Browsed by
Category: Travel

Summer at Helen’s Tower

Summer at Helen’s Tower

It took me a few wrong turns and nearly becoming a trespasser before I finally found this place. It was a Sunday afternoon and I had one of those mad impulses to take my camera out on my own and explore but not really having any particular destination in mind. I get like this sometimes; restless to explore a place I haven’t found yet with an impatience that’s hard to contain. I poured over the map on my phone while I sat in the front seat of my car, my foot on the pedal ready for adventure. I didn’t have to search for long until I saw a pin for Helen’s Tower, a Victorian piece of history only a few miles away that I’d amazingly not hunted down yet. It was perfect! So off I went, tripod in the backseat just in case I got lucky.

Google maps took me in the direction of Newtownards and then up a tiny country road that I knew instantly I didn’t belong on; the big red letters saying “Private Road” being enough of a warning. But oh my the views! I could see right over Strangford Lough and hills that rolled for miles, peppered with the bright yellow gorse bushes that take over this time of year. I even came across deer roaming between fields and rolled down the window holding my breath to get a better look.

Realising that I’d have to find an alternative route to the tower without having an angry farmer chasing me down the lane, I took a few random turns before finally noticing a tiny, completely missable entrance on Crawfordsburn Road with two or three cars parked beside it. Swinging the tripod over my shoulder like Huckleberry Finn I optimistically made my way up the windy path, hoping I was heading in the right direction (there was no real sign letting me know I was in the right place!).

A few minutes in to the walk I was smitten. The path shone gold ahead of me with the summer afternoon light speckling through the leaves above me. Every now and again the trees would give way to something new; a meadow full of wildflowers or a lake full of nosey swans with a path cutting across the middle. The further I walked the more lost I felt in this new Narnia land that I had all to myself.

Eventually the path turned in to a hill and I knew I was coming close to the tower. Panting and cursing the tripod that was now burrowing a hole in my shoulder, I climbed over root-covered paths that threatened to trip me if I wasn’t careful. Rhododendrons seemed to spring up out of nowhere and bluebells were out in full force. Sweating like pig I wasn’t exactly feeling princess-y but I could see the roof of the tower between the trees! It was beautiful and I gazed up at it while I splayed out on the grass recovering from the unexpected hike.

This place is a true gem and each time I’ve been it’s been practically deserted of people. An even bigger surprise was learning that you can actually rent this spot out via the Irish Landmark Trust – can you imagine?!! It would be the perfect romantic getaway for two with the rooftop providing the perfect spot to survey “your” land while sipping on a few glasses of wine. While I was forced to make do with being a lowly civilian I could still see why there were numerous poems written about this place (Tennyson himself penned one in honour of the tower); the woodlands surrounding it are full of magic and even today it feels like you’re a million miles away from anyone else.

I started to make my way back to the car when the sun started to fall low and I remembered with a panic that I was all by myself in a place devoid of people. I half-ran half-skipped back to the car and promised myself that this would be my secret space this summer (a secret that I definitely couldn’t not share it seems!) and that I would be back to explore more. But maybe with Andrew next time as my Tower bodyguard/photographer…

P.S. The Irish Landmark Trust have a tonne of properties you should have a look at if staying in a ridiculously romantic location is your thing! It’s not an ad but just a vital piece of information I’ve newly learned!

 

 

 

The Best Local Places to Find Wildflowers

The Best Local Places to Find Wildflowers

Fun fact: one of my first jobs was in a florist. OK maybe not that fun but it’s true! Back in yesteryear when I was 16, I worked each Saturday and Sunday in a wee shop called The Flower Bowl in Armagh for the grand whopping sum of £3.50 an hour. While the money sounds like absolute pittance now, in my mind I thought I was rich (it funded my addiction to Natural Collection lipgloss).

What brought me the most happiness though was the fact I was being paid to be surrounded by all kinds of beautiful flowers. Each weekend my fingers turned green and numb making up bouquets in a room that was freezing cold to keep the flowers fresh. I got to know the names of weird and wonderful exotics (Bird of Paradise, Proteas) and discovered that there were about a million species of Chrysanthemum. I beamed as I saw the bouquets I had created being sold because I saw how they brought such a simple joy to people’s day. As a teenager it was the beginning of a lifelong passion for flowers and nature and was probably one of the reasons I ended up studying Ecological Science at university a few years later.

Now that I’m an old lady that love for flowers is still there. I buy fresh flowers almost every week, breaking up a bouquet in to glass jars and dotting them around the house. I’ve even been known to dabble in a bit wreath making if you don’t mind. However when Spring arrives I stop buying and start foraging. Our woodlands, gardens and even roadsides come to life this time of year which makes it an absolute dream for gathering. ‘Tis the season for colour and beauty and in light of this I’ve decided to share a few of my favourite local spots with you lovely lot!

While it’s OK to pick flowers in most of these places, some of the areas are protected so the wildflowers are just for gazing lovingly at (and for plenty of Instagram pics of course). If you’re ever unsure about picking a wildflower in case they could be endangered, it’s best to look it up or just leave it but don’t worry, there are plenty of flowers that are free to collect (within reason, please don’t go mad and completely devastate a patch to fuel you’re habit, OK?)

Happy foraging pals!

The Best Places to Find Wildflowers

Lagan Meadows (for an urban oasis)

This oasis in the centre of Belfast provides the best spot for foraging and for finding a quiet place for a picnic in the city. The place comes to life in Spring with butterflies everywhere but just mind the local cows since they’re known to wander around the meadows too!

Loughgall Country Park (for wild garlic and apple blossom)

In my native Co. Armagh there are a few local woodlands to explore but this is one of my favourites since you’re so close to all the local orchards that come to blossom in the Spring. If you’re feeling brave you might find the courage to ask a local orchard farmer for a photo and some blossom to take home with you! I foraged for wild garlic here last year with my pal Rebecca taking the photos which you can see more of here as well as a wee recipe for wild garlic pasta too.

Rowallane Gardens (for manicured gardens rustic woodland)

While you can’t pick flowers in the gardens, this remains one of my favourite gardens in NI which comes to life in the Spring. There’s even a rustic conservatory with climbing foliage, a perfect Instagram scene! To find the wildflowers you have to walk up around the house to the woodland that spreads behind it. This is my favourite part and is a lot quieter than the gardens.

Cavehill Country Park (for bluebells)

A carpet of bluebells dominate the floor of the woodland for only a few short weeks but it’s worth a visit this time of year to see the sea of blue. Make sure not to pick the Spanish bluebells though since the species is endangered! You can find wild garlic here too which you will probably smell first since it’s so sweet.

Crawfordsburn Meadow (for diversity)

This reserve is protected so unfortunately you can’t forage here but it’s a beautiful place to admire this time of year and take plenty of photos! There aren’t many meadows left in Ireland so this place is really special especially since the woodland connected to it is just as beautiful. You can even hear the waves crashing on Crawfordsburn beach too!

Rathlin Island (for abundance)

This has to be my favourite place to scour for wildflowers since there is just so many different species to discover. The remoteness of Rathlin Island means that the wildflowers have the opportunity to really take over the island so while everyone is searching for the puffins, you can hunt for all the pretty flowers on the rest of the island!

The Beaches of Connemara

The Beaches of Connemara

To be barefoot on a Connemara beach in April is the closest I think I’ll ever get to a miracle. We had driven down to the west coast from Belfast the night before and the weather had been wild as we arrived in to the mountains. The wind was howling and the rain turned the landscape in to a muddy watercolour painting with hundreds of waterfalls washing across the roads taking us to Letterfrack. April showers take on a new meaning in Connemara and it was safe to say that expectations for the weekend had taken a back seat as we finally approached Rosleague Manor, our base for the weekend. We ran up to the entrance to avoid getting soaked and when entering the hallway it felt like the antithesis of outside. There was an instant feeling of warmth from the open fires burning in the drawing rooms to the friendly welcome from Mark (a third generation member of the Foyle family who runs Rosleague) and I thought to myself, “even if it rains all weekend I reckon we’ll be just grand in here”.

We had gone to bed early that night, weary from the long drive and hours of conversation on the road. While I was delighted to be curling up in a beautiful bed in a manor house, I secretly hoped for a miracle, just a patch of blue sky so we could see the views that I knew were around us. The next morning I was woken up by the sunlight streaming through the curtains at about 6.30am and it took me a moment to register why I was awake so early. I eventually realised that it was sunlight, SUNLIGHT, that woke me up! I bounced out of bed and practically ran to the lake to soak in the morning (you can hear more about this walk and see photos in my previous post here).

After breakfast we set off on our drive, energised by the sun that continued to beat down with no cloud in the sky for competition. We took the Sky Road, an obvious choice on a day like this which provides the most amazing views of the Atlantic and the hundreds of islands that seem to hug the coastline like barren satellites. We stopped off at as many beaches as we could as the temperatures started to rise to a balmy 15 degrees and that’s when I found myself at Mannin Bay, barefoot without a cardigan or goosebump to be seen!

Blue skies met even bluer waters and I had to keep reminding myself that I was in the same part of the world I fell asleep in. Connemara is truly a land of contrasts with a clear day completely transforming the coast and the mountains that loom over it. The mountains became golden with the few clouds creating shadow shows as they drifted lazily across the sky.

We drove most of the day beach-hopping and stopping off for seafood when our stomachs began to rumble. We ate outside on the streets of Roundstone at O’Dowd’s; me wolfing down crab claws and Andrew his staple of battered fish and chips. I drank a glass of white wine and could feel my chest burning a little as the sun bore down and not a trace of wind could be found in the air. I felt unashamedly smug as I closed my eyes and soaked up every ounce of vitamin D I could manage since it had been about 6 months since my poor bones felt anything like it.

Connemara is famous for its wild weather and landscape but few know the Connemara we got to experience last weekend. The turquoise waters, the white beaches, the burned cheeks from the Spring sun. If you ever find yourself as lucky as I was then please make sure to visit the beaches I have listed here. I’m sure they’re just as beautiful when weather is bit more turbulent, the seas furiously stormy and the wind blowing because that is the romantic view most have of the west coast but when the winds settle, the clouds part and the sea calms, well you have a pocket of paradise right before you.

THE BEACHES OF CONNEMARA

Mannin Bay

The water here is spectacular so no surprise that it’s a favourite spot for water sports. If you’re not too keen to brave the water by snorkelling then you can take a kayak out and spy the marine life swimming beneath you in crystal clear waters. It was empty when we were there and incredibly peaceful too so you might just get the water all to yourself.

Omey Island

The island is connecting to the mainland by a tidal strand that is only permissible during times of low tide. The strand is popular for families who fancy a bit of sand castle building and beach combing but we ventured on to the island itself with hardly a person in sight. There’s a beach on the far side of the island which was deserted and felt incredibly private save for a few neighbourly heifers and their calves.

Dog’s Bay

This is probably the most popular beach in the area and for good reason. The bay provides safe calm waters for young kids to splash about it and the water is just as clear as Mannin too. The long white sandy beach is great for walking off a lunch and the mountains behind you provide a stunning backdrop to gaze up at when you walk back to your car. Roundstone is close by too and a lovely harbour town to grab some lunch in.

Coral Strand

Typical of Ireland this beach is known for its folklore since it’s said that if you pick up a fistful of coral sand in each hand you have two choices. If you want to have luck in love then you through the sand in your left hand over your left shoulder. If you want luck in money then you should through the sand in right hand over your right shoulder. You can’t do both though, sure ye can’t have too much luck! Apparently this beach has some of the warmest waters too so shouldn’t be too terrifying to take a dip in if you’re feeling the need to cool off from the Connemara heat.

Stepping in to Spring in Connemara

Stepping in to Spring in Connemara

It was Friday last week when we found ourselves making the 5 hour trek to Connemara. We’d deliberated over the trip for a while because it was a fair jaunt to go for only two nights and since Andrew is a freak when it comes to devaluing his car he worried that his precious might suffer with the distance (is this a guy thing or what?!). What convinced us though was our desperate need for a change of scenery and there is truly nowhere else for scenery in Ireland but Connemara! So off we went with the car packed and lovingly checked over by Andrew (she gets treated nicer than me sometimes) with podcasts at the ready to keep us occupied while we made our way south west.

We had been invited down to Connemara by Ireland’s Blue Book who I had worked with before when I had visited their beautiful Castle Grove property back in February. They have a collection of 54 historical houses, castles and manors scattered across the most romantic locations in Ireland and they had asked us to visit Rosleague Manor House, a pink ivy-clad piece of gorgeousness found just outside Letterfrack on the banks of Ballinakill Bay.

Before our trip we tried to plan for all sorts of weather since Connemara is well known for it’s unpredictable climate. You might as well forget any sort of forecast checking because it seems to change every hour and you kind of just have to roll with the punches be it rain, hail or sunshine. We hadn’t our hopes set very high coming in to Co. Galway that evening since the wind was howling through every gap in the car and the rain was lashing against the windows making the mountains look like sad brown smudges. Andrew wasn’t too impressed after having driven half the day but I had this doggedly annoying positivity that we might get a glimmer of sunshine, even a pocket of blue sky would make it all worthwhile!

We finally arrived at the manor just after sunset (or at least we thought so since we hadn’t seen the sun since we left Fermanagh) and were met by Mark at reception, a third generation owner and member of the Foyle family who took over the house 50 years ago back in 1968. Mark is incredibly warm and seeing how knackered we were from the drive, took us off to our room and organised a table for us to eat once we’d rested our bones for a minute or two.

The room wasn’t so much like a bedroom but more like a small apartment (my university flat was definitely smaller) with beautiful French windows that opened up to a private patio overlooking the bay. I looked at the huge bed and wanted to collapse in it immediately because who doesn’t need to sleep at least one night of their lives in a curtained bed?? But we had dinner to eat first so we dragged ourselves to the dining room which, to our sweet relief, was surprisingly casual given the surroundings.

We settled back and ordered some French wine before tucking in to some local dishes. The manor restaurant takes advantage of the landscape surrounding them so all their dishes include the freshest ingredients from the doorstep. I went for the monkfish and Andrew opted for the Connemara lamb rack which we practically inhaled after a day on the road. Feeling very relaxed after a few glasses we went all the way and ordered desserts; creme brûlée for him (always if it’s on the menu) and for me a chocolate piece of deliciousness that I can’t remember the name of (it sounded French!) along with caramel ice cream – YUM!

We trotted off to bed after we licked our plates and pretty much passed out as soon as our heavy heads hit the freshly plumped pillows. Having fallen asleep so early, I woke up just after sunrise much to Andrew’s annoyance. I think his least favourite trait of mine is the fact I wake up early when we’re supposed to be on our “holidays” while he wants to savour the lie-in as much as possible. My argument is I find quiet mornings to myself the biggest luxury of a holiday and when I woke up to see the sun beaming through the curtains I couldn’t contain myself!

To give the man some peace I threw on some clothes, grabbed my camera and opened the french doors to explore the grounds of the house. I found a garden path that took me down to the bay and followed it as the golden light of sunrise bathed everything around me. When I reached the water it was like glass, the mountains reflecting like a mirror. I was dumbstruck for a few minutes as I tried my best to soak every second in because I had it all to myself and that felt so special.

I watched the mist rolling across the far side of the bay for a while and kept walking along the beach to take a few photos. I was wearing pumps (rookie) and nearly lost them a few times in the beach which technically was more bogland in parts. I did as best I could to walk around but suddenly came to a stream that was pouring in the bay which was blocking my path. I was determined to see more of the view and I must have been still been half asleep because I just walked on through the stream like a complete eejit asking for a good dose of pneumonia!

It wasn’t so much cold as physically painful but I continued on because I’m a nutcase and tried to convince myself that this is what real photographers do. Or at least people with half a brain anyway. Wiggling my toes to bring them back to life I walked on round the bay and stood for about an hour in complete quiet, listening to the soft sounds of Connemara and smiling up at the blue skies that looked to be staying for the day. It’s times like this that I’m glad I’m a morning person.

Eventually I realised I needed to head back and get a hot shower to warm my wee hooves and after that I tucked in to breakfast which consisted of the following: 2 x croissants, granola with yogurt and berries, local salmon with scrambled eggs, local apple juice and lots of tea. While I was making my way through my feast (while Andrew was still tucked up in bed) I noticed that the same staff were serving me as the night before. Over the course of the two days the people who worked there became so familiar it was as if I joined a small family in this beautiful big house. They would chat away to us, filling us in on local favourites and where we should head off to. Even the guests became familiar (and as the hotel is dog-friendly, their pets too!), with one particular German couple being my favourites. Later that evening I would walk past them on the front lawn where they had parked themselves facing the harbour with a beer to watch the sun go down. They called out to me, “We are like a couple from the 1930’s!” as they both laughed together. My heart fell to pieces.

The rest of the weekend was spent exploring the beaches and roads of the countryside while we thanked our stars for the change in weather. Connemara truly shines when the clouds decide to part. l mean literally shines as the brown landscape dazzles gold in the sunlight. The colours that were muted on our arrival became saturated and I understood why so many poets and artists and writers have used this land as their muse. It awakes the dreamer, the wild restless soul seeking for something to make them feel alive. At the very least it made me feel so lucky to be able to call this island home and to have the bed at Rosleague to sleep in after a day of adventure.

I would massively recommend using Rosleague as your Connemara base if you ever find yourself tempted by an escape to the wild Atlantic coastline. I can genuinely say that we’ll definitely be back again and I can only hope that we have the sheer luck to have blue skies the next time too!

I’ll be posting more photos of our trip including all the secret and no-so-secret beaches we managed to squeeze in one day but for now enjoy some of our memories from Rosleague and the grounds we explored while we were there.

Local Favourites: Newtownards

Local Favourites: Newtownards

After the last big chill of St. Patrick’s weekend, Spring has decided to grace us with her presence here in Ireland – finally! The days are suddenly a wee bit longer, a wee bit warmer and a wee bit sweeter. Maybe we can all stop talking about how freezing that winter was now?!

We had the Monday off after Paddy’s Day and after waking up to snow in Dublin the day before, our expectations were fairly low for weather at home in Belfast. You can imagine my giddy surprise then when I saw actual sun-rays beaming through the curtains the next morning; I could even hear birds singing outside! Andrew wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as I was about the glorious day that stretched ahead of us as he tends to be fairly melodramatic in the mornings. He even purchased a black-out eye mask recently for his delicate peepers and wears ear plugs so the kids next door don’t wake him up – not exactly a morning kind of guy (and a guy who will get a major shock when he becomes a Dad one day).

After he managed to peel himself from the scratcher I immediately told him we were headed for an adventure in the spring sunshine (he is so lucky to have me, I know). I knew he wouldn’t have wanted to head too far but lucky for us there are tonnes of pretty spots within quick driving distance of Belfast.

I chose to heads towards Newtownards which is about 15 minutes from Belfast and sits at the very northern tip of Strangford Lough. It’s a town I’ve enjoyed getting to know a little more and the area around it is full of places to explore, some of which are fairly unknown to those living in the city up the road.

I’ve listed a few of my favourite locations in the area for food, photography and views to help entice you towards the Lough. It’s definitely a place worth venturing to now the brighter days are among us, even just to catch a glimpse of an Irish golden sunset melting in to the Mourne mountains on the other side of the water.

Scrabo Tower

The tower is an imposing presence above Newtownards and can be seen from pretty much everywhere in the North Down area. This means that there are killer views the lough and on a good day you can even spy Scotland in the distance if you squint hard enough!

The hill is a bit of a steep climb so your thighs won’t thank you but you can rest them at one of the picnic stops on the way. You can actually wander inside the tower during the summer months to learn a bit more about it’s history too but mostly I like to admire it from outside where the wind isn’t blowing and the sun is shining.

Mahee Island

About a 5 minute drive outside of Newtownards lies Mahee Island, an island connected to the mainland by a tiny wee road that seems to lead to hundreds of wee islands. There is something very secretive about these islands, most of them are privately owned so you can’t be too nosy but Mahee Island itself is welcome to tourists and is perfect for getting to know a completely different side of Co. Down.

There are castle ruins to explore, empty beaches to stroll on and clear blue waters to canoe your way through to get a better view of all the islands. There’s even a wetland centre too which showcases the huge variety of wildlife in the area too. It’s definitely a hidden gem on the banks of the Lough and a perfect place to take the bikes out to if we’re ever blessed with a good day.

Haptik

Do you know those cafés you visit for the first time that make you think to yourself: I would love to run a place like this? Well Haptik is one of those places. We ate there for the first time recently and as soon as we walked in I knew I would be back many times.

The industrial décor was right up my street (anyone who follows me on Instagram will see this in my stories!) but the food was what impressed us most. The menu had an Australian brunch feel to it with Andrew practically licking the smashed avocado off his plate. Johnny (who runs the place along with his wife) was super friendly and told us they do monthly supper clubs too so I’m now following them on Facebook to make sure I can book on to the next one!

The best surprise of all though was upstairs where they have an ongoing art exhibition and amazing children’s shop call Wu Concept. It’s the perfect place to pick up a gift for a wee one or just to go and feel extremely broody (which was what I did).

Mount Stewart

Mount Stewart is a National Trust favourite and a popular summer destination epecially among families. The gardens come to life in the warmer months with a lake to stroll around away from the crowds.

The house is now open for tours too if you’re feeling particularly aristocratic with events running throughout the year too. I tend to visit the house in the late afternoon because it has the perfect sunset view over the water which is always the perfect way to end a day of adventure.

Beer Pairing and Four Poster Beds at Castle Grove House

Beer Pairing and Four Poster Beds at Castle Grove House

The snow is falling incessantly outside my bedroom window this morning, tiny flakes tapping at the glass to remind me how much things can change in a matter of days. Only a week ago Andrew and I were on our way to Donegal for the night, arriving at Castle Grove House under blue skies and bright sunlight that only fed false promises of Spring. Oh to feel just a wee bit of heat again!

We had been invited to Castle Grove by Ireland’s Blue Book as part of a beer-pairing night the hotel were hosting in their award-winning restaurant (with local brewery Kinnegar’s providing all the pairings!). This was one of the first events I have ever been invited to as a blogger so I was unashamedly very excited about being there! It’s no secret that Andrew and I are lovers of Donegal since we usually visit the county every few months so we were never going to turn down a chance to spend a night in digs on the north coast, especially when there were craft beers involved!

Neither myself or Andrew had been to Castle Grove before and as we pulled in to the beautiful country lane that took us to the banks of Lough Swilly where the house is nestled, it felt as if we had crossed in to a different era completely. The manor house sits proudly as it would have done when it was first built in 1695 except the Grove family have been and gone and now the Sweeney’s are holding the fort and welcoming in fresh faces in to their home.

Inside it felt like not much had changed either; fires were crackling in grand fireplaces in numerous rooms downstairs, beautiful antiques decorated corners that I am sure had heard plenty of stories and old paintings hung on the walls above the sweeping staircase that led to the bedrooms upstairs, all of which were named after Irish literary legends (we were in the Jonathan Swift room which was just a bit fitting what with his connection to our hometown of Armagh!).

The room itself was not just a room but more like a suite straight out of Downtown Abbey equipped with a four poster bed and a cabinet full of crystal I was too terrified to touch. There were parts of the suite that were a wee bit dated (the bathroom for example looked like it hadn’t been updated in a few years) so lovers of modern finishes may not feel quite at home here. Personally I loved the quirky charm especially the bed since I had never slept in something that was so like the bed of every princess story I had ever read.

Though what struck me most about the house was it’s warmth. Everything about Castle Grove exudes the feeling of being so welcome, of being looked after and mollycoddled the minute you step through the door. Irene Sweeney, the manager and figurehead of the house, could always be found mingling with guests, tending to the fire and ensuring that everyone’e needs were met. She was genuinely delighted to have people coming to visit her wee part of the world and hosting events like the beer-pairing night was a way for her to showcase the house and everything Donegal has to offer.

Which as it turns out, is a lot. The beer pairing event delivered more than we were expecting, each course having been meticulously curated by Chef Brady and the head of Kinnegar Brewery, Rick LeVert. The Donegal oysters specifically were a sensation for me (Andrew is still sitting on the fence when it comes to oysters) and the dessert was practically licked off the plate. Each beer was introduced by Rick allowing us to understand why the flavours on our plate were designed around the flavours in our glass. It was obvious that great care had went in to the night which, judging by the hum of contentment around room, was a complete success.

I practically had to roll myself out of the dining room after we finally finished eating, only having enough energy for a few moments by the fire before collapsing in my fairytale bed. Next thing I knew it was morning which I welcomed by opening the shutters of my sash windows half-expecting cartoon birds to flutter around my head. We woke up slowly leaving just enough time to meet in the dining room for breakfast (are we the only one’s who leave it until the last 10 minutes?) which was the obligatory full Irish breakfast and lots of tea.

The sun was streaming in and not wanting to miss another moment of Donegal fresh air, we said our thankful goodbyes to Irene and the staff after a quick stroll around the grounds. We were told to make a beeline for Portsalon where we could find blue flag beaches empty of crowds (and in true Donegal style it over-delivered). We drank in the salty air and when the Atlantic winds settled for just a moment we could feel the head of the late-February sun on our backs, a sensation I can barely remember feeling now it’s snowing outside!

Not wanting to end things with Donegal just yet, we took a drive to Glenveagh Castle (so I could play princess just a little longer) which surprisingly neither of us had visited before. It’s actually younger than Castle Grove but looks like it’s been hidden on the lough for centuries longer. There’s a great trail for walkers and cyclists from the visitor centre to the castle but for those with little time or patience (or unruly kids) can hop on the minibus which saves a fair amount of time.

The views are incredible once you reach the castle with Scot’s Pine trees decorating the edge of the lake, providing plenty of magical forest walks. There are beautiful gardens to stroll in too which I can only imagine are even more outstanding in the summer. The views reminded me of Connemara, another essential destination in Ireland where Glenveagh Castle could be compared to Kylemore Abbey as a diamond in the midst of a wild landscape.

There is a real rawness to Donegal that I think has percolated to the people who live there. The people are as open as the land and the sea that batters it’s north and west so it’s only natural to feel yourself open up once your feet are on the ground there. For me there is a collective sigh from my mind and body when I’m Donegal, I release everything I’ve been holding within me and I feel instantly lighter, more open. It’s no wonder I felt so welcome by everyone at Castle Grove, it’s doors are open like the people inside, happy to invite anyone in need of a warm meal and cosy bed or even just a drop of tea by the fire.

Winter Escape to Zell am Zee: 5 Tips for Planning a Couple’s Ski Trip

Winter Escape to Zell am Zee: 5 Tips for Planning a Couple’s Ski Trip

My first morning in Zell am See went a little like this: the sunlight filtering in through the curtains woke me up early and the cool alpine air coming from the open window made me burrow myself in to the duvet for just a minute more. Braving the cold, I opened the door to the balcony with a cup of tea clasped in my hands to keep me warm. The mountains towered above me and I wondered at how quiet it was. When I listened a little harder I started to make out the sounds of the mountain; snow falling off the trees, the sounds of skis on the virgin snow as early risers were taking on the first slope of the day and the mountain streams making their way to the lake below.

I watched the mist from the lake slowly snake it’s way up the valley towards us. I looked up to the sky to see if more snow was to come but all I could see were blue skies with the snow glistening in the sunshine and I thought to myself: now this is a winter escape!

Andrew and I had been planning on going on a ski trip to Austria since our first one in France with another couple two years ago. We both love the mountains but after failing to gather friends to go away on a group trip (the older we get the more difficult it is to get people to commit to dates which is wholly depressing but completely understandable of course), we wondered if we could go on our own and still have the same kind of fun. Ski trips are usually associated with a big group of people, lots of après-ski shenanigans and racing down the slopes so I was a bit apprehensive about going away as a couple; would we have as much fun on our own??

Turns out I had nothing to worry about. We had a blast as we have done on every holiday we’ve taken together but this one felt really special. Everything felt so much more relaxed because we were able to move at our own pace. We could take as many slopes as we liked (or as little), we weren’t having to constantly wait for others to join us at the gondolas or spend hours deliberating about what side of the mountain to hit next. We were super-competitive and downloaded apps to record speeds and distances of the day which we argued at length about over beers in the afternoon. It completely changed my attitude to a ski holiday and I will never hesitate to book another for just the two of us again, it might just be the best way to ski!

If you have ever contemplated taking a winter break with your partner to the mountains, then I urge you, to DO IT. After all, where else would you go with the person who makes you feel on top of the world?

————————————————————————————————————————————————–

5 Tips for Planning a Couple’s Ski Trip

1 Make it FUN

Andrew and I are fairly competitive and on the first day of our trip we downloaded the Snoww app which tracks all your data from your day on the mountain e.g. top speeds, distances, runs, altitudes. After every run we would check our speeds on the gondola taking us back up the mountain, teasing the slowest of the pair and wondering how much distance we would cover that day. It forced us to be a bit braver which made it so much more fun but it also allowed us to keep track of each other when we got lost or wanted to check where the other was too. Would definitely recommend downloading it, especially the more competitive couples!

2 Pick a romantic destination

We had toyed around with a few destinations but once I saw pictures of Zell am See I knew we had to go. The town sits on the edge of Lake Zell with the Austrian Alps circling above. At night, the town is a dream to walk around with narrow streets lit up with lights and music in the air, perfect for strolling hand in hand after a day on the slopes. During the day there’s a beautiful walk to take down by the lake to take in the mountains around you that will make you feel truly tiny! If you decide to visit Zell am See, I’d recommend a walk by the river before the sun goes down followed by a dinner at Deins & Meins. Once your belly is full, walk through the snow to The Gin House to finish the night with some cocktails and a good game of Stump.

3 Give each other space

While cruising down the slopes together was really good craic, there were times when one of us had more energy than the other (usually Andrew having more energy!) and so it was nice to be able to go off on our own and do own thing for a bit. One of my favourite parts of the day was heading back to the Daxer Hotel, having a bit of cake with my tea on the balcony and then heading down to the sauna for an hour on my own – bliss!

4 Plan a Day Trip

While I enjoyed every single moment on those mountains, I was ready to come back down to earth and explore a bit of the area around us. Luckily our flight home from Salzburg (very handily about an hour and a half from Zell am See) was in the evening so it meant we had most of the day to explore the city before the holiday ended. We got the train from Zell am See which was an incredible way to see the countryside; I sat with my nose to the window while Andrew slept! The snow was falling thick and fast when we arrived so we hopped in a taxi to the Old Town to have brunch at Café Tomaselli where Mozart apparently drank his coffee! It was beautiful and I inhaled as many pastries as possible before we wrapped up again and headed towards the Hohensalzburg Fortress. We took the funicular up to the fortress where we had views over the city which was a complete winter wonderland. The snow continued to fall as we walked through the streets of the Old Town and back to the train station to pick up our bags and head home. It was a really romantic way to end the trip and relax a little before heading back to the grind of normal life at home.

5 Be Patient & Considerate

Of course this tip is relevant for couples no matter where they’re going but specifically to choosing a ski destination, you should be considerate of your partner’s abilities and whether they board or ski before making a decision. We chose Zell am See because it offered a diverse range of options for both boarders and skiers (Andrew boards and I ski) which meant that we both felt challenged and never bored. We’re both intermediates which made it easier too but sometimes one partner might be a bit more advanced than the other so you should take this in to consideration too.

We were really happy with Zell am See and felt like there were enough black/expert runs to satisfy us on the days when our confidence was up and we wanted to push ourselves. It was an advantage that we were on the same experience level because we knew what slopes we were capable of and when one of us needed a bit more encouraging the other would be the cheerleader which saved many an argument!

Local Favourites: Linen Hall Library, Belfast

Local Favourites: Linen Hall Library, Belfast

When I enter a library I think I get the same feeling that many religious people might feel when they enter a beautiful church or cathedral. There’s a sense of calm that envelopes me and I almost feel like every cell in my body relaxes, as if I’ve arrived home. Being from the land of saints and scholars means that a love of literature is in my blood and to my luck I live on an island littered with beautiful libraries to explore, many on my very own doorstep!

 

With Valentine’s Day looming I thought it was apt that I visit the place that housed the oldest love stories in my city, the Linen Hall library. It was my first time visiting last Saturday and I almost missed the entrance entirely it was so neatly tucked between modern retail chains. Originally the library was located across Donegal Square where the City Hall now sits and while it’s current residence is a little more understated, it is still one of the most beautiful buildings in Belfast.

Founded in 1788, the library is the oldest in the city and is the last subscribing library in Northern Ireland. Inside there are beautiful desks with antique bankers lamp for the members to read their latest literary find as well as cosy chairs in different nooks and crannies for those who want to hide away from the city. You can people watch from the old stained glass windows that let the natural light flood in and spy on the folk sprawled on the grass outside City Hall.

The library was initially founded by the Belfast Reading Society but in 1792, the library became the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge whose aim was to ‘improve the mind and excite a spirit of general enquiry’, an ethos that has managed to live on and ensure the library’s survival despite attempts to crackdown on such free thinking throughout Belfast’s troubled past.

 

Their collection is impressive with the oldest book dating back to 1490 (De Avina written by Eastern physician Avicenna) but it’s their collection of Irish culture and politics that is truly remarkable. In fact, the first librarian was Thomas Russell, a founding member of the United Irishmen and a close friend of Wolfe Tone. The importance of maintaining and preserving Irish culture and her language lives on with weekly gatherings held each Saturday morning for Gaels to meet and speak in their mother tongue.

 

To find such a peaceful sanctuary in the chaos of a busy city is a rarity and one that should be cherished and protected. Thankfully the library has been able to move with the times and hosts a range of exhibitions and events all year giving more reason to return again, even if it’s just to find a quiet place to enjoy a cup of tea in the quaint café.

With free admission there is really no excuse not to visit this urban refuge. I know I’ll be back for sure, most likely on a rainy day when I can curl up on one of the armchairs and read while looking out at this ever-changing city.

All photos were taken by Marianne from Perfect Opening Line, a true local talent who I couldn’t recommend more! 

What To Do With 12 Hours in Amsterdam

What To Do With 12 Hours in Amsterdam

Stopovers can be a very strange experience. It’s as if you enter a parallel universe where water costs 5 euro a pop and it becomes totally appropriate to drink whisky at 10am. Some people relish the opportunity to kill a few hours in an airport but personally I detest it. I always feel grubby, like I need a good hosing down after getting off the last plane that was a container full of germs. And I get bored of the shops within the first few minutes (mostly because I feel like a peasant who can’t afford any of the products they’re selling!).

There is truly no look that induces as much shame as the one from the snooty cosmetics lady at an airport is there? Especially the moment when she catches you spraying yourself from head to toe in an expensive perfume, asks you with about as much sarcasm as one can gather, if you need any assistance. No I don’t need any help thanks but I guess you knew that from the fact that I’m wearing furry socks with flip flops and have a fistful of samples in my sweaty hands! Oh the shame!

 

BUT. Sometimes, if you’ve been blessed with a stopover of more than a few hours, then that strange experience can actually turn out to be one of the best parts of the trip. A gift that gives you the opportunity to escape the madness and tension of the airport and upgrade your holiday by spending a few hours in a city you weren’t expecting to see. Why suffer when you can pop in to Dubai for a bit of breakfast? Or Hong Kong for dinner? Or, in our recent case, lunch in Amsterdam?? We had half a day to kill in between flights on our way home from Bali last month and jumped at the chance to explore the city instead of just moping about its airport. It might have been a flying visit (hardy har har) but it felt like we were getting a little taste of the Netherlands for just one day and it really was the perfect way to end an already amazing trip.

Here’s a few things that we managed to cram in during our 8 hours…

Dam Square

We got the train in to Centraal Station which only took around 20 minutes on the Sunday morning and couldn’t believe how easy it was to get right in to the city centre. From there we walked down the eerily quiet main street towards Dam Square which at 8am on a Sunday morning, was completely devoid of tourists. It felt as if we had the city to ourselves, strolling through the square and gazing up at the Royal Palace wondering where all the people were. It was incredibly peaceful so we were definitely not complaining.

Nine Streets

A hop over from Dam Square are the most photogenic streets in Amsterdam. Known to locals as ‘The 9 Streets’, the area is jammed with trendy shops, cafés and restaurants that you could easily spend a whole day wandering through. What we came here for though was the opportunity to get the quintessential Amsterdam photo of canals and bikes (have you even been to Amsterdam if you don’t have that photo?). It was a beautiful walk because it was so quiet, only a handful of early risers out walking their dogs on the hunt for their morning coffee. We popped in to Pluk when we were on a stroll and I instantly fell in love, a definite recommendation for a coffee break.

Bloemenmarkt

When you’re done taking photos by the canal, potter on down to the world’s first floating flower markets just a few minutes walk away. In the summer it will be a tulip paradise but in the colder months you will see the winter flowers making appearances with the sellers wrapped up from the cold. It’s best to get there early when the stalls are full of colours and before the punters have descended.

Koffieschenkerij De Oude Kerk

I’m not even going to try and pronounce the name of this café out loud but what I will say is that it’s a spot you have to pop in to for a bit of brunch or tea and cake. It’s located within the sacristy of the Oude Kerk church in the middle of the Red Light District – a church that has seen it’s fair share of sinners I’m sure! We ate our cake in the courtyard under Autumn blue skies and feeling very much at home amongst the rest of the Sunday brunchers. A worthwhile pitstop I can assure you.

After our treats we headed towards the airport feeling conflicted because we were both wishing we had a few more hours for our stopover while at the same time, dreaming of a hot shower and finally getting in to our own bed!

Bali: A Guide to Ubud

Bali: A Guide to Ubud

I was asleep when we first arrived in Ubud. We had taken a taxi from Canggu and I had been lulled in to a nap by the motion of the car and the afternoon heat. When I woke up I could see nothing but green around us. The bright green of the rice paddy fields, the yellow-green of the jungle vegetation, the brown-green of the palm trees bending under the weight of the coconuts… My Irish soul felt right at home.

Ubud (pronounced oo-bood) is in the centre of Bali found close to the volcanoes in the north and about an hour’s drive from the busy Kuta area to the south. We had been urged to visit by friends who had been here before who had all experienced something special while they were there – just like Julia Roberts herself did on the set of Eat, Pray, Love! After the release of the book and movie the area saw a massive increase in the number of those seeking their own version of inner peace and while there is an abundance of mediation, yoga and silence retreats to enjoy, the real appeal for me was to explore a place that has been able to hold on to a culture so rich and unique that it’s different to anywhere else on the island.

While there is no denying that Ubud is a magical place, what surprised me most was the infrastructure and how much it is struggling to accommodate the mass of yoga-pant-wearing tourists that are coming in their droves. Ubud is actually a collection of 14 villages which have now merged and the centre of the area is continually congested with trucks and mopeds (usually with a whole family on the back) with fumes that would nearly knock you out if you’re in traffic for too long which makes it a little harder to cleanse the soul!

Although the pollution isn’t ideal, there is still so much beauty here that you just have to experience if you’re in Bali. There are hundreds of temples, too many to visit during one trip but there is every opportunity to immerse yourself in the Hindu culture, taste Indonesian food cooked by world-renowned chefs and drive alongside rice paddy fields so quiet it makes you forget the traffic you left behind. Just be sure to get a mask for your mouth and nose while on a moped!

Where to Stay

We stayed in this Airbnb which was about 10 minutes from the main centre and had just opened within the last few months promising a modern room which is always a win in Bali!

This place was Andrew’s favourite as soon as we walked up to the rooftop pool which overlooked the jungle surrounding us. We could see palm trees for miles and the cockerels were crowing in the quiet streets below. It felt like we were finally seeing the rural Bali we had missed in Canggu and we had to drag ourselves away to explore more beyond the villa walls.

We were given breakfast on the rooftop each morning and were even given breakfast early at 6.30am one morning when we were checking out. The staff organised everything for us; a volcano trek, moped rentals and our transport to the Gili Islands which took the pressure off of us and gave us more time to enjoy Ubud for the few days we were there.

Where to Eat & Drink

Copper Kitchen & Bar

We ate here on our first evening in Ubud, hoping to treat ourselves to something a little special. The view from the terrace is stunning and the setting is extremely romantic however it was a little over-priced for the serving we received. I would recommend this place if you were looking for something high-end because the food was truly delicious (the chef even came out for a chat before our meal) but if you’re on a budget then it might be best to opt for something a bit cheaper.

White Box

 

A great wee patisserie that sells tasty sweet treats. We picked some desserts to take home with us after our dinner at Copper and ate them in bed while catching up on Great British Bake Off (we are WILD).

Three Monkeys

We had a late lunch/early dinner (Linner? Dunch?) here after a mammoth day chasing waterfalls up north. We hoovered up the food which was simple but super yummy. The back of the restaurant looks over a rice paddy field so it’s quite lovely to sit out there with a glass of wine and watch the sun go down after a hectic day of sight-seeing.

Watercress Café

This was probably the healthiest place we ate while in Ubud but the dishes still felt hearty and filling. This is a good place to go before your yoga practice (or after a heavy night that you’re hoping to un-do!) with a great location in the middle of everything.

Mamma Mia

A great pizza joint if you’re after something quick and easy. We popped in here to kill some time before our spa appointments and shovelled the tasty pizza slices in to us within minutes. I would definitely recommend this place to families looking for no fuss and fast service.

Alaya Resort

A beautiful hotel that serves some very tasty cocktails with staff who make you feel like you’re a guest despite the fact you’re staying in an Airbnb at a fraction of the price down the road!

Caramel 

Another wee spot to grab some desserts to go! A huge variety of tasty treats to balance out all the walking and yoga stretches you have been putting that body through.

 

What to See

Campuhan Ridge Walk 

This is a beautiful walk near the centre of town which you can take at your own distance and pace. The walk is about 2km long so easy to do for those who aren’t quite as fit for a big hike but who want to immerse themselves in the jungle – definitely worth doing at sunset before dinner.

Gitgit Waterfall

Gitgit comprises of three different waterfalls, two of which has pools you can swim in. We drove our moped about 1.5 hours from Ubud, snaking up the mountain roads taking us north and in to the clouds. Rice paddy fields give way to strawberry fields where you can pick your own punnet to take on the journey with you. We arrived at the waterfalls in the late morning and were surprised at how few people were there and just how easy the climb down to them was. You only need to walk for about 15 minutes until you can hear the deafening roar of the water and feel the waterfall spray on your face.

We had the pools to ourselves, jumping in and out of the clear water that wasn’t quite as cold as we were fearing. It was one of the best experiences I had in Bali because it’s something I had never done before, swimming underneath this huge body slamming in to the earth. We could still hear the sound of the water ringing in our ears as we drove down the mountain back to the rice paddy fields.

As we were almost off the mountain we felt the moped starting to wobble and pulled over to find we had a flat tyre – not good when you’re in the middle of the countryside! Since everyone drives a moped in Bali we were hoping a mechanic wasn’t too far away and started to walk the moped towards the nearest village. All we could do was laugh as locals kept pointing us further and further down the road until we finally reached someone after about 1.5km that could repair it for us. The mechanic didn’t speak any English but he was wonderful and super quick. The repair cost us about £5 so a bit of a bargain considering he saved us from some serious bother!

 

Oh, one more thing, there is also a beautiful gateway on the way to Gitgit which is worth stopping by for pictures because if you haven’t taken a pretty photo in a gateway have you even been to Bali??? Make sure not to miss it!

Mount Batur

Mount Batur is an active volcano about a two hour drive away from Ubud and is a popular hike amongst those chasing a sunrise with a view. I was a little nervous about the climb because it was over 1700m and my lung function had been sitting around 70% before we left. It was something I was determined not to miss so I soldiered on and we began the climb about 4am in the pitch dark and chilly cold.

The trail is a busy one and there are times that we had to stop and wait for people up ahead which was a relief for me because it gave me a break! We reached the top as the sky was lightening and just before the sun began to peak over the mountains ahead, turning the sky a multitude of pinks and oranges and the lake below a mix of silvers and greys. After the sun was fully up and our bones began to warm up we walked over to the crater that still has steam escaping from it’s centre which was both terrifying and frightening! A wonderful experience that I was so happy I committed myself to.

Gunung Kawi Temple

Gunung Kawi is an 11th century temple about 20 minutes from Ubud and is perfect to do alongside the Tegallalang rice terraces in an afternoon. The temple is set across quite a big area and has beautiful stone carvings that each represent a member of the 11th century Balinese royal family. The sound of water is everywhere as a river runs directly through it which makes it feel extremely peaceful. Both men and women will need to wear a sarong but you can borrow one at the entrance for free.

Tegallalang Rice Terraces

This is an iconic site that most people will want to visit when they are in Ubud. It is very busy which can make it difficult to take that perfect photo but the trick is to go up and and around the back of the terraces where it is much quieter. You are asked to pay through a few gateways in the fields but we only paid to get through one and argued with the others since it is not mandatory. Definitely try and get a view of the wooden Titanic replica which is up at the top of the terraces – I spoke to the man who made it and he was so excited to hear I lived in Belfast where the Titanic was built!

Spa

There are plenty of spas to choose from in Ubud depending on what your budget it is but we chose DaLa Spa at the Alaya Resport which was super luxurious and worth the little bit extra. We opted for a couples Balinese massage but we were treated to a traditional foot ritual for free (which after a volcano trek felt friggin’ amazing!) and got to choose our own oils. It was a really special experience to share together and we lapped up our surroundings afterwards drinking ginger tea and feeling thoroughly relaxed!