An Alpine Adventure

When I first heard about the Glacier Express, the thought of spending a whole day on a train didn’t appeal all that much, despite the promise of spectacular Alpine scenery. Something to do with train travel taking me back to years of daily commuting into the capital, where the only views were of washing machines and mattresses stacked up in grotty inner London back gardens. And when I am away I also prefer getting from A to B quickly to spend as much time as possible at each destination. Planes, therefore, have always been the obvious choice.

However, my naivety was actually rather foolish. The Glacier Express winds its way across Switzerland through the mountains, weaving through waterfalls, tiny chocolate box villages with smoking chimneys, ski and toboggan runs but most of all mile after mile of stunning fir tree-lined snow-capped peaks.

My journey took me from Zermatt at the foot of the majestic Matterhorn, all the way to glamorous St Moritz in the south west of Switzerland. This is a 7 hour journey through 91 tunnels, across 291 bridges and rising up to over 2000m high. Part of the railway has been given UNESCO World Heritage status, and it is very easy to see why.

The trains have been designed to maximise the views from every angle, and have windows all the way up, even onto the sloping ceiling, so that panoramic, almost 360 degree views are possible.

I was fortunate enough to be in the first class carriage and so a 3 course lunch and all drinks are included. Although unlimited champagne is obviously a huge bonus, the views are not divided by class barriers so wherever you sit, you can take in the jaw dropping scenery.

Whilst looking out of the window, I realised that rush hour trains from London to suburbia should not be used as a good example of what train travel is all about, and that taking time over a journey is part of the whole holiday experience. Now the Orient Express, the Blue Train in South Africa and India’s Palace on Wheels don’t seem like such a bad idea…

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Trouville: a true delight

My friend recently took me to Trouville, and I discovered that this charming French town combines many of my favourite pleasures in life – notably being in France, eating seafood so fresh it is practically alive, sitting in the sunshine and drinking wine.

Dating back to the 19th century, Trouville is a beautiful coastal town in Normandy with a huge sandy beach which stretches for miles when the tide is out and is home to many a colourful kite on windy days. Along the wooden boardwalk on the beachfront are rows upon rows of baby blue and cream beach huts, left over from the early 19th century when Trouville was one of the earliest places to witness holiday-makers bathing in the sea. Nowadays the beach huts fetch an arm and leg on the rare occasions they come up for sale. Trouville is still a highly fashionable seaside destination for tourists and Parisians after all, and the annual film festival in neighbouring town Deauville means that it is never off the radar.

The promenade itself will leave you spoiled for choice for eating options, such is the selection of restaurants all serving fish platters or moules frites, that you can almost see arriving straight off the fishing boats. Just one street back and the cobbledy streets are full of antique shops, second hand designer clothes shops and little art galleries, just perfect for mooching in after a lovely lunch. Not to mention admiring the architecture of the grand houses and hotels perching on the cliff edge above the town. The grand casino sits on the waterfront, once upon a time the social heart of Trouville and where you can just imagine dapper gentlemen taking their Bond girl glamour pusses for a night out. Now it still operates as a casino and also has cabaret evenings, shows and theme nights.

Directly on the sea front is, in my opinion the jewel in Trouville’s crown – the fish market. Nothing fancy and only recently rebuilt following a fire which burned it to the ground in 2006, it consists of numerous fish stalls spilling onto the pavement. Tables and chairs have been set out so you can sit in the sunshine with a dozen oysters on ice, a glass of crisp white wine and watch the world go by. It is a Trou-ly heavenly experience.

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Flower Power

The British summer season of events is fast approaching and the sporting jollies full of city boys on corporate hospitality booze ups like Henley, Ascot, and the Cartier Polo will be soon upon us.

Another of these events, The Chelsea Flower Show, just as upper-middle class but probably not as boozy, was this week. This was my first experience here, but because I do not profess to be anything more than very amateur at gardening, I was interested to see what the experts can do with some plants and an outdoor space.

The answer is…a lot. Wandering around my friend and I were gob smacked at the level of innovation and creativity demonstrated. Tiny areas had been transformed into tropical paradises, contemporary, hip urban hang outs and English country gardens. The designers had taken inspiration from all over the world and in particular the Malaysian garden with winding streams, giant water lilies and a wooden villa, really reflected my experiences of the Malaysian islands.

Like most girls, I love flowers. I haven’t received as many as I would have liked from admiring or apologetic boys in my life and so if I want some colour these days, I usually buy my own, but walking round getting to see such unusual varieties and colours was really something special.

As a fan of bubbles, my favourite garden was Laurent Perrier’s. With soft pink flowers reminiscent of my personal preference – their rose champagne – a beautiful pagoda and canal running through the centre, I was wishing this was my garden and I was relaxing here with a cold glass of fizz.

So after thinking about champagne for so long, we gave into temptation and headed to the Laurent Perrier bar for well-earned refreshment, where we sat back and contemplated what we had seen and whether we had a hope in hell of replicating it at home.

A day here will give anyone the bug for horticulture. Unfortunately I had to keep reminding myself I don’t have an unlimited budget or any green fingered tendencies. But whereas in the past I had probably relegated gardening to something mainly for retirees, you may well find me tuning into Gardener’s World from time to time and at least trying to learn my hibiscus from my hyacinth.

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A taste of Africa

If the credit crunch has left you without a long haul holiday this year, but you still want a taste of Africa, Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent offers an unusual weekend break, where you can sample the sights, sounds and smells of a safari at a fraction of the price.

Having been fortunate enough to experience a real African safari, at the Garden Route Game Lodge, I can honestly say the Livingstone Lodge Overnight Safari is as close to an African safari as you can get without leaving the country.

The only one of its kind in the UK, the experience offers accommodation in luxury safari tents with private verandas overlooking the wild life park, with a dawn safari guaranteeing close up views of zebra, rhino, giraffes, ostrich, wildebeest and many other animals, although not exactly in their natural habitat, still wandering around in the 100 acre parkland.

On arrival, guests are greeted with welcome drinks before jumping in the jeeps to be taken off to the tents. Although basic and with no ensuite facilities, they all overlook the waterhole where the animals come to drink, and are equipped with towels and bath robes, so you can relax on your balcony with a sundowner before heading into the Lapa for dinner. The traditional African dinner also gives you the opportunity to chat to the rangers about the conservation projects at Port Lympne (many animals are relocated back to the wild.)

Then after a night under the stars, where you will be woken up by the animals, (a disconcerting thought when you are trying to sleep, knowing there is only a thin piece of canvas separating you), your dawn safari awaits. The park is home to giraffe, bison, wildebeest, giraffe, rhino, elephants, eland and many more, all of which can be seen from the jeeps.

The experience costs from 119 per adult and is open from April to October this year. Perfect for anyone having a “staycation” this year.

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If it isn’t raining in Glasgow, it soon will be!

One of my dear friends has very selfishly moved to Glasgow for the sake of her career, (just for a year though luckily), so I thought I would take the opportunity to visit somewhere new for the weekend and spend some quality time with her. Actually that mainly amounted to two of my favourite pastimes, eating and drinking – oh and trying to keep dry, as my friend pointed out the old saying goes “if it isn’t actually raining in Glasgow, it soon will be!”

My friend lives in a very nice area called Hyndland, a very upmarket area of Glasgow, and at the end of her road sits a lovely deli/patisserie called Epicure, where we had bacon sarnies (my BA breakfast seemed like a lifetime ago) before hitting the shops and wandering round the city centre. I very naively had no idea that there was a tube system in Glasgow and definitely had my preconceptions of the city proved wrong. The architecture is amazing and I don’t think I have ever spoken to such friendly people -not that I could understand the accent of course!

Lunch was in a delightful little cafe bar called Fifi and Ally (the owners of which are shortly opening a branch in London so will definitely give that a try), before going back to mooching happily through the sales.

We hadn’t booked a table for dinner which proved quite problematic but we got lucky when we stumbled on a seafood place called Mussel Inn. We had the most delicious oysters in shallot and red wine vinaigrette and then shared the seafood platter. It isn’t fancy or pretentious but with the bill coming to ?50 between us for food and a bottle of wine, you can’t go wrong.

My friend suggested we had a couple more drinks in Ashton Lane, a lovely little street with a canopy of fairy lights above and lots of little bars and restaurants, before bed.

On Sunday morning we opted for a small amount of culture to balance out the otherwise pure indulgence weekend and visited House for an Art Lover, a house designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and therefore full of his signature style of furniture, stained glass windows and decorative touches. Unfortunately it was being set up for a wedding fair so we perhaps didn’t see it at its best. Worth checking their website before going to see if there are any events on!

After a quick eggs benedict brunch at the Curlers Rest on Byres Road, the heart of Glasgow’s West End, it was back to the airport for me for the short hop back to Gatwick. What a lovely weekend – old friends, new places but very soggy feet!

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Another year wiser?

There aren’t many advantages of having a birthday at the beginning of January. My friends are either tightening their metaphorical belts after the Christmas spending splurge, or finding themselves loosening their real ones and are therefore doing a virtuous January detox. Luckily this year I found some friends who were happy to help me celebrate my grand old age with a meal at The Grove, a stately home on the outskirts of Watford, encompassing hotel, spa, golf course and three restaurants.

I booked a table at The Stables, the most informal (and cheapest) of the three, housed within the old stable block and with stunning views over the golf course (although not as visible on a rainy January evening!). We arrived at the main entrance and because it was raining the staff very helpfully took us round to The Stables in a golf buggy.

After a G&T livener, we sat down to a really lovely meal. Starter choices were smoked salmon, crab, and carpaccio to name a few and mains were steak, fish and chips, pizza and pies. So pub grub, but done very well, and with absolutely faultless service.

At the end of the meal and after another ride in the golf buggy, we went for a drink in the Lounges, an afternoon tea/bar area, all spread out over four sitting rooms. Each is beautifully decorated in tasteful Farrow and Ball tones, and furnished with antiques, elegant furniture and huge restored fireplaces. Historically the Earl of Clarendon hosted lavish house parties in these rooms for the likes of Queen Victoria, so we felt we were in good company!

At £50 per head for what amounted to a plate of smoked salmon and fish and chips (plus all the drinks), even the cheapest dining option at The Grove is pricey, but it makes a lovely treat and is undoubtedly the best that Watford has to offer.

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A Lille bit of Christmas magic

Two weeks before Christmas, I decided I wanted to visit a German Christmas market to get in the Christmas mood and sort out a few last minute bits and bobs. I fancied somewhere further afield than the UK and had left it too late to book flights for Germany. So I came up with Lille – an hour’s drive from Calais and £50 on the Eurotunnel – perfect.

What I didn’t realise was the Christmas market in Lille is tiny and, although very sweet, it only took about ten minutes to wander round. Panicking slightly that I had come all this way for ten minutes and no presents, I started exploring the rest of the town.

I needn’t have panicked; Lille is a delightful place with fabulous shopping.

Rue de la Grande Chausse has all the designer stores. Wondering if anyone in my family has been well-behaved enough this year to deserve Hermes goodies, I bought myself the Louis Vuitton New York City Guide. Well you never know if next year, I’ll need to go there Christmas shopping!

Rue Esquermoise is a home lover’s paradise. Du Bout du Monde has gorgeous distressed furniture and unusual designs and Flamant, a few doors down, has traditionally designed furniture, accessories and textiles, blended with modern luxury.

For foodies there are several grocers with foie gras, hams, cheeses and wine. Head for Fuxia, a restaurant and epicerie on Rue Batholome Masurel, where you can have a lovely lunch before buying all the fresh produce.

On the same street, get your smellies from Ombres Portees, the French equivalent of Space NK. I left weighted down with Diptyque candles, Ren gift sets and By Terry make up for the girls in my family.

After thinking that I’d struggle to fill my day in Lille, it ended up being a mad dash back to Calais, not helped but the fact I wanted to stop at the hypermarket for all my Christmas wine.

Now the Euro is strong, it may not be any cheaper to get your Christmas presents here, but for a change of scenery from Oxford Street and to explore somewhere new, Lille is a lovely place, and being able to tell your friends and family that their presents came from France, is so much more glamorous!

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Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook?

Whichever camp you fit into – can’t cook, won’t cook or just plain don’t cook – if you are like me, the thought of giving up a day of my holiday to a French cooking school didn’t appeal that much. I could have been sunbathing after all.

While I am very happy to eat whatever meals are prepared for me, my own “cooking” skills just about stretch to making toast, so whilst on holiday in the home of gastronomy, I figured it was probably about time I took more enjoyment out of food rather than just the sheer eating of it and booked a day’s individual tuition at Le Calabash.

Set in a tiny hamlet in the Loire region of France, Le Calabash is a traditional farmhouse kitchen but with state of the art equipment and the kind of well stocked pantry that would make Nigella jealous. We arrived on a beautiful August day and were greeted by husband and wife team, Sidney and Alison Bond, with orange juice and coffee in the garden, where we discussed what we would like to get out of the day – we had previously told them we were less “pudding people” and more meat lovers. Even though they have set itineraries on their website, you can tailor the day so it is well worth saying in advance the kind of food you’d prefer to learn how to prepare.

We started by stuffing cannelloni with mascarpone and stilton, and making a ratatouille-style vegetable dish to go with it. Then came mini banana tarte tartins, guinea fowl stuffed with chicken mousse, lamb kebabs, and duck breasts with fig sauce…it was all delicious, and most surprisingly even my efforts were tasty. Sidney gave us little tips like adding chocolate buttons to savoury dishes to bring out other flavours and kept disappearing out to the herb garden outside to cut off sprigs and leaves.

At the end of the day, we settled back in the sunshine with a bottle of champagne, where Sidney then said if we were interested, he’d coach us for Masterchef! You can’t fault his enthusiasm but I’m sure he was just being kind.

The course was exceptionally good value, we used fantastic ingredients and got to eat everything we made. Lunch was included in the price and was three of the courses we had made plus wine in the gorgeous surroundings. I left feeling completely full, slightly tiddly and definitely less reluctant to venture into the kitchen at home.

We paid €250 for a day’s cookery tuition for two people. Corporate packages and overnight residency courses are also available. Visit www.lecalabash.fr for details.

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