I’ve been a little lazy with posts recently but if I don’t write this down now, I’m worried I might forget it.
We’re in the South of France at the moment, having a wonderful time with family and friends and eating delicious things. These holidays always very much revolve around food. Conversation at breakfast is generally about what’s on the menu for lunch and dinner and everyone is keen to offer their own contribution to the table. Last night was my turn and so baked peaches with Roquefort and Parma ham for 12 was on the menu. With my trusty sous chef
looking over my shoulder by my side, we managed quite a spectacular plate of food and one I’ll definitely be making again….but perhaps in smaller quantities.
So here’s what we used and how we did it :
Peaches – we used a mixture of big round ones and the little flat ones all stoned and quartered. Allow about 4 pieces per person.
Honey roasted walnuts
Thyme roasted almonds – or you just as easily use plain
First we baked the peaches on a low heat for about 30 minutes. Just all huddled in a tray and sprinkled with sugar, salt, pepper, olive oil and some fresh thyme.
Once done, leave them to cool a little – the salad is best served at room temperature.
The nuts – we bought a bag of walnuts and thyme scented almond. The walnuts we drizzled with honey and put in the oven for 15 minutes or so until the became sweet and crunchy. Once cooled, smash them all up in to little pieces with a rolling pin – the almonds too. Set aside to use later.
We cut the parma ham in to small strips and crumbled the roquefort….more about this later
Dress the leaves with a little bit of olive oil and vinegar. It doesn’t need a strong dressing as all the flavours are to come.
Place a small pile of leaves on the plate. Set the peaches on top and lay the strips of parma ham across them. Not too much. Sprinkle the crumbled roquefort – again, you don’t need too much – and drizzle some of the juices from the peaches pan over the salad. Lastly throw some of the crushed nuts around the plate and that’s it!
This time last week (this day last week….I started writing this morning) we were enjoying a very local and very delicious brunch in Paris, courtesy of the wonderful Cafe Francoeur. With just two hours to while away before the Eurostar Sunday mayhem, we decided that breakfast and a walk around the Sacre Coeur would be a pretty good way to end the weekend. Cafe Francoeur looks like just another one of those corner cafe restaurants which litter the streets and which, more often than not, are full of tourists, laminate table tops and pretty mediocre fare. Thinking it was probably just that, we took a table by the window planning to stay for a quick coffee before we went on somewhere else. It wasn’t until we sat down and looked at the menu and then the interior and then the people sitting at the bar reading their Sunday papers, that we realised we might actually have stumbled on a little neighbourhood gem. Of course I’ll probably find it’s hugely well known, in all the tourist guide books and been featured in every blog on the net, but for now I’ll just enjoy the discovery.
Most importantly it feels about as French as you can get and we could have happily sat there for hours. The dining salon is absolutely beautiful and although we didn’t have the chance to try the lunch or dinner menu, I hope it wouldn’t disappoint. We’ll certainly be going back.
By popular demand, here are some more photos from inside the wonderful Drunk Shop.
And so on to Paris part two : where we stayed, where we shopped and where we enjoyed our departing Sunday brunch.
In days gone by – before children and when I had a proper job – we always stayed in a friend’s little appartment in Montmartre whether I was there for work or play. We called it the Pigeon House, simply because it was right at the very top of the building where the pigeons of Montmartre perched and preyed. It has since been sold to new owners so we decided that rather than staying in a big, impersonal chain hotel or a very lovely but very pricey boutique hotel, we’d chance a B&B and hope for some Parisian hospitality.
Through the powers of Google and various blog reviews, I came across Sourire De Montmartre. A family owned, 5 bedroom B&B in the heart of Montmartre on Rue De Mont Cenis, just a few minutes walk from the Metro and within a 10 minute bracing accent of the Sacre Coeur. It was the ideal mix between hotel and home. No awkward late night conversations with the owners and no silly hotel added extras or noisy neighbours to navigate. The 5 story house is scattered with bedrooms and en-suites on each level with a sitting room and kitchen at the very top where breakfast is served – although we didn’t actually make it on either morning. We stayed in the Josephine room which was beautifully furnished with family antiques and complete with cast iron bath under the bedroom window. Plus, amongst all the french finery, was a brand spanking new iMac to use and peruse as we wished. Clever people.
When it comes to shopping, I’m not a huge fan, which is odd for someone who loves clothes, things and most forms of purchasing. Fashiony shops annoy me a bit, or maybe it’s just the other shoppers who annoy me, I’m not sure but either way it’s not my favourite thing to do and so I don’t. I do, however love a junk or curiosity shop and Paris has some of the very best. You have to be a bit careful not to be sucked in to buying over priced junk just because it looks pretty in the display. Here are two places to make my point, the first is the pretty one which can easily trip you up and the other is the real deal – or at least I think so. If we’re completely honest you’re not really going to find a real life junk bargain in a city like Paris unless of course your my husband who finds all kinds of treasure on street corners. More about that later.
Au Petit Bonheur La Chance : a veritable haven for treasure and peculiar things but very very pricey. On first glance we thought we’d found the best shop in the world and it really is a wonderful place to look..and knock things over…but you could find pretty much everything in here on ebay or in a car boot sale if you looked hard enough. Saying this, I did buy a wire egg basket, one which stays flat until you add something weighty, but only because I’ve been wanting one for ages and never found the right one, until now. Au Petit Bonheur is part of the Village St Paul which is a well loved collection of shops and stalls all selling antiques and bric a brac. Situated in the cobbled streets of the Marais district, it’s a very acceptable way to spend a hour or two and well worth the visit.
So on to our favourite shop in Paris, L’Objet Qui Parle or as we call it, the “Drunk Shop”. We discovered it a few years ago when we first stayed in Montmartre, tucked away on a hilly side street and owned by a charming man who – as all good French men do – enjoys a glass or three on a lunch time and so is much more prone to haggling if you visit mid afternoon. We have found some of our most loved and well used treasure in this little shop. From full dinner sets and silverware to desert bowls and my very favourite butter dish (which is actually a soap dish but who cares), all have hailed from the drunk shop and it’s our first port of call whenever we visit. This time we came home with 2 yellow Viandox coffee cups and the most wonderful antique coat hook to hang on our bedroom door.
But the find of the weekend – or so says my husband – was a metre long, framed jigsaw puzzle of a quintessential French chateau which had been rather sadly discarded in a pile of rubbish on a street corner. He pounced on it as if it were gold and almost skipped off down the street to find a black sack in which to carry it. So that will grace the wall of the downstairs bathroom alongside other visual treats such as a Johnny Halliday needlepoint and a poster from a (legal) midget bull fight. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all.
I’ll save our departing brunch for tomorrow’s post. It may get lost amongst all this and that would be a shame as it really was the perfect end to a very lovely weekend.
I’m not really sure how to approach a post about Paris without it sounding terribly self gratifying and a bit “look at me” which are two of the things I hate most about blogging. So, I’ll get this bit over with quickly and then cut straight to the important stuff. We went for a weekend, sans children, as a celebration of birthdays and anniversaries which would basically cover us for the year. Just two nights, staying in Montmartre where I booked the loveliest B&B. We enjoyed some of the most delicious food I’ve tasted in years, found yet more treasure to add to our rather overflowing collection of car boot / junk shop finds and generally had a really nice time.
I know Paris pretty well. After London, I’ve probably spent more time there than anywhere else and I love it. Every trip lends itself to new experiences and new adventures and it’s all just a couple of hours away by train….no airports, no flying, heaven!
So now to the important stuff – firstly, where we ate.
Frenchie : we were told on good authority that Frenchie is the restaurant of the moment. Tucked away on Rue De Nil in the 2nd, it’s small, unassuming, packed to the beams and completely delicious. After enjoying an aperitif in the tapas / wine bar opposite the main restaurant, we were treated to a 7 course taster menu cooked by head chef and owner Gregory Marchand and his perfectly formed team. It would be nothing short of boring to list the food so lets just say this, after some of the most incredible flavours I have ever experienced, the desert (number 2) was topped with white chocolate snow….a taste I shall be trying to recreate for a very very long time. That’s all you need to know. Go, if you can, it really is wonderful. And if you can’t get a table in the main restaurant, Frenchie’s Wine Bar serves some of the best tapas you’ll find in Paris. It gets crazy busy and queues quickly stretch all the way down the cobbles, so get there early – closed weekends.
Frenchie Restaurant, 5-6, rue du Nil – 75002 Paris – 01 40 39 96 19
And now for something completely different……
Le Dauphin : If we’re really honest, what we actually fancied after a full day of walking and looking and a little bit of buying, was red wine and frites, but we decided to be adventurous and found ourselves in the 11th in Le Dauphin. Resembling more of a shrine to marble and mirrors than your usual Parisian cool interior, Le Dauphin comes from reknowned chef Inaki Aizpitarte and is located just a few doors down from his better known Le Chateaubriand on Avenue Parmentier. They serve small plate food and nothing is quite what you expect. If you’re looking for traditional french then this isn’t the restaurant for you but if you’re keen to try something a bit different then it works on all levels. We shared 6 plates, my favourite being the escargots with celery risotto which sounds awful but was actually delicious and not like any risotto I’ve ever tasted before, mainly because there wasn’t a grain of rice present in the whole dish. Maybe this was the french version of Heston’s snail porridge…..who knows. Jay Jay would have happily eaten platefuls of the ricotta with honey and almonds which really was a lovely way to end a meal.
If there was anything vaguely intimidating about Le Dauphin, it would be the clientele, who were all a little bit too cool for school and possibly came for the mirrors as much as the food. The place itself was perfectly charming, as was our waiter who seemed strangely aware of the image it was accidentally portraying…it was almost as if the food and service was apologising for the rather cold Rem Koolhaas interior. At the time I wasn’t sure how much I liked it but I’ve found myself thinking about it rather fondly ever since and would certainly recommend it. If you do go, sit in the far right corner. There’s a table for 2 surrounded by mirrors and it makes for very entertaining photographic interludes between courses.
131, avenue Parmentier
01 55 28 78 88
It’s almost more exhausting writing about it all than it was eating it all. That’s as much as I can manage for now, next post tomorrow : B&B, Brunch and Bric a Brac.
It’s not often you get a really big Hollywood actor show up in Hong Kong to perform Shakespeare on stage and, ordinarily, this wouldn’t have me automatically scrambling to the ticket hotline. But when the actor is Kevin Spacey as Richard III and the Director is Sam Mendes, you think ‘American Beauty’, and hope for similar magic. Sort of.
Actually what really sold me on this was because it is the very last production from The Bridge Project: a “three year transatlantic partnership” between The Old Vic (of which Spacey is Artistic Director), BAM ( Brooklyn Academy of Music) and Neal Street Productions (Mendes’ production company). I don’t pretend to be a thespian, and in fact had never seen Richard III, let alone read it. But with a very vague notion of the plot (mostly lifted from study notes on the internet) and a bunch of glowing reviews gleaned from the British press in my mind, it was clear this was not to be missed and so I was thrilled to get a couple of the few remaining available seats, right up front in the circle. Result.
I won’t pretend I didn’t struggle at times with the dialogue. It’s not the first time I’ve seen Shakespeare on the stage and, like most schoolchildren, I’ve even read a few plays too. However, coming to a tragedy like Richard III as a virgin, so to speak, I probably am not the first to assert that unless a) you are currently studying or have studied Shakespeare, in earnest, and of your own volition, at a level higher than GCSE or b) you are Kenneth Branagh; then in the context of a real, live theatrical performance you will understand only about 3/4 of what is spoken; less if the character happens to be facing the other way. Throw in a bunch of symbolic and allegorical references, which would have made perfect sense to Shakespeare’s contemporaries – but would go over most modern heads quicker than a F 16 Phantom at a flyover – and you may understand why, at times, I confess to having felt a little out of my depth. Which is why, occasionally, I allowed myself to get completely distracted by the visual aspects of the play. But I’ll get to that in a moment. You probably want to know what Kev was like.
To briefly sum up the plot: Clever, charming, verbose yet bitter, Machiavellian and power-hungry deformed youngest royal sibling with maternal issues and murderous tendencies, determines to take the throne at all costs. I think. Feel free to draw your contemporary political comparisons because, right now, it seems that despotic dictators seem to be very on trend, and of course, there were parallels aplenty. It was particularly fitting therefore that Mendes should choose a modern setting, with references to Mussolini and Hitler and obviously Gaddafi, juxtoposed with more contemporary politicos (Alastair Campbell perhaps?) expert in the art of spin.
Now clearly I’m no authority on Richard III, but if, like me, you’ve seen a few Kevin Spacey films, then you can probably appreciate why Mendes was keen to get him in calipers, strap on the prosthetic hump and watch him go. Spacey has totally cornered the market in fascinatingly complex and ruthlessly charming bad guys with a devilish sense of humour, unhindered by conventional morality ; and his exceptional resume surely seems merely a lengthy preparation for this part? In short, on paper at least, Spacey is a man born to play Richard III.
It’s probably obvious that I wouldn’t have built you up like this to say he was rubbish, and in fact you wouldn’t be wrong in assuming he was utterly brilliant, completely mesmerising, and every bit as charismatic, seductive and wickedly manipulative as I’d hoped. Oh and very funny. From the moment he took to the stage in the first scene to address the audience directly; alone, clearly inebriated, while slumped in a chair wearing a paper party hat – a Pathe style newsreel of his elder brother’s coronation projected behind him – it was clear he had entered into the part utterly, with mind body and spirit; the sheer physicality of which was a huge surprise. Aside from the verbal dexterity required to sucker in, terrify or simply bamboozle anyone in his path, here is a bloke with more than his fair share of physical deformities, and yet Spacey leapt and lurched around like a force of nature with the kind of explosive, dominating, masculine energy that made Richard’s inexorable rise utterly believable. He owned that stage and, damn it, he was sexy (please don’t get me started on the mirrored shades and army uniform). If I was Lady Anne and he’d pinned me to the wall, I’m pretty sure I’d have capitulated, despite the tiny detail of him murdering her husband. And therein lies the terrifying rub; how easily we can all be seduced, and at what cost? With the benefit of hindsight, history and distance we all, rightly, condemn warmongers and dictators, but, shift your perspective nearer to that vortex of power and it’s not completely unfeasible to imagine how easy it must be to, quite literally, lose your head.
But back to the more tangible stuff. I loved the set. Think stark, grey bleached oak floorboards and walls inset only with a series of doors, each carrying a chalked x to signify yet another condemned figure. A wonky table here, a bed there, each scene contained nothing but the barest props and probably should have made me think how clever Mendes and Set Designer Tom Piper were to strip things down quite so radically, but more often had me thinking how great this would look if translated to a Plain English kitchen.
Then, of course, the costumes. I’d read that the costumes were ‘modern’ and indeed, overall, they were, but the references actually spanned both ends of the previous century and the subtleties were brilliant. Queen Elizabeth 1st and Lady Anne both rocked a kind of ultra pared down gothicism reminiscent of early McQueen or Antonio Berardi but with Elizabeth firmly channeling the 1940′s whilst the younger Ann’s costumes had a racier, Flapper edge. The Duke of Clarence, Richard’s older brother, was all pre-war 30′s Aristo in cravats and smoking jackets, until brutally murdered, as was Richard’s distant and unloving Mother (with some rather lovely floaty cowl-necked numbers) who was clearly partly at the root of his issues (you can be sure a woman is to blame for something). There were obvious Jack-booted references to Richard’s increasingly militaristic ambitions, but with some Gaddafi and Amin-esque nuances (those mirrored shades and some seriously heavy epaulettes). But the most powerful visual metaphor employed had to be the suits; slick, sharp and unambiguous in their representation of modernity, they were an effective reminder that spin and manoeuvering are still at the heart of politics and power, and thus beware the wolf in a Savile Row suit.
Stand out performances? Well the entire cast were great, but the women were all fantastic. Haydn Gwynne perfect as the strong, clever, but ultimately helpless Queen Elizabeth and Gemma Jones (who played Bridget Jones‘ Mum in the movie) was a particular favourite as the old Queen Margaret, widow of dead King Henry IV, and Mother of murdered King Edward. She actually had few lines, bar to dole out embittered curses to Richard, but mostly would hover about each time a murder occurred like a disheveled harridan: an unwanted, scornful presence that had prophesied each of them. Some actors just exude gravitas and, like Spacey, she simply had a magic quality that owned the stage.
One unexpected, but quite compelling distraction was to gawp occasionally at the two percussionists. I don’t know how usual it is to accompany Shakespeare with live percussion but I thought it worked brilliantly, and I think this is where Spacey and Mendes’ filmic sensibilities probably came in to play; creating an additional atmospheric layer of tension more usually associated with movies and TV.
There was just one probably slightly irrational niggle. It should have come as no surprise that an Anglo-American cast would have a mixed bag of English and American accents. My problem was not of either but more when they occasionally converged in a sort of mid-Atlantic, strained hybrid. It drove me potty to hear otherwise fairly clipped attempts at ‘posh Shakespearean’ English, only to murder it with the likes of ‘Bucking-Ham‘ with the emphasis on the Ham like a deli offering. I realise this is acutely pedantic, but it’s the kind of thing that really bugs me, if not others. My husband muttered something about it being necessary for proper annunciation but to me it was about as excruciating as Hugh Grant trying to estuarise his native English Toff accent in About A Boy. For me, some of the more interesting characters were those that spoke with clear regional accents – from both sides of the pond – and they annunciated perfectly. That, and the bladder-slackening length (almost 3 1/2 hours) were minor gripes when it was clear we’d just witnessed what will undoubtedly go down as one of the great performances of this despicable, but ultimately fascinating, character.
If you’ve read my other posts about my recent two week stint on Koh Samui – alone with the kids- and prior to Daddy’s arrival, then you may appreciate just how much we appreciated his eventual arrival. The kids: whom, despite my best efforts to be entertaining and fun, clearly ranked me a poor second to Daddy. Me: well obviously because I’d missed his company, but if I’m slightly more honest, I simply yearned to lie horizontally in daylight hours because, as the sole steadying chaperone to a newly toddling child, I was developing the aches- and tan- of a hunchback. I was longing to take a shower without two other spacially unaware people sharing it with me, and more importantly, I needed to Spa. And so it was we excitedly greeted Daddy at the airport with
barely concealed ulterior motives huge smiles and enthusiastic hugs because we knew, from that point on, the holiday was about to get considerably better.
Blue skies all the way for Daddy
The very best part was getting our own wheels. Daddy was brave enough to negotiate the roads and so we hired a car. At around £25 per day for a standard 4 door Toyota Vios, car hire represents pretty good value in comparison to taxis. It gave us the freedom to really explore, provided a handy dumping ground for excess kit while out, and some much needed air con between excursions. Samui was totally without roads in the 1970′s when travellers first discovered its idyllic palm fringed beaches. There is now a very handy (from a motorist’s perspective) ring road circling the entire island, which is easily navigable in just a couple of hours. It’s not always pretty (what ring road ever is?) and you’ll find a lot of tat along the way, particularly along the developed East coast, but head West and things get considerably more rural, and the interior backdrop of dense, mountainous jungle is fairly dramatic and rather lovely. Out here you can still find the ‘real’ Samui; stretches of empty beaches, rustic wooden houses on stilts that exude genuine charm, and acres of as-yet-unspoiled coconut plantations and the occasional waterfall. It’s lush and green, but, importantly when you are traveling with kids, fairly compact and so you are never far from worldly necessities. Negotiating the dusty back roads can take some patience and nerve (and good suspension) but you will be rewarded with a glimpse into a far slower pace of life, and some good photo opportunities to share on Facebook with friends that holidayed in the rain back home.
Samui chic- you could do a lot worse than channel his look this Autumn:
But it was more sybaritic pleasures that were on my mind. Two weeks of kid-friendly activities had me wanting for a little more luxury and lot of pampering. I kicked off with a trip to The Sundays Sanctuary Resort and Spa set fairly high up a hill in forest behind a temple in Bophut. The spa isn’t big, or particularly fancy but is set in a lovely little jungle-like clearing, with steam room, outdoor plunge pool with little waterfall and open air massage area (Sala). I’m a total sucker for outdoor spas in hot countries. I can think of hardly anything better than lying with eyes closed listening only to the sounds of waves or trickling water and birdsong, with the occasional cool breeze wafting over me as I am scrubbed, wrapped and massaged into oblivion by smiling professionals. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take an indoor massage too, but I usually find I am too easily distracted by the music, invariably played at the wrong level, and always on a loop; whereupon I find myself playing silent ‘name that tune’ to pan-piped versions of Greensleeves or Dido. It’s not entirely relaxing.
Admittedly these outdoor affairs have their distractions too. You will often find yourself separated from other patrons by a mere curtain. Sounds awful but I can assure you, once you’ve all settled into your own personal state of massage Nirvana, you completely forget that anyone else even exists, unless of course they are French and taking great lengths to explain, very loudly, in broken English to the Thai Massage Therapist, that they have back problems. At one point, mid way through my own treatment, I was quietly enjoying a refreshing and delicious cup of ginger tea. Suddenly a largish black cocoon-like object fell from the roof and landed in the lap of the Masseuse who promptly squealed and jumped away. Naturally I inquired as to its origin which, to my mind, was still firmly in the ballpark of chrysalis/butterfly . She smiled and said “No, Gecko poo”. Eyes widening, I inquired further as to its possible size whilst eying the rafters for Geckos with crocodile-like proportions. She shrugged and held her fingers about 5 or 6 inches apart. Now I probably don’t need to point out the mental calculations that were going on in my brain but that’s like us doing a poo about a foot and a half long. Either way, it was all slightly disturbing but, most of all, it was definitely messing with the zen thing I had going on. I laughed it off, however, and tried to lighten the moment by asking if she felt lucky. She stared at me blankly and so I went on to explain that in the UK, if a pigeon poos on you, it’s considered lucky. Her English vocabulary, whilst fairly good, probably only centred on spa-related talk and so this was now a little out of the box . So she smiled at me in the benevolent and forgiving way that Thai people do, whilst eying me with the slightly incredulous and irritated look of a woman who had just been pood on by another creature, and replied with a flat, “No”. At that point the Frenchman cleared his throat and signaled the end of the conversation. I settled back to my treatment and tried hard not to think about what lay above.
And so over the following couple of weeks I mixed it up with inexpensive 300 baht massages at walk-in places (Chaweng has some great options) and the occasional posher treatment at nicer resorts. In truth, it’s hard to get a bad massage in Thailand and there is often little difference in the quality of the treatment itself, it often comes down to setting and attention to detail. I’ve tried all kinds of treatments and i’m not at all keen on overly faddy things like gold leaf facials but a new one this time, and the one I’ve gone absolutely ga ga over, was the Luk Pra Kob massage at the Eranda Spa. A traditional hour long Thai massage is followed by a further hour long massage with hot compresses filled with Thai herbs. It was quite literally two hours of utter bliss and particularly recommended for aching muscles after sport, as the hot compresses literally seem to melt away deep tissue aches and pains. Best massage ever and ideal for ‘toddler back’. It’s outdoors (but with indoor rooms too), with a steam cave and cascading plunge pool and the hillside setting, high up in the trees looking out to sea, is breathtaking. Best of all, it’s very reasonably priced. And no Gecko poo.
For reasons of etiquette it was tricky to get a photo of a spa, so here’s some squid:
I hesitate to venture the opinion that a Thai curry must surely have overtaken the Indian version in the hearts of the British? Strangely, I think I barely ate a curry the entire time I was in Koh Samui, though that’s not to say there wasn’t a delicious abundance of the stuff but for me it was all about the seafood. The simple places were preferable and one of our favourite meals was a lunch at Bang Por beach; a low key, virtually empty stretch of narrow beach on the North West coast. There are a few well regarded seafood restaurants dotted along a short stretch of the ring road. They offer few frills (think basic kitchens and plastic tables and chairs) but who needs linen napkins when you have great fresh food, with the sea just a few feet away and the sand under your toes?
Nothing wrong with a bit of Formica when the grub is as good as this:
For a slightly more upmarket, and even more idyllic beachside experience we loved the fabulous Five Islands restaurant in a totally unspoiled part of the island where local fisherman beat the sea with sticks to encourage fish into their nets then use Water Buffalo to haul in the catch. Diners go to catch the gorgeous sunsets and for the stunning views out to the Angthong National Marine Park. We arrived late afternoon and had the beach to ourselves, save for a Buffalo and a couple of other diners. It was magical, and had the kids not reached meltdown stage we might still be there now.
From the sublime to the apparently ridiculous: Buffet Brunches to be specific. We’d been told that for some, Sundays in Samui was all about brunch at one of two resorts: Nikki Beach on the West coast and Beach Republic on the East. The marketing from both is clearly aimed at everything we aren’t: young, thin and childless, with a penchant for champagne fueled ‘sexy’ Ibiza-style ‘fun’. And if you aren’t entirely certain of your suitability for such resorts, there are helpful posters and ads all around the Island featuring very young, very thin, and very ‘sexy’ girls in suitably microscopic bikinis to guide you. It all sounded excruciatingly try-hard and yet I had it on very good authority that we should take the kids and go. In truth there was a tiny part of me (the part that used to love dancing till 6 am, though never in a bikini) that secretly wanted to see what it was all about. And so I squeezed into the Liz Hurley, brushed my hair, and we headed off to Lipa Noi to hang with the beautiful people.
Beach Republic. Same same but different:
En route we decided to make a small detour to visit a temple: Wat Khunaram, ostensibly so our eldest could see something cultural, but if I’m honest, to see the mummified body of a deceased Monk, Loung Pordaeng, who died nearly 30 years ago in the meditation position. Before his death he requested that, after death, should his body not decompose, he be kept in an upright coffin at the temple to inspire future generations to follow the path of Buddhism. In a slightly disconcerting, but ultimately practical gesture, once his eyes had sunken into his sockets, the other monks had thoughtfully placed sunglasses on him. I’d seen pictures and, I have to admit, they were some funky shades he was rocking and cemented the idea in my mind that this was something I had to see.
We turned up and ascertained we were the only visitors. The temple buildings are charming and refreshingly ungarish, but in truth, there isn’t much to see and there wasn’t a (living) soul in sight. We were slightly surprised therefore to suddenly see a real live Monk sitting cross-legged, apparently guarding the entrance to the building housing the dead Monk. He seemed to be in quiet contemplation, or asleep; either way we figured our presence would be a little disturbing and began heading back to the car. The Monk immediately beckoned us over, however, and seemed genuinely pleased of the company all the while exuding that serene-yet-slightly-intimidating zen thing that Monks do. He then gestured to us to stand before a large urn containing hundreds of unlit incense sticks, and before we could make a polite retreat, handed each of us a fresh stick. I could just about see the dead monk in a case behind the urn, but between gold leaf applied to the glass and the incense sticks, the view wasn’t great. It was clear however, that he was no longer wearing the shades, and in fact, for a man who had been dead for almost 30 years, actually looked a little better than the real live Monk who now had us sitting cross legged on the floor in front of him. Mostly, however, I was finding it hard to think about anything because beads of sweat were forming on my brow wondering what horrors my kids would inflict upon this moment and at what point the youngest would poke his incense stick into the Monk.
Miraculously, however, both sat utterly still while he proceeded to gently, and silently, bless each of us. He finished up by tying little fluorescent woven cotton bracelets around our wrists (quite deftly in my case as it is forbidden for a Monk to touch, or be touched, by a woman) and sat back serenely to smile and coo silently over our youngest. It was all quite unexpected, yet strangely humbling, and we did indeed ‘feel’ genuinely really blessed. After a discreet donation we quietly mumbled reverential Basil Faulty style thank you’s, in the way that only awkward non-religious English people could, whilst simultaneously each dragging a child a little too fast as we walked backwards all the way to the car. The Monk simply smiled and waved benevolently in the way you do with half wits . Once in the safety of the car we were able to take a more relaxed look at the previous events, and reflect on our own spirituality, or possible lack thereof. My eldest however, had other ideas. “Yes Mummy, but tell me more about the dead guy”. Chips and blocks you may say and so, with Damien Hirst’s iconic instillation in mind, we spent the rest of the journey attempting to gently discuss the Physical Impossibility of Death, and what possibly lies beyond, to a very excited four year old who had just seen the corpse of a dead Monk in a glass box. And it wasn’t even lunch time.
It may surprise you to learn that Nikki Beach was a blast. For the second time that day we were given a bracelet to wear, only this one indicated more earthly pleasures; free reign on the buffet (which was excellent by the way). And no, the irony was not lost on us. From the moment we arrived, we and our kids, were treated fabulously by the utterly charming and mercifully unpretentious staff. The decor was actually pretty chic, but the vibe was laid back and better still, there were no stick insects dancing sexily in bikinis; rather a mixed bag of very normal, very friendly family groups and couples just doing their own thing. Ok so there was one couple who had clearly taken the marketing to heart who posed and preened so self-consciously, it bordered on ridiculous. But they were the exception, and admittedly pretty funny. The music was great (in my book you can’t really go wrong with early 80′s grooves and a bit of Bobby Brown). Best of all: my youngest fell asleep for over two blissful hours which meant Mummy got to eat and enjoy a couple of glasses of the bubbly stuff in peace. It was if the stars in the heavens had aligned perfectly, and someone ‘up there’ was smiling upon us. And who knows, thanks to our little day-glo bracelets, maybe they were? God works in mysterious ways, so I’m told.
Overall, Samui has been a great location for a far flung family holiday (even if it’s not so far flung to us). It’s less developed with slightly poorer infracstructure than Phuket, and in truth isn’t as ‘grown up’ (read: over-developed) but for me there’s no comparison in terms of natural beauty, particularly when you factor in the stunning Angthong Marine park and direct neighbour, Koh Phagnan, which are both easy day trips. There’s definitely more for kids to do on Samui and there is a rustic charm still in evidence despite the inexorable push of development. English is widely spoken and aside from the occasional power outage to remind you that you aren’t in Kansas anymore, there is every facility you could wish for (but do be careful what you put down the toilet thanks to Samui’s delicate sewage system). Some people prefer to stick to more familiar surroundings, closer to home, and usually I’d agree; but if you’re considering a great escape from all the doom and gloom in the UK or indeed anywhere, you could do a lot worse than heading to Koh Samui.
Here’s a few suggestions for things to see and do:
Eat : It goes without saying that you will not be left wanting for delicious food as there are restaurants absolutely everywhere, from the very modest to show-stoppers in dramatic locations. A must is the seafood (i’m a big fan of Pomfret) and don’t be afraid to try street snacks from one of the local sellers, including pancakes; the subject of which was made (in)famous by a certain guidebook’s sniffy references to the hoards of backpackers following the ‘Banana Pancake Trail’. For a change from Thai, we loved Ad Hoc : A chic beachside restaurant between Bang Rak and Bophut serving really delicious and authentic Italian food with homemade pasta and a decent wine list. Run by a lovely couple- preppy Minnesotan Tim, and his chilled Japanese wife, Yuri- they barely batted an eyelid when our eldest threw up on a chair and tried to (lovingly) strangle their cat. Forget crayons and ice cream factories, that’s what I call a truly child-friendly restaurant.
Spa – from the uber posh Six Senses or Four Seasons to simple places next to Bungalow operations on the beach, you are never more than a few paces away from a massage place or spa. There are too many to list but my favourite was the aforementioned Eranda Herbal Spa up in the hills in North Chaweng. I also heard very good things about Tamarind Springs down south in Lamai. Many offer complimentary hotel pick-up and drop-off.
Explore – hire a moped or car and drive around the island. Head west around Lipa Noi for the real Samui with empty beaches and great sunsets. The interior is mountainous and covered in dense jungle-like forest and there are lookout points for stunning views out to Sea. There are several waterfalls which you can trek to or take a four wheel drive tour. Elephant trekking seems to be a big draw though I’m never entirely comfortable with that kind of thing, but bizarrely I contemplated taking our eldest to one of the famous local Buffalo fights as he became utterly obsessed with the bovine creatures, which can be spotted everywhere. I was told the bouts last seconds and end with no serious injuries, after a bit of rutting, when the first one to get bored walks away. Thankfully I thought better of it and we stuck to chasing chickens.
Big Buddha – has to be done if newish built temples are your thing (though I confess I did it the first time around on my initial trip in 2001 and didn’t feel the need to do it again this time). Standing 12 meters high and visible from outer space..I’m kidding. It’s actually visible from a few kilometres away and is incredibly gold but makes for quite a particularly striking landmark as you fly in and worth at least one visit.
Koh Phagnan – Samui’s neighboring island, situated off the north coast. Famous for the rave-y ‘Full Moon’ parties, but don’t let that put you off. I first visited 10 years ago when there was only one road and the only means to get there was on a traditional longtail boat across open sea from which I arrived soaked and deafened. A daily Catamaran does a far more civilized job in just half an hour and so day trips with non-swimming juveniles are entirely possible, and there are a smattering of high-end resorts should you wish to stay a while in style. I’m pleased to report that more roads and inevitable development hasn’t ruined the place, in fact it’s really very charming and maintains a genuinely low key backpacker-y vibe with stunning beaches, lush interior (much of which is protected) and spectacular views. We shared a Songthaew (open-backed pick-up converted to take passengers like a taxi) with chatty traveller types: a couple of Irish professional tap dancers – en route to a vegetarian retreat – and a Korean/German Christian Pastor- who was celebrating passing his studies 6 months early – and headed to Haad Rin for lunch and to hang out on the beach. It was just like old times in so many ways, which pleased me immensely.
Angthong Marine Park – alas our nerves weren’t up to a boat trip given our youngest is just 14 months old but it has to be a must-do for anyone else and there are various tour operators offering options to this stunning archipelago of limestone islands situated just to the North West of Samui, or flash some cash for a private boat charter. Fish, dive, snorkel, visit caves and deserted beaches or see the stunning turquoise lagoon in the middle of Ko Mae Ko (Mother Island).
Fisherman’s Village in Bophut. My favourite ‘touristy’ bit. A bustley, vibey little area next to the beach and full of character with great little restaurants in traditional shophouses (thanks in no small part to a small contingent of French expats who have opened businesses there, and who are also responsible for the best bakeries on the island, naturellement). Every Friday night the place really comes alive as traffic is banned and it becomes a ‘Walking Street’ with lots of stalls selling knick-knacks, clothes, snacks and cocktails. It’s busy, but great fun and very family- friendly. The Hansar is a boutique hotel situated right next to the beach at one end, with a great open-air bar – perfect for Sundowners.
Nathong – the main town and probably ignored by most tourists unless passing through to the ferry piers. We liked the slightly shabby- but charming- workaday feel and the (admittedly faint) whiff of 50′s Havana about it, particularly the traditional shophouses along the main street housing everyday items along with obligatory tourist paraphernalia.
The lone stint in Thailand with the kids has been fun, but hard work. Not quite travelling in the backpacker sense, but more than a holiday; I’d like to think our time here on Koh Samui, alone without Daddy, was really almost a lesson in how to live a more pared down life, without so much stuff. Actually what this translates to is a lesson in being Chief Entertainments Officer for Mummy, with not nearly enough alcohol. Mid-range holiday villas generally do not come with bedrooms full of toys and satellite TV with a full package of kids’ channels. They are also remarkably non kid-proof (think stone floors, glass tables and sliding doors to pools only a few feet away, not to mention the steep wooden stairs in ours). Keeping two boys under the age of five (the youngest just 14 months old) occupied has been quite the challenge, and very different to doing it in the safe surroundings of home, with all the familiar comforts and routine distractions to occupy them.
The pool and grounds provided plenty of fun, and the iPad (don’t leave home without one) and a few cheap plastic toys purchased from the local supermarket bought me a little more time, but the reality was clear; we needed to get out and do stuff or the kids would turn feral. I’d tried Mummy-friendly activities such as pottering around the delightful Fisherman’s village in Bophut, but, for some reason, the boys failed to share my enthusiasm. Then there were my attempts at al fresco lunches at low-key beachside restaurants which, at best, without Daddy on hand to help corral, resulted in a table of barely touched food and invariably saw me dripping in sweat and bellowing at the eldest to stay in the shallows whilst simultaneously saving the youngest from repeatedly kamikaze-ing out of a high chair; at worst: a young, toned Italian tourist in very tiny trunks appeared from the beach to ask the entire restaurant who ‘owns’ the small boy who had fallen down wooden steps to the beach and was lying face down, crying in the sand, because he’d injured his eye. Oh the shame (despite telling him numerous times not to play on the bloody stairs), and so, with a weary admission of ‘ownership’ I hauled him up to see he had indeed grazed his eye but, thankfully, was mostly just a little shaken.
It was clear however, that some things were just beyond my capabilities and I was going to have to put aside my own expectations of what constitutes a holiday and should embrace the inevitable – days filled with animal shows, water parks, indoor play rooms, and a particular favourite: football golf (yup- like mini golf but with footballs). A positive was that we found a regular taxi driver who became something of a personal chauffeur, and buddy for my eldest. Whilst not particularly cheap in comparison to other costs here, taxis will take you to your destination and more often than not, will wait and take you home again – all for an agreed price. The more intrepid hire cars or mopeds and drive themselves, but neither were suitable options for me given I am essentially a non driver (though I have passed my test).
The Samui I first visited 10 years ago was firmly geared towards the needs of low-budget travellers and that’s still clearly in evidence in some of the main touristy (and sometimes downright naff) areas such as Chaweng and Lamai on the East coast – but now the vibe in those places is more low-budget package tourist than outright backpacker (though the beaches are lovely and worth visiting). Things are changing, however, with an influx of luxury and boutique resorts such as W, Four Seasons and Six Senses on the North and West Coasts, and this has raised the bar too in terms of dining options and there is now a slew of destination restaurants touting ‘fine dining’. Some might say that this is ruining the charm, but not I. That’s not to say coast-to-coast luxury resorts are my thing either; rather an eclectic mix of shabby and chic, if you like, and Samui, whilst some way from being the ‘new Bali’, is displaying a growing sophistication which has encouraged more families and couples with more discerning tastes. This means, unusually for a tropical island destination, the options for family friendly activities isn’t too bad (though you’ll need to be realistic in your expectations when it comes to animal-related attractions, Longleat they are not). The best thing about travelling with children in Thailand (and particularly babies) is that you’re never made to feel as though you are second class citizens. Quite the contrary, a baby will be treated like a rock star, and by default, you become their entourage who can bask, very comfortably, in their reflected glory. It has never failed to amaze me how Asian people of either sex, and literally any age, will coo genuinely over your kids. Try walking into a 7-11 near you with a 14 month old who wants to poke the 22-year-old (male) assistant. At best, you will be met with embarrassment and barely concealed revulsion; Go East and you will be met with smiles and clucks, and “BeeBee!!”. It’s wonderful.
And so we settled into a routine of sorts: chilled mornings by the pool followed by activities in the afternoon. With more judicious planning (i.e later in day to coincide with afternoon nap time for little one) we even managed the occasional lunch and, latterly, the odd dinner. Sure there were meltdowns and hissy fits (me) and I can’t overstate enough how tricksy it can be to keep two young, super-energetic boys from doing damage to themselves (or others)- a bit like herding cats – but my kids did not want for fun, and loved the barefoot life spotting buffalo and chasing chickens. It is entirely possible to holiday alone with young kids on a tropical island, but you need an inordinate amount of patience and must be prepared to just get out there and get on with it; and in truth it’s less of a holiday for the grown-up and more about effective troop management. But if you should ever find yourself in Koh Samui with kids (with or without a Significant Other) here are a few suggestions for things to do:
Coco Splash Water Park – owned and run by a lovely French couple, this outdoor park, with slides and a jacuzzi pool is small but lots of fun, particularly for younger kids. They serve great Thai and western food and grown-ups can book a massage in one of the Salas (Cabanas). You may even get to meet the resident bunny rabbit: Coco, who hops around uncaged.
Fairways Indoor Soft Play room – Great for when your little ones need a break from the sun, or if it’s raining. With bouncy castles, climbing frames and slides, there’s also a nice cafe downstairs with free wi-fi serving decent coffee and food. 18 months to 8 years old.
Crocodile Farm and Snake Show – possibly worth an hour or so if you really need to touch a snake or get relatively close to mostly fairly docile-looking crocs. There are a few bored monkeys in cages too. Situated just round the corner from Fairways right near the airport.
Football Golf – touted as a ‘unique’ alternative to mini golf and set in an, admittedly nice, coconut plantation, this is a popular distraction for family groups and particularly the big male ones. My boys loved it even if the little one preferred to get in the holes. Round includes a free beer or soft drink.
Mini Golf International - no footballs here but set on the hillside in the grounds of a private house in Cheong Mon, this makes for a pleasant hour or so.
Samui Go-Kart – Kids can ride in a double kart with an adult and you have the option of 45 or 75kph max speed. Hairy stuff but great fun if speed is your thing.
Samui Aquarium and Tiger Zoo – the aquarium isnt too bad, with plenty of weird and wonderful specimens – the shark tanks were pretty cool and you could feed turtles – but you’d be correct in assuming the Tiger side has a somewhat Soviet-era feel to it, though they do appear healthy and well taken care of.
Paradise Park – lots of people recommended this place to me, and the setting – high up in the hilly jungle-like interior looking out to sea and the Anthong Marine Park- is breathtaking. The grounds are also pretty nice and there’s even an infinity pool should you fancy a dip. I just had a really hard time with the way some of the animals (beautiful parrots and gibbons) were tethered (chained) and at the mercy of the throngs of tourists who wanted to touch and take endless photos of them. This wasn’t to say they didn’t appear well fed and cared for, but it just ruined the whole thing for me. Unfortunately my eldest adored the place and particularly the deer enclosure and petting area containing bunnies, guinea pigs and albino hedgehogs.
Elephant Trekking – there are various opportunities to get close to elephants (many as part of a 4 wheel drive ‘safari’ into the jungle-like interior) but this was a tad too intrepid for us with a 1 year old so perhaps better suited to slightly older kids, but seemed to be pretty popular.
The Beach – duh…actually I always find the beach rather stressful with very young children who want to eat sand and repeatedly dive in to the sea, all while refusing to wear a hat in often blistering conditions. So we preferred to time it around the afternoon nap when we could settle at a beachside Thai restaurant and our eldest could run about while we ‘supervised’ with delicious, inexpensive grub and an ice cold beer or two. Perfect.
My final post will have the benefit of Daddy’s presence which means Mummy gets to share some of the more grown-up things Samui has to offer.
The first time I visited Sommieres was the year we were married. Some friends told my husband about a bull fight happening in the town just 2 days after our wedding which we had to go to. It wasn’t your usual bull fight but one performed with midget matadors. We still have the poster framed in our downstairs cloakroom to remind me of one of the most bizarre evenings I’ve ever had. I won’t go in to to it too much, it was just plain weird.
3 years later, this time accompanied by our 1 year old, we went to Sommieres under much better circumstances, to visit their weekly flea market which is one of the best we’ve ever found. That year we bought a child’s 1950s deckchair, a beautiful platter and the best ceramic water jug I ever did see which I use all the time for drinks and flowers and even to display the odd potted Hydrangea. So today, 5 years on from the midgets, we went again and this time accompanied by our 3 year old and 1 year old and the promise of all kinds of treasure to be uncovered.
We didn’t do as well around the market this time but I did buy some lengths of embroidered fabric which might one day edge some curtains – when I live in a house with curtains and have time to edge them – and my husband found some beautiful silver serving spoons and a pair of 19th century meat sheers which he can use to dismember chickens and turkeys. I have no doubt they’ll be used every Christmas for years and years to come. No really.
But the highlight of the day came when we ventured in to the walled town centre in search of lunch. The main square was in full Saturday market swing with stalls over flowing with meats and smelly cheeses and fresh bread and rotisserie chickens. The hustle and bustle and absence of English voices was quite exciting. There were restaurants spilling out in to the square packed with people tucking in to platters of oysters and chunks of bread with cheese all being washed down with carafes of cold rose. We quickly realised everything they were eating had been bought from the market and the restaurants were happy to just serve drinks and allow the use of their trestles and benches. So now it was just to find an empty table and gather together some delicious things, which we eventually did, promising ourselves that next time we’d come early and organised and remember to bring a knife to cut the salami.
So today I have learned that you can’t always judge a town by its midget matadors and that my 3 year old is really rather good at sneaky photography with an iPhone.
This time it was Uzes. One of my favourite towns in the whole wide world….and it knows it. I always seem to fall in love with everything I see in Uzes so when we heard there was a 2 day antiques fair and market, it was bound to be trouble.
Had we all the money in the world and an enormous french farm house to fill, it would have been a breeze, but we haven’t and we don’t so we were frugal and careful but still found some treasures.
My finds were as follows : a 6 piece set of matching plates, a bundle of fabulous french stripe fabric and some silver and bone handled cutlery – 6 of each utensil and all in pristine condition.
My husband – having a bit of a thing for milk and glass bottles – found this gorgeous one which will sit on a shelf with the 35 American glass milk bottles he shipped back last year. A man can never have too many milk bottles.
To celebrate our brocante brilliantness we went out for dinner, sans children, to a wonderful restaurant called Le Tracteur in Sanilhac – Et – Sagries. It’s on a little back street of this very sleepy village with no signs, no menus out front and just a small garden with enough tables and chairs to seat 40 comfortably. It’s full every single Summer night and the food is simply a treat. The very clever chef, who works the kitchen with no help at all, devises a changing menu which offers a choice of just 2 starters, 2 main courses and 2 deserts or cheese, all for 27 euros. We come here every year and have learned to totally trust anything which is put in front of us and therefore always choose one of each course to share – or not to share, depending on who made the best choice. Everything is seasonal and local and more often than not, there are foods and flavours I’ve never tasted before but which I wish I could recreate and eat all the time.
We felt a bit silly taking pictures of all the courses and to be perfectly honest, we were too busy enjoying ourselves. Have a look at their Facebook page where there’s all kinds of lovely things to see and information to be stored.