Friday, 21 October 2016

Friday Recipe: Fusilli with Broccoli

This pasta dish is instagram perfect - but it really does taste as good as it looks. It's a quick and easy way to get one of your five a day too (it's the only way I can get my children to eat their vegetables). I love broccoli and cook it so it's al dente - nothing beats that bit of crunch.

But you could use any of your favourite vegetables and for you non-vegetarians you could add some anchovies along with some chilli flakes to give it a little kick. This delicious dish, like all my recipes, was created by my celebrity chef husband but I cook it at least once a week so it's a firm family favourite. Enjoy!

Prep time 15 mins
Cooking time about 10 mins
Serves 4

Olive oil, a drizzle
400g fusilli
200g broccoli, broken into florets
(Optional) 1 can anchovies, drained and finely chopped
Bunch of basil, roughly chopped
Handful of grated Parmesan

Bring 2 litres of salted water to the boil, add pasta and cook until al dente.

In a separate pan of boiling water cook broccoli florets for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat and add anchovies, stirring occasionally until soft.

Drain pasta and add to the anchovies. Mix. Add broccoli and toss well.

Serve garnished with basil, season with black pepper and sprinkle grated Parmesan over.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Sailing in Style from Dubai on a Six Star Ship

Clouds in the shape of rabbits and all manner of animals scattered overhead as I lay back by the pool. There was nothing to disturb me except a slight breeze that fluttered the pages of the latest bestseller I was reading.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see a waiter hovering, ready to bring me another iced drink, snack or cold towel. But right now I didn’t need anything except to relax, knowing that in a few hours I would be arriving at some new exotic city or country, without having to set foot inside a plane, train or automobile.

That’s because I was travelling in six-star style on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager, one of a small fleet of ships billed as the most luxurious ever built.

I’d simply stepped on board in Dubai and was now headed to Salalah, in Oman, via Fujairah and Muscat for a four-day cruise as part of the Kingdoms of the Sun tour. ‘You’ll be treated like a queen,’ I was told by a friend who’d already taken the trip. And so far they were right.

From the moment I’d walked up the gangway, I’d been stunned by the decor – think crystal chandeliers, sumptuous carpets your heels sink into, wooden panelling and gold, sweeping balustrades reminiscent of those on board Titanic though no one likes to mention that ship while at sea.

The grand entrance of the Regent Seven Seas Voyager

The ship is small by cruise standards – it holds just 700 passengers and 447 crew – but every inch is elegance redefined. Many of the passengers are on their third or fourth cruise with the company, while a lucky 100 or so are on The Grand Voyage where they boarded in Tokyo and will spend 87 nights sailing all the way to Southampton.

The Seven Seas Voyager and Explorer are two of a six star fleet

Dubai is around halfway and everyone already on board has a tan and a relaxed routine by the time I join them: breakfast at 8am, then sunning by the pool during sea days and shore excursions to explore new cities while at port.

Within a few hours I realised this was the good life – you can travel without the hassle. There are no airports to rush to, no hotels to check into and out of, no luggage to keep packing and unpacking, and no restaurants or entertainment to book. Everything you’ll ever need is right here on board and you can just enjoy your time at sea and wake up in a different country most days. Here’s why you should join the sailing set...

The suite life
Every cabin on board this fleet puts most five-star hotel rooms to shame. Bigger than a lot of master suites on terra firma, mine came with a marble bathroom with full-size walk-in shower and bath, a double bed, flat screen TV, sofa, desk and – every woman’s dream – a dressing room.

The suites on board the Explorer are bigger than most hotels

There’s a mini bar that is restocked daily, fruit, and a steward on call 24/7 to cater to your every whim. I tested mine – Heydi – to the limit and she never failed a challenge. My shoes have broken! ‘Here’s superglue, tape and a pair of scissors.’ They were back in action within minutes.
 I wanted more L’Occitane bathroom products and a basket brimming with shower gel, shampoo and conditioner swiftly arrived. She showed me how to order round-the-clock room service, the laundry room where I could wash and dry clothes free of charge, and the 150 latest on-demand movies.

And did I mention the huge double bed? 
It was so comfortable I was rocked to sleep by the waves as soon as I clambered into it every night.

Fine Dining
There are four first-class restaurants on board with constantly changing menus so even those on The Grand Voyage wouldn’t be offered the same dish twice. But even before you set foot on the ship the company asks for your dining preferences. I’m a vegetarian and yet there were plenty of options for me at every restaurant.

The Compass Rose is straight from the set of Titanic where Rose has a tense lunch with her mother over her upcoming marriage, but there are no terse mutterings here. Smiling waiters and an uber-friendly maître d’ serve up mouthwatering international dishes such as crostini with grilled portobello mushrooms and roasted peppers or glazed baby back ribs for the meat lovers. Zuppa Inglese was a firm favourite even though I’d never had the custard dessert with meringue back in my native England.

There was a degustation menu for those with a hearty appetite consisting of vitello tonanato – roasted veal with tuna sauce and gremolata – clam pasta and grilled Norwegian salmon with Loire Valley beurre blanc and strawberries.

The menu is constantly changing on The Grand Voyage

My favourite eatery was the Italian Sette Mari at La Veranda, where I feasted on creamy burrata and tomatoes, and ate ricotta and spinach cannelloni almost as good as my (Italian chef) husband makes at home.

A buffet breakfast is held here too, with healthy options as well as the full fry-up that the American guests on board had warned me about: ‘Too delicious,’ they all mumbled, piling their plates high. ‘We’ve already put on 5kg since boarding.’ I ordered a boiled egg with toast soldiers and it was delivered to my table just how I like it – with the yolk still runny.

The other two restaurants, Signatures and Prime 7, are a fine French eatery and a steakhouse and require reservations. Luckily I booked both as soon as I boarded because they were full every night. The menus rival top French and steak restaurants here in Dubai, and if, like me, you ask for a table by the window you’ll enjoy ever changing views.

Hassle-free exploring
Who needs to worry about flights or train schedules, when you can just get on a ship in Dubai and sail your way in luxury to your final destination via myriad exciting places?

I simply hopped on in Dubai for a tour which would finally end up in Barcelona, Spain, three weeks later.

On my short sojourn the Voyager stopped in Fujairah. It’s the only emirate situated entirely along the Gulf of Oman and is striking with its jagged Hajar mountains and valleys swooping down to palm-fringed beaches.

Off-shore excursions include visiting the Heritage Village where you can learn how people made a living here years ago fishing in boats made from palms.

You can also explore the fort, which is more than 350 years old and was the first stone building along the coast, and although badly damaged, is still open to the public. It was home to the ruling family, and is near a museum that houses fascinating artefacts found in archaeological digs in the area. Pieces of bronze, silver and gold, weapons, and coins are all on display.

Al Badiyah Mosque is built from mud and local stone and is the oldest mosque in the UAE, dating back to the 15th century. Below the four domes, supported by a single pillar, are stone carvings on the wall and niches for the Quran.

After a gorgeously relaxing night at sea the ship arrived in Muscat, Oman where we docked before breakfast.

There’s plenty on offer in the capital. For those who want to immerse themselves
in the heritage, you can take a cruise on an Omani dhow or, for nature lovers, take a speedboat to look for dolphins, which will always appear apparently, or if you’re feeling energetic, go snorkelling.

Then it’s full sail for Salalah – the perfume capital of Arabia thanks to its abundance of frankincense trees lining wadi courses down the mountains.

Here you can just enjoy the beach for the day or go on an Arabian Heritage tour to see Taqa Castle, the Fort and famous fruit stalls at Montazah Street where you quench your thirst with coconut water. There are so many coconuts here, the onboard daily newsletter, Passages told me, that in ancient times they used coir from the thick husk to stitch the planking on the traditional boats used in the Western Indian Ocean.

Impeccable Service
Living in the UAE we are all used to first-class service, but the crew on board the Voyager took it to another level. Nothing was ever too much trouble, every thing was done with a flourish and a smile but the service was also unobtrusive. From the cleaners to the captain this was a happy ship and it showed. Ordering off menu? Of course – the chef will come out of the kitchen and discuss creating a bespoke menu. Want a salad and ice tea but can’t be bothered to actually fetch it? ‘Let us know where you’re sunbathing and we’ll bring it to you.’

This is the ship where divas are no doubt born, but I forced myself to get up and experience everything on board because there was so much more than just eating and sailing through the sleek, cool waters of the Arabian Gulf and Arabian Sea.

First-class entertainment
From comedians, magicians, enrichment lecturers, karaoke, dance classes and musical shows, there is always something interesting going on somewhere on the ship - if you can tear yourself away from the pool.

An American couple I met went from complete beginners to ballroom dancers performing some complicated moves after taking lessons on board.

There are also more cerebral activities – quizzes, card games, mah-jong, bridge, and tea-time trivia (along with an afternoon tea complete with finger buffet and delicious cakes), not to mention croquet, shuffleboard, and paddle tennis.

For pampering, head to the Canyon Ranch spa club, which has everything from jet-lag recovery massages to Ayurveda treatments and facials.

You can watch shows in the theatre, or meet the captain at his reception (or in the corridor for a fun ‘meet thy neighbour’ party where the captain rushes around the ship) or simply be serenaded in the observation lounge on the top deck while watching the sun slide below the horizon.

After packing a fortnight’s worth of activities into a mini-break I was sad to dock in Salalah, ready for my flight home.
But I’m already looking forward to the next time the Voyager sails into Dubai to see where I’ll be cruising in style to next…

Friday, 14 October 2016

Warm Aubergine Stack with Basil Pesto and Mozzarella

Winter's coming and it's finally time to start thinking about cosy, hearty - but show-stopping- suppers. This aubergine stack looks as good as it tastes and is perfect as a dinner party starter or a main for all the family.

I'm a life-long vegetarian but even my carnivorous family like this dish. Devised by my chef husband it's a quick and easy twist on another favourite Melanzane Parmigiana. When we serve this, there's always smiles all round. It's rustic and fills the house with the most incredible aromas - my husband says the smell reminds him of his childhood in Italy.

So it may be cold outside, but this is enough to warm anyone's heart...

Serves 2
Prep time 5 mins
Cooking time 15 mins


1 large aubergine, sliced into 6 thick pieces, kept in water to prevent discolouration
Olive oil, to drizzle
Coarse salt and freshly crushed black pepper
Chunky tomato sauce, as desired
Basil pesto, as desired
1 ball of fresh mozzarella, torn into pieces
Fresh basil leaves, torn, as desired
Pomegranate seeds, to garnish

Remove the aubergine pieces from the water and pat dry. Drizzle generously with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Pan-fry until seared.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Spoon some tomato sauce and pesto into a cast-iron skillet, then place a slice of aubergine on top. Add more sauce and pesto, along with a piece of mozzarella and a few torn basil leaves. Repeat the process to create three layers of aubergine, covering the top layer with cheese.

Create two stacks and place the skillet in the preheated oven. Cook until the cheese melts. Remove from the skillet and place on a plate. Serve warm, garnished with fresh basil and pomegranate seeds.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Trying out the Rat Race at Disneyland Paris

It’s fast, it’s 4D, is rumoured to have cost $270 million and was created by the people behind the Oscar-winning film Ratatouille. I join the rat race trying out the latest ride at Disneyland Paris

There's nothing cheesy about Disney's £270 million 4D experience 

 A six-metre-long fish dangles from the pantry roof, a pungent odour of cooking making my nostrils twitch. Shivering, I pull my jacket tighter around me, trying to ignore the dozens of shiny rats’ eyes blinking in the gloom. But they aren’t the enemy – they are hiding, like me, from the fury of Chef Skinner, the villain in the Oscar-winning Disney Pixar film Ratatouille that has now been turned into a 4D attraction at Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris.

Costing a rumoured $270 million, Ratatouille the Adventure has been five years in the making, basically because the technology didn’t exist for the 
ride, based on Remy, the star of 
the animated movie who wants to become a renowned French chef.

The ride is in a corner of the theme park’s Toon Studio, which has been turned into Remy’s Paris – there’s the ride, his 370-seater restaurant, and a shop, selling Ratatouille merchandise. La Place de Remy is all too familiar, transported magically from the movie into bricks and mortar, with pretty tinkling fountains and hand-tended gardens.

But the real magic starts on the way into the ride, where we’re handed 3D glasses, ‘shrunk’ to the size of rats, and then become an integral part of the action as animation, electronics and imagination collide. Transporting riders across Parisian rooftops, there’s a heart-stopping drop through the skylight of legendary chef Gusteau’s restaurant as we follow Remy in an entirely new story, created by Brad Bird, the writer and director of the 2007 hit.

Disney and Pixar worked together to create ‘wrap around 3D’, trackless ‘rat mobiles’, and 4D sensory experiences to make the 60th ride at Europe’s number one tourist attraction the most technologically advanced yet. (Last year 14.9 million visitors passed through the French theme park, which is twice as many as went to the Eiffel Tower, and Disney bosses are expecting a big return on their Ratatouille investment.)

We’re one of the first families invited to try the ride and race to be at the front of the queue after the ribbon is cut at a VIP-studded inaugural ceremony.

We were one of the first families invited to try the new ride

Laughing, we grab our glasses, jump on board a rat mobile, and vanish across rooftops towards the restaurant. Hurtling along, we’re at the heart of the story, seeing it from a rodent’s point of view as Remy tries to escape the clutches of the diminutive but intimidating chef Skinner. “Look Mamma, they’re bigger than us,” my six-year-old daughter says, pointing to the band of furry, giant rodents surrounding us in the food locker.

“Oh rats, honey,” I murmur, nudging my husband Alex. “We’ve shrunk the kids.” But he’s too engrossed in the ride, ducking from the (very real) heat as we scuttle under a giant oven, gasping as we’re sprayed with water from a mob, and wrinkling his nose as smells of cooking waft towards us. 

We all shriek as a giant hand suddenly tries to grab us but we manage to dodge it and speed away, under tables, through waiters’ feet, until we find ourselves – breathless, but safe – back on the rooftops overlooking the French capital’s unique Haussmannian architecture.

“That was brilliant,” grins my 11-year-old son. “Can we go again?” I look at the smiles on the faces of my husband and kids and nod. We duck into the very next rat mobile and into a new adventure – scores of different stories and scenarios were filmed so the ride changes every time. “It was even better second time around,” everyone decides afterwards, but all this excitement – and talk of food – has left me hungry.

Luckily Bistrot Chez Remy is next door. It’s a fine-dining-style restaurant based on the one from the film, where everything is larger than life and Remy’s favourite dishes are on the menu. “I love this sesame oil dressing,” I say, tucking into a crispy salad, while the children try steaks – cooked rare to medium, just how chef Remy recommends – with pomme frites and declare them ‘très bien.’ My husband dines on ratatouille – what else? – polishing off the lot, and then eyes up the trio of desserts while 
I have a cheese platter with crackers and baguette.

It’s a world away from theme park food, and worthy of the months of hard work that went into perfecting every dish, to make sure it was up to Remy and the harshest food critic’s review, just like in the movie.

Stuffed, and still smiling from our earlier crazy culinary adventure, we’re ready to explore the rest of the studio and the neighbouring Disneyland Park.

So we head off, through Toy Story Playland – trying to ignore the shrieks from RC Racer and dodge the queues for Slinky Dog Zigzag Spin and Toy Soldiers Parachute Drop in Toon Studios – past the Finding Nemo-inspired and frankly stomach-churning Crush’s Coaster (it rotates so sometimes you’re flung up and down a vertiginous track backwards – need I say more?) to ride on the quaintly retro dodgems-style Cars ride, and into the park next door.

Pausing to take pictures in Main Street USA – with a view straight down to Sleeping Beauty’s pretty pink castle – we glance warily at the grey clouds overhead.

We were here for three days, so there was enough time to check out our favourite rides – Peter Pan’s Flight, Pirates of the Caribbean, It’s a Small World, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant along with undiscovered ones such as Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups – whatever the weather.

We’ve been going to Disneyland Paris since our son was a baby, but we’ve never taken our little girl before. “I want to see Mickey Mouse and Minnie,” she says. “And Anna and Elsa from Frozen. Oh, and Belle, Cinderella, Snow White and Aurora from Sleeping Beauty.”

My tween son, meanwhile, was desperate to check out all the thrills and spills the parks had to offer – Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril – while he balks at Space Mountain. “I’m not going on that unless you do,” he says, knowing I’d never be brave enough.

But I am up for a roller coaster and so we head to Big Thunder Mountain, a runaway train ride on a wooden track, for all the family. “I want to sit in the front with Daddy,” my little girl demands, and promptly regrets it as we plunge into darkness while hurtling down the mountain at full speed.

“I want to get off,” she yells until we emerge into the sunlight and she realises it is fun to career down the tracks and whistle round the corners. “That was fun,” she grins at the end, and so I decide she is brave enough to tackle the Phantom Manor.

“There’s nothing scary about this,” she says as we step into a Victorian living room with portraits on the wall. The door closes behind us and the floor begins to sink. Further and further we descend until the portraits have transformed into grisly, gruesome pictures to terrify even the hardiest of adults, and my daughter hides her face in my skirt.

Inside the gloomy house, we’re told the story of a bride whose groom failed to show up for their wedding. Grief-stricken, she roamed the house for years in her wedding dress and veil, sobbing, until she died.

“That’s so sad,” my daughter says, while my son rolls his eyes, declaring the lovesick bride story ‘lame.’ He soon changes his mind when we see ghosts dancing before our very eyes and the skeleton of the jilted bride, still in all her bridal attire, jumps out of the darkness to scare us. 

Giggling nervously, we emerge from the gloom, eager to try something more upbeat – and are relieved to hear it is time for the Disney Magic on Parade.

Clapping along to the well-known songs, we wave to a procession of loved characters from The Lion King, Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo, Snow White, Toy Story, and Frozen, now the highest grossing animated movie 
of all time.

And then, as the clouds open, we dash to our hotel, the beautiful Disneyland Hotel at the park entrance. It’s pink, has a shop that sells the Anna and Elsa dolls from Frozen that my little girl so wants, and comes with extra hours in the park and a lift direct to 
the entrance.

Micky, Minnie, Pinocchio and a host of other Disney characters join us for dinner, and we fall asleep in our Castle Club suite early, ready for the next day.

After a help-yourself buffet breakfast with Mickey, we head out again, this time with Elma, our VIP tour guide. She’s Dutch, and can speak seven languages, seems like a modern-day Mary Poppins, and most importantly can show us around, take us to the rides we want to discover and lead us straight to the front of the queue on every ride with Fastpass – and to the exit of ones that don’t have it. Most of the big rides have Fastpass, where you can take a ticket for a designated time to bypass the queues, but Elma is our ticket to queueless fun.

“Where would you like to go first?” she asks as our children rattle off a list. Driving the 50s-style cars at Autopia? No problem – we’re on the track in a jiffy. Blasting aliens on Buzz Lightyear’s Laser Blast? Let’s go! She leads us straight to the front of the snaking line. Peter Pan… Pirates of the Caribbean… – we’re on and off before you can say VIP Fastpass.

Inside the Ratatouille experience 

And then, as we’ve done so many in such a short time, she introduces us to rides we’ve missed in the past – Disneyland Railroad, a cute little train ride that banks around corners and whistles into the station, and Le Pays des Contes de Fées, a gentle boat ride that stops to let us on and serenely sails us past what look 
like fairy homes and pixie dwellings, as well as little buildings and entire villages inspired by Disney classics.

The day rushes by in a blur of rides. “I’ll drop you here and see you in an hour and a half,” Elma smiles, taking us to the door of the Auberge de Cendrillon restaurant.

Inside we’re greeted by Cinderella and Prince Charming and the kids dine on roast chicken with potato dauphinoise, while a procession of princesses come to meet us. My little girl is overawed. Luckily she’s worn her Anna costume, and learns how to hold the edges of her skirt up ‘just like a princess’ when she poses for photographs with Snow White, Belle, and Aurora.

After dinner Elma reappears and wants to whisk us off to watch Disney Dreams, a show at the end of each day featuring lasers and water jets, but our little girl is falling asleep. “Have a magical sleep,” Elma whispers, and we’re sorry to see her go. Not only has she been our guide, but she’s quickly become a friend too, and a firm favourite with our daughter.

“I want Elma,” she insists the next morning after another character breakfast. I explain she’s no doubt busy with another family today, and that we only have time for a couple of rides before it’s time to leave. I thought our son would ask to go on the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith, or The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. I was sure Anais would demand a personal meeting with the characters from Frozen or at least to ride in the parade with Mickey and Minnie. But they both wanted the same thing – one more ride on Ratatouille the Adventure.

“Time to join the Rat Pack,” I think, heading off back to La Place de Remy. It’s pure thrills and spills for all the family. No cheesiness in sight.

We were lucky to go to Disneyland Paris on a press trip for the opening of the new experience but all views are my own. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

Friday Recipe: Goat's Cheese and Spinach Salad

After five years of living in Dubai I still can't adjust to the British weather - or seasonal menus. Why do I have to eat soup just because it's October when it's still sunny outside and my tastebuds are crying out for a delicious salad?
This one is fresh, light and packed with flavour. The pomegranate pearls give it a sophisticated edge but it's the simplest dish to prepare and takes all of 10 minutes to make. The recipe was created by my celebrity chef husband Alexio but my children and I make it all the time. You could add walnuts, almonds, peanuts or any tasty bits and pieces left over in the cupboard to give it even more crunch. Buon Appetito!

Prep time 10 mins
Cooking time 5 mins
Serves 4

Splash of olive oil
150g goat’s cheese, cut into roundels
250g bag of baby spinach, washed
250g cherry tomatoes, quartered
Small bag croutons
1 pomegranate, pearls of
Chopped walnuts, as desired

Heat oil in a frying pan and shallow-fry cheese until slightly golden on both sides. Place on kitchen paper to absorb any excess oil then put in a salad bowl.

Add the remaining ingredients and toss to mix well. Serve with another drizzle of olive oil.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Fast and Luxurious - cruising around Dubai and Abu Dhabi on one of the world's most glamorous ships

Home to the tallest building in the world and glass towers that feature in a successful Hollywood movie, what better way to explore the UAE’s glitzy emirates – Dubai and Abu Dhabi – than from the luxury of one of the world’s most glamorous ships...

Sailing in style on the Europa 2 

Salt spray whipped through my hair as the boat cut through each wave, rising further and further out of the water when the captain hit the throttle.

Screams gurgled in my throat but were drowned out by the sound of the engine and nervous laughter as we raced across the Arabian Gulf, sunlight glinting off the blur of futuristic towers that make up the skyline of the Abu Dhabi Corniche.

The futuristic cityscape of Abu Dhabi

On the way, we’d stopped the speed yellow boat for a glimpse of Emirates Palace, one of the world’s most expensive hotels. But now, we were hurtling along again, literally flying across the top of the waves, bouncing up, then slapping back down at top speed.

Terrified, I closed my eyes as we slalomed around corners, and the boat rose so far out of the water it felt as if we were about to take off.

‘What am I doing here?’ I asked myself, my knuckles white as I clung on to the rail. After all, I only lived an hour’s drive down Shaikh Zayed Road in Dubai. But I was here for an exhilarating – and totally opulent – adventure.

It had started 24 hours earlier, when I walked the red carpet at Dubai’s Port Rashid leading to the Europa 2, one of the world’s most luxurious cruise ships. 

With a five-star-plus ranking by Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2016 – the third consecutive time the ship got the rating since christening in May 2013 (highest score ever in the Berlitz Cruise Guide) – the Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ vessel is the equivalent of a floating Burj Al Arab.

Inside the Europa 2 is functional chic - that's why it's a five star plus ship 

Every centimetre has been designed to be as chic and functional as possible, and the ship is full of original art – a Damien Hirst limited-edition butterfly print in your penthouse suite, anyone? The company has done away with the stuffy image of cruising to make it a stylish and modern way to travel the world.

Just two years old, the Europa 2 has more space on board than any other ship in the industry, so its 500 lucky guests can swing more than the proverbial moggie around the cabins. And if, like me, you stay in one of the 59 ocean suites, you get a sea view and veranda – unlike other ships, there are no inside suites, so everyone has a window and can see beautiful, ever-changing vistas.

From the moment I stepped on board, the wow factor was evident. There are chandeliers, 890 artworks, designer decor and boutique stores and just sheer opulence from the entrance all the way through to my suite on deck six. Forget everything you’ve ever thought about cruising – this bedroom is bigger than the average hotel one and comes with a double bed, living room, bathroom with a full-size tub, shower, designer products, as well as a walk-in wardrobe.

After hanging up the contents of my small suitcase – it took 10 minutes as this was just a four-day cruise from Dubai to Mina Salman port, Bahrain – I went to explore.

There was a lot to see. From the seven restaurants to the pool area with a retractable roof, culinary school, spa, gym, library and art gallery, this is a luxury resort at sea.

And by that I mean Hapag-Lloyd Cruises has literally thought of everything. There’s 100 per cent fresh air being pumped into 
our cabins, and the elite owner suites come complete with a jacuzzi, day bed and whirlpool on the veranda, a rain shower as well as a personal butler. There are a myriad exciting activities on offer and a packed itinerary of shore excursions for those who like to discover each city the ship stops at.

We only had an hour to freshen up before heading out to explore Dubai. It’s a novel idea to be given a guided tour of the city I’ve called home for the past four and a half years, but it was also an eye-opener. I got to see the emirate as a tourist.

Lunch at At.mosphere on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa was the first stop. Believe it or not, I’d never been here. I was always scared by the ascent – I hate heights – and after queuing up several times to go with my husband and children or visiting friends and family, I always bailed at the last minute.

Big is beautiful - the Burj Khalifa in Dubai  

This time I couldn’t as I was with international journalists who literally pushed me into the lift. I balled my fists, taking 
in deep breaths and preparing for an eardrum-popping ride to the top. But three seconds later I opened my eyes to discover that I was there.

Walking out of the lift, I stepped into the glamorous restaurant with jaw-dropping views. Dubai was way below me, a metropolis of buildings hugging the coastline that looked teeny from above, with Shaikh Zayed Road – the main artery – connecting everything. Beyond the city, the desert stretched as far as I could see.

‘What would you like to drink?’ A waiter jolted me back from my thoughts on how Tom Cruise dangled from the side of this building and ran around its façade in the crazy scenes in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. It made my stomach lurch just to look down.

But lunch was being served and I tucked into delicious ravioli, served with fresh green salad, and answered the other journalists’ questions on life in Dubai. They all wanted to know the same thing: what is it like waking up to sunshine every day, never paying taxes and what car I drove. ‘Jeep Cherokee,’ I said, adding ‘not everything here revolves around being the biggest or the fastest, you know.’ And as if to prove this point, we headed to the Creek for a sedate abra ride.

It was a glimpse of Dubai I’d never seen before – boats ferrying tourists and residents, traders plying their wares, and the narrow streets of the spice and gold souqs. We stopped at the spice sellers, picking up packets of deep red saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, and walked down what was quickly named bling bling street by the others. This is the road leading into the gold souq – decked with twinkly fairy lights – where diamonds and other precious gems the size of fists were on show in the display windows of jewellery stores.

‘No wonder Dubai’s called the city of gold,’ a Belgian reporter said in awe, staring at shopfronts awash with everything you could imagine or ever want fashioned out of 22 carats. It was so bright, we left blinking, tiny stars still flashing before us as we climbed into our bus to head back to the ship.

There was just time for a shower before slipping into a cocktail dress for dinner at Weltmeere restaurant – a fresh and delicious way to finish off our first day.

Weltmeere restaurant is a feast for the eyes 

Back in my suite, I was soon lulled to sleep as we set sail for the UAE’s capital, just down the coast. We’d already arrived as I joined the others for breakfast at the Yacht Club restaurant the next morning. 
I feasted on creamy scrambled eggs and toast before being whisked off for a day in Abu Dhabi.

We started at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the largest in the world, which cost Dh2 billion to build. It’s easy to see why. There are 82 domes, Swarovski chandeliers, rooms swathed in gold, marble and semi-precious stones, and the world’s largest carpet designed by Iranian artist Ali Khaliqi. The exquisite rug is 5,700 square metres in size, made of wool and some cotton by 1,200 carpet knotters, and covers the floor of the main prayer hall. The mosque can house 40,000 worshippers and is very much in use.

Sheih Zayed Grand Mosque is swathed in gold, marble and gems

Overlooking it is the luxurious Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal, where we were having lunch. Anywhere else it would be a small affair, but here, it was brunch. From breads to salads, soups, pasta, curries and Middle Eastern specialities, there was so much to try. The hummus was delicious, and the pasta pomodoro cooked fresh and al dente, just the way I like it. I finally sat back, full, hoping there would be a break so I could nap.

However, it was time for the speedboat tour of the coast, which left me pumped with adrenaline at the end. Shaking, but suprisingly dry, I clambered out when we arrived at our destination – Emirates Palace.

Emirates Palace was one of the locations for Furious 7 

A haven of marble and soft furnishings, it stands by the water, in the shadow of Etihad Towers – the three glass buildings rising above the city where the highly successful Furious 7 was filmed. In the latest movie of the popular franchise, Vin Diesel and the late Paul Walker take part in a car chase, speeding out of one tower and crashing into the others. Standing by one of the pools, where the movie stars were spotted relaxing regularly during filming, I stared at the buildings, searching for any signs of holes.

Etihad Towers was not harmed during the filming of Furious 7 

‘Special effects,’ our guide said, laughing. But I kept staring. After all, it had looked so real. Then, convinced that it was all just movie magic, I went inside for a luxurious afternoon tea. I couldn’t possibly eat anymore, but the dainty sandwiches, cakes and scones with clotted cream were too tempting to ignore.

Finally, the fullest I’ve ever been, it was time to venture back to my home away from home, the Europa 2. ‘Meet you for dinner?’ one of the journalists asked and I groaned. Not more food.

Instead I went to meet the captain, Christian van Zwamen for a tour of the bridge, and marvelled at the small wheel, which is now so tiny it looked like it should be in a sports car, not a ship.

‘It’s the captain’s party later,’ he smiled. 
‘Are you coming?’ Dancing until dawn on a 226-metre-long boat in the middle of the Arabian Gulf with 460 strangers? ‘You bet,’ 
I said. I mean how often do you get to sail away from the UAE’s capital in such style?

The ship was heading to Qatar and Bahrain next, but nothing could top the past 48 hours – it was an incredible seven-star staycation at sea. The Europa 2 made quite a splash.

Travel facts
I was lucky enough to experience the cruise on board the Europa 2 on a press trip - which was incredible. For more information, visit

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Beauty Review: Baie Botanique Rose Renew Range

Gone are the days when growing older meant having to face up to wrinkles. Our mothers only had nature and cold cream to help their skin look young. Now, thankfully, we have the choice of an arsenal of products and treatments to keep signs of ageing at bay.

But while I’m the first to admit I’m obsessed with looking at least a decade younger than my age, I haven’t resorted to fillers, botox or any surgery.

Yet check out my bathroom cabinet and you’ll see the shelves overflowing with serums, creams, moisturisers and gels from all over the world in my bid to keep my skin plump and free of lines.

But the best cost the most. Fact. So while I’d happily slather my face with Creme de la Mer and La Prairie every morning and evening, knowing my skin would thank me for it, I’m also equally sure that my bank balance wouldn’t.

So I’ve been searching for the perfect affordable range to work it’s anti-ageing magic for months and had almost given up - until now.

Step forward my new beauty bff, the Baie Botanique Rose Renew anti-ageing range. It boldly claims to use active botanicals to combat the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while leaving skin brighter, softer and with a healthy glow. And guess what - it works!

Enriched with rose - the clue is in the name - the facewash, moisturiser and serum work together to help skins cell renew, which leaves it looking dewy, healthier and younger.

Every morning and night I use the Regenerating Face Wash (£15 for 125ml) to cleanse my face and neck (always go down to your decolletage, which is one of the first places to show signs of ageing) which leaves my skin feeling soft and refreshed - but not tight.

I’ve always believed in layering on products - you can never have too much moisturiser - and so next I apply the Regenerating Face Cream (£32 for 50ml) which uses a combination of rose water, rose absolute and rose hip seed oil to hydrate, plum and replenish skin. It smells faintly of rose, and drenches the skin leaving it feel smooth and radiant, but not greasy.

It works by combating cellular ageing and stopping and deactivating the effects of damaging free radicals. All this is very good news for my skin, which looks and feels as if I’ve had (expensive) microdermabrasion - when a layer of dead, dull skin is sloughed off to make way for bright, younger cells.

Finally, I slather on the Rose Renew Regenerating Serum (£34 for 30ml) which is a concentrated mix pf active botanicals designed to tone, firm and restructure the skin, getting rid of the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. It locks in moisture, improving the elasticity of the skin, while increasing collagen production to improve skin tone.

After a month of using the range, I was asked if I was 15 - I repeat and will spell it out to, er, spell it out, fifteen - years younger than my age by a group of women I met last week so I know it's doing its job well. Not only do I look younger but my skin feels great too. It’s smoother, with less breakout as well as fewer lines. And as well as being natural and 70 per cent organic the range is made in Baie Botanique’s eco lab by an all-female team. How fab is that?

I've cleared a permanent spot on my shelves for this range. A girl can never have too many roses can she?