Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Branagh's Cinderella - A Modern Fairytale?


There's no denying that Kenneth Branagh's new Disney film is a cinematic masterpiece, full of stunning scenery, breath-taking costumes and stellar acting from the lead Lily James; her stepmother Cate Blanchet and Helena Bonham-Carter playing a wonderfully ditzy Fairy Godmother.

The film remains largely true to the original fairy-tale and so the familiarity holds the attention of the young audience, despite it being probably their first Disney experience without huge-eyed computer animated characters - although they did still cast actresses with alarmingly minuscule waistlines.

The movie has been cleverly marketed to younger girls with the lure of the much anticipated sequel to Frozen, a short 7 minute animation which re-introduces us to Elsa and Anna.  So given the impressionable audience, do we still want our daughters aspiring to this rags-to-riches 'heroine'?

Well, Branagh has gone some way to appease the feminists, but probably not nearly far enough.  The main deviation from the traditional storyline is that Cinderella first meets the Prince in the forest - although of course she has no clue as to his fine breeding.  This meeting as equals, with her in her scullery maid outfit is meant to show us that true love transcends beauty (although that may be easier to believe if she weren't so stunningly attractive even with soot smeared on her face).

The fact that she hankers after this young 'apprentice' not knowing his title, is indeed better than the previous Disney plot line where she toils away in the vague hope that 'someday her prince will come' and whisk her away from her domestic drudgery.

The notion of the ugly sisters is abandoned too, shedding off the idea that kindness and physical beauty are intrinsically connected.

The key message throughout is that 'courage and kindness' will win the day.  So rather than being a feisty modern-day heroine, she gently and quietly overcomes her troubles.  There were plenty of times when I was silently screaming for her courage to outweigh her kindness and tell her step-sisters where to get off.

So, Cinderella's love for 'Kit' who she's met in the forest is pure and untainted by material desires, and that's a step in the right direction.

It is however the Step-Mother that perpetuates the myth that women must be kept by a man.  She marries Ella's widowed father to save her from financial difficulty, and then her first reaction on hearing of his demise is that they'll face ruin.  So, why not...I don't know...get a job?  No, instead she'll try and orchestrate an advantageous marriage of her daughters to keep the wolves from the door.

Still, as much as this film is about love of the romantic kind (and it is impossibly romantic), it's also about familial love.  The deep bond between her and her father is genuinely beautiful, and will ring true to any father returning home to his family after time away.  Her undying love and devotion to the memory of her mother is heart-breaking.  The tender father/son moments too, between the grown-up Prince and the King (played by Derek Jacobi) are not often seen on screen.

Branagh puts flesh on the bones of the traditional tale, making Ella's demise from her perfect life to a down-trodden servant more believable.  He deals with the rawness and tragedy of death more honestly than previous Disney offerings, and he has made 2015's Cinderella a more rounded character.

It's a shame though that most of the audience will probably only remember the beautiful gown and the glass slippers.


Monday, 30 March 2015

One Fine Stay - A Paris rental apartment

With surprise weekend Eurostar tickets to Paris presented to me, I thought we'd push the boat out with accommodation and we decided to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel.

The strap-line of One Fine Stay is 'live like a local' and that's exactly what we did in this designer apartment in the South-West of Paris.  There's something about staying in a hotel that makes you instantly feel like a tourist, and we wanted to discover the heart and soul of Paris.

Being able to close our bedroom window shutters at night, brew our own coffee in the kitchen and stroll out of the front door to pick up baguettes seemed to make the whole experience more Parisian.

The apartment is in the 15th arrondissement, with both Commerce and Avenue Emile Zola metro stations a two minute stroll away.  We hopped on the subway after arriving in at Gare Du Nord and arrived at the property within 40 minutes.  It may sound like a long way out, but it's a short walk from the Eiffel Tower and the River Seine, and the Paris Metro is so efficient you can easily get around the city.

Armed with the key code, we slipped off the bustling Rue du Commerce with it's fashion stores, through an unassuming gate into an oasis of calm.  The pretty courtyard is surrounded on all sides by apartments and we were met at our staircase by our One Fine Stay greeter.


All the communication from One Fine Stay was excellent, right from placing our booking.  I received several texts on our day of arrival which was reassuring and helpful as I was able to check last minute details about the apartment and what I needed to bring.

Climbing the staircase, we soon found our home for the next two nights, it was warm and welcoming - she had already switched on the lights, checked the heating, laid out a welcome basket of tea, coffee and biscuits and put milk in the fridge.



All the worries you might have about leaving the security of a traditional hotel stay have been assuaged by One Fine Stay.  We were able to book a breakfast package for the first morning - expensive but worth the money when we woke to pouring rain on the first morning!  There's some one to meet you and check you in.  They ensure you have the basics to be able to make a drink etc. Best of all, you're issued with an iPhone and charger which acts as your personal concierge during your stay.  On the phone you'll fine useful apps to enable you to book cabs; find cycle hire; make restaurant reservations; find tourist information, maps and so on.  Their own app is excellent, it has recommendations for things to do, places to see and dine at and a handy app which will direct you 'home' from wherever you are.  There is 24 hour phone support should you have any problems, there's gorgeous L'Occitane toiletries in the bathroom, piles of fresh white towels and excellent wifi.




The apartment we chose was compact, but plenty of room for the two of us - much more space than you'd have in the average hotel room.  There's a separate dining area, an en suite toilet and shower room and a small kitchen area - no oven but I wasn't planning on doing any cooking! The bedroom has a fabulously comfortable kingsize bed with crisp white cotton linen and original art deco reading lights at the bedside.  Over the bed is an imposing art deco cloud-shaped mirror which frames the bed perfectly.



But the biggest draw to this property is the decor.  The pied a terre of a Parisian antique dealer, the apartment is beautifully furnished and decorated with original art deco pieces and vibrant modern art.  Brushed chrome and Anglepoise lamps aplenty. 



On the Rue du Commerce you'll find a pleasant mix of clothes shops, together with grocery shops such as a bakery selling delicious artisan bread and the all important croissants, a greengrocer with a mouth-watering display of fresh fruit and vegetables, a fromagerie offering every kind of cheese imaginable - you can even buy oysters from the shop just opposite if the mood takes you. There's a bar on the corner where you can take your morning coffee or a glass of wine in the evening, and a good restaurant - the Cafe du Commerce where dining takes place on 3 floors in galleries with a huge indoor tree growing in the centre of the building. This place is famed for it's steaks - although of all the places we dined this one offered the least help with our limited language skills!





I'd recommend an evening stroll to the Eiffel Tower.  Not only is it less busy than during the day, the tower is spectacular illuminated.  The atmosphere is carnival-like and even the street vendors selling tatty souvenirs seem to become more good-humoured and friendly.  You'll find carousels and candy-floss stores and lots of families enjoying the ambiance.



Every hour of darkness, the tower puts on a brief light show for the first 5 minutes of each hour, all 300 metres of it light up with 20,000 sparkly twinkling lights, and it's definitely worth seeing.  Stroll back along the river before cutting back to your apartment and you're home in around 15 minutes.

        

We thoroughly enjoyed our break with One Fine Stay and will certainly consider them for other city breaks - they have hand-selected properties on their books in London, Paris, New York and LA.

Points to note:

One Fine Stay require the lead guest to be at least 25 years of age.  They require a deposit to be held from a credit card (in our case £1000), and this will only be reimbursed 5 days after your departure.



Thursday, 26 March 2015

Giveaway: Win a one year adoption of an olive tree



I love products that are out of the ordinary and the olive tree adoption scheme from Pomora ticks lots of boxes for me.

We get through so much olive oil in our house I probably should own my own tree, but sadly the climate here in the UK isn't conducive to olive production! Whether it's using it in cooking, bread-making, for salad dressings or just to dip fresh bread into with a dash of balsamic, we seriously do get through gallons of the stuff.

The adoption scheme from Pomora allows you to 'adopt' a tree on an Italian olive farm, helping that farmer receive a fair and regular income.  In return you'll receive updates from the owner and every quarter 3 delicious tins of olive oil.

Whilst the oil you receive may come from a number of different trees on the farm (logistically it wouldn't be possible to ensure each adopter gets oil only from their tree) you will be sent a selection of different oils and flavoured oils - lemon, rosemary and truffle to name a few.

Clearly, the ethical benefits of this scheme are great.  You'll be supporting small, independent farmers and their communities.  As Pomora don't retail their oils through shops, more of your money goes back directly to the farmer on the ground.  Farmers like Antonio who is proud and passionate about his olive groves.


And if you ever happen to be in the vicinity, you're able to visit your adopted tree and I'm sure you'd get a warm welcome from the growers.

I was sent a selection of three olive oils, each one with it's own distinctive taste.  You can see in the photo the different depth of colour and this is reflected in the taste - from light and zingy citrus flavours through to a rich, full bodied oil.  I received Olio Nuovo, young, fresh oil which has a gorgeous vibrant colour.

It was interesting tasting these alongside each other, learning about the regions they'd come from and we all had our own personal favourites.




A full years adoption costs £135 and this includes all shipping.  The adoptions are currently available to both the UK and the USA.

I think this makes a really unique gift for a foodie friend, perhaps someone who is interested in fair trade and the sustainability of their goods.  As the deliveries are spread out throughout the year it's a gift that keeps on giving - what a treat to have these wonderful quality oils delivered direct to your door every few months.  The adoption certificate and information pack is sent out electronically when you place your order (to save trees!) so it makes a great last-minute gift.  You may also request to receive a hard copy of the paperwork at no extra cost.





I'm pleased to say that I have a one-year adoption pack to give away to one lucky reader.  Simply complete the instructions on the rafflecopter below to be in with a chance.  Open to UK entrants only, one winner will be chosen at random.  Closing date is midnight Friday April 3rd 2015.


Disclosure: The prize is supplied and fulfilled by Pomora, who also sent me some samples of oil for the purpose of this review. 

The Penguins of Madagascar at Chessington World of Adventures



If you read my earlier post you'll know that the Penguins of Madagasar movie is out on DVD and Blu-ray this week.  To celebrate, Chessington has a whole host of penguin fun at the theme park as part of their 'Year of the Penguins' spectacular.

Re-live all the fun of the film with the Dreamworks live show Penguins of Madagascar - Operation Cheezy Dibbles; check out the new themed ride in the park; visit the new arrivals - a family of Humboldt penguins in their new enclosure and extend the penguin fun with a stay in the on-site hotel's brand new penguin themed rooms.

Live show:


An all-singing, all-dancing cast of characters from the film take to the stage in live shows at Chessington.  The energetic show will appeal to all ages and the compares do an excellent job of introducing it and teaching the audience how to do the penguin shuffle dance.

There's tonnes of special effects in the stage show, and the children were thrilled at the finale to be showered with 'cheezy dibbles' frantically scrambling around to collect up as much as they could.


The costumes are spectacular and, in line with the film plot, involve some changes and metamorphosis which were particularly clever.

The singing was worthy of a west-end production - particularly the character of Dave who camped it up spectacularly on stage.






The action is fast and furious and frankly quite bonkers and had the kids in fits of hysterics.  You can catch the stage show at Chessington at 11:30; 1pm (with character meet and greet); 2pm and 3:15pm.

Grab your seat early at the Africa stage area to get the best view.

New Penguin-themed ride:


Right next door to the stage area you'll find the new ride Treetop Hoppers. Pop straight over once the show has finished for some high-rise fun (height restrictions apply, minimum height 90cm).  This was a fairly gentle ride that our 7 year old went on her own.


"Young adventurers are invited to join the Penguins of Madagascar in their latest secret mission. Climb up the jungle trees by riding in Kowalski's latest wacky invention: The Treetop Hoppers and help to retrieve the Penguin's extremely valuable supply of Cheezy Dibbles"

Penguin Bay:


Brand new Penguin Bay has been completely refurbished for 2015.  Meet the Humboldt penguins in the deluxe penguin area, with extended viewing and covered seating.  Listen to the expert talks at 11:30 and 2:30pm and get up close and personal with the penguins.


Originally from Peru and Chile and the Pacific coast of South America, these adorable penguins feed on fish (anchovies are their favourite).  They mate for life and bring up their offspring together.

When we visited they were feeling a bit shy, but if you go over at feeding time you're sure to get a much more interactive experience.


New Penguin Themed Hotel Rooms:

The hotel at Chessington World of Adventures is a real treat and a great way to make the fun last longer.  The new extension means there's now effectively two hotels and brand new for this year are two exclusive penguin themed rooms.


We stayed in the hotel (a full review on that will follow) and can vouch for the excellent service, incredibly varied buffet breakfast selection and quality children's entertainment.

There's a movie zone area with comfy beanbags for the kids, evening disco, fabulous splash pool, access to the outdoor play area and smart TVs in the rooms.

Children have their own themed bedroom zone area with bunk beds, separate reading lights, a quiz trail to complete and unlock special prizes in the secret safe - and in the penguin rooms an X-Box and TV!


An overnight stay in one of the family penguin themed rooms is not cheap at £349 but it does give you loads of added benefits including free entry the following day to the park; a designated VIP parking space, fast-track wristbands for each person and access to the splash-zone and pool.

See the website for further information and booking.

If you have little penguin fans, then Chessington is definitely the place to be!

Disclosure: We attended a special event courtesy of Dreamworks and Chessington World of Adventures for the purposes of this review.


Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Tyn Y Simmde - a heavenly Welsh Holiday cottage

We've booked many holidays with Under The Thatch over the past few years and stayed in some incredible properties.  They never disappoint.

But there's only one place we've been back to more than once and that's Tyn Y Simmde (or Gwel y Mynydd as it can be found on the website) in the heart of the Coed Y Brenin forest in Snowdonia.  I booked to go back there for February half term way before Christmas, and because I screwed up on the booking (I totally forgot I'd only paid a deposit and not the full amount) when I got an email on Boxing Day to say my booking had been cancelled, I actually cried.  Real tears. That's how much I was looking forward to going back.

But fear not, Under The Thatch were brilliant (even on Boxing Day!) and sorted my error out and reinstated my booking.

This place truly is a piece of heaven.  A totally secluded, traditional stone cottage set within the Coed Y Brenin forest park.  You could easily spend a whole week here and not see another soul if that's what you wanted.

Tyn Y Simmde Coed Y Brenin Holiday Cottage

Tyn Y Simmde Coed Y Brenin Holiday Cottage
Spot the cottage in the centre of the picture - not a soul in sight!

Living in a town and being surrounded by neighbours left, right, front and back, the biggest luxury for me is privacy.  You can stand and look out from the door and literally not see another house for as far as the eye can see.  At night, you can spot a few lights from properties way over in the distance across the valley, but that's about it.  Set back, away from the road (if you can call it a road, compared to roads at home it's more of a track), not even the postman will come up to your cottage while you stay.  You can go to sleep with the curtains wide open and wake up to the glorious sunrise and the mist rolling in off the mountains.  Or you can lay in bed and gaze at the millions of twinkling stars that are free to dance in the sky with no light pollution.

At night you'll find absolute silence, apart from the gentle babbling of the stream which provides fresh mountain spring water to the property and maybe the strange, distinctive 'coughing' noise of the deer.

During the day the only noise you might hear is the occasional RAF planes practising spectacular exercises overhead.

As a family it's great to have so much space and freedom, not having to worry about how much noise the kids might be making - although if they pipe down you'll be treated to frequent visits from the woodland birds to the garden feeders including the woodpecker who appears daily.  You may also catch a glimpse of a deer or two venturing down from the forest.

Woodpecker on bird feeder

There are numerous woodland walks to follow straight from the front door, and folders of maps and instructions provided in the house will guide you to the best sights.  You can walk from the cottage to abandoned gold mines (this area used to be highly productive and the royal wedding rings for Prince William and Kate and Charles and Diana came from these parts).  You can head out from the cottage to spectacular natural waterfalls, secret fairy-tale woodland dells and the plunge pool, or scramble up from the forest path on Moel Hafodewen about 1.5 miles from the house to the secret pool and take a dip if you're feeling brave (it's so remote a certain someone managed a skinny dip but I'll spare you the photos!).  Coed Y Brenin is also the mountain biking mecca with tracks for all abilities right up to the black run known as as The Beast.



Moel Hafodewen Lake

If you drive towards Dolgellau then I thoroughly recommend the Precipice Walk. It will give you spectacular views and photo opportunities with very little effort!  It's not nearly as scary as it sounds, we did it with our 6 year old and our dog and it was fine, although we were chasing round to beat the sunset - I don't recommend you set off less than 2 hours before dusk!

Precipice Walk, Snowdonia View of River Mawddach and Estuary

Dolgellau is the nearest town and it's about 10 minutes drive away.  Here you'll find plenty of amenities including banks, cafes, shops, chemists, butchers, bakers and a reasonable sized Euro Spar supermarket.  You should definitely pop into Robert's tea rooms while your there.  A stunning former ironmonger's, they have retained lots of the original shop fittings and display a myriad of teas and coffees on the wooden pigeon hole shelving behind the counter.  Try to get a seat in the old cash office if you can or up at the high bench which still has the brass measuring ruler and the stock drawers below.  They offer a wide menu of drinks, cakes as well as breakfasts and lunch - fabulous gluten free cake too.  Just don't do what my Old Man did and accidentally order a 'full English' - you might get lynched!

The Tafarn Y Gadar tapas bar in Dolgellau is also well worth a visit if you don't fancy cooking.  It's a relaxed, informal restaurant with great service, delicious food and really friendly staff.  We've been a couple of times including on Valentine's evening and had great meals.

For adventurous hikers staying at Tyn Y Simmde you're not far from the magnificent Cadir Idris and of course Snowdon itself is within easy drive.

There are beautiful beaches within 30 minute drive - the beach at Barmouth is more traditional seaside with cafes, slot machines and bucket and spade shops, or you could start at Fairbourne which is less populated, just over the harbour and take the little ferry boat across.

Harlech is a little further away and we've always found to be pretty empty at half terms and you can enjoy miles of uninterrupted sands and shell collecting under the gaze of Harlech castle. 

A little further again, but still only around an hour's drive you'll find Portmadog and Criccieth.  They are all worth a visit.

Barmouth Bay and Bridge

Barmouth Quay

Criccieth Beach

If you visit Fairbourne then you must seek out the secret blue lake hidden away between Fairbourne and Arthog.  The purest blue water you'll ever see, this is a truly magical place.  A steep walk up a footpath off the main road with spectacular views across the bay along the way. Then carefully walk through the short tunnel, bowing your head before it opens out to reveal azure blue water in this old slate mine - so pure and clean it looks like a swimming pool. 

Fairbourne viewed from Golwen Slate Quarry

Blue Lake, Fairbourne

Swimming in Blue Lake, Fairbourne

Back to the cottage itself.  It's well equipped with everything you'll need for your stay.  The kitchen has an electric cooker, microwave, fridge freezer, coffee maker and a washing machine which is a godsend for wet and muddy clothes.

There's a small bathroom upstairs with a great shower, perfect for blowing away the cobwebs, but there's no bath.  The compensation for a small bathroom is two large bedrooms - one double and one twin.  The rooms have been switched around since we last stayed, so if you're tall watch out for the beam in the master bedroom!  The beds are deliciously comfortable with white cotton linen and traditional welsh wool throws but best of all, they each have an electric blanket - perfect if you're staying out of season, as you can slip into bed and soothe your tired muscles from long walks as you drift off to sleep in the warmth.

Tyn Y Simmde photo of bedroom

Each room has an electric radiator which is on a timer so the cottage is always cosy.  There's a gas fire in the open plan living area by the dining table for instant warmth and a real wood burner in the sitting room area.  Starter logs, kindling and firelighters are provided which should last you a few evenings. The stone walls are at least a foot thick and with modern double glazed windows we've never felt cold here.

Tyn Y Simmde photo of living room fireplace
photo credit: Tyn Y Smile
The downstairs is open plan making it perfect for families, and the sitting area is arranged with two comfy sofas opposite each other with a large coffee table between.  Sprawl out here in the evening in front of the fire with a glass of wine and the coffee table littered with books, magazines and newspapers - heaven.

There's no TV (a plus for us) but there is a good wifi signal in the house.

The owners welcome up to two dogs - we brought Ella's bed and she settled down straight away.  If you have a dog, you can't really come to an area like this and leave them at home.  She loves it here as much as we do.

Outside there's a garden table and chairs if you fancy alfresco dining - you will not find a better view to enjoy with breakfast or lunch. There's plenty for kids to explore including the original pig sty - just don't let them climb on it as it's due some refurbishment.

Tyn Y Simmde garden



I can't recommend this place highly enough.  If you're looking for a place to unwind, switch off and get back to nature, with huge lung-fulls of fresh air, then this is the cottage for you.

What to take with you:

Walking boots and a sense of adventure.

What not to take with you:

Bedding, towels, bubble bath and the TV guide!

I recommend signing up to the Under The Thatch newsletter for special offers, discount codes and last minute deals.

Tyn Y Simmde Dolgellau Snowdonia Coed Y Brenin Forest Holiday Cottage