Wednesday 31 August 2016

Bring out the Branston - Barbecue Recipes with Pickle, Relish and Sauce

“Bring out the Branston” – the advertising slogan for Branston Pickle – is something I associate with cheese sandwiches, not barbecues. But the brand, which started life in 1922, is now known for more than just pickle and has a range of relishes and table sauces. By inviting a group of food and lifestyle bloggers to the London Barbecue School, they were able to showcase just what you can do with their products - and there wasn't a cheese and pickle sandwich in sight!

I've been to the London Barbecue School before; it's run by a very nice man named Alistair who is also the lead tutor at the School of Food. They specialise in using Kamado Joe barbecues, which are ceramic egg-shaped grills that gives you the ability to grill, smoke or sear; the grill itself is in two parts so can be used at different levels to create different heat zones.

Edward from Mizkan, the company that owns Branston Pickle, introduced himself and spoke a little about the brand, and then we were told about the recipes we would be cooking. We would be using Branston products in some of the recipes themselves, not just as accompaniments – and I learnt something straight away. Do you know the difference between a relish and a chutney? They often have similar ingredients, but a relish is made to go with hot food while a chutney is meant to go with cold food.
We organised ourselves into small groups and chose which recipe we wanted to do, from a choice of:
sticky pork chops
Tex-Mex chicken tacos
mushroom and grilled cheese burger
beer-braised brisket with blue cheese slaw

I decided I most liked the sound of the steak so my group began to prepare our ingredients.

We were given thin steaks rather than a large piece of brisket as that would have taken far too long to cook; the steaks had already been marinaded so all we needed to do was put them on the barbecue.

Meanwhile two of us got on with making the slaw – I am not normally a fan of coleslaw but thought this looked really good and it did taste great.

To serve, we placed the steak, some slaw, some little gem lettuce and some Branston in a tortilla and wrapped it up - delicious!

I saw people making the other recipes and they all looked very tasty; I would never have thought of using Branston to jazz up chicken tacos and as part of the recipe rather than an accompaniment.

I also cooked some burgers for the rest of the group, which went really well with the Branstons Rich and Smoky sauce; I really had no idea they had so many products beyond just pickle!

Monday 29 August 2016

Meal Planning Monday 2016 - week 35

A friend of mine did something called Sugar Free September last year where she went a whole month without eating any sugar - I can't remember if she was able to stick to the plan 100% but she certainly did very well, lost weight and felt a lot better. It was on her recommendation that I bought a book called I Quit Sugar, which is full of great recipes, even if they tend to take a bit longer than just putting something from the freezer in the oven.

I've set myself a weight loss target by Christmas (I'm not saying what it is, as every other diet I've tried has failed as I have zero willpower and like food too much!). So I've decided to try to do Sugar Free September as well - as much as I possibly can, which I'm targeting as at least 5 days a week, if not 6 or 7. There are things coming up where it will be near-impossible to avoid sugar - for instance this week I am going out for afternoon tea with the in-laws. But I will stick to a no-sugar diet as much as I can - which includes not eating foods with hidden sugars like potatoes or bread. It's going to be fun. But it's just for September and if I can't manage this for a month then I don't know how I ever expect to be able to stick to a diet and lose weight!

If anyone else is doing Sugar Free September I'd love to hear from you, about how it's going, what your pitfalls are, and any good recipes you can suggest!

bank holiday - I'm at a friend's in Devon
day off travelling back from Devon (5 hours +)

 pesto chicken I was going to do for the past two weeks but still haven't!
At a jewellery making class where food is provided
 spaghetti carbonara, with spiralized veg instead of pasta for me
Lunch buckwheat galettes for me, ham and cheese pancake for him
Dinner- Slimming World gunpowder pork (chicken for my husband as he doesn't eat pork) with rice.
Today we are having afternoon tea with my inlaws, which has been booked for ages so there's no way I can stick to a sugar free diet! We probably need to leave around midday, so will have a big breakfast and small dinner (or maybe no dinner at all),
Brunch: omelette for him, smoked salmon and poached eggs for me
Dinner:  probably won't be hungry but he can have something from the freezer when we get in if he likes and I will have spiralized veg.

This is a blog hop, join in here:

Sunday 28 August 2016

Cheddar and Mustard Loaf


I wanted to make some bread to have alongside a barbecue at home so had a look in my Great British Bake Off Big Book of Baking. This is the book that came out to accompany the series before last that was won by Nancy.

There's a whole section on bread, and I hadn't made any of the recipes from the book, so decided to have a go at the cheddar and mustard loaf. It turned out really well, even though it was left to prove for a lot longer than intended as we went round to my mother-in-law's part way through and didn't get back until late!

To make one large loaf, you need:
150g mature Cheddar, grated
500g strong white bread flour
5g salt
7g fast-action dried yeast
2.5 tbsp. Dijon mustard
300ml lukewarm milk

Mix the cheese with 1 tbsp. of the flour in a small bowl - this will stop the cheese sticking together in clumps. Put aside until later.

Put the flower, salt and yeast in a large mixing bowl and mix well. Add the mustard and milk and mix together, either by hand or in the slowest setting in your mixer.

Either turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5 minutes, or if you are using something like a Kitchenaid, continue to mix on the slowest speed setting for 3 minutes. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave to rest for 5 minutes, then add the cheese and knead again for the same length of time.

Return the dough to the bowl if necessary and cover with clingfilm. Leave to rise at normal room temperature for an hour until doubled in size (personally I'd advise a warm room or a warm place as I left mine at room temperature and it didn't increase in size that much).

Then roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a rectangle. Roll up from the short end and tuck the seam under. Place in a greased loaf tin- I couldn't find mine and my dough was far too long anyway so I put it on a flat baking tray.

Put a large plastic bag over the tin and secure the ends so the dough has space to rise inside the bag. Leave again at room temperature for an hour until doubled in size.

Towards the end of the rising time preheat the oven to 190C/ Gas 5. Brush milk over the top of the loaf and bake in the pre-heated oven for 35-40 minutes until golden brown.

Cool on a rack before slicing. We had a lot more bread than we needed for our barbecue and it kept for several more days which was good. You can definitely taste the cheese and mustard in it!

Saturday 27 August 2016

Chicken with Awesome BBQ Spice Rub


Last year a friend gave me Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube – The BBQ recipe book, which I’ve used several times when we’ve done barbecues at the weekend. During the week, even though we have a gas barbecue so the cooking itself is quick, I don’t want to faff around in the kitchen and am more likely to do something simple like a tuna steak, sausages, or ready-made chilli beef koftas, which my husband loves and work really well on the barbecue.
This recipe though is really quick and is something that you can prepare in advance and keep in the cupboard. The full recipe actually involved brining pieces of chicken overnight and then coating them with a “mix of awesomeness”. I decided to skip the brining and use boneless chicken thighs, which are quite thin when you unwrap them so cook really fast. I prepared the mix and rubbed it onto the chicken thighs, which were simply barbecued – and tasted really good.

The recipe for the brining is available online here, and the chef calls the mix by the same name as the one in the recipe book but it is slightly different.
For the one I made, you need:
zest of half lemon
zest of one quarter of an orange
3 tbsp. brown sugar
1 tbsp. sea salt
1 tbsp. black pepper
1 tbsp. onion granules
1 tbsp. garlic granules
1 tsp smoked paprika
Optional: 1 tsp chilli powder
Scatter the zest onto a baking tray, and bake in a preheated oven at 110C for 10 minutes.

Mix the zest with all the other ingredients and use to coat the chicken.

Barbecue or grill the chicken until cooked through.


Friday 26 August 2016

Travel review: Galapagos Islands and Finch Bay Eco Hotel Part 2

Part 2 of my travel review of the Galapagos islands, where we were based out of the Finch Bay Eco hotel in Santa Cruz.

Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz

Thinking that the sightseeing might be quite tiring (it was) we had decided to leave ourselves one day free to chill out in the hotel. Unfortunately there was never much sun at the hotel (though when we walked around other islands it was blazing hot – it all depends on which island you’re on) so I didn’t go in the pool but we enjoyed ourselves reading and just lazing around.

We took the water taxi into Puerto Ayora at lunchtime, thinking we would wander around the shops and find somewhere different to eat (I’m not used to eating in the same hotel all the time, and it was expensive but a lot more convenient). What I didn’t realise is that most of the shops closed between 12 and 2! We did do a little bit of souvenir shopping and had a nice lunch at a place next to the harbour called Café Hernan. There was a big menu with a lot of choice including a large selection of pizzas and even a ‘create your own’ pizza section – so my husband had a margherita and I created a prawn and tuna pizza which was delicious and really hit the spot. It was a lot cheaper than eating in our hotel restaurant as well!

That evening we were still so full from lunch that we didn’t want a big dinner, and there wasn’t really anything on the bar snack menu my husband would eat – the one thing this hotel is missing is a mini bar or a place to get snacks!

Santa Fe
After our day of relaxing in the hotel and exploring Puerto Ayora, I was a bit nervous about the boat trip to Santa Fe but the seasickness tablets seemed to work. We left straight from the hotel dock on the Sea Lion and sailed for two hours –it was a bit choppy but not too bad – and we did a wet landing onto a beach.
As we approached the beach in the panga I could see what looked like a lot of large, smooth rocks along the shoreline… as we got closer, I realised they were sealions! There were so many and they were right along the beach where we were stopping; we hopped over the side of the panga (barefoot, carrying our shoes) and waded through a foot or so of water to get to the sandy beach.


There, some of the sealions turned in our direction, decided we weren’t particularly interesting and went back to sunbathing, while a few bounded merrily in our direction. They tell you to stay 6 feet away from the wildlife in the Galapagos  but they don’t tell that to the wildlife! So these friendly, curious sealions frolicked among us in the waves, stole someone’s trainer and started to play with it, and generally seemed quite happy to see us. It was amazing being in such close proximity to the animals!
When we could finally tear ourselves away, we walked along a short track to another part of the beach where we saw some iguanas, a species that can only be found on Santa Fe, then went back via the beach to the panga.
We went snorkelling, off the panga again, but I knew what to expect and this time had a mask that didn’t leak, so I really enjoyed myself. We snorkelled along the rocks around the island and were joined by a few sea lions who were swimming backwards and forwards between us, it was brilliant!
I came up at one point to clear my mask and saw the panga, which had been quite close by, speed off towards another group of swimmers – I wondered briefly if they had forgotten about us and were leaving then realised the swimmers were just getting into the boat. The panga then came over to us and I figured we were done snorkelling and had to go back, so I went to get in. They tell you every time to take your fins off before climbing up the steps and every time I struggled, which happened again; they didn’t seem to have any sense of urgency and my husband was still in the water behind me so I was shocked when I got into the panga and was asked if I had seen the shark – what shark? Apparently the guide had spotted a bull shark swimming right past him – they are known to be very aggressive and responsible for most shark attacks on humans, so he made everyone get out of the water. I’m glad he hadn’t panicked us but wished he had told us we needed to hurry up as I was taking such a long time to get my fins off, I probably risked coming back from my honeymoon a widow! I don’t think we were ever in any real danger but bull sharks are not seen every day and it’s really not a good idea to be in the water when one is nearby!
I quickly put the close encounter out of my mind as they were serving lunch on board; we had chicken and spaghetti and I managed to sit on the top deck enjoying the two hour sail back without feeling sea sick, though I was so tired that I had a nap when we got back to the hotel! Once again we decided to opt for convenience and eat dinner in our hotel, I tried the beef steak with chimmichurri, which was really good.

Santa Cruz – Charles Darwin Research Station and El Manzanillo tortoises
The island that we were staying on is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, which I really wanted to go to – Charles Darwin went to my Cambridge college and there’s a big statue of him in part of the gardens, and it’s pretty cool to think I am sort of following in his footsteps.

There isn’t actually much to see at the Research Station in terms of the work that is being done in the Galapagos – there were a few signs and videos to watch, and a surprisingly small museum and gift shop. The first thing you see in the museum is the giant skeleton of a Bryde’s whale, which our guide Fabien pointed out to us. Then we noticed a small photo of the young man, a research ship captain I think, who had discovered the dead whale about 20 years ago – and realised it was Fabien himself!

The biggest attraction for most tourists at the Research Station is the giant tortoises. They have a breeding programme and are trying to bring a particular breed of tortoise back from the brink of extinction. The most famous of these, Lonesome George, died in 2012 at the grand old age of over 100 (so it is believed). He was the last Pinta Island giant tortoise, a species that is now extinct.
Diego now rules the roost as the most famous inhabitant; he is a 130 ish-year-old Espanola toirtoise, who was found in San Diego zoo in the 1970s and returned to the Galapagos islands. He is estimated to have fathered about 1,700 children, so not much chance of that species dying out!

There are a few enclosures with different giant tortoises and they are really interesting to watch close-up, though we did also get to see them in the wild later.
We went there on a guided tour from our hotel and Fabian was very good but it’s worth knowing that you can visit the Research Station without a guide as there is plenty of information and it’s walking distance from the town centre of Puerto Ayora.

But even if we’d found this place ourselves, I don’t think we’d have found our way to the El Manzanillo ranch, where Fabian took us afterwards. We drove into the highlands of the island and turned along a bumpy track, which took us up to a ranch. Along the way we saw what is apparently the only ‘tortoise crossing’ sign in the world (to add to my collection of ones I’ve seen for deer, cows and ducks!) and a couple of giant tortoises ambling along by the side of the road!
The ranch was once for breeding cattle but they have now given over a lot of their land to giant tortoises (a different breed to the ones at the Charles Darwin Research Station, which I don’t think are endangered) who are able to roam free. You can walk around the woods – but I wouldn’t do this without a guide as we’d have gotten lost I think! We saw several giant tortoises and got some great photos, then went back to the ranch for lunch.

We were served plantain chips and iced tea, followed by vegetable soup, then a choice of chicken or fish – I had yellowfin tuna with potatoes and vegetables, which was lovely. Dessert was chocolate cake or tres leches (three milk) cake which was so moist it was actually wet from the milk that’s soaked in. Finally we had tea and coffee, and were finished by 1.30 – when I’d booked I thought this was supposed to be a whole day trip not a half day, but the fact that it was only the two of us rather than a group probably sped things up. For the amount we paid though I was a bit disappointed it was only a half day effectively.

Having gotten quite comfortable hopping on and off the water taxi we decided to go into Puerto Ayora for dinner. We walked up to the fish market and saw some pelicans and other birds trying to steal bits of fish, and a sea lion sleeping on a bench nearby.

For a change we both fancied Italian for dinner so chose La Dolce Italia. Service was very slow – we ordered drinks and then food, and when our main courses came 20 minutes later we still hadn’t received our drinks. I told the waiter but we had finished eating our food before the drinks came! My husband had pizza and I had lasagne, which was very nice but a fairly small portion. We had wanted dessert but didn’t fancy another long wait for service – and getting the bill took ages too!
Puerto Ayora definitely livens up a bit at night – there were people playing volleyball (or basketball, I can’t remember now) on the harbour and we enjoyed wandering around eating an ice cream from Café Hernan after dinner.
Coming back in the water taxi in the dark was great as the dock is lit up and you can see lots of small (harmless) sharks – no more than two feet long or smaller – swimming around in the water! We also saw a large sea turtle one day right by the docks and after that every time we were waiting for a boat I was scanning the water for marine life!

Arriving back at the Finch Bay we found the point at which you exit the water taxi was lit up but we did then need the torch on our phones to walk back to the hotel.

Bartolome and Pinnacle Rock
Our furthest boat trip was about two and a half hours to Bartolome island – this was partly why we spent 7 nights at Finch Bay as it was the only way to cover all the islands they offer trips to. Bartolome and Pinnacle Rock are perhaps better known from the movie Master and Commander – for one view in particular. The main attraction for me though was the penguins!
On the way, the sea was a bit choppier but I was taking seasickness tablets so I was OK. About half way, we were treated to a fantastic display from a group of dolphins swimming alongside the boat who decided to leap into the air and show off!
Bartolome is a very barren volcanic island with very little wildlife on land, but in this case you go for the view. It’s a steep climb to the top, but there is a wooden walkway (partly sloping, partly steps) with a handrail in place. The heat did make it a difficult climb but we were soon at the top admiring the amazing view. If you’ve seen the Russell Crowe film Master and Commander you will recognise it!
We returned to the panga and circled Pinnacle Rock, where the penguins can sometimes be found – these are the only penguins to live north of the equator. I was expecting quite a lot so was surprised to be told there were only six nesting pairs (apparently most of them live in Isabella, an island that was too far for us to go to from Santa Cruz) – luckily we did get to see five or six penguins hopping around on the rocks! I had read (or thought I’d read) that we would be able to snorkel with penguins but they weren’t keen to join us in the water.

Even so, we had what was probably my favourite snorkelling experience – so many fish of different sizes and colours, and at one point I came up out of the water to check my direction and when I looked back down, I was literally in the middle of a huge school of fish! The best part was that our guide spotted a few giant sea turtles – I was never quick enough to swim over to where he was, but at one point an absolutely huge one swam right past me, I’ve never seen anything like it! My husband also swam over a huge one sleeping on the ocean floor, which he was able to film with his underwater Go Pro camera.
I managed to cut my arm on a rock underwater, and didn’t even notice until someone pointed it out when I was back in the boat (I still have a 2-inch scar a month later) – it may explain why I saw another one of the small harmless sharks we had seen previously, but our guide was surprised there had been one around here. I was just glad this hadn’t happened the day before when the bull shark had been spotted or I might have been shark food!
They had alcohol wipes on the boat to clean up my cut but it occurred to me that if you do hurt yourself on one of the uninhabited islands, you are miles from anywhere – and we were told there was only one rescue helicopter in the islands and it was currently waiting repairs! Having said that, if you are careful there’s no reason to think anything will happen.

We didn’t get back to the hotel until 5.30pm – we’d left at 7am so this was our longest day trip by far and quite nice that we’d done it last. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant – we’d built up quite an appetite so both had the burger again, and my husband wanted the chocolate volcano for the third time – and this time they gave it to us on the house because it was our last night. I tried the lemon and lime tiramisu which was nice but pretty cold and solid in the middle, like it had just come out of the freezer.
The next morning we checked out after breakfast and returned to the airport the way we had come, flying back to Quito where we would spend one last night before returning to the UK via Miami. Visiting the Galapagos islands was an amazing experience and an incredible privilege, something that will remain with me forever and mean that whenever I go to a zoo or aquariums and see sea lions, sea turtles, penguins and iguanas, I will remember the time when they weren’t behind glass or a wall and I could walk freely among them as Charles Darwin once did.

Thursday 25 August 2016

5 Easy Lunchbox Salads you can take to work for lunch

I've been eating a lot of salads lately, and taking one in to work every day for my lunch. It's cheaper than going out and buying one every day and this way I can put exactly what I want into it. Sometimes I get into a bit of a rut eating the same salads every day and end up looking around the internet for inspiration so I thought I'd share my current top five.

Please excuse the simple presentation - this is literally how I take the salads into work for lunch!
First up is really easy - any types of lettuce that you like, topped with feta cheese and chunks of fresh watermelon. A light vinaigrette dressing goes well with this. I usually eat this salad with a packet of ready cooked chicken pieces for protein and to make it more filling.

This salad is my latest addiction: pear, blue cheese and walnut. Again you can use any type of lettuce as a base, and if you like things like cucumber add it in (I don't). I used gorgonzola - I was going to use Roquefort but couldn't get any, but this worked really well. Top with peeled and sliced pear and a handful of walnuts. This goes well with a blue cheese dressing.

A different type of cheese for this salad: goat's cheese with bacon lardons (you need to cook the lardons first then let them go cold before adding to the salad). Use on a bed of your favourite lettuce. This goes well with a wine vinegar and Dijon mustard dressing.
This one takes a little longer to make but is good if you want something more substantial for lunch or to take on a picnic. Cook some pasta and drain; while it's still warm, toss through some green pesto from a jar, add some crayfish or prawns (I used crayfish here) and some pine nuts. You can serve this hot or cold.

Finally a bulgur wheat-based salad. This one does take a bit of preparation but you can make a larger quantity in one go. Put the bulgur wheat in a bowl and cover with water; leave for 15 minutes and then drain. Bring a pan of water to the boil - you need roughly three cups water to one cup bulgur wheat. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and leave to stand for 5 minutes and drain off any excess water.

I used cubes of roasted butternut squash in this salad; sweet potato works really well. If you don't have time to cook, you can buy tubs of roasted sweet potato, butternut squash and carrot to add to salads from Tesco. I've also added feta cheese and some fresh parsley.

I've certainly got no excuse to have the same thing every day for lunch now!

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Have a Great Day Cat Card

I have a folder for greeting cards I was given once, that has a page for each month where you can write down who has a birthday or special occasion, and there's a pocket on the facing page to store the cards for each month. I use that for the cards I've made, and recently found this one among my craft stash (I have a whole cupboard full of stuff) - so I had made it ages ago (literally years) and never used it!

I had some cat stickers on a little sheet that also had some flower stickers and I decided to mount them on a piece of pink card, which I put on top of a strip of pink ribbon that I stuck two thirds of the length of a tall thin card blank. I used some more of the pink ribbon along the bottom and mounted another piece of pink card on that, with a 'have a great day' sentiment sticker. Great for a cat lover like me!

Tuesday 23 August 2016

Travel review: Galapagos Islands & Finch Bay Eco Hotel, Santa Cruz Part 1

Part 1 of the Caroline Makes review of the Finch Bay Eco hotel in the Galapagos islands

It was on another holiday that my husband and I chose the destination for our honeymoon. He’d proposed just before we went to America and we were in Chicago at the Fields Museum – which I highly recommend – and had bought entry tickets that allowed us to watch the 3D movie as well. It was a David Attenborough-narrated film of the Galapagos – which would be amazing in 2D but in 3D it was just breath-taking. We’d already put the Galapagos on the list of potential destinations – the other big idea was a safari in Africa – and I think we walked out of that film having made the decision.
It took a while to research and plan – I started off speaking to some luxury travel companies that would put together a bespoke itinerary, but the cost was astronomical. There are websites where you can compare cruise ships – from amenities and ratings to the islands they visit – but obviously this takes time. I normally spend quite a bit of time researching and planning holidays but we had the wedding to plan as well, so I knew I wouldn’t have as much time as usual to sort out the honeymoon – and I wanted to book as far in advance as possible to make sure we got the best options for flights and accommodation.
The advice I’d read most often was to choose one of the smaller, 16-berth cruise ships. The number of visitors to uninhabited Galapagos islands is restricted and on the larger cruise ships, half the guests have to stay on board while the other half visit the island and vice versa. And yes, you can see more of the islands by travelling around, but cruise ships are limited to visiting most islands to pre-10am and after 3pm, with the time in between given over to tourists on day trips. That sounded a bit odd to me and I wasn’t sure what we would do with the time in between aside from sunbathe on deck – but I wouldn’t expect there to be enough sun loungers for everyone.
You don’t get a lot of space in a cabin on a boat, are limited to eating whatever they provide (I’m sure the food is good but my husband is a fussy eater), and I’ve never been on a cruise so was worried about getting sea sick (which has happened before on boats). If I did feel ill there would be no way of getting off and while I really wanted to go to the Galapagos, I just didn’t really want to spend my honeymoon on a boat.
One travel agent had mentioned the Finch Bay Eco Hotel, so I looked it up and found it was the #1 rated hotel in the Galapagos and the more I looked into it, the more it seemed the ideal place to stay.

As well as strong ecological credentials – the hotel has recently won “South America’s leading green hotel” for instance – the hotel has its own luxury yacht, so you are able to do day trips to different islands and return to the hotel for dinner and sleeping in a comfortable bed.
The hotel does packages where you get trips and meals included, but they all started on certain days of the week which didn’t work for us – we wanted to do the longest package as that was the only one where you get to see penguins, but it only started on a Monday. We wanted to spend a few days in Miami beforehand (you can’t fly direct to Ecuador from the UK and Miami seemed a great place to stop) but couldn’t afford (in terms of money or time off work) to stay there long enough to start our Galapagos trip on a Monday. Instead, we decided to build our own itinerary, booking the room only option (which gave more choice with the food, as the package was a set menu each night whereas we had a la carte) and then choosing which excursions we wanted to do on which days. The price did add up a fair bit but I think it was still cheaper and in my opinion definitely preferable to a cruise.
I thought very highly of the hotel, even though my first thought was that our room was described as a suite, but it was basically just a large double room and about a third of the size of the suite we’d had in Miami – but the same price! Obviously the exclusivity is something you have to pay more for – Finch Bay is the only beachfront hotel in Puerto Ayora with its own yacht, the service is of a very high standard and it is a really comfortable hotel.
We had an ocean view but actually we could only just see the ocean beyond the gardens – there was a big tree right in front of our window – but you can see the cruise ships out on the bay. I’m not sure it’s worth paying extra for the view though.
There’s a small swimming pool that seems to be home to a family of ducks, a lovely poolside bar with happy hour cocktails every night, and a large dining room with a good menu – they allowed us to choose from the bar menu as well as the a la carte in the evenings which meant we were able to have a burger if we wanted. The a la carte food is quite expensive and quite posh but the hotel has something of a captive audience – to eat somewhere else, you have to get the water taxi into Puerto Ayora.


It only takes a few minutes to hop across, and to start with we were a bit nervous about doing it at night, but it’s actually quite easy to walk down the steps and get onto the boat (even though we did need to use an iPhone torch on the path back to the hotel!). You can see small (harmless) sharks swimming around the docks of the water taxi at night which is really cool – they are really nothing to worry about!

The staff were brilliant – really friendly and one guy in particular learnt our names right away and greeted us by name every time we returned to the hotel from a day trip.
Our airport arrival was interesting as we had booked a private transfer through the hotel; I don’t know if they explained to us what would happen but I don’t remember seeing anything. As we left Baltra airport we saw a man holding a sign with our name on it, and we expected him to take us to a car, but he put our suitcases in the hold of a bus and motioned to us to get on. The bus was absolutely packed and we got the very last two seats, squeezed in the back row between a family who wanted the window seats. The bus immediately departed and we had no idea where we were going, how long it would take (it was pretty uncomfortable) or where the man had gone who met us at the airport. After what was probably only 15 minutes but felt a lot longer, the bus stopped and everyone got off – we saw we were at a jetty and they were all getting onto a boat.
Totally confused, we looked for our suitcases and couldn’t find them, then saw the man who had met us at the airport waving from the boat where he had already taken our luggage. We got on the boat, again with no idea where it was going or how long it would take – it was a pretty short trip. A man came around collecting money and we were about to hand over a dollar each when our porter came over to say he’d paid for us. When the boat stopped, he took us to a waiting car, put our suitcases in the back and told us it was a 40 minute drive to the hotel – this was our private transfer, as most other people were getting on another bus. We figured out that this was the Itabaca Channel, which separates Santa Cruz and Baltra, and the only way to get anywhere from the airport is a bus to the channel then crossing it on a boat. Private transfers won’t be able to take their car to the airport as it’s only a foot passenger ferry. Hopefully this description will be useful to other people and stop others being as confused as we were!
We had lunch by the pool when we arrived – I had a tuna sandwich with fries and my husband had homemade chicken nuggets and fries.
Every time we sat at the pool bar for a drink we were given a bowl of crisps and popcorn, and every time some very bold finches sat on our table watching and occasionally stealing a bit!
For dinner that evening – all we’d done that afternoon was sit by the pool and relax – he had beef medallions and I had spaghetti with pieces of chicken in a light curry sauce which was a bit unusual but quite nice.

For dessert my husband wanted the ‘chocolate volcano’ which at $12.50 I thought would be pretty special but it was just an ordinary chocolate fondant with ice cream; it did taste good but you have to wait 20-25 minutes for them to make it. Still, we didn’t have anywhere else to go!
I knew our hotel room had no television but I hadn't realised there was so little to do - as you are on the equator it gets dark early (about 6.30) and after dinner we would walk past the bar to see if anyone was around (you get to know people on the boat trips) but it was usually empty, so we ended up going back to our room and getting an early night. You could get the water taxi to Puerto Ayora where there are bars but we were actually quite tired in the evenings - the day trips are exhausting from the early starts (most leave at 7.45am) and walking round islands in hot sun, swimming (which is tiring if you are not used to it) and the sea air when you're on the boat. I'd also take this moment to say I really don't think the Galapagos islands are somewhere for young children - there were none staying in our hotel that we saw or on any of our day trips, but on arrival at the airport we did see several young kids.
Getting on and off each island isn't that hard but you have to clamber over the side of the dingy onto rocks which I'd be nervous about a child doing, plus you couldn't go snorkelling with a small child the way that we did (off the side of the boat in deep water where you all swim along the coast in the same direction and have to keep up). I really do wonder how the families with young children fared and why they didn't wait until their kids were a bit older.

The Finch Bay's boat, the Sea Lion, was great. Most days we walked to the hotel jetty, took the water taxi to Puerto Ayora, and got on a coach for 40 minutes to reach the Itabaca channel. We then got in the dingy that took us to where the Sea Lion was moored.
It’s a really nice boat with friendly crew; there are seats inside, on top and out front, and toilets and a changing area where you can change into wetsuits (the hotel rents them out for $16 per week and goes up to size XXXL; we brought them with us every day and changed into them on the boat. Remember a carrier bag to take the wet wetsuit back in!). While we were off on the island each day the crew would prepare lunch and we’d come back to nicely laid tables and hot food.
North Seymour Island and Bachas beach
Our first day trip was to North Seymour Island and Bachas beach. We had breakfast first – a really nice buffet that had different hot options every day – and then met our guide at reception at 7.45.

We were expecting to visit them in that order but were told that we were doing Bachas first, then picking up some people from the airport and they were going straight to North Seymour with us while their luggage went to the hotel – this was one reason I wasn’t keen on the 5-day itinerary as days 1 and 5 include your travel into and out of the islands! So Bachas was our first experience of the Galapagos, and we saw American oyster catcher birds, flamingos in a freshwater lagoon (though only three flamingos quite far away, and to be honest flamingos weren’t what we came here to see!) – then our first marine iguanas, followed by some vivid red crabs.
We then went snorkelling off the beach. I’d never been snorkelling before so had gone along to a local scuba group for a lesson in a swimming pool. I was glad I did, or I would have been very disconcerted by how to breathe through the mask as it felt totally unnatural to me to be breathing underwater. It was good that we were snorkelling off a beach as it meant I could walk in the water to a depth I was comfortable and get used to it – I only saw a few small fish and my husband saw a bit more, but this isn’t somewhere you’d expect to see amazing sea life like around some of the other islands. But I was really glad we did this one first as it was the only time we snorkelled from the beach – every other time, we plunged into deep water off the side of the boat (though that was also OK even to a beginner like me). I enjoyed it so much I was quite disappointed when it was time to stop!
Landing at North Seymour involved clambering off the panga onto rocks that looked a bit slippery but it wasn’t as hard as I was expecting. A sea lion laid on a rock just next to the steps that we climbed up, as if to greet us. We took a circular route around the island in blazing hot sun – I wasn’t expecting it to be so hot. One nugget of advice: we were told to take water bottles so I’d spent £12 on two collapsible ones back home, but the Finch Bay Eco hotel gives you a metal water bottle each as a gift, and the boat provides bottled water you can take onto the islands with you, so we never used our own water bottles.


We saw several of the famous blue-footed boobies and witnessed them do their mating dance –where they lift one foot in turn as if to say ‘look how blue my feet are!’. We saw several chicks and some boobies nesting on eggs, then we came across the magnificent frigate birds which have red pouches under their chins that are huge when inflated. There were land iguanas – a different colour to the marine iguanas we saw yesterday – but really this island is a bird watcher’s paradise.

The food had been described as a buffet and my husband, who is very fussy, told me not to worry about giving the hotel dietary requirements as he would find something in the buffet. In actual fact, the food is self service but there’s one hot option, some tiny pieces of bread and a couple of salad items – so not a buffet at all. Luckily I’d decided that while I wasn’t giving the hotel a long list of food preferences, I did tell them that my husband doesn’t eat fish – so on the first day on the boat when we saw the hot meal was tuna steak and rice (very nice) I got a bit worried until the crew brought out a piece of chicken in a tomato sauce they’d done especially for him.
The food was good though I think my appreciation was partly how hungry we’d gotten after walking around an island and sometimes snorkelling as well – you do build up quite an appetite! It was definitely better quality than I’d been expecting on a boat though I gather some of the really high end cruise companies offer gourmet meals.
The tour leaders were extremely good – only officially accredited guides are allowed to operate in the national park of the Galapagos, and it takes several years at university to qualify. Every guide we had was very knowledgeable and experienced, and they take care of you all day long – helping you on and off the boats, giving support to the more inexperienced snorkelers, and making sure you are always safe and enjoying yourself.

Back at the hotel that evening, we felt exhausted and both opted for a burger in our hotel restaurant, followed by the chocolate fondant (again) which we shared.
Punta Carrion and South Plaza Island
Our second day trip was to Punta Carrion and South Plaza Island. The sign in reception the night before had said a 7.45 start but this morning when we went to breakfast it said 8.15, so we had a bit of time to kill. As yesterday, we did the water taxi – bus to the Itabaca channel – panga to the Sea Lion, and had a very short 15 minute sail to Punta Carrion for snorkelling. This time we were going off the side of the panga, which I was very nervous about, but determined to do it even though a few older people remained in the boat. I lowered myself in off the panga rather than plunging in head first as some did, and it took me a while to get my confidence to put my face under the water knowing that unlike last time I was in deep water where I couldn’t touch the bottom!

I eventually got comfortable doing it as we all swam along a rocky shoreline, but I found the mask had gradually started filling with water – the problem with using a different one each time (they hand them out on the boat) is that they don’t always fit perfectly. I cleared the mask and carried on but it happened again, and I had to go back to the panga to take it off. The guide gave me a different mask to try but somehow that was worse, and it filled with water straight away (I think some of my long hair was inside the mask, meaning there was no vacuum seal), making my eyes sting. In the end I had to give up and sit in the panga while the others continued snorkelling, which was really disappointing.

South Plaza was our next stop and as we disembarked the panga we saw sea lions playing in the water and sitting along the rocks very close by. South Plaza is very colourful with lots of red vegetation and tall cacti; very different to North Seymour where we went the day before.
We saw several different coloured iguanas and even witnessed one spitting out salt – which we’d watched in the David Attenborough documentary – from about two feet away which was pretty cool. We walked up to the top of the cliff where there were a lot of birds flying around protecting their nests, a solitary blue-footed booby and a huge male sea lion sleeping on top of the rock – I was amazed he’d been able to climb that far up.
Then it was back to the boat for lunch – chicken in a curry sauce with spaghetti – then the guide said we would be sailing all the way back to Puerto Ayora via a different route; in other words we wouldn’t be going back to the Itabaca channel and the 40 minute bus ride. So it was two hours of sailing and it got a bit choppy – unfortunately I was sea sick! From then on I was taking extra-strong seasickness tablets I’d gotten from the doctor just in case which meant I couldn’t drink alcohol for the rest of my honeymoon – but I wasn’t sick again at least!

I felt much better that evening when we were back in our hotel; I had giant prawns with rice for dinner (delicious) while my husband had the beef medallions again as he liked it so much. We were back in our room by 8.30 and fell asleep pretty soon after another exhausting day.

Read more in Part 2, coming soon.