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5 ways to relax in Austria

Austria's Jagdhof Spa Hotel, Neustift

Before this summer I’d never visited Austria. Famed for its ski resorts, I’d always thought of it as a winter destination and as I dislike the cold, I automatically discounted it.

Being rather accident prone – yes, I’m the idiot who required ankle surgery following an unfortunate encounter with a spin bike, tracksuit bottoms, and a swiftly-rotating pedal AND the fool who ended up with two black eyes following a collision with a surfboard in Barbados – I always thought it wiser and safer to stay away.

But when a travel press trip opportunity dropped into my inbox as part of the day job to visit Austrian village Neustift, with Inghams Lakes & Mountains, I decided to say yes:

A) It was June so there were no snowboards or skis in sight
B) It was a chance to tick a new country off the list
C) It was an opportunity to stay at the luxurious 5 star spa hotel – something I’d never done
D) I’d feel safe travelling in a group (regular readers will know that I’ve been struggling with bizarre reactions affecting my airway , which makes travelling and eating out quite tricky).

On the descent into Innsbruck Airport, I instantly knew I’d made a mistake in not visiting this green and pleasant land before. Flanked by towering mountains, the runway was the prettiest I’d ever seen.

My love for this spectacular environment was cemented even further on the 30-minute drive to our accommodation as we weaved our way luscious landscapes and chocolate-box villages scattered with wooden chalets overflowing with vibrant ivory and violet blooms. And by the time we pulled into the charming 5 star Jagdhof Spa Hotel, I was positively speechless (rare for me). The residence, which has been run by the Pfurtscheller family for the past 40 years, was situated at the foot of the Stubai Glacier, and the scenic views from my spacious pine-pannelled suite were the best I’d ever seen.

Our action-packed itinerary included hikes and strolls through the 530 miles of beautiful marked walking trails within the Stubai Valley, visits to villages including Fulpmes, a Stubai Super Card giving us free daily return journeys on a number of mountain cable cars, and a trip to the beautiful 500-year-old late Gothic Tratzberg Castle, in Inn Valley. The only downside was that we had very little time to enjoy the hotel’s superb facilities.

Usually, when I travel my choice of room is generally cheap and basic. As long as there is air conditioning and a bed, I’m happy. I’d much rather be out and about exploring the country than cooped up in a hotel room and budget apartments leave more money for experiences, right? But this was a work gig (granted, a lovely one), I wasn’t responsible for the accommodation and staying in a fancy hotel for the first time really opened my eyes, so much so that I’m planning a return visit – now there’s an about turn!

Below, I’ve rounded up five reasons why you should stay at the 5 star Jagdhof Spa Hotel.

REVEL IN THE VIEW
At this hotel, you are rarely very far from a breathtaking view. Marvel at the magical peaks of the Stubai Glacier, listen to the sound of the fast flowing Ruetz River, breathe in that invigorating clean mountain air. This place really is a fantastically pleasant assault on the senses. And there’s no end to the vantage points to choose from. Try the outdoor hot tub, a giant hammock in the landscaped gardens, or a seat on one of two flower-filled sun terraces as you enjoy the complimentary traditional afternoon cake.

GRAB YOUR GOWN AND GO
Each room has a fluffy dressing gown, slippers and little wicker basket that you can pop your book or magazine into and walk with to the spa area. The most taxing decision you’ll have to make is deciding where to park yourself. There are more than 20 bathing, relaxation, steam and sauna areas – my eyes almost fell out of their sockets when I was chilling in an indoor whirlpool and a gentleman walked out completely starkers from the naked sauna zone. Up until that point, I hadn’t spotted the sign. Honest. Another thing that’s easy to miss is the meditation room, which is on your left as you walk out of the Joyful Wellbeing spa area. Romantically lit, it’s immensely calming with a water feature and comfortable padded seating. It’s also next to a blissfully peaceful area dotted with waterbeds that sit underneath a ceiling resembling a star-filled sky. Oh, and if you really fancy splurging there’s even a private spa suite for hire complete with giant swings, a lounge area and tea bar.

 

INDULGE IN A SPA TREATMENT
Facials. People rave on about them but up until recently I’ve always struggled with problem skin so have never been a fan. However, I tried a 60-minute !QMS Relax-o-firm treatment on my visit to Joyful Wellbeing area. My nerves evaporated as soon as my friendly therapist began speaking perfect English and gently guided me through what she was doing. At the end, I walked out with glowing skin and my colleagues commented on how well I looked. There are 13 rooms here offering all manner of pampering experiences, but they’re popular so it’s best to book in advance. Saying that, last-minute beauty deals are sometimes advertised on the day on a stand outside the spa, so it’s worth keeping your eyes peeled, too.

EXPLORE THE FRESH FRUIT AND FOOD
Eating out is very tricky for me these days due to my histamine intolerance and I was worried I’d spend my time in Austria permanently famished. Far from it. The hotel chef bent over backwards to accommodate me. Upon request, the kitchen caters for gluten-free and vegetarian customers, as well as those with food intolerances and on calorie-restricted diets.

Before I left, I asked a German colleague to write down every food ingredient I react to in her native language with an explanation of why it’s dangerous for me to ingest such food. Lemons, limes, oranges, alcohol, tomatoes, vinegar, fermented foods…the list goes on and on but she kindly did this and I simply handed the guide over to the chef. He ensured there was plenty of salad and vegetables for me to tuck into and whisked me up wonderful egg dishes too.

Meanwhile, my fellow journos enjoyed the five-course dinners on offer. One evening a crustacean soup starter was served with cognac cream, another evening saw a desert of pineapple soup with a melon sorbet and pomace brandy desert conjured up. It’s worth noting that most of the meals are prepared using home-grown and regional produce – the hotel aims to support local farmers. The other good thing is that complimentary fruit, nuts and seeds are liberally dotted around so if you’re feeling peckish, there are healthy snacks to hand.

EMBRACE THE TRADITION
The great thing about visiting new countries is embracing new cultures and traditions and I ended up wearing a dirndl! All the female staff working at the hotel were wearing this traditional type of clothing, which is donned to mark special occasions including weddings. I loved my turquoise number (borrowed from a member of staff) which comprised a blouse, bodice, skirt and apron although it was rather tight across the chest. Apparently, this is normal and if you CAN breathe in it, it’s the wrong size. No chance of that. I also adored the fact that the Jagdhof produced it’s very own newspaper every day containing weather forecasts, spotlights on hiking trails, that evening’s dinner menu, and useful tips.

VERDICT:
When I arrived in Austria, I felt burnt out, stressed and in desperate need of a recharge. 72 hours later I left looking and feeling like a new woman. Austria –  and a summer stay at the Jagdhof Spa-Hotel – was just the tonic I needed.

FACTBOX:
Inghams is offering a seven-night holiday on a half board basis at the five-star Jagdhof Spa Hotel in Neustift, Austria, from £1,429 per person, based on two sharing in Summer 2018. Price includes return flights to Innsbruck, private airport transfers, guided walks, hot and cold buffet breakfasts, afternoon cake and five-course evening meals. To book, visit www.inghams.co.uk/lakes-mountains-holidays or call 01483 791 116.

For further information on attractions in Austria visit: www.visittirol.co.uk and www.innsbruck.info.

Travel, Wellness

6 ways to make your first ski holiday less stressful

Stress free ski holiday

Are you thinking about going on a ski holiday but can’t quite make up your mind? Then read on.

For as long as I can remember my friends have tried to coax me onto the slopes.

“You’ll never catch me on a ski holiday. I’d rather be on the paddleboard in the middle of the ocean,” I used to quip.

But my attitude did an about-turn last February when, as part of the day job, I ended up on the pistes of Patscherkofel in Austria on a travel commission for Top Sante magazine.

Despite my aversion to cold climes – one day the mercury actually dropped to  -20 degrees Celsius thanks to freak weather caused by the Beast from the East – I had an absolute blast on the four-day ‘taster’ ski holiday hosted by Inghams.

The package, as the title suggests, is a clever introduction for those hoping to learn how to ski for the first time, or perhaps for novices wanting to build up their confidence and rediscover the joy of skiing following a fall.

I don’t have a phobia of skiing (just the cold weather), but was attracted by the prospect of lesson-filled mornings (2.5 hour bite-sized chunks to stop information overload), followed by lunch and afternoons spent sightseeing and trying out the other winter activities the resort of Igls (pronounced Eagles) had to offer.

There was just one problem. Having never experienced a cold weather holiday before I had no idea what to pack for skiing plus the airline luggage allowance brought me out in a cold sweat – I always manage to exceed the limit when bikinis and flip-flops make up my staples let alone a pair of heavy snow boots and thick waterproof ski jacket!

What’s more, the thought of spending money on ski attire that might only be worn once held little appeal. The good news is I managed to find ways around the above and more so I thought it might be helpful to round up some of my discoveries below.

TOP TIPS FOR FIRST TIME SKIERS

HOW TO SAVE MONEY ON SKI GEAR

Beg and borrow from your friends. One of my mates kindly lent me her Trespass ski jacket, waterproof trousers, thermal vests and leggings (I took three pairs) and a snood. Do invest in some decent ski socks (essential for keeping your feet warm and to prevent friction in your boots), Goggles (to protect your eyes from ultraviolet rays and to stop the snow getting in) or sunglasses, oh, and waterproof footwear. I managed to nab a pair of snow boots in the January sales, again from Trespass, reduced to half price. I chose a design that could be worn in the UK too, to really get my money’s worth. I also used packaging cubes – rather genius inventions for separating your garments. So I had underwear in one, thermals in another, tops in a third –  you get the picture. They were so handy and made everything so easy to find.

HOW TO AVOID EXCESS BAGGAGE FEES

Initially, I tried to pack my ski jacket inside my case but it took up so much room and the snow boots were heavy too. (I know, I’m an idiot).  Any idea that I’d look remotely fashionable on my travels (I never am at the best of times) went out the window when I boarded the plane wearing the full get-up but this freed up much-needed weight and space in the case. Thank goodness I did. It was freezing on disembarkation at Innsbruck Airport!

WALK WITH A BACKPACK OR BUMBAG

As well as certain ingredients, a rise in body temperature can set off my tongue swelling reactions so emergency medication and a bottle of water are always close at hand. I bought a tiny rucksack to store these, together with SPF 30 sunscreen to protect my face from the ultraviolet rays and snacks as I’m so limited in what I can eat. Whether you have allergies or not it’s also good to walk with a little something to eat to help keep your energy levels up. Skiing really does take it out of you, especially if you’re prone to the odd tumble. *Top tip: make sure the rucksack straps fit over your ski jacket.

LAYER UP WHILE SKIING

We had unusually freezing weather but layering up really helped me stay warm.  I wore thermal leggings, a thermal vest, a thermal tee-shirt, a Blaze Wear Heated Base Layer top, a fleece and then my ski jacket and ski trousers. I preferred gloves over mittens as I could grip the poles better. With my MCAS, I have to try and regulate my body temperature so it was good to know I could whip something off if the need arose. I always take a strong antihistamine before any form of exercise as a precautionary measure.

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A•L•P•I•N•E L•I•V•I•N•G

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ALLOW PLENTY OF TIME

Head to the slopes at least an hour before your first lesson. We were in the hands of our trusty instructor Stefan at the Ski and Snowboard Schule Innsbruck in Patscherkofel but before we could get up close and personal with the snow we needed to fill in forms, undergo ski and helmet fittings, and find our lockers. There are plenty of staff on hand to help but it can get busy so allow enough time so that you’re not rushed and feel comfortable, especially if you’re a panicky person like me.

CHOOSE A RESORT THAT HAS EVERYTHING ON YOUR DOORSTEP

The resort of Igls is just 12km drive from Innsbruck Airport which means you’ll be checked into your hotel before you know it. We stayed at the enchanting Sporthotel Igls, which dates back to 1889.  It has a spa area and pool – so don’t forget your cossie or trunks – and a grand roaring fireplace. The great thing about this location is that Innsbruck is just a ten-minute ride on the free J bus, which can be caught outside the hotel. It also takes you to Nordkette.

OTHER THINGS TO DO ON A SKI TRIP TO AUSTRIA

SNOWSHOEING

If you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the ski slopes try a winter wonderland hike through the forest wearing snowshoes – footwear that resembles giant tennis rackets.  We took a cable car to the summit of Patscherkofel and disembarked through Narnia-esque forest littered with fresh deer and rabbit tracks. Astonishingly, the magic continued to unfold when sparkling glitter appeared to swirl all around us. Our guide explained this was something known as ‘diamond dust’, a natural phenomenon that happens when it’s too cold for ice crystals to form snowflakes.

HEAD TO NORDKETTE

On the day we took the cable car up to Nordkette it was -22 degrees Celsius which made it all the more exciting for me as I’d been to Austria the previous summer and taken the exact ride up to the Seegrube restaurant at the top. Back then the view was of the lush green forest; this time around my breath was taken away by the fairy-tale snowy scene below. At the top, my group tucked into Tyrolean treats – like dumplings – and whipped-cream-topped hot chocolates, while I stuck to my boring but essential low histamine diet. We also ventured inside a ‘real’ igloo, which operates as a nightclub during the winter months.

GIVE CURLING A GO

A notable highlight was trying curling for the first time. The location was an outdoor ice rink, a 15-minute walk up the hill from our hotel; the soundtrack was 90s Eurotrance which brought back many a teenage holiday memory. It was tremendous fun and the sunset views of the mountains were simply stunning. Mindfulness at its best!

Try out the Olympic Bobsleigh Run in Innsbruck, Igls

Um, yes. We found ourselves on the Olympic Bobsleigh run hurtling down the track at 100km/h speeds. Most of us screamed the entire way down and it was over in around 60 seconds. I wish I hadn’t kept my eyes shut the entire time now but you live and learn.  It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted – if you’re an adrenaline-junkie you’ll love it.

Are you novice skier or a seasoned pro? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.  If you enjoyed this piece you might like to read our other travel posts on Barbados, South Africa’s Kruger National Park Austria (in the summer) and what happened when I tried cruising for the first time on the world’s largest cruise ship Symphony of The Seas. 

**Inghams offers a four-night ski holiday from £639, including flights, transfers and half-board accommodation at the Sporthotel Igls. Lift passes, equipment hire and tuition can be pre-booked through Inghams. For further details and departure dates call 01483 791 114 or visit www.inghams.co.uk. For more information on Igls visit www.innsbruck.info/en and for information on the region visit www.tyrol.com.

Travel

2018: My Favourite Photos 

My favourite photos, Relax Ya Self To Health

I’ve always enjoyed taking photos. It was part and parcel of the job when I started out as a reporter on a tiny local newspaper many moons ago, only back then we didn’t have fancy equipment like Panasonic’s Lumix DC-GH5S mirrorless camera and never needed to shoot video  as ‘online’ content didn’t even exist.

Oh, how times have changed! We now live in a world that is obsessed with taking and editing images. Instagram is awash with all sorts ranging from beautiful beach shots to pictures of pampered pets and I must confess to being the official holiday bore among my friends because I simply cannot put my camera down when we’re away.

I’m the annoying fool that’s lagging 10 minutes behind everyone else because I’ve spotted what I believe to be a stunning sunset capture or an unusual angle to shoot some palm trees and I’m the one perched on a razor sharp rock trying not to scream in pain because ‘it’ll be good content’.

I blame this blog, in a good way, for rediscovering my passion. Okay, I’m by no means an expert – my fail-safe method is to take 20 shots of the same scene and hope that one of them works, and don’t get me started on resizing images – but I’ve quickly realised that I love storytelling through pictures as well as words…so much so, I’m thinking about taking a photography course in 2019.

Scanning through my image bank to find a beautiful picture that perfectly illustrates the text then hitting the ‘featured image’ button and watching the entire page blossom is – for me anyway – the most satisfying part.

Who’d have thought that after working with words for almost 20 years?!

As it’s the end of 2018 and, as part of my quest to stress less, relax more and try and lead as ‘normal’ a life as I can with MCAS, I thought it’d be fun to round up my favourite photos from 2018 and the stories behind them.

 

PHOTO 1
The remains of many an old sugar mill can be found scattered around the Caribbean island of Antigua. This one is situated inside the grounds of the Hawksbill Hotel. It’s still in use – not as a mill – but as a gift shop. It took a while to get the shot – my poor mum was the patient guinea pig as I tried to work out the best angle (before asking her to replicate the snap) and it also started to rain but we got there in the end. (Told you I was annoying!)

PHOTO 2
I adore the ocean but rarely stay in accommodation that’s right on the beach. This time we splashed out…excuse the dreadful pun. Drifting off to sleep and waking up to the sound of the waves lapping against the shore was such a special treat. This was the view from my bungalow, give or take a few paces. You can see the sugar mill featured above in the background, too.

PHOTO 3
I rarely take selfies but this one happened accidentally earlier this year when I was fiddling with my phone. I was in Austria writing a piece for Top Sante magazine on the joy of learning how to ski over the age of 40. It was bitterly cold at -22C because the ‘Beast From the East’ had struck but still enormous fun.

PHOTO 4
… and this was the view of the magnificent Austrian Alps pEAking (sorry, I’ll stop with the puns now) above the clouds from the aircraft window.

PHOTO 5
Hands up…this isn’t my shot. It was taken on a Symphony of the Seas press trip by Nadia El Ferdaoussi who blogs at The Daily S’elf and whose Instagram feed is the thing of dreams. She captures moments beautifully. This wave was created by a surf simulator on board the cruise ship. Trust me, staying on isn’t as easy as it looks and my body was cramping after five minutes but it was such enormous fun.

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The calm before #stormkirk #pink

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PHOTO 6
I’m a terrible surfer but (pre-MCAS days) I’d always give it a go over at Freight’s Bay in Barbados. When this was taken, I was really suffering from my symptoms – Storm Kirk was on its way (atmospheric changes like this are a trigger for me) – but I managed a little smile for the camera before heading back to the hotel to rest. If you’re ever on the island, definitely check this place out – the views of the south coast are lovely and it’s such a tranquil location.

PHOTO 7
I’m a member of the National Trust and head out to houses, gardens and castles in the UK whenever I can. This moment was captured in October on a wonderfully sunny weekend over at Chiddingstone, one of the oldest villages in Kent. I love the reflection on the water. Our family has always been more interested in experiences and sport over things and we had a brilliant time celebrating my dad’s birthday. He has a very dry sense of humour so we spent most of the time in hysterics.

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I’m obsessed with the sea, surf, nature and this little guy ❤️ On my recent trip to Barbados, I was lucky enough to help a member of our hotel collect these hatchlings for the Barbados Sea Turtle Project. A couple of volunteers passed by to pick up approximately 150 weeny turtles. That night they were relocated to give them a better chance of survival. Apparently, the babies confuse hotel lights for the moonlight which prevents them heading out to sea 😔 But why #mysundayphoto this week? Well, I’ve spent much of the day working out ways to reduce my plastic consumption having been hugely inspired by @small_sustainable_steps , please do check out her page ❤️, and also since watching the astonishing BBC’s Drowning in Plastic documentary. I’ve always been an avid recycler, have never used cling film etc, etc but there’s heaps I could improve on. It’s time to reduce my plastic consumption, too. Today I visited an ethnic shop which sells lots of loose fruit and veg, and bought a shampoo bar for the first time in my life. I am also investigating reusable razors, plan to wear my glasses over contact lenses wherever poss and am currently researching water filters. Of course, there’s a long way to go but if we all contribute hopefully our marine life will ingest fewer plastic pieces in the future and we can make a difference.

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PHOTO 8
I’m hugely into wildlife, nature and adore Barbados (which inspired the name for this blog) so when I was given the chance to help one of the hotel workers collect up 150 baby turtles for the Barbados Sea Turtle Project, I jumped at the chance. Apparently, the hatchlings confuse the hotel lights for moonlight so instead of heading out to the sea where they should belong they venture inland. This one was relocated to another beach (along with the rest of his family) for a better chance of survival 🙂

PHOTO 9
I look at this shot on Dover Beach  – on the south coast of Barbados – and instantly relax. Funnily enough, this snap was taken just a few steps away from the sea turtle nest!

Do you have any top tips for taking photos? As an amateur snapper, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  

Disclaimer: This is a collaborative post with Panasonic. As always, all views are my own.

Travel

7 lessons I learned when I left my phone at home

7 things I learned by leaving my phone at home

There’s nothing quite like realising you’ve left your phone at home on a Monday morning to induce a state of panic, especially when you’re working for a new client in London and you’re relying on Google Maps to get you from A to B.

But this is exactly what happened to yours truly last week. I thought I’d be super organised and charge up said phone in the bedroom – far better to start the day with 100% battery in the tank and all that.

Only in between wolfing down the porridge and prioritising my to-do list, I completely forgot to retrieve the device from upstairs. On entering the railway station I realised my mistake. No amount of searching – I frantically triple-checked every inch of my handbag –  would bring it back.  My stomach began somersaulting for England.

How the heck would I survive without it?

The day before – in a bid to be Miss Efficient – I’d set an out of office (I receive on average between 400 and 500  emails per day) advising people that I’d be media training and only checking my account intermittently.  Those with urgent work-related queries could text or call me. Except now they couldn’t. I could feel my stress levels rising.

Then another realisation struck – I wouldn’t be able to check my email account because I’d be signing in on a brand new computer that would only accept my log in details via a two-step authentication code which, you’ve guessed it, would be sent to my phone! Oh, joy of joy.

There was nothing for it, I’d have to reluctantly suck up this unexpected digital detox.

This is what I discovered…

Five things I learned by accidentally leaving my phone at home

A sense of freedom

At first, I felt lost without my phone and quite anxious. Questions rattled around my head. How am I going to contact my boss? How will people contact me? What happens if the train is late? What happens if I get lost? What sort of impression is this going to make? But then I just accepted the situation for what it was and let it go. With peace came clarity. I’d been catastrophising massively – something I did when my health first went haywire – and I found myself worrying  about future situations that might not happen.  I told myself there was nothing I could do and instead focussed on the present moment. Yes, I couldn’t check the news sites or email and felt quite disconnected but there was no compulsion to endlessly scroll and it felt enormously freeing.

How to create more time

This sounds like a flippin’ obvious one but, quite frankly, I was staggered by how much time I recouped. Train journeys are usually spent catching up with Whatsapp group messages, Instagram, blog admin and general work emails. Before I jumped on board I had a quick chat with the jolly man in the coffee kiosk and on the ride into London another young commuter jokingly told me how he couldn’t face the day ahead as his flatmate had a party that had kept him up until 5am. Would I have had these conversations if I’d been glued to my phone? Probably not. Did they make me smile? Yes. It made me wonder what else I’d been missing out on.

How to be mindful in everyday life

I’ve written about mindfulness before – from hypnotherapy mind massages to group meditation sessions – but leaving my phone at home was a true lesson in everyday mindful living. I usually listen to music or the radio during the walk to and from the station. Instead, my soundtrack was the crunch of the golden autumn leaves underfoot, and the birds chirping in the trees. As cliché as it sounds, I felt very much at one with nature. Just being aware, truly present and grateful for being alive was a very uplifting way to start the day.

How to increase productivity in personal and business life

Sitting on the train, after the tired twenty-something had departed, I pulled out my notepad and began goal setting. I scribbled down feature ideas for the day job, blog post musings, and made a list of what I needed to organise at home. I was in full flow and my brain was positively singing and dancing. By the time I arrived at work I was excited at the prospect of nailing my meetings and coaching without having to worry about any other pressure or obstacles that might have been thrown in my path via emails or the phone.

It can wait. Honestly. 

Most self-employed people – I’ve been a freelance journalist for almost 20 years – worry about missing out on work and I was, in fact, expecting a call from a chap from another agency on the same day. Initially I panicked as we’d suggested provisionally meeting up after I’d finished my consultancy gig. As it turned out my contact’s meeting had been postponed and it would take him another week to call me, by which time I’d been reunited with the phone! These things always seem to have a way of working themselves out.

How to relax

Yes, I’d worked a long day in London and while the commute was always going to be far more tiring than in the days prior to my Mast Cell Activation Syndrome diagnosis, I felt energised and rejuvenated on the train journey home. My ‘butterfly’ brain had seemingly settled thanks to fewer distractions. I was very, very content and, dare I say it, relaxed!

How to manage my time effectively

Interestingly, a sense of dread, not excitement, filled my stomach when I opened my front door.  On picking up my phone I found the expected 500 emails (80 per cent were press releases) and social media notifications. There’d been three missed calls (from my dad). Oh, and I had the best part of ten WhatsApp messages, five of which requested rather time-intensive favours.

Now, I always help people out but the stark reality is that between the day job and running this blog I get very little downtime with barely a day off. On opening the messages I instantly felt overwhelmed.  As the knot in my stomach tightened, a realisation struck… I must start setting boundaries and managing my own time better for the sake of my own health, otherwise I really will be of no use to anyone.

Leaving my phone at home proved to be a blessing in disguise and taught me many a lesson.

In fact, I found the whole experience so liberating I could be tempted to do it again!

Have you ever unintentionally left your phone at home? How did you find it?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. 

Fancy reading the health and wellbeing tips of the stars?

Check out our chats with Jonny Wilkinson, Pat Cash, Katie Piper, Gail Porter and Ryan Sidebottom here.

 

 

Helen's Health, Wellness

Cruise control: What it’s really like on Symphony of the Seas

Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas cruise ship

“A cruise ship? Me? Never!” was always my standard response whenever anyone brought up the ‘C’ word.

And here’s why:

  1. I’ve always associated cruising with the dreaded norovirus – not ideal when you’re an emetophobe.
  2. I’m a long way off retirement age.
  3. Despite my obsession with the ocean – see my Instagram feed here – I am prone to seasickness on ferries and larger boats, which swiftly brings me back to point one.
  4. I have the attention span of a flea.

Yet last month I ended up spending two nights on the world’s largest cruise ship when, as part of the day job, Royal Caribbean invited me for a two-night sailing aboard its latest luxury cruise liner Symphony of the Seas, a 1,188 ft long bad boy with 18, yes 18, decks ahead of her official debut.

Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas

Credit: SBW-Photo

My eyes were on stalks as I digested the particulars. This cruise ship had a surf simulator (wahoo!) and a zip line (yes!) as well as climbing walls, an escape room, the tallest slide at sea, laser tag, hot tubs, 19 pools, water slides, West End-sized theatres, a spa, numerous shops and more than 20 restaurants, bars and cafes.

Nonetheless I still couldn’t quite get my head around the concept so I signed up, packed a small suitcase and flew to Barcelona for the inaugural sailing.

Here’s how I got on…

LET’S TALK ABOUT SIZE 
I spotted Symphony, Royal Caribbean’s 25th vessel, on our descent into Barcelona. It looked mahoosive from the air – unsurprising really, given that she is approximately five times the size of the Titanic and has the capacity to carry 6,690 passengers alongside an international crew of 2,200. After checking in I spent a good half an hour wandering around in a daze, neck trained skyward muttering: “How on earth am I on a ship? How does this thing even float?” She weighs more than 17,000 African elephants for goodness sake.

Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas

Credit: SBW-Photo

 

TOP TIP: PACK FLAT SHOES
There are no travelators and you’ll clock up a lot of miles on foot. I boarded late in the afternoon and by the time I went to bed I’d notched up 5.1 miles (according to my iPhone). The next day I finally had control of my bearings but still walked in excess of seven miles. Remember that the corridors are long – on board, there are an incredible 2,759 cabins, as well as suites – so if you forget something in your room you’ll have a fair trek back. It’s wise to triple-check that you have everything you need before venturing out.

LET’S TALK ABOUT ROOMS
I’d assumed that guest lodgings on a cruise ship were known as cabins but on Symphony they’re called ‘staterooms’. I’d also assumed said dwellings would be poky. How wrong I was?!  My ocean-view room had a large balcony, a desk and sofa area. I was also taken with my compact yet practical bathroom, especially the shower. Again, I’d assumed (I really need to stop making assumptions) that the water pressure would be low because we were on a cruise ship but it was better than mine at home!

Symphony of the Seas

Did the rocking of the vessel cause any queasiness? Nope. I couldn’t feel a thing. Oh, and I just happened to enjoy the best night’s sleep of the year in my fantastically comfy double bed. It seems I am not alone. On mentioning this to a crew member, I was informed that similar feedback from passengers on other Royal Caribbean fleets had spurred the company to start selling the mattresses! Being a technophobe, I also loved the fact that the air con in the room was easy to operate. It’s a straight dial. Turn left for cold air, right for warm. None of this fiddling with thermostats or remote controls. Hooray!

INTERESTING FACT: There’s one ‘wow’ factor 1,346 sq ft guest room on the ship. It’s called the Ultimate Family Suite, sleeps up to eight people and comes with a private butler. Inside you’ll find a 3D cinema room with popcorn machine, an air hockey and pool table. There’s even a slide from the children’s bedroom to the living room, as well as a floor-to-ceiling Lego climbing wall. Oh, there’s also a 212 sq ft balcony with a hot tub. Even though it costs £30,000 for five nights, the suite is mostly booked up for 2018.

LET’S TALK ABOUT ADVENTURE
The cruise liner is split into seven neighbourhoods. The Pool and Sports Zone, also home to the zip wire, tantalisingly whispered my name. Whizzing through the air – nine decks up – might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I found the experience terrifically exhilarating. The neighbouring boogie board simulator brought equal levels of pleasure and buoyed by my respectable efforts, I ambitiously headed over to the Flowrider surf pool where I fared less well, wiping out after one second!

The instructor told me that it was far harder to surf on a simulator than in the open sea. Whether he was just trying to make me feel better I do not know, but I accepted his words! Sadly, I ran out of time to try Ultimate Abyss. At 45.72 meters above sea level, it is taller than Buckingham Palace and has a ten-floor drop. I also missed out on glow-in-the-dark laser tag, although I heard rave reviews.

INTERESTING FACT:
Central Park, one of the boroughs, is a wonderfully relaxing green space. There are more plants than there are Great Pavilion exhibits at the Chelsea Flower Show. You’ll also find trees and more than 12,000 tropical plants.

Royal Caribbean, Symphony of the Seas, Central Park

Credit SBW-Photo

LET’S TALK ABOUT THE SPA
As many of you know, I struggle to relax but I instantly felt the weight of the world lift off my shoulders the moment I walked into the Vitality Spa for a 75-minute deep tissue massage with my lovely therapist Rachelle. She asked me to fill in a personal information form on which I explained all about my bizarre reactions to certain ingredients and then carefully checked the product labels before starting work on me.

Royal Caribbean, Symphony of the Seas, The Vitality at Sea Spa

Credit: SBW-Photo

 

She certainly knew her stuff, quickly identifying the parts of my body that were in a pickle and set to work ironing out the knots. I felt like a new woman by the end and was reluctant to leave. Massages are not included in the cost of your trip and this one cost $179 dollars but there are cheaper options. You can also pay extra to hire out your own private hot tub with multi-coloured changing lights.

TOP TIP: If you’d rather pay nothing and relax in a communal whirlpool head back up on deck to the Solarium Big Wonder art installation area. Here’s you’ll find fantastic views of the sea and it’s incredibly romantic at sunset too.

Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas

Credit: SBW-Photo

 

LET’S TALK ABOUT ENTERTAINMENT
Truth be told, I wasn’t too fussed when I heard that there was an ice skating show taking part in the theatre but I went along anyway. And boy I’m glad I did.  1977 was my first experience of an ice production. From the awe-inspiring ability of the skaters to the ridiculously impressive speed of the outfit changes and even the lighting and music, I oohed and ahhed my way throughout the entire performance.

Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas Ice Show

Credit: SBW-Photo

 

The next night I skipped the musical Hairspray in favour of Aqua-Nation, a theatrical water-based show involving high-diving aerial performances off Olympic height boards and magnificent synchronised swimming routines. It was quite literally breathtaking.  Later, I discovered a little bar playing salsa and meringue and spent a good half an hour being twirled around by a very patient Spaniard. Oh, and of course I found the nightclub playing house and chart music. You’re never too old, right?

TOP TIP: Fancy a cocktail with a difference? Check out the bionic bar, which has two robotic bartenders. You select your favourite cocktail on an iPad and the robot gets to work preparing your drink. Or, find your way to the Rising Tide Bar, which moves up and down between three decks.

Symphony of the Seas The Bionic Bar

Credit: SBW-Photo

LET’S TALK ABOUT FOOD
I must confess, I was worried about eating on a cruise ship serving thousands of people given the state of my health right now and all my histamine issues. I no longer eat out because it’s so difficult. But the chefs could not have been more accommodating. One in the Windjammer Marketplace (my favourite place to eat – there was so much choice despite my tricky diet) offered to make me fresh bread from scratch so I needn’t miss out. So kind! Altogether there are 20 restaurants to choose from including Hooked Seafood, El Loco Fresh (a Mexican restaurant) and Jamie’s Italian.

Symphony of the Seas

TOP TIP: Be sure to check out the Wonderland restaurant and bar. Look at the carpets. Look at the back of the chairs. And look at the attire of the waiters and waitresses. I won’t give too much away but it gets curiouser and curiouser…

VERDICT
I never thought in a million years I’d end up on a cruise ship but I can honestly say I had a blast. Who knew cruising could be so much fun and aimed at all ages? I didn’t get bored. I didn’t have any seasickness. And given my fear of contracting norovirus, I was thrilled to see numerous hand sanitisers dotted around the ship and by elevator doors. Everywhere I turned there seemed to be a cleaner rubbing down a bannister or scrubbing steps. Good news for a worryguts like me!

Symphony of the Seas

 

I also loved the attention to detail. From the names of the days of the week helpfully set within the lift floor to the friendly crew members who seemed to just magically appear. Step out of your room, there’s an attendant in the corridor. Need a drink? There’s a waiter by your table. Lose your dictaphone in the theatre/nightclub (which was packed to the rafters), a staff member will find it! Yes, this actually happened! How they located it I shall never know but I’m eternally grateful. Now that’s service for you!

Have you ever been on a cruise? Would you like to try this experience? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. If you liked this article please feel free to share or tag a friend who might be interested.

And if travel’s your thing, you might also like to read my reviews of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Barbados, Austria and the Chilston Park Hotel Wellbeing Retreat.

EXTRA INFO:
Symphony of the Seas will be spending her first summer season in the Mediterranean. A 7-night Western Mediterranean cruise sailing on 13th September 2018 starts from £1,060 per person, based on two people sharing an Interior stateroom. Calling at Rome (Civitavecchia) – Italy, Naples (Capri) – Italy, Barcelona – Spain, Palma De Mallorca – Spain, Marseille – France, and Florence/Pisa (La Spezia) – Italy, before returning to Rome. For more information about Symphony and how to book visit www.royalcaribbean.co.uk/our-ships/symphony-of-the-seas/

Travel

Win a Bodhi & Birch salt scrub worth £35

Bodhi & Birch salt scrub

Summer in April. That’s what we’re currently experiencing in the UK. And boy does it feel fantastic.

Nonetheless if, like me, the thought of baring your ill-prepared pins (is anyone else still walking around in jeans instead of shorts?) sends you running for the hills, do not despair.

To celebrate this fabulous weather we’ve teamed up with independent, eco-luxe skincare brand Bodhi & Birch to give away their award-winning Rosemary Chi Himalayan Detox Salt Scrub worth £35.

This deliciously-scented body polish is my idea of ‘summer in a box’ –  the divine fragrance fills the air before you even open up the packaging thanks to the reviving essential oils including rosemary, geranium and cedarwood, which also help to clear the mind.

Meanwhile, the Himalayan salt crystals are said to balance the body, while the organic shea butter, grape seed oil and olive squalene help to nourish the skin as well polish and prime limbs for an outdoor outing.

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Bodhi & Birch salt scrub

Elijah Choo, who founded UK-based Bodhi & Birch in 2010, originally created the brand’s sustainably-sourced products on his kitchen table.

He says the creations draw inspiration from the healing power of nature and traditional botanical remedies, bringing together Eastern and Western skincare and wellbeing philosophies with the aim of creating an antidote to our hectic 24/7 lifestyle – now I’m on board with this!

So how can you win this 250g Bodhi & Birch Rosemary Chi Himalayan Detox Salt Scrub?

Simply comment on the post below or over on Facebook telling me what appeals to you about the scrub and how you’re celebrating this balmy weather!

For a second entry, just like and share this Facebook post.

The competition closes at midnight on April 30.

Good luck!

This Bodhi & Birch competition is open to UK residents only. Terms and conditions apply. Bodhi & Birch has kindly donated this Rosemary Chi Himalayan Detox Salt Scrub in exchange for this post

**Please do not worry if your comment does not instantly appear underneath the blog post. Comments have to be approved and may be held in a queue.

Like this competition? Want to enter more? Be sure to sign up for our newsletter here. That way you’ll never miss a blog post or an opportunity to enter.

We’re more than merely competitions though.

Discover the health and wellbeing secrets of your favourite stars by reading our interviews with them here: Jonny WilkinsonPat CashAndrew BartonKaty Piper, Gail Porter.

Or learn how to improve your wellbeing.

Struggling to sleep? Our post here may help. Interested in a yoga and meditation retreat? Check out our review of Chilston Park Hotel, Kent here. If a hypnotherapy mind massage is more your thing, This post might be for you.  Or how about e-biking? If holidays are more your style, check out our guides on BarbadosSouth Africa and Austria. 

Competitions

10 ways to rediscover your pzazz

10 ways to find your pzazz

Pzazz is one of my favourite words.

For those in the dark, it means ‘a new lease of life’ or ‘get up and go’.

But far too often we lose our pzazz as the trials and tribulations of daily life take over.

And while we all know the importance of keeping stress at bay it can be hard to take action when you’re firefighting one problem after another and, quite frankly, feel as though you’re wading through treacle.

Inevitably the obstacles become the focus and before you know it you’re struggling to recall the last time you laughed.

I was stuck in this rut for most of 2016 when my health went haywire, read the night it all began here. I struggled to see light at the end of the tunnel but recently something shifted.  I no longer mourn my old life and I’ve finally learned to accept what is happening and adjust.

In fact, I now believe that my body was simply screaming at me to slow down. I wasn’t listening. So it just stopped working properly to make me sit up and take note. Slowly but surely my pzazz is slowly returning so below, as part of Stress Awareness Month, I’ve rounded up some of the simple hacks that have helped me along the way.

10 ways to rediscover your pzazz

TREAT YOURSELF
It’s so easy to forget that life is for living NOW when you’re being dealt nothing but lemons but now is the time to treat yourself. If you fancy a weekend away, book it. If a massage is calling your name, get one. Feel confident in a gorgeous outfit? Wear it. Fancy some fresh flowers to brighten up your home? Buy them. Whatever you do, make sure it lights you up inside.

BE INSPIRED
By a blog. By a person. By a podcast. I am currently reading three different books – yes, three. I dip in and out of each one depending on my mood. One is motivational. One is autobiographical and one is light reading. I’ve always enjoyed the escapism that reading brings and it’s my go-to method of relaxation. Oh, and the books are proper paperback jobbies. No worries about blue light interfering with sleep patterns this end.

INVEST IN YOUR HEALTH
It has taken me a long time to get my head around this. I think nothing of servicing my car or the annual boiler check. But when it comes to my wellbeing it’s as though I have a mental block. I used to pound my body at the gym or on the tennis court but would never fork out for a sports massage even though my muscles were begging for one. I simply viewed the spend as a waste of money. Not now. Next week I have an appointment booked with a London-based nutritionist. The consultation fee is eye-wateringly expensive, as are the tests, but I’ve been saving every penny. There’s only one of me and if I can finally get a handle on what is going on with my body and wake up feeling as though I’m not coming down with the flu I’ll be over the moon.  Plus, a healthier Helen will be far more useful to everyone.

10 ways to rediscover your pzazz

TRY SOMETHING NEW
I often think back to 2016 when I was feeling desperately rotten and in and out of hospital. 2017, although not cured, was better. I had a management plan and was determined to start living my life again. So I pledged to try something new whenever my body would allow.  I gave e-biking a spin, which was great as the bike was equipped with a battery pack which gave me a little boost whenever I needed it! I also visited Austria and Tenerife for the first time and earlier this year I tried a yoga and meditation retreat. New experiences introduce you to new people and give you a different perspective on life. Most of all, they’re fun!

LEARN TO SAY NO
Friends, family, colleagues, PRs and even acquaintances know they can always call on me to let off steam, review pitch ideas and CVs, write letters (you wouldn’t believe how many letters I get asked to pen – from job proposals to letters of complaint). I never used to mind – helping people out is in my DNA. But at one point last year I realised I was being run ragged by others peoples’ demands and putting their needs before my own which left me feeling depleted especially as my health was in such a bad way. So last year I made a commitment to start saying no to certain things.  It instantly took the pressure off. The trouble is if you’re good-natured, you can end up feeling guilty. Here’s how I did it.

ALLOW AN EXTRA HALF AN HOUR
Although I’m a pretty punctual person, I’m always rushing from here to there and useless with early starts. The very thought of waking up at the crack of dawn results in me spending half the night lying awake in an anxious state. Now, one night a week I go to bed at 9pm.  Hardly, rock and roll but my body thanks me for it. It also means I wake earlier. It’s a fantastic feeling easing into the mornings rather than rushing around and I’m far more productive work-wise.

10 ways to rediscover your pzazz

DON’T OVERSCHEDULE
I rarely have a day off. It’s the nature of freelance journalism. And if I’m not working the day job, I can be found creating content for the blog or unpacking boxes from the recent house move. (No wonder I’m single!)  However, I’ve recently given myself permission to have a day off at the weekend and catch up with friends. The result? I’m far more creative, happy and feel alive again!

DITCH YOUR PHONE
I don’t mean for good. But give yourself a mini-digital detox. I try to turn my off  my phone by 9pm during the week and make a conscious effort to leave my device at home if I’m out and about doing chores or popping to the shops. This stops me feeling ‘always on’ and is unbelievably liberating.

HAVE A BATH
It’s an oldie but a goodie. I wrote about how a bath helped me take control here. Just add Epsom salts, lavender oil, a bath pillow and feel the stress melt away.

REMEMBER THAT NOTHING STAYS THE SAME FOREVER
Whenever I have relapses or inevitable rough periods with my health or whatever I try and remind myself that this moment shall pass. After all, nothing good or bad in life stays the same forever. I also make a list of every tiny thing I’m grateful for (and remember that there is always someone far worse off).

Did you find these tips useful? Do you have any you’d like to add? How have you rediscovered your pzazz?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. If you found this article useful or feel it may help someone else please do share the post or tag them. 

Alternatively, if you’d like to read our celebrity interviews check our chats with Jonny Wilkinson, Katie Piper, Pat Cash, Gail Porter, Ryan Sidebottom, Andrew Barton and James Duigan.

 

Helen's Health

Win a luxury Booja-Booja Easter Egg worth £24.99

Booja Booja Easter Egg

There are Easter Eggs. And then there are Easter Eggs! Booja-Booja’s selection falls into the latter category  – their exquisite offering is quite literally a work of art.

Forget traditional bog standard chocolate wrapped in foil. Instead, think luxury truffles housed in gorgeous, hand-painted papier-mache shells.

I’m a fan of pretty multi-use products. I just adore the fact that these beautiful velvet-lined oval boxes can be kept to store small bits and bobs or simply left on the windowsill to brighten up the kitchen once the contents have been devoured.

What’s more, this organic vegan brand works with a community of 150 artisans in Kashmir, India – one of the few places in the world where hand-made work reigns over industrial mass-production – to produce the dazzling shells before they are hand-packed with truffles in Norfolk.

Oh, and did I mention that these sweet treats are dairy-free, gluten-free and soya-free, so a friend or loved one with dietary issues or allergies* to the above needn’t miss out on the holiday celebrations either? Booja-Booja’s Easter Eggs come in three flavours: Fine de Champagne, Hazelnut Crunch, and Almond Salted Caramel and are sold in two sizes – small (3x truffles) and large (12xtruffles), priced £9.99 and £24.99 respectively.

 

 

Booja-Booja Easter truffles

And the good news is I’m giving away a Hazelnut Crunch truffle Easter Egg worth £24.99 to one lucky reader.

(The truffles inside this egg are made with cocoa beans from the Dominican Republic, coconut oil, hazelnuts and cocoa powder)

To enter the competition simply comment below or over on our Facebook page explaining why you’d like to win. For a second entry simple share the post on Facebook.

The name of one winner will be drawn at 8pm on Monday 26 March. The competition is open to UK residents only. Terms and conditions apply.

Good luck!

Please do not worry if your comments do not instantly appear underneath the blog post. They have to be approved and may be held in a queue.

The eggs can be found at Booja-Booja which has donated the prize in exchange for this post. *These eggs do contain nuts. If you have allergies, always read the label. 

Like this competition? Want to enter more? Be sure to sign up for our newsletter here. That way you’ll never miss a blog post or an opportunity to enter.

We’re not all about competitions though. You can discover the health and wellbeing secrets of your favourite stars by reading our interviews with them here: Jonny WilkinsonPat CashAndrew BartonKaty Piper, Gail Porter.

Struggling to sleep? Our post here may help. Interested in a yoga and meditation retreat? Check out our review of Chilston Park Hotel, Kent here. If a hypnotherapy mind massage is more your thing, This post might be for you.  Or how about e-biking?

If holidays are more your style, check out our guides on Barbados, South Africa and Austria. 

Competitions

Review: Chilston Park Hotel wellness retreat

Chilston Park wellness weekend

It’s rare you’ll find me up and about at 6.30am on a Saturday but that’s precisely what happened during a wellness weekend at Chilston Park Hotel in Kent recently.

This stunning Grade 1-listed country house, which has teamed up with Liberty Wellbeing to offer a series of stress-relieving retreats, was running a two-night yoga, Tai Chi and mindfulness programme. I was there for the day job but the timing was ideal.

I’d recently moved house – one of the most stressful things you can do – and desperately needed a break from sorting and lifting heavy boxes and making endless phone calls to utility companies.

When left to my own devices relaxation is something I struggle with despite it being an important factor in the management of my tongue swelling reactions. A structured wellness weekend dedicated to slowing down would certainly leave no room for excuses.

Except, I hadn’t envisaged waking up with the larks. I’m not good with early starts plus I’m a worrier. Throw in a 6am alarm call and you’ll undoubtedly find me wide awake at 2am fretting over the fact that I have to be up in four hours.  Yet, to my surprise, this did not happen.

Jennie Lichfield, Liberty Wellbeing’s principal teacher and the mastermind behind our schedule, believes this could have something to do with the fact that, just by being there, I had ‘given myself permission to unwind’.

The previous evening I’d arrived at Chilston Park, a pretty 17th-century country house set in 22 acres, which is one of a number of luxury properties in the Hand Picked Hotels portfolio.

A lovely chap called Guy led me through the characterful property – complete with spectacular wooden staircase and fascinating coffee tables fashioned out of original wooden shutters – into a room for tea and vegan and gluten-free carrot cake.

Chilston Park Hotel wellness weekend

There I met the other course attendees – a mix of 40 and 30-something married couples, mums, and millennials – who were all equally as eager to do the right thing by their minds and bodies.

Jennie talked us through the itinerary and there were smiles all round when she said we could roll out of bed and into the 6.30am group meditation session in our PYJAMAS should we desire. There’d also be warm blankets and plump cushions, too. *Yay*

Chilston Park Classic Double Bedroom

That night we took part in a ‘yoga for sleep’ session before bonding over deliciously nourishing vegetarian food. It was a blissful evening spent with like-minded souls and when I headed back to my quaint and cosy room (named Austen after the literary heroine – the rooms do not have numbers) at 9.30pm I felt as though I’d walked into a warm embrace.

There flickering on the TV was a video of a log fire, complete with dancing flames and the instantly calming sound of crackles.

A fluffy Larry the Lamb (the hotel’s equivalent of a Do Not Disturb sign) sat in the middle of my comfortable bed – which had been turned down for the evening – together with a welcome letter providing hotel team contact details, breakfast serving times and the following day’s weather.

I made full use of the complimentary organic Clipper hot chocolate sachets, Walkers shortbread biscuits and still and sparkling water in my room, too. By the time I climbed into bed I’d forgotten all about the hustle and bustle of the outside world and felt light and carefree.

Chilston Park Larry the Lamb

“The first evening is about laying down the journey to get here and marking the end of the busy week,” Jennie explains. “You can go to a one hour [meditation or yoga] session in your local area but it just starts to scratch the surface. When you come here, wake up the next morning in a beautiful location and totally immerse yourself it becomes a different experience and you do even more of this unfolding.”

The following day’s mindfulness session was held in the Coach House (converted stables). Jennie gently guided us through the practice, encouraging us to pay attention to the breath and body and to notice, in a non-judgemental way, how we were feeling. We learned that being present like this can help stop the mind racing and relinquish unhelpful thought patterns.

“You start to understand yourself more, recognise the attributes in your life that are perhaps not helping you or you learn new ways that will serve you better,” Jennie explains. “It’s really good to spend this much time dedicated to yourself because the deeper you go the more you learn.”

Chilston Park Liberty Wellbeing retreat

I certainly found both meditation sessions (there was another on Sunday) useful. Taking a moment to be still helped me gain insight and wisdom into my feelings, as well as the way I respond to certain situations and how I talk to myself on a daily basis.

“As soon as you start to see that you’re telling yourself the story that you’re useless, you won’t tell yourself that anymore,” Jennie continues. “Don’t believe the horrible things you tell yourself, believe the opinion of others.

“Weekends like this help us to recognise how much we are living a fast life and by slowing down and offering some kind of reflective practices it means we can begin to choose. Is this OK for me? Is this how I want to be? We have the opportunity to choose the right path for us but if we’re living too fast and on that treadmill, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to decide.”

But it wasn’t just the mindfulness aspect that left me feeling better equipped to face the world. Physically, the Hatha yoga sessions did wonders for my creaky body. I especially enjoyed Yin, which according to our instructor Samantha Stone – who trained with the British Wheel of Yoga – is performed at a much slower pace and a good complement to regular yoga.

Chilston Park Liberty Wellbeing retreat

“Normal yoga focuses on stretching the muscles, Yin works to stress the joints, the ligaments, the fascia [connective tissue] to make them stronger,” she says. “This is a good technique for people in their older years.

“It’s supportive and the idea is that you find a pose that you can stay in for three increments. Yin is also fantastic if you’re younger and struggle with monkey mind because of the mindfulness element. You hold a pose and ask yourself how does this feel, where’s the sensation? You connect to it which can slow down the mind.”

Perhaps, what I loved most about the wellness weekend was the fact that I could just be. There was no pressure to attend every class. I tried Tai Chi for the first time, an ancient martial art that combines breathing, relaxation and flowing movements, but didn’t get on with it and Jennie said it was fine for me to sit the following day’s class out.

So I engaged in mindful colouring instead – which I thoroughly enjoyed – and read some of the meditation books and wellbeing magazines that were liberally scattered about. I could have gone for a lie down to but was extremely keen to drink up the knowledge I’d been exposed to.

Chilston Park Liberty Wellbeing retreat

Oh, and how could I forget the food?! It. Was. Sublime. As some of you know I’m on quite a restricted diet due to my histamine intolerance but the chef worked his magic conjuring up delicious dishes for both myself and others who had vegan, dairy and gluten-free dietary requirements.

The food was some of the best I’d ever tasted – unsurprising given the fact that Culpeper’s is a 2 AA Rosette fine dining restaurant.

Starters included roast parsnip soup, dairy-free herb and mushroom frittata, quinoa and apple salad, while main dishes comprised things like chickpea and roast onion curry, vegetable fried rice, garlic sautéed green beans, butternut squash and spinach gratin and spiced sweet potato wedges. I feasted like a queen and was excited to walk away with new recipe ideas.

Chilston Park Exterior Lake

VERDICT:
If you’re feeling super stressed and in need of some me time this reasonably-priced wellness retreat is for you. Not only do you leave feeling rested and nourished physically, mentally and visually – the historic hotel has many interesting traditional features – you end up learning a great deal about yourself.

Also, I particularly liked the fact that Jennie handed out take-home laminated Liberty Wellbeing fact sheets so that we could continue using the mindfulness techniques in the real world. She’d thought of everything.

The bonus was that I got to  meet some lovely like-minded people. In fact, Leah Lardwood, owner of the blog Roots and Toots and I instantly hit it off and are still in touch, so we have the retreat to thank for our blossoming friendship, too!

For more information or to book a  Liberty Wellbeing wellness retreat visit the Chilston Park website or call 01622 859803. The price is £275 per person double/twin occupancy or £350 per person single occupancy.

 

If you liked this article, you might also be interested in our travel reviews of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Barbados, and Austria. Or if you’re looking for more wellness posts or articles on ways to relax in the UK, you might like to visit this meditation studio, try a hypnotherapy mind massagemobile phone video therapy or give e-biking a spin.

 

 

Travel, Wellness

10 ways to make the most of Kruger National Park

Kruger Safari Tips

If you love David Attenborough documentaries you need to make a date with Kruger National Park. This South African game reserve first stole my heart in 2011. Four trips later you could say I’m slightly obsessed with this particular safari experience.

Yes, the journey from the UK is a long one – an 11.5-hour flight to Johannesburg followed by a five-hour road trip to the park – but you’ll be grandly rewarded for your effort.

My jaw dropped to the floor on my most recent adventure when a procession of 30 lionesses and their cubs marched in single file to the Sabie River to drink one morning. Just ten minutes earlier we’d passed a pride of eight magnificent males sitting under a tree.

And I had to pinch myself when we stumbled across two giraffes locking necks in a bid to assert their dominance. I’d learned about this from a nature programme, yet here we were in the wild watching them just a few metres away.

Kruger Safari Tips

Incredibly, their neck-battering shenanigans – they were going at it hell for leather – were interrupted by a loud impala warning snort. Film-worthy is the only way to describe the scene that unfolded. Buffalo shot past. Skittish antelope scattered. Giraffe stood stock-still. And soon it became clear why. Out of the shadows emerged two lionesses intent on quenching their afternoon thirst at the Welverdiend Waterhole.

I felt humbled, privileged and blessed to experience such a sighting. There is something infinitely thrilling about the unexpected and to observe first-hand how the animals communicate and signal alarm calls to one another is truly fascinating. This is why I love Kruger…no day is ever the same.

Every sense is awakened, too. From the sounds of early morning birdsong to the late-night calls of the African bushbaby. From the stench of a rotting carcass (I know, but this is the circle of life), to the smoky scent of a braai (open fire), you’ll experience it all. Did I mention the beauty of the diverse African landscapes? Spectacular sunrises and sunsets? The list goes on and on.

Kruger Safari Tips

Regular readers know that I find it difficult to stop and relax but a trip to this wondrous place solves that and helps me live entirely in the moment. I switch off my phone for four days and soak up every blissful minute distraction free. It’s mindfulness at its best.

If a safari is on your bucket list, I’d highly recommend Kruger National Park. Below I’ve rounded up some useful tips to help you make the most out of your stay. (FYI – to keep costs down we arranged our own flights and also elected for basic lodgings).

HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOUR
Everyone, let me repeat, everyone will at some stage convince themselves and others that they have spotted a leopard in the distance, a snake in the grass or bats hanging upside down in the hollow of a tree. I lost count of the times someone in our party excitedly whispered “Over there, over there. There’s a rhino poking his head out.” We’d raise our binoculars in anticipation only to discover the splendid animal was actually a rotten tree stump.

Kruger safari tips

REQUEST AN OPEN SIDED VEHICLE
I know. I know. This sounds scary but it is, in fact, an exhilarating experience. For a start, you have a higher vantage point – great if there’s a kill sighting which inevitably attracts a few vehicles – and also brilliant for photo opportunities. You get to experience the changing temperatures hour by hour. Be sure to wear layers for the chilly 4.30am game drives, which you can peel off as the temperature climbs. Ideally, you’ll want to blend in with the vehicle so opt for greens, browns and beige garments. Just remember to keep your arms inside the truck at all times, do not stand or make any loud noises or sudden movements.

Kruger Safari Tips

DON’T HAVE A WISH LIST
It’s not all about the Big Five – lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo. Yes, of course, it would be wonderful to see the entire collection but there are so many spectacular things to see. Some of our sighting highlights included gigantic crocs, jaws agape, basking in the sunshine, a tiny suckling baby baboon, and my all-time favourite – WARTHOGS. In fact, this African wild pig, which has warty lumps on his face and curved tusks, made the trip for my mum. One afternoon we were watching animals that had gathered around a waterhole. “A hyaena was after an impala,” mum recalls “and out of nowhere an individual warthog came running out from under a bush and chased it off. We were delighted.”

*Worryingly we saw far fewer rhino on this trip compared to previous holidays and on leaving the park we discovered local press reports revealing that a further three had been killed by poachers during our stay. We were devastated.

Kruger Safari Tips

SIT IN ONE PLACE AND (HOPEFULLY) WATCH A STORY UNFOLD
There’s nothing quite like pulling up to a stretch of water and witnessing a scene spontaneously unravel in all its glory. On our last morning, we were headed for Phabeni Gate and pulled over to a spot known as Nyamundwa. A lone elephant broke through the trees. Another emerged five minutes later. Then another. Then another. There were calves too. In total there were about 60, yes 60, elephants in the breeding herd. The playful babies rolled around in the mud and squirted each other with water while the adults shuffled them around with their trunks and drank from the lake. Some of our best sightings have been at waterholes. The previous day we’d watched hundreds of buffalo wallowing in a muddy lake at a different spot. “They were having a great old time splashing around in the water until something eventually spooked them and they ran off into the distance leaving a trail of dust,” my sister explains. “It was incredible to see.”

Kruger Safari Tips

BEST TIME TO BOOK A TRIP
I’ve only visited Kruger in the months of October, November and December. While our most recent trip at the start of this month was fantastic and heralded the springing of new life (we saw so many baby warthogs, impala, baboons, giraffe, elephants), we found the temperature unbearably hot at times. Fortunately, we didn’t have any bad weather during our stay but it had apparently poured down the week before – the rainy season runs from November to February. Although we were still very lucky with our sightings, it was a little harder spotting the animals through the abundant foliage so we’ll probably revert back to October/early November when booking our next trip.

Kruger Safari Tips
GO WITH A GUIDE YOU TRUST
If you’re flying from the UK I’d highly recommend breaking up the journey, especially as the flight from London Heathrow to Johannesburg is 11.5 hours. We always reserve a room for one night at the Protea Hotel Marriott, either side of our Kruger stay. It’s a stone’s throw away and makes the five-hour drive to the park much more bearable. We booked our Kruger experience through South African tour operator 12Go Tours. Sam Wingate, who runs the company, has been a guide for 17 years and we simply adore him. He’s calm, organised and extremely knowledgeable and patient with my sister and I, even when we turn into quivering wrecks if a lion unexpectedly pads past our vehicle or an elephant crashes through a bush. Research your operators thoroughly, read reviews or go by word of mouth recommendation.

Kruger Safari Tips

BOOK A NIGHT DRIVE
Night drives are a must, purely because they’re such a surreal experience. Heading into a blanket of darkness knowing that there are lions and leopards roaming around is eerie, to say the least. Only KNP guides can host evening tours so we booked one at the Satara Camp. It was fantastic. Vehicle headlamps and two spotlights provided the only form of illumination. Our guide weaved his way through uneven terrain, switching his engine off when an elephant sidled up next to us. We then heard jackals and hyaena calling out to one another; on the drive back we spotted a number of hyaena ripping through the skin of a deceased baboon. On other night drives, we’ve seen snakes – the spitting cobra was rather memorable – slithering onto the road! Every experience is different!

Kruger Safari Tips

TRY A GUIDED BUSHWALK
…at least once. You can book these through your camp’s reception desk. Essentially you go out on foot with two gun-carrying guides. We decided against it this time around as there were seven of us in total and we had an action-packed itinerary. On a previous trip, we encountered three rhino, from a safe distance. These walks also give you a chance to stumble across smaller African wildlife you might otherwise never see. One time, my sister noticed a hole in the grass with a web inside. Sitting adjacent to it was a tarantula-esque baboon spider.

Kruger Safari Tips

PACK SPARES
It goes without saying but walk with spare batteries, adaptors, and memory cards. And if you’re borrowing a camera or video equipment be sure to know how to operate it. My sister’s boyfriend had a worrying moment when the camera he’d been lent wouldn’t let him take any pictures. The memory card was full but he did not have permission to delete the snaps and the shops we tried at various camps had sold out of picture cards. Fortunately, he was able to contact a family member who gave him permission to delete the existing images. Phew!

Kruger Safari Tips

 

HAVE A GLASS OF AMARULA
I used to LOVE Amarula, similar to Baileys Irish Cream, but ever since my health unexpectedly deteriorated in 2015 I cannot tolerate anything fermented –including alcohol – which sets off my tongue swelling reactions. Made from the fruit of the Marula tree, it’s delicious. I’m not sure how true this is but it’s said that elephants can become drunk from consuming the rotten fruit that falls to the ground. Is this fact or fiction? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Likewise, if you’re a fan of safaris or Kruger I’d love to hear your thoughts too. Why do you like heading there, what’s your favourite part and can you recall your all-time favourite sightings?

If you’re an animal lover and enjoyed reading this or know of someone who’s thinking about booking a safari please do share the post and spread the word about this wonderful place! Our social media links can be found here:  Facebook, Twitter and Instagram links. 

Have an interest in travel? You might also like to read our reviews on Barbados and Austria.

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