4am after the club, and we didn’t see any homeless people or beggars on the street nor did we feel anxious, which is very unusual for me!  There appears to be little stress here and no first world issues. People come to the beach on a Sunday to chill and watch sunset in the same way that I meet my friends in the pub to chill before the busy week of work ahead. They come with their flasks of meta tea, cool boxes of beer, sandwiches and family and friends, not forgetting their tiny bikinis, it’s just a different way of life. Small babies sleeping in shaded pods with me worried when they didn’t come out for a long time, in case they’d been eaten by dingos! Then I remembered where I was and that it was all just the lovely relaxed way of life here.

Transport is reasonable but on the whole, it’s a much more expensive country than Argentina, clearly there is wealth there and it’s a country that takes pride in it’s appearance.  Weather was mid 20’s, cloudy and sunny, and I’d definitely consider returning as a winter sun destination.  It’s as European as South America gets and as multi cultural as London. South America always seems so far away, but with no more than a 3 hour time difference in some places, its definitely one you could do for 12/14 days and not worry about jet lag.

When I first met the other half he said to me his ambition was to sell up and disappear to Uruguay and now I can see why.  He described this place as not one you want to return to but one you never want to leave!

 

A Perfect Sunset