Where to stay in Mexico: Grand Velas Los Cabos

Loving life at Grand Velas Los Cabos

I’m still slightly reeling from my fabulous year of travel in 2017. I visited eight new countries, two new continents and completed my full house of seven continents visited when I set foot on magical Antarctica. What a trip that was, you can read more about it by clicking here.

And one of my new countries was fabulous Mexico. An overnight flight to Mexico City, a short hop to the little airport of Cabo San Lucas on the Baja Peninsular and a drive through the cactus-lined desert and we arrived at the glorious Grand Velas Los Cabos.

This five-star all-inclusive resort overlooks the sparkle of the Sea of Cortez and has everything you could possibly want for a heavenly beachside escape.

Here’s what I loved about it.

The views

The hotel is designed so that no matter where you are there’s always a stunning azure sea view, punctuated by the blue sparkle of the pools, the greens and vibrant colours of tropical plants and palm trees and of course the perfect white sandy beach. What a combination!

Grand Velas: pool and sea

Views in different shades of blue

I even found myself up early in the morning (extremely early) watching the golden sunrise from my balcony and taking endless sea vista pictures. Views don’t get better than this for beach babies like me.

Grand Velas: balcony view

The stunning view from my balcony

The beach

The beautiful white sand was perfect for early morning meanders – especially as often I was the only person around. How I loved leaving the first footprints of the day in the sand.

Grand Velas: beach

The pool leads on to the quiet beach

And little cabana-style beds on the beach are the perfect place to chill and enjoy a cocktail or two.

Grand Velas: Beach beds

Chill out on your private beach bed

Grand Velas: Beach

My footprints on the beach early in the morning

The pools

There are plenty of beautiful lounging opportunities at the cleverly designed beachside infinity pools with their tempting, comfy beds. And of course the chance for an instantly refreshing dip any time of day.

Grand Velas: pool and sea

Escape to a land of blue sparkle

My personal concierge

Grand Velas Los Cabos is all-inclusive and that includes all food and drink and your own personal concierge. We swapped mobile numbers at check-in and I was instructed to text or call her if I wanted anything. Not that I ever needed to as she seemed to appear as if by magic every time I even thought about asking a question. These angels will make all your wishes come true, bring you food and drink anywhere on the resort, book spa sessions, print out boarding cards (and anything else you may need printed)…generally make sure you want for nothing. Superb.

The suites

The rooms are beautifully decorated in shades of blue and white with huge beds, a desk and seating area, great wifi and a large balcony with totally stunning sea views.

Grand Velas: Room

How I loved my beautiful, spacious room

The mini bar

And a mini bar…worth a mention on its own. Constantly restocked, it has a wide choice of liquor and soft drinks, tea and coffee making facilities (with a wide range of beautiful teas to choose from) and a stylish bottle of local tequila. Delicious it was, too!

Grand Velas: Mini bar

Happiness is…a fully stocked mini bar

The fabulous food

Grand Velas Los Cabos is culinary heaven. It has seven restaurants – yes seven, and eating at all of them is included. You’ll find Mexican, French and Italian cuisine as well as fabulous seafood and steaks. Cocina de Autor does an amazing tasting menu with some truly inventive dishes inspired by local ingredients. The presentation was a sight to behold and the flavours so beautiful. Plus we had the chance to try plenty of Mexican wine – a first for me. I’m now definitely a fan.

Grand Velas: Cocina de Autor

Delightfully exotic dishes at Cocina de Autor

Grand Velas: sole

Delightfully sweet sole in a delicate foam

If you can’t drag yourself out of your stunning suite you don’t have to! Of course you wouldn’t have to – Grand Velas Los Cabos is that sort of place. It’s like they have anticipated every wish you could have and are ready to make them all come true. The 24-hour in-suite dining menu offers so many choices. I couldn’t resist this beautiful tuna tartare served with guacamole, salsa and tortillas. Every fish dish I sampled was out of this world – and as for the guacamole. Mexican avos rock.Grand Velas: Room service

Room service for tartare and guacamole

The food by the pool is also fabulous. There really is something special about lying on a sun lounger looking at the ocean and tucking into a fabulous fresh ceviche while sipping a mango daiquiri. Really – does life get better than this?

Grand Velas: poolside food

More fresh tuna, this time at the pool

The breakfast spread in Azul is jaw dropping. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a bigger array – it’s seriously a three-course breakfast type of place. And with more spectacular views it’s the ideal way to start your day.

Grand Velas: Azul

Sunny breakfasts on the terrace at Azul

The spa and gym

After all that breakfast feasting it’s just as well there’s a superb gym. Large, packed with equipment and with blue views over the sea to keep you motivated to work off some calories so you’re prepared for your next foodie treat. And yes, I did use it.

Grand Velas: Gym

The view from the gym makes exercise more enjoyable.

There’s also what the hotel describes as a lavish Water Ceremony. It’s basically the biggest jacuzzi I’ve ever seen with plenty of clever ways to massage different parts of your body and loungers to relax on if it all gets too much for you!

Grand Velas: Spa

The best jacuzzi in the world in the stunning spa

And the spa is like paradise within heaven. We had amazing massages and lay back afterwards with warm pillows and the softest of throws. Boy was it difficult to get up off that bed.

The sunsets and sunrises

How I love a good sunset (or rise), though being more of a nighttime sort of person I don’t see many of the rises. However at Grand Velas Los Cabos I found myself awake and ready to witness the dawning of the day before my early-morning walk on what felt like my private beach.

Grand Velas: sunrise

The best sunrises and sunsets ever

The excursions

Grand Velas Los Cabos is halfway between the towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. Both lovely places to visit with trendy shops and boutiques, bars to try and lots of water-based activities to enjoy. We went sailing out into the blue, saw amazing jumping manta rays leaping all around us, plunged into the balmy waters for a swim and sipped myriad cocktails as we sailed into the wind. Tequila Sunrise anyone?

Grand Velas: Sailing

Sipping cocktails while sailing the ocean blue

Grand Velas: Arches of Cortez

The Arches of Cortez against the azure sky

The Spanish-ness

Okay here’s a different one. Of course I was aware that Spanish is the language of Mexico but I guess I hadn’t computed that it would remind me very much of Spain. And my love of Spain is well documented – I visit at every opportunity I get. So I immediately felt so at home in this beautiful Spain-like country on another continent. And fell in love with its people too.

I really, really loved the paradise that is Grand Velas Los Cabos. Here’s my happy, sun-kissed  selfie to prove it.

Grand Velas: Beach selfie

And of course…a beach selfie

I flew to Mexico with AeroMexico, direct from London to Mexico City with an easy connection to Cabos San Lucas.

Check out the website at grandvelas.com

Where to stay in Phuket: La Flora Resort and Spa in Khaolak

I fell in love with Thailand on my first visit, many years ago and that love affair grows every time I return. It’s very appropriately called the Land of Smiles – there’s always plenty of smiling going on – which is extremely catching. This was my third visit to Phuket (my first to Khaolak), which makes it my favourite Thai destination – so far anyway.

Today we’re heading an hour’s drive north of Phuket International Airport to La Flora Resort & Spa in Khaolak.

The hotel’s set in beautiful gardens with two pools, overlooking the golden beach of Bang Liang and those perfect Andaman Sea vistas.

Here’s what I loved about La Flora.

The beach

La Flora sits on a beautiful bay framed by palm trees. The beach is perfect for long post-breakfast meanders before settling down for the inevitable sunbed session. I was often the only person paddling through the beautifully warm water and watching the lone fisherman in action.

The sweeping beach is perfect for sunny meanders

The heavenly view from my subbed

Colourful boats alongside the beach

The drinks on the beach

There’s great beach-side service at La Flora. From frothy cappuccinos, fruity shakes and daily cocktail specials, all delivered to your sunbed for you to savour.

A mango shake makes beach life better

Cucumber gin and tonic overlooking the sea

The pool-side rooms

We upgraded from a regular to a pool-side room. And what a good idea that was.

Our spacious and comfy room offered all the facilities on my really-want list: a fridge, kettle with coffee and tea, a safe, good air conditioning, plenty of fluffy towels and great wifi. The bathroom had a huge shower and a magnificent spa bath complete with lights that changed colour as you submerged yourself in clouds of bubbles. Very indulgent.

The comfortable, huge bed in our stylish room

The room opened out onto a deck complete with two sunbeds (a lot of sunbed action going on at La Flora, you can see). One more step and you were in the sparkling blueness of the pool – private for those lucky enough to be living alongside it.

The pools

Step out of your room for an early morning dip, swim up to the central pool bar or expend some energy doing lengths in perfect peace. The sparkling water and fluttering palm trees made a fantastic scene to open the blinds to in the morning.

Living the pool life – steps from our room

And here’s the jacuzzi. Simply press the button and enjoy some relaxing bubbles on the top step.

Our own personal jacuzzi right outside our stunning room

You’re spoilt for swimming choice at La Flora as there’s also the main pool adjacent to the beach. You’ll have to be up fairly early if you want to  nab one of the overlooking sunbeds. It’s an active pool with swimmers, paddlers and those simply enjoying the view.

The main pool is right on the edge of the beach

The food

How I love the breakfast buffets in South East Asia. The colourful platters of tropical fruit make for a delightful start to any day. My three favourites – the combination of Ps – Passion fruit, Pomelo and Papaya. All made to taste even more delicious by eating them overlooking the beach. And that’s just the start.

The perfect way to start the day

Gotta love a multi-course breakfast. The Asian selection was quite intimidating – all that decision making first thing in the morning. A couple of times a week there was a huge dim sum offering which I dived into.

Lift the lid to reveal myriad dim sum

The restaurant had tables right on the edge of the beach which we always headed for whatever the meal. You couldn’t find a nicer eating environment. For lunch we often tucked into starters from the a la carte menu, all of which were delightful, like these chicken satays.

Eating chicken satays overlooking the sea

On the beach just to the side of the hotel was a street food cart. Or should that be a beach food cart? Corn piled high, large, luscious spring rolls, satays and my favourite Thai salad – green papaya made in front of you.

Beach food delights right next door

We ate dinner several times off the a la carte menu which offered a great choice. And twice a week the hotel set up an incredible buffet spread showcasing a wide range of Asian and Western dishes.

It’s also worth mentioning that there was a decent selection of good, well-priced wine on offer which is not always the case in Thailand. As wine drinkers it made our La Flora experience just that little bit more enjoyable.

The service

Thailand is known for its friendly service and La Flora didn’t disappoint. Waiters made an effort to get to know you and make you feel welcome and everywhere you went you were greeted with a cheery sawsdee ka. One night the manager even got an extra table set up for us overlooking the beach when they were already all reserved.

The entertainment

We enjoyed listening to the duo from the Philippines who sang on a few of the nights, took requests and could perform a mean version of Candle in the Wind. Plus one night we were treated to beautifully elegant traditional Thai dancing. Here are the lovely ladies.

Beautiful, graceful and colourful traditional Thai dancers

The nearby town

Okay, this isn’t actually about the hotel but the fact that it was set just back from a charming little town is definitely worth a mention. Five minutes walk up the street to myriad massage opportunities, rustic al fresco restaurants and bars and shops for all your necessities. Oh and a marvellous array of street food, too.

The street food is great in Khaolak

An array of tasty skewers to dazzle

La Flora Resort & Spa is the perfect get-away-from-it-all spot for a relaxed beachside holiday with beach walks and plenty of swimming, delicious food and warm service. They do offer a range of excursions if you’re inclined to explore the area more, but as ever I found it hard to drag myself off that perfect beach.

 

Where to stay in Malton, Yorkshire: The Talbot Hotel

Continuing my series on Where to Stay on your travels, today we’re taking a mini break, heading north from London to Malton, Yorkshire.

The Talbot Hotel was originally built in the early 17th century as a hunting lodge and has traded as an inn since 1740. It was completely restored in 2011. Here’s why you should stay there.

The location

Set in the heart of the historic market town of Malton with its myriad shops and great food, it’s also only 10 miles from the North York Moors and 18 miles from the city of York. I love that you get the mix of country living – fresh air, peace and open spaces – as well as a bustling little town with great food shopping and a cookery school. Read more about what I saw in Malton here.

The views

Quintessentially English with green, rolling countryside as far as the eye can see. The hotel is set on a hill so you get a wonderful perspective on your surroundings and the rural world around you.

dsc01172

Yes, it really was this green, the English countryside at its best

The rooms

The beautifully decorated rooms are generous in size with a large, extremely comfortable bed, desk, separate seating area and lovely ensuite. I particularly loved the huge shower and its striking black and white tiles.

There’s a kettle and a range of coffee and tea including a lot of herbal brews – a refreshing cup of tea in the comfort of your room is always welcome.

Oh and the wi-fi’s really good – fast and reliable.

022

The breakfast

One of the absolute best things about staying in a hotel has to be breakfast time. I’m not usually much of a breakfast eater. I know, it’s the most important meal of the day, I just can’t manage it – unless I’m in a hotel, that is, and options are literally presented to me on a plate.

There’s a buffet offering of fruit, cereal and pastries and a menu of delights, too. The first morning I tucked into poached eggs and avocado on toast – heavenly.

img_3824

I love the combo of avocado and egg

On morning two I wrestled with my choices, ultimately abandoning one of my favourite breakfast treats – eggs benedict – for the delights of a full English. Thought I’d better sample the local bacon, sausage and black pudding and I wasn’t disappointed. I liked the fact that it wasn’t stupidly huge like they sometimes are and I managed to polish off the whole plate.

Okay, I admit it, I must be a breakfast eater, just not if I’m making it myself.

img_3862

The full English Talbot-style

The Cookery School

Not only can you shop for and eat amazing food in Malton, you can learn how to cook it too. The Malton Cookery School is allied to the hotel and is just down the road. We did a Yorkshire lamb workshop, which you can read about here. There’s a wide range of courses all held in a kitchen with fantastic facilities and knowledgeable, professional teachers. A really fun and educational way to spend a morning and you’ll come away inspired with new ideas to try at home. I promise.

dsc01174

The spacious kitchen is a pleasure to work in

The Wentworth Restaurant

We had a delightful dinner in the hotel’s Wentworth restaurant (there’s also the more informal Malton Brasserie which I didn’t have the chance to try out). The menu showcases local products and offered some intriguing choices.

Like this cheese and pickle starter. Smoked Ribblesdale mousse was served with pickled golden vegetables and mustard granola. One of the prettiest starters in a long time and great in flavour, too, with its soft cheesiness, crispy veg and crunchy granola.

img_3839

A different take on a classic English combo

I opted for some local scallops which were served with pork belly, black pudding, carrot and blood orange. I’ve experienced the scallop/black pudding thing before and it’s quite amazingly good. The small slivers of pork belly were tender and flavoursome and the carrot puree sweet and delicious.

img_3843

Scallop heaven partnered with black pudding

The fish main course option was roast North Sea halibut which was served with mussels, braised fennel, Jeera (cumin) sauce and coconut. The sweetest of fish with an elegant and subtle cumin-flavoured coconut sauce.

img_3845

Fish with a touch of the Asian flavours

As we’d spent the morning cooking and eating lamb I had a rare desire for a vegetarian dinner. Lucky for me there was the perfect dish on the menu. The fried potato gnocchi came with woodland mushrooms, peas and broad beans and a silken truffle cream sauce. The little towers of gnocchi were beautifully browned and slightly crispy – just the way I like them, and the pea, bean and pea shoot added greenness and sweetness. The perfect dinner dish after a meat-filled day.

img_3847

A delightful plate of indulgent gnocchi

Tonight we were going big – so dessert was on the cards. The options were too good to resist. The Valrhona Manjari chocolate marquise came with cherries in kirsch, cherry sorbet and pistachios. The perfect pudding in shades of purple.

img_3852

Who could resist this chocolate/cherry combination

Being not much of a dessert person I took on the responsibility of trying the local cheeses with this substantial artisan selection served with yummy sloe berry chutney, poached grapes and biscuits. All good stuff – and as for the poached grapes.

img_3856

Yorkshire is definitely for cheese lovers

The service 

From the warm and efficient welcome at reception to the friendly greetings and smiles from staff, great dinner service and the chatty barman in the cosy bar, everyone is clearly doing their best to make sure you’re happy. And they seem to be enjoying it too.

I felt at home at The Talbot from the moment I walked through the door. It has a warmth and comfort about it and is the perfect base for exploring this beautiful and delicious part of Yorkshire.

003

Looking up towards the lovely hotel

Where to stay in Sri Lanka: my five favourites

Sri Lanka is a country of contrasts, from its cosmopolitan capital Colombo to the many sweeping beaches and majestically green mountains and forests, there’s a different aspect around every corner. And wherever you venture the welcome is warm, the food is exotic and delicious and there’s plenty of history and tradition to absorb.

Today I’m taking you to five places I visited and continuing my Where to Stay series, I’ve included five hotels I stayed in and why I particularly liked them. It’s a five-for-one sort of day. The pictures could speak for themselves really…some truly stunning places.

I started in Colombo. The city has a long history as a port on the ancient east-west trade routes (going back over 2,000 years) and it’s a very diverse history, too. Sri Lanka was ruled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British before independence in 1948 and this is reflected in the capital’s culture and architecture.

A mix of old and new (and updated) with teeming streets of myriad vehicles, bustling markets and people of all religions living in harmony. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen a mosque, a temple, a Roman Catholic church and an Anglican church all metres from each other. An example of diversity at its best. And easy to explore from the comfort of our base at The Kingsbury Hotel.

THE KINGSBURY HOTEL, COLOMBO

Perched proudly on the coast, The Kingsbury‘s sweeping driveway and spacious, high-ceilinged lobby makes for a grand entrance. And the rest of the hotel lives up to that initial expectation.

THE BEDROOMS

In the days of shrinking hotel rooms, I was delighted with the space and light with floor-to-ceiling windows and a massive bed in the centre of the room. I mean seriously massive, with the biggest and plushest pillows ever. How I wanted to bring one of those pillows home. A large ensuite with luxury walk-in shower was well stocked with Bulgari toiletries and fluffy towels.

deluxe-view

Beds don’t get more comfortable than this

THE FOOD

Buffets are extremely popular in Sri Lanka and The Kingsbury takes this to a seriously new level. Their splendid buffet spreads out over two rooms (I missed the second half initially) and offers a spread of Western, Indian, Japanese and South East Asian cuisine prepared by renowned chefs from around the globe. There are stunning displays of fresh produce at breakfast, lunch and dinner, an array of ready-prepared dishes and (my favourite part) food stations where the chefs cook fresh dishes in front of you. It’s where I ate the first of many hoppers (more of that in a later post) – a Sri Lankan favourite that I fell in love with. Their High Tea is a real show stopper.

dsc00045

The indulgent seafood section

THE SKY LOUNGE

Gotta love any opportunity for some alfresco socialising. The Sky Lounge is the perfect spot for sundowners – breathe in some of those sea breezes and watch the sun sink below the horizon. There’s a great cocktail list, so settle in.

Prishan Pandithage Photography

Al fresco sundowners overlooking the sea

rsz_dsc00041

My first Sri Lankan sunset…stunning

JETWING, YALA

Yala National Park, in the south-east of the country, is the second largest in Sri Lanka. It’s a unique mix of jungle, grassland, forest and scrubland also bordered on one side by the ocean. It is home to 215 bird species, 44 types of mammals and has one of the highest leopard densities in the world.

Set just outside the park, Jetwing Yala is the ultimate escape-from-everything sort of place. It nestles in an unspoilt forest reserve down a dusty road (always a good thing), bordered on one side by a stunning beach.

THE BEDROOMS

I’m no camper but give me a tent any time if it’s like this one. From the minute I unzipped the door (a novel way to get in to any room), I loved this large airy space and could have spent hours lying on the luxurious bed looking out towards the sea. And then there’s the bathroom. Light-filled and stylish with two showers – one indoor and one outdoor – I did love showering under the blue Sri Lankan sky and certainly left Yala squeaky clean.

Tented Villas, Jetwing Yala, Sri Lanka

Now this is my kind of tent

THE PEACE AND HARMONY

You’re driven in golf buggies to your tented villa (a quick call to reception and they’re there to pick you up again) and it really does feel you’ve been delivered to your own private piece of paradise. The large terrace looks out across the forest towards the sea and when night falls twinkling lights create a wonderland where the only sounds are the occasional animal on night time explorations. You’re woken at dawn by the rising sun and birdsong – another day to breathe in the freshest of Yala morning air.

Tented Villas, Jetwing Yala, Sri Lanka

As dusk falls, a new world unfolds

THE BEACH

A wonderful first for me – a national park that’s also a beach resort. And the beach at Jetwing Yala is stunning. There’s a bar and beds perched on top of the dunes where you can while away sunny hours or you can organise your own private dinner by firelight overlooking the sea. Just watch out for elephants – really, there’s a sign warning you to.

rsz_dsc00328

Sand dunes, the white beach and sparkling azure sea

JETWING KADURUKETHA, WELLAWAYA

Jetwing Kaduruketha offers a different environment to escape to. Set in the peaceful village surroundings of Wellawaya it’s a real chance to get in touch with the people and traditions of Sri Lanka. There are 25 chalets spread over 60 acres, overlooking the working paddy fields.

THE ROOMS

Beautifully spacious with light flooding in and an open-access bathroom running down one side. The huge shower looks straight over the fields. Plenty of seating options with a sofa, desk (with a fabulous view, I enjoyed blogging from here!) and verandah chairs. All rooms are supplied with their own bicycles for getting around the resort or heading off on your own voyage of discovery.

jetwingk

Your own private space with views all round

THE RESTAURANT

The open-sided dining room overlooks the hotel’s stunning pool, the paddy fields and majestic mountains in the distance. There’s an a la carte menu with a mix of traditional Sri Lankan dishes and contemporary Asian and International cuisine. Breakfast offered such a selection of deliciousness – my eggs Benedict was spectacular, with the addition of curry leaves for a bit of local flavour.

dsc00417

An amazing breakfast: Sri Lankan eggs Benedict

THE SCENERY

Kaduruketha is a perfect picture in shades of blues and greens. The resort itself with its trees, vegetable gardens, freedom and open spaces provides an instant leap back to nature. Meander through the fields, amble along the banks of the nearby bubbling streams, explore the village full of friendly locals or hike through the mountains. It’s your chance to kick back and immerse yourself in rural Sri Lanka.

dsc00407

Nature’s view: Paddy fields, forests and mountains

THE BLACKPOOL HOTEL, NURAWA ELIYA

The heights of Nurawa Eliya are often referred to as Little England – it was the favoured escape for the English and Scottish pioneers of Sri Lanka’s tea industry. The weather’s even pretty British – with swirling mist and plentiful rain. You can smell the aroma of tea in the air and see it growing all around you from The Blackpool Hotel (another touch of England for you).

THE BEDROOMS

The contrast from the steamy weather of the lowlands brings the opportunity to enjoy plush carpets underfoot, thick duvets to snuggle under and a wonderful in-room fire to toast your toes in front of. Large doors open onto the balcony overlooking the far-reaching greenness of terraced tea plantations.
blackpool

THE FOOD

Another amazing buffet spread to marvel at, below is just a small selection of the desserts on offer. Mind blowing! I also loved their grill station and area preparing fresh Asian dishes. Their chef prepared tempered potatoes and traditional dhal for us – two favourites from my trip – and these were the best I tried. The hotel also does a fantastic high tea – well you are in tea country after all. Remember to drink lots of tea while you’re here – it’s in a class of its own.

dsc00511

Dessert choices to make you very confused

THE SURROUNDINGS

I hadn’t anticipated that tea plantations could be so beautiful. On a magically misty morning the pickers were out in full force undertaking their daily delicate task of picking the best of the shoots from the tea plants. They punctuated the slopes of green in their colourful garb. The mountain views are stunning and the roadsides dotted with aromatic food stalls, tiny restaurants offering all means of local delicacies and fruit and veg vendors around every corner. The British introduced their favourites so as well as the usual Sri Lankan treats you’ll find plentiful strawberries, cabbages and cauliflowers on display. Nurawa Eliya’s like nowhere else in Sri Lanka.

dsc00538

A landscape of green with dots of colour

JETWING BLUE, NEGOMBO

Negombo is the fourth largest city in Sri Lanka and is famed for its expansive sandy beaches and fishing industry. Set on the west coast close to the airport, it’s a relaxing destination for a beachside break. You can see reminders of Dutch, Portuguese and British influence in the colonial charm of the town. And there’s an amazing fish market – more of which in another post. Jetwing Blue is one of four sister hotels set along a seemingly endless beach lined with palm trees.

THE BEDROOMS

Even when you’re in your room there’s no doubt you’re at the beach. The polished tiled floors, huge windows and balcony overlooking the sand and sea cleverly reflect your environment. There’s plenty of space to move with another enormous bed in the centre and a large desk area perfect for blogging. The stylish bathroom comes complete with Jetwing’s special toiletries and a deep bath to luxuriate in.

dsc00678

The perfect room for beach life

THE BEACH AND THE POOLS

It’s well documented that I’m a dedicated beach baby. So how heavenly is this beach/pool combination? Life is focussed on outdoor living with all roads leading to the beach which is lined with pools, bars and restaurants (but not too many) facing across the perfect view. There are plenty of sun loungers to chill out on and miles and miles to walk and ponder. Life’s better at the beach.

jetwingblue

THE FOOD

With one of the most fabulous fish markets I’ve ever visited just down the road, I knew there had to be great fish dishes at Jetwing Blue. The Negombo Crab is one of the signature local dishes and was made for us from scratch on the beach using a cornucopia of spices and the very freshest of crabs. The hotel’s buffet is another masterpiece of taste and vision. I started the day with a plate piled with tropical fruit – I don’t think my fellow travellers had ever seen so much passion fruit consumed by one person before. And there were more of those fabulous hoppers freshly made to order.

dsc00849

Negombo crab curry cooked for us on the beach

There’s a lot to discover in Sri Lanka. And its charming, welcoming people make it even easier to fall in love with this country of incredible diversity. Not to mention the food…more of which in a later post, so come back soon.

jetwingblueboats

Sailing boats are a typical sight on the beach in Negombo

I was a guest of the Sri Lankan Tourism Promotions Bureau on this trip.

I flew to Colombo on Emirates via Dubai.

Where to stay: South Hill in the Elgin Valley, South Africa

Continuing on my series of lovely places to stay, today we’re deep in the Elgin Valley. It’s time to get away from it all.

Just over an hour’s drive from central Cape Town, yet feeling a long way from the bustle of the city, South Hill offers luxury accommodation in their modern five-bedroom guest house. Large en-suite rooms and a fabulous communal living area (both inside and out) offer all the comforts of home and more. There’s a 15m pool to cool off in the garden – and a pizza oven, too –  how’s that for a cooking dream come true (well, one of mine anyway).

And then there’s the Pumphouse, set overlooking row upon row of Shiraz vines, which is where we stayed. A self-contained little cottage, again with cooking facilities, a comfortable seating area and a sleeping area with expansive vineyard views and a large, comfy bed. Outside there’s a verandah and deck overlooking the lake, a jacuzzi and tempting hammock to while away the hours in.

pumphouse

The peace and comfort of the Pumphouse beckons

South Hill is the perfect place to get away from life for a while. Here’s what I loved about it.

The total tranquility

Seriously, it doesn’t get more peaceful than this. A winding drive off the busy N2 motorway through apple trees and vineyards takes you deep into the valley where South Hill feels like it’s the only place for miles around. You’re surrounded by mountains, vineyards and wide open spaces and pretty much nothing else. Watch the stars light up the night sky (an unusual sight for a city dweller) and open your curtains to the rosy dawn across rows of vines groaning with luscious grapes.

view2

Vines as far as the eye can see from the Pumphouse bedroom

The views

There’s no doubt that life is better with a view, and there are plenty of stunning ones here.

views1

Blue skies and green vines viewed from The Gallery Restaurant

The wine

The first thing to do to get yourself into the South Hill state of mind is taste their wine. There are seven of them and they’re all delicious. Four of the reds are named after members of the King family who own the place – nice touch – I’d love to have a wine named after me.  Inevitably we left with a case tucked under our arm…there’s no escaping that.

grapes

The Shiraz grapes look so good on the vine you can tell they’re going to make stunning wine

The food

The Gallery Restaurant at South Hill is open for breakfast and lunch from Wednesday to Sunday. The food is prepared from local, seasonal ingredients. We had a delicious, laid-back lunch which you can read about in a previous post by clicking here.

Beautiful olive bread got lunch off to a good start

Beautiful olive bread got lunch off to a good start

goatscheese

My wonderful starter with a mouth-watering pea panna cotta

The restaurant is also a gallery showcasing the work of local artists. So great views both inside and out.

restaurant

The stylish light-filled restaurant

The activities

There’s plenty to do in the area if you’re feeling active like walking, mountain biking, kayaking or quad biking. Just don’t forget to take your camera as you’ll see endless photographic opportunities. Of course you could just curl up with a book and exercise your mind instead.

The farm stalls

Okay, this is an unusual one, but for me it’s part of the Elgin experience. I love a good farm stall and these are two of my favourites. Peregrine is fabulous, packed with freshly baked goods, preserves, fruit and veg, local produce galore. Also the perfect place to stop for breakfast or lunch – and their coffee is very good. Or just a bit further along the motorway you’ll find Houw Hoek whose pies are legendary.The restaurant at South Hill is only open for breakfast and lunch, so stock up on your way there and enjoy local delicacies in the comfort of your home away from home for dinner. And don’t forget to buy some apples – Elgin is apple country after all.

Try out the delicious local fruity preserves

Try out the delicious local fruity preserves

South Hill is at Valley Road, Elgin. Find out more at www.southhill.co.za

The Blue Train: A fabulously tasty experience

Okay, so you’ve been taken through the journey and sheer luxury of The Blue Train – now it’s time for the best bit (in my opinion)…the food.

From the minute you step into the Dining Car with its crystal glassware, crisp white linen and welcoming waiters, you know you’re in for a real treat. There’s a strong emphasis on local ingredients with some really clever combinations and a comprehensive wine list of  top South African wines.

You can choose from two dinner sittings (6.30 or 8.30) or eat in your suite.

First meal – lunch/brunch. There’s a choice of two starters, a soup affair and three mains as well as dessert and cheese. Service is wonderfully relaxed and friendly, yet efficient and well paced between courses. And the food is certainly something to write home about.

This perfectly pretty starter of goat’s cheese mousse came with grain mustard, compressed melon and micro greens and an aged balsamic glaze. Light and refreshing.

lunch starter

A beautiful, light plate of food got my dining journey off to a good start

In in-between bowl of cauliflower and truffle soup was beautifully earthy and rich.

cauli soup

Indulge in cauliflower and truffle soup

When I look back on my menu choices, I seem to have eaten a lot of red meat on this trip. A great choice as it happens as everything was totally delicious. This charmingly named lattice beef loin was amazingly tender, packed with flavour and served on a sweet potato puree with rosemary and mint jus. The perfectly prepared and cooked julienne vegetables were a sight to behold on their own – amazing attention to detail and flavours on this plate. I savoured every mouthful.

lunch steak

Tender beef, sweet veg and buttery pastry to savour

Between lunch/brunch and dinner there’s High Tea in the Lounge Car. A fine array of sandwiches, cakes and an amazing cheeseboard tempt you. Aware that dinner wasn’t too far away (I was allocated the early sitting), I held back but couldn’t resist one perfectly soft and crunchy, crustless cucumber sandwich. And a glass of bubbles, of course.

Time to get back to the charm of the Dining Car and some amazing dinner choices. First off a really novel foie gras dish – caramelised foie gras served with amadumbe ( a tubular root vegetable much like a yam) oat granola and lemon powder. It was served with beautifully creamy avocado (which also added a lovely green vibrancy) – what an amazing combination of richness, sweetness and tenderness that produced. A dish to dream of.

foie gras

Silken foie gras with fresh, creamy avocado

I was still basking in the pleasure of these taste sensations when my main course arrived. Ox cheek covered in biltong powder, served with a potato waffle,  pea puree and marrow sauce. So many local ingredients in a cleverly conceived of dish. Love it!

ox cheek

Another exceptional steak dish…love the biltong powder

With such exceptional food being delivered to my table I simply had to try out the dessert – in the name of research of course. And because lemon desserts are my one true dessert love. The lemon tartlet was served with a citrus curd and passion fruit jam, topped with a lemon foam and finished off with a lemon macaroon. Beautifully light and zesty, the perfect conclusion to my lovely dinner.

dessert

A fresh, lemony and fruity dessert

I’ve mentioned that the wine list is fantastic…and even better you can order all the wines by the glass. Basically everything is available which makes for the most fabulous tasting opportunity.

Happy and replete I retired to the luxury of my suite for an early night and an early awakening so I could watch more of the South African world go by when it got light. And then to breakfast.

Well, can breakfast be your favourite part of a trip? It’s just that I don’t ever remember being presented with such an amazing breakfast menu, which is why I simply had to include it in all its glory!

Love the selections under the English Breakfast heading – can you imagine what a plate full of all that would look like? There’s two pages of choices…what a way to start the day.

breakfast menu1

From page 1 I enjoyed tea, fruit juice (and they had my favourite, guava) and a lovely plate of fruit, which again included all my favourites: mango, pineapple, papaya, watermelon, melon…fresh and juicy.

fruit2

The prettiest plate of fruit to start with

And then it was on to page 2: Speciality Breakfast. How to choose, how to choose! Well, I adore Eggs Benedict, so that made it all that little bit easier. But then my lovely waiter asked me if I’d like any extras on the side…and I had to add some peri peri chicken livers!

Breakfast menu2

I’d say this could be the best Eggs Benedict I’ve ever had (and I’ve tasted my share of this classic dish). Breakfast doesn’t get better than this.

benedict

The best Eggs Benedict with a side of peri peri chicken livers

I had to drag myself out of that Dining Car, and it wasn’t easy. With my love of train travel, the Blue Train’s luxury and incomparable service, the fabulously unfolding South African countryside outside the window and then the truly amazing, creative food with a real local flavour I knew I’d been cocooned in my own special paradise. I still miss it!

And here’s a beautiful fruit display to enjoy – all the food is a word of art to enjoy on The Blue Train.

fruit

Find out more about The Blue Train by clicking here.