Loving the fabulous food of East London

So today I’m heading east to explore London’s vibrant East End. And I’m going on an eating tour – seriously my favourite way to learn about a new area. My Eating London Food Tour started at beautiful Spitalfields Market, where we all gathered on a chilly December day, ready to take in the sights, scents and flavours of this multi-cultural part of London. Many diverse cultures have left their mark on the region and you can see this reflected in the mouth-watering variety of food in the area.

First stop, just across the road, we headed for St John. A real London institution, it’s the baby of chef Fergus Henderson and is famous for its roast bone marrow and parsley salad. The menu includes plenty of fascinating British dishes that you don’t often see, like devilled kidneys on toast, kid faggots, smoked eel and grilled sprats. For us it was breakfast time – and we tucked into the ultimate bacon sandwich. A generous helping of bacon sandwiched between two lightly toasted slices of fresh bread (with plenty of butter) was served with the restaurant’s own home-made ketchup. I love a good bacon sandwich and they don’t get better than this!

Eating London Tours
Possibly the best bacon sarnie I’ve ever enjoyed

Doubling back on ourselves we headed for English Restaurant in Crispin Street for a tasty pot of bread and butter pudding served with plenty of fresh custard. All very Enid Blyton and oh-so-comforting.

Eating London Tours
Luscious bread pudding with creamy custard
English delights in the heart of the East End

And then there was cheese…plenty of it! The wonderfully named Abondance started off selling mainly French cheese and is now branching out with a wonderful array of English ones – of which there are certainly no shortage! We sampled a richly mature Cheddar and a taste-bud-tingling Stilton.

Eating London tours
Classic Cheddar and Stilton tasters
Eating London Tours
Life is better with cheese

I guess if you wanted to sum up British food in one dish it would probably be fish and chips. And there are always queues outside Poppie’s which opened in 1952 and has born and bred east-end proprietor Pat ‘Pop’ Newland at the helm. All his fish is delivered by a third-generation Billingsgate fishmonger, who is also a friend. Most famous for their authentic fish and chips served traditionally in funnels of newspaper, Poppie’s also sells jellied eels, scampi, fishcakes and prawn cocktail – so there’s plenty of delicious fishiness to taste.

Eating London Tours
Piping hot fish and chips wrapped in newspaper
 London Tours
There’s always a queue outside Poppies

The East End is also home to a large part of London’s Bangladeshi community and is officially known as Banglatown. Street signs are written in English and Bangladeshi, and there are over 50 Bangladeshi Restaurants lining Brick Lane – most of them claiming to be award winning! The choice is simply mind-boggling and the patter along the street trying to convince you to “Pick me” is fun and somewhat challenging. How do you choose? Luckily our choice had been made for us and we visited Aladin for three delicious dishes in different states of spiciness.

Eating London Tours
Tasty, authentic vegetable curry
Lamb mince curry

Aladin’s walls are covered with vibrant murals depicting the incredible mix of London life and Indian culture and food.

The walls are covered in gorgeous murals

The Jewish community also played their part here. At the turn of the 20th century about 200,000 Jewish people lived in the East End – it was a refuge for anyone fleeing religious persecution and economic destitution in Eastern Europe. While the population has significantly dwindled these days there is still a classic reminder of the Jewish heritage in Beigel Bake. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and serves soft, fresh bagels stuffed full of the most incredible salt beef and the most mustardy of mustard. This is a hearty snack if ever I saw one. Yum! I think my favourite part of a truly tasty day.

Eating London tour
The freshest bagel piled high with salt beef and pickles

Having inhaled those incredible bagels it was time to head towards the trendier end of Shoreditch to Pizza East. It’s in a former tea warehouse and feels modern and airy and rather calm, compared with the hubbub nearby. We settled down to finish our tour with a salted chocolate caramel tart and a large cup of tea (what could be more British than that?).

A sweet treat to end the tasting day

I left the East End with my stomach full of tasty delights and my head full of the history of the region and other fascinating facts. There’s certainly a lot happening…love London.

The Eating London food tour of the East End took about four hours.

The price is £80 per person. For that you get seven stops all with a good-size tasting portion. Put it this way, you won’t be hungry at the end!

Groups are a comfortable size and our guide was very entertaining and informative.

Our dream stay at glorious Chewton Glen

Happy new year everyone! Here’s to a fabulous 2019 filled with incredible journeys, fun times with friends and everything you’re dreaming of! I’ve taken a bit of a blog-break over the festive season (which I spent in India – more of which later), but now eatingcoventgarden is back and there’s so much exciting stuff coming up.

And what better way to start the year than to tell you all about my relaxing visit to the Chewton Glen Hotel and Spa. This is one seriously stunning place to relax. It’s set in the picturesque Hampshire countryside on the edge of the beautiful New Forest, and only a short train ride from London. A ride that transported us to another world – a dreamy one of luxury and indulgence.

From New Milton station we were swept along idyllic country lanes peppered with sheep and tempting pubs, all of which made me feel a bit like Cameron Diaz in The Holiday (without the snow). The whole Chewton Glen experience did feel a bit like living in a movie generally! From the moment you turn down their grand driveway you start to get that superstar feeling.

The emerald croquet lawn and the beautiful manor house

The Manor House at Chewton Glen dates back to the 17th century, although it only opened as a hotel in 1966. As well as the main building there are 13 treehouse suites a short walk away.

The opulent rooms exuded tranquility and comfort, and colourful, curling flames offered their own warm welcome. The bar’s a place you could certainly spend many hours in and you’d have to – just to try the incredible range of gin on offer. Love a good G&T.

Gin and tonic with juniper berries and grapefruit
Enjoy the sophisticated comfort of the bar

Our two-bedroom Coach House Suite was on two floors, with gorgeous ensuite bathrooms (and a giant shower upstairs), a lounge and work area and a private courtyard. With a centrepiece of a large bed with plumped pillows and fine linens, a variety of teas and snacks to enjoy and a chilled bottle of bubbles waiting, it was all oh-so-heavenly. I could have moved in permanently. Seriously.

Chewton Glen: Coach House Suite
The stylish downstairs of the suite
Chewton Glen: bed
The comfiest of huge beds
Chewton Glen: courtyard
Happiness is my own private courtyard

Just down the road the treehouses sit high in the verdant tree canopy, way above ground. They have large terraces with daybeds and hot tubs where you can really chill and get back to nature.

There’s plenty to do at Chewton Glen, but I can tell you it’s not easy getting yourself out of the comfort of your room. But it’s worth the effort – everything is so lovely, as you’ll soon discover when you start to explore.

Like the spa! It has a sparkling 17m indoor pool for serious length-time, an incredible hydrotherapy spa pool to massage some aches away and rejuvenating aromatherapy saunas.

Chewton Glen: Indoor pool
The stunningly sparkling indoor pool
The ultimate in soothing water treatments

There’s also a well-equipped gym (and yes I did try it out).

Feel the stress melt away as you wrap the luxury robe snugly around you and head for the treatment rooms. There’s a great menu of choices – I loved the Salt Back Recovery – 75 minutes of back, neck and shoulder massage with delightful aromas from a range of products wafting throughout.

You also have to head outdoors. It’s great outdoors! There’s tennis courts, a croquet lawn and a 10-hole golf course which I strolled through, heading for the Chewton Bunny Nature Reserve. How’s that for a great name?

A leaf-strewn path wound through the damp and earthy-smelling forest. All very Midsomer Murders – I half expected to stumble upon a body or some dastardly deed in the making. Instead I met friendly dog walkers and fellow ramblers before emerging from the trees to majestic sea views and the beach below.

The way through the woods

Fabulous food

It’s just as well there are so many fab ways to expend some energy – because you’re going to need to enjoy all that tasty food on offer. The main restaurant serves up a delicious breakfast buffet as well as a la carte options like this avocado and poached egg on toast. I find avo for breakfast hard to resist and it went so perfectly with this perfectly poached egg. There was even a little chilli in there.

The lunch and dinner menus presented a tasty array of dishes inspired by local, autumnal ingredients. Like this amazing venison served with wild mushrooms and a luscious gravy.

The foodie picture of autumn

And then there’s The Kitchen just down the road. This more informal dining experience is the baby of well-known chef James Martin – one of his first jobs (at 22) was here in the kitchens of Chewton Glen, so I guess it must have a special place in his heart.

There’s a good selection of pizzas, burgers and tapas-size portions. We shared a selection, including the richness of the West Country venison ragu made with chestnuts, pancetta and sloe gin and served with fresh pasta.

Luscious ragu, the perfect comfort food

And this delightfully crispy truffle polenta served with black garlic mayo. Love it when it’s truffle season.

Time spent at Chewton Glen is time that heals the soul, though it does kind of break your heart when you’ve gotta leave. Who wouldn’t want to live like a superstar forever?!

Filipino delights at Yuu Kitchen

So today we’re heading East – something I don’t do very often in London – to the E1 postcode close to Aldgate East tube station. And appropriately we’re going to be trying some Eastern food – Filipino to be precise – a first for me.

Yuu Kitchen predominantly serves the delightful food of South East Asia with a fusion of Japanese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese cuisine. And now they’ve added a special Filipino or Pinoy section. The Philippines is a melting pot of influences from the Pacific Rim, Malaysia, China, South America and even Spain – you’ll find a mix of cuisines from the many countries who have invaded or attempted to colonise the islands. And it’s a fascinating and fabulous mix.

What’s on the menu

The dishes are designed to be eaten tapas-style (my favourite way). We started with the pork chicharron, a pile of warm, crunchy pork scratchings served with chilli vinegar for dipping. The scratchings sizzle as you dip. I love a good pork scratching – a real guilty pleasure and even more, these are among the best I’ve had.

Yuu Kitchen: pork scratchings

Beautifully crispy pork scratchings

And now for something completely different and a first for me (it’s certainly a day of firsts!) – cassava fries. Cassava is a tuberous root that’s officially the third-largest source of carbs in the tropics. It’s pretty dense and I’m imagining takes some cooking. Our chef explained the cassava is boiled for some time before being fried to produce these, light tasty delights with their soft inside and crisp outer layer. They were served with hot-smoked paprika and tangy adobo mayo.  Adobo is a local vinegar-based sauce that also includes a combination of paprika, oregano, salt, garlic and soya sauce. It’s delicious.

Yuu Kitchen: cassava chips

Cassava chips are amazingly tasty

The presentation at Yuu Kitchen is also delightful with this clever, pretty plate of food bound to cause oohs of delight. The sisig lollipops contain a pork centre of seven-hour pineapple juice braised pig’s head covered in panko breadcrumbs and served with adobo mayo and chicharron – some of those delicious pork scratchings crumbled on the side. Dip the luscious lollipop into the mayo and then the chicharron to coat. So rich and tasty. Probably my favourite lollipop ever.

Yuu Kitchen: Sigsi lollipops

Sigsi lollipops look so cute and taste so good

Next up what I’m calling the Filipino version of burgers called cheese ube put (takes a few goes to get that past autocorrect intact). These mini treats are so delicious with their steamed buns, chorizo bilbao, caramelised onion, avocado and garlic aioli. Seems like this is a burger I could eat every day.

Yuu kitchen: burgers

Exotically delicious little burgers

They’re so good I had to show you twice!

Yuu Kitchen: burger

Up close on the mouthwatering burger

And there’s more

This meal was becoming quite a revelation with beautifully tasty, exotic dishes. I wasn’t so keen on trying the crispy pig’s ears, having sampled a version of them before and finding them tough and tasteless. Not today’s. These ears are slow-cooked for three hours and served with a honey soy glaze, sesame seeds, pickled radish and chives. The slow cooking has actually made them really tender and the honey soy glaze is the perfect flavour match. As a result, we agreed that this was actually our favourite dish of the day. Who’d have thought?

Yuu Kitchen: pigs ears

Delicious crisp and sticky pigs ears

The bistek is a little piece of steak in batter served on a crispy rice cake with lemon soy, and a trio of onion. Another pretty morsel rich in flavours. Also pretty exotic.

Yuu Kitchen: beef

Delicious morsels of beef on rice cakes

The lechon kawali is a 12-hour braised pork belly, thinly sliced and with delightful slivers of crispy crackling, topped with savoury mama sita’s sauce (it’s a secret but you’ll love it). Certainly love a good pork belly.

Yuu Kitchen: pork belly

Melt-in-the-mouth pork belly

Well that was the end of our Filipino delights. And time to sample a couple of dishes from the rest  of the menu. The tuna kinilaw is luscious raw tuna served in a spicy marinade of coconut milk, cafa lime leaves, lime juice, chilli and red onion. Beautiful.

Yuu Kitchen: tuna ceviche

Refreshing and zesty tuna ceviche

After quite a meaty feast we asked our chef to recommend a vegetable dish for us to try. Grilled cauliflower served with sweetcorn, jalapeño dressing, shallots, garlic chips and chives. Certainly the best cauliflower ever, smokey and spicy.

Yuu Kitchen: cauliflower

Possibly the tastiest cauliflower dish ever

Yuu Kitchen is a beautifully stylish place to eat with great murals decorating the walls and an incredible lighting display with ornate bird cages.

Yuu Kitchen: Murals

Yuu Kitchen is decorated with dramatic murals

Yuu Kitchen: Art

More stylish art

Yuu Kitchen: lights

Love the stylish lighting

Today’s price point

And finally, the bottom line.

It cost £68.50 for all the dishes I’ve described here. Certainly a real feast for two.

White wine starts from £24.50 a bottle, red from £23.50.

Cocktails start from £8.50.

There’s also a  selection of delicious fruit teas for £4.50.

Yuu Kitchen is at 29 Commercial Street, London E1. Aldgate East tube station is a five-minute walk away.

Our return to Thali: we couldn’t resist

I don’t often blog twice about the same restaurant in the same year and this is the second time I’ve done it this year – we’re heading back to Thali. And it’s no coincidence that it’s two restaurants from the same group.

Chef Liam Tomlin is behind both Thali and the Chef’s Warehouse in Beau Constantia (my other double blog). You can read about my previous lunches at Thali and Beau Constantia times two!

As well as great food, it’s a great concept. A set menu of dishes to share that are served as four courses for a set price. No menu indecision to cope with and no food envy, just loads of delicious flavours to savour.

And I find the food of Thali so inspiring that I think I produced some of my best food pics ever. Enjoy the extravaganza.

What’s on the menu

This crispy spinach bhaji came topped with two spicy sauces. Spinach has never tasted this good (and I love spinach).

Thali: Spinach bhaji

Deep fried spinach bhaji, mint and coriander dressing, date and tamarind

The next course was a delightful mix of vegetarian offerings served with the softest of paratha. The extravaganza of cauliflower was incredible – tandoori cauliflower served with cumin cauliflower puree and cashew and coconut salad. Who knew you should tandoor cauliflower? You really should!

Thali: Dhal, Paratha and cauliflower

The platter also included the wonderfully creamy and satisfying smoked tadka dhal, perfect for a bit of paratha dipping.

Thali: tadka dhal

Close up on the smoked tadka dhal

Thali: Cauliflower

What a delicious cauliflower collection

Tandoori chicken skewers were served with tomato chill jam and cucumber coriander raita. Triple yum. I do love the individual mini tandoor ovens that are delivered to your table.

Thali: Tandoori chicken

Tandoori chicken skewers served in your own mini tandoor oven

Next course was the two fishy plates. The fried fish tacos added a lovely fresh, crispy element and some beautifully zest flavours

Thali: fish tacos

Zesty fried fish tacos

Fresh line fish was served with delectable Cape Malay dressing, a coriander emulsion and saffron pickled onion. Such a fabulous combination of tastes and textures, I could so easily demolish a whole main course of this all by myself.

Thali: Line fish

Delicate line fish with Cape Malay flavors

The final course – and it’s curry time. Mappa duck curry with spiced mango chutney, Phatch Shoran seafood curry, warm buttery naan, perfectly cooked rice and a fragrant tomato salsa.

Thali: Curries

Two of the most delicious curries ever

I tend to avoid duck curries most of the time as it can be a somewhat chewy experience. Tonight’s dish gets my award for best duck curry ever. The flavours were so incredible and I can’t remember ever eating such tender duck.

Thali: duck

The tenderest of duck in a gorgeous sauce

The seafood curry was deliciously creamy with just the right hit of spice. A mix of mussels, prawns and line fish – heaven in a bowl.

Thali: Seafood curry

The delightfully delicious seafood curry

Thali: Rice

Even the rice is delectable at Thali

Thali: chilli jam

The glistening chilli jam

Thali: Raita

A bowl of cooling raita

Thali: salsa

A bowl of vibrant, zesty salsa

Thali is at 3 Park Road, Gardens, Cape Town.

Today’s price point

Tapas for two at Thali is R700 (41 pounds at today’s exchange rate). For two, not each. Really great value as the portions are ample and you won’t get a better Indian meal around here. Seriously.

Phenomenal food at The Greenhouse in Constantia

I do love a list. Especially a top-10 restaurants list. Oh, the arguments it can cause as everyone fiercely fights for a place for their favourite. It also makes for a brilliant goal – to try out every one on the list. A mission I have chosen to accept.

Luckily on the Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards list of top-10 restaurants in South Africa for 2017, nine of them are in Cape Town and the surrounds. Making my mission easy to complete.

So today we’re heading to The Greenhouse at The Cellars-Hohenhort, to give it its full title. Its home is in a beautiful five-star hotel set in nine acres of stunning gardens in the historic Constantia Valley. And it sits proudly at number five in South Africa on the Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards 2017.

The intriguing menu is conceived by Executive Chef Peter Templehoff and Head Chef Ashley Moss. They are committed to using local ingredients which makes for some interesting dishes. At today’s lunch we went for the three-course option. But of course – as you’d expect in a high end establishment like this – the three-course option is not three courses. Because there are pre-starters (three of them) and a bread course. And wonderful they were too – a fabulous way to start before you have your starters!

First up were little crispy parcels of cauliflower in a Cape Malay sauce. Great crunch, amazing flavours – and they look beautiful, too.

The Greenhouse: Pre starter

A crunchy base for the cauliflower in Cape Malay sauce

The biltong bitterballen were a revelation. Crisp on the outside, lovely and creamy inside with a good biltong hit. Biltong is a type of dried, cured meat that originated in Southern Africa – great use of one of my favourite ingredients.

Greenhouse: bilton bitterballen

Savoury and creamy biltong bitterballen

Deep-fried herby leaves were served topped with a tasty black garlic sauce.

The Greenhouse: Pre starter

Crunchy leaves and savoury delight

And then there was the bread course – yes, it’s officially a course these days – and so it should be, a real bread extravaganza. Three types of bread served with ceremony – and with three types of butter. Wow!

The Greenhouse: Pre starter

An extravaganza of bread three ways

The Greenhouse: butter

And of course an extravaganza of butter, too

Our butter was given a little bit of extra attention in the form of a grating of ancient volcanic salt. Seriously! There was garlic, spring onion and salted butter to sample.

The Greenhouse: butter

Salt is grated over at the table

Pre-starters consumed with sighs of joy we then all gasped with happiness when the starters were delivered. Ostrich tartare was served with salt baked celeriac, a truffled quails egg, kombu pickled vegetables and Cape mushrooms.

One of the most delightful presentations ever – it arrived nestling in the bottom of an ostrich egg which was nestling on top of a nest – complete with feathers. And what stunning tastes. My favourite bit was the fact that some of the egg yolk had been removed and replaced with truffle cream giving a surprisingly different flavour and texture. An amazingly clever mix of flavours and textures to tantalise the taste buds.

The Greenhouse: ostrich tartare

Ostrich tartare nestles in an ostrich egg

The Greenhouse: ostrich tartare

An overhead of the delightful tartare

On to mains. The local Cape fish (Kingklip) was served with langoustines, a Chinese noodle bean, miso onion, soba noodles and a crustacean emulsion. Beautifully cooked kingklip – possibly my favourite fish anyway – sweet, juicy langoustines and a wonderfully delicate sauce.

The Greenhouse: kingklip and langoustine

Beautifully flaky kingklip and sweet langoustines

The other mains choice was Braai Bokkie which was served with coffee carrots, lacquered onion, mushrooms and sweetbread. The springbok was coated with ground coffee before it was grilled to a succulent state of rareness.

The Greenhouse: springbok

Wonderfully tender and tasty springbok

Today was one of the rare days I ate dessert – obviously I had to as it was included! I opted for the Mpumalanga mango, Ethiopian passion berry, coconut ice cream and granadilla curd. All my favourite flavours dished up on a single plate. How perfect is that?

The Greenhouse: pudding

A wonderful mix of tropical flavours

The other pudding option was cleverly designed to look like a cheeseboard. But it didn’t taste like one! Camembert cheese cake was served with pineapple compote and pine nut biscotti. The cheese cake looked like such a perfect round of Camembert it certainly sent confusing signals to the brain. Genius!

Greenhouse: cheese cake

Is it a cheeseboard? Or is it a cake?

Phew! What a selection of delights. And of course it wasn’t over yet. A delightful tray of sweet treats to finish off a wonderful feast – mini custardy tarts and chocolate and passion fruit truffles.

Greenhouse: chocolates

Sweeties to complete the feast

This is certainly a wonderful voyage of flavours and clever ideas all well executed. The ambience is a touch formal which fits with the class and standards of both the restaurant and the hotel. Another one ticked off the list and well-deserved of its high ranking.

I’ve had a brilliant restaurant journey this year in Cape Town and I’m mulling over my own top-10. So watch this space.

Today’s price point

A meal at The Greenhouse is a real special occasion sort of thing, which does also mean that it is on the expensive side of Cape Town choices. Having said that it’s good value  – it would certainly punish your wallet a lot more for this calibre of food in London.

We had the official three-course menu which was actually eight dishes. And sensational they all were, too.

With one pre-lunch drink each and two bottles of wine between six our bill came to R1,000 each (approximately £58 at today’s exchange rate).

The Greenhouse is in the Cellars Hohenhort Hotel, 93 Brommersvlei Road, Constantia, Cape Town.

 

South Georgia: the land of penguins, seals and explorers

The entrancing wildlife and stories of South Georgia

“South Georgia is for those who grew up dreaming of a Garden of Eden where you would walk unharmed among abundant and fearless wildlife in a beautiful wilderness – an oasis of serenity in a world increasingly out of step with nature.” Tim and Pauline Carr, Antarctic Oasis, Under the Spell of South Georgia.

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) is a British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean. South Georgia is 165km long and between 1 and 35km wide. Captain James Cook made the first landing here in 1775 and claimed the territory for the Kingdom of Great Britain, naming it the Isle of Georgia in honour of King George III.

For a while it was an important base for whaling which thankfully ended in the 1960s – these stations were unpleasant and dangerous places to work and nearly destroyed the whale population.

Now there’s no permanent population on the island. It’s an isolated and rugged (inhospitable even) place, especially in the winter. Around 10-20 scientists, support staff and museum staff come and go through the year. And of course travellers like me, coming to visit the penguins, seals and whales in their natural environment.

Nothing can prepare you for South Georgia. That first glimpse of Salisbury Plain from the ship’s deck takes your breath away and you can hear and even smell the penguin life in the distance. Oh and some little gentoo penguins swam serenely past my window when I opened my curtains. We’d made it to this magnificent island where few humans ever go. Time for our first on-shore expedition.

South Georgia: first sight

My first sight of South Georgia

Welcome to penguin heaven

Jumping into little Zodiac inflatables it started to feel like this was really happening. We were about to step foot on the land of penguins. Salisbury Plain is home to one of the largest king penguin colonies in the world – there are tens of thousands of them! It’s impossible to explain the impact that first penguin sighting has – with what looks like a carpet of them stretched out towards the mountains – a very large carpet.

South Georgia: Kings

Clusters of Kings with some furry babies

King penguins aren’t scared of humans – who they don’t see that often. Some look at you curiously – in a “What are these big red things doing in our house” kind of way (we all wore the red expedition jackets that came as part of the cruise), but mainly they continue going about their daily business like there’s nothing unusual going on.

It’s incredible how close you get, touching distance, though we were told not to touch, gotta leave them alone to live their lives! It’s just so much fun watching their interaction. I felt I could stand there all day. The onboard photography coach, Richard, told us not to take millions of pictures of penguins as we’d see endless amounts of them and they all pretty much look the same. A sound piece of advice that’s impossible to take – you can’t help yourself and the snapping soon gets out of control! Millions of pictures later…

South Georgia: penguins and glacier

A carpet of penguins under the glacier

And now it’s seal time

As well as king penguins (so many of them) we also communed with seals. Fortuna Bay was home to the elephant variety. The biggest of them are out at sea feeding at this time of year so we only saw babies (weighing in at about 1000kg) and juveniles (weighing in at up to 3000kg). These are big, quite smelly and noisy animals that emit a sound like a cross between a sneeze and a burp.

South Georgia: elephant seals and ship

Looking over the elephant seals towards the ship and the mountains in the distance

The babies are so tame and curious they come right up to you trying to suckle – their mothers are out at sea feeding. They look pleadingly up at you with their big brown eyes before latching on to your boot or trousers, obviously with disappointing results.

South Georgia: elephant seal baby

The elephant seal is probably the biggest baby I’ve ever seen!

South Georgia: King penguins

The wide-ranging king penguin colony

South Georgia: elephant seals

Juvenile elephant seals snuggle together

And then there’s the fur seals. By far the cutest-looking of their species, they’re also by far the  most aggressive. Fierce about protecting their territory, the adults have no hesitation in charging you and have even been known to bite. And like the penguins you get incredibly close to them – though we tried to keep our distance! Didn’t like the look of them getting ready to charge.

We saw lots of babies on this trip! The fur seal babies were unbelievably cute, the sort of animal you want to take home with you with their pretty faces and soft-looking black fur. Of course you’d never be able to do that and actually you really wouldn’t want to as they are born aggressive. The vicious-sounding growls that come from them as you walk past are quite startling!

South Georgia: baby fur seals

The cutest of cuddly baby fur seals

You’ll be noticing that I also couldn’t resist taking pictures with our lovely ship Le Lyrial in the background.

South Georgia: Fortuna

Hanging out together in South Georgia

After our magical penguin and seal-filled day we headed for Stromness and Grytviken.

Stromness was a whaling station from 1907 to 1931. It is also known as being the arrival point of Ernest Shackleton after his epic journey from Elephant Island. Now this an amazing story!

The legend of Shackleton

In April 1916, Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition became stranded on Elephant Island which is about 1,300km (800 miles) south-west of South Georgia. Shackleton and five of his men set out in a small boat (I mean a very small boat) to summon help and on 10 May they landed at King Haakon Bay on South Georgia’s south coast.

I did a similar journey on this cruise and we passed by the hostile-looking, isolated Elephant Island on our way from South Georgia to Antarctica. It’s a long way and there’s nothing in between! Okay it was highly enjoyable onboard a luxury ship, but I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for them to get there alive! Especially as they’d already had some epic travels.

And to make matters worse they discovered on landing that they were on the wrong side of the island. So Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley had to walk 22 miles over the spine of the mountainous island to reach help at Stromness.

Legend goes they were welcomed at Stromness by Norwegian Thoralf Sorlie with the words: “Who the hell are you?”. They definitely weren’t looking their best!

They’d left 22 members of the expedition on Elephant Island who were subsequently rescued. They’d survived living under two of the upturned boats and were all still alive when Shackleton returned.

Shackleton’s story is one of hardship and endeavour, I guess that’s obvious in any exploration of the white, icy wilderness of Antarctica. The fact that he never lost a crew member reflects the bond he built with his fellow explorers and his determination to be a solid leader.

It’s interesting if you google him – there are myriad sites about him, his obsessional mission to reach the South Pole first (a mission he failed to achieve – in fact he never reached the Pole at all). And some dubious personal decisions including the fact that he allegedly cheated on his wife and more or less abandoned his children. How he had the time and energy for any of that is another mystery. Whatever the truth, he was undoubtedly someone you’d want on your side when trouble came, trouble we can’t possibly even understand in today’s world. I could discuss this forever but it’s time to move on..well, sort of.

Grytviken: Shackleton’s resting place

Our next stop was Grytviken, home to Shackleton’s grave, a museum and the rusty remains of a whaling station.

Shackleton died onboard ship in January 1922 while moored in King Edward Cove, South Georgia. His body was on its way home to England when his wife was informed of his death and she insisted that he was buried in South Georgia, saying: “Antartica was always his mistress.”

It’s such a moving experience visiting his grave, surrounded by a white picket fence in the desolate remains of the whaling station.

We all had a toast to “The Boss”, as he was known, with a shot of Jameson’s Whisky, half of which we poured on his grave (as is the custom), while pondering how it was physically possible to do what he did with the very limited resources he had available.

South Georgia: Ernest Shackleton

Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s last resting place

The ashes of another noted Antarctic explorer, Frank Wild, who had been Shackleton’s second-in-command on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, were interred next to Shackleton in 2011.

These explorers were made of different stuff! The stuff of legends.

South Georgia: Frank Wild

Frank Wild’s resting place next to The Boss

Our final onshore expedition in glorious South Georgia was in Gold Harbour. An amphitheatre of hanging glaciers and cliffs rises from the sea creating the most beautiful backdrop for the ever-abundant wildlife.

By now I was totally in love with the gentoo penguins, smaller and daintier than the kings, with their bright reddy-orange beaks and beautifully curious personalities. We found their nesting grounds in the tussock hillside (after wading through a lot of mud!).

South Georgia: gentoos

The gentoos breed under the fluffy tussock grass. 

And we spent more time communing with the lovely kings and their families. Some of them nesting their eggs under their down, balanced on their feet. The edge of the colony had plenty of the brown, fluffy chicks, yet to moult their fur and become elegance in black, white and yellow.

South Georgia: Young king penguin

Fluffiness in brown – a young king penguin

The elegance of the king penguins on shore mirrors the elegance of our ship in the distance

I cruised The Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica aboard Le Lyrial on a fabulous Abercrombie & Kent expedition. We embarked and ended in Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, an island at the bottom of South America approximately a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires. Tierra de Fuego is half owned by Chile and half by Argentina. Ushuaia is officially called “The End of the World”, because it’s the southern-most populated city on our planet. And it does feel like you’re in the  middle of nowhere – that is until you start heading east and then south discovering even more remote places.

What an adventure. One that you will never truly understand until you’ve been there yourself. So go, seriously you have to go, and discover more about our fabulous planet and why we should be doing more to preserve it. Escape to the land of penguins and seals, whales and albatrosses, absorb the peace and harmony and try to keep it in your soul. Well that’s what I’m trying to do.

One of the expedition leaders Richard (AKA Black Jack) made a video of our unique experience which you can watch on YouTube by clicking here.