Europe


3
Jan 13

Mother on the Orient Express

Mum cried when I told her, I knew she would.  Being invited for a day out on the Orient Express inspires that kind of reaction. We’re talking happy tears of course, she was without a doubt overjoyed at the prospect of spending some time on the world’s most luxurious and romantic train but there was more to it than that. Her father, my grandfather, worked on the railways and she spent many happy childhood moments riding Glasgow’s old steam trains on his knee. And as Mum is as emotional as a Victorian heroine at the best of times – she pretty much cries every Saturday night for the entire ten weeks of X-factor – those warm memories along with the new mother-and-daughter ones we were about to create inspired a torrent of tears.

It wasn’t long though before sentiment was replaced with excitement. Outfits were planned and arrangements were made. Our day out was to consist of a six-hour Christmas-themed journey through the English countryside on the Northern Belle, one of the Venice-Simpleton Orient Express trains that operate day trips and weekend breaks around the UK. We were setting off from Manchester but the route was to remain a mystery until we arrived.

Brass Band at Victoria Station. The perfect prelude to a trip on the Orient Express.

Frocked up and tissues at the ready, we alighted at Victoria Station to be greeted with the glorious sight of  the chocolate and cream-coloured carriages of the Northern Belle while a traditional brass band played Christmas favourites in the background. It was all so retro and lovely, I was worried Mum might burst in to tears again. Thankfully, before I had to reach for the Kleenex, we were given the nod by a dapper OE attendant and led to our carriage.

It was hard to notice the scenery with beautiful marquetry like this on the walls.

Inside white-gloved stewards glided past bearing bottles of champagne while smartly-dressed guests rattled their jewellery as they settled into deep armchairs. Everything about it echoed the golden Thirties from the walnut veneer walls with their magnificent marquetry to the gleaming brasswear and Lalique lamps. Mum was giddy but it was clear that everyone was excited; the guests were a friendly mix of young and old, lots of couples and a more than a handful of groups of friends and were all happily chatting and snapping pictures. We found ourselves sat at a table for four, sharing our space with two stylish sisters, who by the end of the day would turn out to be new Facebook friends and post-journey drinking buddies.

Our route through Cheshire and Shropshire.

The route of our magical mystery tour was soon revealed to be a trip around the Cheshire and Shropshire countryside. Hmmm. I had assumed that we would be touring somewhere scenic like the nearby Lake District or Peak District rather than the industrial estates of Stockport and transport depots of Crewe. A little bit disappointing but not a huge deal as a trip on the Orient Express really is more about the train than anything else.

Christmas lunch menu on the Orient Express Northern Belle

As we pulled out of the station all eyes were on the Christmas menu, a suitably festive five-course feast complete with wine and Christmas crackers. The crystal and silverwear softly clinked as course after course of delicious food was deftly presented by ever-smiling staff.

Smoked gravlax with salmon mousse to start.

 

 

 

 

 

All of the food was absolutely delicious and beautifully presented. Our stewards for the day, Stuart and Amy, a grandfather and granddaughter team from Manchester, did a grand job of looking after everyone.

Our lovely stewardess Amy – doesn’t she look like Reese Witherspoon?

In between courses we were also treated to some rather lively on board entertainment. First up was Lido the magician who impressed guests with a series of “how did he do that?” card tricks.

Lido the Magician

Followed by a couple of marvellous musicians playing show tunes, swing songs and Christmas favourites with the panache.

White Christmas

Throughout the day the atmosphere was refined yet incredibly friendly. Passengers chatted amongst themselves for the most part but as the wine and champagne flowed people starting leaning across the aisles telling their stories to each to each other. And everybody had a story; one of the young ladies sat with us had recently lost her father and her sister had brought her along to cheer her up; another lady was celebrating her birthday; while a long-time passenger in the next cabin told me that he has commissioned his coffin to be made in the shape of the Northern Belle! Seriously, the guy’s casket features walnut marquetry and is lined with the same upholstery material of his favourite train. Even Stuart, our steward, had a secret tale; he was in fact the brother of comedian Russ Abbott – lots of “See you Jimmys” in the carriage after that revelation. It certainly wasn’t your average train time chat.

My favourite fellow guests though were George and Frances who were sat across the aisle from us. Aged 83 and 80 respectively, they informed us that they were in their sixtieth year of marriage – apparently the secret is that you have to be friends first – and inspired us all to tears (luckily I had a substantial stash of tissues on hand). This diamond duo had also travelled all over the world – China was Frances’ favourite – had climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge and sky-dived – YES, SKY-DIVED – from 12,000 feet over Bondai Beach just two years ago. Incredible.

Mommie Dearest with our superstar steward, Stuart.

By the time our gilded chariot pulled back into Manchester, everyone had become firm friends and when it came time to say our goodbyes there were lots of hugs and best wishes all round. Full of Christmas spirit and bon homie, we bade the beautiful Northern Belle a goodbye – a tearful one of course.

GO THERE

Visit www.orient-express.com for more information.

 

 


10
Dec 12

My Parisian apartment

I love Paris. I really do. I love to walk along the banks of the Seine marvelling at the Eiffel Tower and to flutter around its giant department stores stopping for champagne and cake along the way. But I’m ashamed to say that that’s really all I’ve seen. I’ve visited three or four times over the years but have generally orbited around the big tourist attractions and then, before I know it, it’s been  time to say au revoir.

This time though, I really wanted to immerse myself in local life so during my recent vintage shopping trip to Paris I plumped for an apartment – handily the folks at Housetrip.com have thousands of properties to choose from all over the world and the booking process couldn’t be easier. For a change, I decided to venture into unchartered territory, staying near the Place de Clichy, on the edge of the city’s 17th arrondissement – just a hop, skip and a jump away from the artsy Montematre district, and a few minutes walk from the kitschy colourful Moulin Rouge. I liked the area; there were virtually no tourists but it was still buzzy with plenty of bars, cafes and quirky shops to choose from.

 

My apartment in Paris – it was really lovely. Unfortunately I forgot my camera and had to make do with my phone and Instagram.

The apartment itself was spacious with three good-sized bedrooms – the master bedroom had its own bathroom and a sauna too – quelle surprise!  It also had a smart fitted kitchen with every appliance you could possibly need, and an airy lounge with huge TV. There was a little terrace too if you fancied breakfast al fresco. Even though I arrived late at night, it was easy to check-in. I was met by one of their cheerful staff, swapped keys and got that essential wi-fi password.

My morning coffee and croissant spot in Paris.

So for the next few days, I wandered the area, hopped on and off the Metro and made the most of all those fabulous cafes on my doorstep. And although I love nothing better than staying at a gorgeous hotel, I have to say that if you really want to get under the skin of a city then an apartment is definitely the way to go.

GO THERE

HouseTrip.com has over 3,500 private rentals to choose from in Paris. The average price for a two bedroom apartment is around £84 per night, however, they have a range of apartments, houses and houseboats available starting from just £19 per night. To book a stay visit www.housetrip.com/en/Paris

15
Nov 12

Vintage shopping in Paris

Paris plus vintage shopping – could there be a more perfect travel amalgamation? I think not. And it’s certainly a favourite combination for celebrities and famous fashion faces too. Parisians, of course, take their fashion very seriously, so this is an amazing city to just stroll and shop, but if you really want to know where to go for those amazing one-off fashion finds you’ll need your own personal shopper.

Tara Munro is a vintage shopping specialist and her company Ooh La La Vintage in Paris has worked with everyone from Hollywood costume departments to TV stylists and A-list celebrities. The world’s top fashion houses including Lacroix, Karl Lagerfield, Chanel, Nina Ricci and Marc Jacobs have also come knocking at her door, seeking inspiration from Tara’s amazing retro collections.

Ooh La La’s services aren’t restricted to the red carpet and catwalk though, it’s also perfect for women who are looking for that gorgeous one-of-kind item. And at £45 for a tailor-made tour it’s not as expenses as you might think either. So,eager to sharpen my sartorial skills, I settled in for a clothing master class.

Tea and macarons set the scene

It’s entirely up to you how you arrange to spend your two hours. I was staying at an apartment in Paris with the lovely folks from Housetrip so it made sense to start our session there. While Tara set-up, we sipped tea (then champagne) and tucked into some magical little macarons.

Victorian jacket

Tara’s collection extends right back to Victorian times so not only did we get to ooh and aah over some amazing  frocks and fabrics, we also got a bit of fashion history lesson too.

Loved this shimmery number from the Twenties

The Thirties: this two-piece looks like it came straight from the set of Boardwalk Empire

Tara tells us how material was scarce during the war years but that didn’t stop fashion  - a dedicated dress-maker made this little number from discarded snooker table fabric.

Just peachy 1950s evening dress –  I so wanted to try this on and pretend I was Grace Kelly

Eat your heart out Peggy Olson.

On to the sleeker side of the Seventies.

Ending with some 1980s excess

Presentation over, we were given the chance to try on any pieces that we fancied before taking our newly-found fashion knowledge on to the street. Naturally, Tara knew all the best spots in town to bag a vintage bargain, and I have to say, there is no way I would have found these little shopping gems without her.

Mamie Blue

Mamie Blue was my favourite and the place where I picked up a gorgeous little Mad Men-esque gold lamé top for just 20 Euros. Brimming over with a dizzying array of clothes, hats, shoes, jewellery and accessories, it’s like a big decades-old dressing up box where you could easily stay for a year and still find things to play with.

 

 

 

 

 

This was definitely one of the most enjoyable days out I have had in Paris; champagne, pastries and a little bit of a history lesson all neatly tied up with the possibility of picking up a little bit of treasure for yourself at the end of the day. A winning combination indeed and not one that’s just for celebrities either.

GO THERE

HouseTrip.com has over 3,500 private rentals to choose from in Paris. The average price for a two bedroom apartment is around £84 per night, however, they have a range of apartments, houses and houseboats available starting from just £19 per night. To book a stay visit www.housetrip.com/en/Paris

 

 


12
Dec 11

Picture Perfect Prague: The Mandarin Oriental

I’ve been so busy jetting around the world these last few weeks (don’t hate me) that I’ve not had time to think about the fast-approaching festivities. So far, I’ve not sent any cards, bought any presents, or put up the tree – not good! I need to start channelling some serious Christmas spirit soon or before I know it the Big Day will be here and I’ll be twinkle-less, tinsel-less, trying to whip up a dinner out of tins of tuna, while wrapping garage-bought gifts in tinfoil. So where might be the perfect place to put me in the mood for forthcoming festive season? Why Prague of course. Home to cobbled streets and horse-drawn carts, awe-inspiring architecture and charming castles; during winter there will certainly be snow and throughout December there’s a beautiful Christmas market. Prague’s picture-perfect appearance also makes it the ideal backdrop for a Hollywood blockbuster and films like Amadeus, The Chronicles of Narnia, Casino Royale, and most recently the new Tom Cruise movie, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, have all been shot in the city.

The Lowdown

Whether it’s for work or pleasure, when the A-list are in town then their hotel of choice is inevitably the gorgeous Mandarin Oriental. Discreetly located at the end of a quiet lane in the elegant Mala Strana district, the 99-room property is squirreled away from prying eyes yet still close to the action. Sitting in the shadow of Prague castle and just a few minute walk from the Charles Bridge and the Vltava River it offers the perfect celebrity hideaway.

Kevin Spacey and John Malkovich are two superstar guests that have been reported in the press, Katie Holmes and little Suri were spotted playing in the nearby park, and Wayne and Colleen  Rooney chose the MO as the location for their make-it or break-it holiday last year. Loads more stars have stopped by but secret entrances and private suites far from prying eyes have prevented them from being papped and the tight-lipped concierge was giving nothing away!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the street, an understated (and easily-missed) archway leads to a honey-coloured terrace surrounded by the smooth white walls of what was once a 14th cloisters. Inside, the warm and intimate lobby area portrays the kind of timeless elegance the Mandarin Oriental group does so well – think luxe-y contemporary design blended seamlessly with period features, smartly-clad staff, and a cool orderly vibe.

Each room has its own unique features, some have vaulted ceilings, some have sweeping arches, and all have beautifully polished antique parquet floors, tactile furnishings, and enormous comfy beds draped in navy silks.  The standard rooms are a bit on the squeezy side but I had the pleasure of staying in a Junior Suite which boasted a separate living room with big wide windows and views over the cobbled streets of Mala Strana. Understated luxury was the order of the day and the lovely limestone bathrooms were packed with lavish touches like highly-covetable range of Aromatherapy Associates amenities, duvet-like robes and a tub so deep it called out for a Hollywood-style bubble bath. The star treatment continued come bedtime with a turndown service that included lavender-scented pillow mists on the bedside table. All that was left to do was to order some (pricey but delicious) room-service and retire to my cloud-like bed. Heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Highlights

I was so looking forward to sampling the delights of the spa. I’d been for a massage at the Mandarin Oriental Macau years ago and still felt relaxed just thinking about it, so expectations were high. I wasn’t disappointed. Although the feel of the spa was still distinctly Mandarin, the design cleverly embraces the spa’s unique history as a former Renaissance chapel; walking through the hotel’s secret passage feels like stumbling into a private museum. Beautifully preserved pieces of history dotted the corridor and, once inside, glass walkways hover above ancient church ruins and fantastic original frescos decorate the walls. A bright spacious lounge awaited, complete with screened relaxation areas and tea lounges, and infused with a sense of monastic calm. The sense of serenity continued through to the treatment rooms where my therapist, Andrea, skillfully kneaded my sightseeing-weary body into blissful submission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other highlights include Essensia, the hotel’s restaurant. I only made it down for a superb breakfast (with the best smoothies ever) but the dinner menu was a mouth-watering selection of  local Czech dishes and Asian cuisine that I was sorry to have missed. Chic bar, Barego, is the place for people-watching, celebrity-spotting and mixes a mean cocktail.

 

Star Style

 

Danni Minogue is said to adore the Aromatherapy Associates range used by the Mandarin Oriental Spas and I have to agree – they’re lush. I absolutely fell in love with their heavily (and heavenly) scented products. Try the fabulous De-Stress Muscle Rub £20 for 150ml for an in-house rub down.

 

 

 

 

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