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.

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The stylish Blue Train leaves the Mother City, heading north

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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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!

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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A break from sun worshipping and swimming for a chilled Rose

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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.

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Our boat berthed in Symi Harbour, picture perfect

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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.

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

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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.

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Welcome to Koh Samui with a cocktail on the beach

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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.

Russian delights in St Petersburg

So I’ve recently spent three days exploring St Petersburg in Russia. This was my second visit to Russia, my first being to Moscow 10 years ago. It’s a fascinatingly unique country with a strong, and somewhat aggressive personality. I’ll tell you all about what to see in this beautiful city later, but for today we’re tucking into Russian cuisine at the Russian Vodka Museum.

The restaurant is attached to the museum where you can see how vodka is made and have a tasting. We settled down to sample some typical Russian cuisine from a menu that offers dishes from different historical periods and over 200 types of vodka.

When you’re in Russia, you simply have to eat caviar. This ultimate delicacy of salt-cured fish eggs traditionally came from wild sturgeon in the Caspian and Black Seas (beluga, ossetra and sevruga) but nowadays you can get caviar from a range of other fish including salmon, trout, lumpfish and whitefish.

The rarest and costliest is from the beluga sturgeon that swim in the Caspian Sea which is bordered by Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistand and Azerbajan. Iran is the world’s biggest exporter. Interestingly, wild caviar production was suspended in Russia between 2008 and 2011 to allow stocks to replenish.

The basic rule of caviar is the bigger the egg the more prized it is, beluga is pea-sized. We opted for  a selection of pike, salmon and sturgeon all served on ice and with the most perfectly prepared pancakes (blinis) that I’ve ever tasted. All made for a beautifully colourful display as well as a real taste sensation. I love its fishy creaminess.

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Caviar in shades of orange and yellow

This was my favourite of the three, love its little container, too.

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The creamiest of caviar

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The perfect stack of warm blinis

This was a very difficult menu to order from. There’s such a wide selection of dishes, and I really wanted to try something different – but nothing crazy, of course, so couldn’t bring myself to order chicken hearts and stomachs stewed in the oven. I’m adventurous but that’s a step too far!

This starter is called Moscovskaya Zakuska. Baked bone marrow on Borodinsky bread served with Kastroma black salt. Borodinsky bread is dark brown sourdough rye bread that is traditionally sweetened with molasses and flavoured with coriander and caraway seeds. A very rich, melt-in-the-mouth dish.

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I love borsch, so I had to sample the St Petersburg version. Ukranian beetroot soup with veal and cabbage – plenty of tender veal strips, and really pretty and pink.

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This tasty little starter was a small, creamy chicken and mushroom casserole.

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And then on to mains. After much deliberation I decided to plump for the Pozarsky minced chicken cutlet with a mushroom sauce. This ground chicken cutlet with homemade breadcrumbs is attributed to Prince Pozharsky at the beginning of the 19th century. Legend goes that he wanted to serve Moscow’s crown prince his favourite veal cutlets but there was no fresh veal in the kitchen so he ordered his chef to prepare it with chicken. The crown prince loved it so much he asked for the recipe. I loved it too, the minced chicken was beautifully flavoursome,  moulded around a bone (not a chicken bone, so it did look like it could be veal) and covered with crunchy, larger breadcrumbs, a bit like mini croutons. A delightfully light dish with an equally light mushroom sauce. Good choice!

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An exotic-looking chicken cutlet

Another Russian favourite (and one I’ve made myself), beef stroganoff. Tender, creamy meat served with lashings of buttery mash. And there’s a story to it, too. Of course. Said to have originated in mid-19th century Russia, it’s thought to be named for Count Pavel Stroganoff, a celebrity who loved to entertain and often served up this delicious dish. Or it could be named for another member of the Stroganoff family, it seems they were quite a family of gourmets. A classic.

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This is a restaurant very much geared to tourists – they do seem to like to keep the visitors away from “normal” Russian life. It’s expensive and doesn’t give you much of an idea about what eating out means for Russians. But it’s worth a visit, the menu was very interesting and the dishes we had all tasted lovely. And of course, I’m always happy to eat caviar in Russia – somehow it seems to taste better there. Oh and don’t forget to try the vodka. When in Russia…

The Russian Vodka Museum is at 4 Konnogvardeisky Boulevard, St Petersburg.

Russian salad: A recipe and a magical story

Most of my encounters with Russian salad have been in Spain – it’s a  dish commonly served in most tapas bars around the country.  I can’t say I’ve ordered it much, but its frequent appearances did get me wondering what the story was behind this ubiquitous salad.

There’s a bit to wade through, but legend has it was invented  in the 1860s and named the Olivier Salad for its creator, Lucien Olivier, who ran a Parisian-style restaurant in Moscow called Hermitage.

Originally it consisted of seriously gourmet ingredients, including black caviar, capers, steamed game hen, crayfish, veal, tongue and gherkins. Over time the caviar was dropped and the capers replaced with peas. Mr Olivier kept his recipe very secret (particularly that of the dressing). One of his sous chefs, Ivan Ivanov (now there’s a great Russian name) sneaked in one day and examined Lucien’s mise en place (ingredients, basically) which helped him make reasonable assumptions about the dressing and how to make it. So the recipe (or some form of it) got out into the wide world.

Now Russian salad’s generally made of chopped vegetables (chopped small, just a bit bigger than peas), meat or fish and hard boiled eggs, all bound together with mayonnaise. Your classic Soviet version now consists of potatoes, hard boiled eggs, peas, pickles and bologna in equal amounts mixed with enough mayo to bind all the ingredients together. Apparently Russian chefs are horrified by the inclusion of carrots, but they work for me, so are in my version. I’ve also jazzed the mayo up a bit, if you’re not a fan of tarragon, leave it out. I think it adds another delicious dimension to the mayo, along with the mustard.

Here’s my simple recipe which is a good starting point. From here you can add other ingredients to your hearts content and make it your own. I’m going to try chopped celery, hard boiled egg, prawns or shrimps, and cooked, diced meat like ham or chicken even maybe a bit of chorizo.

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The finished product served with love in a heart-shaped dish

Serves 4  as a side salad

2 carrots, peeled

8 small salad potatoes

2 handfuls frozen peas, defrosted

6 cornichons, diced

4 tbsp mayonnaise

1 tsp Dijon mustard

Juice of 1 lemon

Half a bunch of tarragon

Boil the potatoes and carrots until cooked. Allow to cool and cut into small dice.

Layer in  a bowl with the peas and cornichons.

Put the mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice and tarragon into a blender and blitz.

Gently mix the blended mayonnaise through the salad and serve.

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The beautifully vibrant colours of the vegetables before the addition of the tarragon mayo