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

Monday, 23 March 2015

The Penguins of Madagascar - Out soon on DVD and Blu-Ray

Movie fans will be be pleased to know that the loveable Skipper, Kowalski and the gang are back with their action-packed spy-fi animated capers, and you can own the movie to watch at home from 30th March.

Out on DVD and Blu-ray with a host of special features including:

  • The top-secret guide to becoming a special agent
  • The Madagascar mash-up
  • The Cheezy Dibbles advert

The movie starts with a young Skipper, Kowalski and Rico leaving the pack to chase after a runaway egg.  They rescue it from hungry seals but find themselves adrift on an iceberg.  The young penguin who hatches is Private, and taking the gang as his family, they set of on their adventures.

The film sequels the Madagascar 3 movie, and introduces us to the delights of Cheezy Dibbles - an orange cheese puff snack (think Wotsits) for which the penguins will do just about anything.

Dreamworks Animation and Twentieth Century Fox deliver this high-octane, bonkers animation with the penguin foursome joining forces with spy unit The North Wind to defeat Dr Octavius Brine and his plans to take his revenge on the world.

Fans will be pleased to hear the thoroughly English tones of Benedict Cumberbatch as The North Wind's leader a grey fox named 'Classified', as well as the instantly recognisable voice of John Malkovich as the evil Dave/Dr Octavia Brine who seeks his revenge on the penguins for usurping him with their cuteness in every zoo around the globe.

The action is fast and frantic and you need to pay attention to the plot as they whizz from Fort Knox, to Venice to the Sahara, then Shanghai before finally making it back to New York.  Younger members of the audience will enjoy the slap-stick humour and high energy, even if perhaps they didn't fully follow the story.

Despite the crazy capers, there is still a moral message to the film though.  Young Private is desperately trying to find his place in the team, fed up with only ever being the 'cute one'. They ultimately find him invaluable in the end,  and he earns respect and kudos from the others.

A fast, furious and funny movie for all the family.

Penguins of Madagascar is out on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD on 30th March from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.  

Disclosure: I attended a special screening for the purposes of this review.

Friday, 20 March 2015

A meeting with Sir Ranulph Fiennes - The Marathon des Sables for Marie Curie

It's not every day you get to meet the world's greatest living explorer.  A man who has climbed the North face of the Eiger, the oldest man to climb Everest, conquered both the North and the South Poles and completed 7 marathons in 7 days - after just having had a heart attack!

The word is used too often, but this man truly is a legend.  And at the age of 71 he's not hanging up his hat just yet.

Image: Mike Goldwater with Gretta from Mums Do Travel, Christ from Thinly Spread and Mary from Keynko

It's said that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, well it's possible that Sir Ranulph is both and he'll be doing a whole lot more under the scorching sun.

I met him at Kingston University's sports science department as he underwent training and assessments ahead of the ultra-marathon: The Marathon des Sables. To you and I a marathon generally means a 26 mile race, and I know how rigourous the training for that can be - my Old Man is in training for the London Marathon next month and he's out all hours running.  But the Marathon des Sables is an ultra-marathon in the extreme.  It is dubbed the toughest foot race on earth.

It takes place in the Morrocan Sahara, over 6 days and is a total distance of 156 miles in blistering heat and suffocating humidity, carrying all personal equipment needed for the duration on your back.  Battling your way across shifting sands, endless miles of desert with no point of reference, sand in your eyes, your shoes and everywhere it shouldn't be.  It sounds like pure hell to me, but Sir Ranulph seemed totally unfazed.

I joined him as he undertook some training and observations in Kingston University's heat chamber which took him up to 40 degrees - last year temperatures in the MdS topped 56 degrees.  He was hooked up to a thermometer and heart monitor and asked to complete cognitive challenges to see how he was coping on the treadmill in the heat - both physically and mentally.

The key concern is keeping his core temperature to a reasonable level.  Normal core body temperature should be 37.5, but if a person's raises too far above that it can have severe physical affects, and if it reaches 43 the body's enzymes are affected and it results in fatal hyperthermia.

Sir Ran was also weighed before and after the hour-long session to assess how much fluid he'd lost and whether he was taking on adequate liquid.  His trainer Rory Coleman has instilled into him the habit of 6 sips every 15 minutes.

Image: Mike Goldwater

Water is going to be a huge issue in the desert. It's essential fluids are kept up, but water is only issued in 1.5 litre allowances at checkpoints every 6 miles.

He'll also be carrying his kit in a rucksack which must weigh a minimum of 6.5kg and contain all the stipulated race essentials including a signalling mirror; compass; torch; anti-venom kit; safety pins; sleeping bag; food; passport and quite literally his bus fare home (well, enough money to cover transport back to base if he needs to abort).   He'll also need to carry flares, but as I pointed out you can't run in flares, you'd trip up!

In the heat chamber, after nearly an hour on the treadmill in 40 degrees, Sir Ran had barely broken a sweat while the camera man was positively dripping. This man is a machine.  I mean, seriously incredible especially when you consider he's 71, had 2 heart attacks, survived cancer and had a double-heart bypass.

So why does he do it?

Well, clearly he's passionate about the charity he's raising funds for.  He hopes to raise £2.5 million pounds for Marie Curie to help them care for cancer and terminally ill patients and their families.  He's already raised over £16 million for charity in 10 years and his goal is to reach £20 million so that can be put on his gravestone.

Marie Curie provide free care and support to those living with terminal illness, and to their families.  Their nurses work 24-7 in people's homes to provide hands-on care and emotional support.  They also run 9 hospices around the country which provide specialist care around the clock.

We had a chance to chat with him after his heat chamber session. Sir Ran is a humble man.  He has a daughter around the same age as mine and it was funny to hear that she's point-blank not interested in what he does. It reminded me of Ruby who nonchalantly accepts her Dad's medals after races with a shrug and a 'whatever'.  He's a man of simple tastes. He said that after the race he'd be looking forward to a cup of tea and a chocolate Malteser rabbit! He is a funny guy, he made me laugh a lot.

Image Mike Goldwater

I was curious to know how he comes up with his challenges, and it turns out, he generally doesn't.  His first wife worked tirelessly and used to suggest and help plan his expeditions, and he has a trusted team who does that for him now. Some ideas he'll reject, others they'll explore further.  The one hard-and-fast criteria for vetoing a trek is creepy crawlies - he's completely phobic, although when he was in Arabia he did have to try and face his fears to retain the respect of the Arabs on the trip with him.

But I was curious what drives a man to undertake these extreme challenges.  It turns out, it's pure, unadulterated competitiveness.  Speaking to Sir Ran he was one of the most laid-back people I've ever met and this seemed at total odds with his achievements.  I almost wondered if he'd grasped the enormity of what he'd agreed to do, there was a feeling that he just gets on and does it.

The thing that showed the raging fire in his belly though, was his raw determination to beat his arch rivals the Norwegians at all costs.  I guess we all need something to spur us on.

I wish Sir Ran and Rory the very best of luck - it was a pleasure meeting you both and an inspiration.

You can donate to Sir Ran's challenge for Marie Curie below.

Please follow his progress on social media as the race commences on 5th April - #RunRanRun, I'm sure you'll agree he deserves our support.  Or you can donate £5 and send a message to Sir Ran by texting RUN to 70007.