1 September 2013

Why I'm hoping I'll have a social wedding

I love social media. You'll probably work that out from the number of tweets I've sent since my Pinotnoirgirl twitter account was born on 6th February 2009 (yes, that number is correct, over 20,000 tweets). It may be dull, probably no one ever reads any of the guff I write, but who cares, I love it.

So, with my nuptials forthcoming, I've been really interested to learn about the different options for using social media during a wedding.

The first article I read was on the Brides Magazine website. This was a list of tips essentially to ensure the bride sets a whole load of rules for guests to follow at the wedding. The aim is to ensure unflattering photos of the bride don't appear on Facebook, to make sure the official wedding photos are the first to be seen by the world and to protect the privacy of guests. 

Cartoon from www.itworld.com about social media and weddings

The second was in the Huffington post with an article by Ariane Fisher from @weddingmix. This one was entitled "why Instagram is ruining your wedding memories." It talks about weddings being ruined by guests spending the whole reception updating Instagram and that because photos are all on social media, there's no permanent memory of them. 

We shall not be subscribing to the advice in either of these articles for our wedding. Let's face it, I'm not a celebrity and our wedding photo isn't exactly going to end up on the front of Heat. We haven't signed a deal with OK magazine as the official magazine partner of our wedding. If a few dodgy photos end up on Facebook, it's not exactly going to ruin my day.

And, if my guests aren't anticipating their photos appearing on social media, then they don't know me very well. Hell, I'll probably be doing a running documentary on twitter as I walk down the aisle! I might even post a few selfies.

Using Instagram to share wedding photos

Add to this that we are getting married in Italy which means not everyone can make it to the wedding due to school terms, money and work. So social media will be a really good way of them following what's happening on the day even though they won't be there.

So yes, we do have a wedding hashtag and yes it is printed on the order of service and wedding menu. Unlike some celebs, we haven't gone for a mash up of our names, no #NANBOWwedding or #ABAMwedding. Instead we have the very refined #AbbyAdam2013 and we hope our guests will use it when they Facebook, tweet or Instagram their photos. It'll mean people at home as well as those in Italy can easily share and search for photos and comments. Although I'm hoping there won't be too many twitter updates with things like "Does the bride's bum look big in this? #dressfail #AbbyAdam2013" or "can't wait to go to bed? #dullwedding #AbbyAdam2013".

I found this article very interesting on the Very Curious Wedding blog on how to use hashtags at a wedding. 

I will probably do a few selfies on our wedding day

We have also created an album on the WedPics website. This website is great because it is a central place where all guests can upload and share their photos for all other guests to see, whether they are on Facebook or not. And, as you can upload photos from the engagement party, the stag and hen dos as well as the wedding itself it's great way to have all the wedding photos all in one place.

So if you are coming to our wedding, I look forward to turning round during the ceremony and seeing a few heads bent over mobile phones. I'll take it as a sign you're having a great time and can't wait to tell everyone about it. Oh, and sorry in advance for the cost of your data roaming charges, fingers crossed there's free wifi in the villa.

11 August 2013

A flying visit to San Gimignano

A couple of months before the wedding, we took a trip to San Gimignano so we could see the villa where we were getting married, view the surroundings and to meet our wedding planner, Ben Singleton from Italy Weddings.

We flew to Pisa from Luton with Easyjet on a Monday which cost us about £30 each way. We then hired a car from the airport which cost us about £130 for three days and then drove from Pisa to San Gimignano which take just over an hour.

Once we got out of Pisa, the drive was really beautiful. The sun was shining, the route was littered with lovely historic towns and buildings and even the air smelt nice! It was June and Tuscany weather had been really wet, which meant the landscape was apparently unusually very lush and green.

A few towers on the horizon en route to San Gimignano

You can see San Gimignano from about 20 miles away as the towers rise out of the hills on the horizon. For the whole journey I wanted to stop every five minutes to take photos as it was so picturesque. But Adam wanted to get there for a drink in the square!

Tom Tom was our guide as we had a version with European maps. And it worked pretty well until we got to San Gimignano when it sent us into the town itself. It sent us through one if the narrow gates into the town, down windy, narrow, cobbled, high walled streets, littered with tourists flocking like sheep and utterly unwilling to move out of our way. To this day, I have no idea whether we were allowed to drive down some of those streets, but we got there in the end!

Where we stayed

You can't actually park inside the walls of San Gimignano. But there are three public car parks just outside all of which you can easily walk into the town from. Watch out for the prices though as they vary according to how near they are to the walls. We parked in P1 which was €6 a day, whereas P2 was €20 a day.

Enjoying the view on our hotel balcony (La Cisterna Hotel)

We stayed at La Cisterna Hotel which was right on the main square. The website claims the hotel has the "best view in San Gimignano" and our room did have a balcony with the most amazing view of the square. We also had a fridge in our room which meant we could have a glass of wine in the sun while watching the tourists and also buy some cheese to take home. It was quite loud in the mornings (as TripAdvisor had warned us) and the church bells seemed to clang incessantly. But, as we were only there for a few days, we didn't mind being up bright and early.

Adam (in the blue t-shirt) on our hotel balcony. Taken from the main square.

All the reviews warned us that San Gimignano was going to have queues and queues of tourists. I don't know whether it was because it was early in the season or because they'd had a lot of rain, but it was pretty quiet. There are lots of little shops to wander around where you can buy wine, cheese, pasta, wild boar products and arts and crafts from the region and none of them were busy and we didn't even have to queue at the famous Gelataria, Dondoli's.

One of the many small shops selling local produce (including boar!)

Where we ate

There are hundreds of nice places to eat in San Gimignano so we were spoilt for choice. However, we found few places where you can actually eat outside. The view is so spectacular that it seems a shame to look at it through the window of a restaurant. Here's a couple we found.

If you're going out for dinner, I'd recommend a drink beforehand at Enoteca diVinorum. They had some tables outside with a wonderful view. There was a great selection of wines and we enjoyed a crisp, cold glass of the local white wine, Vernaccia, and a platter of meat and cheese. The view over the fields was stunning and we found that by this time in the evening there were fewer day trippers in the town spoiling the serenity.

Enjoying a glass of Vernaccia at Enoteca diVinorium

Our favourite restaurant was Le Vecchie Mura. It had a lovely outside panoramic terrace and we went at the perfect time to watch the sun setting. The staff were very friendly and attentive without being overly familiar and we ended up eating far, far too much. I had two of region's traditional dishes of wild boar pasta and a steak Tagliata which is a sliced rare steak over bitter salad with Parmesan and balsamic. All washed down with a bottle of Serreto (a mixture of Merlot and Sangiovese grapes) from the Cappella Sant'Andrea winery.

The view from Vecchie Mura

If you're eating inside, we also had a nice meal at Trattoria Chiribiri. We both had a delicious rabbit pasta with a platter of meats and cheeses. You can pick whichever pasta you like with the sauce which is a nice touch. We picked a half carafe of the house Chianti and it was perfect. Our wedding planner took us here which is probably an indication that the locals think this place is good.

On the main square, there were two ice-cream parlours  Both claim to have award winning gelato and the best in the world. However, the Gelateria Dondoli has actually won the award for the best gelato in the world and had an amazing selection of innovative ice-creams. I had one scoop of Prosecco and grapefruit flavour and another of raspberry and rosemary.

Gelateria Dondoli's amazing selection

As you can probably tell, the wedding diet was out the window!

Wine tasting

You can't go to Tuscany without visiting a vineyard. We chose to go to one which was within walking distance of San Gimignano called Sovestro in Poggio. It was about a 20 minute walk from the town but a very pleasant walk, especially on the way back after a few glasses. They did a proper wine tasting tour at 11.30 every day which included a look round the vineyards and cellar followed by a tasting and lunch for €25. As well as wine tasting, the farm also offered accommodation with a pool.

We were only able to go in the afternoon, so we popped in for a tasting at around 4pm. It's very tranquil at the farm with a stunning view of San Gimignano over the vines and up on the hill. We paid for a tasting of three wines with olives and cheese. This comprised one white Vernaccia and two Chianti. You can buy wine from the vineyard, but they are pretty hefty tourist prices of from €12 a bottle (but then everything is expensive in San Gimignano) so we just bought one bottle of the Vernaccia which was lemony and peachy and very delicious.

The owners of the farm were really friendly and very active on twitter. We have even arranged for my brother to stay at the farm in September. The only slight issue we had was that a coach load of American tourists turned up halfway through our tasting. It was quiet and calm before they swarmed upon the tasting room and so if you go to the Vineyard, I would recommend checking whether the farm is expecting any coaches.

Wine tasting at the Sovestro in Poggio

And, of course we met up with our wedding planner and took a trip to see the villa we had hired for the wedding which was between Volterra and San Gimignano. For us, it made us feel much more reassured about the wedding having met the planner (yes, Ben did exist and he was a very nice man) and looking round the villa to see that it was as nice as it looked in the photos (it was better!). Also, it helped us make decisions which we had been struggling with remotely. Things like where to hold the ceremony, what additional lighting did we need, what to do if it rained (gasp!) and where the band were going to set up.

Overall, because we had such a lovely time that it made us more excited about our wedding. And, although it is an additional expense to an abroad wedding, I would recommend everyone to try and build a visit to the venue into their wedding budget. 

Roll on September :)

View of the square from our hotel balcony

23 June 2013

Choosing a wedding venue abroad

We'd decided to get married in Tuscany, Italy, chosen a wedding planner and decided on September so we could get married around Adam's birthday. The next decision to make was to pick a venue.

What we found tricky about doing this was that, it's more difficult to estimate how many people are going to come! At any wedding, you always hope all your friends and family are going to be able to make it. But, when you get married abroad, there are so many more factors that might prevent them from coming. We could have no guests coming at all!

We would be expecting our guests to pay for their own flights and transfers and also would have to contribute towards their accommodation. So cost would be a factor. Plus our wedding was during term time which would be difficult for our teacher friends and those with kids of school age.

The sort of view we wanted from our villa (photo from the Italy Weddings site)

Added to this that some friends have small babies, or are about to have babies, or trying to have babies, or live on the other side of the world and the fact that some friends and family just wouldn't want to come all the way to Italy for a wedding.

So we decided to send out a "save the date" invitation to try to ascertain numbers. But unlike most save the dates, we sent it out around 9 months in advance and we asked our guests to make a bit of a commitment. (Yes, our friends thought we were ridiculously organised!)

We let them know when the wedding was likely to be, asked them whether they wanted to stay at the venue itself or elsewhere, we asked them if they were happy to contribute towards the cost of the accommodation (and gave them an estimate of how much that might be) and whether they would be happy to pay for the flights (and again gave them some idea for how much that would cost).

We were really lucky as we got an amazing response. Lots more of our friends and family could come than we expected, which was a lovely surprise. And it meant that we could pick a nice, big venue for the day which would be much more fun and glamorous for everyone.

The villa where we are getting married

Another thing that was hard is that we couldn't go and visit hundreds of venues as we simply couldn't afford the time or money for lots of trips to Italy!

Our wedding planner had a really good selection of venues on his website. And to be honest, they all looked really nice. And, having never actually been to Tuscany myself, it was hard to decide between them. We spent ages trawling through the photos and finally decided on the villa which Italy Weddings called Villa Francesca.

We picked it because it could sleep the number of guests we estimated we would have coming. The views were of rolling Tuscan hills with olive groves and vineyards, it had space outside for the blessing to take place and it had a large enough space inside to hold everything should the worst happen and the weather be bad. It was near two Historic Towns called Volterra and San Gimignano which meant we could do the legal bits in the town halls if we decided to. And all the weddings that had been held there looked stunning.

Originally, we planned not to visit the venue prior to the wedding. I think we had a romantic idea that the first time we went to the villa and the area would be for our wedding. But, as time went on, I think we got increasingly nervous about what the venue would be like and some of the decisions we had to make which were much harder remotely.

So, we decided to take a little trip to the villa a few months beforehand. And I would really, really recommend that couples did this if they can.

It is a bit of an added expense to the wedding. We only went to Italy for three days and we probably spend £500. But we found it really useful for doing things like deciding where the blessing was going to take place, where the meal was going to be, alleviating my worries about the wedding planner (as we had actually met him) and making decisions about what we would do if it were to rain (gasp).

I also got to drink lots of yummy wine from the region like Vernaccia and Chianti Riserva and sample some of the dishes we're thinking about having on our menu such as wild boar pasta and Tagliata beef steak.

Plus, it actually got us even more excited about everything. As we had seen first hand how utterly stunning the area is and could properly picture what our wedding day was going to be like. And to be honest, it's 3 months away, but I am started to get really, really excited. Not just about the wedding, but also having 5 days in Italy at an amazing villa with 40 or so of our friends and family. We hope everyone has a wonderful time with us.

27 May 2013

Wine I've drunk this weekend

Since I've drunk lots of delicious wines this weekend, I thought I would take a break from wittering on about weddings and share them with you. Plus, one of my friends came round my house recently and complained that she'd been on my blog to try and find a wine I liked to bring round to supper, but couldn't find any. So, Caroline, this one is for you!

The long wine whiling weekend started with a visit to the only wine shop in the village, Salisbury's Cambridge Wine Stores. We originally went to get some Limoncello. But when they didn't have any, we ended up spending £70 on wine instead!

I love buying wine from proper wine shops. You get that extra bit of help from the staff who genuinely know about wine. Plus, there is usually a more varied selection of unique wines rather than the standard selection sold at many of the supermarkets. On Saturday, Cambridge Wines was full of middle aged men talking guff about wine. However, one of them have us a tip on a delicious Argentinian Malbec and he was not wrong!
Malbec from Argentinia

La Chamiza Malbec from Cambridge Wines

He recommended La Chamiza Polo Amateur 2012 Malbec. The bottle claimed that, many years ago, the Chamiza Estate was a land of polo horses. But now they grow wines that reflect the polo horse because it is generous, equilibrated and passionate. I'm not sure about all that, but it was delicious!

I think it cost us around £7 which we thought was pretty good value since it was so nice. It was quite a dark, purple wine and tasted of cherries and strawberries with a hint of mocha coffee. It was dry but also velvety smooth. We had it with curry, but would be a perfect wine to have with a burger or lamb steak on the BBQ. 

I've mentioned my brother on here before as he is a proper wine snob and he got me onto wine tasting. As a thank you for organising a recent ski trip, we bought him a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2004 Il Palazzone from Cambridge Wines. He keeps telling me I should upgrade on the wines for the wedding from Chianti Classico to a Brunello but the budget won't stretch yet (sorry, had to mention the wedding). The Queen had it at her wedding apparently, so if it was good enough for her...

We didn't drink the wine as it apparently will be better in a few years. So when he does try it, I'll let you know if it was worth it!

The same brother picked a wine from Dad's wine cellar to drink with our bank holiday BBQ. To say it is a cellar might be stretching the truth somewhat, however, he does have a selection of 30 or so wines under the stairs at his house. My brother picked a rather tasty Shiraz from Majestic with a slightly tasty price point! Dad thought he'd paid around £20 for it, but it looks as though it is currently retailing at £30.
Shiraz from Clare Valley

The McRae Wood Shiraz

As an Australian Shiraz, Jim Barry's The McRae Wood Shiraz from the Clare Valley is pretty full bodied. Bottled in 2004, the wine has spent a few months in oak and has a nice well rounded taste of fruit and spice as ell and lavender and liquorice. We had it with sausages and burgers but would be perfect with any red meat dish. Not the cheapest of wines but if you have a special occasion or want to impress someone, this would be a good choice.

A while ago, we went to the Wickham Vineyard which is near to Southampton in Hampshire. It's lovely there and I would definitely recommend a visit. It's about a 20 minute walk from Botley train station and set in beautiful countryside. You can do a little tasting, do an audio tour of the vineyard and buy local produce. Plus, they have a beautiful restaurant which has only recently opened that looks out over the vines.

Wine tasting at Wickham

Me wine tasting at Wickham Vineyard

We bought a bottle of Wickham Celebration Rose 2010 when we were there. We were saving it for when my friend Natalie came round. But she was too slow and it was drunk this weekend! The bottle claims it has "intense strawberry, raspberry and red currant flavours". However, I think it is more subtle than that description. It's actually a fairly, dry and light rose and not too sweet as some roses can be. 

You don't seem to be able to buy it via their website but maybe you can still buy it in the tasting room at the winery. I think it cost around £10 at the time. We enjoyed it with a Marks and Spencer Millionaire Shortbread biscuit but I think it would go with most things, maybe even a light pasta or chicken dish.
Wine tasting in Hampshire

The view from the restaurant at Wickham Vineyard

Also this weekend we enjoyed the following yummy wines all of which I would highly recommend:

So that was some of the wine I drank this Bank Holiday Weekend. Yes, I am off for a detox now. Someone bring me the Milk Thistle.

19 May 2013

How much does it cost to get married abroad?

Along with most couples, one of the first things we had to "talk about" was how much our wedding was going to cost us and whether we could afford what we wanted. There is lots of reading material about UK wedding costs, but as we are planning to get married in Italy, there was little about the costs of weddings abroad.

One of the reasons we decided to get married in Italy was to reduce costs. Lots of my friends had wonderful weddings but had spent a fortune and many of the articles we read about costs were initially really terrifying. 

Magazines such as Brides Magazine and You and Your Wedding have regular features which break down the cost of getting married. Showing everything from the average amount a couple pay on wedding clothing, rings and tiaras to costs of hiring a venue and going on a honeymoon. Even Mintel concludes that the cost of an average UK wedding is £21,000

My brother's wedding in Fiji

However, what we couldn't easily ascertain was what the costs of the whole wedding were versus the actual event itself. Let me explain what I mean. 

Assuming you're going to go down the white wedding route, many of the costs are the same whether you got married at home or away. For example, you'll still need to buy a dress, wedding ring, groom's men suits, engagement ring and wedding stationery. These will carry similar costs whether you got married in Richmond or Rome. 

What I was interested to learn was whether things like venue hire, florists, caterers and photographers costed more in Titchfield than in Tuscany. 

According to Bridal Magazine, the average cost of the actual wedding is £13,290. So this includes food, drink, venue, photographer, videographer, favours and entertainment. You and Your wedding puts this slightly lower at £11,460. 

Me at my brother's wedding in Fiji

However, according to Mintel, the costs reduce to £6,585 for weddings on foreign soils. But, it's difficult to get a like for like comparison for UK compared to abroad. This is because, in the main, couples don't tend to have the same types of weddings abroad as they do at home. And, one of the reasons that people choose to get married abroad is because they can keep it simpler, invite fewer people and keep the extras to a minimum.

Petals at my brother's Fijian wedding

For example, my brother got married in Fiji a few years ago and he specifically wanted something that was the opposite of a traditional wedding. Rather than a church, they got married on the beach at sunset and instead of a strict wedding schedule, the men sipped margaritas on the beach while the women wandered down a flower petaled path at their own pace. It was a lovely, relaxed day and absolutely what they both wanted, with only immediate family invited. 

Looking at the pricing schedules from Kuoni and Thomson, both seem to assume that this is the sort of foreign wedding most people want. Just a few guests and minimal pomp and ceremony. 

For example, the costs quoted to get married in Rome with Kuoni are from £2,794. This just includes the wedding coordinator, interpreter, bouquet, button hole and photographer. No party, no wedding breakfast, no band, no booze and no guests. Likewise, the standard costs from Thomson to get married in Sorrento are from £805. This does include a cake and sparkling wine for groom and bride, but nothing more.

The difficulty we have is that, although we are having fewer guests than we probably would have if we got married at home, we still (hopefully) have at least 40 people coming along and we still want a sit down meal with speeches, a band and lots and lots of wine. 

As we'd hired a wedding planner, we consulted with him about costs and how much we should budget for our wedding. What we soon discovered was that, realistically, if we are going to have many of the elements of a traditional wedding, the costs are going to be pretty much the same as what we would have paid in the UK. 

The only real savings are as follows:
- We are hiring our wedding venue for 5 days which represents far better value for money than just hiring a venue for a day
- Venues in Italy seem much more relaxed around things such as corkage and feeding children. As we are in our own villa, we can probably supplement the wedding drinks with our own and we can feed the children a picnic rather than a sit down meal
- As we plan to have our honeymoon in Italy, we are saving on separate flights and the wedding effectively will become part of the honeymoon. According to You and Your Wedding magazine, the average cost of a honeymoon is £4,073 without spending money. This is far higher an amount than we expect our costs to be  

Over the next few months, I'll be sharing with you how much we spend on our wedding in Italy and the true costs of getting married abroad. If you have any tips or advice, we would love to hear them.

28 April 2013

How do you book a wedding in Italy?

Once we'd decided to get married in Italy, the first issue was where to start? How did we know we could book the wonderful wedding of our dreams yet find someone we could trust not to rip us off? How did we know that we wouldn't arrive in Italy to find the wedding of our dreams was really the stuff of nightmares?

We decided to start with the obvious, large tour operators. Since these were well known and mainly protected by ATOL, they seemed the safe, reassuring option. With Kuoni, Thomas Cook or Thomson organising our wedding day, it would be less likely to be ruined by some scam artist running off with our money or us arriving at our wedding venue to discover the ceremony was being held in a hovel in the middle of a building site.

The great thing about these sorts of weddings was that they would do everything for us. We would literally arrive at the hotel and they would organise the flowers, ceremony, food, drinks and legalities.

I had a friend who got married last year and booked a wedding package through Thomas Cook at the Olympic Lagoon Resort in Nissi Bay, Cyprus. She went into the travel agents and said "I want to get married somewhere hot" and they did everything else. The photos looked lovely and she had a wonderful, relaxed day. No bridezilla moments organising the order of service or table plan, she just handed everything over to the experts.

However, with the large tour operators, there wasn't a huge amount of choice. Most companies only held weddings in Lake Garda or Como, the Italian Riviera or the Amalfi Coast. It seemed that getting married in Greece or Cyprus was much more popular. Added to this, most of the ceremonies were held by the sea, around a lake or in a town hall. None of them had ceremonies in a vineyard and none of them were places in which we particularly wanted to get married.

Lake Como. A popular destination for Italian weddings

The next option was to organise everything ourselves. Find a venue, book a celebrant, organise a florist and book the caterers directly. This would have given us a whole load of flexibility, made our day more individual and less of a package and also provided us with a wider selection of towns and cities from which to choose.

The difficulty with this was that it would have taken a lot of time to organise. We simply didn't feel we had the time or money to fly out to Italy to meet with suppliers and, although Adam had basic Italian, we didn't feel confident negotiating with florists and caterers over the phone. We also felt we would have been much more susceptible to being ripped off.

So we decided to find a wedding planning company to do things for us. I guess we were looking for something in between a formulaic wedding organised completely for us and a bespoke wedding we organised ourselves. Something laid back where we had to make some choices, but where we wouldn't necessarily have to sweat the small things.

The sort of wedding we wanted

With a quick google search, we found a whole host of companies who would organise an Italian wedding for us. So the next issue was how did we know which companies were trustworthy? We couldn't meet all of them in person and there didn't seem to be an independent company we could use to judge whether organisers were reputable and whether we could rely on them with our money and wedding day.

We decided to base our choice on the following criteria:
- did their website look professional
- did they have lots of testimonials on their website
- were they willing to let us speak to other couples they had helped
- did they speak English and could we communicate with them via email
- did they have a presence on social media
- did searches on blogs and social media find any negative stories
- did they organise the sorts of weddings we wanted
- ultimately did we like the people we would be dealing with

After contacting a few companies, we chose Italy Weddings. They were really quick to respond to all of our emails and had lots of options and information they could share with us immediately. There were probably other companies we could have opted for, but they seemed right for us.

The main planner was Ben Singleton and he had English as a mother tongue. Their website contained hundreds of photos of exquisite looking weddings, beautiful flowers, wonderful destinations and breathtaking scenic back drops. As well as stacks of case studies of very happy couples.

Our friends Natalie and Phil are getting married in Spain next year and they've chosen a wedding planner to help them too. I think this is a really great option if you're getting married abroad. It's maybe not the cheapest route, but for us, we feel it's the best stress free route and we have someone holding our hands along the way. We hope we've made the right decision and I'll let you know over the next few months!

27 April 2013

A new chapter

When I started writing my blog a few years ago, I was a happy spinster and assumed I always would be. I mean, who would marry me?! No one would be that foolish. So my blog has largely been the experiences of a lone traveler and a single person enjoying food and wine.

However, the fact that a very foolish man has asked me to marry him kind of puts pay to that! So here's my confession. I'm getting married and its happening this year, in Italy.

The crazy fool just after he proposed in Turkey

We decided on Italy because Adam is half Italian and I always wanted to get married in a vineyard abroad. I've never actually been to Italy (other than to ski) and I've never got married before (obviously) so this feels like a bit of a step into the unknown. Perhaps a slightly mad step!

My lovely ring

Over the next few months I thought I'd share with you my experiences of planning and booking a wedding abroad. As a complete novice. Everything from choosing an area, finding a venue, selecting the food and, of course, the very important wine choices! And, hopefully (fingers crossed!) we'll get to the day itself and I'll share that with you too.

If you have had any experiences of planning a wedding abroad, I would love to hear from you. Any help or advice is very gratefully received!

14 April 2013

Catered vs non catered accommodation in the French Alps

I've always thought that one day I would buy my own ski chalet. Somewhere near Lyons or Geneva so I could pop over for a weekend of snow, sun and après-ski. I’d get to know the best ski runs, I’d speak to French like a local and I’d probably have an affair with an instructor called Yves.

Until I earn significantly more than I do, I will have to accept rental accommodation. Over the years, I've stayed at a variety of ski rentals. With everything from a huge apartment block in Val Thorens to a catered chalet in Meribel.

Having recently returned from a ski trip to La Plagne, I thought I would explore the benefits of the different types of ski accommodation.

In my view, there are two main types:self-catered apartment or catered chalet. You can obviously stay at traditional hotels, but for me, this is a very expensive way of going skiing. And, given that ski holidays are one of the dearest holidays you can go on, I don’t know why you would suffer the extra expense.

Benefits of self-catering apartments
  • With a self-catering apartment you get the freedom of cooking your own food to your own tastes and dietary needs. This can be especially useful if you have allergies or picky children
  • You can eat when you like. You don’t have to be up by nine in order to catch breakfast, or leave the slope side bars by 7 in order to catch dinner
  • If you meet people or there are different groups of people going on the holiday, you can easily invite them over for dinner without it being an issue
  • Eating on the slopes can be expensive. So you can make your own packed lunch and take it out on the slopes

Down-sides of self-catering apartments
  • There are some mini markets on the resorts, but the produce is limited and expensive so you have to be more organised and stop off at a hypermarket en route
  • It means you either have to cook and clean every day or accept the expense of eating out
  • Often, the cost of self-catering apartments is not significantly different to catered chalet
  • Apartments can be large, multi-story affairs. My advice would be to try and avoid the real eye-sores

Benefits of catered chalets
  • Everything is done for you. The sheets are generally changed every day, your plates and glasses are tidied away and your bathroom is cleaned daily
  • You have three meals cooked for you on all days apart from the leave day (generally a Wednesday). So, breakfast and supper as well as tea and cake when you get back from the slopes
  • You generally get unlimited white and red wine with your evening meal. That’s right, unlimited wine
  • The chalet staff are on hand every day to help with questions and advice. They’re all doing a ski season, so they know the best slopes, the best restaurants and where to stop for steak hache on the mountainside
  • Chalets tend to be smaller buildings. So can be more attractive than the cram-them-in apartments
  • Unless you are a group, you’ll generally share with other people. This can be useful if you're travelling with different abilities or if you are looking to have a spot of holiday romance (please note, this can also have downsides, see below)

Downsides to catered chalets
  • If you have very specific dietary requirements, a catered chalet may not be for you. In the larger chalets in particular, you often don’t get much of a choice around what you are presented at 7pm
  • Unless there is a large group of you, you’ll generally share with other people. This can mean you get stuck with people you don’t like, screaming babies or overly familiar people
  • The chalet staff are often there all the time. If you don’t like them, they can be annoying
  • The chalet staff make additional income from the “honesty bars” that they operate. Some chalets therefore operate a rule where you can only drink alcohol purchased within the chalet. Which is obviously more expensive than if bought elsewhere

My top tips for finding accommodation
Here are my five top tips for finding accommodation:
  1. If you have specific dietary needs or tastes, you might be better off with a smaller chalet rather than a larger one. We recently stayed at a smaller, boutique-style chalet in Les Coches where the chef cooked us bespoke food each day. It meant that they were able to cook a gluten-free cake for when we got back from the slopes and cook evening meals without dairy.If you have ever been on a ski holiday in France, you know that most meals are topped with cheese or doused in cream so this is an absolute luxury. Here’s my review on TripAdvisor of the place we recently stayed as it was excellent.
  2. You should always look for accommodation that backs out ontothe slopes. Having been on many holidays where I've had to lug my skis up hillsand onto shuttle buses, it really isn't much fun. Also, check the ski ability needed for the slopes located by the accommodation. If you are a beginner,you’re not going to be able to ski out onto a red or black run.
  3. Following on from this, there is nothing worse than finding out that the ski rental shop is a bus ride from your chalet. Honestly, skis,boots and poles are the most cumbersome and heavy items to lug around. It may cost you a bit more, but if you can get the ski people to deliver and fit your skis at your accommodation, it removes a lot of the hassle.
  4. If you are catering for yourself, be organised. You’ll need to stop off at a large supermarket before you start climbing the mountains.But, if you run out of anything, you may not be able to get everything you need in the local markets. Plan what you are going to cook and shop accordingly.
  5. If you are sharing with other people, tread carefully. You may find yourself agreeing on the first day over a glass of free wine to going to ski lessons altogether,only to discover that you have nothing in common by day two. Absolutely, it’s great if you can find people at a similar level to you that you can head out to the slopes with. But, if you fall out, things can get awkward.
I hope this helps you plan your next ski trip. Have fun and enjoy the après ski. I would recommend a vin chaude every day at around 11am.

3 March 2013

How can you tell if people are enjoying a meal? By the click of an iPhone of course!

You used to be able to tell the quality of a good restaurant by the volume of the conversation or the scraping of empty plates. These days, there’s a technological indication- people taking photos of their plates using their iPhones (other smart phone devices are available).

The other week, for example, I had supper with some colleagues at a restaurant near Swindon called The Pear Tree at Purton. I’d been to the restaurant before and knew it was good so I’d recommended going there.

The food, as always, was exquisite. To start, I had Marinated, Smoked Beef Fillet, Sweet Potato and Coriander Salad followed by Steamed Paupiettes of Lemon Sole, Salmon and Lemon Grass Mousseline, Vegetable Spaghetti. It was absolutely delicious and looked pretty as a picture too.

My delicious meal at the Pear Tree at Purton

My meal was so pretty in fact that I decided to take a photo and to my surprise, my colleagues followed suit! All three of the ladies at the table took snaps of their food (the only man present refrained!)

Now, I quite often capture shots of my food as it helps me to remember what I have eaten so I can write about my dining experiences on my blog. I also frequently photograph really nice wine so that I have a record of the label enabling me to buy it again in the future. But I'm fairly sure not all my colleagues have blogs, or are as obsessed with wine as me.

So why do people do it? Simple. Because they want to share their positive dining experiences with their friends and family through social media. It’s not really a surprise since people share photos of their holidays and parties, so it makes sense that they should share photos of other things they have enjoyed such as really nice meals. It acts as a sort of rating of restaurants – see how great the food looks, you should definitely eat here.

I think more restaurants should take advantage of this. If people take photos at their tables, they are more than likely to end up on Facebook, probably with the venue name tagged, acting as a recommendation to friends.

Some of the bottles of wine I've photographed in restaurants over the years.

Some backward restaurants are missing a trick though by not allowing diners to take photos at all. I was in The Ivy in London recently and the table next to me were enjoying a special 50th birthday meal. They wanted to take photos to document the special occasion and you could tell they were excited to be eating in the famous Ivy. However, the waiter soon put a stop to their fun, stating that house policy is there should be no photographs taken in the restaurant.

Presumably this is to protect their celebrity diners and stop them from getting bothered by cameras during their meals. It’s just a shame for the other customers, as their enjoyment is outweighed by a desire to protect celebrity. And, I think they are missing an opportunity for people to talk about the venue on social networks.

I personally love it when my friends post pictures of food they have eaten or even cooked themselves on Facebook. Frankly, it makes a change from the sea of baby photos that seem to populate my timeline. I’d much rather drool over a plate of delicious looking cuisine or a cherry red glass of the strong stuff.

2 March 2013

Wine is back in fashion!

A few decades ago, you couldn't move for fancy wine bars and there were Threshers and Oddbins on virtually every corner. However, nice wine seems to have fallen out of favour in our town centres of late. 

Take my home city of Salisbury as an example. Our last off-licence closed a few years ago and most of the bars serve house red or pinot grigio and not really a great deal more. Every type of vodka under the sun, yes. A selection of wines from the Stellenbosch, no.

If you want a bottle of decent wine, you invariably have to go to a supermarket or restaurant and suffer something slightly substandard everywhere else.

I'm pleased to say that the trend seems to have started to buck, in Salisbury at least. 

Last year, a specialist wine retailer finally opened in Salisbury, as part of the Cambridge Wine Merchants chain. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine to buy wine in a supermarket and I am a massive fan of the selection at Waitrose and Marks and Spencer. However, nothing can replace walking into a shop, and being able to ask what wine they would recommend to go with the duck or fish dish you are cooking that night. And having the personal service of expert wine advice based on your tastes and preferences.

Cambridge Wine Merchants, Salisbury

And, you don’t just get some store attendant who has done a three week course in beverages as part of their store induction. These guys know their stuff.  The manager, Gareth, has long recommended and slurped wine and used to manage the last of the wine shops in Salisbury, Oddbins and Nicolas. Last time we went in there, we explained we were going to my parent’s for coq au vin and Gareth recommended a delicious drop of Italian red. A far better experience than interpreting the pretensions of a marketing label on a wine bottle.

Then, in the New Year, joy of joys we got a wine bar! A real wine bar! Well a wine café by the name of Crane Street Wine Café. OK, they do serve food and I did go there for an evening meal, however, you can just pop in for a glass of wine and you don’t have to serve food. And, they have a really good selection and the food is pretty good too. 

Crane Street Wine Cafe in Salisbury. Finally the wine bar is back!

Run by the gregarious Andy Griggs, the place has a really classy ambience and décor too and I can see myself whiling away many an afternoon with a glass of Pinot, watching the people go by. We enjoyed a delicious bottle of Australian Shiraz. And then we enjoyed a second delicious bottle! If you do decide to eat, I would heartily recommend the tuna steak and my Dad wolfed down his spare ribs, so I assume they were pretty tasty! 

I’d be interested to know if this trend is being replicated in other towns across the UK. For me, this is a great departure from shots and red bull and a decidedly more sophisticated way to enjoy a drop.

PS I couldn't write an article about wine in Salisbury without mentioning the Majestic wine store in Salisbury. For me, it’s off this list because it isn't in the town centre and requires a car journey to get there. Plus, you have to buy a six bottle case and you can’t just pop in for a bottle. However, their service is impeccable, there’s nearly always a Pinot Noir on the tasting bar and they do social well. So plus points from me.