Sunday, 15 November 2015

Taking a walk on the South Bank side

The London Eye
Ever had a day in London where you try to pack too much in? You choose attractions which are in different locations then spend your whole time negotiating the city's underground system, popping up to see something before descending back down into the bowels of the earth via the Piccadilly Line escalators.

On a recent trip to the capital, when we stayed at the Mondrian Hotel, Sea Containers, we decided to focus on the south side of the river and it proved to be a great success. The main advantage for me is the lack of traffic. I am the world's worst road-crosser and in London I am a slave to the lights and the Look Left/Right signs painted on the tarmac. On the south bank, along the river, it's pedestrianised, making it a real pleasure to just amble. It's perfect for families too as its much safer and the air probably less polluted.

If you arrive at lunchtime, head for London Bridge, using The Shard as a visual guide, and make your starting point Borough Market, where you can choose from dozens of delicious food outlets. We picked a fantastic Malaysian chicken curry which we ate sitting on a wall in the sunshine outside Southwark Cathedral.

Heading west you can visit a reconstruction of Francis Drake's Golden Hinde II, the Clink Prison Museum or be tempted by a wine-tasting at Vinopolis. If art is your thing, the Tate Modern is always worth a gander.

Passing Blackfriars Bridge you can't miss the Oxo Tower and nearby, the delightful Gabriel's Wharf, an area of small independent shops and cafes which look as if they've been scooped up, en masse, from some small provincial town: hard to believe this is in the centre of one of the world's busiest capital cities.

Did you know there is a little beach here too? Only recently named Ernie's Beach, after a local resident and activist, John Hearn MBE (known as Ernie) who has spent many years campaigning against the reclamation of the foreshore. He joined the Coin Street Action Group in the 1970s, fighting for affordable housing and open spaces. Ernie and the group succeeded in persuading the authorities to save the existing river wall and beach. A plaque was recently erected to highlight Ernie's dedication to this part of London.

Ernie's beach

If you start to flag, there are plenty of benches to rest weary legs. Look out across the river and see the cruisers ploughing up and down or admire the Dazzle Ship, Tobias Rehberger's bold transformation of HMS President, moored on the north bank of the Thames. Dazzle camouflage was first used in the First World War, making it difficult for the enemy to target a ship. The idea was not to hide the ship but paint them so they were optically distorted. A submarine would have difficulty calculating the course a ship was travelling on or know from what angle to attack. HMS President was originally 'dazzled' like this: contrasting curves and stripes, breaking up its shape and outline.

HMS President - the dazzle ship. 
There are gardens everywhere, from the Jubilee Gardens near County Hall to the hidden roof garden of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. There's a massive sand pit for children and probably the oldest skate park in the world under the South Bank Centre. Everywhere you look there are pop-up bars, cafes and street entertainers. It can get busy but never feels crowded.

To rival the offerings in the West End, there's the National Theatre and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Spend an evening at either of these or make the most of darkness descending by taking an evening trip on the London Eye where the whole glittering, sparkling capital will be laid out before you.

We spent one evening at the National Theatre, seeing George Farquhar's comedy, The Beaux' Stratagem. It's ages since we've been to the National to see a play but it has made us both realise how fantastic this theatre is, not least for its number of loos. I know this shouldn't really be a consideration when choosing to see a production in London but, having queued endlessly for the ridiculously small number of toilets in most West End theatres, it really was a joy to have an abundance of cubicles, on each floor. This is also worth remembering if you are sightseeing on the South Bank during the day: if you are caught short there are plenty of facilities in the National and other public venues such as the Tate Modern.

You can easily spend a whole weekend on the south bank and never need public transport until it's time to head home. It's such a relaxed way to enjoy London and one we will definitely try again as we still only scratched the surface this time round.

This article originally appeared, in a shortened form, in my column in the Lincolnshire Free Press



Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The finer things in life at Sandals Royal Plantation Hotel

"Underneath the mango tree me honey and me...."

Honey Ryder emerges from the warm Caribbean sea onto the shore in Jamaica wearing a white bikini, a knife at her hip and carrying two pearly pink conch shells. James Bond hears the strains of the calypso style song and joins in. '"I can assure you my intentions are strictly honourable," he says, with a smile that suggests the opposite.

This famous scene from Dr No came to mind as I wiggled my toes in the sand in front of the Sandals Royal Plantation Hotel in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. My very own Sean Connery lay beside me and I heard his warm Scottish voice ordering our drinks from the butler: "Two pina coladas: shaken, not stirred."

Our itinerary for the week had been primarily to review the family resorts of Beaches Ocho Rios and Beaches Negril but with the adults only resort just a short taxi ride away, a little change of plan was agreed so that Dougie and I, the empty nesters of the group, could have a little taste of the Sandals experience.

The Royal Plantation hotel began life in 1957 as the Plantation Inn, built by the owners of the well-known Jamaica Inn, on the neighbouring cove. It attracted many celebrities in the fifties and sixties: Winston Churchill, Grace Kelly, Noel Coward and, naturally, Ian Fleming, whose passion for the island was so great he built his own property here, GoldenEye. The Sandals group restored the hotel in 2001 and it is now a 74 room, butler-service boutique property, exuding sophistication and laid-back style.

sandals royal plantation

The resort is small but quite perfect. Two beach coves, linked by a winding path: one for sunbathing, the other for water sports. A beautiful pool area with bubbling jacuzzi nearby, a lush, immaculate garden area with tennis courts and croquet lawn. There are five restaurants including French inspired cuisine in Papillon and The Terrace where you can dine by the light of the stars, overlooking the ocean, in the evening.

We took lunch at the Royal Grill, a very relaxed affair by the beach, and a more civilised afternoon tea on the aptly named Tea Terrace where gracious living came in the form of White Lotus and Marrakesh Mint loose leaf teas with teapots, strainers and an array of cakes and tiny sandwiches.

If we had stayed longer I think some time would have been spent in the Wobbly Peacock, an English style gastro pub, so named because of the birds which meander around the grounds of the resort, though it's usually only the patrons of the pub who end up wobbly.

room sandals royal plantation
All the rooms here have ocean views and are decorated in an elegant colonial style. We had a peek into one which had recently been refurbished - the dark mahogany wood retains the traditional feel of the building but the colour pallet is fresher with pure white and dove grey in the glamorous bedrooms and serene bathrooms.

This heavenly hotel, with its focus on service and attention to detail, is the ideal choice for a honeymoon or for those who appreciate peace, tranquillity and the finer things in life. But if you need a bit of excitement now and again, if the morning yoga and evenings by the piano aren't quite pushing all your buttons, you can opt to sneak into neighbouring Sandals Ochi. It's hardly sneaking though - there is an hourly shuttle bus or you can wade out from the shore and paddle round to the adjoining bay.

At the bigger and brassier Sandals Ochi, things are still luxurious, adult and all-inclusive but a whole lot wilder with more restaurants, activities, and even the occasional mechanical bull for that once in a lifetime thrill. Get it all out of your system before you return to the more civilised enclave of Royal Plantation. The hotel exchange only works one way so if you stay at Sandals Royal Plantation you have the best of both beautiful worlds.

Churchill, Coward and Fleming would certainly agree.

Our stay in Jamaica was courtesy of Unique Vacations (UK) Ltd, representing the Sandals and Beaches resorts.

Seven nights staying at Sandals Royal Plantation costs from £2029 per person. Price includes Luxury Included® (all-inclusive) accommodation in an Orchid Oceanfront Butler Room, return economy flights from London and resort transfers.Valid for travel dates 2 May - 24 June 2016. To book or for more information call 0800 597 0002 or visit


Thursday, 5 November 2015

Taking a close look at Beaches Ocho Rios and Beaches Negril

Island routes catamaran cruise jamaica
Island Routes Catamaran 
As a family we have had several beach holidays but usually in the Mediterranean or the Canaries. We never thought it would be worth travelling further than Tenerife in order to experience the fun of a beach resort. Why would you fly nine hours or more just to do the same activities as you would closer to home?

Five days in Jamaica at the Beaches Ocho Rios and Negril resorts has changed my mind completely. A holiday in the Caribbean is worth every one of those hours on the plane and even that wasn't a chore when you can start the adventure by relaxing in the No1 Lounge at Gatwick airport before a mega movie session on the Virgin Atlantic flight. A vacation with Beaches, the family division of the Sandals 'adults only' hotel group, is unlike anything I've ever experienced.

I thought I knew what all-inclusive meant until Beaches revealed their 'hidden inclusives'. No limits on crèche times, no extra fees for sports and a choice of several high quality restaurants. Granted these are luxury resorts and the upfront cost, including transatlantic flights, is not cheap, but the value for money, if you have a family who will make the most of all that's on offer, is exceptional. To sit in a smart restaurant, being served premium brand drinks, knowing you don't have to tot up the bill at the end or think about how much to tip, creates a stress-free environment.

Let me tell you a little more about the resorts.


Dougie and I spent three nights at Beaches Ocho Rios on the north coast of Jamaica, about 90 minutes or so drive away from the airport at Montego Bay. There's an overwhelming feeling of space, its buildings having the look of a Mediterranean resort, not surprising when you note that some of the accommodation is housed in the French and  Greek Villages.

There are 223 rooms in 12 categories, providing several options for families. How refreshing to see ample-sized suites and, joy of joys, interconnecting rooms. Whilst the decor is quite traditional, with dark wooden furniture, the space and storage facilities are second to none. Our huge bed was supremely comfortable, we had both a shower and a bath and there was a big balcony with superb views of the ocean. Decent sized toiletries from the on-site Red Lane Spa and enough fluffy white towels to create a whole ark full of towel animals. A fridge stocked with complimentary drinks, a microwave and a coffee-maker: those extra touches to make travelling as a family that bit easier.

There are six restaurants to choose from, mostly a la carte, including Italian fare in the Venetian, seafood down at the beach at Neptunes and my favourite, authentic Pan Caribbean cuisine in the elegant surroundings of Eleanor's. The dress code is casual so no need to dress up for the occasion if that's not your style.

Lounging by the pool is sublime; plenty of space, lots of loungers and a swim-up bar when you just can't wait a moment longer for that hummingbird cocktail. Meander down to the beach, or take the lift, and you'll find a private cove to relax or try your hand at a selection of watersports such as scuba diving, sailing and banana boat rides.

Pools exterior Ocho Rios Jamaica
Pools, waterpark and exterior of Beaches Ocho Rios

Pirates Island waterpark is sensational. Slides for all age-groups, adults and kids alike will have enormous fun here. It took some time to shift Dougie from this area of the resort. "Ok, you're allowed one more go," I sighed from the side of the pool. Out of the water, there are well-maintained tennis courts and a basketball court, table tennis, lawn chess, shuffleboard and unlimited play at the nearby Sandals Golf & Country Club.

The kids clubs are age-defined with a high staff to child ratio. The link with Sesame Street is a big draw for children. Many of the activities involve the characters - science experiments with Grover and baking with the Cookie Monster.  Teens have their own den and exclusive time in Liquid nightclub plus there's a large Xbox Play Lounge for all ages.

Kids club facilities in Beaches Ocho Rios


About 80 minutes drive from the airport, on the west coast of Jamaica, the resort sits on a seven mile stretch of gorgeous public beach. A more tropical vibe here, the accommodation reminiscent of former sugar plantation buildings.

Beaches Negril
Beaches Negril pool, beach and communal areas

220 rooms and suites in 11 categories, similar to those in Ocho Rios, again with excellent storage facilities, bath tubs and all the amenities mentioned above. I did like the idea of the hand basins being located in a separate area from the bathroom; a clever use of space.

Beaches Negril wins on the number of restaurants with nine on the complex, including the relaxed beachside ambience of Stewfish and the sensational Kimonos where we were entertained by our Teppanyaki chef. On our final night we dined directly on the sand at the resort's beach party, following on from the hotly anticipated Sesame Street parade.

If Ocho Rios triumphs with its waterslides, Negril scores highly with a fantastic lazy river to complement its extensive waterpark. Adults are also allowed to join the fun which includes being drenched by a massive bucket of water at regular intervals.

Scratch DJ academy Beaches Negril
Getting into the groove at Scratch DJ Academy
The beach is really is quite breathtaking, the perfect place for a stroll or to just sit and watch the sunset. We tried kayaking here and it was perfect: a fun and safe activity, no time limits and no hassle.

Whilst Dougie was shooting hoops on the basketball court and hunting for some mates to play beach volleyball, I joined the Scratch DJ Academy and was surprised to find I had a flair for it. Having taster activities such as this is what makes the Beaches model work so well.

Island routes snorkelling Jamaica
Mastering snorkelling with Island Routes

On our final morning we waited on the white sand for our fabulously sleek catamaran to take us on the Reggae Catamaran Cruise, organised by Island Routes, a sister company of Beaches/Sandals.  After wading out to meet the boat, the crew from the Kool Katt Kelly took us away from the shore for a spot of snorkelling and some inflatable fun at Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. We would have had to pay extra for this excursion, likewise any of the other tours off the resort or treatments in the spa, but it was definitely a highlight of the week so I highly recommend it.


During our stay in both resorts we were often heard to exclaim how much Rory would have loved being on holiday at Beaches whether as a toddler, young boy or teenager. He would have spent hours with his dad at both waterparks and doubtless would have tried many of the sports on offer at either resort. I don't think one would have outshone the other for entertainment and facilities. The Beaches experience is something very special, a testament to the hospitality provided by the staff: friendly yet always attentive with big smiles and a a willingness to make your stay as perfect as possible.

It's a pity we didn't discover Beaches when Rory was younger but I'm thinking a multi-generational holiday here in the future would be ideal. The appeal of the Caribbean and the Cookie Monster is timeless.

You're never too old for a Cookie Monster cuddle. 

Our trip was courtesy of Unique Vacations (UK) Ltd, representing the Beaches resorts. Here's more information about the holiday:

Seven nights staying at Beaches Ocho Rios – A Spa, Golf & Waterpark Resort costs from £1,775 per adult and £899 per child. Price includes Luxury Included® (all-inclusive) accommodation in a Caribbean Deluxe Family Sized Room, return economy flights from London and resort transfers. Valid for travel dates 2 May – 24 June 2016.

Seven nights staying at Beaches Negril Resort & Spa costs from £1,989 per adult and £899 per child. Price includes Luxury Included® (all-inclusive) accommodation in a Negril Deluxe Room, return economy flights from London and resort transfers. Valid for travel dates 2 May – 24 June 2016.

Island Routes Reggae Family Catamaran Cruise is available through Island Routes Caribbean Adventure Tours. Prices from $95 per adult and $66 per child. For more information visit

Gatwick lounge passes are available through No1 Lounges. For more information visit

Packing my Suitcase


Saturday, 17 October 2015

Rhine cruise with Emerald Waterways: Cologne

We said goodbye to Amsterdam from the comfort of the on-board swimming pool, moving effortlessly along the Lower Rhine. The flat landscape reminded me of home in the Fens: big skies, broad sunsets and those endless fields. That's the thing about river cruising: there's always something to see. Sitting at dinner that night we looked out of the window to see horses and cattle by the water's edge, groups of families enjoying the evening sun, barges ploughing the river, piled high with freight. Every so often we would enter a lock, the view would be curtailed for a few minutes then gradually the light would come flooding back as we popped back up to the surface. 

The scenery continued to delight the following day when we had a morning to relax on Emerald Star before our post lunch stop in Cologne. It was here we tried out the individual audio system provided for passengers during guided tours. No longer do you have to follow a chap with a large umbrella and a booming voice, now you have ear-phones and a battery pack so you tune into your guide who is able to talk at a normal volume into a head microphone. Lagging behind to take a photo? No problem, you can still hear what's being said. Fancy doing your own thing for a while? Easy: just wander off and if you see one of your party later on, just twiddle the buttons and tune in again.

Our guide in Cologne, Peter, showed us some of the beautiful houses and cobbled streets of the Old Town which were painstakingly restored after the war, before directing us to the magnificent twin-towered Gothic Cathedral. In the searing heat of the day, the inside of the cathedral was the place to be, and not just to see the stunning shrine of the Three Kings.

Having learned only a few weeks prior to our trip that the French authorities were going to start removing weighty love-locks from the Pont de Arts in Paris, we were curious about Hohenzollern Bridge which is equally adorned with such decoration. With great pride Peter assured us that, due to German engineering, there was no likelihood of a similar fate in Cologne.

Personal guides are invaluable when they point out the little things that might have passed you by such as the small statue on the town hall provocatively sticking his tongue out at the church opposite or the figure on the wall of a man's house, mooning at the tax collectors. Bottoms always get a laugh.

Cologne was a beautiful city and we were pleased to have time to explore a little on our own, to buy some Eau de Cologne and discover the Nutcracker House to see some traditional cuckoo clocks, ornaments and Christmas pyramids. We were so taken with the craftsmanship, we bought a smoking man to take home with some Glühwein-scented incense for him to smoke. Roll on December when he can take pride of place back home.

As in Amsterdam, the ship was moored in the centre of the city. It was an easy saunter back with our souvenirs and, as we cooled off before dinner, the ship moved off to leave us with a final glimpse of the silhouette of Cologne in its wake.

Old Town, Cologne. Richard Joseph
Restored houses in the old town 
(photo courtesy of Richard Joseph)

Cologne Cathedral Richard Joseph
Cologne Cathedral 
(photo courtesy of Richard Joseph)

interior cologne cathedral Richard Joseph
Interior of Cologne Cathedral showing golden shrine of the Magi
(photo courtesy of Richard Joseph)

Love-locks on Hohenzollern Bridge
(photo courtesy of Richard Joseph)

Mooning man
(photo courtesy of Richard Joseph)

Smoking man

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. 

All but the final photograph in this post were provided by my friend and fellow passenger, Richard Joseph.

Wander Mum