A little bit of luxury @ Soho Farmhouse

Last week RBJ and I were lucky enough to spend a few days at Soho Farmhouse for a friend’s wedding. The Farmhouse is part of the chic Soho House group, which has hotels around the world including London, Istanbul, Miami, NY and Barcelona. As it’s a members only club, they only do weddings on Thursdays so we took the Thursday and Friday off work and travelled from London Paddington to Charlbury on the first off-peak train. We shared a taxi with another couple from Charlbury to the farmhouse, the entire journey from London in total taking just over 90 minutes.

We arrived at the gatehouse reception,  checked in and gave our bags to be taken to our cabin. We were offered a bottle of water and then we were chauffeured to the main building in little retro milk floats.

The Farmhouse is located on 100 acres of land and is like a little village of its own. It has 40 luxury “cabins”, a seven bedroom farmhouse, ultra glam bell tents, an electric cinema, a number of restaurants and bars, a gym, indoor and outdoor pool and TWO spas both complete with their own saunas and steam rooms. Although I am sure there are people working round the clock to make this place as beautiful as it is, they have cleverly kept the Farmhouse feel, with wild flowers lining the path and roads,  wooden sheds and barns, horses, pigs, ducks, geese, a plethora of battered copper and tin furnishings and (my favourite), farmhands rather than hotel staff waiting on you literally 24/7.

With 4 hours until the wedding, we headed straight for the main pool and sauna for a quick dip before lunch. Sadly the weather was pretty grey and overcast but I took a few photos of the boathouse so you get an idea of just how incredible it is:

There is an indoor pool that leads to the outdoor pool through the side of the boathouse, a sauna and steam room. The changing facilities are impeccable, complete with cowshed products, big fluffy towels, hairdryers and straighteners. On our walk back to the restaurant after, we discovered the Cowshed spa – a second sauna and steam room situated in a little lake with outdoor hot tubs. We enquired and were told that as we were staying at the Farmhouse, use of the Cowshed spa facilities was complimentary. So we decided to go back the day after for ultimate hangover remedy!

We grabbed a bite to eat in the restaurant then headed back to the cabin to get ready, chauffeured by a farmhand in one of the hotels fleet of BMWs. Our cabin was (of course, you guessed it…) incredible! Here are a few photos:

The cabin was elegant and stylish, yet maintained that rustic chic feeling of the rest of the hotel. The kitchen was well kitted out with everything you could need/want, including  a loaf of freshly baked bread and butter, a nespresso machine, Farmhouse granola, homemade cookies and ready mixed cocktails. The bathroom had every Cowshed product you could imagine, THE most incredible shower, a rolltop bath (which devastatingly I never had time to use) and fluffy robes and towels. Quite simply put, cabin porn at its best. However with less than an hour until the wedding, we had to stop our oggling and get ready or risk being late for the main event!

From the ceremony to the food, to the band to the after party, Soho Farmhouse knows how to nail a wedding. Our bride and groom looked truly ravishing and certainly know how to throw one hell of a party! We didn’t actually finish the dinner and speeches until  10pm and I believe it was around 3am that we crawled into our cabin with sore feet and hoarse throats – the  sign of a good party in the McJoseph residence!

 I wasn’t feeling too fresh Sunday but nothing that an alka-seltzer and the promise of a spa couldn’t fix – well that and the macaroni cheese I had for the brunch that our bride and groom kindly put on for all the wedding guests! The Farmhouse has its own, (slightly more stylish!) version of Boris Bikes dotted around for use by visitors. So we finished brunch and to dust off the cobwebs and let our food go down before the Cowshed Spa, we went for a ride to explore. As well as discovering some of the most incredible cabins, we also came across the Farmhouse crazy golf!

After a quick round, we finally made our way back to the Cowshed spa, entering through the shop. We were given the softest of all dressing gowns and some flip flops to change into. The spa itself is on a wee island overlooking the lake: there are two wooden hot tubs, a sauna, steam room and ice hut. We spent the next hour, going between the hot tubs, the steam room and the sauna, with quick trips between to the ice hut. Aside from one other couple, we were the only ones there. It felt so luxury and serene – instantly I knew I had found my new happy place 🙂 After, we showered and changed back – the changing rooms were of course beautiful and complete with every Cowshed product imaginable.I spent the whole time I was at Soho Farmhouse feeling like a kid in a sweet shop. It is the most incredible place I have ever stayed and is the perfect countryside escape. The cabin we stayed in was incredible, the wedding so beautiful and the spa up there as one of the most luxurious I’ve ever visited.

The Cowshed Spa at Soho Farmhouse scores:

COST: The Farmhouse is a members only club, however as I understand it, you can visit as a non-member on weekdays. We were there as wedding guests so we’re lucky enough to have our stay heavily subsidised so can’t really give a fair score on cost.

CLEANLINESS: 5/5

IN THREE WORDS: LUXURY, STYLISH, MYNEWHAPPYPLACE

The cheapest massage in South London? 

I first stumbled upon Siam Beauty as a recommendation from one of my sisters. She had been living in Wandsworth for a year before RBJ and I moved to our first London flat in Clapham and told us about this place on Lavender Hill where you could have a one hour Thai or Swedish massage for just £35, which included use of the sauna and steam room beforehand. Considering the equivalent anywhere else in London would cost at least double that, we had to give it a go.

Siam Beauty has two salons both on Lavender Hill in Clapham. Having lived minutes from the salon at number 12, that has always been my preference and the one I have visited most. Now lets start with the downside – the facilties are far from plush – the changing rooms consist of a small room with a curtain over the door, a bench and public swimming pool style lockers. And from the outside you may be forgiven for thinking this place was best avoided. 


However, although small and basic, the facilities are clean, the massages incredible and almost every time I have been the sauna and steam room have been empty (yay!) Although the use of the sauna is included in the price, this isn’t factored into your booking time so I recommend arriving thirty minutes before the booked time to use them. 

On my first few visits I went for a Thai massage but the last time I went I had Swedish. I love a firm massage and tend to say that to the masseur at the start. The Thai massage is nothing short of what I experienced from a Thai massage in Thailand –  complete with the pole on the ceiling for the masseur to hold on to as they walk along your back! Possibly not one for the fainthearted!

I have read some online reviews that allege  there are some dodgy goings-on at Siam Beauty. However I personally have never had anything but a fantastic experience. I have recommended it to friends who all say the same thing. Sadly now we are in Streatham, it’s no longer a two minute walk from the flat but that won’t stop me going back.

From the decor to the customer service, its a no frills experience, however it may well be the best and cheapest massage you will ever have in London.

The Douglas Dook, Arran

This year RBJ and I spent New Years with a big group of friends and family in Arran, an island off the west coast of Scotland. We celebrated Hogmanay with a dinner party at our cottage, followed by drinks and dancing at the fabulous Pier Head Tavern in Lamlash. Then on New Years Day, we took the plunge and joined in the Arran tradition known as the “Douglas Dook”.

A “dook”is a dip or swim in open water without a wet suit. The tradition in Arran first started about 5 years ago when guests visiting the Douglas Hotel in Brodick decided to go for a new years day dip. Since then, every 1 January at 12pm a group of 30-40 residents and visitors hoping for an instant hangover cure, take the plunge into the icy cold waters of the Firth of Clyde.

We arrived at the hotel at 11.30 to be greeted with a clipboard and disclaimer form, a not so reassuring start!!

We dropped our bags in the hotel bar, which was filled with equally uneasy/ hungover looking would-be dookers! Then just before 12, with our cossies under our clothes and clutching our towels, we grouped together and along with a large number of supporters, started the stroll down to the seafront lead by a six-person Chinese dragon!

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Although it was a beautiful clear day, the wind was icy cold and suddenly the reality of what we were about to do hit in!! However before we had time to think about it, the dragon had approached the sand and began a steady saunter into the freezing water. We stripped off to our swimmers and without another thought, ran into the water! And here is the evidence to prove that we did actually do it:

and that we retreated very quickly after (!!!) :

The freezing water made my hands and toes tingle instantly and left us all gasping and numb. But with it came a sense of exhilaration and an instant adrenaline rush!


With a great sense of achievement for doing it (and surviving to tell the tale!), we all went back to the Douglas to get dressed and enjoy a mug of “Dookers Soup”.

As it turns out, the Douglas Dook is one of many festive swims for the brave/ foolish/ masochists among us, with others taking place all over the country. It was a lot of fun, plus it proved to be an incredible hangover cure and a great way to clear away the cobwebs after an overly indulgent Christmas break!!

The SSS review:

COST: 5/5 – Free to those who are barmy enough to give it a go! Plus the hotel throw in a complimentary cup of soup after 🙂

CLEANLINESS: 5/5 – The water was crisp and clean

IN THREE WORDS: SCOTTISH, HANGOVER, CURE

The “Loony Dookers”

UPDATE: We have since found out that we made the local Arran press at the Dook – fame at last!!

 

Sauna extreme: a Mexican temezcal

On our last night in Tulum, RBJ and I were invited by Casa Violeta to experience a traditional Mexican sweat lodge called a Temezcal. “Great I love saunas” I thought, blissfully unaware that the Temezcal is a world apart from any sauna I have ever experienced before.

Temezcal is a sauna “ceremony” rather than just a normal European sauna where you go in and out as and when you chose. It takes place in a temporary structure which is made of traditional blankets draped over a wooden tent-like structure in the sand. When we arrived at the gardens of Casa Violeta, the structure had been built and next to it was a large fire pit, which we later learnt contained volcanic rocks brought especially from Veracruz for the ceremony.

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Totally unaware of what the next hour had in store for us…

img_4762-2img_4764-2The temezcal was conducted by a shaman healer called Kiauitl and her assistant. We began with a cleaning ritual where Kiauitl took ash from a fire, mixed it with a type of incense and blew the smoke over our bodies. After we stood by the fire and gave thanks to the four cardinal points (air, fire, wind and sun), turning to face them as we did. Kiauitl explained that during the ceremony we would be meditating and reflecting and giving thanks for things that we are grateful for in our lives. Now I’m not a particularly spiritual person and after the first reference to the “elements” and my “inner self”, I was starting to think this was not going to be my cup of tea at all. However, I decided to try and suppress my inner scepticism and embrace the spiritual-ness of the temezcal experience, curious about what was in store. As it turns out, its pretty easy to embrace your spiritual side when you are sitting crossed legged in the dark for over an hour, near-delirious from the scalding heat while a Mexican woman sings and chants at you in Spanish!!!

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Kiautil preparing the herbs

 

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We entered the temezcal on our hands and knees and sat cross-legged on small mats around a large pit dug out of the sand. We had four puertas or “doors”, each lasting about 15 minutes and being dedicated to different concepts: the first to family, the second to mothers, the third to fathers and the final to love and marriage (which I’m pretty sure was tailored in this way because we were on our honeymoon). At the start of each puerta, Kiauitl introduced stones from the fire, beginning with a stone known as the “grandmother stone” and singing chants as she did. The stones were taken out of the fire using a pitchfork and then slid in and dropped into the hole in the middle of where we were sat, instantly bringing intense heat with them. Then at various stages throughout the  ceremony, Kiauitl also poured water, infused with herbs such as chamomile, rosemary, mint and basil onto the rocks creating intense steam which filled the hut. In each puerta, we were encouraged to go round and give thanks, speaking often as if you were speaking directly to a particular person. It was a little cringe at first, but it did become more natural as we went on, possibly as we became more and more delirious from the heat!

In total we were in the temezcal for over an hour, hence not an experience for the faint-hearted. I like to think that I am pretty resilient when it comes to hot saunas however this was insanely hot. By the end it was so intense that RBJ had to lie face down on the cool sand to try and cool off and not pass out! By the time we crawled out, it was pitch black outside and the cool air on my face felt incedible. We took a few minutes to find our feet (I felt really light headed) and then walked down to the sea for a swim to cool off.

For the rest of the evening I felt like I was floating. Never in my life have I sweated so much! My skin felt soft and I felt cleansed in both my mind and body. All in all it was an incredible, one-off experience and one I will never forget (although perhaps not one either of us are in any hurry to do again soon!!)

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COST: The normal price is US$55 per person for a group temezcal or a private ceremony for US$250. We paid the discounted rate of US$120 total which for the experience I feel was well worth it.

CLEANLINESS: As it was in the sand on the edge of the jungle, doesn’t really apply!

IN THREE WORDS: Intense, spiritual and sandy!

For more information on temezcals at Casa Violeta, go to http://www.casavioletatulum.com

Good news for all Streathamites


Nestled in amongst the multitude of estate agents, barbers and KFCs on Streatham High Road, Streatham has a new opening that everyone needs to know about.

Owned and managed by the lovely Emma Wilson herself, Emma Wilson Urban Spa opened in Streatham at the beginning of March this year, bringing a little bit of calm and luxury to the busy high road. The salon itself has a tranquil, beachy feel and the decor is very chic – all the wood used to create the counters, bar and wall are reclaimed and locally sourced from within a two mile radius of the Streatham salon. You would never know from the calming interiors that you were metres from Europe’s longest and busiest high street!

A little oasis of calm on the busy high road

Emma is originally from the west coast of Ireland and the core brand, Voya, that she uses in the salon, uses seaweed from her hometown of County Sligo. All of the ingredients are organic and perfectly suited for someone with sensitive skin like me, who is a little cautious of putting new products on my face.

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Voya product range

I was invited by Emma to try a tailored treatment: a combination that included a salt scrub, back massage and a HEAVENLY facial and scalp massage. Emma asked me a few questions before – smells I like, my general body temperature (my hands and feet are always cold!), how firm I would like to be massaged – allowing her to tailor each of the treatments to exactly what I like most e.g. she used hot towels and heated the treatment table so I stayed nice and warm during the session.

The treatment room

Although perhaps slightly pricier than some salons in Streatham, there is no doubt at all that you get what you pay for at Emma Wilson Urban Spa; the staff are lovely, the salon is beautifully decorated and the treatments and products are natural and high quality, tailored to each person.  The only improvement I could add to the overall experience would be if they had a sauna or steam room to use before the treatments! After my treatment I was offered a cup of seaweed mint tea at the little bar that Emma has crafted in the back of the salon to discuss the treatments I had received and the products used. I came away feeling truly pampered and relaxed and my skin felt really soft and silky. And the best thing – it is only a 5 minute walk from my front door 🙂

I have also since been using Voya “Cleanse and Mend” cleansing lotion for sensitive skin which is doing wonders for my skin. It cost £23 and is a pump action bottle. I just apply it by hand morning and evening and so far the results are clearer skin and noticeably clearer pores on my chin and nose. Which is good news for the wedding in TWO WEEKS TIME!!!!

So here is it:

COST: 4/5 – A 1hr 15m massage is around £60 and a facial is between £60-80, therefore the salon isn’t a cheap option by Streatham standards, but is about average for London generally. However as I have already mentioned above, you really do get what you pay for in terms of the quality of service and products and the overall experience and it really isn’t comparable to your average Streatham “salon”. More information on prices is available on the website.

CLEANLINESS: 5/5

IN THREE WORDS: TRANQUIL, PAMPERING and STYLISH

I can’t recommend Emma Wilson Urban Spa enough and will definitely be going back there. For more information on Voya and the treatments Emma offers, visit  http://www.emmawilsonurbanspa.co.uk

Harrogate Hen Shenanigans

A week ago today I was here:

And it was HEAVENLY. For those who haven’t been or don’t recognise it, the picture above was taken in the Turkish baths in Harrogate, where I spent the first few hours of my hen do last weekend.

The entire weekend was meticulously planned by my bridesmaids. On the Friday lunchtime I arrived at Kings Cross Station, where I was suitably adorned with a veil and (classy) sash, given a glass of fizz (the first of many) and met by a gaggle of gorgeous girls to travel up to Harrogate with. Our journey got off to an excellent start when the lovely Richard from Virgin Trains, gave us a few extra chilled bottles of prosecco for free. What a ledge!

 

Practicing those smiles for the wedding

 

Excited/ apprehensive/ gin-downing face

The apartments in Harrogate were beautiful and perfect for a hen do. We had apartments across 5 floors, with a big kitchen and living room in the bottom flat for hanging out together and playing games. We arrived around 5pm, dropped off our bags and did a speedy turnaround back out to the Turkish Baths (which are situated in the same building as a Chinese restaurant – causing me much confusion that we were about to go for dinner instead!)

The baths were originally opened in 1897 and were said at the time to be the most advanced hydrotherapy centre in the world. Having gone through various periods of popularity and decline and with a number of famous clientele (we were reliably informed that Agatha Christie regularly visited), in the late 90s, as a result of various grants and partnerships, the baths were lovingly restored to their former Victorian beauty: beautiful mosaic floors, theatre-style changing rooms, fine polished dark wood surfaces and brightly coloured glazed bricks. Combined with how pristine the baths are kept, they may well be up there as some of the most beautiful I have ever visited. And if you don’t believe me, check out the photos:

  
  
There is a steam room, one huge sauna with two levels and a FREEEEZING plunge pool. The sauna is tiled and the layout is very sociable, with space to sit on chairs or sit around the outside of the room on the tiles. The top level was around 80 degrees so my kind of heat too!

It was such a perfect start to my hen do: relaxing with all my friends and doing what I love to do! Harrogate Turkish Baths easily gets some of my top rankings yet:

COST: I was treated to the entire hen by my sisters and did not put my hand in my purse all weekend (I know, I am totally spoilt). But I have been reliably informed that while it certainly isn’t cheap, the Harrogate spa is good value for money and isn’t extortionately expensive. More information on price is available on their website.

CLEANLINESS: 5/5

IN THREE WORDS: HEAVEN, HEAVEN, HEAVEN!!!

For more information on Harrogate Turkish Baths and its facilities go to: http://www.turkishbathsharrogate.co.uk

After the baths, we headed back to the apartment to have pizza and prosecco, play a few games and catch up with everyone.

On Saturday, after a fair amount of teasing directed my way about the day ahead, we arrived via minibus to How Stean Gorge to go gorge walking and abseiling. Now anyone who knows me will tell you that I like a challenge and I love the great outdoors so a hen activity right up my ally. But I would be telling a big fat lie if I said I wasn’t quite apprehensive about how cold the water was going to be!! And I was right to be – it was FREEEEZING!! We abseiled down into the water in our wetsuits and hard hats and once we were all down were thrown straight in (literally) – submerged shoulder deep into the water! There were a few unhappy faces (me included!!) as we started off, but as the water in our suits warmed up and we started to get the hang of it and work as a team, we began to successfully conquer How Stean Gorge and made it out alive and feeling pretty damn proud that we did! Just to show you how hardcore (and in hindsight how beautiful) it really was, here are a few photos:
   After we got out and changed, I was treated to THE best hot chocolate I have ever tasted and then we jumped on the minibus and headed back to the apartments.

As fancy dress has featured pretty heavily in my adult life and in my university life with RBJ, I was under no illusion that I would be wearing any of my own clothes out on Saturday night. And the girls did not disappoint! I was dressed up in a red tartan dress, with pop socks and a wee scottie dog called Russell who I became particularly fond of and was told not to part from all evening (which I didn’t until the end!!):

My bridesmaids also wore tartan dresses and then the rest of the girls wore something tartan: too:

Bridesmaids 🙂

My gorgeous big sister

Lucky Russell

Mummy McV

The girls 🙂

Crop top wedding dress anyone?

The night was filled with so many fun games, including a wedding dress making challenge with white bin bags (and live catwalk!), a live Mr and Mrs (they filmed RBJs answers and played them back) and the obligatory pin the willy on my naked husband to be (no, not ACTUALLY him – a poster with his head stuck on it!). We also had willy straws, “Lornie’s hen” tattoos, photo challenges, vow writing, steak and A LOT of bubbles!!! And finished off with a suitably cheesy dance floor at the Viper Rooms in Harrogate where I danced until my feet gave up!

So a big fat thank you to my bridesmaids for organising such a splendid weekend and to my friends for all coming. 36 sleeps until I do …

Fine dining in the Hood

Streatham has its share of eating and drinking gems, however currently they are somewhat few and far between along the UK’s longest high street. Therefore, when I find and go to a good bar or restaurant in SW16, I like to stray off topic and shout about it.

On Saturday night, I took RBJ to Hood in Streatham Hill for a little romantic Valentine’s Day dinner (technically SW2 but still Streatham!) Hood has been on our radar since we moved to Streatham in March last year, however, having been told good things, we wanted to save it for a special occasion.

We received a friendly welcome from the moment we walked in and were quickly shown to a table towards the back of the restaurant. The decor is chic and fresh, with brightly coloured plastic chairs and blackboard walls giving off a bit of a coffee shop feel. The restaurant has lots of lovely quirky touches like a wall displaying the names of the crowdfunders who contributed to the start up, an old-school dumbwaiter (which can be seen in photo below) and a map showing where all of the ingredients, wine and beer are sourced from in the South of England:       I am a huge supporter of buying local produce, and where possible, I always try and pick local and British over imported goods. And Hood really ticked the box on that front: nearly all of their ingredients are locally sourced, including a huge selection of Brixton beers and English wines. Keen to try some of the English wines, we started with a delicious sparkling wine “Nutty Brut” from Nutborne Vineyards in West Sussex, followed by a bottle of Pinot Noir, “Davenport” from a two acre vineyard in East Sussex (which was VERY drinkable!)

The food was everything we had hoped for. Saying that, we did push the boat out and ordered chateaubriand for two so it was unlikely that we were going to have anything bad to say! The starters and pudding also did not disappoint:

Crispy pork rillettes with sage cream, apple jelly and onion rings

Blackened salmon with pickled cucumber, yoghurt and horseradish dressing

 

No caption needed!!

 

Salted caramel chocolate pot with buttermilk Chantilly and peanut cookies

 

And YES I did enjoy it!!

The steak was cooked to perfection with just the right amount of chips to allow room for a pudding! The salted caramel chocolate pot came with gooey chocolate on top of a layer of thick salted caramel. If your going to break a wedding diet for a weekend, this is DEFINITELY the way to do it!!

I thought the prices were also very reasonable: £5-7 for starters, £10-17 for mains (although our steak was a special and set us back a well-worth-it £25 per head) and puddings started from £5. The cheapest bottle of wine was £18 which for a London restaurant is pretty good.

All round, I was very impressed by Hood and would highly recommend a visit to Streatham to experience it for yourself. We will definitely be going back there (probably to check out their brunch menu – my favourite meal of the day!) For more information on Hood and their current promotions (in February they are offering 15% off for neighbours who dine together!) see their website here.

This valentines was extra special as I used it as an opportunity to tell RBJ that I have decided to take his surname when we get married in May (I have been toying with the idea of double barrelling our names for a while now). We are being very selective about the traditions that we keep and those that we toss away as being “out-dated” or just simply not us, and I initially felt that changing my name, for me, belonged to the latter. However, after much consideration and a lot of wine-fuelled conversations with some of my girlfriends about the complexities and underlying meaning of changing your name in today’s day and age, I have decided that I want to take his surname. That’s not to say that name changing is for everyone – its a difficult decision for any modern couple and one I certainly gave a lot of thought to.

I ended up telling RBJ with a personalised valentines card from Not on the High Street seller, Emma Moore Illustration and Design. And his reaction made me all the more sure that it definitely was the right decision 🙂

3months and 13 days… 🙂

 

Scottish girl in a Finnish sauna: Kultuurisauna

Every November, RBJ and I go away for a long weekend for our anniversary. This year was our ten year anniversary and after a fabulous dinner with a  few of our nearest and dearest in London, we headed to Helsinki for 4 nights of saunas and sushi! While researching which saunas to visit, we quickly discovered  one thing about Finnish public saunas: bathing suits aren’t permitted.

I was brought up in a pretty open household when it came to body awareness. I don’t remember ever being embarrassed by my own or other people’s bodies and when I look back at old photos or home videos, as children, my two big sisters and I were nearly always running around the garden or swimming in freezing lochs, naked. As an adult, I guess I have body insecurities like most, however I wouldn’t have a problem with changing in front of my female friends and family and like to encourage a healthy attitude towards bodies and nakedness to my inquisitive young nieces.

But as a nation, I think we Brits tend to be quite prudish about being naked beyond an early age and the majority of gyms and pools tend to have individual changing rooms. I have certainly never found a  straight sauna in the UK which encourages nudity. On my travels, I have been to one naked sauna on Lake Geneva in Switzerland but nudity wasn’t obligatory and so I chose, (probably out of habit more than anything else) to wear my bikini.

But not ones to be put off by a little local etiquette, we planned our weekend around visiting the saunas, starting our weekend by visiting Kotiharjun sauna near Sornäisten metro stop  and then the following day, after a morning shopping in the design district and visiting the Design Museum, we visited the much talked about Kultuurisauna.

We left for Kultuurisauna at 3pm and this is what the approach looked like:

Needless to say: Finland gets dark early in winter!!

Kultuurisauna instantly felt very different from Kotiharjun: serene, modern and a bit more wild, located on the edge of the Baltic Sea looking back over the lights of the city.  We were greeted by the man on the front desk and reminded of the sauna rules: men and women separately and no bathing suits allowed. We were given mini hand towels (for sitting on) and a locker key. It was possible to hire towels but we didn’t need them this time.  We were also told that  some visitors choose to take a dip in the Baltic Sea (which in November is approx. 2 – 3 degrees) between saunas!!

We were shown to separate changing rooms and as it was quiet when we arrived, I took a sneaky photo of the changing rooms:

At first it did feel a little bit odd stripping off and going in naked to the saunas, but it very quickly became very normal! It wasn’t entirely clear to me what the etiquette was with adding water however as I like my saunas hot, I topped it up quite regularly! There was a long glass window in the sauna from which you could enjoy the heat of the sauna and look back over Baltic sea to the shining lights of the city. Possibly my new happy place 🙂

The only down side to Helsinki public saunas is if you chose to visit as a couple, it isn’t particularly sociable. RBJ and I created a system whereby he knocked on the adjoining wall when he left his sauna so I knew he was going out and could go and join him for chill-out time and a VERY nippy dip in the Baltic Sea:

A dip in the Baltic Sea in November

The “chill out” area

In the chill out area, there was a brilliant wee book which set out the purpose and criteria behind building Kuluurisauna in 2013:

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We enjoyed a fabulous weekend in Helsinki and I would definitely recommend both Kultuurisauna and Kotiharjun to sauna lovers. The other highlights included the amazing Sushibar and Wine (no need to explain – the clue is in the name), our very cool hotel, GLO Art Hotel in the Design District and Hakaniemi Market for all sorts of tasty Finnish food (pickled EVERYTHING!!)

The amazing sushi at Sushibar and Wine

I’ll have it all!!

Tommi Toija’s sculpture, Bad Bad Boy

Celebrating ten years with this handsome chap 🙂

Kultuurisauna scores:

COST: 5/5 (15 euros entry, which in the context of Helsinki (which isn’t a cheap city) seemed very fairly priced)

CLEANLINESS: 5/5

IN THREE WORDS: SERENE, CALM, MODERN

For more information on Kultuurisauna and its facilities go to: http://www.kulttuurisauna.fi/

Scottish girl in a Finnish sauna: The Kotiharjun sauna

The entrance to Kotiharjun

Last week RBJ and I celebrated our ten year anniversary with a trip to the Finnish capital, Helsinki. After falling in love with Iceland on our seven year anniversary (and then again last NYE), we have been keen to check out some other Scandi cities and to see how they compare. The flights with Norwegian Air were a steal at £80 return from Gatwick so we went for it and booked three nights at the Glo Hotel Art from 26 – 29 November.

I recently read that Finland has a population of 5.4 million people and is home to over 3.3 million saunas, found in people’s homes, offices, factories, sports clubs etc. Doing the maths – that’s more than a sauna per couple! Rumour has it that the Finnish parliament even has a sauna chamber for MPs to debate in and that the term “sauna diplomacy” is a recognised concept in Finland, meaning the sauna environment helps to assist and move forward negotiations!!

Therefore, we decided that a long weekend in Helsinki wouldn’t be complete without visiting a few of the  renowned public saunas the city has to offer. And where best to start than the rustic Kotiharjun Sauna, a five minute walk from Sornäisten metro stop and quite possibly the most traditional sauna I’ve ever visited!

Entrance to Kotiharjun

We arrived to the red neon ‘Sauna’ sign in what looked like quite a residential road. We entered and were greeted with a “Hey” from a burly man in a red hat who was very pleasant. We paid €30 for our entrance fee (which included two towels) and he explained the rules:
1. Men and women sauna separately.

2. Always shower before and after entering the sauna each time.

3. No bathing suits in the sauna.

He explained that while we had to change and sauna separately, we could meet to chill out imbetween saunas together outside. So we agreed to meet in half an hour back at reception, and I went upstairs to change and experience my first Finnish sauna.

Kotiharjun is a truly no-frills experience and anyone visiting under the pretence it is a “spa” would be in for a bit of a surprise. The changing rooms were basic and I got the feeling that while everything was clean and functional, it was well-used and had been since it first opened in the 1920s. Ladies dressed in towels were chatting and laughing, sat on white, plastic chairs around plastic tables covered with picnic food and bottled drinks. It felt very sociable but quite odd to find people eating and drinking in a sauna changing room!

Entrance to the women’s changing rooms

Inside the women’s changing rooms

Following the women in the changing room, I got undressed, popped my clothes in a locker and entered the sauna via the showers. The sauna was one of the largest I’ve been in: it had concrete steps with wooden slats along the top step, piles of wood lining one wall and a huge industrial looking oven to heat the room. I snuck a few sneaky photos at the end when no one was in the sauna:

The HUGE wood burning oven

 

Inside Kotiharjun sauna

Initially disappointed by the heat, I soon realised that unlike other saunas I have been to before, Finnish wood-burning saunas need to be topped up quite regularly to maintain the heat. To add steam, you release a valve on the corner of the oven. Word of warning: it only needs to be released for a few seconds to feel the impact!

RBJ and I met outside on the street after each sauna. It was refreshing to go sit in the cold air with steam rising off of our bare arms, but I did feel quite odd sitting out on the street in just my towel! Everyone was very sociable and lots of people stopped to chat, including a local guy who was keen to tell me that I was at the best public sauna in Finland. When I asked him how often Finnish people go to saunas, he told me that he came to the sauna twice a week, sometimes more if he had time and told me that sauna’ing was in his DNA!

Casually sat outside in my towel making friends

 

#saunaselfie


We continued with this routine for over an hour, each time spending slightly longer outside as we got hotter and hotter, my hottest sauna reaching just over 100 degrees!  I would advise anyone going as a couple to follow the same routine but to take a plastic watch to make meeting up a bit easier. There are no clocks or timers in the sauna which meant I had to keep checking the time in the changing room clock.

I highly recommend visiting Kotiharjun sauna on any trip to Helsinki to experience a more everyday, informal Finnish sauna. If you have time, or like us, love a good sauna, I also recommend a trip to the contrasting Kultuuriasauna which we visited on day 3 – review coming soon!

COST: 5/5

CLEANLINESS: 4/5

IN THREE WORDS: WELL-USED, TRADITIONAL, SOCIABLE

For more information on Kotiharjun Public sauna and its facilities go to: http://www.kotiharjunsauna.fi/kotiharjun-sauna/

Choosing a wedding photographer

While I am not in any way a pro with a camera, taking photos and capturing those special moments has always been really important to me. At university I was never without my little camera (ok fine, cameras – there were many thanks to a few too many glasses of wine and a traumatic incident with a canoe!) and two years ago, in preparation for our Everest Base Camp trek, I finally bought what I call my first “grown up” camera  – a Canon EOS 1100D.  A decision well made and a camera I would highly recommend to any photography novices looking to purchase their first SLR. 

So I guess it goes without saying that after getting engaged, finding and picking our wedding photographer(s) was high up on our list of priorities and is, in my opinion, one of THE most important decisions any couple make for their wedding day.

RBJ and I had a long list of things that were important to us when it came to shortlisting photographers: we were looking for someone who can take emotional yet beautiful shots of a day that everyone keeps telling us will go by very quickly. We also wanted someone to capture the little details that make our wedding ours and doesn’t just take the same old prescribed cliche photos at every wedding they attend. 

Shortlisting our favourite few wasn’t too hard – we knew we wanted a reportage style and we had a rough budget (which rapidly increased when we realised what a good wedding photographer costs). We also received a few recommendations from friends. Once our shortlist had received the photography expert seal of approval from my camera savvy big sis, we arranged to Skype each of them and I prepared a list of questions to ask, including the following:

  • How long have you been in the business and are weddings your main focus? 
  • What is your general approach to the day/ style?
  • How many photos do you normally take?
  • How and when do we get the final photos? 
  • Price, deposit and payment plans plus the cost for albums
  • Importance of going a pre shoot?
  • Do they need to come and see the venue before?
  • What happens if you are ill?

In the end, apart from price, the decision really came down to two things:

1. Photography style
I think it’s important to choose a photographer that has pictures in their portfolio that capture the way you would like to remember your wedding. Lots of photographers are now offering very “instagrammy” type photos – grainy and heavy on the effects. While I love a good Instagram filter as much as the next person (X Pro II or Lo Fi everytime!) I want my wedding photos to be timeless and I think with instagrammy shots, while this style is very current and modern now, they will very quickly date. So we avoided anyone who was too liberal with the filters and instead looked for photographers who used the natural light to capture beautiful shots.

2. Personality 
From the moment we spoke with Sophie and John, a husband and wife team based in Bristol, I knew they were going to be our photographers. I not only felt reassured by their experience as a duo but also felt incredibly excited suddenly about our big day, mostly because Sophie was so excited herself! John told us that every time they leave a days work after photographing a wedding, she turns to him and asks if they can do it all over again! Their enthusiasm and confidence made me feel at ease and I know they are people I would like to have around on our wedding day. 

Now I don’t profess to be an expert at this – the proof is in the photos – but my tip for anyone looking for a photographer is to focus on those two things and hopefully you can’t go too wrong.

Here are a few photos of our pre shoot with John and Sophie near Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park:

Lorn & Russ - Engagement-024-Web Lorn & Russ - Engagement-029-Web  Lorn & Russ - Engagement-031-Web

The full album and information on John Barwood photography can be found on John’s website at http://www.johnbarwoodphotography.co.uk/london-engagement/