Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Cast away on a magical Disney Cruise

Fun ahoy! I test my sea legs and casts away with Captain Jack Sparrow, Mickey Mouse and the whole Disney crew on board a magical cruise from Miami to the Bahamas

Ship-shape - the Disney Wonder harks back to the golden age of shipping

The glint of his gold tooth matched the one in his kohl-rimmed eye. “My ship – that makes me captain. Savvy?” he grinned. I blinked, taking in Captain Jack Sparrow’s chiselled features, leather hat, beaded accessories and long brown hair.

I don’t know why I was so surprised there was a pirate on board – our ship was heading for the Bahamas in the Caribbean, after all. So who better to sail the seas with than a Johnny Depp lookalike? My 10-year-old son had the answer. “Look,” Deme said, pointing to the top of the red funnel. There, ready to fly down a zip wire in full pirate regalia, was Mickey Mouse, complete with an eye patch and bandana.

There was a collective gasp as the most famous mouse in the world launched himself into the air and flew over our heads while a firework display that can only be described as magical exploded all around him. “Not bad me hearties,” my son said, brandishing his plastic sword as Captain Jack and Mickey were joined by Captain Hook, Mr Smee, Minnie and Goofy.

Fireworks at sea! Disney knows how to throw a pool party (even at night)

We were at the Pirates In the Caribbean party on the top deck of the Disney Wonder as we headed from Miami on a four-day cruise to Nassau, Bahamas. But this was no ordinary voyage. As you can imagine, Disney brings its own brand of magic to family cruising.

Its four award-winning ships boast state-of-the-art luxury and entertainment including Broadway-style shows, a deck of children’s activities, 3-D film premiers at a private cinema, fine dining and a coterie of your favourite cartoon characters. Plus, it’s the only cruise line to have firework displays at sea.

So far, so splendid. Which is why when someone mentioned spotting a competitor’s huge ship alongside us in port, entertainment director Ray laughed, “They might have a bigger house, but we’re cruising with Mickey Mouse.”

Believe me, it doesn’t come much better than that. From the moment we stepped aboard in Miami – to claps and cheers along with a name check from the liveried staff no less – we knew we were in for an amazing adventure.

“Look, Aerial,” Deme said, pulling a face as we passed a golden statue of the flame-haired mermaid in the lobby, and, “oh cool, the latest Disney movies” flicking on the TV in our family-sized sea-view stateroom.

The cruise line shows the newest Disney films the moment they’re released, so we had the latest Bourne movie in our cabin and in the Walt Disney cinema below deck. “Well we own the movies so why not?” Ray said.

Even at first glance it was obvious there was something for everyone to enjoy on board. From a dedicated nursery, catering to babies as young as three months, up to 17-year-old teenagers with their own Vibe club, there were loads of activities for kids.

My son could even choose which club he wanted to belong to – the Oceaneer Club (ages three - ten) with arts, crafts, storytelling, music and dancing, or the science-themed Oceaneer Lab (ages three – ten) where he could make flubber (green rubbery goo), take part in karaoke, make a racing car out of soap or go to a pyjama party.

And because he was ten, he could also join in with the tweens in Edge (ages 11- 14) in their chill-out lounge if I gave him written permission. There were  even complimentary wave phones so we could stay in touch, but first  we wanted to explore.

The golden age of shipping I’d imagined the ship would look very Disney Channel – all primary colours and aimed at toddlers and small children. But in fact it was uber glamorous, with more than a nod to the golden age of shipping.

Sailing in style on board the Disney Wonder in the Bahamas

It was, explained crew leader Steve, who gave us a guided tour, inspired by the Titanic. That wasn’t exactly the most reassuring name to hear on board a 40-million-kilogram ship miles out at sea, but Steve quickly explained that Disney had adopted the art-nouveau style from the doomed liner to give the Wonder its classic elegant finish.

There are sweeping staircases, Venetian glass, marble finishes and beautiful carpets. In one of the corridors there are even original sketches and stills from the Disney film archives to buy as the ultimate holiday souvenir.

In our stateroom – which was as big as the average hotel’s and had a childproof-locked balcony – there was a black and white picture of Walt Disney with his wife on deck.
I stared at it closely, looking for a peek into the mind behind Mickey Mouse and all the other characters that have spawned a billion-dollar business.

Our cabin was as luxurious as any hotel room 

The company’s cruise line is so popular it is responsible for a quarter of the overall profit growth in Disney’s multi-billion-a-year parks and resorts division. It’s easy to see how – apart from the prow to stern cartoon characters to pose with and pet – Disney always does things better and that’s because it literally thinks of everything.

There’s a split bathroom in the cabin with a dinky bath, shower and sink in one half and a toilet and sink in the other so two people can get ready at the same time. You also get to visit your very own private island, Castaway Cay, with its powdery white beaches, and even a yours-for-the-cruise waiter who moves with you from restaurant to restaurant for the entire voyage (“so they know your likes and build up a rapport,” says Steve). With nothing to worry about, that left us to meander the Wonder’s 11 decks. And we hadn’t even thought about stepping ashore!

As I watched The Lion King on Funnel Vision – a giant cinema-style screen on the side of the funnel – while floating in one of the three heated pools, I realised that most of the 2,400 guests on board would be happy just to be sailing around for four days without leaving the ship.

It was as if our first stop the next day at Key West, with its pretty pastel clapboard houses and Key West Museum of Art & History’s Giant Ballroom Dancers statue – based on Renoir’s Dance in the City painting – was an inconvenience; precious time away from our new nautical home.

But we forced ourselves to head down the pretty boulevard, peer into the souvenir shops and ponder whether we should go on an eco-friendly shark-viewing trip. But one look at the teeth on the pictures outside the booth made up my mind, even though the tour guide insisted it was perfectly safe.

Instead of being shark bait, I opted for the quirky stores lining the quay. Shopaholics can pick up diamonds, tanzanite, pearls and anything you’d care to grab made of bamboo. We could have spent eight hours ashore, but why go shopping when there’s the ultimate liner waiting for us?

So we scurried back, grabbed some delicious pasta salads and sweets at Blanket Bay, the top-deck buffet diner, then lay our towels next to the main family pool to soak up the Florida sun. Dads splashed their children, mums read their Kindles and kids helped themselves to all-inclusive soft drinks and ice creams while catching their favourite movies on Funnel Vision or watching the poolside sing and dance shows.

As the sun began to set, there was time for a quick wave to Chip and Dale and the Disney princesses before heading back to our stateroom to shower and change for the pre-dinner evening theatre show.
The first night was a magic show by Scott Pepper, who made cutting his pretty assistant in half hilarious. Luckily there was no blood, but I, along with all the other adults in the 977-seater theatre, craned forward to see exactly how he did it and came away mystified.

Next up was a formal dinner at Parrot Cay, one of the three post-show restaurants. A fourth, Palo’s, is available at a small extra cost and worth every dollar if you love Italian food like we do. But there’s really no need if you don’t want to dip into your on-shore spending money – Parrot Cay has a Caribbean feel and flavour, Tritons serves American and French cuisine (try the Chef Louis French onion soup, it’s delicious!), and Animator’s Palate is enchanting.

The food is amazing, but you’ll be too busy, like us, staring at the Disney characters magically appearing and lighting up on the walls (more brand magic) as the night goes on.

The food on board the Disney Wonder was fantastic for all the family

After dinner it was time for a moonlight stroll and an early night, as we would be able to disembark early at Nassau. If we’d wanted we could have taken part in family karaoke, watched a film at the cinema or my son could have been entertained or made lava flow (whatever that is!) in one of the three kids’ clubs. Instead we headed to our stateroom to watch the moon outside our window and be lulled to sleep by the gentle waves.

That set the tone for the rest of the cruise – tearing ourselves away from the ship when we docked in the Bahamas (who would ever think that would seem like a chore!) and grinning as we stepped back on deck at the end of the afternoon. Then it was down to the theatre for The Golden Mickeys, a toe-tapping tribute to the Disney’s classic films that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the West End. All the stars have genuine talent and experience in theatre and it shows.

As well as The Golden Mickeys, we also saw Disney Dreams and Toy Story The Musical, which was humorous, original (though we all know the story) and totally captivating.

Buzz, with his plastic hair and swingy arms, was so amazing that Deme kept asking if he was a robot. There are two shows a day – one pre- and one post-dinner – and we loved it so much we wanted to go to both! “That was the best show ever,” Deme said, as we headed off to our cabin.

It was hard to imagine that anything could top the show until I woke up the next morning and looked out my window. White sandy beaches fringed with swaying palms and lapped by azure waves filled the view. Disney’s Castaway Cay is a private piece of paradise, where you can swim with stingrays, snorkel among brightly coloured fish, splash in the lagoon, slide down the Pelican Plunge or simply relax on one of the three family (or one adults-only) beaches.

Cast away on Disney's private island Castaway Cay

That’s the beauty of a Disney cruise; they take the best from the ship ashore. All the clubs hold activities all day, and the catering crew set up a beachside barbecue so you can tuck into burgers, hot dogs and corn on the cob while being serenaded by an island band. Bliss. So blissful in fact that while Deme took part in a Whale Tooth Dig I nodded off on my sun lounger.

There was just one more night before we set sail back to Miami, but it was the perfect ending to a magical four days. It was rather fitting that the favourite characters, including Captain Jack Sparrow, were waiting to say goodbye as we left the ship. But we can’t wait to set foot on deck again, this time as the Disney Magic cruises the Med.

“Will there be another pirate party?” Deme asked, his eyes gleaming. I nodded, making a note to pack our bandanas and some kohl. After all, you can’t on a Disney cruise and not be ship-shape. Savvy?

Friday, 19 August 2016

Friday Recipe: Ricotta & Spinach Cannelloni

Hot, cold, with salad or own their own I simply love Italian favourite ricotta and spinach cannelloni 

Whenever it's a special occasion, like a birthday or an anniversary, my husband always ask where I'd like to go to celebrate. The answer is easy: home. That's because I'm a fussy, strict vegetarian and he's the best chef going so why eat anywhere else? Plus he always makes my favourite - ricotta and spinach cannelloni. Hot, cold, on their own or with salad, I never tire of them. Now he's letting me share his family recipe so I hope you like them as much as I do...

Prep time 1 hour Resting time 2 hours
Cooking time 35-40 mins Serves 4

1 kg spinach leaves
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
500g passata
100ml cold water
250g ricotta
I egg
Butter, to grease baking tray
1 box dried cannelloni (around 30 tubes)
300ml extra thick double cream
100g Parmesan, grated

Wash the spinach leaves then cook them in 2 litres of boiling, salted water for 4 minutes. Drain and leave to cool.

Sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat until softened and translucent.

Add the passata and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Slowly add the cold water until you have a thick sauce-like consistency, then simmer for another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Roughly chop the cooled spinach and mix together with the ricotta. Season and stir in the egg.

Grease a baking tray with butter.

Now it’s the fun bit – filling the cannelloni with the spinach and ricotta mixture.
The quickest (and cleanest) way to do it is to use an icing bag to pipe the mixture into the dried cannelloni. Hold a canneloni tube in one hand and pipe until it’s full right to the end. If you don’t have a piping bag, spoon the filling into a ziplock plastic bag, snip off a corner, and proceed as above.

Spread a thin layer of the passata sauce in the bottom of a baking dish and then add the cannelloni tubes, making sure they touch each other.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Shopping: Seaside Chic

Give me life in the fast lane any day, I used to cry. After twenty plus years in London and five more in Dubai I couldn’t get enough of glass and steel twisting towers, packed streets, the tube (or metro as it’s called in the UAE’s pseudo American drawl), gleaming malls and eight-lane highways.

But now we’re back in Blighty, having bought a house a stone’s throw from the beach. And guess what? My urban, minimal furniture and accessories look completely out of place in our beach house. So now we need to redecorate and go shopping. Here are my favourite pieces.

It's rustic and looks like I could have just knocked it together from a piece of driftwood I picked up from the beach. Perfect for keeping all my knick-knacks in one place.

Small storage unit 

SEASIDE ARROW SIGN, £4.50, Live Laugh Love 
Living in a beach house means getting used to having things around me that have no purpose other than to be fun or decorative. So no more minimalism, but at least I'll always be able to find my way to the beach. It's over there!

Sign of the times - or the beach? 

Cool Britannia! Whimsical and fun, this picture brightens up any room. I'd hang it in my kitchen which looks over the harbour. I get the scent of the sea in the morning as the fishing boats come back in and the sun in the afternoon. With this I'd always be able to see the beach too (though mine has pebbles not sand.)

Picture perfect: Oh I do love to be beside the seaside.

OK, so it's the wrong name - I live in Sussex not Suffolk, but I can live with that. After all, just look at this chair: the stripy fabric and beech frame look vintage and it rocks. Yes, it ROCKS! Whether I'm down the beach, staring out to sea, being lulled by the waves, or in my garden, staring at the harbour, I'll be rocking a good look. Did I mention that it rocks? I'm saving up already...

I'll be sitting pretty on this gorgeous deck chair

LONDON AND BRIGHTON CUSHIONS, £45 each, Evermade at Red Candy 
City or the sea? Both have my heart and now I don't have to choose thanks to these gorgeous limited edition cushions. Only 100 cushions in each design have ever been made so snap them up quick, especially as I'm going to grab one of each. I love the grey pigeon London one but the blue, white and grey Brighton cushion with the seagull in his sailor hat, is just as cute. They'll look nautical but nice on my sofa.

Urban chic - the London pigeon 
Coastal style, the cute seagull cushion 

Friday, 12 August 2016

Friday Recipe: Rustic Minestrone

Being married to a celebrity chef has its perks. There's never any shortage of creative, delicious dishes on the menu and the smell of fresh food wafting from the kitchen.

But it does take its toll on your waistline and sometimes my husband works so hard cooking for other people that we have to watch him on TV or YouTube to see him. Luckily he's agreed to share his favourite recipes here on my blog every Friday and here's the first one, Rustic Minestrone.

It's a recipe Alexio's grandmother and mother used to cook for him and now he makes it for our children who love it too. It's simple and easy to follow. Enjoy!

Just like an Italian celebrity chef makes! Alexio Pasquali's rustic minestrone

Prep Time 10 mins   Cooking time 45 Mins   Serves 4

2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 white onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 carrot, washed and cubed
1 celery stick, chopped
100ml passata
1 1/2 - 2 litres cold water or vegetable stock
100g canned borlotti beans, drained and rinsed
1 courgette, chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and cut into cubes
50g French beans, trimmed and cut
80g Parmesan cheese grated
Place the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat.

Add the onion and garlic and saute until translucent.

Next, add the carrot and celery and stir until softened, making sure the vegetables don’t stick to the bottom of the pan.

Pour in the pastata, stir and then add the cold water or vegetable stock.

Bring to the boil, cook for about 20 minutes then turn down the heat to reduce.

Add the remaining vegetables and leave to cook for 15 minutes.

Ladle the soup into bowls and serve hot with bread and a sprinkle of Parmesan.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

A magical mother and daughter holiday in Mauritius

No one enjoys a beach holiday more than me and, luckily, my daughter is just as obsessed with the sand, sea and sunshine. Today was the first day we've walked along the pebble beach near our home since returning from Dubai and we even dipped our toes in the icy sea.

'This is fun,' my eight-year-old giggled as I thought about taking off my cardigan. Well we have been away five years and became used to scorching summers where the mercury regularly went over 50 degrees C.

It has been a fantastic British summer's day and reminded me of the first mother and daughter holiday we took to Mauritius. There we spotted giant tortoises and were spoiled in the spa. Here we had our dog, and I'll be doing a DIY manicure for us both later. But at least I'll have our video to watch...

Friday, 24 June 2011

Anyone For Tennis?

It was confession time but I wasn't sure if my sins could be forgiven. It had only been a week, but I'd broken every rule. I'd eaten carbs, drunk red wine and scoffed the childrens' sweets when they were at school. 

And now I was about to be punished for it on on the scales. Sighing, I hopped on, praying that balancing on one foot would miraculously make me weigh less. No chance. I'd put on three lbs.

'That's it,' my husband said. 'You'll have to do some exercise.' 

I flinched, horrified. 'No, not the cross trainer,' I begged. He shook his head. I began to panic. What evil form of gym torture did he have in mind? The running machine that gets faster and steeper with every step? A combat aerobics class with size 6 supermodels? 

'Tennis,' he announced. I smiled, relieved. I used to work at a tennis centre when I was a teenager. 'As a coach?' my husband asked, confused, when I told him.

'No,' I snapped. 'In the kitchen.' Then I paused. 'And the dining room. Oh and the bar.' In fact I used to do every job there to earn as much extra cash as I could.

But I was rubbish at all of them. I couldn't cook, was too young to drink and had never made my bed at home so didn't have a clue about cleaning. 

Still, that didn't stop me trying, and maybe because I was so enthusiastic that's why they kept me on. One time they'd even let me wait on women's tennis legend Martina Navratilova while she was staying there.

Big mistake. I was so nervous having a VIP guest, I wobbled as I neared her and slopped soup all down her tennis whites. 'I'm so sorry,' I said, almost bursting into tears. 

I expected her to serve me up a volley of abuse. Instead she smiled, accepted my apology and left me a tip (and no, it wasn't to give up the waitressing job.) 

Anyway, getting that up, close and personal with a sports superstar gave me a lifetime love of the game. And when one of the guys there, who said he'd been on Andre Agassi's coaching team, offered to give me lessons I'd jumped at the chance.

In between tidying the rooms, clearing tables, and mixing cocktails, I'd practised my backhand and serve. 

'So you must be good?' my husband said. I hesitated. 'That wouldn't be the word I'd use,' I said, but he wasn't listening. He was already on the phone booking a court. 

'It's the only way to shift that weight,' he said. The day before our match he went for a sneaky session while I dusted off my old racquet and checked I could still squeeze into a pair of shorts. 

'Guess who was there?' he grinned, excited, when he came back. I shrugged. 'Serena Williams,' he said and my eyes widened. Of course, she was playing in Eastbourne before appearing at Wimbledon. 

'I hope she's on centre court at Devonshire Park tomorrow,' I panicked. I didn't want the world champion watching me at the gym. Luckily, she was playing, so I could humiliate myself in peace, missing shot after shot, and smashing the ball into the net. 

I survived the hour, and hobbled off court, sweating. 'Meet you in the club bar after a shower,' my husband said, and when I turned up he'd ordered chips and a glass of wine for us both. 'I think you deserve it,' he said. 'That was the best laugh I've had in ages.' 

I grinned, happy to have made him happy. 'Same time, same court next week?' I suggested. Playing tennis as part of a diet – it's ace! 

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Doubly Beautiful!

I didn't have enough fingers to count exactly what I'd have done. 'A nose job, a tummy tuck, liposuction on my chin and love handles...'I muttered out loud, imagining myself standing in front of a plastic surgeon instead of the mirror. 

My husband started laughing, then peered at my face. 'Don't forget laser treatment for your moustache,' he said. I glared at him before examining my face even closer.

'I don't have anything on my top lip,' I flounced. I even looked under one of those scary mirrors that magnifies everything so a pore looks as big as a town. I couldn't see any hairs on my face, no matter how much I stared. But he'd made me paranoid so when I next went to the beauticians to get my leg waxed, I asked her to do my 'tache too.

'I was only joking,' my husband said when I came back from the salon with a bright scarlet top lip where she'd ripped off my skin along with the solitary tiny blonde hair. 

Too late, I'll need my top lip waxed forever now or the hair follicles will grow back thick, black and more bristly than Borat's. 

'Don't say anything else about my looks,' I told my hubby. 'Or our children's.' He'd already jinxed our son. 'I want him to have your double chin,' he'd announced when I was pregnant. 'It's so cute.' 

Back then I'd thought it was a ridiculous thing to ask for. I'd spent all my life trying to hide mine with scarves or my hand. I didn't want to see my firstborn with that embarrassing cushion of chin fat. Too bad. The double-chin fairy was obviously listening because my son came out sporting one. 

'That's your fault,' I'd scalded my husband but he was delighted and was already tickling our baby's chubby chin to make him laugh.

'Our daughter is not going to have one,' I said when I was expecting our little girl. I didn't want her to look anything like me with my fat face, boxer's nose, pot belly and bunions! 

And at first, she looked exactly like my husband with olive skin and jet black hair. But as she grew, her hair turned blonde, became curly and she became a mini me. One day I woke up and there was the distinct hint of, yes you've guessed it, a double chin. 'Where did that come from?' I wailed, but the answer was staring me in the face.  

'Doesn't she look like you?' everyone says when they see us. And she does, but magically, it's all been enhanced. She's like an airbrushed version of me – with only a small extra chin, glossy hair where mine is frizzy, a small button nose while mine is lopsided, and flawless, peachy skin while mine resembles strawberries. 

So I felt guilty that there weren't many pictures of her around the house. We took snaps of everything our son did, but were too busy juggling two to have the camera out to capture her every movement. 'I've arranged a photography session,' I announced the other week. 'He's going to take your pictures.' 

My little girl is only three so I thought she might refuse to sit still or demand chocolate or Peppa Pig half way through the session. But she was the perfect Diva, pouting and striking pose after pose. 'Gorgeous,' the photographer kept telling her but I thought he was only saying that because I was paying him. 

Still, I was impressed when I saw the pictures. She looked angelic. And it wasn't just me who thought so. A few days later the photographer rang up to ask permission to put my daughter's picture in his window. Of course, I agreed and yesterday a magazine publisher called from London. 'Can we use your daughter's photo on our cover?' he asked. I didn't hesitate to say yes. An extra chin – that just makes her doubly beautiful!