Saturday, 2 February 2019

Long haul with a three year old

In August, E and I took our long-anticipated trip back to the UK, with a stopover in Singapore each way.  Here’s how we got on!
Flights NZ to Singapore

With all my planning for the long haul flights, I’d completely overlooked the fact that first we had to get from Wellington to Auckland, pretty late at night by E’s standards (he has a regular 7-7.30 bedtime and is not a child who copes well with late nights).  This first flight, an hour’s hop, was at 8.45pm. While the adrenaline of being at the airport got him through the first part, once we were on to the flight he wasn’t a happy boy due to tiredness – and my child is LOUD. While he’s usually well behaved on flights, and understands the seatbelt rules, he really didn’t want to stay put at all so it was quite a job to convince him to keep seated.  He calmed down soon enough, and luckily, while we checked our bags straight through from Wellington to Singapore, we could check the stroller to Auckland then re-check it at the gate.

We hopped on the free inter-terminal transfer bus at Auckland, went straight through security then I got him in his PJs, handed him a snack and strapped him in to his stroller for the walk to the gate. He was asleep in minutes.  He doesn’t usually use his stroller in ‘real life’ anymore (at this stage he was 3 years 9 months), so much so that I’d already debated not taking it, but just an hour into the trip I was so grateful that I’d decided to take it. I think he’d have slept all the way on to the flight had I not forgotten that we’d need our passports as well as our boarding passes – I was carrying him by this stage and had to put him down.

For the Auckland – Singapore flight we were with Air New Zealand, and had booked a Skycouch, basically a set of three seats that transform flat like a couch, or bed.. E was still quite grumpy for takeoff and his meal, but once the seat had been converted to the couch/bed, he was able to lie down and had about 7 hours sleep, a real achievement on an overnight flight – even I got a couple of hours (unheard of). I would recommend the Skycouch for anyone travelling alone with a small child, but that’s it – once the child got any bigger, or if there was another adult there, it would definitely be too small for comfort, and would feel like a waste of money.  I found the staff quite abrupt and rude on this flight too, in contrast to the usual Air New Zealand helpfulness. The Dreamliner we were on was new, clean and smart.

Singapore stopover

As we had just short of 24 hours in Singapore, I’d booked us into the Crowne Plaza in Singapore Airport.  It is incredibly convenient, located in Terminal 3 of Changi Airport and well signposted, just a few minutes’ walk from customs.  We’d arrived early in the morning so our room wasn’t ready yet – instead we headed up to the pool. This was the one downside to the hotel – the pool was icy cold, even in the Singapore heat, and wasn’t much fun to hang out in. After a short swim we gave up and went for a wander round the airport. Changi is a perfect location for a stop off with a pre-schooler; there’s so much to occupy them, from riding the ‘magic train’ (the electric train that runs between terminals) to the photo opportunities to the shops. We then headed back to the hotel, grabbed a late breakfast buffet as an early lunch, then checked into our room and crashed out.  The room was great, luxurious for an airport hotel, with a beautifully deep bath and very comfortable bed. I forced us up and out in the afternoon just to try to keep on Singapore time, bribing Eli with Mcdonalds from the airport terminal for tea to get him out.

As our next flight was leaving at 2am, I bathed E and put him in PJs before checking our luggage in early - around 8pm Singapore time, another real bonus of staying right there at the airport .  After a couple of walks round the airport in his buggy he was asleep again (and once more I was grateful I’d brought it); we both then got some more sleep in our hotel room before getting up to go through for the next flight.

I’d absolutely recommend the Crowne Plaza for short stopovers.  Any longer than, say, 24 hours and I’d get frustrated with the cold pool and not being closer to the city, but for a short, stretch-your-legs and get-some-sleep stop, it was the perfect location.

Singapore-Manchester flight

I’m going to say it right from the start: this was a GREAT flight, and easily the best of the whole trip. The plane was new and clean, we got three seats for just the two of us, and the staff was incredible.  It was my first experience of Singapore Airlines, but purely based on this flight I’d be happy to never fly with anyone else again.

Once E had woken up (he slept for another five hours but there was still seven to go when he woke up, which was slightly worrying despite the arsenal of distractions in my backpack for him), we loved the snacks available in the galley kitchen, and the way the cabin crew looked delighted to see us every time we walked up there, even though they couldn't possibly have been! The food was great, and the entertainment systems worked well with lots of choice.  E didn’t find much on there that he wanted to watch but I think that’s more his temperament than a fault of the system. He was given free rein of the iPad but even then his attention span was limited, to my dismay. We did lots of colouring – and special mention goes to the Water Wow books, magic colouring using a water-filled pen which is genius.

A great flight, almost enjoyable which is no mean feat flying long haul with a three year old.

Manchester Airport

We were down to earth with a bump at Manchester Airport. I’m not sure what has happened to it in the last 10 years or so but it’s gone incredibly downhill; it’s unwelcoming, unclean, unfriendly and tough to navigate through.  Especially following on from the amazing Changi airport and the great flight we’d arrived on.

The immigration agent asked my relationship to E (we have different surnames), then wanted proof. Luckily I’d thought ahead and had both copies of his birth certificate, plus a witnessed letter from Andy (my husband and E’s father) attesting that he was aware I was taking him out of the country by myself.  The guy still wasn’t happy – he seemed to have his nose out of joint that I’d pre-empted these questions, and warned me to keep it with my passport next time (just for information, this is not necessary and not a requirement but an argument with immigration is not an argument I’m prepared to have). Next, we needed two pound coins for the luggage trolley which angered me so much – which non-national arriving in the UK would have two pound coins? The card machine was broken, so that wasn’t an option.  Just as I was standing with two suitcases, two hand luggage bags, a buggy and a tired three year old, wondering how on earth I could carry it through, a kind family I’d spoken to in the passport queue took pity on me and gave me the coins. I could have cried with gratitude and tiredness, and sheer anger at Manchester Airport. Thank goodness our family were waiting on the other side of the doors, and seeing E break into a run when he saw Grandma was worth all the hassle.

Top tips
1.    Include late night transfers in your planning - it's not just the long haul flights you need to worry
2.    Check stroller only through as far as each airport you are transferring through - you might be
grateful to have it in between connecting flights
3.    Take a stroller even if your child is borderline too old for it - I've realised it's definitely better to
have it and risk not using it than vice versa
4.    Take a letter for immigration if you are travelling by yourself with a child. I used this template, and
had it witnessed by a friend who is a solicitor.
5.    Skycouch is potentially great, and you could get more sleep than usual, but only if you are
travelling with a small child. If you're alone you'd be better upgrading to premium economy with
the money; if you're with anyone bigger than a small child it will just be a waste of money.
6.    Book early check in at your hotel if you are due to arrive early in the morning
7.    Drop luggage off early if you are staying at Changi airport, then you can get longer sleep before
going for your flight.
8.    Take pound coins for Manchester airport - I'm stockpiling already for our next visit!

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Autumn Break on the South Island

The reason I always sign up to Airlines’ Loyalty Clubs is that, if you’ve got to fly anyway (and let’s face it, living in NZ flying becomes, if not exactly a necessity, then certainly a way of making life easier if you have the option), then you are gaining rewards for quite literally sitting around doing not much.  In our house, all of us – including E – are members of the Air New Zealand Airpoints scheme, and we have taken up the option of combining them in Shairpoints so we can pool them all.  We collect them whenever and wherever we can – not only on flights but by shopping at New World, by using an Airpoints-affiliated credit card and prepaid debit card, and by shopping at other outlets for electrical items, amongst other ways of saving.  I’m quite the magpie when it comes to loyalty points, because I know they pay out. 

We recently had a short late-Autumn trip to the South Island, with the flights paid for via Airpoints.  The flights themselves were great.  Air New Zealand staff are, in my experience, always lovely, and we notice it even more when we’re flying with E.  On the first flight down to Christchurch they greeted him by name, gave him extra snacks first, let him sit in the crew seats, and generally indulged him in a way that made the flight not just bearable but enjoyable.  It makes me optimistic about our upcoming long-haul flight in August with Air NZ and Singapore Airlines.

Car Rental 

Everything was on time and we rented a car from Snap at Christchurch – they were significantly cheaper than any other rental we could find and had the bonus that when we arrived there to collect our car the child’s car seat we hired for E was already in place, whereas previously I’d had to struggle to attach a new and unfamiliar seat.  Top marks for Snap, and I’ll definitely use them again in the future when I’m down south.  We had a zippy Toyota Corolla, which both Andy and I enjoyed driving, and which was perfect for the length of driving we were doing. 


On leaving Christchurch Airport our first stop was at the Countdown supermarket next to the airport to stock up on essentials.  We then set off for the 3-hour drive to Akaroa, on the beautiful Banks peninsula.  I volunteered to do this first section of the drive, and I’m glad that I did – both Andy and E drifted off to sleep so I was left to enjoy the stunning scenery in peace.  The road leads out through the Christchurch suburbs on to the dips and peaks of the peninsula.  It heads through a handful of villages and townships before climbing the hill that then leads down towards Akaroa.  If you are wise, you will make a stop at Barry's Bay Cheese Factory.  If you are even wiser you will manage to do this leaving your sleeping child in the car with your husband, giving you free reign with the credit card to buy all the amazing cheeses they have on offer. 

We arrived early but because we were staying in the off-season, the lovely people at our Airbnb, Jaques Village, gave us a better apartment and let us check in early.  It was relatively basic but spick and span clean with everything we needed for a night's stay.  There are a couple of outstanding features – first is the extremely friendly and helpful staff, second is the great location.   

After a quick lunch (mainly cheese based) we set out for an explore.  I admit, I was initially a bit dubious we'd find enough to do in quiet Akaroa to keep E occupied, but we actually had a great time exploring.  I don't think we could have stretched it out to more than a day, especially in the winter, but one night was the perfect time to spend here. Akaroa was originally colonised by the French before the British arrived in NZ, and it retains lots of ties to its French history. It was drizzling but not pouring with rain, so we first set off to walk to the lighthouse, an easy flattish walk along a very quiet coast road.  Unfortunately, the lighthouse is only open to visitors on Sundays, but we still had fun exploring all around it.  After that we strolled back into the town, with the canons and whale pots providing plenty entertainment for a little boy who loves climbing.   

We had fish and chips for tea, then home to our very warm and cosy apartment for the night. 

We set off bright and early the next day, stopping at the fantastic Butchery and Deli first to stock up on supplies, headed back through the sleepy Banks Peninsula villages, and headed inland towards Hanmer Springs. 

Hanmer Springs 
Hanmer is a delightful little Alpine village about 90 minutes' drive north west of Christchurch.  Popular all year round, it really comes into its own in the winter.  It's surrounded by ski fields but the biggest draw, to us as non-skiers anyway, are the hot pools.  As the village sits right on a fault line (in NZ you're never far from a reminder of how shaky these islands are), the hot springs are a result of the geothermal activity.  It's a huge complex of pools and, with our son being half-boy-half-fish, we rightly guessed that he would be in his element.  The pools are a large complex with many different kinds of spa, including a child-friendly warm but not hot swimming and play pool.  After braving the dash from the changing rooms (pro tip: take flip flops), we spent pretty much two days there enjoying the warm water.  Andy and I took it in turns to tag team and spend some time soaking in some of the adults-only hotter pools.  As long as your child enjoys the water, you can easily kill a couple of days here.  It really is cold there though in the winter months.  We have a child who doesn't appear to feel the cold and was happy, but I'd definitely recommend taking robes or extra towels for warmth during that pool-to-pool dash.  This was the real highlight of the break for us – Andy and I have both enjoyed the pools before, but it was such a joy taking E and seeing how much he enjoyed it too. 

We stayed at another great Airbnb, bigger this time, with everything we could need – highly recommended.  This time round we self-catered one night and got takeaway the next (really delicious Chinese from Mr Yunan – they even delivered) so didn't get to eat out, but Andy have I have previously enjoyed fabulous meals in No 31 and Malabar. 
Our final night of the trip was in Christchurch, as we had an early flight out the next day.  We stayed at a beautiful Airbnb which was possibly my favourite of the trip – recently renovated with lots of little homely touches, including a box of toys that E loved exploring. 

After the trip from Akaroa we were a bit too early to check in but, needing to stretch our legs, we headed to the outstanding Margaret Mahy playground.  The city of Christchurch has had, and is still having, a very tough time over the last few years post-earthquake, but this seems to us to be a great way of demonstrating what they want their reimagined city to be.  Stretching over a whole city block and named after the famous NZ children's author (she wrote, amongst many others, Hairy Maclary), the park has so much to engage children and occupy all their senses. 

Later that afternoon we went to the Antarctic Centre which I think was the only disappointment of the trip – it seems very overpriced for not very exciting or engaging displays.  E's favourite (not mine but I hid it well in front of him) was the Haglund Ride,a short 10-15 minute ride in the vehicles designed for driving over the harsh Antarctic terrain – I was terrified but E was delighted and laughing.  It wouldn't be appropriate for every child, certainly not the more nervous children, but our bold, no-fear boy loved every minute.  

Getting to the airport the next morning was an early 5-minute drive and, after a hairy 15-minute detour due to roadworks, so was the drop off at Snap car rentals.  The flight home from Christchurch to Wellington was on time and again was an excellent service. 

We arrived back home within a couple of hours of leaving Christchurch feeling rested and glad that we'd had such a great break. 

Monday, 2 April 2018

Travels with my son: It's all in the Details

One of Andy's many, (mostly) complimentary nicknames for me is twenty-tab-Sally, originating from the fact that whenever there is any kind of research to be done - from what car we buy to what we eat for dinner - I thrive in searching down every single option and combination of options out there.  Sure, it cuts down on spontaneity but what I lose in that I gain in the fun (fun! I tell you!) of being completely informed at all times on all occasions.  Of course, what I'm not good at is making the actual decisions, but I took the precaution of marrying someone who is good at that.

My day job, too, requires the ability to analyse and - joy of joys - draw up spreadsheets that allow decisions to be made across multiple criteria.  So when the time came to book flights back to the UK for E and me, I rolled up my sleeves, opened my twenty tabs, and made some lists.  I decided we needed:

1. A reputable airline that I knew and trusted.  If it was just me, or even Andy and me, I might be tempted to wing it a bit in the name of a good fare, but travelling solo with E, I needed to know who I was dealing with.  My backpacker, bargain-basement travel days, for now, are behind me.

2. A stopover.  Everyone has an opinion on stopovers.  Some people (my Mum, for example), prefer to go straight through as quickly as possible - but she's one of the lucky ones who can sleep on an aeroplane.  I am not one of those lucky ones and, in the name of sanity and sleep, need to be able to get off the plane, stretch, sleep, shower, eat, and wear out E ready for the next flight.

3. Flying into Manchester.  Avoiding a transfer in NZ when you live in Wellington is nearly impossible; most of the long-haul international flights leave from either Auckland, Christchurch, or require a change in Australia.  A second transfer in the UK was just a step too far.

So, throw all these in the mix, add in a further requirement of not TOO extortionate, and what do you get?  Well, even though my twenty tabs included all the flight comparison websites and some travel expert websites, the cheapest deal I got that ticked all the items on my criteria list was directly on the Air New Zealand website, using the multistop trip tool.

So in August, E and I will be setting off to fly Wellington-Auckland-Singapore with Air New Zealand, where we will stay for a day and wear ourselves out in the pool of our hotel, before flying Singapore-Manchester with Singapore Airlines.  Coming back we will fly Manchester-Singapore with Singapore Airlines, have 48 hours in Singapore before flying Singapore-Auckland with Singapore Airlines and the final leg, Auckland-Wellington with Air New Zealand.

Can't wait.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Travels with my son: Planning a long-haul flight

When you live upside down, on the other side of the world to your family, long haul travel very rapidly becomes one of the realities of life.  We've gone back to the UK twice in the eight years we've lived in New Zealand, in 2011 and 2015 (when our son was 10 months old), and we're incredibly lucky that most years in between we have family able to make the journey here to visit.  This year will be different, though.  I had a huge amount of leave banked in work - only saving it for the proverbial rainy day - so Andy suggested I head back with E, our boy.  Andy can't get away from work at that time of year so it'll just be the two of us.  While the thought of making the trip a year ago made my blood run cold (E was very, very good at being two...), this time round he'll be close to four when we go and while I'm preparing for the worst, I'm also expecting the best.

E is a lucky boy in that he's already got plenty of flights under his belt at the tender age of three, and we live so close to the airport that we can see the runway from our living room, the first flights of the morning our wake-up call, the comings and goings of the airport our ever-changing wallpaper.  He's therefore very familiar with the logistics of air travel, while at the same time it's still enough of a novelty to get him enthusiastic and excited about.

I'm by nature a planner.  Understatement of the year.  I research and organise spreadsheets for just about every event, and holidays are no exception.  Throw a pre-schooler into the mix and my planning reaches peak levels.  The separate elements to plan and book so far have been:

- Packing lists
- The flights
- Stopovers
- Travel insurance
- Itinerary for the UK (including all-important shopping lists)

I'm going to be writing the next few posts about this, and about tips I've picked up in our previous travels with E.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

So apparently

So apparently, pregnancy and 'morning' (hollow laugh) sickness put you off food.  

So apparently, babies and toddlers keep you quite busy.

So apparently, all this can happen and suddenly your baby is a beautiful 19 month old boy and you pause to gather breath and realise you haven't written anything in two years.

So apparently, you miss it.  

And maybe, just maybe, life has fallen into a rhythm where writing might be possible again, only this time with a frantic toddler hanging off my legs as we cook and eat.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Gluten-Free Lemon & Ricotta Cake

I went on a course once that was almost cult-like in its attempt to change your life through the power of positive thinking.  We had to practice all sorts of mantras and meditations, visualising our better selves becoming the best possible version we could be.  No limits, we were told.  Dream big.  Whatever you want to, you can do it.  It speaks volumes about the size of my ambition that one of the things I dreamt of having was perfectly manicured nails.  And the thing is, it might be a load of hogwash, but for a couple of months back in 2001, I had awesome nails.  

I tell you this because one other thing I really remember from this course was the idea that if you tidied up for visitors, you were insulting yourself; you should value yourself so highly that your house should be visitor-ready spick and span at all times, just for you.  And while I love the thought of that, I'm assuming I'm not meditating hard enough on having a perfect house because, well, frankly I'd rather be doing plenty of other stuff, nails included, than spend a million hours per week cleaning my skirting boards.  I will always, always be the person who, the night before a visitor, runs round manically with the hoover in one hand and the duster in the other, while with the other hand (still counting?) stir up something welcoming and hopefully delicious in the kitchen.  I definitely assume that distracting someone for long enough means that they won't be bothered about the lack of domestic goddess-ness round here.

This is one such welcoming dish, whipped up in the middle of a cleaning frenzy the night before lovely Ruth came to stay for a couple of nights.  She is gluten free, and so I knew that I had a responsibility not only to spruce up the guest room, but also to make something we could all enjoy.  This is a really lovely cake; the ricotta gives it a creamy tanginess, and serves as the perfect canvas for the sharp, sweet lemon syrup.  This gets better after a day or two, so perfect for making the night before the visitors come, and is sturdy enough to freeze well and to cart about in a lunch box.  

You can even serve it up for breakfast the next day, making you a pretty perfect host all round.  Skirting boards notwithstanding.

Lemon & Ricotta Cake (Gluten Free)

225g butter, softened
225g plus 125g caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon natural yoghurt
250g ricotta cheese
150g ground almonds
100g polenta
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 lemon, juice and zest
2 lemons, juice only
100ml water
Blueberries for decoration

Preheat your oven to 170C.  Grease the sides, and grease and  line the bottom, of a 23cm loose-bottomed cake tin.

In a large bowl or using a stand mixer, cream the butter and 225g sugar together until they are light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs, yoghurt, ricotta, almonds, polenta and baking soda until smooth and everything is combined.

Pour into the tin and bake for 1 - 1.5 hours.  Keep an eye on the top; if it looks like it is browning too much before the cake is fully cooked, cover it with greaseproof paper.  The cake is done when a skewer inserted into it comes out clean with no crumbs.

While the cake is cooking, make the syrup by combining the water, remaining sugar, and lemon juice in a small pan.  Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes, until the texture has turned syrupy.  Remove from the heat, then stir in the zest.

When the cake is cooked, leave it in the tin and pour over three quarters of the syrup.  Leave to cool completely before removing it gently from the tin.  Scatter blueberries over the top, then drizzle with the remaining syrup.

Serve with yoghurt.

Yields 8-10 slices.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Feel The Fear & Do It Anyway - Puff Pastry

I was having a conversation at the weekend about "fake it till you make it". I recently took advice about being assertive from friends whose confidence I admire.  Some of the best advice I was given was to just pretend I was confident when dealing with a particular situation, and the actual confidence would follow hot on its heels.  Now, in real life I don't think I have enough experience of assertiveness, in true people-pleaser style, but the one place I know for sure this works is the kitchen.  Oh yeah, I'll show my utensils who's the boss of them. So, just proving that I do listen to advice, I made puff pastry.

You've all heard them - all the chefs who say don't bother making your own; the frozen stuff is just as good, and I'd nod along in agreement because, well, that's easy isn't it? But I needed to assert myself over SOMETHING, just to prove to myself I could, and so the puff pastry got it. I used Leith's recipe - I figured a cook book from a cooking school wouldn't steer me wrong, and I was right. And here's the thing. It was surprisingly easy. Yes, you heard me - puff pastry was easy. Sure, it took a lot of time, and I don't think I would have been able to pull it off during one of my hungover cooking sessions, but give me a lazy Sunday, no place else to be, and I really enjoyed it. It takes a lot more water than a regular pastry, but this results in a beautifully smooth, soft dough that is a genuine pleasure to work with. And it worked!  The darn thing actually worked.  Once it was done - because I am still not capable of making a decision and sticking to it - I turned it into a hybrid of millefeuille and tarte tatin.

Right, I'm off to take my newfound confidence elsewhere.  I've nothing to fear but fear itself, and other platitudes.  If only platitudes tasted as good as puff pastry.

Caramel Apple Millefeuille

For the puff pastry:
225g plain flour
pinch salt
30g plus 140g unsalted butter
120-150ml iced water

Sift the flour and salt together into a large, roomy bowl.  Rub in the 30g butter, and add enough water to turn it into a soft dough, using only a knife at this stage to bring it together.  On a floured surface, knead briefly until just combined.  Put in a plastic bag and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Flour the surface again and roll the dough into a rectangle that measures about 30 x 10cm.  I have a useful silicone pastry mat that helpfully has measurements up the side, but you would be able to guesstimate it with no damaging outcome.

Take your floured rolling pin, and gently tap the butter into a flat rectangle about 8 x 8cm (it should be narrower than your pastry).

Put the butter on the pastry and fold both ends over to fully enclose it, starting with the third closest to you, then bring the far end over that.  Press the sides together to keep the butter in.  Turn it 90 degrees anti clockwise, so the folded edge is on the left.

Roll it out, lightly and working as quickly as you can without ruining your work, until it is 30 x 10cm again.  Fold it in three again, starting with folding the edge closest to you up,

then bringing the top edge down and over.

Give it a 90 degree turn again and repeat the process.  Now the pastry has had two turns, and it needs to rest, as no doubt do you.  Put it in its bag in the fridge for 30 minutes or so, before repeating this whole process at least twice more, until you can see no more streaks of butter.

To bake it, heat your oven to 220C.  Roll the pastry out one final time until it measures about 20 x 30cm.  Put it on a baking sheet, and prick it all over with a fork.   Bake for 20 minutes, until risen and golden.

When it has cooled, cut it into three even pieces.

For the Caramel Apple Millefeuille:

1 apple
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
0.5 teaspoon cinnamon (I have a hunch that rosemary could be used to good effect here instead of the cinnamon)
200ml cream
1 tablespoon brandy
Icing sugar

Cut the apple into wedges.  Heat a frying pan over a medium heat, and melt the butter.  Gently fry the apple wedges for a few minutes, then sprinkle over the brown sugar, cooking for another few minutes and turning once or twice until the sugar caramelises.  Remove the apple from the pan and leave to cool.

Whip the cream and the brandy together until firm enough to hold its shape.

To assemble, take one of your puff pastry sheets, spread it with half the cream and a third of the apple slices.

 Repeat with the next sheet of puff pastry.  Top with your final piece of pastry, and decorate with the last of the apple slices and dust over some icing sugar.