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