Category Archives: Travel

Why comfort-loving city slickers are hopping on their bikes and heading to Center Parcs…

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Not too shabby!

Center Parcs is the perfect place for middle-class urbanites to go off road and embrace the great outdoors from the comfort of their state of the art, WiFi enabled log cabins. What’s not to love!

It’s our second visit to Woburn Forest since it first opened last Easter and we’ve even ended up booking the same cabin, much to my children’s delight. Having learnt firsthand how important bikes are for getting around the site, we’d invested in some hardcore bike racks for the trip. And by defying the laws of physics, we managed to strap five bikes and a roof box to our trusty Citroen C4 before braving the M25 to get here. I could tell Dave was nervous as he gingerly manoeuvred our beast of a vehicle into the slow lane of the motorway. The boys waited with baited breath, craning their necks to watch out of the window in case disaster struck. Admittedly something small and plastic did detach itself from our heavy load somewhere in Hertfordshire but after a quick inspection on the hard shoulder, it was deemed “unimportant” and we completed the rest of our Center Parcs pilgrimage without incident.

The convenience of advance online check-in means that you can drive onsite and straight to the door of your luxury lodge with the minimal amount of fuss. Once inside, those lovely CP peeps really have thought of everything. Flat screen TVs embedded into walls adorned with woodland murals come as standard. The quality of the accommodation is certainly ‘not too shabby’ and a world away from the Haven hellholes we’ve trudged to in the past. The clue is in the price tag, for sure! But care and cleanliness are evident any which way you look. The no-cars-on-site rule means that you can relax as the kids career about on their bikes and scooters. And the sense of detachment and escapism from the real world is indulgently addictive in the bubble that is Center Parcs World.

A holiday here is not without its challenges though. I’ve learnt that wearing make up at Center Parcs is pointless. We’re in and out of the pool so frequently that no sooner have I applied my mascara, I’m wiping it off again in preparation for another chlorine overload. Repeatedly riding the rapids with a bunch of over-excited thrill seekers means that you will invariably end up bum-bumping a hairy middle-aged man as you coast uncontrollably through the current. You also need to be prepared to suffer finger nail scratching and incessant elbowing when your 8 and 6 year olds realise they can only dunk and breathe, dunk and breathe for so long before needing to claw onto a parent for self-preservation purposes. Add hair straighteners, shoes with heals, jewellery and handbags to the list of ‘things that are surplus to requirement at Center Parcs’. I’ve been hopping on and off a bike and in and out of the pool ever since we got here. As a result, only a rucksack and trainers will do and I’ve been rocking the ‘post-swim, air-dried frizz do’ around the clock. And did I mention saddle soreness?! I’m really not used to pedalling to the supermarket to buy milk but that’s what you do here. Lots of little journeys can feel doable during the daytime but my inner thighs beg to differ after dinner. Waddling John Wayne-style becomes mandatory.

Don’t get me wrong though, I feel lucky to be here. The absolute delight on the faces of my children as the screeching monkey alarm alerts them to the fact that the wave machine is about to start is priceless! And the opportunity to watch them scale climbing walls and high ropes is brilliant, compared to our normal weekends on the monkey bars in the local park. Even going on an organised bear hunt with my 3 year old turned into an adventure of sorts; an expedition to Starbucks in search of Rupert struck me as both hilarious and embarrassingly bourgeoisie! In a place where the standard bar snacks menu includes hummus with crudités and you could easily pinch the communal hair-dryers as they’re not bolted to the wall (we didn’t!), I do feel a little spoilt. But as I hope our bank manager and my inner thighs will agree, you get what you pay for in this uber eco, gloriously green, pedal-pushing paradise. And we think it’s worth every penny.

 

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#100happydays – day 48

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Thursday was our chance to take one last bite out of the Big Apple before heading home. But we began the day with some hasty last minute packing. The concierge at our hotel helped me to weigh my bulging suitcase at which point I realised I’d probably bought one (or six) Gap jumpers too many and was dangerously close to my baggage weight allowance. With a remit to buy more luggage for our NYC loot, as well as some last minute souvenirs, we headed to Times Square. We’d previously found a brilliant comic book store in the Financial District that had a sister shop in Mid-Town, so we happily spent a few more dollars there. We then braved the flagship Disney Store and bought bags from the brilliantly cheap Forever 21.After walking around in the sunshine with our shopping bags, we caught the subway to the Lower East Side for lunch in what was purported to be New York City’s best deli, Katz; and it was! This is the place where Harry met Sally, where a pastrami on rye will fill you up for a week (and cost almost $30!) and where you can ‘lunch’ alongside every stereotypical New Yorker imaginable. We both ordered the pastrami along with pints of the rich and delicious Katz Dark Ale. It was a heavy meal but our visit to such a quintessential New York eatery was well worth the stomach ache. With a sense of reluctance (and a little bit of relief, after days of exhaustive sightseeing and carb loading away from our families), we finally caught a cab to the airport. There we flopped in uncomfortable bucket seats in the departure lounge and pondered exactly how aeroplanes stay in the sky and whether or not we could squeeze in one more glass of wine before takeoff.  Our trip was a fantastic break from the routines and responsibilities of every day life and I arrived home with the feeling that we’d taken full advantage of the opportunity to eat, sleep and breath this brilliant city. Since then I’ve avidly been watching Manhattan-based TV dramas hoping to spot a familiar landmark or recognise a street name or two, and I’ve been overusing the phrase “totally awesome” much to the amusement of my children. It actually all seems a little bit like a dream that never really happened. But thankfully I have a photo-stream full of pics, a wardrobe full of bargains and a hundred happy memories to keep forever from our New York City adventure.    

#100happydays – day 47

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By Wednesday we’d spent three days straight exploring Lower Manhattan and had begun to feel like downtown locals, so we decided to focus our sightseeing efforts further north with renewed determination to find the uptown bus stop. It was a sunny morning so I made the optimistic decision to wear my thinner Laura Ashley wrap jacket instead of my more ample winter coat. Mistake number 1. 

Our joy at finally finding the goddam bus stop was short lived when the heated open-top tour bus was too full to take on more passengers so we instead boarded an unheated open-top bus where we were greeted by an energetic Japanese lady dressed in a mountaineering jacket and waving a microphone. Mistake number 2.

For the next hour we sat tightly huddled in our top deck seats, ducking to avoid low hanging tree branches and straining to understand the commentary. As Antonia noted, it was like having intermittent telephone reception….”something, something, something….Central Park…something, something…Woody Allen, something, condominium apartment…” And as my body temperature plummeted, I began to daydream about thick jumpers and wooly hats, rendering it impossible to concentrate on our enigmatic tour guide. By the time we reached Harlem, Antonia had turned blue and I’d lost all feeling in my bum cheeks. Our survival instinct finally kicked in (not at all inspired by the large Banana Republic Outlet store on the corner) and we hastily disembarked to buy jumpers (along with one or two other bargains). One Starbucks later and we were finally feeling thawed enough to venture back outside.

Harlem felt like a world away from the skyscrapers and designer stores of Mid Town. Groups of people were gathered on street corners and ladies pushed shopping trolleys piled high with clothes, plastic bags and cool boxes, presumably full of food (??). The further we walked away from the main stretch of shops, the more backwards glances we got from passers by. And the idea of using a selfie stick or even a map in Harlem felt a tad foolhardy. We bought Cap’tn Crunch cereal and squeezey cheese from a local supermarket and Antonia came to the aid of a fairly scary woman with a nose bleed, before we felt it best to catch the subway downtown to a more central spot on the Upper West Side. There we stopped for pizza slices and sodas in Famiglia (a favourite hangout of Sarah Palin’s, if the pictures on the wall were to be believed) before walking through Central Park and along Museum Mile. The park, as with the High Line, felt a little unloved. Overgrown pathways, unruly hedges and brown grass did little for its idolised image but the dramatic backdrop of the New York City skyline and the impressive architecture of the Guggenheim and Met museums were photo-worthy sights to see.   By this point, our shopping bags were cutting off the blood circulation to our hands so after a whistle stop to buy the kids candy from the far too sweet-scented and psychedelic Dylan’s Candy Store, we checked our bags into the Bloomingdales’ cloak room. We then spent the next hour exploring the retail Mecca of Manhattan and sipping prosecco in the Flip bar.

Later on, after a shower and short recharge at the hotel, we hailed a taxi to a restaurant in the Meatpacking District, recommended by Antonia’s New York-savvy spouse. We finished the day with an overpriced bottle of red (why is it so hard to find affordable wine in New York??) and burgers held together with toothpicks. Too many Manhattan happy moments to count!  

#100happydays – day 46

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(Writing retrospectively as bubbles replaced blogging for the remainder of our trip…)

Day 3 in the big city began with birthday cards and a bit of a lie-in. We were finally on New York time and Antonia was catching up with me in birthday candle quotas (Happy Birthday darling gal!)

We started the day by walking (since we were so good at it!) through Gramercy and the Garment District to the fabulously authentic Empire Diner in Chelsea. There we ordered our own body weight in carbs and revelled in the company of purple-clad ‘Ray Charles’ who sat sipping cwoffee at the counter. The granola parfait was delish, the buttermilk pancakes purely sinful and the Hungry Bear breakfast was a heart attack waiting to happen, but we committed to the cause and ploughed our way through one of the the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. 

Continuing our week long theme of walking, we then explored the much hyped High Line park, built on a disused train track running north through Chelsea to the Garment District. Underwhelmed by all of the concrete and barren trees, we did however enjoy the birds’ eye street views and the pop art print stalls along the route. As Londoners used to picnicking in palatial greenery all year round, our visit to the High Line forced us to concede that we are in fact ‘park snobs’.

Our walking tour continued with a trip to Carrie Bradshaw’s stoop (it was mostly under tarpaulin with all the glam gone!) and the Friends’ apartment building (where we joined a mini queue of European tourists all vying for the same photo). The rain then made its debut appearance in our New York adventure and forced us to seek shelter (and more carbs) in the Magnolia Bakery. 

Having exhausted our enthusiasm for the West Village we then hailed a taxi to Pier 78 (much to the confusion of our taxi driver…I’m guessing very few of his fares take a boat ride in the rain) and boarded the City Sights Boat Tour. Feeling soggy, we did most of our sightseeing from the lower deck but did brave the choppy winds and downpour when we passed under the Brooklyn Bridge and circled the Statue of Liberty. Iconic landmarks with wind swept hairdos do NOT for good selfies make, but we tried our best nonetheless!  Back on dry land (but not feeling particularly dry!) we caught the shuttle bus to Times Square with the intention of doing the Upper Manhattan bus tour. But, as was typical of our experience of navigating our way around the city, the lack of clear signage and the blank expressions on New Yorkers’ faces when quizzed for directions, made finding the right bus stop impossible. So once again, despite protests from our swollen feet, we ended up walking to the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side. There we snapped shots of the most significant filming locations from the Ben Stiller movie franchise, all the while looking for our next cup of tea. 

After an exhausting day out west, we decided to head back to the twinkling lights and trendy bars of the Financial District. It took a while (and the help of a friendly local) for us to buy the correct subway fare but sparing our blisters and avoiding the Manhattan traffic felt like mini victories. After a quick detour down Wall Street to rub the bull’s balls for luck (as is customary!) we found an inviting bar that served appetising appetisers and good quality Kiwi wine. Sorted! There we got quite tipsy; tipsy enough to later think that limboing under the subway barrier was acceptable behaviour. 

Back in Mid Town and in a bid to maximise full value from our NYC sightseeing pass, we headed (lightheaded!) to the Empire State Building’s 86th floor observation deck. By this time it was almost midnight and the alcohol coursing through our veins did very little to warm us up at that height. But even with the low cloud cover, the views were spectacular. Another huge tick in the box for us and for NYC! 

 


#100happydays – day 45

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 Another day, another dollar. We began our morning with brewed teas in Starbucks. Turns out, brewed tea is not tea as we know it (and thankfully the lovely Starbucks staff swapped our green herb infused cups of hot water for English breakfast tea when we realised our mistake). We then walked to the Flatiron district to admire one of the most beautiful buildings we’ve seen yet, the Flatiron. It was, like, tooooootally awesome!

On the recommendation of a friend back home, we headed to a quaint little eatery in a quiet corner of Gramercy when we enjoyed the real deal NYC brekkie, Eggs Benedict. “You want house fries with that?“, the waiter asked. Chips for breakfast, surely not! But it worked and was delicious.

In a bid to explore as much of the city on foot as possibles (and to burn off the Eggs Benedict!) we then walked the length of Lower Manhattan. Through Greenwich, Soho and Tribeca we marvelled at the incredible high rises and the beautiful brown stones as we inched closer and closer to One World Trade Center.  

In the Financial District we were surprised to find that you can actually loose sight of New York’s tallest skyscraper with so many others blocking the view. We walked the entire perimeter of One World Trade Center with our heads bent upwards before joining the queue for the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Once inside, we lost almost three hours of the day. The Museum is beautifully designed and utterly huge. Around every corner is another new exhibit, each one slightly different from the last but no less interesting or moving. We hadn’t planned to spend so long in the Memorial Museum but I’m glad that we did. It felt like an important part of my New York experience.

To lift our somber mood after leaving the museum, we stopped for tea and cake before walking down Wall Street and ticking another ‘must do’ off our New York itinerary. We then found ourselves on the waterfront and realising that we were a little late to catch the last sightseeing cruise of the day, we opted instead to ride the Staten Island Ferry. We then spent the next hour happily snapping photos of Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty as we rode back and forth across the Hudson.

Back on dry land, and after acknowledging our dry throats, we found a cozy bar that was celebrating Happy Hour where we rested our weary legs and enjoyed a much needed stiff drink.

Our plans to then walk across the Brooklyn Bridge were put on hold when we found a branch of Abercrombie & Fitch advertising their 50% off sale. Yes please and thank you very much! Thereafter we discovered that the combination of beer drinking and shopping did our bladders no favours so we spent a frantic 15 minutes looking for a loo (Starbucks and 7 Eleven were both having plumbing problems…”sorry ma’am“…aaaaaaargh!). So in our collective desperation we dived into a dive bar and bought more beers (the irony!) just so we use the ‘restroom’. There we enjoyed a hilarious half hour of people watching in what felt like a true New Yorker’s hangout. There was a moose head on the wall, a ballgame on the TV and a small group of regulars sat at the bar (as well as signed bras stapled to every inch of the ceiling!)

By the time we finally found the footpath to the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, it was dusk and the New York skyline was twinkling with a million lights. We could not have timed it any better! The views were spectacular and despite our best efforts to catch them on film, we had to stop ourselves from trying and simply soak up the moment instead.

In Brooklyn we found ourselves a little lost as to where to go next. But after a short walk and quick scout about, we found a sports bar (yay!) where we met a friendly young bartender who was happy to tell us why Brooklyn is now so up and coming. After our 12 hour walking tour of Manhattan and Brooklyn, we felt we’d earned a taxi cab ride back to the hotel. The drive in itself was an interesting addition to our day. Crossing the bridge at night and zipping around the freeway around the edge of the island gave us a new perspective on the size and scale of this incredible city.  

Back on East 31st Street we found the cute little pizzeria we’d earmarked for dinner the night before. There we enjoyed the perfect ‘pizza pie’ and a generous glass of red before collapsing exhaustedly into our boudoir-chic sheets for some much needed beauty sleep. Goodnight y’all!

#100happydays – day 44

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We’re in New York City!! And I’ve been enjoying so many happy moments since we arrived that I’ve not had time to blog them all. But as it’s now 6am and I can’t get back sleep because I’m too excited about the day ahead, I thought I’d try to summarise the highlights of my first 36 hours in the Big Apple with my bestie.

Our hotel The Martha Washington, found blindly online, is boudoir-chic and perfectly central. We arrived mid-afternoon on Saturday and after unpacking, FaceTime with the kids and watching some ‘like totally addictive’ American TV, we headed out to explore our local neighbourhood.

The Empire State Building is a five minute walk away and I got some serious goose bumps when I saw it up close and personal for the first time. And as we headed north along 5th Avenue, iconic landmarks littered the way. We stopped off at the New York Public Library to buy a hot pretzel from a street vendor (I’ve always wanted to do that!), we peaked through the doors of the spectacular St Patrick’s Church and we squealed excitedly when we spotted the twinkling lights of the Chrysler Building. By the time we reached Time Square, I’d taken about 100 photos. In Times Square, I took 100 more! Wow, just wow.

Sunday was our first full day here and we had a packed itinerary planned. We began the day with a hearty breakfast in the chilly city before collecting our NYC Passes from a sprawling souvenir shop where we managed to avoid buying tourism tat, for now. We then headed down 34th Street where we were momentarily sidetracked by The Gap’s 40% off everything sale. Quality tees for $2 and capsule wardrobe classics for next to nothing!

We spent a happy half hour exploring Macy’s, the worlds’s largest store, before hopping on a sightseeing bus and heading south. Our tour guide was a true New Yorker, full of funny stories and (sometimes unintentionally hilarious) commentary as we oooed and ahhhed our way through the Flatiron District, Chelsea, the West Village and Tribeca. We both got goosebumps when we saw World Trade 1 and the vicinity of 9/11. A tiny chapel, just yards for the sight of the Twin Towers, miraculous survived unscathed when the towers fell around it and the faint sense of what it must have been like to have been on the ground that day was intensely moving.

Spotting the Statue of Liberty in the distance as we passed Battery Park, and then admiring the beauty of the Brooklyn Bridge were yet more highlights on our brilliant bus tour. I had to resist the urge to give our lovely tour guide a hug when we disembarked at The Rockerfeller Center. After spending over an hour with him (he sat right behind us throughout the tour and happily answered all of our questions), I felt as if he was my first New York friend! 

Our afternoon was spent marvelling at the impressive collection of Picassos, Klimts and Warhols at the Museum of Modern Art before we took an elevator to the 70th floor of the Rockerfeller Centre where the word ‘breathtaking’ doesn’t actually do the views justice. It was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.  We rounded off our incredible day at Grand Central Station where we drank champagne cocktails at the Campbell Apartments. And this was just Day 1 folks. Happy moments overload!   

#100happydays – day 31

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Another day, another bag but this one was only 99p from TKMaxx and helped to remind me that in just one month’s time, I’ll be flying to NYC! So in preparation I’ve now compiled a ‘must do’ list that includes:

  • Email hotel to check that our reservation is valid and we have not be scammed by eBookers
  • Investigate how I can access (and afford!) wifi while I’m there – five days without my family is doable but five days without Facebook is unthinkable!
  • Read the damn guidebook that has been waiting patiently on my bedside table since Christmas 
  • Overhaul my wardrobe to ensure that I have a subtly stylish array of activity-appropriate outfits for the trip
  • Buy some bucks / convert my currency etc…do people still use travellers cheques??! (it’s been a while since I last left England…)
  • Watch all six series of Sex In The City for research purposes (but not the films because they were crap)