Three Go Cruising And Eating

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In case you hadn’t noticed, I like my food. When I go abroad I plan my days around which restaurants I want to eat at and when I was dating I got more excited about eating in lovely London restaurants than meeting new people. Waitrose is my happy  place and I like nothing more than an early night with a pile of recipe magazines.

I tell you, my life is wild.

So when we boarded Ventura for our cruise I was pretty excited about the prospect of our all-inclusive dining package. And there are plenty of different options to choose from, whether you’re a foodie, if you like the more traditional sit-down dining or even if you’re a fan of room service (I AM). I was mostly looking forward to the fine dining options; The Glasshouse with wine curated by Saturday Kitchen’s Olly Smith, Marco Pierre White’s White Room and Atul Kocher’s East.

The first thing we did when we arrived onto Ventura at lunchtime was to visit the buffet. Pretty much open 24 hours a day (as I discovered a couple of times at 4am when Hux wouldn’t settle and was desperate for a banana and a bottle of milk) the buffet offered salads as well as hot food choices for lunch that changed every day. We only usually ate at the buffet for an early breakfast, where you could choose between a continental or full English feast. Post-8am and at lunchtime the area tended to get very busy and it could be difficult to get seated with the kids.

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At lunchtime we tended to head for Cinnamon (above), where our all-inclusive package meant we could munch on a three-course meal, even if we’d gorged on bacon and eggs just a couple of hours previously. Or if that was too much you could order a salad or a lighter ‘sandwich of the day’ which would mean you’d save enough room for the complimentary afternoon tea.

There is a reason the on-board magazine told us that on a 7 day cruise the average person will put on 7 to 14lbs. And that is because FOOD.

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On the last day Hux and I had a bit of a date at Cinnamon on our own: the three course option was a homemade scotch egg with mushroom confit, slow roast pork belly with crackling and a potato cake followed by a mini victoria sandwich. Hux dined off the children’s menu and had gammon, cucumber and chips. Most of it ended up in his hair, as you can see, but it was delicious all the same.

The kids options throughout the boat were very good and the little ones could either dine off the main menu with the adults or choose from the children’s menus. Elfie’s favourite part of the cruise was the character tea when she got to dine with Noddy; she has not stopped talking about it since.

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Onto the part I was looking forward to the most: the fine dining. My cruise companion Steph is, much like me, a bit of a foodie so we often found ourselves next to each other having foodgasms over the amazing dishes. And, lets be honest, the wine (Ventura had an excellent wine list but we mostly stuck to the very moreish Marlborough Sauv Blanc).

The first night Steph and I dined at The Glasshouse, which I’d call decent brasserie-type food. It offers small tapas-style dishes as well as burgers and steaks. Above you can see our sharing plate which included ham hock terrine and piccalilli, fishcakes with hollandaise, quails egg scotch eggs and tempura king prawns. Really delicious.

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We also ate here en masse with our children on the last night and I had the best surf n’turf of my life which came with prawns the size of my fist. That was one of the great things about Ventura: you could leave your children in the excellent kid’s facilities or they’d be quite welcome to dine with you in the evening. Elfie loved the special treat of dressing up and visiting the restaurants and Hux, well one of Hux’s hobbies is flirting with waitresses so he was in his element.

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East was my least favourite of the three fine-dining restaurants though to be fair I don’t react well to spice and chilli (I’m such a special snowflake, you see). My main course of lobster and king prawn was too heavily flavoured for me and I felt the spices overrode the delicate shellfish. The pudding of flambe’d banana was bloody lovely though, as was the rose martini I supped on.

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My absolute favourite restaurant on the whole ship was The White Room. With a menu by Marco Pierre White, the meal we had here was so lovely I could eat it over and over. I think the steak with garlic butter snails and bearnaise sauce was one of the best I’ve ever eaten (my mum: “Snails? I thought they were mushrooms…”), the tempura starter was awesome as was the amuse bouche of broccoli soup and tiramisu pudding. Petit fours came with coffee in a sugar basket (that got eaten, natch) and Steph and I polished off the epic feast with dirty martinis in the top deck cocktail bar, Metropolis. Perfect evening!

For lighter meals on Ventura there was also a burger bar and a pizza place for quick, easy and delicious lunches. Room service was brilliant: you could have a continental breakfast brought to your room free of charge each morning or select off the menu. The children often enjoyed a room service pizza and salad on our balcony as mum and I had a glass of wine watching the sunset… there are not many things more lovely than gazing out to sea when you finish off your kids freshly-made pizza. IMG_3303

 

Though we were dining all-inclusive we had to pay a slight supplement for the fine dining options on Ventura but these range from £3 per tapas dish at Glasshouse (around £8 for a steak) to £25 for the gorgeous meal at The White House. Well worth it, in my opinion. Alcohol was not included in the all-inclusive package but think Wetherspoons rather than London prices. Very good value but excellent quality (around £9 for a bottle of wine and £5 for a cocktail).

Three Go Cruising And Kids Clubbing

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When the lovely people at P&O asked if I fancied a trip on Ventura, my first thought was obviously “HELL YES”. And then my second thought was “do I have to bring the kids?”. Because as much as I love my little ones to absolute death, there are some things in life that are slightly more enjoyable without my mini-me’s (sorry guys, you’ll understand this one day). Day spas, for example, or fancy restaurants. Nights out and days of culture. These are all usually better without an accompanying wailing baby or a toddler asking “do you need a wee or a poo, mummy?”

But the kiddos were indeed invited on board Ventura and P&O were keen for me to find out all about how family-friendly their facilities are. Apparently I’d be able to visit the spa, fancy restaurants, have nights out and experience some culture all with my kids in tow. Excellent!

Elfie is three and a half and Hux is almost one and a half. Elfie spends five mornings a week at pre-school and Hux four hours at creche, so they’re pretty socialised kids who really enjoy activities and mixing with other children. I can honestly say that they really really loved the children’s clubs on-board.

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Ventura has four different kids clubs depending on the age of your children: for 2 to 4 year olds there’s the Toybox, for 5 to 8 year olds there’s Jumping Jacks, The Den is for 9 to 12 year olds and Decibels for the teens up to 17. There’s also Tumblers, a parent-supervised play area for under 2s; unfortunately Hux was too young to be signed into any of the facilities but he really enjoyed playing with other children and I met other parents this way, too. Tumblers also operated a ‘toy library’ which was great for us: we borrowed various toys and books throughout our trip that Hux loved playing with while we were relaxing with a glass of wine on our balcony (more on this later!).

Elfie went crazy for the kids club. Each day was themed: Space day, Jungle Day, Dinosaur Day, Circus day, with different activities planned around this theme. She spent her days getting her face painted, making cookies, going on Gruffalo hunts, making Elf wands… she adored it. The staff were absolutely brilliant and obviously loved their jobs and the kids in their care, they were always so welcoming and warm. They were very accommodating of Elfie’s medical needs too and I was allocated a pager for our whole stay so they could always reach me in case of emergency.

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As well as the Kids Club there were other highlights for the children: the Noddy character dinner is something that Elfie keeps talking about and there were special parties for them to attend (I’ve never seen Hux freaked out before but the lifesize Noddy definitely did it for him).

Crucially for me, though, there were night time kids facilities to take advantage of. I don’t get out much so was really looking forward to the opportunity of a couple of lovely meals out, cocktails, live music and, erm, karaoke.

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At 7pm the Toybox turns their lights down and story time begins. Elfie would arrive in her PJs and snuggle on beanbags with her new friends to listen to stories followed by DVDs. The latest you could pick them up was 11pm, but if your child is younger than 5 you had the option of transferring them into the night nursery, which is where Hux spent his time. This was a room of cots and toddler beds where babies and toddlers could snooze the night away (until 1am, anyway) while their parents (ME) partied. Your children had to be settled and sleepy by the time you left them and again you got given a pager in case they woke up. I had a couple of interrupted nights out but on the whole Hux was very happy there.

If I were to cruise again I think I would definitely wait until Hux was 2 so I could take advantage of the Toybox for him; as I was unable to leave him in any of the Kids Clubs he had to be accompanied by either my mum or I. However, I spent most of the time mind boggled that such brilliant child-care were offered free of charge and I wouldn’t hesitate using any of the Kids Clubs again. Having such wonderful and structured children’s activities to choose from would definitely be another factor in us choosing a P&O cruise for a holiday.

P&O sent us away for a complimentary week on Ventura but as always I’ll be writing about our experiences completely truthfully. You can read my disclosure on this here

Day Two

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What a difference a day has made.

I don’t know if it’s this city, the people I’ve met or the freedom I’ve felt but already I am rejuvinated. For the first time in a long while I feel capable and excited at what might be round the corner. Despite the late nights and jetlag-driven early mornings I’m energized and simply, unashamedly happy.

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Yesterday was perfect; a walk over the Williamsburg bridge (this place is so hip it hurts, by the way), brunch at Pastis, a stroll along the High Line Park and lunch at The Standard. A visit to my old work’s New York office, chewing the fat with some bar-hopping Italians and a perfect drink in a lovely bar with a breathtaking view over Columbus circle. A cab back over the Hudson to meet old London friends in a hotel’s rooftop bar followed by drinks and a stumble home. I felt 18 again and it rocked.

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(Hangover face)

I was so worried before I arrived here that I would go slightly nuts without the kids, but the process has been a lot less painful than I expected. Maybe that comes with the new found contentment, but I have no anxiety or worries about how on earth they are coping without their Mama. I know they’ll be just fine.

Bring on NYC evening number three: burgers and comedy. I love this town.

N-Y-C!

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I’m here, I’m in New York! And have been up since 4.30am thanks to jetlag and the champagne hangover from my flight yesterday.

It was the best flight of my life. Scratch that, it was one of the best DAYS of my life. Because I know how to pick my friends well, Kirsty went above and beyond the call of duty friendship-wise and upgraded my ticket to first class using her airmiles. I don’t think I can ever go back to Economy now, she’s ruined me for life.

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I spent the flight propping up the bar with some Hedge Fund Managers from the Upper West Side (I still have no idea what a Hedge Fund is), drinking Champagne and enjoying stretching my legs in the comfort of my absolutely massive seat. The food was fantastic, the air hostesses were lovely: I could have spent all day on that plane. And the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at Heathrow? Don’t even get me started on it. DIVINE. Jerry Hall sat down next to me and gave me dirty looks because I was staring at her. Sorry, Jerry, but I was comparing you to my Google Images results so I could be sure it was you.

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I arrived into the city at 9pm and we gallivanted off for the BEST fried chicken of my life. Chicken skin, breaded and deep-fried? With honey butter? OMG. Not convinced with the accompanying scone though (they call em biscuits here).  That was followed by an apple gallette and some vino at Brooklyn Winery (they make their own artisanal wines. Fancy) and a stagger home to Kirsty’s gorgeous Williamsburg pad.

One of the things I love about America is that it’s acceptable to eat fries at breakfast time. Which is precisely what I plan to do in approximately one hour. I love this country.

Re-claiming Me Time

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If you ask any new mum the one thing they miss about their life pre-parenthood, they’ll probably say the same thing. Alone time. Me time. Silence.

That’s definitely true for me and I tell you, three years of not being able to take a dump without someone peering down the toilet asking you if your bottom is smelly, or shower without being accompanied by your knee-high shadow can really take its toll. Once you’re a mum you never truly feel alone again, and as one who has always been very comfortable in my own company I found this one of the hardest things to deal with.

Sometimes, and this sounds really silly, but I get so overwhelmed with the pressure of making sure my two little mouths get fed three times a day. That’s a strange thing to focus in on, but as an adult you can just inhale a banana or some cake for lunch if you’re busy/stressed/not hungry. You can call your husband for fish and chips, or eat pasta and butter (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it). These two little ones, however, need nutritionally balanced low-fat healthy meals cooked for them and sometimes it takes all I’ve got to think about what I’m going to cook them and then make it. Contrary to popular belief you can’t really feed them fish fingers every day and some days I find myself spending hours and hours slaving over meals for them.

Then there’s the daily pressure of making sure we’re doing fun, educational and stimulating activities, limiting the amount of CBeebies we watch (I find it easily becomes a crutch if I’m not sleeping well) and ensuring we make it to bedtime in a timely fashion and all in one piece. EXHAUSTING. It’s the most full-on flat-out job I’ve ever had. I obviously wouldn’t change it for the world but I do sometimes wish there was an HR department I could hand a holiday form to.

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And that is why I have decided to take a bit of time off. On a whim last Friday night (and yeah, on two glasses of wine if I’m honest) I booked a ticket to New York City, leaving this Wednesday, as in 48 hours time. It’s time to cash in my ‘me time’.

My best friend Kirsty has lived out there almost as long as we’ve lived in the countryside and despite me vowing to visit for all that time I’ve always been a bit preoccupied with being pregnant or breastfeeding. Now I’m neither of those things I’ve decided there’s no time like the present.  The last six months have not been particularly easy for me or my family so I think it’s important to get away and re-discover who I am once again. I hope I will come back a little more relaxed, a little happier and with a little less of a burden on my shoulders.

I can’t wait to spend some quality one-on-one time with Kirsty that doesn’t involve a Skype connection, strolling the streets of New York whilst she’s at work. More crucially I can’t wait to remember who I am again. I’m already anticipating the heartache of missing my children for five days but they will be getting in return a much happier mummy. I can’t wait.

Take Me Back

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Is there much worse than the post-holiday blues? Oh yes, having the post-holiday blues and a poorly child. Or maybe the post-holiday blues, a poorly child and a husband who is working away? BINGO!

The week has been a bit of a write-off, starting with a catalogue of errors on Monday which included filing the car up with petrol when I’d left my purse at home, Elfie weeing in her car seat, the internet not working at the Gym for my only two-hour child-free work window this week… yeah. I nearly went back to bed there and then but persisted with positive thoughts, thinking the week couldn’t get much worse.

It did. We’ve had loads of snow, I’ve been in an absolutely vile mood and then the flu struck. Will is away working which means I’m flying solo (sans car as well, dammit) and there’s been nobody I can share the hell of the all-night toddler illness with. Thank god for CBeebies, eh?

I received a text from Will this morning – he perhaps sensed what was going on from my subtle 4am messages “MOST AWFUL NIGHT EVER!!! ELFIE’S ILL!!! SHE HAS A TEMPERATURE!! WHERE ARE YOU?!!” – and he told me I deserved some lie-ins and treats this weekend. My second thought was (my first thought was “too right, boyo”), what would I do? If I could have any treat at all, what would I ask for? And the honest answer is that I have no idea. A facial? A massage? A nice juicy steak? Maybe. But mostly I’d want to return to last week, when we took a little family holiday.

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Not counting my Sister-In-Law’s wedding in Madrid last year, this was our first break as a family of four. We booked a gorgeous country cottage in the New Forest near Fordingbridge for three nights, hired a car that was fancier than ours and took off with no plans but to relax and be happy.

Hideaway Cottage was brilliant. A recently renovated property, it’s in the chocolate box village of Damerham which is about half an hour away from Bournemouth. We booked through Baby Friendly Boltholes, a genius website that has only child-friendly luxury holiday accommodation on its books, and I can’t tell you how much stress was removed with the knowledge that all our baby crap would be there for us on arrival. We’re talking the boring stuff that you always need to remember: sterilisers, baby bouncers, sippy cups, playmates, toys, baby monitors, DVDs, bath seats… literally EVERYTHING was there, we just needed to take clothes and a bit of food.

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When we arrived there was a bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc waiting (my absolute favourite) with some Tyrrels crisps, fresh eggs, organic butter and bread and a home made lemon drizzle cake. Divine. I pottered in the lovely kitchen cooking a lasagne for us all and drinking the wine whilst the kids went absolutely crazy exploring. The toys – oh, the toys! The toys were brilliant. There was a selection of toys for all ages and if we’d spent our four days on holiday in that house playing with them all Elfie wouldn’t have been bored. She was in her element and said she wanted to stay there “for ever and ever and ever”. There’ll be more on Hideaway Cottage at MAMA very soon, but I’d recommend it to anyone with small children looking for a luxurious and relaxing break in the area.

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Because I had some sort of Malory Towers Midnight Feast ideal in my head I said the kids could share a room: I imagined them whispering to each other late at night and waking each other up with stories in the morning. That didn’t happen… they just woke each other (and us) up at 5am every day. Or rather, Elfie did: “HOLIDAY TIME, HOLIDAY TIME!!”. The only thing not included with the cottage? Kids that sleep til 11am.

We didn’t make any plans for our holiday apart from to visit the beach, some family friends and Steph. And MAYBE Peppa Pig World, weather depending. Happily, we did all those things, including Peppa Pig, which was pretty horrendous, especially in the driving rain. Naturally Elfie had a ball and has asked to go back every day since.

We had a great meal at Westbeach in Bournemouth which is beautifully situated on the beach next to the pier – we tried to eat there at the exact same weekend last year when it wsd an unseasonable 18 degrees: it was so busy we couldn’t get in. This year it was approximately 4 degrees so the beach was deserted. The kids had homemade fish fingers and we gazed out to sea. Awesome.


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We met up with one of my blogging BFF’s Steph and family at Christchurch Harbour – a lovely day that involved wine and lobster. And chatting, lots of chatting. She wrote about it much better than I did at her blog. Check out my handsome husband!

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Then there was Peppa Pig World. What is there to say about Peppa Pig world? I appreciated the signs around the park reminding gentlemen to keep their shirts on (seriously) though there was no need for that as we froze our arses off, but Elfie thought it was heavenly. We went on every single ride, including Grandpa’s little train four times, and spend a good half hour in the amazing softplay. There’s a shop where every single thing you can buy has got Peppa Pig on it (E came away with Bubble Bath and a sticker book, Will and I got Daddy Pig and Mummy Pig socks respectively). The food was horrendous and expensive – £30 for two jacket potatoes, a kids meal and a couple of drinks! – but we will definitely be back.

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So yes, if you offered me one thing to get over the awfulness of this week it would be to go back to our lovely family holiday. I’d even go see Peppa again. Failing that, I guess a lie-in, manicure and massage would do. And maybe more holiday Marlborough.

We were guests of Baby Friendly Boltholes and Hideaway Cottage on our minibreak: thank-you so much to them both for an wonderful time.