24 November 2014

10 Great Gifts for Colleagues and Friends for under $15

Buying gifts for colleagues and friends, like those in parents groups or sports teams, can be difficult. With our budgets stretched, we want to acknowledge the friendship, but can't afford and it often isn't appropriate to splash out too much. But you still want to get something thoughtful that they'd like and that is practical. 

I despise useless and goofy (waste of money) presents that are often found at office parties. Instead of having to resort to the tacky, I have devised an awesome list of ideas you will be proud to treat your colleague, office Secret Santa or friend to, without dipping too deep into your holiday fund. Most of these gifts would appeal to both men and women. 


Envirosax
Pretty reusable bags, perfect for carting your lunch or gym shoes to work. 
$11.50


Cashtag keyring
Allows you to hide cash or coins on your keyring. 
Available at Howards Storage in store and online. 
$14.95


Fantastic for the beach and pool to keep your phone useable but dry and sand free.
Dry Pouch
Again, available at Howards Storage. 
$7.95


It's like a little oyster case to put your valuables in. Very handy for stashing your jewellery at home and away. Could be combined with the Dry Pouch for a great gift. 
Lots of colours. 
Another beauty from Howards Storage. 
$5.95


Safe Keeper
We are huge Moleskin Notebook users in this household. I always have one in my bag and my husband uses about eleventy billion (ok, maybe around 8) a year. 
They are widely available. David Jones stock a good range and if you're shopping online check out 
Larrypost. 
$14.95


If your Giftee is an espresso/piccolo orderer, like me, they want one of these. 
Biome have a great range in their stores and online, for those outside Brisbane. 
$14


Bamboo Pen
Bamboo pen (refillable)
From Biome again….yep, I love that place! This is a really stylish gift with an eco edge. 
$9.90


This allows you to chip in a little extra to pop a nice little box of Twinings flavoured tea with it or some hot chocolate. You could also fit a 3 pack of Ferrero chocolates inside or present it in an inexpensive basket with some lemons and a bottle of sparkling mineral water that suits your budget. 
I personally detest the mason jar craze but it's loved by others and still has major cool factor. 
Kmart $2.00


L'Occitane Hand Cream
Lots of people who work in offices have a tube of hand cream in their top drawer. These are beautiful and there are loads of scents in this 30ml travel size. The new Arlesienne fragrance is my favourite - so gorgeous - worth a trip into a store for a sniff. 
$12


Officeworks sell 3 packs of $10 voucher cards and they are a great option if you're truly stumped for ideas. 
$10


I love shopping for gifts and giving them and we so rarely get to tell the ones we appreciate what they mean to us so don't forget to write a lovely note on an inexpensive card to go with your pressie. 

Have you got any great under $15 gift ideas?

15 May 2014

Ski Japan - the "how to"





Having recently returned from a ski trip to Niseko, Japan, with my husband and four year old son, I am getting lots of comments from people interested in going but not knowing where to start. Hopefully this shreds (get it!) some light on creating a memorable and precious Japan ski holiday for your family.

Lovely husband and I had skied many times in Australia, New Zealand and Japan before having our son. We were booked to go to Japan another time and I got pregnant - the best reason to postpone a holiday! We waited four years and left for our holiday on our son's 4th birthday. What a treat.

I have some simple and useful information to get your family skiing in powder paradise.

I will aim to keep this information very short and simple and I invite you to ask me any questions you might have that I haven't covered. I'll do my best to help.



Where to go

I have been only to Niseko, Japan.

It is the largest ski area in Japan and as such, services and facilities are excellent to cater for the large number of tourists to the area.

Some well travelled and well skied people I have spoken to say it's touristy. Not for me. I actually don't know what that statement means. Yes, the majority of people there are on holidays. So?


How long to stay

We were there 10 nights. That was fantastic. Lots of people stay six or seven nights. It totally depends on your budget and how long you want your family skiing. Next time I would tack on a few days to show our boy Tokyo before heading to Saporro. But at age four, we thought it best to wait a few years. 


When to go

Peak is December to Feburary. There is fantastic snow and far fewer people if you go any time from 1 March (shoulder season) and accommodation is cheaper from that date, also. I think it's worth taking the kids out of school for. 



How to get there


Flights
We flew Qantas from Brisbane to Tokyo (via Sydney) and Japan Airlines (JAL) domestically from Tokyo to Sapporo (New Chitose Airport). All flights can be booked through Qantas as JAL is a partner airline. Doing this, you can check your luggage through to your final destination.

Transfers, Accommodation, Ski Gear
There is a fantastic company based in Niseko, HT Holidays (formerly known as Hokkaido Tracks), run by Aussies, that take care of all the Japan end of things. Their range of services has expanded dramatically since our first trip to Japan and they make it so easy. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

You do, however, have many choices to make for your transfers, accommodation and ski gear and here are a few helpful hints for the things HT Holidays will arrange for you.

On Land Transfers
From Sapporo Airport (New Chitose) it's a two hour drive to Niseko. We took a private transfer in a mini van with SkyBus. Previously, we have taken the public coach to Niseko. Obviously, having our own vehicle with driver meant the minute we collected our luggage (our Driver held a sign with our name at the arrivals hall) we were in the van and on our way with the van to ourselves. The SkyBus Driver took us to the front door of our accommodation and took our luggage into the lobby for us while we scrambled for jackets, beanies and gloves. If you are travelling with kids, I think this type of transfer is worth the extra money. If you are travelling alone or as a couple, the coach is less expensive but slower. The Driver stopped at a fabulous truck stop half way to give us a bathroom break and snack. No Chiko rolls; even here the food was amazingly delicious and fresh! More on food later.




Accommodation

I have a rule that holidays have to be better than home, so when it comes to accommodation....let's just say I don't camp!

You cannot go too wrong staying in a HT Holidays property but I would recommend Youtei Tracks, Powder Tracks, Yama Shizen East & West and Miharashi for their upper Hirafu Village location. All of these properties are located within a block of each other in the most sought after area for restaurants, bars and most importantly, access to the ski lifts and shuttle bus.

Some of the properties I've mentioned have some Australian electrical plugs which is a pleasant and handy feature of these beautifully built condos.

There are many properties to choose from in other parts of the village but for us, not having to walk up the hill to get to our favourite restaurants and being closer to the Gondola wins. Lower village accommodation can be slightly cheaper and a sensible family option and the shuttle bus services those areas but does not run 24 hours.


Our gorgeous view of Mt Youtei and looking down the village from Youtei Tracks 501


Getting around the village

There are free, little, silver shuttle buses that move people around the village and up to the Gondola (Grand Hirafu Mountain Centre). They are regular around every 15-20 mins and you never have to walk too far to get to a bus stop.


Silver Shuttle Bus at the Gondola heading down the mountain

If staying at any of the properties I've suggested you will get the shuttle from Stop 10 on the main drag. There is a Driver and Door Guy. The door dude will ask you where you want to go and your answer is "Gondola" on the way up the hill and "10" (or "juu" if you want to test out your Japanese!) on the way home.


Eating

I have to interrupt the information-fest with food.

After your morning on the slopes, the shuttle bus will drop you at stop 10 and you will be starving. Look no further, they've dropped you at the best lunch spot, Asahikawa-Ramen Tozanken. Far-out-brussel-sprout - we ate something here every day. Yep, every day! There are around 10 different ramens to try as well as rice dishes, curries and loads of yummy sides. It is inexpensive, filling and nutritious if you don't count the beer. So yum. They are so friendly and all the food we had here was fantastic.


Salmon Roe on Rice with Miso at Asahikawa-Ramen Tozanken. Beyond delicious. 


Jumbo Ramen from Asahikawa-Ramen Tozanken


Here are a few other places you'll hear about. There are many, many options for food. All the places up the mountain have fantastic food, particularly the restaurant at Hanazono. 


A-Bu-Cha II
This restaurant is near impossible to get into it is so popular. They serve traditional hot pots - a simmering, tasty stock with meat and veges cooked at your table. They also have lots of side dishes. It is noisy, fun and casual and they are kid friendly. As ridiculous as it sounds, go and make a booking as soon as you arrive for holidays and you might get in. Otherwise you have to line up at 5.30pm (for a 6pm opening) and hope they can fit you. It's borderline ridiculous. I tried to book on two different occasions and couldn't get a booking. The three times we walked in, twice we got a table and once we were turned away. We went in shoulder season too.


Bang 2
Food on sticks. Note when ordering, you are ordering one. They are all sold individually. If you want six you have to say so. Hilarious.
Kid friendly. Very yummy.


Wabi Sabi
Don't bother. It was just 'ok'. The service was very sloppy.


Mariposa Muffin and Scone shop
Muffin heaven! Once we found this little yellow shop on a walk to HT Holidays' office, we went daily to get muffins for breakfast the next day....and maybe one for the walk home. A lovely Japanese couple make and sell the cakes and pastries and the flavours change frequently. I can highly recommend the Apple and Caramel Muffin and the Green Tea and White Chocolate Muffin. If you stay at Miharashi it is just across the road. 



Convenience Stores


Seiko Mart
Everyone knows where the Seiko Mart is at the main intersection in Hirafu. It is a landmark. You can get most everything you'll need there including grocery items, alcohol, fresh sushi snacks and newspapers.

Piz Gloria
In the upper village at shuttle bus stop 10, Piz Gloria is my favourite convenience store because there is a cute, little gift store attached. It is smaller than Seiko Mart but had everything we needed. Great muffins and some fresh fruit.



Ski Equipment

While we own our own ski clothing, we hire equipment. Again, HT Holdiays organised it all through Rhythm Sports which is around the corner from Seiko Mart, heading up the hill.

The equipment from there was great. We took a premium package which meant we got better quality gear and could swap or alter our gear at any time.

They have a pick up service so if you aren't staying close by, they will drive you and your gear to your accommodation after you've been fitted. So good!




Ski Valet

If you book with HT Holidays, you can access their free Ski Valet which is a good enough reason alone. You can leave your skis and boots with the lovely HT staff up the mountain rather than have to carry them on the shuttle and back to your accommodation every day. It is an amazing service. I felt sorry for all the people on the shuttle struggling with their gear and their kids'. 




Ski School


Kids Lessons
We used NAC, booked through Hokkaido Tracks. My boy is 4 and he had ski school every morning for a couple of hours.

NAC "ski" the kids until they're tired, then take them back to their headquarters where they offer them sweets and have an indoor play area.

They cater well for kids and have their own ski area for beginners. They are mostly Aussies. 


The super cool NAC sled pulled along by a quad bike at their private beginner area

My boy did one full day of ski school but we found it to be a little too tiring for him so cut it back to just mornings.

NAC pick the kids up in their own mini van at the stairs to the Mountain Centre at the Gondola. We were very confused the first day because it was not obvious and there is another major ski school that operates there. You literally wait at the steps of the entrance for their white van with "NAC" sign written on the side. The instructors wear completely black outfits with light blue embroidery on the backs. This is where you drop them and collect them.


NAC Ski School pick the kids up at these stairs - the entry to the Mountain Centre

This is the NAC van to look out for



Adult Lessons
I hate group classes so always book a private lesson for my first few hours on the slopes. It gives me enough confidence to ski after however many years it's been. It's more expensive that group lessons but progress is much faster.

For private lessons, NAC collect you from your accommodation.



Other info for families

HT Holidays have a stack of DVDs you can borrow at their office.

Take Paw Paw ointment or Vaseline for your kids' lips and apply frequently. If they're old enough to understand lip balm, give them one.

Take a decent medicine kit. You cannot buy, for example, kids Panadol. The nearest medical attention is at the hospital in Kutchan.

Don't worry about taking any food. Honestly, anything you could want (chocolates, bikkies, chips, drinks, noodles, bread) can be bought in Niseko.

If it's your first time skiing, you will be able to ski and enjoy yourself after only a few lessons. If you know how to surf and skateboard, maybe snowboarding will be easier for you. 

It is colder than Australia and New Zealand. You will need good quality, well water proofed ski clothes. Typically we wore merino thermals (the base layer), a jumper or soft-shell, then our ski jackets (which has puffer jackets zipped in). On days warmer than -10 I didn't need my jumper. You need a beanie, neck warmer (a Buff is good because you can breathe through it), mittens (highly recommended even for adults, they are so much warmer) and really, really good quality socks.

Check out the snow play areas behind the Grand Hirafu Mountain Centre and at Hanazono. 


Tobogganing at Grand Hirafu Snow Play area



Is it expensive?

I believe it costs around the same as Australia to eat out and buy at convenience stores. Some things are pricey, like sashimi and wine, but others are reasonable, like pork and beer.


Hit me with any questions you have on anything I haven't covered and happy planning!









21 August 2013

Dairy Free, Gluten Free Damper


Being gluten free and dairy free means no more nice burgers and pizza. Wrong!

Since finding Melinda’s Gluten Free Goodies Self Raising Flour, I have been ripping out some cracking bread substitutes. No other commercial GF SR flour gives me the same results and flavour as the talented Miss Melinda’s does. Many GF bread and cake products are dense and wet but using this flour, mine are are light and fluffy. 

Oh yeah, guess what else….just two ingredients for damper, buns or pizza base.

The base recipe is simple:
1 cup Melinda’s Gluten Free Goodies SR Flour (130g)
¾ cup Natural Sheep Milk Yoghurt (130g) 

Of course you can use a dairy option if lactose is your friend. 

This makes two hamburger buns.

Or use equal weights of each in whatever quantity you like.

Mix together then knead lightly on a floured surface and form into desired shape.

Thermomix users:
Use the interval speed for 30 seconds to mix.

Bake until cooked depending on the size. Hamburger buns take around 20 mins in a moderate oven.

You can make a whopping, big damper, spread it out and use as a pizza base (bake a while then add toppings) or as I do mostly, bake them as hamburger buns. Loads of pictures below so you can see what I've done. 

Tonight I added two teaspoons of dried herbs (oregano, rosemary and parsley) for lamb burgers and sprinkled the tops with salt.
 
My husband's dinner - GF DF Lamb Burgers with roasted chat potato
Omit herbs and drown in honey if you want something sweet.

So simple and delicious.

Try it and tell me what you think.

You can get Melinda’s Gluten Free Goodies Flour and cake mixes at many supermarkets and health food shops. Click here for the Facebook page.

I buy Sheep Milk Yoghurt from Wray Organic, Cannon Hill in Brisbane but many delis and health food shops stock it. 


The best GF Flour



Sheep Milk Yoghurt because I think most Goat milk products are pretty gross, but that's just me. 

I use these round spring form pans so they stay round. Ready to bake!

Baked

Split and ready to dress!




14 June 2013

Change A Head


I love hair.

Some chicks dig fashion. Some dig nails. Some dig makeup and beauty. While I like all of those things, I have mini-obsession with hair. I notice hair and I sometimes wish I followed my adolescent dream of doing hairdressing. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to be Australia’s oldest apprentice hairdresser.  

I love changing my hair and it’s time, people, it’s time.

I have been a stay-at-home Mummy for three years. It’s awesome and I love it. Sometimes I feel a bit out of touch with trends, not working outside the home, and it has been important to me not to fall into the Mummy uniform of ¾ pants, no mascara and a bob. Let’s face it, it’s out there….a lot. Having my hair long has been my way of making me feel feminine, sexy, fashionable and not Mumsy. Many of my friends have bobs and they rock them (no ¾ pants though!) so I’ve also worried I could look exactly like my three closest friends if I went to bobs-ville.

There’s a saying that if you wear your hair in a pony tail every day you have the wrong hair style. While I rarely wear a pony tail, preferring it out; straight, curled or waves, I am bored with it.

I am not scared of change, just that it won’t complement my face shape.  I’ve been short, red, blonde, fringed and everything in between over the years and integral to all of the good chops I’ve had were my hairdressers. (My favourite for almost 10 years, Melinda, moved to the country and had babies – if you need an award winning stylist in Warwick, drop me a line!). I have been with Phillipe at Oscar Oscar Hair Salon, Carindale for a couple of years now and trust him to execute my vision. We’ve chatted about a change and I think he’ll be doing cartwheels when I give him the thumbs up next week.

The round faced ladies amongst us will concur that face shape has a lot to do with what cut we choose. Long, layered hair gets a tick from the Round Face Hair Gods, so I’ve been playing by the rules. I don’t want boring, but have fairly conservative wardrobe, so I’d like something classic but a tiny bit edgy. But by crikey, Phillipe, slenderize these chubby cheeks, my friend!

Furiously Googling “inverted bob for round face” I found this. I want. But maybe a little shorter.


Done deal. Let’s do this! See you Friday, Phillipe!

Fast forward a week…..

I got what I wanted. So excited for this change. (Photography skills are questionable!).

Before







After






Next on my wish list is one of the new GHD Eclipse stylers. I’ve had a GHD Salon Styler for yonks (you know, with the large plates for long hair), but seriously need a skinny one now.

Have you made a major look change?






09 May 2013

Buying Awesome Gifts for Men


A friend phoned me last week as she pulled into the shopping centre car park to ask my advice for a gift for her man. This is not the first time it’s happened to me. It’s true, I love gifts; giving and receiving.

My Mum owned a beautiful gift store where I worked for many years, so perhaps my love of gifting was learned from her, or it may be that I know my guy so well that I feel I have a tiny insight into what blokes dig.

The budget is sometimes lean, sometimes flush but the key is to be prepared. If you are organized well ahead of time you have time to save, order online or have something customized. You need not spend a fortune, it’s often the very inexpensive or free things that are most treasured. If you plan well, though, you might be able to splash out. Tucking away a measly $5 each week is enough to surprise him with something really lovely once his birthday spins around for another year.

We all have so much ‘stuff’ these days, and let’s face it, if your Mister needs a new shirt he just goes and buys it so gifting can get tricky. And you know he’s never going to throw that crusty, old wallet away so don’t bother.

I’m just going to come right out and say it. Blokes love ‘kit’. They love a bit of gear. If he has a hobby, the hard work is done for you. You just have to listen (I know it’s sometimes easy to switch off) because they are dropping hints all the time without even knowing.

Whether he's your brother, lover or friend, here are my top ten awesome gift ideas for men to inspire you.



 1. Cool cameras

There are some seriously cool cameras for Mr Adventure.
Contour Roam2

It takes 5MP stills and HD video. Features built-in WiFi for use with their app on your smart phone. Mounting accessories available. Widely available in Australia both online and in stores like Rebel Sports.

NEW! Waterproof video and still camera. It’s small and there are loads of accessories available to clip them to handlebars, helmets and boards.




2. Super Dooper Pen

Meisterstuck Classique Ball Point $540
"zzz...zzzzz" I hear you snore. Quality makes a real impact gifting for businessy blokes. A Mont Blanc pen poking out of his business shirt oozes sophistication and a Mont Blanc pen is an enduring piece he will treasure forever. Perfect for a very special gift occasion. 





Large Shell kit-holder $84.95
3. Man bags and cases

Dudes need cool bags for everything from their lap tops and tablets to luggage for travel and the gym.

Moleskine have a range of ‘shells’ to house most anything. They call their Large Shell “The kit-holder for the contemporary nomad”. Indeed. A very cool and handy case for keeping all his cords and adapters in one location for travel.

And try Crumpler bags for backpacks, messenger bags, luggage and camera bags. They are funky, sturdy and come with a lifetime warranty (yep!). An Australian company, great range, superior quality, design and workmanship.





4. Noise Cancelling Headphones
QuietComfort® 3
Acoustic Noise Cancelling® headphones

RRP $449

For the traveler or commuter, noise cancelling headphones are a life changer. A flick of a switch either dulls noise around you so you can rest in silence or play your music with no interfering noise. They now also come with an Apple devices cord with a remote and microphone so you can take phone calls and control your music. These are no ordinary headphones and will be particularly appreciated by frequent flyers.







5. Cufflinks
Polli Cuff Links $49.95

For special occasions, if not every other day at the office, he will wear a French cuff and needs to own at least one set of cufflinks. From inexpensive to customized, find them at menswear stores, department stores, etsy and online. I love this wooden set from Polli.







Leatherman Squirt $79.95
6. Knives

Blokes love pocket knives. Some pocket knives are hobby specific – mountain bikes, hunting, etc. I hear you say “He’s already got one”. Yes, he wants more.  Leatherman tools are top quality and there is an amazing range. Readily available online and in outdoor stores like Anaconda and BCF.







7. Commuting Beverage Kit
Joco Glass Coffee Cups $24.95

Whether he rides, drives, walks or flies to work, eco friendly beverage gear will be appreciated. Stainless steel water bottles (SIGG Traveller $31.90) are a fantastic, take-anywhere gift. 

For the supreme coffee snob, may I suggest glass commuter mugs with silicone, splash proof lid and thermal sleeve. Get one for yourself too, they’re really lovely to drink from and the glass does not alter the taste of the coffee…ok…I’m a coffee snob.






Geneva Sound System $299
8. Travel Speakers

Portable bluetooth speakers are everywhere right now. My hot tip is the Geneva Sound System Model XS. I’m not going to get technical on you. All you need to know is that it’s small, is in it's own protective case, has a good battery life and crystal clear sound. Super for the travelling man as it has a clock display. He can use it in the shed, in a hotel room and camping, connecting with his smart phone, tablet or other bluetooth enabled device to access his own music or the radio. Super cool. 






9. Torches 

Maglite from $29.95
Not just for the outdoors type, though there are many torches and lanterns for those dudes. A decent head lamp is essential for getting splinters out of your kids' feet (this happened in our house tonight...true). I am also a huge fan of the whopping Maglite under the bed for times when Mr Sensible is away should there be a power outage or to investigate when our labrador decides it's appropriate to bark at possums at 2am and scare the b'jinkers out of me.  Readily available at outdoor, department and hardware stores and online. 






10. Get creative! 

Do something sentimental – picture, special drawing, poem.  “I can’t draw”, I hear you say. Waa waa. That may be true but can you write? Sing? Cook? Gifts needn’t always cost money. A slideshow of pictures of you together for the last year with a song he loves, a picnic at a location he doesn’t have to select nor prepare for with a few of his favourite treats, time….give him some 100% self indulgent free time. Young Dads will particularly appreciate the gift of time.


Have you got any great gift ideas? I'd love to hear from you. 

Happy gifting!


19 July 2012

Brownies - I've got a secret

The Best Brownies
"You could sell these!"


I have heard it so many times about the recipe I am about to share. 


Do you suffer from brownies that don't quite look like the pictures?  A bit gooey with a crispy top? That's not why you baked! You wanted fudgy, beautifully presented, gorgeous little squares of calorie laden goodness, right? ('Right!')


I've got a secret and one word for you....


Refrigerator. 


Get those damn brownies out of the oven, don't even think about touching them. Let them cool for an hour and bung them in the fridge for at least 4 hours. 


Yep. That's it. The secret is out. 


Leave those babies to cool overnight and the next morning they will slice beautifully into neat squares and taste....sing it with me.....d i v i n e !!!  ('la la laaaaa!')


You also need a decent recipe. There's no point putting all that effort and time into it if they aren't going to taste sensashe, right? ('Right!')


I've been making this recipe and variations for well over a year and having tried many - yes, including Nigella's - this one is the best. I originally got the recipe from a lovely lady I met through Twitter who is a truly amazing cook, Jacqui. Her website is www.everydaycook.com.au. I switch it up every now and again with different flavours which I've also suggested below. Just make it and please tell me what you think. 


I know you've heard it all before, but these are only going to turn out as good as the butter and chocolate you buy, so splash out and get the gear you'd happily eat, not 'cooking chocolate'.

THE BEST BROWNIES

250 grams Milk Chocolate
250 grams Dark Chocolate
250 grams of unsalted butter
4 eggs
1 ½ cups of caster sugar
2 teaspoons of vanilla essence
1 cup of plain flour (or almond meal if you're gluten free)

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees (fan forced). 
Prepare a slice tin with baking paper. 
Melt chocolate and butter in the microwave or over double boiler until runny. Stir in vanilla essence and set aside to cool a little. 
Beat eggs and sugar until thick and stir in the chocolate mixture. Add the flour and stir to combine well. 
Spread the batter into the baking tin and bake for 35 mins. 
When ready, the surface should look flakey. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature for an hour or so. Place in fridge to cool completely - at least 4 hours or overnight. 
Cut and serve when cooled. 
Keep refrigerated. They freeze really well for when guests drop in. 20 mins out of the freezer and they thaw easily. 


Some nice variations to try:
  • Add a cup of lightly toasted nuts at the same stage you add the flour - chopped walnuts or macadamias are beautiful. 
  • Add orange zest when you add the vanilla - just a hint of jaffa in the end product. 
  • Add raisins at the flour stage - just adds nice, sweet texture. 


Truly, the options are endless once you have this base recipe. 

Knock yourself out. 

Enjoy :)