Introducing the RueBaRue App – city travel planning made easy

This post has been brought to you in association with RueBaRue.

We all know that there is an app for everything – but the goal, at least for me, is to discover *really* useful apps, which really make my travelling time easier, amongst other things. Cue RueBaRue, which is a new app which promises two things: to help you plan an upcoming visit to a city in a much easier way and really help you with something: adjust your interests to your pace.

What do I mean ‘pace’? Well, not all of us want to see 48 attractions in one day. Sometimes, less is more. And a girl has to find a place to rest her legs in between the shopping and museum-hopping.

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To plan a visit to a city, need to select it from a choice of 17, including major US cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Washington DC and Chicago, and of course, some of the greatest cities in the world like London, Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Rome, Singapore, Dubai, Vancouver and Tokyo. More cities are coming soon, so worry not.

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For the purposes of this review, I picked Barcelona as ‘my city’. Why? Because I know it well and I know what I would want to see in a day, ‘Mrs. O-style’, aka a relatively slow pace.

We all have different travel styles – and different times to explore a city, and this is what I found quite intriguing about the app. Because it calculates the time between each activity, and, more importantly, it allows for travel time in between locations, so it is VERY handy.

When you start planning your trip, you can do so from an itinerary from scratch, or if you are curious, select a pre-planned itinerary (where again you are given the opportunity to choose your interests and pace). Everything is editable, so if you don’t want to go to place A or B, you can just delete it.

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One feature that I also quite liked (having been disappointed a few times in real trips before), is the fact that if you add your dates (you can make them up, of course), it will actually tell you if where you chose to visit is open or not. I don’t know about you,  but I have before made my way to a museum or an attraction and find it closed. It happens to shops quite a bit in Europe (not just Sundays, in some places it is also Monday morning) – my most recent one was the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur which close on a Monday. Or a restaurant. So it is a handy feature.

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Adding and removing ‘attractions’ is super easy, and you can also add (and should add) your accommodation details (I picked a random hotel) and restaurants. The reason why this is important is because it gives you an idea of how much time you will need between place A and B, and it does so ‘Google Map’ style where it tells you how long it will take to walk, by taxi/car and public transportation.  It actually connects you to Apple or Google Maps so you can know for sure how to get there.

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As you start building your itinerary, a map starts being built – it will be available offline at all times (which is also a plus).

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I have been testing this app for a couple of weeks now, and found it most useful – it is super easy to use, and actually adds value as it lets you REALLY select what you would want to see, but does it in a clever way: you can actually not know what you should see in a new city, and it does the homework for you. With a plus – if you are not interested at all in place A or B, then it just magically disappears.

I like the look and feel of the app (in other words, it does look pretty), and I have no problems recommend my readers to download it – it is free and available from the App Store (other versions will be available soon). Any feedback you have once you download will be very useful to its developers, so please let me know of any thoughts and ideas.

RueBaRue App Logo-1

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer and Fact Box: I was compensated by RueBaRue for my time in reviewing this app. The company has not seen my review prior to publishing and opinions are, as always, my own. The app really is very good. You can also visit RueBaRue’s website for additional trip ideas, including some of my own (for example, a NYC shopping guide or my secret places in London).

Discovering cities one bite at a time: the magic of food tours

One thing I almost always do when I visit a city is book a food tour. When I say this to some friends, they seem surprised: food tours? What is that? Well, it is not a new concept, so to speak, but I find it a great way to discover a city.

I did my first one almost 4 years ago when I visited Rome with my sister. The result? A great day out, negative calories (because you walk – trust me on this!), and a great way to get to know little hidden gems. And, I will not lie – a great way to find some things to buy. When you travel within Europe, you can of course bring home any produce.

Food tours take on average 4 hours – and my advice is to skip the meal before it begins. The times I did not follow my own advice, I deeply regretted it. It is also a great way to do some sightseeing and earmarking places to return to.

Here are 6 food tour options I absolutely loved – they all happen to be in Europe, but worry not, I plan to continue to eat my way around the world.

Lisbon, Portugal

lisbon portugal eat portugal food tours europe luxury travel

I chose this one first because it is ever so slightly ironic that I went on a food tour in my hometown. And besides Mr. O, I invited my sister to join us. Why ironic? Because one would think one would know the main places to try x and y. Turns out one is very wrong. We joined a group organised by Eat Portugal – they run tours of up to 8 people and we loved every minute of it. Of course I knew the food, but I loved finding so many old fashioned places I did not know they still existed – and discovering new ones. Also, we loved having other people join us – it is not that you make friends, but watching other people discover new foods and flavours can be very rewarding. Tours from 75 Euros per person.

Malaga & Marbella, Spain

toma and coe tours andalucia spain marbella food tour

A fabulous experience around Marbella

On a recent trip to the South of Spain, a part of the world I know very well, as we spent many Summers there during my childhood, we spent two fantastic half days with Manni from Toma Tours. The concept behind this company, which offers really bespoke experiences, is to help you discover ‘the real Spain’. No tourist traps here. We spent an evening getting reacquainted with the old town of Marbella (which still retains its charm) and stopped at over 6 places for a bit of this and a bit of that. Highlights included The Farm, a local pioneer of the Slow Food movement – “Grandma’s food”, locally sourced, seasonal fayre, using organic produce from the Guadalhorce Valley farmer’s cooperatives, just 30 minutes down the road and also D’oliva, a fantastic olive oil (and salt and wine) boutique which only sells organic and bio olive oil and its 10-type-of-olive-oil tasting really blew us away.

toma and coe tours andalucia spain malaga food tour

Oh Malaga, you were such a nice surprise!

The following day, we discovered Malaga – and Oh. My. God. We had been many times but for quick shopping trips and here’s a city waiting to be discovered as a destination in itself. Manni took us everywhere – from the top of the Cathedral to the Museum Picasso, with plenty of nourishing stops along the way. I won’t spoil the surprise with regards to the food – it really was phenomenal, so I am sharing one of my favourite simple local delights: cogollos (which is a type of lettuce which the Spanish adore).

A Marbella Old Town Tapas Tour  can be booked from €136 per person including tapas and the Picasso’s Malaga tour from €143 per person without lunch, based on 4 people on the tour with a private guide.

Prague, Czech Republic

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What do you mean? A food tour in Prague? Well, we visited recently and this tour with Eating Prague (who I had tried before in Rome) made our weekend. Literally. That and a Flytographer session. With both, we walked around the city, met some lovely residents and really discovered some real culinary delights. Our tour average 4 and a bit hours and it really was a journey. My favourite? The sweets. Tours from 75 Euros per person, ours was a private tour.

Seville, Spain

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I recently visited Seville and obviously we wanted to explore some tapas bars. But where to begin? Well, we would follow Shawn from Sevilla Tapas Tours around town. It was supposed to be for 4 hours (at night), but let’s say we just hit it off and went to bed slightly later. This tour was also quite special because it was private (us and some friends) and we also got recommendations for the rest of our stay. And believe me, we went to places we would never ever find. Group tours (of up to 6) starting at 60 Euros, private tours from 80 Euros.

Madrid, Spain

madrid spain food tours europe luxury travel

The company we used in Madrid was aptly called Devour Madrid, and boy, did we! I must confess I wasn’t expecting to hit the vermouth at 11am, but apparently one does, and no complaints for me. It was a particularly interesting tour as I lived on and off in Madrid for 4 years and again, I really discovered some new places. We had 3 couples (all our friends) with us on the tour, and a blast. And let’s say that we could not honour our dinner reservation at 9.30pm as planned – yes, we of course had to have dinner at 11pm (and were not that hungry). Private tours from 95 Euros per person.

Rome, Italy

eating italy rome testaccio food tours europe luxury travel

I blame Eating Italy for my love for food tours – they helped me discover Rome in a whole new light and as you can see, life was never the same anymore. My sister and I went on its Testaccio tour (a whole new neighbourhood for us) and adored each minute. It rained for the whole morning, but we couldn’t care less as we had carbonara and gelato – and I had the chance to buy dinner to enjoy a few hours later back in the UK. Group tours from 75 Euros per person.

San Sebastian, Spain

san sebastian spain food tours europe luxury travel

I am starting to think that Spain invented food tours, as there is a trend here for sure. This tour was very special for one reason – because Mr. O recently took me on a secret weekend away (to San Sebastian, as it turned out), and he organised everything himself (with a bit of help from the hotel concierge team). The first thing on his list? A San Sebastian Tapas Tour with San Sebastian Food  – which was phenomenal. Lurdes was incredible and let’s just say we did not take the scheduled 4 hours… this is true testament that the concept works, I think! Private tours from 150 Euros per person.

Paris, France

paris france food tours wonderful time europe luxury travel

And to finish it off, something quite special. What should one try in Paris after breakfast? Obviously chocolate, sweets and desserts. We loved the almost 3 hours we spent with Wonderful Time in Paris on its Chocolate and Sweets tour – we learned a lot and discovered some beautiful places in town too. Private Tours from 170 Euros per person.

So next time you head somewhere, I challenge you to try a food tour. You get what you pay for by the way – incredibly high quality food and drink, and someone’s valuable time and knowledge.

Have you ever been on a food tour? What did you think?

xo

Mrs. O

My Flight: American Airlines Business Class review from London to Miami B777-300

I have recently travelled to Mexico and chose to fly with American Airlines from London Heathrow to Miami as it offered the best connection times, good value and I was keen to try its long haul business class product (having been quite impressed with its ‘transcontinental’ service between New York and San Francisco a couple of years ago). Here is how my flight went.

Check-in 

flight review american airlines business class london to miami B777 check in london heathrow

Check in area at London Heathrow, Terminal 3.

The flight departed from Heathrow Terminal 3 (and interestingly, there was never a mention of the terminal on American’s pre-flight emails). I had seen this ‘flagship check-in’ area a few times and knew where to go. On arrival, there were 3 passengers waiting to be checked in and 3 agents on duty. I waited a good 10 minutes before my turn came and had what could be described as the most bizarre check in ever.

Instead of what would be a normal ‘Hello, where you are flying to today? How many bags? Can I have your passport?’, I was subjected to one the rudest interrogations ever – along the lines of ‘what do you do’, ‘why are you going to the USA?’, ‘can you repeat your company name?’, ‘please name 3 of the last clients you have issued an invoice to’ (for real!), ‘what does client x do?’, ‘how long have you been working for them?’, ‘who are you meeting in the USA?’. It was quite weird and after 5 minutes of this, I understood why the previous passengers were taking so long. I actually asked why the agent that was checking me in was being so rude (he really was, the tone of voice was quite something), and he told me he was carrying checks on behalf of the TSA. I fly to the USA a good 6-7 times a year (always with British Airways), and never ever this has happened before. Apparently it is standard procedure for US-based carriers, which I respect, but the way it was done was very poor. I have flown with American many times before (for example, on an international flight from Mexico to Miami on my return leg), and absolutely no questions at all. Not off to a great start…

Security

I used the fast track and was done in 5 minutes or so.

 

The Lounge

flight review american airlines business class london to miami B777 AA lounge london heathrow

The not so modern lounge at Heathrow T3

My expectations for the lounge weren’t high – Mr. O had been on a flight recently and told me very politely I would be better off at ‘our usual’ lounge, but I insisted on having a look. Hello 1992! The lounge really was tired – and so busy (and loud) that it was almost impossible to find a seat.

I found a tiny table and after a while was able to order pancakes. I went to grab a coffee and looked at what else was on offer and wasn’t very inspired. I got my pancakes and they were so plastic I left them after the first bite.

I went to the loos (which were really quite good and modern, so a point there), and decided to cut my losses and made my way to the BA lounge next door (which I can use as a Oneworld Emerald) and had a made to order egg and bacon sandwich and a glass of Vintage Taittinger to make up for what just happened.

The Airport Experience

Heathrow Terminal 3 is a decent terminal (one of the oldies now) but has a good mix of shops, options to eat and a great Duty Free shop. I purchased some cosmetics and picked up an item I had pre-ordered at of the stores. It is no Terminal 5, don’t get me wrong. It took me 10 minutes to walk to the boarding gate.

The Flight

–          Welcome & Service

I had a very nice welcome onboard and was directed to the aisle where my seat would be. I have to say that throughout the flight, service was very efficient and pleasant, so no complaints from me.

–          The Cabin

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The very smart business class cabin on AA’s 777-300

The cabin was gorgeous and each business class seat seemed to offer a lot of personal space and privacy. It was similar to the flight I had been on before and it is one of the best business class cabins I have seen. It had a 1-2-1 configuration so every passenger has aisle access and I had a seat on the right side of the plane facing a window, which I had pre-booked.

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Cabin details

There are 2 business class cabins (one at the front, which just 2 rows, which I experienced on the return flight) and the main cabin, which is quite large with over 10 rows. Despite being a day flight, it was very quiet.

–          The seat

Seats are angled to one side and offer a lot of personal space – and privacy – and there are lots of well-thought details in terms of storage for personal items that you can use throughout the flight.

flight review american airlines business class london to miami B777-300 seat

The AA Business Class seat

On your side, you have the seat controls and panels, which let you adjust your set, connect any devices and where you will also find the Bose earphones with American provides for in-flight use. I knew about this and that saved me having to take mine with me – and they were excellent.

flight review american airlines business class london to miami B777 cabin details bose headphones

Details

The seat lies flat but I found it quite uncomfortable when I tried to sleep – there is something quite hard just behind your back, which I hadn’t noticed on other carriers before. I found that the best way to sleep was to have my head up a fair bit so that the back would go down a bit (kind of curved) and would be more comfortable.

–          Amenities

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The amenity kit including Red Flower products

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the toiletry kit – the bag itself is OK but nothing I would want to bring home with me, and I couldn’t quite understand the colour scheme of the items inside? Red and orange socks? Wow. I wasn’t familiar with the brand chosen – Red Flower – which is an American organic beauty brand and it included some lotion, lipstick and a face towelette (which I used). Additionally, it had a pack of tissues (very handy) and toothbrush and toothpaste.

–          Drinks  

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Champagne in a plastic glass…

I must confess I was not expecting to be served a glass of champagne (which was prosecco actually) in a plastic glass when I boarded – it really surprised me as to why this would have been done. Once we had taken off, I was offered a pre-lunch meal – and I decided to pick champagne (Castelnau was being served – really not my favourite) just to see what would happen. I was surprised to see it being served in a wine stemless glass – and baby, what a pour! The glass was quite large and so was the amount of champagne.

I ordered a Gin & Tonic (Bombay Sapphire and Canada Dry Tonic which tastes so different, but I will put that down to cultural differences), which was served in a similar glass. With regards to the other options being served, please see photo below from the menu. Drinks were served with American’s signature warm nuts, which were nice.

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The epic glass of champagne (which got warm quickly) and the meal served onboard.

I did a little research on the wines served as I did not know any of them – they ranged from $9 for the white and $17 for the red, which kind of tells you something about the selection. See more details on the photo below.
–          Inflight Meal 

I had pre-ordered my main course (the peri peri chicken) and the only available starter – herbed chicken with tzaziki. There were other main course options and I was told by the purser (who was very nice and came to introduce herself to everyone in the cabin when the menus were handed out) that my pre-order was confirmed.

In terms of mains, the options besides the chicken were kale lasagna and beef filet. There was also an option for an express meal with all 3 courses delivered at once.

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Dessert and pre-arrival meal.

For dessert, I chose the tradicional ice cream sundae which was lovely. I had a peek at the ‘gourmet cheese plate’ which did not look very gourmet. I paired my meal with a glass of the Portuguese red wine which was OK.

Pre-arrival, we were served another meal and I chose the croque monsieur – it was a bit stale but it wasn’t bad.

Overall the food was OK, I wouldn’t call it great. Service was efficient.

–          Inflight Entertainment 

I had a large screen and everything worked perfectly. The choices in terms of movies and TV were very good and I really was spoiled for choice. I watched Burnt, Steve Jobs and also caught up on some episodes of ‘Ballers’ which I have started watching on BA.

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I have to award top marks to the loos as they were very spacious, spotless and way more modern than usual. Decent lighting too.

Bose noise cancelling headphones were also provided and they were excellent. I had a power socket and a USB charger which worked well too.

Final thoughts

I had a good flight – I thought the service was excellent (John was my flight attendant and really was on the ball with everything. He was also quite chatty and funny and helpful). On my return flight it really wasn’t quite the same.

The food and drinks choices could do with an upgrade – I did not feel they were business class level compared to other airlines.

The Heathrow airport experience provided by American Airlines could be vastly improved – the lounge really was sub par, I am afraid and the check-in process has to be updated – maybe have a chat with the TSA agent after checking in? It really taints the experience having it as a ‘2 in 1’, in my opinion.

The cabin? Well, it is one of the best hard-products I have experienced – the business class seats are excellent (even with that hardness at the back when you lie flat), offering a lot of privacy and personal space. I was able to keep everything with me that I would need during the flight without having to get up and I appreciated it.

I would score it a solid 7/10.

Until the next flight…

xo

Mrs. O

Fact Box: My flight from London to Cancun via Heathrow cost £1800 and I found this flight with Google Flights, which may be the best website in the world. I am pretty addicted to it as you really can find fares you wouldn’t normally. A normal return to Miami from London would start from £2200.

A beginners guide to Scotch Whisky

This post is brought to you by William Grant & Sons.

by Andre de Almeida, former Europe Travel Retail Director

There are hundreds of brands and styles of Scotch whisky available these days, from The Balvenie to Glenfiddich and Johnnie Walker. This alcoholic spirit sells more in its top two markets (France and the USA) than in the UK and it is a drink enjoyed all over the world.

The word whisky actually comes from Aqua Vitae which is the latin for “water of life,” which is how early European distillers referred to distilled spirits. The phrase was adopted by the Scotch and Irish, who used the Gaelic equivalent “uisge beatha,” which later evolved into “whisky.”

Knowing how much Mrs. O enjoys whisky – it is almost a secret, but I know she does and she is picky (she likes it neat but sometimes she can mix it up a bit with a splash of water or ice or even soda water if she is back in Portugal), and that is besides gin, of course (a whole different love affair) – I am delighted to share with her readers my beginners guide to Scotch whisky.

So if you were a newcomer to Scotch Whisky, where to start?

The following video would be a good place…


1. So what is Scotch Whisky?

Scotch whisky is a distilled spirit or liquor made from only three ingredients: water, yeast and cereal (such as malted barley). The whisky must be bottled at a minimum alcohol content of 40% abv or 80% proof.  All Scotch whisky must be distilled and matured/ aged in oak barrels for at least three years in Scotland.

2. What are the different types of whisky made in Scotland?

There are 5 different types of whisky produced in Scotland. All blended whisky are made from two types of Scotch Whisky:

beginners guide to scotch whiskey william grant sons single malt single grain

a) Single Malt Whisky (single distillery, 100% malted barley, copper pot stills for distillation) and

b) Single Grain Whisky (single distillery, malted barley and other cereals such as maize and wheat, continuous column still for distillation).

Note that the term ‘single’ means only the production at a single distillery.

The illustration below is a graphical explanation of the 5 types of whisky produced in Scotland.

beginners guide to scotch whiskey william grant sons 5 types of whisky produced in scotland

Single Malt Whisky is produced across distinct regions of Scotland (Speyside, Islands, Highlands, Islay, Lowlands, Campbeltown) with more than 60% of production in the north of the country, in Speyside.

beginners guide to scotch whiskey william grant sons scotland

3. How is Single Malt Whisky made?

beginners guide to scotch whiskey william grant sons how is malt whisky made

Malt: The germinated barley used to make malt whisky.

Malting floor: A large concrete floor on which barley is germinated for making whisky.

Kiln: The oven used in whiskey making for drying the germinated barley.

Mash: The liquid in which starch has been converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The mash is what is distilled to create alcoholic spirits.

Mash tun: A vessel in which fermentable sugars are dissolved in water. Mash tuns are usually made of copper or stainless steel.

Fermentation: The process by which alcohol is made. Sugar-rich liquid (the sugars coming from grains, fruits, honey, etc.) is mixed with yeast, which consumes the sugar. The waste product that results is alcohol and carbon dioxide. All fermented beverages are either beer or wine, which is the starting point for all alcoholic spirits.

Distillation: When making spirits, distillation refers to separating and purifying the alcohol in a fermented liquid (mash) by heating it; alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, which allows for its separation. Each distillation creates a purer spirit with a higher alcohol content.

Maturation: Denotes the process of aging a spirit in wood.

4. What does the number of years on a bottle of Scotch whisky mean?

Basically any age statement on a bottle of Scotch whisky, expressed in numerical form, must reflect the age of the youngest whisky used to produce that product.

beginners guide to scotch whiskey william grant sons grants whisky

5. What factors influence the flavours of whisky?

In general, whisky flavours vary between sweet, rich, fruity and smokey.

There are many factors that influence the actual taste of whisky, but the oak cask in which the spirit matures is by far the most influential. Some say that this accounts for 60% or more of the flavour of the whisky and thus it is hugely important.

Another distinctive factor is the use of Peat. This is found all over the UK and it is the use of peat in the Scottish whisky industry that helps to produce a drink that has a unique flavour within the world of spirits. Peat is earth that consists of grasses, moss, tree roots, dead animals and soil that has become tightly compacted over thousands of years. Peat is cut by hand (picture below) and used to burn underneath the malted barley to stop its germination, thus giving the spirit a smokey flavour as the phenols in the smoke produced are absorbed by the malted barley.

beginners guide to scotch whiskey william grant sons andre almeida

6. What is the Angel’s Share?

It is a colloquial term used for the spirit that evaporates during the process of maturation in oak casks.

beginners guide to scotch whiskey william grant sons the balvenie whisky

7. What is a Dram?

A small portion (usually a fraction of an ounce) of an alcoholic spirit meant for sipping. Usually refers to Scotch whisky.

beginners guide to scotch whiskey william grant sons whisky cocktails

8. What is the best way to drink your Scotch Whisky?

There is no right or wrong way to drink Scotch whisky, so you should drink it however you like it, whether neat, with ice, as part of a cocktail, or mixed with green tea or fresh coconut water! Just make sure you enjoy it…

However, for whisky tasting and to better appreciate the flavours in your glass, it is recommended to drink it neat or just with a small dash of water to reduce the alcohol strength.

beginers guide to scotch whisky house of hazelwood launch cgd paris airport duty free exclusive

The new House of Hazelwood, available exclusively at Charles de Galle Airport in Paris.

9. What type of glassware and ice would work well with your Scotch Whisky?

The traditional whisky glass used is a whisky tumbler, which works well when drinking a whisky you already know or mixing it into a long drink. However if you are looking to drink a Scotch Whisky for the first time or in order to better appreciate the flavours, then a tulip shaped glass would help to concentrate the aromas around the neck of the glass.

beginners guide to scotch whiskey william grant sons glass tulip

Example of a tulip shaped glass

beginners guide to scotch whiskey william grant sons glass tumbler with iceball

Example of a whisky tumbler glass with ice ball

In terms of ice, I would always recommend using a single ice ball rather than ice cubes, as otherwise the ice will melt more quickly and dilute the flavour of your Scotch Whisky. A single ice ball melts at a slower rate, whilst chilling the drink and diluting it less in comparison to ice cubes (due to having a smaller surface area for a comparable volume of ice). One company producing the ice ball press at more affordable prices are ICEBIRG based in the US.

10. Where can I find out more about Scotch Whisky?

There is information on Scotch Whisky (and whiskey in general) all over the internet and you just need to google it. Here are some good places to start:

Also look out for unique Scotch Whisky offerings at the Glenfiddich Gallery.

begginers guide to scotch whisky glenfiddich

Also worth a read: William Grant, a Whisky Hero

beginners guide to scotch whiskey william grant sons william grant story

Slàinte mhath!

 beginners guide to scotch whiskey william grant sons andre de almeida director travel retail

By Andre de Almeida, former Europe Travel Retail Director at William Grant & Sons

See Andre’s profile on LinkedIn and visit his personal blog.

Luxury Hotels in London – 10 hotels to try on your next visit

Coming to London and looking for a luxury hotel? Well, you are spoiled for choice. To make it easier, I prepared a little selection of some of my favourite hotels in the city. Here are 10 luxury hotels to try in London.

I have linked each hotel to a review of each property to make it easier.

The Corinthia London

Not too shabby for Mrs. O.... at all.

Corinthia London

One of London’s sexiest hotels, it also has the highest number of penthouse suites.. with views. I loved our stay at the Corinthia London, and highly recommend it. Rooms from £300/night.

Rosewood London

My stunning suite at the Rosewood London

Rosewood London

Also high on the sexy stakes – the decor of this hotel is a dream. But also gets top marks for the best dressed staff, starting with the doormen. Rooms at the Rosewood London start from £360/night.

The Langham London

The langham london boutique hotel regent wing

The Langham London

I have recently stayed at the newly renovated Regent Wing at the Langham London and absolutely loved the style of the rooms. Fabulous location too. Review to follow. Rooms starting at £345 a night.

The Kensington Hotel

Our very comfortable bedroom

The Kensington Hotel

I still stand by the ‘regal yet ravishing’ description of The Kensington Hotel, which may be one of London’s most special hotels. The Irish accent highly contributes to the experience, in my opinion. Rooms starting at £275 a night.

Four Seasons London at Park Lane

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The Four Seasons London at Park Lane

Probably one of my favourite hotels in the world – I have used the Four Seasons London as my office for years. Lovely rooms and probably one of the best cocktail lists in town. Ask for a rose petal affair next time. Rooms from £425 a night.

The London Edition

london edition luxury hotel suite

The London Edition

The London Edition is quite alpine, yet so modern – the perfect combination for this very sleek hotel. With one of the best lobbies in London and a very decent gin & tonic selection (they know me well), its almost secret Punch Room is also worth a visit. Rooms from £250 a night.

The Arch London

the arch london boutique hotel

The Arch

Probably one of London’s best kept secrets. The Arch London not only is beautiful, but it is one of the very few hotels located in Marylebone which is one of my favourite London neighbourhoods. Rooms from £200.

The Stafford

The stafford london luxury hotel st james

The Stafford

An oldie but a real goodie. We stayed at the ‘new rooms’ at The Stafford and they did not disappoint. And one of my favourite places in London in the Summer? Its fab American bar, complete with outdoor seating. Rooms from £295.

Belgraves London, a Thompson hotel

thompson belgraves london hotel king size bedroom luxury travel blogger

Thompson Belgraves

We absolutely adored Thompson Belgraves – the decor was fantastic, staff were gorgeous and the little cigar bar is one of London’s best kept secrets (and liveliest places). Worth a try! Rooms from £275.

Eccleston Square Hotel

eccleston square hotel london bedroom

Eccleston Square

Probably one of the world’s most technologically advanced hotels – but made for real people, so you can actually operate the controls! And one of the best things about Eccleston Square Hotel? You have keys to the garden. Exactly. Rooms from £225.

What London hotels have you tried and loved? Let me know!

xo

Mrs. O

Top 5 Beauty Essentials for Spring 2016 – French Pharmacy Edition

Some things are better in France, as they say. Or tres tres tres good. One of France’s not-so-well kept secrets are indeed their beauty products – but not those brands you see at every department store and airport around the world. Nothing wrong with them – on the contrary. However, there is a whole new world awaiting to be discovered the moment you set foot in a French Pharmacy and enter the world of French pharmacy beauty products.

Living most of my life in Portugal (and a bit in Spain), these brands have always been part of my life. But now living in the UK, for some reason, they aren’t easy to find. So each time we hop over to the Continent, we stock up. As in really stock up. Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Spring 2016 Essentials – French Pharmacy Edition.

Bioderma Sebum Global – Intensive Purifying Care

I am late to the Bioderma craze (literally). I have recently discovered it in a French beauty showcase organised by Do it in London, and I have converted to not 1, but 3 products in one go – the make up remover, this magic cream and its serum. They are very light to the touch and not greasy – I love them. This cream costs £15 from Amazon and the rest of the range starts at £7.50 for the make-up remover (sold in a pack of 2).

Furterer Solaire Range

french pharmacy beauty products rene furterer solaire masque shampoo spf spray new packaging 2016

Furtherer is, without a doubt, my sun hair car range of choice for over 10 years now. In the meantime, I have tried other options, but in my opinion, there is nothing quite like this range. With new packaging for 2016 (I almost couldn’t find it in a recent trip to Portugal as I was looking for the distinct yellow bottles), I have 3 products of this range – the shampoo, the conditioning mask and the protective lotion (with a SPF of 90, which helps me keep my colour whilst in the sun. A girl needs to do what a girl needs to do – and you ladies know what I mean). Very difficult to find in the UK, but the best bet is, without a doubt, Amazon. Range starts from £14. Mr. O is also very partial to the normal shampoo ranges and I can’t help but smile when we are somewhere in Europe and he says ‘I need to buy my shampoo’.

Elancyl Cellu Slim

french pharmacy beauty products elancyl cellu slim cellulite cream

Well, sometimes we girls need a bit of extra help. I have tried every cream in the market (most costing 2-5 times more than this one) and have always gone back to Elancyl. Very good results in 2 weeks, every time. There is a night version I have not tried yet (I am as lazy as it gets) and can only commit to one product. This is the one. Available from Amazon for £19.95.

Uriage Xemose Emollient Cream

french pharmacy beauty products uriage xemose body cream dry skin

Hands down, one of the best products my sister introduced me to – and one of the best body moisturisers I have tried. We are now on our second bottle (and I mean ‘we’ as someone else who lives with me has also been using it and said, in a very manly fashion: ‘I like that new cream’). It is quite light and not sticky – but incredibly moisturising. Available from Amazon for £20.

Orlane B21 Extraordinaire Set

french pharmacy beauty products orlane B21 extraordinaire set

Ironically, we discovered this brand and its products at Neiman Marcus in the USA and have been buying them over and over again on each trip. Sourcing them in the UK is incredibly difficult – and on a recent trip to Paris I did find the whole range at a pharmacy (admittedly a pharmacy around Avenue George V). We were sold when we tried the serum + face cream combo 1 hour after landing from London (yes, I went to Neiman Marcus directly as I had to pick up some online shopping). The difference was quite incredible and it seemed like we were completely fresh. Also doing wonders on ‘our’ wrinkles. I found this starter set (which is what we bought originally) directly from Orlane’s European website for 180 Euros.

Have you tried any of these French pharmacy beauty products? What were your thoughts about them? Would really love your feedback. And as always, any suggestions for new things for me to try are very welcome.

Here’s to a fab Spring!

xo

Mrs. O

Shopping with a personal stylist in NYC – a review of GoodLooks

My love for clothes (and shoes) is well document. In fact, it is a passion that goes hand in hand with my love for travel. You know, because travel can equal incredible shopping experiences. Unashamedly, I do not pack light – but what I don’t always tell you is that many times my Tumis leave home empty. You can see where I am going with this.

On a recent trip to New York, I was invited by Good Looks to try their personal stylist service. I have to say I was intrigued – I had never shopped with a stylist, and always felt that there would be no need unless you were spending tens of thousands of dollars, or that if you picked an in-store option, you would kind of be forced to buy random things.

Good Looks offers a platform in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago where you can find the right stylist for you. The fees are clear (charged per hour) and you do not have to buy anything. However, if you do, your stylist will make a 5%-10% commission depending on the service you select. More on that later.

Picking a stylist was my first priority – and the key here was picking the right stylist for you. I am quite ‘classic’ in my style, a great believer in quality over quantity and also a keen worshipper of the ‘cost per usage’ way of life. I much prefer to invest in pieces which will last me a long time (and are wardrobe staples) – but will mix it up with seasonal pieces. I am not ‘super trendy’ by definition and obviously the goal of the session was not to become a catwalk junkie.

good looks personal stylist ali call nyc

Ali’s profile on GoodLooks

After looking at various profiles, and with the help of Mitzi (one of the founders of Good Looks), we decided that Ali Call was the woman for the job. You can choose by price, neighbourhood or approach and I loved Ali’s profile. Also liked that she specialised in designer, discount and up and coming – but with a classical approach. We could be on to something.

I contacted Ali via the platform saying that I would like to update my winter wardrobe with some key pieces which would be travel friendly (duh), and I would like a mix of city chic and ‘suitable for a weekend away’ items. We established the budget at $1000 and over a couple of weeks we exchanged emails where she asked me what I liked, what I did not like, which brands did I usually buy and so forth.

goodlooks personal stylist service ali call correspondence

Black and White, just the way I like it…

As I was visiting New York, the option of an in-house call and wardrobe edit was not a real possibility – and I was checking out of my hotel that day, so we went for a real in person ‘trailing the shops’ experience. This would be like shopping with your BFF with a difference: she wouldn’t lie to you. Ali would visit the shops beforehand and have all the items preselected for me which would save time, of course.

We settled for a 3 hour session (priced at $120/hour) and a 5% commission on my $1000 budget, which brought it to a total of $410, which you settle via GoodLooks (and I was the first international shopper and can confirm that the system worked brilliantly).

good looks stylist experience new york city ali call elie tahari bloomingdales luxury travel blogger 7

Bloomingdales

As it was sales season, I made Ali’s job harder – but this is where personal connections make a difference and stores will hold stock for the right person. Needless to say, there was a real opportunity to score some real bargains.

We met at Bloomingdales (which I must confess I had not been to for years, and has been ‘revamped’ recently) and made our way to the Elie Tahari concession where Ali had reserved a large and spacious dressing room. I love Elie Tahari and it is one of my ‘must visit’ shops on every trip to the US – and funnily enough, Ali used to work at Elie Tahari in her pre-stylist days. It does classics very well, it has a little bit of an edge, the quality and cut is excellent and it never disappoints.

I told Ali I wanted to focus on blue and grey as she was going blind on my actual wardrobe – so we knew it would complement what I already had.

good looks stylist experience new york city ali call elie tahari bloomingdales luxury travel blogger 6

The initial selection

At first glance, the colour palette was spot on – we were off to a good start. But there were so many items I would have never picked… But I was approaching this challenge with an open mind and obviously I was game to try anything that came my way. The first items I tried were quite key – namely as this is when you get the chance to say ‘I don’t like it at all’. But Ali surprised me and went like ‘Nope, nope, nope’, or ‘This isn’t you at all’. And that was a key moment in building trust – this woman was not selling me things for the sake of selling me things – her fees were covered and all she really wanted was for me to look fab.

I was sold on all cashmere items (even some she had picked up and bought for me beforehand – again no obligation as it could be returned) and we did particularly well on some open cardigans for $100. God bless America and its sales.

good looks stylist experience new york city ali call elie tahari bloomingdales luxury travel blogger mrs o around the world

I don’t wear white or leggings. Famous last words.

Turns out I look quite good in leggings – and one can match them with heels (I wore heels all my life but stopped. Or have I?). And after all, white does not make me look so fat. Please note that I picked the worst week of the year to go shopping: the first week of the year, after the Christmas fatness and 4 days indulging with friends in Boston and Greenwich.

I felt good. There was a newfound confidence too. I honestly loved the feeling. And who knew that there were silk camis that you can layer under sweaters and they take 5 pounds of you?

good looks stylist experience new york city ali call elie tahari bloomingdales luxury travel blogger 2

Super Ali and our final selection from Bloomingdales featuring Elie Tahari, Sanctuary, Magaschoni Cashmere and Bloomingdales Cashmere.

From Bloomingdales, we hoped on a cab to takes us to Aritzia, which is a Canadian store on 5th Avenue. Interestingly enough, I had popped round on a previous visit to the city and thought it was ‘way too trendy for me’. I am past my mid-thirties, after all.

Turns out Ali knows the various collections and labels inside out and this place is FAB for wardrobe staples like the silk camis and the world’s best gift to women: high wasted leggings. Exactly. Ali also found this gorgeous dress for me. In green ?

good looks stylist experience new york city ali call aritzia luxury travel blogger 2

Our picks from Aritzia.

Now you are looking at the photo above and thinking: are those LEATHER leggings? WTH? Well, they are liquid leggings (in Ali’s words, so extra good quality not real leather) and they would go VERY well with the white cami, the white jumper from Elie Tahari and my own dark red Valentino flat rock studs. And between us, I have worn the outfit a few times in London and have people come over to me all the time. Quite interesting.

What I bought

A few days after our session, I got an email from Ali which detailed what I bought and very importantly, what to do with it. Here goes:

Magaschoni Sleeveless Turtleneck – royal blue 
“This cozy sleeveless turtleneck can be worn back to skinny jeans and flats or layered with an Aritzia camisole and skinny pants or leggings. Heels or flats. Add a leather jacket or fur vest for a luxe layered look”.

Elie Tahari Turtleneck – ivory
“I love this back to skinny jeans (blue or gray denim) or black pants, dressed up with a heel or more casually with an ankle bootie or flat”.

Magaschoni Swing sweater – cobalt blue
“This cozy, casual sweater looks great back to a white tank and leggings, with trainers or flats”.

Aritzia Dress – evergreen
“This comfortable, chic dress can be worn dressed up with heels (stiletto pumps, open toe or knee boots) and the graphic topper, or dressed down with a flat. Add a luxe element like a fur vest for texture”.

Aritzia Liquid Leggings – black
“I love these leggings with a textural sweater. Wear with the Magaschoni slevveless turtleneck and white aritzia cami back to flats or heels (layer over a black jacket or outerwear piece), the more casual swing sweater or the ivory Elie Tahari turtleneck. The liquid leggin can also be worn back to a blouse/blazer combo”.

Elie Tahari Tuxedo pants – black
“This sporty pant looks great dressed up with a pump and silk blouse, or worn sportluxe with a cashmere sweater and white trainers”.

Sanctuary Sleeveless Topper – black/white
“I love this graphic topper back to an all black ensemble (black turtleneck and black slim pants or pencil skirt) and an accessory that pops (bright shoes or handbag). This topper would also look great back to the green Aritzia swing dress and your black Aquazurra Shoes”.

I also bought 2 pairs of high wasted black leggings and we identified some items for me to source later – i.e. the famous grey fur vest (with we got from Joie and I had it shipped to Ali, who in turn gave it to a friend of mine who was visiting as for some bizarre reason one cannot ship fur from the USA to the UK) and a black sleeveless turtleneck to go with the white/black vest. We stayed within the $1000 budget (I think it was $1100 at the end) and I could have not been happier.

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed my experience with Ali – at the risk of sounding ridiculous, it was life changing. I went home and did a little wardrobe edit and really found a new sense of style – very close to my previous one, so it isn’t like I had a personality change, but with a little bit more edge. Mr. O loved all the items and it has been interesting to see how friends and clients actually reacted to the new looks. The other obvious thing is that we picked American brands so not every item is available here in Europe (and that is one of the reasons I always shop stateside). Want to hear what my friends thought? Have a peek at this Instagram post and read the comments. Priceless.

good looks stylist experience new york city ali call elie tahari bloomingdales luxury travel blogger 3

I loved every minute of my GoodLooks experience.

We have been in touch since and I have made the decision to continue to work with Ali (via GoodLooks, of course), even though I am based in London and she is in NYC. We are now going to do a spring wardrobe edit and she’s going to help me find the key items for my ‘Spring Look’ but also tying in with what I already have. I don’t think I have ever looked forward to a Skype call this much.

Next time I am in town (you know that NYC is one of my favourite cities in the world – and one of my Top 5 Destinations for Winter 2016), I am getting together with Ali again. And boy are we going to have fun.

If you are planning a visit to NYC, LA, Chicago or San Francisco, I urge you to try this service – not only for the wardrobe benefits. It does wonders to your self confidence too.

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer and Fact Box: 

GoodLooks is a marketplace featuring the largest selection of personal stylists.  They curate and vet every stylist to make sure they can provide clients with the best services possible. GoodLooks provides the tools to find a stylist by using filters including service desired, price, neighborhood, and approach/vibe.  We currently offer our network of stylists in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. GoodLooks is an LA based tech start-up founded by Mitzi Reaugh and Cynthia Rupeka.

A personal stylist session takes between 3-4 hours and costs between $200-500 (depending on the hourly cost of the stylist). Mine cost $360 + 5% commission and was courtesy of Mitzi. Opinions are, as always my own, and I LOVED this service.

The Strand Cruise – a boutique luxury cruise journey from Bagan to Mandalay, Myanmar

The maiden voyage trip of the luxury boutique The Strand Cruise was, without a doubt, one of my absolute travel highlights of 2015. Departing from Bagan, in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), and making a 4-day journey on the Ayeyarwady river towards Mandalay, the Strand Cruise offers only 27 cabins – bringing the maximum number of passengers to 54. Small and cozy – just the way I like it.

Full disclosure here: I had been on a cruise in 2012, and even though I enjoyed it (it was the ‘business class’ of a larger ship), I have consciously not been on one ever since – but the allure of what was in fact a boutique hotel on water, and a staff ratio of 2:1 and stunning scenery made us decide to change our plans (and booked air tickets) from Rio de Janeiro and join the maiden voyage of The Strand Cruise.

We started our journey in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where we spent 36 fantastic hours (blog post to follow, worry not!) and after 2 nights in town, we made our way to Myanmar. We flew with Malaysia Airlines from KL to Yangon, the capital, and from there, took an interesting domestic flight to Bagan, with 2 stops along the way.

Our driver met us at the airport, and within 20 minutes, we made it to where the Strand Cruise was moored, and I have to say, we were very very excited.

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The Strand Cruise moored in Bagan, Myanmar

We were welcomed by fresh towels and invited to leave our shoes at the door, so they could be cleaned – something that happened every time we re-entered the ship, and I have to say, set the tone for what was to come. We were escorted to our Strand Cabin, which I was dying to see as I had only seen computer-generated images and nothing beats real life, as they say.

As I don’t want to spoil your future journey, and describe every single step of the trip – it really wouldn’t be fair, I would like to invite you to take a guided tour of The Strand Cruise, which will hopefully leave you wanting for more. A lot more.

The Cabin

strand cruise myanmar bagan to mandalay luxury double cabin

Our cabin at the Strand Cruise – really quite spacious.

From the minute we stepped on the boat, we really felt like we were at a boutique hotel. Everything felt spacious and the decor was lovely. Our cabin, a ‘Strand Cabin’ had a very good layout – with a fabulous bed, a separate seating area and bathroom.

I was a little bit worried about the storage area, and at the end (namely when I asked for an extra 15 hangers, ha), it all worked very well. I am not afraid to admit that I am NOT a light packer.

strand cruise myanmar bagan to mandalay luxury cabin details

Some details from our cabin – USB ports, plenty of storage, the pre-trip welcome pack and must haves like mosquito repellant, provided for all guests.

We arrived just as it was getting dark, hence the photos – but I was also able to take a day light photo. One can describe this as a room with a view indeed. One can wake to great views – but that depends where the boat is moored each day (so take a peek before opening your window in the morning!).

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Not a bad view…

With regards to the bathroom, I have to say, it was one of the parts that impressed me the most. Good size, excellent fittings and a great shower. Also loved the Roger & Gallet toiletries which were very good quality and smelled delicious – so no need to pack anything else.

strand cruise myanmar bagan to mandalay luxury cabin toilet bathroom

Top marks to the bathroom. Hairdryer was also good and there was a socket in there, which made my life easier.

Housekeeping comes round in the morning and for turn-down and we never had a problem with timings.

The ship

strand cruise myanmar bagan to mandalay luxury boat decor

We loved the decor of the ship

Bring brand spanking new, and built to spec, there were obviously no excuses for oversights – and there were none. I loved the decor of the ship, which gave us a great sense of place, so to speak. It was modern, local but very very homely. I felt very comfortable everywhere and obviously the staff helped.

The ship has a dining room, a lounge and bar, an outside deck with seating area, a pool, a gym and a spa – so there is something for everyone. With only 50-something passengers it obviously does not get busy or crowded.

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The sundeck and pool. And Mr. O’s sofa – you’d always find him there.

One of the largest selling points of The Strand Cruise is, without a doubt, the sundeck and pool – which other boats do not offer. Obviously it is small, but it was never ever too busy. We used it namely for afternoon naps which were much needed.

The ship has 2 spa treatment rooms and we booked a 1-hour massage each ($65) – we were the very first guests to have a treatment and really quite enjoyed it. We wanted to book more, but afternoon time over the next couple of days was not easy to find. Next time.

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The upper deck lounge

On the opposite side of the sundeck, you will find the outdoor lounge, where we enjoyed lunch every day and obviously used as a place to socialise and top up our sun tans. At night, this is where we watched the sunset and had a gin & tonic or three. This is also the only smoking area on the ship.

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The dining room

There is one restaurant for everyone – and you can always choose to have your meals outdoors or indoors. We chose to have breakfast and dinner indoors and lunch outdoors. The three meals, including soft drinks and wine are included in the cost of the cruise – and not only were the wines good, I felt they were very generous by leaving a significant amount of extra bottles at the bar for some post dinner indulgence. If you wanted a coffee or a soft drink or water during the day, it was never charged.

The food was excellent and varied – my only comment was that it was too ‘international’. Having travelled all the way to Asia, I would have expected more local food, but also understand that many guests come from that part of the world and fancy something different. All in all, no problems. If anything, we were overfed – we had afternoon tea on the first afternoon and never again, as it really was too much.

Worth noting that most of the management team is French, so there is a significant French influence in all the food – obviously that means excellent bread and pastries too.

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The bar and lounge

The bar was well stocked and had a good selection of gin – the tonic was the issue. It is one of the hardest items to get in Myanmar (it is easier to get foie gras, put it this way). Fever Tree is not popular in Asia yet, and Schweppes disappears in seconds at the market. But the team (potentially surprised with how much gin was enjoyed) promised to look into this – we never ran out of tonic, for the record, it just wasn’t ‘it’.

Excursions and activities

All excursions and activities (with the exception of spa treatments, of course) are included except one: the hot air ballooning in Bagan, which costs $350 per person.

We did this on the very first day and loved it. It involves a 4.30am wake up call but the views were worth a million dollars. A word of advice: if you want to do it, book it when you book your trip as there may not be any room left. The reason why I say this is that our ‘balloon pilot’ told us that on some days, there are 200+ people on a waitlist. There is a limited number of balloons and only one flight a day, so it is a game of supply and demand.

strand cruise myanmar bagan to mandalay luxury hot air baloon bagan

A very special experience.

You get picked up by a local private bus, then given a safety briefing over a light breakfast and up you go. The whole experience lasted over 2 hours, and that includes the transfers, the flight and the post-flight breakfast, which is served with sparkling wine. It gets very cold in the morning, and the Strand team had these lovely shawls that we were able to take with us.

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Wait until you see the video which will come at the end of this post. Just you wait!

Every day, we had excursions organised for us – always with a different type of transportation! From carriages, to tuk-tuks, it was all covered. You do not have to go on anything you don’t want – I skipped one on Christmas Day as I fancied a little lie in. No problems whatsoever.

My favourite excursion was Mingun, where we visited the unfinished pagoda and the Bell. Mr. O decided to be brave and climbed all the way to the top.

strand cruise myanmar bagan to mandalay luxury mingun

Mingun

strand cruise myanmar bagan to mandalay mingun white temple excursion

Wait until you see the footage that this fellow guest captured on his drone.

On another day, we visited Ava which had the most exquisite temple. We visited just before sunset and I will never forget the views. Note that these excursions took an hour or so each, so it wasn’t ‘too much sightseeing’ at all.

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The stunning temple in Ava

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Sagaing Pagoda – one of the largest in Myanmar

Scenery

The whole journey, which took 4 days (and 4 nights), was stunning. I was worried that it would get a bit the same, but with all the hops and excursions, if anything, I felt I needed more time on the ship.

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Some moments from our trip.

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This is the bit I missed in and around Mandalay

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Beautiful views on the Ayeyarwady river

Service

We were the first guests of the ship and on the first day, I would say that there had been some growing pains. But, in all honesty, the managing team was absolutely on top of their game and everything became great. Day to day you saw the staff’s confidence increasing, and it was wonderful to see their sense of achievement by the time we ended the cruise. Hats off to the team. Everyone was super kind and contributed a lot to our experience.

The Strand Cruise offers a 2:1 staff to guest ratio, which is the highest of all luxury cruises operating in the area.

Technology

We did not have the satellite wi-fi working during our trip, but I understand this is now up and running. We bought a local SIM card from the ship reception and were able to get 3G when we were closer to shore. Not a problem at all.

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We loved our Strand Cruise experience.

My final verdict:

If you are considering a trip to this part of the world (and you should), I absolutely recommend the Strand Cruise. The boat was gorgeous, we were very well looked after, and really really relaxed. There was no motion and we slept really well. If anything, 4 days was not enough. And this coming from a non-cruiser, is saying something.

And saving the best for last – one of our fellow passengers made a spectacular video using a drone during our trip. It showcases this journey from a completely different perspective and I urge you to watch. You won’t be sorry.

And until the next time!

Xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer and Fact Box: My husband and I were guests of the Strand Cruise and opinions are, as always, my own. 

The lead in price for a three-night journey on the Strand Cruise between Mandalay and Bagan is from US$1,782 per person and the four-night journey between Bagan and Mandalay is from US$1,976 per person, both based on double occupancy.  There is a special launch offer for sailings from now until the end of April 2016 of 20% off published rates. Price includes all excursions and activities as described in the itinerary, three meals during full sailing days, breakfast on day of disembarkation, soft drinks & local beer, house wine during meals, port charges, English speaking guides (alternative language guides can be provided on request subject to availability), satellite WI-FI in all cabins and public areas and complimentary international daily newspapers available on guest’s digital tablets.

Top 5 Destinations for Winter 2016

Winter in the Northern Hemisphere means a *bit* of cold – and obviously sun elsewhere. A knee injury has prevented me from skiing this Winter, which made me very sad – that meant I had to chase the sun instead. A little bit. Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Destinations for Winter 2016.

New York, USA

I have a thing for NYC, I will not lie – I first visited when I was 21 and I promised myself I would go back at least once a year, and 15 years later, I have not defaulted on my promise. 2015 took me twice to the city that never sleeps – and I started the year the way I intended to go on.

I also discovered a delightful new boutique hotel – 1 Hotel Central Park which was a delightful surprise.

NEW YORK CITY USA LUXURY WINTER DESTINATIONS

Punta Nizuc, Mexico

What do you do when your husband goes away skiing with the boys? You meet your BFF who lives in New Zealand somewhere halfway. Our previous meeting point was in Palm Springs, California last Summer, so we decided to be creative and met at the stunning Nizuc Resort & Spa in Mexico. Not far from Cancun, but a world away in terms of the crowds and buildings. It was one of the best designed hotels I have had the pleasure of staying at and loved every minute of it. For reference, Air New Zealand now flies directly from Auckland to Houston (13 hours) and from there it is a very short hop to Cancun. Her travel time was just a few hours more from mine as I flew from London via Miami.

PUNTA NIZUC MEXICO LUXURY WINTER DESTINATIONS

Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain

Mr. O surprised me with a weekend in a secret location (more precisely for Valentine’s Day) – I only knew it would be wet, 15c and the flight would be under 2 hours away from London. I was delighted to find myself flying to Bilbao and then enjoying a very well organised weekend between that city and San Sebastian. Bilbao was our first weekend away together almost 11 years ago and I can’t tell you how lovely it was to go back. I particularly liked the fact that he had taken an empty suitcase, booked every meal and activity possible AND allowed plenty of time for shopping. We stayed at the lovely Hotel Maria Cristina – a Luxury Collection Hotel, which is a place I stayed many times before with my family.

DONOSTIA SAN SEBASTIAN SPAIN LUXURY WINTER DESTINATIONS

Alentejo, Portugal

You can take the girl out of Portugal, but not Portugal out of the girl, as they say. I am surprising my mother (well, not really a surprise now) and sister with a lovely weekend in one of our favourite places in the world – the Alentejo region, located between Lisbon and the Algarve. There aren’t many plans so far, but you know the drill: drink a little wine, eat a little food and just relax.

ALENTEJO PORTUGAL LUXURY WINTER DESTINATIONS

Dubai, UAE

I have resisted Dubai until now but no more. I loved Abu Dhabi and quite enjoyed Qatar on previous visits (it is always my connecting stop when we fly to the Maldives with Qatar Airways) and after a bit of persuasion from a few readers, I am giving it a go. It will also be my first trip of the year with Sovereign, with whom I travelled to quite a few places last year such as Madeira, Maldives, Halkidiki and the Algarve. I’m hoping to discover a slightly less blingy version of Dubai and the Sovereign team is preparing something quite special for me, so watch this space.

DUBAI UAE LUXURY WINTER DESTINATIONS

What do you think of my Top 5 Destinations for Winter 2016? Do you have any tips for me? And more importantly, where are you planning to travel this season?

xo

Mrs. O

A hotel to remember: Pine Cliffs Hotel in the Algarve, Portugal

Some hotels really become part of one’s life. And the Pine Cliffs Hotel, in the Algarve in Portugal, has been part of mine and my family’s for many many many years. Decades, really. The Pine Cliffs Hotel, a Luxury Collection Resort is the new name of the Sheraton Algarve (which has always been part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection) – I never quite got how a hotel could be double-branded, but that is now a thing of the past.

In the Summer of 2015, I was able to stay at the hotel’s first batch of brand new rooms which were the first stage of a complete renovation. The hotel is currently closed until June 2016 – and things will never be the same, as they say.

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Not difficult to guess why we go back year after year…

I am not quite sure how old I was when I first stayed at this hotel… maybe 10-12? Most of you can work out how old I am, so it is just a question of math.

Located on one of the most beautiful stretches of beach in the Algarve, the Pine Cliffs Hotel gives us our yearly dose of a Portuguese Summer in a week. Mr. O started his annual pilgrimages 10 years ago (on our second year together) and we agreed to make this weeklong stay part of our pre-nuptial agreement. You think this is a joke? It is actually not.

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Hotel design details

The hotel has quite an interesting style – quite Moorish in a way, which gives you a little bit of sense of place. But what I like about it the most, is how spacious and quiet it is. There is something about the hotel (and the rest of the resort), which has a very beach chic and very unpretentious feeling about it.

Like many of my trips last year, I travelled with Sovereign who offer a range of exclusive benefits on all of its holidays including private resort transfers and complimentary lounge access.  However, this time I already had my flight booked so I just booked my accommodation with them and instead I made the most of chocolate dipped strawberries and sparkling wine which are a complimentary welcome gift for all Sovereign guests.

The new rooms

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A renovated deluxe room at the Pine Cliffs Hotel

We stayed in a premium deluxe bedroom (instead of the normal junior suite we book every year), as it was the only room type that had been refurbished.

I have to confess I was worried about one thing: that tiled headboards would go. A very first world problem, I know – but it is one of the things that makes this hotel truly unique. And they stayed. They were actually moved (each tile, one by one, in some cases), so the room design would make more sense, but they are there for the next generation to enjoy.

This room type is really quite spacious (so if you upgrade, it only gets better than this), and I loved the new décor. It was simple, very neutral, but so homely. We do not like a lot of bling in Portugal. It is a beach hotel – I really could not ask for more.

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Very tasteful decor and some special treats for Sovereign guests!

All Sovereign guests get a lovely welcome treat – chocolate dipped strawberries and a bottle of sparkling wine.

All the beds (and bedding, and pillows) have been upgrade to The Luxury Collection current standards and were excellent. The bathrooms are brand new and I cannot point a finger – again very tastefully done (can’t go wrong with beige), with a full bath and a kick-ass power shower (so good, I actually took a photo). And one of my bathroom weaknesses are built-in toiletry holders, which as you can see, were provided.

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I really liked the new bathrooms

The amenities were Elemis (an interesting choice, not common at all in Portugal), which are good. My only comment is related to the size of the bath towels which are tiny (and is a very Starwood thing at the moment, which could be improved). I don’t know about you, but I like my bath towels to cover everything. Everything.

On the tech front, it was the second hotel I have ever seen provide USB chargers (the first being Ikos Olivia in Greece). I was really quite impressed.

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Our outside space and the much appreciated USB ports

The only issue I had was with the turndown service – and this happened for the first time in decades. I would come back to the room at 7.30pm from the beach (a very Portuguese time) and find the room in complete darkness. We complained every day, as the whole point of turndown is to have the room ready for when you arrive in the evening and only on our 5th night it got sorted – as I said before, this never ever happened before as the hotel caters for Portuguese and ‘foreign’ eating times. And beach times. And G&T times.

Food & Drink

We always stay on a B&B basis, as there are so many places to explore in the area, and I did not want it to change our stay in any way.

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I really like the breakfast at the hotel – and service was better than in previous years.

Breakfast at the hotel is excellent – and you have a few options. We prefer the outdoor one, which is always lovely. If you choose to be outside, you have access to a smaller buffet, but also have made to order options for eggs and the like. I love how Portuguese the buffet is – but worry not, there is something for everyone, promise.

For lunch, we always go to the next beach (outside the hotel) to a little seaside shack called Golfinho Azul, and have the best fish and sangria we can possibly imagine. They know us well, we have to call on the first day to book a table and then have a daily reservation at 3pm. The service is quite decent and every day we have something different – but the same sangria.

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Never enough!

Lunches come out at between 20-35 Eur per person, depending on what we eat (e.g. sardines are cheaper than other fish for example – but not less delicious).

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For 51 weeks a year I look forward to these lunches…

I have never been particularly inspired by the hotel options for dinner, but that does not matter as new restaurants will open this Summer. Hopefully Olivier will continue to be part of the Summer programme – we always have dinner one night at Yakuza by Olivier, which has a pop-up Japanese restaurant at the resort during the Summer – and excellent drinks too.

With regards to drinks, well… When we leave the beach, we always have our sunset G&T at the Mirador Champagne Bar. This means being in our best beach attire – whilst half of the guests are already showered and ready for dinner. This is where the hotel handles very well the Iberian (Portuguese and Spanish guests) and the ‘more European’ guests which have different habits. They have been doing this for decades, after all.

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Best sunsets of the year… (PS. That photo of us was taken on the only day we actually did not go immediately after the beach)

After dinner, we tend to go to Olivier for a drink as somehow everyone seems to go to bed at around 11pm!

Beach & Pool

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The beach area for the hotel guests

Beach or Pool? Well, to be fair, we always go to the beach. Why? Because it is actually one of the most beautiful beaches in the Algarve, although erosion is really damaging the experience.

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Look how the beach is getting quite small and the incline…

The sun loungers are packed quite close together, but that is because of the beach incline, which has gotten worse in recent years. I know the hotel brings in sand bags to even things out, but it is still far from ideal. Will be interesting to see how it will change this year – I would think a wooden decking on stilts could work, giving us more space between the sunloungers.

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Lovely time spent with friends and family – and we always give the watersports a go with the kids.

If you choose the pool, which we do in the afternoon sometimes, you then actually have all the space in the world. And if you choose not to be by the childrens’ pool, you will notice how quiet everyone is. Half the guests will be reading or napping under the pine trees and no one will make any noise. We love it.

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The pools at the hotel

Spa & Golf

A few years ago, the hotel started offering massages on the beach, which were quite popular and we have had a few. What I had never realised, what that the hotel actually had a spa facility. Duh!

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Not your average massage room!

I had a massage (equally priced) at the Tower room, with beautiful sea views – which I really enjoyed. At the same time, Mr. O (and my brother-in-law) enjoyed a complimentary 9-hole golf round, which they loved. It is not everyday you get to play golf and enjoy these views.

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The master at work!

It was very difficult for me to review a hotel I know like the back of my hands. We have been going for so long, that the ‘older’ members of staff recognise us each year (and our family and friends) and that makes us feel at home. The day Sr. Filipe retires from the sunset bar, our holiday will never be the same. And hopefully we will have many years before that happens.

Things are not always perfect – so manage your expectations, namely if you are Portuguese (sometimes the staff like to think that everyone is non-Portuguese speaking and have the most interesting conversations that they should not, in front of guests – which is a ‘local’ issue that sadly still happens). But I still want to go back – and I always tell the hotel what goes wrong so that can be changed.

We could go to any hotel in the world for a week, but something draws us back to the Pine Cliffs Hotel each Summer – it feels like home. To be honest, to this day, my godson who comes to see us each Summer, still thinks that the hotel is Auntie Ana’s ‘house’. I am sure one day he will question why there are a few other people there too, but until then, well, I am not going to disappoint him.

We are booked again for this Summer, but we will go at the end of August instead of July, so we can get a little tan before my sister’s wedding. And again, booking a handful of rooms as the rest of the family and friends always want to go back. And if you go, you will too.

Until the Summer!

Xo

Mrs. O

I was a guest of Sovereign on this trip, but opinions, well, you know the drill by now: they are mine mine mine! 

Sovereign (Tel: +44 1293 762 003) is offering seven nights at the Pine Cliffs Hotel in the Algarve, on a B&B basis, from £1,285 per person. The price includes an exclusive welcome gift, UK airport lounge access (where available), private resort transfers and return flights from London Gatwick with British Airways. Based on departures 12 July 2016.