It’s pretty fair to say that Banana Bread – or “cake” depending on what you want to call it – is baked very frequently in this house. It comes down to fickle children and parents desperate to feed them their 5 a day. Most weeks we end up with a few sorry looking bananas and the only sensible thing to do is to put them in a cake.
I have my one fool proof and favourite recipe passed to me by my Mum. It’s easier than easy and the best bit is it all goes in one bowl and can be stirred with one wooden spoon.
So here it is. The recipe is from Katie Stewart, The Times Cookery Book and it’s accompanied by a rather bright photo of this afternoon’s banana baking – courtesy of me.
Ps. I don’t put the cherries in but that’s just because I don’t much like glace cherries.
225 g self raising flour
Pinch of cinnamon
150g castor sugar
100g sultanas & raisins
25g chopped walnuts
100g glace cherries, rinsed
2 lge eggs
450g ripe bananas
Sift flour with cinnamon into large mixing basin. Add the cold butter cut into pieces and rub in until crumbly. Add sugar, sultanas, raisons, walnuts and glace cherries. Mix together and hollow out the centre of ingredients.
Beat eggs and mix with mashed bananas then fold in gently but thoroughly to the mixture.
Line a buttered 23 x 13 x 5cm loaf tine with a strip of greaseproof paper cut to cover the base and opposite ends. Pour in the mixture and spread evenly. Place in centre of moderate oven 180c and bake for approx 90mins. (I think that cooking time could be a bit long, so check after 75 mins and put tin foil over cake if getting too brown)
Cool before removing from the tin.
I’m having one of those weeks. Nothing seems to be going quite the way I’d like it. I’m hugely tired, thanks to two snotty toddlers, feeling rather overwhelmed by both work and everyday chores and all of these things are having a weird and altogether unsettling effect on the way I’m dressing.
I keep getting it totally wrong. And this weather, heat wave in September / very nearly October, isn’t helping one bit. It doesn’t feel right to be wearing Summer clothes on the 29th September yet it’s far too hot to be wearing any of my Autumnal acquisitions. Which leaves me in that horrid in between season limbo where nothing feels quite right and I keep leaving the house in totally the wrong things. Admittedly I don’t see that many people out here in the Countryshire but this only makes it all the more important when I do.
Monday was a disaster. I turned up at nursery around Midday to a whole group of chatty, groomed Mummies all wearing t-shirts, vests, pretty dresses, sandals, capri trousers…..you get the idea….whilst I (already somewhat the black sheep in the crowd) appeared in jeans, a tartan flannel shirt and my Tallulah and Hope navy cape. Now, I can barely think up small talk at the best of times but even making eye contact was a struggle through the searing heat of the playground. I couldn’t get out of there quick enough.
Tuesday was a work day and although I did succumb to a dress rather than jeans, I still couldn’t do the complete bare leg and summer shoe thing so I opted for ankle sock and brogue. I looked like I should be going to school rather than a grown up office but at least I was cooler (temperately) and could hold a better conversation (ish).
So Tuesday afternoon I did what anyone would do in this situation, I went online and shopped. You see, I knew that come Thursday lunch time I needed to have this nonsense sorted out, as we were due to meet the Headmaster at my 3 year olds’ soon to be new school. My husband had even committed to wearing a shirt and leaving his hat at home, so I knew I needed to make some form of effort and get it right. First stop ASOS.com, but all I wanted on there was knitwear and parkas so off I went to Zara.com. What a lovely website, I’d never been there before but I could have snapped up all kinds of things but this was neither the time or the budget so I focused on what would get me presentably through the next couple of weeks while the sun continued to shine and was suitable for school, work, home and headmaster meeting appointments.
I came away with 2 stripey tops. Boring? Yes, maybe. Useful and comfortable? Very. Both can be worn with jeans and smartened up with trousers. Both involve navy rather than black, which works perfectly in this un-seasonal weather weirdness and best of all they arrived this morning and in the nick of time.
I now had the perfect wardrobe update for a trip to meet the Headmaster of a very lovely little country school – stripes are ALL the rage round this way. I wore the navy, white and red one with my smartest dark blue jeans rolled up just above the ankle, with my red flat pumps and carried my Celine chocolate tote. A nautical inspired relaxed sort of look and if outfits could speak, I’m sure it would have said something along the lines of “I’m always well turned out whatever the weather and my children are clean and well behaved”. And when accessorised with a one year old in almost exactly the same outfit and a husband with clean hair, I’m hoping it was just the ticket.
Thank you Zara, I’m feeling much calmer now.
I know profiteroles are dreadfully 1985, but I rather like them — a toothsomely flaky crunch of pastry holding some creamy concoction, all drizzled with spun sugar or chocolate syrup or flaked almonds. I’ve never had a problem with them; the directions are simple enough. I even made them for my Home Economics GCSE, which was otherwise sabotaged by the teacher’s provision of a block of frozen spinach over fresh (I had stupidly forgotten to specify — but I didn’t know at the time you could even get it frozen, so naïve was I).
So I decided to make éclairs for my future in-laws when visiting them the other weekend. I am on a programme of trying to win them over with the regular application of home-cooking, either at their house or sent in parcels back with my beloved. They liked the lemon curd, the jams, the madelines, the two flavors of gelato, the blueberry pancakes, the acorn squash soup and the coq-au-vin. In the oven they went, all nicely piped out in 4-inch tubes of smooth paste on a moistened baking sheet.
And out they came: exactly the same, only flatter and more solid and ever so slightly more golden. I only averted disaster by inventing a dessert called “whipped ganache sandwiches” whose architecture you can imagine for yourselves. Especially as I didn’t honor them with a snapshot.
I do not take failure well, especially in the kitchen, so this weekend I was determined to salvage my reputation by making a big batch of profiteroles for some houseguests. The lovely golfball-sized nuts of glossy dough went into the oven……and out they came, just as they went in, only as leaden versions of what youthful promise they had going in. I didn’t even try to rescue them, so in the bin they went.
Have I fallen afoul of some pastry gods somewhere? Have I not made the right sacrifices with the right things at the right time? Is there a hush-hush choux curse known among patissiers of which I am unaware? Are the atmospheric and astrological conditions not right? (Note how ready I am to blame the cosmos) — or is it just me? Have I lost my touch? I am at a loss, waiting for the next choux to drop.
My pâte brisée remains, thankfully, unscathed by demonic influence, so it’s quiche tonight. Go on, ‘gis a quiche. Come to think of it, maybe it’s the puns.
Absolutely Nothing To Drink : Yumchaa by Mel Moss
Absolutely Nothing To Buy : Dinosaur Tea Towels by Mel Moss
Absolutely Nothing To See : Richard III comes to Hong Kong by Samantha Taylor
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.
I did it. I wore them. I even gave them a costume change half way through the evening. They started with my Louis Vuitton burgundy heels, worn with my navy blue COS dress to a lovely dinner with my husband and finished with my Celine navy satin ankle boots for party dancing in to the early hours.
Quite a night out for a humble pair of socks you may think, but these weren’t just any old socks. They were the couture of socks. Navy blue, cotton, hand finished ankle socks purchased for an embarrassing price from Tabio, “The Socks and Tights Speciality Store” – yes, really. But they worked beautifully and shall be worn again and again and again until they pay me back every single penny and worried minute spent.
If you haven’t checked out our little shop yet, then we strongly advise that you do and soon!
These Tea Towels by Jay Jay Burridge are brilliant and only £9.95
Made as a limited edition for Jay Jay’s show When Superstars Ruled The World, the tea towels are 100% organic cotton, available in 2 designs and when the last one sells they will be well and truly extinct!
Buy them HERE
It would be a crime not to mention Yumchaa which, after moving out of London 2 years ago, I stumbled upon just the other day. It can only be described as a little piece of quiet, tea loving, heaven and when visited on a Sunday morning whilst nursing quite a substantial hangover, it proved the perfect tonic.
Not your regular Soho cafe cuppa, there are a myriad blends to choose from all displayed in little white cups laid out along the counter. Had my head been able to make any kind of decision, I would have smelt and perused for hours but instead I just simply asked which one contained Hibiscus, which I know under any circumstance makes a delicious drink. I was quickly presented with the prettiest pile of tea ingredients I ever did see and the deal was done.
2 minutes later I was sitting comfortably in a window seat enjoying my hot, freshly brewed medicine and it worked a treat. Had I not just devoured a Pret baguette (such a silly choice), I would have happily consumed one of their very tasty looking cakes and stayed there all morning. It’s been a long time since I found somewhere which made me smile like Yumchaa.
ANTW talks to Kate Davis-Macleod, the brilliant Fashion Photographer who has shot the likes of Karen Elson and David Tandy. She took a break from a hectic London Fashion Week to share all sorts of inspiring things about Absolutely Nothing…..
Absolutely Nothing To See…..
What with fashion weeks in full swing, I’ve been pretty focused on Style.com for all the latest shows, very impressed with Victoria Beckham’s first proper catwalk show in NY, and her diffusion line was gorgeous. Loved the pink and turquoise colour in Roksandas Ilincic’s show and want practically every dress from Peter Piloto. Giles‘ show was spectacular, like watching a Ballet. Can’t wait to see what Milan & Paris bring….
Absolutely Nothing To Listen To…..
Absolutely Nothing To Read…..
When God Was Rabbit by Sarah Winman
Absolutely Nothing To Wear…..
This very cool gold chain / harness from Miss Selfridge. Only £14.99! I love how it completely transforms a simple black dress or top.
Absolutely Nothing To Watch…..
Mad Men Season 4. I also loved The Guardian’s shoot with Christina Hendricks in last weekend’s magazine, she looked amazing. If you want to dress like Mad Men then Banana Republic’s current collection is totally Mad Men inspired.
Absolutely Nothing To Eat or Cook…..
I’m slightly obsessed with Japanese food and have taught myself how to cook some of my favourites, such as Nobu Black Cod – just add sake, miso, mirin & sugar, super easy to make yourself, a fraction of the price. I have also been trying replicate a Japanese carrot & ginger dressing I used to live off in NY, I even feigned an allergic reaction once to try to get the ingredients from the chef! The closest I’ve found is Gwyneth Paltrow’s Carrot Detox Dressing on her Goop website – add honey though.
Absolutely Nothing To Buy…..
Absolutely Nothing To Smile About…..
My son, always.
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.