A trip to London Zoo

One of my Christmas presents last year was a giraffe called Ellish. OK, so I didn't actually have a giraffe wrapped up under the Christmas tree waiting for me, but Olly did adopt me her from London Zoo. Part of the adoption package includes a free ticket to the Zoo and we finally went to visit her, and the other animals, a few rainy days ago.

This is Ellish, below, getting fed at the "Giraffe High Tea". She's the biggest giraffe there and quite greedy compared to the others! (I wouldn't expect anything less from a giraffe of mine.) The feeding usually takes place outdoors but because it was raining and miserable the giraffes stayed firmly inside. The three giraffes at London Zoo are all girls so sadly there won't be any baby giraffes joining them any time soon. 

As much as I could spend all my time with the giraffes, London Zoo has other animals. My other favourite is the penguins who live at Penguin Beach. This is their second home at the Zoo as their first abode became too small so they needed to be rehoused somewhere else in the Zoo. So cute!

London Zoo doesn't have any bears at the moment but back in 1914 a black bear called Winnie (Winnipeg) arrived at London Zoo... A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin visited the Zoo and Winnie became the inspiration for the Winnie the Pooh books!

I love visiting London Zoo. It's definitely one of my favourite places in London. How about you? What is your favourite animal? x

Rekorderlig Winter Forest Bar

I've been to some pretty nifty pop-up places in my time, but last night I was down at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane to see the Rekorderlig Winter Forest Bar before it opened to the public and it's definitely my new favourite pop-up experience.

Now when I was first told that I would be going to a beautifully Swedish Winter Forest, just one that was indoors, I was kind of dubious. Immediately I thought fake snow and trees, sort of like a Santa's grotto.

Santa's grotto this ain't. It's, well, a Winter Forest. Like a real full-on actual Winter Forest filled with trees, dirt, twigs, grasses and foliage. All real. Indoors.

The effect is pretty amazing and as the night draws in they drop the temperature and lower the lighting - there are blankets on hand to snuggle in and you can also order yourself a hot Rekorderlig to warm you up.

I've never really been a fan of warm alcohol - I hate mulled wine, and my only exception to the rule is a Baileys-enhanced hot chocolate - but I'm now a big fan of their warm Winter cider. They are also doing cocktails down there and there's yummy Swedish tapas available, too. Elk sausage roll, anyone? 

The pop-up Winter Forest is only around until November 6th (it opened today), so it's worth getting down there whilst you can. Online tickets are sold out but if you go down there after 8pm you should be able to buy a ticket on the door. I'm going back next week! x

Sous le Nez, Leeds

At the weekend Olly and I went up to Leeds to become Godparents. Whilst we were up there we had dinner at Sous le Nez - despite Leeds pretty much being my home city, I'd never actually heard of it or eaten there before.

We chose to go for the Menu Du Soir which is 3 courses and half a bottle of wine per person for £24.95. For our mains, Olly went for the seared pigeon breast with bubble and squeak, chargrilled chorizo, thyme and rosemary jus whilst I went for the braised pork shank, champ mash and red onion jus. Both were divine. When we're back in Leeds, I know we'll be eating there again. x

Musical news - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I was excited yesterday to learn that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is coming to the West End next year (May 2013), but that immediately made me wonder what's leaving the West End to make room for it?

The answer is Shrek which makes this announcement less exciting as Shrek is an awesome musical. I was lucky enough to see a preview in May 2011 and then saw it again in December 2011. I would happily see it again, though I am a little sad that Nigel Harman is no longer Lord Farquaad as he owned that role.

Still, Shrek sadness aside, there are finally some new musicals coming to London next year - The Book of Mormon opens in February, as does A Chorus Line) - which is good news for me as I've felt bereft of new musicals! Saying that though, I've still not seen Matilda ... To the box office! What musicals are you looking forward to seeing? x

Making pho, Vietnam's national dish

I am a big fan of the restaurant Pho, a restaurant I first discovered when I worked for UNICEF - their Clerkenwell restaurant is just around the corner, but they have branches all over London and one in Brighton, too. My lunch takeaway of choice was always their delicious and ridiculously filling "Bun Ga Hue" - hot and spicy chicken in a rice noodle stock that you enhance yourself by adding as much sliced onion, herbs (typically mint, Thai basil, coriander), lime juice, beansprouts and chili to as you want.

But "Pho" is not just the name of a restaurant, it's actually a dish. Vietnam's national dish, some claim. Hopefully next year I will have my fill of Vietnamese food - if that's even possible - when Olly and I head there but for now we'll have to make do with Vietnamese restaurants and our own efforts.

This was our first try at making pho - we went for pork pho, recipe here - and I have to say that it was really delicious, though we couldn't add bean sprouts (we couldn't find any in the local area, can you believe!), and we didn't add any of the hoisin sauce or the Sriracha chili sauce (in the eggcups) to our bowls as it was plenty hot already! I'm looking forward to making pho again and also giving Kingsland Road in Dalston a try with its many Vietnamese restaurants.

Are you a fan of Vietnamese food? What's your favourite dish and do you have a favourite Vietnamese restaurant? x

Travel flashback: Pipa, Brazil

I've saved my favourite place in Brazil for last, and on the way to it we stopped off at the market town of São José de Mipibu. It's not really a craft, touristy kind of market town, but it's a good town to visit to get a glimpse of everyday Brazilian life.

My favourite place couldn't be as far removed from everyday life. It's paradise. I give you, Pipa. When we were there it was charming and sweet, even cheaper than Ponta Negra as not many tourists went there so had yet to be "commercialised". (By Brazilian standards that means it's still really cheap.) Just after we got back from Brazil, Vanity Fair's Travel edition waxed lyrical over Pipa as the place to go... If that's not testimony, I don't know what is.

As much as I loved Pipa, a scary thing did happen there. We walked away from the main bit to a quieter spot down the beach and we completely forgot to think about the tide... It was only our bellies that suggested we were feeling peckish so should head back. As we walked back towards the bars, the water was getting higher and wilder. We sped up a bit. Then with the bars still fifty metres away, we started to run whenever the tide went out.

Five metres away, the water was waist-high. Holding our bags above our heads we managed to climb up the rocks and escape the fierce Atlantic Ocean. I dread to think what would have happened if we had realised five minutes later, so always remember to watch out for tides! Despite this, Brazil was definitely one of my favourite holidays and a place I'd love to return to. Would you go? Or have you been already? x

Travel flashback: Genipabu dunes, Brazil

One thing worth doing if you're in Rio Grande do Notre, Brazil, is taking a buggy ride to the Genipabu dunes and lagoons. You can choose a ride "with emotion" or "without emotion" - we went for with emotion which makes you feel like you're flying over the sand. So much fun!

It goes without saying that you should make sure on any excursion you take abroad that the providers are kosher with relevant certificates and what not, as well as making sure that your insurance covers you if something did go wrong.

To get to the dunes we crossed a narrow part of the river on a raft. OK, we were punted across. It's considered a good day if only a few rafts get tipped over! Fortunately, we didn't get up close and personal with the river. When we were there they were building a bridge so I don't think nowadays you would get punted across, which is a shame!

The bridge under construction
Looking across to Natal
When you get to the dunes, one thing you might notice are the circling vultures in the sky above you ... it's best just to ignore them and enjoy the ride! The dunes have been developed for tourism so you will find restaurants and shops around - though not excessively - plus the opportunity to ride a camel if you want to pretend you're in the Middle East. Personally I think there are better places to ride or sit on a camel but it's your call, of course.

One thing I will say throw caution to the wind with is there was a "bar" situated in the river. OK, the dunes are something like 3,000 acres so there might be a few rivers with "bars". All I know though is that we had the best caipirinha EVER in the world, drunk from a coconut that was then filled up and passed to the next person. It's maybe not the most hygienic of drinks, but it really was divine. A brilliant day out. x

Travel flashback: Ponta Negra, Brazil

When you say a holiday in Brazil, people automatically think of Rio de Janeiro. When I went to Brazil, we went to the state of Rio Grande do Notre which is in the Northeast of the country, about 3.5 hours from the capital.

We were on the coast and because we were there in the height of the Brazilian summer, only 6°C below the equator, it was blistering hot. Over 40°C each day, it feels even hotter being that close to the equator, let me tell you! Having come from -5°C and snow in Scotland, it was a stark difference.

We flew direct from Gatwick to Natal, Portuguese for Christmas, and took the Via Costeria (Coastal Highway) to Ponta Negra where we stayed bed and breakfast at the Visual Praia. It's a cute little 4* hotel that overlooks the beach and if you walk from there towards "Bald Man's Hill" you get to a stretch of restaurants and shops. For restaurants in-land, hotels are happy to arrange with the restaurant to send over a (free) car to pick you up and drop you off again.

One thing we were told - which we naturally ignored - was not to travel on public transport with the locals. But, after getting a taxi that had its door hanging off, no seat belts and swerving into the other side of the road, we were happy to take our chances. We only used the bus to visit some shopping malls in Natal, which were good for cheap clothes, but for the usual holiday knick-knacks the shops at Ponta Negra beach were more than fine.

The seafood from Ponta Negra beach is absolutely incredible. We ate so many tasty freshly caught fish dishes whilst we were out there and it was all so ridiculously cheap. Botero, our favourite, has some of his paintings actually hung on the walls and we ate like pigs on the last night to try and get rid of our money but still had plenty of R$ left over. It was very cheap when we were there.

Brazil is also famous for their Rodízio restaurant service, but since Campbell was veggie at the time I never got to experience this. Abede's, the most expensive restaurant on the strip, was OK but nothing special. It did provide entertainment though watching the local prostitutes trying to look interested in the sleazy Italian men who had hired them for the night... OK, so the one bad thing about the area is that it's rife with this kind of activity but the locals were friendly towards us and we were never made to feel uncomfortable, despite the world's oldest profession been on our doorstep. There are also some bars, restaurants and nightclubs a few streets from the beach which were livelier and open later than those on the beachfront.

For a two weeks holiday in which we only had our breakfast taken care of, we spent just under £200 each and that covered some pretty full-on meals (and drinks), lots of shopping purchases and excursions. I'll talk more about the excursions another time, but one purchase that I made - OK, I came home with four pairs - was Havaianas. I have bought these flip flops ever since Brazil. My love of caipirinha is another takeaway from that holiday.

With scorching weather and cheap, delicious food, it was a great getaway, but it's an interesting culture. Football and surf-obsessed, with Brazil you do sometimes wonder if they are trying to be European, American or just plain Brazilian. The culture comes across as a little confused at times as Brazilians draw influences from here, there and everywhere but, despite this, Brazil is still definitely one of my favourite holidays. x

Travel flashback: Why Brazil?

I have a feeling that over the next four years we're going to hear a lot about Brazil as a holiday destination. Rio 2016, anyone? But, six years ago it was a bit different. I'm not talking about the backpacker scene or a bespoke travel agency to sort things out - a holiday to Rio for Carnival, perhaps - but a typical Brazilian holiday in Brazil, one where the locals will go for their summer break.

We had two weeks between our Martinmas exams ending and Candlemas semester beginning for this holiday - OK we had about 11 days but that didn't stop us going for two weeks and starting classes late - and originally we had planned on going to Barbados.

At that time though Thomson - yes, really - had just started trialling non-Rio Brazil to see if there was any interest from the Brits and somehow we struck lucky with this and the fact that we were able to fly a mere six days after we booked. For £430 each we got a return flight from Gatwick to Natal, our transfer and two weeks B&B at the 4* Visual Praia Hotel on the Ponta Negra beach (pictured below), situated about 9 miles from Natal airport. I have had some holiday bargains in my lifetime, but I have never topped that deal. The flight alone should have cost more than that!

Of course, there were some added extras. We were in St Andrews, and our flight was at 10am from Gatwick. It cost us another £140 each for a (return) taxi to Edinburgh airport and a (return) BA flight from Edinburgh to Gatwick. We booked on the first flight down that day which in hindsight was incredibly silly as it was Scotland in January, it was snowing, and we all know how flights tend to get cancelled in those conditions...

Thankfully we made it down to London for our flight to Brazil and saw a marvellous sunrise in the sky with no more going wrong than Campbell spilling her tea on the plane over a businessman. Oops. Oh, and it was only when picking up our baggage to check in for the Natal flight that I remembered to call my parents to tell them I was at the airport, heading to Brazil. I neglected to say which part or which hotel. Double oops.

Nowadays I wouldn't dream of flying without letting people know where I was staying and registering where I am with LOCATE but at the age of twenty I didn't seem to get that you could have an adventure and still stay safe. Sorry Mum and Dad!

Anyway, we had arrived in London to snow and a temperature of -5°C, we arrived after a direct nine hour flight in Natal, where the temperature was over 40°C and the sun was blazing. Hello Southern Hemisphere summer! Brazil had definitely been an excellent choice and the adventure was only just beginning ... {^_^} x

Bald Man's Hill, Ponta Negra, Brazil

Spring forwards; fall backwards

OK, so it's not quite time for the clocks to change - it's spring forwards, fall backwards, if you can never quite remember when we lose an hour in bed and when we gain an extra hour - but looking outside I can safely say it's the end of my British summer.

Even with all the best laid plans, we never got to finish off our British summer and return to Windsor Castle or visit Buckingham Palace. We also never got to go on a last minute mini-holiday on the Norfolk coast. We'd booked a wee cottage, right by an old smugglers' path that went down to the beach. Honestly, I was so excited because it sounded so Famous Five and I was even tempted to buy a bunch of Enid Blyton books for my Kindle to read whilst we were there. Never happened.

If you're wondering why, it's because Olly broke his jaw and it was on-off whether he would need surgery. Thankfully, he's on the mend now, but it's been an interesting few weeks! Still, one good thing about the frequent visits to the hospital was seeing this incredible view of London. Simply stunning. How have you all been? x


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