Life&style The only thing better than a trip taking in European capitals, staying in five-star hotels and shopping at designer outlets? All that - arranged for you. Helena Frith Powell takes a tour of high-end shopping outlets.
Strangely enough, it doesn't take me long to decide to go on a Chic Outlet Shopping trip: Chic Outlet Shopping is owned by Value Retail, which is the only company in the world that specialises in the development and operation of high-end outlet shopping "villages". In Europe there are nine of these villages in cities as diverse as Paris, London, Milan and Munich. Anything with the words chic and shopping are likely to get my attention.
"It's a new thing," explains a friend. "You go on holiday to shop. You stay in luxury hotels and you see some of Europe's most fabulous cities." What's not to like? The company arranges an itinerary for you, depending on how many places you want to go, and they take care of all the travel arrangements. "I need to go," I tell my husband. "You need a budget," he replies. So we agree that since I have been working so hard as well as looking after our three children, I deserve to go shopping in some of the 800 shops that make up the villages on the Chic Outlet Shopping tour.
The Middle East is the fastest-growing market for these villages, and the luxurious hotels are specifically catering to Arab clients by employing Arab-speaking staff. In some cases (in Munich, for example) they even arrange women-only spa times. My husband and I agree that I should to stick to a budget of Dh1,000 at each of the three villages on my tour. The good thing about budgets is that they are made to be broken. I do this on the first day by buying a fur coat, which I think will be most useful in Abu Dhabi.
Sadly the bank calls my husband as I try to pay for it. He calls me. I have to explain that summer had not quite reached Munich and it is either buy the fur or risk dying of hypothermia. At this stage he has been looking after the children for a whole 24 hours alone and so is keen to have me home alive. Obviously, in the interests of research, I have to spend my Dh1,000 allocation as well, which I do, without any difficulty at all. For Dh1,000 I get a pair of trousers from Filippa K, a scarf and two cashmere jumpers from Bonnie and a cardigan from Oska. The total is Dh962 so I am actually under budget. As long as you don't count the fur coat.
Of course, this trip is not all about shopping. It is about luxury as well. We stay at the sumptuous Sofitel Bayerpost in the centre of Munich, which has Arab staff on hand to deal with the influx of visitors from the region during these hot summer months. It is one of those hotels that, once you're there, you find it difficult to leave. There are two excellent restaurants, a bar and a lovely spa. The aromatherapy massage is just what you need after a long flight and an arduous morning's shopping.
Next up is Dublin. I have only been to Dublin once, about 20 years ago, and I am keen to get to know it some more. We arrive just in time for lunch at the exclusive Dublin Fitzwilliam Hotel. I half hope I run into Robbie Williams since I heard he stays there when he's in town. It is just as well I don't, because I don't want anything to distract from the task in hand - shopping. Kildare Village was opened in 2006 and is one of the smaller outlet villages. But it is far and away my favourite of the ones I visit. It is small so has a lovely intimate feel to it, and what it does have is such great quality. I wear the clothes I bought there more than any of the others and there are such bargains to be had. In fact, I see the same items for more money at Bicester Village in England the following day. LK Bennett is exceptional, as is Myla, the exclusive underwear shop, but head for the sale rails first: that's where the real bargains are.
Kildare is also unique in that it is possibly the only shopping village in the world with hallowed land next to it and a crumbling medieval ruin. So when you tire of shopping you can gaze over the lush green fields. And they are green. Because it rains a lot in Ireland, practically all the time in fact. But that doesn't stop it being a gorgeous place to visit - and to shop. After our shopping we are shown around the Irish National Stud by a lovely perky Irish lady called Audrey, who is one of those people with more energy than the rest of us put together. This place is well worth a visit, not just for the horses and Audrey, but also for the immaculate gardens, especially the Japanese garden which is considered to be the finest in Europe.
From the National Stud we head to the hot tub at the exclusive K Club, not a bad way to end a great day. The jewel in the crown of shopping outlets is Bicester Village. With more 120 boutiques and just an hour from London, it was the first of the Chic Outlet Shopping villages to open, 14 years ago. This is a place for the serious label junkie. There is no other outlet village with the quality that Bicester boasts; most Bond Street names are here at knock-down prices. There is everything from Valentino to Jimmy Choo to Versace. My friend picks up a gorgeous pink maxi-bag from Temperley for only Dh1,350, reduced from Dh5,960. But don't go at the weekend, when it is packed.
From Bicester it's just a quick hop on the Eurostar to Paris and La Vallee Village, half an hour from the capital. If you get a chance, spend a night at the Sofitel Le Faubourg. From there it's just a quick walk to the famous Faubourg St Honoré, where you can see just how much your designer bargains should really have cost you. For more information, go to www.chicoutletshopping.com