10 Things You Must Do In Norway, Pt. 1: Oslo

Friday, 28 April 2017

Norway is one of the most beautiful countries on earth (it's not just me that thinks this, my trusty Lonely Planet agrees!). It's a once-in-a-lifetime travel destination for one simple reason: apart from a dearth of all-year-round sunshine, it is a country that has it all.

But when visiting a country that offers its visitors so much, how do you decide which activities and sights to cram into your ever-so-precious-and-always-too-scarce vacation time? Cue this little series of guides containing must-do things to do and see in Norway, starting with the country's spectacular capital city.

1. Visit Oslo

Unlike its well-frequented Scandi neighbours in Denmark and Sweden, Norway's capital has received considerably less interest from the throngs of tourists that flock to Europe every year, and within hours of my arrival I felt like I could take a reasonable guess as to why. Take Oslo at face value, and at first it can seem quiet and grey, and dare I say it, even a little dull! But scratch beneath the surface, and allow yourself to explore and you'll soon discover a city that is overflowing with art, character and history.

Its main allure, of course, is its proximity to nature. Surrounded by hills and forests, scattered with green spaces, and permeated by the beautiful Oslofjord, this city offers its visitors ample opportunities to enjoy natural landscapes and stunning vistas, and partake in associated leisure pursuits.

While you are there, you must...

2. Visit the Royal Palace

Oslo's Royal Palace sits proudly at the top of a hill overlooking the city centre, and happily, unlike most royal residences around the world, you can walk right up to the front door. There are guided tours of the interior in the summer months, but a walk around the pretty exterior of the palace can be just as agreeable.

3. Have a stroll around one of the city's pretty parks

While you're at the Palace, the Slottsparken (Palace Park) is one of the best of the city's green spaces, with hills, duck ponds, and, if you happen to visit in spring like we did, carpets of spring flowers and canopies of pink blossom.

Alternatively, the views of the city from the top of Ekebergparken are exquisite.

I'm also reliably informed that the sculptures in Vigelandsparken are well-worth seeing...but hey, we had to save something for next time!

4. Visit the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet

This modern, minimalistic piece of architecture juts out of the ground like a shard of glass...or ice if you will. Tourists throng to it to enjoy the pretty city reflections on its glass exterior and to hike up the steep incline either side of the building to its roof, from which spectacular views of the city can be seen.

5. Take a trip to the Holmenkollen Ski Museum and Ski Jump

The 4000-year Nordic history of skiing (and skis!) can be discovered in this well-curated museum, but take some time to admire the impressive ski jump first, which was used in the 1952 Winter Olympics, and still draws crowds for the annual ski festival in March.

6. Have lunch in Aker Brygge

This trendy, upmarket neighbourhood fringes the Oslofjord, with direct access to Oslo's harbourfront and the ferries which regularly frequent the islands of the fjord. The area has a seaside feel, with a wooden cladding promenade and pier, several boutique shops and restaurants which are constantly bustling with Oslo's socialites.

Our top restaurant picks include Lekter'n, which is built out into the fjord, with a bridge across to a permanently-moored boat...

And Louise Restaurant & Bar, which combines chic al-fresco dining with contrasting cosy and characterful interiors.

7. Visit Akershus Festning 

According to my brother-in-law, this medieval castle and fortress is one of Norway's archtectural highlights. Built in 1299, it has a grim history which can be discovered within the museums inside.

8. Get a boat to Hovedøya

The Oslofjord island which is closest to the city also happens to be one of the best for discovering nature, exploring beaches and uncovering an exciting cultural history. A five minute ferry ride from the harbour, and measuring only 800 metres across in any direction, it's possible to explore the island with time to spare before lunch.

9. Stay in a historic hotel

Hotel Continental, Oslo has been owned by the same family for four generations, and they have built it into one of Norway's finest luxury five star hotels. With a prime city centre location, lavish breakfast spreads and luxuriously comfy beds, it's my top pick of places to stay within the city.

10. Have a drink in an Oslo institution 

Attached to the hotel, and just across the road from the National Theatre, this restaurant has been a favourite with families and tourists alike for several decades. The Viennese interiors, Norwegian-inspired food and immaculate service make it a place that has to be visited, if only for a glass or two of prosecco to celebrate your time in this wonderful city.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive, and as we are lucky enough to have family in Oslo, we will definitely be back to explore more of the city in due course.

Have you visited Oslo? What can I add to my to do list for next time?

Interview With A Mummy Blogger: Life With Baby Kicks

Friday, 14 April 2017

The internet is awash with inspirational mummy bloggers these days, many of whom are intent on doing away with the misconception that motherhood is a doddle, and imparting invaluable advice on 'real' parenting issues, from sleepless nights to baby poo. One such honest mum, who's always stood out amongst the rest for me, is Laura from Life With Baby Kicks. A fellow Doha expat, coming to terms with bringing up a young family far away from home in the desert, her blog posts are blunt and to the point...and will make you guffaw with laughter!

 Photo credit: Sophia Mattia

Recently, Laura agreed to let me in on a few of her secrets, including what she'd change if she could turn back the clocks and just when their family might start thinking about heading home to the UK...

1. Just like Baby Sunshine, your boys are expat babies through and through. How do you think living in the Middle Eastern sandpit is shaping their childhood?

Both of my boys have spent more time out of the UK than in the UK.  We often wonder how British they actually are, despite having their British passports (which are used frequently).  They know more about mosques than churches, climb palm trees instead of apple trees, they fit all 10 signs that they are being raised in the Middle East.

But being a third culture kid is more than that, it is living with so many other nationalities.  It is being exposed to so many different cultures.  It is a childhood like I have never known but my husband has.  I hope that this experience shapes them to want to see more of the world, to have a hunger and thirst for travel.  To want to experience everything they read in books, see in films. Most of all, I want their Middle Eastern sandpit experience to be happy.  I want them to look back and say - I had a happy childhood regardless of where in the world we are.

Photo credit: Sophia Mattia

Oh - and it’s made my eldest cold all the time.  Not sure how he’s going to cope in the UK summer this year!

2. What are your top three tips for surviving as parents so far away from home and your main family support network?

We lived far away from home in the UK so we were quite used to it.  We see my mum much more living here than we did when we lived in London for longer extended periods of time.

My first piece of advice would be to find a trusted babysitter, it’s fantastic being mummy and daddy but you need to remember that you are also husband and wife.

Secondly, Skype will become your best friend.  It is the portal to relationships with people who are so far away.

Thirdly, there will be good days and bad days.  Hold onto the good, forget the bad and remember people only post the shiny things on Facebook.

3. Your blog has become a great source of advice, information and giggles for women all around the world. But what inspired you to start writing in the first place?

Honestly?  My friend started a blog and I thought I can do that.  So I did.  The ironic thing is she gave hers up a long time ago and mine is still going, and going, and going.

It’s opened up a whole new world for me, one that I didn’t realise existed.  I’ve made friends through blogging that I may never have met otherwise, both in the UK and in Qatar.

I’ve even managed a whole new career from blogging.

The best thing I ever did was open up my laptop and google “how to start a blog”.

4. As a busy mum of two, how do you keep up with your rigid blogging schedule (plus all of the associated social media activity and correspondence which comes with running a blog)?

In truth?  I don’t. 

I no longer have a schedule and my posting is sporadic at best.  Some weeks I’ll post everyday, some weeks I’ll post once or twice.

My eldest is in school every morning so that makes things a little easier and my little one starts nursery next week.  We also have a wonderful helper who takes the little one for an hour of so each morning to give me chance to work.  I have to be organised and prioritise what is coming in and out of my inbox, as well as what makes it on my screen - I’ve started bullet journalling to a degree which has really helped me focus.

5. You recently wrote a really useful article on how to grow your Facebook page, but what are your tips for expanding your Twitter following? Is Twitter still a relevant platform for bloggers to use these days?

I think it depends where in the world you are.  I know that a lot of UK bloggers feel it is a completely relevant platform whereas out here in Qatar it isn’t something that people really use.

I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter, I’m a rambler and 140 characters isn’t enough for me, though I have met some wonderful people from Twitter who have gone on to become real friends.

To help with Twitter I use Social Oomph to schedule out blog posts for promotion, but the real joy in using Twitter is finding people chatting and jumping into conversations.  By scheduling out my posts it means when I am on Twitter in real life I can just chat away to people.

6. You often speak openly about tricky or controversial issues on your blog. Have you ever had to deal with any negative comments from readers on these posts? If so, how did you deal with them?

On my blog platform I haven’t received openly hateful comments, but if I did I wouldn’t give them the time or space on my own piece of internet.  I’ve had more on posts that I’ve written for the Huffington Post; where sometimes I read the comments and think have you even read what I’ve written?!  The cure for this is not to read any of the comments of course.

I think that because I tend to write in a “seeing both sides” kind of way I’m not a divisive blogger.  I don’t write to be controversial, I don’t write for click bait, I don’t write to judge and I like to think that comes across so even if people have opposite views they can still be respectful when writing about it.

7. What do you think are the main attributes of a successful parenting blog?

Writing from the heart.  I much prefer reading posts that are full of emotion than posts that tell me how to raise my children.  It feels more real, more connected and like there is a little piece of that person on the page to pick up and cuddle.

Photo credit: Sophia Mattia

8. What's your favourite post you've written to date and why?

Some of my favourite posts are my expat life posts.  I never wanted to be an expat, my husband got the job and I supported him never really thinking we’d actually move.  That somehow he’d turn down this dream job in Dubai.  It was the biggest life changing decision we’ve ever made, I became a full time stay at home mum, the expat wife, we expanded our family a lot quicker than we would have been able to at home, and now I am fully invested in being an expat and I’m nowhere near ready to head home yet.

9. If you could go back in time and change one thing you've done or decision you've made as a parent, what would it be and why?

I’d have an elective section with my second baby rather than trying for a VBAC.  After  19 long hours and getting nowhere even close to 10cm, being taken into theatre and discovering I had ruptured leading to a section anyway.  I wish I had just cut out the middle ground and gone straight for it.

10. What's next for Life With Baby Kicks?

The world is my oyster….

In truth, I don’t have a plan.  I will keep writing, keep Facebooking and Instagramming.  I’ll try and have a chat now and then on Twitter.  And above all I’ll have a document of our lives together.

You can read more about Laura's motherhood journey, as well as product reviews and lifestyle snippets over at www.lifewithbabykicks.com.

An Inspirational Stay at the Emirates Palace

Saturday, 1 April 2017

In the heart of Abu Dhabi, elevated on a hill at the edge of the Corniche and overlooking the city's sky scrapers, sits the luxury five star residence of the Emirates Palace.

We arrived a few days before Christmas, with the aim of soaking up some of the UAE's festive spirit before returning to Doha for the day itself, and left with even more than we could have hoped for.

I don't think there are many things that can get you into the mood for Christmas quite like a 40-foot Christmas tree in the cavernous lobby of the hotel, adorned with over 2,000 imported glass ornaments!

Father Christmas also made a visit to the lobby each evening, and while Sophia wasn't quite sure about this dodgy character with questionable facial hair to start with, she soon warmed to him and on our last night she even sat on his knee for long enough for us to take a quick family snap!

The hotel was originally built to showcase Arabian culture, and evidence of this can be seen throughout, in the intricate architecture, ornate furnishings and luxurious attention to detail.

With no less than 394 residences, 114 domes that reach to 80 metres, 9 restaurants, and set in 85 hectares of private gardens along 1.3 km of private beach, this is not a 'homely' or quaint hotel, it is one for the adventurous amongst us. It cries out to be explored.

Luxury hotels like this in the Middle East are often lacking in 'fun' things to keep all of the family entertained, but the Emirates Palace overflows with options. There is the resident camel on the beach, for example, if the kids fancy an early-morning ride before breakfast.

(Ours, unfortunately, didn't!).

There are two pools: an adventure-style pool for kids (and kids-at-heart), complete with slides, waterfalls and a lazy river...

And a quieter pool with a swim-up bar in a soothing setting on the other side of the grounds for those that would prefer to wile away the hours in peace and quiet.

When you factor in the beautiful grounds that you can use for your walking and picnic-ing pleasure, the pristine white beach and the award-winning luxury spa, this hotel becomes far more than just somewhere to lay your head at night. Whether it's entertainment, socialising or relaxation that you're after on your travels, it ticks every box.

We were particularly impressed by the food that we ate while we were there: the lavish spread at breakfast, in the prettiest of settings on the al fresco terrace of Le Vendome...

 And the Dim Sum afternoon tea taken overlooking the most stunning of views on the glamorous terrace at Hakkasan (just make sure you ask about options to add more dumplings to the selection that they serve...there aren't nearly enough!).

Of particular note are the Roast Duck Pumpkin Croquettes and the Jasmine Tea-Smoked Wagyu Beef Ribs.

Don't forget to sample the hotel's signature coffees at Le Café while you are staying there: the Camelccino is a Cappuccino made with rich, local camel's milk and the Palace Cappuccino is sprinkled with real, 24-carat gold flakes. It's little touches like this that sum up what this hotel is all about: little touches of Arabic-themed decadence, focused on giving the guest a truly authentic experience of Arabian culture and hospitality.

When I returned home, I was inspired to look up other traditionally-Arabic hotels in the region. While we live in the Middle East and continue to explore our neighbouring countries, from now on I would like to keep our stays as culturally-authentic as possible.

The Details:

Emirates Palace Abu Dhabi, West Corniche Road, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates | +971 2 690 9000

Our stay at the Emirates Palace was on a media rate.