Yearly Archives of: 2022

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12 Nights on a Virgin Voyages Cruise

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Like many in the UK my impression of the demographic who “go on a cruise” is of people in their 70s or 80s who’re too old to travel themselves and instead go on what is basically a floating hotel to different places, then do organised excursions on land. When my girlfriend suggested we go on a Virgin Voyages cruise my initial thought was “but I’m way too young for a cruise, I know I’m getting older but I’m not that much older”. It turns out I was completely wrong and instead I had the best holiday ever! Some review style writing and a shed load of photos to follow.

What is Virgin Voyages?

Virgin Voyages are an adults only cruise company (part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group) which (as of the time of writing) has two brand new, state of the art cruise ships that can house around 2700 passengers. They sail around the Caribbean and Mediterranean and we travelled on the latter. What sets it apart from the stereotypical “oldies” cruise ships my imagination made me think of is that their offering seems aimed at a much younger audience.

On board you can find several gyms (and I don’t mean just a few running machines, there is everything you’d need to stay in shape if you’re an elite level athlete, want to do yoga with an amazing view, hit a heavy punch bag or if you just want to do arm curls in front of a mirror). There’s even a running track! With countless classes from early morning yoga to HIIT sessions to one on one personal trainers to massages (all booked via the app on your phone while on board) there’s plenty to stay active. Plus you can get your haircut or even have a tattoo if you so desire (I skipped this one).

With over 20 restaurants (more about them later – spoiler: the food was amazing) you’re never stuck for something to eat and they have a full blown theatre where we saw various acts from acrobats to stand up comedy to a man who could solve the rubik’s cube blindfolded in seconds (I can solve the rubik’s cube in a few minutes so to see someone with such mastery was something to behold – very impressive).

There were pools and jacuzzis as you’d expect along with a large selection of bars. But the most striking thing to me was the staff who were absolutely delightful. They told us they were encouraged by Virgin to be themselves and it was nice to see so many of the crew being just that – there were countless nationalities, many people with tattoos, awesome haircuts and they made the trip even more fun as we got to know a lot of them.

And the demographic of the people on the cruise? I’d say they were mostly 20s-30s, fit, active and I definitely felt more towards the upper limit in terms of age (although there were people older than me). However age didn’t matter, everyone was treated the same and there was something for everyone to do.

The Cabin

Prior to departure Virgin Voyages offers a bidding process where you can bid for room upgrades to some of their “Rock Star” suites. Think business class vs economy class. I figured “what the hell”, bid on a few and ended up getting what’s called a “Brilliant Suite”. It was appropriately named.

The room was massive. It had a walk in wet room, the sort of bathroom I’d expect in a luxury hotel, a super king sized bed, balcony (all balconies have a hammock – where I spent plenty of time swinging watching the sea go by), L-shaped sofa to relax on, a record player (oh yes), a large drinks cabinet with free alcohol (almost none of it we drank but I can say the tequila was lovely) and a really handy vanity area for looking even more gorgeous (which I left to my girlfriend because it was never going to work on me).

One of the coolest features was the rooms lights and curtains were controlled from a tablet. It contained “moods” that once clicked would set the mood. One was “get it on” which closed the curtains, turned the lights to a nice shade of pink and played exactly the sort of tune you’d expect to hear if you were going to “get it on”! First time that button was pressed it was hilarious! 😀 I love the attention to detail.

Having such a luxurious and relaxing cabin meant we were more than happy to spend time chilling there. It was great after a day hiking up a hill on shore to come back and unwind, watching dolphins from the hammock. 12 nights there didn’t feel like long enough, it very quickly felt like home, something I never find even in top class hotels.

Now that said, having had a look at the standard rooms while on the ship I would also have been quite happy to spend time there too. With clever design features to maximise the space and the option of having “day mode” where the bed converts into sofas it wouldn’t have been much of a hardship. Although for me having a balcony would be essential, I loved relaxing watching the world go by from it.

The Valiant Lady (The Ship)

A cruise ship that can house 2700 guests comfortably is pretty big. Fortunately there were just under 1000 people on board when we travelled which meant we had free rein and never felt overcrowded anywhere we went. There were plenty of places to chill out and relax in the sun, or in the shade, or in the quiet, or where there were other people, in fact you could pretty much imagine any setting you wanted and go and find it on board. It was clear that a lot of thought had gone into the design of the ships various areas to provide different moods or atmospheres with a common design language throughout.

Staying in a rock star suite meant we had access to Richard’s Terrace, a section at the front of the ship where there was free champagne on offer in the late afternoon. It was cool, but we found our favourite spot was towards the back of the ship so didn’t spend a great amount of time there. Interestingly the average age of people on Richard’s Terrace was probably mid-60s! No conclusions drawn.

Having never been on a cruise ship before I had to keep reminding myself I was actually on a cruise ship. My brain thought I was in some luxury hotel / village and there was nothing to give away that I was floating on water. Well except when walking out on deck, obviously.

The staff were always on hand so were happy to go and get you food and drink lest you get off your lazy arse and get it yourself. Which brings me onto the next point…

The Food

Oh my. Where to begin. You know when you do your web based research about an eatery and of course all the photos of the food look amazing? Usually it’s because the photographer has used all kinds of tricks and things like hair spray to make the food look delicious and better than the reality. In this case, if anything the food was better than I expected, and I was expecting very very good food.

With over 20 restaurants to choose from, we were wondering if we’d be able to try everything in the 12 days of time on ship. Half a dozen of the restaurants need to be booked in advance – which you do on the app on your phone – but the rest are drop in. We started with “The Test Kitchen” as that looked the most interesting on paper with a selection of experimental style dishes and it did not disappoint. I’ve had tasting menus in Michelin star restaurants and while it wasn’t quite to that standard, it was pretty close. Thinking we’d already been to the best restaurant we went to “Extra Virgin” a couple of nights later (an Italian) and that was even better! Incredibly fresh seafood, delicious sauces and cooked to perfection. That high standard of cuisine was the common thread throughout our stay.

There was literally everything you could want whether you wanted to eat healthy salads, cakes, fried food, tasting menus, drink fancy coffees, etc. I can see why people put weight on when going on cruises if this is what it’s like – and the fact that all the food was included in the price made it even more of a bargain. I’ve been to a lot of restaurants over the years but few have rivalled the food I had on the ship. Here’s a selection of photos that show how it looked, but trust me, it tasted even better! (And no hairspray was used).

The Land Based Activities

Ok so a cruise is on water but eventually it docks and you can either stay on the boat or get off and go do something. While Virgin Voyages offered excursions you could book via the app, we prefer just wandering and hiking around so Google Maps combined with general web-based research gave us some great ideas for where we landed. Normally their mediterranean cruises start and end at Barcelona but we were on a one-off run from Portsmouth to Barcelona via La Coruña, Lisbon, Cádiz, Gibraltar, Málaga and Palma de Mallorca. In each place we found plenty to do and it was great spending a day wandering around, getting in the sights and then going back to the ship and relaxing. It was literally like staying in a luxury hotel that moved you from place to place while you slept. A lot easier than driving around and living out of a suitcase.

Can you tell I was coming around to liking cruises?

Anyway, as wonderful as the cruise ship was, it was nice to hit land and explore. And explore we did!

Overall Thoughts and Summary

Having previously never been the sort of person remotely interested in a cruise, I’ve 100% changed my mind. It’s a great way to see a bunch of different places without the stress of driving around, making connections, changing hotels and locations and things inevitably going wrong. When I drove around New Zealand that road trip was part of the fun, but if you want to both explore and unwind then a cruise like Virgin Voyages is an excellent way to go.

It’s basically two holidays in one. One is staying in a luxury all inclusive resort with amazing food and entertainment. The other is touring different cities on the coast. With none of the drawbacks! I’ll certainly cruise with them again, and it’s also made me want to check some of the other companies out to see what they’re like.

And when I am in my 70s to 80s, then I’ll know which ones cater to my age group. But for now, Virgin Voyages very much gets the John Conners Seal of Approval! Except the wifi, that was glacially slow. But I was on holiday so I didn’t care! 🙂

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20 Years Ago Today

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I can hardly believe I’m writing this but 20 years ago today my mother died from cancer. I’ve been blogging so long I wrote about it when it happened and then 5 years later when I came to terms with her death and could put into words what it felt like and how it hit me. Not only did that article resonate with a lot of people, but I’ve come back and re-read it many many times over the years and it’s continued to give me comfort and perspective.

But 20 years. Twenty years.

When I was a kid my dad would often say “oh I haven’t seen him in 20 odd years!” and to me that seemed like an eternity. Now I’m at the ripe old age of 47 it doesn’t seem so long at all. In fact my mother died aged 61 – only 14 years away from where I am now. I still feel like my life has hardly begun and if I only had 14 years left I’d feel a little short changed to be honest. Looking back that’s the overriding sadness I have about my mother – I’d only just gotten to know her as a person rather than an authority figure and it wasn’t anywhere near enough.

I’m so young in this photo taken 9 months before she died. Just a kid really looking back as the middle aged man I am today. I had no idea the impact losing her would have on me over the coming years. Probably just as well.

My father never really got over the loss of my mother. Never dated again, certainly never re-married. She was the love of his life and he was a lost and broken man for many years, drinking too much, retreating into himself before he finally found a reason to carry on. And carry on he did alone. He’s still alive today but dementia has robbed him of a lot of his memories, although he’ll never forget his dear Jeannie. I spent a few hours with him a couple of weeks ago just talking about mum, showing him photos of the two of them when they were youngsters – it was lovely.

My parents when they were a couple of young pups!

It took me 5 years to learn to live without my mother and the article I wrote covers everything I felt at the time. But in the 15 years since while I have no longer found myself saying “oh mum would like that” before remembering she was gone. I haven’t felt the bouts of intense grief I used to feel, just now and then. Instead I have a sadness in me that is always there but I’m not aware of it most of the time. Sometimes she’ll pop up in a dream like she used to which is comforting. And sometimes I’ll play the one and only audio recording I have of her (where she was discussing with my father that she’d discovered she was allergic to a certain type of soap – I wish I had more) just to remember her laugh. Life does go on but the loss remains for the rest of your life. It becomes a piece of you, a scar that nobody can see.

It’s sad looking back over the past 20 years and realising how much my mother missed out on and how much my brother and I missed sharing our lives with her. I’ve certainly missed her counsel. But I’m always reminded that she felt the same about the loss of her mother who passed when I was less than a year old. She never got over it, would be sad sometimes and that was perfectly normal. It’s the circle of life. It sucks. But it’s the only one we’ve got. Some of us get to live into old age and some of us don’t. As I said 15 years ago, she wrote me a letter telling me to make the most of my life given how precious it is. I continue to do that to the best of my ability and I always will.

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Starting At The Bottom And Learning To Cook

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Back when I was a student I wanted to earn a bit of money so I could afford to do the fun things in life. Fun things like putting petrol in my car, drinking alcohol (not at the same time) and having a bit of spending money should I need a new pair of shoes. A friend of mine was a waiter at a local hotel and said there was a job going as a kitchen porter so I inquired and got it.

A kitchen porter is basically the lowest of the low in the kitchen hierarchy – the person who washes the dishes, pots and pans and is usually the butt of all the jokes. All of which was fine with me! I was earning money and that’s all that mattered. The status of the job didn’t enter my thought – work was work and money was cash money. It was hot work (those industrial dishwashers give off a lot of steam) but I enjoyed it and learned how to get every kind of cooking stain out of every kind of cooking implement you can imagine (something that has served me well since).

In time I became good friends with the rest of the kitchen staff and when at a later point I found myself working as a waiter there I found it surprising that while they were nice and respectful to me, they would always mercilessly tease, berate and swear at the rest of the waiting staff. Looking back I now realise I’d earned their respect. I’d worked hard, rolled up my sleeves, never complained, got the job done and earned my place alongside them. I’ve been trying to do that in the workplace ever since.

Your Job Isn’t You

I never judge people by the job they have. I know often the first question someone asks a person they just met is what they do – but it’s the last thing I ever ask anyone. I almost never talk work with friends and family as it’s not something that defines them or me as far as I’m concerned. It’s a means to an end. I also know that if my glamorous life as a software developer ends and I have to get a proper job, I’ll happily do anything to bring money in and never feel I’m “dropping down”. I’d be more than happy to roll up my sleeves again if I need to.

Being a Chef Is Hard

The other thing I learned was how tough being a chef actually is. You can watch someone like Gordon Ramsay do a TV show where he puts together an amazing meal and you think it’s easy. And for him at that point in his life it is. But believe me, to get to that point was a really hard slog. It’s a super tough profession and is so much more stressful than any job I’ve ever had by a long way.

It’s easy to focus on the obvious. An order comes in, you prepare all the ingredients, cook them and put them on a plate, then make that plate of food look beautiful and send it out. Easy right?

A selection of delicious treats from the tasting menu of L’Enclume in Cartmel

Not really. Everything has to be at the right temperature at the right time. So that bit is difficult enough as it requires perfect timing, organisation, consistent delivery and an eye for artistic detail. Except a chef isn’t just putting one meal together at one time, there could be a dozen orders of different dishes with different courses all going on at once from multiple tables. There’s no use having some of the dishes for some of the tables at the same time – each table needs to be served together. And the pressure these people are under to deliver is huge – it’s a very stressful environment to be in and my policy was to keep my head down, work as fast as I could and not screw anything up. If someone was angry, that’s fine, they’re under pressure. After the service was over and they could come down from the adrenaline high, then the next part started, the preparation.

Being a chef isn’t simply about putting meals together and sending them out. It’s about everything from picking a menu that results in the minimal amount of food wastage. To preparing before a service to make sure you’re not wasting time doing things that could be done beforehand. Trying to figure out what’s going to be ordered so you don’t over or under-prepare. And managing a team of people so that everything runs quickly, efficiently and smoothly during service under intense pressure. I certainly wouldn’t be any good at it, that much I figured out quickly.

Now when I eat out in a restaurant I know how difficult it is so I have a lot of sympathy if my food takes a while and am really impressed when delicious food is served quickly.

John Conners, Recipe Follower

Like many people I decided to start cooking once the pandemic lockdown started – I mean there wasn’t much else to do and dining out was no longer an option. Early on everybody I knew started signing up to different providers of food boxes – the idea being they ship you all the ingredients and recipes and you do the rest.

I’m the sort of person who can follow recipes. If you give me a recipe to follow I reckon I can make just about anything, no matter how complex. I’ve long been a fan of baking, largely because you have to precisely follow recipes to make it work. However give me a bunch of random ingredients and say “cook something John” and I’m completely lost. Without a recipe I don’t even know where to start. I have great admiration for people who can do that, but I am not one of them. With that in mind I signed up for Mindful Chef.

It gave me a little taste (haha, see what I did there?) of my old days working as a kitchen porter seeing the chefs work their magic. I was inspired to buy a set of stainless steel pans, proper professional quality knives, wooden chopping board, the lot! But a set of pro golf clubs does not a professional golfer make.

It took me quite a few meals before I started to feel confident in what I was doing. The recipes are well thought out, documented to just the right level for me and having the exact amount of ingredients to hand meant I didn’t have to think, just had to follow the instructions. I was soon comfortable having several pans and the oven on at the same time knowing that everything will be finished at roughly the same time (again, those well thought through recipes helped).

Almost all of the meals I’ve made from Mindful Chef have been delicious and it’s introduced me to a lot of things I’d previously ignored – like quinoa and tofu. Many years ago I tried cooking with tofu and it was a disaster. Thankfully I now know the correct tofu to use and several different ways to cook it. Heck I’ve even managed to buy the ingredients to some of the meals and varied them a bit (only a little bit) – which for me is giant progress!

But I’m no chef. If the meal is delicious it’s because the person who created the recipe and flavour combinations did a great job. I’m merely re-assembling their creation, standing on the shoulders of giants. Plus I can never quite get it looking as pretty as the professionally shot recipe photos! But I do my best.

Anyway, I’d highly recommend something like Mindful Chef or Hello Fresh if you’re afraid of cooking. There’s no such thing as “I can’t cook”. It’s just laziness because anybody can follow a recipe if I can! Rather embarrassingly though I only recently discovered that quinoa (pronounced kee-nwa) and quinoa (pronounced kwin-oh-ah) are in fact the same thing. 🤦‍♂️

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Losing My Best Friend

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After 10 wonderful years we had to put my beloved dog Billy to sleep and to say I’m devastated doesn’t come close to describing how I feel. I’ve been to more funerals of family and friends than I can count but the pain of loss I feel without him goes way beyond any grief I’ve ever felt before. It’s been over a month yet I shed tears every day.

Friends I’ve spoken to who’ve had and lost dogs understand and until I had Billy I never realised just how they worm their way into your heart and soul. Unlike humans, dogs are totally honest creatures – they hold nothing back in terms of who they are. They don’t try to be anything other than themselves and they love you with every fibre of their being. You do the same in return and it made me realise I could never love a human as much as I loved (and will always love) him. A friend told me:

“There’s something about their unconditional love for you that really tears you apart when they pass.”

Added to that he was the perfect companion. Well behaved, fun, endlessly happy to see me, playful, sociable, calm, lazy, a good traveller and without a doubt my happiest times were with him over the last decade. I got him just as I started working remotely and sat here typing out these words alone in my home office I realise his company kept me sane through countless meetings, late night coding sessions, pandemics, stressful software releases and everything else in between.

I trusted him completely and he trusted me completely. He knew what I was going to do before I did, we were completely in sync without having to say a word. He knew when I was stressed or down or if I needed a break and was sure to tell me! My entire life was built around him and I wouldn’t have had it any other way – the house I rent is far larger than I need but I’m here because the landlord allowed dogs (not common enough in the UK) and that was the only thing that mattered to me.

There are a thousand little routines we did together. For example when I’d go to bed at night I’d grab the fleecy throw that lived on my sofa and put it on my bed. Billy would then sleep the night there (right in the middle of course). So as soon as I got up and went to grab the throw, he knew exactly what was coming next, he knew it was time for bed. He’d either jump down (if he was on the sofa) or get up (if he was on his bed in my lounge) and start heading towards the bedroom. I’d put the throw on the bed then go and brush my teeth. Since he knew I’d do that he’d have stopped in the hall to stare at the bathroom, waiting for me to go in and then come out to bed. As he got older I’d lift him onto the bed rather than him jump up so he’d wait for me to do that. Then he’d sit and stare at me, waiting for me to get into my pyjamas and go under the covers so he could cuddle into me and instantly go to sleep, snoring away while hogging the bed. Heaven.

Now, every time I go to bed, I do so alone. I feel his presence, but I look around and he’s not there.

I still go on the same walks around where I live. I have memories of every tree he peed on, every place he’d run, that time he bumped into one of his mates and they chased each other around, him barking like a lunatic. And despite walking alone it brings me closer to him to relive those moments. I have videos of walking him and can wander along the same spots holding my phone in front of me and it’s like he’s there. It helps, but it’ll never be the same without him.

I know the best bet is to get another dog, and I’m sure I’ll have another one at some point since they are such magical creatures and I am most certainly a dog person. But while it’ll replace the lifestyle of having a dog and give me a new companion, it’ll never replace him. The person Billy was. Knowing I have to live the rest of my life without him is a tough prospect and while I have thousands of photos and videos of my time with him, I’d give anything just to have him resting his chin on my leg and snoozing away peacefully with me. Even just for a minute.

Or watch him running in the park, blissfully lost in the moment of running, something that dog was born to do and did right up until the end.

I like to think that somewhere on some other plane Billy is running around a park barking away. And then he’ll stop, look around and sprint straight towards me. We’ll walk off together, just him and me. Both of us totally content with our lot. I miss you boy. 💔