Sunday, 17 December 2017

Best of 2017

Another year nearly done, and I have one last post to share before I head off for my annual digital detox. The end of the year brings out mixed emotions in me; I'm a rather melancholy person so I tend to feel decidedly wistful when looking back over the year's events. 2017 has, for me, been a time of professional highs and personal lows. 

Earlier in the year, a very close friend died of cancer - a first experience for me of terminal illness, hospice care and supporting my friend's partner through an unbearably sad and traumatic process. His untimely death very much underlined to me the need to grab the moment in life and say 'yes' to things more readily. 

Taking on that mindset led to some professional and personal firsts - I went on 6 Music and spoke on a panel at a conference, both things I never would have imagined doing once upon a time. I've done some great things through the blog, too, as well as meeting some other brilliant local bloggers and influencers along the way. 

But more than anything, I've tried to do more of the things I love: travel, days out, reading, walking, going to clubs and listening to live music. My friend was the perfect example of someone who knew how to live life well - he gave himself willingly to new experiences, prioritised the people who mattered and had lots of varied interests. I've tried to follow his mantra to 'just do it' as much as possible this year, and luckily living in Bristol makes enjoying life to the full easy.

So, before I get too melancholy, here are the things I've really enjoyed in Bristol and beyond in 2017...

Best Cup of Coffee
Sometimes it's the little things. And the coffee at Little Victories has made my lunchtime just that little bit happier. Friendly staff, gorgeous decor and a wonderful location in the heart of Wapping Wharf make this my favourite recent addition to Bristol's vibrant cafe scene.

Best Day Out

We returned to lot of old favourite haunts this year (Southerndown, I'm talking about you again) but one of our favourite trips was, rather unexpectedly, to see some locks...I mean the ones you get on canals. Borne of one of those 'where shall we go that's a bit different but not too far away?' moments, we had a wonderful day strolling along Caen Hill Locks. Tranquil and pretty, this free day out beat a lot of the more expensive experiences we had in 2017.

Best Meal Out
Paco Tapas made me beam with happiness in 2017. When the British weather is getting you down, or you just feel a bit blue, this bijou restaurant on a quite corner of the harbourside will lift your spirits, I guarantee it. You feel as if you've been transported to Seville for the evening and the food - though quite pricey - is exceptional. Without doubt the best tapas I've had in the UK. The Sherry Negroni isn't too shabby either. 

Best Cultural Experience

Forget the hipster haters, Hauser + Wirth is a nice place to hang out. Yes, it's a magnet for the cool Bruton set, and yes, it is 100% hipster, but it's located in a pretty spot in Somerset, the gardens are lovely and it has a nice cafe. When we visited there was an exhibition of Elizabeth Frink sculptures, which I'm pleased to say I genuinely enjoyed.

Best Cocktail
Weirdly, I had my best G&T of the year at the Orpheus Cinema - who knew they can pour a better one than many bars and for a fraction of the cost? But for something a little more sexy, I really enjoyed the delicious cocktails and decadent atmosphere at Red Light. 

Best Live Music Event

We enjoyed Joe Goddard at the Thekla and The Cribs at the O2 (though were disappointed by the Downs Festival) but the most life affirming live music event for me this year was the Bristol Sounds series. From the stirring sounds of the Manics, a band I'd been wanting to see for years, to the euphoria of hearing classic dance tracks re-imagined at Hacienda Classical, everything about these events was perfect - the location, capacity and sound quality. I loved every moment. 

Best Pizza
Pizza - like burgers - is ubiquitous in Bristol and equally as divisive. But in my opinion - and I do like to think that with my Italian heritage I know what I'm talking about - Pizza Workshop does it best. I was very happy when they opened a new branch north of the river on Whiteladies Road over the summer.

Best Travel Experience

While Ibiza continued to enchant us, our stand-out trip this year was to Venice. While not new to me, I'd totally forgotten just how mind-boggling Venice is and I enjoyed every moment of our 5-day visit which cost us less than a long weekend to Centre Parcs. Everyone should go to Venice at least once in their lifetime. 

Best Family-Friendly Eating
Having reviewed Thaikhun for the blog back in 2016, I was delighted to find that it lived up to my initial review. I took the kids during a summer holiday trip to Oxford (there's a branch a bit nearer to home in Bath) and it was excellent - efficient, friendly service and great value, authentic Thai cuisine. My kids have quite adventurous palettes but there's plenty for more reserved young diners too. A great place to mix things up if you're a little bored of Pizza Express and Wagamama.

Best Shopping Experience

I'm afraid Bristol's mainstream shopping options continued to disappoint me this year (when will we catch up with cities like Manchester or Birmingham?) but I discovered some lovely little independents in 2017, from the plant-based heaven of Wild Leaf to gorgeous homeware at Mon Pote Home. I was also chuffed when Graham & Green opened a store in Bath. But my most successful, semi-local shopping trip took place at Kilver Court, where we combined a spot of retail therapy with a picnic in the stunning secret garden. I didn't find anything in the clothes shops, but I did come away with an amazing glass fronted cabinet for £50 and could have spent a few quid more in the homeware store.

Best Luxury Experience

Another first for me in 2017 was a visit to a spa hotel. I won't lie; it cost an arm and a leg. But my visit to Ragdale Hall was one of the most incredible, life-enhancing things I've ever done. Rarely do things live up to my expectations but on this occasion, I came back feeling the several hundred quid I'd shelled out was money well spent. For three days, me and my friend cocooned ourselves in a place that felt a million miles away from our everyday lives. Despite warnings about chintzy decor, unfulfilling mealtimes and over-zealous fitness instructors, Ragdale Hall felt a lot more modern and chic than I'd expected. The food was plentiful and delicious. And it's been a heck of a long time since I've felt that relaxed and carefree. It was worth every penny.


Tuesday, 5 December 2017

A Visit to Aerospace Bristol

Loads of cool things and people have come out of Bristol: Massive Attack, Cary Grant, Aardman Animations, Bananarama ('80s girl band, if you didn't know) and, of course, Concorde, perhaps the most mythologised form of transport of the modern age. While I'm not really an aviation geek, I have always had a bit of a thing about air travel and I'm a child of the '70s so naturally Concorde has been, if you'll excuse the pun, on my radar for many years. 
But not having been born the daughter of a wealthy rock star or member of the royal family sort of made actually going on Concorde a bit problematic. But last weekend I fulfilled a life goal by boarding the iconic aircraft at the recently opened Aerospace Bristol museum.

Opened at the end of the summer, Aerospace Bristol houses the last to be built and last to fly Concorde, Alpha Foxtrot. Displayed in all her glory in a hanger at the historic Filton airfield, visitors to the museum can live the dream - albeit while remaining on terra firma - by walking around the aircraft and stepping aboard to see what cabin life was like if you had a spare £8000 to spend on a ticket. 

I visited with my two boys - both of whom are mad on all things aviation - and they were pretty wowed out by seeing Concorde up close and personal. Having pored over the legendary aircraft's story in countless books over the years, it was great to see them wide-eyed with wonder as they stepped inside, taking a peek into the cockpit and walking through the plane. I found myself thinking about all the famous names who made Concorde their preferred mode of transport back in the day; if only planes could talk...
Spot-lit in splendid isolation, the museum has created a truly fitting tribute to this spectacular piece of engineering; she looks absolutely stunning in her new home. Alongside the plane there's a room filled with interesting exhibits and memorabilia - glamours flight attendant uniforms, tickets, crockery and wonderful pictures of the 'ordinary' fans of Concorde who somehow found the money to cross the Atlantic at supersonic speeds.
But Aerospace Bristol isn't just about Concorde - it's a fascinating collection of exhibits that traces the fascinating and perhaps not-so-well-known history of The Bristol Aeroplane Company. For anyone born in Bristol like myself, it's a great education in just how important aviation and engineering have been in shaping our city. 

Plenty of interactive exhibits keep younger visitors happy and, as well as Concorde, there are lots of other models and replicas to explore, including a Bristol tram, Bristol Boxkite, Bristol Babe and Bloodhound Surface to Air Missile. 

You can immerse yourself of the story of the Filton Airfield during the two World Wars, a time of great innovation that saw women exchange domestic work for building engines on the factory floor; in 1918 alone over 2000 aircraft were turned out from the Filton and Brislington works and over 3000 people were on the payroll. 

The museum charts the rise of the Unions as the Concorde project struggled to get off the ground, with local MP at the time, Tony Benn, supporting the many local people employed at Filton whose livelihoods hung in the balance. 

More recent history is also covered; you can see how engineers in Bristol have helped to develop cutting-edge, space age technologies and robotics. All in all, it makes you feel very proud of the city's heritage as a leader in aviation innovation. There's also a flight simulator which - though not fully immersive at the moment (it will be coming to the museum in 2018) - offers the chance to experience take-off and cruise control from the perspective of the cockpit.
The museum also houses a cafe and a shop, filled with imaginative gifts, books and toys. We spent an entire morning at the museum - there's a lot to see here and plenty of room for little ones to wander around without getting in the way of more seriously-minded aviation fans. 

A standard family ticket costs £39 and your tickets can be used for return visits within a year of booking. We all came away from our day at Aerospace Bristol feeling it had exceeded our expectations. And as a local girl who's followed Concorde's story over the years and was sad to see it take its last flight over Bristol, I'm really happy that this iconic aircraft - built just a few miles from where I was born - has come home in style. 

With thanks to Aerospace Bristol who gave me a complimentary trip to the museum. All words and photos are my own. Visit the website here for more information.


Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Local Christmas Gift Guide

As usual, I'm not really 'feeling' Christmas. Perhaps it's a symptom of getting older, but I simply don't get excited about the prospect of boozy parties, overeating and overspending any more. While conceptually I'm totally on board - I embrace the idea of a long break from school and work and of spending time with loved ones - it's the build-up (something that starts earlier and earlier these days) that leaves me feeling decidedly Scoorge-ish; the constant Black Friday emails, the stream of texts from family members demanding to know your plans, and the worrying knowledge that money is literally draining from your bank account while a tax return awaits at the start of the new year.

But it's Christmas shopping that I find most draining and dispiriting. I hate buying for the sake of buying and I also hate the idea that someone else may be going through a similarly frustrating time trying to find a present for me. It's an area that divides people - my mum, an only child with just a few relatives, gets cross when I suggest cutting back on the present buying. For her, buying things for family members is a joyful experience that fills her with a sense of purpose. Generously-spirited, present buying fulfils an important function for her. I get this, and I don't want to be stingy; and thankfully my own relatives are pretty easy to buy for so we won't be forsaking gift giving in our family any time soon. 

But I can't help but feel that in an era of increasing financial and environmental insecurity we should be a little more mindful with our spending this Christmas. At the risk of sounding a little earnest and morally superior, I am cutting back a bit this year and trying to give experiences rather than physical gifts. And I'm also trying to buy local and independent - through writing this blog I've been introduced to some fantastic local businesses who offer brilliant products at competitive prices; you'll find them showcased in my short and sweet gift guide below, as well as some other ideas from further afield. 

Candles from Amphora Aromatics, from £9.48

A recent discovery, this lovely shop on Cotham Hill stocks a range of aromatherapy products. Founded in 1984, it's one of the UK's largest suppliers of pure essential oils, but it also stocks gorgeous natural skincare, haircare and body care products. I picked up one of their candles on my recent visit (a candle is always a good gift idea, in my opinion) and it's gorgeous - there are lots of Christmassy fragrances in the beautifully packaged range (I opted for the Mulled Pear & Spices) and they come in at a very affordable £9.48. 

Brass Spoon Set, Bombay Duck, £15

Who said spoons are boring? I think these hammered, handmade brass spoons are beautiful pieces to have in your kitchen. Just £15 for the set of four, they have a luxe, expensive feel that I think would make you feel happy every time you open up your cutlery drawer.

Panda Organic Babygrow, £17

Very little babies don't need toys or expensive presents...but their parents will appreciate a stack of baby grows - you simply can never have too many. Combining organic cotton with a super-cool panda illustration, this lovely option is designed in Bristol and even uses organic ink for extra ethical brownie points.

Spotty egg cups, £5 each

Made in a tiny little shop on Princess Victoria Street in Clifton, these super-cute ceramics make a lovely gift for the boiled egg lover in your life. They can also be personalised though you may need to visit the shop in person to arrange that in time for Christmas.

Radiance Mask, Wild Source Apothecary, £24

Or any of the products in this range - I've tried them all and they're all excellent (you can find out more on my blog post here.) I was so glad that to find that these products genuinely work and are lovely to use as I love the idea of supporting a local, small-batch beauty company. The prices compare very favourably to big brand deluxe beauty products and personally I prefer the idea of using something made by hand in Bristol to slapping something more mass-produced on my face. I can't recommend this brand enough.

Gold Geometric Architectural Earrings, Jules & Clem, £18

Handmade in Bristol, these earrings offer something a bit different from the displays of gaudy, mass-produced Christmas bling that clogs up the high street at this time of year. Also check out out their cute star pieces, available on the Mon Pote website.

D-Ring Cross Body Bag, & Other Stories, £69

I highly rate & Other Stories accessories - I've been buying all my bags here for the last few years as they look expensive and are well made but don't come in over the £100 price point. Beautifully presented in dust-bags, they make a very luxurious gift for someone special. This particular style is designed in Paris and comes in a range of colours, including this punchy red but also more neutral options. 

Dunleavy Rose Wine, £11.75

I don't believe there's a rule that says you can't drink rose at Christmas. If you know someone who consistently channels the spirit of summer, even in deepest December, then this wine is for them - it immediately transports you to warmer climes. Made from grapes nurtured in a vineyard just outside Bristol, this wine is outstanding and makes the perfect alternative to more obvious wine choices this winter. You can read more about what makes this wine so special here. 

Bishopston Supper Club Preserves Trio, £11

It doesn't get more local than this (well, if you live where I do, that is.) Every year I vow to spend a cosy weekend making my own jams or chutneys to give as gifts, imagining myself as a Kirstie Allsop who's also got a hand-poured candle on the go and has decorated the house in home-made wreaths and pom-pom bunting. Of course, none of this ever quite happens. But this is surely the next best thing - gorgeous small-batch preserves, from the same kitchen as a very highly regarded local supper club. I'd be very happy to receive these goodies. 

Personalised Cycling Prints, Graphivelo, £12.50

Everyone knows a cycling obsessive these days. If you want to avoid buying them something made from lycra, here's a great alternative - super-cool, graphic-style prints that you can personalise. A great idea for teens and adults, they make a stylish way of recording their cycling achievements. They're designed just outside Bristol and available to buy from Not on the High Street.

Moa Aphrodite Facial Oil, Fox + Feather, £22

I can't think of a nicer gift to give a fraught mum at this time of year. Christmas is totally draining and unkind to the skin - a wonderful combination of central heating, frequent wine imbibing and lack of sunlight doesn't tend to enhance the complexion; this time of year is definitely a good time to channel the goddess of beauty and I'd personally be very grateful to find this in my stocking. 

Meri-Meri Days of the Week Hairclips, Mon Pote, £10

I mean, I would wear these. Aren't they just adorable? With just the right amount of glitter to enchant little girls who love sparkle, these make the perfect stocking filler for a fashion conscious little person.

Cactus Shot Glasses, Graham & Green, £29.95

Just the right side of kitsch without being too novelty, these make a fun gift for tequila aficionados. The perfect accessory for setting up your very own mezcaleria at home.

Just My Type Mugs, Anthropologie, £10

If you're over monograming and like personalised gifts without the twee factor, these mugs are perfect if you're buying for someone with a romantic, adventurous or dreamy sensibility. 

Hampton Holistics Candles

I know. Another candle. But I fell in love with these all-natural aromatherapy candles when I tested them a short while back. Made from soy wax so they don't fill your home with toxins, they're hand-poured in Bristol and smell amazing. The Calm candle would be perfect for restoring a bit of tranquility to a loved one's home in the midst of the Christmas madness.


Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Win Aromotherapy Goodies with Hampton Holistics

November, a month of grey skies, over-eating and consistently frizzy hair - most definitely not my favourite time of the year. Though I try to embrace the idea of cosy log fires, fluffy blankets and woolly socks, I'm a summer person with a very low boredom threshold - I don't have the patience for hibernating on the sofa for hours on end. For me, the only good things about this time of year are soup, satsumas and the smell of a new candle.

I love candles. From ruinously expensive numbers from Diptyque to less guilt-inducing options from TX Maxx, the sight and smell of a gently flickering candle on the mantelpiece brings me pleasure. There's something very comforting and elemental about candles and at this time of year I need all the comforting I can get. 

So I was delighted to stumble upon Hampton Holistics, a locally-produced range of candles and essential oils founded by Bristol-based aromatherapist Camilla Amso. If there's a candle lurking somewhere in a shop, I will always find it - on this occasion at Reason Interiors on Gloucester Road, though you can also buy the range online here.

With her background in natural remedies, Camilla started her business making bath oils and pulse point roller-balls, but it was her research into other candles on the market that led her to a discovery - while that expensive candle might look super chic and smell lovely, if it features chemical fragrances and is made from paraffin-based wax, it's actually releasing toxins around your home. My feeling is there are enough toxins swirling around the world as it is - why on earth would you want them dispersed around your home too?

It was this discovery that led Camilla to take a different approach, using her knowledge of the therapeutic qualities of essential oils to create beautifully but naturally fragranced candles free of nasty chemicals. Using pure, sustainable plant-based waxes, Camilla's candles have a long burn time and smell amazing - I trialled the 'Calm' candle made from lavender essential oil which filled my home with a subtle but distinguishable fragrance. 

Camilla is the epitome of a small-scale, local producer - she's self-taught in the art of candle making and continues to hand-pour her small batch candles, creating products that are truly made with love. The result is a lovely collection of candles which look and smell luxurious but have health benefits too. The essential oils used in Camilla's candles have a variety of attributes: lavender, for example, boosts the immune system and can help with respiratory problems, while geranium (a key ingredient in the 'Balance' candle) can sort out hormone imbalances. 

There are candles perfect for this time of year in the shape of the festive smelling 'Peace' and 'Yule' candles; the latter features sweet orange, cinnamon and clove...quite simply the smell of Christmas. And if you're feeling the pressure of the pre-Christmas preparations the 'Breathe' candle might help restore a bit of calm to your home with its blend of Frankincense and eucalyptus (the former aids deep breathing while eucalyptus has fantastic antiviral and antibacterial properties if you tend to feel a bit low at this time of year.)

Gorgeously packaged and lovely and safe to use, if you're a candle lover like me and like to support local businesses, you need these in your life. I've teamed up with Camilla to offer one lucky reader the chance to win a candle of their choice as well as a burner oil and pulse point roll-on. 

The competition is taking place on my Instagram account - here's how to take part:

1. Visit my Instagram page at @luisa_m_sanders*
2. Like my competition post and follow both myself and Hampton Holistics (they are tagged in the post)
3. Tag a friend in the comments box too!
4. Competition closes at 7pm GMT on Saturday 18th November 2017

Winners will be announced in the comments box on the Instagram post. Good luck! 

*Please note this competition is not affiliated with Instagram. Terms & Conditions: One winner will be picked from all entrants who meet competition criteria; no cash equivalent; competition winners will be announced by Sunday 25th November 2017. Winners will be asked for their email address to arrange delivery of their chosen products. The prizes includes the winner's choice of 1 full-size candle, 1 aromatherapy burner oil and one pulse point roll-on. This competition is only open to UK residents. 


Thursday, 2 November 2017

How to Have Holidays on the Cheap

Two words which don't really inspire confidence when put next to each other: "Cheap and "holidays". Conjuring up images of half-built villas and dodgy all-inclusive buffet tables, it can be a minefield working out what actually constitutes good value and what will potentially be the worst experience of your life. Resolutely a warm weather person (I'm half Italian and spent my childhood summers under the Tuscan sun) I can't countenance the idea of a summer without sand, sun cream and salty skin. Holidays are important to me and I don't view them as a luxurious indulgence. But I don't have a very big budget when it comes to planning them.
I also have a bit of problem with the cost of holidays in the UK. While I love UK beaches I struggle with the idea of spending considerable amounts of money to sit shivering on a picnic rug, smiling through gritted teeth as the rain clouds set in. 

Our recent half term trip to Ibiza was borne out of a search for accommodation in the UK. When it costs less to spend five days in the Balearics than it does to rent a beach hut in Whitstable for the weekend, I'm afraid my patriotism runs a little dry. I just can't bear the idea of spending upwards of £700 for a weekend on the UK coast when at this time of year it's most likely going to rain for over 50% of the time.

Needless to say as a parent the odds are stacked against you when it comes to doing holidays on a budget - term time travel is a bugger and obviously you need to multiply costs across several people. But it IS possible to have a few breaks a year without breaking the bank. However you will need an open mind when it comes to accommodation; lovers of luxury hotels and chi chi villas - this post probably isn't for you. Furthermore this isn't a guide to far-flung travel either; since having our children we've accepted that travelling beyond the Northern hemisphere is something we'll have to leave till our retirement. 
Ibiza Town in the sunshine but without the crowds

So, here are my tried and tested tips for doing family holidays on a budget:

Travel out of season

A no-brainer. Travel in October half term compared to July or August will shave considerable amounts off your holiday costs. But what about the weather? Obviously it's not as guaranteed out of season in Europe but on our recent trip to Ibiza we had blue skies from start to finish and temperatures of 26 degrees; definitely beach weather. And a huge bonus of travelling at this time of year is having more options for accommodation and far less crowds to contend with. The beaches in Ibiza were blissful - the sea was warm from weeks of summer sunshine and we had plenty of room to spread out. 
Blue skies and plenty of room on the beach

Everything is much less stressful this time of year; there are no queues at the airport, you can walk straight out and into a taxi and car hire is a much less stressful experience than it is in the summer. It all makes for a much more serene experience of family travel. I can't recommend it enough.

Have a flexible approach to accommodation

I've stayed in some truly odd places over the years. From the Venetian Airbnb with a weird spiral staircase stuck in the middle of the kitchen to the Ibizan apartment missing an oven - it was pretty fun realising you can actually cook a pizza on two-ring gas stove - we've enjoyed some random accommodation on our family holidays. But having never really experienced luxury I perhaps don't know what I'm missing, and I've generally regarded our holiday accommodation as a base rather than a focal point. 
Great central location in Venice. Just slightly odd design elements

Obviously I want things to be clean and functional but I have a realistic approach to our family holidays - we simply don't have the funds to consider 5 star hotels or flashy villas. I'd honestly feel quite out of place and uncomfortable somewhere posh, and there's something uniquely funny and charming about seeing your kids in fits of laughter about some weird design element or functionality of your holiday accommodation - I reckon kids remember the random stuff far more than the luxury stuff (well, that's what I tell myself anyway.)

It pays to do careful research, though - consulting Google maps for satellite and street view photos is really useful, though I wouldn't read too much into TripAdvisor reviews. On our recent stay in Ibiza, we stayed in a very basic but spotlessly clean apartment - for £200 for four nights. It might have been positioned in a charmless suburban street, but it was close to the beach and Ibiza Town - perfect for a budget half-term break. It goes without saying that Airbnb is your friend - we've had some great experiences in both the UK and abroad using this option.

Do city breaks in the summer 

If you're more of a city person than a beach person, high summer is when prices fall on city breaks compared to spring and autumn. Of course, you need to choose wisely, though I wouldn't necessarily avoid hot weather places at this time of year - just be sure to choose accommodation with air conditioning and be prepared to get up early to do your sight seeing. Remember that lots of cities have urban beaches, perfect for breaking up a morning of trailing round the city with an afternoon of lazy snoozing. 
Verona - bloomin' hot in August but we did our sightseeing at the crack of dawn

If you're looking for another way to do Paris on the cheap and don't mind a bit of inconvenience take a look at my post on how we did the French capital by car for less than £500. Clue - it involves Tesco Clubcard points, the Channel Tunnel and staying at a Eurocamp site just outside the city.

Choose a fly and flop destination

Car hire can add serious money to any holiday, particularly in the height of the summer. In Ibiza, we specifically chose somewhere a short distance from the airport, close to a beach and close to the town so we didn't need to rely on a car or public transport. There are lots of other beachy destinations where you can do this, but two places I'd recommend from personal experience are Nice and Faro. Both are within spitting distance of the airport and have easy public transport links to the beaches. 

In the case of Nice, the beach and town are interlinked, so you really have every kind of amenity you might need on your doorstep. Nice is a colourful, vibrant place with an authentic vibe you don't get in other places on the Cote d'Azur - I'd really recommend it for a family break as the climate is mild, the beach lovely (though do note it's a pebble beach) and the old town has fabulous markets and restaurants. 
My son on the beach in Nice when he was little

Choose somewhere a little off radar

The beaches I spent my childhood summers on are barely known beyond Italy. They're not the most beautiful in the country, but they tick a lot of boxes - spotlessly clean, sandy and backed by cafes and restaurants. The Tuscan coast is very much a place where Italians (and a few Germans) take their holidays so it's a very uncommercialised  area and you're very unlikely to hear an English voice during your stay. As such, it's a far less expensive option than the famous resorts in the South and on the islands. 
And my other son when he was little on a budget trip to Sardinia

Furthermore, this stretch is close to both Pisa and Genova airports, as well as the beauties of inland Tuscany - it's a great place to combine a beach stay with trips to places such as Florence, Siena or the Cinque Terre. 

Staying with Italy, the same goes for the islands - Sardinia has a reputation for being expensive but that's only really centred around the snazzy Costa Smeralda. Other areas of the island are much more accessible, plus it's served by budget flights to both Alghero and Olbia. Then there is Elba - a bit of a faff to get too, it's a lot cheaper than Capri and is much more traditional, meaning simple, budget-friendly accommodation options are plentiful. Eurocamp has a site in on Elba in the lovely resort of Marina di Campo.

Happy holiday planning!

Me (far right) on the beach in Italy, sometime in the '80s

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Serious Skincare on a Budget

Getting old is a funny thing. You can, on a good day, feel just like you did at 18 - shiny of hair, taut of skin and bursting with energy. But on a bad day? Jeez. My son came into our room the other morning, just as I was getting out of bed, and asked if I'd been crying, I looked that creased and swollen of eye. I'm not vain, but it's a bit worrying that you should wake from a good 8 hours' kip looking like you've taken a few punches in a boxing ring rather than getting some quality shut-eye.

While I'm extremely sceptical about anti-ageing treatments, I do appreciate that at my stage of life a little bit of help might be required in the skin care department. The problem is, of course, that a lot of the products lauded by the trustworthy beauty journos don't come cheap - I simply can't part with the best part of £50 for a serum. 

Thankfully there is a brilliant alternative for helping with middle aged skin issues. The Ordinary is a brand that has been making a fair bit of noise with industry insiders for some time, including a positive review from my go-to skincare guru, Sali Hughes. I finally bought some products on a recent trip to London where I visited their Covent Garden shop as I'd been a bit confused by what did what when looking on their website - it's a bit of a minefield of scientific terminology and percentages. I was pleased to be able to get some proper advice from a store assistant before making a purchase, but if you know your retinols from your AHAs you should be okay deciding which products best service your needs.

The range is essentially made up of 'generic pharma' products in the same vein of unbranded paracetamol - unlike its prettier, branded packets, it does the same job but without the big marketing spend. The Ordinary takes a similar approach, using tried and tested ingredients in its products but leaving behind anything superfluous and swapping expensive packaging for pared-down bottles and boxes. Personally, I find the simplicity of it all very pleasing, though you could get annoyed by the overblown spiel in the 'About Us' page on their website. 

If their website mission statements leaves you confused, you can read a good review of the products by Sali Hughes here, while I found this article a helpful guide to which products work best for certain skin concerns. The products I'm currently using are the Hyaluronic Acid 2% +B5. Now I have overcome my fear of the word 'acid' in the context of skincare and get what this particular type of acid does (holds moisture to keep your skin looking plump, hydrated and youthful) I'm fully on board with it and this serum seems to be doing what it promises on the bottle. I'm using it just in the morning, on clean skin before my moisturiser. Just a few drops suffice to cover the face (I'm also using it on my neck as this area of my skin seems to have borne particular brunt of the ageing process.) It leaves skin a little bit tacky but I can live with that as I think it's definitely made my skin feel softer and smoother over the short time I've been using this product.

At night I'm using the most expensive product in the The Ordinary range (a still incredibly affordable £12.70); "Buffet" is a 'multi-technology peptide serum' which can be used both at night and in the morning too under other products and make-up. Again, it has a slightly sticky consistency but it's not unpleasant, particularly as I'm using it solely at night. It promises to tackle fine lines, wrinkles and 'textural irregularities'. Oh, and 'dynamic lines' - I don't know what these are but I'm pretty sure I've got them.

Having used the serum for just a few weeks now, and in conjunction with other night-time beauty staples (Nip + Fab Glycolic Fix Serum and Wildsource Apothecary Miracle Skin Oil) I honestly feel my skin looks a bit more springy and youthful (either that or I really do need to follow up that annual eye appointment - getting old is all the fun!)

With most products in the range coming in at the £5 mark, The Ordinary is certainly revolutionary in offering targeted, clinical skincare solutions at inclusive price points - the products are cheaper than similar mass-market offerings from the likes of Olay and L'Oreal, plus the packaging is more aesthetically pleasing if things like that matter to you.

Nothing can truly eradicate decades-worth of sunbathing, wine drinking, child rearing and all the other stuff that shows on our faces when we reach a certain age. But The Ordinary serums go a little way to hiding the evidence for a bit longer...

Visit the The Ordinary website here to see the full range of products. 


Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Why ‘Healthy School’ Policies May Not Always Be Healthy

Nine-year-old boys have a very strong sense of fairness.  When I pick my son up from school there’s rarely a day when some perceived injustice isn’t the first thing he wants to talk about. There’s a lot of “it’s not fair because” or “we’re not allowed to” punctuating the conversation but of course by the time we’ve arrived home, the challenges of his day are replaced with more pressing concerns – namely how many biscuits he can snaffle from the biscuit jar. 

But the other day, there was one subject that my son wouldn’t let drop. A new rule had come into place…and this time it really wasn’t fair at all.

Now, before I put forward my case, be assured that I’m fully signed up to the healthy eating ethos. My cupboards are filled with chia seeds, almond butter and coconut milk. Family meals are always cooked from scratch and rarely do we succumb to processed foods or takeaways. My kids are a healthy weight, have good teeth and regularly exercise. But – here’s the thing – I let them have sweet things on occasion (those aforementioned biscuits – I’m not going to lose sleep over them having a couple with a glass of water when they get home from school.)

My son’s school, however, doesn’t share my view of everything in moderation. It’s a ‘healthy school’, which, in principle is something I’m happy to support, but is rather contradictory and counterproductive when put into action. The injustice my son was feeling so unhappy about the other day was the latest addition to school policy: not allowing children to bring in a bag of sweets to share out amongst their classmates on their birthdays, something that – like dressing in mufti– helped to take the sting out of having to go to school on your special day.

I don’t know if this happens at other schools but it’s a tradition that is as old as the hills at my son’s school. The birthday child – standing proud at the classroom door – hands out a sweet, a fun size chocolate bar or a lollipop to their friends as they file out. We’re talking about each child having ONE treat. And if there are 30 kids in the class, that’s 30 sweets over a period of around 190 days across a school year.

But now this isn’t a thing anymore and parents are being asked to supply a book for the class library instead as a birthday ‘treat’. My son wasn’t too impressed with this suggestion. Nor was the mother of the child who came out of school upset on her birthday because she and her parents hadn’t been aware of the new policy. The ‘counterfeit’ sweets the little girl had innocently brought into school that day had been seized, she’d been embarrassed in front of her classmates and the end of the day passed without so much as a ‘happy birthday’ sing-song.

I’m obviously not saying that it’s okay to load children with sugar. It’s not. But muddled policies around healthy eating in schools– although perhaps inconsequential in the grand scheme of the current educational landscape, with its constant curriculum changes and crippling cuts – undermine parents’ abilities to instil balanced attitudes to eating in their children. 

And here’s the rub. Surely becoming a ‘healthy school’ has to come from the top? While I take a lot of what my son says with a liberal pinch of salt (“But the teachers are always eating biscuits!”), I’ve definitely seen a big tub of Celebrations in the staffroom and I honestly can’t believe that there’s not one teacher in the school who occasionally has a Hob Nob with their break time coffee. And then there are the after school cake and ice cream sales, lucrative money-spinners for the PTFA. Should they not be banned too, along with the ice cream man who sells 99s and ice lollies just outside the school gates?

There’s another rub too. While enforcing this policy on what passes the kids’ lips, they seem to be hell-bent on doing their best to limit their physical activity. While reduced hours of PE is perhaps a wider curriculum issue, I’m getting a bit fed up of hearing from my son about all of the things he’s not allowed to do at playtime. Playing football is the latest activity to be curbed, because a ball might hit a younger child. And so the state-of-the-art astro turf pitch remains a place for carefully walking upon (I wouldn’t be surprised if running has been banned), while my 9-year-old and his gaggle of footy-mad friends can only gaze at it longingly and look forward to a kick around after school.

It just all feels a bit muddled. It’s fine to pack a sugar-loaded cereal bar in their lunchbox but a slice of home-made Victoria Sponge is a no-no. Notoriously sugary fruit juice cartons are okay but the water in the water fountains comes out luke-warm and my son says he’s been refused getting a cup of water when he’s been thirsty in the classroom. His sandwiches are frequently only nibbled at due to the rush to get the dining hall cleaned and swept. He often emerges from school in a foul mood, starving hungry and with his blood sugar running at empty.

I certainly don’t expect schools to validate unhealthy eating habits and I’m shocked by the statistics on childhood obesity. But I worry that contradictory messages only confuse the issue, creating yet more complexity in the delicate area of children and food.  We need to nurture healthy attitudes towards food and be mindful that well-meaning but poorly executed policies to food in school may be paving the way to toxic relationships with food later in life – a study commissioned by Beat in 2015 estimated that more then 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder.

I believe that schools have a duty to educate our children and young people about leading a healthy lifestyle and I’m happy that vending machines and tuck shops in schools are a thing of the past. But let’s keep a sense of balance and perspective – everything in moderation might not be such a bad message to share with our children.
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