Volunteering for Strictly…

By Ingrid Miller,  guest writer for Unwind and let go.

Volunteering for StrictlyI’m glad I didn’t listen to my dad, his advice has always been never to volunteer, but there I was, a volunteer member of the Parents Association of my children’s school. “We need a new soft surface playground” the Principal said. An emergency meeting of the Kitchen Cabinet was convened – in my kitchen. After a few glasses of wine and some serious brainstorming we agreed as a team to take on “Strictly”. As the bottles were emptied, our confidence grew… and so it began.

Based on the concept of the BBC Hit TV Show an adapted version, Strictly Dance is a huge fundraising opportunity for schools or clubs. It was the biggest, fastest, hardest ‘learning’ I ever had in my life. I haven’t returned to my comfort zone yet. The magic that made the impossible possible was volunteering. The unbelievable variety of different tasks got done because everyone was so generous with their time and talent, and willing to co-operate and pull together – dancers, fundraisers, parents’ association members, local community, local businesses, teaching staff, parents – everyone went the extra mile and, wonderfully, a true sense of camaraderie developed. It was a gruelling schedule for our families too! As the big day drew nearer, the dancers were practising, as a group and as couples, several times a week. The atmosphere was relaxed yet the group keenly focused.

Volunteering for StrictlyWhere in all of this was I stepping out of my ‘comfort zone’? I could never have imagined myself on a stage, in front of a large function room packed to the rafters, taking part in a dancing competition. It simply isn’t who I am, well, who I used to be! Why did I do it? I’d always seen myself as devoid of rhythmic talent. Before ‘Strictly’ my dancing skills were primitive more random wriggles than formal dance-steps, or hopscotch on acid. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and into my ‘enhancement zone’ – doing something unfamiliar, something mentally, physically and socially challenging, learning not just one new skill but a whole cluster – not just steps, but steps in a group-dance, steps with a partner routine, and worst of all, doing it in public.

Psychologists tell us when we take on this kind of challenge we’re changing how our brain is wired on a deep level, but to do that, we have to step right outside our comfort zone. I knew this was going to be unnerving, challenging, threatening and awkward…. But as we practiced, the mood relaxed and it got smoother, more natural and comfortable. As the flexibility grew, it was like going from dial-up to broadband.

Volunteering for StrictlyWorking with the choreographers taught us that the quality of practice is just as important to improving the skillset as the quantity, and the willingness to accept feedback and direction was the secret of making progress. Initially my sole focus had to be on the individual steps – what am I doing wrong… what should go first, how should this step be executed, where should I place this foot – it was all about focusing on the individual moves. Learning to control your body and feet is one of the hardest things. You have to develop a sort of sensitivity and awareness to your feet and metatarsals especially, while also remembering to hold your head up and ‘smile’!

Volunteering for StrictlyAfter weeks of practice, preparation and pain, the great day arrived. We were all caught up in the magic of the event, one moment star-struck, a moment later feeling stage-fright, and all-in-all, as high as kites, caught in a swirling current of turbulent emotions. But we were all buoyed up by the sense of having gone through the same adventure of preparation, now reaching its culmination under bright lights and a haze of hairspray. The point of no return arrived. We ran down the centre isle and up on stage. Music pumping, heart racing, this was it. There was no going back we just had to do it. In contrast to our initial ungainliness, we danced in near perfect synchronicity.

What have I learnt from my Strictly experience? There is huge value in trying new things that I wouldn’t have thought of trying before because facing challenges makes you grow as a person. Since then I have been swimming in the Forty Foot, contributed to this Blog and taken on role of Chair for the Parents Association. For me now, life is about taking chances, trying new things, having fun, making mistakes and learning from it. Who knows what’s next…

Ingrid Miller has been trapped in the body of a delinquent teenager since turning 40 but tries her best to look for all intents and purposes like a well-balanced 40-something career driven wife and mum of two, living in a semi-d in South Dublin. She would like to say she enjoys quiet walks, good food and gardening, but she would be lying, so instead she will admit she loves dancing till dawn, wine flavoured drinks and sunrise swims in the Irish Sea!

Note the photographs of Ingrid posing and dancing were taken by Paul Lundy photography.

The Spa at the Delamar Hotel in Greenwich Connecticut

Delamar Hotel SpaAs part of a recent work assignment on location in Greenwich Connecticut, the schedule included (much to my joy!) a complimentary treatment at the Delamar Hotel spa. Located on the waterfront, the hotel overlooks a pretty marina with fancy sailboats and kind of reminds you of a laid back Summer postcard. Having flown long distance to get there,  I opted for a Swedish massage as my treatment du jour. Perfect for weary travelers but not too demanding for already jet lagged muscles.

The decor of the Delamar Hotel spa was like an elegant drawing room with deep powder-blue armchairs, a large ottoman poof and an assortment of easy reading coffee table books. On the walls, ornately framed paintings depicting 19th century women enhanced the female tone of the Spa – which suited our party perfectly as we were 18 women in total. Champagne cooled in ice buckets and there were platters of fresh fruit for nibbling on, making the Spa reception room a tempting venue to stay put in forever. And in case it seemed overly fussy and ornate, in the center of the room there was 2 porcelain white cock-a-too parrots, which added a bohemian vibe to the afternoons proceedings.

Delmar Hotel SpaEnsconced in brown satin wool bathrobes, our line up of ladies was funny and lighthearted and with efficient coordination we were each escorted to individual treatment rooms. My therapist was calm and confident and led me into a serene low lite room with heated massage table. Her strokes were experienced and effective with knots and aches being slowly ironed out as she worked her way around my body. Although I was in the mood to relax and drift off, my brain decided otherwise and for the for the first part of the treatment the events of the morning played over in my mind and I became distracted by the blinking lights of the heating system underneath the massage table. My therapist gently chided me to leave my cares at the door and true enough I slowly began to relax and switch off. I had requested no head massage in order to keep my hair intact for the evening ahead but I soon regretted my choice as it became clear that my therapist was a master of neck and shoulders and who knows what she could have done for my scalp!

With 60 minutes now showing on the clock, my time was up and I was escorted back to the elegant living room for a choice of mint water, fruit or more champagne.  As more of our party drifted back happily to the reception area, the conversation struck up again and it took quite some time for everyone to move out of the beautiful lounge space to go back to business of the day.  A reminder for me personally that unwinding and letting go can happen any where, any time with any number of people…

Delamar Hotel Spa, 500 Steamboat Road, Greenwich, CT06830

Exfoliation at the Bvlgari Hotel Milan

Bvlgari HotelAs part of my recent Detox program, I upped the ante on my regime by including a body exfoliation at the luxurious Bvlgari Hotel when I was last visiting Milan. Located in one of the nicest parts of the city, the Bvlgari Hotel overlooks beautiful botanical gardens and is reputed to be the most exclusive hotel in the city.  I visited it on a quiet Sunday afternoon and observed many elegant guests in the lobby and adjoining spa. I chose my treatment carefully from the extensive spa menu and settled on the creme dela mer inspired ‘La mer signature body treatment with exfoliation’ to apparently ‘renew, relax and restore’ my body.  I don’t normally use the La mer range of products, but with a diamond component, I was happily anticipating beautiful shimmery skin by the end of my treatment.

Bvlgari Hotel MilanI was brought to the changing rooms by a friendly member of staff and instructed to wait by the poolside. I changed into a light blue fluffy bathrobe but found to my horror that I had been given an extremely snug fitting robe which meant crossing my legs by the edge of the pool was out of the question. So I lay as discreetly as possible on one of the loungers and had time to take in the curious stream of Italian male bathers taking lazy selfies of themselves in the Jacuzzi.

Bvlgari HotelFinally my nice therapist arrived and escorted me to my treatment which began with a ping of a tuning fork. My body was first carefully covered with a scrub which was applied with aromatic oils from head to toe. Once this was completed competently, I had to shuffle my way across the corridor to the changing rooms for a rinsing shower and then return for the second part of my treatment, almost colliding in the corridor to yet another male bather. My preference would have been to have had a shower in the privacy of the treatment room, but alas such design plans had clearly not been factored into the layout of the Bvlgari Hotel spa.
Bvlgari SpaLeaving this inconvenience aside, I must say that the massage was very good and I sailed away to La-La land between the soft rhythmic strokes right up into my scalp as part of the treatment. For the first time in my spa memories, magnets were applied to my feet and hands to apparently help with aligning my mind. I was a bit skeptical that anything within this galaxy would be able to calm my mind, but I did genuinely feel very relaxed and floaty.  The treatment ended with a final twang of the tuning fork in my ear signalling that it was time to peel myself off the treatment table and go back to reality.  I was offered a selection of dried fruits, herbal teas and cereal as part of my spa aperatif, but I opted instead to make my way back through the quiet streets of Milan and unwind for the evening.


Enjoying the new spa at Ashford Castle

By Natalie McGuinness, guest writer for Unwind and let go.

The spa at Ashford Castle was reviewed by The Irish Times shortly before I visited, so my anticipation levels were raised based on the glowing feedback. The spa is a cleverly designed glass annex like an orangery for cultivating beauty and relaxation, tucked away in the west of Ireland. My first visit to the Spa was for an emergency file and paint.

Ashford CastleOn entering the Spa you can see the nail area straight ahead with reception on your right. I was warmly welcomed and offered a choice of a refreshing lemon or cucumber infused water. The treatment room has large wooden thrones set into the wall. The thrones have matching wooden tables covered with a fluffy towel for hand treatments – unusually there was no palm rest or direct lighting on the table. The recessed thrones are clever as they provide privacy and they also have ingenious inserts into the wall to hold your water or other small belongings. It is very on brand with Ashford Castle, but I’m not convinced how comfortable the chairs are for a full hour manicure. I was starting to wriggle with discomfort after 25 minutes.

Ashford castle spaThe therapist was charming. She was friendly, but not too friendly, and worked hard to prep my poor nails before painting with gorgeous essie. This extra effort was certainly not part of the treatment, but much appreciated. Sadly, the nail varnish I picked proved to be a bit too popular! Half-way through the treatment the therapist struggled to scrap the gloopy bottom of the bottle. As a result the coverage was a little uneven and it was hard to get precise edges. The gap between my cuticles and the polish was wide enough to warrant a tannoy announcement. Despite the gap the shine was lovely and my nails appeared really glossy when finished. Afterwards I was shown to the relaxation area, which faces east to the river. It is a lovely calm space filled with delicious homemade treats like granola and sponge squares. I won’t embarrass myself by admitting how many I ate. For healthy people with will power there are nuts, protein balls, apples and more water. I didn’t see any hot beverage options which was surprising given the low temperatures outside, but these might have been available on request. The only small thing letting down an otherwise lovely relaxation area was a lack of magazines. Perhaps this was to encourage Zen, but one of my treats is flicking through a magazine and Golfers Digest just didn’t fit the brief. Overall it was a lovely experience for such a minor treatment, but next time I will pick a less popular colour.

Ashford Castle - checking outDay two I returned to the Spa for an Elemis facial. As I was checking out of Ashford Castle after the treatment I went down in my robe, with my bags. The changing room isn’t really designed for much usage or luggage. There are two short rows of anorexic lockers, which only have enough room for a robe and a pair of shoes. Alternatively, you can drop the rest of your luggage to reception. Some of the lockers and seating are located directly in front of the door to reception, which can result in some guests getting a room with a view! The two shower rooms and loos are surprisingly spacious compared with the changing area and the room is well stocked with cotton wool, shower caps and Elemis products.

I was brought to the stunning pool area to complete my pre-treatment form. You could happilyspend your entire day in this room watching the clouds or looking at the exquisite designs and sculptures on the wall, while listening to the lap of the water. The pool is really only for dipping and has a number of seats and jets, so not an option for swimmers. It is deliciously child free in the afternoon. Dragging myself away from my pool side lounger I went for a quick steam to enhance my impending facial. The steam room is almost as stunning as the pool area. Hewn from stone with a wonderful full length window, balcony and fountain sink it was a real immersion experience.

Ashford Castle Spa
It was such a wonderful experience that I almost missed my appointment time so do find some way to track time (no clocks or timers that I could see) or ask someone to come and get you. Again my Therapist was lovely and I was shown to a large double sized treatment room. Due to my notoriously indecisive nature combined with a wide choice it was a difficult to select one facial. Also, there was no reference guide or price list in the room and with a 30% difference in facial prices this could prove a costly selection. We eventually settled on one of the nourishing vitamin facials and I hopped up on the heated bed. On a cold day this was a glorious treat. The Therapist was superb and adapted the treatment to my needs and kindly offered a hand instead of a head massage. She also adapted two of the facials I struggled to choose between, which was excellent client service. Each stage of the treatment was explained and I was guided through the phases so I was completely comfortable and relaxed. The only missing element was that of smell – normally scented oils are used in the room or during the facial and I think this is a missed opportunity, both in the treatments and throughout the spa. It is only a small point, but the sense of smell has a powerful impact on mood and state. Afterwards I had the choice between the pool or relaxation rooms and I opted for the pool room for a short rest before leaving the spa in full bloom.

[Natalie is a late arrival to the world of beauty and spa treatments, but they are now an essential part of her battle against time and gravity].

Tips on Long Haul Travel

By Joanie Bergin, guest writer for Unwind and let go

Tips on Long Haul Travel

Over the years I have traveled long haul extensively for both business and pleasure. The most important thing I have learnt from various trips around the globe is to be kind to people you meet along the way. I cannot convey how wonderful and unexpected things can happen when you either offer help to someone or offer a friendly smile. No matter what your mood is when you start your journey or even the booking process, my tried and tested tip is to always be polite and show goodwill to the airline staff, airport staff and other passengers. A thank you or a smile to even the cleaners in the bathrooms brighten their days when so many people can be dismissive. Believe me the goodwill comes back in terms of better seats, upgrades or a nicer meal from the first or business cabin and higher quality snacks. I still remember the time my flight was cancelled and rather than staying overnight in Frankfurt I asked to be routed via Hong Kong, met a friend for coffee and chat and got home to my Malaysian apartment 10 hours before my rescheduled flight was due to land. Trust me, kindness works every time!

Tips on Long Haul Travel

In the air, I am cautious to limit myself to one or two glasses of alcohol, preferably champagne or wine on a long flight, and re hydrate with a Diorlyte sachet mid-flight or at meal time. Whatever class you are flying in for business or pleasure, on long haul and short, staying hydrated is key; drink plenty of water or tomato juice. Passengers get grumpy when dehydrated. The Diorlyte seems to help keep water in your system longer and also helps remove the horrible headache feeling after a long flight – with or without alcohol. A Vick’s nasal inhaler also clears your head and makes it easier to breathe through your nose too. On a long haul flight in my carry on I always have a change of clothes, a pashmina or a fleece and in my washbags some moisturiser, and Origins Clear Head Mint Shampoo, as it really helps to wake you up after a long flight, either in transit or at your final destination.

What to wear? The eternal question! When flying I always wear smart but comfortable clothes, as it always helps if they are choosing people to upgrade. Regardless of flying class I tend to change into long cotton yoga trousers once on board (a long flight) to be comfortable, whether curled up in the front row of economy, which when travelling without my four children is for me almost as good as business class!

Who to fly with? Here’s my top tip. My company, like most businesses is careful on travel budgets, but fortunately flights over 8 hours are in Premium Economy or Business class. A couple of years ago I needed to fly from Malaysia to Washington DC for 5 days, a door to door journey of almost 21 hours. As I was obliged to fly premium economy, I was lucky to find that Etihad were launching a new route from Abu Dhabi to Washington DC with discounted business class fares. I had always avoided going through the Middle East, but wow, I had the best flights in Business class that I have ever experienced. Their discounted fare, introduced me to a world of A la carte dining (meals at your choice of eating time, not the airlines), excellent food – in fact the best scrambled egg I have ever eaten, cosy blankets, comforting soup and the unrivaled Six Sense’s Spas in their lounges with free treatments. When I arrived in the US I was able to do a full week of work without the usual exhaustion of a long journey. The economics of flying in business meant that I did not waste any company time on fatigue. I had also done the same trip in Business with Singapore Airlines, Thai, and Korean and in Premium Economy with Thai, but good food and rest on the Etihad plane did make a difference. You can get as comfortable as you can in economy but if you are not served something decent it is hard to rest properly. No other airline offers such comforts or good quality food in their lounges or in the air. Other airlines ”largest seats”, “Hygge night lights and on-board chefs”, “luxury, branded amenity kits” do not match the flying re-imagined by Etihad.

Finally flying should be as stress free as possible and it should also be time out. A chance for some ‘me-time’, to drift through the clouds and chill out. Approaching any flight with a positive outlook and a carefully considered plan, makes all the difference – believe me!

Joanie Bergin imagines herself (when not working or cooking for her husband and 4 children, or 6 if you include their Golden Retriever and Sourdough) to be constructive travel critic. She is really passionate about baking and cooking and is a self professed vanilla snob. 

A Spring Detox

A Spring DetoxIt seems my urge to declutter extends also to myself, and about a month ago I started a detox program. Designed to boost energy, heal the gut and of course remove nasty toxins from your body, detox programs come in many shapes and sizes. I went with the The Clean Program, beloved by Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop followers, and when I was last in the US, I picked up the Clean detox pack and started the very next day.

The last time I did anything similar was about seven years ago whilst visiting India for an Ayurveda program. I like to be very melodramatic about it and tell everyone how it nearly killed me, but its true, for a very long time I was sworn off detox’s and so it came as a pleasant surprise that I was now finally ready to give my digestive flora a much needed cleanse. I had read Clean last year and somehow it made sense that good food and energy were intrinsically linked. So while the thought of no alcohol, no coffee, no sugar, no gluten & no dairy… (as well as a couple of other food groups like nightshades) did seemed daunting, it also seemed like a fair trade for a much welcomed shot of vitality.

A Spring DetoxThe program is reasonably straightforward. By removing certain food groups from your diet, you allow your body to focus its energy on removing toxins and strengthening the gut. To facilitate this you supplement your breakfast and evening meal with light meals like shakes and soups and eat your main meal at lunchtime. The Clean Program comes with a box of multi-vitamins, probiotics and supplements to ensure that you are getting all the right minerals into your body. There is also a requirement to keep 12 hours between your evening meal and your breakfast, so that your body has plenty of time to properly detox, eliminate and recover. And you can also snack on nuts, seeds and some fruit and veg, so its not as is you have to starve or purge yourself to the point of self punishment!

On my first week, the novelty of using my Nutri-bullet in the morning was enough to keep me distracted from my usual fix of porridge and honey. I bought fresh fruit and veg every couple of days and loaded up my shakes with berries, avocados, spinach and a range of milks (almond, rice or coconut). After a few attempts I managed to get the consistency of my shakes just right, (the trick being to add ice cubes) and I was essentially on my way.  Lunch was straightforward enough and I normally went with fish, chicken and brown rice with loads of veggies. Mid afternoon snacks were usually nuts, rice cakes and sometimes some dark chocolate (yes! you are allowed this).  The real challenge was facing into a shake for dinner after a long day at work. There is something quite comforting to come home in the evening and flop down in front of a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine. So this switch was a real challenge. But I soon expanded my repertoire to include mangoes, dates and other interesting concoctions and this seemed to do the trick…

A Spring DetoxThe whole time I was doing the detox I was just really really curious to see what difference removing some of the baddies from your diet can make (i.e. sugar, dairy and gluten) to your overall well being. The first thing I noticed was that my sleep pattern changed, I started having really really deep sleeps and in the beginning I would wake up not knowing where I was, but better quality sleep was a big plus and I woke every day feeling like I had slept better. The next thing I noticed was that my brain became a lot clearer – far sharper in work (I think!), more focused and less brain fog towards the end of the week. I no longer had a creak in my neck and while my energy levels took some time to gather momentum I did start to feel a lot more energised in general. The other thing is that I think my skin is clearer (but that could also be due to my penchant for spas too -;). I’m not sure if I look younger, but this is also meant to be a big benefit too.

I didn’t initially do the detox for weight loss and in fact its not guaranteed. The last thing I wanted was to drop a load of weight and then pile it all back on again with a surplus, once the detox was over. The program advises not think too much about it and if and when your body is ready, it will shed some pounds. To my surprise, it was only around Day 17 or 18 that I finally started to notice a difference and in the last few days of the detox my cumulative loss has been 6 pounds. But I really wouldn’t obsess about this and more focus on all the other benefits. Right now, I feel really good, healthier, sharper and empowered. Doing the detox has made me really curious to start exploring more healthier alternatives and foods and I genuinely feel like I have a spring in my step to venture into newer, healthier eating habits for improved well being. Why not give it a try?


Photographing San Francisco

Photographing San FranciscoI spent an early morning dawn photographing San Francisco with Doc Miles Photography on a recent trip to the city by the bay. Doc collected me from my hotel at 5.00am and we whizzed off in his brand new range rover with cameras and tripods to catch the sun rise. Fortunately I had been wide awake since the early hours with a mix of jet lag and anticipation but felt reasonably confident and alert for the adventure. Our first stop was Bay Bridge which spans San Francisco Bay and dates back to the 1930’s. As it shimmered in the street lights, I set up my camera and stared into my viewfinder only to see pitch black. It took me a few moments to realise to my utter embarrassment, I had forgotten to remove the lense cap from my camera. Having fumbled around to fix that, myself and Doc quickly established that I was in truth a complete rookie and this was in fact my first attempt at capturing cityscapes.

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