Living the fairytale life at Hotel Chateau du Grand-Luce

Glorious Hotel Château du Grand-Lucé

From the moment I disembarked at diminutive Tours Airport I could feel I was in for something special. Driving through sunflower fields and idyllically sleepy villages I felt my sense of expectation growing as we headed deeper into the verdant Loire Valley. Final destination? The village of Le Grande-Luce.

It’s a dreamy sort of village with a church, two boulangeries, a chemist and, bizarrely, three hairdressers. And the piece de resistance (well, we are in France) set proudly in the centre of the village is the Château du Grand-Lucé.

Built by the Baron de Luce in 1764 it’s had a rich and somewhat turbulent history having survived the French Revolution, a rampant fire in the village and two World Wars. In the second one it became a hospital for wounded British military officers and paintings from the Louvre were hidden from the Nazis in a cellar under the stables. Since then it’s been a cinema, a holiday home and a fabulous wedding venue, and from Spring 2019 it opens for the first time as a hotel.

As the heavy black metal gates slowly opened, revealing the sweeping driveway and the imposing, neoclassical chateau, I breathed in the regal air and readied myself to play my part in its incredible history. And to enjoy living like a fairy-tale princess for a while!

Grand-Luce: me

Loving the chateau lifestyle

Come on in…

The stunning interior shows off high ceilings, sparkling chandeliers and classically elegant decor. There’s a grand pink dining room (you could have some dinners to remember in there), and plenty of plush seating areas for chilling out.

Grand-Luce: lounge

The beautifully stylish living area

Grand-Luce: dining room

The spacious grandness of the pink dining room

And then it’s time to go upstairs. Wow! How I can imagine dancing down that glorious staircase. The rooms on the first floor are all uniquely decorated, no one is the same. I stayed in the luxury of the Butterfly room, home to the antique wallpaper covered in, guess what, butterflies. Living surrounded by these beautifully delicate creatures quite simply makes life better.

Grande du Luce: seating area

My comfy seating area surrounded by butterflies

A large double bed with canopy and luxurious linen led to blissful nights of sleep and awakening in butterfly heaven, refreshed and ready to enjoy a new day in Loire heaven.

Grande Luce: bed

The tempting, luxurious bed

And from the moment I drew back the curtains (some of the biggest (and heaviest) curtains I’ve ever seen) my heart leapt at the view across the sweeping lawns towards the oak forest in the distance.

The magnificent grounds

Château du Grand-Lucé is set in 80 acres and  you’ll find flourishing flower, herb and vegetable gardens, a lake and meadows. The garden is dotted with statues given as a gift from King Louis XV, may of which are exact replicas of statues at Versailles, and crystal chandeliers hang from the avenue of trees. Seriously, chandeliers in the trees – and they come on at night!

Grand-Luce: crystal chandeliers

The trees sparkle with crystal chandeliers

There’s a quirky perfectly round swimming pool beside the orangery for lazy, sunny days.

Grand-Luce: pool

The sparkling pool beckons

With so much outside space, Château du Grand-Lucé is the perfect place for alfresco dining. Which we did a lot of. Long tables set with crisp linen and decorated with fresh flowers from the garden. You’re off to a good start before you even start eating.

Grand-Luce: dinner outside

Gotta love dining alfresco

Grand-Luce: dining table

Beautifully decorated with flowers from the garden

Grand-Luce: fruit and veg

The greenery of the fruit and vegetable garden

Grande Luce: sunflower

Giant sunflowers punctuate the Loire landscape

Grand-Luce: secret spot

One of many secluded spots to relax in

Food glorious food

Okay France is well-known for its stunning cuisine. And the Loire region does offer a lot of local deliciousness. Like these amazing pork rillettes. Melt-in-the-mouth snacking joy! Or how about some pigs in blankets? Impossible to resist.

Grand-Luce: rilettes

Tasty rillettes are a speciality of the area

Here’s a taster of what to expect. I’m warning you…be prepared to salivate!

Perfectly cooked steak served with a creamy Bernaise sauce and roasted vegetables from the chateau’s garden.

Grand-Luce: steak

Tender steak with perfect Bernaise sauce

Grand-Luce: apple tart

When in France eat apple tart tartin

Grand Luce: salads

The freshest of salad spreads

Grand-Luce: cheese

French cheese simply should not be resisted

And here we are posing in our fabulous, huge windows. It was irresistible. Loved those windows.

Loved Château du Grand-Lucé. A truly fabulous piece of Loire paradise.

Grand-Luce: windows

The best windows with the best views

The details

Hotel Château du Grand-Lucé opens in June 2019.

Hotel Château du Grand-Lucé is less than an hour’s drive from Tours Airport. It is also less than one hour from Paris by train to Le Mans which is about a half an hour drive away.

Find out more

Château du Grand-Lucé, le Grand Luce, Loire Valley, France

Visit https://chateaugrandluce.com/

Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/chateaudugrandluce/  

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/chateaudugrandluce/  

My highlights of beautiful Brighton

One of the many great things about living in London is that it’s so easy to get to so many other wonderful places. Like the stunning seaside town of Brighton. A quick train ride (and I do love a train ride) and you’re in a world of quirky shopping, bracing seaside walks, beach hut posing and of course eating and drinking. It’s become an annual pilgrimage that I excitedly look forward to – here are this year’s highlights. Enjoy.

As well as the classic photo opportunities, there were also snails dotted around the city. Very cute! Here’s the iconic Grand on the seafront, the brightly appealing beach huts and a couple of those sweet little snails welcoming you to Brighton with their snailspace.

Brighton: sights and snails

Brighton is the perfect meandering city. Just remember to keep your strength up with regular refreshment shops. Like at Grow 40 on the corner of Kensington Gardens which instantly became a favourite when they offered me Bailey’s coffee. Perfect for the recovering from the pelting rain and gale-force winds. It is autumn after all.

Brighton: Baileys Coffee

Bailey’s coffee overlooking the streets of Kensington Gardens

We had lunch at the other end of this buzzing road filled with unique shops at the lovely Fatto a Mano. My special pizza was a delight in cheesiness topped with artichokes, olives and pancetta and had one of the best-made crusts I’ve ever had. It’s hard to beat a perfect pizza – and this was perfect!

Brighton: pizza

The most delightful of artichoke and pancetta pizzas

It’s cocktail o’clock

After exploring the streets in more highly unpleasant weather we found it impossible to walk past the newly opened Ivy in the Lanes. And boy were we pleased we did. It’s quite simply stunning.

Brighton: The Ivy in the Lanes

The Ivy in the Lanes is oh-so stunning

And the cocktails! Even reading the menu got us excited. We went for candy floss fizz with fairy floss and prosecco, complemented with rose, lychee, ginger and Havana rum – the pink one topped with candy floss. And the yellow is fresh passion fruit shaken with vanilla-infused vodka and finished with flaming ovenproof rum in a passion fruit shell. Absolutely world class and so beautiful, too. There seem to be Ivy’s popping up everywhere these days but this is one you simply cannot miss.

The Ivy: Cocktails

Mouth-watering cocktails in shades of pink and yellow

What’s for dinner

Now here’s a challenge. Picking a restaurant in Brighton for dinner. It can push you over the edge, there’s just too much choice. My latest trick is to use google maps and find the ones I most like the look of that I am staying the closest to. Tonight that meant we headed for The Gingerman.

It’s a tiny, cosy place off a side street with the warmest of welcomes and a mouthwatering menu. My creamiest of Jerusalem artichoke soup was served with a gruyere, Parma ham and truffle mini toastie. An awesome autumn starter and the best ham and cheese toastie ever.

Brighton: the Gingerman

The creamiest of artichoke soup with the sweetest of ham and cheese toasties

So good I had to show you it up close.

Brighton: ham and cheese toastie

The best toastie in the world

My fish dish was Newhaven landed cod served with the sweetest of crab meat, pineapple, baba ganoush, peanut and a lovely bisque. Wow, such a tasty and exotic mix! And undoubtedly the best cod I’ve eaten this year. A night of bests, how I love that.

Brighton: the Gingerman

My beautifully cooked cod dish

Where to stay

Today we stayed at Artists Residence in Regency Square near the seafront. This quirky little place with narrow stairs and corridors has 24 unique rooms. Setting out to improve the business, co-founder Justin advertised for artists to decorate the rooms in return for their board. And he got quite a response. Each room is decorated with incredible original artworks. We stayed in the lovely Bonnie & Clyde.

Brighton: Artist Residence

The comfy bed against the stunning artwork

Brighton: Artist Residence

Love the novel wall mini bar

And here’s the tea and coffee station backed with more amazing pictures.

Brighton: Artist Residence

Tea time has never been so arty

Artist Residence is a great place to stay. Close to the shops and the seafront, beautifully unique with wonderfully friendly and helpful staff. I suspect I’ll be back.

Time for brunch

That indulgent meal at a time when I never really eat – I love a good brunch. Especially a brunch involving some sort of Benedict. Today I devoured an avocado Benedict at Six. Poached free range organic eggs, avocado and hollandaise sauce on a toasted brioche with extra bacon. The ultimate brunch treat.

Brighton: Six

Avocado Benedict rules

I love Brighton more every time I visit. Have you been there? Where are your favourite places to shop, eat and stay? I’d love to hear from you. 

Where to stay in Murcia, Spain: La Manga Club

So today we’re heading for glorious, sunny Spain to the province of Murcia. The region sits between Andalucia and Valencia on the Mediterranean coast and is one of the truly unspoilt places in Spain I’ve visited. You’ll find plenty of beaches – 250km of them on the Costa Calida and also the fabulous Mar Menor (small sea) which is the largest natural lake in Spain and the largest salty lagoon in Europe. It’s separated from the Mediterranean by a narrow, sandy strip called La Manga del Mar Menor. Manga means sleeve in Spanish and this long-sleeved area is a favourite for holidaymakers from all over Spain.

Murcia is also a major producer of fruit, vegetables and flowers for the rest of Spain and the whole of Europe. This amazing fresh produce means that the food is fabulous wherever you go.

We’re staying at the rather swish La Manga Club at the five-star Hotel Principe Felipe which is part of the resort which covers 1,400 acres (560 hectares) and offers myriad sporting, eating and relaxation opportunities. Here’s why it’s so fabulous.

Five-star delights at the Hotel Principe Felipe

This plush hotel overlooks two of the resort’s three golf courses. It’s one of those places that instantly lifts your spirit as you walk in the door. It’s luxurious, light and glitzy and even smells delicious.

Principe Felipe: hotel

The stylish hotel is set on the golf course

The beautiful, comfortable rooms

I do love a plush hotel room and these are right up there. The beds are large, with crisp linen and squashy pillows leading to the best night’s sleep ever. Bathrooms are large with separate bath and shower and the balconies overlook the peaceful greenness of the golf course.

La Manga: rooms

The comfiest of elegant rooms

La Manga: rooms

The balconies have lovely golf course views

Perfect poolside lazing

So how’s this for a pool? With comfortable loungers, serenity and beautiful views it’s certainly one that’s hard to drag yourself away from. Unless you’re heading for a snack or a drink at the poolside restaurant, Sol y Sombra – which means Sun and Shadow. What a great name for a restaurant.

Principe Felipe: Pool

The sparkle of the pool welcomes you

The Las Lomas apartments on top of the hill also have a fabulous spot for poolside indulgence and a cafe called La Pergola.

Principe Felipe: Las Lomas pool

The crystal, azure water of the Las Lomas pool

Total sporting heaven

La Manga Club is sport…pretty much whatever sport your heart desires. There are three world-class golf courses, a 28-court tennis centre and eight FIFA-standard football pitches. On weekends you’ll see games of cricket being played, there’s a bowling green and a Par-47 golf course to get in some short-game practice. The resort also offers a wide range of sporting academies which also include rugby and mountain biking. Or you could take a boat trip, snorkel, try some kayaking or scuba diving.

La Manga: West Course

The stunning view from the 18th tee on the West Course

And then there’s the fitness centre, complete with a large, well-equipped gym – just what you need if you’re going to do justice to all that fabulous Murcian cuisine.

La Manga: gym

Work off some calories at the impressive gym

There are also whirlpools, an indoor pool, saunas and a spa offering a wide range of extravagant treatments.

The restaurants and variety of cuisine

There are plenty of restaurants within the resort. These include the rustically pretty La Cala, which is on the beach – a stunning and somewhat precipitous drive from the hotel. Their paella is legendary.

Principe Felipe: La Cala

The restaurant at the seclusion of La Cala

Amapola at the Hotel Principe Felipe is their signature restaurant and serves fabulous Mediterranean dishes made using the freshest of local ingredients. Try to get a table on the terrace so you can look out across the golf course and towards the Mar Menor in the distance.

Principe Felipe: Amapola

Enjoy Mediterranean delights on the terrace at Amapola

You can also enjoy Asian delights at Asia, tasty Italian at Luigis, bistro-style dishes at The Village, Indian cuisine at Dharma, tapas at La Bodega and snacks at the poolside bars.

Oh, and although it doesn’t involve any eating, you have to pay a visit to the Piano Bar with a live pianist and plenty of opportunities to sing along to your favourite songs. Just be prepared for a late night and very probably a sore throat the next day.

The surrounding area

Another of the real joys of La Manga Club is that you have the beauty of unspoilt Spain right on your doorstep. Just a short drive away you’ll discover fabulous beaches complete with chiringuitos (my favourite Spanish word – it’s a beach bar) and quaint villages.

Cabo de Palos

Cabos de Palos is a busy little fishing village where you can relax on the harbour with a glass of your favourite tipple watching the world go by. Boatfuls of divers come and go, families fish off the pier and fishing boats deliver their catch of the day to the very restaurants you’re eating in.

On Sundays there’s a fabulous market – my favourite market in the world. An early morning start makes it easy to get parking (this is one popular market) and gives you the chance to take a rejuvenating walk along the beach and over the cliffs, around the coastline as the sun slowly rises higher in the sky. There’s no better way to start the day.

La Manga: Cabo de Palos

Starting the day beachside at Cabo de Palos

The market sells an incredible array of fruit and vegetables – well, it would wouldn’t it – with so much grown locally. You can smell the peaches from 100 metres away, become the proud owner of a large bag of fresh garlic for €1 (seriously, €1 for about 8 bulbs) and sample tomatoes that taste of sweet sunshine.

La Manga: Cabos de Palos market

Cabos de Palos market is simply the best

And don’t forget to search out the other bargains, too. I’ve bought amazing shoes, shorts and dresses for such great prices.

Mar de Cristal

Mar de Cristal on the Mar Menor is another favourite destination – who couldn’t love a place called Sea of Crystal. This little town has a busy beach full of happy families, a lovely little chiringuito and a great beachside restaurant called Arena. It serves a wide variety of tasty local delicacies – including some of the best patatas bravas you’ll ever taste.

La Manga: Mar de Cristal

The view from my sunbed at Mar de Cristal’s chiringuito

La Manga: Bonobo

Beautifully crips patatas bravas with spicy sauce

Or there’s also the aforementioned sleeve with its wide expanse of sand, warm, inviting ocean and fabulous restaurants.

La Manga: The strip

While away hours on the beach along the La Manga Strip

The excursions

If you’d prefer to be guided on your explorations, the hotel offers different excursions every day. You could visit the unique Calblanque Park, get a culture fix in historic Cartagena, check out local markets and beaches or take to ocean for some snorkelling, sailing or kayaking.

If you don’t have a car for your stay the MangaBus is free and will take you anywhere on site on demand.

And finally, here’s an aerial shot of La Manga Club and its incredible surroundings. Now if that doesn’t look like paradise, I don’t know what does!

Principe Felipe: aerial shot

The stunning aerial shot of the resort

You can find out more about La Manga resort by clicking here.

Tasty seafood and stunning views at Gaaitje in Paternoster

The beach-side charm of Gaaitjie

Today we’re heading up South Africa’s West Coast to the charming seaside town of Paternoster at Cape Columbine. Known for its crayfish and white-washed fisherman’s cottages it’s a picture perfect little spot that appears in the distance as you come over that final hill. More about what to do in this beautiful place later. But first we are getting down to the important business of lunch. After our two-hour drive from Cape Town we were ready for some refreshment so we headed straight for the sea in search of Gaaitjie (which mysteriously means little hole in Afrikaans).

Gaaitje is quite simply the perfect restaurant for me. A basic white-washed fisherman’s cottage right on the beach serving food made using fresh local produce. And no holes in sight. Just expansive beach and ocean views.

Gaatijie: view

Welcome to Gaaitjie, beautiful in shades of blue and white

What’s on the menu

We settled in happily on the verandah with a bottle of Rose to peruse the menu which offered a lot of delicious fishy favourites. The local calamari came with charred corn, pickled red onion and garlic aioli. The prettiest of plates with calamari that literally melted in the mouth. Wow! Calamari will never taste like this again…

Gaaitjie: Calamari

Beautifully tender calamari with a slight crunch

My Saldanah Bay mussels were in a white wine broth with cumin and lime leaves, garlic and onions. I’ve eaten so many mussels in my time in Cape Town I’m thinking of writing a guide to mussel dishes around the peninsular! They are so tasty at this time of year and so versatile. Today’s choice came in a curry-style broth which I’ve never had with mussels before and it worked beautifully. I mopped up all those juices with our wonderful rosemary pot bread.

Gaaitjie: mussels

Plump mussels in a curry-flavoured broth

The special of the day was written up on the board as we walked in – Masala prawns. No need for Terry to look at the menu then, Indian flavours are his favourite. The prawns were enormous, juicy and beautifully spicy and served on the tastiest of savoury rice.

Gaaitjie: prawns

Giant masala prawns with savoury rice

To complement our meal these delightful little pot breads were delivered to our table piping hot from the oven. Soft and delicate, the fresh butter melted in creating little bites of heavenliness – all flavoured with fresh rosemary. It’s almost worth going to Gaaitjie just for the bread!

Gaaitjie: tin bread

Stunning little loaves of tin bread

The food at Gaaitjie is both simple and perfect. The best ingredients wonderfully cooked, a warm welcome and great service and those views! I want to go back there right now!

Gaaitjie: front

Gaaitje in its shades of blue

Gaaitjie: boat

The Gaaitje boat at the front of the restaurant

 

Gaaitjie: interior

Inside there’s a lovely beach-house feel

Today’s price point

Lunch for three which consisted of two starters, a main course and a bottle of Rose cost R565 (£34 at todays exchange rate).

As a general guide starters are around R80 (4.80) and main courses up to R200 (£12).

Gaaitje is off Sampson Street on the beach in Paternoster.

Where to stay in Mexico: Grand Velas Los Cabos

Loving life at Grand Velas Los Cabos

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

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

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

Here’s what I loved about it.

The views

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

Grand Velas: pool and sea

Views in different shades of blue

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

Grand Velas: balcony view

The stunning view from my balcony

The beach

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

Grand Velas: beach

The pool leads on to the quiet beach

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

Grand Velas: Beach beds

Chill out on your private beach bed

Grand Velas: Beach

My footprints on the beach early in the morning

The pools

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

Grand Velas: pool and sea

Escape to a land of blue sparkle

My personal concierge

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

The suites

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

Grand Velas: Room

How I loved my beautiful, spacious room

The mini bar

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

Grand Velas: Mini bar

Happiness is…a fully stocked mini bar

The fabulous food

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

Grand Velas: Cocina de Autor

Delightfully exotic dishes at Cocina de Autor

Grand Velas: sole

Delightfully sweet sole in a delicate foam

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

Room service for tartare and guacamole

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

Grand Velas: poolside food

More fresh tuna, this time at the pool

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

Grand Velas: Azul

Sunny breakfasts on the terrace at Azul

The spa and gym

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

Grand Velas: Gym

The view from the gym makes exercise more enjoyable.

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

Grand Velas: Spa

The best jacuzzi in the world in the stunning spa

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

The sunsets and sunrises

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

Grand Velas: sunrise

The best sunrises and sunsets ever

The excursions

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

Grand Velas: Sailing

Sipping cocktails while sailing the ocean blue

Grand Velas: Arches of Cortez

The Arches of Cortez against the azure sky

The Spanish-ness

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

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

Grand Velas: Beach selfie

And of course…a beach selfie

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

Check out the website at grandvelas.com

Antarctica: a blue and white wonderland

So 2017 was an amazing year of travel for me when I explored eight new countries and two new continents. Which gave me a full set of continents visited when I landed on the wild and dazzling Antarctic peninsula. Serious lump-in-the-throat stuff.

We went on a never-to-be-forgotten cruise from the bottom of Argentina (Ushuaia) via the Falkland Islands and South Georgia to the Antarctic and back again through the infamous Drake Passage. You can read all about my time on the magnificent island of South Georgia by clicking here.

Antarctica isn’t owned by anyone – it’s a continent dedicated to peace and science. It’s uninhabited by humans, except for during the summer when there are a few stations where scientists stay while studying the wildlife and the changing shape of our planet.

When you say you’re going to Antarctica, the immediate reaction is: Ooh, polar bears. Although some of my friends did react with: Are you mad!? Wrong in both cases. The bears live up in the Arctic, rather we were heading for the land of penguins, seals, mountains, ice shelves and, most beautiful of all, myriad icebergs in different shades of blue.

Antarctica: icebergs

Icebergs come in many shapes and sizes; and many shades of blue

That first sight of an iceberg is impossible to capture, either in words or pictures, though obviously I’m trying. Who knew they’d be so beautiful? I was entranced by every one and took another million pictures, including way too many iceberg selfies. Like taking pictures of penguins, you just can’t help yourself.

Antarctica: chinstrap penguin

A dainty chinstrap penguin with a glacier in the distance

We had five onshore expeditions around Antarctica at Yankee Harbour, Deception Island, Cuverville, Paradise Bay and Port Charcot.

Communing with gentoos at Yankee Harbour

Yankee Harbour has a natural stone gravel spit that extends for about a kilometre and protects the harbour. We had our first sighting of chinstrap penguins – so cute and delicate. My love for penguins was growing by the day.

There was also several thousand pairs of gentoo penguins nesting and inspecting their latest visitors. These curious little creatures come right up to you without fear. I felt so in harmony with the natural world in this magical place.

Antarctica: Le Lyrical

The perfect combo of gentoos, ice and Le Lyrial

Antarctica: Chinstrap penguin

Chinstrap penguins having a little rest

Deception Island is out of this world

Next stop, Deception Island – by now it felt like we were on another planet! It’s one of the most famous islands of the South Shetland archipelago which was originally discovered by sealers in the 1820s.

The deception is in the fact that it has a doughnut-like shape, like someone’s taken a small bite out of the doughnut which forms a narrow entrance into the flooded caldera of what is an active volcano. The entrance is so narrow that many early visitors sailed straight past, unaware of what was waiting inside.

The volcano is still active which makes for the weirdest natural phenomenon I’ve ever witnessed. The day we went ashore it was cold and snowing and as we stepped off our little boats we noticed the steam rising from the water. The water was hot – in the snow! We wandered around this otherworldly place with its ramshackle buildings, graveyard and whirling snow. Such an incredible experience.

Antarctica: Deception Island

The graveyard in the snow of Deception Island

Going onshore was always incredible, and everywhere was different. And once we’d headed deeper into the icy blue world our boat journeys in the seas around our ship (which were always glass-calm) also become a highlight. All that ice with its unique beauty that we were so fortunate to get so close to. Now I know exactly what ice blue looks like – and I really do need the addition of garments in that exact shade to my wardrobe.

Antartica: icebergs

Our little Zodiac inflatable is dwarfed by an iceberg

Antarctica: Icebergs

The most beautiful iceberg in Antarctica

Playing in the snow and ice on Cuverville Island

Cuverville Island is at the northern end of the Errera Channel. By now it was getting icier and snowier – though not terribly cold – it was the middle of summer after all. Here we saw loads more breeding gentoos, perfectly at home in the snow and ice, protecting their eggs from the large and sometimes aggressive skuas (birds) homing in for a nice eggy dinner.

Antarctica: Le Lyrical

Gentoo penguins, icebergs and beautiful Le Lyrial

Antarctica: reflections

Snowy, crystal clear reflections

Antarctica: Ice

A Christmas-day expedition among the ice

Antarctica: Icebergs

Big ship, little boat in iceberg heaven

Antarctica: gents

Antarctica: Icebergs

A towering iceberg and its reflection

Antarctica: icebergs

And there’s even archway icebergs

Antarctica: Christmas

Christmas Day iceberg selfie

Antarctica: Leopard seal

A leopard seal chills out on his iceberg

Antarctica: Leopard seal

We got oh-so-close to the leopard seal

Antarctica: Paradise Bay

The snowy mountains of beautiful Paradise Bay

Antarctica: Iceberg

Another splendid iceberg

Antartica: my seventh continent

Cheers Antarctica: A toast to landing on my seventh continent

Antarctica: penguin highways

The gentoos follow their penguin highways

Our luxurious home from home – Le Lyrial

We cruised on the beautiful Le Lyrial on an Abercrombie & Kent expedition. On Christmas Day we were anchored in Port Charcot and after our expedition morning in the ice and endless Christmas hat iceberg selfies we came back on board to a Christmas Day BBQ lunch served on the deck of La Comete Restaurant (one of two onboard restaurants). I can’t imagine anyone had a more beautiful venue for their festive lunch.

Antartica: Christmas Day

The deck all ready for our Christmas Day lunch

Our time onboard Le Lyrial lasted 15 days and many of those were at sea. We travelled over 3,000 nautical miles with an expedition team of experts on every subject Antarctic-related. Every day at sea there were talks in the plush theatre so I learnt about all the explorers of the region, the birds, mammals, geology, well pretty much everything that there was to learn. I wish my brain was less full (by which I probably mean younger) and I could have retained it all! How I loved the passion and knowledge those people hold deep in their souls – I salute them all.

And then there was the food. Fabulous, diverse, gourmet, exciting…and never-ending. Every meal was an event, and all accompanied by amazing wines. There were also never-ending cocktails, gin and tonics and hot drinks after onshore expeditions. One of our new on-board friends Mike introduced me to hot chocolate with a dash of peppermint liqueur. So good I had three one day – only one day as I did feel a little over-indulged afterwards! The perfect Antarctic beverage.

Antarctica: Le Lyrical

The sparkling La Celeste where we enjoyed many a delicious dinner

Our staterooms were spectacular with large comfy beds, balconies with never-ending views, bathrooms stocked with never-ending Hermes products and 24 room service. Oh and a Nespresso  machine just in case you needed a quick caffeine hit.

Antartica: Le Lyrial

The luxurious bed and expansive views from the stateroom

The breakfast buffets in La Comete were the breakfasts of dreams. And we often had them on the deck (fully decked out in our cold-weather gear).

Antarctica: Le Lyrial

Bottomless bountiful breakfasts and buffets in LA Comete (Deck 6 aft)

The ship had special stabilisers so it could cope with the potentially rough crossings. Drake Passage is particularly notorious for its wild seas so we came prepared with a bagful of seasick tablets – we did take a few “Just in case”, but they were left largely untouched. In a perverse sort of way we were looking forward to seeing how we’d cope when the going got rough, but it never did. The biggest the swell we experienced was three metres and that made for really fun sailing. Also, the weather was very kind to us. The worst it got was on Deception Island, with lots of wind and some snow, but somehow that seemed so perfectly appropriate. The ship provides jackets, over trousers and boots to suit the conditions and of course you make sure to dress appropriately (something you are briefed in detail about). I was never cold or uncomfortable and did enjoy wearing my selection of newly-acquired hats!

What more can I say? The trip of a lifetime indeed! I’d never have believed as a child growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe that I’d get to visit all seven continents in my lifetime. And that I’d toast my landing on Antarctica with champagne on a small boat within touching distance of the magnificent icebergs. What a moment that was.

Antarctic v Arctic the differences

Antarctica is a continent surrounded by the ocean at the South Pole. The South Polar ice sheet covers 98% of the land. The mean annual temperature at the South Pole is -50C. Yes -50! It’s home to marine mammals (whales and seals) but there are no terrestrial mammals and there are less than 20 bird species. And most beautiful of all, it’s the land of penguins. I miss those penguins every day.

The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents at the North Pole. It has limited land ice. The mean annual temperature at the North Pole is -18C. It’s home to terrestrial mammals, including reindeer, wolf, musk ox, hare, lemming and fox as well as marine mammals (whales and seals). There are more than 100 bird species. And of course there are polar bears.

Find out more about this life-changing cruise to the land of penguins, seals, icebergs and peace by clicking here.