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?

Friday, 30 September 2016

Friday Recipe: Fruity Creme Brûlée

Nothing gets me as excited in the kitchen as a Creme Brûlée - simply because I can't wait to use the blowtorch to watch all that sugar caramelise on the top. Tapping into that topping and watching it crack is the highlight of the meal.

My celebrity chef husband puts a delicious spin on this family favourite by adding fruits and berries. Not only does it look amazing but it tastes great too - fresh and tangy. It's an easy way to get some of your five a day. Enjoy!

Prep time 25 mins
Cooking time 45 mins, plus cooling time
Serves 6

500ml double cream
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways, seeds extracted and pod chopped
6 egg yolks
100g caster sugar, plus extra for topping
Chopped fruit or berries, to garnish

Preheat the oven to 150°C.

Pour the cream into a pan with the vanilla pod and seeds. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile beat the yolks and sugar together in a heatproof bowl until pale and thick.

Bring the cream back to the boil and pour it into the egg mixture in a thin stream, whisking continuously until it has a custard-like consistency.

Strain into a jug using a fine sieve then pour into six ramekins until they are 2/3 full.

Prepare a bain marie by filling a large roasting tin halfway with hot water. Put the ramekins into the tin and carefully place in the centre of the oven to bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until just set.

Allow to cool to room temperature then refrigerate.

Just before serving, sprinkle caster sugar on the top of each ramekin and caramelise it with a chef’s blowtorch or place under a hot grill for a couple of minutes until a golden topping has formed. Garnish with berries.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Memoirs of meeting a Geisha in Kyoto

Move over Tokyo – the cultural capital of Japan boasts geisha, samurai and karaoke

Tomi-Tae the Justin Bieber loving maiko

She looked like she’d stepped straight out of the pages of Arthur Golden’s award-winning novel. With her white face, crimson lips, Nihongami bun, and violet antique kimono, Tomi-Tae was the double of Chiyo Sakamoto, the heroine of the historical 
best-seller, Memoirs of a Geisha.

But while Golden’s geisha was a work of fiction, this exotic apprentice was standing in front of me, waiting to perform in a traditional okiya house in Gion, the geisha district of the former imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto.

The maiko – a geisha in training, literally translated as ‘dance child’ – bowed so low that the flowers pinned into her hair fluttered, trying to escape her elaborate hairstyle. Then she knelt down, careful not to sit on her obi (sash), which was tied around her kimono and hung down to her ankles, and began to play a koto 
– a traditional string instrument.

Sad, lilting notes filled the small room, conjuring up images of the water of the Kamo River rushing through the city, and Tomi-Tae and her friends hurrying along the narrow streets of Gion on their high-heeled okobo.

The song ended, and the mood changed as the maiko performed a mesmerising dance – her hands creating stories of their own, while her body swayed gently, like one of the fragrant cherry blossom trees outside swaying in 
the wind.

As she twisted, I caught a glimpse of her bare neck. Maikos don the same white make-up on the nape, which is considered sensual, leaving just a tiny patch of skin exposed. 
It’s part of the rich history of the geisha and their coveted role in Japanese culture.

The role of geisha can be traced as far back as 794 when the Imperial Court moved to Kyoto and the Japanese became obsessed with beauty. Geishas were considered 
the epitome of Japanese femininity, and entertained the elite.

Now they play a pivotal part in tourism as well as entertaining rich businessmen with their musical and dancing skills. Tourists flock to Gion to see the geisha of Golden’s novel and subsequent Academy Award-winning film, starring Suzuka Ohgo.

But it’s rare to get a private audience with a maiko like this. 
And so after showing us how to 
play a parlour game that involves clapping, singing and trying to outwit your partner – she won every time, which saw her giggle in delight – the 18-year-old sits down to talk.

'I wanted to be a geisha since I was a little girl,' she explained through her translator. 'My parents weren’t very happy at first as they knew I would have to leave home, but they supported me when they realised how serious I was. I came to Kyoto aged 15. I now study very hard, especially at music and calligraphy.'

She explained how she works for Okaa-san, the mother of the house, who chose to train her because she was a gifted musician, and because she is so pretty.

'I love to wear make-up and dress up,' Tomi-Tae said. 'But I have to be careful about my hair and sleep on 
a special pillow so I don’t mess it up.'

As she spoke the maiko looked much younger, her hands flying in front of her mouth when she laughed, or tried to find the right word to explain her life: how she gets to see her family only twice a year, and how she likes going to the cinema with friends and has seen Memoirs of a Geisha on YouTube.

Everything took a while as my questions were translated into Japanese, and her replies explained to us in English. 'Have you heard of Justin Bieber?' I asked the teenager, and suddenly she didn’t need the translator. 'I love him,' she replied 
in perfect English. 'I’m a big fan. 
My favourite song is Baby. I would 
like to meet him one day.'

It was strange to think of this maiko relaxing in jeans and a T-shirt on a rare day off, devoid of make-up, listening to the biggest pop star on the planet in her bedroom, just like other teenagers.
But now it was time to leave, and she escorted me outside, where we posed together for pictures while curious tourists and Japanese stared.

Before she could take her leave, she bowed not just once, but twice, then again, and I found myself caught in the complicated social and cultural code that I simply did not as a Westerner understand.
So I bowed every time she did, and finally, after about 10 minutes of this, the mother rescued Tomi-Tae and ushered her back inside the okiya.

Walking away – head and shoulders above the local residents – it was the first of many pinch-me moments in a country that is abundantly rich in heritage, history and culture.

Next stop Tawaraya Yoshitomi 
for a Japanese sweet tea ceremony, 
an elaborate ritual where a female 
tea master made a bowl of green tea – a task so ritualistic it took around an hour.

It takes 10 to 15 years to become a certified tea master, and I can see why, as every part of the ceremony involves complex and complicated movements, almost like a dance.

The green tea has to be brewed and filtered, but simply touching the crockery involves a series of movements, and when the tea is finally ready, it looks like a frothy green soup and cannot be consumed until the tea bowl has been rotated halfway round.

After I finisheded my tea, which was strong and didn’t taste at all like tea in the West, I was reminded to spin it back round to its original position so as not to cause offence.

Sweets are offered with the tea, and we were invited into a confectionary room to make some. It sounded like fun, and I thought it was going to be easy as I followed the chef, but it was much harder than it looked.

At first I thought we were creating flowers and pretty shapes out of marzipan, like petite fours, but in fact we were using dough made out of beans and vegetables.

My sweets looked ugly and misshapen and tasted unlike anything I’d ever had before 
– it was like eating a very doughy 
and chewy semi-sweet jelly – and 
I could only manage one.

Besides, I was too busy watching the delicate movements of the tea master, who was every bit as graceful as the geisha, with her intricate ritual involving myriad bowls and a whisk.

I was fast learning that everything in Japan has some deeper meaning. The entire culinary world, and tea, is not simply about satisfying one’s thirst or hunger – the experience is 
a cultural one.

Kyoto reigned as the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years after Emperor Kammu made the city the centre of his Imperial Court and Japan’s political world.

Having escaped most of the destruction of the Second World War, it now has more than 2,000 shrines and temples, and 17 Unesco World Heritage sites.

Kyoto residents are proud of their noble heritage and traditions, which include kaiseki ryori – food beautiful enough to be called art.

Four styles of cooking relating to the imperial court, the Buddhist temples, tea ceremonies and formalised samurai events developed Kyoto’s most sophisticated culinary culture, Kyo-ryori.

So it was no wonder that I spent as much time taking photos of meals during my stay in Japan as I did consuming them.

I fell in love with tofu, which is served in different ways, and which I discover is part of the authentic Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, Shojin-ryori, which came to Japan from China with Zen Buddhism in the Kamakura period from 1192 to 1333. But the stand-out meal, apart from the must-try bento boxes, is lunch at Misoguigawa, a fusion of French and Kaiseki-style food.

It comes in delicate bowls with dishes so beautifully presented that 
I hardly dared touch them, and instead stared at them as if they were paintings before finally tasting them.

An explosion of flavours danced 
in my mouth, a sumptuous blend 
of French and Japanese coming together in harmony.

The chef Teruo Inoue looked like he’d stepped off a runway with the smartest chef’s whites I’d ever 
seen and a tie so impeccably 
knotted that it’s no wonder his 
dishes are as visually appealing 
as they are delicious. All the dishes were served by a waitress who looked more like a Japanese supermodel, and so I just had to take pictures of her as well as the food.

Later, I collapsed on the bed back in my room at Hotel Granvia, a modernist homage to glass and steel, directly in front of Kyoto Central Station, where bullet trains speed past en route to Tokyo.
The ultimate in modern Japanese chic, the hotel is part of the JR Kyoto Station building, and houses a theatre, underground shopping mall, museum and department store.

The rooms are small by Western standards, but big for Japan, and have all the mod cons and then some – I had to call downstairs to the concierge to ask how to work the shower, which comes with a bucket.

The patient concierge explained that it’s normal in Japan to wash using the bucket and soap before you go into the shower. It doesn’t make any sense to me, but neither does the heated toilet complete with musical options. They’re de rigeur in Japan, and have so many buttons on them that I’m sure I’m going to be launched out of the cubicle into space if I press too many.

So I indulged my passion for music over the road in a karaoke bar, which has private booths for parties of friends and colleagues, who dine, drink and sing their favourite songs.

Our guide, Ted, along with the management of Hotel Granvia Kyoto, took us along for another pinch-me moment when I found myself hogging the microphone wailing along to Jon Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer and Madonna’s Material Girl.

'You’re a really good singer,' Ted told me, and I wondered if he was being sarcastic or if it’s part of that bewildering Japanese social code again. Either way, I bowed, and watched as he belted out Elvis’ Suspicious Minds pitch perfect and complete with jiggling hips and a Presley-style pout.

Then it was off to bed, because we were up early the next day to visit Kiyomizu-dera temple, in the east of the city, where a resident Buddhist monk greeted us for a guided tour.

Swathed in black silk robes and a golden sash, he was totally unlike any monk I’ve ever met. Well-travelled, fluent in English and married (as all Buddhist monks are allowed to be here), he had an aura of sophistication as well as tranquillity.

He guided us round the beautiful temple, which was built in the early 17th Century without using a single nail. The temple is named after the waterfall, which runs down into the complex from the nearby hills as Kiyomizu means clear or pure water.

I marveled at the bright orange 
of the temple, the intricate work inside and out, but refused to go 
down into a special, pitch-black corridor, which is said to leave 
people who enter it reborn when 
they come out the other side.

Instead I smiled at the Japanese visitors in their kimonos, and headed outside to the stalls and shops to stock up on Hello Kitty merchandise for my little girl and a gold and black Bieber-style baseball cap, complete with an ornate embroidered dragon, for my son.

Fashion is big business in Japan, and we ventured across the city to Hosoo, a traditional weaving studio that produced silks and fabrics for Dior and other top designers.

It was fascinating to see the gorgeous designs being created and then programmed into a computer, which works the weave. It takes ages to make – I was there for a couple of hours and only a few centimetres are made in that time – so of course the workmanship doesn’t come cheap. But the quality is incredible, and I drifted back to the hotel wishing I had a Hosoo keepsake to take home.

I consoled myself with the thought of the next day’s activity – a visit to the Toei Kyoto Studio Park – a theme park that also houses a real-life film studio. More than 200 Jidaigeki movies are made here every year, and walking down one of the streets, set in the Edo period, we came face to face with samurai performing chambara – a sword-fighting play – watched ninjas in the theatre, and smiled at the couples dressing up as a samurai, or geisha for a date with a difference.

As we were about to leave, a bunch of teenage school girls rushed up to me and thrust a letter in my hands. In perfect English, 13-year-old Nagisa introduced herself, saying she came from Innoshima, an island, and would like to have a pen pal.

She was so shy and sweet, giggling behind her hand, as I read her beautifully scripted note and agreed to write to her when I got back to Dubai. And then I was off to my final stop in Japan – a traditional inn or ryokan. These are the places we see on TV or in films, with rush mats and sliding paper walls – and great omotenashi, or traditional Japanese hospitality.

Our inn, Yoshida Sanso, was incredible – an authentic ryokan built on the hillside of Mount Yoshida in 1932 and the former villa of Highashi Fushiminomiya, who is the uncle of the current Emperor Akihito.

Designed in part by Tsunekazu Nishioka, who also restored Japanese national treasures including Yakushi-ji temple and Horyu-ji temple in Nara, the villa is made from Hinoki cypress with views over beautiful gardens, Mount Daimonji and the range of Kyoto’s eastern mountains.

Our hostess, Tomoko Nakamura, whose family owns the villa, let us decide between ourselves which rooms we wanted. I chose one with a balcony overlooking the gardens, complete with futon, which is a mattress on the floor. I was sure that meant an uncomfortable night ahead, but after feasting on kaiseki and being given a scroll with a waka poem written out with a brush to keep forever, I fell into a deep sleep.

I awoke in the morning feeling refreshed and ready for breakfast while watching the sun rise over the gardens. Sadly it was time to head to Kansai airport in Osaka, but I wouldn’t forget Kyoto in a hurry.
Luckily I already own a copy 
of Golden’s book, which I vowed to 
re-read as soon as I arrived home. 
It will be fascinating to revisit now that I’ve walked through Gion, met a maiko – and I now have memoirs of my own. Ones to treasure.

Inside info
I was lucky enough to be on a press trip which was probably the best I've ever been on. For latest prices for Hotel Granvia visit

For more info on Yoshida-Sanso visit

Friday, 23 September 2016

Friday Recipe: Truffle Risotto in a Parmesan Basket

Truffle Risotto in a parmesan basket: It looks as good as it tastes 

In my house there are three things that are important: food, football and food. I don't agree with the football bit but food is worth double the effort because it's not just to eat. It's a celebration of family life.

We eat Italian style. There's no surprises there - after all my husband is an Italian celebrity chef, but we don't just eat and run. We eat like we're in a restaurant - savouring every bite while talking about our and the children's days. Sometimes we're there for a couple of hours, long after every morsel has been devoured. It's our special time.

And so we make sure the food looks as good as it tastes. This risotto is given superstar status thanks to the Parmesan Basket. But it's easy to do - believe me if I can do it, anyone can. So follow this simple recipe - one of my husband's best I think - and impress your loved ones too. Buon Appetito!

Prep time 10 mins
Cooking time 30 mins
Serves 4


200g grated Parmesan, plus extra for garnish
Olive oil, a drizzle
400g carnaroli rice
1 litre, hot vegetable stock
Slices of truffle or truffle oil

To make the Parmesan baskets, place 4 small bowls upside down on a tray. Warm a small non-stick frying pan over low heat. Sprinkle a quarter of the Parmesan in a thin layer over the pan and melt, 3-4 minutes.

As the cheese begins to melt and stick together to form a sheet, gently lift it off the pan using tongs and place it over an upturned bowl, allowing it to cool and take the shape of the bowl. Repeat process to make the remaining cheese baskets. Refrigerate the baskets for at least 10 minutes to set.

Heat oil in a pan over high heat, add the rice and toast for 2-3 minutes. Gradually add a ladleful of hot stock and stir continuously until the rice absorbs all the liquid. Repeat process until you’ve used up all the stock and the rice is cooked al dente, around 18 minutes.

To serve, remove the Parmesan baskets from the fridge. Spoon in a portion of the risotto and garnish with grated Parmesan and a drizzle of truffle oil or slices of fresh truffle.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Indian Summer - Exploring the Splendour of the Taj Mahal and Golden Triangle

Staying in real palaces, meeting a maharaja and marvelling at the Taj Mahal, I explore the luxurious side of the Golden Triangle

Testament to Love: the Taj Mahal 

Stepping off the aeroplane in Jodhpur, northern India, I'd been warned to expect a warm welcome. A namaste, of course, along with garlands of jasmine and marigolds; perhaps even a bindi. But no one had mentioned a vintage convertible Buick, a four-horse cavalcade or royal escort.

I shouldn't really have been surprised - I was, after all, going to stay in a real-life palace, home of the Maharaja of Jodhpur. So I sat back, the red leather interior of the 1947 car - one of the Maharaja's private collection - cool against the Rajasthani sun, and enjoyed the short ride up to Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace.

Travelling in style in a vintage Buick Pic: Rosemary Behan 

Children, women, men on motorbikes and extended families in rickshaws all stopped to wave and admire the car, the tails of the chauffeur's tie-dyed turban billowing in the breeze as we swept out of the city up to the golden palace.

Made out of desert sandstone, the royal residence sits majestically on top of the hill opposite the city's15th-century Mehrangarh Fort. As I stepped out of the Buick onto a real red carpet, I was showered with rose petals and whisked inside one of the world's largest private homes.

Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace - a hotel fit for a queen

Designed by Edwardian British architect Henry Lanchester, the Palace is a tribute to opulence, traditional rajputana influences and art deco. It was commissioned by the present maharaja's grandfather, Umaid Singh, in 1923 as a testament to the new Jodhpur and to provide work to people of Marwar during the period's famines and droughts. It was finally finished in 1943, and handed down to the Maharaja Hanwant Singh, who died in an air crash in January 1952, aged 28.

The present owner, Maharaja Gaj Singh, was crowned at the tender age of four and still lives with his family in one wing of the 347-roomed palace, which is now part of Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces.
Set in 26 acres, the totally restored palace comes complete with peacocks, bougainvillea, 64-available rooms and suites, a roof-top restaurant, royal butlers and, quite frankly, whatever your heart desires (and budget can stretch to).

Maharaja Gaj Singh still owns the palace which is now part of Taj Hotels

The actress Liz Hurley married Arun Nayar here, with Elton John among the guests. The ceremony was described as ‘Indian splendour' by People magazine. 'There were dancing white horses, walkways lined with millions of red chilli peppers and a week of endless parties for 200 or so revellers who danced and ate and one night slept outside under the stars,' said the report.

So it shouldn't have come as a shock that on my very first night 200 tea lights lit a red carpet across the Kenyan-imported lawn leading to my private al fresco feast. The entertainment was provided by a family band who now sing their heartfelt laments at the palace after getting into the final of India's Got Talent, followed by dancers who twinkled and twirled under the black velvet sky.

Five courses and an amazing firework display later, and I was ready to hit the four-poster bed in my palatial suite. The room ‘fairies' had been in before me though and had run a rose petal bath in the art deco bathroom, so, as I savoured the chocolates they'd left for me, I sank into the fragrant water, wondering how I could top such a magnificent start to my trip.

An Indian safari
After a sumptuous à la carte breakfast on the terrace overlooking the beautiful gardens, it was time to head out. The Buick had been replaced with a 4X4 for a ‘village safari'.

Leaving the luxury of the palace behind, we bounced along dirt tracks to meet the Bishnois - the pure vegetarians who have lived on the land in the arid desert since the15th century, making floors out of cow dung, and surviving off their love of nature.

More recently tourists have no doubt played a big part too, as an elderly father and his middle-aged daughter happily opened their sparse home for me to explore, and to marvel at how they cope with little more than the bare essentials.

Driving past women working outdoors, their bright magenta, saffron and cyan saris so colourful against the Rajasthan desert, we reached our next stop. Roopraj Prajapati was already busy on his loom.

Carpet-maker to the stars, Roopraj is friends with Richard Gere, Prince Charles and Camilla and former South African president FW de Klerk, who was instrumental in ending apartheid rule. They've all passed through his tiny home to watch him, and his wife Nainu, make beautiful carpets out of cotton, using traditional methods. His creations grace the floor of the Palace too. 'The Maharaja helps us a lot,' Roopraj said, smiling, and pulling out his scrapbook of photos with celebrities and cuts from Vogue and other international magazines.

Roopraj is so popular, despite living in the desert, that he now has thousands of facebook fans, and a thriving business selling his carpets from 2,500 to 11,000 rupees. The carpets are gorgeous, but I wasn't inclined to ship one home. Roopraj didn't seem to mind, and offered me tea and stories of meeting VIPs ('Mr Gere drops by whenever he's in India, he likes my tea') before I set off again.

Caught up in a wedding
Just up the road and I became one of the main attractions in a wedding procession. The local villagers all get married on one of the ‘wedding days' of the year to share costs. Three grooms on horseback passed by, surrounded by dozens of friends and family, but as they spotted me - an obvious tourist - the children, procession and even the grooms surrounded the 4X4, shouting: 'Hello'.

They were friendly, curious and made me laugh with their demands to see if my blonde locks are real. After the children had blown lots of kisses, we carried on, this time to meet a potter who tried to teach me how to ‘throw' a vase. Sadly, I took him literally and clay ended up flying everywhere as my lack of artistic talent made for a very dirty ending to a one-on-one tutorial.

Next it was time to head back to the palace. First up was a ‘warrior' massage in the luxurious Jiva Grande Spa, where, after a consultation with an ayurvedic resident doctor, a Tibetan therapist soothed my aching muscles and shoulders with the most vigorous - and best - massage ever.

Dinner in Mehrangarh Fort followed. Founded by Rao Jodha in 1459, the fort crowns the cliff opposite Umaid Bhawan, and only a winding, exhilarating ride leads up to it. Camels, a torch procession, dancers and my very own Rajasthan turban awaited, before a guided tour of the fort, and a three-course dinner in the courtyard, served by my royal butler.

'How could anything ever top this?' I wondered, but I hadn't figured for canapes the next night with the maharaja himself. Intelligent, charismatic and business-savvy, he was a great pre-dinner companion, who explained why he was happy to share his home with paying guests to preserve the beauty of the palace.

In love with the Taj Mahal
The next day, I was reluctant to leave, worried that I had been too spoiled after spending time in such luxury. Fortunately, I was whisked to Agra to see the only other place in India resplendent enough to take my mind off the palace - The Taj Mahal.

In love with the Taj Mahal 

Built from white marble in the 17th century as a testament to the love Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the monument became even more famous when the late Princess Diana graced the world's front pages photographed alone in front of it.

As I queued at 6am for the gates to be opened, I couldn't wait to catch a glimpse of the mausoleum rising from the morning mist. It was so much more beautiful than I had imagined that it made me gasp. As I stood, in awe, I realised dozens of other tourists were racing to be photographed sitting in front of it on the Diana Bench, their smiles and body language mirroring hers.

I spent two hours looking at this architectural masterpiece, before going to watch the Mohabbat The Taj show nearby. It tells the story of the emperor and his wife, who died giving birth to her 14th child. He mourned her death, and oversaw every aspect of the building of the Taj, which took 21 years.

The Taj Mahal sits majestically on the banks of the river in Agra 

During that time, he decided to build a black version of the monument on the opposite side of the river in Agra, but his son, furious at what he believed to be an extravagant waste of public funds, killed him before his own mausoleum could be started. The Emperor is now at rest in the Taj, next to his wife, which ruins the otherwise perfect symmetry of the monument, but makes the love story even more poignant.

At the end of the show, it was time to head back to my new ‘home', the Oberoi Amarvilas where I really did have a room with a view - the Taj Mahal can apparently be seen from every window, and took centre-stage in mine. All pristine marble, and indulgent pampering, it felt like I was living in a Merchant Ivory film, with the Taj as the main star.

She was hard to upstage, and the next day it was with muted attention that I slunk around Agra fort, listening to the guide's passionate speech about how the widowed queens and women-folk were happy to throw themselves into the flames rather than be captured (he showed us their handprints emblazoned on the walls as they leapt into the fire as proof) and Indiana Jones-style defence strategies.

Our guide's eyes blazed as he described giant stone balls rolling down the hill to crush invaders, followed by hot oil ‘showers'. But I couldn't concentrate, I was too enthralled by the tragic love story of the Taj. So, after one more night at the Oberoi, I was relieved to be moving on to somewhere completely new.

Land of contrasts
Our next stop was New Delhi and The Oberoi Gurgaon. All shiny mirrors and high-tech sophistication, the hotel could equally be at home in London or New York as India's capital, but the little touches made it a definite jewel in the crown.

Shiny and new, the Oberoi Gurgaon is perfect to explore New Delhi  

From the ultra relaxing ‘soothing' facial I had in the 24/7 spa, through to the clap-and-they-open-and-close blinds in the five-star, international-style rooms, the hotel had thought of everything. Based around business traveller's needs and desires, The Oberoi Gurgaon is the perfect base from which to explore New Delhi.

I headed out on a sight-seeing tour of the city, and found myself bewitched by the sight of monkeys, street children and cows on every corner. A little bit frightened by the animals - I've only ever seen monkeys in the zoo, and cows on a farm - I wanted to take the Bambi-eyed youngsters home. Living under the stars with their parents, they took begging at traffic lights in their stride, but watching the Slumdog-style children was heart-breaking. As a tourist and guest in India I had everything, while they had nothing.

It was hard to accept and, saddened, I decided to explore the city by rickshaw. It wasn't a mistake, as I was soon being whisked through the tiny streets, past the dazzling swatches of material that would eventually become a bride's wedding dress, the glittering bangles waiting to adorn a child's wrist and the perfectly constructed towers of brightly coloured fruits.

Giggling, I gasped as my ‘driver' squeezed through impossibly tiny gaps and kept showing me his muscles under his shirt to prove his strength. At the end of the exhilarating 30-minute ride, I was grateful for his street knowledge and bravado. At times, I'd grimaced, convinced we'd never make it through the throngs, but my driver had always found a way.

A quick change of hotel - to the Leela Palace with its tasteful, yet opulent decor (it reminded me of The Dorchester in London, so it was easy to see why it's been touted as the most expensively built hotel in India) and I headed to the city's Kingdom of Dreams for a taste of Bollywood in the shape of Zangoora, the gypsy king musical.

Starring popular TV star Hussain Kuwajerwala and beautiful co-star, former model Gauhar Khan, it was gripping from curtain up. With my English translation headphones on, I followed every dramatic moment - on stage just inches away from me, up in the air as the stars ‘flew' across the auditorium, and didn't want the show to end.

But as the dancers moved into the audience for the final number, I reluctantly agreed to dance along to Jai Ho after being plucked from the audience. It was a fitting encore - the victory dance summed up my amazing passage to India: glamorous, inspiring and over all too soon. I'm already planning my next trip back.