Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Working It: Yoga Across The Glass Floor at Tower Bridge

I'm always looking to take my yoga practice to unusual locations - while I love my yoga teacher at Virgin Active, the basement studio which had a leaking ceiling for ~2 years isn't very inspirational. Last year's yoga with the dolphins at the Mirage in Vegas was a pretty memorable class and when a long-ago made booking for Yoga Across The Glass floor at Tower Bridge popped up in my calendar I crossed my fingers for sunshine and set my alarm for 6am...

tower bridge yoga glass floor

I've never been up Tower Bridge before because, like everything in London, the trip to the top is probably extortionate and rammed with people. Early in the morning with no tourists and just the early City workers walking to work its actually quite peaceful, an old lift takes you up to the walkways and a newly installed glass floor offers a view of the bridge and river below. Finger crossing did not have a positive effect on the weather but despite it being an overcast day the views were still amazing - I've lived in this city for too long (nearly nine years) but the views still make me happy and seeing the river stretched out in front and below me and seeing London life reduced to toy-town size was pretty magical.

tower bridge yoga glass floor

The glass floor area is actually pretty small and in the class I attended there wasn't room for everyone on it - it's a bit of a shame how everything in London feels like an attempt to rinse money from you (the class was £25 so I felt like I was paying a £10 premium for location and novelty). Why not just sell a few less tickets to make it slightly less cramped? (Tip - arrive early, earlier than recommended on the ticket...) I spent the first part of my practice terrified of accidentally whacking the person next to me but once I'd got over my initial annoyance I did really enjoy the class. The yoga instructor was great - as an aspiring yoga teacher myself these type of classes must be the hardest to teach as you'll get a mix of experienced yogis and complete novices just there for the view or dragged along by a friend.

tower bridge yoga glass floor

The 45 minute class went through gentle early morning stretching and sun salutation sequences - very appropriate given the setting! There were plenty of opportunities to enjoy the view while in standing or floor-based poses. I'd recommend a pair of gripp-y yoga socks (I have these) for working on the glass floor as using a mat will block the best part of the view (mats are provided anyway so no need to bring your own). While the yoga was beginner level, I think you'd enjoy this more if you've been to a few yoga classes or at least done some YouTube videos and are familiar with the key asanas and some "yoga speak".

tower bridge yoga glass floor

The website doesn't currently appear to be offering any more of these classes but I'd recommend checking back soon if you're interested.

I've booked Sky High Yoga at 20 Fenchurch Street for next month for a bargain £10 (feel like thi is cheap by London standards for even a regular yoga class) and I'd love to do Yoga at the Shard but it's maybe one for a birthday present (hint hint) as its a little pricey...


Sunday, 29 May 2016

Travel: Singapore in 72 Hours

Singapore belongs on the list of countries that I've never particularly sought out to go to but where I've thought that I'll "probably" visit one day. As we flew to Vietnam with Singapore airlines it made sense to do a pit stop on the way home and rounded out our trip nicely. I've stopped off in Singapore on past trips but never made it out of the airport so it was good to see the city and get another stamp in the old passport.

We stayed at the Mandarin Oriental which was beautiful and in an ideal location for a first time visitor (although not really a budget option). The outdoor gym area and rooftop pool were definitely appreciated. Singapore is hot all year round but was experiencing hotter than usual temperatures for our visit. 8am poolside and it was already insanely hot but not the sunny, European heat that I am used to but a thick, muggy heat that makes doing anything other than lie on a sun lounger very unappealing. If I came back I'd definitely take it a little easier and concentrate activities towards the slightly cooler evenings but you know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen...

Singapore is a bizarre place as it has so much history and such a mix of vibrant cultures and yet still has a reputation for being a bit dull. For a stopover destination it's great - clean, easy to get around and somewhere I'm glad I've seen having friends who either grew up in the city or have worked there. We took a Metro ride to experience efficient, clean, air-conditioned public transport to Little India which was a nice contrast from the high rise slickness and a good place to pick up some bargains and Indian street food.

My favourite place was Gardens By The Bay - a much-needed green oasis amongst the skyscrapers. It's free to get into but visiting the Triffid-like "sky trees" or domes incurs an extra charge but both are well worth it. Unlike an English greenhouse the domes are actually cooler than the outside temperature! 

The night safari was recommended to me by everyone I spoke to at home - I booked online and it's a short taxi ride from the bay area where we were staying. While in a long queue surrounded by children I felt a bit doubtful - my family are not really animal-lovers and I hadn't come all this way to visit a zoo....but, I was wrong - the night safari was genuinely amazing. The animals are not behind bars or in cages so it feels like being on an actual safari and as the animals are nocturnal you are viewing them in their true habitis. Amongst the lions, tigers and bears my favourite were the spotted deer. No pictures as y'know, it was dark...

Shopping is an obvious Singapore acticity and a good way to avoid the heat. Many places can be reached walking through malls and the malls are interconnected meaning that avoiding sweating and sunburn isn't too hard. The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands were my favourite - a slick, designer shop filled mall with a great food court and our hotel was near the Marina Square and Suntec City Malls - the later having a branch of Din Tai Fung which is a must visit when I'm in a country that has a branch. St Andrew's Cathedral is nestled right in amongst the malls and hotels looking more than a little out of place!

Raffles is somewhere I've always wanted to visit at some point. although in my head by this "some point" I'm 5'8 tall, glossy-haired, designer outfit clad and with my wherever-did-he-get-to prince charming. In reality we visited at 4pm when it was already pretty busy - the clientele mostly American tourists in shorts and myself in Birkenstocks and a topknot because did I tell you how hot it was? The Long Bar is world-famous and I loved the colonial-era décor and bags of peanuts on the tables to snack on (throwing the shells onto the floor is allowed but littering is a crime everywhere else in Singapore). The Singapore Sling itself is sweet and fun to drink - there are seasonal variations but we stuck to the classic, invented in 1915 to make it acceptable for ladies to drink alcohol in public. At around £16 it's pretty pricey but no more than I expected it to be and we weren't rushed out of our table despite it being busy. I was quite surprised to see children in the bar - Screaming Brat isn't really my preferred soundtrack when drinking a £16 cocktail and I do think that bars should really be a grown-ups only privilege.

Next up - afternoon tea at The Fullerton Bay hotel...


Friday, 27 May 2016

Recipe: Persian Green Salad

This month Florette challenged me to create a salad recipe worthy of a designer salad bowl. With barbecue season definitely in full swing (British weather dependent of course), it's the perfect time of year for big, sharing salad bowls and this Jessica Hogarth designed bowl is perfect for any eating al fresco moment. You can win your own designer salad bowl with promotional packs here.

Florette designer salad bowl

This month's challenge box contained aioli, pine nuts, poppy seed crackers and barberries. The barberries made me think of my childhood - my Persian family would send over bags of the super sour dried berries which are traditionally used in a special occasion dish with rice, chicken and saffron which is eaten for the Persian new year and when guests come for dinner. Their sweet and sour taste perfectly complements savoury dishes rather than being a granola-topping type dried berry so I've created a salad using their flavour but with a summery twist. The mix of the chewy spelt grains, creamy avocado, tart berries and crunchy pine nuts means that this salad definitely won't end up wilting in a sad corner and it'd also make a great meal itself.

persian green salad

persian green salad

Ingredients (for one giant bowl):

Bag of Florette Crispy Salad
Half a cucumber, sliced
Half an avocado
Flat leaf parsley
1 Cup cooked spelt or barley
Plain yogurt

1. Start by arranging the salad leaves in the bowl, add the warm spelt or barley and mix through.

2. Throw in the cucumber slices and add a sprinkle of pine nuts and barberries. Tear the parsley and add this to the salad.

3. Meanwhile, make the dressing by mixing one part aioli to four parts plain yogurt and adding a little water to thin it out into a dressing consistency.

4. Halve the avocado, score squares into it while its still in its skin and then gently pop out the pieces. Sprinkle them with a little lemon juice and pop the other half of the avocado face down on a plate in the fridge to keep it from going brown and ruining tomorrow's avocado toast Instagram.

5. Add the heart-shaped crackers and drizzle the dressing over, serve the rest of the dressing on the side or keep it in the fridge as a dip.

persian green salad

persian green salad


Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Travel: Kuoni Highlights Of Vietnam

I've already blogged about my trip to Vietnam (Hanoi, Ha Long and Hue, Da Nang and Hoi An and Saigon and the Mekong Delta) but wanted to talk a bit more about how we actually did the trip. I travelled with my parents and this is the first "adventurous" family holiday we'd had - we usually go to Dubai for a beach / shopping mall / maybe visit the old town one afternoon sort of relaxing break so for me to do this sort of trip with my parents was a new experience for all of us as with my own holidays I either travel solo or with friends and plan everything myself.

Vietnam is pretty popular with tourists these days and there's no shortage of places to stay, tours and guide books on the country to help you plan your adventures. My parents picked Kuoni to help plan our trip - they offer a few Vietnam tours - the one we picked being the shortest due to having to fit the trip into two weeks of annual leave (plus the bonus Monday bank holiday). This was the first time any of us had done an organised tour holiday and I was slightly in two minds about it as (aside from a post university tour I did in Australia) I've always felt quite capable of planning my own holidays, I'm a confident traveller and also like to do my own thing at my own pace. Also when I told people we were doing s a tour the reaction wasn't always positive and I'm guilty as charged of letting others' views put doubts in my mind.

I wanted to write this because holidays are expensive and, money aside, how we chose to spend our all too precious time is so important. Twenty five days of annual leave, our hard-earned cash and all the expectation of having an amazing time and creating incredible memories mean that our choices of where to go are huge choices so if anyone's thinking of doing this tour, here's what I honestly thought. Speed read: I'd totally recommend it if you want ease, luxury accommodation and if you've got the money but not the time (both to travel and to plan it all).

Kuoni highlights of Vietnam review
On the way to Hoi An

Stress Free Travelling

I would say that for my family and I doing a tour was 100% the right decision - it took out so much of the stress of planning, saved us a lot of time in picking hotels and what to do in each city and having our days semi-planned out also saved a lot of potential disagreement between the three of us... I'm 28, my parents are in their 50s, we obviously have different views and likes and dislikes - doing a tour took a lot of the choice out of our hands and left us free to enjoy ourselves.

Kuoni highlights of Vietnam review
Family selfie outside the Reunification Palace in Saigon 
The Group

Ok, I was pretty worried that it would be me and my parents and that everyone else on the tour would be couples in their 70s who had never travelled before! I was so wrong - firstly, everyone in our group was pretty well travelled and not easily freaked out at "being abroad" and secondly, it wasn't all couples! Kuoni promise small groups and there were 9 of us which was the perfect number, a couple around my parents' age, a girl my own age and her boyfriend and a mother-daughter pair. Everyone was genuinely really nice, phew!

Our Guide

Our tour guide, Leo, was absolutely fantastic. His English was great and he was friendly, enthusiastic and clearly loved his job. Everything on the tour was really well organised, we never had to wait around unnecessarily and Leo did a great job at explaining the history and culture of Vietnam in an interesting way. He was great at including everyone and tailoring activities for our particular group. On a guided tour, the tour guide can really make or break the trip and we were so lucky to have Leo - he was funny and charming and it was really quite sad to say goodbye to him at the end of the trip.

Kuoni highlights of Vietnam review
Leo in the background of our selfie on the Mekong Delta

The Hotels

The hotels are pre-selected by Kuoni but we upgraded in every destination that we could. Hoi An was the only city where the same hotel is offered on the 4 Star and 5 Star option but the Almanity Hoi An was lovely and didn't feel like it was a lesser standard than the other hotels. I had heard that you should "knock off a star" for hotels in Vietnam but I didn't feel like this was true - La Residence in Hue was one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever stayed in and definitely deserving of its 5 Star rating. The only hotel that wasn't quite up to scratch was The Renaissance Riverside in Saigon - no complaints per se but the hotel was a little tired and dated and just not quite as nice as the others.

Kuoni highlights of Vietnam review
The Movenpick Hanoi 
The Transport

The infrastructure in Vietnam isn't great - anyone who has watched the Top Gear episode can attest to that. Trains take hours, roads are congested and driving is frantic. Doing the tour meant that we didn't have to think about how to get from city to city - we flew between Hanoi and Hue and Da Nang and Saigon and travelled on a coach within and between other destinations. My dad was super impressed with the coach driver's driving on roads which aren't the best (such a dad point to observe but sort of important) and being in a small group meant that it didn't feel ~touristy~ or like being on a school trip.

The Food

Ok, so the less than stellar aspect of my review. More than half of our meals were included in the tour and so were already paid for. Vietnam has great food (as I know from my visits to the restaurants on London's Kingsland Road) and I was looking forward to it being even better in the country itself. Unfortunately many of the restaurants we visited on the tour were set up for groups on guided tours and all had pre-arranged set menus. After a few of these meals it became apparent that these set menus were exactly the same. The default options seemed to be pumpkin soup, deep fried spring rolls, unspecified "fish" and, in one restaurant, crinkle cut chips. Watered down food "for tourists" - no pho, no bahn mi, nothing remotely spicy. While it was great to eat as a group the tour food wasn't the standard I expected from a high-end tour and although all the restaurants were great at offering options for different dietary requirements by the end of the tour I never wanted to see another spring roll in my life.

Kuoni highlights of Vietnam review
Coffee in Vietnam is so good - poolside in Saigon 

The range of places visited was definitely enough to get a feel for the country and there was just about enough time in each place. This isn't a cheap way to do Vietnam - it's not an expensive country and of course you can visit on a budget, the amount of backpackers I saw was confirmation of that but the expense meant that my expectations were really high and (food aside) were actually met. I don't think that doing an tour is essential in Vietnam but for convenience it was great and having a guide meant that I came away feeling like I knew a lot more about the country than when I've been to countries on my own.

Have you done any organised tour holidays?


Monday, 23 May 2016

Travel: Saigon and The Mekong Delta

Our final stop in Vietnam. Saigon is a name that has been familiar to me since I was a child - it just sounds so exotic. The city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975 but signage and the local people still refer to it as Saigon.

The view of the river from our hotel's rooftop pool
The traffic is crazy and the city is huge and sprawling, it's divided into 19 districts which sounds very Hunger Games-esque. District 1 is where we stayed and it and the neighbouring District 3 are where everything you'll want to see as a visitor are located. So many people warned us of pick pockets and crime in Saigon but walking around District 1 during the day and night didn't feel any scarier than London - just be sensible and keep your wits about you as you should in any big city.

This guy wins the award for craziest thing carried on a bike
Saigon is the business centre of Vietnam and it felt like much more of a capital city than Hanoi did - Hanoi being the Washinton DC and Saigon the NYC of Vietnam - a modern, capitalist centre but one that is still scarred by the memories of the war in a way that I didn't see or notice in other places we visited. Its got a similar vibe to Berlin where the memories of the war are there at every turn, albeit that the Vietnam war is so much more recent and happened within many more people's lifetimes than WW2 so the memories and the hurt are that much fresher.

Communist propaganda
We started at the War Remnants Museum and Reunificiation Palace which were sombre but essential places to visit. There's so much history that I only knew very vague details of before my visit and the museum and palace were so important for understanding more about not just Vietnam but our whole world.

American tanks outside the Reunification Palace 
The city feels like a mix of an Asian metropolis and a European capital - the Notre Dame Cathedral and central Post Office wouldn't look out of place in Paris but the communist propaganda lining the streets in preparation for Reunification Day certainly would. We took our capitalist selves off to Ben Than market to bargain hard for beach dresses and to the Diamond Plaza department store which was blissfully rather empty...

Ho Chi Minh's statue ready for Reunification Day outside the People's Assembly Hall
Central Post Office 
I still hadn't tried Bahn Mi on our trip and having never had it in London before either I was determined that I'd eat it for the first time in Vietnam. As its a street food snack, I asked in the hotel and was recommended Nhu Lan Bakery - definitely an authentic local spot. Bahn Mi is a French-style baguette traditionally filled with pork and pork pate. As my family don't eat pork we had a fun exchange explaining that we wanted our bahn mi with a fried egg and without the array of meat - a lady who'd hopped off her scooter to grab lunch kindly helped us out and for £1 each we had a tasty baguette and salted lemon drink sitting at metal tables with a mostly local clientele.

Saigon has a more international food culture than other Vietnamese cities - not only did we spot our first McDonalds and KFC but Korean, Japanese and Chinese restaurants abound. I used the insane heat as an excuse to introduce my parents to my favourite Korean dessert, patbingsu, at Caffe Bene. I don't like ice cream so this shaved ice dessert is a saviour in 35 degree heat (which in a busy city feels even hotter).

Glorious shaved ice 
Our second day in Saigon was spent visiting the Mekong Delta - two hours out of the city and a total world away. We boarded a boat and visited a few of the islands where local people sell their wares. It did feel touristy but not in a brash or annoying way - we saw coconut candy being made, dipped our fingers into a beehive and held a python. The best part was stopping for a cold drink and plates of fresh local fruits - jackfruit tastes just like those fruit salad sweets I remember has a child only it's actually fruit and not artificial colours and flavours.

Young coconut on the boat 
We took a sampan boat through the narrow water ways
Miniature bananas 
Tropical fruits and chilli salt for dipping
Our final night in Saigon was the official end of our tour and we headed for a post-dinner drink at the Skydeck, Saigon's tallest building. The views are impressive and but the cocktails being around £8-10 each made this a hangout for tourists, ex-pats and the wealthier locals in a city where brand new Mercedes drives past a man on the street crafting "new" pairs of trainers from piles of second hand ones.

Our Vietnamese adventure over - next stop: Singapore!


Friday, 20 May 2016

Gin O'Clock: Make It Personal(ised)

Happy Friday! There's definitely a G&T with my name on it tonight and thanks to a visit by the postman earlier this week I can now actually have a G&T with, if not my name, my initial on it. I definitely think that the glass you drink from has a huge effect on what you're drinking - these just feel so grown-up and make me want to sip my drink slowly and savour every drop.

darlington crystal engraved circle tumblers

These circle tumblers can be engraved with a single initial or a set of initials and there's a choice of fonts to really add that personal touch. I chose just a simple "L" and the weighty but delicate crystal glass feels so regal to use. If only there was a little more British sunshine gracing my balcony on the evening I took these photos! Dartington have been producing their crystalware in North Devon since 1967 and are the only crystal brand to still produce their products in the UK - a little bit of history to contemplate as you sip your G&T. These would make a great gift, especially for the friend or relative who already has everything...

darlington crystal engraved circle tumblers

Oh, and Little Bird gin with a slice of grapefruit is so, so good - sunshine or otherwise!


Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Travel: Vietnam - Da Nang and Hoi An

Looking back, these days of the trip were my absolute favourite. Maybe because it was at that point where I'd been away long enough to forget about real life (/even know what day of the week it was) but where there was still enough ahead to look forward to not to have to think about the return to reality. After leaving Hue we drove along the "Top Gear Road" - the Hai Van Mountain Pass, a stretch of road running alongside deserted white sand beaches as it climbs high into the mountains. We stopped for a break and had one of the best coffees of the trip - iced coffee, a hibiscus tea chaser and a chat about all things from Liverpool FC to Kate Middleton with the café owner's son.

After descending the other side of the mountain, Da Nang came into view. The stop at the Marble Mountain was a total surprise -the mountain itself is actually made of marble (as evidenced by the marble shops dotting the roadside selling a diverse range of marble goods) and pagodas, caves and statues have been built on the mountain itself.

We arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon and our first stop was Bebe tailor - my dad wanted to get a suit made and my mum and I had clothes we wanted copied. The tailors are super speedy and just over 24 hours later the finished clothes were delivered to our hotel! There are loads of tailors in Hoi An but definitely get a recommendation and bargain hard (although as with anywhere, you do get what you pay for...).

We wandered the streets of the old town - cafes, restaurants and clothes shops line the streets and even though it's a bit of a tourist mecca the town has such a chilled out vibe (partly due to most of the streets being pedestrianized - praise be, a break from all the scooters!). Walking along the riverside at dusk was truly beautiful as tourists and locals mingled. We sipped on fresh coconuts although I think we got fleeced paying £3 for two! Watch out with the Vietnmanese currency - at 3000 Dong to the pound its easy to get your decimal point in the wrong place, especially when making quick purchases of street food but given that I pay £4 for a coffee in London I didn't feel too hard done by.

My favourite Hoi An hangout was Hoi An Roastery - with a few branches in Hoi An, free wifi and the best coffee it was the perfect spot for some people watching.

We stayed at the Almanity Spa Hotel - the beautiful poolside was so peaceful and there's a daily yoga session and massage treatment all included. A day spent reading poolside, doing yoga and having a blissful full body massage definitely recharged my batteries after a string of early morning starts and bumpy coach rides.

I took charge of dinner choices again and we headed to Minh Hien - this felt more like a typical vegetarian restaurant, it had a very hippie vibe with the walls lined with books and the tables covered in messages from diners past. The food was amazing - we ordered a selection but particularly loved the banana blossom salad and aubergine cooked in banana leaf.  Vegetarian food in Vietnam is really easy to come by - even in non-vegetarian restaurants the standard of English is good and I easily ordered things like pho and summer rolls without the meat (although a word of warning with pho - unless served in a veggie restaurant the stock is likely to be made with meat even if your portion isn't topped with meat...).

The next morning we left at 7am for our flights to Ho Chi Minh City - one of the few chances of the trip to get a decent outfit photo before the heat and humidity hit. Hoi An is somewhere I'd definitely go back to and where I could stay for far more than two days. I didn't get a chance to visit the beach which was a short shuttle bus journey from our hotel but my dad went and said it was a beautiful, endless white sand beach. I'd have never associated Vietnam with a chill out beach holiday before but I'd definitely be tempted to return for one...

Next up - Saigon!

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