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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Find out more about The Blue Train by clicking here.

 

 

 

The Blue Train: A window to the soul of South Africa

The Blue Train takes you through 1,600kms of South Africa’s stunning and varied scenery, giving you a feel for the vastness and contrasts this beautiful country offers. Look through your picture window, take in the splendid views in your own haven of comfort and indulgence and reflect. Welcome to your window to the soul of South Africa

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The train departs Cape Town station at 8.30am after refreshments in the departure lounge.

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Blue Train Suite 40 here I come

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Perfectly on time your journey begins and the legendary train wends it way past the magnificence of Table Mountain, heading through the stunning Cape Winelands.

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Chuffing peacefully into the Winelands

Towering mountain ranges, farmland and vineyards greet you as you journey through the Wineland towns of Worcester and Wellington.

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All at peace with the mountains and vineyards

For several peaceful hours you take in the stunning sweeping views. It’s amazing how long the mountainous terrain goes on for, culminating in the amazing pass through the Tulbagh Valley and three tunnels. When you emerge your world has changed dramatically. You’re in the Karoo and it’s time for an off-train expedition.

The tiny town of Matjiesfontein is known as the Jewel of the Karoo. Founded in 1884 by an enterprising Scot, James Logan, who bought a Karoo farm and also developed the town as a Victorian spa and health resort and refreshment stop for hungry and thirsty travellers. It soon became a popular spot with the cream of Cape society and attracted people like Cecil John Rhodes, Sir Randolph Churchill and the Sultan of Zanzibar.

The town’s most famous resident was writer and feminist Olive Schreiner whose first novel The Story of an African Farm was set in the Karoo. She said: “I love the Karoo. The effect of this scenery is to make me so silent and self-contained. And it is all so bare, the rocks, and the bushes, each bush standing separate from the others, along by itself.”

Hard to imagine so much happened in this sleepy little oasis all that time ago! Now there’s a collection of Victorian buildings and a tour on a red London bus which takes about 10 minutes – known as the shortest tour in South Africa! Visiting the bar for a sing song and a glass of sherry before meandering along the dusty streets, it’s like you’ve stepped back into a colonial time warp. A charming interlude.

And then it’s time to climb back into the comfort of your Blue Train home which attracts a lot of attention when it arrives in this sleepy little place.

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Our beautiful train waits while we explore Matjiesfontein

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Time to sing along in Matjiesfontein

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The charm of the Lord Milner Hotel

Back onboard and it’s time for a refreshing gin & tonic in the Observation Car.

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The Karoo is so vast, here’s a picture taken from my suite looking out towards the front of the train. The Blue Train is a long train, but set in the Karoo landscape it all looks pretty insignificant!

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Blue_Train_in_Karoo.sizedReaching more agricultural regions, there was soon a panorama of maize fields – in all directions as far as the eye could see. Having grown up on a mealie (as we called them) farm, it made me feel very nostalgic.

And no, I am not driving the train, this is again taken from the Observation Car.

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Looking back over a landscape of maize fields

As you approach Pretoria, the landscape gets more urban and again it feels like you’ve entered a different world. Which I guess you have, the Blue Train really is a window on the South African world.

You can read about my onboard experiences by clicking here.

Next up…the delicious dishes I devoured on my Blue Train journey.

Find out more about The Blue Train at www.bluetrain.co.za

 

 

 

The Blue Train: It’s magic in motion

Today I’m embarking on one of the Great Train Journeys – a trip on The Blue Train through the heart of South Africa. I love train travel and this is no ordinary train so my expectations and excitement were high.

I travelled northbound, starting in the Mother City of Cape Town and heading up through the Winelands and the vast Karoo to Pretoria. More of the scenery in pictures on my next blog post – here’s the route marked in solid red that I took. The journey takes 27 hours – 27 hours of the ultimate in relaxation that I really did not want to end.

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You know you’re in for a wonderful experience as soon as you arrive at the departure lounge. It seems like in an instant you’ve been checked in, your luggage has been whisked away and you’re sitting comfortably with a welcome pot of tea in front of you and your journey to ponder.

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You’ll find a warm welcome waiting in the departure lounge

Soon it’s time to embark (not a moment too soon for me, I practically ran onboard)!  Your butler shows you to your suite and explains how everything works. The suites offer a feel of days gone by with their sleek walnut panelling and also all the modern comforts. Gotta love the modern comforts.

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The cosy suites are wonderfully welcome with huge picture windows

Like the ensuite bathroom (not even the Orient Express has these) – cleverly designed to fit the shower, basin and toilet into the smallest of spaces, complete with Italian marble, loads of fluffy towels and remote control blinds.

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The joys of your ensuite bathroom

When you head off for dinner (more about the fabulous food coming later in another post), your butler magically transforms your comfortable seating area into a bedroom, the bed made up with luxury duvets and linen, making it so easy to snuggle down.

While your entertainment is endless – all you need to do is look out the window – the suites also offer radio and movie channels. The perfect indulgence – anyone for the whole series of Grey’s Anatomy? Tempting as that might be, there’s no time for that yet – there’s the rest of the train to explore.

At the front of the train, the Club Car is the perfect place to relax after dinner and the only place where you can smoke. Cuban cigars are included in your price – I almost turned into a cigar smoker for the day…just because.

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Comfortable and relaxing: the Club Car

The dining car sits in the centre of the train and is the scene of absolute delight for the three meals on the journey (more of them later). This was my table where I happily devoured delicious dishes, drank in the view and several different wines from their extensive list.

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Eating with a view…a constantly changing one

At the very back of the train is the Observation Car. A huge picture window means you can look back down the tracks taking in the scenery

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The Observation Car offers the best views from all angles

The Lounge Car is the perfect place to settle down on a comfy sofa and ponder life.

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Feel at home in Africa with the views and the decor

It’s also where High Tea is served…don’t cucumber sandwiches and Champagne go perfectly together?

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High Tea anyone? What a treat

What a train…what an experience! To summarise, here’s what I loved about it.

The service

It’s friendly, efficient and all-encompassing without being claustrophobic or overpowering. Your every need is met in a gentle, welcoming way. I felt immediately at home and found every member of staff helpful, friendly and knowledgeable.

The magic

Okay this is a bit of an intangible one, but it’s there. From the moment I stepped onboard it all felt like a bit of a dream, I even texted one of my friends saying “I feel like I’m in a movie”! Plus a vaguely Hercule-Poirot-looking fellow traveller made me keep my eyes out for any signs of murderous behaviour (of which there was none of course).

The views

Stunning, stunning, stunning and constantly changing. The contrast is huge, too, from the moment you wave goodbye to majestic Table Mountain towering over the Mother City, through vineyards, orchards, farmlands and mountains in the Winelands, the magnificent pass through the Tulbagh Valley and on through the desolation and vastness of the Karoo, there’s something wonderful to behold. Even the [slightly] more urban landscape as you approach Johannesburg has its charm. A humbling experience that puts the vastness of this beautiful country into a clearer perspective. More pictures coming in a later blog post.

The food

This was so amazing I have to blog about it separately (of course)! Safe to say it was magnificent, watch this space to find out more.

The clever effects with space and light

The train can take around 80 guests (plus staff) but it never seems like there’s anywhere near that many onboard. It’s an intimate experience that seems like your own personal journey. Comfort is at a premium, decor is stylish and subtly African and the different carriages provide several separate places for relaxation. Plus the huge picture windows throughout mean the light’s constantly changing with the scenery. Sunset was quite spectacular and it was lovely when I opened my blinds early in the morning. Nothing like harnessing natural light and landscape to enhance the atmosphere.

The attention to detail

So much! Vibrantly colourful fruit platters and flower arrangements everywhere, the box of chocolates on your pillow when you go to bed (yes, a box), top quality duvets and linen, fluffy towels, your butler who’s constantly transforming your suite into a different version of itself, the amazingly relaxing check-in service.

Clearly all this is not going to come cheaply. But the good news is that if you include The Blue Train as part of a package to South Africa from the UK it becomes incredibly good value. For example, African Pride are offering an 8-night Classic South Africa package from just £2,999 per person which includes all flights, taxes, transfers, 1 night in Pretoria, 1 night on the Blue Train, 4 nights at the Victoria & Alfred Hotel on Cape Town’s Waterfront and 2 nights on safari at Motswari Private Game Reserve. Plus a lot of the meals are included. You can find out more by clicking here.

The Blue Train is one of those uniquely magical experiences, the memory will stay with me forever, now all I have to do is ride the train all over again..but this time the other way around.

Watch this space for more about the amazing scenery you’ll encounter and the totally delectable food you’ll consume. The Blue Train rocks!