A Dinner onboard the Belmond British Pullman

There is something about certain train journeys – the old-school glamour, fine dining and fabulous outfits. And copious amounts of champagne – I have to confess, it had my name written all over it. The magic of the golden age of travel has been brought back to life by the Belmond British Pullman (the new brand name of Orient Express Trains & Cruises).

I had to take this photo, I had to!

I had to take this photo, I had to!

The British Pullman, is made up of 11 carriages that formed part of the most famous services in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s – each with its unique style and personality, beautifully restored and refurbished.

To say we were excited to go on this journey, would be an understatement – and funnily enough, we weren’t exactly going anywhere: the train ride was the experience, as we were to return and depart from London Victoria Station, after a 5-hour fine dining experience.

Not your average station experience!

Not your average station experience! The black-tie dress code made the experience even more special, in my opinion.

The 100+ passengers arrived at the station, half an hour before its departure. During this time, we got to enjoy the British Pullman lounge, which is conveniently located by its boarding platform. On arrival, we were immediately greeted by a glass of champagne and were handed a beautiful box with our tickets, which were part of our personalised travel journal. I loved this detail and how special it made everyone feel – this train journey is certainly a special occasion and this keepsake would be one of the memories to take back home.

Not your average train ticket, either!

Not your average train ticket, either!

The British Pullman operates both lunch and dinner services throughout the year, but this year, there is something even more special – Belmond has invited some of the leading British chefs to team up with its executive chef Robbie Gleeson and serve truly unique dining experiences. In our travel date, the pop-up chef was Tom Kerridge, the executive chef of the 2-star Michelin pub The Hand & Flowers (the only pub with stars in the UK). Needless to say, Tom was at the lounge meeting and greeting every passenger.

After a couple of glasses of champagne, it was time to board the British Pullman!

Our carriage: Cygnus.

Our carriage: Cygnus.

Obviously there was no luggage, so it was easier for everyone – but made even more special by the staff, which welcomed each passenger to its correct carriage. These are named and not numbered, so we did need a little help to find Cygnus, which was designed in 1938, but not completed until 1951.

The excitement was about to begin!

The excitement was about to begin!

When we got to our carriage, all we could say was ‘ahhhhhhhh’. It was stunning – and every person who boarded the train had exactly the same reaction. The tables were set and looking stunning and you could just feel the excitement in the air.

One of the few places in the world where each table has a view :)

One of the few places in the world where each table has a view ?

There are tables for 1, 2 and 3 on the main part of each carriage, with separate areas for tables of 4 (called coupes). We were actually assigned a table for 3, which meant we had an extra seat which was perfect for all the goodies we had – a signed Tom Kerridge book, a magazine, and of course our lovely box with our tickets.

It didn’t take long until we left. And to be honest, no one had any idea where we were going – but we found that information in our travel journal, which indicated that we were going on a loop journey via Ashford, Canterbury West and Whistable. It was actually interesting to see the various types of scenery, which changed dramatically from urban to rural and we even got some peeks of the sea.

Couldn't you tell how happy I was?

Couldn’t you tell how happy I was?

Champagne continued to flow and our culinary journey was about to begin – some pretty canapés arrived before our 5-course dinner.

Delicate and delicious canapés, which were matched to the Laurent Perrier champagne served on board the British Pullman.

Delicate and delicious canapés, which were matched to the Laurent Perrier champagne served on board the British Pullman.

Things got off to a flying start with the actual first course – an English cucumber gazpacho, served with creme fraiche and vodka. It was incredibly delicious (and something we will be attempting to recreate at home one day) and if I am perfectly honest, I have a complaint to make: it was too small. It was absolutely fantastic and a few weeks later, we are still talking about it. The cold soup was paired with a Jake’s Orchard Sparkling Cider & Nettles (I kid you not), from Kent, England, which was very nice.

My favourite dish of the meal!

My favourite dish of the meal!

The second course was chilled Cornish mackerel escabeche with pickled carrots, and I had to ask Mr. O if he had called in advance to let them know about two things I really don’t care for! Obviously, he had a little bit of mine. This course was paired with a cold Beaujolais (2011 Morgon Domaine Jean Descombe from France), which was lovely.

Not my cup of tea, but it did look pretty.

Not my cup of tea, but it did look pretty.

The third course was a braised new season lamb shank which was absolutely fantastic. It was served with pea and mint ragu, pickled girolls and salsa verdi. I knew the food was going to be amazing, but I was also incredibly impressed with what the chefs were able to cook on a train – it cannot be easy. It was paired with a 2008 Bandol Domaine de la Begude (from France), which was, without a doubt, the best wine served.

Apologies for the slightly out of focus photo - but the train was moving!

Apologies for the slightly out of focus photo – but the train was moving!

Service was outstanding – a lot of attention to detail and the timings were perfect. I had wondered if 5 hours would be too long for a dinner – but it actually wasn’t. Everything was timed to perfection, and needless to say, our glasses (both wine and water) were always tendered to. No detail was too small.

During dinner, we also had some entertainment (which we obviously didn’t expect). There were some musicians who played in each carriage and they were very good. If you want to hear a little bit, have a look a the little video I did on Instagram (only 15 secs, but gives you an idea).

Doesn't Mr. O look fab? I love him in black tie.

Doesn’t Mr. O look fab? I love him in black tie.

After a little break, it was time for dessert. In the United Kingdom, that means the cheese course, of course! I think it would be fair to say that most people who do not know the UK well, never heard about one of its secrets: amazing cheeses. On this occasion, we were treated to Beenleigh Blue, Gubbeens, Wealdwad Goats and Somerset Brie, served with grapes and raisin bread. This little bit of heaven was paired with a 20-year-old Ferreira Duque de Bragranca Tawny Port, from Portugal (obviously!).

Needless to say, Mr. O only ate his portion. There was nothing left from mine.

Needless to say, Mr. O only ate his portion. There was nothing left from mine.

At this stage, we other visitors: a magician who was actually very good. It got all of the passengers of the carriage chatting and laughing and obviously I cannot tell you the tricks he played on us.

I have to say I didn’t have a lot of room left at this stage, but it would be rude not to try the last course: a summer fruit fool, with pink peppercorn shortbread – it seriously does not get any more British than that! It was paired with a lovely lovely lovely 2013 Moscato d’Asti from Piedmont, Italy and I may have asked for seconds.

A lovely Summer fool.

A lovely Summer fool. Apologies for the lack of focus, but it was a combination of the train moving and the Moscato.

At this stage, we had realised that 4 hours had come and gone – and I cannot tell you how quickly it went. Especially when Tom Kerridge did the rounds of all carriages and came to say hello and chatted for a bit with every passenger. It was a lovely touch (and he got me some ideas of how to get a table for the Hand & Flowers before May 2015). He also signed the book and happily took a photo with us.

Tom Kerridge was really nice and it was a pleasure to meet him.

Tom Kerridge was really nice and it was a pleasure to meet him.

And after coffee and tea, I am not sure how, but we got back to London Victoria station where it all began, 5 hours before. I loved our evening at the British Pullman, and it was also great to meet other guests and find what occasion led them to that night: a birthday, wedding anniversary, engagement and quite a few tourists who thought they wanted a true British experience – and I cannot agree more. If you are visiting, it is one of the most quintessentially British experiences you could have, and one you could take with you forever.

A glass of Moscato I won't forget in a hurry. Or ever.

A glass of Moscato I won’t forget in a hurry. Or ever.

One thing you also get to take with you, besides the menus and the (lovely) travel journey, is the silver napkin rings. They were removed from our tables when service started, but were given to every passenger before we got back to London (so no, I did not steal them!).

Another very thoughtful keepsake.

Another very thoughtful keepsake.

As we got back to the station, you could tell everyone was smiling and oh so happy – a fantastic evening, in my case, spent in the company of my fantastic husband. And it won’t be long until I am back, as later in the year I will be going on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, from Venice to London, and once we cross the channel back to the UK, the British Pullman will be there waiting for us. And take us to Victoria again. And again.

And if you want to see what ‘The Dinner’ experience really looks like, I leave you with this video. It was truly exceptional.

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer and Fact Box: I was a guest of the Belmond British Pullman, and as always, opinions are my own. The ‘Lunch’ journeys start at £235 per person, including all food and drinks, and the ‘Dinner’ experience starts at £420 (£495 if hosted by a celebrity pop-up chef). You can find out more about upcoming journeys on the British Pullman, by clicking here. 

My hOtel: Salcombe Harbour Hotel, Devon, UK

myhotel

Located in postcard-pretty Salcombe, in South Devon (in England!), the Salcombe Harbour Hotel has recently opened and brought a lot of style and a breath of fresh air to the hotel scene in this quintessentially English seaside town. For those of you who know the region well, it is located on the ground of the Marine Hotel.

I know this part of the world well as the rest of the O’Reilly family leaves in the area, and I was very keen to try this hotel on a recent trip to Devon.

Welcome to Salcombe! What a view!

Welcome to Salcombe! What a view!

Pre-Arrival

–          Was there any pre-arrival communication by the hotel with myself via email or social media?

My stay was organised by email a couple of weeks before I arrived. One needs to live dangerously every now and then and we decided to head south to see the family with only a couple of weeks’ notice, which is pretty extreme for us.

So so so pretty!

So so so pretty!

–          Did I try to engage the hotel via Twitter? Did the hotel interact with me and made me feel welcome/special?

Nothing happened on the social media front.

–          Has the hotel tried to gather any personal information (e.g. preferences) prior to my stay?

Not really, but again not necessary. This hotel had something very special – and just bear with me for a bit until you find out.

Arrival

Loved the nautical style of the hotel!

Loved the nautical style of the hotel!

–          The wow factor! What was the hotel decor style?

As soon as we walked in, we loved the hotel. I loved the nautical and very ‘New England’ style, which went perfectly with the location.

–          How quick and efficient was the hotel check-in?

We had a fab check in with Jo, who was also the duty manager, who was fantastic.

–          Was I addressed by name once reservation has been located? (it is all about the small details, some others are outstanding with this, and I love it, like I do when I board an airplane)

Absolutely.

–          Did I get an upgrade from my confirmed pre-booked room type?

We weren’t sure which room we had been allocated and were delighted with our ‘Estuary Room with Balcony’.

–          Did I feel genuinely welcomed by the hotel staff?

Yes indeed. Everyone was lovely.

–          Luggage – how many people did I have to tip before the luggage made it safely to my room? This is cultural, I know

We only had a small carry on and were able to take it to the room.

–          Wi-fi – was I told anything about it? Was there a charge?

Wifi is free to all registered guests. 

Room Experience

An 'ahhhhhhh' moment indeed! Such a pretty room.

An ‘ahhhhhhh’ moment indeed! Such a pretty room.

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

Our room was lovely and spacious and do not get me started on the view!

–          Welcome amenity

We had (as will any guest) the best amenity in the world: GIN! This little treat (or sherry) is possibly one of the best ideas ever. Free or charge and refilled every two days, you can have as many gins as you want. The tonic is, of course, charged (and interestingly we only had a bottle. I suggested to the hotel to have a tonic mini bar, with lots of brand choices to go along with the Plymouth. At around 6pm every day, housekeeping comes round with ice and lemon. Genius or what?

Best welcome amenity ever? I think so.

Best welcome amenity ever? I think so.

–          The bed

We slept really well – the bed was comfortable and the bed linens also very nice.

–          Closet/Wardrobe – proper hangers or those annoying ones where you need a PhD to get them out one by one? This is a personal pet peeve of mine. I can’t stand them.

All good in this department.

Our room was L-shaped and had a lovely sitting area with great views too.

Our room was L-shaped and had a lovely sitting area with great views too.

–          Iphone Charger/Dock

There is an iPhone 4 dock, which we did not use.

–          Bathrobes and slippers

All there, but we didn’t use.

Little details. We loved the basket with the blanket and slippers.

Little details. We loved the basket with the blanket and slippers.

–          Coffee and Tea

Yes, with a Nespresso maker, plenty of pods and also tea making facilities (we did not use).

–          Free bottled water

Yes, to be found near the gin.

–          Magazine selection – had some nice surprises and doesn’t happen often enough!

It was very local and quite interesting.

Great signs!

Great signs!

–          Power sockets in useful places – we have more and more devices and we know where we want them! By the bed, by the working area.

We didn’t have a problem charging our devices.

Bathroom

Great bathroom too!

Great bathroom too!

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

The bathroom was great and very well fitted.

–          Bath, shower and taps – I am looking for Duravits and Hansgrohes (or other fab brands) around the world. How fab was the shower? And a little pet peeve.. was I able to operate the shower without asking Mr. O for help?

We had a bath with a great shower head, although I would have preferred a walk-in shower. The fittings of the bathroom were all Duravit and Hansgrohe, ha!

–          Towels – yes, please! How many and how soft and lovely?

Absolutely fine.

–          Toiletries – own brand, super brand, baby ones or proper ones? I shall find out!

The hotel used products from The White Company – a brand I love (their home range is fantastic), but I had never tried the toiletries. They were very good.

–          Amenity kit – I don’t want more sewing kits thank you very much, but I will need a shower cap.

We had everything we needed, neatly displayed as seen above.

–          Hairdryer – is it a human one, or just something stuck to a wall that only makes noise?

There was one, but we didn’t use.

Bar & Restaurant

A very sea to table experience at The Jetty.

A very sea to table experience at The Jetty.

Dinner and breakfast takes place at The Jetty, which is open to non-hotel guests. I loved the decor and, of course, the views. The restaurant was quite busy when we visited – but service was very personable and friendly. We had great seafood and of course, local British cheese for dessert.

Needless to say, the bar came with great views – and great gin & tonics too!

This was actually a local delicacy! Plymouth is very close to Salcombe.

This was actually a local delicacy! Plymouth is very close to Salcombe.

General thoughts

–          How good and reliable was the wi-fi?

It was a bit patchy and so was phone reception due to the location.

–          Did the hotel interact with me via Twitter during my stay?

No, they didn’t.

A very interesting lift, I have to say - you really need to know your room number.

A very interesting lift, I have to say – you really need to know your room number.

–          Location

Possibly one of the best locations in Salcombe, within minutes of the town shopping area and, amazing estuary views.

–          Cost – rooms starting from…

Estuary rooms cost from £155 to £310, depending on the season.

–          Would I recommend it to my best friend?

Absolutely.

–          Would I stay again?

Oh, I will!

My thoughts, exactly!

My thoughts, exactly!

Have you visited this hotel? What were your thoughts?

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Salcombe Harbour Hotel during this stay, but hopefully you will see that this has not influenced my thoughts about the property. For more information about the hotel, visit its official website.

Making the perfect Spanish omelette (tortilla de patatas) with @lutzbosing

Recently a friend of mine came over for dinner. And for some reason (thank God!) I asked her if she ate meat. I don’t know why I asked, but when she said she was a vegetarian, I was in a little bit of trouble – especially as my dinner party repertoire really isn’t vegan friendly. I immediately turned to my friends on Facebook and one suggested I made ‘tortilla de patatas‘, the traditional Spanish omelette – and honestly, I knew I couldn’t deliver. So I prayed my friend liked cheese and wine, and more cheese, and salad, and more wine, of course. The evening was a success, but it really got me thinking.

I am a very proud host (Mr. O and yours truly do put on a decent show when we entertain), but I was intrigued – and as I was on my way to the stunning Finca Cortesin, in Spain, I had a brilliant idea: ask their great executive chef Lutz Bosing, to give me a little lesson. In less than a couple of minutes, he tweeted back saying he was game for it and on my second day at Finca Cortesin, I learned from the very best.

So if you fancy trying something new, here is how you can make a remarkable ‘tortilla de patatas‘:

The ingredients

You will need eggs, potatoes, onions, salt and olive oil. As simple as that. You can see on the image garlic (which we used to make alioli) and roasted green peppers which we used as a garnish.

Very simple ingredients indeed!

Very simple ingredients indeed

Preparation

The first thing you will need to do is cut the potatoes. You can do it like a normal person, or chef-style like Lutz did. You can cut them in any shape you like, but I will follow Lutz’ lead – in small thin slices.

Don't listen to me... listen to Lutz!

Don’t listen to me… listen to Lutz!

Cooking

After this, you need to boil the potatoes. And interestingly, you do so with olive oil instead of water (a revelation for me), obviously in very low temperature – it is important that you don’t let it start frying.

This 'boiling with olive oil' technique was new to me.

This ‘boiling with olive oil’ technique was new to me.

After 1o minutes or so, you let the potatoes cool down and only start the next part of the process once they are cool again (so maybe best to do the potatoes bit a bit before the cooking). The same procedure applies to the onions, which are to be cooked the same way (and separately, of course).

Cool potatoes!

Cool potatoes!

Then the magic begins! Get a bowl and crack the eggs, and whisk them, like you would if you were cooking a normal scrambled egg dish. Add salt, of course.

Add the onion and salt to the eggs

Add the onion and salt to the eggs

Once you have added the onions, and whisked, you can then add the potatoes. You can see where this is going….

Are you still with me? This is cooking 101.

Are you still with me? This is cooking 101.

Now it is time to start cooking, and the first step is to have a frying pan with olive oil (notice the quantity, not a lot!)

A little goes a long way!

A little goes a long way!

Pour the contents of your bowl in the pan, and watch for the magic to happen.

Doesn't this look like it will be yummy?

Doesn’t this look like it will be yummy?

You will need to decide how cooked you like your eggs – it is nice to have some moisture on them, in my opinion. To see the cooking process, just watch this video below (or click here).

The really difficult part of this dish is to flip the tortilla (and pray that it lands where it should). You should cook the other side for a bit and then leave it to rest.

OMG, flipping should end like this.

OMG, flipping should end like this.

Enjoying

And then, after a few minutes (honestly), you will have one of the Spanish classics in front of you – a fabulously looking tortilla de patatas, or Spanish omelette.

It tasted delicious, and I will be never be caught short again when a non-meat eating friend comes round!

Yummy tortilla de patatas!

Yummy tortilla de patatas!

Have you ever attempted to make one of these babies? Do send me photos if you try!

xo

Mrs. O

Discovering Puglia, the heel of Italy

I am a great believer that one cannot have too much Italy in one’s life. It is a fact and I accept it in almost a religious way. What I love about Italy is the regional diversity – reflected in the scenery, fashion and, of course, food. I know the country reasonably well – I must have been 10 times or more, but I also accept that I probably need to go back 87 times, to be precise, to make sure that these were lasting impressions… just because.

La Selfie Italiana - Mary Anne, moi, Mr. O and Jeff and Ashley at the back. Fab memories.

La Selfie Italiana – Mary Anne, moi, Mr. O and Jeff and Ashley at the back. Fab memories.

For most people, Rome is the city of their dreams (and do not get me wrong, I love it), but I also have a lot of love for Milan, which most people don’t. I finally found my way around Genova, in the west,  after a couple of visits, but I may have left my heart in Barolo, in Piemonte. But guess what, I will find it in Venice when I return later this Summer (and come back to London on the iconic Belmond Orient Express, to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary).

Puglia has a very special location – if you picture the Italian map, which we all know looks like a boot, Puglia is the region located in its heel. Remote (as in not the easiest place to get to), underrated but simply stunning.

I recently had the opportunity to spend 5 days in this part of the world, following the invite of luxury villa company Passepartout Homes, who manage and operate a great portfolio of handpicked properties around the world, and some stunning ones in Puglia.

Day 1 – Wednesday

We arrived at Brindisi airport just after lunchtime (our flight with Alitalia was actually quite good, but our car rental experience inspired a recent post conveniently titled: ‘Why is car hire the worst part of the travel experience?’) and could not wait to get to our villa. After a stop in nearby Martano (where we met the concierge company who would escort us to the villa), we had arrived to our little Puglian paradise.

Oh yes, this was all for us to enjoy!

Oh yes, this was all for us to enjoy!

The first thing we did was explore our Masseria which had a very interesting layout. The U-shape you can see on the photo above actually helps explain it very well – the property was split into 4 self-contained areas, which made it perfect for sharing, whilst retaining hotel-style privacy. On the left, you had an area with 2 double bedrooms and a bathroom, which was occupied by the lovely Ashley from The Lazy Travelers (and her husband Jeff). In the middle (behind the arches), the area occupied by yours truly and Mr. O, which had the master bedroom, a second bedroom and a fab bathroom, and on the right hand side of the U, the common area of the house, made up by a fantastic kitchen and living area.

Our fab bedroom which was very well decorated and designed - everything was super simple, but of the highest quality. You really got a sense of place, and I loved it.

Our fab bedroom which was very well decorated and designed – everything was super simple, but of the highest quality. You really got a sense of place, and I loved it.

When we got to the kitchen, we were surprised by the lovely welcome basket which included supper staples (i.e. if we didn’t want to go anywhere, we could actually cook a meal). Needless to say, the first thing we did after we unpacked was to go to the nearby supermarket (which was fantastic, I have to say) and stocked up on essentials: water, fruit, burrata cheese, ham, prosecco and wine). We were planning to spend a lot of time at the villa, especially during the day and after returning from dinner and this was a great idea.

How lovely was this?

How lovely was this?

The villa, which has 5 bedrooms, sleeps 10 and it was only a bit later that we realised where the ‘final’ bedroom was – and we decided that as my friend Mary Anne and her husband Jason from JetsetExtra came all the way from California to spend some time with us, they should have it: didn’t their little abode look fab? It also came with a hot tub outside!

Mary Anne and Jeff's little Italian castle.

Mary Anne and Jeff’s little Italian castle.

For our first night, we stayed in – but we did not cook. We took the villa owner’s recommendation and enjoyed a fantastic welcome dinner cooked by a professional chef, Simone, who came in at around 6pm to start prep, and left after 10pm. We had a lovely meal, produced of strictly local ingredients and the wine we had bought earlier was perfect. It was the perfect welcome, and the best way to start our Italian holiday.

Day 2 – Thursday

On our second day, it would be fair to say we did not do a lot. It is what you are supposed to do when you come to this part of the world. Everyone slept late (I was so proud of my American friends clocking up respectable double digits) and we just spent the day by the pool. We had bought some lovely food – I have to say, our bruschettas may make some locals jealous and just spent the afternoon sunbathing. One thing worth mentioning: Italian time goes very quickly.

Totally embracing the Southern Italian way of life. And exploring our villa a bit more - lots of surprises!

Totally embracing the Southern Italian way of life. And exploring our villa a bit more – lots of surprises!

One of Passepartout’s local partners is an entity called Apulia Promotion, who had kindly organised a very special activity for us – to visit an aloe vera plantation (and beauty product factory). We weren’t 100% sure what to expect, but we had a very enjoyable couple of hours with Luigi and Domenico, the founder and brains behind Natura & Benessere. We first visited the beauty product plant, which was very interesting (and different!!) and then headed towards their property, the Naturalis Bio Resort, where we saw and learned more than we would ever dream of about Aloe Vera. We also loved our surroundings and were totally captivated by Domenico’s enthusiasm and passion. We also adored the products, which we brought home.

A beautiful property and who knew there was so much to know about Aloe Vera?

A beautiful property and who knew there was so much to know about Aloe Vera?

Dinner took place at a very local place (which came highly recommended by everyone we spoke to), called “La Porta Antica” in Sternatia, which was 10-15 mins away. This is a place where we spoke our best Italian ever (very very very limited) and had a fantastic dinner. We were also very surprised by the menu prices, so I was introduced to a new game: guess the total bill. The person who gets the closest figure, doesn’t pay, and the others do. At €125 for 6 (seriously, do the math and yes, it included wine and we couldn’t move), I won.

So we celebrated with prosecco back at the villa.

Day 3 – Friday

On the Friday, we decided that the beach was calling our name. And under 10km away, we headed to an area called Bagni Alimini. The beaches did look stunning and we could not believe how warm the sea was at the end of June.

We purposedly avoided the weekend, just in case, and had a great day out. We even got to see some local Italian talent (look closer at the photo below. I could not resist).

Checking out the local talent. No comment. Look closer.

Checking out the local talent. No comment. Look closer.

The beach is organised by various beach clubs and we were recommended Bagno Lucia, which were good and had a delicious yet very simple restaurant. I have to say I am glad I did go slightly off-season as obviously there was a lot of space between the sun loungers – something I am sure will not happen in July/August based on the photos I have seen.

The stunning beach and our fantastic lunch at Bagni Lucia - gamberoni and calamari... si, per favore!

The stunning beach and our fantastic lunch at Bagno Lucia – gamberoni and calamari… si, per favore!

After a lazy and late lunch (of course), we went back to the villa and changed. Something very special awaited: wine tasting.

Italy and wine go hand in hand – and one company I really like is The Winerist. I know the founder well and I was keen to explore a bit more about the local delicacies. So they organised a scaled down version (due to our time restraints, we had to go to the beach!!) of a wine experience which led us to a small town, past Lecce, called Squinzano.

As we focused purely on the wine, we headed to a stunning Palazzo where we not only learned about it, but also got to sample… a lot of it.

Getting immersed in local culture is very important.

Getting immersed in local culture is very important.

We spent two hours with the team, and tasted not only the wines you see above, but also did some olive oil tasting (and you can see Ashley on a video doing a perfect demonstration of the correct way of doing it), but incredible nibbles and bite sized food.

First things first: a bit of knowledge. Negroamaro and Primitivo are the 2 main local grape varietals which produce stunning red wines. Interestingly, from what I understood, Primitivo is genetically Zinfandel, known to be one of the unique USA grapes.

There was even a parade on the main square. We had to toast to them!

There was even a parade on the main square. We had to toast to them!

We had planned to go to dinner closer to home, but actually to one of the region’s top restaurants, but we were having so much fun in Squinzano, we just stayed longer. It was a special day for the town (patron saint day) so there was a great vibe. And wine, of course. So we just sat down, relaxed and made some new friends.

Making new friends everywhere!

Making new friends everywhere!

Back at our villa, we enjoyed a bit more prosecco and developed a new skill: sabering prosecco bottles with a normal knife. I know it sounds weird, but you will have some videos to see in just one minute, ‘beara witha me-a‘ (read with Italian accent).

Day 4 – Saturday

Our last full day, and we knew what we had to do – just stay home and enjoy our last full day at the villa.

We really didn't want to leave this pool. The villa was so comfortable, we felt right at home.

We really didn’t want to leave this pool. The villa was so comfortable, we felt right at home.

We went on another food shopping expedition and actually prepared a great lunch. We had a state-of-the-art BBQ (and an expert BBQer, Jason), so we just stayed in and prepared a very tasty meal.

And before we knew it, it was time for one last dip in the pool and change again. And head to town. And eat some more. Am I complaining? Absolutely not! But before we went, we did a little educational video of how to open the bottle of prosecco. Because we want to share the wisdom.

We were in for a treat – a culinary experience with Silvestro Silvestori, from The Awaiting Table.

We headed to Lecce, which was around 30 minutes away and were very pleasantly surprised with the city centre (we had driven past it a few times and were not *so impressed*). We met Silvestro at the main square and went on a little walk around town towards the market.

I love visiting markets (and very rarely resist buying something). Peaches and other summer fruit were in full season and the smells were incredible.

Lecce was indeed a pleasant surprise....

Lecce was indeed a pleasant surprise….

From the market, we headed towards Silvestro’s house – and wow, we were in for a treat. All in all, we spent almost 5 hours with him – and loved every minute of it. This ‘school’ provides very interesting experiences – from a dinner course (which we took part in), to a full day, or a week. There is something for everyone. In our session, we made pasta, and then split the various tasks of the main and dessert courses between all of us. My job was to remove pips from olives – and I may have eaten a few, oops.

A fantastic evening at The Awaiting Table

A fantastic evening at The Awaiting Table

Our day ended back at the villa where we finished off the rest of the prosecco. It has been a fantastic trip indeed.

Day 5 – Sunday

We were up bright and early for a 9.30am flight to Milan and then on to London. Take note – flight times change a lot on Sunday and connections are much longer than on weekdays. So we had 5 hours to kill in Milan – and staying in Linate (which is quite an uninspiring place) wasn’t really an option. So we headed to Eataly, which has recently opened a new store in Milan. Small detail: if you google directions, look up ‘Eataly Smeraldo’ as there are 2 in Milan and one is just a little shop.

I love the concept and it was the perfect place to spend a couple of hours – getting there from the airport took under 20 minutes, and we had not only a great lunch, but were also able to buy dinner which we took home with us on a plane.

A great layover in Milan: Eataly Milano Smeraldo

A great layover in Milan: Eataly Milano Smeraldo

And with this, it was time to say arrivedecci to Italia once again. We loved loved loved loved loved Puglia, and we only saw a tiny bit. Which means we need to go back for more. And oh we will.

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer and Fact Box: A huge thank you to Passepartout Homes who provided with us a stunning villa in Carpignano Salentino, to The Winerist for a great wine experience and The Awaiting Table for an unforgettable cooking experience. I would also like to thank  Apulia Promotion, who organised the visit to  Natura & Benessere and Naturalis Bio Resort.

STAY: The Masseria Il Trullino, part of the Passepartout Homes costs from €3500 per week and sleeps 10 adults (do the math, seriously). A dinner organised by a private chef in the comfort of your masseria costs from €50pp excluding wine. 

DRINK: Our wine experience The Winerist costs between €40-120 per person depending on the spec and duration of the programme, which is customised to each client. 

EAT: Our culinary experience, including unlimited wine during the meal with The Awaiting Table costs €95 per person.

GET THERE: I wasn’t spoiled for choice – the best option was, without a doubt fly from London Heathrow to Brindisi (close to Lecce and more precisely closer to Carpignano Salentino, where our villa was located), via Milan with Alitalia. The connections were good (but tight, and note, there is no concept of ‘Flight Connections’ at Milan Linate, you need to exit the airport and go through the main security queue again). The other options would be to fly Ryanair direct from Stansted (no, grazie), or British Airways (or Easyjet) to Bari, which would mean a 2.30h drive or more when we landed (plus the additional driving time to London Gatwick).

My hOtel: The Marylebone Hotel, London

myhotel

The Marylebone Hotel, a boutique hotel part of The Doyle Collection, and sister hotel of The Kensington Hotel (which I loved), is located in one of my favourite parts of London… guess what… Marylebone! This hotel is actually a London hidden Gem (with the trademark Doyle Irish accents as a very welcome bonus).

Great things inside, I promise!

Great things inside, I promise!

Pre-Arrival

–          Was there any pre-arrival communication by the hotel with myself via email or social media?

Yes there was. Like it happened with the Kensington Hotel, this property has been building a relationship with me for the past year, which I think is a nice touch.

–          Did I try to engage the hotel via Twitter? Did the hotel interact with me and made me feel welcome/special?

I did indeed, and worth noting that they are very active across twitter, engaging with guests and potential guests.

–          Has the hotel tried to gather any personal information (e.g. preferences) prior to my stay?

Not really, but then again, not really needed. Fair to say that The Doyle Collection knows me pretty well by now.

Arrival

Smart interiors throughout The Marylebone

Smart interiors throughout The Marylebone

–          The wow factor! What was the hotel decor style?

Very interesting indeed. Good colour scheme, some design pieces and also lots of seating areas.

–          How quick and efficient was the hotel check-in?

There was no queue and I was done in minutes.

–          Was I addressed by name once reservation has been located? (it is all about the small details, some others are outstanding with this, and I love it, like I do when I board an airplane)

Absolutely, and said correctly, i.e. with Irish accent and a smile.

Very nice indeed.

Very nice indeed.

–          Did I get an upgrade from my confirmed pre-booked room type?

My room was to be confirmed on arrival as the hotel was fully booked, so I was delighted by the 1-bedroom Luxury Suite.

–          Did I feel genuinely welcomed by the hotel staff?

I did indeed.

–          Luggage – how many people did I have to tip before the luggage made it safely to my room? This is cultural, I know

I had just a small carry on and was allowed to take it with me to the room.

–          Wi-fi – was I told anything about it? Was there a charge?

 WiFi at all Doyle Collection hotels is free of charge.

Room Experience

Really comfortable room

Really comfortable room

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

Absolutely lovely – loved the colour scheme and how comfortable it felt. Was obviously very spacious. The only thing we had an issue with was the street noise – and unluckily for us, there was some serious building works outside going on.

–          Welcome amenity

I had some fruit and extra water.

–          The bed

It was nice and comfortable.

–          Closet/Wardrobe – proper hangers or those annoying ones where you need a PhD to get them out one by one? This is a personal pet peeve of mine. I can’t stand them.

Everything there as it should.

Details matter - and wait until we get to the bathroom bit.

Details matter – and wait until we get to the bathroom bit.

–          Iphone Charger/Dock

There was an iPhone 4 charger/dock, which I did not use, but Mr. O did.

–          Bathrobes and slippers

Yes, but did not use.

–          Coffee and Tea

Of course. Nespresso machine with plenty of pods and a kettle for tea.

–          Free bottled water

Yes, and changed daily throughout my stay.

The lounge area in our suite was spacious and also very comfortable.

The lounge area in our suite was spacious and also very comfortable.

–          Magazine selection – had some nice surprises and doesn’t happen often enough!

One of the best I have seen in a while – Conde Nast Traveller, Delicious and InStyle.

–          Power sockets in useful places – we have more and more devices and we know where we want them! By the bed, by the working area.

By each side of the bed, easy to reach.

Bathroom

You may have heard about my fetish for sexy bathrooms...

You may have heard about my fetish for sexy bathrooms…

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

Well well well, where do we start? It was amazing.

–          Bath, shower and taps – I am looking for Duravits and Hansgrohes (or other fab brands) around the world. How fab was the shower? And a little pet peeve.. was I able to operate the shower without asking Mr. O for help?

All very good and the shower, was out of this world. Seriously powerful.

–          Towels – yes, please! How many and how soft and lovely?

All good.

–          Toiletries – own brand, super brand, baby ones or proper ones? I shall find out!

Oh well… only my favourite ones in the world. Aromatherapy Associates and LOTS of them. Need I say more?

–          Amenity kit – I don’t want more sewing kits thank you very much, but I will need a shower cap.

Absolutely fantastic and Aromatherapy Associates as well. Perfect.

–          Hairdryer – is it a human one, or just something stuck to a wall that only makes noise?

There was one but I did not use.

Restaurant & Bar

I hadn’t realised, that the hotel’s bar was, in fact, 108 Bar and Grill, a place I have visited in the past a few times – and because the hotel owns the whole block, I never put 2 and 2 together. I skipped breakfast as I was on a ‘strict’ diet during my stay, but only because I had The Juicery and had a bit of fun each day trying some smoothies. I had some successes and some serious misses. Kale and those greens are not for me.

Yum Yum Yum

Yum Yum Yum

And because I was so good for breakfast, how could I resist dinner? The steak was lovely and I am afraid I have no photos of the British cheese selection – because I ate it all.

Oh yes. If you are going to break the diet, do it properly. What can I say?

Oh yes. If you are going to break the diet, do it properly. What can I say?

General thoughts

–          How good and reliable was the wi-fi?

It wasn’t brilliant in the room, to be honest, but worked well in the restaurant.

–          Did the hotel interact with me via Twitter during my stay?

Absolutely.

–          Location

I love Marylebone and it is a very convenient location for my London life – and I think it was perfect. If you have never explored Marylebone, I urge you to!

–          Cost – rooms starting from…

Rooms are great value, staring from £226 and my suite starts at £470 per night, including tax and breakfast.

–          Would I recommend it to my best friend?

Absolutely.

–          Would I stay again?

I would indeed.

Have you visited this hotel? What were your thoughts?

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer: I was a guest of The Doyle Collection during this stay, but hopefully you will see that this has not influenced my thoughts about the property. For more information about the hotel, visit its official website.

The Luxury Travel Blog Network – June 2014 Edition

LTBN Luxury Travel Blog

End of June, oh my God, I cannot believe Summer is finally upon us! It would be fair to say I had a fantastic Spring, but I am delighted that my favourite season of the year is upon us. I have planned 5 incredible trips, including Spain, Portugal, UK, USA (California, baby!) and finally, Venice.

But enough about me, I have some goodies to share from the lovely people from the Luxury Travel Blog Network.

Katie is back from South Africa, a country she visited for the first time – and it really making me want to go back and explore further. She stayed at the Singita Lebombo which looks truly dreamy. You can read all about it here.

I wouldn't say no to this. Seriously

I wouldn’t say no to this. Seriously.

Not hard to tell why Katie loved it so much!

Not hard to tell why Katie loved it so much!

Nadine Courtney, on the other hand, went to a completely different place: Las Vegas. This time around, the visited the much acclaimed Aria, one of the new comers to the US playground city. There are a few very interesting hotels now (and brand spanking new), and Aria is certainly one of them. You can read about Nadine’s experience right here.

Not your usual tired Las Vegas room.

Not your usual tired Las Vegas room.

And lots of modern design. I may return to Vegas one day!

And lots of modern design. I may return to Vegas one day!

And the one and only, Kim-Marie Evans, shares something completely different – as the Summer arrives, her children will embark on some very interesting international mission journeys, so she compiled her best advice on how to prepare for these incredible trips. Some hard truths here and a great read.

Saying goodbye is never easy. JJ is now in Rwanda.

Saying goodbye is never easy. JJ is now in Rwanda.

And by going, you are not a hero. These are.And by going, you are not a hero. These are.

And by going, you are not a hero. They are.

It is all from us this month, but we promise not to disappoint (as always!) throughout the Summer.

xo

Mrs. O

Top 10 hotel pools

Although I am a confessed beach lover, I won’t say no to a pretty pool. Especially if it is warm and sunny outside. To celebrate the arrival of Summer, my favourite season, here are my top 10 hotel pools around the world (needless to say, I have been to each one)!

Constance Halaveli, Maldives

I may never leave… you have been warned!

I may never leave… you have been warned!

I loved our private pool at Constance Halaveli, in the stunning Maldives – the fact that I didn’t have to share it with anyone except Mr. O made it even more special.

Finca Cortesin, Spain

My pool. and I refused to share it!

My pool. and I refused to share it!

I adore Finca Cortesin in the South of Spain, and it may have something to do with its pools. You have a choice of 3 (which is amazing in such a boutique hotel), and this will do just fine today.

Saint James Bouliac, France

Small, simple and incredible views of Bordeaux

Small, simple and incredible views of Bordeaux

Surrounded by vineyards and the best views of Bordeaux, it would be hard to resist this pool. And I am glad I did not.

Castillo Son Vida, Mallorca

A little bit of heaven in Mallorca

A little bit of heaven in Mallorca

Just looking at this photo makes me smile – the Castillo Son Vida is a true gem in Mallorca and so civilised, I cannot tell you!

Beverly Wilshire, Los Angeles, California

Small but oh so nice

Small but oh so nice

Who said size matters? It absolutely doesn’t when everything around it, especially the service is nothing short of perfect. I still maintain that every woman needs a Beverly Wilshire moment in their lives.

Columbia Beach Resort, Cyprus

A little gem in Cyprus

A little gem in Cyprus

The focus point of this boutique resort, the pool was where we found happiness in Cyprus, when it was sunny.

Blue Palace, Crete, Greece

The place where I was asked to become Mrs. O

The place where I was asked to become Mrs. O

It was at the Blue Palace, in Crete, where Mr. O asked me to become Mrs. O. We did have our own private infinity pool (where the deed actually took place), but looking at photos of our trip, this is the one that brings me special memories. A truly fantastic hotel, which I need to return for the 3rd time (2015 it is, then!).

W Barcelona, Spain

The hotel that brought a beach to Barcelona

The hotel that brought a beach to Barcelona

This hotel truly changed Barcelona for me – it has now become the perfect European city break: amazing food, shopping, people… and now a beach! Thank you, W!

Velassaru, Maldives

Location and colour perfect.

Location and colour perfect.

It is almost a sin to get into a pool in the Maldives, but I loved how clever the main pool at Velassaru was – notice the colour sharing, and obviously the view of the sea. I just leaned on the infinity edge for hours and enjoyed the view.

Hotel Unique, Sao Paulo, Brazil

The rooftop pool at Hotel Unique, São Paulo

The rooftop pool at Hotel Unique, São Paulo

As city hotel pools go, this would certainly be one of the most special ones I have ever had the pleasure of trying. Sao Paulo was a nice surprise, and this hotel really did justice to its name. And the watermelon caipirinhas helped, of course.

What are your favourite hotel pools around the world?

xo

Mrs. O

Top 5 destinations for Summer 2014

Spring has come and gone – and let me tell you, I loved every trip I took. Things started *very* well in the Maldives, Abu Dhabi was a lot more than I ever imagined, Cyprus had delicious food and Bordeaux was one of the best weekends I ever had. Puglia, in Italy, was breathtaking and I am simply lost for words. Mr. O also surprised me with a fab birthday weekend in Paris, and I adored every minute of it.

Summer is, without a doubt (or surprise), my favourite season of the year. And something tells me this will be one of the best summers ever. Without any further ado, here are my Top 5 destinations for Summer.

Andalucia, Spain

The fab beach club at Finca Cortesin

The fab beach club at Finca Cortesin

In early July, I will return to what is possibly one of the most special hotels I have ever visited. I got in trouble with Mr. O when I didn’t take him to Finca Cortesin last year (I had a lovely girls weekend, which you can read all about here). So being the good wife that I strive to be, I shall be back for 5 days of luxury, incredible service and a very pretty hotel. And gambas, of course. You can read my review of my previous stay here.

Somewhere in England, United Kingdom

I cannot wait to get on this train!

I cannot wait to get on this train!

You think that I am joking, but I literally mean ‘somewhere around the UK’. I will be on board the iconic Belmond British Pullman, for one of its signature UK journeys. Belmond is the new brand name of Orient-Express Hotels, Trains & Cruises and you can find out more about this epic travel brand, right here.

I will join this train on July 12th for the ‘Dinner’ experience, which departs and arrives from London Victoria station. I am very excited as one of my favourite chefs, Tom Kerridge from the Hand & Flower will be hosting this very special pop-up dinner. There are a series of scheduled departures with pop-up UK chefs, which is a great idea.

Alentejo & Algarve, Portugal

Yes, the pool was all mine. And the views...

Yes, the pool was all mine at Herdade do Vau. And the views…

Later in the month, I will be back to my home country for 9 days, which will start with a return to Herdade do Vau, which I first visited last year and is officially one of my secret places. This is a place that did quite a bit for our souls – the peace and quiet were second to none and the wine was outstanding too.

The stunning setting of the Hotel Quinta do Lago, in the Algarve.

The stunning setting of the Hotel Quinta do Lago, in the Algarve.

From here, I will make my way to one of my favourite parts of the Algarve: the Quinta do Lago. For as long as I can remember, we have visited this beach on each trip to the Algarve. Crossing the wooden bridge across the ‘Ria Formosa’ is always part of the experience. On this trip, I will be staying at the Quinta do Lago Hotel, one of the Algarve’s most iconic hotels and I am looking forward to the experience.

For the rest of the week, I will be at the Sheraton Algarve, where we have been staying for 10 years if not more. It is part of our pre-nuptial agreement.

California, United States

Oh yes, we are going back to California. Like the Algarve, it is a destination we cannot live without – I am a repeater, I am afraid. We will start our California road trip in San Francisco, which we haven’t visited in almost 4 years.

I miss San Francisco

I miss San Francisco

We will be staying at the Mandarin Oriental, which promises amazing views and more. I cannot wait to go back. After 3 days in town, we will start going south.

After the city, our first stop will be at the Westin Verasa Napa, in the… Napa Valley. I have visited this area over 7 years ago and I am delighted to be going back. I am sure it has changed a lot (hopefully for the better) in this time and I am looking forward to a glass of good Californian wine, or 4!

I think that the pool at the Westin will be perfect after a bit of wine tasting!

I think that the pool at the Westin will be perfect after a bit of wine tasting!

From here, we will move on to the stunning Rosewood Corde Valle, which is tucked away in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. I love discovering new places in California (because there is so much to see and do), and cannot wait. And keeping with the train theme, we will be going on one: The Wine Train!

After a few days in the city, this place will be perfect for our first real taste of the Callifornia 'country-side'.

After a few days in the city, this place will be perfect for our first real taste of the Callifornia ‘countryside’.

From here, we will continue our drive south and I am still deciding on the best route to take and stopovers. Any suggestions are most welcome!

I have been to Palm Springs 12 times in the last 8 years. And I will continue forever.

I have been to Palm Springs 12 times in the last 8 years. And I will continue forever.

And then… we will get to one of my favourite places in the world. You know it by now: Palm Springs. We visited it by mistake 8 years ago (seriously, it was just a random stop on another California trip) and we have been going back every year, religiously. We will be staying at the villa we own at the Westin Mission Hills which makes for a very nice home away from home. There’s always something new happening every year, and I cannot wait to get there for almost a whole week.

I adore the Four Seasons Los Angeles

I adore the Four Seasons Los Angeles

And our final stop, I am sure you can guess it. Los Angeles, a city that I truly adore. It is also home to one of my favourite hotels – the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, where we will return to after falling in love with it last year.

Venice, Italy

Venice, I am going to like you this time!

Venice, I am going to like you this time!

And to end Summer in style (and celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary), Mr. O and yours truly will fly to Venice (an important detail, bear with me) and we will enjoy 2 glorious summer nights at the Gritti Palace, one of the city’s legendary hotels.

And from Venice, we will board the Venice-Simplon Orient-Express, which will bring us back to London, on a 2-day journey. This will be my longest ever train journey, but, without a doubt, an unforgettable one. Senior Mrs. O, one of the most fabulous women I have ever met in my life (and the lucky lady I got as my mother in law), has been, and has been sharing her tales of her epic journey, which was the reverse one, starting from London. She is also trying to find some photographs, which won’t be easy – but I would love to see them and share them with you.

The Venice-Simplon Orient Express by Belmond. An unforgettable journey, for sure.

The Venice-Simplon Orient Express by Belmond. An unforgettable journey, for sure. (and also hoping for eye candy like this!)

Something tells me this is going to be the best summer ever. And I literally cannot wait.

Where will this summer take you? Let me know all about it.

xo

Mrs. O

Why is hiring a car such a painful part of the travel experience?

Hiring a car is, 50% of the time, a must for me when I travel – I would say I hire one 15-20 times a year, at least, and it still remains my least favourite part of a travel experience. Obviously when I go to a city or the Maldives, I do not need a car!

I have tried all brands, I think and while most of the experiences have been uneventful and a car was provided in exchange for the money quoted, there is still a long way to go. Why? The customer service experience can make all the difference.

Which one to choose? It gets harder and harder.

Which one to choose? It gets harder and harder.

In my opinion, the whole point of having a large international network is to offer consistency – a brand name comes with a brand promise (this is not rocket science!) and that is obviously reflected on customer expectations.

Price is still key – and I find myself not being loyal to a particular brand, which I actually don’t like. In most areas of my life, I have preferred suppliers of goods and services – be that a drink, shoes, hotels or airlines. But in this industry, because there is so little service differentiation (sadly), I have found prices recently to be all over the place – and pretty much anywhere.

I have a thing for Avis (and I really like its Avis Preferred programme, where if you sign up for free, the car is actually there waiting for you, with the keys in and you are ready to go). This is brilliant (and I am pretty sure Hertz and others offer something similar), but it is only brilliant when it works. In the USA, it is a fact and when you board that dreaded ‘airport to car hire depot shuttle’, they usually say your name and the parking spot and that is it. In Europe, it means you have a different queue when you get to the airport desk – I have never had the keys ready to go and a smile. But I have had some very good experiences – so random and unexpected, I thought I would tweet the company showing my appreciation.

Social media is not always about being negative. I like using my powers for good. A lot.

Social media is not always about being negative. I like using my powers for good. A lot. (read from bottom to top)

I also have a thing for Sixt – being a more European provider, it has a more limited coverage in terms of locations, but has recently launched in the US, for example. There are always less queues and cars are better. As an example, I hired a BMW X1 in Mallorca last year, and I liked it so much, I bought a similar car this year (and being an Audi girl, it says something). I also almost had tears in my eyes on a recent trip to Miami where I had to queue for 90 minutes (I kid you not) with Alamo to get the car I had pre booked and pre-paid, to see a newly-opened Sixt counter with no queues. It is not exactly what you need/want after a 16-hour journey.

Argus took this complaint so seriously, they ended up refunding our rental which we disagreed when we found out the credit on our bank account. They have outstanding (and human) customer service.

Argus took this complaint so seriously, they ended up refunding our rental which we disagreed when we found out the credit on our bank account. There was no need and we ensured we spent all the money on future rentals with them. They have outstanding (and human) customer service. Alamo sent me some emails just apologising but nothing else.

This is the Alamo exchange, which sadly didn’t get us anywhere later on, but it was a timely response and I did appreciate it (start from bottom to the top).

Things can get a little heated - this is me after 16h travelling and a long queue.

Things can get a little heated – this is me after 16h travelling and a long queue.

On a recent trip to Italy, we hired a car through Firefly, which is a spin-off from Hertz. I mistakenly went to another company’s counter and asked where Firefly was as there was no signage (in Bordeaux, for example, where I also hired a car with Firefly, there was a separate counter next door to Hertz) and the lady turned to me and said ‘Good luck’. I was sure I misunderstood her and asked her to repeat. And the same words came out: ‘Good luck’. I found that most strange but obviously headed to the Hertz counter where we had 3 people ahead of us, which in a normal scenario would not be a problem. But there was one: it took 45 minutes for our turn. There were 2 people serving and one decided to close down (at this stage there were more people behind us in the queue). Interestingly, there were also 4 people behind the counter doing absolutely nothing. Did they care? Not a tiny bit.

With the help of a seasoned Italian lady car hirer (who was in the queue with us), we realised what happened: they didn’t have any cars. Did they tell us and manage expectations? Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. Just make them wait in the queue. What would have cost them? Nothing. We would have understood. Then we had a little surprise, the car was filthy (inside and outside). I actually tweeted Hertz, who responded within 5 minutes, but they simply cut the conversation short. Frustrating? Yes.

A conversation that ended very quickly. Why did they not respond? Saying sorry would be OK.

A conversation that ended very quickly. Why did they not respond? Saying sorry would be OK.

On the return, we arrived at 8.01am, but the desks were not open yet, so with the help of another Hertz client who funnily enough had been on the pick-up queue with us, we simply left our cars around the Hertz area (not parked properly as there were no spaces) and headed to a safe box where you leave the keys. The Italian customer asked him why wasn’t the counter open at the set time, and the employee said ‘Please!’. I kid you not. Our car had marks everywhere and it wasn’t checked before or after, so we actually don’t know what we will be charged for the rental and prove that I didn’t add a scratch to the car. Fingers crossed it will be OK.

What irritates you most when you rent a car? Here are some of my pet peeves:

1. Why does it take so long to get the keys?

Why why why?

Why why why?

Whenever I rent a car, I provide the driving licence details, my home address, my telephone number, flight number and whatever else is required – you say it, I will provide. But for some bizarre reason, 90% of time, I have to provide the exact same information at the rental counter. I would love to know why (and a UK address always makes people take longer to type and figure out that the post code has letters. It does and I told you before).

2. Hidden charges

On two recent rentals, on the contract, I spotted a ‘credit card fee’. I wasn’t told about it and thought it was most strange – when have you not paid a car rental without a credit card? Debit cards are usually not accepted because of the excess deposit, so I am not sure what gives here.

No comments needed.

No comments needed.

The best one? Cleaning Fee. In Bordeaux, France, I saw this sign at the counter and I thought ‘oh, this is starting well’. Cleaning is subjective anywhere in the world and it was one more thing to worry about when we returned the car. For the record, I always have my car very clean and use a rental car like my own. I understand that others may be pigs, but surely this isn’t the most welcoming way to greet a client.

Pre-paid fuel.. this is a relatively new one and oh God, can it get irritating. It always used to be pick-up full, return-full, but you never know now. Obviously reading the rental agreement is absolutely necessary. I have used some websites where I was told before that it could be the case, and that is absolutely fine (as it is my responsibility to read the contract), but was surprised by a recent rental in Cyprus, with Avis (done through British Airways) that I had to pre-pay a tank fuel for 100 Euros. In an island, where I wasn’t going to drive a lot. Apparently it is a policy for Malta and Cyprus. I actually wouldn’t expect this from Avis.

3. Insurance

Oh my God, we could stay here for days. What should come with a basic rental?

I run a little experiment on a mainstream car hire company website (you can guess by the colour who it might be), using the UK and the USA website (stating in both we were UK residents – not sure why that makes a difference). I set the dates from 1-7th July at Los Angeles Airport, and requested an SUV, which is the type of car I always rent in the USA (road tripping of course and it has the room I need for my 6 suitcases. No judging, please).

On the UK website, the name is a ‘Station Wagon/Estate’, whereas on the USA website it is named as a ‘Intermediate SUV’ – they both list a Ford Escape as the ‘potential’ model and make. So we are comparing apples with apples. I have also selected the ‘Pay now’ option which is what I would do normally (and do understand why there is a price difference as risk element for the rental company is obviously different).

On the UK rental, it states that the ‘Basic price includes: All Mandatory Charges, Loss Damage Waiver (LDW), Additional Liability Insurance, Tax, Unlimited mileage’

The UK version of the rental in LA.

The UK version of the rental in LA.

Not sure why the Additional Driver cost is not made public (and why does this still need to happen? Shouldn’t the car be insured? With Avis we usually do not pay as they have a partnership with British Airways and the additional driver is free for all Executive Club members).

On the US version of the website, I have a lot more options insurance-wise. And the price, funnily enough is not the same – it is $15 cheaper for the exact same rental.

The US version

The US version

It seems that the insurance included on both is similar – the LDW and the ALI. But look at the other options – it is madness!

The best one I was offered at a counter: tyre insurance in case they burst. This has never happened to me all my life and I wouldn’t want that to happen on a nice California drive, no no. $20 a day?

And do you know about the e-tolls thingie? I quickly changed the rental to Miami as I know in Florida you must have it as most tolls are electronic, and both versions of the rental fail to mention anything about the daily $2-3 charge. Why?

Excess charges is always interesting.

The UK version says: ‘Vehicle Damage Cover Excess – USD 0.00 (approx. £0.00). Excl Vat. Vehicle Theft Cover Excess – USD 0.00 (approx. £0.00). Excl Vat. If you wish to reduce the excess you can purchase additional cover when you pickup your car’.

The USA version says: nothing.

I have heard that there are companies in Europe that let you buy a policy that covers all excess on rentals for 12 months and I also understand that US credit cards also offer a lot of car rental related insurance offers – if you could point me in the right direction, please do, as it would be interesting to know more about this.

4. Car types and models

Sometimes I am not sure what car I am getting. Back in the day, there used to be ‘classes’ – and you kind of knew, class A was the cheapest (possibly a car with no air conditioning and where the reverse gear would be an optional extra) and worked your way up. I honestly don’t want a car where I need to move my body to make it go a little bit faster on the motorway. But oh do I get surprised.

Looking at the example I used before, it is quite clear: look at the names, and the options.

In the UK version I have 14 options, whereas in the US version I have 15 options. But the names are so different and confusing – or is it just me?

Lots of options, but clearer in the US version

Lots of options, but clearer in the US version

And the UK version which mixes up types of cars.

And the UK version which mixes up types of cars.

I am not having a go at a particular company – I actually used the website of the one I use the most. I have tested this on 2 other companies and results are very similar.

5. Price

It is all over the place and this is why one needs to shop around. Sometimes it takes me a good morning to work around a rental – by comparing prices and obviously what I save sometimes costs me more than half of my professional consultant daily rate. But it adds a lot of frustration to the ‘car rental experience’.

To get things started, I usually go to Expedia, which gives me a good idea of prices. For the same rental as above, it looks something like this.

The Mid-size SUV scenario at LAX

The Mid-size SUV scenario at LAX with Expedia

Interestingly, there are no Avis results on this search – the price on its website is £249 which would be the second cheapest on this particular search – but you can see the differences above, technically for the same thing.

I then go to a website I have been using for years – a good 5-6. Argus Car Hire, which compares all of the providers and 90% of the time, it gets me savings of 40-50%. I only have an issue with it: I do not know who the provider is until I complete the booking (hence the Dollar, Alamo, Firefly and other experiences that I had, which weren’t necessarily bad).

Argus has real people behind and outstanding customer service and I cannot recommend it enough. An important thing to keep an eye on: location (on or off airport as it also brings some not so mainstream providers. I had a huge problem in Gibraltar/Spanish border as it wasn’t clear).

On this LA search, there are some interesting results, for the exact same car:

The Argus Results

The Argus Results

The rental in this case is actually cheaper (20%) and if you look at the rental conditions, you get more insurance ‘stuff’, and breakdown assistance.

The devil is in the detail

The devil is in the detail

Argus is a good option in this case, but you still need to shop around. I probably book 50% of my rentals with them, and the other 50% direct with car hire companies as it *always* depends.

With this, I have lost possibly 2 hours for a car rental, but I still have another website to show you, which I recently found, when search results for Lisbon airport, in Portugal (in July, when I am going) looked like this:

Seriously, look at the prices. And I have been keeping my eye on this since February. Imagine August.

Seriously, look at the prices. And I have been keeping my eye on this since February. Imagine August.

I was a little bit worried about this rental – and we need a proper car as we will be driving south. A ‘mid-size’ would be OK, but we could not have an ‘economy’ one as we are going to Alentejo and roads can be interesting. So I found this company (who had been following me on twitter, but never tried to sell me anything, to be fair): Vipcars.com. Argus Car Hire results were very similar to the Expedia ones (I do understand that there is a clear supply/demand issue . We rent every year at a cost of £300-400/week, which seems reasonable. £1000, not so much for a ‘compact special’, which you know it will not be a VW Golf as shown on the image).

Look at the difference!

Look at the difference!

My actual car is not coming up on search results anymore, and I contacted the company to check if everything would be OK with the local agent. I was told it would be a Meet and Greet service and that they would be available for any support via twitter or email. I have just done 1 rental with VipCars and did not have a problem. Also, with Vipcars, you know who the provider is before booking.

I also don’t understand (and would love if someone from the industry could clarify and enlighten me) – why is a car rental cheaper if provided by a third party where the main company has to pay them a commission?

But the problem is.. I have to do this all over again every time I book a car. It takes hours – and I just wished it was less painful. And then, it is always a roulette when you arrive at the rental counter. Because it is, without a doubt, the worst part of a travel experience and it is such a shame, as it is relatively simple and could be vastly improved if the companies really had a good grasp about their operations around the world. McDonald’s can do it. It isn’t easy, but it is not impossible. The challenges of a global operation indeed.

So my next rental is with Sixt, the one after with VipCars and the following one with Argus. Does this make any sense to you? Or does it not matter?

I would love to hear from you: what have been your best and worst car hire experiences? Do you also feel some frustration in dealing with these companies? Have you used third-party websites to book? Did you have any nasty surprises? Are you loyal to a particular company? And is there a country where an experience was so bad it may put you off for life? Tell all!

Which UK, the consumer-rights group has also launched a car hire campaign, and they have contacted me to join – and oh, yes I have and will. Find out more on their website.

The perfect weekend in Paris, France

Going back to Paris and actually celebrating my birthday there was not part of any plan I had this Spring – but the best things come when you least expect them (or when you and your husband suddenly have several meetings in the City of Light). Call it a happy coincidence, but for us, it just made sense to extend our stay and enjoy a lovely weekend in France’s capital.

Getting lost in Paris. Sounds perfect to me. Photo by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

Getting lost in Paris. Sounds perfect to me. Photo by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

Friday

My weekend started on Friday, to be precise – and it was lovely to wake up in our absolutely stunning room at the  Saint James Paris, a Relais & Chateaux, well, chateau, located very centrally on the 16th arrondissement, just behind Avenue Foch. Not your standard luxury hotel by any means, and a very special place in every sense of the word. To say the hotel was unique, would be the understatement of the year – each room has its own personality, and a very strong one.

A petit chateau for Mrs. O. OK, I can totally get on board with this.

A petit chateau for Mrs. O. OK, I can totally get on board with this.

The Saint James is a boutique hotel, bar and restaurant and is also a private members’ club, linked to the London St. James club and others around the world – it was a very exclusive yet welcoming atmosphere, with a very interesting mix of the best of British and French together.

I started the day not very early (French time one might argue), and had set aside some ‘me time’, which is funnily enough something I don’t do as often as I would like to. I had a lovely and simple breakfast (think cup of tea, fresh bread and cheese) and then, headed back to our Pavilion Suite where I was to enjoy something quite spectacular – the new Guerlain signature massage, with its wonderful smell (seriously amazing), in the privacy of our room. What I hadn’t realised until that very day (we had checked in earlier in the week), was that our bedroom had not *only* 2 floors, but 3. And in the third one, which was the equivalent of a basement, we had our own spa room, with this wonderful tub, sauna and massage tables. It was a fantastic moment and really set the tone for the weekend. Kind of.

Our stunning 3-floor room at the Saint James Paris.

Our stunning 3-floor room at the Saint James Paris.

After I got back to my senses, I did what every other Parisian woman does on a Friday – I went to have my hair done, because (as I said countless times, no one does it like ze French), despite my limited hairdresser French, I always get fab hair from a stranger. Magique or what?

I was due to meet Lucie Knapek, the CEO and founder of Evanela, a new French company who organises very special events – and that would mean private encounters with artisans (many of them holders of the coveted title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which is code for being publicly recognised as one of the best of the best in a particular area). By an encounter, it means a 2-hour slot with these masters in their art, where you go behind the scenes and see where the magic happens. As I was in Paris, I chose to do something fashion related. It would be rude not to.

A unique experience with Evanela

A unique experience with Evanela

Have you noticed how many more lingerie shops are in France’s high street compared to the rest of the world? It is in the French blood and they don’t even notice it, believe me (we talked about it!). Meeting this particular artisan (who was a delightful woman, spoke outstanding English and was clearly a ‘master’ in her field), was something I could have not done without Lucie’s help. The art of corset making is not dying – it is actually difficult to keep up with the orders. But it takes an outstanding amount of work – the piece you see above costs around €1200, but if you think it makes 4-5 days to make, bit by bit, it is very understandable. It was also very interesting to see the behind the scenes part, and the array of fabrics and lace, which comes in 1001 shapes, textures and forms.

After this, I was due to meet Mr. O for a little shopping and we decided to meet at the Rue du Faubourg de Saint Honore (hum… tres strategic, I know). I like walking this street from left to right, if you may, as it is quite long and sometimes I just give up on the best bits. I did get a bit carried away (who can resist Tara Jarmon‘s spring collection – pretty timeless pieces which match? Merci, madame.

Not a bad week in Paris, one would say.

Not a bad week in Paris, one would say. I made everyone’s life easier by choosing my own birthday gifts – caramel ballet pumps from Senior Mrs. O, navy heeled ones from my lovely sister, heeled patent black ones from my friend Trudi and the Sergio Rossis by Mr. O.

I also noticed something very different happening at Longchamp, who now has two stores in this street: the traditional (and ever so slightly boring one) on one side, and something very new and different, which I must confess I quite liked. I have recently bought some new more design-led Longchamp pieces (obviously I refuse to go away for a weekend without taking 3 of those lovely folding shopper bags, you know, for *shopping emergencies*), but these were something else. I may obsessed a little bit over the shoes. And the colours.

Not your usual Longchamp experience. Very cool indeed.

Not your usual Longchamp experience. Very cool indeed.

After a couple of hours, and some success in the shoe front (see above), we headed back to the hotel to change for dinner. We wanted very different dining experiences in Paris, something magnifique and utterly chic, and something a bit rough around the edges, without silver service (i.e. very traditional French, limited smiles), but with great real food. Following a suggestion by my friend Stephane (who was in stitches until I finished dinner, in case her recommendation was ‘too real’), we headed towards Gare de Lyon (a little bit far away) and had a very good meal at A La Biche au Bois (No website, so here is the address: 45 Av. Ledru-Rollin, 75012 Paris, Tel: +33 1 43 43 34 38). Think coq au vin, steak frites, creme caramel, and copious amounts of fromage. And so busy, I cannot tell you – no time for photos I am afraid. But we really liked it and were surprised when we got the bill: €100 for two, including a bottle of wine.  Bargain!

From here, we headed back to the hotel (to be fair you need to add €50 return taxi fair to the dinner), and enjoyed a lovely cocktail or three at the Saint James Bar, which I have to say, was so sexy, I just didn’t want to leave.

Sexiest bar ever or what?

Sexiest bar ever or what?

Saturday

After a lovely late breakfast (we needed something real as we had to skip lunch, and you will find out in a minute why), we headed to St. Germain de Pres, which is one of my favourite parts of Paris. We got things started at La Grande Epicerie de Paris, which is one of the nicest food halls I have ever visited. Think Whole Foods or even Selfridges food hall but 100% nicer. And French.

From here, we had to visit Le Bon Marche, which is a great department store literally just around the corner. Interestingly enough, I never have problems finding things to buy here. I wonder why! We continued down Rue de Sevres, which has some very good shopping including the most beautiful Hermes store ever. We always visit no matter what, and Mr. O can never resist a new tie. Or three. Oh well.

Hermes, Le Bon Marche and La Grande Epicerie - and those bottles are water, for the record.

Hermes, Le Bon Marche and La Grande Epicerie – and those bottles are water, for the record.

Before we knew it, a whole morning had come and gone and it was time to meet Alexandra, from Wonderful Time who was going to lead us on a 2.30h ‘Pastries and Desserts Tour‘ – this was the reason why we had to skip lunch. Oh and what an experience it was – we must have visited a good 7-8 places, some of which we knew and loved, and others that we discovered for the first time and will certainly become some of our Parisian staples. The tour took place around St. Germain, which was also a great way to get to know different parts of this neighbourhood.

Because we walked, this tour has almost negative calories. No kidding.

Because we walked, this tour has almost negative calories. No kidding.

It was one of the highlights of our amazing weekend and I highly recommend you try this company and their private tours on your next trip to Paris. From here, we walked all the way to the Hotel de Ville, where we were to start our Flytographer session. If you read this blog regularly, you may have noticed I cannot live without Flytographer, and some of my best photographs (solo, couple and/or with friends in Lisbon, Los Angeles, Amsterdam and Abu Dhabi) have been captured by this great company.

A moment away from the crowds at Hotel de Ville. Photo by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.A moment away from the crowds at Hotel de Ville. Photo by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

A moment away from the crowds at Hotel de Ville. Photo by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

Goncalo, who happened to be a fellow Portuguese (we are everywhere, I know!), was great fun, and made us feel at ease. The whole point is to relax – and be discrete. This is the opposite experience of a paparazzi and that is why I like it so much.

We continued our walk towards Notre Dame, where we actually had great light – we were very lucky with the weather in April, I must say. We had an hour with Goncalo and had many different backdrops to our photos, which make this concept even more interesting.

How could a passer-by take photos like these of us? Impossible. Photos by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

How could a passer-by take photos like these of us? Impossible. Photos by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

There is something quite interesting about Paris – it must be almost everyone’s favourite city in the world. But it isn’t mine. I like it, a lot – and I like visiting once a year, because I know I will have a great weekend with the things I love in life: my husband, great food and wine, shopping and incredible hotels (2014 and 2015 will be defining years for Paris with significant new luxury hotel openings in Paris, just like 2013 was for London). But I like walking around town – I do not know the city well, but can find my way around reasonably, and I adore the vibe. But I have no dreams of ever moving to Paris – I just like visiting.

A walk by the Seine, mais oui! Photos by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

A walk by the Seine, mais oui! Photos by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

Before we knew it, our hour was up – we had covered a lot and taken some great photos. But our legs needed a rest – we had spent the whole day walking (I am sure with negative calories by this time), so we just found a little cafe and had a little kir. Because we totally deserved one. This is another part of French culture I love – just sit down and watch the world go by.

Chin chin, as the French say (and the Portuguese, funnily enough). Photo by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

Chin chin, as the French say (and the Portuguese, funnily enough). Photo by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

It was then time to head back to the hotel, and change for dinner. And possibly try new shoes on – it would be rude not to. Dinner was to take place at the 1-star Michelin 114 Faubourg, at Le Bristol, one of Paris’ grand dame hotels. Needless to say, it started with great cocktails at the Bar du Bristol, which was lovely (and very cool, with great music).

Le Bar du Bristol and 114 Faubourg. And a fab dinner.

Le Bar du Bristol and 114 Faubourg. And a fab dinner.

We had a great meal, service and experience. And we may have gone back to the bar for a little night-cap. Possibly.

Sunday

Sunday is always interesting in Paris and we had to be at the airport at around 3pm, which gave us some limited time and I was a woman with priorities: I wanted to go food shopping and that can be a challenge in Paris. On a Sunday.

But this is where a good hotel concierge makes a difference and we had our answer: Marche Poncelet (17eme). Quite compact but definitely busy – and with every thing that we needed: bread, dessert, cheese, charcuterie and a bit of seafood. I pity the people who sat next to us on the plane, but I have to tell you, our dinner back at home was nothing short of perfect.

France came back with me on my Longchamp Le Pliage - because those bags are made for things like these.

France came back with me on my Longchamp Le Pliage – because those bags are made for things like these.

Before we knew it, it was time to head to the airport, with a little stop for a little brunch at the Bar-a-Burger (a bit out-of-the-way, but a fun place).

And head back home, after a fab weekend in Paris.

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer and Fact box: a huge thank you to those who made my birthday weekend in Paris extra special, namely Saint James Paris, Flytographer, Le Bristol, Wonderful Time and Evanela. Opinions are, as always, my own.

STAY: Rooms at Saint James Paris start at €360 per night in a standard room and my Pavilion suite costs from €1000/night including breakfast.

SEE: A 60-minute photoshoot with Flytographer costs $350 (approx €250) and includes high and low resolution images of your time with one of their photographers in over 100 locations around the world.

EAT & DRINK: Dinner at 114 Faubourg at Le Bristol costs around €200-250 for two, excluding drinks. Dinner at La Biche au Bois costs around €100 for two including drinks. Brunch at Bar-a-Burger costs €26 per person including non-alcoholic drinks.

PLAY: A private encounter with an artisan with Evanela lasts for 2 hours and costs €500 – there is no obligation to buy anything. The Wonderful Time Pastries and Desserts Tour costs €170 per person and lasts for two hours as well.