Saturday, 30 April 2011

Animal Magic!

Go to visit Mickey Mouse in Florida and you’ll get up, close and personal with some very different wildlife...

Chocolate brown eyes stared dolefully at me as he chewed lazily on a piece of grass. I sipped my drink and gazed at him across the balcony. 

‘I don’t think I’ve ever been so close to anything so beautiful,’ I murmured. But I knew there was a wild streak in him too – especially when he started nuzzling up to a pretty female who strolled up on the longest legs I’d ever seen.

My husband thought she was a looker too, but I wasn’t jealous. I was in awe. 

I’d never been within six feet of three giraffes, zebras and a herd of antelopes before. And certainly not as I slurped a cocktail in my hotel. 

But this wasn't just any hotel. This was our first night inside the heart of Disney in Florida, and our new neighbours were the inhabitants of Disney’s Animal Kingdom – and they were magical.

It was like having a David Attenborough documentary being played continuously outside our window. Luckily, we were on the second floor – the perfect height to go eyeball to eyeball with the giraffes and watch them galloping from one tree to another to strip it of bark, their favourite snack. 

Every morning we pulled back the curtains to discover another animal surprise awaiting us. 
Thankfully, we’d been given a printed drawing of every possible species that could be beyond the balcony so we could identify them all when our little boy demanded: ‘What’s that?’

Having our very own nature reserve made it hard to tear ourselves away from the five-star Animal Kingdom Lodge. So it made sense to spend our first day at the Disney theme park of the same name, and go on a real safari to spot the Big Five. 

We came face to face with a (luckily) sleepy lion, a herd of elephants including a real-life baby Dumbo, more Giraffes, zebras, hippos, wildebeest, and crocodiles. ‘Is that Simba?’ our son, Deme, demanded as he watched the giant lion yawn. ‘Where’s Scar?’ 

He didn’t have to wait long to come face to face with characters from The Lion King. The entire theme park seemed inspired by the hit film, and Simba’s side kicks Timbon and Pumba were waiting back at the hotel to sign autographs and pose for photos. ‘I’ve seen you in your film,’ Deme announced when he cuddled them. ‘Do you know Mickey Mouse?’ 

We decided to stick with the wildlife theme and head off to SeaWorld the next day. It was scorching in Orlando – even though it was raining and below freezing back home – and we laughed as we handfed dolphins (they felt so rubbery) and stood, amazed at the hulk of the polar bears. 

Nothing could ever beat the spectacular performance of Shamu, the killer whale. We sat in the front row for the must-see show. It’s splashing! ‘I’m wet,’ our son giggled. But we’d read about Shamu’s love of drenching his audience beforehand, and so came prepared with a change of clothes. For Deme, at least. We forgot about us, but soon dried in the Florida sunshine.

Not so, when I pretended to be brave at Magic Kingdom the next day and ventured on Splash Mountain. There’s a clue there in the name, but I hadn’t imagined we’d get quite so soaked. I could have entered a Miss Florida Wet T-shirt content afterwards. Instead, the other unfortunate visitors to Disney World got a glimpse at my mismatching underwear. 

I shouldn’t have worried. Everything you could ever want is on sale at Disney World, so I soon bought an entire new outfit – including Mouse ears – and looked for the next scary ride. Deme is big for his age, but the really terrifying (and exciting) rides have height restrictions. But he made it onto all.

Luckily we didn't have to queue as we had FastPass with our 7 Day Premium Tickets. Instead of wasting time, queuing at the rides, we simply put our tickets into the machine and were given a time to come back so we headed straight in. 

It meant I didn’t have time to get nervous and spent a lot of time yelling: ‘Ohhhhhhh noooooo, let me off,’ while my family laughed and held their hands in the air. My husband added to the torture by insisting on buying pictures of us on every scary ride. They all looked the same – them calmly smiling while I screamed, white faced and gripping on with all my strength.  

Thankfully, there are plenty of rides that are exhilarating without fear – like Epcot’s fantastic Soarin’, which takes you flying in a glider across the globe, and TestTrack, where you check out car safety at speed. 

Afterwards, we strolled around the world (literally), and stopped off in Italy for a plate of genuinely delicious pasta washed down with the finest wine from Tuscany.

It was time for a rest and so we spent the next couple of days soaking up the sun by the swimming pool back at our hotel. There was plenty to do. Deme and I shopped in the store there and he went to Simba’s club (or was that cub) house every afternoon to play and do activities with the other 4 – 12 year olds staying at the hotel.

At night, we headed to Downtown Disney where we could feast in the jungle at the Rainforest cafĂ©, or shop until our son dropped in the dozen of different stores.  There’s even one shop which is dedicated to Christmas Disney-style all year round.

Our final park to explore was Disney-MGM Studios. We watched The Beauty and the Beast live on stage, oohed and aahed at the dazzling stunts in Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show. Deme was fascinated by the dangerous manoeuvres performed by motorbike and car stunt drivers, including setting themselves on fire and performing spectacular jumps. ‘I want to try that on my bike,’ he announced when we left. Fortunately, it was thousands of miles away, and still had stabilisers.

Then we came face to face with the most important person in my four-year-old's life – the red Power Ranger. He was posing for photographs with the other Power Rangers along Streets of America and Deme met them all. Twice. 

Afterwards, we made his holiday by buying him a Power Rangers outfit from the shop. He wore it around the park, the hotel and even on the plane home. 

‘When are we going to DisneyWorld again?’ Deme asked as we took off. Alexio and I didn’t need time to think about it. ‘Soon,’ we both answered. After all, we did have a wild time.

Getting there
Walt Disney Travel Company is offering 7 night packages at Animal Kingdom Lodge including direct flights with Virgin Atlantic from £1,320 per person.* Alternatively, stay 7 nights at Animal Kingdom on an accommodation only basis from £563† per person. Add Disney Park Tickets and receive 14-days for the price of 7 for all 2011 arrivals from £220 per adult. Book through Walt Disney Travel Company on 0870 24 24 900, or book online at

* Prices based on 2 adults sharing a Standard room at Animal Kingdom Lodge for 7 nights departing on 5 September 2011, return economy class flights on Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick to Orlando International and free airport hotel transfers aboard Disney’s Magical Express.
† Prices based on 2 adults sharing a Standard room at Animal Kingdom Lodge for 7 night stays between 17 Jul – 29 September 2011.
All holidays are subject to availability.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A pig of a party!

Smiling I ticked off one of the things to do on my very long list. It's my little girl's third birthday next week and she's been busy making preparations since Christmas.

'Two birthday cakes, Mummy,' she tells me most days. 'And lots of candles.' But I'm going one better.

I've booked a hall, a bright pink bouncy castle, and her daddy's a chef so he can do the catering. Best of all, I'm in the middle of making all her dreams come true by organising her heroine to pay a visit.

It's not many three-year-olds who get Peppa Pig to wish them a Happy Birthday. That also means it's going to be fancy dress. So now I've just got to work out what I'm going to wear.
I'm too fat to don rubber as Cat Woman, too old for Little Bo Peep, too young for Queen Victoria.

I decided to go through our DVDs for inspiration. When I was young my fantasies were simple and all inspired by films.

One week, I wanted to roll around with Woody Harrelson on a bed strewn with money instead of Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal.

The next, I'd be making (wonky) pots with the late (and brilliant) star of Ghost, Patrick Swayze.
I wore out two videos wishing I was Debra Winger being rescued from her factory-girl life by An Officer and A Gentleman, Richard Gere.

Nowadays I fantasise about putting on my pyjamas for an early night with my husband without my little girl, or eight-year-old boy, demanding to watch Toy Story 3 in bed with us.

That was until I discovered the best film ever – 13 Going on 30. It's a teen movie, but has the funniest scene of all time in it, when Jennifer Garner's ice-hockey boyfriend does a striptease to Vanilla Ice's one and only hit song.

It's hilarious and for weeks I made it my Friday night treat just for that laugh out loud scene. And then one evening, as I pulled on my PJs ready for bed, my hubby began to slowly shed his clothes and re-enact the film's striptease scene. He'd even memorised the lyrics.

Talk about N-Ice N-Ice baby! It gave a whole new meaning to (Dirty) Dancing On Ice.
But when he did it three days in a row, then announced he had a surprise for me, I began to get worried. 
Was he going to jump out of a wardrobe flapping a cape?

But that gave me a great idea. He could dress up as Batman for the party and I could be Robin. And, as he's doing the catering, he could fly out of the hall's kitchen when the kids food is ready shouting: 'Dinner, dinner, dinner, Batman!' Wish me luck...

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Have an EGGS-citing Easter!

These Easter goodies are crackin'!

(left to right, back row) Thorntons Chocolate Block Egg £9.99 at stores nationwide, major supermarkets or online
Carluccio's Uovo Grande £17.95 (400g) available instore and online
Green & Black's Luxury Easter dark chocolate egg £9.99
Green & Black's medium organic Butterscotch egg £5.59

(second row)

Blue Lotus Easter cupcakes £11.99 for six online at or via orderline 0116 2998122
Easter Egg Train £4.99 available online or via orderline 0844 800 11 22
Pixley Berries fruit cordials (Blackcurrant, Blackcurrant & Raspberry and Blackcurrant & Ginger) £3.19 from Waitrose

Smarties Chicken and Egg is available from multiple grocers nationwide £2.49
Hannah Turner Owl egg cup £29.99

Carluccio's milk chocolate  Lepre di Cioccolate £6.95 as before
Rabbit Tape measure £3.75 available online at or via orderline 0845 330 8900.
Aero bubbly Lamb from all good retailers nationwide  61p

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Fungus The Toothy Man

My husband's face was bright red, but his entire body was shaking. My little girl's cough was so bad I'd run out of Tixylix and had to place two books under one end of her bed.

Only my eight-year-old son was feeling fine, but he wanted me to play Wii with him and I had deadlines looming.

'I can't right now, I've got to work,' I told him. 'Besides it's your bed time.'
So we ran the gauntlet of germs – me hiding my nose and mouth behind my cardigan – past the other two sick members of our family to the bathroom.

I stood chatting to my little boy as he brushed his teeth, white froth flying, then hurried him to bed.
'Sleep tight,' I said, kissing him. He tasted all minty. 'I'll see you tomorrow night.'

I had to get all my work finished that night as I was off to London the next day to sign a book deal.
I'd been asked to do a sample chapter a few weeks back, but I'd known a lot of other writers had gone for it too, so had forgotten all about it. No news is bad news in the freelance journalism business.

Then, suddenly I'd had The Call and was off to sign the contract the next day – if my family were well enough to be left.

I'd never been one for being ill. I'd been rushed to hospital once with pancreatitis, which can be fatal.
Even though I'd been in agony, and had to spend hours in a London resuscitation room with my own crash team I thought I'd be fine to go home after a while, once I'd taken a painkiller.

So I didn't hold much truck with colds and flu. But my husband's temperature was soaring and I needed him to rally if I was going to be the next J K Rowling.

So I dosed him up on everything I could find for flu, and turned the heating on in the bedroom, so he'd sweat the virus out.

The plan worked as he was looking much better the next morning. 'Will you be able to manage the school run?' I asked, concerned.

He could still hardly speak, his throat was so sore and his glands were up. But he managed to nod in between blowing his nose.

Now all I had to do was get our kids ready before I left to catch the train. My baby was already awake, I could hear her coughing. I gave her a bottle of milk, then went into wake up my son. 

He was under the duvet, snoring.'Wakey wakey,' I said, ruffling his hair. Nothing. 'Up you get,' I continued, stroking his face. No response.

Then I spotted his feet poking out the end of the duvet. 'Let's go,' I began, getting ready to whip off the duvet. Then I froze.

His feet were covered in a thick, white fungus. It covered the soles, and crept in between his toes. 'Oh no, you're sick too,' I gasped.

Maybe it was some terrible virus that was giving my family a temperature, cough and rotten feet. My heart sank, all thoughts of signing my book deal forgotten now.

I couldn't leave all three of them at home, sick. I'd have to stay and look after them. But first, I needed to see what this fungus was, so I could treat it.

I peered closer. I sniffed, then I began to laugh, relieved. I could go to London after all. My son just had a case of severe toothpaste-itis.

He'd made such a mess brushing his teeth the night before, the toothpaste must have flown everywhere and he'd trodden in it.

'Well at least it's given me something to write about,' I thought, heading to the station. Every good book needs a character who puts his foot in it, don't they?

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Souks you, baby!

It’s known as a playground for the rich and famous but Dubai’s a brilliant destination for families too

Dubai is famous for sun, shopping and skyscrapers but it can also boast some nice ice, baby. No, not snow (though it does have a giant dry ski slope inside one of its malls) but diamonds.

As soon as we touched down in the land of bling, we headed straight for the world-famous gold souks.

Inside the first shop, sunlight glinted off a two-carat solitaire my little boy, Deme, twisted on his finger. ‘Not bad,’ he shrugged. ‘But do you have anything bigger?’

Without blinking, the jeweller handed him a rock the size of a 50p while his colleague draped my toddler Anais in a ruby-encrusted choker with matching bracelet.

Next to him my husband Alexio inspected a Rolex watch inlaid with slabs of emerald and sapphire. It was a ‘bargain’ at just £15,000.

But that was nothing compared to the price of the jewels our children were wearing. And no one – except me – seemed concerned that they might lose, break, or even swallow one of these precious gems.

This was shopping, Dubai-style, where everything that glitters really is gold or something even more expensive. And, right now, my children couldn’t get enough of it.

Back home, I have to drag the family into any store that’s not Toys r Us. Here, they loved strolling around the souks, where you can buy gold chains by the inch, and hitting the malls.

Shopping here isn’t just a Wag’s paradise. It’s a way of life, and, like everything in Dubai, they’ve decided bigger is definitely better.

I watched my little boy’s eyes bulge as we went round the world’s biggest shopping complex, The Dubai Mall, complete with ice rink and aquarium.

New trainers and a glimpse at a turtle was obviously a winner. ‘Cool,’ he said, awe-struck as we hit the next ‘shopping experience centre’- Mall of the Emirates– and the dry ski slopes.

It was funny to think it was boiling outside – Dubai has great weather all year round – while father and son practised their moves on the ice.

For a week we were living the High Life, literally. We were staying in the penthouse suite at the luxurious Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach resort and Marina, just down the road from the famous sail-shaped hotel Burj Al Arab on Jumeirah beach.

Along with a marble bathroom, dressing room, kitchen, living room and bedroom bigger than the average two-bed flat back home, we had a jaw-dropping view overlooking the marina.

Below was a golden beach set against a dramatic backdrop of Canary-Wharf style skyscrapers. It’s Manhattan-on-Sea, with the desert thrown in for good measure. On our horizon was the five-star Atlantis resort, where Kylie performed for the £15 million opening party.

Stars flew in from all over the world for the bash, but many of them have luxury holiday homes here.

David Beckham splashed out £8 million on a swanky Palm Jumeirah house for Posh’s parents.

It’s easy to see why it’s a popular place for expats wanting to live the dream and a year-round hot tourist spot for sunlovers.

Every day our little boy kept begging for a doughnut as soon as he woke up. It took me a while to work out he wasn’t demanding a bun for breakfast. He’d spotted the giant rubber rings being towed across the sea in front of us and wanted a go.

‘Faster, faster!’ Deme cried each time as he bounced along the waves of the Arabian sea in the doughnut, being pulled by a boat.

Anais was safe and happy inside the hotel-run kids’ club, which was excellent. But she lapped up the fun when we took her and Deme to the Dubai Dolphinarium, where they watched the seal and dolphin show, and swam with the dolphins.

She giggled as we took her to another family must day-out at the Wild Wadi waterpark. Deme and Alexio shot down slides, chutes and lazed around rivers while us girls got a little bit wet splashing in pools.

Then it was time to get dry – and go shopping again. ‘Do you want to try on more diamonds?’ I asked my son. He grinned. ‘Only if they’re worth more than a million pounds,’ he said. I was sure we could easily find one here – after all Dubai Rocks!

Getting there
Five nights in Dubai with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow direct to Dubai, accommodation at the 5V Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina on an a breakfast only basis with transfers included starts from £986. Prices are per person based on 2 adults travelling and sharing a standard room, price includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Prices are based on departures between 14 – 19 Sep 2011.
Virgin Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected
To book: , 0844 557 3859 or visit one of our 50 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.
I was lucky enough to go with my family on a press trip but would happily pay to go again!

Monday, 11 April 2011

My (half) naked ambition!

Smiling, I twirled in front of the mirror. The skirt was a perfect fit. Black lace billowed out around me like a mini meringue. Best of all there were no rolls of fat cascading over the waist, and the ballerina style hid my jelly belly under metres of tulle.

'I'll get it,' I thought, triumphant. It wasn't just that it was only £25. In this skirt, I felt smaller than my size 16 without going on a diet or wearing Spanx pants.

But as I slipped out of the skirt, I realised why it was so comfortable. It had an elasticated waist.
I hadn't worn one of those since having my baby two-and-a-half years before. Though thanks to my love of rioja wine and ricotta and spinach cannelloni my bump is now bigger than when I was pregnant.

'Oh well, no one will know,' I thought. 'I'll make sure I wear a top that covers the elasticated waist.' And at least I wouldn't have to worry about my new favourite outfit being too tight after a massive blow out.

So I paid for it and hung it in my wardrobe, ready for its first outing. Less than a week later, I was asked to try out for some freelance work at Sky magazine.

'I need something impressive to wear,' I wailed. Working among so many high-powered men and high-heeled women meant I needed to look smart and steely.

Then I remembered my ballerina skirt. 'That's perfect,' I thought, mentally accessorising it with a black top, giant jewellery and ankle boots.

So I felt super-charged as I marched through the publishing room on my first day, ready to rub (padded) shoulders with media executives. My skirt swished as I strode past the rows of desks towards the Head of Publishing.

I smiled, confident that for once I looked more like a serious journalist than a slummy mummy.
And then – as if in slow motion – I felt a draft and gasped as the elastic in my waistband pinged and my brand new skirt slid to the floor, exposing my giant Bridget Jones-style pants.

My cheeks burned. 'Oh no,' I shrieked as the entire room fell silent and everyone stopped to stare. I wanted to cry, or throw myself out of the nearest window in shame.

But I did what any self-respecting woman standing half-naked in a room full of 50 strangers with her tight gusset hanging out would do. I bent down, picked up my skirt, and gave my biggest grin.

'I'm here about the job,' I said, to a gob-smacked secretary. And do you know what – I got it! I didn't know if it was out of sympathy or because I was game for a laugh, but at least I styled it out. I also learnt a valuable lesson – always carry a safety pin in case I become a fashion disasterista!

Monday, 4 April 2011

My Pet Shame!

His eyes were wide and pleading as he gazed up at me. 'Please can we have a dog?' my eight-year-old son begged. 'I'll take it for walks and let him into my bath.'
I shook my head. 'Not now, love,' I said. 'Me and your dad are too busy.' My son's green eyes filled with tears but he was too brave to cry.
'Maybe later in the year,' I said, knowing I'd put it off then too. It wasn't that I didn't like dogs. I loved them – as long as they were small, fluffy and belonged to someone else.
'Puppies are too much hard work,' I sighed to my husband that night. 'Besides we live in a top floor flat.' What would we do if the dog was suddenly desperate for the loo – put him in the lift with a key fob to let himself in and out of the building? Or bungee-jump him off the balcony?
'He'll just have to wait for a pet,' I decided. 'I don't have the time.'
I was already juggling my son, two-year-old girl, my job and a chef husband. He couldn't help me as he was always run off his feet cooking up a storm.
'Can you pick up some ingredients for me after work?' he asked. 'I want to cook something special tomorrow.'
He'd forgotten to get them and we were expecting eight friends over for dinner the next day.
I scribbled down a long list of what he wanted  - cheese, flour, butter, tarragon, and – eek! - a lobster. I pulled a face.
I'm vegetarian and had never eaten a crustacean. The only thing I wanted in my house that came from a shell was a pearl. Not Larry the lobster who'd have to suffer to make my mates a tasty supper.
'Never mind, it'll be frozen,' I told myself as I drove to the beach front store the next day. 
'I'll just get them to put it in a bag and not think about it.'
So I bounded into the fish shop, eager to get my errand over and done with. 'A lobster please,' I said. 'My husband's ordered it.' 
The man smiled. 'Follow me,' he said, heading towards some water tanks.
Confused, I trailed behind, then froze. There, swimming around blissfully unaware of their fate, were half a dozen live lobsters. 'Pick one,' the shop keeper said.
I swallowed, scared. This wasn't some shopping expedition. I was on lobster death row and had been given the job as judge, jury and executioner. 
How could I choose which ones lived and which one died? 
'The oldest,' I mumbled, horrified. I couldn't kill a baby. 'This one's the biggest.' he said, plunging his hand into the pool and picking up a giant lobster, its pincers already tied.
I shuddered. He was already cuffed, and about to be put to death, ready for my family to scoff. Guilt tore through me.
'I'm so sorry,' I whispered as the man covered the lobster in wet tissue – to keep him alive during the journey!- and handed him to me in a box. 
I was too shocked to speak, so silently paid then carried the lobster, in his cardboard coffin, to my car. 
Carefully, I drove home, avoiding every bump. The lobster's end was going to be bad enough. The least I could do was make his final journey comfortable.
My husband had told me to put the lobster in the fridge, but I'd assumed it would be dead. Now, it was too cruel. So back home, I did what every decent vegetarian would do – and run a bath. Then I placed Larry the lobster in it for his last ever swim.
Just then my husband arrived home with our children. 'Oh look,' my son said, excited, when he spotted me kneeling next to the tub.
I waited for him to talk about how he'd like his supper served – with garlic bread or chips.  Instead he gave me a cuddle. 'Thanks,' he smiled. 'How did you know I wanted a lobster as a pet?' That made both me and his dad very crabby!