Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Gone potty

In Florida, Holiday, theme park, Travel on June 8, 2012 at 10:45 am

It’s taken three months to find the time to post about my long-awaited trip to Florida to visit the  Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Mainly because whenever I try to write about it, I am consumed with misery that I’m not racing around in the Florida sunshine any longer.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that for someone in their 30s, my passion for Potter is borderline peculiar, but luckily for me, Adam’s just as much of a geek and was every bit as keen to head Stateside to see what they’d made of the phenomenon.

Naturally, my expectations were too high, but as I was reminded, there’s only a certain amount of space available to create this magical world, and the team at Islands of Adventure, where WWOHP is located, have really thrown themselves into the project to create a jaw-dropping experience.

As we’d booked with Virgin Holidays, we were awarded early entrance to the WWOHP on our first day, and as such, we were the first car parked in the epic multi-storey network that plays host to the Universal and IOA parks’ guests every day. At 8am, we joined the other privileged guests to race through Islands of Adventure to get access to the corner of the park dedicated to Potter and pals. On strolling through the arch, beneath the Hogsmeade sign, we entered a whole new world.

With Hedwig’s Theme playing in the background as the glistening snow-capped crooked shop-lined street beckoned, we were greeted by the sight of the gleaming scarlet Hogwarts Express, before wandering past Zonko’s, packed with quirky treats and japes, Honeydukes, home to hundreds of sweet and unusual confections, the Three Broomsticks and the Hog’s Head before finally arriving in the shadow of Hogwarts castle itself to ride the signature Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride – one of the most popular in all of the state’s theme parks.

Entering Hogsmeade

The Hogwarts Express

Cauldron shopping…


I’m not going to spoil the ride, it’s surely best to experience something like this with no idea what to expect. But what did impress me is the effort that the creators have gone to to make the waiting time less of a chore. Queues for the ride can reach two hours in peak season, but that’s possibly the only way you’d get to experience all of the wonderful surprises… mandrakes in the greenhouses, a greeting from Dumbledore, an argument between the talking portraits and a pre-ride warning from the Sorting Hat. We rode the Forbidden Journey around six times during our holiday and every time we seemed to spot something new.

The other rides at the attraction are the Dragon Challenge – spiralling and looping Hungarian Horntail and the Chinese Fireball dragon coasters, and the Flight of the Hippogriff, for younger riders. But fantastic as the rides are, it’s Hogsmeade itself that proves such a draw for visitors…

Honeydukes is a colourful, swirling shop packed with Fizzing Whizzbees, Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans (Adam has since eaten an entire packet and confirms that alongside the cherry, cinnamon and apple you will unfortunately stumble across earwax, dirt, pepper and, I kid you not, vomit), all in perfect packaging. The queues are long but browsing is an endless joy. Zonko’s sees visitors stocking up on extendable ears and pygmy puffs while at Dervish and Bangs and Filch’s Emporium you’ll find entire school uniforms, house robes and scarves, as well as a range of T shirts and tri-wizard championship shirts.

The longest queue by far is for Ollivander’s wand-shop, a tiny little store which only holds around 20 people at a time, all of whom watch as Ollivander invites a would-be witch or wizard forward to allow their wand to choose them – crashes, bang, music and lights make the experience really enjoyable and I met one little girl who queued four times before she was finally called forward to find her wand. To be clear – I was a bit narked in my geek way, because as we all know, Ollivander’s isn’t in Hogsmeade, it’s in Diagon Alley.

Every Flavour Beans

Talk of sweet treats brings us, of course, to Butterbeer; the drink of choice for young wizards. WWOHP does a roaring trade in Butterbeer, both in the Three Broomsticks and the Hog’s Head, as well as on olde worlde style carts in the street. The flavour is as sickly sweet as you can imagine – think Cream Soda that coats your teeth, with a whipped topping, but everywhere you turn, someone’s sipping a flagon of it. Possibly because JK Rowling put the kibosh on the ‘land’ selling Coke, Pepsi or other fizzy drinks. That said, there is also a frozen variety, which tastes like melted vanilla ice-cream and is infinitely preferable, apart from the brain-freeze.

The food served in the pub isn’t too bad at all – massive sharing platters or English style meals of pasties, salad and chips and fish and chips, all served at wooden tables in the cool, darkened interior as a welcome escape from the sun.

The Three Broomsticks

The Hog’s Head


While I could easily have advised on acres and acres of attractions based on the series of novels, I managed to keep my expectations in check and marvelled at some of the attention to detail. Amongst the other details at the theme park are the performances by the Hogwarts choir – accompanied by their over-sized animatronic frogs – the graceful ladies of Beaxbatons Academy and the young men at Durmstrang. With various photo opportunities with them, as well as chances to have your picture taken with Sirius Black’s ‘Wanted’ poster and the Hogwarts Express conductor, it’s a veritable holiday album in itself.

The piece de resistance for me though was finding out, when I went to the bathroom, that the creativity team haven’t missed a trick and that Moaning Myrtle’s gurgling babble keeps you company throughout – something I’d hoped they’d think of. I was saddened that they hadn’t incorporated more of the series, and it seems mad not to have lookalikes not strolling the street for photo opps – elsewhere in IOA you can have your snap taken with the Green Goblin or Spiderman after all, but I guess the main masked characters are Death Eaters, so it might be a little too much for younger visitors.

I wonder how many years it’ll be before the conventions start here as the Star Wars ones have at Disney, and fans descend every year for the chance to have their snaps taken with cast members and everyone from Fang and Buckbeak to Crabbe and Goyle – if only that actor hadn’t taken it upon himself to start smoking pot and get involved in the riots; he might just have been made for life…

I’ve also seen that plans are afoot to expand the world, but this time, in the neighbouring Universal Studios park – with concept drawings showing a plan to replace jaws with Gringotts Bank and other attractions. Perhaps Diagon Alley will be based in US and Hogsmeade will remain in IOA.

That’s sure to take several more years, so there may be more theme park holidays in the offing. Either way, my tickets are booked for next February, with the whole family in tow this time. I just hope they can keep up.

The Sorting hat sees you off…


For the greater good

In Christmas, decorating, Holiday, home, Travel on December 7, 2011 at 7:30 pm

This time tomorrow, I should be sipping Champagne in Hamburg. The boyfriend and I booked it a couple of months ago as a reward for working so hard that we hardly see one another. Neither of us have ever been to Germany before, and following rave reviews from my uncle and brother, we decided a pre-Christmas festive break was in order. We planned to peruse the markets, eat and drink, enjoy the snow (snow has a place on winter holidays) and generally enjoy some time away from our iPhones, Blackberrys and emails.

Unfortunately, what we hadn’t allowed for when we booked our flights was the fact that we’re be neck-deep in plasterdust, sawdust and paint fumes. The idea of taking four days out to enjoy a city break and to return to a home that still needs so much TLC is simply unthinkable, so we’ve cut our losses and agreed that we’ll put all thoughts of Christmas markets and gluhwein out of our minds in favour of varnish, emulsion and gloss.

Maybe next year...

I’m telling myself that it’ll all be worth it, but right now, I’m struggling to see that it will.

Living the Langham Life part 2

In fashion, Holiday, Hotels, London, shopping, Travel on September 23, 2011 at 10:45 am

The best thing about the Langham, better than the crystal glasses in the bedrooms, the branded mineral water, the luxurious complimentary toiletries, better even than the enamelled pink and gold pens (I won’t nick stuff from a hotel so was so chuffed when they gave me one to keep!), was the bed. The gigantic super-kingsize bed was easily the best I’ve ever slept in. Comfortable enough for me, with my rigid agenda, to consider abandoning the whole of Sunday’s plan in favour of just lying in its cloud-like loveliness until checkout.

I didn’t though. Instead, we hot-footed it to South Kensington for breakfast, then visited the V&A museum. Again, a magnificent building with superb details that have you wandering around with your head spinning, the museum has more than 2 million pieces in its collections. Through Asia, China and the Islamic Middle East, we moved onto the cast courts of Europe, the Medieval and Renaissance, Raphael and sculpture collections, before heading to theatre and performance. Here, we visited famous costumes and the temporary Annie Lennox’s House exhibition, celebrating her music, her costumes and her humanitarian work.

If you loved this:

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Then this will need no introduction:

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of...

From ’80s glam we moved on to sacred silver and stained glass, gold, silver and mosaics, and jewellery. The jewellery collections were my favourite – a vast, glittering, dimly-lit collection including emeralds worn by Napoleon’s wife Josephine. The plethora of richly-coloured precious stones, diverse shapes and sizes of the pieces, and rich heritage surrounding them only compounded my desire to go and see the Crown Jewels on my next visit.I was disappointed to see that the fashion exhibition is closed until spring 2012, but it’s another excuse to visit. The beautiful John Madejski Garden is a gorgeous retreat in the centre of the museum, the perfect spot to enjoy a drink by the fountain to break up the tour, and inevitably the viisit ended with a browse in the V&A shop, packed with fabulous cards, souvenirs, crafts and gifts. I’d been pretty determined not to buy anything if I could avoid it on this trip but I was inspired by the jewellery collection to buy a pair of violet shimmering drop earrings – they may not be as dazzling as Josephine’s emeralds but they’re quite sparkly enough for me – and a Christian Lacroix journal…I do like my snazzy stationery.

A short stroll down the road inevitably leads to Harrods, where we had plans. First, inevitably, came the scout around the Food Halls, admiring the stunning chocolates, the biscuits, teas coffees, olives and ice creams, before heading to the fourth floor and the sophisticated Georgian Restaurant, where we closed our trip with a decadent afternoon tea. Finger sandwiches, scones, green-apple macaroons, raspberry frangipan, fresh fruit tart, afternoon fruit cake and chocolate slices, served with specially blended teas and champagne… it was absolute bliss, and a real high to end on before trooping back to Euston.


It’s very difficult to keep a promise to yourself not to buy clothes when you’re in one of the fashion capitals of the world, but that’s intensified somewhat when you’re there during London Fashion Week and every single shop has pulled all the stops out to put together alluring shop-fronts to entice you inside. I did hold firm, and – apart from my V&A earrings, journal and some Harrods biscuits – I didn’t indulge. I didn’t even set foot into a clothes shop despite Adam trying to pull me into French Connection every time we passed it and I gasped with desire for the gorgeous coat in the window.

You can imagine my chagrin on returning when I discover that, not only is the coat far less expensive than I thought, but it’s also called The London Coat, and is a limited edition piece to mark London Fashion Week. If that wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what was. Let’s see how strong my willpower really is…


We’re already planning our next weekend of decadence and culture. Next time, maybe we’ll stay at a Travel Lodge, and we will go shopping!

Living the Langham Life – part 1

In food, Holiday, Hotels, London, Travel on September 21, 2011 at 11:50 am

Last weekend Adam treated me to a luxurious weekend in London as my birthday surprise. While that might not sound so special, after all, we’ve all been to London, what’s so great?, we really went to town. For a start, Adam had booked one of the city’s grandest hotels, The Langham, for our stay. I’d never been to The Langham before and from the moment we arrived, admiring its chic, classy interior with its luxurious furnishings, marble pillars and pink and gold livery, it felt like we were in a fairy tale. Located at the top of Regent Street, it was also a perfect base to reach the rest of London, and with a strict schedule and a travel card, we were armed to see and do.

I’m not great at relaxing. I’m a nightmare on weekends away as I’ll draw up an itinerary that doesn’t allow for lingering or toilet breaks, so we wanted to get the balance right between making the most of the visit and chilling out. One of my favourite places in London is Covent Garden and we chose to go their first to browse the markets, enjoy the sounds and smells and have lunch, before heading to South Kensington to visit the museums. To my shame, while I’ve been to London more times than I can count, I’ve never visited the V&A or the Natural History Museum. I wish I had sooner, and I’m glad I have now – the history museum is superb. I loved the mix of entertainment vs information – something to keep everyone happy, whatever their age, whatever their reason for visiting. There’s a common belief that it’s little boys who have a fascination with dinosaurs, but that’s unfair – I defy anyone not to be awe-struck at the skeletons, models, fossils and information the museum shares. Moving through mammals and fish (I gave the reptiles a miss) it was a fantastic way to spend an afternoon, and what struck me as most impressive of all, was that it was free. Tne Museum of Natural History in New York costs around $20 a person, so to have this wealth of culture at your fingerips for the price of a discretionary donation is a great asset – well done London, you’ve done us proud.

By the time I left the museum I’d realised that wearing my never-worn before Reiss boots was a massive error of judgment. Suggesting we stroll up the Kings Road for coffee, having forgotten how long the Kings Road is when your toes are mangled, was another.

The evening saw me kick off the cursed boots in favour of sparkly shoes for an exciting evening – cocktails in the Langham’s exquisite Artesian bar, followed by Thriller Live at The Lyric Theatre, followed by dinner at The Criterion Restaurant.

The Alice In Wonderland


The mixologists in the Artesian Bar really are masters of their trade – it’s probably why the bar won the World’s Best Cocktail Menu accolade. I’d already chosen by cocktail before I left home, selecting the Alice in Wonderland – created to celebrate the famous novel first published in 1865, the same year that The Langham opened its doors to London’s high society. Made up of Bombay Saphire with peach meringue and fresh lemon, the drink is a sweet and sour sensation, and was served with a coating of rose salt – pink scented salt that coated the glass, adding a whole new flavour. I LOVED it.

I also loved Thriller Live. Whatever you may have thought of Michael Jackson’s personal life (for the record, I believe that he was merely thevictim of poor advice given by greedy associates who cared more about the bottom line than his health or reputation), you can’t fail to know, and most probably enjoy, his music. While I was never a big fan of the J5 or the Off The Wall era, Thriller and Bad formed a massive part of my youth, and I just hoped that the production would include Billie Jean and Smooth Criminal – my all-out favourites. And I was NOT disappointed. A stellar cast of singers and dancers brought MJ’s catalogue to life once more, with glittering costumes, audience participation and the kind of abilities that can only have been honed after days and days and days of watching, learning and replicating his work.

The outstanding performance of the night was without question Smooth Criminal – where the various ‘Jackons’ all took to the stage and were so, so good at performing the various layers of the song that I couldn’t work out which one was singing which part. What was clear though, was that the Jackson not singing was the one leaning, twitching, grabbing, moonwalking, and essentially bringing that entire gangster persona to life.

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You could just see the audience shuffling their feet, desperate to get into Leicester Square and have a bash at moonwalking again – heads up, if you couldn’t do it when you were 14, you won’t be able to do it now. And while the encore – that glittering single white glove appearing through the darkness, followed by the opening beats to Billie Jean and the steps lighting up with each step – didn’t quite top the moonwalking gangster performace, it was pretty close.

It goes without saying, my tootsies didn’t get the reprieve they’d been hoping for.

Post-theatre supper at the fabulous Criterion restaurant is a treat – and an affordable one when you choose from their set menu – tasty moules mariniere, salmon in chive beurre blanc with sauteed samphire, and strawberries and cream with meringue and basil granite were all delightful and light enough, before a stroll back up Regent Street to ‘home’. New York has the status of the city that never sleeps, but I love London for the same reason. You’re never on your own.

Feet screaming for mercy, and contact lenses itching, we ought to have called it a night there and then, but, with that fantastic bar standing between us and our room? Can you blame us?

My nightcap of choice was the Russian Spring Punch – fresh berries with Snow Queen vodka, fresh lemon and Creme de Casis served long and topped up with champagne. Every bit as luxurious and delicious as it sounds.

And with that, I curled into my bed – made of clouds and big enough to sleep four men – and gave my feet the sweet relief they’d been craving for the past 12 hours…

Bikini ready

In diet, food, gym, health, Holiday, Italy, Travel on July 29, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Well, it’s finally arrived. My summer holiday’s been booked for six months and this time tomorrow I’ll be basking beside the pool in Tuscany. Blissssssss. The past six weeks have been very tough – a strict eating regime (with a few lapses, I confess), trying to service all of my clients, do the holiday packing and do the 200km a week I told myself I’d do to achieve my goal weight.

And what do you know? I’ve done it – jobs all finished, invoices sent, suitcases packed, suncream bought, and a stone in weight lost – admittedly half my holiday clothes are now too big but I’ve been delighted at the  ‘new clothes buying’ part of it all, there’s a definite thrill to having to put back all the 10s and enjoy slipping into the 8s rather than squeezing into them.

Of course, two weeks of bread, pasta, cheese and oceans of wine will no doubt see the pounds pile back on a damn sight faster than they shifted. I’ve made the provisions – I’ve handed in notice at my gym, much as I loved it, because 25 miles is too far to travel there and back – 40 minutes each way, blus the two-hour workout, is taking its toll – and have signed up to a new one, so that when I get back with the post-holiday blues, I’m set to get right back on track.

I have packed my trainers and some gym gear – I’ve pledged to attempt some running with The Boy while I’m on holiday – but given that he’s in training for his third marathon and I despise running with a passion, I fear it may not end well, and will more likely see me lying on a lilo waiting for him to return from his all-terrain adventure.

Nontheless, it’s been all too long in coming, and I’m looking forward to ditching the scales for a fortnight and concentrating on which cheese to try.


Retail resistance

In fashion, Holiday, shopping, Travel, Uncategorized on January 15, 2011 at 11:37 am

I’m struggling…

Two weeks have passed since I pledged not to buy any clothes until the end of February. I realise now that the key to this is wearing a blindfold at all times.

It began because I have a £79 credit note from Phase Eight (from one of the returned new year’s eve rejected dresses) so I thought: ‘Free money. Must be spent.’

Sadly, the goods I’ve come across come to around five times that, kicking off with this fabulous ensemble:

Look how cosy. Look how pretty. Look how practical.

Unfortunately, I fear that my dreams of looking like this stunner would be left in tearful tatters given that I’m not 6ft and oh-so-slender. Plus, I keep telling myself, I can’t use my credit note online anyway…

However, one website leads to another, and after falling for a cute and very wearable top on, which is barely an extravagant expense, especially in light of the 15% limited time discount the site’s offering, I wavered, but so far have insisted to myself that it would, nontheless, be cheating to indulge.

And from there, it was just a hop, skip and a jump away to Next, where I found these infinitely less practical and less seasonally appropriate dresses: a white, floaty maxi dress which I think epitomises effortless chic on a balmy summer evening (yes alright, probably not in this country, and my thoughts will stray to holidays pretty soon…), a shorter, sexy, summery little number covered in butterflies for special nights out, and a stylish layered LBD that would look amazing with the OTT Louboutins that Adam bought me for Christmas.

And now, how I long for them…

monochrome chic

layered and lovely

floaty and flirty

Sigh… time to step away from the computer…

Bella Italia

In Holiday, Italy, shopping, Travel, Uncategorized on August 24, 2010 at 3:35 pm

I am curled up on the sofa in my fleece, hugging my laptop for warmth, recalling that this time last week I was sprawled poolside at Il Fienile, a villa set in the heart of the Tuscan countryside. And I soooo want to be back there. Seven of us; four adults and three kids; headed to the beautifully renovated villa, a former barn in Peccioli for a week of sunshine, splashing, shopping and culture.

We’d had a somewhat bumpy landing at Pisa airport due to an awful storm, and made the 40 minute journey to the villa, through the winding country lanes climbing the hills, in slightly tense conditions – thankfully I wasn’t driving while the sheet lightning, thunder and relentless rain beat down on us as the drivers navigated unfamiliar roads, right-hand-side driving and new cars. Less than 10 minutes before we pulled up, the rain stopped, and – never to be deterred by bad weather – the children (and one adult who probably ought to have known better) enjoyed a midnight swim to kick the holiday off in style.

It was a relief after the stormy arrival to throw the shutters open on day one and be greeted by dazzling blue skies, acres of coutryside views and the sight of the sunshine glittering on the pool like diamonds. An unspoken agreement and general air of ‘I deserve this’ exhaustion saw everyone prone on sun-loungers with cold drinks, books and iPods, soaking up the sunshine, having water-races and reading the following morning. The 15th is Ferregosto, a religious holiday, where Italy pretty much closes down for the day out of respect. Throughout the evening, feasts are held, and we enjoyed a traditional Tuscan feast in the nearby village of Capannoli – savouring melon with parma ham, cheese and cold meats, deliciously fresh pasta pomodoro, prawn salads, pizzas with smoked swordfish, and cinghiale – wild boar; something of a Tuscan delicacy.

Day two saw half of our party head to Sienna for the palio – a bi-annual horse-race that attracts crowds of thousands. While sorry to miss the legendary spectacle, I was thrilled to spend some time with my young cousin Mia, who shows signs of being half-mermaid and practically had to be dredged from the water to eat lunch. The palio would have been no place for a small girl  – vast crowds, scorching temperatures and long waits simply can’t compare to willing playmates, a Hello Kitty lilo and a swimming pool. The event did not pass without incident apparently – scrapping among the riders, a member of the crowd being accidentally impaled by a flag pole… it was all going on and we heard all about it after making supper – somewhat more enjoyable when you’re using fat, locally grown tomatoes, huge, freshly shelled prawns and herbs picked from the garden.

We chose to take a break from basking on our third day and drove to Firenze to soak up the culture, take a peek in the shops, and visit David. David, of course, being the defeator of Goliath, as depicted by Michaelangelo.

Firenze is a gorgeous city, from its Gucci-lined designer streets to Ponte Veccio (the Gold Bridge, so named because it is packed with jewellery shops selling every variety of gold), to the Piazza della Signoria, home to many famous statues including the triumphant Perseus, post Medusa-defeat, and a replica of David, standing outide the Palazza Veccio.

Perseus with the head of the Medusa

 The square is very beautiful but the David here is not to be confused with this one:

The ‘real’ David boasts pride of place in the Accademia Gallery, and is a masterpiece of Rennaissance sculpture, carved by Michaelangelo between 1501 and 1504. David was initially planned to be located high up in the city’s cathedral but was instead located in the Piazza della Signoria, the seat of civic government. It was later moved the the gallery and replaced with a replica.

After a spot of shopping – I am now a fan of AC Fiorentina as opposed to Aston Villa because I liked the colours better – we headed back along FIPILI (the motorway so called because it leads to Firenze, Pisa and Livorne) and into the hills. A delicious dinner, wine and limoncello high up at Castelfalfi was followed by star-gazing, and planning for another day’s sight-seeing.

Day four saw us head for one of the most famous landmarks in the world:

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

The freestanding belltower, which was intended to stand vertically, began to subside to the south-east shortly after it was built in 1173, though it now leans south-west. It is located in the Piazza del Duomo, where the city’s medieval cathedral is located. The square has since been re-named the Piazza dei Miracoli.

From Pisa we drove onward and upward – high, high upward, long after our ears popped, to explore the beautiful Volterra. At 1770 feet above sea level, the views are spectacular but the drive is daunting. This ancient Etruscan site is a beautiful place to explore with its ancient ampitheatre, its cathedral and its rich heritage for alabaster – beautiful pieces of sculpture, from replicas of David through to the most delicate peaches, crafted from alabaster, are the local speciality. The site is a haven for those keen on Etruscan relics; the Guarnacci  museum is home to an impressive collection.

Keep your eyes peeled for this bunch

Vampire fans: This is the stamping ground of the Volturi, the scary vampire police who pledge (and fail) to destroy the irritatingly self-obsessed Bella. Volterra folk haven’t capitalised on this the way they might have; I was expecting a fair few souvenirs, alternative tours and perhaps the odd pale and interesting whimsical character wandering around with their neck exposed, but no. Perhaps that’s because the Volterra scenes in the New Moon movie weren’t actually shot in Volterra, but in Montepulciano. I know. Who can say?

Day four was another bronzing day, my feet were killing me from all the trekking, so I welcomed the break, and Friday was spent sunning ourselves before heading to a neaby spa for a manicure and a mud wrap. The evening was spent heading high into the hills to visit San Gimignano, a beautiful medeival town filled with towers (this is an old version of keeping up with the Joneses – the more money you had, the higher your tower was), chi chi shops, galleries, museums and restaurants. San Gimignano is also home to Gelataria di Piazza, run by Sergio Dondoli, a member of the Italian ice cream making team who have twice been named winners at the ice cream world championships. I sense a job as a judge coming on.

A medicore meal and dreadful service at a restaurant with a beautiful terrace that really ought to pull its socks up (I wish I could remember what it was called to name and shame) was followed by a trip to the Gelataria to buy dessert. I had Grand Marnier chocolate flavoured ice cream teamed with a scoop of pistachio and OH. MY. GOD. Wouldn’t have bothered with dinner if I’d known, I’d just have worked my way down the menu and tried all the flavours.

And that, I’m afraid, was that. One last jaunt around Lucca, another beautiful old town close to Pisa, more ice cream and a spot of last minute shopping, and it was back to the airport. And here I am. And can I really be blamed if I’m looking into Italian lessons and, truthfully, spending a little too long on looking for my next holiday? A girl has to have something to look forward to!

Miracle on 34th Street

In New York, shopping, Travel on October 15, 2009 at 5:07 pm

I am recently returned from the Big Apple, and – hold the front page – I have money left over. Not a lot, as Paul Daniels might say, but a whole $50 that I refrained from spending. My last jaunts across the pond have left my bank account in a post-holocaust wasteland state, and I had expected similar results this time, but due to a combination of massive self restraint and great company with an eye for culture rather than jewellery and shoes, I enjoyed a more experiential visit. As opposed to pounding SoHo, Fifth Avenue and 34th Street for five solid days, pausing only to down cocktails, I did stuff.

For the first time, I stayed in the heaving neon masterpiece that is Times Square – nothing like it for getting a cricked neck and having adverts emblazoned on the insides of your eyelids when you close your eyes. For the first 24 hours this was terribly exciting, gazing open-mouthed at the street entertainers, watching people making their way to Broadway shows dressed in their best, and laughing off the attentions of hustlers. But after that initial period, not so funny, and really just quite annoying.

Times Square - can't miss it

Times Square - can't miss it

On my last visit, I discovered the Top of the Rock, and since I was visiting with an NYC Newbie, I knew it was the best place to go to guarantee open-mouthed incredulity. And sure enough, when faced with that familiar skyline, the lush green jungle of Central Park, nestled amongst a sprawling metropolis, and the towering Empire State Building, said newbie was satisfyingly awe-struck.

Not a bad view from your hotel window, eh? I jest, obviously.

Not a bad view from your hotel window, eh? I jest, obviously.

Whaddaya know, when we finally emerged from the teetering heights of the Rockefeller Centre (much to my chagrin, the Rainbow Room is closed, scuppering my plans to drink a Manhattan while watching the sun set over Manhattan, see what I did there?) we ended up on Fifth Avenue. What are the odds? Ambling past Tiffany, Saks, all the shiny facades that I have become so fond of (Yes, okay, I didn’t just amble past. I went in, and tried stuff on, but I didn’t buy anything) everything felt so fresh and exciting. There’s something about the size, scale and pace of NYC that makes you feel like anything is possible.

Anyway, I’m trying to demonstrate what a grown up I’ve become, wait till I tell you. In the past, I’d have grabbed a hotdog from a street vendor and gone out dancing. Not this time. Although I did have one or two warm up bellinis before we headed to the beautiful and romantic Grand Central Terminal. Can a railway station be romantic? Probably not New Street or Snow Hill, but GCT is in a class of its own. A cerulian blue ceiling decorated with delicate golden zodiac symbols arcs over the heaving throngs, and the ubiquitous giant clock.

Grand Central Terminal. Not too shabby.

Grand Central Terminal. Not too shabby.

But, rather than nasal and crackling announcements and fast-food outlets awash with irritable commuters and hoodie-clad passengers, GCT hosts its own market, heaving with exotic produce, and some pretty snazzy eateries. Michael Jordan’s steakhouse is amongst them, but we ate at Charlie Palmer’s Mezzura, where we enjoyed some pretty speedy service (maybe a little too speedy, but perhaps they sensed that the jet-lag was fast advancing upon us) and a great three-course meal with wine for a fixed $44pp price.

Hot on the experience trail, we enjoyed something a bit special to mark Adam’s first morning in NYC. NOT Breakfast At Tiffany’s – talk about letting the side down – but breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria. The beautiful art deco masterpiece facing Park Avenue is one of the grandest hotels in the world, and arguably one of the most famous. We dressed to the nines to enjoy eggs benedict in the Peracock Alley restaurant and while I had entertained ideas of pretending to be British Aristocracy, my general clumsiness and myriad bruises put paid to that. As you would expect, service was deferential and first class, the eggs perfect, the orange juice $9 a glass…

Peacock Alley at the Wadorf Astoria. Probably the most expensive orange juice in the world? Probably not, that's likely to be at the Cafe de Paris in Monaco

Peacock Alley at the Wadorf Astoria. Probably the most expensive orange juice in the world? Probably not, that's likely to be at the Cafe de Paris in Monaco

Much schlepping to be done to work off those eggs – we took in FAO Schwarz, resisting the urge to knock the children off the giant piano and bash out a bit of Razorlight, and admiring lifesize lego structures of Chewbacca, Batman and Harry, Hermione and Ron, and we traipsed all the way to 34th Street to Macy’s, where I got lost. In case you’re wondering, the miracle is that I didn’t spend anything on 34th Street. For all my raving about how beautiful the Chrysler Building is, I’d never actually set foot in it, and I can now advise that the ceiling is painted with a mural of the building itself – painted on canvas and stuck up there, apparently.

On Friday night, after a bit of an emotional reunion with my best friend Lou and a very pretty dinner, we made a midnight visit to the world famous Carnegie Deli for a slice of cheesecake. What arrived was roughly the size of a seal. How people can eat anything that size escapes me, I have seen smaller babies. Nevertheless, I can see why the deli is world famous, charging the same price as a Waldorf orange juice for a slice of cake that will feed a family of four.

When it rains in NYC, people in the street start charging $20 for umbrellas. I’d forgotten mine but hoped we’d strike it lucky. We were lucky to a point – we got to see New York’s most famous landmark while the weather was fine, before experiencing the tidal wave of city rain that washes over the city within a couple of hours. We caught the ferry at Battersea Park to visit that famous green statue – I’m not posting a picture, you know who I mean, and marvelled at her beauty and the generosity of the French, before carrying on to Ellis Island to see evidence of Amerca’s appeal to migrants. After a couple of hours envisaging the refurbished immigration centre in its original state, crammed with people seeking a better life, we could envisage no longer and had to brave the torrential rain that was sheeting down.

When we could ignore it no longer, we paddled to the mainland (from the ferry, in case you’re wondering, the rain was that heavy) and took refuge beneath hand dryers and napkins in a well-appointed TGIs until the rain stopped. A brief stop at the Ground Zero site to see how the WTC tribute was coming along, and then we steeled ourselves for a visit to Hell On Earth, the bargain department store Century 21, which is a cross between TK Maxx and Dante’s Inferno, but capable of rendering some fantastic steals if you have the stomach and the elbows for it.

I’d never been to Cafe Wha? before. Apparently Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan have; and many other big names in comedy and music, who have pitched up and made surprise appearances. We were knocked out by the enthusiasm, stamina and talent of the fantastic Cafe Wha? band, who covered off every genre imaginable over a five hour set – there is no way anyone could fail to have a great time, and it’ll  be high up on my list of must visits whenever I go back.

So, this is where going away with a movie buff gets tricky. I am as guilty as the next person of expecting things to appear exactly as they do in the movies. A dazzlingly sunny day was spent exploring more Manhattan streets to see the Flat Iron Building and enjoying Sunday Brunch at Dock’s Oyster Bar, before heading to Central Park to soak up some sun and relax. I thought. But what we were actually doing, it seems, was looking for the building where Dana Barrett, as played by Sigourney Weaver, lived in Ghostbusters. And it’s DAMN hard to find, because the one we passed – 55 Central Park West, if you’re wondering, as spotted and accentuated by my good self – is the correct building but had magically been extended and enhanced by those good movie bods, so that it didn’t look right, and we walked much further than necessary. Here it is, in case you’re interested:

The spooky building where Dana lived in Ghostbusters, apparently.

The spooky building where Dana lived in Ghostbusters, apparently.

We did chill out in the park – always a wonder to me that you can feel so secluded, sheltered and peaceful despite being able to see the yellow cabs through the trees and see the skyscrapers soaring beyond. And then we headed to the super stylish Hudson hotel for the BEST apple martinis in the world before hitting Broadway. You’ve GOT to, it’s the law.

We saw the Lion King – way better than the cartoon, and every bit as fabulous as I’d heard and read. Emerging into the bright lights of Times Square, we jumped in a cab to scramble to the top of the Empire State Building. Personally, I prefer the Top of the Rock, but I decided that an NY Newbie deserved to make their own mind up and dutifully hit the 86th floor, and the 102nd floor to look out over the illuminated city. Man, it was cold.

Look how pretty.

Look how pretty.

Now, I don’t know where the time went, but it was our last day before we knew it – give me a week next time… so much we didn’t do. We’d said from the start that we wanted to visit the Museum of Natural History, and so we did. Movie editors everywhere…I hold you responsible for this. Don’t get me wrong, the museum is amazing, and the exhibits are outstanding, but Rex, the tail-chasing dinosaur who terrorises Ben Stiller? Nowhere to be seen. And sadly, so many of the other exhibits we’d been expecting to see weren’t there either. Happily, DumDum was…phew.

You wouldn't think you could miss him, would you?

You wouldn't think you could miss him, would you?

And then it was time to go home, and I feel blue. Next time, I am going in the winter, and I’m going ice skating, to a football game, and I’m going to do some Christmas shopping. Lots, and lots, of shopping.

Angels, Demons and grafitti

In Italy, Travel on May 11, 2009 at 1:50 pm

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In other words, drive like a lunatic and take four-hour lunches. And it seems, scrawl in marker pen over every available surface, no matter how sacred.

I digress. I deliberately re-read Angels And Demons before visiting the Eternal City. I (misguidedly, I confess) had hoped to retrace Robert Langdon’s steps and be guided by the angels on my lofty quest. However, I settled for an open top bus and took what I could find.

My hopes of glamming it up a la Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday were scuppered due to a small misunderstanding over setting my alarm in the morning. I don’t remember Gregory Peck at any point shouting at Audrey for an error of judgment and maintaining a three-hour stern and crackling silence just because she hauled him out of the shower and gave him four minutes to get dressed and on a coach. No, I do not.

Five hours is not really sufficient time to acquaint oneself with myriad churches and fountains, so I settled for Basilica di San Pietro and St Peter’s Square, peered off the top deck of the bus at the bridge of angels and the Castel Sant’Angelo, and excitedly told Mark about the secret passageway between Castel Sant’Angelo and the Vatican before the audio guide got chance. He just looked at me with narrow eyes, he hadn’t forgiven me yet, then.

The main objective of my trip had been to see the Trevi Fountain and nothing had prepared me for its size and composition. I had envisaged it as a grand and beautiful fountain in a square, or a park. Not a huge engraved building akin to Buckingham Palace. Completed in 1762, the fountain forms part of the Aqua Virgo viaduct system, and centres around Neptune.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

This picture’s not mine – there was no way I could get far enough away to get it in a frame. The sculptures and detail that made up the enormity of the vast baroque fountain only served to make it the more remarkable. It easily took half-an-hour to fight our way to the front of the fountain, where we cast our coins into the water to secure our return to the city.

Next stop was The Colosseum, the iconic symbol of Imperial Rome. The building, again, is awe-inspiring, and it’s not difficult to imagine the gruesome gladitorial contests, executions, mock sea battles, animal hunts and dramas that it hosted. It is estimated that more than 500,000 people and more than a million animals died in the Colosseum Games.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum

The building remains partially ruined, a legacy from devastating earthquakes and stone robbers, but is still breathtaking in its architecture. And there is no shortage of plume-helmetted faux gladiators on hand for a photo opportunity should you wish to reanact your own battle.

The cobbled streets (havoc on the heels), roaring roads, impatient motorists and general sprawling nature of Rome do not make for a relaxing visit, and five hours in no way did justice to the imposing city. But it was terribly blighted by the constant vandalism – sadly not confined to Rome as we later discovered. It is very sad that you can live in one of the most revered and spectacular cities in the world and yet not show it the respect that it really deserves. It seemed everywhere was marred by ugly marker pen; something that is no doubt too costly to clean away as frequently as would be desirable.

I’m hoping that fountain’s true to its promise and I’ll get to return for a longer stay some day soon.

Buried alive and lost for centuries

In Italy, Travel on May 8, 2009 at 10:23 am

I remember, somewhere in the darker recesses of my mind, learning about Pompeii in a classical studies lesson at school. I’d probably forgotten altogether, not thinking I’d ever visit, but when the opportunity to visit a city that was consumed by a volcanic eruption, and then forgotten for 1700 years presents itself, you have to go and see the evidence for yourself.

It was a blisteringly hot day when we visited the site close to Naples. But the heat didn’t prevent the chilling feeling and the goosebumps I experienced on visiting the site. Inside the city walls, away from the bustling souvenir vendors, restaurants and ice cream sellers, there is an eerie calm, which intensifies as you realise that this entire place was a hive of activity with wine and oil merchants, bars and a brothel – where the faintly pornographic frescos remain, tame by today’s standards – until Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, burying Pompeii beneath 60 feet of ash and pumice and leaving it destroyed and dead, undiscovered until 1748.

While the frescos, the walls and even the giant storage jars used for oil and wine remain intact in some areas, what I wasn’t prepared for was the casts of dead bodies.  When the volcano erupted, the first sensation that gripped the ill-fated residents of Pompeii was the smell of the gases. Though the bones and remains have long since disintegrated, the casts of the bodies, set in pumice, remain. Some face-down on the floor, seeking to protect themselves, others hunched, knees to chest, with their hands over their mouth and nose to shield them from the gases.

Cast of a victim of Mount Vesuvius

Cast of a victim of Mount Vesuvius

To die that way is terrible. But for people to forget about the tragedy for centuries is worse.

The Archaeological Museum in Naples houses more casts of bodies. Anyone who has ever uttered the words “Sometimes I wish I could just curl up and die” when the going gets tough should maybe pay them a visit and be thankful for the luxury of life and of being cared for, for making a difference to someone else’s life.