Thursday, 18 June 2015


Can London ever be the European capital of cocktail? With Paris and Rome opening eccentric new bars, how is London competing as hidden Speakeasy and den bars replace  traditional pubs… here are six of the best!

Paris has its Experimental Cocktail Club which is also a ‘Cocktail Hotel.’ It prides itself on being difficult to find, reminiscent of a 1930s Speakeasy.  In Rome the Gerry Thomas Project is changing the way the way wine-loving Italians drink with emphasis on the rediscovery of forgotten Italian spirits –classic pre-Prohibition drinks with an Italian touch.


I set off in search of London’s secret drinking dens and found the city’s latest gem at Milroy’s whisky bar in Soho’s Greek Street. The first of its kind, it is the oldest whisky specialist and shop in London. (Even before Milroy brothers took over in 1964 the space had been used as a liquor shop)  Milroy’s recently re opened its doors and these days  features not just an atmospheric whisky bar and shop  but houses a secret basement cocktail bar, The Vault, down stairs hidden behind a bookcase. This lends itself to the Speakeasy atmosphere, and in the corner of the dark cavernous bar barman Natolino was concocting a brew using smoke, brightly coloured liquids and a magical flick of his wrist. It was the Smoking Gun, one of the bar’s signature cocktails. Natolino smoked a cocktail glass ready for a heady mix of straight corn whisky, Oloroso sherry, and Earl Grey and brown sugar.

Over on Regent Street the Club Café Royal may look like an old-school lounge bar but its cocktails are breaking the mould. Here bartender Tiziano was setting out his summer cocktail stall and clearing out the winter warmers designed to make us ignore drizzly grey London such as Forget Winter (Jamaica rum, pineapple, sage syrup and coconut) and bringing in long, fruity fragrant summer cocktails reminiscent of tennis and drinks on the lawn.

Under the supervision of bar manager Milos Popovic, both bars at the newly renovated Quaglino’s in St James’ serve a variety of innovative drinks which use new techniques and reference Quaglino’s 1930’s heritage with several champagne cocktails; the Prince of Wales  being a signature mix.

 A glass of blood red liquid topped with an oyster may not be your idea of a lunchtime tipple or an after work reviver. But the Bloody Mary Oyster Shooter is one of many new cocktails on offer at The Richmond near Hackney - also home to East London’s first and only raw bar serving several types of oysters and clams.


The cocktail bar at Craft London is a destination in its own right, with its outdoor terrace and quintessentially English view of the Greenwich Peninsula Garden’s meadow, orchard, smoke house and bee hives, as well as the Thames and Canary Wharf. Barman Adam Wyatt has put together a list that focuses on sourcing small batch British products like fruit liquors from Wiltshire and Cider Brandy from Julian Temperley.

Last of all I headed to Coya, London’s first Peruvian restaurant and bar in Piccadilly, where barrel aged pisco is used to create its signature pisco sour and classic cocktails. These are given a Latin American twist and include the “Negroni in Lima”, a pisco-based aged Negroni. The lemon and chilli Margarita looks weird, but tastes great




I must be one of the few British people who had never been to Lanzarote  and apart from a few days in Tenerife I must admit to being a Canary Islands novice.

Deciding to put  this right I set out on an expedition to Lanzarote and not wanting to join the lobster red -faced Brits in the South, I headed for the North of the island.

This is where one finds the sleepy traditional fishing villages and the old-world charm of Lanzarote, unspoilt by big hotels and high rise apartment blocks. The coast here is wild and wonderful with crashing waves that I discover make it a firm favourite with surfers from all over the world.

I booked into the Finca  de Arrieta,  described as an 'eco dream retreat'   which sounded just the job after a long grey London winter.   I found  a surprising almost dream -like village, tucked away in the hills above the pretty little town of Arrieta
The retreat occupies 30,000 square metres with great views out to sea on one side and the dramatic black volcanic mountains on the other.  It was set up and built from scratch on former farm land by husband and wife team Tila and Michelle Bradock, who have brought up their family here and still run the property.
There are 15 properties on the site, each one different and they range in style from luxury villa to a silk-lined Mongolian yurt, decked out with Bali-nese fabrics and furnishings. This is where I spent my time , but I could have opted for the eco tower, the eco garden cottage and eco luxury farmhouse or an eco luxury yurt suite.   I sensed there was an eco theme going on here, but whereas that term'eco friendly'  can conjure up images of basic, drab and cranky, nothing could be less true of the Finca de Arrietta, which oozes glamour and  chilled out chic.
The area is planted with palm trees and local plants and stones  create a wild  and windswept look that is totally in keeping with this part of the island. You can tell Michelle and Tila have built this place with love and passion, and added to it over the years to make somewhere that is unique in its look, ambience and sustainability.
The village is entirely off-grid,  solar-powered and run on sustainable lines without forgoing any creature comforts. As someone who is addicted to my IPad and smart phone, I was rather worried about how switched off I would need to be in the Finca, but I needn't have worried. There is free WiFi in the central 'chill-out' area and mobile phones work perfectly so I was able to send umpteen selfies of me sitting in my yurt drinking delicious Lanzarote cava.......
My yurt had its own well - equipped little kitchen and shower room, and the Honesty Shop was well -stocked with items for my fridge. Guests just write down what they have taken and settle up when they leave, a system which seems to work well. There is also an ordering service for fresh food and meals delivered to your door and once a week there is a barbeque night.
This is a charming place for families and it was lovely to see young children playing in their own adventure playground and collecting eggs from the resident hen for breakfast. There is also a donkey, Molly, and a giant chess set. Each property comes with it own Hybrid electric car, so guests can get out and about in an environmentally friendly way and discover the local attractions.
But I didn't need to get in the car to find the beach, I just followed the sound of the waves and after a leisurely  10 minute walk was kicking the pebbles.  There is a lovely little beach front café and tapas bar here, perfect for a casual lunch watching the surf.  A little further away in Arrietta there are numerous little restaurants and bars, although this is a simple, unsophisticated spot which doesn't buzz with nightlife and boozy tourists. Thank goodness
There is plenty to  see and do in the area, from the dramatic Jameos Del Agua caves - a 15 minute drive away - to the enchanting island of Graciosa, accessible by ferry. This is where I found birdlife galore, exhilarating coastal walks and the beautiful white and blue buildings made famous by Lanzarote's  architect Cesar Manrique.
Back at the Finca, I relax in the Saharan seating in the chill-out area and watch my fellow guests floating in the pool.  Eco doesn't come any better than this, I tweet ......

Sunday, 19 October 2014

THE BIG SLEEP – bedtime for tortoises

It’s that time of year when certain creatures are getting ready for bed. This week tortoises around the UK will be stretching and yawning, finding somewhere warm to curl up and settling down to sleep for the winter.  Coincidentally the launch of a new teenage Mutant Ninja turtle’s movie   reminds me why my youngest son insisted we shelled out hundreds of pounds on a pair of tortoise in the first place!  And over at The Lake District Wildlife Park Margaret, the park's female tortoise, has laid 15 eggs, four of which have now hatched

What is our fascination with pets that are only awake for half of the year?

Long –term partners Shelly and Scotty are poking their heads out of their house, sniffing the October air and deciding that it really is a little too chilly for their usual stroll round the grounds.  The couple have had a good summer sun-bathing, enjoying meals on the lawn and rock climbing. But the nights are drawing in, the leaves are falling and it is looking more and more like bed-time for this pair of Mediterranean Tortoises who are preparing for hibernation 2014.
I have owned Shelley and Scotty for 13 years. They joined the family as tiny 3 month olds, no bigger than a 50 pence piece each, and they spent their first few months with us in a heated tank. Nowadays they have the run of the walled garden, their own rockery, a small wooden house and as much dandelion as they can eat. At least for six months a year. What are the advantages of owning these part-time pets?
·         Tortoises can only be bought from registered breeders, so they are not a cheap purchase. However, once you have adopted them, they are incredibly low maintenance – requiring the mimunun of attention and happy to eat garden weeds. They can also live up to 150 years so you certainly get your moneys’ worth!

·         As a travel writer I never waste a chance to spot the tortoises foreign cousins.   In Mauritius and on Prison Island in Zanzibar I have seen some giant tortoises which truly do resemble Super-Sized Scotty and Shelley. On the sleepy Caribbean island of Barbuda red-footed tortoises roam freely down the road only pausing to nibble on  a tasty leaf or plant
·         Finding the tortoises after their many hiding games is a family past time. They have buried themselves for days on end, emerging covered in soil, or have sheltered in the shed or even got into the house and hidden under the cooker, only to appear quite non-plussed and deposited back outside
·         Identifying new foods for them is a botanical lesson, we know they like dandelion but milk thistle and other common garden plants are also enjoyed. They love cucumber in the hot weather (they rarely drink water) and even the occasional strawberry
·         Establishing their gender is an entertainment in itself. We were told Scotty was male an Shelly was female, although it is difficult to tell especially with young tortoise, One  annual check with the tortoise vet revealed that Shelly has a very large tail for a female, implying that this tortoise may be more of a Percy Shelly than a Shelly Winters.  The discovery doesn’t seem to have affected their relationship
·         We look forward to greeting them next March. Christmas and New Year celebrations may pass them by, but they will have a great spring and summer in 2015

Tuesday, 14 October 2014



Despite accounting for just 0.1% of the world’s landmass, Costa Rica contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity, across four mountain ranges, 800 miles of coastline, 200 volcanic formations and hundreds of national parks, most of which is reasonably accessible from the capital San Jose.
The incredibly varied topography means you can cruise cloud forest one day, visit active volcanoes the next, and relax on a pristine white beach. Adventure experiences include zipping through canopy lines hundreds of metres long and riding the rough surf of the Pacific. Bathing in natural hot springs and living the cowboy life on a working carral are also on offer here.
But most people head here to get close to wildlife, notably cuddly sloths, white faced capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys and hundreds of tropical birds including the gorgeous quetzal – called by some birdwatchers the most beautiful bird in the world
Costa Rica prides itself on its green credentials and this, together with its peaceful democracy (it has had no army since 1948) and abundance of natural beauty has earned it the name ‘the world’s happiest country’
Where happier to get close to nature than in one of the country’s eco-lodges.  They are found throughout Costa Rica, many in lush jungle in the south near the Pacific Gulf. Increasingly sophisticated with good food, stylish accommodation in wooden cabins and the opportunity to experience nature first-hand they allow visitors to make minimal impact without sacrificing creature comforts. Early morning tours let you see the rain forest wake up and leisurely kayak tours take you past rich mangrove forests alive with snakes, crocodiles, monkeys galore, sloths and toucans and parrots.
Many offer activities including fishing, yoga and chocolate making. Using beans from the forest, the staff at one lodge, Playa Nicuesa near Golfito, which is built on the site of a disused cocoa plantation, shows guests how to peel, roast and grind the cocoa before cooking with sugar to make a delicious chocolate paste which can be rolled or formed into lovely sweets. They taste best washed down with a cup of finest Costa Rican coffee
Monteverde’s rare ecosystem is internationally famous as one of the most extensive cloud forests in Central America. At 5,900 ft., this natural sanctuary has more than 2,500 different types of plants and animals, including 400 species of birds Guided natural history walks take you through the Monteverde Reserve which is home to jaguars and pumas. There’s also a zip-line tour of the reserve where you look down on mammals such as the fuzzy martilla.    But the best   way to see the lush cloud forest and its inhabitants is by walking on hanging bridges which take you alongside the canopy of trees.
In the early 1950s, a group of Quakers from the United States left their homes in Alabama and arrived in Monteverde at a time when the region was just beginning to be settled. The Quakers, fleeing the United States to avoid being drafted into the Korean War, and attracted by the fact that Costa Rica had no army, established a simple life in Monteverde centred on dairy and cheese production. Some of these families helped establish the Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves some 20 years later. To this day they have an influence on the region, including owning hotels. The pretty town of St Elena looks like a Swiss village nestling beneath the misty mountains and has lively restaurants, hostels and bars filled with hikers and bird spotters.
The cattle ranching region of Guanacaste is also home to the Rincon de la Vieja volcano, a thermally active area. Adventure junkies will thrive on the activities on offer here from zip wires, Tarzan swings, white water rafting, canyoning, tubing  and horseback riding  after which a dip in the hot natural springs provides a welcome relief to aching limbs.  On the edge of the national park wannabe cowboys can stay at working cattle ranches with real hacienda style accommodation available and all the adventure tours on the doorstep

The Pacific Coast has some beautiful beaches with conditions that offer some of the best surfing in this part of the world.  Towns such as Nosara are packed with bright driftwood signs pointing to surf shacks and sunset bars. Beaches have an abandoned Robinson-Crusoe feel with rickety shelters constructed from wood and sticks with covers of dried palm leaves
Costa Rica also has a Caribbean coastline, which has a different atmosphere with a cultural mix of Afro Caribbean, Tico ( the name Costa Ricans give themselves) and old hippy vive. Puerto Viejo has recently become a hit with tourists and has stunning white-sand beaches, tropical vegetation and is close to parks including a Sloth sanctuary 
There are no direct flights from the UK to Costa Rica.
Iberia ( flies daily to the Costa Rican capital San Jose via Madrid.
American Airlines (020 7365 0777; and British Airways (0844 493 0787; fly via Miami. With British Airways you need to connect to an American Airlines flight
Costa Rica has two seasons; the Dry Season from December-April and the Green (Or Rainy) Season from May-November. However it doesn’t rain all the time during the Green season – showers tend to be brief - and this can be a pleasant, and more affordable, time to travel

More information:

Sunday, 10 August 2014


Children's book review


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.

by Juliet Rix
illustarted by Juliet Snape
Published by Frances Lincoln Children's Books

£11.99 Hardback

Sunday, 13 July 2014


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.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014



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 cafés 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


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



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.

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