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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.

Probably the prettiest airport in the world… #lastleg #homewardbound

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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.

Such a stunning sight to wake up to! #roomwithaview #takemeback

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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

Insider view: 7 things you must 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 of life 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 into 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.

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.

SAIL WITH CAPTAIN RON AND SWIM WITH THE 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

SEA VIEW DINING
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
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 options 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
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

EARTHWORKS POTTERY
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
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

SUNSET YOGA
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to Barbados but on my last trip, I decided to get involved with a local yoga class despite having the flexibility of a board. A lovely islander 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

 

 

Travel

7 reasons to give e-biking a spin

E-biking up Box Hill with Inghams Holidays

“We’re going to cycle up Box Hill,” our  chirpy, energetic PR sings rather excitedly. I laugh hysterically and shake my head. “You’re joking, right?” “Nope,” she answers, in an equally cheery tone.

I know Box Hill like the back of my hand as I went to school in Dorking, Surrey. Many a lunch hour was spent at the top of the summit overlooking the North Downs and many a night was spent at the bottom of it throwing shapes on the dance floor at the Burford Bridge Hotel, the home of Sixth Form dinner dances and various parties.

And I can confirm one thing.

It. Is. Very. STEEP.

And you know what? This is the very same location that formed part of the road race cycling event in the London 2012 Olympic Games!

Now, I’m as competitive as the best of them. And I’m certainly not one to make excuses despite the battering my health has taken of late. But I’m no flippin’ Olympian. “You don’t need to be,” the PR laughs. “We’ll be going up on e-bikes.”

This is music to my ears although I’ve never seen an electric bike before let alone ridden one. Ray Wookey, founder of Cycling Made Easy, an e-bike retailer in the UK, gives our group a quick demonstration.

Although electric bikes have a battery pack, you still have to pedal otherwise you’ll fall off. But it’s good to know that I have three ‘boost’ options to help navigate the trickier parts of the hill. I get to grips with my bike in the car park of Denbies Wine Estate and merrily pedal along before tapping the magic box next to my handlebars. Whoosh – there’s instant power. It feels rather exhilarating.

We file out of the car park and head straight to the base of Box Hill. My legs are burning within minutes of tackling the steep ascent so I tap the booster box – moments later I’m hurtling up the track at breakneck speed. It’s fan-bloody-tastic and in no time at all I’m admiring the view from the top.

 

Yes, I’m slightly huffing and puffing –  you still have to cycle – but I’m not drenched in sweat. No wonder then that Berchtesgaden in Germany, Kranjska Gora in Slovenia and Alta Badia in Italy are popular e-biking destinations. It really is a rather fantastic way to get about.

According to an Inghams Lakes & Mountains poll of 2,000 holidaymakers, almost two thirds would try a new activity on holiday. And nearly a quarter said they’d be motivated to return to a destination if it offered plenty of activities they hadn’t tried before. I’m with them on that one.

If you’d have told me at a month ago that I’d be cycling to the top of Box Hill, I would never have believed you. Bradley Wiggins I am not. But with an e-bike it seems anything is possible and I was left giggling like a schoolgirl all over again.

 

7 E-BIKING MYTHS SMASHED

Below Ray Wookey, who sells E-bikes from his Cycling Made Easy stores in Coulsdon and Tunbridge Wells, talks us through the common e-biking myths and gives seven reasons why you should give it a go. 

IT’S NOT EXERCISE
E-biking is in fact very good exercise. The motor doesn’t do anything unless you are pedalling. Just like on a stationary bike at the gym, you can choose the level of physical effort you wish to put in, simply at the touch of a button. Of course, the advantage of an e-bike over a stationary exercise bike is that you can get out and about. E-biking out in the beautiful British countryside beats sweating it out in a gym. Our own research shows that people go out on their e-bikes between three and four times a week, which matches up to recommended exercise guidelines.

IT’S EXPENSIVE:
A reliable e-bike starts at £899 but most people will spend around £2000. This might seem a lot at first, but the cost of e-biking is front-loaded. Ongoing costs are minimal. Charging the battery from flat to full takes no more electricity than the amount used to boil a kettle – about 10 pence worth. As e-bikes are classed legally as bicycles, you don’t have to spend money on insurance, MOTs, nor will you have to worry about petrol prices or parking charges. Many of our customers have stopped buying train season tickets, because there are e-bikes which cost less, and are a more reliable way to get to work.

IT’S FOR THE ELDERLY OR MAMILS (MIDDLE AGED MEN IN LYCRA)
There are as many types of people who use e-bikes as there are bikes themselves. Young professional commuters like the convenience and money saving aspect, experienced mountain bikers enjoy the fact that they can cycle as aggressively uphill as they do downhill, and then there are many people who use e-bikes as a way to cycle together. With e-assistance, no-one gets left behind. You can always lean on the bike to help you keep up with more experienced riders.

IT’S FOR THE UNFIT
Most people will find that an e-bike has a positive effect on their fitness. Cycling is a low-impact exercise anyway, and with adjustable e-assistance, you can take the pressure off your joints – especially your knees – and still get a cardio workout. You would certainly find you go out cycling more often on an e-bike than a conventional bike, because they help you overcome so many barriers.

IT’S CHEATING
‘Cheating’ is something often thrown at e-bikers. It’s only cheating in the same way that escalators are the ‘cheat’s version’ of stairs. Most e-bikers are not looking for a way to get out of exercising. It’s quite the opposite. They want to ride something that encourages them to cycle more often. It’s not cheating if you are choosing two-wheels to get your errands done, to get to work, to explore on holiday, or countless other reasons.

IT’S COMPLICATED TO OPERATE
If you know how to ride a bike, you can use an e-bike. Changing the e-assistance levels is no more complicated than pressing up and down buttons on a little panel on the handlebars. It is probably more difficult to ring the bell. The computer systems inside the motor and head display do all the clever stuff. All you have to do is choose your power level and start pedalling.

IT’S HEAVY
Most good e-bikes are around 20kg. This is lighter than a Boris bike. There’s a lot of variation depending on the components on the bike. Full-suspension adds a few kilos, but sportier models will have lighter frames. The magic of e-bikes is that no matter how heavy the bike, they feel like incredibly light bikes when in motion, as the e-assistance handles the weight. Conventional bikes suffer under extra weight. Often cyclists will forfeit the convenience of a rack and panniers, the security of a heavy-duty lock, or the versatility of bigger tyres, because they’re worried about weight.With an e-bike, all these options are open to you. Weight simply doesn’t bother an e-bike.

For more information visit:

www.inghams.co.uk/lakes-mountains-holidays

www.cyclingmadeeasy.co.uk

 

Fitness, Travel, Wellness

HOW TO TRAVEL WITH ALLERGIES: 7 MUST-READ TIPS

Ocean view Bathsheba, Barbados

I’ve always enjoyed travelling. ‘You’re always on holiday,” my friends used to quip, not realising that I’d been working 15 hour days and weekends to justify my, often very short, jaunts abroad every six weeks or so.

But when my health started playing up in December 2015, travelling was the last thing on my mind. I just wanted to get well. Then, seven months after the first allergic reaction, a travel commission came in for Barbados – a country I love and know like the back of my hand – and I couldn’t pass it up. Incidentally, Relax Ya Self is a phrase often used by locals on the island and where I got the idea for the name of this blog!

I wrote a post here on how my tongue started to swell on the eight-hour flight home. One epic fail was not to having my emergency drugs within easy reach. I know, I’m an idiot. So, I decided to make a checklist for future trips, which may help others too.

DON’T BE SHY
Tell your friends, family and fellow travellers about your allergies. Knowledge is power. They’ll need to know what you’re allergic to, the signs and symptoms to look out for, where your emergency drugs are and how to use an auto-adrenaline injector (commonly known as an Epi-Pen) if you are unable to inject yourself.

ALERT THE CABIN CREW
In my experience, the crew bend over backwards to help those with allergies. I recently flew to Tenerife with Monarch. I explained the unpredictability of my reactions, that I wouldn’t be eating on the flight because of this and reassured them that I had my emergency drugs on me and knew what to do if my tongue started to swell. The aircraft was quite empty. Guess what? They ended up moving me to an extra legroom seat at the front of the plane. It was such a kind gesture and I certainly didn’t expect it!

PREPARE YOUR OWN FOOD
Because I react to all sorts of ingredients, I now prepare my own food (in plastic containers) and forgo the meals served up by the airline. This way I know I’ll never go hungry. And I make use of the tubs again during my holiday. Not only are they super-handy if I’m out and about during the day,  it’s good to know that I can tuck into home-made food if there are no options for me on a restaurant menu (which has happened in the past!)  I just make the food in the morning. (Remember to walk with an ice pack)

CHECK THE EXPIRY DATES
Ensure your antihistamines, steroids and your auto adrenaline injector pens are in date. Often, the latter has a short shelf-life of six months.

DOUBLE UP
To be on the safe side,  I walk with two lots of medication including adrenaline pens just in case my bag goes missing or one of the pens fails to work.   Ensure they’re within easy reach and walk with a bottle of water. And if you’re in tropical climes, you’ll need to protect your adrenaline pens from the heat so remember to pack an insulated wallet or bag. I use a pretty and practical cooling pouch made by Frio.

LEARN THE LINGO
Eating out in Tenerife was particularly troublesome because I had to avoid so many foods…mature cheese, citrus fruit,  alcohol and vinegar, the latter of which popped up in everything! Fortunately, the lovely receptionist at our hotel compiled a note listing all the ingredients in Spanish together with an explanation. I carried that piece of paper everywhere I went and it gave me the confidence to eat out in restaurants.

UPDATE YOUR DETAILS
Many phones, such as the Iphone 6, have a medical ID option. Here you can list your medical conditions, allergies and reactions and any medication you take, as well as your name and date of birth. Anyone can access this information, even if your phone is locked.

 

Helen's Health, Travel