Got a head for heights? Abseil down the ArcelorMittal Orbit in Stratford

abseil--mittal-orbit-stratford-london
Urban thrill-seekers will be able to abseil down the ArcelorMittal Orbit – the tallest sculpture in the UK – from Saturday 31 March.
Abseilers can take in the panoramic views across the city as they step off the tower’s viewing platform in the heart of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford for the 80-metre descent.
Instructors are on hand to guide every step of the way and abseilers have the option to record their experience on a GoPro helmet camera.

The 114-metre tall tower became a recognised landmark after opening as part of the 2012 London Olympics and is now also the site for the world’s highest slide.

To book an abseil experience and to find out more, go to wireandsky.co.uk.
Advertisements

Pick your own lavender in Hitchin

hitchin lavender field hertfordshire

As the wind blows, the calming scent of lavender pours in through the open car window. We’re close.

We drive a good few metres forward and then we see it. A gigantic field speckled with the colour purple.

Rows of lavender roll on for miles. It looks even better than the pictures on Google.

We’ve just pulled into the entrance to Hitchin lavender farm and soon enough we’re parked up and making our way through the sea of purple.

lavender field london

At the entrance we pay a small fee (£4.50 for adults, £1 for children) in return for a pair of scissors and a roomy brown bag. It’s time to get cutting.

But of course, first things first: pictures! We can’t help but whip out our cameras and get clicking.

We decide to trek all the way to the top of the hill to get the best view (comfy shoes are recommended).

As we walk amongst the lavender rows, the sound of bees buzzing fills our ears, and the small black and yellow creatures are everywhere (you might want to wear clothing that covers your shins and ankles when you visit, just in case).

pick your own lavender london

The view is spectacular from the top, with the lavender immersed against the great British countryside. We take a long rest and soak up the view.

On the way down we begin cutting. It’s harder than it looks, and we are surprised by how long it takes to build a bundle.

Lavender picking is a great alternative to strawberry or vegetable picking, and it’s only available to do for a limited time of the year (call ahead to the lavender farm to check it’s available before you visit). If you’re closer to south London, you may want to try Mayfield lavender farm instead.

lavender london

It’s lovely to see people of all ages getting stuck in, and on the sunny day we visit, the field is filled with visitors. One newly wed couple has even come to get some snaps for their wedding album.

After a couple of hours in the field we have picked to our heart’s content, but there is still room in our bags to fill!

Tired and thirsty, we head for the farm shop and café where we sip lavender lemonade and feast on cake. On the menu I spot scones with lavender jam, and make a mental note to return to try them. There are also sandwiches, jacket potatoes and lots of cake so you can make a day of it. All sorts of lavender products are also available to buy.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the hustle of city life in London, so a day out in the fresh air in the suburbs, within a beautiful field of purple is ever so refreshing. Give it a go, especially now that the sun is out!

Step into the home of Charles Darwin at Down House

down-house-darwin-family-kent

A visit to the gorgeous, sprawling estate in Downe, Kent, makes for a wonderful day out.

Once home to Charles Darwin and his family, the beautifully restored, classically English Down House is a short journey from London.

Whether you know much about the father of evolution or not, it doesn’t matter, for you will leave enriched with interesting insights about his life – from the voyage across the globe that inspired his evolutionary theory, to his marriage to his cousin Emma.

Set aside a minimum of two hours to explore the house and the grounds: upstairs is like a museum, with display rooms and artefacts about Darwin’s early life as well as the restored main bedroom – complete with dress-up room and four-poster bed. The ground floor of the house contains the restored living room, Darwin’s study (where he wrote The Origin of Species), billiard room and dining room – hosting a dinner party here would be dreamy.

The upstairs is a thought-provoking self-guided tour but downstairs you can pick up an audio-guide – which is included in the entry price – and hear David Attenborough narrate about what life was like in Darwin’s day and how he and his family used the space for the 40 years they lived there.

 

charles-darwin-down-house-kent

Head outside and you can explore the extensive gardens where Darwin carried out various experiments, and the greenhouse, laboratory (with live bee hive), tennis courts and orchard – a lovely amble on a pleasant day. The audio guide extends to the outdoor spaces with Andrew Marr narrating.

A tea room is located in the corner of the house but don’t count on it being cheap or on you bagging a seat. You could take your own picnic and snacks, although there are limited places to enjoy it as you’re not allowed to picnic on the grounds.

Don’t fret, as down the road there are a couple of pubs, the Green Dragon (pies, mostly) and The Queen’s Head (pub grub) where you can stop off for food before heading home.

Ample free parking is available at Down House. Entry is free for English Heritage members.

Build your own cheeseboard at Vivat Bacchus

vivat-bacchus-cheese-room-experience

If cheese makes you happy, you need to try the ‘Cheese room experience’ at South African steak restaurant and wine bar, Vivat Bacchus.

At its two branches in London Bridge and Farringdon, you can go into the special cheese room with an expert and build your own cheeseboard (from £14.90). What makes this experience so great is that you can enjoy complimentary tasters of the cheeses before you select them, and there’s a dedicated, knowledgeable ‘cheese expert’ (cheesepert?) on hand to talk you through each variety, where it comes from and how it’s made.

The board arrives at your table beautifully presented with each cheese perfectly matched with garnishes, fruit or nuts and crackers/breads. You can also ask for recommendations on wine and meats (both very high quality) to accompany your selection.

There are ready-prepared cheese boards on the menu if you’re not fussy, but I particularly enjoyed picking out and tasting my own. There’s no need to book for this experience – just walk in and ask.

Did someone say cheese?

Tired of adulting? Head to the grown-up ball pit bar BallieBallerson

Ballie Ballerson Stacey Hatfield October 2016

When you feel tired of adulting in London, there’s an amazeballs place you should go. It’s where you’ll find all the big kids (note: actual kids aren’t allowed), and it involves a DJ, retro-sweet-themed cocktails and, most importantly, a ball pit for grown-ups… Very fitting for a #throwbackthursday, this bar and underground ball pit goes by the name of BallieBallerson.

Disclaimer:

1) You’ll get hit in the face with a flying ball.

2) The pictures you take will turn out blurry.

3) The balls in the pit are waist-deep: you’ll fall in and have trouble getting up again. This will be 10 times more challenging if you’re intoxicated.

4) You might lose things, such as loose change, a shoe, a ring, a phone.

5) Skip the gym: wading through the ball pit can feel like a workout in itself.

6) On your way home you’ll find a squashed up ball in your shoe. Leaving present!

From the cocktails (crafted around retro sweets such as Dib Dab; our favourite was the Bounty Colada) right down to the colourful painted balls and walls, this place has fun at its heart, and the bartenders are a good laugh.

The DJ bangs out tunes as you play/dance in the underground ball pit, and so it feels like a rave when you’re in it. With the low ceiling and dimmed light, it can seem a little dark and dingy down there, however, and the ball pit isn’t huge so if you go at peak time and find more than 18 people in there, it’s a bit of a squeeze. 

The postcode of the venue did catch me off guard. I have FOFOP (that’s fear of far-off places) and BallieBallerson is in that faraway place up north where the Tube doesn’t go: Stoke Newington. But it’s worth the trek – and proving to be so. “The place is just as packed on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening as it is on a Saturday,” the general manager Daniel says. When we visit on Wednesday evening, it’s almost at full capacity by 8pm, and it’s only been open a few weeks.

“Every week we have people lose engagement rings, watches, phones in the balls… One day a girl lost her shoe, so we have to clean the ball pit out weekly to find them!” So before you jump in and release your inner child, dump your belongings in the cloakroom to be safe – or hold on to them really tight.

Daniel says the venue will remain in its current home for another three to six months, and may then relocate, so if you also suffer from FOFOPOCO, watch this space.

Book tickets here.

On cloud nine with candy floss and ice cream in Covent Garden

Candy floss ice cream London Covent Garden

After the hype of ice cream cookie sandwiches (Blu Top, Chin Chin Labs) and ice cream macaroons (Yolkinmacice), now Londoners can get soft serve ice cream – basically posh Mr Whippy – served in a candy floss cloud, thanks to new dessert cafe Milk Train.

Located just behind Covent Garden, Milk Train offers three flavours of the ‘premium’ soft serve (£3.50-£3.95) – vanilla, chocolate or matcha – and charges £1 extra for the candy floss cloud. There are lots of toppings and sauces also available at extra cost, (50p) or choose from the menu for a pre-selected combination.

It might all get a little bit messy, but it sure is a lot of fun. In one bite I was transported back to the days of cheerily scoffing candy floss at the funfair as a child. The soft serve was really tasty too, however it does melt very quickly so don’t spend too much time taking pictures for your Instagram feed.

The lovely thing about this place is that everybody leaves clutching their ice cream with an even bigger grin than usual!

Find the Milk Train on Bedford Street, WC2E 9HA.

Warning: queues possible and sugar overload very likely.

Beside the seaside: a day trip to Hastings

hastings beach

The last time I uttered the word “Hastings” was when I was aged 13 and bored silly in a history class at school. You guessed it – I was studying the Battle of Hastings, which, I only recently discovered didn’t actually take place in Hastings – it took place several miles away, in Battle (Hastings was the nearest, largest town, so it earned the name). Something they failed to mention at school, or perhaps I wasn’t paying attention.

old sweet shop hastingsMy preconceptions about Hastings, therefore, were somewhat skewed: I’d imagined a boring little place stuffed full of historic sights and history types wearing ghastly walking shoes. What I found, though, was refreshing: a pleasant seaside town with a good mixture of old and new, and plenty of options for the hungry visitor.

Ideal for a day trip, Hastings is a bit like Brighton’s much younger, less polished sibling. It’s a little rough around the edges, but very family- and dog-friendly, and there’s something for history buffs and non-history buffs alike.

In 2016, Hastings Pier will reopen – it was party destroyed by a fire in 2010 – and the town will also celebrate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in September and October, with a big arts festival and lots of events planned, so it could be a good time to visit.

To help you get an idea of what there is to see and do in Hastings, here are some ideas:

tush n pats fisherman rolls stall hastings

Tush and Pat’s Fisherman Rolls stall

Wander down Rock-a-Nore Road

Hastings is home to one of Britain’s oldest fishing fleets – fishermen have worked from the shingle beach, known as The Stade, for more than a thousand years. If you wander along the seafront, past all the children’s amusements, you’ll reach this section. Freshly-caught fish is sold from small sheds, and here you’ll find the historic black net shops that are unique to Hastings. They look a bit like towering beach huts – but they are actually made using half an old upended fishing boat. Split over two or three floors, fishermen used them to store their nets, ropes and fishing gear.

Pick up a Fisherman’s Roll

Stop off at Tush and Pat’s ever-popular stall in front of the net shops, which sells freshly made Fisherman’s Rolls. They’re incredibly tasty and cheap, and the queues for them are continuous. The rolls are famous – even Jamie Oliver has visited  – and while we were there, the locals were stopping for some: always a good sign. “I like mine with vinegar and lemon on top,” reveals co-founder Tush.

west hill life hastings funicular railway view over hastings country park

Tightly packed houses on terraces carved out of the rock to East Hill

Go up the East Hill Lift

Right across the road from Tush and Pat’s stall is the entrance to the East Hill Lift. It is the steepest funicular lift railway in Britain and provides access to Hastings Country Park, which stretches across five kilometres of cliffs and coastline. Go up with a picnic (or some fish and chips!) or buy an ice cream up top and enjoy the views. Follow one of the park’s many walking routes, or perch on one of the benches and enjoy the scenery. If you don’t want to take the lift up to the park, there’s a hidden set of steps, known as Tamarisk Steps, located between the Dolphin Pub and The Fish Hut. Follow the little alley, and you’ll find the stairs that take you to the top.

 

Get your art fix at Jerwood Gallery

Overlooking the beach, and situated within The Stade is the Jerwood Gallery, a relatively new addition to the town. Opened in 2012, the gallery, which displays contemporary and modern art, is considered a jewel in the crown of the Hastings cultural scene. It’s a great escape from the hustle of the promenade.

hastings old town george street

Hastings Old Town

Explore Hastings Old Town

It would be very easy to while away a few hours wandering around the quirky boutiques, pubs, cafés, vintage clothing and antique shops in the Old Town. It’s arguably the most charming part of Hastings. Start on George Street and work your way further inland – and don’t miss the treasure trove that is Butler’s Emporium, it’s set in a shop that dates back to the 1800s.

Something for the kids

Along the seafront, there are a host of activities for the kids, from trampolining and go karting to mini golf, football, boating, and more. There are lots of places for ice cream and sweets too, of course! If it’s raining, the Blue Reef Aquarium located along the promenade can take little ones on an undersea safari. Wannabe pirates may also be intrigued by the Shipwreck Museum.

hastings seafront promenade

Catch a movie at Electric Palace

Electric Palace is an old fashioned, charming independent cinema run entirely by volunteers. It has a quirky line up – making it an entirely different experience to your usual Vue or Odeon.

view from west hill cliff hastings

Historic Hastings

Check out Hastings Castle, the first castle built in England by William the Conqueror. It is situated on the West Hill and can be accessed via the West Hill cliff railway located at the top of George Street. Hastings Museum & Art Gallery is also nearby – set in a manor house away from the Old Town and up above the seafront, it displays art and offers the chance to learn about the local history of Hastings.

Battle Abbey

Stop off at the site of the 1066 Battle of Hastings: Battle Abbey. Learn all about the invasion of William The Conqueror and stand on the site where the future of England was determined. It’s mostly all outdoors so make sure the weather’s good when you visit.

Southeastern Rail trains run direct from London Charing Cross to Hastings.

With thanks to the Visit 1066 Country East Sussex tourist board for the invite to Hastings.

Roof walking: climbing up the O2 arena in Greenwich

“Nobody likes a cry baby,” jokes Ross, our climbing instructor, “so if you feel nervous, just hold it in, OK?”

We’re about to clamber over the roof of the O2 arena in Greenwich, and Ross, our Scottish accented, bearded guide, has us chuckling from the off, which pretty much sets the tone for the next eighty minutes.

Before we set off, we’re made to sign a waiver (“You’re doing this at your own risk”, la-di-da…), and piled into a room to watch a safety video. At this point, it feels like I’m back on a school trip, but the difference is that there are people of all ages – from teens to families to those in their forties and fifties – and in actual fact, the safety video isn’t yawn-a-minute stuff, it’s quite hilarious and insightful.

It’s here that I learn about the clever symbolism that’s contained in the design and structure of the Millennium Dome (as the O2 Arena was formerly known) – for example, there are references to time, with 12 masts of the dome representing the months of the year and the hours on a clock face. The dome is also 52 metres tall – representative of the 52 weeks of the year, and it’s 365 metres wide, representative of the days of the year.

I also discover that the dome is located close to the meridian line, which has a longitude of zero (0° 0′ 0″), and every place on earth is measured in terms of its angle east or west from this line.

After the briefing, we’re given a pair of climbing shoes and a gilet to wear – gilets are given out in the warmer months, but full-sleeved, thick overalls are available for winter climbs. What’s great is that both have a dedicated pocket for a mobile phone or small digital camera, so you can take a few snaps when you reach the viewing platform at the middle of the climb. We pop all our other belongings into a small box, tie our hair back, and climb into our harnesses as instructed.

As we approach the start line for Up at the O2, there’s a photographer waiting to take our pictures. It’s a nice touch, and it gives us a chance to show off our climbing gear. Before the first step, we’re clipped to a railing that runs the length of the climb, so we feel secure at all times.

As we begin the ascent, we notice that the walkway is super bouncy (although you’re told not to bounce!), it’s like walking on a mattress. The photographer is available again to take pictures as you set off, if you want.

The climb is not that strenuous, although you do break out in to a small sweat at times, as the climb height can go up to 30 degrees. It’s good exercise and you can go at your own pace. Plus it’s not at all scary, so suitable for those who may have a fear of heights. Now I understand why Ross joked about us being nervous – there really isn’t anything to feel nervous about.

After about 15 minutes of climbing, we reach the viewing platform that sits at the middle of the climb. Here, you can unclip and have a walk around, take pictures and enjoy the view. Ross let us take all the pictures we wanted before pointing out landmarks and sharing interesting facts.

As the O2 is so far east, the main landmarks in sight are the buildings of Canary Wharf, the Olympic Stadium in Stratford and the Emirates Air Line cable cars. Further in the distance, you can see the Gherkin and from one point, you can apparently spot Wembley Stadium, although we didn’t see it.

“In terms of the view, the best climb is the one which takes place at sunset in the winter months,” says Ross. We’d opted for a 5pm climb, and although it was an overcast day early in September, it was very windy up on the viewing platform.

We spent about 20 minutes on the platform. I couldn’t help but feel that some sort of bar, refreshment or entertainment provision at this point would make the experience better.

Anyhow, what goes up must come down, and it’s a little steeper on the way down than the way up. As you finish and unclip the safety equipment, it’s a great feeling. “You’ve just walked over the ceiling of a big building,” jokes Ross, and we all give each other a round of applause.

We take a look at the photographer’s pictures – they’re great, but at £15 a pop, I’m happy to make do with the shots I took on my iPhone.

All that fresh air is sure to have us sleeping like babies, but for the meantime, we really need a hot cup of something to warm us up.

Croissant making at Bread Ahead’s baking school

bread ahead london bridge borough market bakery school

There’s nothing more comforting than the smell of freshly baked goods straight out of the oven. I get so much satisfaction in whipping up a batch of cookies or a simple sponge – even if the results are sometimes a little hit-and-miss. It’s with that in mind that I signed on to a three-hour croissant making class with the experts at Bread Ahead’s baking school – so I could enjoy a relaxed yet educational expert tutorial, and come away with a fail-safe recipe for the French pastry.

Arriving at the bakery school, which is located a stone’s throw from the Bread Ahead stall in Borough Market (find it opposite the Fish! restaurant), I was pleased to hear that I wasn’t the only sporadic baker/cook in the enthusiastic class of nine. The lady beside me admitted to living off takeaways every day and being a bit of a baking virgin. Phew, I thought. There were two couples and a few keen mummy bakers in the predominantly female class too.

aidan chapman baker bread aheadWe stuck on our aprons, rolled up our sleeves and got stuck straight in as master baker Aidan Chapman, who has over 28 years of baking experience under his belt, broke down the croissant making process into simple steps. He demonstrated each step, before giving us the opportunity to copy.

Aidan explained that officially it takes a total of three days to make a good croissant – but the class is cleverly designed to cram those three days into three hours. Typically, on the first day the dough is made and left to refrigerate; on day two the “laminating” takes place, where you incorporate the butter into the dough and fold it in. [Side note: it’s crazy just how much butter goes into croissants, they really aren’t very good for you!] A good croissant dough requires three folds to create its flaky layers. On day three, the dough is ready to be shaped before being baked. Aidan explained that as it’s such a long process, it’s often difficult to find an authentic French croissant maker nowadays – the long production time doesn’t justify the cost it’s sold for, so many manufacturers buy frozen batches and bake them to save time.

fresh batch of croissants with jam bread ahead

What was also intriguing to learn is that croissants are specifically shaped according to what they’re made with: so straight croissants are only ever made with butter whereas crescent, half-moon shaped croissants are made with margarine or another sort of fat. Take that, pub quiz buffs.

The class was therefore informative as well as hands-on: everybody had their own work area, with equipment readily laid out, and ingredients provided. Aidan would come around and guide us if we were stuck, and everything was well organised, with assistant bakers bringing us all new ingredients and tools we needed, when we needed them. It also meant that there was no washing up to do all afternoon – winning!

The bakery school “classroom” is located right at the front of the bakery, near the heart of Borough Market, which means you sort of become the entertainment for the people visiting the market. There are always people watching in on the class– and many are armed with cameras to take pictures. I made the rookie error of choosing a workbench facing the window, so I assume I’ve been captured in multiple pictures doing all sorts of weird expressions and actions. TIP: if you’re quite self conscious, when choosing a work bench you may want to choose one with your back to the window.

The three hours flew by – one of my personal highlights was rolling the croissants into their lovely shape – and Aidan made the class engaging, educational and enjoyable – plus we got to taste a few varieties of croissants. The best bit, though, was that we each had a large batch of our own handmade croissants to take away at the end. You definitely need a lot of friends and family on standby to get through the batch you take away with you. Ultimately, hopping onto the Tube and filling the carriage with the aroma of my own freshly baked crossaints was priceless.

Bread Ahead sells a range of bakery products from its Borough Market stall, and has become particularly renowned for its doughnuts and fresh bread. Everything is made fresh at its factory, which is where the bakery school is based, too. So while you’re rolling and kneading, and getting flour in your hair/on your jeans/up past your elbows (just me?), behind the scenes there are bakers coming and going with large loaves of bread, and crates of doughnuts and bread loaves passing by all day. Note that there are no toilets located on site, but students are welcome to use Fish! Restaurant’s toilets across the street. It’s a little rough-and-ready as you’d expect in a factory setting, but it makes for an enjoyable, alternative thing to do in London.

Discover more about Bread Ahead’s baking school here.

Hanging out in the Walkie Talkie’s Sky Garden

sky garden walkie talkie fenchurch street

Taking in the city from high above usually comes with a catch… You’ve either got to queue up for ages, pay an entry fee or else spend loads on food and drink to compensate for a good view. But over at the new Sky Garden (located at the top of 20 Fenchurch Street, aka the Walkie Talkie building), entry is free, there’s a relaxed and unpretentious vibe, and you’re not obliged to spend.heart london view

I love to stop, stand and stare at London – its something busy Londoners rarely take time to do – and this new attraction provides the perfect excuse.

There’s lots to explore, and the views from 35 floors up are wonderful, too. It’s a relaxing, spacious place that’s great for reflection, and because visitor numbers are controlled it doesn’t get overly busy, so you won’t be elbowing others for a good view!

Even though the entry tickets specify that you’re only allowed in for just over an hour, it’s not entirely true: you won’t be kicked out, london sunsetand can spend as long as you like up there. If you’re thirsty or hungry, there’s food and drink available, with cocktails starting from £11.50.

We picked the 7pm time slot to visit, so that we could watch the sun set over London – and see it both by day and by night.

Plan your visit

You’ve got to book to visit the Sky Garden, although tickets are entirely free. Just fill out this form for tickets and remember to take picture ID with you when you go.

Cosy up for Pillow Cinema

pillow cinema hot tub cinema shoreditch

When the cold, dark nights draw in, there’s nothing better than snuggling up indoors to watch a movie.

The makers of Hot Tub Cinema have timed their latest invention – Pillow Cinema – correctly then, as they invite Londoners to settle in for movie nights complete with comfy beanbags, pillows, blankets and snacks, at the former Shoreditch Underground Station.

Cosiness is guaranteed – snuggling is optional – at Pillow Cinema, which dubs itself ‘the cosiest night in, night out’. You’re essentially going out (to Shoreditch) but going in (as you’ll be indoors), and you’re encouraged to take whatever makes you feel at home, for example pyjamas.

It’s really roomy in the movie room, and you’ll be provided with a Fatboy beanbag, which comfortably sleeps/sits two medium-sized persons, but you can take pillows if you want, or hire them there. We cheekily just rolled up our coats and used them as head supports, so do the same if you can’t be bothered to lug a pillow out with you.

You might think that because Pillow Cinema is housed in a disused train station, it would have a cold atmosphere, but it’s actually really warm in the movie room, which can hold about 60 people in one viewing. You also get a blanket to snuggle under – a nice touch. Most of all, you don’t really get too many reminders of the old train station, other than a few exposed brick walls and some steps.

The venue is very close to Shoreditch High Street railway station, and so during the movie you often hear the sound of trains whizzing past outside – in our case, the noises only added to the eerie theme of the film we went to see (Black Swan). It’s also something a little different to your usual Vue or Odeon cinema.

But as with our every day cinemas, the venue operates a first come, first served policy on bean bags, so get there on time to secure your spot, and so you have maximum snuggle time!

Find out about future screenings and book here: pillowcinema.com

Eat, drink, do: 96 hours in Singapore

marina bay sands singapore

Marina Bay Sands infinity pool

After 13 hours of movie-watching, boredom-eating and dozing on an aeroplane, we were relieved to exit Changi International Airport so we could begin our 4-day adventure in Singapore.

The humidity struck us first. The 28-degree heat was suffocating and we were thankful to clamber into an air-conditioned taxi. During the journey to our hotel, we noticed the trees, plants and lawns lining the roads were pruned to perfection; public places were immaculate; and super cars such as Ferraris and Aston Martins whizzed past. This set the tone for the next few days: Singapore was clean, efficient and flashy.

Driving through Orchard Road – the main shopping street in the city, a bit like London’s Oxford Street fused with Knightsbridge, but 10 times larger – we were flanked by mall after swanky mall. Stores for big-name brands including Gucci, Prada and Chanel cropped up every two seconds, as did restaurants offering a variety of cuisines. It was a shopper’s paradise, and you got a real sense of wealth and modernity in this small city island.

national orchid garden singapore

The National Orchid Garden

There was tranquility on the streets. Ladies shielded themselves from the heat of the sun with umbrellas. Pavements were clean, and – as you’d expect – chewing gum-free as the city banned the sale of chewing gum a few years back. Taxis were everywhere (and they all accepted card payments – win!).

Arriving at our hotel and tucking into the breakfast buffet, I was amused to discover sushi, dim sum, noodles and rice dishes at such an early hour. It was something I’d have to get used to, and be tucking into soon enough. I devoured the exotic fruits on offer, including mangosteen, rambutan and longan, before we stuck our middle fingers up at jet lag and set off for a day of exploration.

Day one

We headed first to the malls along Orchard Road. We walked from the hotel – although locals we bumped into to ask for directions advised getting a cab or the bus. It was a wise suggestion, the heat was unrelenting and we arrived at the first mall wet with sweat. We learned our lesson, we’d be taking cabs from now on. The Westfield malls we have in London have got nothing on the malls in Singapore. We made it through one mall, which, in Singapore terms, you’d consider ‘small’, before resigning for lunch at one of the many eateries.

Later that day, on our quest to visit one of the many hawker centres in Singapore – which are basically open-air, lively food courts, with stalls serving food that reflects the cultural diversity of the country – we hailed a cab to the Newton Food Centre. Hawker centres are famed for their cheap, authentic food, and apparently locals eat dinner there every night because it’s better value for money than cooking at home.

It’s a basic sort of experience: you pick a table (they’re a bit like picnic tables), select food from a stall (it’s harder than it sounds; there are so many stalls and the majority serve similar food, so it can be difficult to pick) and tell them your table number. It’s served to your table with in plastic plates and cutlery, and you pay the bill at the end.

What we later discovered from a local taxi driver is that the price of the food is adjusted so it’s much lower for locals, and inflated for tourists – and we were left with a hefty bill after ordering crab, prawns, sting ray, and various other dishes. A sign by the stall priced seafood per kilo rather than giving a set price – and we ended up paying way more than we would for a proper sit-down meal in a restaurant, with proper napkins. Tip: clarify prices with the stall owner before you order. And try to barter with them, it might get you a little discount.

IMG_1178

Day two

We had booked a tea appreciation ceremony and tasting class with a dim sum lunch at Yixing Xuan Teahouse next to Chinatown after a recommendation from a friend, so that was our first stop. We were joined by a few other tourists and a couple of Singaporeans. The Chinese owner, Vincent, and his daughter Charlene, both had an infectious passion for tea. They shared facts, myths and tips for preparation, and provided various tea tastings too. It was a random, but highly enjoyable experience, followed by an authentic dim sum lunch, which was simple but very tasty. We had some vegetarians in our group and the tea house catered perfectly for them as well.

funny shop sign shoplifting notice warning

A funny shoplifting warning sign at a Chinatown shop

Full from that lovely lunch, we took a short stroll through nearby Chinatown. Towering above us was the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. We weren’t appropriately dressed to enter (legs, shoulders and arms must be covered) but there were items available for us to cover up with. Apparently every level in the temple has something worth seeing, from the orchid garden on the top tier to the free museum on the third tier, but we didn’t make it up. We scoured the market that runs through the heart of Chinatown next, which sells everything from Chinese tea pots and jewellery to magnets and t-shirts, and picked up a few kitsch bits and bobs and souvenirs on the way.

Next we jumped on the train to Marina Bay as we’d been eager to check out the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel, and the rooftop view it offered. The underground system, known as the MRT, was easy to navigate, and, as you’d expect, very clean and efficient. In comparison to the chaos you’d find on the London Underground, in Singapore, locals wait for all passengers to get off the train, and make a orderly queue to board. The priority seats for pregnant women, the elderly and parents with little children were humorously depicted (see pictures, below). It was also funny to see notices that banned the local, smelly fruit durian on the trains.

When we arrived at Marina Bay station, we found ourselves in the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, one of the largest malls in Singapore. It was luxurious, super-modern, and to top it all off, there was a mini canal running through the centre, on which you could take a gondola ride to the other side. I was awestruck. Just outside the mall we spotted the Helix Bridge, before making our way to the entrance of the mammoth Marina Bay Sands hotel.DSC_0077

We took the lift up to the top, having chosen to go up to the Ku De Ta bar for drinks, rather than spend the same to visit the observation deck. The impressive rooftop infinity pool was located beside the bar, which was a bonus, (although only hotel residents can use it or access the area around it) but the outside deck offered an extensive view over the Singapore skyline and its shores, the pool as well as Gardens by the Bay, which was our next stop.

gardens by the bay singapore night show light

Gardens by the Bay light show

Gardens by the Bay is a vibrant horticultural oasis of lush greenery and floral displays. We’d timed our visit to coincide with the free light and sound show, which takes place right after dark. Many people lie down on the ground to watch the show, and I think it’s a wise thing to do to really take it in. We paid to visit the Flower Dome, Cloud Forest and other attractions in the Bay before it took place, too. We weren’t overly impressed by Gardens by the Bay, and thought the Singapore Botanic Gardens were much more worthy of a visit.

Sticking with the theme of heights, that night we went up to the highest rooftop bar in Singapore, 1-Altitude, to enjoy cocktails and a mesmerising view of the city. The bar has a strict dress code, and you have to pay a flat-fee to enter, but this includes a free drink, and it really is worth it for the 360-degree view of Singapore by night. There’s a relaxed vibe up top, and cocktails are surprisingly tasty. A must-do.

1altitude bar singapore view

The view from 1-Altitude bar

Day three

We put on our nicest clothes and hopped in a taxi to the palace-like Raffles Hotel, one of Singapore’s most famous hotels – and the birthplace of the legendary Singapore Sling (it was invented by one of the hotel’s bartenders a long, long time ago). Raffles, which has been around since 1887, was once a place where the upper class British colonials would stay, and many famous names have inhabited its many rooms, including British poet Rudyard Kipling and actor Charlie Chaplin.

raffles hotel singapore high tea long bar

Raffles Hotel

The grand, elegant hotel really does make you stop in your tracks, and its colonial, old fashioned appearance – reminiscent of the city’s history –takes you back in time. We took a walk around some of its terracotta-tiled courtyards, and admired the classic detail in its architecture, before slipping into the Long Bar to relax with a Singapore Sling it’s like going to Manhattan and having a Manhattan cocktail, it’s got to be done!

Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel's Long Bar

Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar

The bar has an earthy decor, with rows of wicker fans lining its ceilings, and creating a breeze thanks to an ingenious contraption. I was a bit confused as to why monkey nut shells crunched under my feet as I entered the bar, but it seems that it is tradition to eat monkey nuts and throw the broken shell right onto the floor where you sit. Odd, considering how strict Singapore is generally with littering.

We were all set for a relaxing afternoon of tea and cake, but there had been a mix up with our afternoon tea booking at Raffles tip: call them to book as the online booking system doesn’t clarify what you’re booking in for so we wasted a couple of hours under the lovely air conditioning at Raffles City Shopping Centre before returning for our tea in the hotel’s Tiffin Room.

There was a harpist elegantly strumming tunes, and the high ceiling-ed room was impressive and tranquil. It was a lovely setting and scones, pastries, cakes and finger sandwiches were served in tiered stands. There was also a dim sum buffet with extra cake that you could help yourself to. The service was impeccable the waiters kindly brought us out a special cake as there was a birthday in the group  but the food, on the whole, was not amazing. The afternoon tea came to around £35 per person. A bit of a tourist trap, but nice to do.

That night we made our way to the Arab quarter, and the sweet smell of shisha instantly filled our nostrils. A local we had spoken to earlier in the day recommended visiting from 7pm onwards, as this is when it comes alive. He wasn’t lying people spilled out onto the pavements from shisha bars and restaurants on the streets surrounding the Sultan Mosque.

haji lane quirky grafftti

Haji Lane

We took a walk around the quarter, stumbling on Haji Lane, a narrow, colourful street filled with quirky, independent fashion boutiques, cafes and restaurants. It had a hipster vibe, and graffitti-strewn walls – it reminded me of London’s Camden Town. With unique homeware and clothing, it was really different to the standard stuff we’d found on Orchard Road. Throughout the Arab quarter there were also a lot of Persian-style carpets for sale, traditional fabrics and clothing, as well as leather goods. 

For dinner we could choose from Middle Eastern, Malaysian and Turkish restaurants, and we opted for a Turkish meal at Alaturka on Bussorah Road. Seated outdoors in the humid air, we munched on everything from kebabs, humous and freshly cooked naan to mezze, salads and falafel.

The view from Marina Bay Sands over Gardens by the Bay

The view from Marina Bay Sands over Gardens by the Bay

As it was officially our last night in Singapore, we were determined to make the most of the evening, and so we ventured to the area of Ann Siang Hill and Club Street on the fringe of Chinatown where there are lots of bars and drinking holes clustered together. The area is really lively come sun down, and filled with merry post-work drinkers. We started off at The Screening Room’s rooftop bar, La Terraza, which is cosy, dimly lit and has a romantic ambience, before wandering to Toca Me Bar across the road. Come 2am, all the bars began to close and taxis filtered in to the main street that had been pedestrian-free until this hour, to ferry us all on our way. The efficiency of this system was splendid.

Day four

We had a few hours before we were to depart for Singapore airport, so we made a quick dash back to Haji Lane to perhaps do a bit of shopping. As it was before 11am only a few shops on this street were open. We then visited one of the most ‘fragrant’, colourful and untidy places in Singapore – Little India. The smell of incense wafted in to the taxi as we pulled up, and the cab driver warned us that if we wanted to take a taxi home we’d have to go a little way away from Little India as many taxi drivers weren’t keen on coming down these streets. The main things to do in Little India include eating, shopping or visiting the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple.

We were impressed by the Mustafa Centre, a 24-hour mall-like store that basically sells everything you could ever wish for, from electronic gadgets to jewellery and Indian sarees. Every single wall in this multiple-floor store was stacked high with products, piled high and untidy. A sight to see.

We collected our bags from the hotel and headed off to Changi International airport, where we stopped off at the butterfly garden inside terminal 3 before fluttering off onto the plane.

Thank you for having us Singapore.

A therapeutic evening of craft, creativity and cocktails at Homemade London

Craft salon Homemade London has unveiled a string of new workshops for the coming season – and I went down there to give them a try. What followed was a therapeutic evening of crafting and creativity, while sipping on swoon-worthy cocktails (recipes below) and munching on yummy treats.

We created embossed greetings cards (a really simple concept, with a professional-looking finish), Homemade London’s expert perfume tutor Nicola taught us about aromatherapy-based perfume blending – an intriguing insight into base notes, middle notes and top notes – and we even got to make and take away our own perfume.

General manager Nancy helped us make pretty crepe paper flowers, and finally we made block-printed cocktail napkins – perfect for all those Christmas parties coming up in a few months.

The Homemade London team made us feel right at home, and it was fantastic to mingle with the other ladies who had also turned up for the workshops, to reconnect with my inner crafty side, and to spend an evening free of ‘screen time’ from smartphones, iPads and computers.

What I love most about going to Homemade London is that you always come away feeling like you’ve accomplished something – and you have the finished items to prove it. Read about the time I attended their Mystery Workshop.

You can find exclusive recipes for three cocktails we enjoyed throughout the night below – we couldn’t get enough of them. (The Strawberry Cooler was a personal favourite.)

Click here to view all the new workshops at Homemade London.

 

Cocktail recipes

10659383_10152671099999564_9164051617620007366_n

Rose and Thyme Mule recipe (for 10 people)

  • 1 tablespoon of rose syrup
  • Lemonade
  • Vodka to taste
  • Squeezed fresh lemon
  • A few springs of thyme

Pour all the ingredients into a jug and sprinkle a few springs of thyme on the top.

When serving make sure each glass has its own sprig of thyme.

IMG_8455

Earl Grey Gin Fizz recipe (for 10 people)

  • Cloudy lemomade
  • Gin to taste
  • Squeezed fresh lemon
  • Cold Earl Grey Tea

Make a strong pot of earl grey tea and leave to cool. Pour the lemonade and lemon juice into a jug and add the tea, ice cubes and gin.

strawberry cooler

Strawberry Cooler recipe (for 15 people)

  • Punnet of strawberries
  • Lemonade

Blend the strawberries with a food processor until smooth. Add the lemonade and stir.

Enjoy!

Escape Rooms: will you make it out in time?

pharaoh chamber escape rooms london bridge

It’s not often that you find yourself locked in an underground chamber near London Bridge on a Friday evening. But at Escape Rooms, the latest real-life escape room game after HintHunt and clueQuest, that’s exactly what happens to you — as you’re challenged to escape Pharaoh Khufu’s chamber within 60 minutes. If you fail to work through a series of riddles, codes and puzzles to get out, you risk being “cursed forever and sucked into Khufu’s tomb to act as his guards for eternity”.

The concept of Escape Rooms is based on the Japanese online game Takagism, in which players have to find their way out of a virtual locked room by manipulating their surroundings. Armed with a torch, clipboard, pen and a walkie talkie (in the event that we needed to call on the host to use one of the three clues available to us) we were informed that we were the 100th raiders of this tomb — the 99 who came before us were believed to have perished in the chamber.escape rooms london bridge

We had to find the treasure and escape in an hour and, in order to do this, we were simply told we had to “light the flame of the Gods” before being imprisoned in the themed room. The unforgiving red countdown timer on the wall quickly ticked down; 59:59, 59:58, 59.57, as the six of us explored the room in excitement, finding mysterious props, most of which would eventually come in handy, but others which would create confusion.SONY DSC

15 minutes in and we still hadn’t managed to crack the first challenge. We radioed the host, who gave us a somewhat obscure clue. Still, it had us on our way.

The experience is engrossing. Challenges are far from straightforward and two are particularly mind-boggling — we really did need to harness the power of the entire team to get through. The hour goes by in a flash — and we were shamefaced to escape 10 minutes into extra time, with additional prompts from our host after having used up all three of our clues. The quickest escape time from the Pharaoh’s Chamber since its opening in August is 43 minutes, 5 seconds. *Covers face in embarrassment*

DSC_1373

There are two themed games to choose from at Escape Rooms: the cursed Pharaoh’s Chamber, or the newly opened Room 33, where you’ll find yourself in a fictional room in the British Museum containing a precious piece of Chinese porcelain, which you must steal to return to its owner.

Escape Rooms co-owner Dee Zou gives one piece of advice for those attempting the challenges. She says: “Use your team working skills. Split into two teams and solve the puzzles simultaneously, that way you’ll save some time”.

Teams of three to six players are required to participate; prices range from £19-£25 per person, depending on team size. Book in advance online at escaperooms.co.uk. Escape Rooms is located at 134 Tooley Street. Nearest station London Bridge.

This article was originally published on Londonist.com.

Highlights of Hvar, Croatia’s sunniest island

Hvar town

In an age where we nearly always apply enhancements or ‘filters’ to photos we post on social media networks, it’s like a breath of fresh air to arrive in Hvar – a picture-perfect land where rich blue skies merge with calm, clear waters, and where snaps don’t need modification before they reach Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

That is what strikes you most when you arrive on Croatia’s sunniest island – it is naturally beautiful.

I arrived in Hvar as a result of a 7 day road-trip with my girlfriends through Croatia, starting from Split. We’d devised an action-packed itinerary: two days in Plitvice to visit Plitvice Lakes, one of Croatia’s 8 national parks; followed by a night in Zadar; and three nights in Hvar, one of Split’s nearby islands. Our final night was in Split.

As it was my first ever visit to Croatia, here are a few things I discovered:

  • In Croatia they drive on the right hand side of the road, which took a bit of getting used to.
  • Food prices vary according to where you are: restaurants in the Plitvice area were relatively cheap (£2 for a soup; £2 for fries) but as you get closer to the coast, it becomes more commercialised and expensive – in Zadar a pizza was £7 and fries were £4; on the island of Hvar it was about £7 for a pasta dish, and £6 for a Jägerbomb. As you get closer to the coast though, as you’d expect, there’s lots more fresh sea food.
  • Take mosquito repellant. We got bitten!
  • Croatia is a safe place: as four ladies travelling through the country, we didn’t ever feel like we were in harm’s way.
  • The Croatian currency is the Kuna. Card payments were accepted at some places, not all.
  • The mix of mountainous regions and beaches means you get the best of both worlds here.
  • In the high season (June/July/August) ferries are very busy and often get booked up so try to book at least a day in advance to secure a spot.
  • Croatia’s beaches are mostly all rocky and pebbly, which makes it a bit painful walking around barefoot, especially when getting into the sea.
  • Beware of the jellyfish when swimming in the sea – you don’t want to tread on one of those.
Plitvice Lakes ('Plitvička jezera' in Croatian)

Plitvice Lakes (Nacionalni park Plitvička jezera in Croatian)

Highlights:

If you’re planning a trip to Croatia, try and get these on your list.

Accommodation Plitvice

The guesthouse we stayed at: Accommodation Plitvice

1. Plitvice Lakes. This stunning national park comprising 16 lakes interconnected by waterfalls surrounded by plush greenery, really is as good as the pictures make it look. The green and blue hues of the water are so vivid. There’s plenty to explore in the park – it spans well beyond the few lakes shown in the picture above. It took us a good 3 hours to get around the trail at a leisurely pace. Advice: pack snacks and drinks in your bags if you get peckish or thirsty, and a hat, particularly if it’s a hot day. Wear comfortable shoes as there are lots of uneven surfaces and a few climbs, and take a camera: there are plenty of opportunities for great pictures!

You can’t swim in Plitvice lakes unfortunately, but if it’s a swim you’re after, pay a visit to Krka National Park instead where you are allowed to take a dip in the water. At Plitvice, you have to pay for car parking, but if you don’t fancy driving, jump on a bus. Try to get to the park early though, because as the day progresses, large groups from tours start to take over the place.

Plivtice is at a high altitude in Croatia so it is cooler than Split or the islands – something we weren’t prepared for. We needed a light hoody/raincoat, even in July. Our accommodation in Plitvice was super cosy – we were staying at a guesthouse known as Accommodation Plitvice. It was a 15 minute drive from the lakes, and although the owner’s English was sketchy, she made us feel at home.

Hvar old town

Hvar old town

2. Hvar, Croatia’s sunniest island. Prince William’s been there, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have been there… and now I can tick it off my list. Super yachts line the harbour and bars line the promenade, while Venetian towhouses nestle together in the distance.

It’s not the cheapest place for a cash-strapped Brit – prices are inflated, particularly at eateries, shops and bars nearer to the harbour – but Hvar is a great place to mingle and party with young American, Australian and English travellers.  It was very hot when we visited Hvar in July; the sun was out every day and temperatures were in the high twenties.

Sleep: The hostel we stayed at was great fun. With free pancakes for breakfast, organised fun such as a bar crawl and sailing trips on offer,  Earthers Hostel was welcoming and homely as well as enjoyable. The first day we arrived the owners sat down with us and went through all the local spots, telling us how to get to the supermarket and the clubs, etc. The hostel wasn’t particularly plush, but it was clean, and had a really relaxed vibe where socialising was easy.

See: Robinson Beach was a nice spot to swim and it was jellyfish-free, although it took a long (and scenic!) coastal walk to get there. Take a break from sunbathing with lunch at the restaurant that’s located right on the beach – we had salads, burgers, fries and fresh fish. In comparison to Hula Hula beach, Robinson Beach was much less pretentious, more laid-back and cheaper (in terms of sun bed hire and food).

Eat: For delicious local sea food, try Lungo Mare. When a restaurant is packed out with locals, it’s always a good sign: and that’s what we discovered when we visited. We were recommended by our hostel to try it, and it was so good we went back, twice. Generous portions, a hospitable, chatty and hilarious owner and tasty food awaits.

Nightlife: Hvar is renowned for its party scene. One night you could take a taxi boat to Carpe Diem beach island to rave, or go in the daytime for a mellow adventure. For a more relaxing evening head to the Jazz Bar, which is hidden away in the back streets of the town. Or join the other party animals at Kiva, a bar/club tucked away in a side street next to the town. Kiva closes at 2am so we headed to Pink Champagne afterwards, a basement club with a very cool entrance – I won’t give it away (entrance fee is payable on the door), which is open till the early hours. Veneranda club is meant to be epic although we didn’t squeeze it in, as is La Struya – a club with expansive views.

hvar view from fortress

The view from beside Hvar’s fortress

Sightsee: If you’re into history, visit the fortress. It’s quite a walk, but we went simply for the views across the island (see picture above).

Lavender is one of Croatia’s biggest exports. You can get lavender oil, cream, soap, dried flowers, lavender honey; basically everything which is made of lavender from local vendors on the streets. We missed out on going on a lavender tour to visit the copious purple fields, but it looks like an amazing opportunity to take great creative pictures. The olive oil and wine you get at the restaurants are also likely to be made fresh locally, so another worthy excursion could be a wine tour.

3. Bar crawls in Split. Unfortunately we were too tired to make it to them, but judging by the number of people we met who raved about them, we missed out.

With over a thousand other islands scattered off Croatia’s stunning Adriatic coastline, as well as 8 national parks on the mainland, there’s reason for repeat visits. I’d like to visit different islands and Dubrovnik next time around. Have you been? What was your highlight? Tell all!