Monday, 28 July 2014

Whale watching in Port Townsend, Washington

Used Puget Sound Express ( for our whale watching and it was great. Very organized, very friendly, and we felt safe and looked after. It was a beautiful, hot day, so hard to believe how cold it could get out on the water, but you definitely need a warm fleece and something waterproof. Even though you can sit inside for the journey, you'll want to get outside on deck when the whales come into view and to take your pictures.

We were fortunate to see both a humpback and her calf (you spot them by looking for the blow and then they surface, usually three times in each sequence), and the front runners of a pod of Orcas. My pictures simply don't do justice to these animals or to how close we were to them at various points. They travel in a large family group (so we learned) and I guess we saw maybe the first six to 10 of them, though we were told there are about 40 in this family.

That was Saturday's adventure, but on Sunday we got up to the farmers' market in the Upper Town area of PT, and that was pretty amazing too. An abundance of vegetables in great piles of different colors and textures as beautiful as any floral display. I spied some of my favorite things, like fennel and summer squash, which for some reason I've only ever seen in the USA, though it's just as easy to grow as zucchini (or courgettes, as they're called back in England) in the UK (I know, because I've grown them there).
There were some very nice touches, like the four different colored potatoes – red, black, brown and white – all sold together; and the mixed organic salad leaves that included nasturtium flowers.

We grazed as we went along. I had papusa, a South American thick, soft cornflour tortilla stuff with a melted white cheese and topped with a cabbage salsa and green chilli sauce. Scrumptious, but one was not quite enough, so I had a homemade bagel with cream cheese as well. This isn't the place to stick to any kind of slimming regime!

This is such a pretty area: the snow-capped Olympic Mountain range in the distance, the San Juan Islands in the sound and the Victorian houses spread up the hillside all adding to the visuals. I came for a reunion of college friends – a uniquely special group of people who are my tribe – that is, the people I am most at home with. So hard in this world to find that and I send my thanks to them for being them. And, also, for showing me their home towns so that I have a great excuse to explore more corners of the world.  So long PT! You've been wonderful beyond words.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Port Townsend, Washington

So unusual to have blazing hot sunshine in the UK, as seen here from an Air Canada flight, but I left all that to go to the... Well, not so hot and very cloudy Pacific northwest, though today promises to be better.

Am in Port Townsend, a little town on the Puget Sound that thought it was going to be a big deal, back about a hundred plus years ago, so they built a bunch of big houses for the hotshots and... It didn't happen here. The railway went elsewhere and now the whole downtown (which I've yet to see in daylight) is on the National Historic Register.

We're in the Washington Street Hotel, in a suite of three rooms, and the beds are unbelievably comfortable, so that, after 26 hours awake yesterday I fell into a dreamy coma last night...

On a complete side note, in one of those bizarre random things life throws at you, the man sitting next to me on the London to Vancouver flight was the great-grandson of the man who built the house I live in - how mad is that?!

OK, so a travel tip: if you fly to Vancouver and are catching a connecting flight to the USA? Give yourself PLENTY of time. There are three –  count them, three – border stop points that entail long lines: first to check your boarding pass, then to check your baggage, then to check your passport.

I assumed I'd missed my connection, but - phew! - did not (see pic of the San Juan Islands from the little prop plane I flew down in) and was met by old friends at Seattle-Tacoma airport for an amazing drive full of talk all the way here for another (the second) of our college-friend reunions. However, often I see these people, I never tire of them and all I can say is, there is nothing better than finding your herd again after being separated for years. I would write more, but have three different people talking to me and can't concentrate. let the fun continue!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Au revoir, Megève and the French Alps

Love how chefs are the rock stars of France. In Megève, the Michelin-star holders in town were given their own flags, like this one of Julien Gatillon, who is chef at Le 1920 within the Mont d'Arbois Resort up the hill from town, in the old Rothchild chalet-turned-5-star-hotel. Have I mentioned that, as well as receiving his first well-earned star over the winter and overseeing the food in the five resort restaurants AND running the VIP food provision for the International Show Jumping that was going on in Megève last week, he's only 28? Oh, and also friendly and approachable – none of this, 'I'm too good to talk to you' stuff. Expect he will go far, as our meal evidenced.

As ever, am racing to catch up with life, but am including a picture of the amuse bouche we had at Le 1920 as yet another teaser. Maybe you'll just have to go yourself and find out how good it is! Or read my 'real' review in easyJet Traveller magazine's November issue...

Favourite things about this visit to the Alps? Aside from the food and the amazing walks we took, on which we saw an eagle and a red squirrel but sadly no marmotts, it is the glaciers. In winter, they're entirely obscured by all the snow on top of them, but in summer you can really see their textures and colors. It's the texture though, that I find so appealing, and I'm not even sure why. They're like broken pieces of candy but, also, like thick crème caramels. Yes, I know they're hard as rocks really, but to look at, you can see other things going on. I need to speak to a glacier expert and find out why some bits of them are blue, some black, some white... The one here is the Bossons glacier just outside of Chamonix.

Tomorrow I leave for Port Townsend, Washington, but I leave you with this final picture of the mountains beyond the trees. I think it might be my fav from this trip.

 Au revoir, Megève! You were amazing.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Haute Savoie, France

Polenta bread. Made on the premises. The premises being le 1920 restaurant. I am very keen to say something about this experience, because it was, quite simply, amazing, but after a day in 30°C heat, walking down les Frasses, my brain is boiled and I worry I wouldn't do it justice, so think of this as a teaser.

Toward the end of our walk, which included postcard perfect photo opps, we passed my kind of bus stop: one with a bench facing away from the road and toward the view.

We also heard many cow bells, which I recorded but haven't yet figured out how to upload onto this site.

Have just realized that my brain is actually too melted to even say anything sensible and halfway interesting, so I'm going to stop, get dressed for the evening and take myself down to centre-ville Megève for a glass of vin rouge and dinner. Plus tard...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Megève, France

Apparently, we brought the good weather – this region just saw eight straight days of rain – but it really couldn't be prettier. We're staying at le Rond Point Chalet Hotel as guests of Stanford Skiing ( I came to Megève a few years ago in the winter, to write a review of Stanford Skiing for parenting magazine Right Start. I had such a great time that when they contacted me again, I thought: summer in the Alps? Sounds like a brilliant idea for families – and it is – so another review for Right Start...

As well as the mountains themselves, which are my favourite thing about this area (well, obvs!), for kids they've made it a non-stop action station with summer luge, tree-top rope walks, guided nature trails, swimming pool, swimming lakes, ice skating, mountain biking, horse riding... Plus, there seems to be a different festival or event going on here every week. While we're here there's International Show Jumping – perfect for me, as I love horses.

We got our bearings last night by walking around Megève and stopping for a glass of vin rouge, before falling into comas in our comfy room back at le Rond Point. Well, you do that after a 5am start!

However, today we just had to get out there and enjoy the scenery and the weather, so we walked up past the Calvaire – 14 chapels depicting the Stations of the Cross going up the hillside – which gave fab views over the town and led us to the Mont d'Arbois gondola, one of three telecabine routes (as they call them here) which run year-round. At the top we were treated to the spectacular vista of Mont Blanc and its neighbors, then had a picnic, followed by a two and a half hour walk back down the mountain. Ignore those signs that tell you it's a 45 minute walk up too – no way. Just... no way.

And tonight? We're going to le 1920 (, one of the two restaurants in town awarded their first Michelin star over the winter, to write a review for easyJet Traveller magazine. Bon appetit indeed!

Monday, 14 July 2014

Highgate Woods, London

Back to England, which was looking particularly English in Highgate Wood, what with the teahouse tucked behind the hedges and a game of cricket going on just out of sight to the left. Also, don't let the clouds fool you - it was actually a very warm day.

I am back in the UK for 48 hours only (god, this is the way to live!), leaving for France tomorrow, where I am looking forward, among other things, to dining at a newly awarded Michelin-star restaurant in Megève. Plus, of course, lots of hiking and, hopefully, a little lake swimming. So, it's au revoir London, bonjour Geneva!

Monday, 7 July 2014


Heaven IS a place on Earth and it’s called Montenegro. It is simply beautiful and not in the clichéd travel-brochure ways. It’s dramatic, with enormous, impossibly rough, rocky mountains that look unclimbable, even if their lower slopes are tree speckled. It’s green, with an abundance of pine and palm trees, and scrub and dense forest, but it’s also hot in that southern Mediterranean way….

Podgorica  airport had ferocious-looking border security, who looked like extras from a well-cast 1990s-set film about a Balkin war. The car rental was a mini-saga all unto itself: Alamo had never heard of our booking or that of another couple who had also booked through the same third-party company (Atlas Choice, in case you’re interested. I don’t yet know who is at fault: Alamo or Atlas Choice, so am reluctant to point fingers, but to be on the safe side perhaps best not to book a rental car through either until I get to the bottom of it…). As Alamo simply didn’t have any cars there for us to rent – booking or no – various expensive phone calls to the UK help center ensued. Atlas Choice finally said go ahead and get a rental from someone else, and we will reimburse you and get Alamo to fund the difference. As the chap from the other couple affected said, “It sounds good, but I’ll be amazed if it ever happens…”
So, hello Budget car rental! And here I came across the first major difference between most European countries and Montenegro. They wanted payment upfront and in cash. Really?! Wow, OK… Well, I suppose it keeps things simple and, to be honest, I’m not keen on credit cards anyway, so it kind of suited me, but is unusual in this day and age, especially as there was no credit card info taken against damage or my running off with their vehicle. Was sort of trusting in a nice way.
Our blue car is a make we’ve never heard of: Dacia. Am sure some car geek out there knows if this is the Montenegrin version of, say, a Datsun or whether it’s simply made by a Balkin car firm, but personally? I’m not bothered. Is a cute, tinny little car that goes a treat.
And so on to the notorious Montenegrin roads. Can I just say: whatever you’ve read, the driving here is actually totally fine. Sure, if you’ve only driven in, say, rural Somerset or the back roads of Maine, you might find it challenging, but if you’ve ever driven in Paris, Rome, New York or London, trust me, you won’t notice much difference. What I think is, everybody is used to the style of driving in the country they live. When they go somewhere else and don’t understand the style there, they rail and cry, “What crazy, terrible driving!”, while the natives rail in their cars and think, “These foreigners! What crazy, terrible drivers!”
The challenge for me, though, was that I’d had maybe three hours sleep tops, had got up at 2.30am to catch the 6.30am flight from Stansted, and was in new territory. As anyone who reads this blog may have noticed, I never name anyone, but I will share that I am traveling with my son and his generation can’t read maps. Don’t believe me? OK, get in a car in a strange place with someone in their early 20s, pass them a map and ask them to navigate. Then we’ll talk.
Fortunately, there aren’t too many roads here. It’s a big, empty place with a population of roughly 600,000 give or take 30,000. That’s the whole country. Yep, and you know what? It’s bliss to be somewhere where you’re not jostled and crowded all the time. I guess I’m old enough to remember when the world wasn’t as packed as it is now, and this country reminds me how nice it was when you could actually find some space to be alone.
However! Those who are here are mostly along the coast, so when we hit it, bang, there was the rampant development, the sardine-tin packed beaches, the tourists in all its tic-tac glory. We carried on though and, after a few exceedingly dark, fumy tunnels (“Are my lights on? How come I can barely see?”), we came out into an astonishing bay. Huge, rugged, Mordor-like mountains rise up on all sides and in the middle teal-colored water. “Oh. My. Wow,” was all I could say. Along the rim of the water are mostly little stone-built houses, with the occasional newer development but, thankfully, nothing too hideous or eye-catching. It’s like popping out into another time and place altogether, and I held my breath that our apartment would live up to all this promise.
Don’t start throwing things at me, but it’s totally blissful. A terrace overlooking the bay, so that we can watch the boats come and go and, in the evenings, keep an eye on the dribble of traffic that passes below. We are near enough to the town of Kotor to see it across the water and be able to walk (20 minutes) or drive there (5 minutes) whenever we feel like a bit of ancient action – it’s a perfectly preserved, 9th-century fortified town with stone ramparts we will walk one evening. But we are nicely just far enough away from it to enjoy its beauty without having to know anything about its day-tripper hoards.
Yesterday, after a late start (cheese ‘mumlette’ for brekkers), we took Lonely Planet’s advice and headed to Plava Horizant, allegedly a contender for ‘best beach in Montenegro, but get there soon before it’s developed’. I can report back that it is indeed a lovely crescent of white sand bounded on both sides by pine forest and with handy concessions selling bottled water, beer and soft drinks; plus a restaurant serving pizza, French fries and food of that ilk, as well as providing decent toilets. Also? No music nor the now often-ubiquitous beach club. Cheers all round. Three euros to park all day made it a bargain as well and we stayed until 7.15pm, at which point it was still warm enough to swim, but I was ready to begin the evening activities: salad and tapas-style small plates on our terrace with plenty of the very drinkable local red, Vranac, until about 12.30, over which we talked and played cards and talked some more).
I fell asleep thinking how much I’ve missed my son (he moved out a couple of months ago) and how very lucky I was to be with him in quite possibly the nicest place I’ve ever been. OK, have just remembered a couple few other places that are also contenders for Nicest Place I’ve Ever Been, but trust me, it’s in the top five.
Montenegro, you’ve exceeded expectation.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

National Garden Scheme

Briefly, a scheme that raises money for charities, where people open their gardens to the public, charge a small fee and sell raffle tickets, teas and cakes.

This one was held on my road and, more out of nosiness than anything else, went along with an ex-neighbor and a couple of current ones to have a look.

Best thing about the garden? That it backs onto our local park, so lots of green and a sense of privacy. Worst thing? The them and us aspect this particular household had going on. They'd obviously invited a pile of friends over for the day as well, who were all indoors escaping the drizzle, playing guitars and generally having a party. We, like the sad matchstick girl, stood outside getting damp while we sniffed their mock orange. Ex-neighbor shared that the man of the house plays guitar with Paul McCartney, while the woman is one of his backing singers, so they are no doubt use to shunning the hoi polloi, but still. Needless to say, we didn't stay long.