“10 days” seems to have become a mantra for our holidays over the last few years. Be it Portugal, Greece or Scotland, we’ve had some amazing fun, making memories and just spending time together. Here’s the photographic proof:
There’s been so much going on in the last few weeks and I have a lot to catch you up on, including some fantastic new recipes that have been a great addition to my kitchen, but I wanted to make sure I also took the time to tell you about the last few days of our Scottish adventures back in March. Having started in Liverpool before travelling on to Glasgow and Inverness, via Falkirk and Loch Ness, it was finally time to start our long journey home and we simply couldn’t miss out the Scottish capital city itself, Edinburgh.
Mike and I have some amazing memories of Edinburgh as it was our honeymoon destination back in 1999 and we were keen to retrace some of our steps and share some of the wonderful sights with the children for them to experience too. We had chosen to spend an extra night there and given the weather we had, it was a good thing we had made that decision. On our first full day, we caught the tram from our hotel into the city centre, before jumping on to the City Sightseeing tour bus and heading towards the castle. Edinburgh is an undoubtedly beautiful city, but we struggled to convince G and M of that as we tramped our way up Castle Rock in the cold, sleety rain and rapidly darkening grey skies.
Despite our warm winter coats, hats, gloves and scarves, M got progressively colder and more miserable as we made our way between the different exhibits you can find within the Castle grounds. One of M’s godmothers is married to a lovely military man and both children were keen to learn more about the various Scottish regiments in the regimental museum. First exhibit done, we acknowledged the need for a temporary break from the wintery weather and headed into the cafe, where we enjoyed hot drinks, some safe lunchtime food and were in place to hear the 1 o’clock gun salute.
Having warmed up enough to bring a smile back to M’s face, we convinced them to traipse around a few more exhibits before we headed back down to the bus, stopping on the way for some dry wool socks and a brand new woollen hat for M. We had originally planned to stop at the Scottish Parliament, but the weather had quite literally put a damper on our travels and instead we completed a full loop and a half, before getting off and heading to the Hard Rock Cafe for an early supper.
However, the next day was almost a complete opposite to the day before and much to our surprise, M’s yearning for a day at Edinburgh zoo was an absolute success, despite the lengthy queue to get in, as we enjoyed a beautiful, sunny and surprisingly warm spring day. G and M were particularly keen to see the pandas, but we also had great fun spotting the lions and tigers and watching the penguin parade. We didn’t perhaps do all that we had wanted whilst we were in Edinburgh, but the children enjoyed the time we had there, even the snow, and would love to go back for another visit and the chance to see a bit more when it’s not so cold.
I thought this week would be quiet as G is away at pony camp for her school’s enrichment week and M is busy doing “activity adventures” for his. I thought that would give me a week to catch up on writing some blog posts, finish the tales of our trip to Scotland over Easter and sort and store the photos from that said-same trip.
And then work just exploded and deadlines needed to be met – and still do to be fair – and life carried on with little consideration for my plans for the week.
Ah well, maybe that quiet week is just around the next corner?
Making the most of our 10 days in Greece was everything we needed it to be this summer. It’s been a big year: with me changing job, G becoming a teenager, M taking SATs and the move to having 2 children at secondary school; and we all appreciated the chance to escape from the day-to-day and spend some precious family time together relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. From the ancient monuments in Athens to the beauty of Syros, Greece was an amazing holiday destination and one place we would love to return to again.
What better to do after a busy few days walking thousands of steps to explore all that Athens has to offer, than escape the city and head to one of the many Greek islands for a change of scenery and of pace? Mike and I were keen to avoid the busier tourist destinations such as Crete and Rhodes and M expressed a desire to visit a smaller island which still gave him and G plenty to do whilst we were there. Once again our choice was somewhat dictated by the decision to stay somewhere with self-catering facilities and a few hours of careful internet research led us to the idyllic island of Syros, capital of the Cyclades islands.
It is possible to fly to Syros from Athens, but we decided to take the more scenic travel option and something that would feel like more of a new experience to G and M. The last time we travelled by ferry was when we holidayed in Ireland about 8 years ago and M has no memories of that trip at all. This time we went as foot passengers, which would perhaps not suit those who prefer a more organised and less Greek approach to boarding than was offered, but it more than met our needs. I had taken the precaution of booking seats for both our outward and return journeys, which proved to have been a sensible decision as the Blue Star ferry was incredibly busy and filled to the gills with people making the 3.5 hour trip. M was, for some unknown reason, particularly delighted to find that I could have a coffee whilst we were sailing and insisted on taking the photo below for my blog to show that, for me, it apparently really is “all about the coffee”!
We were lucky to find, and be able to book, what turned out to be a truly spectacular villa for the duration of our stay on Syros. The Good Life Greece is located in Poseidonia on the west coast of the island, just a short drive away from the main port and island capital of Ermoupoli. Although we toyed with the idea of renting a car for part of our stay, we decided in the end to spend the week vehicle-free and instead arranged with our host, the charming Nick, that he would meet us at the port and take us, and all our luggage, to our final destination. There are just so many great things to say about the wonderful villa that became our Syros home that it would be impossible to do it the justice it deserves in just a few words, so my review of our accommodation will follow in a separate blog post.
However, what I can talk about are the peaceful beaches, glorious weather, incredibly blue sea and delicious food that filled the remainder of our holiday and really rejuvenated us all. We were able to walk to 2 nearby beaches at Voulgari and Finikas and one day hopped on the local bus to journey less than 15 minutes along the coast to another sandy gem at Megas Gialos. Having spent the last couple of summers near Alvor in Portugal, these Greek beaches were a complete revelation to us and one that I think might be hard to give up in the future. My favourite beach destination on the Algarve is the beautiful Burgau, which I love because it tends to not be too crowded and the distance between sun-lounger and sea just about allows me to watch G and M without having to venture in, and out, of the sea myself. The 3 Greek beaches we discovered on Syros were just like Burgau, but even better!
Not only were all 3 far closer to our villa than we imagined possible, but even in mid-August, there was always space for us to set up camp and find enough shade to shelter in during the hottest part of the day. No matter what time we arrived at the beach, from mid-morning to early evening, we almost always were able to find either one of the fixed sun umbrellas or a tree to set up camp under and even if that wasn’t immediately possible, a space would open up within the hour. This part of Syros was welcoming and friendly and so we felt perfectly comfortable leaving our belongings – though nothing more important than beach towels, sand toys and books – on the beach to save our spot whilst we disappeared off to the nearby taverna for some lunch or a cold drink or both.
For anyone thinking of a holiday in Greece, we would all highly recommend Syros as we had a fantastic time just relaxing and enjoying what was on offer. We chose to not spend too much time on the go as we felt we had done that in Athens, but both children were able to try their hands at paddle-boarding at our local beach and I understand sailing and windsurfing lessons are also available in the area. Syros really did feel like a home from home and we would go back in a heartbeat.
With the demands of work, home and children meaning that Mike and I are barely managing to lift our heads above the parapet for more than 5 minutes at a time right now, it’s hard to believe that 6 weeks ago we were relaxing and enjoying my #40thcelebrations in New York. One of the unquestionable highlights of our trip was the opportunity to attend what has to be one of Mike’s favourite sporting events, a NHL (National Hockey League) ice hockey game and even better could watch Mike’s home team, the Toronto Maple Leafs up against local heroes, the New York Islanders. This was undoubtedly more of a treat for Mike than for me, but I’m not ashamed to confess that I much prefer watching ice hockey live to on TV and this game was an absolute humdinger of a match to see.
What I love about ice hockey is the friendly rivalry between the opposing teams and that, no matter where you sit and what team you support, the love of the game is the most important thing. We sat in what were fantastic seats at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, Mike proudly wearing his Maple Leafs jersey and with a true mix of Toronto and New York fans surrounding us. There were good-hearted jibes, enthusiastic cheers and an atmosphere that reflected just how much every single person there was enjoying the skills they were seeing on the ice. In front of us sat 2 families, one supporting New York, the other Toronto and the kids gleefully switched seats and gave high-fives to all surrounding them whenever their team of choice scored. I had forgotten just how much fun an ice hockey game is and can’t wait until we have opportunity to take G and M to see their first NHL game, no matter who’s playing.
This was an outing that had been carefully planned in advance, but we also took advantage of a free night combined with a yearning to visit Madison Square Gardens, and managed to secure tickets to watch my very first NBA (National Basketball Association) game. To say I was somewhat underwhelmed by the antics of the New York Knicks vs. the Los Angeles Clippers is, well, an understatement, but I was completely dazzled by the stellar performance of their cheerleading squad both before and during the game. Basketball is a game that I really haven’t found an affinity for, much preferring the hard-fought matches of the netball of my youth. I’m glad we went to the game and would love to take the children along for the experience at some point in the future, but I don’t think I’m ever going to be converted to a hard and fast basketball fan. In fact, I was far more excited by the number of celebrities who were there watching the game too and loved waiting to see which film or TV show clip would be played to reveal the next well-known star on-site. I’d be hard-pressed to select my favourite star, but whilst Chris Rock and John McEnroe are both are up there with the best of them, it was Mr TeenWolf himself, Michael J Fox, who took the top spot in my heart.
Our night out at the Gardens was our last night in New York, but it was definitely not the end of our Big Apple adventures. We always knew that travelling to NYC in February meant that we might be subject to winter weather, but we never expected the extremes we experienced over the length of our stay. It had started with below freezing temperatures with glorious sunshine, passed through grey, wet and miserable and gave us a penultimate day of beautiful spring weather that saw us shedding the thermals and thick winter coats that had been our faithful companions throughout the holiday. And then, just as last week’s Winter Storm Stella buried the city in around 18cms of snow, her predecessor Winter Storm Niko arrived to give us a final day of bitter cold and the snow that Mike had been longing for the whole time we were there. We spent our last morning trudging through the snow in Central Park, capturing the landscape in photos to show the unbelievable difference that a mere 24 hours can make. Our flight was delayed by a couple of hours, but we spent some great time people-watching at JFK airport before boarding the flight and grabbing what sleep we could on our homeward journey. It was an absolutely amazing holiday and I can’t wait to visit again, perhaps with G and M in tow.
It will come as no great surprise to many of you when I say that February 2017 has been all about the #40thcelebrations in our household. Last year, I marked the occasion of 30 years living side by side with T1D, so this year it only seemed fitting that I celebrated with equal clamour that next big milestone in my life: hitting the big 4-0. I am a huge fan of celebrating birthdays in style and you will often find the birthday cards in our house hanging around for a good 2 or 3 weeks past the notable date itself. Unlike my husband, and possibly much to his disappointment, I
don’t like… absolutely hate…’m not so keen on surprises and would much prefer being involved in the planning, to a greater or lesser extent, of any significant occasion. The plans for celebrating my 40th this year were no different.
When I turned 30, there were 2 destinations I wanted to visit, Las Vegas and New York. We discussed at length where we would go and settled on Las Vegas, with the clear understanding that only New York would do when it came to turning 40. The last 12 months or so have been filled with booking, researching and planning the finer details of our perfect trip to this iconic city and since just before Christmas, the excitement has gradually been building. Thanks to my Mum, we were able to spend an entire week in the USA and even managed to tag on a couple of extra days at the beginning to be part of the judging panels for this year’s Free From Food Awards. Her generosity meant we could take full advantage of travelling without children and fitted the trip in before we hit the price hikes of February half-term.
We decided to travel with Virgin Atlantic, from whom we have had great customer service in the past and again were not disappointed, especially when they marked my birthday with a couple of complimentary glasses of bubbles and bars of chocolate on the flights. We also chose to book our hotel and city passes as part of a Virgin holidays package and settled on the Hotel Beacon for our stay. Located on the Upper West Side of NYC and within 5 minutes walking distance of Central Park, the Hotel Beacon was a fantastic choice and we loved everything about it. As well as being able to walk to Central Park, we were also able to walk the couple of blocks to the 72nd subway station and were surrounded by a great selection of cafes and restaurants to try. What we particularly liked was the fact that the rooms have fully equipped kitchenettes, which may have only had a limited use for our stay this time, but would be perfect for when travelling with anyone with food allergies who might want to prepare safe food themselves.
Our trip was understandably dominated by our sightseeing plans and we did pretty much everything we wanted with a few added extras thrown in for good measure along the way. I’d be hard-pushed to narrow down my favourite part as everything we did was gloriously marvellous in their own unique ways. Mike loved seeing the architecture of the city, from the splendour of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, to the stunning beauty of the interior of Grand Central Station and the sheer engineering magnitude of the Statue of Liberty. One of Mike’s favourite parts was, without doubt, our Sunday spent on Ellis Island, where he was able to track down the immigration paperwork for when his mother and her family moved from Jamaica to Canada by way of NYC in the late 1940s.
I loved our wander through Central Park, both in the blazing sunshine and then again in the snow as we made our way to the Frick Collection, a fabulous small museum containing some leading Old Master paintings and sculptures. Around every corner we stumbled across yet another masterpiece and I am so grateful to my colleague who recommended this as an ideal way to spend a couple of hours seeing these well-known pieces of art. Thanks to our open bus city tour, we also discovered, to my absolute delight, where we could see the original Winnie-the-Pooh and friends given to Christopher Robin Milne before they became the inspiration for that much-loved children’s classic, a visit that took up hardly any of our time and yet was a worthwhile stop for this literature fan. In stark contrast, we spent a long afternoon at the 9/11 Memorial, a hauntingly heart-breaking and harrowing museum to visit, which did an amazing job in walking the visitor through both the timeline as it unfurled on the day and the stories of great heroism and unbelievable tragedy.
Our week-long stay was a truly fantastic way to celebrate my 40th year and there is so much more that I’ll be sharing over the next few blog posts.
Our 10 days in Portugal were wonderful and just what we all needed. We had great fun, lots of sunshine, delicious food, family time and a chance to get a break from all that’s been going on at home. It’s been a busy few days, so these are just a few photos to share that capture our fabulous holiday:
I’ll be honest, the last few months have been difficult in more ways than one. M’s broken leg has meant that we’ve been unable to trial any new foods since April, which has been tough for him especially as we’ve just marked one year since we last successfully introduced a safe food into his diet. I knew that his restrictions were taking an emotional toll on M, but nothing expressed that more than when he recently apologised to me for feeling fed up and complaining about the fact that he has to eat the same 5 foods day in, day out. As we were preparing for our Portuguese holiday, we quickly realised that, without doubt, our travels abroad would stretch our keen foodie to his absolute limits and we needed to come up with a plan that would allow him to enjoy himself without too much pressure on his health.
This was particularly important as M had been frustrated to not be able to trial the couple of new foods we had pinpointed as pre-Portugal challenges because of his lengthy recovery and was extremely disappointed at the prospect of only eating his safe foods whilst the rest of us enjoyed seafood and fish galore. After much discussion, both between ourselves and with M too, Mike and I decided that we would allow him the occasional day off whilst we were in Portugal and let him choose a normally forbidden food or two to enjoy.
From the start we made it very clear that this couldn’t be an everyday treat and that between days he would have to keep strictly to his diet and so we planned accordingly. The holiday was split between a short hotel stint in the capital city and a longer stay in a self-catering apartment on the Algarve, which allowed us to cater for M and G as and when was needed. Our medical suitcase had been crammed full of a selection of safe foods for M including cartons of rice milk, cereal and rice pasta as I had no real idea as to what we would be able to find for him where we were based. Unlike our recent travels to Italy, where allergy-friendly offerings had been easy to find in the airport and service stations, safe foods were not so readily available in Portugal, but our trip to the Jumbo hypermarket just outside of Portimão proved to be a visit to a real Aladdin’s cave. My Mum and I were impressed with the array of dairy-free milks available and chose some new brands of rice milk for M to taste during our holiday. As for the selection of products on the freefrom aisle, I could easily have spent a lot longer than I did examining each and every one of them to see which were suitable for both children. I managed to buy nearly everything we needed including cookies for G and rice cream for M and the only disappointment was that I couldn’t find a gluten-free loaf of bread for G. There was several bread mixes available, but there was no way I was ever going to entertain the thought of baking a loaf of bread for her in 35°C weather and so she managed with some delicious gluten- and dairy-free crackers I discovered instead.
M’s experience of eating out with allergies in Portugal was mixed to say the least with the resounding success of two dinners at the Hard Rock Café in central Lisbon in stark contrast to the disappointing first night meal of plain boiled rice and an apple and it was hard to predict what the rest of our holiday would bring. Our translation cards meant that language wasn’t a barrier to making our needs known, but we did struggle with well-meaning restaurant staff offering alternatives even though it was clearly stated that these were the only safe foods he can eat. To be fair, I can understand their difficulty in believing that M’s diet really is that restricted, but it was frustrating to deal with especially when the viable food options were diminishing before our eyes and a certain 10 year-old was hopeful we’d give up and give in and allow him another unplanned treat. For the sake of M’s health, we did have to insist that some of our meals out were strictly M-friendly and the offerings were often mixed. In the UK we frequently find that most restaurants are unable to provide plain rice and so M often ends up with a meal consisting of chicken and cucumber and occasionally some apple too, all supplemented by a bag of slightly crushed Rude Health Mini Rice thins recovered from the depths of my handbag. Portugal was surprisingly no different. We did discover a few restaurants that could cook plain, boiled rice, but sadly this was rarely accompanied by safe chicken and he ended up with some very odd meals indeed.
However, as well as the Hard Rock Café, we did achieve great success in 2 restaurants in Alvor, where not only was M well-fed, but G enjoyed some great dinners too. The first was at what has long been a favourite of ours, Vagabondo in Alvor itself, a place that the children were keen to go back to again this year. Every year since our first visit there, M and G have loved their chicken kebab starter because of the delicious peanut sauce it is served with and it’s a dish that they’ve asked me to recreate at home time and time again. Peanuts have never been a problem for M in the past, but I was anxious about him suffering an unexpected reaction to them and wasn’t keen to trial them for the first time whilst we were abroad. M was disappointed by my decision, but reluctantly agreed to eat his safe foods only. By the time it came to dinner there, he was still suffering from the effects of some of the other “treats” he’d enjoyed during the week and was happy to stick to his normal diet for the evening. Once our waitress grasped M’s exact needs, she was fantastic at sorting out his meal and advised us brilliantly about what would be safe for him from the menu. Unfortunately the wild rice was marinated with garlic beforehand so we chose not to order for M, but the plate that arrived contained a huge piece of chicken as well as some cucumber slices and a specially prepared apple from our thoughtful waitress. The apple had been cut and served to resemble chips and so M’s plate looked similar to G’s dinner of a chicken and bacon kebab and chips. It was a large meal, beautifully prepared and he managed to eat every single mouthful.
The second and surprise success of the entire holiday was our final lunch, which traditionally we have always enjoyed at the poolside restaurant at the hotel Pestana Alvor Praia. In the past the children have chosen gluten-free hot dogs and chips, but we had spotted that they served grilled chicken and rice and were hopeful that these would be safe for M. Once again, a well-informed, attentive and extremely helpful waitress advised me that there would be no problem in preparing these dishes to ensure they were safe for M and in the end both children enjoyed a delicious grilled chicken breast, which was served with chips for G and plain rice, cucumber and apple for M. We enjoyed our meals out on holiday and found all of the restaurants eager to help us as best they could when it came to encouraging M and G to eat out with allergies the Portuguese way.
One of the attractions that M was keen to visit was the Oceanário de Lisboa, opened in 1998 as part of the last twentieth century World exhibition and which is the largest indoor aquarium in Europe. Having explored Old Lisbon on our first day, we were all happy to change pace a little and eventually made our way there via the beautiful Praça do Comércio and a necessary decision to hail a Tuk-Tuk, when our hop-on, hop-off bus couldn’t be spotted except as a dim mirage in the distance. By the time we arrived the main queue was dishearteningly long, but thanks to the helpful advice of our friendly Tuk-Tuk driver, we instead joined the one for the ticketing machines and found ourselves moving through it fairly rapidly and were into the aquarium itself within little more than 30 minutes of our arrival.
We were directed to begin our visit with the temporary display before we cannily stopped for a relatively early lunch, which meant we managed to dodge any lengthy waits in the cafeteria. Both children were eager to head into the main and permanent exhibit, lured by the promise of manta rays and rainforests and we spent a glorious afternoon there. This was a truly amazing exhibit that took us on a 2-level tour around the world and around the incredibly impressive huge tank that formed the centrepiece of the aquarium. This tank was filled with all manner of fish and could be easily viewed from just about every angle as we made our way around the building. G and M spent their time photographing or filming what they could see, racing between displays and tanks, and excitedly sharing the tidbits of information they had picked up along the way. From penguins to puffins, jellyfish to sunfish and sea otters to sharks, the kids got to see them all and were totally fascinated the entire time we were there.
Our second child-friendly stop was spotted as we left the Oceanário and meandered our way in the glorious sunshine to where we had been reliably informed we could catch that ever-elusive tour bus back to the main centre. M had actually already identified it as a possible place of interest, but it wasn’t until breakfast time of our final morning that we decided to pay it a visit. After an unsuccessful lengthy wait for the renowned Tram 28, Mike, the children and I decided to abandon the rest of our group as they continued to queue for it and instead headed off to the Pavilhão do Conhecimento or Knowledge Pavillion. We have previously had great experiences visiting other interactive science museums such as the Science Museum London, @Bristol and the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto and G and M have loved every moment of them. I was confident that we would have similar success in Lisbon and couldn’t wait to see what experiments and activities were on offer there.
It was absolutely another day that was more than well worth the very reasonable entrance fee and we explored every inch of the place thoroughly. We started downstairs in the Viral exhibition, which looked at what contagion is and how it works, not just from a bacteria point of view, but also looking at the current spread of the social media trend. G and M loved the interactive displays from capturing and identifying different germs to seeing if watching others yawn can cause you to do the same , as well as whether they could incite a virtual audience to copy their clapping, dance moves and Mexican wave. We paused for a quick lunch, which included a plate of rice for M and some gluten-free chips for G in the on-site restaurant before heading upstairs to tackle everything else the museum had to offer. M was particularly enthralled by the prospect of riding a bike across a high-wire suspended above the main floor of the building and successfully rode there and back, though G was a little more cautious and couldn’t quite brave it. Our afternoon was packed full of activity for us all and I was especially appreciative of the strategically placed armchairs spotted throughout the exhibits for those of us who didn’t want to be on the go the whole time! We filled the time we had there and managed to do most of the exhibits, though not quite all of them. It was a fun afternoon for the whole family and I wouldn’t hesitate to take G and M back if we had the chance.