Thursday, 28 March 2013

BritMums Travel Round-ups in 2013

Just thought I'd let you know what I've been up to lately on the BritMums website. I'm still collating their monthly travel round-ups, finding great posts about family travel from within the membership of the community and beyond.

January Round-up 
There were plenty of festive trips to choose from: the Christmas markets in Munich and Hamburg, a skiing trip to Austria and a special December weekend at Legoland, Windsor. Parent bloggers also nipped over the channel to Paris and over the pond to Orlando.

February Round-up 
Posts were selected during January and included New Year's Day on a beach in Dorset, a bracing family walk in Wendover Woods and a trip around the Lake District without a car. Further afield, bloggers experienced Iceland, a winter weekend in Seoul and a Wild West American road trip.

March Round-up
Many posts came from family travels during the February half-term holidays. They included a short break to Liverpool, a surprise visit to Disneyland Paris and the Northern Lights in Norway.  The Sound of Music tour in Salzburg particularly appealed and, to gain a bit of warmth after these chilly locations, I found some sunshine in Cuba.

On Monday 1 April the next round-up will be published and, as a break from the norm, I have gathered together some posts about cruise holidays, highlighting the Royal Caribbean Family Ambassadors, a group of parent bloggers who have just returned from their fantastic trip.

As we start the Easter holidays, I will be looking for suitable travel posts to include in the next round-up which will be published at the beginning of May. Let me know if you write about your trips, either near or far, or if you spot a post someone else has written which you think should be given a mention.

Right, all this talk of holidays and I really must start packing for our own trip to Scotland. Scotland? In this weather! To think, we very nearly decided on the Canaries....


Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Macaroons and Mad Hatters

afternoon tea, Royal Horseguards Hotel
My life seems to be full of macaroons at the moment. If I'm not singing about them in rehearsals for Acorn Antiques, I'm tasting them in the rather gorgeous surrounds of the Royal Horseguards Hotel in London.

You may remember I attended a travel bloggers day in London a couple of weeks ago. The venue was the opulent Royal Horseguards Hotel, situated on the river Thames, just opposite the London Eye.

While we were there, the hotel management took the opportunity to show us what delights are available for children if they were to take afternoon tea in the hotel. I thought afternoon tea might just involve a few sandwiches with the crusts cut off, a cream cake or two and a nice pot of Darjeeling. However, at the Royal Horseguards, they take afternoon tea to a totally different level and they welcome children wholeheartedly.

We were able to sample some exquisite confectionery including tiny lemon macaroons, gingerbread men, strawberry lollipops and home-made chocolate letters spelling out the name of the hotel. This is definitely a treat for a very special occasion, costing £12 for children under 12, but utterly delightful. For that price children receive sandwiches of their choice ( including nutella and jam), tea party pastries, fruit, cakes and scones. A colouring book and puzzle are provided too plus a drink of Baby Chai Latte, 'Babichino' or fruit juice. Adults can choose from a variety of tea menus and, as the hotel has been awarded an Award of Excellence from the Tea Guild, you can be assured of the quality.

Samples of treats available for children's afternoon tea.

If you visit between 31 March and 7 April 2013 the theme for the afternoon tea is Mad Hatter's Tea Time with a special menu for both adults and children (£35 for adults, £12 for children). The treats include jam tarts with hearts, white rabbit coconut cupcake, 'drink me' layered bubble shot, 'eat me' passion fizz cake and a chessboard battenburg.

As Mrs Overall would say, "Cheer your afternoon with a macaroon, put a smile on your face..."


Thursday, 21 March 2013

Highland Flings

Planning for our Easter break to Scotland shortly and it dawned on me that the country has always been present in my life in one way or another but that the trips I've had there all seem to have mulched into one in my mind. I sat with the boys last night and asked them about previous trips we'd had to Dougie's birthplace and, whereas my memory for dates and occasions was very woolly, my husband and son were particularly good at remembering things pre-blog, often based on whether there was a World or European Cup that year.

Based on our recollections I have managed to assemble a collection of memories, which may or may not be in chronological order:

I've obviously always had a bit of a penchant for all things Scottish which led me to marrying one later on in life. In the 1970s I began to learn Highland Dancing and entered competitions, a couple of them being over the border from my home in Newcastle. Did you know I was the North of England Beginner's Champion in 1974, aged 10? Heady stuff, indeed. As this became a serious hobby, it necessitated a trip to Edinburgh to be measured for a velvet waistcoat and kilt. These were expensive items and it was a long trip. I continued dancing for a few years until my kilt became too short and I had to decide whether to get a whole new outfit or give it up and enjoy being a teenager in other ways. I packed the kilt away.

I met Dougie in 1987. In 1988, while I was still working in London, he continued his medical training in Elgin in the far north east of Scotland. Most of the time I would meet him for a weekend in Newcastle, both of us travelling a few hours to 'meet in the middle'. I did fly to Aberdeen once to visit him and he was extremely late picking me up from the airport as he'd crashed into the gate-post when leaving the house. He's never been much good at reversing.

Pre-Rory, I remember frequent visits to Edinburgh to visit Dougie's parents who still  lived there before retiring down to Lincolnshire in 1995 to live near us. Many a day was spent walking up the Royal Mile or climbing Arthur's Seat in a scene reminiscent of the book/film One Day.

A dreek holiday travelling round the west of Scotland brought us to Plockton where the haggis they served as a starter was so tasty it's stayed with me to this day. I think we saw the Isle of Skye but the weather was so dreadful most things were covered in a low mist (just look at that face in the picture).
On other trips we visited Fort William, Loch Ness, Glengarry Castle and the Queen's residence, Balmoral.

Post-Rory, a trip to Loch Rannoch in 1997 saw us staying in an apartment which looked rather lovely but was covered in dog hair. I remember Dougie spent two hours hoovering the place before we unpacked. No idea why we didn't make a fuss and get someone else to do it. He was a man on a mission, best left to his task. During this trip we visited places which suit toddlers: highland parks with coos and deer and anywhere we could push a toddler in a buggy and point at things. It rained a lot (again) and I remember we found a soft play centre on a housing estate to escape to.

2005, Loch Lomond. Another attractive apartment let down by a musty smell on the ground floor. Visited an old prison in Inveraray, saw a salmon ladder in Pitlochry and took a trip to Glasgow for a tour of Hampden football club. Whilst at the Science Centre in Glasgow we ended up being involved in a press conference to publicise the baton relay for the following year's Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Rory held the baton and was given a T-shirt. I have no idea why this was happening in Glasgow but maybe it was en-route from Manchester where the games had been previously hosted.

Popped up to Edinburgh to visit Dougie's Auntie Jenny and see the West End touring version of Starlight Express. We saw the Saturday matinee performance which had someone signing for the deaf at the side of the stage. I am now unable to sing the words 'starlight express' without moving my right arm in a big arc above my head, followed by a couple of choo-choo movements with my arms.
Amused by signs on the roads in the small towns to restrict speed - "Twenty's Plenty" - and interesting to note that the signs on the motorways said. 'Don't take drugs and drive' whereas the focus in England is more on drink.

Room in Prestonfield House, Edinburgh

2009, a school reunion for Dougie involved a gala dinner at Prestonfield House. We stayed the night at the sumptuous Edinburgh hotel but, fancying a bit of pre-dinner fun, jumped onto the bed and the resulting fluff, which was dislodged from the velvet cushions, set Dougie off sneezing to the point that his nose bled and our ardours were well and truly cooled.

I wonder what's in store for our trip to Loch Tay in just over a week's time? Looks like we might not have rain this time.....I think snow is forecast.


Saturday, 16 March 2013

Mum's going to Austria

We have finally sorted out our summer holiday. After a successful trip to Sweden last year, which I planned myself, choosing the route of our fly-drive and selecting each hotel on its merit or rude-sounding name, I had set the bar quite high. How to match this?

I can tell you, it's been tough. We considered other Scandinavian countries and I spent a good few days focused on Finland until it dawned on me that I was planning a trip which was a carbon copy of the Swedish one and even then I couldn't find a hotel with a name which made me snigger* We moved into mainland Europe and flirted with the idea of driving through Belgium and the Netherlands before spending time in northern Germany on the Baltic coast. Could we contemplate a holiday which is car-based? Was I ready for marital disharmony and GPS confusion? No.

I remembered my own rule. If we have an adventurous holiday one year, book a lazy one the year after. Sweden was quite full-on, moving around the country. This year I wanted to stay put in a location which was potentially warmer but not too hot, particularly as this is an August trip. Austria seemed to fit the bill. I looked at several regions, airport locations, hotels and apartments. Places were being booked up quickly, some choices were no longer available.

I then discovered, quite by chance, an airport in the south of Austria, Klagenfurt, which is served by a Ryanair flight from Stansted, the closest airport to home. I'd never heard of the place, but it was the perfect choice as it is situated on Wörthersee, a lake in the Austrian region of Carinthia which is noted for its Mediterranean climate, similar to that of Lake Garda. We loved our holiday in Lake Garda so this destination seems ideal for us.

Dougie had never heard of Klagenfurt either so googled it and proceeded to have some sort of apoplectic fit. Apparently it is the location of the 2013 European Beach Volleyball European Championships which take place while we are there. The man was beside himself and not, as you'd think, because of the thought of nubile young female athletes in teeny bikini bottoms. No, this aged athlete of mine is an enthusiastic volleyball player himself, albeit of the indoor court variety. I have a feeling he will be sneaking a fluorescent vest top and his knee braces into the luggage, in case the chance arises where he could be called to help out. He's asked if he can turn his baseball cap round the other way. I've said no.

Accommodation was our next dilemma. Many of the hotels on Lake Wörthersee were already booked up so I continued to browse t'internet until I came up with an excellent compromise. On a neighbouring lake, Ossiachersee, is the Apart Hotel Legendär, which has contemporary apartments right on the lakeside. There had to be something unusual to attract me and the Legendär didn't disappoint. All the apartments are designed around a famous person from history - Leonardo de Vinci, Claude Monet, the Kennedy family - so there might be photographs, paintings and unusual objects to give a favour of the named legend.

The boys started arguing about which person's apartment they wanted to stay in. Dougie rather fancied Louis Pasteur or Casanova, Rory was leaning towards Albert Einstein or Vincent van Gogh. I was rather taken with Jane Austen or Mata Hari. In the end, the decision came down to the choice of room layout and the fact that we'd asked for an apartment on a high floor (good for the views).

We are staying in the Alma Mahler-Werfel apartment, named after the Viennese femme fatale of the 20th century. She was a famous beauty and socialite, married to composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius and novelist Franz Werfel. She also had numerous affairs with the likes of artist Gustav Klimt.

Dougie says I'm not to get any funny ideas.

The other plus points for this accommodation:

  • Sauna by the lake
  • Indoor pool, spa and gym
  • Breakfast brought to your room every morning
  • Each apartment has its own iPad and WiFi (can you hear my son cheering?)
  • A 'culinary island' in the hotel lobby where you can purchase food to cook in your room.

Alma Mahler-Werfel apartment

Apart Hotel Legendär

We plan to hire a car from the airport and have some days lazing by the lake and others doing a spot of sightseeing. And, of course, a day or two at the Beach Volleyball. We are also positioned very close to the Slovenian border and, as it would only take 45 minutes, a drive to Lake Bled is a must as I've always wanted to see it. 

Dear readers, your opinions helped me when we were going to Sweden last year. Any suggestions of what to do and see in southern Austria? 

* I tell a lie. I did find the Hotel Krapi in Finland and laughed myself silly at the photo album on their website which grouped the images into 'krapi interiors', 'krapi restaurants' and 'krapi surroundings'.

Images courtesy of Apart Hotel Legendär


Thursday, 14 March 2013

A taster of Acorn Antiques, The Musical

Mrs Overall recently took to the stage at the South Holland Centre, Spalding, with other members of the cast of SADOS' Acorn Antiques as part of an evening of entertainment with the Rotary Club. We performed a 10 minute segment of the show which included a little bit of dialogue and my solo, Macaroons.

As you can see in the photo, I look bloody lovely in my pinny, flat granny shoes and hairnet. The things we do for our art, darling. Dougie and Rory were visibly shocked when they saw me dressed in this outfit but reassured me I looked the part.

Considering we don't actually perform the full show until the middle of May, it was quite a risk to take a snippet of the play, which we have only really 'blocked' at the moment, and allow the public to see what we hope to offer in a couple of months time. We had no set, we couldn't explain to the audience who the characters were and where exactly we were in the proceedings, but hopefully we gave them a flavour of what to expect in the real production.

Our director managed to video our performance from the balcony and I have a clip of part of it which includes my singing. From my point of view, it was a really useful thing to do. I can now see that I am not projecting my voice anywhere near as loud as it needs to be. I'm pleased with the song, though, and it's reassuring to know I can get to the end of it without collapsing.

For anyone not familiar with Acorn Antiques, this was a sketch show written by Victoria Wood in the 1980s: a pastiche of poor soap operas, hence dodgy sets and props and rather obvious, stylised characters who miss lines and overact. It was made into a musical in 2005.

To set the scene for the video clip - we have Miss Babs and Miss Berta, owners of Acorn Antiques together with Mr Clifford and two young people on a 'new government pitiful adolescent training scheme.' They are joined by Mr Watkins and Derek, shoppers who have just been told the Countess of Manchesterford, who holds the lease on the shops, has sold the entire street to property developers...

The video below might not be visible on all devices. It's on my Facebook page so if you want to see it there, I'm at


Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The future for family travel bloggers

Image courtesy of Steve Keenan
Travel bloggers are a diverse bunch. There are some who are globe-trotting with a backpack, tasting independence for the first time before settling down. At the other end of the spectrum, some are selling their businesses to travel the world, seeking thrills and visiting the must-see locations in the world. In between there are parent travel bloggers who essentially write about going on their holidays.

This was the gist of Jen Howze's opening statement at a parent travel bloggers 'think tank' held in conjunction with BritMums, the parent blogging network run by Jen and Susanna Scott, and Travel Perspective, a digital editorial agency run by Steve Keenan and Mark Frary.

As a family travel blogger who fills in time between holidays writing about 'other stuff' it can sometimes be difficult to feel part of the wider travel blogging community. I was delighted, therefore, to be invited to London to discuss issues with some like-minded writers and professionals in the field of travel.

This inaugural meeting, with just a small number of bloggers, gave me the opportunity to learn what's new in the travel writing business. I found out what other bloggers are doing to link with brands, I learned the pros and cons of self-publishing with expert tips from Terry Lee of LiveShareTravel and was able to discover, from Steve Keenan, former Times and Sunday Times online and print travel editor, the challenges travel writers now have as the shift moves from print to digital.

I couldn't fail to be inspired by the effervescent character of Jaume Marin, marketing director of the Costa Brava Tourist Board. If ever there was a man to enthuse and engage an audience, Jaume is your man. Never mind about your Klout score and your Twitter reach, Jaume wants bloggers to create reliable content with unique stories and life experiences. This made me happy. When I write a travel post I try to find the funny moments in the trip, the bizarre sights, the situations which have made me laugh or my heart sing. I may make fun of my husband, his penchant for fixing things with duct tape and our constant car conflicts, I may moan about having to partake in energetic activities when we are on holiday, but hopefully I give my readers a taste of a location which they might remember when choosing their own trips.

The family bloggers who attended the day - Lucy, Kirstie, Gretta, Sarah and Selena, with Jen and Susanna - I am sure took away some valuable pointers as I did. We hope to have future meetings to discuss creative writing, technology and how to create media packs. But most of all, we want to build on the connections and friendships which began to develop in one day of conversation, coffee and cake.


Thursday, 7 March 2013

A Sicilian Shooting

"You look like a very photogenic couple. Would you like to be in a film?" asked the suave, moustachioed, tanned man with a clipboard.

Dougie and I were sitting in the reception area of our hotel in Selinunte, Sicily. We glanced at each other, nervous, unsure of whether we were being lured into some seedy, pornographic scenario.

"We just need some people to act like tourists for a few hours so we can film the local area."

So, not the sleazy shoot I had feared. We remained ambivalent but asked for more details. It's not as if we had anything else to do. This was 1989, we were having a blissfully lazy holiday which mostly involved lying on the beach and taking regular dips in the sea to cool off. We really ought to be seeing the sights, especially as the ruins of the ancient Greek city were on our doorstep.

"I can pay you £25 each?"

The next morning we met our director bright and early and happily clambered into the minibus for the drive to the ancient site, along with a couple of entertainers from the hotel and a Welsh pharmacist with very prominent teeth.

Our swarthy director was making a promotional film to show the beauty of Italy, in advance of the World Cup which was taking place the following year. For the next few hours there was a great deal of posing, pointing and waiting around for cameramen to adjust lenses and frame shots. It was an easy way to make a bit of money and as we were young and short of it, this was a great opportunity.

Filming finished, we were bundled back in the bus and handed a fistful of lira. We never did see the resulting film but I have found our snaps from that day so here's Brad and Angelina, slightly windswept but incredibly tanned, with Brad sporting a pair of very skimpy shorts, doing our bit for local tourism.

Selinunte, Sicily, 1989

Temple of Hera, Selinunte, 1989


Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Mr & Mrs Smith's new arrival: Smith & Family.

Amirandes, Crete, Greece
There are some travel companies who do things just right. Mr & Mrs Smith have been specialists in boutique holiday stays over the last 10 years. They know what their discerning customers want and they provide all the essential information on their website plus those extra little details which can make all the difference to the final decision.

The company has always given information about the suitability of their hotels for children so it's no surprise to discover they have now branched out into selecting family-friendly accommodation as a stand-alone website: Smith & Family. The new site, which officially launches in April, signposts you to a collection of parent-approved properties which don't just tolerate children but actively encourage them.

I've often said to my husband that if I could have a dream job it would be to review hotels for Mr and Mrs Smith. I have spent years trawling the internet searching for hotel accommodation and while some sites are hard to navigate and sparing with useful detail, I can always rely on Mr & Mrs Smith's website for the clear information and witty reviews which go further than most to paint a comprehensive picture of a hotel.

What's the next best thing to being a Mr & Mrs Smith hotel tester? A Smith & Family website examiner. I have browsed their new site this weekend and am happy to give it the Mum's Gone To seal of approval. Each property has clear information about whether it is suitable for certain age groups of children from babies through to teens. The room layout is clearly described. Hoorah! How many hours have I spent trying to find out the room configuration of, say, a Junior Suite? I know it is a room with a sitting area which may, or may not, have a sofa bed. It isn't a suite, which usually (though not always) has a separate bedroom. However, there are some junior suites which have a cheeky little sliding door between the double bed and the sitting area; perfect if you'd like to wake up and not have the faces of your offspring gurning up at you from the bottom of the bed. Smith & Family thankfully tell you if there is a sliding door. They also tell you when you can book interconnecting rooms, information which is so often hidden under the long list of 'amenities', wedged somewhere between ironing board and trouser press. The availability of cots, foldaway beds, age limit of children for those beds: all these details, which differ from one hotel to another, are given proper attention.

Facilities for children such as high-chairs, baby monitors and kids' clubs are listed. Restaurants and dining arrangements are described plus location details, including a map and 'how to get there' information. Details are also provided about activities in the local area suitable for families.  There are plenty of parent tips to help  in your decision-making and they are honest too, telling customers if a place isn't ideal for toddlers or whether a hotel is likely to be quiet or lively.

James and Tamara Lohan, Mr & Mrs Smith's co-founders said:

'Our aim is the same as when we created Mr & Mrs Smith - where we once set out to bring you a personally visited and curated collection of fabulous boutiques and luxury hotels, this time we've unearthed the very best family stays.'

To give you an idea of the hotels which are included in Smith and Family, here are some examples:

Verdura Golf & Spa Resort, Sicily, Italy

Rocco Forte spent years nurturing this stunning resort. Facilities include a spa and thalassotherapy pools, a kids' club, golf course, helipad and private beach. Potties, stair gates, toys, books and swimming aids are available for the little ones; Wii consoles, bikes, movies and surfboards for older kids.

Rates: Doubles from £172

Hotel Puente Romano, Marbella, Spain

On Marbella's Golden Mile, this hotel might be big but the layout helps maintain a cosy atmosphere. Show-stopping tennis courts, four pools and an equestrian centre nearby. My favourite accommodation configuration, interconnecting rooms, can be booked or Junior Suites and Suites, giving plenty of options for families of different sizes. Six restaurants with children welcome in all of them.

Rates: Doubles from £216, not including breakfast

Amirandes, Crete, Greece

A palatial, child-friendly paradise. Family bungalows have a bedroom and living area separated by a sliding door (see photo). Deluxe rooms even come kitted out with their own fitness room. Lots of activities on offer from aerobics to scuba diving. Pre-book items such as baby bath and bouncy chair from the GrecoBaby service to keep your luggage lighter.

Rates: Doubles from £212 usually including breakfast.

If you want a family holiday where luxury and child-friendly facilities go hand in hand, Smith & Family is certainly worth a look. They have some fabulous properties in the UK and Europe and they've all been road-tested so you can be confident of the quality.

For more information about these hotels please visit or call the expert Travel Team on 0845 034 0700


Sunday, 3 March 2013

A conversation I wish I'd never started: No.8

Let me set the scene for another in the series of ridiculous conversations. This morning Dougie was reading the papers in the living room, listening to a CD. I brought in some coffee and sat with him...

Me: Who's that singing?
Husband: Scritti Politti
Me: It's really good. I don't think I've heard that album before.
Husband: It's called White Bread, Black Beer. Won a Mercury Music Prize.
Me: Crikey.
Husband: The lead singer is called Green. He was friends with Boy George. They were big in the 80s.
Me: You wouldn't know they couldn't sing.
Husband: What do you mean, 'they couldn't sing'?
Me: Well they sound good. Pity they mimed.
Husband: What on earth are you talking about? Scritti Politti could sing!
Me: I thought there was some scandal about them miming.
Husband: That was Milli Vanilli.