Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Europe on a plate

Eating out is one of the pleasures of going on holiday, but for some gastronomic tourists the food is the deciding factor for which destinations to visit writes Karen Creed

1. Turin
It is unlikely that anyone who visits Turin will be returning home on an empty stomach. The taste and variety of local dishes make a good case for the city being Italy’s food capital. So what’s on the menu? Visit famous café Molusanno for a nibble on delicious tramezzini (sandwiches), washed down by piping hot chocolate at Café Baratti & Milano. Turin’s other desirable edibles include fritto misto, a mouth-watering concoction of fried seafood that features fish, squid, crab and cuttlefish. Desserts are similarly lavish, with unique white truffles, pralines and gianduiotti chocolates being the very definition of guilty pleasures. Best of all, you could go on a café crawl to compare drinks as Turin is home to four of Italy’s eighteen best cafés, as chosen by Italy’s gastronomic bible, Il Gambero Rosso. Turin’s tradition does not extend solely to food and cafes with impressive wines also, such as the Malvasia and the Barolo. Before visiting Turin it is worth reading Eating in Italy by Faith.H. Willinger.

2. Marrakesh
Moroccans proudly assert that their cooks produce one of the four great cuisines of the world (the others being Chinese, French and Indian). From lamb tagine to minced lamb, Marrakesh in particular is a meat lover’s heaven. The food stalls in Djemaa El Fna offer the best taste of street food from some of the world’s biggest and most colourful al fresco kitchens. You can sample every Moroccan staple here - tajines and couscous, kebabs and spicy sausage. Beyond the square, in the narrow streets of the medina, there are places where traditional and tasting menus excel in elegant settings. Dine on chicken tagine on El Baraka’s terrace with a view of the Atlas Mountains or else consider l’Abyssin with a Mediterranean-influenced menu. Before leaving Marrakesh one may be brave enough to try the street food lover’s Holy Grail, the luscious meat scraped from a whole sheep’s head and served with crusty Moroccan bread. For more information visit

3. Budapest
With more than one thousand eateries in Budapest, how do you choose? The restaurants in Hungary stretch way beyond the stereotypical expectations of goulash. Apetito in the Castle Buda district is one of the most charming restaurants in the city with an eclectic menu including smoked mackerel with tomato ice-cream and pear and shrimp soup. Modern venues like Karma flank the vibrant Franz Liszt Square where goose liver and spicy pork are regular features. Hungary is not exactly the right country for vegetarians, but local salads are always fresh, and slices of barbecued sheep cheese are often offered. If you have a sweet tooth, do not forget to stop by at the First Strudel House in Budapest, where you can enjoy a good lunch, after which comes nothing less than a delicious roll. You can choose a strudel with cord, apples, cherries, plums, cabbage and of course poppy. For more information on food in Budapest consider, The Food Lover’s Guide to Budapest by Carolyn Banfalvi.

4. Lyon
Most French regions have their culinary delights and Lyon is no exception. One can hardly speak of this French city without mentioning the celebrated Paul Bocuse restaurant. Although it is not centrally located it is well worth the trek as the food is exquisite. For a delicious lunch alfresco, try frites from the stands in the park, or make a picnic with cheese from Mère Richard, bread from Jacquier Pascal, charcuterie from Reynon or Jean Plasse and chocolates from Bernachon. A gastronomical tour of Lyon would not be complete without the famous bouchons like La Mère Cottivet, where you can have a plate of meat from 10am onwards, or a saint-marcellin cheese with a glass of Beaujolais. Lyon happily benefits from a nearby vineyard, which provides a welcome addition to every course ordered in a restaurant. Côtes du Rhône and Beaujolais wines are a permanent feature of the Lyon restaurant table. For information on Lyon eateries visit

5. San Sebastian
Food is taken very seriously in this Basque city, as a stroll through La Brecha market or a bite to eat at one of many Tapas bars proves. San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per capita than any other city but even the most ordinary establishments serve food and drink of a high standard. Tapas bars are the ideal lunchtime hangout for price, atmosphere and most importantly taste with some of the best bites being octopus, sizzling kidneys, lamb brochette, potato omelettes and slices of glistening ham. Both cod with pil-pil and the baked crab are traditional dishes of San Sebastian while the two most popular tipples are apple cider and Txakoli, a dry white wine. To bring home a taste of San Sebastian you can purchase a dazzling array of deli items and wines at Solbes. Finally for a Michelin treat consider the stunning Akelarre, perched on cliffs looking out onto La Concha Bay. It is renowned for New Basque Cuisine and the house speciality of milk fed lamb cooked two ways. For food recommendations in San Sebastian visit guides/San_Sebastian

Friday, November 6, 2009

Lonely Planet founder stands by Cork as one of the world’s Top 10 destinations

The founder of Lonely Planet has fended off criticism after Cork was voted one of the top 10 places to visit in 2010 this week. Speaking at a travel conference in Galway, Tony Wheeler says he was overwhelmed by how much debate there was surrounding Cork, after it was voted one of Lonely Planet’s top 10 destinations. As the rebel county embraced the recognition, it sparked a nationwide debate on the airwaves, with some claiming Cork lacks the charm to be awarded iconic status. Lonely Planet’s front man, however, defended the decision by his publishing company to include Cork on the list, and claims the reason for the city’s entry is down to a number of factors. “Firstly the island’s Lonely Planet author would have said Cork is brilliant and deserves more attention. Also the Europe regional guide has a commissioning editor who would have picked Cork as a really happening place.” Tony says there was a similar reaction in New York two years ago when Brooklyn was heralded as one of the top destinations by Lonely Planet. “There was uproar in Manhattan, but the people in Brooklyn were delighted.”

Tony’s return to Ireland this week coincided not just with the launch of Lonely Planet’s 2010 hit list, but also to speak about a growing trend of adventure and activity holidays in Ireland. According to Failte Ireland the adventure holiday sector generates revenue of approximately €1.1 billion annually. Also this area of tourism is proving to be a lucrative market with activity tourists spending up to 40% more than the average tourist. Tony not only agrees that adventure and activity tourism is on the rise, but that it is crucial to anyone travelling in a recession. “People are trying to make their money go further and that is why adventure holidays are great. It makes sense to go off on a walking or cycling holiday as it is much cheaper than renting a car and driving around some place.” His recognition of the “staycation” is also at the forefront of Lonely Planet’s guidebooks, and changes have been made to encourage readers with more ideas for holidaying close to home if they can’t afford farflung destinations.

While the “staycation” is still a rather gloomy proposition for many Irish holidaymakers who crave the sun, Tony doesn’t believe that is a reason not to enjoy a holiday in Ireland. He claims our weather is in fact part of the attraction. “At the moment here in Galway there is wind, rain and the sun is shining all at once, “he says. “If you don’t like the weather, you just wait fifteen minutes,” he adds. Tony’s upbeat attitude to travel is what makes him so popular in the industry and successful in his world domination. Since the company started from humble beginnings in 1972 - when Tony and his wife Maureen wrote a book on how to travel around Southeast Asia on a shoestring – it is now developed into a multi million euro business that publishes over 500 books and has 400 staff.

So are there any countries or destinations that remain undiscovered by Lonely Planet? “There are always new places to find and explore,” says Tony. “I try and go to at least a few new ones every year. I would be disappointed if there wasn’t a new place to visit. This year I went to Malawi and then Costa Rica which is a bit like Ireland with lots of adventure.”

Next year his wife Maureen is off to Charleston in America (as voted in Lonely Planet’s 2010 hit list) while Tony has yet to narrow down his wish list. Cork aside, Lonely Planet’s nine other desirable destinations for next year include Cuenca, Sarajevo, Abu Dhabi, Kyoto, Lecce, Singapore, Vancouver, Istanbul, and Charleston. Tony rates Sarajevo as one of the most intriguing. “It was once totally off the radar and now it is back on it. Similarly Cork has been getting more popular all the time.” In fact Cork was one of the first places that Tony visited in the early years of Lonely Planet. His preference is Cobh to Cork city and he remembers his fascination with the Titanic and the Lusitania during his first visit to the seaside town. “I have a friend who has been to every single country in the world but I haven’t got to his stage quite yet.” says Tony with an obvious intention to achieve this record some day. Perhaps if he is not scuba diving in the Pacific, or eating delicious noodles in Singapore, he might come back to Cork next year to see if the city really deserves the Lonely Planet title.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

8 reasons to try freelance journalism

1.You are your own boss. As a freelance writer you can enjoy an independence rarely experienced in other professions.

2.Your source of material and work is endless.

3.You can specialise in your passions.

4.You can work from home. Your costs are miniscule and your only essential tool is a computer and a phone.

5.For every story you write, you will learn at least one new fact.

6.For every story you write, you will meet at least one new person.

7.Your hours are flexible. Freelance writing is something you can do part-time. Unless you are out on assignment you can work from home, at the times that best suit you.

8.A hobby can become a career. You can turn any interest you have into profit by being published. If you have a passion for travel, adventure, show business, the arts, health and fitness, food or finance you can turn this into a money-making pursuit. Similarly if you have a professional skill, readers would like to hear from you.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Until two years ago I was a DIY holiday addict, taking great pride in organising my personalised holidays abroad. After several years of boycotting the traditional holiday route, close friends convinced me to go on a hassle-free package holiday to Portugal. Eager to join them, I followed their plans to book with a well-known agent, all the time expecting to be disappointed by typical package holiday standards. I was more than shocked when we arrived at our MTV cribs style apartment overlooking the marina in Lagos. As I settled into the week of sun and relaxation, I realised I had forgotten what it feels like to let someone else do all the hard work (i.e a travel agent vetting out resorts, tailoring a holiday to our interests, and organising our transfers) so that all we had to worry about was what we wanted to eat and drink next. Three package holidays later and I am a firm believer in both DIY and package holidays. While organising your own itinerary from hotel to flight involves a sense of achievement and often a bargain, the value of the travel agent should not be underestimated either. The professional assistance and savvy they provide often outweigh the modest charges. This I have experienced first-hand.


While you won’t always get a better deal with a travel agent there are some good reasons to book with them.

Specialised knowledge: Good travel agents know the main destinations, and what they don't know first-hand they can find through databases designed for agency use.
Time Saving: If you value your time, an agent is indispensible. A five-minute call to a travel agent allows you to avoid many hours of tedious search through online sites.

Good Deals: Good agents know what's available online as well as special promotions that may not be available to the public. Also free child places, two for one deals etc.

Airline Ticket Tricks: Online booking is easy for buying a conventional one-way, round-trip, or multi-stop air ticket. But on more complicated international tickets, agents know some cost-cutting tricks that you could never find online.

Problem solvers: When something goes wrong, before or during your trip a travel agent is your best source of help. If it goes bust you get refund. This is in contrast to online bookings, which often result in tales of woe.

Safety: When travelling to areas that you aren’t familiar with, or if it’s your first time visiting a particular country, booking with travel agents can be good as they organise transfers, induction talks etc


Certainly, travel agents aren't for everyone. Lots of you probably enjoy the thrill of the hunt for travel deals.

Laziness: Some lazy agents try to sell you what's easiest to sell rather than what's really best for you - a package tour rather than independent travel, for instance, or a railpass instead of individual rail tickets.

Preferential Treatment: Some agents try to steer you to their preferred suppliers -airlines, hotel chains, and cruise lines that give them extra bonuses or override commissions—rather than the supplier that's best for you.

Restrict travel plans: Often travel agents can’t be flexible with your package holiday as you have to travel certain days and stay for certain amount of nights in some places.

Wasting times with transfers: On some package holidays you could be four hours on a bus to your resort when it is only a fifty minute journey. This is because the drop off and collection of other guests. It can take a day out of your holiday in some cases. Also times of airport transfers can be at an unearthly hour.

• Find the best agent by referral from friends, business associates, or family members who have a good agency relationship.
• If for some reason the travel agent closes down there is a robust consumer protection scheme. Nobody loses out on their holidays – either another travel company steps in and the booking is honoured or the customer gets a full refund. The Package Holidays and Travel Trade Act 1995 requires tour operators and travel agents to protect you in the event of their becoming insolvent (bankrupt). The Commission for Aviation Regulation licenses travel agents and tour operators in Ireland. All tour operators and travel agents are required by law to enter into a bond before they are licensed. This bond protects the interests of the customer and means that if the travel agent or tour operator becomes bankrupt, the Commission then administers the bond. This usually involves the Commission assessing individual claims from customers of the failed tour operator or travel agent, making refunds to customers who have purchased holidays and where necessary, arranging for customers who have been unable to begin or complete their holiday to be brought home. For information on consumer rights visit or to make sure travel agent is bonded visit
• The safest way to get protection when booking travel arrangements is to use your credit card. As long as the transaction bears the name of the company you are booking with, say the airline, your credit card issuer should refund any losses.
• Don’t be fooled into thinking you have financial protection when you book a hotel or rent a car to go with your low cost flights. This might feel like a 'package' holiday, but it is not and you are not covered under the bonding laws. If one of these companies goes out of business, you risk losing your money.

No refund: Many internet deals are non-refundable, so tourists who accidentally click on the wrong dates or otherwise mess up their booking can find themselves out of pocket.

Currency charges: The biggest trap when booking online is websites that use multiple currencies, and can overcharge.

Wrong place: Beware of booking hotels with similar names, a problem that has caused many tourists to end up in the wrong place. Places too e.g., Sydney in Canada instead of Sydney, Australia or Melbourne, Florida instead of Melbourne, Australia.

Booking Fees: Some online sites have booking fees, though many have dropped these in recent months.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Don’t be a vaccine virgin

Getting the right jabs before travelling is vital for a safer and more enjoyable trip

• A bottle of mosquito repellent, suncream and a packet of Motilium are not enough for travelling to certain countries. Whether you are taking a safari to Africa, volunteering in South America or backpacking through Europe, you should be aware of the health risks linked to international travel.
• You will not need vaccinations to visit any European country, unless you have visited a non-European country shortly beforehand. However vaccines should be considered if you are travelling to areas outside of Western Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Numerous destinations require certain vaccinations, some six to twelve weeks in advance.
• The first step it to make an appointment with your doctor or travel clinic to have a basic check-up and find out if any health checks are required. Not all tourists to countries where there is a potential risk of infection need to be vaccinated. However it is important that you discuss your personal travel plans with a doctor so they can determine the correct vaccinations for your trip.
• An early start to the vaccine process is particularly important if you plan to travel with children. The BCG vaccination against tuberculosis (TB), for example, should be given at least three months before your child travels. Certain vaccinations are compulsory while others are recommended, but the decision is ultimately left to your own discretion. However, it makes sense to do everything you can to guard against illness and disease while you are away.
• Protection against Yellow Fever is essential. This is a potentially fatal viral disease carried by certain mosquitoes in parts of Africa and South America. Yellow fever vaccine is only available from approved medical practitioners and must be given at least 10 days before travel to infected areas. You can obtain a list of locally approved yellow fever vaccinations providers from the Department of Health. Yellow fever may be spread by an infected traveller, so if you are travelling to a country where the disease is a risk, you may need a certificate showing proof of vaccination. Without this certificate you may be refused entry to some countries, or required to be vaccinated upon arrival.
• Like all necessities, vaccines don’t come cheap. They are not free in Ireland through the public health system - even if you hold a medical card. You will have to pay the full cost for vaccinations.
• You can find out more about healthy travel and vaccinations from the World Health Organisation: or the Tropical Medical Bureau on 1850 487 674

Survive the red eye flight

Get the best seat possible: Be sure to avoid being stuck in the middle seat of the back row. To maximise your chance of catching a few winks you can opt to pay extra for the comfort of a roomier seat in business or first class. If you cannot afford this, just ask for the best seat going in economy or else chance asking for an upgrade. If you are in economy, get a window seat if you have a strong bladder and want to rest your head against the window. Otherwise request an aisle seat as it’s far better to be disturbed, than to disturb.

Be careful about what you ask for: If you request a seat with extra leg room, chances are you could be placed next to the toilet area on the plane. You will only be only too delighted by the constant queue of people standing next to you waiting for the loo while you try to sleep. Insist that you do not want to sit next to a toilet.

Pack flight essentials: Include a small bag in your carry-on, filled with items that put you in the mood for sleep. With ear plugs, an eye mask, a travel pillow, and warm socks you will ready for bed.

A little help to sleep: Some rest easily with either a prescribed sleeping aid or an over-the-counter medicine. There is no one wonder drug that works for everyone. Talk with your doctor about what will work best for you. If you decide to take anything, first take it at home well before your trip to ensure that it does not cause any unwanted side effects. If you are able to take aspirin take one every 10 hours to thin your blood and avoid blood clots while flying. Make sure the aspirin is in its own box, do not take loose. Seek medical advice on this tip before you fly.

Eat wisely while on board: While no specific clinical research has been done to find out if fatty in-flight will trigger DVT in theory eating stodgy meals could make a difference. It’s recommended to stick to the lighter options. Oily fish is rich in beneficial oils that help to reduce the tendency for blood to clot. Salmon is a good option: if it comes with a creamy sauce, try to leave this on the side. It may even be worth taking fish-oil capsules for a week before and after you fly and making a conscious effort to eat more foods fortified with omega3, such as certain brands of eggs, milk and yoghurt.

Choose comfortable footwear: Remember that compression of the cabin will increase your shoe size by one size. So, if you take your shoes off, be prepared to walk off the plane without them on, as they might not fit back on. I suggest trainers.

Refresh and revive: When they bring round the hot towels during the flight put it over your face and breath through it, it sorts out all your nose, mouth and ears which will become congested by the cabin pressure air. Once you’ve cleared out your head, then use the towel to clean as much as your arms and neck as you can.

Avoid bed on arrival: When you land in your final destination, it can be very tempting to head straight to the hotel bed. Many red-eye regulars skip the nap that first day and then go to sleep early that evening. The aim is to wake up the next day feeling relatively in sync with your new time zone.

Take it easy the first few days: It is all about resetting your body clock to the new time as quickly as possible. Ambition is the enemy after a long red-eye flight. Keep your plans for that first day as simple as possible. If you plan to rent a car at the airport and drive on to another city, be sure to consider whether you will feel alert enough to safely do so.

How to travel in a recession

Don’t let the credit crunch put a halt to your globetrotting

•Flexibility is key. Airfares can vary by several hundreds depending on the day of the week. Travelling whilst most people are still at work will save time and money, so try booking your ticket for a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday to save some cash and aggravation.

•Be spontaneous. There’s nothing more invigorating than throwing caution to the winds and taking that last minute trip. But in order to protect your wallet from the increasing oil prices that are driving up the cost of flights, you'll need to book now if its savings you’re after. Costs for airfare, hotels and hired cars for the most part follow the thermometer – as the temperature rises, so do the prices.

•Open your mind: Not everyone knows where and when they want to go for their next holiday. Travelling further afield is hardly inexpensive, but you can make your hard earned euro stretch as far as possible by heading to any destination accepting (or linked to) the U.S. dollar. Consider sunning yourself on the beaches of dollar-based Caribbean islands like Anguilla, Antigua, Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

•Look for signs of price weakness. Travel agents or companies that have already reduced their prices may be prepared to snip again. Politely and coolly ask for a discount. It always helps to mention that you are looking at their competitors who are willing to offer a better rate.

•Do your research online. Often prices on the airline or tour operators’ website can work out cheaper than booking over the phone.

•Be clever about hotel breaks. City hotels tend to be less busy at weekends so prices are often more flexible. Country hotels often have more availability in the middle of the week. When a hotel has unusually low occupancy rates you also may be able to negotiate a cheaper rate, an upgrade for standard price, or get free breakfast -there is nothing to lose by asking.

•Get your timing right. To book a package holiday try phoning the travel agent one to three weeks before departure. For hotel stays wait until one to five days beforehand.

•The best way to get a free flight or upgrade is to use frequent flyer miles. With frequent flier miles available with most large airlines, it is easier than ever to accrue free travel.

Chocolate Addiction

Part of the myth surrounding chocolate is that if it tastes so good, it must be bad for your health. Not so, it seems. “Chocolate can be a component of healthy eating so long as it’s in moderation and not over-indulgence,’ says Dublin-based nutritionist Michele Van Valey. “I love dark chocolate and eat about one to two squares of it about five times a week.” Also recent nutritional research has identified many health benefits of chocolate. While that is no license to let loose on a massive chocolate binge, there are several solid reasons why we should not ban it from our diets just yet.

1. It stops bad moods
Chocolate is well known to be a mood lifter; as it stimulates the brainwaves and lowers the stress levels. We want chocolate in times of stress, anxiety, and pain. Chocolate is a natural pain killer and this could be the reason why lots of people stuff themselves with it when they are upset or angry. Actually they are unknowingly helping themselves out by eating chocolates. When your lower your stress levels, the more relaxed you become, which in turn is a plus for your health. Chocolate can soothe the savage beast in all of us (particularly women, and especially at a certain time of the month). So if you are feeling moody, irritable, or even depressed, eat a piece of some good chocolate to feel better.

2. It prevents illness
Chocolate and health may seem like an oxymoron. However, chocolate may be a lot better for your health than you ever imagined. Firstly it is a great source of energy. Also chocolates raise antioxidant levels in your blood, which helps to fight against foreign bodies that can cause illnesses. With less of these foreign bodies in your blood, you are less likely to get ill from viruses or other things that could affect your health. “There have been a lot of studies about the nutritional benefits. According to nutritionist Michele Van Valey, “flavenoids are said to boost cardiovascular health by relaxing blood vessels and improving blood flow in arteries and reducing blood clots.” It may also lower high blood pressure.” Dermatologists have also determined that chocolate does not cause acne.

3. It makes us feel good
What is it about chocolate that makes so many of us swoon? There is something undeniably irresistible about it. The word itself is sensual and romantic; never mind the creamy, silky texture, the deep, dark, colour, the exquisitely rich flavour, and the tantalising aroma. It’s believed that chocolate is an aphrodisiac and makes us feel good, which in turn makes for a healthy sex life. High levels of serotonin can produce feelings of elation by increasing serotonin levels. “If chocolate raises serotonin, which is the feel good hormone, it must bring happy feelings,” says Michele Van Valey. Chocolate lovers often describe the melting chocolate feeling as a moment of true ecstasy. It’s the cocoa butter in chocolate that gives it the rich and creamy texture that we love so much. So whether it is a good peanut butter filled chocolate, chocolate covered raisins, or a Terry’s chocolate orange, you will experience deep satisfaction as you indulge.

4. It is not bad for your teeth
Forget the myth that chocolate will ruin your teeth. As long as the chocolate consumed is not too sugary and sticky, it will not harm them. Studies have shown that chocolate causes less damage to teeth than other foods with the same amount of sugar. Apparently the nature of chocolate makes it easily rinsed from the mouth by saliva, leaving it in contact with teeth for a shorter time. Chocolate also contains tannins, which inhibit the action of cavity causing bacteria, perhaps by not allowing them to stick to the teeth. Cacao, the source of chocolate, contains antibacterial agents that fight tooth decay. “The cocoa content in the chocolate is what is considered the healthy component,’ says Michele.

5. It is a natural drug
Sometimes we get these intense cravings for chocolate. That is because chocolate contains a natural 'love drug'. Although you would have to eat several pounds at one sitting, chocolate has been found to contain chemical compounds that stimulate the same receptor sites in the brain as marijuana. Chocolate is not physically addictive, even though some people crave it. It tastes divine, which is reason enough to want to eat chocolate regularly. Even if you think of yourself as a chocoholic, your body will not experience withdrawal if you stop eating it.

While the above reasons should encourage any chocolate lover to keep indulging, there are particular chocolates that are better than others. This may not be news to some but others who have been happily consuming chocolate all of their lives are often unaware which chocolate treats are best.
• The higher the cocoa content the more beneficial the bar.
• Choose the darkest, richest chocolate you can find made with quality cocoa butter. Chocolatiers such as Lindt make dark chocolates containing 70 percent or more cocoa. The average chocolate bar contains about 40 percent.
• If you don’t like dark chocolate choose chocolate with nuts or orange peel.
• Avoid anything with caramel, nougat or other fillings as they are just adding sugar and fat which erase many of the benefits you get from eating the chocolate.
• Chocolate may taste good with a glass of milk but research shows washing your chocolate down with milk could prevent the antioxidants being absorbed or used by your body.
• 1 oz of chocolate a day is said to be a healthy amount.

Celebrities who go crazy for chocolate

Colin Farrell
Nicole Richie
Charlotte Church
Jessica Alba

The Permanant Blowdry

Frizzy, dry and temperamental: three words that best describe my hair. It’s as unpredictable as the Irish weather. On the rare occasion it falls into Farrah Fawcett waves, but more often than not it springs into a curly mess. Of course hair straighteners have been a recent blessing to those of us with unruly hair. But since I am not into the poker straight look nor have the time to blow dry a slick style every morning; I had resorted to a permanent frustration with my untamed mane. That is until I heard about the permanent blow dry.

At first it sounded too good to be true, that this simple process could transform my highlighted hair into perfect strands, lasting three to four months no matter how many times I washed it. The revolutionary treatment – pioneered by Gil Conclaves at London hair salon Daniel Hersheson’s – is already a favourite of many celebrities including Gisele Bundchen. If it’s good enough for gorgeous Gisele, I needed no further convincing.

For such dramatic results, the treatment itself is relatively fast and pleasant. Taking under two hours it starts with a deep cleansing shampoo followed by a quick blow-dry. Then it’s time for the crucial magic potion. A sweet scented lotion is generously applied to the hair and blow-dried in before being sealed in with straighteners. Unlike other treatments of its kind natural ingredients are used to protect the hair from breakage. Apparently the more damaged and coloured your hair, the better the results. (For once my hair had the upper hand on girls blessed with glossy dark locks). Aside from the strong smelling lotion, my hair had an obvious shine, if a bit too much static, immediately after the treatment. The sceptic in me was not fully convinced of its success rate until a few days later. For the best results you must not wash your hair for three days, not tie hair up or get caught in the rain. After that you can wash it as normal and leave it to dry naturally.

For a guarantee of good results I left my hair for five days before washing it. Never have I been so eager to watch my hair dry naturally. Gobsmacked with the outcome, I still can’t quite believe my hair dries perfectly after every wash. Having frizzy hair from my teenage years, water has always been my nemesis. Now I almost sing in the rain, safe in the knowledge my hair is literally a frizz-free zone. I have also tested my hair out in the intense African heat, with impressive results. A month since the blow dry and it still works in rain, hail or shine. Although this particular blow dry requires a visit to London, it’s worth every penny of the £200 price tag. It is a life-changing treatment for someone who wants time salon hair every day, with zilch effort.

To make an appointment at Daniel Hersheson’s located in Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge call 00442072018797 or visit

Proof that wine is good for you

The Italians have a saying that one barrel of wine can work more miracles than a church full of saints. And the Italians arguably have a longer running relationship with wine than any other modern culture. In fact both the Italians and French view wine as the water of life: it is deeply entrenched in the cultural psyches of both areas as a vehicle by which you achieve health and live a good, meaningful existence.

In today’s fast paced lifestyle, wine apparently helps address the big kahuna of problems in most people’s lives – which is of course stress. While it is true that alcohol in itself reduces emotional stress when consumed in moderation, wine adds an additional quality that is reflected in how it is enjoyed. More than 90 scientific reports have been published since 1991, providing strong evidence for the wine and health phenomenon. These findings clearly point out that moderate wine consumption can be part of a healthy lifestyle. New research is beginning to uncover the presence of powerful antioxidants in red wine that are known to reduce blood clotting, reduce risk of heart attacks, and even help combat some forms of cancer.

This is all of course assuming that wine is consumed in moderation, defined as roughly a glass or two of wine every day. Wine also aids in digestion, stimulates the appetite and combats neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. It has even been found to help combat both anorexia and obesity.
Research has determined that what distinguishes the health benefits of wine from other alcoholic beverages is the notable presence of tannins and isocyanine. The implication for women is particularly important, as a Harvard University study has found that a glass of red wine a day can reduce heart attacks for women by 25%. In addition, wine has been found to lessen and in some cases bring a stop to the degenerative effects of osteoporosis. A scientific team in Denmark was the first to uncover the remarkable phenomenon that, on average, the French have far lower cholesterol levels and fewer heart attacks than most other nations because of their moderate and daily consumption of red wine.

Research published in the specialist medical magazine ‘Thorax’ suggests that each daily glass of red wine gives 13 per cent protection against cancer when compared with non-drinkers. This new research suggests that red wine, in moderation, could also protect against lung cancer- one of the most common cancer types in Ireland. According to health expert June Russell when compared to beer or liquor drinkers, and even non-drinkers, those who happen to drink wine have lifestyles that are healthier. ‘Wine drinkers are thinner and have more normal weights, they exercise more, smoke less. Those individuals who drink wine also happen to be better adjusted, less neurotic and depressed, and have a higher I.Q,’ says Russell. These many lifestyle factors account for improved health and decrease the significance of wine consumption.

Some go so far as to say that making wine a part of your daily eating rituals can do as much for your health as a herbal remedy or a TV programme. On that note I am off to pour myself a generous glass of full bodied red wine…..

Friday, July 31, 2009

Yoga v's Pilates

Yoga and Pilates have become way more than just a fleeting fitness craze. As the popularity of both workouts rises and stars like J.Lo and Oprah swear it re-energises their lives, women everywhere have discovered the mental and physical benefits of these exercises. But which one is more effective? Some say Yoga is with its focus on both mental and physical strength while others count the abstract gymnastic moves in Pilates as the bigger muscle toner.

As a beginner to both exercises I put yoga and Pilates to the test. I started with a Pilates class at the David Lloyd Centre in Clonskeagh. The centre which holds approximately 40 Pilates classes a week specialises in a variety of classes for everyone from new mums to older women. My instructor, Chris Hobson, informed me of the two main types of classes - Mat Pilates and Reformer Pilates.

Since reformer Pilates is relatively new to Dublin gyms I decided to try it out. The ‘reformer’ is a machine similar to a bench press in the gym and the entire pilates workout is based on it involving numerous strenuous exercises. My preconception that this class would be relatively easy was quickly quashed by the others in the class who warned me this machine and Chris would put us through our paces.

Starting off with bench presses we moved on to hamstring exercises, bum and thigh movements, push ups and a tough upper body workout. I was surprised that by shifting into several different positions all of these exercises could be done on one machine. By the end of the hour I was sweating and my limbs ached. The reformer pilates is aimed at a muscle workout and requires a lot of strength while the mat Pilates is based more on core exercises and the abdominal area. ‘Doing both is beneficial,’ advises Chris ‘and you will notice a difference in a matter of sessions’. He admits it takes time to learn the exercises before people should be comfortable doing a Pilates workout by themselves at home. ‘You can actually cause harm to your body by not doing the exercises properly’. His persuasive ways of pushing our body strength to the limit gave this pilates class a big thumbs up.

I only had a few hours to relax before it was time for yoga at the Buddha Bag shop in Dublin city centre. Yoga instructor Orla Punch teaches here every Monday and Thursday evening and also holds some classes at the David Lloyd Riverview Centre. Although I was familiar with some of the yoga positions from a few classes I took during my college years, this was still a new exercise for me as I tried Iyengar Yoga for the first time.

There are many styles of yoga but they all basically have the same aim. The three main styles are Astanga, Iyengar and Viniyoga. Iyengar yoga is considered the most difficult form of the exercise ‘If you fancy taking up yoga try out a few of the different styles before choosing one that suits you best,’ advises Orla.

Yoga, for the most part, involves static poses, which are held while exploring your breathing, physical feelings and emotions. Pilates is about moving in ways that help strengthen your powerhouse, including your stabilizing muscles. Yoga emphasises flexibility over building strength while Pilates emphasizes toning over flexibility. We started the class with some easy breathing exercises but then quickly moved into some difficult stretching positions like the downward dog and sun salute. In most of the positions there was extreme pressure placed on leg muscles. Iyengar yoga is not for the weak as I quickly found out. Astanga Yoga is the more relaxed form and is probably the best type to start off with. We finished off the class with some handstands and curling up positions. Although I was not in a sweat at the end of this class like I had been after the pilates I felt the effects for days after in my tummy, leg and arm muscles. As a beginner I needed help from the instructor to master most of the exercises. However Orla informed me once you build up your strength from regular yoga exercise it becomes much easier.

The biggest difference I learnt between yoga and Pilates is more philosophical than physical. While Pilates takes a mind-body approach to exercise, yoga’s view involves mind, body and spirit. Its principles come from Hindu ideals and its approach is decidedly Eastern in nature. Yoga’s teachings encourage us to be kind to all beings, including ourselves, and to search for balance in our lives and lifestyle. You will not find any of this in a Pilates class, which only focuses on mental concentration, breathing and movement.

After both classes I found there can be no real ‘Yoga versus Pilates’ debate as each one has a different focus and approach. Whether you gravitate towards one or the other really depends on your personality and own personal philosophies. While they are both slow intense and therapeutic, they achieve their fitness goals in distinctive ways. If you have the time you can even do both without a lot of overlap - your muscles and flexibility will be trained from different angles and actually benefit. Most people, however, only have time for one or the other. Ultimately if you want an exercise that improves flexibility while toning your muscles, especially those abs, then Pilates is probably your best choice. If you rather concentrate more on flexibility, then you should try yoga. It is also a great stress-reliever. Judging by the people I met in both the yoga and Pilates class, these exercises have an impressive physical effect. The main challenge for most of us is finding the time and money for such classes.

For information on Pilates and Yoga classes contact the David Lloyd Centre on 01 2189600

Thursday, July 30, 2009

So you think you can dance…

While we might have laughed at the notion of a dance holiday a decade ago, they are becoming more popular these days, regardless of age or gender. Not only does a dance holiday get you fit - whether you have two left feet or have been dancing since birth - it is also a great way to meet like-minded people. Since I am easily enticed by alternative holidays, I was eager to learn how to dance away from home. In my search online there was no shortage of exotic destinations catering to dance holidays. It seems the trend has really taken off, as you can choose from European resorts, holidays across North and South America, the Caribbean and even dance cruises.

Initially I was tempted by a week of tango, but friends recommended salsa would be more appealing for my energetic persona. Fiery, romantic, sexy and fun, it seems salsa is the dance of the moment. Its popularity is evident in the 60 dance holidays held worldwide every year, while Ireland is just as taken by the dance, with classes every night of the week. While I expected to travel to Cuba or Spain for my salsa experience, I was delighted to see a week intensive course was being held in one of my favourite countries. What could be better than learning to dance in idyllic Italy, where in between classes I could devour bowlfuls of tortellini and gelato?

The setting was a rustic countryside house – La Rogaia – owned by a lovely German family in the rolling hills of Umbria. We were to learn to dance salsa from one of the most sought-after instructors in the world. Edie the Salsa Freak runs legendary salsa boot camps and is renowned for her entertaining way of teaching rhythm, technique and elegance. Super-fit and super-nice, she had come to Italy to pass on her passion and skill of salsa dancing to a dozen eager students.

The challenge of this holiday was not just about learning to dance, but also going on holiday alone. Our group was a mixture of singletons and couples of various nationalities (Swiss, German, South African, Italian, American, Irish), age groups (25-60+) and professions (social workers, IT specialists, teachers, nurses) and all different dance levels. The meet and greet night was important to get to know everyone in the group, since we would invariably be getting ‘up close and personal’ with each other during the week. Thankfully Edie gave strict warnings to everyone not to come to class without ‘showering well beforehand and using plenty of deodorant’. We floated to bed with high hopes as the salsa goddess assured us knowing how to dance well would boost our confidence, and our luck with the opposite sex!

From that first day we were put through our paces. Mornings began with a light breakfast followed by a three-hour salsa class. Most of this was focused on mastering the basic steps and styling, before pairing up with the men. Edie described this first introduction as ‘beginner’s hell’, and she was not far wrong. There was plenty of falling over and stepping on each others toes. As the windows steamed up from our sweaty moves, I struggled through the intense practice. I resigned myself to the fact that from the beginners class, the only way is up. Luckily our group comprised of just 12 students, so we got a lot of individual attention. When the going got tough, it was all about giving each other high tens to keep our moods from deflating.

Unbeknownst to me before this salsa week, there are in fact various styles of salsa that have emerged as the music has spread around the world: Cuban, Puerto Rican, LA and New York. All are based on the same rhythms but with varying steps, body movements and turns. Edie was teaching us LA style – which is all about extravagant moves. As I tried a sharp kick, triple turn and a dip, I could envisage how amusing it would look recreating this in a Dublin nightclub. Edie made it seem effortless, whereas I almost needed an oxygen mask after trying such a dramatic stunt.

Fortunately I found a favourite salsa move, which I managed to perfect by the end of the week. As simple as the cross turn was, it actually made me look like a good dancer. While some of the group had arrived in couples, we all switched partners consistently which allowed the beginners to improve faster. Naturally the 12 of us became quite close from all the time we were spending together. It was an energetic mix of people - from the vivacious Andreas and Ingrid to smooth movers Ingo and Katharina, delightful beginners Axel and Daniel and natural born movers, Lindsay, Karin and Susanne.

Every class was followed by much needed stretching and meditation. The afternoons were ours to explore the nearby area or practice our salsa. Needless to say my legs were getting the workout that I hoped they would from a week of dancing. Most days I took it easy and ventured to the picturesque towns of Cortona, Perugia or Orvieto to soak up some Italian culture. This usually entailed sitting in a café with a glass of wine or ice-cream. When I had the energy I joined the advanced salsa class in the evenings. Seeing how it is done by the fiery professionals reminded me why I had come to this week and how much I had to learn. Sensual and spontaneous, just watching Edie and her partner Fraser work their moves was enough to evoke an irrepressible urge to keep practising my salsa moves.
The opportunity to dance in La Rogaia was never-ending with salsa dancing again at night after a leisurely four course dinner. Some nights we switched to other forms of dancing (like La Bachata and La Rueda) while a few times we ventured to the local salsa clubs for some real fun on the dancefloor. With everyone performing to the hot rhythms and cool beats, you could see why salsa is one of the world's most addictive and energetic dances. I should have felt intimated by the professional dancers, but I still took to the shiny parquet floor to show off my new moves. Even with several wrong turns and accidental elbowing, I survived more than a few songs. While I was admittedly not very good, I was having a ball.

On the first day, Edie had asked us to write down our goal for the week. Being the overly-ambitious beginner I scribbled down that I wanted ‘to master the art of salsa’. Unfortunately I won’t be entering any salsa dancing competitions just yet. But I did achieve the all-important basics. And more importantly I met a fantastic group of people, and discovered a whole new world of music. With just one week of salsa behind me, I am looking to do another one very soon. Even if you dance regularly at home, taking dance classes in a new and exotic setting is an incredible experience.

For more information about Edie and the dates of her salsa boot camps check out

Dare to detox at home or abroad

A cocktail of exercise, extreme healthy eating and cellulite busting spa treatments – not everyone’s idea of an ideal holiday. Like or loathe them, the detox holiday is designed to give dramatic and often life changing results fast. Adored by celebrities, Renée Zellweger, Liz Hurley and even Jack Osbourne all swear by them.

My fascination with the idea of cleansing out your body and starting afresh encouraged me to see if I too could achieve awe inspiring results. At first the options of detox resorts seemed endless - until I saw the extortionate price lists. If money were no option, I would have instantly booked a place at the acclaimed five-star Chiva Som resort in Thailand, complete with self-colonic irrigation and saliva tests.

Whilst my budget was tight, I was adamant to try one detox in the sun and another somewhere closer to home. The latter was an easy choice considering there is not yet an abundance of such boot camp style resorts available in Ireland. However finding one abroad proved more of a challenge. Eventually I found somewhere that suited my criteria - Winter Sun Retreats in Lanzarote. Although many detox camps promise loss of weight, this retreat cites its mission to ensure you return home healthier and happier with yourself. Whilst this all sounded very uplifting, my shallow goals were not changing fast – I wanted to return home with a toned bum and glowing skin.

There were two options of accommodation: self-catering beach villas in Costa Teguise or peaceful mountain villas in Las Cabreras. Although I enjoy nothing better than being near to the sea, I chose the mountain retreat simply because it was on a full-board basis. It meant there was no chance of me sneaking off for a juicy steak in one of the local restaurants.

Whilst the website describes the accommodation as luxury, if I had had four-star expectations, I would have been disappointed. My room was comfortable but without an en-suite. I had to remember I was not here to be pampered.

Over a buffet dinner of fresh salads and healthy dips, I was introduced to my fellow ‘detoxees’. Any preconceived notions that these detox camps are for overweight or unhealthy people were quickly quashed. Four very slim, glamorous and regular detox devouts sat in front of me. While they had been preparing their bodies in advance by cutting out coffee and fatty foods, I had taken the opposite and perhaps more cynical approach: days beforehand I was gorging on pizza, chocolate, and anything else that took my fancy.

The first morning I was briefed on my daily routine which centred on yoga, organic living food, juices, holistic therapies and other health enhancing activities. Gone were my cornflakes and toast for breakfast, and instead I had a shot of homegrown wheatgrass, a veggie juice, and a small bowl of muesli.

With a rumbling tummy I headed off to my yoga class. I was looking forward to the daily workout, especially since it said all levels were welcome. Whilst I had tried yoga during college, I remembered very little of the positions and was expecting to be physically challenged. Our instructors, Charlene and Jose Luis, introduced us to very gentle movements. Throughout the three-hour classes, the tempo never stepped up a notch and I failed to break out in a sweat. Although the others seemed to thrive on this type of relaxing exercise, I was craving a challenge.

To compensate for this lack of energy-exerting activity, I undertook physical activities in the afternoon, going for jogs, climbing the Las Cabreras Mountain and swimming in one of the resort pools. Such workouts were unfortunately not rewarded with more food rations; instead I had to learn to survive the hunger pangs.

The living food concept was certainly the most challenging aspect of the holiday. Pioneered by Dr Gillian McKeith of ‘You are what you eat’ fame, it involves eating only raw food and around 15 portions of fruit and vegetables every day. Daniel, the lovely chef who prepared our meals, tried to prove to us that healthy eating choices can be even more delicious than our favourite comfort foods. He showed us how to turn a courgette into pasta, parsnip into rice, a banana into ice cream and hemp seeds into milk. For some of the dishes, I had to agree, his method did work as the cuisine was lick-your-lips delicious. I was not convinced I could live on raw food for life, however, especially in Irish winters.

After a few days of wheatgrass, veggie juices and simply healthy eating in the sun, I found my energy levels had increased even if I was not noticing dramatic changes to my body just yet. I actually felt more bloated than when I had arrived but I was assured this is a natural part of the detox process.

I had been home just a day and work pressures encouraged me to slip back into my old routine of eating chocolate and drinking coffee. I did plan to start growing my own wheatgrass but it kept getting shoved further down my ‘to do’ list. All hope was not lost, however, as I was about to try another detox a week later – this time in Donegal.

While the weather in March might not be the most enticing time to take a break in Ireland, I was invigorated by the itinerary of Body and Soul Retreat. Both the weekend and week-long programmes are designed for maximum impact on your fitness. The retreat first started in Brazil six years ago where guests included Big Brother’s Davina McCall and Jade Goody. Since relocating the retreat to the less exotic Donegal, Director Aidan Boyle has adapted the itinerary around the ‘wee’ county’s abundant resources.

The checklist of things to bring had me forewarned that I would not be twiddling my thumbs for the three-day detox. Hiking boots and waterproof clothing were just some of the essentials. I was not overly concerned about trekking through marshy bogland: it was the lack of food that again had me worried.

It was a dreary evening as I pulled into Harvey’s Point car park, but the stunning lakeside hotel instantly made up for the bad weather. Unlike my basic accommodation in Lanzarote, I had my own plush executive room complete with a massive marble bathroom. I instantly warmed to this attitude of ‘if you do a detox, do it in style.’

The 6.30am wake-up call was not the easiest to contend with but starting the day with an hour-long yoga workout was invigorating. While I anticipated the outdoor activities to be the most beneficial part of this weekend, this time the yoga was equally rewarding. Our instructor, Michele, took into account the different levels and encouraged those who wanted to be challenged to try difficult positions. With two classes of yoga a day, our bodies were well stretched and relaxed as we retreated to our king size beds at night.

Our itinerary for the weekend included six yoga classes, two hikes, a bike ride and two massages. The first day we climbed the Blue Stack Drive which was more of a long arduous walk than a tough incline. Although my sister had kindly worn in my hiking boots for me on the Inca Trail in Peru, my ankles still cut open from the hard leather. Energy levels dipped intermittently on the walk as we had just a flask of soup and two pieces of fruit each. But the lively banter among the group kept the spirits up and we arrived back at the hotel looking forward to our hot baths and massages.

Known for its exquisite cuisine, Harvey’s Point ensured we had a taste of its delicacies, but in minimal portions. Breakfast was either body-warming porridge with prunes, or a poached egg on a bed of spinach. Calorie intake was restricted to 1200 calories per day so that we would detox as much as possible. It was also recommended to drink cupfuls of ginger tea which was available in the lounge – where we could chill out between activities with magazines and newspapers. Our three-course evening meal included small portions of sumptuously cooked fish, artfully crafted vegetables and light soups. Although most of our 12 strong group diligently followed the prescribed diet, I succumbed to the shortbread biscuits in my hotel room on one occasion, after my second hike. It was a small pleasure that was worth the guilt.

Our hike on day two was more challenging as we climbed to the highest seacliff in Europe. This time we were exposed to the temperamental Irish weather with the sun beaming down on us one minute and the hail lashing down the next. Our guide, Michael, encouraged us all the way along the breathtaking scenic trails and kept us entertained with his local knowledge, along with some celebrity gossip about Donegal regulars Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick.

By the end of day two I could already see the toning effects of outdoor exercise and yoga, But it was the bike ride on the last day that really tested my fitness - or lack of it. The lashing rain hindered many of the group from venturing out, but a few of us dared to brave the ten-mile cycle around the lake. Half a mile into it and my thighs ached and I wanted to cry as the harsh rain whipped against my face. I huffed and puffed up the hills and freewheeled down, fearing the rolling hills ahead. There were several times I wanted to turn back, but I stuck with the challenge. Seeing the hotel in the distance two hours later was like entering the gates of heaven as I gathered all the energy I could muster until I was back in the warmth of a power shower. I was like a drowned rat, drenched to the bone, and my runners filled like small lakes. But I didn't care as I was reeling from the arduous workout.

While I had hoped to return with a perfectly toned physique, two detox holidays have made me realise it takes more than a weekend for such wonders to work. But it does prepare you physically and mentally to become more fit and healthy. Despite being an avid sun worshipper, the detox in Donegal served me better. The retreat in Lanzarote is suitable for someone who wants to just switch off from every day life, soak up some sun, and eat extremely healthily. Body and Soul was more enjoyable and its rigorous regime ensures you will tone up.

For more information check out

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fancy a Rat Race?

I love a good challenge so when someone suggested I try the Rat Race I didn’t hesitate to sign up. “What’s a rat race?” you might ask. A rat race is traditionally defined as something that is “endless, self-defeating or a pointless pursuit”. However the rat race I signed up to was far from pointless. Instead it is a bizarre urban event that turns cities into high-adrenaline playgrounds for its eager participants. With teams of two and three who race in a multi-sport test of endurance and skills, the course is only revealed hours before the event begins. And while the repercussions of the adventure can be jelly legs and aching limbs, it is an inspiring weekend for those who seek a memorable city adventure.

Since the first Rat Race Urban Adventure was held in Edinburgh in 2004, it has spread in popularity to vibrant cities like Edinburgh, Brighton, and London, where the next event will run on the 26th of September. The race has also extended to Ireland, and it was in the eclectic city of Galway that I signed up to my first rat race with my sister, Steph. The rules of the rat race are few and far between, and the perk is that it is open to anyone, even if you haven’t trained hard in advance. There are two events to choose from - Mean Streets and Nine2Five. The Mean Streets is recommended for rat race virgins, since it is “suitable for anyone with a pair of trainers and a sense of humour.” The three hour run to find clues is nowhere near as physically taxing as the Nine2Five. Still today I am not sure what convinced me to compete in the more enduring of the two races. It was only as we pushed our way to the front of the start line that I realised how horribly unprepared we were. We might have looked the part - kitted out in our lycra shorts and Asics runners - but we lacked the fitness to survive the eight hours of mad-cap checkpoint hunting around the city. Luckily we still had enthusiasm on our side, lots of it.

As soon as we received our first clue it really ramped up the adventure element and separated the professionals from the amateurs. The handful of pro teams skedaddled off on their mission to win; the rest of us followed their swift lead, hoping they would guide us towards the jackpot. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t long before we were miles behind their track and left to rely on our unpolished navigation and orienteering skills. The race is predominantly bike-based where we had to set off on various “adventure loops,” which link up venues, activities and adventures across the city and beyond. Often we had to drop our bikes and run or walk as well as complete different challenges at the “Rat Traps.” These varied from abseiling down a shopping centre building, to wading blindfolded through a bog and scrambling up a slide of melted margarine. Needless to say bruises and small cuts come with the adventure. While the professional teams swiftly found the short cuts on the course, we seemed to fall upon the scenic route on most of the loops. The checkpoints were quite different, some were activity-based, others were in famous places, many were right off the beaten track and a few were just downright surreal. As we pedal powered from one checkpoint to the next, we made sure to soak up the incredible scenery and lively camaderie around us. It might not have improved our finishing time, but it certainly made it a sociable event. With a few other teams of the same mindset, we made the most of the fine weather and the hilarious antics. In the end we managed to complete just two and a half of the four loops. Those fit and dedicated enough to complete the entire course cycled an impressive 50 kilometres. That evening all rat race participants gathered for the prize giving which inevitably led to a night of partying, and many signing up for the next rat race. Despite the after effects - aches, pains and mud everywhere - I am hooked on this urban adventure and already signed up to the London Rat Race.

The Rat Race takes place in London on the 26th and 27th of September. Prices for the race range from £39 per person for Mean Streets, £69 for the Nine2Five and £99 for the weekender entry. For more information visit

A holiday in Jamaica, No problem mon!

My first experience of the Caribbean compared with the Bounty advert, with the sparkling white sand and crystal clear waters.

Sometimes I think I was born on the wrong side of the world, as I thrive on a relaxed pace of life, exotic food and beautiful weather. It is no surprise then why I was eager to visit Jamaica - the colourful land of Bob Marley look-alikes, palm trees and perpetually sunny beaches. While the island attracts over one million tourists to its sandy shores every year, it remains largely unexplored by the Irish- surprising considering our reputed sense of adventure. I travelled there alone, eager to see if it would tempt me back one day with my family, my friends or for a romantic holiday.

Jamaica is a large island so I was not able to see everything in one trip, especially since almost one-half of it is 1,000 feet above sea level. The island has 14 parishes, each with its own flavour. My first stop was in Negril- one of the trendiest resorts on the North of the island. Its beach is like a shell necklace with a conglomeration of tourist attractions fringing the coast for 15 miles. From snorkelling to parasailing, to just chilling out at a midnight beach bonfire – it offers every excuse to be lazy.

I was staying in the Grand Lido Resort on the famous seven mile sandy beach and it was here I had my first taste of the ‘all inclusive’ holiday. This concept- where your accommodation, food and drinks are all pre-paid- has been latched on by hotels throughout the Caribbean and beyond.You may fork out more for your holiday but once you arrive you don’t have to worry about carrying any money. With Eddie Hobbs in mind I was sceptical of this ‘load up your tray as everything is free’ deal. A young Irish couple staying at the resort were just as suspicious of the hidden costs. After several amusing trials of room service, we were delighted that the brochure’s promise was, in fact, true. The freebies even extended to tennis lessons, fine dining restaurants, water sports, beach parties and constant flowing champagne.

Negril was ideal for a holiday spent lounging on the beach and being pampered in the hotel spa. It was through my terrific minder for the week, however, that I captured the traditional Jamaican way of life. Norma showed me how to haggle in the local craft market and ensured I tasted the best local cuisine. My plan to combine this holiday with a detox was a farfetched goal. By day two I was treating Jamaican food like a box of chocolates - sampling a bit of everything. Some of my favourite indulgences were ackee (a traditional fruit enjoyed at breakfast) dumplings and jerked chicken (barbecue style chicken with spicy seasoning) .This was often followed by spongy banana bread and a mug of rich Blue Mountain coffee. While travelling during the day time, I enjoyed casual culinary fun with a small snack of roast corn, or fresh mango from the roadside vendors. At night I enjoyed sipping a glass or two of the homegrown Tia Maria, which is said to be created in honour of the country’s independence in 1962.

Jamaica is a celebrity haven so I had my paparazzi glasses on for the first few days. With no A- list star in sight I took a tour of Goldeneye- the resort where Ian Fleming penned the James Bond books and where Scarlett Johanssen and Josh Hartnett recently visited. The Hollywood starlets splashed out €3000 a night for Fleming’s villa on Bond beach. Irish celebrities have also savoured the Jamaican lifestyle with Bono leading the way. U2’s frontman used to be a frequent visitor at the idyllic Caves Resort in Negril. It’s easy to see why so many celebrities visit, as there is no hassle from the locals- in their words ‘everything is no problem Mon’.

Just as I was relaxing into the Jamaican way of life, my itinerary suggested some adventure. This kicked off with a horseback ride n’ swim- an unforgettable experience for someone who had never been on a horse before! My muscles ached from a combination of laughter and desperate attempts to cling on as the horse paddled through the deep waters. The adrenalin rush soared even higher as I took to the trees for a rainforest canopy tour in the afternoon. After being harnessed up into the leaves and branches, I glided over the rivers like Tarzan’s Jane at speeds of 35 miles an hour.

The most terrifying part of my trip was yet to come, as I was booked in to swim with sting rays the following day. Even though I was in a secluded resort the tragic news of Steve Erwin’s death travelled fast. The group I was joining for Jamaica’s newest attraction coincidentally chose not to partake in this swim- so it was just me, alone with 26 sting rays.

I shivered at the sight of their venomous tails even though I had been shown how to avoid their stings- by shuffling by feet into the water and not jumping with fright! After a reluctant shuffle into the shallow sea water, the largest sting ray, Musclegirl, swam into my arms. I shrieked and hollered- much to the bemusement of onlookers- while trying not to lose grasp of this massive slithery creature. It was difficult to keep control of her as you have to ensure the sting ray’s eyes are kept below the water- otherwise they become agitated. Musclegirl’s family and friends pushed the fear factor by swarming at my feet. I could feel their tails swishing past my legs and it took every inch of panic stricken bravery not to jump. With half shut eyes I forced myself to embrace a few more of the smaller sting rays, and even fed one of them, before running to the safety of the shore. Although I rejoiced for rising to the challenge, once was enough for this experience.

After this encounter everything else was a breezy adventure. Swimming with dolphins was exhilarating; climbing Dunn’s waterfalls was a slippery challenge while a culinary tour in the Jamaican hills was a mouth-watering experience. Time constraints unfortunately meant I missed out on a visit to the Bob Marley Mausoleum.

My holiday ended on a high note in Ocho Rios. Ochee, as it is known locally, was once a sleepy fishing village but is now a hugely popular honeymoon retreat. My hotel, Couples was as the name suggests- exclusively for lovers. The all- inclusive concept was in force here also- the romantic extras included flower petals scattered on the bed, a Jacuzzi for two and double Spa treatments. Although I felt like a lemon at times, I was still swept away by the old world romanticism. My balcony was like a movie theatre every evening, as I witnessed several sunset beach weddings under floral filled gazebos.

My only regret is I did not get time to experience much of the Jamaican nightlife outside of the resorts. Anyone my age would be tempted to check out the enchanting hip strip in Montego Bay. Apparently it is buzzing every night with a dazzling array of reggae artists and calypso kings.

After six days of touring and exploring, I spent the last day doing what most people come to Jamaica for- chilling out on one of the glorious beaches. Followed by a soothing coconut massage and facial, I left the island refreshed, well- fed and with plenty of Jamaican recipes to try out at home. Will I be making a return? Yah Mon for sure!

Why Jamaica?
Families will find every conceivable activity, great beaches, and many child-friendly resorts. Golfers will be delighted by the champion courses, mainly in the Montego Bay area. Couples will be serenaded by the romance that stems from every direction. And for groups the party will never stop with the trendy nightlife and adrenalin pumping adventures.

Meet the People
An excellent way to see more than just Jamaica’s fine beaches and fruit cocktails is by signing up to ‘Meet the People’. The programme offers tourists the opportunity to mingle with the locals. You could meet a Jamaican family for a day of fun on the beach, or perhaps pay a visit to the children at a local primary school.

When to go
High season in Jamaica runs from around mid-December through to April. July and August are the hottest months and February is the coolest. Regardless of when you visit, the tropical climate and warm temperatures essentially guarantee beautiful weather.

How to get there
Jamaica is accessible from the UK with daily Air Jamaica flights. Check out
Several Irish travel agents operate holidays to Jamaica:
Sunway Travel
Tropical Places

Where to stay
The all inclusive holiday package is available in a number of resorts including:
The Grand Lido Resort
Couples Resort
Beaches Resort