Monday, 18 August 2014

Retail therapy and eating out in Milan

*The Excelsior
HQ's annual pilgrimage to the fashion capital of Italy, Milan has been another enjoyable and almost budget breaking experience! We always go in August as all the new collections are available and we add what we need (read 'want') to our existing winter wardrobe. When my friend and I first started going way back in 2000 we would come home with our suitcases stuffed to the brim with bargains galore and often another suitcase to carry on board with all the extras that wouldn't fit! 
As each year's visit came and went the purchases were less as our tastes became more discerning. Between then and now many of the brands we couldn't get in the UK are now available here and vice versa so the excitement of buying something no one else would be likely to have has been curtailed. 

Retail therapy
There are still a few boutique stores and labels which are either not available or in limited supply in the UK and we now tend to concentrate on those rather than traipse around the cobbled streets of Milan, our feet swollen from the heat and humidity of high summer.
Before we go we check out our favourite brands online and get an idea of the things we would like and the cost. Personally I give myself a budget and try to stick to it. I have to say I did quite well this year and only slipped over the edge a little!

The other thing we enjoy in Italy is the food! The downside of going in August is the closure of many establishments for the summer holidays so the choices are limited but we always manage to find something worthwhile that isn't in the crowded touristy centre. The area of Brera has a few good restaurants and our concierge recommended Osteria di Brera.  They bring a complementary glass of prosecco as an aperitif and we dined on a first course of lobster linguini with sea bass to follow. Absolutely delicious and only a ten to fifteen minute walk from the Duomo and the Hotel Straf where we stayed this time.

The hotel is less than 10 years old and right next door to the Rinascente department store. Even though it is on a busy street and practically on the Duomo piazza with all it's street performers and the din of the crowds you cannot hear any noise at all unless you open the windows. The downside of this hotel is that the rooms are not particularly user friendly. It all looks very hip and cool and I quite liked the decor of dark slate and metal but that's about it. You have to crawl on the floor under the 'desk' to plug in any electrical devices and there are no drawers - only a wardrobe with 4 hangers. (You could ask for more hangers if need be.) Our bathroom was interesting .. very 'arty' and would probably not be suitable for anyone who is tall given that the surface for your toiletries is about 40cm above the floor! In contrast the ceiling is high along with the showerhead over the black bath. I'm not sure the designer had practicality in mind. There is no restaurant except for a small breakfast room (the breakfast was good and included) and there is a small bar that is accessed from the street. When it first opened back in 2005 it was the cool place to go but now it seems to be frequented by young locals sitting on the pavement with their beer and cigarettes .. vespas parked nearby. Other than that it was clean and comfortable, the staff were friendly and helpful and the location couldn't be better if you want to be in the midst of it all. 

Lunch on our final day was in the Maio Restaurant, situated on the 7th floor of the Rinascente. 
If you sit outside on the terrace you get a fabulous view of the Duomo. We kept it simple with a glass of prosecco (of course!) and ginger chicken stylishly (some would say pretentiously) presented on a slate slab. In Italy they often refer to chicken in the masculine or feminine .. distinguishing between the rooster and the hen! Here they did not and interestingly the menu is not only in Italian and English but also Chinese and Russian giving a clue to the changing face of tourism in Europe.

*Excelsior Milano - high end store featuring major brands including many International designers. I go there for the food department in the basement - it has wonderful Italian produce including my favourite Mamma Andrea marmalade.

HQ flew direct to Milano Linate from London City Airport with Alitalia - 1.5 hour flight with no delays and friendly service.

#covet #fashion #winter2015 #food #HotelStraf #Alitalia 

Saturday, 26 July 2014

HQ update ..

Milano Duomo at night
Forgive me for I have sinned (well not really) .. it's been 3 weeks since my last blog post and I did sort of promise to update you on any new plans.  I have been rediculously busy with work and I finally have a full weekend off and the weather is great! We have to make the most of it so it was a late breakfast in the courtyard and a discussion with my travel mate (who popped by to join me) as to where we should stay in Milan this year. We always used to get a deal in August because it was notoriously quiet, but that is no more. We are going to spread our wings and try a new hotel! It's only 3 weeks away so we have to get cracking! I think it's time to try something new .. we have stayed in the same one since 2000!

I also promised to give you an update on my next early winter holiday and I'm pleased to report that it's now all booked and we are heading back to the Caribbean - but it's not Barbados this time. We were finally able to get the place we wanted in St Lucia so I'm looking forward to it and sharing it with you. I have wanted to go there for such a long time and am really excited about it.

My thought for the day ... "A goal should scare you a little and excite you a lot. Think BIG. And then think bigger than THAT." Dr Joe Vitale

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Summer in the City

July already! The longest day - Summer Solstice has been and gone, Trooping the Colour, Ascot Races, Fourth of July over, Henley Regatta in progress and Wimbledon finals this weekend .. oh and the Tour de France starts today in Yorkshire. That's without taking into account the World Cup in Brazil, the cricket etc etc etc. Maybe some or none of these things interest you but in any case .. a crazy busy start to summer in the Northern Hemisphere!

Summer in London can be hit and miss weather wise, but in true Brit fashion people carry on with their plans regardless. Last weekend was a prime example - every year my neighbourhood has a street party. The road is closed and all the residents set tables with flowers, real crockery and cutlery (no plastic here), bring food and drink and some even bring their musical instruments. Children and dogs play in the street and there is a real sense of community. This year was no exception
although there was always a threat of an afternoon shower. When it did rain, the umbrellas went up and everyone stayed put until a torrential downpour eventually scuppered any attempt to 'keep calm and carry on'. We had to concede and move the party indoors which was a bit of a shame as the party fragmented into the various houses but all in all a lovely day and happy to report not a scrap of litter left behind.

Doorways in Milano
My summer is set to be a busy one .. apart from work I have just booked my ticket for my annual long weekend trip to Milano, Italy in mid August. I'm glad I got that out the way as there were few seats left and no deals to be had unless I wanted to stop off for a couple of hours at an airport and extend my journey time unnecessarily! Why would I? I just want to get there! It's always hot and sunny and I so look forward to having a glass of prosecco or a coffee in an outdoor caffe/bar watching the world go by.

Next week I am closer to home and off to Edinburgh and Cardiff for work and doubt I'll get any time to get out and about but if I do I'll let you know. I've been to both cities before but only ever for work so I can't claim to have seen much of either of them sadly.

I'm also in the process of planning my early winter getaway - a new destination .. I'll update you when I know more! Ciao for now!

Friday, 20 June 2014

Santorini .. towering cliffs and whitewashed buildings

June is a beautiful time to visit Santorini. It's not quite the height of the season and the weather is not too hot. In fact in the week leading up to our trip the temperatures looked like they were only going to be peaking in the low 20's! What will be will be so we headed off ready to accept whatever was our fate. HQ's motto .. never let the weather dictate what you do in life. We were fortunate however and we had beautiful days averaging 26-28C and only one day of winds, which was perfect because we spent most of our days relaxing by the pool.

Santorini is well known as one of the most idyllic and spectacular islands in the Aegean Sea. There is a mystical feeling and energy about it which probably has something to do with the earth beneath still alive and breathing around a smouldering volcano. have always coveted the idea of going to this beautiful Greek island. I'd seen images of the whitewashed villages carved into the cliff side layers of volcanic rock, azure sky and the deep indigo blue waters .. all very alluring .. and it promises the most beautiful sunsets on the planet. Everything I'd ever heard about it was impressive and now I see why.

During the day the town of Thira is relatively quiet .. but it is just prior to the setting sun that the hoards come out to view what is meant to be the most photogenic place in the world (and I would add the most photographed judging by the amount of cameras capturing every moment .. mine included)! Most of the restaurants are terraced and boast views over the Caldera.

I loved the fact that we were there during the full moon and able to witness it in all it's glory! I have to say that the sunset each evening was beautiful and varied and despite the amount of people dining, there was an unexpected quietness adding a magical, peaceful ambience.

I have seen many beautiful and spectacular sunsets in different parts of the world so I would not like to make comparisons. To me they are all quite wonderful and amazing in their own right.

On our last night dining out on the terrace of Apiron Restaurant, the sun set in it's usual spectacular fashion and darkness descended. After a short while a mist began to rise from the sea and wafted up and over the cliff top. I asked the waiter what it was and he replied 'humidity .. it's what keeps the grapes alive." And the fog kept rolling in making the air damp and cool. The surrounding buildings looked like something out of medieval London! In my mind I could almost hear the howling of the Hound of the Baskervilles whilst walking back along the road to the hotel as well as witnessing a red waning moon rising through the mist on the opposite side of the island. Very surreal.

One thing I will warn you about if you plan to fly in to Santorini (as opposed to cruising) .. it appears the tiny airport has not been upgraded since it was a military base so be prepared to stand in line and generally expect some chaos prior to your departure. There is nothing there except a café/bar and a miniscule duty free shop so not worth being there too early either and there are few places to sit. It is very unorganised .. the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing and all the flights seem to leave at virtually the same time adding to the confusion. But we got there in the end .. boarding just 10 minutes before we were scheduled to leave and thankfully being blessed with a tail wind which got us in half an hour earlier than planned! Another fantastic holiday to remember!

Next time, and I hope to return, I would like to explore the island in more depth .. there is more to Santorini than idyllic villages and sunsets. There is also a wealth of history, archaeology, hot springs, hiking and exploring to experience and if you like art, galleries featuring local artist's work and artisan jewellery.

We stayed at El Greco, Fira

Restaurants we liked and would recommend ..
Sphinx, Fira
Argo, Fira
Apiron, Fira

Art Galleries we liked ..
AK Galleries, Fira Centre
Mati Art Gallery, Fira

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Great holiday reading ...

My good friend Nigel May has a short story in the Sunlounger 2 collection .. here is his blog post he is kind enough to let me share on Holiday Queen!  If you haven't already ready Nigel's first blockbuster TRINITY please have a look and if you like what you read you must follow it by his second book ADDICTED.  I promise you will be addicted yourself and want for more!

Hello all! It’s a very big week in bookland as the successor to last year’s short story chart topping anthology, Sunlounger, is on its way. Called Sunlounger 2 (see what we did there!) it’s launched online at Amazon on Saturday 21st June 2014 and looks set to be even more popular than last year’s globetrotting marathon.

Packed with over 40+ short stories, each set in a far-flung destination from every corner of the globe, Sunlounger 2 is the perfect accessory for anyone who is wanting to nibble on a bite size piece of quality fiction while lounging around the pool on holiday, sunning themselves on lazy heat-kissed days in the local park, or feeling the rays on their skin on every beach from Cromer to the Caribbean. And for the second year running I am as proud as a peacock to say that I am part of it all.

The anthology is the brainchild of Belinda Jones, an authoress of no less than 10 fabulous chick lit books (her latest, The Travelling Tea Shop, is in stores now) and a mate of mine for the last 15 or so years (not that either of us will admit to being that old!). Belinda wanted to bring together the best authors writing female fiction on Planet Book today and get them each to write a short story detailing love, fun, tomfoolery and general shenanigans at a featured exotic holiday destination. The end result is literally like taking a trip around the globe without ever having to reach for your passport or converting your currency.
My story in this year’s collection, which features over 40 authors including Belinda, Lucy Lord, Anna-Lou Weatherley, Holly Martin, Jo Carnegie, Alexandra Potter and Martel Maxwell, is called A Lost Night In Louisiana and is set in the Mardi Gras madness of New Orleans. It’s all about a young women called Kim who wakes up the morning after a rather riotous night before and thinks that something sweet may have happened…if only she could remember. The story follows her quest to try and piece together the blurry pieces of the night before. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. And going to New Orleans for research was an absolute blast – a city full of music on every corner, spooky voodoo traditions behind every doorway and the most colourful and alive place I have ever seen. Plus there was the odd gator or two, who may just get a mention in Sunlounger 2. Last year I was the only male author featured in Sunlounger, but this year I am thrilled to say I’ve been joined by a brilliant author called Matt Dunn, so I am no longer the only fella at the Sunlounger party!

Talking of parties, I was lucky enough to head down to London recently for the Sunlounger 2 press launch which was a great excuse to drink Mai Tais, meet up with fellow authors featured in the book and also meet some of the hugely important book bloggers who have been really amazingly good and generous in supporting me with my books TRINITY and ADDICTED. So, to all of them who came along and shared their ideas, joys, and general loveliness with me on the day, can I say thanks! I loved it! Truly. And speaking to them all on Twitter after the event is even more brilliant now than it was before as now I can put faces, laughs, actions and general bubbliness to names.

I really hope Sunlounger 2 is just as much as a success as it was last year when it remained at the top of the online short stories book chart all summer long. In fact I hope it’s an even bigger success. With all of that writing talent going on inside the virtual covers, how can it fail!

Sunlounger 2 is released on Amazon on Saturday 21st June. For more details head to and sign up for the Sunlounger newsletters. You can also check out the #Sunlounger2 twitter feed.
My books TRINITY and ADDICTED are available on Amazon too right now. TRINITY and ADDICTED 99p each.
Books by the other Sunlounger authors are out there too – everyone from Tasmina Perry and Victoria Fox through to Talli Roland and Lara Williamson. Every one a joy!
Dive on in and bag yourself a sun-soaked summer read with Sunlounger 2 – £2.99 at Amazon from 21st June.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Where to next?

I've had a few people ask me where I'm off to next so I'm happy to let you know that in a couple of week's time I am going to Santorini, a beautiful Greek Island in the South Aegean Sea.

My pals and I will be staying on the west side of the island right where you see that blue pin in the picture!

I love Greece, the food and the people and there's sure to be guaranteed sunshine and beautiful sunsets .. not to mention a glass of retsina or two!

I will be documenting my trip when I come back in mid June!

Τα λέμε σύντομα! (See you soon!)

Monday, 12 May 2014

HQ is three years old this week!

Riviera Maya, Mexico
Photographing seagulls - Miami FL
I can't believe how fast time flies! I have been writing my blog for three years now ... Using it as an online diary, I am astounded how many trips I have actually done!

Here's a quick photographic flashback of some of my favourite memories ...

Sub zero temperatures and snow, New York NY
Montego Bay, Jamaica WI

Rethymnon, Crete Greece

Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi UAE
Make up for US Open, New York NY

Beignets, New Orleans LA
Coffee time, Milano, Italy

Rhiad, Marrakech
The old and the new, Dubai UAE
The Grove, Crane Beach, Barbados

I invite you to continue to join me on my travels and I hope you enjoy reading as much I enjoy writing and sharing with you!

'Like' and follow my facebook page for updates and other useful travel and beauty tips as well as suggestions and ideas for places I have yet to go. Safe travels!


Thursday, 8 May 2014

View from the highest building on the planet

Burj Khalifa at sunset
I won't bore you with another post about Dubai but I wanted to share my recent experience of literally catapulting to the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. It's more than twice the height of the Empire State building in New York. If you're visiting Dubai and don't mind heights, it's definitely worth it to see the 360º vista of the city. 

Dancing fountains
We went up 7.30 at night after an early dinner by the dancing fountains although I imagine the setting sun would have been a spectacular sight from the viewing platform! It looks so tall and thin from below that you can't imagine how it stays upright but it really is much bigger than it appears and obviously designed to withstand all kinds of weather conditions.

View of the top from 124th
The 124th floor isn't even the top of this amazing structure .. there are many more floors housing offices and apartments. I can't imagine what it would be like being that high up every day. Do you think you would you ever become blase about it? The elevator ride took just 60 seconds to ascend the 124 levels and it was the smoothest ride. I expected g-force or some kind of wooziness but it was like any other elevator ride .. in fact better than most. It was a surreal experience and I didn't feel any vertigo at all ... I wonder if the sensation is different in the broad light of day? I recommend it anyway .. even if it's just to say that you've done it! I was lucky enough to have visited the twin towers in New York back in the day .. it had a glass floor and an open air viewing deck, but I seem to remember that elevator being quite scary! Maybe because it was my first time ever up a tall skyscraper! 

If you want to see something truly fantastic .. have a look at this video link to see a BASE jump from the top! It blew my mind!

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Doing your make up on the go

Yesterday I was on the Tube and almost directly in front of me was a young woman in the process of
applying her make up in the dim energy-saving half light. Hidden behind my sunglasses I discreetly  watched as she applied her foundation rather heavily that was at least 3-4 shades darker than her beautiful young flawless skin. If she had blended it along her jawline down to her neck she would not have had a tide line which made her make up look like a mask. I watched as it went from bad to worse.  Lip liner next .. she took it all the way around her lips and went over and over it .. I have to say it was a beautifully drawn line! Then came the lipstick .. paler than the lip line.  Bronzer next .. meticulously applied with a kabuki brush all over her face.  Yikes .. truly tangoed! Nothing on her eyes, no mascara, no brows .. and the whole deal took her about 15 minutes. I'm glad I didn't have to see her in the cruel light of the sunny day outside!

Personally I don't particularly want to see people doing their make up on the bus, train and definitely not in the car whilst driving (I have seen it more than once)! Each to their own, but if you can't get up a few minutes earlier it got me thinking about a few tips for applying make up (if you really have to) on the run.

Firstly, it's really important to match your foundation with your skin tone. At least that way if you are in a hurry you're already in with a chance. You can always warm it up afterwards with a little bronzer if it's a darker shade you're after. Only put it on areas the sun would catch your face .. not all over. If you are on a bus or train, sit next to the window so you can get some natural light. 

Try using a cream blush instead of a powder one .. it's easier to blend and no loose dusting of powder to worry about .. remember to be considerate of your fellow commuters too. A friend of mine was showered with loose powder recently much to her annoyance! Use a latex applicator (like the ones that come in compacts) instead of a brush.

Be careful when applying eye make up as sudden jolts, swerves, bumps etc could be a problem. This is particularly true of liquid eyeliner or mascara.  Nothing worse than having to clean up a smudge or worse still poking a mascara wand in your eye!

Be beautiful and wear a smile!

Thursday, 3 April 2014

India ... The land of smiles and colour

Here is another lovely blog post from my friend Nigel documenting his recent trip to India .. I've always wanted to go too and now I feel I must make it happen in the near future!! Thanks Nigel .. looks amazing!
When it was first suggested that this year’s holiday should be a tour around Northern India, I’ll be honest, I was a little dubious. Not that I didn’t want to go there – I did – but it just wasn’t top of my list. There were other places that sprang to mind first. But after a bit of gentle persuasion and the organising of a visa I was suddenly touching down in New Delhi ready to begin our adventure. An adventure that I would say has turned out to be one of the best holidays I have ever been on.
We decided to do what most people would call a ‘taster-tour’ of India I suppose. Nine days, three cities (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) and more temples, forts and palaces than I ever knew existed. The trip was organised by Compass Tours India who supplied us with guides in each city and also with a driver to take us from one beautiful, majestic sight to the next. It was, for first time travellers to India, the perfect way to do it.
The thing that amazed me straight away about this incredible country was the assault it makes on your senses. From the moment you leave the airport your eyes seem to widen as you take in everything around you – the shapes of the buildings, the cows wandering happily across the highways and the sheer chaos of the traffic everywhere you look. Horns are blaring, but if you’re imagining an M25-style road rage and five mile tailbacks you’d be wrong. Somehow the chaos seems to be handled with smiling faces, total respect for others on the road and with the odd camel, elephant or monkey thrown into the mix for good measure.
Delhi is an amazing place. We were there for Holi Festival (the festival of colour) which is an experience we’ll never forget. Driving around the tiny back streets of old Delhi’s bazaars in the ricketiest of rickshaws watching people of all ages celebrating the end of winter by covering each other in neon-bright technicolour powders was incredible. Under a burst of pink or a smudge of yellow, everywhere you looked was a sea of smiles (India – the friendliest place I’ve ever been – fact!) and people coaxing you to join in. Did we? Well, it would have been rude not to. And the revellers were more than happy to let us – waving, smiling and stopping us to ask for photos at every opportunity. We took in some of Delhi’s main attractions whilst ‘coloured-up’ for Holi (including India Gate, the Lotus Temple and Humayun’s Tomb) and we were stopped for photos and greeted fan-like at every one.
It would be very easy for me to write pages and pages on each and every attraction that we visited in Delhi as each of them are worthy of paragraphs of copy, but I won’t, as there are guidebooks for that, but I do have a few recommendations for places that have to be seen. Yes, visit the famed Red Fort (and doubtless get dragged into the carpet and craft shops – it goes with the territory and don’t be afraid to say no to buying 17 rugs and a four-foot statue of Genesh) but try to visit other places not always top of the tourist list. Safdarjung’s Tomb is a garden tomb in a marble mausoleum, Lodhi Gardens are a magical escape from the madness of the streets with hidden temples and pieces of architecture at every turn, Qutub Minar is the world’s tallest brick minaret and is as fascinating and mesmerising as it is tall. Add these alongside places like Raj Ghat, the cremation memorial of Mahatma Ghandi, and the magnificent Akshardham Temple, the largest Hindu temple complex in the world. One word – wow!
 After Delhi we headed to Agra, home of India’s finest attraction, The Taj Mahal. There are not enough words to describe how beautiful a building it is. It simply takes your breath away. We made two visits to it – firstly during the afternoon and then at sunrise the next day. The same building gives you two completely different experiences. It’s a must see and a visit that I feel has made my life richer. One word of warning though – it’s shut on a Friday so if you’re planning your own itinerary, avoid the Taj on a Friday. Because it will definitely be avoiding you. Also, while in Agra try to visit a lesser-known monument , the tomb of Itimad ud Daulah, sometimes called the Baby Taj because of its resemblance to Agra’s most famous monument. And if you fancy a fun night out head to the Kalakriti Centre to watch a theatre show called Mohabbat The Taj: The Saga Of Love. It’s a visual delight of dancing and (melo)drama complete with the largest model of the Taj Mahal anywhere rising up from below the stage. There are headphones supplied with a variety of languages so you can understand the story. Mine didn’t work but to be honest it didn’t matter. I still loved every minute.
The third and final city on our tour was Jaipur. As we drove there, our driver asked us if we’d like to see some other things that weren’t necessarily on our itinerary. We did. And boy are we pleased we did. Within a few short hours we found ourselves in the village of Abhaneri to visit the incredible Chand Baori stepwell (the place where villagers once descended to fetch water). It was built between 800 and 900 AD and dedicated to the Goddess Of Joy And Happiness (two words I will always associate with India). It is a colossal piece of architecture with steps descending for what seems like an eternity. While in Abhaneri we were also treated to an insight into a family business as we watched a local villager create wonderful pots on his potters’ wheel. His skill was incredible.
Another impromptu stop-off on the way to Jaipur was at Galta Temple, a now deserted village which is an ancient Hindu pilgrimage site located just outside Jaipur. It is also known as the ‘Monkey Temple’, and as soon as you walk though the gates you understand why. In-between the cows and the peacocks there are hundreds of monkeys ready to come and see what you have to offer. We were guided around by a marvellous man who seemed to know each and every monkey. Within minutes we were feeding them grapes, watching them swim, wearing them like backpacks and generally having them hang off every limb. I nearly broke my mouth from smiling – it was that incredible. Had our driver not suggested it we wouldn’t have known it was there. Such an amazing place and another part of an amazing adventure.
Jaipur itself is full of wonders – The Pink City as it is called delivers so much – the Amber Fort (an elephant ride up to the fort is a must. And to anyone who says the animals are mistreated, you are wrong, they work for two hours and then head back to their ‘elephant village’ to chill for the rest of the day! I have never seen a nation with such respect for its animals). The Palace Of Wind is breath-taking with its domes and tiers of structure.  The Royal Palace, stopping to look at Jal Mahal, the quirkiness of the Jantar Mantar observatory…I could go on. One thing we would recommend if you have a few hours spare is a visit to the Raj Mandir Cinema to see a Bollywood extravaganza (it was showing a Bollywood horror when we went but fun nevertheless!). It cost pennies and was an incredible experience as people scream, shout, dance and talk to their families on the telephone right throughout the movie. Popping to my local Showcase will seem dull in comparison from now on.
I must bring this blog to an end. It has been a joy to write, but then no surprise…India was a joy to visit. I haven’t had time to mention Neemrana Fort as a must-see or the camel ride to the incredible Samode Palace (where The Far Pavilions was filmed don’t you know). Both were beyond fabulous. But then the whole visit was – India was beyond my wildest dreams. Bright, colourful, happy, and friendly. An experience I will never forget and one I will be keen to try again in the very near future.
We travelled with Compass Tours: