My hOtel: Rancho Valencia in San Diego, California

myhotel

I can’t tell you how excited I was to finally be in Southern California, a place we have been going back to, every year, for the past 8 years. But one of the places I was looking forward to the most? To get to the fab Rancho Valencia, 20 minutes north of San Diego in Rancho Santa Fe. Recommended by a lovely twitter follower (See? With an active community, advice goes both ways), it looked stunning. And I can tell you one thing… it did NOT disappoint! The only Relais & Chateaux in Southern California, Rancho Valencia has been on the sexiest hotel lists for years, especially after its recent renovation.

Southern California at its best. I adored Rancho Valencia.

Southern California at its best. I adored Rancho Valencia.

Pre-Arrival

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

Everything was sorted via email and I was really excited to arrive.

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

I did, and must confess it was difficult to get a response from the hotel at all. This changed on the second day of my stay, and over the weekend (which was quite interesting as most hotels ‘disappear’ on Saturdays and Sundays). Not the case here at all!

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

They did, but as usual, I had no special requests.

Arrival

Can't deny that these babies do make a statement!

Can’t deny that these babies do make a statement!

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

Well, well, well. Arriving and seeing those fab cars parked by the entrance was well noted. Why? Because every guest at Rancho Valencia has the opportunity to drive a Porsche during their stay (on a first come, first served basis, obviously). You need insurance for this, and you need to bring your insurance details with you. We didn’t (as we don’t really carry them in Europe, where the cars are insured and not drivers), and being the weekend, we couldn’t really figure out a way to get some specific insurance to use in the USA (our rental car one obviously didn’t cover it). It was a shame we weren’t told this beforehand and if you do go, please check as it is certainly part of the experience.

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

We were escorted by a team member to the reception, which was lovely and quiet. I love sit down check-ins and loved ours. We were also offered a glass of ice tea, which was very nice. We were also asked what time we would like turn-down service, which I thought it was really clever and useful – everyone has different schedules, and while some people have dinner at 6pm, I personally don’t, so turn-down at that time wouldn’t work for us.

–          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)

Yes, Ms. Silva O’Reilly was our name during the stay, so we both got called this a lot, which was rather fun for Mr. O.

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

I did indeed. We were upgraded to a 1 bedroom king suite or casita.

–          Did I feel genuinely welcomed by the hotel staff?

Yes, throughout our stay, I must say people were lovely. This isn’t a big hotel, with roughly 50-something rooms so it does get quite personal.

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

As the casitas are all spread around the property as stand-alone rooms – they “don’t do corridors and halls at Rancho Valencia’ – we followed the hotel’s golf cart to our room and were helped by a staff member as we had an obscene amount of luggage.

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

WiFi is complementary and worked very well during our stay.

Room Experience

Plenty of space for us at Rancho Valencia

Plenty of space for us at Rancho Valencia

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

Wow wow wow. We had a lovely 1 bedroom suite with its own patio and jacuzzi. It was beautifully decorated and looked like the place one would never leave. And we hardly did.

–          Welcome amenity

We had a letter with a fruit basket and some water, which is always a nice touch. But a nice surprise? To have a whole drawer full of chocolates and snacks (replenished every day) as well as a complimentary mini-bar (non-alcoholic drinks only).

–          The bed

Our bedroom was lovely and the bed was a dream. It was a bit high for yours truly, requiring a little hop every time, which made it quite fun.

Our beautiful bedroom

Our beautiful bedroom

–          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.

We had a full closet, off the bathroom, with space for all our clothes and luggage. Everything was nice and tidy and actually away from the bedroom, which is a great idea.

–          Iphone Charger/Dock

The room had an iPhone 4 charger indeed, but something even better in this department.. wait a little bit ?

–          Bathrobes and slippers

They were wonderful and I used them for once, after showering and when retreating to my outdoor patio.

–          Coffee and Tea

Indeed – I didn’t use it, but checked it had a state of the art illy coffee maker.

A very well stocked complimentary mini-bar

A very well stocked complimentary mini-bar

–          Free bottled water

Water, and any soft drinks you would like (a good selection of over 10 different options) in the complimentary mini-bar. Waters were also replenished at turn-down service.

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

We had 4 magazines to choose from, including Travel + Leisure and Food & Wine, plus some local magazines.

–          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.

Oh yes! If you look at the photo of the bedroom above, you will see the lights on each bedside table. On each lamp, you could find 2 sockets, which were perfect for charging devices. Very clever indeed.

Bathroom

I adored our bathroom at Rancho Valencia

I adored our bathroom at Rancho Valencia

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

I love bathrooms and this one certainly didn’t disappoint. Spacious and with great light, it looked fab!

–          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?

The hotel has been recently renovated and everything was great. My only comment? It took a while to get the hot water going in the shower and I needed help from Mr. O to figure out the hot and cold. The shower head was OK, but could have done with a bit more power. What was really cool? The latest Toto loo (toilet). It did everything you could want.. except what you had to do yourself. I still feel very intimidated by these high-tech toilets and we did laugh at times when trying on the buttons, I must confess.

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

Towels were lovely and plenty.

His and hers basins and a make-up station. Si, por favor.

His and hers basins and a make-up station. Si, por favor.

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

Rancho Valencia uses Amala, a range especially designed for the hotel and its spa. I loved having handwash instead of soap (I do carry my own mini Molton Brown on longer trips as I really prefer it, and not so keen on having to open a new soap everyday..). Each basin had its own, which was a nice touch. I liked the shower gel but didn’t love the shampoo and conditioner.

–          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.

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

I used it and it was very good.

Breakfast

I loved the breakfast at Rancho Valencia. The perfect European and American mix

I loved the breakfast at Rancho Valencia. The perfect European and American mix

–          Décor of breakfast room

Breakfast takes place at the Veladora restaurant (see photo below) which is absolutely stunning.

–          The spread (inc yumminess)

Possibly one of the best breakfasts I ever had in the USA. I love both European-style and American-style meals, and must say that this was the perfect balance – certainly the Relais & Chateaux influence. The breakfast table was simple, but delicious – think mouth-watering crispy pastries, real bread, charcuterie and cheese, obviously cereal and cake and oh my, a new discovery: candied ginger (and other flavours).

–          Cost (I have seen a hotel charging €75 for breakfast – a tad much, maybe?)

The “breakfast table” costs $15 and for an extra $5 you can add a cooked to order pancakes, eggs, waffles etc. Other options available a la carte. Very interesting concept indeed.

Restaurant

The stunning Veladora restaurant - with a bit of Damien Hurst art at the back.

The stunning Veladora restaurant – with a bit of Damien Hurst art at the back.

We enjoyed a dinner at Veladora, and another at the Bar, the Pony Room. This one, more formal than the latter, was absolutely full at night – the restaurant and the bar attract a lot of locals which make it a very lively place (a nice and pleasant surprise for us). I loved the concept of “California coastal cuisine” and never thought I would have octopus carpaccio this side of the pond. I tell you what.. I did and I loved it. Simon and the team really looked after us.

Bar

The Pony Room

The Pony Room

We adored the Pony Room (and the uniforms!). A place where we spent a significant part of our time – for lunch (outdoors), one dinner and after dinner both nights, we loved the light bites selection (lobster slides, yes please!) and great cocktails. It was a really lively place and also with great music. A winner.

How could we not love this place?

How could we not love this place?

General thoughts

–          How good and reliable was the wi-fi?

The wifi was really quite good indoors and we didn’t have a problem at all.

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

They did, while I was in the property and we had a bit of fun.

–          Location

Located 20 miles north of San Diego, a perfect base to explore the area. Also very close to Del Mar and Carlsbad (two words: Premium Outlets).

–          Cost – rooms starting from…

Double rooms start from $600 and the 1-bedroom casitas from $850 per night. Don’t forget that it may include the Porsche (subject to availability) during your stay.

Our casita's private patio and baby pool (aka jacuzzi)

Our casita’s private patio and baby pool (aka jacuzzi)

–          Would I recommend it to my best friend?

Without a doubt.

–          Would I stay again?

Absolutely. We loved Rancho Valencia. It was chic, understated and very relaxing.

Have you visited this hotel? What were your thoughts?

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Rancho Valencia 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.

Lisbon, I missed you

It had been 6 months since my last trip to Lisbon, Portugal. I missed it so much – not just the city and the way of life, the light and the food. I missed my family and friends too. And obviously missed the sun.

So for a long weekend, which included a fab stopover in Alentejo and the Algarve, it was time to go back to my pretty hometown.

The first sight: the newly 'finished' Praca do Comercio

The first sight: the newly ‘finished’ Praca do Comercio

This time around, we stayed in a completely different part of town – and I have to tell you, what a nice change of scenery! The Mercy Hotel, located very close to Chiado and Bairro Alto was our home away from home, and its location completely changed our Lisbon experience. I did feel like a tourist, which was rather nice!

Lisbon is a pretty city, it really is!

Lisbon is a pretty city, it really is!

I love hotels (as you possibly know by now) – and what I love the most is how diverse they can be. Some people exclusively prefer boutique hotels, others only like chains – I like both. It is nice to see new projects opening up in town, and I must say I really liked this hotel. It was small and very personal, but the actual hotel product was good. Service was also very good (which is still one of my battles when I am in Portugal).

The very chic Mercy Hotel

The very chic Mercy Hotel

The room was lovely and spacious, the bathroom also very cool and black (which I love), but there was just a small but important detail: the hangers. Come on.. a sin according to Mrs. O’s hotel bible. The breakfast was great – and I loved the concept. The continental element of it is brought to your table and then eggs and fruit come later. Very nice and included in the room rate (we Portuguese know a thing or three about breakfast, that is all I can say).

On the next day, we did something quite different. I accepted Flytographer‘s challenge and decided to go for a walk around town with Mr. O. What was so special about it? We had Goncalo, Flytographer‘s photographer in Lisbon, with us.

I will take 3 glasses, por favor. Photo by Flytographer.

I will take 3 glasses, por favor. Photo by Flytographer.

I thought this was a great concept – you can hire a specially handpicked photographer in one of 50 locations around the world for 30 minutes, 1 or 2 hours. And you don’t pose, so it isn’t intrusive and you don’t really look silly. I loved my photos and they are, without a doubt, the best photos I have of yours truly and Mr. O in Lisbon.

I love these. Photo by Flytographer.

I love these. Photo by Flytographer.

Fun or what? Photo by Flytographer.

Fun or what? Photo by Flytographer.

It was lovely to go back to Lisbon for a day or so – with friends and family to see, I always find myself going between meals (this is how we meet!) and not really sure where time goes. I really hope I can visit soon, as no matter where I go in the world, it is still one of my favourite places ever.

And before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye to Lisbon.

And before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye to Lisbon.

But worry not, I am pretty sure I will be back.

Ate breve.

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Mercy Hotel (room rates starting at $200 per night) and also of Flytographer (30 minute sessions starting at $200), and both were great experiences. Please visit their websites for more information.

Ice, Ice, baby by @devonone

Lynsey is possibly one of the best PR professionals I have ever had the pleasure of meeting and working with, and over time has become a very good friend of mine. Go is her verb and we have been to quite a few places together – and worry not, there will be plenty more. Lynsey has recently been on a trip of a lifetime, organised by one of her clients, Quark Expeditions. A born adventurer (the opposite of yours truly), she was so looking forward to this 2-week expedition, she couldn’t wait. For a significant part of the trip, we couldn’t follow her – but Quark’s team made sure we knew it was OK. It was strange to live without Lynsey in real life and on twitter for two weeks – it was quiet, I must say. I had to ask her to share this trip with us – you will see why in a moment. Xo, Mrs. O

As I rested on the shores of Reykjavik at Harpa, Reykjavik’s spectacular new music hall on the harbor, I immersed myself in contemporary Scandinavian architecture in the blazing August sun. My embarkation time was approaching and like a game of peekaboo, a large sign offering me a fishing trip was skewing my view of the ship I was about to start my adventure on. I finally spotted the sleek expedition vessel that was going to be my home for the next two weeks and rushed forth.

Iceland - which way now?

Iceland – which way now?

Like most people, I have a bucket list of things I want to do before I die, and one has always been to visit Greenland – the final frontier of Europe. I am a mountain girl who loves snow and ice but not really one to slum it or cruise. To me, Greenland has always held an illusion of being a mystical land where people live and work with the elements. When I told friends and family where I was off to with Quark Expeditions – the leader in polar adventures, most looked at me in bemusement: “Why, what will you see, it’s Green and don’t they live in igloos!”

The Sea Spirit

The Sea Spirit

At length, I explained that I was off to learn about the culture of the Greenlanders, get close up and personal with the ice whilst staying on the well-appointed Sea Spirit . The ship was previously used exclusively in Quark’s Antarctic season, so being smaller appealed to me, it boasts larger “suite-sized” cabins, in addition to private facilities and exterior views in every cabin. The hot tub on the back deck was a place to relax after a day of kayaking or as I have now learnt, paddling from my Kayak leader.

Whilst the food served three times a day in the formal dining room was appealing, tasty and stylish, the bar at night was open when one needed bubbles. The Expedition Crew led by Alex o’Neil, a very charming, silent but powerful type of Expedition leader from Canada with the Ship’s Captain’s Peter and Oleg took us on an expedition to places that would involve new encounters, which were exciting and magical.

Alex O Neiil

Alex O Neiil

With 80 clients onboard the ship, there were 18 different nationalities from the USA to Australia, from all walks of life. The husband whose wife refused to come on such an adventure, to a family of three who live down the road from me in the UK and, of course, we were rubbing shoulders with multi -millionaires staying in the rather lovely Captain’s suite. The promise of new experiences bonded us all together.

I am not one for sitting still and Mrs. O can vouch for that, so I opted to join the kayak team, eager for my first adventure. Just eight of us, we were a small knit community with an Israeli retired pediatrician, a 17-year-old fun loving California dude who was a cool addition to the team, Scott and Judy from the States, Karl from New Mexico and the lovely calm Canadian Laura and Jim.

Kayak time

Kayak time

We were on the deck ahead of schedule dressed in brand new fashionable dry suits ready for action. After a relaxed zodiac ride along the coast we kayakers disembarked in to our plastic boats. A quick team photo and the group began exploring the northern coast of Skoldungenfjord. Steep rock cliffs were littered with the 20cm tall Greenland willow forest. Black lichens speckled the rocks and we were granted a true sense of scale as we navigated along the coastline. The headwind challenged the group’s paddling abilities, but perseverance and muscle reigned as we pushed across wind and swell. A few small icebergs dotted the waters and I enjoyed getting up close and personal with bergy bits; even eating them and bringing a piece of 10,000 year old ice back to the ship for the vodka and tonic!

Vodka ice

Vodka ice

Alas a second exploration was in order, so we paddlers left our boats with Dangerous Dave the zodiac driving guru and ventured on to land to check out the abandoned village. It was a great start to the voyage-kayaking program with the vixen of a kayak leader Val Lubrik. Chatting with Val she was impassioned about why this is such a fab trip. Our people make the difference. The staff are passionate professional and diverse with a strong sense of adventure and fun. They come from around the world and truly enjoy what they do. Their passion and energy are contagious. Quark Expeditions make the most of every available opportunity. And because they are specialised in that they reach the far to go places that are off the beaten track and the secret hideaways known only by experienced staff and Expedition teams. The ships are well sized offering an intimate experience and the opportunity for good fun and learning with staff and other guests.

Quiet contemplation

Quiet contemplation

On day three, the original itinerary showed a transit of Prins Christian Sund. The excitement started on our approach, when the first narrow part of the entrance was seemingly blocked by a large iceberg. There was only a narrow gap between the iceberg and a small island holding us from either making it into the sound or having to turn back out into 40km winds outside to the Denmark Straits. After assessing current (we were luckily going into the current, and did not have it behind us), soundings, and the composition of the ice, Captain Oleg decided it was safe to proceed. It was an incredible feat of navigation and all of the passengers cheered as we cleared the passage and entered the fjord.

Steve, Leo and Lynsey - The Kingston possey

Steve, Leo and Lynsey – The Kingston possey

Everything we were able to do far exceeded even my own expectations for this voyage. The passenger energy was high. No one really knew what to expect. The expedition was billed as the Greenland Explorer – Enjoy culture and fascinating wildlife on the same trip. What is most apparent is the size of the natural features with imposing glaciers and deep fjords, nature is still champion in this land and the Greenland Explorer itinerary allows travellers to get to grips with this. But beyond the natural richness of the lands there is also a focus on the history of inhabitants and their culture with visits to settlements of varying sizes through the cruise. When visiting these towns and villages it is the churches and the historical sites that are focussed on providing a cultural experience. The capital of Greenland, Nuuk, has been a settlement since 2200BC.

What did we achieve in two weeks:

  • 7 Community visits
  • Polar Plunge
  • Furthest North 69’49’N
  • 10 Lectures
  • 47 species of birds and mammals
  • Yes – whales!
  • 8 Different kinds of local cuisine
  • 4 Unsounded bays
  • 9 Kayak Excursions
  • 2,314 NM Travelled 4,300kms
  • 8 Hikes
  • 2,678 Eggs Consumed
  • 2 Captains!
  • Helicopter ride across Ilulissat UNESCO World Heritage site and the Polar cap
  • 64 different wildflowers
  • Crossing the Arctic circle
  • 2 sets of Northern lights
  • Arctic BBQ
Helicopter at the top of the world

Helicopter at the top of the world

All I can say is get to Greenland, the final frontier of Europe for the most amazing adventure and with Quark Expeditions you can do it in a small luxury vessel.
Next year I hope to go again to try out: In the Footsteps of Franklin: Greenland & Canada’s High Arctic.

Lynsey

Disclaimer and Fact Box: Lynsey was a guest of Quark Expeditions on this trip. The upcoming “Footsteps of Franklin: Greenland & Canada’s High Arctic” trip starts from £3,865 per person for 12 nights (13 days) with three meals a day, one night accommodation pre and post ship in Reykjavik and Toronto, all inclusive beverages, shore landings and on-board lectures in August and September. For more information visit Quark Expeditions website.

My hOtel: One Aldwych, London

myhotel

Located at, well, One Aldwych, very close to Covent Garden and the Strand, this has been a hotel which I have been very keen to review. Why? A member of the Leading Hotels of the World, and truly one of a kind, the One Aldwych is known for its impeccable design and attention to detail. How was my stay? Let’s find out, shall we?

The One Aldwych in London

The One Aldwych in London

Pre-Arrival

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

My stay was organised via email and I must state how keen the hotel has been to have me over for months now. It was just a matter of finding a suitable date! The team that handled the correspondence with me was outstanding – I really felt welcome before I even arrived.

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

I did try and got a few tweets, but mostly after my stay (or on the morning when I woke up at the hotel). It was still nice.

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

Not really, but there was no real need.

There is nothing like a good entrance.. is there?

There is nothing like a good entrance.. is there?

Arrival

he very modern lobby. Hello!

he very modern lobby. Hello!

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

The hotel has a fabulous building and I did get a lovely welcome. The decor of the lobby is fab and very sleek. I checked in at around 6pm, so the bar was quite busy and had a great vibe.

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

I was escorted by the doorman to the check-in desk and had a very quick check-in.

–          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. The lady who checked me in was lovely and escorted me (and other guests) to the lift, which is always a nice touch.

The reception area, tucked in from the main bar

The reception area, tucked in from the main bar

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

I did indeed. The Dome Suite was all mine!

–          Did I feel genuinely welcomed by the hotel staff?

I thought the service overall was very attentive and quite relaxed. The hotel had a great “vibe” and when you needed someone, they were there.

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

I only had an overnight bag with me and was able to take it to the room without a problem.

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

Wifi is complimentary and worked well during my stay.

Room Experience

A room with a London view

A room with a London view

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

The Dome suite was indeed lovely! A great bedroom, a massive living room and a great looking dining room… under a dome. It was a rainy day, sadly, but the views were quite impressive still.

–          Welcome amenity

As a welcome amenity I had four pretty macaroons. Needless to say, they didn’t last very long.

–          The bed

Our bed was absolutely fantastic and very comfortable. Also loved the Frette bedlinen. I slept really well!

–          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.

Proper closet and hangers, no issues.

The sitting room in the Dome Suite

The sitting room in the Dome Suite

–          Iphone Charger/Dock

There was an iPhone sound system in the living room, which was great. No need for actual chargers… and you will see why in a minute.

–          Bathrobes and slippers

They were all there but I didn’t use them.

–          Coffee and Tea

The suite had a great “big bar” area – one can’t call it a mini bar with full size drinks and obviously a nespresso.

Yummy macaroons and good magazines!

Yummy macaroons and good magazines!

–          Free bottled water

Yes, left during turn-down service

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

It was very good indeed. Have a look at the photo above.

–          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.

Best "by-the-bed" socket arrangement I have ever seen. Noted, One Aldwych.

Best “by-the-bed” socket arrangement I have ever seen. Noted, One Aldwych.

Best power socket situation I have seen in a hotel – located on each side of the bed, it is fair to say we were totally charged up.

Bathroom

It is all about the details at One Aldwych

It is all about the details at One Aldwych

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

To be honest, this is where I was a bit disappointed. The bathroom didn’t match the rest of the hotel standards. It was OK, but honestly it wasn’t fab.

–          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 and a tiny shower, which wasn’t great.

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

Lots and all Frette. Lovely.

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

We had large sizes of Plantation toiletries which I had never come across. They smelled nice!

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

It was very good and I loved the clear bag for flying. It came home with us.

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

There was a proper looking hairdryer, but I did not use it.

Breakfast

The Indigo Restaurant where breakfast is served

The Indigo Restaurant where breakfast is served

–          Décor of breakfast room

Breakfast is served at the Indigo Restaurant which was actually very nice and airy. It was quite busy when we arrived, but we quickly got a table.

–          The spread (inc yumminess)

Made-to-order omelette for breakfast

Made-to-order omelette for breakfast

There is no buffet at all (which isn’t a bad thing). You have breakfast a la carte – either continental (where all the items are brought to the table) or you can order a la carte including obviously cooked items.

–          Cost (I have seen a hotel charging €75 for breakfast – a tad much, maybe?)

This was also an interesting surprise. Continental breakfast started at £16 and would include all your breakfast drinks. If you went a la carte, all items could be individually ordered and priced.

The breakfast was lovely but it did take a while to be served, which can be a problem if you are in a hurry.

Bar

Make mine an El Coco, por favor!

Make mine an El Coco, por favor!

Oh yes, I had to try the cocktails and must report they were excellent. My choice for the day was an El Coco, which was heavenly. The cocktail menu was really quite impressive. I will surely go back for cocktails again – maybe a post-theatre one?

Restaurant

The Axis Restaurant at One Aldwych

The Axis Restaurant at One Aldwych

The next day,  I had lunch at Axis, the hotel’s restaurant. Led by chef Dominic Teague, I enjoyed a fab meal. We were the only guests there on the day, which was quite unusual, but actually very nice. The restaurant is usually quite busy (I have been told).

I really liked watching Celebrity Masterchef recently, where the finalists were sent to One Aldwych to make afternoon tea. I was like “oh, I met the chef!”.

General thoughts

–          How good and reliable was the wi-fi?

Not a single issue.

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

They did a little on the second day.

–          Location

It is a very good location for work and play, in my opinion. Also good public transportation around. Worked for me really well.

–          Cost – rooms starting from…
One Aldwych rooms are from £250 excluding VAT and breakfast. The Dome Suite costs from £865 per night excluding VAT and breakfast.
–          Would I recommend it to my best friend?

I would without a problem.

–          Would I stay again?

Absolutely. Mrs. O approved indeed.
Have you visited this hotel? What were your thoughts?

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer: I was a guest of One Aldwych 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 – September 2013 Edition

LTBN Luxury Travel Blog

Oh my, where has the summer gone? I really do not know! But one thing I loved: that there was a whole two months of it in the UK, where I live. And I loved it! I have been on a few trips – but I tried hard to actually stay in the UK where I had a bit of fun. I had a lovely time in Hampshire, went to the beach in England for the first time in Devon and then managed to escape to Alentejo, in Portugal for a long weekend.

So where have the other fab Luxury Travel Blog Network ladies been up to? You are in for a treat!

This looks very nice to me...

This looks very nice to me…

Kim-Marie, aka Luxury Travel Mom was dragged to Sarasota in Florida, which doesn’t look too shabby, in my opinion. Could have been all the Ritz-Carlton love she had. Lucky girl! You can read about her trip, right here.

Not so innocent milk and cookies...

Not so innocent milk and cookies…

Katie, from Travel Panties, stayed local, in NYC (a fab city I had the pleasure to visit again this summer). She visited one of our favourite haunts, aka the Four Seasons NYC and discovered that this could certainly become her new favourite hangover brunch place. I believe her…Go ahead and read this review, but not if you are hungry. You have been warned.

I like the look of this Chateau in Quebec

I like the look of this Chateau in Quebec

Last but not the least, well, Nadine Jolie did not get engaged again (that was last month, and in Paris.. can you believe it?). She kept her French up to date as she went to Quebec, in Canada and wow, this Fairmont is quite pleasing to the eye, n’est-ce pas?

As for me, I am heading to California next week, and seriously cannot wait. I will be away for almost two weeks (like a normal person) and really looking forward to it.

If you want to enjoy this article properly, do it with some champagne. You did read the fab beginners guide that Champagne Jayne wrote just for us, didn’t you?

xo

Mrs. O

The best airport lounge in the world… does it exist?

I have been thinking about this topic for a while – i.e. what makes the best airport lounge, as I feel it is quite important and relevant for frequent travellers. A while ago, I asked my readers what their thoughts were on airline loyalty programmes – it did make for a very lively debate. It was extremely interesting to see how obviously our home airport conditions our choices and preferences but ultimately, there were a lot of strong opinions – favourite airlines, favourite alliances.

Recently, I have started a series about luxury hotel reviews, appropriately named ‘My hOtel’. Why? Because after I started another debate on what people really want, expect, love and hate about luxury hotels, the floodgates opened. I don’t care much about coffee and tea facilities, but many of you do – and I took on the challenge to review each hotel stay I go on according to our combined standards. It has been a very interesting experience. Recently, one of my favourite travel publications, the Sunday Times Travel did a feature on the topic and kindly quoted me – yes, I hate those hangers that are stuck in cupboards. I promise you, I have never stolen a hanger from a hotel (or anywhere else).

Let’s talk airport lounges… 

The need for airport lounges, in my opinion, is two-fold: they are (or can be) a very nice (or not so nice place) to kill some time before a flight or when (God forbid) a flight is delayed. But, and most importantly for me, they can really add to the travel experience and can actually make a difference.

I am spoiled. Why? Because my home airport is London Heathrow and my standard for a lounge is (or are) the British Airways lounges at their home airport. If we take Terminal 5 as an example, you have the choice of 5 lounges, which you can access depending on the class you are flying or your loyalty programme status.

The Concorde Room at London Heathrow

The Concorde Room at London Heathrow

– The Concorde Room – aka a little bit of heaven. Beautifully decorated and designed, it is a very quiet space and exclusive to those flying First (First, I must add, is not what USA-based airlines regularly call ‘first class’. That is business class for us on this side of the pond). A visit to the Concorde Room is a real treat for me, which usually happens once or twice a year and it is so good, it is worth getting to the airport early! Champagne bar, seat service and proper fine dining. You also get a 2-week membership of luxury concierge service Quintessentially which can prove quite handy for those hard to get tables in your destination. And if you can get organised, you can even pre-book one of the three cabanas and your Elemis spa treatment. I have recently reviewed a visit to this lounge, and you can read it right here.

BA Galleries First Lounge at London Heathrow

BA Galleries First Lounge at London Heathrow

– Galleries First – this is the lounge where you will find me more often. Open to BA Executive Club gold (oneworld emerald) cardholders (and First passengers), this lounge is larger but really really nice. I love the champagne and the wine bar, the fact that in terms of food you can either help yourself to the buffet or actually order anything from the menu and it will be brought to you either to your table or seat, depending how formal you want it to get. Needless to say, lots of computers, printers etc. They do some cracking bacon and egg sandwiches for breakfast which is great if you have enough time. One should not rush through this lounge.

Breakfast of champions - the fab made to order egg and bacon sandwich at the BA First Lounge

Breakfast of champions – the fab made to order egg and bacon sandwich at the BA First Lounge

– Galleries Club (2 lounges available on T5A and 1 lounge on T5B) – open to all business class and silver Executive Club members (one world sapphire). These lounges welcome a significant number of visitors but they are pretty decent. You have a fully stocked bar, a good breakfast selection and good food throughout the day – think pasta, rice etc, actual cheese (i.e. not plastic), fresh fruit and now some yummy cookies. The only thing missing for me is ice cream and chocolate (why not?).  There isn’t a champagne bar in this lounge, but you can ask for a cheeky glass and it will magically appear.

Apologies to vegetarian readers. But these are amazing. BA, please bring them back!

Apologies to vegetarian readers. But these are amazing. BA, please bring them back!

There have been recent changes in the catering and I am sad to report that the best bacon sandwiches in the world (you can sense a theme here) are now gone. If anyone from BA is reading this (or if you are a frequent flyer and miss them too, join me!), please bring the old bacon sandwiches back. They were incredible and sometimes I even had two because they were the perfect size (and I promise I will only have one from now on!).

The paragraphs above were just to explain why I am spoiled – why this is the standard for me when I travel. I think BA have a very good lounge product in their home base, but sadly it is not consistent everywhere (especially on the return journey).

So without further ado, here is my airport lounge wish-list:

Clear entrance policy – especially when code shares are involved and at away from home airports. Guests or no guests? When? It would make life easier for everyone. Oneworld seems to be making some progress in this area, but I find that there still are too many exceptions to the rules.

Fresh food  & drinks – I have never bought plastic cheese in my life.. why would I want to eat some before I board a plane? I have recently visited Qatar Airways lounges in London and Doha and can’t tell you how impressive it was. Sadly, in Helsinki, with Finnair, the only food we could get was salad and peanuts (and champagne was to be bought at 10 Euro a glass). But my best recent one? Being given a ‘premium drink’ voucher as Oneworld Emerald at an American Airlines lounge and being told that the only free food was pretzels and I think I saw some apples. I was surprised to see at Dallas airport (the home of AA) a full restaurant-style menu – for which you had to pay. I thought it was particularly interesting as I had paid $1200 for a four-hour plane journey where no food was served on-board (well, I could have bought some plastic cheese, if I was desperate). Where is the consistency?

Wifi – free, of course, and to be honest, in 99% of my flights in recent years it has never been an issue. The exception? The lounge (shared by all airlines) at Barcelona airport which actually when I last visited, didn’t have wifi. I am not joking.

Moi at the Almost @ Home Lounge at Helsinki Airport

Moi at the Almost @ Home Lounge at Helsinki Airport

Decent selection of newspapers AND magazines – this varies enormously and one would think it would be easier to sort out. And please, why have such obscure magazines full of ads? They take so much shelf space which could have been much better used. But sometimes one is so desperate that something in English would actually do. The best magazine selection I ever saw was at Qatar Airways‘ London lounge and I sometimes do quite well with BA, but it is not consistent (even at their home base). I am very happy to ‘have’ to leave such items behind for others to enjoy, that is not even the issue.

Enough seats – and comfortable ones. This is a difficult one as obviously there are space restrictions but…

Power sockets – things have changed immensely as we all know and the average person has to charge at least one device (or three). Some airlines have really caught on this quickly, others not so much.

Showers – this is a point raised by many of my readers, which I must confess I am not very familiar with as my normal long-haul flights are door to door, so to speak, so I prefer to shower when I get back home or when I get to the hotel. I would love some comments on this area as I am not knowledgeable enough.

Quiet areas – and I don’t mean child-free specifically, although obviously there is a definite need for child-friendly areas (for both the little ones and their parents). I like going to the lounge and, well, lounge, relax. And if I have to make a call, I am extremely conscious of my whereabouts and who may be around me (same goes for conversations on planes). I have been noticing more and more people having full-on skype calls where everyone could hear them. I couldn’t help but smile (sadly) when I overheard that poor Jessica from company X was going to be fired. I like the concept of quiet train carriages and some quiet areas on lounges would be greatly appreciated.

The stunning Qatar Airways premium lounge at Heathrow

The stunning Qatar Airways premium lounge at Heathrow

Better Flight information – I seriously think airport lounges need more screens. I actually quite like lounges where no flight announcements are made verbally, but I think better screen information would be welcome. When does the gate open, how long it takes to get there and when does the flight close. I recently missed the first flight of my life, which was delayed, because the screen information wasn’t updated. I kid you not. I was at a lounge, kept actively checking the screen which continued to say ‘Delayed’ and after 3 hours, I decided to go and ask. The flight had departed but the screen didn’t say anything. Great fun.

Lounge location – again a very tricky one, but in some cases, it can be complete madness. My favourite one is Lisbon airport where the lounge I am supposed to use is by gate 9 and the non-shenghen boarding gates are from 40 onwards. The distance is around 2kms, and I am not making this up.

Beauty Services and Spa – and since this is a wishlist, I can write whatever I want ;0. Honestly, spas are becoming more and more normal (thank you BA for Elemis which works well) but how about some quick blow-dry bars and maybe nails? Wouldn’t even have to be free, simply for the convenience. With a nice brand, of course.

And here you go, in the perfect world, these are the things that my perfect lounge would have. It is good to see that it is not far from reality – just bring back the bacon sandwiches, por favor.

Do airport lounges matter to you? Which are your favourites and why? What do you want to see in the ‘perfect airport lounge’. I have come up with my wish-list, but would love to hear from you.

Safe travels!

xo

Mrs. O

A perfect day in Henley-on-Thames, UK

A perfect day in

Henley-on-Thames, in Oxfordshire, in the UK is one of my favourite places in the world. Why? Because it is where Mr. O has always lived and the place I knew I would live in if we ever tied the knot and I moved from Portugal to England. I have always been a city girl and never, for a moment, thought I would adapt well to living in the ‘countryside’.

But, a weekend a month during four years and fabulous events such as the Henley Royal Regatta made me fall in love with this delightful little town, located under an hour from London. All our friends who come to London, are forced to get on the train and spend at least a night with us – we have received no complaints so far, and have had many repeat visitors… I wonder why?

I think Henley-on-Thames is so so so pretty

I think Henley-on-Thames is so so so pretty

So if you want to spend the perfect day in Mrs. O’s adopted hometown, here’s how I would do it…

You know I am not one to wake up very early on weekends, so I really don’t know what goes on at 8am in the morning. Being a double-digit girl myself, I can tell you that the town comes to life at around 10am and it is great to go out and about. There are plenty of places for breakfast – you are seriously spoilt for choice. Our favourite? Good old “Cafe Rouge”, which does the best croque-monsieurs.

Henley is not very large, and it basically has 2 or 3 streets which quite decent shops – lots of independently-owned boutiques and also a few nice chains. It is quite a preppy place, so that is reflected in the retail offering, of course.

The River Rowing museum

The River Rowing museum

One place you have to visit? The River Rowing museum, without a doubt. If you read my blog regularly, you will see there aren’t any museums I recommend visiting in weekend trips. BUT… there are some exceptions and the RRM is, without a doubt, one of them. Why? Well, you may (or may not know), that Henley is the home of rowing in the UK (did you watch the Social Network and that bit when the brothers went to England to row at the Henley Royal Regatta?)

Situated alongside the river in Henley-on-Thames, the building was designed by the acclaimed architect David Chipperfield and you get not only the rowing museum, but also the Henley museum. And can I say that if you buy a ticket, you can come back as many times as you want during 12 months? I actually do go back quite a lot and I use the cafe as a place to meet friends and work.

After a lazy morning, you must probably be hungry. A great place to enjoy a quintessentially British meal (with a touch of modernity, which is always nice), would be Orwells, a place I have been to many many times. Located between Shiplake and Binfield Heath (a couple of miles out of Henley), it has been part of our lives since it opened in 2010.

How sweet and English does Orwells look?

How sweet and English does Orwells look?

Orwells’ menu is seasonal and changes frequently (the restaurant is big on seasonal and local ingredients), but my absolute favourites are the chicken liver parfait and the crab starter. I usually can’t decide between the two, so that became ‘my menu’. One thing worth noting, an Orwells meal lasts way over two hours – do not go if you are in a rush. But I must say, it is worth it.

Chicken liver parfait, yum!

Chicken liver parfait, yum!

After a hearty meal, it is probably time to relax a little bit… and a stroll by the river seems perfect. But how about a boat trip? It is, without a doubt, the best way to explore of one Oxfordshire’s prettiest towns, especially on a sunny day.

If a boat sounds like a good idea, Hobbs of Henley is the place to go – part of Henley history for over 140 years, Jonathan and his team literally have a boat for every occasion – be that a small little boat for 4 that anyone can drive, to a river cruise or a luxury charter, like the Linssen yacht we tried on a recent day out.

Take a boat trip down the Thames with Hobbs of Henley

Take a boat trip down the Thames with Hobbs of Henley

And in true Henley style, if you ask nicely, it may even come with a bottle of champagne. Is there a better way? I think not! Just pray that it doesn’t rain.

If boating isn’t really your thing, a great way to spend the afternoon (I cannot believe I am writing this, but I promise, I do ‘do’ this every now and then), is to cross the river and go for a walk. I am not one to ‘go for a walk in the countryside’ (I am honest, it is a very British pastime), but I love this particular walk and actually do this with Mr. O even when we don’t have friends visiting (I promise). You can walk as much or as little as you fancy – we know that 30 minutes takes us to Henley Business School (my MBA alma mater) and back, and probably 45-50 minutes will take you to the Hambleden lock and back to the center of town. There is a path and the whole walk is just by the river.

The stunning River Thames (and the boys don't look bad either)

The stunning River Thames (and the boys don’t look bad either)

After this, it is time to get in the mood for dinner. And how about a pimms with a view? The best place (and the only place I can think of) which offers ‘pimms with a view’ is the Angel on the Bridge… well.. located just by the bridge. And don’t worry, you don’t have to have pimms if you don’t want to.

A Pimms with a view (mind the plastic glass.. health and safety and all...)

A Pimms with a view (mind the plastic glass.. health and safety and all…)

And with this, it is time for dinner – and who fancies something quite special? Gentlemen will need to wear a jacket, but I promise, it will be absolutely worth it…

Danesfield House's stunning grounds

Danesfield House’s stunning grounds

We have recently visited and loved Danesfield House, located between Henley and Marlow (a good 5 miles drive out-of-town or a £10 taxi ride). The setting, with amazing views of the Chilterns is absolutely amazing. I have enjoyed an incredible meal at the Michelin-starred Adam Simmonds Restaurant, which I can’t recommend enough. This time around, we tried the fabulous 8-course tasting menu, which is really well priced at £68 (excluding wine). Local, fresh and seasonal fare is what you can expect from the menu and the one thing I need to tell you: please make room for the incredible cheese course, which is certainly not your traditional choice of a couple of cheeses.

Adam Simmonds Restaurant at Danesfield House

Adam Simmonds Restaurant at Danesfield House

In Henley, you have quite a few choices in terms of after dinner entertainment – it could be the Champagne Bar at the Hotel du Vin (which used to be way busier than it is now, so do not be disappointed) or just go to one of the pubs – I really like the Anchor.

So here you go, here is how I would spend a perfect day in Henley-on-Thames, a place I love so much, I wouldn’t even think of trading it for a bigger city.

It is the place I now call home.

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer: I was a guest of the River Rowing Museum, Hobbs of Henley, Orwells and Danesfield House, whose hospitality I really appreciated. These places are part of our day-to-day lives and we go often. You can trust me on this!

My secret place: Herdade do Vau, Alentejo, Portugal

Alentejo, Portugal - It is all about the wine, and the food and the fab hospitality

Alentejo, Portugal – It is all about the wine, the food and the fab hospitality

It is not the first time I have written about this special part of the world. Alentejo, the bit “between” Lisbon and the Algarve, is home to one of my favourite regions in Portugal – nice and warm (which can be an understatement), incredible scenery, amazing wine and, well, let’s not forget the food. No dieting allowed.

Alentejo, in Portugal (Map by VisitPortugal.com)

Alentejo, in Portugal (Map by VisitPortugal.com)

This time around, it was time to try something new and special – Herdade do Vau. Located around Serpa and Beja, it took us around 2 hours to get there from Lisbon, where we flew to. I usually associate Alentejo with flat land, where you can see for miles. There is always an olive grove, a vineyard or a cork tree around – but in this area, the scenery is even more intriguing.

The road to Beja is absolutely fine – it is motorway for most of it, but when you get to the town, things certainly get interesting. I used Google Maps and seriously thought I was going to get lost. Gravel roads and the odd water stream – I couldn’t quite believe it.

Trust Google Maps - yes, you will need to cross a little river with your car. And we survived without our SUV.

Trust Google Maps – yes, you will need to cross a little river with your car. And we survived without our SUV.

But it was all correct – I must confess I was quite impressed with Google’s knowledge of this neck of the woods. But as Miguel and Maria Manuel, our incredible hosts, said – “one needs to go through hell to get to heaven”. I couldn’t agree more. The team at Herdade do Vau, a brand new ‘bio-chic’ project (I wouldn’t call it a hotel, because it felt completely different), had been inviting me to come and visit for almost a year – before the project was even completed. Knowing how busy my schedule gets in advance, I was most impressed by their insistence and persistence.

I arrived, with Mr. O of course, not knowing what to expect. I saw some photos and they looked great (but not of the finished product), and all I knew is that there would be some wine involved. I am not one to take many risks, but something kept telling me I should go on this trip and just enjoy. And, oh my God, I so did!

Welcome to Herdade do Vau

Welcome to Herdade do Vau

We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, faced with 40C (106F) – it would be fair to say it was ‘nice and warm’. We met Miguel and Maria Manuel and after we dropped our things in our (lovely room), we made our way to the pool. There was nowhere else (except indoors) we could be – and the invite to get things started with a nice and cold white port and tonic was too good to refuse.

On this particular day, the pool was all ours – other guests arrived just before dinner – and it was perfect. The hotel, currently has 8 bedrooms (and some family suites will be added later). It is as rural (but also very chic) as it gets. We couldn’t get other the peace and quiet, the heat and the views…

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

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

Before we knew it, the sun had set – I can’t tell you where time went. And I can promise you one thing: I did not move. There would be plenty of activities I could have got on.. but between you and me.. well, everyone knew that there would be only one thing I would be doing that day: sunbathing and chatting away.

Before dinner (which can be included in the daily rate), it was time for some tapas and, well, try the ‘house’ wine. Miguel Sousa Otto started his wine project (with some friends) a few years ago. I love a good ‘left my corporate career and decided to move south and make some wine’ story and theirs was one of the most compelling I have ever heard. It is inspiring when you see these ‘labour of love’ projects come to life and people doing genuinely what they love.

Riso means laughter. I love wine that does this to me!

Riso means laughter. I love wine that does this to me!

The wine was really quite nice – both the white (pictured) and the red, which we tried for dinner (and brought home!). Dinner was a great experience, and totally different – we were joined by our hosts, and the other guests (a Polish couple) and ate partridge (and other delicacies) by the pool. It was a great way to spend the evening and, before we knew it, it was 2am. Certainly time for bed.

Stylish and uncluttered rooms

Stylish and uncluttered rooms

We had some decent sleep – and I must confess breakfast took place at around 12 noon, which was absolutely fine by everyone. We were actually surprised to find the other guests ‘at that time’… bad Portuguese habits!

We spent the rest of the day at the pool (I seriously could not be tempted to go for a walk, which means I need to go back to explore a bit more.. perhaps when it isn’t 40C). And we read, and we ate, and we relaxed. Can you think of a more perfect lunch by the pool?

Alentejo bread, melon and ham and chickpea and cod salad. Yes, please.

Alentejo bread, melon and ham and chickpeas and cod salad. Yes, please.

Mr. O was in his element – I hadn’t seem him so relaxed in under 24 hours. I wasn’t far off myself – have I mentioned that there is no wi-fi yet? We had outstanding mobile signal, which was OK, but to be honest, it didn’t really matter (worry not, it is just a matter of the Portuguese utility company going and installing it. This could mean months obviously, so if this is a make or break, please enquire before).

One thing I had my eye on and needed to try: the hammock. I thought it was the perfect place to enjoy a book (I read a fantastic book there – ‘A night at the Orient Express’, and the contrast of both settings couldn’t be more dramatic!)

I heard the birds, and the wind. And nothing else. And that was perfect.

I heard the birds, and the wind. And nothing else. And that was perfect.

Before dinner, we finally got back into the car and headed to nearby Serpa. It took us an hour to drive the 20 kms (because we didn’t have a 4WD), but I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to it. Why? Because I hadn’t been there for over 20 years, and because I was going to meet one of my readers, the lovely Filomena, who lived there. What are the odds of that happening? Many, it seems. Filomena, who has been reading the blog for months and is an active member of my Facebook community offered to show me around and take me to a special place: a little shop where I could stock up on one of Serpa’s jewels – the cheese. Sadly, with all the excitement, we didn’t take any photos together – but I am sure we will meet again.

Serpa, Alentejo - the town painted in 50 shades of grey

Serpa, Alentejo – the town painted in 50 shades of grey

You may know (or not), that in this part of Portugal, traditional houses are painted white and then have some accents in either yellow or blue – it is very traditional and part of the landscape. But not in Serpa! Why? Well, we should start calling it the town painted ’50 shades of grey’ – as it is the only colour allowed. I thought it looked fab, and can only thank Filomena for sending me these great photos.

Before we knew it, it was time for dinner – not without an exciting drive. I was mesmerised by the outstanding natural beauty of this part of Portugal, my country, and if anything, I hope these photos inspire you to visit one day.

The Guadiana river which, further south, separates Portugal from Spain (when it reaches the Algarve)

The Guadiana river which, further south, separates Portugal from Spain (when it reaches the Algarve)

Dinner was a special one. Why? Because Miguel and Maria (and their lovely daughter Maria) paid attention to one of our many dinner conversations and decided to surprise us with some of Mr. O’s (and mine) favourite Portuguese dishes – that would be clams (ameijoas a bulhao pato) and pea stew with poached eggs (ervilhas com ovos escalfados). Doesn’t sound exciting? Believe me, it was. That, paired with wonderful wine and company – this time around, we were joined by an intriguing couple where the lady was French and the gentleman was Italian. Over dinner we spoke a mix of Portuguese, French, English and Italian – we laughed, we had some lovely food and somehow, we all understood each other.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed my two-night stay at Herdade do Vau. I loved everything about it – it was simple, but had everything we needed. It was uncluttered, clean, understated, comfortable. It had its own personality and I think that this is what makes it very special. It will be interesting to see what the future brings to the Sousa Otto family in terms of the hospitality project and, obviously the wine.

A breakfast with a view - and that delicious Serpa cheese.

A breakfast with a view – and that delicious Serpa cheese.

What I know for sure? That Mr. O and I will be back next summer – it may even become an O’Reilly tradition.

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Herdade do Vau, and I can’t tell you how much I loved it. If you would like to try a bit of this for yourself, get in touch directly and book 2 nights, including breakfast on both days, one dinner, one lunch and a jeep trip around the local area for 245 Euros per couple. Just tell them Mrs. O sent you.

A beginners guide to Champagne by @champagnejayne

I love champagne. It is a huge part of my life and I am not ashamed to admit it. One thing I found very interesting, since I moved to the UK in 2009, it was to see how it really became part of the British way of life (which I would have never have guessed). Not just for special occasions like a birthday or New Years… we (those who live here) drink it because it is sunny, or because it actually is raining.. it is not difficult to find a reason TO drink those magic bubbles. Over the last year, I have come to know Jayne Powell, aka Champagne Jayne. She has taught me so much about champagne.. I can’t even tell you. Or maybe I will. Cheers!

xo

Mrs. O

So what is champagne?

“Champagne” is a sparkling wine style unique to the Champagne region, produced from the classic varieties of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier and grown, harvested and matured under very strict conditions. The final product is a result of the unique combined effects of soil, orientation, climate and cultivation practises as well as history and commerce. The term ‘sparkling wine’ covers all other carbonated wine.

Champagne has so many different styles and expressions.

Champagne has so many different styles and expressions.

What are the different styles of champagne?

Although not all sparkling wines can claim to be champagne, it is equally true that not all champagne is just one style of wine. The wines of Champagne are as varied as the different Champagne Houses, the cooperatives, the growers and indeed the region of Champagne itself. Blending is everything in Champagne and the grape variety, the source of the grapes, reserve wines and the degree of dosage all play their part in allowing its wine-makers to create a myriad of champagne expressions:

Blanc de Blancs

Blanc de Blancs’ literally translated means ‘white from white’ (ie. a champagne made of 100 per cent Chardonnay). Blanc de Blancs is a delicate and creamy champagne style that may come from any district in the region – but the finest examples of this style are made with grapes from the world-renowned villages in the Côte des Blancs (Avize, Cramant and Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger). When young, Chardonnay is always extremely pale with tinges of green and can seem rather light and acidic, but with age it develops a toasty richness and mineral elegance that fills the mouth with intense purity of fruit. After four or five years, the best Blanc de Blancs taste of exotic fruits such as mango, peach and apricot and, as they reach maturity (Chardonnay is, after all, the most age-worthy grape), they develop a stunning golden appearance and offer a symphony of complex nutty aromas on the nose and a melting biscuity creaminess in the mouth.

A patchwork of different champagne vineyards surround the village of Sacy, Montagne de Reims, Champagne Ardenne.

A patchwork of different champagne vineyards surround the village of Sacy, Montagne de Reims, Champagne Ardenne.

Blanc de Noirs

Even though there are more black grapes (73 per cent) than white grapes (27 per cent) grown in the Champagne region, ‘Blanc de Noirs’ champagnes – ‘white from black’ (which can be made from either Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier or both) are far less common than Blanc de Blancs. This is probably because all Pinot champagnes are not suitable as aperitif wines and, even though they make great food wines, they just cannot compete with Chardonnay-based champagnes in terms of elegance and finesse, and so usually the best Pinots are combined with Chardonnay to produce blended champagnes. Blanc de Noirs champagnes are very fruity wines, somewhat animal or earthy in character, full yellow in colour and really need food as a partner in crime. Firm and masculine in their youth as they mellow with age, flavours of honey, caramel and mushroom appear along with smoky notes and even leather aromas. The Grand Cru villages of Verzy, Verzenay, Bouzy, Ambonnay and Mailly are all capable of producing first class Pinot champagnes and this style is also very well expressed by certain growers in the Aube region.

Rosé

The pleasure of well-made Rosé champagne is both visual and visceral. Champagne is the only Rosé wine in the world that may be legally made from blending white wine with a little red wine. Some Rosé champagnes are made by maceration of the Pinot skins called ‘saignee’ (such as Laurent Perrier, the most popular Rosé in the world), which gives more strawberry and raspberry aromas to the blend. However, the majority of Rosé champagnes are made by the addition of still red wine (10 to 20 per cent usually from Bouzy or other Montagne de Reims villages added at the assemblage or liqueur de tirage stage), which affords greater control of the colour and allows for a substantial proportion of Chardonnay to be included in the blend if so desired (eg. Billecart-Salmon). Whatever their method of production, whether vintage or not, Rosé champagnes have less acidity than white champagnes and are generally best drunk soon after release because they have a delicate, perfumed floral style that loses its sweet fruity edge over time and their vibrant colourways gain nothing from being laid down, apart from turning orange (15 to 20 years) or even white (after 40 years).

The Champagne region

The Champagne region

What’s the difference between NV, Vintage and Prestige cuvee champagne?

Non-Vintage (NV)

Non vintage champagne is the calling card of any producer and normally represents about 80 to 90 per cent of annual sales – usually an assemblage based on wines from the current harvest blended with reserve wines from several different years to create a harmonious marriage of fine aromatic complexity, quality – and, above all, instant maturity – ‘ready to wear’ in the fashion sense. Here, the wine-maker’s goal is to create an easily recognisable signature House style that is consistent year in and year out, regardless of particular vintage conditions, so that a customer will know what to expect each and every time they purchase this particular label, whether it’s today or in five years’ time.

Vintage

A declared vintage in Champagne implies that the harvest was really exceptional and the unique personality of these fully matured grapes deserves to be recorded for posterity. Vintage champagne must be 100 per cent from the year indicated, but elsewhere in the world it varies: Australia 85 per cent, California 95 per cent, and the European Union 85 per cent, for example. Tasting a vintage champagne can prove to be an altogether different experience than tasting a non-vintage for two reasons. First, although a vintage champagne is aged much longer before release than a non-vintage champagne (15 months for non-vintage, three years for vintage and usually much longer) and contains the best grapes, the qualities of the wine will be somewhat defined by the character of the vintage itself, without the benefit of the mellowing effects brought to a non-vintage blend by the addition of aged reserve wines. Second, the high quality raw material used in making vintage champagne will make these wines more age worthy and reward patient cellaring (vintage wines are more toasty and biscuity in nature, having spent longer on their lees).

Prestige Cuvées

The ‘Cuvée de Prestige’ is all about selection and is the crowning jewel of any Champagne House. The wine-maker will select the very best grapes from the finest vineyards that he has at his disposal – and use the ripest fruit from the oldest vines. The period of maturation before release for Prestige Cuvées is always longer than for vintage champagne (often 10 years or more) and the bottle will be presented in the most ornate packaging, while the champagne itself will be intense, well aged, deep in flavour and impeccably styled. As a result, the bubbles in a Prestige Cuvée champagne are typically finer and more delicate, the aromas and flavours more intense, more complex and more elegant, and the finish is longer than other champagnes. Prestige Cuvées are only produced in tiny quantities, which is why they are the most expensive champagnes sold by any House.

At what temperature should I serve champagne?

Bubbles are an integral part of the pleasure of champagne appreciation and the rate at which they are released is determined by temperature. Serving champagne anywhere between 4.5ºC to 7ºC is perfect for a slow release of the mousse – but remember that if you serve a champagne too cold, all the aromatics will be suppressed and it will taste practically flavourless. On the other hand, if you were to serve champagne at room temperature, the bottle would be extremely dangerous to open because the wine would immediately explode from its container, froth up and then go flat. The best method to thoroughly chill a bottle of champagne is to either (a) place it in the fridge for two to four hours before you need it or (b) place the bottle in a champagne bucket half filled with water and ice cubes for approximately 30 minutes before serving. (NB: you need both water and ice in the bucket as the water acts as a conductor for the temperature transfer).

Porte Mars, the ancient gateway to Reims (Durocortorum), Roman capital of Champagne.

Porte Mars, the ancient gateway to Reims (Durocortorum), Roman capital of Champagne.

How long can I keep an open bottle of champagne?

Unfortunately once you’ve popped that cork all the CO2 dissolved in your bottle of champagne (which creates the bubbles) slowly escapes so its best to finish the lot in one sitting. Did you know there are 21 million bubbles in a single glass of champagne? If you can only manage 1 or 2 glasses of champagne, then you can keep the rest of the bottle fairly fresh (but less bubbly) for up to 48 hours in the fridge using a champagne stopper.

Where does Champagne come from?

The word “champagne” comes from the latin word “campagna” meaning flat farm land. The Champagne region is a continuation of the English South Downs, once part of an inland sea that covered most of France until about 70 million years ago. Being as far north as vines can possibly grow pushes the vineyards’ growth cycle to the limit (ie. it takes longer to ripen grapes). Having only poor chalky or clay-based thin soils doubles the workload of the vines (ie. they have to work extra hard to burrow their roots as deeply as possible). Magically, the heady combination of all these challenges actually results in a higher sugar/acid ratio in the grapes, which later on gives subtler aromas, elegance and finesse in the wine itself.

A typical champagne flute

A typical champagne flute

Do I serve it in a special glass?

Although crystal flutes will definitely enhance your appreciation of any champagne, surprisingly, ordinary wine glasses are also good enough to do the job – they capture the vitally important bouquet but they just can’t retain the mousse like a flute. So you need to decide which is more important to you – the aroma or the mousse or both?

The other style of glass, the coupe (originally called a ‘tazza’) is a broad, flat, short-stemmed saucer-shaped glass first created in 1663 by Venetian glass-makers at the Duke of Buckingham’s factory in Greenwich. Legend has it that the most famous versions of the coupe were modelled and moulded in Sèvres porcelain on the breasts of Madame Pompadour (Louis XV’s mistress) and Marie-Antoinette (Louis XVI’s wife). Unfortunately, the large surface of wine exposed to the air in a coupe means the aromas quickly dissipate, the bubbles go flat almost immediately and the temptation to cradle this kind of glass in one’s hand simply heats up the champagne – so all in all, the coupe, although it may be romantically perfect, is definitely not the right kind of glass for appreciating champagne at all.

Whichever glass you choose, always remember that the way you clean your glasses is almost as important as their shape. Always hand-wash your champagne glasses in warm water without detergent – because any washing liquid residue affects both the bubbles and the bouquet. If the interior of the glass is too polished, there will be no infinitesimal particles on the inner surface of the glass for the carbon dioxide to stick to in order to create the bubbles in the first place.

So its been around for a while, how did it all start?

Renowned as the natural partner for any event where celebration, luxury and romance are the themes, champagne is in fact both a wine and a place. The Champagne region was first settled by the Romans after Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (52 BC)and its strategic capital Durocortorum (modern day Reims) was already a thriving metropolis when Paris was still just a natural bog. First mentioned in the history books in 496AD when Bishop Saint Remi baptised Clovis King of the Franks in Reims Cathedral, the wines of champagne have been intimately connected with sex, politics, religion, monarchy and celebration ever since.   The scientific improvements of the industrial revolution made champagne accessible to the middle classes and today the Champagne region produces more than 300 million bottles a year. Thank goodness the wines of Champagne can now be found all over the world!

Bottles of champagne mature slowly and gracefully in the cool chalk cellars deep underground

Bottles of champagne mature slowly and gracefully in the cool chalk cellars deep underground

Can I visit Champagne?

Yes absolutely, for any lover of champagne there is nothing quite like witnessing how this wine miracle is made. The historical Champagne region is less than one hour North East of Paris, so easily accessible for the day, but its many cultural and foodie attractions may tempt you to stay much longer. The tourist offices in Reims and Epernay (the region’s two main champagne capitals) can provide with a list of champagne houses open to the public. Famous names to visit include Moet, Mumm, Pommery, Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot.

I’ve heard enough, where can I get some champagne?

You can find a decent range of champagnes in most supermarkets and usually at least one or two big names in your local corner shop. Small more exclusive grower champagnes and rare vintages can be sourced at boutique retailers. The best champagne deals can be ordered by the case online from the comfort of your armchair at home.

Jayne Powell (aka Champagne Jayne) provides a uniquely rich yet accessible introduction to the world’s most enigmatic wine. Dubbed the ‘Champagne Socialist’ by Financial Times, Jayne is an award-winning author and champagne educator, freelance lifestyle journalist, broadcaster and special events MC, who has been awarded Champagne Dame status (Dame Chevalier) by the champagne industry in recognition of her global efforts to democratise prestige.

www.champagnejayne.com

My hOtel: Sofitel London St James

myhotel

The Sofitel London St. James

The Sofitel London St. James

The Sofitel London St. James, located near Pall Mall and lower Regent Street is a hotel I know quite well. I have visited many times, as I absolutely adore its bar (and the French accents don’t hurt either). After so many social calls, it was time to call it a night – literally! So I was delighted to make a recent visit to London even more special by enjoying afternoon tea with two very good friends and spending the night at the Sofitel.

Pre-Arrival

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

It is like we are old friends – every now and then we tweet back and forth, especially when I drop by the bar for a glass of champagne or three. Obviously, this time round was no exception.

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

Absolutely.

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

Not really, but then again, the Sofitel knows me (I have stayed recently in Amsterdam, Berlin, Lisbon and Lyon).

Arrival

Bonjour, Madame. Oui Oui

Bonjour, Madame. Oui Oui

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

I love the outside of the hotel and entering it is quite something. Why? Because it is nice and cozy – and I don’t mean this in a negative way. I didn’t get my “Bonjour, Madame” at the door, but got plenty from everyone I saw at the hotel. I think it is a lovely touch and something unique by this chain.

The decor of the London hotel is great. Think 1920-30s – rich colours, a lot of contrasts and a certain je ne sais quoi. Very chic indeed. And not in your face, which I quite like (hence why I visit the bar with friends quite often).

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

It was very quick and efficient. My room wasn’t ready yet, which wasn’t a problem, so I took the time to have a look around areas I don’t normally see as a bar guest, like the spa. Note to self: must return as it was wonderful (or looked wonderful).

–          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)

Oui oui oui. And pronounce my surname in French and I get weak in the knees (obviously because the gentleman who checked me in was French – and do note that one does not need to be French to work at this hotel).

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

No. The hotel was very busy and this booking was really last-minute so I had a standard room.

–          Did I feel genuinely welcomed by the hotel staff?

Absolutely.

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

As my room wasn’t ready, the reception team kept it and said it would be in my room. Which it was (and not really a surprise).

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

WiFi is free at all Sofitel hotels and worked well.

Room Experience

Smart and spacious rooms

Smart and spacious rooms

 

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

The room was very nice. I can’t fault it in any way. The decor has been updated recently and we had everything we needed for a night (or more).

–          Welcome amenity

I had some handmade chocolates which were delicious. And plenty of water.

–          The bed

I had *ze* bed (read with French accent). And ze bed was very very good. I love the Sofitel beds and soon I am going to cave and order the pillows. Because they are that good (I am saying the pillows only as I don’t think Mr. O will want us to get a new bed. Yet.)

–          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.

Obviously this hotel does not think I am going to steal their hangers. And we had plenty.

–          Iphone Charger/Dock

I didn’t notice it (and must start getting back to this as I have now moved to iPhone 5 and made my peace with the fact that I will have to wait a while until every hotel in the world upgrades).

–          Bathrobes and slippers

Mais oui, but I didn’t use.

–          Coffee and Tea

To be honest, I didn’t check this time but would assume so. I will confirm and update this bit.

–          Free bottled water

Of course.

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

Nothing special this time around.

–          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, and even found a plug by the bed, which is always a nice bonus.

Bathroom

Our bathroom at the Sofitel London St James

Our bathroom at the Sofitel London St James

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

The bathroom wasn’t huge, but was very well-appointed.

–          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 and a shower, which was quite good.

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

Plenty and actually lovely.

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

This time around, we had Hermes in small sizes. Always a classic (although I don’t love the conditioner).

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

One thing the Sofitel does extremely well is this – and they are also really good at “concealing” the vanity items (which is a good thing). I like all the containers which keep the bathroom always nice and tidy.

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

There was a proper hairdryer which I didn’t use.

Afternoon Tea

Had a lovely afternoon with my friends Trudi and Terene at the Rose Lounge

Had a lovely afternoon with my friends Trudi and Terene at the Rose Lounge

This time around, I got to try Sofitel’s version of the traditional afternoon tea. I liked *ze* twist.. lychee champagne cocktails (seriously, are you kidding me? These need to be on the normal hotel menu), which at £7.00 extra, was extremely good value. The sandwiches were lovely and I fell in love again with Bombai Chai (I think I may have had 4 cups, I am sorry). The scones were fab but we couldn’t get to *ze* pastries. It was a little bit too much, but they looked amazing.

Bar

Mrs. O likes the St James bar. A lot.

Mrs. O likes the St James bar. A lot.

I have said it once, and I will say it again. I love the St. James bar and that means I visit it quite often with friends or business associates for a cocktail or three. Obviously we had to try the cocktails again just to see if the quality remained. Magnifique, said Mr. O. I didn’t disagree. In all seriousness, the cocktail and champagne list is outstanding and so are the nibbles. And if you are lucky, you get to hear a bit of French, which is lovely.

Breakfast

I adore Le Balcon, Sofitel's restaurant which doubles as breakfast room

I adore Le Balcon, Sofitel’s restaurant which doubles as breakfast room

Breakfast is also one of Sofitel’s strongest points – at least for me, who originally comes from Portugal and our breakfast is pretty much the same as the French. When I am at a Sofitel, I know that the pastries will be incredible, the bread.. well… will be proper bread. But the piece of resistance? I may get lucky and have a chausson aux pommes which is one of my favourite things in life. And guess what? I did! Continental breakfast costs £16.95.

A lovely petit dejeuner

A lovely petit dejeuner

Needless to say that there was a full buffet and items could also be ordered a la carte. PS. And isn’t the room beautiful?

General thoughts

–          How good and reliable was the wi-fi?

Quite good when I tried to use it. As I am in my home country, I didn’t need it on my phone, just on my ipad.

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

Not really, but they did the next morning.

–          Location

At the heart of St. James, at the corner of Waterloo Place and Pall Mall. A really good location for me (and my London life).

–          Cost – rooms starting from…

Rooms start at £275 per night.

–          Would I recommend it to my best friend?

Absolutement! She did enjoy afternoon tea with me and is also a fan of *ze* bar.

–          Would I stay again?

Yes, without a doubt.

Have you visited this hotel? What were your thoughts?

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Sofitel 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.