The joys of 2015: the experiences that made my year

Travel adventures abounded for me in 2015. Yes, I know how fortunate I am. It was a year full of amazing journeys, discovering new countries and revisiting old ones on three continents. Here are some of my favourite bits.

March

My Blue Train odyssey

It’s always been my dream to experience one of the world’s great train journeys. And this trip from Cape Town to Pretoria lived up to every expectation. Top quality service, amazing food, the comfiest of cabins and of course the ever-changing scenery on a journey through the majesty of South Africa. 27-hours of pure magic.

Find out more about The Blue Train by clicking here.

Table_Mountain_in_background.sized_

The stylish Blue Train leaves the Mother City, heading north

benedict-885x1024

The Blue Train has arguably the best breakfast menu in the world…and also the best eggs Benedict

June

A spontaneous short break to Barcelona

One of my favourite cities in the world, Barcelona has everything going for it. Amazing architecture, friendly people, great shopping, a huge beach, endless bars and restaurants serving amazing food and wine. And this trip was even better as it was a last-minute booking, an escape from a chilly grey London to the energy and blueness of a fabulous Spanish city.

sagrada3-768x1024

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the most stunning unfinished building in the world

And of course there’s the Boqueria, probably the best food market in the world – I know I should calm down with the superlatives. I reckon I could spend a whole holiday in here alone, with the mission of tasting something from every stall – a challenge I’d embrace whole heartedly.

tapas

One of the tempting tapas bars in La Boqueria

July

I embarked on a cruise around Northern Europe with my brother Ray, nephew Zak and niece Maxi. And our mascot Sigmund (the toy baboon, reflecting our African roots) who we took everywhere with us. It was a real adventure, visiting new countries like Estonia and Finland and starting off in wonderful Copenhagen where we spent a few days. There were three real standout experiences in a wonderful fortnight where we made new friends and discovered new lands.

Discovering the beauty of Copenhagen

This charming Scandinavian city was a revelation. Truly fabulous restaurants – we devoured course after course at the Michelin-starred Studio. We also shopped up a storm, caught up with old friends, ambled around picturesque Nyhaven and took in all the tourist sights. And the cherry on the top was that Elton John was playing in the world-famous Tivoli Gardens – and we got tickets. What more can I say?

studio food

One of many amazing and delicious courses we tucked into at Studio

little mermaid

The very little mermaid (she’s very beautiful, too), with our travelling companion Sigmund

Marvelling at St Petersburg

I hate the phrase bucket list – maybe it’s because (if I had one) I’m sure it would go on forever and be way too intimidating to tackle. Having said that I think St Petersburg should on everyone’s…from the grandeur of the Hermitage, the sheer scale and amazing design of the city, the majestic buildings and the somewhat brutal history. Oh and the caviar. When in Russia!

church

The Church on the Spilled Blood has to be the most stunning church I’ve ever visited

caviar

Sampling caviar with Zak and Maxine, and Sigmund of course

Sailing down the Thames through Tower Bridge

The cruise ended in London, I mean right in the centre of London – we sailed down the Thames with the city’s landmarks getting closer and closer until Tower Bridge opened up to let us through. I’ve lived in London most of my life and truly love the place. When the crowds lining the river cheered us through I had tears in my eyes. We spent our final night on the river overlooking Tower Bridge, The Shard and the Tower of London. Just perfect.

London skyline

The unique view of London’s landmarks from the River Thames

Tower Bridge

The beautiful lights of Tower Bridge at night seen from our ship

August

Loving the beachlife (and everything else) in sun-drenched Spain.

I visit La Manga in Spain every year and explore more and more of this versatile region each time. It seems there’s always something new to discover. The markets with their fabulous fresh produce and bargainous clothes, bags, shoes and jewellery, the many beaches lined with restaurants and bars serving delicious Spanish fare, the welcoming people and the sunshine and blue skies, how I love those Spanish skies.

sunrisespain

Early morning on the beach in Cabo de Palos, heavenly!

rose

A break from sun worshipping and swimming for a chilled Rose

purple night

The purple light of a summer night in Spain

September

At the end of September I embarked on another cruise. This time starting in Rhodes in Greece and sailing around the island of Symi before heading into Turkey. Our eight-berth Turkish gulet, the Muhtesem A was a joy to live on for a week in harmony with nature with endless seas and skies of blue. There were two highlights in a week of chilled-out happiness.

Our beautiful boat in the blues of Greece

Our beautiful boat in the blues of Greece

Absorbing the delights of  dreamlike Symi Harbour

My love affair with Greece continues. On the island of Symi you inhale the wild herbs at every step and the panoramas are endless. A hike to the top of the hill at sunset finished with my first taste of Retsina, a trip to the local herb man to stock up (of course) and a feeling of joy at this picturesque town.

our boat

Our boat berthed in Symi Harbour, picture perfect

herbsandspices

I couldn’t leave Symi without buying plenty of herbs from the charming Stavros

Sleeping under the Turkish stars.

Our idyllic days began with yoga and continued with absorbing the ever-changing landscapes, swimming in the crystal clear sea and eating delicious local food. They turned into starlit nights where I clambered on top of the boat, wrapped in a fluffy blanket and slept tight under the stars, waking to the sunrise, the bleating goats on shore and the early morning bread delivery by boat. A once-in-a-lifetime experience – one I hope to repeat!

You can find out more about Mediterranean Fitness Voyages by clicking here.

turkish sunrise

Perfect pinks and blues get the day off to the best start

breadboat

The bread man turns up just after dawn with freshly baked goods

October

Living the beach life Thai-style in Koh Samui

Another of my favourite places, the islands of Thailand call me back again and again – well I am a beach baby, after all. The Land of Smiles is the ultimate place to re-energise with warm, crystal-clear waters, laid back shopping days, beautiful scenery wherever you look, the myriad of fruit shakes and cocktails and all those tasty Thai dishes…I ate seafood every day in many different styles and it’s all such great value. Thailand rocks.

cocktails

Welcome to Koh Samui with a cocktail on the beach

papaya

My favourite Thai salad – spicy green papaya with prawns. Yum!

Well, what a year. Happy new year to you all, wishing you lots of adventures in 2016. As one of my favourite sayings goes: “Travel is the only thing you pay for that makes you richer.” How true is that?

Where is the best place you went in 2015? Where should I go next? I’d love you to inspire me with your travelling tales.

It’s Tapas Time in Murcia, Spain

So for today’s blog I’m in the province of Murcia in Spain. It’s a large region in the south-east that abounds in amazing produce. So much so that it’s known as the Orchard of Europe. Lucky restaurants, they have the best ingredients to cook with. And it’s on the sea, too, so plenty of fish.

I love the Spanish way of eating. Plenty of small, tasty dishes to share – it gives me the chance to try way more of the menu selection. And that’s got to be good. When in Spain, there’s no shortage of traditional bars and restaurants to enjoy amazing food in. Great, fresh local ingredients, simply cooked and served without pretension all makes for a wonderful experience and usually a great-value one, too.

One of our favourite restaurants in the fishing village of Cabo de Palos just down the road from the La Manga resort is called Miramar. We visit there every year, at least once, and this is our favourite dish. It’s called trimarino and is a combination of fresh baby whitebait, clams and prawns fried in olive oil, garlic and chilli and delivered sizzling to the table. It’s heaven and shouts “Welcome to Spain” to me as traditionally it’s what we always have for our first lunch. Traditions are a good thing…

trimarino

Beautifully fresh fish with flavoursome garlic and chilli

Today we tried something different, as the menu had changed somewhat since our last visit. Described as scallop with ham, this large scallop came in the shell served with the sweetest of onion and finely chopped serano ham, which added a sweetness of its own. Just wonderful.

scallop

A savoury/sweet dish of scallop, onion and jamon

Just down the road in this wonderful region of Spain is the La Manga strip. It’s a long piece of land (manga means sleeve in Spanish) that’s a bustling holiday town with plenty of beaches, bars and restaurants. And even better, bars and restaurants that are on the beach. A dip in the warmth of the sea is bound to bring on an appetite, so then it’s the short walk up to Bonobo, our latest discovery. No need for shoes (though you feet may get a little toasted on your short journey along the sand), this beach bar/restaurant is so laid back, but that’s not to say the service and food aren’t up to scratch.

Their house salad is a wonderful concoction of lettuce, tomato, cabbage, asparagus, cucumber and pineapple with a light and sweet dressing.

salad2

Bonobo’s salad is a beachside favourite

They also serve their version of the tasty baby lamb chops that are abundant in Murcian restaurants. Simply grilled with some grilled veg and light, crispy fries.

chops

Tasty lamb chops and chips…Spanish finger food

And then, the best of the lot, fried baby whitebait – or small, fried fish as it’s called on the menu. It’s so fresh, crispy and delicious you want to eat it by the handful. And I do!

whitebait

Small fried fish like no other

Another favourite port of call is the lovely little town of Mar de Cristal, even the name evokes feelings of pleasure. There’s a large beach and a balmy lagoon to paddle in – and right alongside it sits Arena restaurant.

They serve what could be the best patatas bravas in Spain…seriously. Amazingly crispy on the outside, soft inside and served with a mayonnaisy sauce that has a real chilly bite.

patatas

A potato dish to dream of

We also tucked into garlic prawns and chorizo in cider. All overlooking the beach and the blue water of the Mar Menor.

tapas at the beach

Lunch with views of blue

A restaurant much frequented by locals is Campo Verde which is kind of on the way to two towns, in the middle of nowhere. Again it’s great value and on Sunday lunchtime bustles with family business from all around. Their house salad makes the ideal starter with the freshest of ingredients, including lovely manchego cheese.

salad

The house salad is a must at Campo Verde

And then there are always journeys to be taken inland. The town of La Union, only a short drive from the La Manga Resort is in the centre of the farmlands. It’s quite a big place that has a lovely market (sandwiched by two rotisserie chicken sellers, the aromas certainly get your juices going) every Thursday where you can inhale the Spanishness and take in a nice tapas dish or two. No tourists in sight here.

Our lunch in the Taperia Edward which consisted of a pork dish in tomato sauce, Russian salad, a big plate of tasty croquettas and two glasses of wine cost us €11. And it was delicious and certainly substantial enough for three of us. Show me somewhere else you can get lunch for that kind of money these days. La Union we will be back.

pork

The pork stew was sweet and tomatoey

I love a bit of Russian salad. You can read all about the story of this mysterious dish in a previous post of mine here.

russian salad

Satisfying Russian salad with plenty of mayo

And then it’s time to go back to the beach. On the other side of Cabos de Palos harbour to Miramar there’s Katy. Katy has the advantage of being on the beach – a large cove of a beach where we spent time walking, wading and wandering…and sampling a cold cerveza at the chirringuito (beach bar) at the end. And then it was time for lunch.

Always keen to try something different, today we went for the green beans and ham as one of our tapas treats. It was huge, piping hot and tasty.

beans

A really flavoursome dish with ham and fresh green beans

And more piping hot and creamy croquettas to delight.

croquettes

Sampling some more croquettas

What can I say…Murcian tapas is always a joy. Lunchtime just doesn’t seem the same when you’re not in Spain!

Lovely lunch on the beach at Escuela de Pieter

I love the beach. You will know this if you’re a regular reader! So a fabulous restaurant right on the beach, well, that’s my idea of pure paradise. We try to visit Escuela de Pieter on the La Manga Strip every year. A tasty lunch followed by a dip in the beautifully warm Mar Menor and some relaxation time on one of their loungers (free to use if you eat in the restaurant). When in Spain…

The menu is wide-ranging with a great selection of meat and fish. It’s quite difficult to choose, so we pondered our options for quite some time. Luckily a gazpacho amuse bouche was delivered to help lessen the hunger pangs.

gazpacho

Yummy gazpacho overlooking the beach

This is one of my favourite dishes. Simply three ingredients, perfectly cooked and all the flavours zing through. The baby lamb chops are served with the softest and tastiest of potatoes and grilled green peppers. They are very baby which means you have to eat them with your fingers…even better.

lamb chops

Potatoes, peppers and lamb chops can’t taste better than this

Eggs are much used in Spain cooking. Another simple dish, fried baby whitebait on another bed of softest potatoes with a freshly fried, piping hot egg atop. Cut into your egg and watch the orangeness of the yolk soak through. Totally yum!

whitebait

A fishy delight with eggs and chips?

And then there’s the garlic chicken and potatoes. Okay it doesn’t look that exciting but it’s amazing how bursting with flavour it is. The garlic has a lovely sweetness to it, and again potatoes and chicken are perfectly cooked.

chicken

A garlicky sweet plate of chicken

And here’s the view! Grab a table at the front and settle in for lovely food. Beach life rules.

view1

A table beside the sand with views of blue sea and sky

Pieter de Escuela is on the La Manga Strip overlooking the Mar Menor. It’s a long strip of land (manga means sleeve in Spanish), it’s near the 17km marker on the main road.

Loving the flavours of Spain at Los Churrascos

Today we’re eating out in the province of Murcia in Spain. Murcia is a large agricultural area that is known as the orchard of Europe. Fruit and vegetables seem to grow everywhere and are delicious in their freshness (the local markets are a real joy).

And as we’re by the sea, fish and seafood are plentiful and often straight out of the water into the restaurant and then onto your plate. Plus the local meat is full of flavour. So with that as a basis, what is probably the best restaurant in the region is bound to offer up serious delights.

The menu is comprehensive and split into sections including starters, cod dishes, paellas, meat dishes, seafood. This doesn’t seem to make it any easier to choose, as you page through the book of tantalising offerings.

As if to make it easier, some of the dishes, like the croquettes and empanadas can be ordered by the unit. What a great idea, choose one of everything, I’m picturing a whole plate of tasty morsels encompassing the flavours of Spain. Today we tried the halibut croquettes which were beautifully soft, creamy and lightly fishy and the beef empanadas, succulent filling encased in the lightest of crunchy pastry that melted in the mouth. Off to a good start!

croquettes

Order a selection of tapas tasters to get your juices flowing

On perusing the comprehensive menu I remembered the last visit here (two years past) and the amazingly unexpected starter that one of us ordered. I love dishes that turn up and are nothing like you thought they were going to be (in a good way, of course). The magarita de sobrasada con habitos baby is just one of those. It’s a combo of ingredients that doesn’t sound like it’s going to work, crispy pastry, hot chips, strips of sobrasada (a spicy Mallorcan sausage), some baby broad beans, all topped with a piping hot, beautifully fresh fried egg. And the way it’s described on the menu (in English) you’re expecting some sort of pastie! Instead this tower arrives…

sobrasada

Quite simply, a tower of deliciousness

The waiter then cuts the egg into quarters and crushes the pastry so the golden yolk pours over the crispiness. Seriously, my mouth is watering just thinking about it. It sounds like nothing, looks slightly strange and is a dream to eat. Enough said…

broken sobrasada

A delicate mix of flavours waiting to be tucked into

The Spanish do love their pigs (especially for dinner) and are famous for eating nose-to-tail. I’m not so good with some of the offerings (ears and tails aren’t among my faves) but am always waiting to tuck into something tasty like these local pork chops. So amazingly flavoursome and served simply with grilled vegetables and perfect chips. No need to complicate matters when you have such wonderful ingredients.

pork chops

Pork chops that are packed with flavour

A Spanish classic always worth ordering is the fabulous lubina – sea bass. It is baked in the oven encased in salt and your waiter cracks the mound open and fillets it at your table. It’s a wonderfully sweet fish and the salt protects it from drying out, so you can be sure it’s moist and tasty.

lubina

The waiter skillfully fillets the sea bass

More pork…the restaurant is renowned for its suckling pig – Cochinillo Segoviano al Horno, al Estilo Jose Maria. This is a large portion of meat with thin, beautifully crispy skin and again served simply with chips and grilled veggies. Flavoursome, soft and melt-in-the-mouth, it’s one of my absolute favourites.

suckling pig

After such a feast it’s hard to contemplate dessert, but the menu sounded so tempting we couldn’t resist. This almond ice cream is covered with rich Spanish chocolate…yum. I had to have the sorbette a limone con alcohol (lemon sorbet with alcohol) which is basically a zesty lemony cocktail served in a martini glass. The perfect way to finish off a meal that makes me feel lucky to be able to experience this wonderful Spanish cuisine in a traditional restaurant that always maintains the highest of standards. All without pretention, just thoroughly good food and friendly service.

almond ice cream

An ample plate of ice cream and chocolate sauce Spanish style

Jose Maria comes around to shake your hand every time…it seems he never has a day off. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

Jose Maria Los Churrascos is at Avenida Filipinas, El Algar in the province of Murcia, Spain.

Cabo de Palos market: fruit and veg from the Orchard of Europe

After the fabulous fish I simply had to show you some of the amazing fruit and veg that you can get in Murcia. It’s a huge agricultural area which has earned it the nickname “the orchard of Europe” and you can see why every time you go into a shop or visit a market.

The Sunday market at the port of Cabo de Palos is a favourite. Fortified with a cafe con leche and pan con tomate enjoyed sitting overlooking the sea, we head to stock up for the week…and try not to get too carried away.

Start the day with coffee overlooking the harbour

Start the day with coffee overlooking the harbour

Everything gleams in the sunshine and is such great value. Stallholders tempt you in by getting you to taste a sliver of orange or a handful of cherries – one taste and you’re gone! I have to be strong-willed and remember to only buy at the end of the market day as carrying around kilograms of fruit and veg is more exercise than I want when shopping.

Huge red peppers glisten in the sunshine

Huge red peppers glisten in the sunshine

The cheapest, freshest garlic ever? Impossible to resist. As a result of buying such large quantities of ajos I’ve been cooking with it every day. I swear I feel healthier…

Juicy, pungent garlic is sold for 1 euro for 10 bulbs!

Juicy, pungent garlic is sold for 1 euro for 10 bulbs!

Lovely lettuces (cosollos – what a sweet-sounding word).

Or how about 7 lettuces for 1 euro?

Or how about 7 lettuces for 1 euro?

Jumbo asparagus and gnarly tomatoes

Jumbo asparagus and gnarly tomatoes

The juiciest of oranges for just 5 euros for 4kg.

Buy oranges in bulk..fresh juice to start the day

Buy oranges in bulk..fresh juice to start the day

Tomatoes, figs and cherries all in a row. Delicious sweetness.

Figs, cherries and tomatoes

Figs, cherries and tomatoes

Peaches you can smell from about a hundred metres away. They draw you in like a magnet.

Plump peaches piled up  high

Plump peaches piled up high

I truly feel like I’m in fruit and veg heaven when I’m in Murcia. It’s so easy to eat healthily and the variety means you never get bored with your five a day! Oh and the market offers plenty of other shopping opportunities. Clothes, shoes, kitchenware, spices, bags…all at great prices.

And then there’s the final purchase that has to be made – from the chicken rotisserie man. By the time you get there you’re salivating as the aroma of roasting chicken wafts through the market stalls. What’s the last thing we do before we leave the market? Buy a chicken! Yum…

A stunning restaurant in Murcia: Los Churrascos

We first visited Jose Maria Los Churrascos in the little town of El Algar over 15 years ago. It was an exciting event for the large group of us who hadn’t yet ventured out of our beautiful La Manga resort. A chance to sample some proper, local Spanish cuisine in a somewhat unknown world!

Our friend Miguel, who’s Spanish and owns a restaurant, was with us and couldn’t wait to get there! We had a wonderful dinner and the owner Jose Maria came to say hello. A frantic and highly excitable conversation ensued between him and Miguel, resulting in the entire table of people being marched down to the wine cellar to inspect some treasures. Jose Maria lovingly cradled bottle after bottle of wine like new-born babies while Miguel translated the history of a wine collection that had been amassed by the family over generations. It was all very magical.

The restaurant has been open over 30 years and hasn’t changed much in that time. Its home, the small, rural town of El Algar has changed a little, with bright new houses popping up. The first time we went it felt a bit like somewhere in the wild west (complete with tumbleweed). Now it’s a bit more developed but just as quaint.

The menu has also developed, offering “classic cuisine, adapted slowly to the new times with imagination” to quote from their website. It’s comprehensive to say the least, with lots of fantastic fish and meat dishes to choose from. Quite a mission to decide!

A selection of croquettas

A selection of croquettas

The choice of the evening! Described on the menu as savoury pastries filled with Mallorcan sausage with broad beans, it arrived looking like this! Crispy pastry, chorizo-like sausage, delicate baby broad beans, a centrepiece of potato all topped with a fried egg. How I love it when your plate of food turns out to be a masterpiece, and also one you totally weren’t expecting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A delicious combo of Spanish ingredients

This cheesy aubergine and prawn dish was on the vegetable section of the menu but the kitchen was happy for it to be served as a starter. Soft food oozing with flavour.

Cheesy aubergine with prawns

Cheesy aubergine with prawns

And for me?? Gosh, I have serious menu indecision at the best of times. I eventually went for something truly exotic sounding – scrambled egg with morcilla (Spanish black pudding), wild asparagus and pine nuts. Again, all great Spanish ingredients. And it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Everything was mixed up together into an explosion of flavour. Okay, not the best-looking dish I’ve ever eaten, but don’t judge a book…as they say. It was simply wonderful.

Exotic!

The most exotic scrambled eggs ever

On to mains, and another whole range of amazing choices. There’s a whole page on the menu (well, more of a book, really) dedicated to cod. And then there’s shellfish galore and the most amazing meat, all sourced locally.

The Murcian pork chops were as tasty as pork chops get, simply griddled and beautifully tender. The little straw chips were crispy and salty and incredibly more-ish.

Local Murcian pork chops

Local Murcian pork chops

One of the restaurants long-time specials is their suckling pig. On another visit our whole table of 10 ordered it. When in Spain, eat pig…they know how to raise them and cook them. This falls off the bone and the crackling is beautifully thin, tasty and crackly.

Suckling pig

One of the restaurant’s specials, perfect suckling pig

The one fish dish of the day, a lovely fillet of cod cooked with onions and pine nuts.

Cod onions pine nuts

Cod baked with onions and pine nuts

Wow! Even better than we remembered…oh and Jose Maria still comes around to shake your hand and make sure you enjoyed your food. It’s open for lunch and dinner and  does a great-looking degustacian menu for 40 euros. Put it on your list, got to be the best in the region.