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A Snow Day at Slieveanorra

A Snow Day at Slieveanorra

There’s something magic about waking up to snow, isn’t there? I get the same giddy rush of excitement I did as a child when I open my curtains on a winter morning and I see the world has turned white overnight. I run downstairs, throw on whatever boots are by the door and dash outside to assess how much has fallen in the hope that there’s enough for even the teeniest wee snowman.

Unfortunately for me, living in Belfast means that it’s a rare thing to get a good fall of snow and yesterday, even though there was the most gorgeous dusting across all my neighbours roofs down to Belfast Lough, there wasn’t enough to make even a few snowballs. Not willing to miss out on what might be the only good snowfall of the year, I decided that I’d take a solo road trip up north that afternoon to see if I would get better luck in the hills of Co. Antrim.

I’m not very familiar with the Co. Antrim countryside so I asked Ballymena man Stephen Reid for any advice on where the best spot would be to get some beautiful winter views. He suggested heading up to Altnahinch Reservoir close to Slieveanorra (also known as Orra Mountain), an area that I think I’ve passed through many times on the way to the coast but have never actually stopped to appreciate.

And how wrong I was! It is wonderfully wild up there and as I drove further up in to the mountains I quickly became one of only a few people for miles. The air was crisp, the sky was bright blue and rolling hills covered with perfectly powdery snow – a winter jackpot!

After a slow and steady climb in my little tin can VW Polo, I got out of the car to stretch my legs, breathe a sigh of relief that I didn’t slide off the road and get crunchin’. The reservoir was beautiful and with no one around apart from me and a few sensible schoolchildren who had taken the afternoon off for sledding.

I carried on up in to the forest around the reservoir to see if the snow had managed to make it’s way through the pine trees and on to the forest floor. It was eerily quiet under the canopy but the stillness was so peaceful. I just stood there for a little while, listening to the creaking trees and following the soft paw prints that a fox had left from the night before.

Not feeling quite satisfied with the adventure I already had getting there, I decided to keep going up the mountain and carried on to the Old Cushendun Road (that barely had tyre tracks – warning sign #1.) Now, I have to advise you that I don’t recommend anyone be as silly as I was and head up the mountain in a wee car definitely not equipped to handle Arctic terrain but to be quite honest, I had a blast.

I stayed at a safe speed that was perfect for cruising through the vast winter landscape, grateful that the only traffic were the local sheep (who were kind enough to keep their distance). I stopped a few times when there was a break in the snow to take photos but none could do it justice – you’ll just have to take a scoot up there to see for yourself next time we have snow!

Before I started the drive back home to Belfast, I took the Altnahinch Road back down the mountain towards Armoy and headed to the coast before the sun went down. I just about made it to Bothy at White Park Bay for a coffee and traybake before they closed which was exactly what I needed after a white knuckled drive through the snow! After my nerves had settled, I made a quick pitstop at Ballintoy on the road home to watch the sun go down which was just about the perfect way to end the perfect snow day.


A Local Gift Guide For The Last Minute Panic Buyer

A Local Gift Guide For The Last Minute Panic Buyer

I have to confess a festive habit of mine: I’m a classic last-minute shopper. I do it every year! I think I’m way ahead of myself, practically giving myself a pat on the back only to realise when I’m wrapping that I’m actually I’m a few people short. Cue a shot of me, sweat lashing off me in a packed store swearing to myself I’ll do better next year.

And here we are, the week before Christmas and I’ve given myself two challenges:

  1. Be organised enough to avoid the Christmas Eve chaos
  2. Shop local

The local high street and small businesses enjoy their busiest time of year at Christmas however in most circumstances they are out-beaten by massive online retailers as convenience is highest on the consumer list. I get it, it’s super easy to just click and order everything on Amazon but it’s the smaller guys who suffer.

We’re spoiled for choice here in Belfast and NI and just in case you’re the last minute shopper like I am, I thought I’d share my favourite local businesses depending on the kind of person you’re shopping for. There’s one for everyone on this list!

FOR YOUR DAD WHO LIKES TO BRING HIS OUTDOORS INSIDE…

Bearded Candle Makers

Michael is a true artist and has cemented himself as one of the finest chandlers in Ireland. His scents tell a story that most of us will identify with (Turf Fire is a firm favourite which no doubt your Dad would love!) and he continues to try new combinations, challenging people to tap in to memories when they take a whiff of his gorgeous candles.

FOR YOUR HUSBAND WHO WEARS A BEANIE ALL WINTER…

Bramble Green

Bramble Green is a family-run business headed by Claire from her home on the North Coast. Their knitwear is handmade by local women and they have pieces for men, women and children – their bonnets are adorable! I’ve been wearing the Donegal Hipster beanie for a few winters now and it’s kept my head toasty on the coldest of days.

FOR YOUR SUPER COOL SISTER WHO YOU WILL ALWAYS IDOLISE…

Lines & Current

A local jewellery brand, Lines & Current was started by Rebekah, quite possibly the coolest woman in Belfast. Her jewellery is simple but stunning and can be worn every day.

FOR YOUR DISORGANISED WORK PAL…

Shared Threads

Shared Threads is a wonderful community of creatives who have been brought together by Kirsty, an incredible local woman who wanted to make a difference to the lives of vulnerable women. Her team make and distribute sanitary products using second hand cotton and towels to lower the environmental impact and to help aid their work, they’ve created a beautiful calendar that you can buy over on their website. This would be a beautiful gift that would help an incredible cause!

FOR YOUR BEST MATE WHO IS READY FOR A MAJOR SHIFT…

Mel Wiggins

Sometimes all it takes is gentle encouragement to make the change we’ve been longing for. Mel Wiggins is a super talented coach from Portadown who I feel blessed to have met through the Assembly community she created a few years ago. I have been a member now for a year and I’ve been able to tap in to ideas and dreams I didn’t realise I had permission to explore. You could buy your pal a membership or a voucher for a course of Mel’s – I guarantee you it would make a life-changing gift.

FOR YOUR ECO-CONSCIOUS COUSIN…

Do Your Bit

Teal has been a huge inspiration for me in trying to make my life as plastic-free as possible (it’s HARD!). Her shop is full of alternatives to plastic products and it would help anyone who is trying to make that change too.

The Homely Haven

Laura Jayne has been another inspiration this year as she’s started her journey in sustainable living. She runs workshops from her home in Co. Armagh that teach others who are trying to rid their home of toxins amongst other creative workshops too – a voucher to one of her workshops would delight anyone who’s keen to learn a new and more intentional way of  living.

FOR YOUR UNCLE THAT IS ALWAYS RECOMMENDING YOU OBSCURE BOOKS…

Books, Paper, Scissors

This is probably my favourite bookshop to explore on a rainy day in Belfast. Located just across the road from the Ulster Museum in Stranmillis, the shop is full of books to satisfy every age and taste including some beautiful stationery too.

Turf & Grain Magazine

Turf & Grain is a beautiful local publication that’s full of stories, poems and stunning photography all told by those from the island of Ireland. An issue would make a beautiful stocking filler and will no doubt be shared by the family.

FOR YOUR MUM WHO LOVES A HAMPER…

Pomegranate & Fig

OK, I know she’s my sister and I may be a bit bias but honestly, have you seen her grazing boards?! Shannon’s boards are a work of art and a voucher would delight anyone who wants to have a board for a family event or just for a cosy night in this winter.

Neary Nogs

Nestled along the Mourne Coast, Neary Nogs is the first bean to chocolate makers that have been cultivating a variety of flavours and combinations over the last few years. I’ve been buying my Granny their drinking chocolate for her midnight cocoa for months and it’s a huge hit!

Indie Füde

In the village of Comber lies a wonderland of local delicacies and treats. The folks at Indie Füde have worked hard to curate an amazing range of food products all sourced from the island of Ireland and that change with the seasons. A perfect spot to gather goods for a festive hamper!

FOR YOUR BROTHER WHO THINKS HE’S MASTERCHEF…

The Edible Flower

Erin & Jo have opened their Co. Down home to food lovers since 2016 and since then their supper clubs have been in huge demand. They also run a variety of workshops from their home too; veggie cooking classes, thai cooking classes and even a home-brewing workshop! A ticket to one of their events would be a perfect gift to for anyone looking to branch out on their culinary skills in 2020.

Enrich & Endure

Image from Enrich & Endure

Brother/sister duo Lorcan and Sarah started Enrich & Endure with the vision of reviving the local linen industry which had all but disappeared in recent years. Their aprons and tea towels are made right here in NI and are designed to last making them a gift that will be cherished for years to come.

FOR YOUR GRANNY WHO LOVES A GIFT SET…

The Natural Beauty Pot

Shauna started The Natural Beauty Pot when she struggled to find products that didn’t irritate her sensitive skin so she made the brave decision to make her own. As a trained beautician she was well qualified for the task and she now has her own studio in Co. Fermanagh where she creates products using gentle but effective ingredients suitable for everyone.

FOR YOUR GRANDA WHO’S FAVOURITE CHORE IS WATERING HIS PLANTS…

Wild Thing

This little jungle is a haven on the North Down coastline and each visit is such a treat. Karen sells a huge variety of plants as well as sourcing a range of candles, jewellery and homeware. A new plant would brighten up a corner of any home or a voucher would mean they would get to visit the jungle themselves.

FOR YOUR WIFE WHO SMUGGLES IN HOMEWARE LIKE IT’S CONTRABAND…

Studio Souk

This is the place I recommend to visitors to Belfast who want to find something special as a souvenir because all three floors are filled with local treasures. There’s not just tourist gifts sold here, there’s also beautiful art, design and crafts all locally made and each making the gift for anyone proud of their home.

Maven

This shop is a Scandi dream and it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone in to choosing a range that reflects design and purpose. Sisters Catherine and Patricia have sourced stunning pieces that would make perfect stocking fillers or, if you’re after something larger, then there’s gorgeous furniture upstairs too!

BTS Concept

Ah, I love this shop. I can’t help but call in when we’re up around the north coast and I always pick out a gift for an upcoming birthday or celebration (or just for me!). BTS offers a selection of interiors and giftware inspired by the muted tones and natural textures of the coast that draws folks that want to bring the outside in to their home.

FOR YOUR SUPER COOL AUNTIE WHO ALWAYS WEARS THE COOLEST CLOTHES…

Alf & Roe Vintage

Our local girl Cleo Parkinson modelling Alf & Roe and captured by Filly Campbell Photography

Who knew there would be such a treasure trove in the tiny village of Donaghmore?! This wee shop in rural Co. Tyrone has a gorgeous collection of vintage finds that would bring joy to anyone who loves to wear something a little different, a piece of clothing with history.

FOR THE LITTLE ONES IN YOUR LIFE WHO ARE GROWING LIKE WEEDS…

Wu Concept

Possibly the sweetest children’s boutique I’ve been to! Each item has been carefully thought of and encourages individuality and creativity. I always turn to this place when I’m buying for friend’s children and I know I’ll be back when I have my own one day.

Merry Christmas!!

How Do You Like Them Apples??

How Do You Like Them Apples??

Ah, Autumn. I feel you nipping at my heels, pushing me towards my winter boots and scarves and coats. I see you in the rust-edged leaves and bushes heavy with blackberries. I see you in the crisp new pages of a notebook, full of anticipation and hope. Being a September babe means I am always ready to embrace Autumn and probably explains my excitement at new stationery but my all-time favourite way to ring in the season is to get home to Armagh pick fresh apples.

Being from Co. Armagh means that I have the fortune of knowing folk who run an orchard and you better believe I make the most of it. The countryside of the orchard county comes to life this time of year. Farmers work tirelessly to fill their bins, sending them off to cideries or local supermarkets. Then there is I, galloping through the corridors of trees like some sort of harvest addict, camera in one hand and a basket almost too heavy to carry in another.

This year I came down to the orchards for the sole purpose of picking Katy apples. In previous years I’ve always made it down in time for picking the Bramleys, the most common apple variety in the county, but I’ve never been in time for Katy apple picking. Usually the Katy apples are ready towards the very end of August or the very beginning of September, about a fortnight before the Bramleys and I’ve always been disappointed to have just missed the timing.

This year I had my personal apple correspondent, Rebecca from A Clothes Horse, who gave me the heads up when the Katy apples were ready. Rebecca married in to the Glass family who have a beautiful orchard just outside Loughgall, a village and area famous for their apples. She let me know they were about to be picked and that I should get my skates on and get down before they were all gone.

By the time I got to the orchard there was only one Katy tree left – these pickers work fast! Rebecca told me the rough location of the last Katy tree so we went on a scavenger hunt to find it. As you can see, the bright red apple is fairly hard to miss! We were in a sea of Bramleys when all of a sudden this biblical tree appeared with apples so red they almost didn’t look real.

After a taste test I could confirm that not only were they real but they were freakin’ delicious. Super crunchy and juicy and not at all poisonous. I picked a few apples, not wanting to hog them all and then proceeded to take as many photos as I could because I didn’t know if I’d ever be this lucky with the season again.

So here you are. I hope you enjoy the photos as much as I loved taking them! If you’d like to visit the orchards for yourself then I would definitely recommend getting down to Armagh for the Food & Cider Festival next weekend (19-22nd September). There are loads of events on for the family including orchard tours, cooking class, cider workshops and even a painting masterclass in an orchard too! Visit the event website here for more details.

Happy Autumn friends and let me know if you’ve any ideas on how I can use a basketful of apples – recipes welcome!

Camping in Tollymore Forest

Camping in Tollymore Forest

Summer in Ireland… it’s a fleeting experience, isn’t it? The warm months whisper past us before we can even remember what was to feel the comforting heat of the sun and the gentle lap of waves at our bare feet. Though the season is brief, we Irish have know to appreciate every drop of sunshine while we can, revelling in the joy of back-to-back sunny days, outdoor picnics and endless adventures.

There are so many wee pleasures to have during summer but of on my absolute favourites is camping. Sleeping outside isn’t for everyone but for me it’s one of life’s real luxuries to fall asleep under the stars. It might require a bit of forward planning (and hardy expectations) but when you get that rare weekend jackpot of sunny AND dry weather, well there’s no better place to be than the mountains!

It was about a month ago when we struck weather gold and packed up our car with (definitely too many) camping supplies. We hadn’t any real idea of where we were headed but we drove out of the city and towards the Mourne Mountains knowing we would be able to find a perfect camping spot up there.

We decided to go a little off-grid and try wild camping in an attempt to savour the most of the Irish wilderness. I can completely understand the appeal of campsite comforts (especially when you have kiddos to keep clean!) but I love that feeling of being a little bit cut off from the world. We aren’t too knowledgeable about the best wild camping spots so I just googled a few recommended spots and found this really useful website.

We decided to head for the Spinkewee River since it looked like the easiest for rookies. It was a few kilometres walk from the Trassey carpark where we had dropped off the car which meant we had to cull a few things we could live without for a night (a duvet being one of them!). Once we were packed up like pair of wee camels, we trotted off in search of the river, stopping only a few dozen times to catch our breath and swap packs!

We hiked along a country path which soon brought in to Tollymore forest. Old stone steps took us over gateways, passed ancient burial grounds and alongside towering piles of felled logs. We eventually found the river and set up camp and began collecting firewood to start dinner.

We tend to get ingredients for a one pot dinner and this recipe always does the trick. After dinner we ate s’mores, listened to some music and chatted until the fire started to die and the wind picked up.

The next morning we woke to the sound of rustling leaves and the river flowing near our tent. Andrew prepared some scrambled egg for breakfast while I went to wash my teeth down my the stream. It was such a beautiful morning; the blue skies promised a sunny day ahead and the breeze was just enough to keep us cool.

We went for a quick hike up the neighbouring mountain after breakfast and came across an abandoned farmhouse that had the best views towards the mountains. We took a detour down through a field, said “hello” to a few sheep and dipped back in to the forest canopy to visit some of the waterfalls along the Spinkwee River.

The Tollymore forest is such a treasure trove for any outdoor enthusiast. There’s mountain biking trails, hiking trails, historical buildings and rivers peppered with the most gorgeous waterfalls. After we’d finished our small hike we started the even bigger hike back to the car. It was a warm day and poor Andrew quickly regretted wearing his jeans – another rookie error!

The walk was beautiful though; we had blue skies above and nature hugging us at every turn. We had to stop for a few breaks but it didn’t matter, we were happy to soak in as much of that sunshine and mountain air as we possible could. After all, the season is brief and each summer joy is to be cherished.

My Favourite Airbnb Experiences

My Favourite Airbnb Experiences

Remember back in the day when you had to rely on a grainy brochure photo to book your accommodation? I’ve a few horror stories from across the years from a grotty apartment in Santa Ponsa (we were 17 so no surprise there) to a shower that comprised of a hose wrapped in electrical wires in Cuba (I’m lucky to be alive after that one). Now we’re in the digital age it’s almost impossible to book a bad place with Tripadvisor and Google reviews giving us the heads up if a place seems too good to be true.

I love finding places for us to stay any time we’ve booked a trip because we always like to go for something a little different. Big fluffy hotel beds can be lovely but when I’m visiting somewhere new I love to live like a local and get to know the neighbourhood around me. Airbnb is the best place to find those little secrets that make a holiday memorable and we’ve had some incredible Airbnb experiences over the years. Well, except for that one time in Lisbon when we lived under the noisiest Portuguese family who might as well have been sharing the apartment with us – that was definitely one of our Airbnb fails!

I share most of where we stay on my Instagram stories but I thought I would put together a list of our favourites from trips around Ireland and abroad. It can be hard to choose from the huge amount of properties on Airbnb and by simply choosing too many filters you could be missing out on a gem of a place that’s perfect for you!

Here are a few highlights we’ve had both at home and far away, just click on the links attached to each location and you can have a look at what takes your fancy…

IRELAND

Fintown, Co. Donegal

We stayed in this converted cowshed back in October 2016 and it remains one of our favourite places we’ve ever stayed. Maybe it was because it was early in to the relationship and it felt magic to be sharing a cosy den together for a whole weekend but looking back on the photos I can understand why we loved it so much.

It had been renovated by the owners of the cottage across from the old cowshed, Pete and Anna, who have since built their own eco-hut on the other edge of the property looking over the Glenties countryside. The eco-hut is on my wishlist but unfortunately you have to book months in advance because it’s so popular, I think the next available weekend is November!

It’s no surprise that Anna and Pete are listed as Superhosts. They were super friendly when we met the pair of them, full of knowledge on how to live sustainably and DIY tips with an inquisitive kitten who I fell in love with. If you’re ever looking for the perfect base for an escape to Donegal then this is it!

Dingle, Co. Kerry

I could stay in a hedge in Co. Kerry and I’d be happy enough purely to have the scenery wrapped around me but this spot wasn’t too shabby either. The apartment, which is part of a large house that had previously been a manor, has incredible uninterrupted views out to the sea and is on the doorstep of one of the most beautiful drives in the whole of Ireland around Slea Head.

We visited in July last year and hit the weather jackpot the whole weekend. The sun was beating down for the three days we spent driving along the coastline and sunbathing on empty golden beaches on our snack breaks – sunbathing in Ireland?! We ate our breakfast in the courtyard and enjoyed the views curled up on armchairs with the windows down and the sea breeze pouring through – absolute bliss.

North Coast, N.Ireland

I booked Archie’s schoolhouse for Andrew’s 30th birthday party last year and it was such a lovely spot to gather some mates together for a celebration. It’s been beautifully renovated by Claire (she of the gorgeous Bramble Green knitwear) who has added thoughtful touches that honour the history of the house.

It’s a perfect base to visit all the favourite spots along the North Coast; the Dark Hedges, Whiterocks beach and Carrick-a-Rede bridge. Claire is full of brilliant tips too for local cafés and businesses to stop in to, a perfect host for the North!

Even the loo is gorgeous! 

Galway City, Co. Galway

Usually we book the entire place to ourselves on Airbnb but this was a private room in probably one of the most sophisticated houses I’ve every stayed in. The hosts, Dee & Mark, used to run an art gallery out of the house but now they just show their own private collection throughout which is a real treat for guests.

Photo taken from Airbnb 

Their bedrooms are beautifully decorated with en-suites providing plenty of privacy. It’s a short walk to the city centre to explore all the craic Galway has to offer and if you have too much craic, well then you can recover after the delicious breakfast Dee and Mark prepare for you while they play soft classical music and give you the morning papers to read. Not a bad way to beat the hangover!

We stayed in this room overlooking the garden. Photo taken from Airbnb

Photo taken from Airbnb

Co. Down, N. Ireland

For my birthday a couple of years ago, Andrew surprised me with a night away in this eco cottage tucked away in the Mourne mountains (no wonder I’m marrying the guy!). The cottage is run as part of a small organic farm which guests can stroll through and meet the neighbouring hens and horses. The hosts even run workshops on weekends if you fancy doing a spot of basket-weaving!

You can explore the woodlands or mountains on your doorstep here or you can just play with the dog, collect some firewood and keep cosy for the night. A special place that feels further from home than it really is!

Ballycroneen, Co. Cork

When my pal was coming all the way over from Australia in October 2016 I wanted to take her to as many parts of Ireland as I could. I love showing visitors from overseas my favourite spots on this island but there’s just never enough time to see them all! I found out that the annual Cork Jazz Festival was on during her stay with us and so I booked this spot which was just a half hour away from the city centre along the coast.

The home had views across the field and then out to the sea which was breath-taking even in the mucky October weather. During the day we crawled through venues to listen to jazz but soon found ourselves heading back to this place to light the stove and reminisce about our time gallivanting in Australia. The homemade bread was a special touch too and ended up being the perfect midnight snack after a few pints of Guinness!

The pretty village of Cobh is about 30 minutes drive and from there you can take one of many scenic drives along the coast. Cork is the biggest county in Ireland and covers most of the southwest of the island so bear in mind that the drives can be long and it’s best to just stick to nearby towns and villages that won’t have you emptying your tank.

house across the fields

OVERSEAS

Corniglia, Cinque Terre, Italy

I booked this trip as a present for Andrew’s 30th but didn’t realise just how expensive accommodation would cost during peak season – yikes! We went in July when the crowds fill the narrow cobbled streets – lots of cargo shorts and socks with sandals if you catch my drift. It was a stunning place though but I would recommend visiting during the quieter seasons either side of summer when it’s easier to walk the trails and enjoy the views with a little more peace (and get cheaper rates too!)

Photo taken from Airbnb

SOGGIORNO

Photo taken from Airbnb

I decided to book an Airbnb apartment in the quieter of the five villages, Corniglia, because I thought it would be a good place to have our evenings while the other towns tend to the masses. It was one of the best decisions we could have made because the apartment, which was on a tiny street with views out to the terraced hills, was a real retreat from the teeming crowds.

Well, it was quiet most of the time until the afternoon of the World Cup Final – Italians and football, eh? That afternoon, the local who owned the restaurant across from us pulled an industrial-sized TV in to the tiny street where a crowd quickly gathered to watch France v Croatia. It was a case of if you can’t beat ’em then join ’em so we bought a few beers and drank while watching the escapade below, cheering with everyone from the street and neighbouring windows when Croatia scored. Sadly Croatia ended up losing that game but the memory of drinking cold beer on our Airbnb windowsill will stay with me forever.

Bonus: our hosts even provided us with homemade limoncello which we enjoyed each night after coming home from dinner – it’s the wee things that make all the difference when choosing an Airbnb!

Dordogne, France

If you follow me on Instagram you will have seen me share photos and videos from this woodland sanctuary a few weeks ago. We were over in France to visit some venues for the wedding and I booked this Airbnb to use as our base in between days on the road.

This cabin is why I love Airbnb. It gives you the opportunity to stay somewhere totally unique and experience a place that you wouldn’t get to see otherwise. No electrical sockets or wifi meant this cabin was completely off-grid but was the fact it was totally unconnected to the outside world that made it so special. Instead of scrolling through my phone there was a pond to stroll around, a woodland to explore or a boat to take out on the water – I felt like a kid again!

While Andrew heated up the hot tub I took care of dinner in the fully-equipped kitchen. It was like a camping trip but with all the home comforts – big cosy bed, good shower and a log stove to keep us toasty. While we finished our bottle of wine under the stars I realised how long it had been since I watched the sky instead of my phone – wayyyy too long.

 Gers, France

After the woodland cabin we had booked a private room in this beautiful home close to Toulouse. We arrived late after a long day spent in the car and when we were offered to have a home cooked dinner we leapt at the chance. Catherine and Philippe’s house was spotlessly clean and our room was better than a lot of hotels we’ve stayed in! We actually had the entire upper floor to ourselves which was equipped with it’s own stove fire and dressing gowns and slippers to change in to for the hot tub!

After we dropped off our bags and lay in a heap for a few minutes we popped back downstairs to eat with our hosts. Their French country kitchen was everything I’ve ever dreamed of and the food was even better. Andrew proclaimed that it was the best meal we had during our entire trip – four courses of food so good I was ready to burst my the time we polished off dessert. They charged us 35 euro each for the dinner but it was worth more for sure just for the chance to chat with our hosts and learn a little about the area.

Unfortunately we were so full from dinner and knackered from the drive that we didn’t have the energy to sit in the hot tub after. We promised ourselves that we’d return again only for a wee bit longer, this home was a retreat worth coming back to.

Our breakfast was fresh fruit in wee jars with yoghurt and crusty French bread (which I slathered in local honey!)

chambre

La maison et le jacuzzi

Hoi An, Vietnam

Andrew and I visited Vietnam and Cambodia in September last year and mixed our accommodation between hotels and Airbnb stays. Christina’s was a small complex we found on Airbnb located on Tra Que, a patch of land just outside Hoi An that’s been used for organic farming for hundreds of years (it’s the oldest organic farm in Vietnam!). Our room was huge here with two separate balconies looking out across the fields.

Nice and cosy

Photo from Airbnb

The staff at Christina’s were incredibly helpful, booking our taxis and renting us mopeds and push bikes to explore the farm and Hoi An. We even booked a cooking class with them at the farm across the road which turned out to be the highlight of our trip and super cheap too!

 London

Oh, London. Our favourite city that we love to visit any chance we can get. Luckily for us we have friends who we usually stay with to help with the cost but sometimes it’s nice to just book somewhere on our own in a new neighbourhood for us to explore. This Airbnb was a great find; super cheap for London with a garden to relax in after a day walking the city.

The flat had everything we could have needed and even had an apple tree in the garden which is a good way to get to an Armagh girl’s heart! I loved the sash windows which we kept open at night. We were there during the heatwave in summer 2018 that suffocated the city for weeks. Luckily our flat had a fan which we had by the end of our bed and gave us the relief our Irish skin needed.

The original floors in the hall of our London Airbnb

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

We were lucky to visit a few places in Bali back in 2017 but Ubud was the place I was most looking forward to seeing. It’s located right in the middle of the island surrounded by dense jungle and mountains – worlds away from our wee house in Belfast!

Our Airbnb was newly renovated and when we arrived it appeared as if everything was new. The rooftop pool was the reason we chose the place as it looked out over the jungle and seemed to be a good place to relax after sightseeing. When we got there we realised the pictures didn’t do the place enough justice because the sounds coming from the jungle were so incredible we just stood in silence on the roof gazing out.

The breakfast was simple but really good for what we’d experienced in Bali and was included in the room rate. We ate on the rooftop each morning, filling up on plenty of fruit before heading out for the day. The complex also had a tourist office where we could rent mopeds, book excursions and get tickets for the ferry across to the Gili islands. This saved us so much hassle and the staff were always there to help us if we ever had a question.

 

Thanks for reading through my favourites, I hope it helped give you some ideas and tips for your next trip! If you have had some great Airbnb experiences then please share them in the comments – I’m always looking for more places to add to our wishlist! 

Local Favourites: Crawfordsburn

Local Favourites: Crawfordsburn

It’s been a while since I put one of these wee guides together and I had forgotten how much fun it was to show off a place a few of you maybe haven’t explored yet. For such a small island it’s amazing how many hidden secrets there are that don’t require hours in the back of a car. All you need is a free afternoon and a thirst for a bit of adventure!

This guide is dedicated to the village of Crawfordsburn. Located only a few miles from Belfast on the North Down coastline, it was a place I had never even heard of before I moved to the city a few years ago. Now it’s my favourite haven for winter walks on the beach or for an afternoon spent over a coffee and a scone. There isn’t much to the village itself but there’s enough character to charm the pants of you – well worth a weekend trip this Autumn!

Loaf Pottery

This café and pottery is worth a trip all on it’s own to be honest. It’s part of a wider social enterprise that started in Belfast over 10 years ago that helps  young people with learning disabilities and autism receive training and jobs in the catering industry. Creating these employment opportunities has been made an incredible impact on the community and has revived an old pottery that locals feared would fall in to disrepute.

The pottery studio at the front of the cottage hosts classes 7 days a week as well as a variety of pop-up events that have garnered popularity in the few months they’ve been open. This autumn and winter there will be pizza and pottery nights, supper clubs and Italian wine sampling evenings of which you can find out more about here. Anyone fancy a date to the autumn supper club??

If you don’t make it to a class then you can at least enjoy a delicious coffee out the back which is perfectly cosy on an autumn afternoon.

The Old Inn

This thatched piece of loveliness is like something straight out of a George Eliot novel – I half-expect a horse and cart to pull up alongside it rather than the Range Rovers the folk drive about the village! In fact the thatched portion of the hotel is it’s oldest part – around 400 years if you don’t mind. Plenty of ye olde celebrities frequented it’s doors including Swift, Tennyson and the very man himself – Charles Dickens.

Nowadays the hotel is a favourite among locals for a Sunday roast and is especially cosy in winter with the fires lit and the lights low. It’s still as popular as ever amongst the travellers though and was voted AA Hotel of the Year in 2018 – good job folks. For me it provides a perfect nook to enjoy a quiet pint before a long walk down on Crawfordsburn beach. Sure ye couldn’t beat that.

Cottage Crafts

This wee gem is found right beside Loaf Pottery and is full of beautiful pieces to buy. It’s not open on a Sunday so be sure to pop down on a Saturday when you might be tempted to make a few selfish purchases.

Crawfordsburn Country Park

Ah, my happy place. This woodland never fails to clear my head and each time I go there’s another new path to explore. There’s no better time to visit than in autumn when the leaves turn gold and the evening light is that bit more golden. My favourite part is the beautiful archways that carry the train overhead, like ancient brick giants.

If the woodland itself wasn’t enough to make your heart swoon then all you have to do is inch yourself a bit further to the coastline until you hear the sound of crashing waves. Soil gives way to sand and suddenly you’re out in the fresh Irish sea air trying your best not to hug ALL OF THE DOGS. This is where I take Andrew each time I try to convince him to get a pupper but then all he sees is the absolute mess the dogs make of their owner’s car. Sigh.

I hope this guide has tempted ye up to the coast but if you have your own hidden gem then why not share your secret in the comments below? Share the love! 

Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace

Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace

To write about Seamus Heaney feels somewhat of an empty feat, he of so many words and I of so few but sure, here I am trying. In our family Seamus is spoken of like another family remember, his quips and musings repeated at gatherings like a shared memory that we never tire of hearing. ‘Digging’ is a firm favourite of ours as it is amongst most families in Ireland who identify with the audible descriptions of our ancestors who toiled the land before us while we, the fortunate ones, escaped the fields,

“By God, the old man could handle a spade”

While I struggle to resurrect the words to describe the impact Heaney’s work has had on me, I’ll settle for telling you all about the wonderful museum, HomePlace, that is dedicated to his life’s work and his legacy. My Granny and Aunties had been to HomePlace earlier in the year and had raved about it for months afterward. The extensiveness of it is what impressed them most, so much so they didn’t even have time to visit the upper floor as they had scheduled tickets for a talk given by Jennifer Johnston not long after arriving.

After hearing so much about the museum from my family I knew I had to darken its doors eventually and when Ireland’s Blue Book invited me to go the morning after our stay at Ardtara, well of course I leapt at the chance. To be amongst his work on the very bit of land that spawned him and the words that inspired him felt important so off we went to drive the 15 minutes up the road to Bellaghy.

When walking through the doors of HomePlace you are greeted by a portrait of Seamus himself in his later years with another old photo from his youth placed just behind close to the words:

“I rhyme to see myself/to set the darkness echoing”

To read Heaney’s words is one thing but to hear his own poetry spoken from his own mouth, forming the words he himself had written, is another thing entirely. And yet, before even knowing what his voice sounded like it was as if I was already reading his poems with that same deep gruff voice that hadn’t lost it’s Derry drawl; it was warm and familiar. As we walked around HomePlace we were prompted to listen to many of his poems read by Seamus at various parts of the exhibition like Midterm Break when we revisited his childhood, Route 101 which he wrote for his daughter and In The Attic, one of his final poems.

There was so much of his work that I hadn’t read before and what struck me most as I listened and watched the videos of fans who have been influenced by him (ranging from famous figures to schoolchildren) was just how accessible Heaney’s work is. It has no airs or graces but rather it’s its very earthiness that enables any reader from across the board to feel the weight of the words. The ordinary is celebrated and the truth pours out in torrents making it impossible not to see yourself or others you know in them.

 “Walk on air against your better judgement”

What perhaps isn’t as well known is how harsh a critic he was of his own work. On the upper floor of the museum you can stand in a room that mirrors the attic where Seamus spent his time writing at home, skylight and all. In the replicate you can see copies of work Seamus corrected and re-corrected even after it was published. He never stopped editing and even criticised previous work in later poems.

“But when the slates came off, extravagant Sky entered and held surprise wide open”

Seamus’ use of language has the capacity to transport so many of us back to memories we maybe thought were lost forever and HomePlace provides the most beautiful journey to take us there. However I wasn’t just left lamenting for my own youth after pouring myself over his poems; what I also felt was a real surge of gratitude to this man who provided us with so much. From watching old footage of him filmed in the days after he won the Nobel Prize in 1995 to reading the last words he texted to his wife right before he unexpectedly passed (Noli timere, Latin for “Don’t be afraid”), I was so moved by the gift he has given so many and also the man who was behind the iconic words.

You might not know a lot of Heaney’s work save for a line or two but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting HomePlace. For any of us that were reared in Ireland it should be a national necessity to walk the grounds that inspired poems that have dominated Irish literature and the most important poet and wordsmith of our own lifetime.

As I left HomePlace I was thinking of my Granny who has encouraged my love for poetry and reading throughout my adulthood and who has been struggling with illness the last few months. One poem stuck out the most that reminded me of her and how lucky I am to have had all those small moments with her by the stove in her kitchen, especially those moments shared in silence as I watched her finish the Irish Times crossword by the window and the light falling around her,

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

A Night at Ardtara House Hotel

A Night at Ardtara House Hotel

Happy Sunday friends! I hope you’re feeling restful and indulging yourself in some final weekend treats. I’m currently parked on the couch in a onesie cramming as much chocolate as possible in to my gob, a real sight for the eyes I assure you. Only a mere 48 hours ago I was arriving at Ardtara House Hotel, ready for a night of food and wine amidst Victorian luxury – oh, how the mighty have fallen!

I have to confess that when Ireland’s Blue Book invited us to stay at Ardtara I had to do a quick google search because I hadn’t a notion where it was. I’m guilty of being a lover of the coast so I’m fairly unfamiliar with the countryside of Co. Derry but one look at the pictures convinced me that this was a retreat worth leaving the coast for! Open fireplaces in every bedroom, an award-winning restaurant, a huge bath to soak in – I practically Flinstoned my way there!

After a week of feeling pretty miserable I was craving a bit of pampering and when we pulled in to the drive of Ardtara I was giddy to know how much of a treat we were in for. The hotel is small with only 9 rooms so there’s a real intimacy as soon as you walk through the door with the staff treating us as if, much like the vintage furniture, we’d always been there.

We were shown to our room by Valerie, a local who was full of knowledge about the manor which had been built by the Clark family in 1895 and had made their fortune in the linen industry. The room itself was huge with beautiful big windows overlooking the gardens at the front, a fireplace I couldn’t wait to light and a bathroom that was about the size of our wee house in Belfast. We hadn’t too long to enjoy the room though as we were starving and dinner was about to be served downstairs – an event I had been looking forward to all week.

The patron chef of Ardtara is the same chef of the infamous Brown’s in Derry and all the hotel reviews I had read were outpourings of love for the food. Expectations were high and thankfully completely exceeded as we dined on some of the best food I have ever eaten – no lie my friends. We began our feast in one of the drawing rooms (fancy, I know) nibbling on homemade pork crisps with apple & pear sauce along with crispy cod and kimchi (divine!) on a cosy couch by the fireplace. We were then brought in to the dining room with our wine glasses politely topped up and the next dish promptly placed before our eyes – carrot & fennel soup accompanied by homemade breads which lasted about 0.2 seconds before being polished off.

What followed after was a gastronomic whirlwind of delight – lamb samosas, breaded roast chicken bites and a fillet steak that I am still thinking about and no doubt will forever. Needless to say my belly was fighting for space in my skirt but the real shame was that I had zero room for dessert – the first time this has happened to me in me entire life. I have never not had room for a wee slither of cake but I couldn’t swallow another bite without inducing the rest of the food to return back with it. The desserts looked incredible though as I spied other guests receiving theirs with barely contained envy.

After all that food I barely made it to the room but when I did I had just enough energy to finish my wine in front of the fire in my dressing gown. As much as I have loved the summer, it was a joy to be sitting next to a fire again to keep my toes warm and I can only imagine how lovely the hotel would be as an escape during the colder months (the hotel was recently voted as the most romantic hotel in Ireland too!)

The next morning I woke after sleeping for 9 hours, the most I had slept in weeks and surprisingly with a real hunger despite the feast we had the night before. As always we just about made breakfast and luckily for us we were spoiled again with another delicious menu full of local dishes. Andrew opted for Eggs Benedict while I being the forever sugar fiend opted for French toast and maple syrup – yum!

We were sad to pack our things after only arriving what felt like a few hours before but I made sure to get a quick morning soak in the bath before we said our goodbyes to the room and the staff at Ardtara (who were busy preparing for a wedding party with arms full of roses). We could have easily have stayed on but we had tickets for the Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace, a museum dedicated to the most loved poet of Ireland that’s only 15 minutes away in Bellaghy.

Ardtara is a small but completely charming retreat that many return to again and again (Bill Murray being one of them and that guys knows what’s what) and I could understand why. You may come for the food at Ardtara but you’ll stay for the warmth of the staff and the welcoming grandeur of its rooms. It’s a perfect base for either exploring the area or for just curling up by the fire in your room with a wee glass of wine and a full belly to comfort you.

 

 

Summer Staycation at Titanic Hotel Belfast

Summer Staycation at Titanic Hotel Belfast

There are some moments in life when the littlest of things can seem so deliciously self-indulgent. Moments that feel almost laughable at how gorgeously simple they are. Drinking a cold glass of wine in a hot bath. Spending a long morning curled up in bed with breakfast and books. Sitting on the back step to soak in the last golden light of a blissful day. But do you know what I recently discovered to be the ultimate summer indulgence? A staycation at a luxury hotel a stone’s throw from my house!

Titanic Hotel Belfast is really the dream hotel if you want to experience the old and new of Belfast. Despite only opening in September the hotel has helped transform the Titanic Quarter in to the tourist haven it is today and has encouraged a multitude of businesses to spring up around it. As a local I have witnessed the impact the hotel has had but would never have dreamed I could play tourist there so when the lovely folk from Titanic Hotel kindly invited me to experience my very own staycation you bet your Jack Dawson I jumped at the chance!

Driving the 0.8 miles from our wee house in Sydenham to the hotel was a strange journey since it’s the route I take every day from work but as soon as I walked through the huge glass doors I instantly felt a million miles from home. The staff welcomed us both like we were newcomers to the city which was a real treat and made us both feel like we really were on holiday. What surprised us even more though was the level of detail in every inch of the building. Belfast’s history poured out of every corner and it’s charm out of each and every one of the staff we met.

Authenticity has obviously been crucial in the success of the hotel. In a city that has received flack for milking it’s Titanic connections, the Titanic Hotel has managed to strike a balance between celebrating the past and welcoming the future of Belfast. The building itself was once the bustling headquarters of Harland & Wolff, the shipbuilders who turned Belfast in to an economic empire in the early 20th century (and whose yellow cranes still form the city skyline today) and it’s unique features have not only been conserved but celebrated throughout.

While the Titanic is the shipyard’s most famous commodity, hundreds of ships were designed in the Drawing Offices of the building that now act as a function room and a bar in the hotel today. The Victorian barrel-vaulted ceilings have been preserved and updated with skylights allowing natural light to flood both rooms making them an absolute dream to photograph (while drinking cocktails of course). In fact, the tiles that decorate the front of the bar are the same tiles that were used in the Turkish baths of the Titanic (and were found in dusty boxes while the building lay derelict!).

After checking in we were shown to our room by Paddy, a bell-boy who knew more about the building’s history than most tour guides. He was even generous enough to give us a quick tour of rooms that hosted key moments in the past before he clocked off; the Presentation Room where plans were dissected and bought (and where you can enjoy Afternoon Tea today), the old telephone exchange which acted as the communications hub for the shipping offices (and where the first call announcing the sinking of the Titanic was received) and the original staircase decorated with the flax flower to commemorate Belfast’s textile industry.

While artefacts and paintings line the corridors of the main building, upstairs the design cleverly shifts. The halls are long and dark and the doors to each room are bolted like that of a ship. Inside the room the style is very much art deco but with subtle nautical accents that doesn’t feel too try-hard. We were lucky enough to stay in room 401, a spacious suite looking out to the sharp lines of the Titanic Museum (named the top tourist destination in Europe in 2016) as well as the shipping channel and Belfast hills.

It was tempting to cosy up here for the night and watch the sun set over the mountains but our bellies were rumbling and the Wolff Grill was calling. The fine dining restaurant of the hotel is another interior design feast for the eyes and was drenched in the evening light as we were shown to our table. The menu boasts local ingredients that were kindly explained by Norbert our waiter, an absolute gem of a man who had both of us laughing and grinning all night. I started off with cod & caviar (if you don’t mind) while Andrew went for arancini balls; both very delicious and both wolfed down faster than I’d like to admit. We both went for beef for main (we were on our holidays after all), a decision neither of us regretted. Full to the gills we decided to share dessert, a white chocolate pot with homemade peanut butter fudge which we almost licked off to finish but decided not to for fear of judgement from Norbert (although I’m sure he would have loved that).

After dinner we waddled out to the slipway for a dander and to watch the sun set. I had worn my fancy dress and thanked the heavens I wore Spanx even though I could barely breathe and needed to sit down after a few steps. Once the sun had gone down we found ourselves at the bar with the speciality cocktail list in our hands. The bartenders clearly liked to experiment and encouraged us to let them make us something off the menu (although the Jack & Rose did sound delicious). We were treated to the tastiest drinks (Andrew particularly loved is strawberry-decorated delight) and parked ourselves there for an hour or two chatting with other guests until even the Spanx couldn’t contain me.

The next morning we felt refreshed taking our time to enjoy the room while we still had it. The bath was a particular treat for me since my own resembles something your Granny would have sported in the 1980’s (lemon, it’s lemon – damn rental). We pottered down to the Wolff Grill again for a huge buffet breakfast; an impressive selection that I got shamefully excited about. Looking out over the slipway we felt relaxed and almost forgot how close our journey home was.

We took another walk round the building before we left not wanting to cut the trip short just yet. I found myself thinking about all the memories that the marble walls held and how much this city has changed since then. These stories would have been lost if the building hadn’t been preserved so thoughtfully and as a local this was something I felt very proud of and wouldn’t have experienced if I hadn’t have stayed there.

Staycations are a real treat not just because it feels super luxurious but also because it can help us fall in love with our own city. For me it was an absolute game changer and I’ve a feeling I’ll be good at playing tourist in Belfast from now on especially with hotels like the Titanic to welcome me.

Note: the Titanic Hotel invited us to stay and have dinner however all opinions in the post are of course my own! If you would like to experience the maiden summer packages the hotel are offering this season then you can check out the special offers here

 

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!