Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Paris En Famille Part One

With the end of the year looming are you starting to think about planning your next family holiday? Although it can seem a bit previous to have things booked up months in advance family holidays and reckless spontaneity don't really mix. There are inconvenient things called school terms that get in the way for one, and the likes of Ryanair et al aren't really thinking 'family market' when they release those cheap flights to 'Stockholm' (by which they mean a former military airport about 50 miles from Stockholm) that leave at four in the morning and return sometime after midnight. No, those days of reckless holiday abandon are gone and careful forward planning is what's called for when holidaying en famille. Planning early even makes it much more realistic to squeeze in a mid-year mini break, too, as we found last year when we enjoyed a fantastic, bargain-busting long weekend in Paris. Here's how we did it...

You probably know that you can get all kinds of things with your Clubcard points, trips across the Channel being one of them. Tickets on the Eurotunnel are pretty reasonable at the best of times, but with a few Clubcard points in your back pocket you can cover your crossing completely free of charge - a great way to claw back some reward on all those miserable hours spent trawling the shelves of your local supermarket.

So why the tunnel and not the Eurostar? Firstly you can't use Clubcard points on the train, though obviously it is much more convenient for reaching the centre of Paris. We were doing Paris on the cheap, and by that I mean super, super cheap! Factoring in Eurostar travel for 2 adults and 2 kids, plus return train tickets from Bristol to London wouldn't have tallied with our minuscule budget. That said, getting to Folkstone is not in the least convenient - in fact the journey there from Bristol was by far the most wearisome part of our journey. We ended up booking a really early crossing (to squeeze the very most out of our sojourn) and staying at the Premier Inn right by the tunnel the night before, which I'd really recommend if you don't want travel stresses boiling over before you've even left Britain.

Once in Calais you’re looking at a three hour journey time to Paris. Part of the reason for us driving to France was that we decided to try out a Eurocamp site that had been recommended to us and which was touted on the website as making a great option for families wanting to explore the capital or Euro Disney. The International is located in a pleasant suburb to the North West of Paris and is open between April and November. We visited in April and stayed in the basic mobile home which was perfectly ample for our needs over the 3 days we were there. We paid just £120 for two nights accommodation - yep, you read that right, £120 for all four of us for two nights and three almost full days in Paris. That's why we went for this option. You'd be hard pushed to find anything in central Paris that comes close to this budget price for a family of four. 

My concern was that cheap might equal totally inconvenient, with Paris temptingly close yet annoyingly difficult to get to. But what they say on the Eurocamp website is true - you really can be in Paris in just over 20 minutes' journey time from the International. It's ten minutes to the local train station on foot and then a super-speedy train ride deposits you at the Champs-Elysee in around 20 minutes. Trains are frequent and run until late at night. It's important to work out how many trips into town you'll be making during your stay as it can work out cheaper to buy a 'carnet' of tickets instead of buying day returns for each trip. 

In terms of the site itself and local surroundings I can't give you much of an in-depth review as we used the International very much as a base rather than exploiting any of the on-site facilities. Furthemore, we stayed out of season - it was the coldest April on record for some years and we spent all our time on site huddled in our mobile home rather than exploring the site and local environs. But from what we did see, it's a well-organised, clean site, with easy access to the supermarkets and restaurants of the local town. Maison Lafitte is a fairly quiet, affluent suburb which I'm guessing would offer cheaper options for eating out than central Paris. Again, we didn't hang about much here but I'd imagine it provides some welcome calm at the end of a busy day's sightseeing in the capital. 

We had an amazing, surprisingly successful time in Paris and bolted on a few extra days in Picardy so we could make the drive to the continent a bit more worthwhile. I'm going to write a second installment about what we got up to in Paris and during rest of our trip in my next post, but in the meantime if you'd like to find out more about the Paris International site visit the Eurocamp website here. 

You can find out more about using your Clubcard points on Eurotunnel crossings here, and check out prices on the Eurotunnel here.

Related post: Paris en Famille Part Deux
Related post: Eurocamp holiday to Spain


Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Opposites Attract When it Comes to Money

My other half is a kind, considerate and generous person. I love him very much. But, my God, when it comes to keeping to a budget he drives me to total distraction. Our wildly conflicting ideas around the concept of budgeting were brought into sharp focus following a recent shopping trip he made to pick up the week's groceries. I drew up a list, I supplied him with a wad of coupons, I told him not to deviate from the list. I know I'm sounding patronising here, but I have the family food shop down to a fine art and do not relinquish control of this costly exercise easily. It's not that I particularly enjoy food shopping but I do take some small pleasure in knowing I've got a few quid off here and there and there's nothing like picking up a bunch of beautiful flowers at closing time for a quarter of the normal price. It feels like a small victory over the 'Man' (or CEO of Tesco), as it were.

My other half, however, takes a much more cavalier attitude to food shopping, clothes shopping, indeed any kind of shopping. On returning from the supermarket he blithely informed me he'd forgotten to use the coupons (including a whopping £5 off voucher)and had topped up the essentials I'd written on the list with some choice items from the 'Finest' range. No bog standard chocolate digestives for him, it's all about the Belgian double-choc cookie. Branded goods are his go-tos whereas I gravitate to the 'no frills' alternatives that I reckon do the job just fine. As more and more indulgent treats stacked up on the kitchen counter I was struck by just how different we are when it comes to spending money. It's not a deal-breaker for us, as when it comes to the 'big stuff' - pensions and savings, for example - we are more in step with each other. But when it comes to the more everyday expenses we couldn't be more different. 

Unusually for a man, my other half can find a shopping opportunity literally anywhere. Not content with coughing up for his twice-yearly dental appointment he'll merrily come back from the dentist with a selection of 'dental accessories' - toothbrushes, toothpastes and floss, purchased at twice the price of the supermarket. To be fair, perhaps this is his version of 'shopping local'. He can splurge in the unlikeliest of places, from the Post Office to Pets at Home. A trip to buy a packet of screws from the hardware shop might see him return with a full compliment of power tools. You couldn't call it wild extravagance, but it doesn't exactly aid any efforts to bring down the monthly overdraft.

Clothes shopping follows a similar pattern. Men just don't seem able to entertain the idea of shopping in a mid-market shop, say Topman or Next. For women there's no stigma in flaunting an amazing top bought for a tenner from New Look while most men I know seem reluctant to show off their cheap 'n' cheerful bargains. For me, a trawl around a charity shop holds the romantic possibility of unearthing some fabulous vintage gem, while my mystified husband views the activity as nothing more than poking about in someone else's unwanted tat. He usually buys things at full price, I rarely do. Opposites attract and all that.

In fact, that is exactly the point. He's the counterpoint to my sometimes austere self, encouraging me to live a little and splash out from time to time. I have to admit I can see his point that buying cheap is sometimes false economy, particularly when I'm consigning another cheap buy to to the charity shop pile after just a few wears. But I'd also like to think my bargain-hunting helps to keep the family coffers relatively healthy, making luxuries like holidays and weekends away a little more justifiable. 

And for all his laissez-faire attitude to household expenditure, there is one area where my husband is a money-saving powerhouse - white goods and technology. Only the other day he saved us over £100 by painstakingly fixing a broken iPhone and thanks to hours of research on the net has avoided costly plumber call-outs by doing a DIY fixing job when our washer-dryer has (frequently) given up the ghost. But I think, for the time being, I'd better stick to doing the food shopping and booking the holidays...

Thursday, 14 November 2013

A Little Bit of Luxury in Bath

There won't be many posts on this blog that allude to 'luxury' but I couldn't omit to tell you about a lovely and rather luxe place I discovered courtesy of my employer last weekend. I'm lucky enough to be part of an amazing parenting organisation and once a year we get together in various corners of the country for a bit of a weekend jolly. As we're pretty much all home workers, it's a rare chance to catch up with our colleagues in the flesh, meet new colleagues we've only communicated with over Skype or email, and generally make up for all those water cooler moments and office gossip that we rarely get to share with each other in the normal course of our day to day jobs. 

This year the venue for our annual hook-up was - rather conveniently - Bath. It being just down the road, I do go to Bath quite frequently but my trips are usually confined to a scoot round Royal Victoria Bath with the kids. So I was quite happy that not only would I not have to navigate a long train journey on a Friday night, but I might actually get to wander the picturesque streets of Bath at my leisure, take in the odd shop or two, and enjoy lots of unhurried coffee breaks along the way.
The Beautiful Rennie House
I did indeed get to do all of the above, but the highlight of the weekend was staying at the beautiful Rennie House, a Georgian townhouse based just minutes' from the centre of Bath. This place really encapsulates the essence of Bath - stylish, historic and bursting with charm. It's a really handsome building on a raised promenade with views across the Bath rooftops. Once you get inside, it's all muted Farrow & Ball paints, quirky wallpapers and vintage furniture with a few unexpected touches thrown in for good measure, like the photographic Paris wallpaper emblazoned on a wall in one of the bathrooms which I fell in love with. In fact I came away with major interior design inspiration after my stay, though a lot of the refined touches that characterise Rennie House might not look quite so grand in my 1920s semi!

There are 7 bedrooms in total. I bagged the cute attic single in the eaves of the house but most of the rooms are doubles. There are plenty of bathrooms to go round including a very luxe-y master, complete with a vast, stand-alone bath. Communal living space comes in the shape of a beautiful, light-filled sitting room which huge picture windows, squishy sofas and wall-mounted chandeliers. At the bottom of the house is a cosy kitchen diner with about the best-stocked kitchen I've ever come across. We're talking TWO dishwashers, a massive fridge freezer and the full compliment of every possible piece of crockery, glassware and general kitchen paraphernalia you might need. There's a small courtyard garden and private parking, too.
The light-filled sitting room
Since I've never before stayed somewhere like Rennie House, or rented out a big property with friends I'm perhaps not best placed to quantify its value for money. In high season (based on bookings taken in 2013) a 2 night break comes in at £1850, which on doing the maths comes out at £142 per person (based on full 13 person occupancy). Taking into account we're talking Bath/tourist prices, and we're talking about a luxurious property in the heart of the city, this seems pretty darned reasonable to me.

My cute and cosy bedroom
Rennie House would make a lovely setting for a family get-together, a hen weekend or special birthday celebration. It's a real retreat but close enough to the action when you want to dip into it. To be honest, we barely left the house, so comfortable and relaxing is this place; a real treat for our gang of slightly frazzled, busy working mums. We just about managed to find the energy for a spot of shopping during our stay, but the other big highlight for me was holing up in the cosy upstairs cafe of the amazing Bertinet Bakery, drinking coffee and scoffing our own body weight in meringues and chocolate brownies. Don't miss this cute little cafe if you're in Bath anytime soon (which also serves as a bakery and stocks a mouth-watering selection of bread and cakes to take away.)

If you can get a gang together or have a special occasion coming up that you want to celebrate in style, I'd wholeheartedly recommend Rennie House. I'm hoping I'll be back sometime soon...

(PS - I was too busy being relaxed to take many photos while at Rennie House and those I did take don't really do it justice - the Rennie House website has a much better picture gallery!)

To find out more about Rennie House, including details of rates and availability by visit the website here.
And if you'd like to visit Bertinet Bakery take a look at the website here.


Thursday, 7 November 2013

Bargain Beauty - All About Oils

As I mention in the 'About Me' section of this blog, I've picked up some of my best tips from other bloggers. When it comes to beauty, there's one blogger whose recommendations I really trust: Caroline Hirons. Ms Hirons is a beauty expert of many years' standing who, in her own words, "has an unhealthy obsession for all things skin" and "dislikes brands that want to 'be famous' and aren't entirely truthful to their customers." She's also a trained facialist who has worked across the globe, consulting with leading brands and retailers in the beauty industry. So she kind of knows what she's talking about. Her blog is witty, entertaining and completely honest, and she reviews products from right across the beauty spectrum, from the prestige to the budget. Her no-holds-barred approach to testing the wide variety of products that come her way means you can get an unbiased opinion on the latest beauty must-have, something that is far less likely in a magazine spread where you rarely get a truly honest idea of the real efficacy of a certain product. What this means is you can read Caroline's blog to get a beauty insider's take on expensive products before you part with your hard-earned cash.

Caroline is something of a skincare evangelist and doesn't advocate scrimping on your skincare routine. Her policy is very much based on the principle that you should invest in your skin above things like clothes, bags or shoes, so if  you would happily spend £60 on a new bag but only £1.99 on some wipes for your face, then you can't really complain if your skin lets you down. On that basis, her recommendations are not always cheap and unfortunately some of the products she raves about the most are well out of my price range. But one thing she has turned me onto and which I've noticed have made a difference to my skin are oils - both the types you put in your body and those you apply to your skin. 

Cleansing oil by Una Brennan

Firstly, fish oils. We all know the benefits of Omega 3 for things like concentration (my kids take a supplement for this very reason) but I was unaware just how transformative they can be for stressed, problem skin. On Caroline's recommendation I now take a daily high strength supplement of fish oils which seem to help keep my skin clearer and smoother.You can buy fish oils in all good chemists and supermarkets but the higher strength versions seem harder to find; I use Boots own-brand Max Strength 1300mg capsules which cost £7.49 for 30. According to Caroline's blog, she's had a hugely positive response from sufferers of skin problems including acne, psoriasis and eczema who found taking fish oil helped them keep their skin under control.

Putting oil into my body was one thing but I took a little longer to come round to the idea of putting oil onto my face to clean it. As someone who's prone to breakouts and has sensitive, reactive skin, the concept of applying oil directly onto troublesome pores seemed to contradict all sane skincare advice. However having read Caroline's logical explanations of why oils are good for skin - as long as they are the 'right' sort of oils - I've become a convert. Contrary to what you might think oils are vital in supporting skin tissue, helping to balance skin and ward off spots while keeping skin moisturised and smooth. Conversely things like foaming cleansers or harsh acne treatments just end up stripping the skin, making it produce ever more sebum which in turn leads to more breakouts. As long as you avoid mineral oils and paraffin your skin will thank you for it. 

I was pleased to see Ms Hirons recommend a budget alternative to some of the expensive oils on the market in the shape of the Una Brennan range which you can buy at Boots for under a tenner. Caroline advocates a dual cleanse routine for evenings which might sound a faff but isn't actually too time consuming and really ensures your skin is squeaky clean at the end of the day. The Una Brennan Skin Renew cleansing oil has the added benefit of Vitamin C so I spend some time massaging this in first, then rinse before doing a final cleanse with my trusty Alpha H products. The oil has a delicious smell and seems to have a conditioning effect on skin, leaving it soft with no hint of dryness. Highly recommended.

Lastly, I thought I'd pass on a tip given to me by hairdresser. Thanks to a long-time addiction to hair straighteners and a natural propensity to dryness, my hair is often a frizzy, lack-lustre mess. I'm slowly weaning myself off daily straightener use and in the meantime have been using almond oil on the dry ends the night before a hair-wash, as suggested by my hairdresser. You can buy almond oil in chemists for less than a couple of quid and you only need a teeny amount to help keep dry ends at bay. Massage in and leave to sink in overnight, rinsing out the next day. It really does help tame dry, frizzy locks, for a fraction of the price of products like argan oil or Moroccan oil.  

To read more beauty recommendations and tips visit Caroline Hirons blog here.


Monday, 4 November 2013

Weekend at Hampton Court & The Foley Hotel

Much as I love Bristol I also love the occasional weekend away. Weekends away with kids do, unfortunately, bump up your expenditure quite considerably so any prior planning you can do to bring costs down a bit is well worth the extra legwork. I picked up the tip for our recent visit to The Foley Hotel, in Claygate, Surrey from the Times travel section which recommended it as a good value option for tying in with a visit to local attractions such as Hampton Court Palace, Chessington World of Adventures and Thorpe Park. 

Scouring the supplements for travel tips and special offers is something I do religiously and while some newspapers and magazines don't always interpret the word 'budget' in the same way that I do, they're definitely worth a browse to find out about lesser-known accommodation options across the UK.

The Foley Hotel 

The Foley is part of the Young's hotel group, owned by the brewery of the same name and operating mainly across London and the South East (although there is also a hotel in Exeter.) Located just 3 miles from Hampton Court and just over a couple of miles from Chessington, it makes a really convenient choice if you don't want to confine yourself to a day trip. 

We travelled from Bristol first thing Saturday and headed straight to Hampton Court; it's a motorway drive that you can easily do in under two hours. Family tickets for the palace will set you back £42 - not cheap, but compared to the cost of a day at a theme park or similar attraction, and considering the educational value of the experience, it's a pretty fair price to pay. Aside from the obvious attraction of exploring the grand halls and haunted galleries of Henry VIII and co's stomping grounds, there's A LOT to see here. 

There's loads of 'history in action' and walkabouts from a stellar cast of Tudor dignitaries. We didn't, sadly, bump into Hezza himself, but we brushed past a very authentic looking Sir Walter Raleigh and you will stumble upon all sorts of other characters during your day, from ladies-in-waiting to courtiers and servants. They're not just there to make the place look pretty but to offer some historical insight, too, in a fun and child-friendly format. Your kids will absorb all sorts of interesting historical info from these lovely people, plus they'll get to live like a Tudor themselves, particularly in the kitchens where our kids helped to turn roasting meat on a spit and learnt a bit about Tudor table manners. 

Take a packed lunch and enjoy it in the lovely gardens surrounding the Palace. Don't forget to seek out the famous maze and the Great Vine, the world's longest grape vine. A wonder just outside the palace gates leads you to tranquil walks along the river front, or you could continue on to the expansive Bushy Park, former hunting ground of Henry VIII and home to a children's playground and a wealth of wildlife, including the red and fallow deer for which the park is famous.

After our busy day we were looking forward to relaxing at our hotel and we were not disappointed. Our family room was spacious, with a massive, comfy king-sized bed. There are 17 rooms at the Foley including rooms that can accommodate children on sofa beds. If I had one complaint it would be that the sofa bed in our room wasn't quite a double and it was a bit confined for our (average-sized) 9 and 5 year-olds. Despite the fact that rooms are adjacent to the restaurant and pub we had a surprisingly tranquil night's sleep. The general style of the place is comfortable chic - think textured throws, tartan armchairs and fixtures and fittings with a retro touch to them. I loved the old-school phone in our room and little touches like the vintage-style ceramic milk bottle in our mini bar and the 1950s mirror in the bathroom.

The exceptionally comfy bed

We made use of the restaurant for dinner which offers good value, gastro-pub style food and a well-priced kids menu. A highlight of our stay was the breakfast which is included in the room rate. Alongside full English and continental style breakfasts, the breakfast menu includes more imaginative choices - I opted for a delicious cinnamon-infused French toast, served with a sweet stewed apple sauce. Servings were hearty and the friendly staff were happy to top us up with extra toast and slices of bacon. 

We paid £109 for our room, which while not 'bargain basement' is good value for this standard of accommodation in what is traditionally an expensive corner of the South East. We experienced very friendly, efficient service, our room was clean and stylish and we loved its convenient, pretty setting.

Here are some other photos of our stay to give you a taste of The Foley's ambience...

If you'd like to find out more about The Foley click here, or visit the Young's Hotels website for details of similar hotels in London and the South East. 

For information about Hampton Court Palace click here. 

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