Sunday, 29 May 2011

Travel inspiration - Magical Majorca!

Forget chic hotels and live it up in a celebrity-style villa on the gorgeous Balearic island...  

Sweeping gravel drive? Check. Roman pillars on the terrace of a giant villa? Check. Private swimming pool surrounded by lemon trees? Check.
Who lives in a house like this? I wonder, awe-struck. Then I giggle as I realised I do. Well, for a week at least.

‘Welcome to our new home,‘ I grin as we pull up outside Coste de Na Llucia in Pollensa, Majorca.

And, excited, we rush around the place, deciding who wants which of the three gorgeous bedrooms. ‘It’s big,‘ my son cries, taking in the shaded rooms, three bathrooms, kitchen, lounge and dining room.

That's lucky as I’ve bought my parents on holiday with us this time, and much as my husband likes them, he’s glad we have our very own suite of rooms on the ground floor while they’re upstairs in the master room. ‘This way there’ll definitely be no rows,’ he jokes. In fact we quickly decide we would live here forever.

It’s only been an hour since we left Palma airport and already we’re rushing into our swimming costumes and diving into the mosaic pool. Heaven, especially as it’s 30 degrees C outside. 

This is my first villa holiday ever - and already I’m hooked. No worrying about dressing for dinner. No fears about whether my kids will eat what’s on the menu - this is a home from home, five-star style.

All I have to do right now is slather my body in factor 10, then decide whether I want to read my new Jackie Collins book, or just soak up the sun while my mum and dad play with the children. 

'Anyone hungry?’ I ask, a few gloriously quiet hours later, and we go off exploring in our hire car. Our villa is in north Majorca, just 10 minutes' drive from the chic harbour town of Puerto Pollensa. ’Very Monte Carlo,’ my mum says as we take in the smart yachts bobbing around on the Med, against the dramatic backdrop of mountains.

No wonder Hollywood royalty Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas have a villa nearby. It's even good enough for real royalty – the King of Spain comes here for his summer holidays after the island is sprayed for mosquitoes. Heaven forbid one of the pesky insects should bite His Royal Highness! 

Majorca really does have everything you could wish for - the temperature of the Caribbean in summer, food to rival Italy's, and the celebrity count of the South of France. But our quiet corner of the islands, away from the busy resorts of Magaluf and Palma Nova, has something else too - a quaintness of a simple island life long forgotten in many places.

Sure, you can buy a designer bikini or diamant√© sandals in any one of the chic boutiques along the harbour. But travel inland for a few miles and you’ll find donkeys snacking on carob trees while the farmers take their siesta. Leathery-tanned men sell their giant, juicy tomatoes and home-grown water melons at one of the dozens of markets.

You can visit a pearl factory, buy a hand-made blown glass vase or bag a bargain fake (or real) handbag for half the price of back home.

On our first night, we dive into a local restaurant and feast on paella, washed down with Rioja. The five us eat as much as we can, and then, cringing, ask for the bill. ‘That can’t be right,’ Mum says, shocked. But it is. An entire gourmet meal for a family comes in at less than £25. ‘Even tastier now I know the price,’ I smile.

But it’s hard to be prised away from our sun-washed villa, so we fill the American fridgefreezer and light the built in barbecue every night after that. True to style, the men hog the cooking, while Mum and I get left the washing up.

So we settle into a simple routine - breakfast on the pool terrace, lunch alfresco and dinner by the barbecue patio sipping Martinis shaken, not stirred, but with a slice of lemon plucked from our very own tree.

Later, after putting the kids to bed we watch films on the DVD player or catch up on the news via satellite TV. 

That’s the great thing about our villa. It’s rustic-chic with all mod-cons. My cleaning-mad mum puts our bikinis through the wash every evening, while my dad trains my dolphin-boy son, my film-buff husband catches up on the latest movies - available in every language, while I just sunbathe, read my book, smile, and eat. 

Soaking up the sun with all of us being able to choose exactly what we want to do has to be the perfect holiday.

At the end of the week we drag our heels gathering up our belongings scattered all over the villa where we've really made ourselves at home. 
As I pick up my handbag and absent-mindedly drop the villa keys inside, I'm half-tempted not to hand them in. That way, maybe nobody else can stay at 'Casa Karen before we come back at the same time next year! 

Getting There...
James Villa Holidays offers villas in the north and south east of Majorca. We stayed in Coste de Na Llucia, a deluxe three-bed villa which sleeps up to six people, in Pollensa, which costs from £629 per week in low season.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Away With The Fairies

It was a big fat lie. 'We're going to the library,' I announced. My eight-year-old son's face crashed to the floor. 'You said we were having a surprise,' he sulked. 'That's not fun.'

Bundling him and his three-year-old sister into the car, I hid a smirk. I'd learnt my lesson about telling my kids what we were up to. They pestered the fun out of any treats I planned, so now I operated on a 'Need to Know' basis.

And most times they didn't need to know. Like today. If I'd told them we were going for a photo session, my son would have rolled his eyes, and my little girl wouldn't have slept for the week before.

Better to make them believe they were doing something boring so it was a double whammy of excitement. 'We don't have to actually read a book, do we?' my son moaned. I nodded.
'And is Mickey Mouse there?' my daughter asked. I smiled. 'Something even better,' I said.

Half an hour later, I parked up and led them down a cobbled mews. My son looked as if he was going to the gallows. My little girl skipped along, happy just to be outside.

Just then we came across a shop that looked like it was from the pages of a Harry Potter book. 'Wow, look at this,' my son said, stopping next to a shield and sword.

My daughter was already jumping up and down on the spot. 'Look,' she squealed, excited. 'Wings.' I nodded towards the door. 'Shall we go inside?' I asked, ready to burst.

This was where we were meant to be coming all the time, but much better to let the children think it was their idea. Inside was every child's dream – an Aladdin's cave of fairy costumes, knight's armour, dragon's skulls and pixie dust.

We'd come to see Oliver McNeil at Legend Photography – where he takes kids' pictures, but with a massive difference. In his portraits, little ones get to hold fairies, or be surrounded by swirling mists and lightening strikes.

My two couldn't wait to get dressed up, and pose. My daughter looked magical as she wore a garland of flowers on her blonde curls and 'real wings.' I've always thought she was away with the fairies, and here, she was in the right place.

My son was unrecognisable as he stepped in front of the camera dressed in chain mail and swinging a sword. 'Let's hear your battle cry,' Oliver said, and we had to cover our ears as he hollered the place down.

My kids were in good company – Oliver's snapped everyone from Dr Who, Tom Baker, to Dirty Den.

'That was amazing,' my son said as we left, clutching their spectacular shots. 'Much better than a library any day.' I knew having their picture taken was a novel idea. My little girl loved every minute but I think my boy enjoyed it even more. And with his battle picture already on my wall, I now always have that day – and Knight – to remember!  

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Hello Kitty - Goodbye Peppa!

Blinking, I read the words again. No, it couldn't be true. 'Sorry Peppa can't come this weekend, she's busy.' What did she mean, busy?! She's a cartoon, not an It Pig about town.

I had 30 three-year-olds and their parents coming to my little girl's birthday party and that pink, furry pig was the guest of honour.

I'd booked her weeks before as the big surprise, knowing my daughter was her number 1 fan – how dare she cancel, claiming to be otherwise engaged? 'That's a big porky pie,' I fumed, trying to stop panic engulfing me.

I needed a replacement new cartoon character for my little girl's party and I needed it now. So I frantically started searching the internet. Scooby Doo? Too old hat.

Sponge Bob square pants? To square, and, er pants. Ben 10, too old. Barbie, too precocious. 'Uuurrrrgggghhh,' I groaned, scouring every children's site. Then I stopped.

This character was giant, pink and pretty. I didn't recognise her, but she looked perfect. It was Hello Kitty – and she was available. 'Consider yourself hired,' I smiled, paying over the internet.

Now I could relax knowing the entertainment was all sorted. I just had the food to do.
No problem. I was married to a chef, who could knock up a five-course meal for 150 without worrying. How much work could it be feeding thirty little kids?

Lots apparently. 'We need to make 200 sandwiches,' my husband announced, which meant we had to get up at 5.30am to get it all done in time. The party started at 11am, but we had a bouncy castle and feline guest to greet beforehand.

It was still dark when I stumbled out of bed and started cutting off crusts and buttering bread while my husband transformed them into tasty platters.

'Are we nearly done yet?' I mumbled, opening yet another loaf. Finally three hours later, we were finished.

I just had time to get the kids ready and rush to the hall.

Then I was laying out tables, unwrapping the food, and letting in people to put up bouncy castles and sound systems.

'I'm exhausted,' I thought, and the party hadn't even started yet. But once the children rushed in and started playing games, I relaxed. The worst was almost over – everyone had arrived and seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Then I spotted Hello Kitty arriving. 'There's someone we'd like you to meet,' we announced, beckoning for her to walk in.

Unfortunately, she must have been on the party punch the night before because Hello Kitty smashed straight into the door, banging her head.

The kids thought it was a party trick and couldn't stop laughing while Hello Kitty tried to manoeuvre through the gap.

She was mobbed by a hall full of three-year-olds who wanted to have their photograph taken with her. My little girl wouldn't move out of the way, and stood stroking the giant kitten and insisted she do the Hokey Cokey with her.

When it was time for Hello Kitty to leave after half an hour, the birthday girl burst into tears, until I promised she'd come back in 365 days.

'Sorry I couldn't get Peppa,' I said, cuddling my daughter. She stopped crying and stared at me. 'Who?' she said, disgusted. 'I only like Hello Kitty.'

My heart sank. I had a dozen Peppa Pig presents for her to open back home. Lucky I'd kept the receipts as it's now a case of Hello Kitty, Goodbye Peppa!

Monday, 16 May 2011


A trip to the Italian island where The Godfather was filmed is an offer I can't refuse... 

Normally I read resort guides before I go on holiday to somewhere new but this time I decided I’d learn more about Sicily if I watched The Godfather.

So, always one to be thorough, that meant sitting through the entire trilogy, some 13 marathon hours of movie Mafia magic.

But at least listening to Marlon Brando as the hamster cheeked boss, Vito Corleone, was a reminder to pack the cotton wool.

And I also took along another necessity for a guaranteed pizza of the action – an Italian. In this case, my husband.

Fourteen years ago he took me round his native Rome on the back of his moped, Italian-style. I saw more in those seven days than other British tourists could in a lifetime of trips.

And so it seemed only right that now happily married, and with a family, he should show me around the island where Al Capone supposedly had his luggage pinched.

Alexio spent his childhood family holidays happily playing on the golden sands here, jumping waves as the emerald Mediterranean broke against the shore, and seeing the sights in a tiny cinquecento.

He and his father were convinced every flower stall owner was a member of the Mafia, while his brother and mother demanded daily doses of Sicilian ice cream and world-famous marzipan cake, cassata Siciliana.

Twenty five years later nothing has changed. The ice cream and marzipan are still as tasty, the sea is as clean and warm as my husband remembers and the sun blazes down on us from morning until dusk even though it’s the tail-end of October when we visit.

We’re staying at the pretty Club Med village of Kamarina, an actual mini-town on the coast near Siracusa, made of local stone and trimmed with bourgainvillea, a two-hour drive from Catania airport.

Along the way, I gaze out of the window onto the scrubland criss-crossed with stone walls, the familiar backdrop to the movie that made Al Pacino a house-hold name.

I stare at the white goats picking their way across the rolling hills and realise that Sicily is an island of two halves – the timeless rustic beauty that was captured on film – and the sophisticated retro chic of the Palermo and Taormina where shopping and food are nearly as important as football.

This is the island where Hollywood movie stars like Cary Grant and Rita Hayworth came in the Fifties. Today Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas, Elton John and Hugh Grant are regulars, while Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr owns a hotel here.

We are in an all-inclusive village where Kayaking is as available as pasta and so there’s little incentive to leave our little spot of paradise.

But we manage to prise ourselves away from the two private sand beaches to explore the island. How could we come to Sicily and not visit the mother of all volcanoes – Etna?

She’s the biggest, active volcano in Europe and exercises her mighty power every few years to keep the Sicilians on their toes. The most recent eruption in 2002 put the cable car spectacularly out of action, so we drive the 11,000 feet to the top in a four-wheel bus.

'Mamma Mia,' just about covers it as we take in the gigantic crates and listen to steam hissing noisily out of gaps in the sooty mountainside. I can almost feel the lava bubbling away beneath my feet and want to leave as the high altitude is making me feel dizzy.

Next stop the medieval town of Taormina where we stroll along the traffic-free Corso Umberto licking our gelati while we check out the bars, shops and restaurants.

Taormina is home to two of the island’s most sophisticated hotels where the glitterati stay – the San Domenico Palace and the Timeo.

The San Domenico is a former 15th century Monastery and boasts rooms that were once monks’ cells. But if it’s a room with a view that you’re after, book into the Timeo with its terrace overlooking the town and Etna.

And then we hurry back to Kamarina for our son’s acting debut. He’s a lion in the Club Med’s circus in the amphitheatre tonight and after a tearful goodbye backstage we wait nervously for the theatre lights to dim.

Finally, our little boy is centre-stage in his furry costume and face paint and on cue jumps through a ‘burning’ hoop of fire (made in reality out of orange and brown tissue paper but it’s very convincing in the dimly lit theatre) to much applause.

I’m nearly crying with pride and join in the whoops of ‘bravo’ as he goes for an encore. It’s Sicily season in Italy –and this has been one holiday isle never forget!

Getting there:

Stay at Club Med Kamarina departing 27 August, from London, £1092 per adult, £712 per child.

What to see:

In June, Taormina’s film festival attracts the likes of megastar Tom Cruise. Stay at the celebrities’ favourites Grand Hotel Timeo (tel 0039 0942 23801) or San Domenico Palace (tel 0039 0942 613111).

Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr’s hotel, the 21-room Villa Angela in Taormina ( tel 0039 0942 27038 have rooms from £60 to £120 per person  

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky on Friday the 13th!

It's the only Friday the 13th of 2011 this week and I can't wait to go out. I'm going to walk under ladders, make sure I cross paths with plenty of black cats and step on the cracks in the pavement.

Why? Because I feel lucky, that's why. I didn't before I met my husband. I would have taken the day off work and hidden under the duvet. 
But my other half is sooooo lucky, it's rubbed up of me. He wins the lottery most weeks, though at first I didn't believe him. 

When he woke me up at 2am a few years back screaming: 'I've won, I've won, we're rich,' I must admit I turned over. He's Italian, and for some silly reason I thought he'd read the numbers wrong. (I know, I know, they look the same in any language but it was the middle of the night!).

But when he kept shouting my name, and begging me to come and check, I forced myself out of bed. Sighing I looked at his ticket, then the numbers on the computer. 'I just need to point out his mistake and then I can go back to sleep,' I thought.

But the numbers seemed to match. Shaking my head, I checked again. Guess what, he was right. He had five numbers. 'We've won, we've won,' we screamed, dancing around the living room. But we still needed to check how much...

'OMG,' I whistled. We'd won £3,000. It wasn't enough to change our lives, but it would make the next couple of weeks a lot better. 'That Lucky Dip was extra lucky,' I laughed, kissing him.

So off we went the next morning to the newsagent's where we bought it to claim our prize. 'That's too much,' the shop keeper said. 'You'll have to go to the post office.'

I worried for a second they would say we hadn't won after all, but the woman behind the counter handed over a cheque for the full amount. It was normal size – not a giant one like they have on telly – but it was covered in lottery balls so it felt extra special.

We knew exactly what to spend it on – a luxury holiday to Jamaica. We eve had a butler to look after our every whim. He served us chips and champagne on the beach, and escorted us everywhere, so we never had to queue.

'Who is he?' new holiday pals asked. My husband and I looked at each other, and I saw the glint in his eye. 'Our bodyguard,' he said, deadpan. 'We won the lottery.'

It was amazing how quickly the lie spread until the whole resort were talking about the multi-millionaire lottery winners. And do you know what – we let them think it!

'I mean, it's not everyday you get to win, is it?' I said to my other half as we lay on the golden sand. And I was right. It wasn't every day. But it is most weeks - and this Friday I'm going to ask him to go crazy and buy 13 tickets. Well you never know...

Friday, 6 May 2011

Mirror mirror on the wall...

What's the best beauty product of all? Take a look at these shiny new ones

(clockwise) Bag just showing – £95.00 The White Stuff 020 7735 8133
Nelsons Arnicare arnica bath & massage oil costs £8.15 available from Boots.  A must-have for all mums. Just soak your weary bones in this relaxing oil and you'll be sleeping like a baby. What's not to love? 

Meaningful beauty Cindy Crawford Facial Masque £13.99 available exclusively from Now I know why the former supermodel looks half her age! Relax in the bath with this on your face once a week and your complexion will be runway-ready (well we can always dream!). And a little goes a long way, so it will last for ages, meaning it's fantastic value for money. 

Chloe Rose Edition 50ml EDP spray £45.50 The Perfume Shop instores on online Glamorous, grown-up and gorgeous - and that's just the bottle. This is the ultimate decadent designer pick-me-up but we all deserve a treat after running around after the family all week don't we? 

Artelep Rose and Olive Oil soap £4.95 Beautiful to look at and with an expensive boutique spa smell, this cute little soap is working the luxe for less in my bathroom. It not only leaves me - and the ensuite - smelling fresh, at this price I can afford to stock up. 

Marc Jacobs Daisy EDT 20ml Purse Spray & 15ml Refill £28.50, The Perfume Shop or online Is it a statement fragrance or an object d'art? Smelling as fresh as its name suggests, this designer perfume does it all. Clear your dressing tables ladies, this is the most desirable day-time scent du jour and I can't enough of it! 

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Nothing to declare!

Watching the furry creatures running round in their wheels, I tried to remember why I'd said yes. Just how drunk had I been at my birthday party the week before to agree to babysitting my friend's two hamsters?

She was off to Disneyland Paris for the week. And I'd now got myself two extra house mates.

My kids were delighted, of course. But my husband didn't look quite as amused. But that might have been because I'd forgotten to mention they were coming to stay. Then again, I'd forgotten too. Until now.

'You just have to feed them and give them water and they'll be fine,' my friend smiled, plonking the pets down.

Then she headed off, counting her euros, leaving me alone with the furry creatures. 'Can we hold them?' my two-year-old demanded.

I was regretting this already. They weren't as fluffy and cute as I imagined. To me, they looked like large mice in a cage. How could they be fun?

But I handed Panda, the black and white one, to my little girl. Then I squealed. Why were his eyes bulging like that? 'Don't squeeze so hard,' my hubby told her, glaring at me.

Now my eight-year-old son was demanding to hold the other one, Hammy. 'Look he's so sweet,' he said, as he vanished up the sleeve of his jumper.

I shuddered, grateful they didn't want me to cuddle up to one. All I cared about was making sure they survived the week in our house.

I've always been clumsy. On my first date with my husband, who's Italian, I warned him I was accident-prone, but I don't think he believed me.

That was until I tripped over his shoe and grabbed him to stop myself falling, just as he was dishing up his home-made spaghetti Bolognese.

He, me and his walls were splattered. 'It's Mamma's secret recipe,' he said, wiping the Bolognese from his face. 'What are we going to eat now?'

I didn't dare offer to pop to the shops to buy a sauce of Dolmio, so I kissed him instead. It seemed to work as we've been married more than a decadel.

But he still sports the cuts and bruises from living with a klutz. Over the years I've headbutted him while trying to nibble his ears, and tripped him up endlessly.

I'm extra careful around the children – though my other half thinks they should wear a crash helmet whenever they're alone with me.

So I was surprised when he let me take the kids off to Belfast to see a friend overnight – leaving him alone with his new furry best friends.

'Be careful,' he insisted as I headed to the airport. But apart from falling over my friend's dog three times, it was a calamity-free zone.

'I did it,' I thought, proudly, taking the kids to the toilet after we'd landed safely back in London. We all squeezed into a cubicle, washed our hands and headed out.

As we strolled towards the Nothing To Declare exit, a hand clapped me on the shoulder. I span round, shocked. 'Sorry love,' a woman said to me. 'But you've got loo roll stuck in your trousers.'

Mortified, I glanced down. There was a 15ft train of Andrex behind me. 'I'm collecting it for my hamsters,' I spluttered, cheeks burning. 'They get upset if I don't take them back some bedding.'

Roll on Saturday when my friend's back from her hols...