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Afternoon tea with Truly

Tea at The Capital

Picking special presents year after year can be a bit of a pain, especially when you’re like us and have no room left in your flat for any more physical objects! That’s why I love giving and receiving ‘experiences’ instead: dinner, cooking classes, something that you can enjoy and/or learn from rather than accumulating more stuff. So when Truly contacted me I was pretty excited. Their premise is great: you pick from a fantastic range of do-able gifts – especially strong on restaurants and food experiences but there are spa days, city breaks and outdoor activities too. Put in your recipient’s address and they get a lovely smart box in the post with a simple number/email to contact Truly’s concierge and make the reservation. No messing around booking something and hoping they are free on the date (or ruining the surprise by asking), but you can still pick out something personal.

Tea at The Capital

Truly kindly gave me the chance to try one of their experiences out, and I opted for Champagne Afternoon Tea at the Capital Hotel. I invited my wonderful mum along because she’s a little envious of all the nice things Josh and I do in London, so it was great to be able to share something with her. She was delighted to get the box in the post and phoned me immediately to say thank you! She was down in London last weekend so we got the chance to book it up.

Tea at The Capital

The Capital hotel is literally around the corner from Harrods. I’d never ever been in Harrods before, so a nose round the food hall was mandatory (wow, it’s busy in there). Tea is served in a pretty and cosy sitting room – with wallpaper and books lining the walls and a window open to the pleasant day outside it was a lovely place to spend the afternoon. We started with a glass of champagne while browsing the extensive tea menu.

Tea at The Capital

Before long a tiered stand laden with goodies arrived. Delicate finger sandwiches on the bottom and a whole plate of sweet things for each of us – treacle tart, passion fruit tart, lemon sponge, baby trifle and a hibiscus maracon. They were all delicious – the moist sponge and creamy tart especially. If you run out or particularly enjoyed anything, the waiters will gladly restock it for you.

Tea at The Capital

There was only one vegetarian sandwich but I didn’t even think to ask for a replacement; I’m sure they would have switched one of the others for a veggie option if requested. Never mind, more room for cake!

Tea at The Capital

Just when we were reaching peak cake, freshly baked scones arrived with cream and jam. They were so buttery and flaky – my Devon-raised mum approved. You can even pack up anything you don’t eat into takeout boxes.

Tea at The Capital

One happy mum and some serious daughter points for me! This was a great experience and my mum really appreciated it. Truly have this and loads of other luxurious gift experiences on their site including lots of Michelin-starred restaurants like The Square, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (which I reviewed here), Hakkasan and La Manoir. Any would do for my birthday present, in case you’re wondering. Thanks, Truly! Anyone else love to give or receive foody gifts?

Truly supplied my afternoon tea experience for review; views are my own

The Bathory custom bath soak: review & giveaway

bathorylemon

What do craft beer, Instagram-printed marshmallows and luxury bath soak have in common? They’re all startups from the clever folks at Mint Digital. Check out DeskBeers and Boomf at your leisure, but today we’re talking bathtime with The Bathory and their custom-made, hand-blended bath soaks.

bathorybottles

The Bathory invited me to have a go at making my own soak a little while ago. It’s a pleasure to browse the lovely site and choose the perfect ingredients for your very own bath-time invention. First you pick a base of salts, either designed to soothe, detox or just bask.

bathorysoothe

Then you can layer on three essential oils: information is given about the properties and effects of each fragrance so you can pick ones that revive, relax or inspire you. Pop your choices in the basket and a few days later a beautifully-designed little bag lands on your doorstep.

Bathory

You can clearly smell the fragrant oils even from outside the packaging! I couldn’t wait to give it a go. The jar is pretty enough to display on the shelf all the time and is enough for several happy bathtimes.

Bathory

I went for a detox base with grapefruit, bergamot and rosemary oils, and it smelled absolutely amazing. You need to add quite a lot to get a truly scented bath, but my favourite way to use it is in the shower: mixed with a little olive oil it’s a dreamy shower scrub. It made my skin really soft and the scent lasted after I dried off. I’ll definitely be replacing my jar when it runs out – the question is do I stick with my current blend or  try a new one…?

bathorywin

The competition is now closed. Congrats to the winner, Louise and thanks for all your entries.

Thanks to The Bathory for giving me a soak to review and one to give away.

Ecuador Day 5: Otavalo & the Rose Farm

Ecuador: Hacienda Cusin

My last full day in Ecuador! I was feeling a bit emotional by this point in the trip: a little homesick and lonely (this was a solo press trip so no lovely travel gang like in Panama) but also unwilling to leave this beautiful country.

Ecuador: Hacienda Cusin
Ecuador: Hacienda Cusin
Ecuador: Hacienda Cusin
Ecuador: Hacienda Cusin

Ecuador: Hacienda Cusin

I woke up early so I had time to pad around the Hacienda Cusin‘s grounds before checking out. It was so peaceful, all you can hear are birds and frogs chirping away in the post-thunderstorm dew. Generally though, I’m not sure I’d stay here again. My room was a bit dank and musty and I didn’t like the log fire (mild pyrophobia, but cold without it!). It was also a pain to have to walk outside between the room, restaurant and reception in the dark and rain, and the food at dinner and breakfast was very bland. As I said though, the grounds are calm and pretty and if you’re into the rustic farmhouse-outdoorsy vibe you’d probably like it. The hacienda can organise horse treks and various other local visits and outdoor activities, so maybe it’s better suited to more adventurous types.

Otavalo

I was excited about today’s visits: with a huge crafts market, a waterfall and a rose farm on the agenda it promised to be a fittingly magical final day. First stop was the town of Otavalo which is known for its daily market, selling everything from spices, grains and meat to Andean textiles and bags, wood and leather goods and typical tourist souvenirs. The market is on every day but Saturday is the biggest and busiest day.

Otavalo
Otavalo

Otavalo

Otavalo
Otavalo

The market was a real treat to browse. I especially liked it because it wasn’t entirely geared up for tourists: plenty of locals were shopping too and I didn’t feel hassled by any sellers. It was also so big that it wasn’t overly crowded and there was plenty of shade to dodge the hot sun. It’s centred on a main plaza but continues down the side streets over a 3 or 4 block radius. Naturally I had to do a lap of everything once before deciding where to spend my cash!

Otavalo
Otavalo

You could also grab regular refreshments from street sellers – coconut water, iced pops, sorbet and fruit juices – for 20-50 cents when the heat got too much. I also got a great iced coffee from the friendly chap above.

Otavalo
Otavalo

There was a dizzying array of goods and it took me a little while to get into the swing of haggling in my very weak Spanish (I made a note of how to say numbers and ‘how much is it’ before visiting!). It wasn’t a problem as the prices are pretty cheap anyway. I spent about $40 and came home with some carved wooden spoons, two small Andean blankets and two lengths of fabric, and a nice bag bag to transport all my new acquisitions home in.

Otavalo

It’s just a short drive from the market to another Otavalo treat, a stunning natural waterfall, Casacda de Peguche.

Otavalo

When the sun shines on it, you see a beautiful full-arc rainbow in the spray. Just when you think Ecuador can’t throw any more natural beauty at you, this happens!

Otavalo

The waterfall is surrounded by a pretty forest where you can camp overnight in a tent or one of these guest lodges.

Otavalo
Otavalo

Just outside the forest you can visit a little workshop of traditional musical instruments from Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. We had a demonstration of the main instruments from the owner and he made a set of pipes from bamboo right in front of us in about ten minutes.

Otavalo

I bought one of these little ceramic critters for Josh – you make notes by blowing into his mouth and covering the holes to make notes.

Ecuador: Hacienda Pinsaqui

We stayed nearby for lunch at the Hacienda Pinsaqui, an old texile-weaving centre and stopping-off point on the road between Ibarra and Quito. Dating from the early 18th century, Simon Bolivar was a famous guest and it’s now a restored hotel. It was even prettier than the hacienda I stayed in, and the lunch was probably the best food of the trip.

Ecuador: Hacienda Pinsaqui
Ecuador: Hacienda Pinsaqui
Ecuador: Hacienda Pinsaqui

Ceviche of heart of palm followed by a platter of veggie corn-based treats. We were serenaded by a band as we ate which was really nice.

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

On the road back to Quito, we made our final stop at the Compañía de Jesús Hacienda, a really beautiful place with a fascinating story. It was originally a Jesuit church and grain farm, but the Jesuits were expelled from Ecuador amidst fears they were getting too powerful, so this land and its buildings were bought by a wealthy Ecuadorian family. It’s been owned by the same family now for five generations, and the son-in-law of the current owners showed me around.

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

The land is now a rose plantation which busily exports to mainly the USA, Europe and Russia. It was a quiet time for my visit because Mothers’ Day had just passed so production was slowing down for a bit. In higher season you can actually see the rose farm and processing methods. Instead I saw the permanent showroom in the old grain store building, which showcases some of the 70 varieties of rose grown on the farm. My guide explained that new varieties are cultivated in the lab, and the shapes and colours change with fashion and demand.

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

Aren’t these lilac ones dreamy?

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

We then saw the old Jesuit chapel, where five generations of the same family have been married. The restored interior features paintings and sculptures dating from the time of the Jesuits.

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

Finally we got to look in the estate house. Dating from 1919 and built in the neo-classical French style, the interior has been immaculately designed to fit the age of the building. Some furniture was shipped over from Europe; some was reproduced in the same style by local Ecuadorian craftspeople.

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

The beautiful wallpapers are French originals, as are the moulded tin ceilings from Germany.

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

From the gramophone to pillar box hats hanging by the door, the attention to detail makes this house like stepping back in time. However it’s very much a lived-in and loved house; the owners spend a lot of time here and the whole family descends at weekends.

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

Roses are a permanent feature, of course. We were treated to some freshly-baked bizcochos (a local specialty, crumbly corn biscuits), local cheese and blackberry juice as we admired the house. You can stay at the hacienda or tour its grounds by appointment only. I can’t find a website but here’s some more info in Spanish.

This was my last stop of the whole trip, so after the journey back to Cafe Cultura in Quito I spent the evening re-packing all my souvenirs and resting. In the morning there was just time for the tasty hotel breakfast, and another stroll to Eiji park, which on a Sunday had a lovely relaxed vibe with kids playing football, families on bike rides and a small craft and paintings market. A fitting way to say goodbye! Adieu Ecuador, I hope we’ll meet again one day.

My trip was sponsored by KLM and Branding Latin America / Quito Turismo UK; views as ever are my own

Ecuador Day 4: Ibarra to Salinas

Ibarra Salinas train
Ecuador

Today we left Quito behind and headed north, back to volcano and mountain country. Our first quick stop was a viewpoint by the Cayambe volcano and lake. This little rest stop offers great views over the glassy lake, and the shop sells tasty home-baked snacks. I’d skipped breakfast so had a couple of corn biscotti for the road.

Ibarra

Ibarra
Ibarra

We continued to Ibarra, where we’d catch the train to Salinas, about 2.5 hours north of Quito in total. Ibarra is a bustling market town, the kind of place I’d be itching to explore, but we had a train to catch right away from the smart modern station. The train leaves Ibarra at 10.30 every day Weds-Sun, with the return trip at 3pm, and the ticket costs $15.

Ibarra Salinas train
Ibarra Salinas train

The train is named El Tren de Libertad – the train of liberty, so called to celebrate the freedom of the ex-slave population of the area. Kids on the street sweetly wave you off as the train chugs out of town. It goes at a leisurely pace, with the 30km journey taking 1.5 hours. It’s very comfortable on board and you can open up the wooden sash windows to get closer to that view.

Ibarra Salinas train
Ibarra Salinas train

Ibarra Salinas train
Ibarra Salinas train

Pretty soon you’ve left the town behind and the view is rolling farmland and hills as far as you can see – today was a beautiful clear day with bright blue skies so it was especially stunning. I can’t get over how big the sky looks in Ecuador – I don’t know if that’s my imagination or an effect of being at high altitude and close to the equator, but it seems endlessly vast.

Ibarra Salinas train

Ibarra Salinas train
Ibarra Salinas train

Ibarra Salinas train

The vegetation and crops change as the journey continues: from maize and tree tomatoes in the lusher areas to cacti, agave and sugar cane in the drier climate later on.

Ibarra Salinas train

Despite the stately pace the ride is pretty dramatic; often you can look down out of the window to a sheer drop into the valley below, and crossing this rather rickety-looking iron bridge was a heart-stopping moment. You’re also occasionally plunged into the sudden darkness of a tunnel before whooshing out into the light again. Kind of like a very slow-mo rollercoaster!

Salinas

We reached Salinas at midday, welcomed by a Bamba dance from some local girls. Salinas is a small town of 2,000 people which was originally founded as a result of the nearby salt mines, hence the name. The train line brought trade to the town in the 19th century, and continues to today – but by way of tourism rather than salt, which is too expensive to produce in the old-fashioned way now.

Salinas
Salinas
Salinas
Salinas

We got a short tour of the town from the train guides. The town comprises maybe 10 by 10 neat blocks of low, colourful dwellings with a pretty square in the middle which contains the church and school. I’ve never been anywhere that felt so peaceful and laid-back. You can imagine no-one ever rushes anywhere and the noisiest it gets is when a kid riding a souped-up motorcycle jutters past.

Salinas
Salinas
Salinas

There’s a quaint mini-museum dedicated to the town’s past in the salt business, showing how it was mined, refined, dried and sold. There is also a gift shop containing products made by the community with some very pretty jewellery, and a shop of homemade edible souvenirs like marmalade, honey, and a rather potent ‘pina colada’ made of sweet milk and sugar cane liquor. We had a nice lunch in the ‘gastronomic centre’: quinoa soup followed by mixed veggies and potato for me, with the usual aji hot sauce liberally applied.

Salinas
Salinas

Salinas

I spent an hour or so after lunch just poking up and down the same few streets, noticing something new each time: a handpainted pattern on the wall; a kitty sunning himself in a door; a classic Morris car. It felt a little like a film set, so quiet and perfect. I remembered for not the first time how lucky I am to be able to visit these unique places, so different to home.

Ibarra Salinas train

At mid-afternoon we boarded the train for the trundle back to Ibarra. My eyes were half-closed but the landscape had become more dramatic under the sinking sun: you begin to think you’ve seen all the epic scenery Ecuador can offer but it’s constantly changing and always enthralling.

Salinas to Ibarra
Salinas to Ibarra

By late afternoon Ibarra’s market stalls were still buzzing with end of day trade and food sellers had started to fry up meats and plantains from their stalls.

Hacienda Cusin
Hacienda Cusin

It was about a 45-minute drive from Ibarra to my bed for the night, at the Hacienda Cucin. It was getting dark as I arrived and the light rain turned into heavy thunder and lightning, so exploring the pretty grounds would have to wait until the morning. I had a dinner of more quinoa soup, garlic mushrooms and chocolate cake in the elegant restaurant before turning in for the night in my room, equipped with a crackling log fire, layers of woollen blankets, and a hot water bottle.

My trip was sponsored by KLM and Branding Latin America / Quito Turismo UK; views as ever are my own

Quito Day 3: Volcanoes, birds, and middle(s) of the Earth

Pululahua crater viewpoint

Day 3 started early, as we were heading out of town to the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’ to the north of Quito. About an hour’s drive just outside the bounds of the city was our first stop, the Pululahua crater viewpoint and geobotanical reserve.

Pululahua crater viewpoint
Pululahua crater viewpoint

As ever there were lots of unique flowers growing with medicinal and edible uses. You can take a walking trail or horse-ride around the crater’s edges or down to the bottom. There’s a hotel and some hot springs, so it’d be a pretty nice place to stay a night. I was excited to spot a couple of hummingbirds flitting about, but there were far more to come later!

Pululahua crater viewpoint
Pululahua crater viewpoint

We had lunch at the El Crater restaurant near the lookout point. This is a pretty swish place with amazing views over the rolling green hills and valleys and the crater itself. The food was very tasty, as well. I do love the Ecuadorian style of giving you a little bit of lots of thing on the same plate: some grilled veggies, a tortilla (this is a small fried corn or potato cake in Ecuador), fried plantain slices and toasted and steamed maize kernels, served with spicy-creamy-salty salsa to slather over it all.

Alambi

From Pululahua we headed west to Bellavista Cloud Forest, a huge private nature reserve and eco guest lodge which is especially known for exotic flower and bird spotting. Unfortunately though, there had been a landslide in the night and the only road to the cloud forest was completely shut off to traffic so we couldn’t drive to it. Instead we went to a smaller reserve called Alambi which we’d passed on the way.

Alambi

I can’t compare it to Bellavista, but I really loved Alambi anyway. It’s the private home of owner Fabian, and he’s built a lodge for visitors on the little piece of land. In what’s basically his backyard he hung lots of sugar water feeders and planted sweet flowers, which mean hummingbirds flock there in droves.

Alambi
Alambi
Alambi
Alambi
Alambi
Alambi

It was quite amazing to see so many hummingbirds from so close – I was maybe 1m away. I think I sat watching them for about twenty minutes before being taken on a tour of the small reserve.

Alambi

Positioned on the edge of the rainforest, there are more interesting plants here, like the ‘dragons blood’ tree which oozes red liquid when you cut the bark. It turns into a white cream when you rub it into the skin and is said to be an insect repellant.

Alambi
Alambi
Alambi

Fabian also has orange, guava, lemon, coffee and mandarin trees, so you can grab a sweet snack while spotting butterflies. This was a really lovely place, I’d like to come back and stay the night sometime.

Intinan Museum

The next stop is kind of an Ecuadorian must-do: a visit to 0 degrees, 0 minutes, 0 seconds latitude, ie the horizontal centre of the earth. There are two big tourist attractions set up around this point – but unfortunately neither are particularly good!

Intinan Museum

The first one, the Intinan Museum, claims to contain the real geographical centre as calculated by GPS. They’ve built a little outdoor museum around it but it’s pretty kitsch and quite poorly done: a couple of llamas and snakes in too-small enclosures, some rather random displays about indigenous cultures, and some reconstruction totem poles. Kind of cheesy and not worth bothering with in itself.

Intinan Museum
Intinan Museum
Intinan Museum

The 0,0 degrees line itself is quite nicely marked and an obvious must-do photo op. The guides give various demonstrations about phenomena that supposedly happen around the equator – water draining in opposite directions, balancing an egg on a nail, your strength and balance becoming weaker – all of which I was a little skeptical of and had my suspicions confirmed by Googling afterwards. It’s nearly all faked: the Coriolis effect is not strong enough to pull draining water in opposing directions (the guide pours from different angles), you can balance an egg anywhere with a bit of effort, and the strength test must be suggestion. Weirdly I did find it really hard to walk straight along the line (supposedly due to centrifugal forces pulling you) but I can probably put that down to suggestion too. So yeah, it was all a bit silly and fake but at least this is (pretty much) the genuine 0,0 line so that in itself was quite cool and worth seeing.

Middle of the Earth
Middle of the Earth
Middle of the Earth

The second site is about 200 metres away and much grander, yet unfortunately utterly inaccurate. Built in the 1970s, it was decided to build the resort here as a result of French scientists’ measurements. Sadly it’s definitely not the real 0,0 spot, though there’s nothing at the resort to tell you that! You can see why they’re carrying on the pretence though – it was obviously an expensive development, pretty much a mini village with shops, restaurants, an observatory and even a bullfighting ring (used for concerts and events since bullfighting is now illegal here). The big monument in the centre is quite classy, and there’s a pretty interesting exhibit inside about the indigenous people all over Ecuador and the Galapagos islands. So even though I was a little disappointed by both sites, they are both worth visiting for one reason or another.

Quito

Quito
Quito

Back in Quito for the evening I took myself out for a little wander around the old town as it was my last night staying here. The half-hour before the sun starts to set is a really beautiful time, the light streaming down from the sky before sinking below the mountains; even a short rainfall is a nice relief from the heat.

La Cuchara, Quito

I’d done a bit of research on vegetarian restaurants and walked down the lovely cobbled San Marcos street to find La Cuchara de San Marcos. I think the name means cul de sac, as appropriately it’s tucked away at a dead end at the very end of the street. (Amusingly I thought I found the place as I was walking down San Marcos street and it took ten minutes’ chatting to the waiter and chef in broken Spanglish before I realised it wasn’t the right place. By that point I felt like I had to stay for a bit, so I ended up having a very tasty michelada and little place of tacos en route. Two dinners for the win!)

La Cuchara, Quito
La Cuchara, Quito

Anyway, the real Cuchara is tucked up a staircase which leads to a pretty fairylit courtyard and a cosy restaurant-bar. The menu is Ecuadorian food given a veggie makeover: soy, potatoes, cheese and vegetables take the place of meat in classic local dishes. i had ricotta empanadas followed by a peanut stew with soy protein and potatoes.

La Cuchara, Quito
La Cuchara, Quito

They also have some local craft beers; I had an Andes red ale which was really tasty and got a couple more bottles to bring home. I got chatting to the co-owner, an American ex-pat from San Francisco (hence the beer knowledge), who explained to me how he came to open the place. He also brews small batches of beer on-site, though sadly the next batch was still fermenting on my visit. I was really pleased I ventured out and found this place: it’s generally recommended that tourists, particularly women, don’t walk around alone after 9 or 10pm but I didn’t feel unsafe while walking there and back (pre-9pm but definitely dark). The old town is well-lit and as long as you stick to the larger streets and plazas I think it’s OK to have a wander.

My trip was sponsored by KLM and Branding Latin America / Quito Turismo UK; views as ever are my own