Tag Archives: lunch

On the Bab, Old Street

Ooh I do love a soft launch.

The hefty discounts, the jovial first-day-at-school atmosphere, the shyly welcoming staff – and of course the chance to give a new restaurant’s dishes a whirl. Even the inevitable delays and mishaps are part of the fun of the dress rehearsal before the “real” opening.

On The Bab is billed as East London’s first restaurant specialising in anju : the Korean custom of eating small snacks with alcohol.

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A friend and I popped into On The Bab yesterday for lunch for the second day of its soft launch. While the 50% off prices allowed us to order with impunity, the lunchtime hour stopped us from ordering booze, so we will have to return for a true anju experience.

However the food was good enough sober to ensure that we will be back soon for the lethal-sounding soju cocktails.

Yangyun chicken with soy garlic glaze. Crushed peanuts gave the crust a fantastic savoury crunchiness.

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Pa Jeon – pancakes with seafood and spring onion. Surprisingly dense and chewy, I was expecting a lighter crepe style. These were a decent vehicle for the house chilli oils and sauces.

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Bibimbab – not served in a sizzling pot like in New Malden. This version was more like a refreshing salad with its mix of crunchy veg, room temperature rice and sesame dressing.

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“On the buns” was a highlight for me. I can’t get enough of pillowy steamed buns at the moment and these bad boys had a special shape and deep pockets for a generous amount of spicy pork filling.

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Naturally, we had to order a side of kimchi, which was served clamped down in a sturdy tin, presumably to keep the dish’s famous fermented fumes in check.

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They had run out of Kimchi Jeon and Bab Twigin, an innovative kimchi & cheese arancini which was a shame, and I do think they’re missing a trick by not offering a takeaway service or a set menu for the lunchtime crowds.

At half price we paid just £8 each. I’ve heard it said that to avoid buyer’s remorse and foolish purchases when shopping in sales, you should consider whether the item you covet would really be desirable at full price before you dig out your wallet. In the case of On The Bab – absolutely.

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Sticks ‘n’ Sushi Covent Garden launch

The website for Sticks ‘n’ Sushi carries the tag line “voted best sushi in Copenhagen, trying hard in London”.

The Danish brand’s efforts here have so far focused on the Wimbledon restaurant which opened last year. Wimbledon is an unexpected location to open a new restaurant, particularly one keen to expand (there are eleven locations in Copenhagen) but the brand’s UK flagship became popular with well-heeled locals and a favourite lunch spot for “yummy mummies”.

They also ran some clever marketing during the tennis to take advantage of the borough’s annual fortnight of inflated popularity, but for the rest of the time the brand’s Twitter feed worked hard to persuade non-locals that Wimbledon was really not that far from central London.

Now the first Sticks ‘n’ Sushi  venue in zone 1 has opened its doors and I was happy to be invited to one of the preview launch nights. The interior has a minimalist, Scandinavian aesthetic with both table and bar seating. Downstairs is the place to go if you want to glimpse your food being made in the open plan kitchen.

Cheeky “Denmark vs. UK” messaging is visible throughout the venue, even on the staff’s t-shirts which have slogans like “Danish lessons on the house” with snippets of translated vocabulary. Glossy table-talkers show stylish black & white images of landmarks, cultural references and scenery comparing the two countries.

However the fun, cutesy tone is secondary to Sticks ‘n’ Sushi’s main point of difference: the menus declare that this is a sushi restaurant “for people who don’t like sushi”.

The “sticks” part of the name does not refer to chopsticks as many assume, but to the meaty yakitori skewers which make up around half the menu. Sticks ‘n’ Sushi is a decent compromise for couples or groups of friends where one party has a sushi craving while the rest crave steak.

Of course I love both so ordered a few things from the Ikea catalogue style menu. This is not meant as an insult; I usually run a mile from restaurants which display pictures of the food (they’re usually dodgy kebab shops or awful tourist traps) but Sticks ‘n’ Sushi’s menu is a great example of how to do something differently, with glossy pages, clear images, attractive styling and carefully considered layout.

Chargrilled edamame, with patches of scorched, smokey skin, were perfect to pick at with cocktails while we decided what to order.

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Tuna tartare with tobiko and quail’s egg yolk had beautifully clean, subtle flavours.

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This sushi platter would probably make purist Japanese sushi chefs furious but I couldn’t resist ordering something called “Hell’s Kitchen rolls” – tempura shrimp, spicy sauce, avocado and tuna.

Our waitress also recommended the Salmon New York Nigiri which includes garlic – one of the most popular dishes apparently (seen in foreground).

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Yakitori skewers with a decadent foie gras and truffle glaze.

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The spare ribs were the dud of the dishes we tried, with a somewhat dry, tough texture and way too much coriander.

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Yakiniku steak served with kimchee was a fusion dish done well, although the kimchee did not have the punch of the New Malden version.

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We finished our meal with a foursome of miniature desserts which caused serious spoon-clashing as we fought over the last morsels. It would have been no problem to polish off full sizes of all of them, particularly the chocolate fondant with hazelnut and caramel brittle.

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The restaurant may be “trying hard in London” but as long as it continues to ensure that both sides of their offering are equally high quality, they can relax a little. I dare say we will be seeing more Sticks ‘n’ Sushi restaurants opening up around London before long.

Sticks N Sushi on Urbanspoon

When you think there’s nothing to eat…

Sometimes Mark struggles to “see” the ways a meal can be made with what is available.

His brain goes: “it’s lunchtime…a sandwich or salad would be good…we don’t have much bread and there’s no lettuce! Nothing to be done!” and then there’s a great panic and his head explodes.

He’s very good at following recipes to the letter but he finds it challenging to substitute alternatives or tweak set instructions. So he ends up running to Waitrose to spend a fortune on food we don’t need, while what we do have sits back at the flat, forlorn and forgotten.

Conversely, I like scrabbling around and finding things to do with odds and ends.

Those TV programmes where the chef stumbles upon pristine “leftovers” that “just happen to be at the back of the fridge” (cough Nigel Slater cough) can be tedious, particularly when they are beautifully wrapped, expensive artisan ingredients.

Things I “just happen to have” tend to be incongruous items bought when a bit drunk on the way home.

The other day the chirpy fruit & veg man at Vauxhall station had some fat avocados for a bargainous price and they ended up joining me on my train to Clapham Junction.

So later when Mark’s head was on the verge of detonation, it was a simple matter to grab a ripe one, add some fresh diced tomato, a squeeze of lemon and bung it on some toasted sourdough rubbed with a clove of garlic and olive oil. Instant and delicious lunch.

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As my lovely mother would say, you would pay a lot of money for that in a restaurant!

Last supper(s) in Saigon

Our time in Vietnam ended as it began: dashing around a mad, chaotic city filled with history, traffic and tempting food, wishing we had more time.

With less than 48 hours until our flight home after six long months away, we tried to strike the balance between seeing as much as possible in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon and HCMC) and simply enjoying our last days travelling.

While it was tempting to indulge in nothing but eating and drinking, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to go to the War Remnants museum. The images and stories of the Vietnam War, its victims and continuing impact were humbling. I was moved before we even entered at the sight of the vast helicopters, tanks and other killing machines parked outside. Each room of the museum increased the weeping. The photo below is just one of hundreds of harrowing images (mostly taken by Western photojournalists) in the museum. Note the baby in the centre of the image.

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Elsewhere we were able to see evidence of modern Vietnam; an optimistic, dynamic city moving forwards.

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Luxury brands are everywhere; Vietnam is very much an emerging market.

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I love this picture of a typical super chilled xe om moto taxi driver passing the time between jobs while the city whizzes past.

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This kid is practising to be just like that when he grows up.

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Of course we left plenty of time for our favourite pastime: harebrained forays into the depths of a city to find obscure eateries. On a scuba dive in Nha Trang we met a lovely chick who was a HCMC native and fellow food lover who was happy to share her insider knowledge.

I’m convinced our new friend Phuong was our foodie fairy godmother; every place she sent us was exactly what we were after – breathtakingly good food, unpretentious settings and honest prices.

In southern Vietnam and HCMC, pho is served with far more herbs and accompaniments than its northern counterpart. The noodle soup is still the star of the show but in HCMC the supporting cast is just as important.

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Sure enough at Pho Hoa on Pasteur St the tables were laden with abundant thickets of greenery, plus all sorts of other goodies to supplement your meal.

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The cubic banana leaf packages are called “wedding cakes”. The long doughy sticks are Chinese bread, great for dunking in your soup. Home made condiments like pickled garlic and chilli sauce let you personalise your bowl as you eat.

In the middle of one of these life changing meals, I was reminded of a friendly Geordie we met in our Sydney hostel. When he learnt we were heading to Vietnam next, he wrinkled his nose and said that out of everywhere he had been in Asia, Vietnam was his least favourite. Apparently he wasn’t a fan of the cuisine which he described it as “weird meatballs in water”. This comment caused a loud CHANGE THE SUBJECT QUICK klaxon to go off in my head.

The world is a wonderfully diverse place with all kinds of people and points of view, but there is no way I can talk about food with someone who can’t appreciate a heady, fragrant broth of meaty bones, vegetables and spices simmered for hours (and perfected over generations) until the flavours became harmoniously balanced. I stuck to general weather chitchat from then on.

Phuong actually got a little giddy when she told us about Banh mi Huynh Hoa, 26 Le Thi Rieng street.

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Fresh, crunchy, featherlight rice flour baguettes are crammed with pâté, ham, pork floss and innumerable other slices of meat (I was reminded of New York style deep filled deli sandwiches), and finished with a couple of devilishly hot slices of chilli and some token cooling cucumber.

We had such a good time on the cooking course in Hoi An, we decided to sign up for another recommended lesson in HCMC.

Cyclo Resto was much smaller and more personalised than Morning Glory, so we were able to request specific recipes and learn how to make new dishes.

The “cyclo” part of the name refers to their preferred mode of transport between the market and the school…

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We had a go at winter melon and prawn soup…

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spring rolls…

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lemongrass chicken…

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snake head fish cooked in a clay pot with laksa leaves…

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green papaya salad with dried spicy beef…

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There was a ridiculous amount of food between four of us!

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Part of the lesson was fancy garnishes. I doubt I will ever feel the urge to make a kitsch swan out of a tomato but it’s impossible not to admire the chef’s knife skills.

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I may attempt the tomato rosebud however…

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Although seeing my efforts next to a professional’s, I’ll stick to the simple and cheesy cucumber heart.

Thanks Vu for helping us create a wonderful last supper to toast our travels!

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Learning to cook Vietnamese dishes in Hoi An

In the hope of being able to recreate some of the extraordinary food we’ve eaten in Vietnam when we’re back in Blighty (very soon! – sob!), Mark and I signed up for a cookery class in Hoi An.

The lesson at the Morning Glory Cookery School began early at the market – we were given the traditional conical hats to protect us from the fierce sun, and to help our teacher find us more easily in the hustle and bustle.

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This lady wears hers with far more attitude.

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Morning glory (no tittering at the back please; morning glory is a leafy green vegetable also known as water spinach, delicious stir fried with garlic and popular all over Vietnam) has hollow stems which can be split into fine strands for salads etc with this nifty tool.

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It was great having a local guide to answer all my questions in the market and point out details like the many types of noodle available.

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Bean sprout ladies

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Vegetables & fruit

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Different kinds of rice flour pancakes

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It was all too much for some…

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After an hour or so, before we too felt the need for a nap, it was back to the classroom to watch a master demonstration and then try our hand at some recipes. It felt a little like The Generation Game at times but we managed to keep up (modesty aside, we were star pupils…)

First, canh su (cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth)

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Then banh xeo (crispy pancake with pork, prawns and beansprouts rolled up with rice paper, green banana and herbs)

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And goi xoai (spicy green mango salad)

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I hear that the UK has had a bit of a heatwave so I’ll share the recipe for this refreshing mango salad at the end of the post.

We enjoyed the food at Morning Glory so much that we returned to their restaurant that night for their famous pork “roll it” dish.

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This region is known for its good food. Our teacher joked that men who want beautiful wives look in the North or South of Vietnam; those who want to marry a good cook come to central Vietnam to look in Hoi An. I know which I’d choose – looks fade but hunger persists!

Sure enough, outside of Morning Glory’s doors we continued to eat exceptionally well. Even the little shacks on the nearby An Bang beach served gourmet seafood treats like steamed lemongrass clams and tamarind crab. Cheaper than chips too!

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A Hoi An speciality is cau lao, a noodle dish with slices of roast pork, croutons made from deep fried squares of noodle dough, beansprouts and herbs.

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The components of the dish are assembled in little separate piles, which locals are able to mix together deftly with their chopsticks. Our attemps were a bit messier!

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The distinctive cau lao noodles make the dish special: chewy and rough in texture, a bit like a chunky Japanese soba noodle. Unlike the soupy depths of broth in pho, with cau lao you get just a dribble of cooking juices to wet the noodles.

Apparently, the dish is traditionally made using water from specific Cham-era wells in Hoi An which impart a particular flavour – I doubt all of the street stalls selling it abide by that rule these days! Even so, the ancient wells around town are guarded under lock and key for only a few lucky people to access.

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Hoi An lights up at night. The beautiful lanterns and fairy lights hanging from the trees next to the river give the place a dreamy, festival-like feel.

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Children sell candles which you can float down the river in colourful paper boats for good luck.

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As well as food, the other thing Hoi An is known for is good tailoring. I hope our expanding waistlines didn’t cause too much trouble for the tailor we chose!

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Goi Xoai (Vietnamese spicy green mango salad) from Morning Glory Cookery Class
Serves 4 as a starter

200g green mango, sliced finely
1 onion, sliced finely
1.5 cups Vietnamese mint and mint
2tsp sesame seeds, roasted
1tbsp vegetable oil
2tbsp crispy fried shallots
1tbsp lime juice
1tbsp white sugar
1tsp fish sauce
1tsp red chilli and garlic, pounded

4 rice crackers, to serve

In a bowl put mango and onion slices, 1 cup of mint, 1 tsp sesame seeds, lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, chilli & garlic mix and vegetable oil.
Mix well.
Serve on 4 small plates and garnish with the remaining mint, sesame seeds and fried shallots. Season to taste and serve with rice crackers.

Hanoi: a city built on street food

I started prepping Mark for our visit to Hanoi months before we actually arrived.

“We will be eating as much as physically possible,” I said matter-of-factly. “I don’t want to hear any ridiculous excuses like ‘we just ate’ or ‘I’m already full’ or ‘we’ve already had four bowls of pho today’. We’ve only got three days there and I have a long list of places where we have to eat. We will probably get a bit fat but so be it; we can diet when we’re back home. We will just have to man up and eat through the pain!”

Mark chuckled at me as I went back to my complex system of cross-referencing recommendations from Vietnamese friends in London, tips from my days working with Pho restaurants, online forums, twitter, guide books and maps.

After that, I reckon I could run a military dictatorship, no problem.

As planned, we arrived and were soon negotiating the famous crazy Vietnamese traffic and the narrow alleys in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where street food glory is found in abundance.

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The tangled electrical wiring is as crazy/dodgy as the traffic.

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Let me give you an idea of our typical schedule over the three days we spent in Hanoi. We would get up at around 7am, have some tea and fresh fruit at our guesthouse before heading out for two or three bowls of pho at different street stalls around town. Then we may have a mid-morning snack of banh mi sandwiches (just to keep our metabolisms ticking over) before it was time for lunch – probably bun cha noodles to have a change from pho.

Sometime mid-afternoon, one of us would point out that it was probably beer o’clock. We would find the nearest bia hoi (fresh beer) joint (25 pence a glass). Inevitably we would be offered a snack like bo la lot (beef wrapped in betel leaves and grilled).

For dinner we would go more upmarket and eat at an actual restaurant rather than perched on tiny plastic stools at the side of the road. We would aid digestion with a stroll around a night market where we would be tempted by snacks like bánh cuốn (barbecued pork wrapped in rice paper), giant prawns or slices of sour green mango dipped in salt and chilli powder (my favourite).

Here are some of the highlights – this is the stuff that made the extra chub around our waists worthwhile.

bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup)

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Pho tai nam (noodle soup with roasted and rare beef) at Pho Gia Truyen. This baby was superlatively good, combining the different flavours and textures of savoury cooked beef and thin slivers of very rare, pink meat in a silky broth. I actually felt sad as I neared the end of my bowl, knowing I would measure all other pho against this one.

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There was a long queue of locals outside; one woman smiled and said “this place, number one!” as if congratulating us on finding it.

Mark queuing patiently

Mark queuing patiently

Giant prawns, grilled over charcoal:

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These guys managed to escape our greed…

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Cha ca at Cha Ca La Vong. The dish is prepared with oodles of green herbs, which are stir fried with fish and other ingredients at your table.

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As the sign says, this is all they serve here. It’s funny how restaurants with only one or two items on the menu have only recently become a trend in London; they’ve been doing it for ages here.

Pho ga (chicken noodle soup) at Pho Hang Dieu

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And around the corner, pho bo (beef noodle soup) at Pho Thin

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At Pho Thin they stir fry the beef before adding it to the stock, which gives an amazing smoky flavour. It’s also served with a thumbs up and a smile!

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Another incarnation of cha ca flavours, this time wrapped in rice paper at Highway 4:

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Also some pork ribs in barbecue sauce, also from Highway 4:

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Check out the crackling on this pork:

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Dinner at Quán Ăn Ngon:

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Believe it or not, we also managed to find time for non-food related sights and activities. I was going to talk about them here but I’ve just made myself hungry with all these pictures; I must go and find sustenance. Toodle pip!

Queenstown: Winter Festival, skiing, bungy and general indulgences

Some people thought we were mad to travel to New Zealand in June, mid-winter down under. “If I had six months off work to travel, I would stick to hot climates and beaches”, they said.

Mark and I, however, love winter – especially snow. Soon after we met, one of the first things he ever asked me was whether I ski. When I replied that I had lived and worked in the Alps for two whole ski seasons I could almost see the giant box he was ticking inside his head.

Some of our best trips and happiest memories together have been in ski resorts. We are even talking about having a winter wedding, partly because of the appeal of a honeymoon in the mountains…

So we were excited about the prospect of getting some time on the slopes in NZ, and even more so when we heard that there would be a “Winter Festival” in Queenstown at the end of June.

Unfortunately the Winter Festival was hardly the Glastonbury in the snow we had hoped for; the only evidence of any kind of festival were a few flimsy signs dotted around town. Hardly any of the standup comedy, freestyle ski and snowboard performances and general boozy partying promised on the festival’s website could be found.

Still, we were there with Anya and her friend Russ who had flown down from Auckland for a long weekend, so we were able to make our own fun.

The ski fields in NZ are all smaller than what we are used to in Europe or the States – just a handful of lifts and pistes. Luckily the conditions were great after a big dump, so plenty of snow to play in anyway.

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Gabby the campervan came into her own for skiing – it was brilliant having a massive vehicle for all of our gear, not to mention a warm, dry place to make lunch and avoid the crowded, pricey cafe on the mountain.

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making lunch

As Russ couldn’t ski, the next day was a day of indulgence at the Amisfield Winery in nearby Arrowtown. We all went for the “trust the chef” option: five courses with wine matching made for several enjoyable hours of indulgence.

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beetroot and apple soup

beetroot and apple soup

bluenose fish

bluenose fish

Unlike the time in Argentina, Mark and I managed not to fall asleep on the lawn, although it did look rather tempting.

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Instead, we sneaked into Anya & Russ’ s posh resort for some spa time and to watch the sun set.

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It’s a hard life!

Although such languid relaxation is possible, Queenstown is more about extreme adrenalin rushes. Mark had never done a skydive and I had only done one in Oxfordshire, with delightful views of the M4 and a sewage plant. So we were both keen to take the plunge (literally). Regrettably it wasn’t to be – bad weather meant our booking was cancelled four times and we left NZ without jumping out of a plane.

We consoled ourselves with visits to Queenstown’s legendary Fergburger and next door, Fergbaker for classic NZ pies. The “Ferg”empire is so famous, people we met in Peru told us we had to go!

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We also had some lovely walks around the lake.

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But all was not lost in our quest for adventure: I signed up for the 134m Nevis bungy jump, the biggest in Australasia. There were smaller ones around Queenstown but I figured if I was going to ignore every sane instinct and fling myself off a tiny ledge into stomach-churning freefall, I may as well get a superlative under my belt. “Go big or go home” as they say around here!

Even weeks later, I’m thrilled to say I did it! Definitely one of the scariest challenges of my life, although the most intense fear came in the days leading up to the jump. I tortured myself with ill advised Google searches for things like “bungy death”, “bungy accident” etc which Mark thought was hilarious (easy for him to laugh when he refused even to consider signing up).

On the day however, something took over and I became very focused. The music choices played on the way there helped. Fact: nothing makes you feel more of an invincible badass than “Eye of the Tiger”.

Before bungy

Before bungy

ready to go

ready to go

Of course, the stomach flips returned as my turn to jump got nearer. One of the Nevis team led me to the ledge. I vividly remember how hairy his forearm was, I was gripping on to it so hard.

He gently extracted himself and just as my mind began to race, he simply said, “don’t think about it, just do it, 3, 2, 1″… Magically, obediently, as if possessed I shut down my rational consciousness and leant forward, as if diving into a swimming pool.

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Rational thought returned the instant freefall began. I was so shocked I had jumped I didn’t even scream, but just took it all in, wide eyed and gasping at the ground accelerating towards me. Somehow I remembered that I was meant to pull a cord to release my feet on the second bounce – as soon I was the right way up I began giggling uncontrollably with pure joy and relief.

After I was pulled up to the solid floor of the cable car, the feeling of euphoria was unmatched.

After bungy - manic grin and teary eyes

After bungy – manic grin and teary eyes

For the video, click here.

Although the bungy wasn’t for him and his pesky fear of heights, Mark also experienced a similar moment of insanity and glory on the Nevis swing, the world’s biggest swing.

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We did this in tandem which was great fun. I thought it would be a cinch after the bungy but it was a pretty terrifying drop – what made it easier was the fact that someone else pushed the release button rather than the crucial moment being all down to you.

In any case, the wise words of the steady, calm Nevis worker have now become a life mantra for me: “don’t think about it, just do it”. That goes for anyone considering longterm travel too!