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Friday, 18 August 2017

A Week on the Ocean Wave

The choice of a holiday was simple: a week or nothing.  Circumstances dictated that we couldn't have the customary long break and I did wonder if a week would be enough to recharge my batteries. I'd never done a week's cruise before.  But then I hadn't done a cruise without the kids before - with just ourselves to please.  So the choice was simple.  We'll take the week.

It was a research trip as well as a holiday.  I was working - honest.  If you can call it work.  Our ship of choice - P & O's Ventura, sister of one of my two favourites The Azura.  Destination: Spain, Portugal and Guernsey.  We needed sunshine badly. And a rest.

The thing I love about cruise holidays is that they start the moment we board the bus.  The journey is pretty long to Southampton but we aren't driving and can just sit back and enjoy the view and eat the wine gums.  We loaded our cases on the bus and the next time we saw them, they were outside the cabin.

I always feel better once we have handed over the passports and the tickets at the embarkation desk.  You'd be surprised how many people pack their passports, I'm told.  (I've never done that but I'm not getting too smug because I did once miss the ship, but that's another story of course. ) Getting on the ship is a bit like opening the door to your own personal familiar timeshare, I do really feel that I'm 'home' for a week.


We had a balcony cabin which I would recommend because it's lovely to fall asleep on or just stand there and watch the waves/dolphins/scenery.  You don't need to take towels with you or a hairdryer.  There is loads of wardrobe space, an ensuite with toiletries, a TV, a safe, mini bar and a huge comfy bed. which is made for you every day - a cabin steward comes in twice a day and leaves chocolates at night.  Sadly she doesn't follow you home.

The favourite 'hang out' for me is the Glass House because the food and the wines there are fabulous. We headed straight there for an Ice Wine and I can't tell you how much I instantly felt all weight dropping from my shoulders.  I refused to let my mind stray back home to wild parties that my teenage sons might be holding and concentrated on what was happening on the ship via the daily Horizon newspaper.



You notice changes every time you come onto the ship and one of those was that there is no hiding in your cabins and avoiding the life jacket practice.  For the record, I never avoided them.  It's nice to mingle and gives me the chance to see if I recognise anyone I've cruised with before plus we always play 'spot the plank' an integral part of the cruise.  The lads and I used to take bets on who we thought would be the first person to disobey the crew's message to 'watch and not do'.  I spotted the plank first this time, I am proud to admit.  Now you have to get your cruise card scanned and if you haven't attended then, then you will have to at a later date. Who wants that? It doesn't take very long (at least it wouldn't if people arrived on time).  My holiday begins properly after that.  Choice of bars for a cocktail?  Plenty.  Be rude not to try them all.  Check out my chocolate orange gin one.




Though my favourite is the old Raspberry Creme Brûlée!

You could even buy Barnsley Bitter!  And it looks as if my five a day is sorted easily enough!


We had some amazing meals on the ship.  On the second night we went to the Epicurean with journo friends and were treated to such unexpected delights as a Bloody Mary frozen lolly and a lipstick jelly!  Salmon was cut at the table (whisky infused!) crepes were flambed there too.  Dinner takes at least two hours and it's fabulous. Not just a meal but an experience.  Is it worth the supplement?  Oh yes.  And not twiddly little nouvelle cuisine portions either.  This is serious stuffing.







My very posh surf and turf with beef and lobster...


The men got an 'egg' made out of a piece of mango, ladies got lippy!



My dessert was tiny.  Not.


the after dinner chocolates were many but by then we had reached 'Mr Creosote stage'.


Our first stop was in Vigo - sadly on a Sunday so most of the shops were shut - but there is a beautiful beach there at Samil.  Just ask a taxi driver to take you, it's about 10 minutes up the road.

But there was sunshine, lots of it and we were happy sitting in it, drinking coffee listening to one of a thousand buskers playing Despacito on a continual loop.

As we were by ourselves without my boys, we hadn't booked any trips and for the first time had freedom dining, which was fabulous.  We sometimes shared a table and sometimes had a table for two - if one wasn't available, we were giving a pager and I can't think that we waited above 20 minutes at all.

The food on board ship is a huge part of the holiday, and though more than half my pics seem to be of meals, we didn't actually put any weight on!  We only made breakfast a couple of times and had a few lunches in the Glass House.


My other half loved the fish and chips!


But the totally fatless sirloin with Bearnaise sauce took some beating for me!



I tended to go for the 3 little dishes... and one day we treated ourselves to the three little dishes of desserts plus a sharing platter featuring Alex James's cheese.  Merely for photographic purposes you understand. One day I just had the cheese as a meal - absolutely gorgeous.

We did go to Sindhu at East one night to sample the Indian recipes of Atul Kochhar.





My other half though there wasn't going to be much food for him when he saw the size of the poppadoms.  But the courses kept on coming...


...and coming 

and coming...


and coming...

and coming...


...and coming!

The meal took was two hours of unadulterated bliss.  And we tried the complimentary house wine which was surprisingly good (I had been prepared for us abandoning it and buying a decent bottle).  The wines are lovely on board and very reasonably priced - which isn't the case with all cruise companies.  Though I was gutted to find that my favourite Pinotage has been replaced by another one.  I consoled myself with one of Jolly Olly Smith's other choices.  It managed to take away some of the pain. 

Coffee to follow... and some lovely Indian delicacies. I almost didn't take a photo of that because by then I was so huge, I couldn't bend over to pick up my camera.


It's a very small supplement to dine at East and it's worth more than every penny.   My OH's favourite food on the ship.

Although the Beach House high up on deck 15 offers outstanding views whilst you're eating.

I fancied something light and the salmon - hickory glazed with a potato salad and buttered asparagus - fitted the bill.  



Sometimes you have to get off the ship to compare standards...

 I think the waiter in that Oporto cafe needs to go back to training school!

Oporto was sunny and we stretched our legs.  We also had a lovely day in Lisbon but didn't get off the ship at Guernsey.  We were happy just plodding about the ship.

The entertainment was FABULOUS. For once we didn't go and see the Headliners because the other stuff was too good to miss.  These Chapman Brothers were brilliant.  Absolutely amazing.

Sadly this picture or this clip doesn't do them justice, but trust me, they were a must-see. X-Factor contestants who got to the judge's house stage too.  Comedians, singers, Jon Fisher the Gary Barlow impersonator, who looks and sounds more like Gary Barlow than Gary Barlow does...  Loads of good choice entertainment.

And during the day, playing to packed out audiences was this gem of a woman Diane Simpson a graphologist and profiler who worked on the Yorkshire Ripper case and had amazing stories to tell in her lectures about serial killers.  And then a lecture about Humour and what makes us laugh - and she did.  It might sound a bit old farty to say we went to lectures on board, but they have some great speakers on the ship.  She was the best I've ever encountered (obviously apart from myself). 

Then I come to an event that I don't mind telling you I was slightly dreading.  A masterclass with Marco Pierre White.  I had visions of him throwing me out of the kitchen for being useless.  But it wasn't the sort of masterclass I imagined.  For 2 hours a small group of us sat and watched him cook whilst supping fizz and then we ate what he'd produced.  And there was enough of it to send us out of the class 3 stone heavier.

Did you tell him you'd won Come Dine with Me, asked someone on Twitter.  No I didn't.  It would have been like telling Pavarotti I once busked in the London Underground.  On a kazoo. 



My heart sank when I heard he was cooking seafood.  Not my favourite.  But I'm not allergic, I don't come out in lumps at the sight of a prawn so  I thought I'd put it away to be polite.  It's not that hard to stuff down scallops and lobster, two of the fish I can manage to eat without turning green. First he cooked risotto then served it into small plates and we handed them around to each other, washed down with more Prosecco.  My sort of cookery lesson.  Then came spaghetti with chilli and more lobster and LOADS of basil.  Then pasta, tiny macaroni with (barf alert) tarragon. I hate tarragon.  I ate tarragon.  Have no idea why I could taste the tarragon in that dish but it WORKED and I wolfed it. 
As for Marco's cooking: fascinating, effortless.  Obvs, as my sons would say.  We chatted, we ate, we drank.  This wasn't a masterclass, well it was, but it was more lunch with Marco with the masterclass happening in the background.  And it was fabulous.  And at the end of it all, we received a huge coffee table book of his life and pictures which he signed, posed for photos with us and left us very happy - if stuffed - bunnies.  


Did I learn anything?  Amazing how much you pick up just observing and talking and not really concentrating on learning things - they just happened along the way.

1. That he cooks with olive oil and not with any fancy rapeseed etc stuff because he just likes olive oil.  Simples.

2. That if you want to avoid lumps in your white sauce, make sure you've got more butter than flour in it.

3. Don't cook white sauce with a wooden spoon, use a whisk.

4. Use a spatula instead of a wooden spoon when folding pasta/rice into sauces, far more effective.

5. Use a stack of fresh basil in your sauces, not just a limp sprig.

6. I wish I'd known this before and saved myself HOURS.  All that rubbish about making a risotto and adding a leeetle bit of liquid at a time - total bollocks.  Chuck in the liquid in one go and you won't end up with a lump of risotto but something that (quote) 'walks across the plate'.  I tasted that risotto which hadn't been cooked how the recipe books tell you and it was perfect.

7. That when you're making a fish pie, don't put your mash on then stick it in the oven because your fish will be tough (yep - done this in a bid to recreate his fish pie at home)... but just brown the top of the mash under the grill.  And put cheese under and over your mash.

8. That the best way to make a tomato sauce is to use half fresh and half tinned, cook then pass through a conical sieve.

9. Grate your onions and your garlic rather than chop them.

10. That someone can actually make me eat tarragon without me throwing up.  That amazed me enough to feature of my learning list.

This afternoon is a joy.  The man is a delight to spend time with.  An artist.  And lovely company.  It's a fantastic package - the book alone costs about £25 in the shops - and I would recommend it heartily.

So what else... Always lovely to try new things on a ship - like this salt and vinegar ice-cream, which actually did taste a little salty and balsamicy... and was surprisingly lovely.

There was so much food around I started hallucinating and seeing my handbag as a giant biscuit (see Yoshi !)


Some photos do not do justice to the places we visited.  We realised that we are 'snappers' and our photos will never be seen in a travel brochure.  Would you go to Lisbon knowing that people like the above might be walking around in it?

And we found ourselves sitting in the coffee bar - The Tazzine (the Samovar in Here Come The Girls) and having some excellent Teapigs brews.  My OH was on the detox stuff, I was on the Up-Beet energiser.  We rediscovered a love of tea onboard.  Good as I drink far too much coffee!  Old-farty again?  Possibly - don't care.  We enjoyed it.


So how was a week's cruise?  Would I recommend it?  Would I do it again?

Smashing. Yep. And yep again.

I did think I wouldn't 'bed in' enough on a week's cruise, but I was wrong.  Though I do like the fortnight plus trips, I would happily do some more week long ones because it did the trick, gave us a holiday, some 'us' time and felt much longer than the seven days, strangely enough.  I thought it might not be worth going away for just a week, but I've now learnt that is codswallop.  And I'm biased but we do love P & O and I know where I am with them, what to expect... but also enjoy the new things they throw into the mix like that cookery experience on the last sea day.



I didn't go to the spa because I had a good book and read on the balcony instead.  Totally and utterly relaxed, glass of champers at my side, batteries recharging slowly... This is the sort of work I like!

So many people write to me having read Here Come The Girls to say that they've booked their first cruise because of me and booked another whilst they were onboard.  Good.  It's not for everyone but it's definitely for us.










Friday, 21 July 2017

Anyone for a Creative's Head?


I make a few flippant remarks about writers being bonkers.  Not all are (obvs) but it does take a certain kind of person to take joy from sitting in a room all day, alone, conjuring stuff out of their heads from memory boxes or absolutely nowhere.  Our brains are our powerhouses (give or take a heart).  We sit there typing away at a keyboard, tears rolling down our cheeks at the powerful words we write sometimes, or cheering as one of our characters exact revenge – so real are these fictional worlds to us (obviously I refer to the fiction writers here and not those who write cooking manuals).  ‘What if’ is our mantra.  We spend a lot of time wondering ‘what if this happened to her’ ‘what if that happened to him.’  Anxiety sufferers in the non-book world are crippled by ‘what ifs’.  They are beaten with unrelenting sticks of ‘what ifs’ from which they long to escape whilst writers stand there with signposts on our chests directing ‘what if’ traffic towards them.  It’s no wonder that writers are prone to anxiety.

Anxiety isn’t depression. Depression is far worse: a black cloud that eats up hope and energy, a terrible thing to have – the worst.  Anxiety is exhausting but it creates the energy it needs to feed from. You become hypersensitive to everything around you and what threat is poses. I’ve had it on and off for years, it’s become part of my way of life.  It’s usually my friends who tell me when my worries are exceeding ‘normal’ levels.  Being a mum of two teenage lads and ailing parents – plus chuck in the menopause - brings what I call those ‘normal’ worries.  It is normal to worry that my cocky man-child will not kill himself on a jet ski when he’s off to Ibiza with his equally cocky men-children mates. Normal to worry that my octogenarian parent still thinks she’s able to climb up on a ladder to dust the top of the curtain rails. But when I lie in bed and worry that the ceiling might fall on my head in the middle of the night, for absolutely no reason at all, I know that the red button in my head has started flashing danger.

 I know how to manage it. There’s no shame in admitting I need some non-addictive chemical intervention occasionally; something to help me sleep and keep me asleep.  I’m sure that the new wave of mindfulness might help, except I can’t sit still long enough to meditate. My mouth would be saying ‘Om mani padme hum’ but my head would be thinking ‘Oh shit, I’ve just thought of a plot hole in chapter 5’.  Plus I haven’t managed the Lotus position since 1975.

Those periods where I am at my most manic, where my brain is spinning like a top, are my most creative times. I am in writer’s heaven.  I’m at my worst and my best all at once.  That is the curse of anxiety for me, it is the conjoined twin of my imagination. Anxiety opens doors to chambers in my head that only it has the key to. It nudges me awake at three in the morning with the best ideas.  Without it, I wouldn’t be a writer. Or, at least, I’d be one that had enough writer’s blocks to build a mansion with.

I’m not alone, I know.  Loads of creatives are fruitcakes with added sultanas, we are renowned for it.  Renowned for our excesses and our greed and ambition, renowned for our insecurities, yet we are drawn to the most insecure jobs on the planet.  Anxiety is part of my life and my world and so I cannot deny it entry but, like a demanding relative who has stayed too long at Christmas, there comes a time when I am too tired to entertain it.  I need uninterrupted sleep.  I need to walk down the road without thinking that a car is going to plough into the back of me.  So it is forcefully shown the door, until I realise that I miss its company and the inspiration it brings and ask it to pop back for a cuppa, but it always arrives with its suitcase, and so the cycle begins again.  We are old enemies and old friends, anxiety and I. I am at my most clear-thinking in my work when I am at my most chaotic away from the desk. Take it or leave it, that’s the unnegotiable deal it puts on the table. 


I take it.