Friday, 10 January 2014

New Year 2014 in Phuket

Two weeks in New Zealand, while fabulous for catching up with family and friends, is not exactly a holiday for us. There isn't a lot of lying about reading novels or sightseeing to be had. A trip back to NZ costs nearly £6k for the four of us at Christmas even if we book it months ahead. Then it's 27+ hours flying time to get there, so to make it less of a chore we always tag a stopover somewhere in SE Asia on the way back to London to make it feel like a proper excursion. Having done Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Langkawi (twice), this time we decided to finally go to Thailand. It seems everyone we know has been and loved it so we booked our week-long stay in Phuket through the Flight Centre.

I would recommend that no-one uses the Flight Centre ever. They are the most incompetent company, and the travel agent I used was particularly rubbish (and have since heard so many horror stories it's amazing they're still in business). I wrote a review about how crap they were on Trust Pilot which I won't repeat here but have a read if you have 5 minutes, and potentially save yourself some serious angst.

Phuket was a great base for a week - we did an island hopping tour by speedboat that took in the main sights, and we all enjoyed snorkelling in crystal clear water. We got stung by jellyfish but even that didn't dampen our spirits - everything about Thailand made us happy. The climate, friendly people, the ice cold beer and the delicious cheap food - oh and the massages (£6 for an hour long foot/leg massage) - I've never thought I could ever live anywhere outside of London until I went here.

We stayed at the Movenpick Resort in Karon beach and had a family suite - which was a standalone building made up of two enormous double rooms, adjoined with a living area and another bunk bedroom (surplus to our requirements). The outside area was big enough for 10+ people and we had four showers to choose from (two indoor and two outdoor). The hotel spa was a 30 second stroll away and we had the choice of going to the crazy, wild street out the back for cheap and cheerful massages, food and nightlife, or out the front for the more picturesque and touristy stretch. 

It's the best family holiday we've ever had. I'm counting down to the next time we can afford to go to Thailand again! It's hard to top.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Christmas 2013 in New Zealand

It had been four years since we'd been back to New Zealand so December 2013 was designated the time to go. Christmas holidays aren't ideal - in the UK the schools are only shut for 2 weeks (vs 6 or so in New Zealand) and we didn't want to spend £5,800 on flights for a two week stint. In the end we went for 3 weeks and got fined for taking the girls out of school for the extra time. The fine was £120 per child but in my view, that last week of school is spent cleaning up the classroom and watching DVDs, so the benefit from seeing friends and family and experiencing a new culture is worth the grief.

It's also a lot cheaper to pay the fine than amend the flights. In hindsight I wish we'd played the health card (as one of the grandparents had suffered a heart attack earlier this year) as a friend did this with her kids who were out for an entire month an didn't get fined (our kids go to different schools, but are run by the same council which is the body that issues the fines). 

I'd grown up in Christchurch which was unrecognisable after the massive earthquake of 2011. It was quite disorientating being in the centre of town and not seeing the skyline I was used to. Almost three years on and the place still looked empty and desolate. There were empty lots & carparks where huge buildings used to be, and scaffolding and boarded up windows everywhere. I can't say I was ever affectionate for this town but I felt emotional walking around it. 

Christmas day was spent picnicking next to this river and the girls and their cousins braved the cold water to swim in here. Quite a contrast from our UK Christmases. 

Here we are with Rob's parents and his brother's family. Gwen wasn't very happy about having to sit on Opa's knee so this photo will haunt her forever.

At least she enjoyed sitting on her Poppa's knee (below). And hanging with a variety of small animals on his farm, which is called Mini Haven as most of the animals are miniature or teeny. 

Meanwhile back in London, our house sitters emailed to say that alas, the temporary fix on the glass roof hadn't worked as there were some new leaks in the house. Joy.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Temporary fix apparently

Sunfold Systems came around this week and we had a different engineer this time. This chap decided that the only place the water could get in was via a couple of screw holes in the vents, so his plan was to cover them with a rubber skirt and see if that kept the water out.

This was a temporary measure with the outcome being that no leaks means it works, so he'd know what to remedy to make it a permanent fix. As we're off for three weeks over Christmas we're keeping everything crossed (again) that the rubber skirt keeps the rain out, otherwise we're back to square one.

(Photo above of Marlo, December 2013)

Monday, 25 November 2013

LEDs & tourist tip for London

The humble incandescent light bulb started to get phased out in 2009, and ours hadn't quite given up the ghost until now. We had a bit of a struggle finding LED replacements that worked with the dimmers. The first pair to arrive wouldn't dim at all, and cast a cold blue tinted light across the kitchen. We replaced them with some Philips EcoClassics, which happily dim and have a warmer yellow glow. They also have the added side effect of making our kitchen ceiling look like a light show (as per above photo). These bulbs last for 2,000 hours so we'll be with them for a while. They're economical too, currently around £1.99 on Amazon and they use 80% less energy than our original incandescent bulbs. 

On a side note - went up to Duck & Waffle in Heron Tower for an early dinner. Missed the sunset but had the most breathtaking view of London regardless. This shot is from the toilet so you can imagine how spectacular it is walking around the space. The restaurant is open 24 hours and there's lots to try on the menu. If you live in London and you haven't been yet, get a date in asap. If you're coming to London, make a booking and enjoy at least one meal or a cocktail up here. We took the girls up but check what time kids are welcome, usually it's OK before 7pm in most places. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

Sunfold leaks continue...

The wet splodge on the sofa is from the leak. We seem to go for weeks with no sign of a leak then out of the blue, drip drip drip. It doesn't even have to be raining, I imagine the insides of the metal frames are slowly filling up and then spilling when they eventually get full. I have no idea if this is why but then neither do Sunfold by the looks of it.

On the upside, at least we're here and can put down towels/saucepans etc and attempt to contain the water. Hate to think how much damage would have been caused if we'd gone on holiday without leaving out our collection of drip trays. 

In other news - we were very excited about the Alexandra Palace 'Back with a Bang' fireworks display. A group of us met in the afternoon with the intention of hanging out in the beer hall for a couple of hours before the fireworks started. The old saying about not being able to organise a piss up in a brewery springs to mind - the queues to get in to the beer hall, then wait to get served were an hour each time. We gave up which is just as well as the beer ran out. And yet there was still hours before the fireworks kicked off.

After huddling around outside and drinking (surprisingly not cold) beer from another vendor, and queuing for some mediocre food, we gave up. I watched the fireworks display on YouTube and thought 'Meh'. Was far happier in front of my pal's open fire while the kids drank hot chocolate in the next room. The security team had a difficult time controlling the large (and annoyed) crowd and the whole event was farcical. Hopefully Victoria Park will resurrect the fireworks display in 2014.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Mid-century modern show in Haggerston

If you're a fan of mid-century design and you haven't had an excuse to visit Haggerston High School in East London, then make sure you keep an eye out for the next Modern Shows event here (October 12th 2014 FYI). I've lived in the area for 14 years and am ashamed to admit this was my first visit to the Erno Goldfinger designed building. The show itself was worth a look, but because it was hosted in this iconic space made it all the more jaw dropping.

The kids who attend this school probably don't have a clue how lucky they are to be surrounded by such beautiful architecture. We loved the design of the school so much we put it on the list of six shortlisted for Marlo's high school, without really looking at its academic success (as it happens she got into Mossbourne Academy, the Victoria Park branch. Will update once I've seen their building when it opens in September 2014).

We didn't buy any furniture though if we had the space I would've loved this table for games nights - imagine poker and whiskies around this beauty!

The hog roast sandwich was pretty spectacular at the end of the show, located in the school's playground. Very likely to attend the 2014 show on the strength of the building. And the sandwich.

Monday, 14 October 2013

A dual passport holder at last

7 or 8 years ago I was eligible to apply for British Citizenship having held the Indefinite Leave to Remain status for the required time period. At the time the cost was a few hundred pounds so I put it off. This year, I  decided to finally get on with it. This meant studying and passing the Life in the UK Test, attending a (surprisingly emotional) Citizenship ceremony to swear allegiance to the Queen and get interrogated by someone at the passport office. I did these things in order to finally receive my British passport. All up it cost me around £1,000. The difference of £600-£700 is what you could call procrastination tax.

The passport office chap asked why I wanted a British passport and I'd replied 'Because the queues are shorter.' In hindsight I think I should have said something more ingratiating but it didn't matter because I received my passport a few days later. 

(Photo above is from our first trip to Ibiza, in August - which was the last time I flew to Europe on my New Zealand passport. The light is natural and we loved it there, definitely going back.)

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Shut the front door

So here's the door from the outside looking in. The glass has enough of a texture that it allows in plenty of light, but you can't make out what's going when you peer through it. Nice to have the 'furniture' where we wanted it, though I regret not getting the door knocker that came with. The door bell is stuck on with double sided sellotape but hey ho, it seems to work OK. The door is sealed in properly so there's no draft.

UPDATE: Our heating bill dropped by about £30-£40 a month since getting this door installed! Also, in previous winters we'd need a little fan heater to warm up the room quicker as the radiators didn't seem up to the job - this year, we've retired the fan heater to the attic. 

Monday, 2 September 2013

New front door

Earlier this year I blogged about getting a quote from the Anglian Home door company. Long story short - it was the sort of sales technique that makes my skin crawl. The opposite of that experience was dealing with the (aptly named) Composite Door Shop. You could fill out a virtual door designer, stating all your preferences for a bespoke service, and even with the addition of a letterbox (that Anglian couldn't manage) and swapping the location of the handle around (again, Anglian weren't sure about doing this...) we got the door exactly as we wanted it, for £1,000. Our builders installed it in less than a day.

I'll update with a picture of the outside of it when I remember to take a snap (FYI It's navy blue with silver 'furniture'). Here are a couple of shots taken early evening, showing how much light comes through now. The glass is opaque enough to let the light in, but not enough to see any detail on the other side. When I have my face up to the glass I can just make out colours but no shapes.

The door itself has multi-point locking mechanism, and if looked after should last for more than 30 years.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Camp Bestival 2013

I go to a LOT of festivals. Last summer I clocked up five or six, and so far this year I've been more fussy and only made it to three (not counting the five Depeche Mode gigs I've been to around Europe). Camp Bestival is the one festival that we as a family enjoy going to - it was our third year. (Pictured above: Team Moroder).

We used to be regulars at the Big Chill but after four years of doing that with very young kids, we thought we'd try Camp Bestival, (and now unfortunately, the Big Chill is no more.) We always go with good friends and have figured out the best strategy for getting the best spot (stay at a B&B the night before in the immediate vicinity and pre-book a Festaxi - pictured at bottom - to move all your gear from car to camping spot in around 15 minutes).

Camp Bestival for us is a (long weekend) holiday with great music, good friends, reliable food and a way to stimulate the kids while doing stuff we actually enjoy.

So it's with some trepidation that I have to say we'll probably be giving Camp Bestival a miss in 2014. There were some great aspects to our trip this year - again our friends, and the primo spot we got (which was a 20 second stroll from the sauna and hot showers of the Soul Park area - and for £20 we had unlimited access all weekend), but there were two issues that were really irritating: firstly, the line-up was generally pretty dire. The DJs outshone the live acts with the exception of The Cuban Brothers. The highlight by a long shot was The Nextmen (who did two sets in quick succession, double the fun). As an aside, we were looking forward to seeing Horrible Histories (pictured above), but couldn't see a thing as so many people were standing - despite it being a play/performance rather than a band - it took 25 minutes before the TV screens politely asked people to sit down, which caused an almighty cheer from the 9,000 people who couldn't see up til that point.

I had high hopes for Grandmaster Flash but his set was no better than the sort you'd hear at a bad suburban nightclub - chorus after chorus of hits and yabbering about 'putting your hands up if you know this one!', soulless, with no depth. The 'headliners' were poor - The Levellers, Richard Hawley, Kid Creole and Nik Kershaw - these names work at Rewind, but not for Camp Bestival. And the Sunday night headliner? Labrinth. Not exactly in the same league as Primal Scream or the Happy Mondays who headlined the previous two years. I was particularly disappointed by Nik Kershaw who I first saw live as a teenager in New Zealand: in the years that have passed he hasn't developed how to do good banter with his audience. Fortunately some of those who'd pitched up to see him were fast asleep so they wouldn't have heard his witless song introductions.

Annoyingly we were actually excited about seeing Craig Charles do his Funk & Soul set as per his show on BBB's 6Music, but he was a no show. Turns out he'd tried driving across south London and couldn't get very far due to the RideLondon cycling event. Amazingly he was unaware of this despite the rest of London being up to speed, and for some reason was unable to get on a train to Wareham in time. Shows a lack of initiative really.

The second issue was the portaloos. We know loos and festivals, but this year was a new low. As early as Thursday night (ie hours after the site had opened) there were unusable toilets as they were full to the brim. There were fewer loos, and they weren't cleaned nearly enough. I'm sure it's a cost saving measure to keep things lean but I don't fancy spending £400 on tickets & £800 on food/drink/activities (not including petrol, the B&B and all the stuff we'd bought with us) to then feel constantly anxious about where to find a usable loo. Even the posh loos were out of service from Sunday afternoon.

Overall, I regret not going to Standon Calling which was on the same weekend: cracking line-up, a swimming pool (!) AND flushing loos. Unless Camp Bestival pull off an amazing lineup and make assurances about the facilities next year, I know where we'll be going.