Ponta da Ferraria

They say in the Azores that you can experience every season in one day. So you can imagine our surprise (and smugness) when every day for the first five days we woke up to blue skies and sunshine. However finally on day six our luck ended and we experienced the true Azorean weather – of course on the day we intended to go and do a five hour hike around the famous Sete Cidades lakes! However in true British style we were determined to go on regardless, so with packed lunches made and walking shoes at the ready, we arrived at the start of the walk only to find a wall of fog so thick that we couldn’t even see the lakes below.

Luckily the Azores have plenty of rainy day activities that are best suited for cooler weather. So we decided to make the most of this and swap our days around to instead have a hot springs day. Inside I was secretly doing a happy dance – a day of lying in hot pools rather than a five hour hike – result!! We had come prepared with sandals, towels and swimmers in the car so we didn’t need to go back to Ponta Delgada. So from Sete Cidades we headed straight down to the coastal town of Ferraria on the west coast to visit Ponta da Ferraria.

Unlike any thermal pool I’ve ever visited, the thermal pool at Ferraria is in the Atlantic sea. It’s probably worth mentioning here that the sea in the Azores is quite cold. So much so that it’s the first place I have been scuba diving and been given boots and a hood to wear. They say that on average in July its around 20 degrees, making it warm enough to go in when the sun is out but pretty nippy when it isn’t (as was the case the day we visited). Therefore when I first saw the pool at Ferraria in a sea cove, I honestly didn’t believe it would be warm.

We changed into our swimmers and carried our bags down the path to the black rocks by the pool. I tentatively lowered myself down the metal ladder and dipped my foot in the water to discover glorious steaming hot sea water. Heaven!!! I couldn’t believe it and quickly lowered the rest of my body in and swam over to the first set of ropes to get my balance.

The main flow of thermal water into the pool flows in at the back of the cove and mixes with the cool sea water to produce different temperatures at different times. We were very lucky that we arrived during low tide, meaning the water was at its warmest and in certain spots it was easily 40 degrees. As it is tidal, the water does get a bit choppy so ropes have been put in criss-crossing the width of the pool to hold onto to for balance.

Here are some photos:

Mr J rocking his “Mrs J” towel!

As it was low tide, it was quite busy however we really enjoyed watching people arrive and lower themselves in and seeing the look of surprise on their face when they first felt the warmth of the pool. And it never felt overcrowded or too busy that there wasn’t space for everyone.

The best thing about Ferraria was that it was like being in a boiling hot spring and a freezing plunge pool all at once! We would spend 10-15 minutes laying in the heat then we would swim out towards the sea to cool off before heading back in to repeat the whole process again. We spent the best part of an hour and a half swimming up and down the cove enjoying the novelty of the natural pool. In my opinion these are an absolute must on anyone’s itinerary when visiting Sao Miguel!

COST: 5/5 The pool is free to enter which surprised me, especially given it was clearly being maintained with a good path down, there were ladders and ropes in the pool and basic changing rooms were available.

CLEANLINESS: 5/5 The water was crystal clear.

IN THEEE WORDS: MAGICAL, UNIQUE, WILD

After Ferraria, we drove across the northern coastal path to the beautiful town of Nordeste. There the weather had cleared a little so we did a few hours of walking, before heading to Furnas for dinner and an evening soak in the Dona Beja baths – post to follow!

The Fire Lake, Sao Miguel 

Everywhere in the world has what I call its “postcard picture”: for France it’s the Eiffel Tower, for Peru its Macchu Piccu, for London its Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Well for the Azores it’s Sete Cidades, the famous blue and green lakes on the west side of Sao Miguel:


We visited Sete Cidades on our second to last day and did a five hour trek around the outer ridge with some amazing views. The lakes are stunning and very unusual given one is so blue and one so green. However, there is another less popular lake on the island called Lagoa de Fago, which translates as the Fire Lake, and is called this because the lake sits within the crater of an old volcano. Lagao de Fogo is in the centre of the island and for me personally, this was the view that really made me go “wow!”

We visited Lagao de Fogo on our second day of the holiday. We started our walk north of Agua d’Alto in Pico and walked up to the lake, alongside a reservoir that took us to the southern shore of the lake. The walk felt very secluded and remote and between leaving the car and reaching the lake, we saw only a handful of other walkers.

When we reached the lake, we stopped to take in the incredible view. Then we found a well hidden path that took us down to a beautiful little secluded beach where we went for a dip in the cool, clear waters. The water was pretty nippy and I wasn’t sure initially that we would be brave enough to go in. However eventually we braved it and it certainly cooled us down from the walk! We ate our packed lunch on the beach, took a few photos and then reluctantly began the circular route back to the car. Our morning at Lagao Fogo was definitely a highlight of the trip for me and the true postcard picture that I will remember from the Azores.

After four hours of walking in Lagao de Fogo, we decided to go rest our weary legs in Caldeira Velha, a pair of thermal pools only 20 minutes from the end of the walk on the north edge of Fogo volcano. We arrived to the increasingly familiar sulphur smell and instantly I felt like we were in a scene out of Jurassic Park, minus the terrifying man-eating raptors! Huge green ferns and colourful flowers lined the stoney path that led to two orangey, mineral-rich pools in the depth of the wild forest.

The first pool was up a long path and was set into the rocks with a waterfall at the far end. The lady we bought the tickets from suggested that we started with this one as it was slightly cooler so we followed her recommendation and headed there first. The water was pretty nippy at 27 degrees and as the pool was in the shade it wasn’t really the sort of pool you could sit back and relax in. However it was a beautiful setting so we took a few photos and then headed down to the warmer pool to warm up! In contrast, the second pool was really warm at 38 degrees and much more relaxing to lay in and soak.

As the pools are located near to a lot of popular walking routes and are small, they did feel pretty busy with people coming and going all the time. However the setting made it feel so relaxing and in total we spent a good few hours lazing there in total. A definite must have after any walk in Lagoa do Fogo!

COST: 4/5. Entrance to the pools cost 4 euros and for that you had unlimited time at the pools, plus use of toilets and a cold shower. Apart from the free pool at Ferraria, this was the cheapest thermal spring on the island and felt good value for money.

CLEANLINESS: 4/5 The pools are both fed from a spring from higher up the volcano and the pool at the top is roped off from the public to ensure the water is fresh and clean for people bathing at the bottom. The water was rusty in colour due the iron and minerals in the water but felt clean. The only thing I would say is that they didn’t ask people to shower before getting in which would probably be a good idea given lots of people head there after walking. The toilets and showers were basic but very clean.

IN THREE WORDS: WILD, JUNGLE-Y (is that a word?), GREEN

Where are the Azores?

When I told my friends and family that we were going to the Azores on holiday this year, generally I was met with a puzzled “where’s that?” Which isn’t surprising considering the Azores still don’t seem to be a very popular holiday destination for people in the U.K, probably because of a lack of direct flight routes. However having just got back from 9 days on the Azores’ largest island, Sao Miguel, if you love the great outdoors and thermal springs and want to escape the chaos of everyday life for a bit of an adventure, I definitely recommend adding the Azores to your travel bucket list.

The Azores are a group of 9 volcanic islands situated in the middle of the Atlantic between Portugal and America. It is officially part of Portugal and is Europe’s most westerly point, 1500 km west of Lisbon. With a population of around 250,000, it is comparable in population to the London Boroughs of Camden or Westminster but in landmass to Luxembourg at 2300 sq km! Meaning one of the most attractive things for us visiting from London was the scarcity of people – we could drive for half an hour along the beautiful windy roads and see only a handful of people.

We first read about the Azores a few years ago and were immediately attracted to it when it was described as the “Iceland of the south”, due to the similar dramatic, volcanic landscape to Iceland. Photos of lush green hills, amazing dive sites, lots of yummy seafood plus the promise of thermal waters a plenty, meant I didn’t take much convincing when RBJ suggested we booked it for our holiday this year!

We found a great travel blog written by a guy from the Azores, Geekyexplorer, which gave us lots of inspiration and information and was super helpful when planning our trip. So to help other people do the same, here is our 9 day itinerary including where we stayed, places we are and each days activities:

THU 6 JULY 06.00 Fly Heathrow (T2) to Lisbon. TAP Portugal.
10.55 Fly Lisbon to Ponta Delgada. Arr 12.20Pick up car (Easy Car – pick up at Airport). Check into Casa Vitoriana Rua João Francisco de Sousa,34, Ponta Delgada.Explore Ponta Delgada.
FRI 7 JULY Walk in Lagao de Fogo (3-4 hours). Hike down to secluded beach. Visit Caldeira Velha hot springs – note minerals in the water turn bikini orange so wear an old one.

Dinner at A Tasca in Ponta Delgada.

SAT 8 JULY Brunch at market in Ponta Delgada at Sabores.
Visit Goreanna tea plantation then onto Ribiera das Tainhas beach for the PM. Yummy steak dinner at Restaurante da Associacao Agricola de Sao Miguel.
SUN 9 JULY Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series at Islet Vila Franca do Campo.

Dinner at Taberna Acor in Ponta Delgada – amazing cheese platter with Azorean pineapple and blueberry jam.

MON 10 JULY Diving in Franca do Campo. Lunch at Caloura (incredible fish restaurant). Afternoon on Amoras beach (quite a hike down – take trainers).

Dinner at Musaxi in Ponta Delgada – yummy sushi!

TUES 11 JULY Whale watching with Futurismo. Saw sperm whales and dolphins!

Lunch at Mane Cigano (local café) and afternoon at the piscina in Ponta Delgada. The piscina was packed and full of children – wouldn’t recommend!

Dinner at Azor Hotel restaurant.

WED 12 JULY Our first rainy day. Gave up on idea of Sete Cidades and instead went to the heavenly hot pool at Ferraria. Then drove northern coastal road and went for a 2 hour walk in Nordeste.

In the evening, dinner at Tony’s in Furnas then evening in Poca Da Dona Beija hot springs. Again recommend wearing old bikini!

THU 13 JULY Visited abandoned hotel in Sete Cidades – so creepy! Then 5 hour walk around Sete Cidades.

Favourite dinner of the holiday at Quinta dos Sabores – five course tasting menu. Highly recommend if you can get a booking.

FRI 14 JULY Ferry to Islet Vila Franca do Campo. Only 400 visitors a day so get there before 9.30am to ensure your place on the ferry which leaves at 10am.

PM at Terra Nostra Garden Hotel Hot springs in Furnas.

Final dinner back at A Tasca in Ponta Delgada.

SAT 15 JULY 07.00 Fly Ponta Delgada to Lisbon. Arr 10.10.
12.55 Lisbon to Gatwick Sth Terminal. Arr 15.35.

I have included links to reviews of the springs and thermal baths we visited, plus my write up of the incredible Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series that we were invited to watch.

My top tip if you are visiting in summer months like we were, is to make sure you have accommodation, car hire and in some cases, restaurants booked in advance. We spoke to a Belgian couple on the first night who told us that they booked their flights last minute and then found it close to impossible to final any accommodation that didn’t cost a fortune. We also found most restaurants told us that they were fully booked and that we couldn’t reserve a table. Luckily we managed to get a table everywhere we planned to but in most cases, we had to wait quite a while to be seated (normally meaning I was pretty tipsy by the time we got our starters!)

Finally, most of the posts I read before visiting said that the beaches in Sao Miguel were nothing to write home about. However I massively disagree as we visited some of the most beautiful beaches. What I would say is that the best ones are the less touristy ones so don’t turn up expecting to get sun loungers and ice-cream stands or you will be sandy, hungry and disappointed. My two favourite beaches were Tainhas and Amoras, which are both marked on the driving map given out at the airport. Here are a few photos:

The view looking down on Praia da Amora

Black sand beaches of Praia da Amora

Praia da Amora

The beautiful beach at Ribiera das Tainhas

If anyone has any questions about the Azores or its hot springs, feel free to drop me an email or comment below.

Red Bull Cliff Diving, Azores

Hot springs a plenty, amazing dive sites, incredible seafood, some of the most beautiful volcanic scenery, its own vineyard… my list of why I love the Azores just goes on and on. Then when we thought it couldn’t get any better, we discovered that whilst we were there, the island of Sao Miguel was hosting the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series at the magnificent Islet Vila Franca do Campo. Springsaunaswim was invited to join the Red Bull Media boat on the Sunday for the final day of diving. With no prior knowledge of cliff diving as a sport, RBJ and I went along to see for ourselves and we weren’t disappointed.

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Excited face 🙂

So the first thing to point out is that (in the nicest possible way!) these guys are nuts! This is definitely not a sport for the faint-hearted, especially in the Azores which is the only destination in the World Series where the athletes dive on day 1 from the rock itself rather than a board. On day 2 the athletes then dive from boards – the highest of which is 28m high or in other words, the height of a nine storey building! Thus making it one of the most dangerous dive sites in the world.

Now the guide books don’t lie when they say in the Azores you can experience every season in one day. So this year we were incredibly lucky to have two full days of beautiful sunshine. Lucky primarily because it means better dive conditions for the athletes but secondly (and of course most important for me) is that it meant I got some incredible photos!

Islet Vila Franca do Campo is a short boat ride from the small town of Vila Franca do Campo (not Franca Manca the pizza restauarant as we kept accidentally calling it 😬). It is the crater of an ancient submerged volcano, with the crater forming an almost perfectly circular lagoon in the centre of the rocky cliffs. The whole islet is a nature reserve and is home to lots of fish and birds that you don’t see on the mainland.

Approaching Islet Vila Franca do Campo

Without my own drone I can’t show you the aerial pic but there are some pretty spectacular ones on Red Bull’s Instagram page that are worth checking out.

We arrived at the islet at 10.30am and were joined by lots of spectators in other boats and kayaks. The female divers went first, with Jessica Macaulay representing GB. The women dived off the lower board which was 24m high and after the first dive, we were immediately awe-struck. The majority of the female divers did around three somersaults and a twist before hitting the water – enough to make me dizzy just watching! Each dive was scored out of 10 by each of the 5 judges and each dive had a difficulty rating which their score was multiplied by to get their final score. Jessica did amazingly and was successful in getting through to the next and final round.

Next up were the guys, this time with two Brits – Gary Hunt, 27 and Blake Aldridge, 25. Again each dive was mesmerising, both to watch and to listen to as they splashed into the sea, some more smoothly than others. It was pretty nail-biting to watch as one foot wrong and they would do themselves some serious injuries. Both of the GB boys qualified to the second round. Here are some of my favourite mid action photos:

In the final round, Gary then went on to take third overall gaining himself a place on the winners podium. Columbia’s Orlando Duque who is an incredible 42 years took the first place for the men and Mexico’s Adriana Jiminez took first place for the women.

Red Bull put on great hospitality for the press boat, which was made up of an array of foreign and local journalists. There was food, sunshine and, of course, Red Bull a plenty! RBJ was a 

At the end of the competition, the winning three guys and girls were awarded whale shaped trophies before heading back to the mainland to do press interviews and autographs.

Gary Hunt at the Press Conference back on the mainland

After the interviews we managed to grab Blake to ask him a few questions about his diving career to date. He told us that he had competed with Tom Daley in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 before retiring from diving in 2010. When he retired he had the choice to pursue either professional snowboarding or cliff diving and chose the latter. He told us that he was a bit disappointed with his dives in the Azores and that he was struggling with a groin injury. When we mentioned that we lived in Streatham he told us that he is from Norbury and that when he isn’t competing abroad that he still trains in the diving pool in Croydon. Small world! Well Blake may not have been happy with his performance in the Azores but we thought he did amazingly and felt very proud to have London represented amongst the athletes!

Meeting our London boy, Blake Aldridge

All in all it was an absolutely incredible day and I would recommend to anyone thinking of going on holiday to the Azores to try and time it with the Red Bull Cliff Diving as it is a once in a life time, nail-biting experience!

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 …