Sunday, 10 August 2014

A-MAZE-ING MINOTAUR AN AMAZING BOOK FOR KIDS

Children's book review

A-MAZE-ING MINOTAUR


When my three boys were little, myths and monsters were always popular story-time material, although it was difficult back then to find a children's book as well presented and beautifully illustrated as Juliet Rix's A-MAZE-ING MINOTAUR which has been selected for The Summer Reading Challenge 2014.

I know they would have loved this book, which as the name suggest retells the story of King Minos' frightening monster and the labyrinth  in fascinating detail. The book works on several levels: a good story, great illustrations by Juliet Snape and the added bonus of a real maze which young readers can trace. They will also love spotting the minotaur hiding in different places on each spread

Although I approached the book from the point of view of a mother of sons - Theseus is as convincing an adventure hero figure as any more contemporary character such as Tin Tin - girls will love this book as well , especially the young princess Ariadne's beautifully drawn gowns and the colourful  palace.
Juliet Rix retells the myth with energy and pace while remaining true to the original story and the book finishes with a short piece containing information about Crete and the Minoan civilisation which puts the myth nicely in context and includes a map. Great for parents who like me were always floundering for answers when the inevitable questions came at the end of the story.
 The book is aimed at five year olds plus, but would be ideal for any primary school child studying The Ancient Greeks or those who just love mazes and monsters.

A-MAZE-ING MONOTAUR
by Juliet Rix
illustarted by Juliet Snape
Published by Frances Lincoln Children's Books

£11.99 Hardback


Sunday, 13 July 2014

CHARMING EVENING IN LIVERPOOL STREET ANDAZ - REVIEW







THREE COURSE CHARM AT ANDAZ LIVERPOOL STREET
The Andaz Hotel at Liverpool Street has to be one of London’s swankiest hotels these days with no less than 7 restaurants and bars. Housed in the old Great Eastern Hotel it manages to retain  that old railway hotel grandeur but has a contemporary feel – the Catch champagne bar on the ground floor is regularly packed out with noisy city workers and commuters as well as the occasional  couple of old ladies from Norfolk  enjoying a day out in the capital.
Hotel restaurants can be soulless and dull, but not so the 1901 restaurant and bar. Set in what was once the Great Eastern Hotel’s original ballroom this is a magnificent Grade two listed room where you can sip cocktails and champagne at the centrepiece floating bar, underneath one of London’s most imposing original stained glass domes. It is worth coming for the setting alone, but the food is good too, based on home grown British produce but accompanied by an exciting cocktail list.
I was here to sample the ‘3 course charm’ package, organised for me by international concierge company Lime & Tonic.
As you might expect it comprises three courses, preceded by a glass of Veuve Cliquot champagne   and with just three choices for each course there wasn’t a lot of deliberating over a lengthy menu
For starters I ate Beetroot Carpaccio with mixed salad, figs, goat cheese, black radish and seeds which were colourful and satisfying for something which looked so light and dainty. My guest had the Rabbit Confit with fennel and celery mousse, cauliflower, cherry and walnut. It looked lovely on the plate and the rabbit had just the right chunky texture
His main course was a simply presented but tasty Artichoke Risotto with courgette, baby carrot, broccoli, parmesan and truffle oil. He pronounced this exceptionally tasty while I ate Plaice Fillet, pan-fried, with coco beans, chorizo and coriander. The fish had a delicate flavour which the coco beans enhanced rather than smothered and I was delighted to note that, unlike in many dining establsiheemnts in this part of London, portions are neat and not overwhelming. Not all City diners are eating for England!  
With plenty of space for dessert we relished  the Raspberry, Lychee and Ginger Cheesecake with violet liquor jelly, lavender sugar, chantilly cream and lemon sorbet which had a lot going on  but  lived up to its lavish description  and the White Chocolate Flexi Ganache- Burnt white chocolate and mandarin Sorbet, while very sweet, was a glorious ending to an evening in a really lovely setting.
 While we ate we watched the bar tender swizzle and swirl his cocktails from the centre of the room and behind me was a wine and cheese cellar where I’m told guests can partake in an evening of wine and cheese tasting with sommeliers and cheese specialists
Lime & Tonic is a ‘concierge’service which finds interesting deals on meals and activities not just in London but all over the world.
The three course charm at Andaz is priced at £30 per person for members including a glass of champagne.
www.limeandtonic.com/london/


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

ACROPOLIS NOW THE NEW ATHENS





IS THE ECONOMIC DOWNTURN ANCIENT HISTORY FOR ATHENS?

Dire economic problems and unrest among its citizens have kept tourists away from the Greek capital over recent years, But the Athenians are keen to stress that  is all history as they make Olympian efforts to ensure visitors return to enjoy the city’s attractions both ancient and modern



Millions of travellers have seen the 5000 year old Temple of The Acropolis in Athens, and although numbers have dropped off the city is still on the must-do list for cultural enhusiasts.And now Athens is hoping to lure tourists with its other atarctions too

The mayor of Athens told a group of travel professionals at a recent convention that the city is investing 120 Euros in upgrading and improving facilities to strengthen the business economy and bring back the tourists. Already this year tourist numbers are up significantly and signs are that the trend will continue as travellers rediscover the city and its gastronomy, night life, shopping and coastal activities.


Everyone is familiar with the classical sites in Athens, but keen to see a side to the city most tourists miss, I had booked a tour with a local guide as part of the city’s This is my Athens programme, where local volunteers take a visitor on an exclusive one-on –one walking tours. My guide did not turn out to be the enthusiastic student I imagined, but a consultant gynaecologist at a leading Athens hospital who has been taking tourists around since Athens hosted the Olympics in 2004. He gave an honest and incisive view point of someone who lives and works in the city as we strolled through the streets stopping at hidden monasteries and churches.

Designer shops, fashionable caf├ęs and bars in smart squares like the elegant Kolonaki demonstrate that people are spending money here, although the city’s extensive graffiti shows that others are expressing their concerns, albeit in a colourful and artistic way. But the writing is not on the wall for Athens, as openings such as The Gastronomy Museum and the Maria Callas Museum (in 2015) and a new generation of fashion designers, chefs and artisans are attracting a younger crowd to the Greek capital

GASTRONOMY

For Feta or Worse

Feta cheese, taramasalta and moussakas are the dishes that spring to mind when we think of Greek food, but there is a new wave of gastronomy especially in the capital which has seen a number of modern cafes and restaurants which bring a new twist to Athenian cuisine.

One of the nicest ways to see what is on offer is by one of the local food tours which take visitors on an eye-opening and mouth-watering adventure.

 ‘Greeks eat a lot of pies’ said Maria as we make a stop at a fragrant bakery in Psiri, the Soho of Athens, a bohemian part of town which is home to traditional coffee shops and simple stores like this one which sell Bougaza, Loukoumades and other syrupy sweet pies which the Greeks love as well as savoury pastries stuffed with spinach and cheese

Pie shops like this were once seen as an insult to women, as wives are judged by their pie-making abilities and a husband visiting a pie shop was tantamount to adultery

Restaurants breaking the mould of Greek cuisine include  the ultra-modern Tzitzikas Kai Mermigas just off Syntagma Square with its white walls and displays of retro olive oil cans and bottles On the menu is an unusual  chicken in pastry as well as baby goat and  mussels in ouzo sauce . Fellow diners range from parliament workers to big groups of friends. Athenians claim the ubiquitous Ouzo is just for tourists, so instead try Tsipouro (it’s very similar) or one of the local beers

Also reinventing Greek classics is the buzzy Melilotos in the Athenian downtown shopping district on Kalamiotou Street. The menu changes daily and is all locally sourced. Popular with lunch-time comfort food seekers, you will find hearty sausages with white beans, homemade Greek pasta and some lovely vegetarian options

DON’T MISS

Acropolis

The sacred rock is home to the Acropolis and Parthenon, frequented by millions of tourists every year. 

The new Acropolis museum, opened in 2009, is a light-filled, dramatic modern home for some of Ancient Greek’s most famous exhibits even if some of them are mere replicas of pieces which are in The British Museum in London. Debate continues as to whether the Parthenon or Elgin Marbles should be returned to Athens

Athens is home to a number of other museums, including the Benaki Museum, which houses about 40,000 artworks giving a broad visual record of the Greek world and the Museum of Cycladic Art


Syntagma Square, dominated by the Parliament Building, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently as this is where protests take place, but now is a good time to take a quiet stroll and see the Changing of the Guard. The Guards march their distinctive march on the hour every hour 24 hours a day in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier dressed in their costume of pleated skirt and pom poms. 

Monastiraki square is the heart of cultural Athens and with its cobbled streets criss-crossing off and its small antique and music shops makes for an interesting walk. In the background you will see the Acropolis rock and the Plaka, the oldest neighbourhood in Athens with a labyrinthine network of streets and alleys


City by the Sea.   Just 10km from the centre of Athens is Piraeus, the city’s main port, the biggest in Greece and one of the most important in the entire Mediterranean.  From here you can get to all of the Aegean islands making Athens the perfect ‘City by the sea’

 Take a mini-cruise to or just a leisurely sail around the coast on a catamaran stopping for coffee or lunch at the new Flisvos marina. Head to Hydra, an old favourite with the jet set, tiny Poros and Aegina with its temple and churches which are among the favourite stops in the Saronic Gulf A day-trip to Aegina and nearby Agistri provides the perfect island escape. Neoclassical architecture, exotic crystal beaches and some of the most interesting archaeological sites in the area make this a well spent hour's trip from the port of Piraeus.

While you are in Aegina, be sure to try their world-renowned pistachio nuts, a local product with a protected designation-of-origin classification and a main ingredient for numerous recipes and products, such as jams, sweets, pasteli and liqueurs.


For further information; www.athensattica.com

Or www.visitgreece.gr

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

A TRAVELLERS TALE TO INSPIRE WOMEN OF ALL AGES

IF  you only buy one travel book this year, make it Christine Osborne's Travels with My Hat - an amazing and exhilarating story of one rather unique woman's travels through lands strange and wonderful
I am fortunate enough to have met the author,travel photographer and writer Christine,in London and have heard first hand some of the stories she has collected over some 40 years of travelling the world. This book brings all those together, and adds some more in what is an energetic account of her adventures in the Middle East and Africa
Christine Osborne left her native Australia where she was a young nurse with a burning desire to travel. But not for her the sunbeds and parasols of the Cote D'Azur or the well-heeled chic of the Champs D'Elysee. Instead she chose to visit Ethiopia during the 1970s famines at one of the bleakest times of its history. She chose to stay in filthy accommodation in Iraq as she explored The Middle East and Pakistan at a  time when tourists of any type were a novelty, let alone an attractive young blonde in a jaunty blue hat
Her recollection of her time spent as part of the royal press corp with HRH The Queen during her 1974 tour of the Gulf States is probably the most insightful you will ever read. But it is not just royalty but all humankind which  intrigues her, and all her stories are told with a gentle wit and a fascination for human nature and the beauty of the world
Buy it for your daughters to inspire them to travel, to write and to look at the world. Buy it for your mothers and sisters to make them smile, and for yourself to lose yourself in.
Travels with My Hat is available as an e book  through Amazon 

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

LAS VEGAS BEYOND THE STRIP

I spent New Year wih my three grown up sons trying to discover if there was a Las Vegas beyond the casinos

 


It means ‘The Meadows’ in Spanish, but it is difficult  to see anything pastural about Las Vegas which was recently voted their ‘least favourite city’ by a group of leading  travel writers.

True, it is short of beautiful buildings, natural beauty, world heritage sites and cathedrals (although there are any number of tacky ‘chapels’ where you can marry in haste for under $10) But stepping  back from the bling of The Strip and the ker shing of the gaming machines I admit to a  certain fascination  for  Sin City

Visiting with three grown up sons is a challenge in itself – last time we holidayed together The Boys were all under 21 and  considered minors in the USA, so none of them were old enough to drink or gamble . Now they don’t seem to want to do anything else but as we were there to celebrate the a 21st birthday of the youngest, it seemed churlish to cramp their style.

However by day two   when the sight of three  Elvises and a couple of Michael Jackson look a likes before breakfast, nonstop  one-armed bandits and wall to wall burgers were  beginning to lose their charm    I was eager to discover if there was any more (or was it less) to Vegas

And then, when on day 3 all of the boys had been propositioned before 9 a.m. (note, gaming is legal in Nevada but prostitution is not, although one wouldn’t know the latter) I vowed to find out what made this place the way it is

What better place to find out about the roots of evil in Sin City than The Museum of The Mob. Also called the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement we find it housed in the former 1920s courthouse downtown in a quiet, less frequented part of Las Vegas.  As well as charting the story of how Vegas grew from a sleepy stop on the railroad in the middle of the Nevada desert to the glitzy sleazy city it is now, it dwells on some of the unsavoury characters whose bootlegging and illegal activities helped fund the building of Las Vegas

It’s not an easy museum to visit as  it spares no detail when  confronting  the violence and harshness of ‘The Mobs’ and includes graphic images  of their handiwork including deceased victims and weapons. The gangs who began their criminal lives in the cities of New York and Chicago and who developed networks all over the USA in the early 20th century made money out of on prohibition, drug-use and prostitution.

The Museum’s key exhibit is the brick wall from Chicago’s Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929 and there is an explanation of the murder of a gang led by Al Capone’s South side Italian gang. The wall includes a 38-calibre Colt Detective revolver, the only gun related to hs shooting

Another grisly object on display is the barber’s chair where mobster Albert Anastasia once sat. He was brutally shot and killed while getting a haircut and shave

The museum is interactive, and so the three sons were able to ‘enjoy’ shooting with an FBI forearms training simulator and taking part in a police line-up where they were photographed as suspects. Definitely one for the album

 

Easier on the eye is the Neon Museum, which showcases Las Vegas bright distinctive signage as an art form. It is situated in Old Vegas, or Downtown where we find one of the most famous neon signs in the USA, Lucky Strike’s waving cowboy who grins down at a street of souvenir stalls and barsof Freemont Street. The Neon Museum has more than 150 vintage Las Vegas neon signs from the 1930s to the present including the Golden Nugget and the huge Treasure Island skull

Golden Nugget is one of Vegas’ quainter hotels, although it impossible to explore without walking through the ubiquitous casino The first thing we noticed about  Vegas is the number of electric shocks you get, literally non-stop and even from just touching another person.  This is quite widely documented and is caused by the dry air and the static from the carpets.  Shocking as this is, it is just one of the many side-effects of 24-hour gaming. Everything, from the cool fragrant air pumped into the casinos, carefully regulated temperatures and bright, but not too bright, furnishings are designed to keep the punters awake, alert and gambling. 

 

Back on the Strip, the boys take a ride on Stratosphere Hotel’s Insanity ride. It proves to be aptly named as they are spun in the open air on a mechanical arum extending over 60 feet over the edge of the Stratosphere tower.

Coming down to earth we took a more leisurely stroll from Venice to New York. Only in Vegas can you see the statue of Liberty at New York New York hotel, the Venetian gondolas and St Mark’s square at the Venetian, the Eiffel Tower at Paris and the roman statues of Caesars palace.  Of course they are not a shadow of the real thing but for a while if you can suspend belief you can imagine are in one of those travel writers’ favourite cities.


www.neonmuseum.org

 

 

 

Thursday, 14 November 2013

CHARMING SHARM - EGYPT'S RED SEA GEM



As the Foreign office gives the all-clear for travel to Egypt, I fled to the lively Red Sea Resort of Sharm El Sheikh for a welcome burst of winter sun.

Best known for its fantastic diving, Sharm has grown up over the last few years into a sophisticated destination with lovely winter tmeperatures and a vast collection of resorts ranging from five-star luxury to small family friendly hotels.

I was staying at The Savoy, one of the area’s top hotels which also owns the Sierra next door and the Royal Savoy, an even more exclusive hotel. It also includes an array of exclusive villas which I was invited to inspect. The Villa  Queen Farida and Cleopatra are fabulous, opulent and spacious houses which you can hire for private use.I understand various international royal and celebrity families have stayed there.

But for me, the Savoy is perfect for now. Travelling with a group of close female friends for a change, we found everything we wanted here, starting with the welcome massage which relaxed us after the flight. Although at five hours, the flying time from London Luton makes this a leisurely ‘medium haul’ holiday.

Once settled, we tackled the serious business of indulgence. The Savoy has 414 rooms, including twin triple and family rooms.  The beach stretches along the beautiful coastline and there are also 3 adults’pools and two for children. This is a fantastic place for families, even though we are without them on this visit.  Theres a Kids Club and playground, plus film shows and discos.

But the Savoy’s crowning glory is Soho Square, the rather unlikely name for the complex which sits in front of the resort. Very unlike its namesake – the rather unassuming little square off London’s Tottenham Court road – this is a glitzy collection of restuarnts (they range from Japanese to Italian, Egyptian to Chinese) activitis which include the rather invongruous ice-skating, bowling and even ‘dancing waiters’ and bars. After a lovely evening spent in the decadent sounding Caligula restaurant in the Savoy (its designed to look like a Roman brothel and serves ‘Hot Rocks’ – meals cooked on piece of sqyare stone at the table) we head to the Ice Bar in the square for frozen vodka in ice glasses served from an ice bar. Cool
And we also found time for camel riding, quad biking, a boat trip with snorkelling and an evening Bedouin feast in the desert.

FACTS:Monarch, the scheduled leisure airline, operates flights to Sharm El Sheikh from London Gatwick, London Luton, Birmingham and Manchester airports with fares, including taxes, starting from £57.27 one way (£176.26 return) (lead fares summer 14)For further information or to book visit www.monarch.co.uk

Packages include bed and breakfast at the Savoy Hotel including  flights from London Gatwick,  leaving on 29 March 2014  are :  For 2 adults £681pp or 2 adults 2 children £793pp

FOOTNOTE:From next year the Savoy will be offering Yoga holidays which will include daily yoga sessions covering both beginners and advanced yoga  More to come!



 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, 1 November 2013

FEEDING HUBBY TO THE SHARKS - A BAHAMIAN ADVENTURE

My husband and three sons all enjoy scuba diving. Sadly the boys were not old enough for the Shark dive in Nassau, so we let Dad be the guinea pig. Here's my report......
 


I say goodbye to my husband of 25 years as he dons his wetsuit and prepares to dive into the ocean to feed sharks. He applies a dab of sun cream to his nose  “Mayonnaise for sharks,” I think.

The setting for the experience is Stuart Cove’s in Nassau, the Bahamian capital.  Just down the coast is the worryingly named Jaws Beach.
 Stuart Cove, it turns out,  is a person, not a place, and his claim to fame (apart from sending humans to the sharks on a daily basis) is that he taught Sean Connery to dive. Ladies’ pulses went racing during  the opening sequence of Goldfinger where 007 appears wearing a fake duck on his head and  unzips his wet suit to reveal perfectly styled hair and a white tuxedo, but  I find myself dwelling on Sir Sean’s  heart-stopping confrontation with Larco’s killer sharks in Thunderball

The sharks  waiting for lunch at Stuart Cove today are not  the killer variety but Caribbean Reef Sharks (although Bahamian waters lie in The Atlantic Ocean) Kate, the jolly guide, gives a short talk to the divers, describing the display sharks make in anticipation of their meal. “Sharks are excited by the sight of blood,” she tells us, and demonstrates how she will be waving some bloody fish around to get them to perform For her meeting with these Draculas of the deep she is wearing a strange outfit of chain mail over her wetsuit to protect herself.  Looking like some underwater Sir Lancelot she instructs the divers that they must group in a circle on the ocean floor with their heads bowed, as if taking part in some pagan ritual. They must keep their arms by the side all the time and, she stresses (unnecessarily, I feel) “Don’t chase the sharks”

The female sharks are strapping girls, weighing in at 400-500 pounds and 8 to 10 feet long.

The males, she adds, are about 6 foot and have two penises

 

Husband surfaces some time later in one piece, but looking slightly inadequate after an afternoon spent with the well-endowed boy sharks.

He describes some 40 or so sharks swooping around him, brushing against his arm and leering at him with their macabre bared-teeth grin. At the bottom of the sea was a rusting abandoned cage, the owner of which one hopes has lived to dive another day

 

We hail a taxi to drive us back to downtown Nassau. The driver enquiries how we have spent our afternoon and the steering wheel shudders when we tell him. “Shark and DIVE” he enunciates slowly. “Thems two words I don’t care to hear in the same sentence”
 
I originally wrote this piece for REAL TRAVEL magazine