Monday, 27 April 2015

Bank Holiday Beaches

A long weekend is upon us and with the weather hopefully fixed to stable (let's perhaps be realistic and not hold out too much hope for wall-to-wall sun on a bank holiday Monday) your thoughts may be turning to places to go to make the most of your precious leisure time.  For desk-bound adults and school-weary kids, there's nothing like a dose of fresh sea air to get some colour in those cheeks and let off some pent-up energy. But the one thing you perhaps don't want to be doing is joining a choked-up motorway or meandering along an endless B road - not a good start to a family day out. 

Thankfully there are some rather nice beaches within a 2 hour drive of Bristol which can realistically be attempted within a day - here are three places you might like to consider...

Southerndown, South Wales

About an hour and half from Bristol, to the south west of Bridgend, Southerndown is a gorgeous spot, utterly unspoilt and devoid of tacky commercialisation. Its sweeping sandy bay is dotted with rock pools, perfect for exploring with fishing nets and buckets (don't worry if your forget yours - the little beach shack sells these, as well as other beach toys, teas, snacks and ice creams.) With plenty of space to stretch out on, it's a perfect spot for setting up a deckchair and windbreak and simply admiring the dramatic coastal scenery, or playing a game of Frisbee, cricket or footy.  Sheltered by lofty cliff faces, Southerndown's inspiring scenery has been used as a backdrop for a variety of TV programmes, including Dr Who and Merlin.

If you're feeling energetic, you may like to combine sunbathing with a walk along the coastal path, offering spectacular views across the Bristol Channel. But do be careful with little ones and dogs in tow who you'll need to keep well away from those plunging cliff edges. Also be aware that the beach is completely inaccessible at high tide, so be sure to check tide times before you leave home.

Find out more about Southerdown here.

Beer, East Devon

Tranquil, pretty Beer offers a slice of Devonian charm without too painful a slog down the M5. Backed by glittering white chalk cliffs, the beach here is sheltered and sunny, with clear waters perfect for paddling in. Beer is a 'working' beach, and its picturesque setting is enhanced with clusters of colourful fishing boats lining the shore. If you're lucky you may stumble upon the day's catch being unloaded. You can even take to the water yourself, on organised mackerel fishing trips, which run from May to October. 

For something a little more sedate, take part in a stone skimming competition (the beach is pebbly so there are plenty of skimmers to be had) or take in the views from the beach-side cafe, a real sun-trap where you can enjoy fresh crab sandwiches, ice cream or the quintessential Devon cream tea. If you fancy a wander to work up an appetite for lunch, head into Beer's pretty village centre where you'll find a couple of pubs and fish and chip shops. 

Find out more about Beer here.

Lyme Regis, Dorset

Our go-to place for reliable beachside fun. The right side of bustling (though it can get crowded in the summer), Lyme Regis makes just a small concession to seaside tackiness (in the amusement arcade on the promenade) and has buckets of charm. Lined with pastel-coloured beach huts, there's an expanse of pebble beach and a smaller sandy beach too choose from, with safe, shallow waters and an iconic harbour, the 'Cobb', which became famous after providing the atmospheric backdrop to the film adaptation of John Fowles' novel 'The French Lieutenant's Woman'.

Meander along the promenade to find plenty of places for an ice-cream or a pot of tea and slice of cake - there's a particularly cute cafe (the name escapes me) set up with pink chairs and umbrellas where you can enjoy a great cup of tea, homemade cakes and artisan ice cream. You'll find an interesting antique shop on the promenade, too, packed to the rafters with retro curios and bric a brac - a great place for a rifle. Head into town and there are more interesting shops and cafes to explore - we like the Town Mill Bakery, an organic cafe and bakery where you can feast on artisan breads, delicious cakes or enjoy a traditional Dorset cream tea. For something a little more chi-chi, esteemed chef Mark Hix has an outpost here at the Hix Oyster and Fish House, smart restaurant overlooking the harbour.

There always seems to be something happening at Lyme Regis. On our most recent visit here was a bath tub race going on and on previous visits we've seen air displays and lifeboat launches - exciting viewing to keep kids entertained without spending a penny.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Hope in a Tube

Skin looking a bit sorry for itself after the rigours of winter? Then you might just like to invest in what I reckon is a bit of wonder product for restoring some luminosity to the old boat race. Now, before I start extolling its virtues, the product in question is NOT budget. But what price decent skin? As someone with skin that can be difficult and reactive to even the slightest hormonal, lifestyle and environmental changes, I tend to put skincare quite high up on my list of priorities. I would never spend hundreds, and have had precisely one facial in my life (I didn't enjoy it all - I'd rather have a stress-releasing massage than have my skin prodded and appraised under unpleasantly harsh lighting) but when I find a pricier product that I think delivers the results to justify the price tag, I hand over my card and vow to do the shopping at Lidl for a few weeks. It usually balances out.

I discovered this product - Erborian CC Creme HD - via Wardobe Icons and while sceptical about handing over £36 for a face cream, the online reviews seemed pretty unanimously positive so I headed over to Space NK, gulped a bit then punched in my pin. There's no questioning that £36 is rather a lot for a 45ml tube of cream, but I'm pleased to report that a little goes a very long way. I've still got about half left of the tube I bought back in February, so in theory it should last me till June, working out at about £9 a month...relatively reasonable, no? 

So, what is about this product I'm liking so much? It's essentially a moisturiser, but somehow seems to deliver much more than just skin hydration. Firstly, the CC stands for colour-correcting. If, like me, you're sceptical about beauty buzzwords and scientific claims that sound a bit too good to be true, you'll be wondering what this actually means in practise. The cream comes out of the tube white but when applied to your skin has the impressive power to match your skin tone, 'colour correcting' by toning down any redness along the way. So, if you've got, say, a rather angry blemish, it takes out the redness from the affected skin, making it look a lot less visible and a whole lot calmer.

If you've got good skin, you won't need foundation on top of the cream as it offers some coverage and evens out clear skin. Worn under foundation, as I have been doing, it just seems to infuse your skin with a certain glow that normal moisturisers don't impart. You need the smallest blob to cover the entire face, and its moisturising properties are fantastic, without feeling heavy or greasy. Oh, and did I mention that it has an SPF of 45? I wore it on holiday in Morocco in lieu of standard sun cream (which often brings me out in spots) and liked the way it protects and gives a bit of colour and coverage if you don't like going bare faced.

Yes, it's expensive and it might not be for everyone, but I'm seriously impressed with this stuff and will sticking with it for the forseeable...

You can buy Erborian CC Creme HD online at Space NK. Incidentally you can sign up for a Space NK N-dulge loyalty card, which rewards you with £5 for every 100 points saved.


Friday, 17 April 2015

Try Somewhere New This Summer

If you’re a parent of school aged children you’ll already know just how prohibitively expensive it is to go away in the summer holidays. Budget flights don’t exist once the school term has ended, and you can pretty much forget hotel accommodation if you want to keep costs under £3000 per family.  Add in other necessities, such as car hire and food, and a week in the sun can make a seriously scary dent in your wallet. The Guardian published some interesting figures last year showing just how much prices for family holidays can rise out of term time – think somewhere around  25-40% on average.

If you’ve been trying to book your summer getaway recently as I have, you’ll know that research like this is backed up by personal experience. It goes without saying that holidays are a luxury and that to be able to even consider one puts our family in a much more privileged position than others. But travel is something we enjoy as a family and we make small sacrifices throughout the year to justify our summer getaway. However, even with two okay-ish incomes and the aforementioned scrimping, getting away to popular destinations on the continent (and also in the UK) is becoming increasingly difficult to do on anything vaguely resembling a budget. Even the price of camping has escalated - it can cost you upwards of £2000 for 10 days at some of Eurocamp's Italian and Spanish sites.

So how about trying something a bit different this summer? We recently visited the Moroccan coastal resort of Essaouira, around 2 1/2 hours from Marrakesh. With direct EasyJet flights starting in May from London Luton, this laid-back Moroccan resort offers a much more budget-friendly alternative to the well-travelled hot spots on the Continent; fares start at around £67 outbound and £35 return. We stayed with family, but there is a good selection of well-priced, atmospheric riads in the centre of town. While not ideal for families, a riad does offer the quintessential experience, with direct access to Essaouira's bustling but easy to navigate medina, as well as its huge beach, an obvious draw if you've got little ones in tow. 

For accommodation options that are a little more family friendly, you could consider Le Jardins Des Douars, just outside of town, which has resort-style facilities in a luxe-y setting. It's got the all-important swimming pool, lovely gardens to chill out in and a babysitting service. A week in July for a family of four will set you back around £800, making it a much more affordable option than a comparable resort in Europe. With its traditional Moroccan decor - think tadelakt walls, glittering tile work and carved wooden furniture - this place couldn't be further from the sterile, could-be-anywhere look of your average mid-range resort. 

So, what to do when you're in Essaouira? Perhaps best suited to older children who don't need access to playgrounds and toddler pools, this is a relaxed resort where you can pass the days hanging out at the beach, hitching a ride on a camel or navigating the sand dunes on a pony ride. Older kids will appreciate a wander round Essaouria's colourful souks which are much less hectic, noisy and overwhelming than those in Marrakesh. You can see most of the town in an afternoon, stopping to look into the interesting marquetry workshops (Essaouria is famed for its exquisite wooden handicrafts - see if you can catch the local craftsmen at work in the small 'Thuya' workshops that line the the alleys near the harbour.)

The harbour is another must-see - kids will love watching the fishermen bring in their haul of the day. You can then visit a fish grill where you can choose the fish that takes your fancy and have it cooked to order. A walk along the Skala du Port gives great views out to sea and across the sparkling white city walls. 

The beach isn't the most scenic and the promenades that line the beach are a little rough round the edges - it's not quite the South of France. But what the beach lacks in sophistication it makes up for in space - you won't struggle to find a wide patch to spread out on and make a sandcastle or two. Be warned that Essaouria's beaches attract wind and kite surfers for a reason - the town's 'alizee' is an almost constant breeze that can blow up with some force at times. The sea - being Atlantic - is on the cold side and may sometimes be too choppy for safe swimming. Adventurous kids and grown ups can visit one of the surf schools that line the shore and take to the water in wet suits to catch some waves. 

At the far end of the beach, furthest from the town, you'll find some surfy hangouts and schools, as well as a collection of camel ride operators. A camel ride in Morocco is a bit of a given, and there's something very evocative about sitting aloft one of these ancient animals as you navigate the dusty sand dunes. Be sure to bargain a little before you mount that hump, though - if you can't get the price you want, try one of the other camel owners. Stop off at Ocean Vagabond, a funky beach cafe serving good value food including kid-friendly burgers and pizza.

On the subject of food, eating out in Morocco is much more kind on the wallet than its European counterparts. You can eat in quite an upmarket restaurant, with wine, for around £50 for a family of four. We loved the unusual Elizir restaurant in the medina, a truly unique eating experience where you can enjoy traditional Moroccan food alongside child-pleasing Italian dishes. The menu is small but you should find something of the pasta variety to keep little ones happy. What's particularly alluring about this place is that it's rather hidden and very eccentric - the owner (who trained in Italy's gastronomic capital, Bologna - hence the Italian references) collects retro bric a brac and furniture, creating an eclectic fusion of traditional Moroccan wall art and flooring with funky 60s dining chairs, lighting and other weird and wonderful objects trouve. 

Other highly rated restaurants to try include the sea-front Chalet de la Plage, reputed to serve some of the town's best seafood, and Chez Sam, a rustic joint down by the harbour, also good for sampling the day's catch. If you need somewhere to rest your legs mid meander through the Medina, make a pit stop at the charming Patisserie Driss, just off the main square. It gets very busy and the service can be slow, but it's a good place for a cafe au lait and a delicious Moroccan confection - try the pastries filled with almond paste. There's a pretty courtyard to sit in or you can take your goodies away with you.

Come evening head to Taros Bar, a cool but friendly rooftop hangout where you can eat or just enjoy a cocktail or glass of Moroccan Gris wine overlooking the sea. Kids are welcome and it's got a laid-back, Ibizan-style vibe that makes it feel a bit of a treat for grown-ups.

Other activities you might like to try include testing your golf skills at the Mogador golf course, just outside town. Kids are welcome to use the driving range and putting course, and prices start at about £20 for a family of four.

Essaouria might not quite have the polish of resorts in France, Italy or Spain but it's got an unpretentious charm and character all of its own. And with prices for flights, accommodation and holiday entertainment coming in at a lot less than its European counterparts, the little corner of North Africa has a lot to commend it...

For alternative side to Morocco, read my post on Marrakesh here.
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