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Insider view: 7 things to do in Barbados

Barbados Bay

It’s no secret that I’m a fast-walking, fast-talking kind of gal who is always rushing around at breakneck speed. But there’s one country where those defining characteristics melt away in an instant. It’s called Barbados.

My admiration for this tropical paradise began in 1999 when I was on holiday with my then-boyfriend. My heart sang as soon as I clocked the powdery white sand and shimmering turquoise sea out of the plane window on our descent into Grantley Adams International Airport.

I’d never experienced anything like it and by the end of the week-long stay, I’d fallen in love with the picturesque parishes and charming, friendly nature of the island’s people. Since then, I’ve returned year after year without fail. Why? Well… this is the one spot in the world where I truly switch off. I mean truly, truly. On this island, I don’t give a flying fig about work and find it far easier to give myself permission to take time off because I’m not in England.

The vibe is contagious. A joyous silliness consumes my being and I’m instantly propelled into this carefree space I never quite manage to find in the UK. My dear friend Nicky calls it the Barbados Effect. You know the island is working its magic when a) you start moving at the pace of a snail and b) words start spilling from your lips in a dreadfully unconvincing mock Barbadian accent (well they do mine, anyway).

Barbados beach

As anyone who has been to the Caribbean can attest, everything happens at a much slower pace here. And I mean MUCH slower…if you need to pop to the bank, be prepared to wait in the queue for a good 45 minutes; if a friend is due to collect you at 11am, expect him on your doorstep at midday at the earliest.  While this laid-back approach to life would rile me at home, in Barbados I soak up the culture and adopt the ‘it is what it is’ motto.

Heck, this is the place I first drank coconut water out of the shell. This the place I first swam with turtles in the wild. This is the place I learned to lime (hang out). This is the place I fell in love with surfing despite being utterly useless at it and almost breaking my nose on one trip.

Oh, and this is where I was first introduced to ‘wukking up’ – an eye-opening dance that I eventually learned to get my head around only after placing my VERY British eyeballs back inside their sockets.

In fact, Barbados is where I first heard the term  ‘Relax Ya Self’.  Personally, I find it much nicer way of saying ‘calm down’, ‘chill out’ or ‘get a grip’. Over the years the mantra has stuck, so much so that it became the inspiration for the name of this blog. So there you have it…the reason I keep returning to Barbados is that I absolutely revel in the much slower pace of life. As well as the weather, the food, the music, the ocean, the charm, the people. Oops, I’m off again…

Below I’ve compiled a list of some of my favourite things to do on this wonderful island, some of which are off the beaten track. I do hope you enjoy.

BOOK A BARBADOS CATAMARAN CRUISE AND  SWIM WITH TURTLES

This tops my list of things to do. I love catamarans, I love the ocean, I love turtles. And I always book a half day sailing trip with Captain Ron, who operates two vessels Why Not and It Wasn’t Me out of the capital Bridgetown. The entire experience is so seamless – perhaps unsurprising as Ron’s been doing this for the best part of 27 years. A driver collects you from your apartment and drops you to the quayside and by mid-morning you’re gliding over the calm Caribbean water to the West Coast to a soundtrack of reggae beats. Here, you’ll stop to swim with turtles and snorkel over a reef or shipwreck before anchoring up and tucking into a delicious spread of authentic Bajan food. Dishes include flying fish – a local speciality, chicken, rice and peas, macaroni pie and salad. The five-hour trip is such an enjoyable and sociable way to spend an afternoon. Always walk with a towel, SPF and hat – the average temperature is 27 degrees.

Captain Ron, Barbados

SAMPLE SOME OF THE BEST BARBADOS RESTAURANTS ON THE SOUTH COAST

As is evident from my Instagram feed, I’m completely obsessed with the sea and al fresco eating with an ocean view is my idea of heaven. Before my health took a nosedive last year, I took eating out for granted but this has been increasingly difficult of late what with my histamine intolerance and bizarre reactions. But there are two restaurants on the south coast of the island that I’m particularly fond of as the staff are super-attentive when it comes to allergy-sufferers…

CASTAWAYS BAR & GRILL, BARBADOS

If you feel like the token pain in the butt (as I often do) when it comes to dining out, pay this beautiful restaurant a visit. Castaways owner Kris Whitton has thought of everything to keep every diner happy, no matter what their dietary requirements. Located at the top of St Lawrence Gap, this reasonably priced gem overlooks a cute bay and has a selection *yes you read that right* SELECTION of gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan food as well as meat, fish and chicken dishes for carnivores. Choose from vegan salads and tacos including mini chick pea croquets layered with almonds, corn, tomato, avocado and lime cabbage slaw – and gluten-free pizza made with cassava – a local root vegetable – base. By the way, the ocean-themed decor is stunning; the staff welcoming and service speedy. Make sure you book a sea view table and enjoy that breeze.

Castaways, Barbados

CAFE LUNA BARBADOS, OISTINS

This is a hidden waterfront treasure but so tucked away you could easily miss it. Tastefully decorated with stunning local pottery and pretty lanterns, this romantic setting is just past the fishing village of Oistins – home of the famous fish fry held on a Friday – and boasts magnificent waterfront views. Choose from Caribbean, Mediterranean and Asian dishes on the fine dining menu. Cafe Luna serves a couple of vegetarian dishes but the focus is on meat and fish. Try the luna“bajan” fish stew; fresh local fish,  organic sweet potato, and vegetables simmered in local pepper cream fish broth served with a garlic, herb, and parmesan bread. For afters, indulge in the warm banana crepe with triple sec cream and chocolate sauce.  I found the breeze a little chilly whilst dining under the moonlight on my most recent trip. The waiter overheard my whisper and, in the blink of an eye, a throw had been placed around my shoulders. Now that’s service for you! This place is very popular so you’ll have to book in advance.

Cafe Luna, Barbados

VISIT EARTHWORKS POTTERY, BARBADOS

I have a confession. My cupboards are brimming with bits and bobs from Earthworks Pottery. Located in St Thomas, it’s a great place to pick up souvenirs and support local trade – the family-run business employs 20 people. Here you can see the potters craft their wares, and choose from a selection of pretty plates, bowls, serving dishes, mugs, jugs and bathroom accessories including tissue box holders. I can’t get enough of their eye-catching designs. Turn left out of the shed and up the stairs to check out the art gallery and grab a bite to eat on the balcony overlooking the countryside. It’s an immensely peaceful place.

Earthworks Pottery, Barbados

HEAD TO BATHSHEBA ON THE EAST COAST

Hire a car (I usually book through Coconut Car Rentals) and drive around the island. Break up your trip with a spell on the quieter West Coast beaches including Mullins (where the water tends to be calm) before heading to North Point where you can descend into the Animal Flower Cave if the sea is not too rough. The jewel in the crown is Bathsheba on the east coast. Rural, unspoilt and breathtakingly beautiful, here surfers congregate at a local break known as Soup Bowl. It’s enormously relaxing watching them cutting through the waves but be warned – you can’t swim here, the current is far too strong. Over on the south of the island, a beautiful viewing point has recently been carved into the hillside of Freight’s Bay – another popular spot with surfers, especially beginners.

Bathsheba

TRY A SUNSET YOGA CLASS

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve visited the island but on my last trip, I decided to try my first local yoga class in Barbados despite having the flexibility of a board. A lovely resident mentioned  Santosha Yoga Barbados and offered to drive me (I told you the people were nice) so I headed along for an outdoor evening Vinyassa Flow session run by Stef Lemieux. It was held among the grounds of a beautiful old plantation house called Sweetfield Manor, on the south of the island overlooking the sea. Stef also runs sunset yoga sessions on paddleboards in the water – something I can’t wait to try on my next visit!

 

Yoga, Barbados

 

Is there a country or place in the world where you instantly unwind? Have you been to Barbados? What did you think of the island? Are you planning a visit? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment below or Tweet, Facebook or Instagram me. If you enjoyed this post you might light to read my other travel reviews here: 10 ways to make the most of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, What it’s really like on Symphony of the Seas, and 5 ways to relax in Austria

Travel

7 surprising things I discovered when I tried a ‘brain sensing’ meditation headband

Muse 2 brain sensing headband
Credit: Interaxon Inc

It’s not every day that you stumble across the sight of two men wearing sci-fi-esque headbands but that’s exactly what happened to me when I attended the Mindful Living Show earlier this year.

Both chaps were seated in an upright position. Both had their eyes closed. And both looked blissfully at peace – quite a feat in a hall awash with people.

It turned out they were meditating with the help of a ‘brain sensing’ headband called Muse 2.

I was fascinated. Meditation has long been touted as a way to reduce stress, tackle anxiety, improve creativity and enhance focus but for many of us, it’s not an easy thing to do.

That’s why Interaxon, the Canadian company behind Muse, launched the headband.

So how does the Muse 2 ‘brain sensing’ meditation headband work?

The research-grade EEG (electroencephalograph) technology uses sensors on the band and arms to monitor heart rate, brain activity, breathing patterns and body movement. This real-time information is transmitted to the Muse app on your smartphone and used to shape your meditation experience based on how your body is responding.

So, imagine you’ve had a stressful day and need to clear your head. You might opt for the ‘mind’ meditation coupled with, say, the rainforest soundscape.

The sensors detect when your mind is busy by triggering the sound of monsoon-like weather but when you start to unwind it quietens to a drizzle and eventually stops if you remain calm. You know you’ve hit a prolonged period of relaxation when birdsong is heard.

The idea is that with regular use you effectively train your brain to become more in tune with your body and become aware of your active, neutral and calm states.

At the end of the session, your performance is captured in a graph which enables you to track your progress.

I gave the Muse 2 a quick try at the show but was lucky enough to test it again at home for a longer period as part of the day job.

Here’s how I got on.

Muse 2 brain sensing headband

Credit: Interaxon Inc

7 surprising things I discovered when I tried the Muse 2 ‘brain sensing’ meditation headband

1.Be prepared to be surprised

There are four experiences to choose from: mind, heart, body and breath as well as a selection of relaxing soundscapes – from desert and beach-themed to ambient music, wind chimes and the sound of a beating drum depending on your choice of meditation. It’s worth testing out all the options to see what works for you.

I assumed the ocean would be my favourite as I love the sea but the crashing waves  – which signal an active mind – left me feeling rather uncomfortable. My brain refused to stop wandering and I couldn’t settle the water. I didn’t get on with the ambient music either – it felt eerie.

However, I adored the rainforest option for the ‘mind’ meditation

Now, I’ve written before about my love for Barbados and although the island does not have a rainforest, the noise of the heavy rainfall – which on Muse indicates an active mind – reminded me of the downpours experienced in the Caribbean. During my session, the showers never lasted very long and on many occasion – sometimes as early as 30 seconds in – the joyous chirping birds would announce themselves suggesting a very calm state.  At night I chose the ‘heart’ experience where a beating drum mimics the rhythm of your heart. This practice turned out to be a soothing and relaxing way to end the evening and it hugely helped my sleep (see No.6)

2. Meditation can be fun

Okay. I know it’s probably not supposed to be. The whole point of such a practice is to achieve a calm, zen-like, non-emotional state, isn’t it? But if you’re a beginner who finds it hard to meditate, are easily bored, too busy to relax then the Muse 2 headband could be the introduction you need. Personally, I find it impossible to just sit and be still without help. I’ve always preferred guided options like the Headspace or Calm apps. Heck, I’ve even attended a group meditation class. However, I loved this new approach and selection of meditation sessions to suit your mood. The tweeting bird feature is genius.

3. It can make you competitive

Yes. Those tweeting birds are great because the moment you hit that calm state you feel incredible. It’s addictive though. I found myself desperate to hear the birds and was sorely disappointed when their beaks remained firmly closed for one of my sessions. Being sporty by nature – well, I was until my chronic illness took hold – I’m naturally competitive, especially with myself as this practice revealed! I appreciate this goes against the whole ethos of letting go, and releasing all expectation but the very nature of being able to track your progress and build on your improvements means (well for me anyway) you’re always striving to do better. As with anything, practice makes perfect so I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing although some may disagree.

Muse 2 brain sensing headband

Credit: Interaxon Inc

4. You have the time to meditate even if you think you don’t

It’s hard to switch off when you’re self-employed and, like many people, I barely seem to have a spare moment. But the design of the app makes it easy. Even if you meditate for one minute a day in the morning and one minute at night that’s two minutes a day which is 14 minutes a week, which is almost an hour a month.  That’s better than doing nothing at all and, chances are, you’ll feel so good that you won’t stop at one minute. I certainly didn’t.

5. It makes you aware of bad habits

As mentioned, my first foray into Muse 2 was with the Mind (rainforest) experience. I tried just three minutes at first. My mind was calm for 1 minute 16 seconds, neutral for 1 minute 8 seconds and active for six seconds. In that time, I accrued 12 birds, signalling I’d hit a super relaxed state.

For session two I upped the duration to five minutes. I was thrilled to see my brain remained calm for three minutes and 37 seconds, neutral for 1 minute 23 seconds and there were 0 minutes under the active tab. Wahoo. I’d also amassed an impressive 26 birds!

That was at 10.03pm. A quick dabble on social media – namely Instagram – followed and at 10.22pm I thought I’d have one more three-minute session. OH BOY.

I was staggered at how quickly my mental state had altered. I only managed five birds, my calm reading fell to 1 minute 23 seconds and my neutral result came in at 1 minute 37 seconds.

I often try to switch off my devices before bed and this is a stark reminder of why I need to do it.

My brain had been in such as calm state after session two and I’d swiftly undone my good work with a quick Insta scroll!

Muse 2 brain sensing headband

Credit: Interaxon Inc

6. It can help you sleep when you think you can’t

I’m not the best sleeper. I can lie awake for hours tossing and turning and even when I do eventually nod off I wake several times in the night. One evening, around 7.12pm, I did a 20-minute Mind meditation in five-minute increments. My calm state rose from 26% to 60% by the end of the session.  I dropped off quickly and slept through the night. I was flabbergasted. I assumed it was a fluke but the same thing happened again two days’ later!

7. It can change your behaviour

Whether I’m by the sea, on a mountain or walking in the forest I instantly feel at peace and connected to nature, which is probably why I repeatedly chose the rainforest soundscape.

Well, the other day I was working from home, on deadline, quite stressed and opened the window to get some fresh air. I instantly became aware of the birds chirping in the garden and a sense of calm washed over my body. It was a noticeable shift. I then realised the birdsong reminded me of the calm state experienced during the Muse sessions.  My brain had been trained to recognise this and I was blown away when it worked especially as I hadn’t meditated for a while. Bonus!

The Muse 2 meditation headband costs £239. For more information visit  choosemuse.com

If you enjoyed this post you might like to read the following:

Can mindfulness save your relationship? 

The Surprising thing I discovered when I tried flotation therapy 

Review: The CBT Journal (how to avoid feeling stuck)

7 ways to stop making life so stressful 

REVIEW: The Stress Solution by Dr Rangan Chatterjee

Health, Wellness

Clovelly: Why you should visit this North Devon ‘film set’ fishing village

Clovelly harbour / Relax Ya Self To Health
Relax Ya Self To Health

When is North Devon not North Devon?

When it’s masquerading as one of the Channel Islands that’s when. I made the discovery back in March when I was fortunate enough to spend a week of ‘bleisure’ in this stunning slice of south-west England.

My friend’s aunt and now close friend  – who keeps me on the straight and narrow when it comes to work-life balance  – asked if I’d seen 2018 film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

I hadn’t.

She then explained how various scenes within the movie, which stars Downton Abbey’s Lily James and Game of Thrones’ actor Michael Huisman, were actually filmed in three North Devon locations.

The story is set on the island of Guernsey in the aftermath of World War II and is based on the international best-selling historical novel of the same name.

It tells the enchanting tale of a journalist who forms a close bond with the unconventional society and writes about the book club they formed during the occupation of the island.

Ironically, I’d visited the harbour town of Bideford as well as Saunton Sands (pictured below), both of which feature in the film, earlier in the week, so when Auntie C suggested a trip to the fishing village of Clovelly, which also pops up in many a scene, my eyes lit up.

Saunton Sands / Relax Ya Self To Health

It would certainly sit well on my list of fascinating North Devon finds, joining Hidden Heaven – the quirky home restaurant experience set inside a beautiful converted chapel within the grounds of a graveyard. ( You can read about it here.)

And as I’d been up with the larks for most of the week blitzing through work to free up afternoons for seaside strolls, riverside walks and sightseeing, this seemed like a splendid way to end my stay.

“We can even watch the film on your last night here so you can spot the places you’ve visited,” Auntie Chris suggested.

“Sounds perfect,” I replied.

So, what did I find?

Clovelly, North Devon

We left sunny Barnstaple and drove the 20 miles to Clovelly, the village that inspired writer and clergyman Charles Kingsley to pen The Water Babies.

Frustratingly the sunshine was replaced by mist and fog as we approached but at least it wasn’t raining. We paid £7.50, the cost of an adult admission *the price has since risen to £7.75* and soon found ourselves on a very steep, pedestrianised cobbled street.

TOP TIP: Wear trainers. Do not attempt the walk in ballet pumps or footwear without cushioning. Your feet will not thank you for it as Auntie C discovered.

Clovelly: Relax Ya Self To Health

On our amble down to the harbour was eventful. We spotted residents piling their groceries onto giant sledges and sliding them to their front door. The street is too steep and narrow – the village is built on a 400 ft cliff – for motor vehicles. Funnily enough, one property was in the midst of a renovation.

It was quite amusing to see the underlay and carpet ferried around this way and the physical exercise certainly kept the delivery men fit.

INTERESTING FACT: The resident donkeys are no longer used for carrying goods up and down the street but they can still be found in the fields or stables and children can ride them in the summer.

TOP TIP: If you’re older in years or struggle with your fitness, take your time and factor in breaks on both your descent and ascent.
Clovelly: Relax Ya Self To Health

Whitewashed cottages and blossom-filled trees lined our path to the harbour.  The setting felt so traditional and unspoilt, as though we had stepped back in time. No wonder it was chosen for the movie.

INTERESTING FACT: Clovelly belongs to one family – one of only three to lay claim to it since the Norman Conquest –  so there are no individually-owned houses in the village.

Clovelly: Relax Ya Self To Health

TOP TIP: You’ll be spoilt for magnificent picture opportunities but ensure your phone/camera has enough memory. It’s a rookie mistake but I was forever deleting old pictures to make room for the new which was more than mildly irritating. *Fool*

Also, definitely check the weather on an app before heading out. I only had one afternoon left to do the trip so didn’t really have a choice and the overcast skies in my photos really do not do the breathtaking scenery justice.

Clovelly: Relax Ya Self To Health

The 14th-century quay was once a busy fishing port, renowned for its herring and mackerel. The quaint harbour is simply a joy to behold and fishing still forms part of village life. On another note, I was delighted to find this wooden boat that dreamily matched Relax Ya Self To Health’s colour palette!

INTERESTING FACT: Clovelly has had its own working lifeboat since 1870. Why? The coastline is well known for shipwrecks.

TOP TIP: Factor in enough time to pop in for a drink in one of the two old inns that serve local food, ales and cider or pop into a shop and order a Devon cream tea. At the top of the village, there’s also a chance to access silk and pottery craft workshops and Clovelly Court Gardens. And don’t forget to explore the itsy-bitsy side streets. I discovered a tiny chapel down one!

FINAL THOUGHT:
Watch the movie afterwards. It’s quite exciting to spot all the places you’ve visited in Clovelly. Earlier on in the week, I’d also walked up and down the three-mile stretch of beach at Saunton Sands – which is used as a runway for the plane in the film – as well as Bideford, the place where German troops can be seen marching through the streets. This snap below is of the bridge.

INTERESTING FACT: Every archway is a different size.

 

Bideford / Relax Ya Self To Health

If you’ve no immediate plans to visit North Devon, check out the movie regardless.

It’s a damned good watch. And if you’re an emotional so and so like yours truly make sure you have the tissues at the ready.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to read my other travel reviews here:

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

Insider View: 7 things to do in Barbados 

10 ways to make the most of Kruger National Park

5 ways to relax in Austria 

Travel

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

MCAS: The truth behind my Instagram photos

MCAS and Instagram

Everybody has their own way of dealing with MCAS [Mast Cell Activation Syndrome].

Some document their symptoms and share pictures of their reactions.

Others discuss treatment options that have helped or made them worse.

Personally, I either disappear off the face of the earth – that’s when I’m truly struggling – or pretend that everything’s okay because I’d rather not concern my family or friends.

But seeing as it is World Mental Health Day [10 October 2018] and we’re being encouraged open up for the sake of our mental wellbeing, I’m going to share a secret.

I’m not always fine. In fact, more often than not, I’m petrified of this frustrating horrible disease and just internalise it.

Of course, you wouldn’t know it by looking at my recent Instagram feed which is filled with images of stunning Bajan beaches – the snaps were taken on my most recent holiday. (Regular readers will know I struggle to relax but Barbados, which was the inspiration for the name of this blog, is the one place in the world where I truly switch off).

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The calm before #stormkirk #pink

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However, the pictures only tell half the story because behind the scenes I was also dealing with very nasty tongue swelling and throat closing episodes that left me feeling frightened, groggy and anxious.

I thought I was beginning to beat this damned condition. [Read more about MCAS here] The month before I’d gone for 10 days without a serious reaction, managed to play two tennis matches – popping a super strong antihistamine beforehand as a precautionary measure – and even reintroduced certain foods.

I was beginning to feel like my old self, especially as I was returning to activities that used to bring me such joy.

But a couple of days before the holiday, my trusty car stopped working. Just like that… Turned out a cambelt (no, I had no idea what that was either) had gone, there was engine damage and I needed to buy a new vehicle. WTH? I was strapped for cash (having moved house earlier this year), and still chasing invoices from publications that hadn’t paid me for four months.

My head began to spin.

I started panicking about the car being stranded at the garage while I was away, the storage fees it might incur, how I’d commute to the news shifts I had booked in immediately after my holiday (I live alone) and whether I’d be able to find a car within one day of my return.

Then boom…my mast cells decided to throw a party gifting me a tongue swelling reaction the night before my flight.

It happened again on the plane – despite taking meds as a precaution before the journey – and then every day of the trip bar one – in some instances occurring twice in 24 hours.

On the last two nights, intense palpitations – another symptom of MCAS – were to be my wake-up call, not the sound of the ocean.

Although I refuse to be defined by this condition, the truth is that living with MCAS is exhausting and frightening.

When I’m in a continuous flare, the thought of suffocating to death (or my meds failing through overuse) is never far from my mind.

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Take me back… #beachbum #serenity

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Even if I manage to control a reaction, I’m left wiped out for days. The accompanying brain fog is a joke – I struggle to formulate words – not great when I rely on them for a living. The stabbing pains in my joints aren’t much fun either.  Oh, and every day I wake up with a sore throat or feel as though I’m fighting something.

So why am I telling you this now?

Well,  when the going gets tough I stop speaking – I AM a chatterbox so this is out of character for me.

I vanish from social circles and, seemingly, stop blogging. (Apologies for the dearth of recent posts – now you know why)

I’ve since recognised this withdrawal trait in a couple of my (non-MCAS) friends. I suspected one was struggling recently so I sent a text to let him know how grateful I was to have him in my life and thanked him for being amazing.

He responded saying he had woken up to my message, texting back a row of love hearts. He was having a hard time and thanked me for making him feel better.

This MCAS journey has taught me about anxiety – something I never used to struggle with – and how to identify the individuals who might be struggling with their own mental wellbeing.

It’s made me realise that if someone is behaving out of character or is being non-committal that there could be more to their actions – or lack of them – than meets the eye.

We shouldn’t judge but simply be kind. A simple ‘are you okay’ could make all the difference.

For more articles on mental health and wellbeing you might like to read our interviews with Jonny Wilkinson and Gail Porter.

And meet the man who is turning barbershops into safe havens to prevent male suicide

Helen's Health, Wellness

Win a Hand Picked Hotels overnight break for two & dinner

Rhinefield House Hotel, Handpicked Hotels

I’ve been an enthusiast of Hand Picked Hotels ever since I visited Chilston Park in Kent earlier this year.

I slept like a baby – not only because I learned how to still my whirring mind (I was there for my first ever meditation retreat) but because the rooms were cleverly furnished and designed to induce good sleep.

Think blackout curtains, luxurious linens, impossibly comfortable beds and my personal favourite, an adorable Larry the Lamb cuddly toy, which doubles up as a ‘Do Not Disturb’ symbol if you fancy catching up on some extra zzzs (read my review of Chilston Park Hotel here).

So, I’m naturally over the moon that this independent country house hotel group is offering one lucky Relax Ya Self To Health reader the chance to experience an overnight break for two at one of its plush UK dwellings.

In support of The Sleep Council’s #Sleeptember campaign, which promotes the benefits of a good night’s kip, Hand Picked Hotels has put together a Sleeptember package, which comprises:

Hand Picked Hotels prize: ‘Sleeptember’ overnight stay for two

– An overnight stay for two people sharing a classic room
– A mini lavender This Works® pillow spray and top sleep tips card
– A three-course evening meal in the restaurant
– A hearty breakfast
– A late noon check-out for some extra snooze time

To find out more click here

Bailbrook House, Bath, Handpicked Hotel

To enter our prize draw below simply answer the following question: Where is your favourite place to sleep and why? 

It could be by the beach, in a hammock, or in a king size bed with crisp white sheets! Fun, creative and quirky answers are most welcome!

You can enter by commenting below this post or over on Facebook if you give us a like and share too 🙂

We will contact the competition winner via email and also announce the name on  Facebook.

The competition closes at 11pm on Sunday 24th September 2018 and is open to UK residents only.

Good luck!

NB) Please do not worry if your answer does not appear on the post instantly. Comments are held in a moderation queue for approval.

If you’re interested in other ways to calm the mind you might like to read some of our other posts here:

Gazelli House Hypnotherapy Mind Massage
EFT Tapping Therapy
Inhere Meditation Studio
Could this psychology app improve your life?

Of if you prefer to unwind on holiday check out the following:

10 ways to make the most of Kruger National Park
What it’s really like on Symphony of the Seas
Insider view: 7 things to do in Barbados

 

 

PRIZE TERMS AND CONDITIONS

– A voucher will be issued to the competition winner to allow them to redeem the prize
– The prize must be booked by 3rd October 2018 and redeemed before 30th March 2019
– Valid Monday to Sunday
– Subject to availability
– Excludes bank holidays and festive date
– Not valid for hotels in the Channel Islands or Hendon Hall in London
– Travel, drinks and additional charges are not included
– Competition available to UK residents aged 18 or over only
– This promotional competition is not for resale, is non-refundable and non-transferable and will not be replaced if lost or stolen. No cash refunds can be given under any circumstances
– For more information on our competition terms and conditions click here.

Competitions

9 tricks to keep cool

9 tricks to keep cool

Are you struggling to keep cool in this heatwave? I know I am. And that’s saying something.

I couldn’t believe it when I read in the Telegraph that the Met Office is predicting the UK’s hottest day on record tomorrow [27 July]. Temperatures are expected to possibly exceed 38.5C (101F) on what has been dubbed Furnace Friday.

Now don’t get me wrong – I have always been a hot weather enthusiast.

It’s in my blood – my mother hails from Guyana – and Barbados and South Africa are among my favourite holiday haunts.

But my love for this prolonged scorchio spell has waned somewhat given my recent (MCAS) Mast Cell Activation Syndrome diagnosis.

A couple of years ago I had no idea why my tongue would start swelling up or why I’d start itching for England whenever I set foot inside a boiling hot car. But now I know why – read more here. 

Heat, it turns out, is one of my triggers and so it’s essential for me to remain cool.

Except – like most people – I don’t have air conditioning in the house or a swimming pool in the back garden and I have succumbed to a fair few tongue swelling episodes over the past month (hence my lack of blog posts).

Even so, I have discovered some simple tips that have helped me beat the heat so thought it would be handy to share them below. I hasten to add that these are not scientific – just based on my own personal experience.

9 tricks to keep cool

SLEEP UNDER A DUVET COVER (MINUS THE DUVET)

I’ve written about Auntie Chris and her wise words before on this blog and sure enough she’s shared another gem – remove the duvet and sleep under the cover. AC, as I call her, came to stay with me during Wimbledon and when I walked into her room I found she’d had a field day with the bed linen.  “The duvet cover gives you that extra bit of weight that sleeping under a just sheet doesn’t but is still cool enough,” she laughed on seeing my expression. That night I tried it and had the most remarkable night’s sleep. Who knew?! Just make sure the material is breathable cotton.

PLACE A WET HAND TOWEL BETWEEN YOUR THIGHS

I know. I know. This sounds a little odd but on one particularly sweltering night, I’d had enough so at approximately  3am I found a small gym hand towel and soaked it in ice cold water. I’d initially planned to leave it on my forehead but this didn’t work as I sleep on my side (*eye roll*) so I wacked it between my legs instead. I reckon I fell asleep within five minutes. No joke.

INVEST IN A COOLING MIST

About four years ago I went on a press trip to France as part of the day job to learn about Avene skincare brand which is designed for sensitive, hypersensitive, allergic and irritated skin. There I was introduced to its Thermal Spring Water, a soothing, anti-irritating mist. While many people use it to rehydrate and ease itchy skin, I use it to cool down! I pop it in the fridge and then leave it by my bed so that I can spritz my pulse points and face whenever I wake up in the night. I always walk with it on holiday too.

DO NOT OPEN THE CURTAINS

It feels somewhat slovenly to keep the curtains drawn all day but I’ve found it doesn’t half make a difference in keeping the interior cool when the sun is beating down outside.

PLACE A BOWL OF ICED WATER IN FRONT OF YOUR FAN

It is absolutely stifling in my home office because the sun is streaming onto the window when it’s at its strongest. On the days I work from home I keep the curtains drawn and use a desk fan. Recently I’ve been placing a bowl of iced water a sensible distance in front of it to circulate cooler air and it really works!

KEEP THE FRENCH DOORS CLOSED

And the windows for that matter. I discovered this by accident today when I opened them and felt entirely engulfed by hot air. Obviously throw ‘em open if there’s a breeze or it’s cooler outside and if the temperature drops in the evening, but if its hotter in the garden there’s no sense in opening them at all.

GO FOR A LATE NIGHT DIP

Swimming is a new habit I’ve got into of late – partly because intense activity sets off my tongue and throat swelling reactions – but also because of the heatwave. I’ve been hitting the pool of my local gym for late night sessions. It’s empty at 8pm, there are no screaming kids and I emerge feeling relaxed, refreshed and much cooler. Result.

SLEEP WITH DAMP HAIR

We’ve always been told to avoid going to bed or out of the house with wet hair but the common cold is in fact caused by a virus. Personally, I find that going to sleep with towel-dried hair helps me drift off quicker than when it is dry if the temperature is overbearingly warm.

MAKE HEALTHY ICE LOLLIES

The week before last I was working a shift for a trade magazine when I nipped home for lunch at midday. On the way back to the office I eased myself into the furnace that was my car and my tongue started to swell within five minutes. I had to pull over and immediately take two antihistamines. That night I decided to make some almond and coconut ice lollies with cacao powder – my first attempt and I was surprised at how well they turned out. Now, just before I set off I eat one of those and it’s good to know they’re in the freezer if I feel as though I’m overheating.

How are you finding the heat? Are you loving it or hating it? Have you found any unusual tips that work for you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Health, Helen's Health

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. 

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