Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Our Rhine Cruise with Emerald Waterways: Amsterdam

amsterdam bridges
View from glass-top canal boat tour
How fabulous to start our Emerald Waterways cruise in Amsterdam, a city we had only recently fallen in love with during our short trip in October last year. After a swift flight from Humberside to Schiphol airport, we were met by a taxi that whisked us, and another cruise-bound couple, to our ship. We couldn't have wished for a nicer pair to share the ride. Living in New Zealand but originally from the UK, our new friends were just as excited as we were to be starting this adventure. While Kate proved to be a wonderful companion during the week as we watched the sunsets from the appropriately named sun deck, Richard, a semi-professional photographer, offered to share his exceptional photos with me so I could send them to Cruise International magazine for my article. I was delighted they used five of Richard's shots together with a couple of mine to accompany the piece.

With ocean cruising, the embarkation process can be rather long; understandable with the large numbers on board. With a river cruise, however, our ship carrying less than 200 passengers, it was more like checking into a hotel: no queues or hassle. We were given name badges which was a nice touch for the first evening though I noticed some passengers wore them religiously throughout the week. As this was a press trip for me, initially the company didn't know my husband's name so one had been randomly chosen for him when making the booking. Alfred. What a hoot! This was corrected once our paperwork was finalised but Emerald Star still had Alfred on the name badge. I was all for sticking with this for the duration but Dougie refused (spoilsport) and his badge was duly changed.

A spot of lunch, a nose around the ship and then our rooms were ready. Lots of oohs and aahs as, true to form, I inspected toiletries (Prija), examined the shower (Grohe) and checked out the channels on the TV (LG). Alfred unpacked.

After dinner we decided to explore the city. Expecting this to take some time to arrange, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that we only had to pick up a card from reception so they knew we had absconded. After a wonderful hour or so just wandering around Amsterdam on a warm, summer's evening, we returned to the ship, armed with our special code to let ourselves back in. For some reason the code wasn't working so Alfred and I (I promise I will revert to his proper name when the novelty wears off), along with a few other guests, had to bang on the door to attract a passing steward. What larks! I'm not sure whether our other new buddies, Campbell and Alison, were with us as we tried to break back into the ship but I suspect they were. Campbell, a retired businessman, originally from Glasgow (think Billy Connolly: same voice and sense of humour), had a lifetime of hilarious stories to share and together with his lovely Irish wife, he entertained us many times during the week. It brings a huge smile to my face when, writing this some months after our trip, I remember the fun and mischief we had with them.

The following morning after breakfast we experienced our first excursion: a canal boat tour of Amsterdam which was breathtaking at that time of day. A short bus tour followed before we were dropped off and given some free time to explore. The morning was very well-organised with just the right amount of useful information together with those wonderful stories you might not find in a guidebook e.g. the Tower of Tears, so named because it was the spot where wives said goodbye to their sailor husbands . We mooched through the floating flower market, revisited Begijnhof and generally made the most of the generous time allowed in Amsterdam: a real plus with this itinerary.

Sail away was at 12.30 and what better way to mark the occasion than with a dip in the pool at the aft of the ship. We waved goodbye to Amsterdam as we propped ourselves up on our elbows, splashing about in the water as Emerald Star pulled away from its berth to start its gentle journey upstream.

One of the charming houseboats on the canals: perfect drying day!

dancing houses amsterdam
Supported by wooden stilts, the 'Dancing Houses' wobble on the Kloveniersburgwal canal.

Our Rhine Cruise was commissioned by Cruise International magazine. Dougie and I were guests of Emerald Waterways. All thoughts and opinions are entirely my own. 


Monday, 5 October 2015

Our Rhine Cruise with Emerald Waterways: the ship

Dougie in front of Emerald Star
For years I've wanted to try out a river cruise. Dougie and I promised ourselves that once Rory was at university, we would definitely give it a try. Whilst we we pondering which cruise company and which river to choose, an opportunity arose to review a Rhine cruise with Emerald Waterways for Cruise International magazine. We took our cruise in June this year and my review has been published in the October/November issue of the magazine. You can buy a glossy copy at most branches of WH Smiths or have a look at my review online: Emerald Star sails on the Rhine.

Naturally, I couldn't resist sharing more about the cruise on my blog so over the next few weeks I'll tell you more about our trip. Let's start with the ship itself:

Emerald Waterways is a new cruise line, a subsidiary of Australian-based Scenic Tours. Launched in 2014 its luxury Star-Ships are chic and luxurious. Our ship, Emerald Star, exuded style and comfort when we spotted it for the first time berthed in Amsterdam: sleek and glistening in the hot June sunshine.

On board it was appealing because of its clean lines and contemporary colours: an upmarket boutique hotel on the water: nothing old-fashioned or staid. The reception area was flooded with light, the lounge was airy with plenty of seating and Reflections Restaurant always looked pristine and welcoming.

emerald waterways lobby
Lobby and stairwell of Emerald Star

Outside, the sun deck was vast with lots of chairs, canopies and a running/walking track. The Terrace was the perfect spot for a morning coffee or post postprandial tipple and, best of all, at the other end (the aft) a swimming pool under a retractable roof. The unique selling point of the pool is the way the floor is raised in the evening to transform into a cinema with popcorn and padded headphones provided for that perfect movie experience.

Poolside loungers, sun deck games and deck chairs

Most of the rooms on an Emerald ship benefit from a clever indoor balcony system where the upper half of the floor-to-ceiling windows can be lowered to waist height, bringing the air in and allowing guests to gaze out at the passing scenery. We had a fabulous Grand Balcony suite, decorated in light shades of cream and grey. I was most surprised by the storage facilities: a decent-sized wardrobe, deep drawers and hidden mirrored shelves in the bathroom. Add to that a large TV, bottles of water, fabulously comfortable bed and free WiFi and we were very happy cruisers.

Grand Balcony suite

All meals are included in the cruise, with complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks for lunch and dinner. Help yourself to coffee and biscuits at any other time of the day. The food was excellent: substantial buffet provision for breakfast and lunch and a more civilised table service at dinner. You can sit where you like so we usually chose a table for two by the window although often got chatting to passengers in the tables of four nearby. The dress code is pretty casual and even at dinner ties aren't required for men.

Dessert station for lunch; pudding for dinner

What else have I forgotten? A small library, gift shop, hairdresser, wellness room and fitness area. But I'm leaving the best 'til last - the people. The staff were a joy: efficient, smart, obliging and full of good humour. Our fellow passengers were a delight: mostly from the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the camaraderie amongst everyone was astonishing. This is obviously why people return to river cruising once they have tried it; it is far more intimate than an ocean cruise so friendships are made easily.


I'll go into more detail about the itinerary in future posts but, for now, I hope the photos of the ship will whet your appetite.

Our Rhine Cruise was commissioned by Cruise International magazine. Dougie and I were guests of Emerald Waterways. All thoughts and opinions are entirely my own. 


Thursday, 1 October 2015

Ten signs you have an empty nest

There will be many parents who are now experiencing an empty nest for the first time. It can be very tough those first few weeks when suddenly you feel redundant as a parent and you ache for that little boy or girl who has been the centre of your world for so many years. But there are some positives too. Here's my list of things to expect once the kids have flown.

1. You find yourself walking around their rooms, lovingly touching childhood toys and burying your nose in once-treasured teddy bears. Have stern words with your other half if he suggests a clear-out.

2. It takes a long time before you stop setting that extra place at the table.

3. You keep an eye on the weather forecast for the city in which they now live so you can give your offspring prior warning of a cold snap.

4. You may have to learn the offside rule and other sporting technicalities so you can have a meaningful conversation with your husband who has lost his telly buddy.

5. Don't expect an instant reply to text messages: that way madness lies. You will imagine all manner of catastrophes have befallen your child but your son or daughter is probably in a lecture or asleep. They will eventually reply with a short message and an array of unintelligible emoticons sometime after midnight.

6. Skype is now your best friend, once you've adjusted your position so the scary, saggy chin doesn't appear in the corner of the screen.

7. Utility bills will decrease, particularly the water bill because the shower is no longer being used as a warm place to continue dozing despite having slept for twelve hours.

8. The amount of laundry is significantly reduced and occasionally you get to see the bottom of the basket.

9. Food stays in the fridge and cupboards for ages: crisps in particular can sometimes last longer than their 'best before' date

10. Without a teenager in the house you can reignite the passion you had before children came along. Have weekends away on a whim, stay in bed all day, watch rubbish on the telly. You have all this freedom to do just what you fancy.

Thankfully the sadness you feel when they leave home does lessen. And if you are still struggling with their absence, just think, it will soon be the end of term and they will be back home to fill up the laundry basket, linger in the shower and empty your fridge again.

I wrote a version of this blog post earlier this year in one of my columns in the Lincolnshire Free Press. I thought it was the right time of year to freshen it up and share with new empty-nesters. 


Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Review of Mondrian Hotel, London

Exterior of Mondrian Hotel (courtesy of hotel)
Mondrian London only opened last year but has certainly made its mark as one of the best hotels in the capital. Lets give it its full title: Mondrian London at Sea Containers. A bit of a mouthful but so named because it's located in Sea Containers House, an well-known landmark on the river, next to the Oxo Tower.

I was searching for a last minute hotel for a brief weekend away and it popped up on TripAdvisor, along with a note that the hotel website was offering 25% off its rooms. I clicked, gawped and booked within minutes: it ticked all the boxes.

Arriving at King's Cross, we took the circle line round to Blackfriars and could see the hotel as soon as we exited the station. A walk across the bridge and five minute later we were there. When you step inside the stunning design hits you and leaves you rather breathless. A huge copper-clad wall, inspired by the hull of a ship, stretches through the lobby from the outside. The rich colours and clever lighting make this huge space exciting yet welcoming. Tom Dixon, from Design Research Studio, has managed to retain the essence of the original building: despite the obvious contemporary features, the overriding feeling is one of history, of 1920s luxury cruising.

interior of Mondrian hotel london

If the reception area resembles a busy ship's booking hall, the corridors and bedrooms upstairs are a complete contrast. Thick carpets and excellent sound-proofing bring peace to guests as they come out of the lifts. We booked an entry level classic room and were impressed. The palette is one of cool grey, matt black and vivid pink. Ironed to within an inch of its life, the linen is crisp and brilliant white. Storage? Superb: a decent-sized wardrobe with a good number of hangers, cupboards, drawers plus shelves in the bathroom. May I also congratulate the thoughtful designer who placed an electrical socket next to a full-length mirror. A mini-bar which could be mistaken for an upmarket corner shop, such was the extent of its stock, was a revelation. How reassuring to have tea and coffee making facilities (i.e. a kettle)  and how very fancy to offer crystal glasses.

The bathroom was small (though not that small for London) but beautiful. A large walk-in shower, excellent Malin + Goetz toiletries and a classy black basin which, though gorgeous, must drive the chambermaids to distraction trying to keep the watermarks off it.

Interior of classic room, mondrian hotel london

Sea Containers restaurant is a lively, relaxed space for breakfast. Choose from the buffet or select something to order such as buttermilk waffles or smashed avocado on toast. There are plenty of staff, always someone around with a smile and a welcome. I love their uniform - pale blue shirts, dark aprons and everyone wearing their own choice of Vans footwear.

Dandelyan Bar (courtesy of hotel)
Cocktails are a must in the Dandelyan Bar where award-winning mixologist Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr Lyan, has created a dazzling collection of drinks, categorising them into pine, birch, oak and boozeless. I can recommend the birch-based 'Bjork Can Sling' (birch charcoal, birch beer 'vermouth', Aperol and cucumber soda). Dougie, sticking to his Scottish roots, plumped for the smoky 'Heartwood Old-fashioned' (Johnnie Walker Black Label, oak lactone syrup, Dandelyan resin bitters).

Its worth noting that although Dandelyan is a bar, there does seem to be a booking system and we were lucky to be able to walk in without a reservation. The same goes for the rooftop Rumpus Room, which we didn't try, but this also requires a minimum spend as well as a reservation.

An evening meal at Sea Containers restaurant was, quite simply, superb. It's not cheap but, oh my goodness, it is well worth it. We were going to skip starters but our waitress suggested blistered padron peppers and some bread to keep us going as our mains would take 25 minutes. The peppers were exceptional and the bread was delicious: a warm, rounded cob, divided up like a Terry's Chocolate Orange.

We chose to share a double-cut heritage pork chop and, when it arrived, I thought it would feed an army. The meat was glistening and pale and unbelievably juicy, having been slow-cooked in a water bath. It came with crackling but not like any crackling I've ever had. This looked like someone had injected bubbles of air into a wafer-thin poppadom. Extraordinary.

Having shared the other courses, we did the same with dessert, choosing a tiramisu pud and two spoons: edible velvet in a glass bowl.

I have a worrying feeling that the very reasonable price we paid (£168 per room per night) might not last for long. Other hotels in the Morgan Group, such as The Sanderson in London, are much more expensive.

This hotel is cool, glamorous, stylish and sexy. Staff are bright, cheerful and attentive. The food is divine.

I'm sold.

My Travel Monkey