"Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!"

It's been a very twenties Summer. 

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For the infamous Film Fatale Gatsby's Mansion event, I dug out my long pearls and fashioned myself a peacock turban. It's the highlight of the vintage calendar. Croquet on the lawn, a gin bar at every corner, jazz, brass bands and cabaret acts as the night wore on. 

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The style on the night wasn't all flapper. I saw tea dresses and cloches (very Miss Marple!) and even bias cut silk evening gowns. I fancied myself as a film noir starlet for a change, perhaps the lead suspect in an Agatha Christie Poirot novel...

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This was my second Film Fatale party this year. Their masquerade ball in the Spring was fabulous but nothing tops the glamour of their twenties party. There's a reason it's the biggest and best known vintage affair in Europe. 

If you missed Gatsby's Mansion this year then I've bad news. It's unlikely to be repeated until 2019. But don't pack away your glad rags just yet...they're hosting the most stylish Halloween party around at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (IMMA). Billed as a a Prohibition party, they encourage "surrealists, the ghosts of Weimar, masqueraders, gothic goddesses, vamps, femmes fatales, flappers, gangsters, the beautiful and the damned" for a night of brass and red hot jazz. 

CAN'T WAIT! And I think I'm going to give away some tickets so keep your eyes peeled. 

In the spirit of sustainable style, the whole ensemble was recycled when we snagged tickets to the sold out Gatsby at the Gate. 

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“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” 

What can I add to the rave reviews of The Great Gatsby at the Gate that you haven't heard before?

Photo from The Gate Theatre via the Irish Times  

Photo from The Gate Theatre via the Irish Times  

The seats were ripped out and replaced by Jay Gatsby's monogrammed dancefloor so that it's an immersive performance. You are Mr Gatsby's guest for the evening and the story unfolds in vignettes around you. Guests are encouraged to enjoy the Veuve Cliquot Champagne bar or to nurse a fishbowl of Tanqueray. The bourbon was Bulleit. 

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But the clothes....! The audience (certainly at our performance) was so well dressed that it was not immediately possible to discern the cast from the guests (check #GateGatsby on instagram and twitter to see what I mean). Although I'm sure Peter O'Brien (couturier and costumier) would have something to say about my assessment, the scale of audience participation in twenties dress was breathtaking. The previous Saturday night, some friends and I had gaped at the revellers spilling into the Shelbourne bar after that night's performance, convinced that they must all be actors. Shout out to the man in the tux who asked the price of a bottle of Dom Perignon and then settled for Moet. You know what they say, if you have to ask you can't afford it!*

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This was no place for a joke shop feather boa. Think full length, intricately beaded drop waist gowns, sparkling headpieces, feathered capes and T-bar dancing shoes. Men wore gangster pinstripes and cocked trilbies, salmon hued blazers or tuxedos. Pity the couple who didn't get the memo and arrived in jeans right before the party started. Their embarrassment was palpable.

We mingled and danced with the cast, drink in hand.  As the Irish Times' review explains, the audience watches the story unfold in the main ballroom and through individual first person narratives. During the performance, we spoke to Gatsby himself as he urged us to enjoy ourselves and exchanged pleasantries with Nick Carraway and Tom Buchanan who admired my date's double breasted suit complete with a matching hat. However, we were most acquainted with other characters. 

Photo from director Alexandra Wright via Twitter

Photo from director Alexandra Wright via Twitter

We sat in one of Gatsby's 'drugstore' speakeasies and watched  parts of the story unfold from tragic Myrtle and Kitty Wilson's perspective. They danced and sang and explained the various romantic entanglements. Later, a business associate of Gatsby's took us on a tour through the house, stopping in the library for a bourbon, and swore us to secrecy about the true nature of those drugstores. We even found photographer Chester McKee's dark room while he was our guide for a time.

It was an unusual way to stage a play and works well for a classic like Gatsby on the basis that you already know the bones of the story. I just loved the opportunity to don my twenties finery. And judging from the reaction this production got, so did everyone else! Even the cast have admitted they were shocked at the audience engagement. Definitely one not to be missed if it returns to Dublin. 

Of course, a nightcap in the Blind Pig was the obvious way to end a Prohibition themed outing...🍸🍸🍸

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* As an aside, did you know that a bottle of Dom in the Black Door is relatively reasonable? Over €400 in the Shelbourne but only €250 if you want to drink it at 3 am or thereabouts! Needless to say we were not drinking Dom Perignon at the Black Door but I thought I'd leave this nugget here in case anyone wants to take me out and impress me! 

 

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past"

Sunday night round-up

Flicking though my favourite sites and blogs is a Sunday night must. And yes, today is technically Monday but I'm bestowing it with honorary Sunday status...

Getting set for Monday (Tuesday)

So here's my round-up of some interesting articles you mightn't have seen yet. Enjoy 😘

1. Ever wondered why all our favourite GIFS are black?  - Teen Vogue (don't judge me!) tells us

2. As a lawyer and a feminist I found this a particularly good read, if a little disappointing

3. How Vogue suggests you can stop holidays sabotaging your healthy eating

4. Interiors porn with Kate Moss 😍😍😍 

5. Why I have to raise a feminist from day one having read this in the FT

Modern Michelin Dining at Heron & Grey

Firstly, this is not a review of Heron & Grey. 

This guy:

already did that and, although Heron & Grey had been in business for under a year, he left them a star for their troubles. 

Secondly, the cool minimalist name refers simply to the owners, Andrew Heron (formerly at Luna - another favourite of mine!) and Damien Grey (formerly at Chapter One) who only met six months before Heron & Grey was launched. 

I kept hearing about this tiny restaurant in Blackrock Market that everyone was raving about. Seasonal fine dining done brilliantly for those patrons lucky enough to get a table (it seats about 22 per evening or 66 per week according to its website) and it was apparently very reasonable at about €54 per person for the full dinner menu.  

The menu was plain A4 paper in a simple binder. Nothing pretentious and as you can see, it's light on detail. I've just spotted a typo...well hidden unless you're into horticulture (or a spelling Nazi). 

The menu was plain A4 paper in a simple binder. Nothing pretentious and as you can see, it's light on detail. I've just spotted a typo...well hidden unless you're into horticulture (or a spelling Nazi). 

I stuck Heron & Grey on the long finger thinking I could swing by for a fancy date night at my leisure. Until last October, when I read about its newly starred status in the Irish Times. I was up early with the baby so I fired off a casual email looking for a table the following weekend (for my birthday) and feeling very smug about how far ahead of the pack I was. 

It was pretty mortifying when they responded to tell me they were fully booked until February 2017! Cringe. My embarrassment was eased slightly by the lovely email itself, apologising for the delayed response and thanking me for my interest in their "little restaurant." 

So I promptly responded requesting a table for any Saturday evening in February 2017.  Their next email politely informed me that in the intervening hours, every table between then and May 2017 had been booked! They added that they'd love to accommodate us and essentially asked me how flexible I was on the day and date of the booking. 

All pride out the window at this stage, I emailed back basically begging them for a table on any night of the week, any month and at any time that they could squeeze us in. Heron & Grey knew how to play hard to get! 

I wasn't joking when I said it's small! 

I wasn't joking when I said it's small! 

Somehow they found space for us on Wednesday 16th March and I popped this inauspicious date in the diary only to realise the week beforehand that the following day was St Patrick's Day and a day off work for everyone* so it was ideal for a relaxing meal out and a couple of drinks.  

Delicious Premier Cru Chablis from the Premium Wine menu. 

Delicious Premier Cru Chablis from the Premium Wine menu. 

Where to start?

Firstly, it is even tinier than you imagine. You wander down through Blackrock Market until you see one of only two places with any lights on (most shops and cafes there are long closed by 7.30 pm).

The open kitchen greets you upon entry. You can see every flourish and garnish and I wondered how the chefs don't fall over each other. Obviously a well oiled machine.

They have kindly built a toilet now (they didn't have one pre-star!) and the vibe is modern. Youthful even. There is definitely no hint of the stuffiness, pomp and ceremony other starred establishments in Dublin like to project.

Grey is the chef and Heron is front of house but they're both very much your hosts. At various points, one or both are at your table explaining the dishes and checking in with you throughout the meal. 

Sprouting broccoli, almond and buttermilk at Heron & Grey

Sprouting broccoli, almond and buttermilk at Heron & Grey

As  I mentioned, the food is a seasonal set menu - Heron & Grey offers vegetarian or meat based menus and that's it. There are no deviations and its website reinforces this. They flat out will not cater to lactose free or vegan diets. I get the impression from the website that with enough notice they would try to accommodate other dietary requirements (Coeliac for instance).

There are two half-sittings each evening. Half of the dining room will be served at 7.30 and half will be served at 8.30. You'll be told which sitting to arrive for and you'd better not be late because service ploughs on with or without you. 

Rabbit, olive and yoghurt at Heron & Grey. 

Rabbit, olive and yoghurt at Heron & Grey. 

You'll see my half-hearted photos interspersed throughout this non-review.

Half-hearted because I felt silly photographing the creations in front of me right under the chef's nose...so I worked fast and took pretty basic snaps!

Chef Andrew Grey had also marked my card when I arrived...I'd been active on instagram in the preceding days gloating about our reservation and he had a good laugh at my date night selfie! "You're the instagrammer!" he'd roared from the kitchen in his Aussie accent. "Great, I love instagram!"

Date night mirror selfie! 

Date night mirror selfie! 

Scallop, calcots and suckling pig at Heron & Grey. 

Scallop, calcots and suckling pig at Heron & Grey. 

Guinea fowl, alliums and cauliflower at Heron & Grey

Guinea fowl, alliums and cauliflower at Heron & Grey

I've been at pains to point out that this is not a review of Heron & Grey.

Not only would that be obnoxious when Michelin had unequivocally already done so but I also can't adequately describe each dish. I was enjoying it too much to really take notes or try to remember the highlights of each. 

Dessert of orange blossom, wild rice and pollen. 

Dessert of orange blossom, wild rice and pollen. 

The 5 courses are sparsely described on the menu but of course, there have to be some surprises thrown in too, making it essentially a seven course menu. See the pictures below. 

This is an amuse bouche sized savoury surprise...I have no doubt that they explained it to me in detail at the time...

This is an amuse bouche sized savoury surprise...I have no doubt that they explained it to me in detail at the time...

It's obvious that the food was amazing. But a large portion of the magic at Heron & Grey is Heron & Grey. The welcome is genuine and they sound grateful that they've had such huge support locally as well as the obvious pulling power of the Michelin star. 

Catherine Cleary spoke to them in the Irish Times back in December last year (at which point they don't appear to have had a toilet yet!) and that interview is telling. Here's a snippet:

Do they think other chefs resent their meteoric rise?

“I hope not. I doubt it,” Heron says.

Grey comes back to the table after checking his now fully working stove and answers the same question with, “Hell, yeah. I’d be pissed if I’d been out there for years trying to get a star.”

Heron explains with mock patience that he’s just given a more diplomatic answer.

Their whole approach to customers is friendly and welcoming. It's a pleasure to eat there and listen to these guys explain each dish they created. At times it feels like a good neighbourhood bistro you might pop into on a Thursday night but then the next course is placed down in front of you and you're reminded that this is seriously fine dining.

I'm only sorry I didn't pay more attention to all of the elements of each course! Next time though...

Now this I remember...described as a sweet chocolatey surprise, it was so rich and moreish that it called for a slow savouring and a great big glass of red wine (Montepulciano I believe) as recommended by the multi-tasking Damien Heron who is also the sommelier. 

Now this I remember...described as a sweet chocolatey surprise, it was so rich and moreish that it called for a slow savouring and a great big glass of red wine (Montepulciano I believe) as recommended by the multi-tasking Damien Heron who is also the sommelier. 

After all of that, it pains me to tell you that Heron & Grey is fully booked for the remainder of 2017. Its next scheduled release for future reservations will be on Wednesday, November 1st at 10 am for the period of January to March 2018. Of course, you can join their waitlist to snap up any cancelled reservations but I wouldn't want to give you false hope. I've been on it since March and I've only seen one reservation become available. It was gone in literally three minutes. I have the texts to prove it. 

So for now, drool over my pictures and pop November 1st into your diaries! 

*except me. I'm on maternity leave so I never stop. That baby wears me out! Having every day "off" means that there are no days off. 

Booze bargain of the century

I'm going to let you in on a little secret.

There is a wine hiding in your local O'Brien's that all red wine drinkers should know about. I've known about it since last October* (I know, I know...I took my time sharing this because it's so good and so well priced that it sells out fast) and if I gave you a bottle of wine recently it was probably this (and you probably loved it). 

You'll find it in the Regional France section. It's not a Bordeaux (gasp!) but taste wise, it gives mid-range Chateau Neuf du Pape and other well known names a serious run for their money and it makes a better gift in my opinion. Chateau Belles Eaux is from the Languedoc and wines from that region didn't always have a great reputation so even now, they're often underrated and their relatively low prices reflect that. Interestingly, I heard this from a wine expert in Bordeaux. I also overheard a French couple in a wine shop in town discussing which wine to bring as a dinner party gift. They dismissed the shelves of Bordeaux as overpriced and went straight for the shelf of regional wines, looking specifically for a Languedoc. 

Chateau Belles Eaux is mostly Syrah (my favourite) so it's big and fruity while managing to be mild on the tannin side. I feel silly anthropomorphising wines (the best wine description I ever saw was "an ambitious wine with a sense of purpose" - what does that even mean?!) but it's an approachable wine so it's ideal for heretics who claim not to like red. 

It's usually around €22.95 and frankly it's well worth that but it's on special offer for €12.95 at the moment so if you see a short woman in the D6 area buckling under the weight of 4 cases, it's probably me. 

BONUS A little Easter Bunny just told me that later this week O'Brien's will give 15% back on wines so if you can contain yourself until then it's even cheaper!  

*I bought it for P's christening in October last year. My favourite response to this wine was from a committed red wine drinker who was handed a glass at the christening party. Presumably expecting it to be plonk, she took a sip and gasped "that's fucking gorgeous"!! 

Not an ad btw. I'd tell you if it was. Just a wine deserving more recognition than it gets in my opinion. 

Monart again...seriously? Yes but I have a few gripes...

You know I love Monart. I buy into the vibes and genuinely unwind there. A couple of weeks ago I did a short one nighter with a friend (my first time leaving baby P overnight with just her daddy) and it was as relaxing as ever. But I've visited quite a few times now (and I've also experienced the peerless luxury of Ashford Castle) so my praise is more measured and a little less effusive. 

It is still, hands down, the best spa experience I've had in Ireland in terms of treatments and the expertise of the staff. My hot stone massage was nothing short of amazing and was tailored to my preferred pressure (which isn't often the case with hot stone massages because they're more focused on the effect of the heat than on the pressure exerted). My friend highly recommended her ear candling and Indian head massage treatments and found them both really relaxing. She thinks she might even have dozed off half way through. She's a spa connoisseur, having sampled some of the best spas around the world on her travels, and she agreed that Monart is a world class destination spa. There's a reason it was voted one of the world's best spas (along with my honeymoon location Pangkor Laut!) 

The interiors are beautiful and well maintained. The staff are beyond friendly and professional. No complaints on the the rooms either; they're airy and spacious and each room has either a small decked terrace or balcony. 

I hate finding fault with Monart (I really enjoy staying there!) but if we're being honest, the food lets it down somewhat. There. I said it. So this post is firmly about the food offering at Monart.

Lunch was open sambos (salmon for me and chicken for my partner in crime) in the garden lounge. Perfect. Dinner was a large chicken caesar salad for me and steak for herself, also in the garden lounge (the restaurant was fully booked). Steak was good and cooked as she requested but there was some confusion over the sides which accompanied the steak when our waitress was taking our order. At the end an additional €5.00 marked 'open food' appeared on our bill. It could have been for the extra portion of homemade bread we were offered (which seems a bit mean if that's what it was) or it could have been for the chips which we had been told would come with the steak but didn't. We could have queried it but life is short and it's only a fiver. To put this in perspective, my massage cost €120 plus tip. 

The salad was... fine. Chicken strips were tough and a bit chewier than I'd like and the dressing wasn't tossed, just squirted over the hot chicken but I'd eat a tyre if it was coated in caesar dressing so it wasn't a big issue. 

After dinner we shuffled (in our robes and slippers) into the old house for cocktails. My friend's were nice. It's not the Blind Pig (more on which in the next post!) but no complaints either. My Grey Goose martini was fantastic. That said, a martini depends of the quality of the vodka so I'd be concerned for a bar if a Grey Goose martini with some olives wasn't perfect every time. 

My longed for espresso martini certainly looked lovely. But my misgivings, when I saw it presented in a margarita glass, were proved correct. An espresso martini should be premium vodka, coffee liqueur and espresso all shaken vigorously with ice and served in a martini glass. Mine was suspiciously big and when I checked the menu I realised that the house espresso martini has an extra shot of a sweet liqueur - creme de cacao. Yuck. This left it sickly sweet and more like a watery dessert than an after dinner digestif. The waitress noticed my untouched cocktail, asked was it alright and thanked me for letting them know it wasn't to my liking but we were still charged for it...and no replacement cocktail was offered. That might have been a nice touch. 

So I moved back to Grey Goose martinis for the rest of the evening!

Breakfast was as lovely as ever. I LOVE how they use proper polished silverwear at every meal! 

After our treatments on Sunday afternoon followed by a nap in the dark relaxation room and a couple of hours' reading in the quiet room, we got dressed for the first time in 24 hours for afternoon tea. My last experience of Monart's afternoon tea was marred by the butter on all of the sandwiches. Mum can't eat butter so she requested butter free sambos but the kitchen didn't get the memo.  

This time around, when the waiter checked if we had any allergies or preferences, my friend asked for no fish and no eggs. Of the savoury finger foods, this left her a ham sandwich on brown bread and a large tartlet. So the waiter said he'd give her two of each to replace the egg and watercress sandwich and the the smoked salmon cream cheese wrap. I don't think it would have been a huge imposition on the kitchen staff to have offered her an alternative (maybe chicken sandwiches) instead. Of course, the tartlet was actually a quiche made of eggs so that was a non-runner! The scones were powder dry and required copious amounts of jam and great globs of cream but the miniature desserts were as lovely as they looked. 

Afternoon tea starts at only about €22 so it's not particularly pricey but it could be better. 

I'll caveat this post by saying that I didn't eat in the restaurant this time (it was booked solid) but I've always enjoyed the evening dinner menu there. In fact, at about €40 per person for three courses plus various amuse bouches it's excellent value. 

So the upshot is that I'll go back (not immediately though - I've a list of other Irish spas to try first) but I'll be giving afternoon tea a miss and booking dinner in the restaurant well in advance.

 

 

Honeymoon 2.0

***Summer 2015***

A little under one year from our honeymoon in Malaysia and Paris, we set off on Honeymoon 2.0 to the States and the Caribbean...

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Hands down the best holiday ever. Three weeks, I have discovered, is the optimal amount of holiday time to take from work, especially from desk bound transactional work. One week never suffices because even with the best will in the world your colleagues who are babysitting your files can just put them on the long finger for the week and when you return, you do so to a mountain of work and clients who've been waiting for something to be done! We're all guilty of this sometimes. Two weeks is better but by the time you've properly switched off you're into week two and starting to think about the impending homewards journey (particularly if like me you hate flying and the prospect of another long flight niggles away at you all week). But THREE weeks? It's the holy grail of holidays. Long enough that your workload is managed in your absence and you can genuinely unwind and relax. That said, I'm of the no emails on holiday school of thought. I am not so important that my work can't be adequately managed by someone else! See Lucy Kellaway's thoughts on that in the FT. 

I had been fooling myself for years that I didn't like sunny holidays. Sandy beaches and clear blue waters just weren't for me.  Instead we went to places like Oslo (in November - when there were about 3 hours of daylight) or Paris (usually at Christmas time) and wrapped up warmly.

But I had been threatening to visit family in LA for some time, not having been over there in a few years, and a great friend was living in the British Virgin Islands at the time so it was a good opportunity to do some long haul travelling.

We started in LA. We flew business class with American Airlines which was pretty fabulous.

It's going to be hard trudging back to economy when we go to NYC and the BVI in January 2016 (yep - it was that good that we're going back...more on which later) with Aer Lingus. I was a business class virgin. Between the lounges (unlimited champagne in the Admiral's Lounge at JFK!) the lie-flat beds, the service and the pre-push back champagne served upon boarding, well I almost forgot I was flying at all.

At LAX we picked up the 'Stang - our convertible silver Mustang.

This was a pleasant surprise. We had booked a cheap and cheerful convertible (some sort of Daimler I think) but when we got there were only Mustangs left...which worked out brilliantly! We drove to Simi Valley and stayed a couple of days with my family exploring the sights. I know the main areas of LA pretty well having been there a few times but it was a first for the husband who was surprised to love it as much as he did. It was a real struggle to drag him out of the hot tub. I even had him drinking red wine!! That never happens at home but holiday husband seems to be a new breed. Admittedly, it was a gorgeous chilled Pinot Noir from California which we bought from the producer so even he enjoyed it. 

I experienced thrift shopping and antiquing in LA's vintage and antique stores and found a vintage Hermes bracelet for my efforts. See more on instagram : )

And the people were so nice! A standout moment was the professionalism of the concierge at the Beverly Hills Hotel who took one look at my ratty Panama hat and cut-off jeans and promptly steered me towards the casual pool bar, when I had thought we would have a drink in the famous Polo Lounge. It clearly wasn't happening but he handled it so well that I was two mojitos in at the pool before we realised that we had been managed out of the lobby and out into the garden! But Leonardo di Caprio drinks there so I don't feel too bad (although sadly not on the day of our visit). 

From LA we drove up the coast to Santa Barbara and stayed in one of the Kimpton range of boutique hotels, The Canary.  These guys know how to do boutique hotels. 

This boutique hotel group is a revelation. Small and perfectly formed, it was a great mix of style and substance right in the middle of the town. We had wine and cheese tasting on the rooftop bar and we followed that up (on the sommelier's recommendation) with watching outdoor flamenco dancers of all ages at the dance competition held at the Santa Barbara court house. Those are the types of things you just don't figure out for yourself as a tourist and you need the locals to point you in the right direction. 

From Santa Barbara we headed to Cambria and stayed on the beach. The pictures we took look like paintings but the sky really was that beautiful. We went wine tasting in the Paso Robles area, mostly in the Opolo winery, where I fell in love with their well known Zinfandel. 

The next day we hit the road, roof down and music blaring all the way to San Francisco...which was not what I expected...

San Fran fans won't like this part. I don't really know what I expected but I much preferred LA and the surrounding areas which surprised me. It was my first time there so perhaps I didn't stray far enough from the tourist beaten path. I'll go back and give it another chance I'm sure. We stayed in the Fairmont and had a lot of fun and too many Mai Tais in its hilariously tacky tikki bar The Tonga Room which was built in the fifties by set designers from Hollywood and it has a Disneyesque feel to it. Crammed full of tourists but great cocktails including ginormous Singapore Slings which you rarely see on contemporary cocktail lists. 

After three days in San Fran, we got a flight to Puerto Rico with a quick switchover at Dallas. The highlight of our single hour in Texas was the desk attendants on the intercom in a sing song voice telling passengers running late that "y'all best move along else y'all gonna miss your flight".

Puerto Rico was an enforced stop over because the flight time didn't match up to allow us to get a small plane to the BVI the same day. So we turned it into a two day pitstop at the beach and stayed in the Hilton San Caribe, which prides itself on being the home of the original Pina Colada. A couple of pitchers of fresh Pina Coladas at the swim up bar later, and I'd have believed anything they told me.

From top left: Peter Island's beach cafe; sunset at Coco Maya on Virgin Gorda; Sunbathing on Tortola; drinks at Saba Rock. 

From top left: Peter Island's beach cafe; sunset at Coco Maya on Virgin Gorda; Sunbathing on Tortola; drinks at Saba Rock. 

We wandered into the old town of San Juan and had a great night drinking margaritas and eating traditional Puerto Rican food. Lots and lots of plantains. 

The short flight to the BVI was harrowing for a bad flyer but by more objective accounts it was lovely!  It’s only a thirty minute flight so you never ascend too high and you can almost see the tropical sealife from the cabin window.

We flew with Seaborne which operates small jets with turboprop engines so they’re not quite jets but also not as small as the dinky little toy planes the other competing airlines on that route fly.

Disclaimer – I’m sure the other airlines such as Tradewinds are absolutely fine and safe. My friend living in the BVI has flown with them and survived to tell the tale each time but she is much braver than me. She was once the only passenger onboard and was asked to sit up in the cockpit and carry the fire extinguisher for the flight’s duration! I’d keel over if that happened so Seaborne was our best option.

The BVI was incredible. It was beautiful. The service was great everywhere we went. The sand is hot under your feet. The sea is warm and a clear turquoise. We ate locally on Tortola a couple of times and drank too much rum. The alcohol is cheaper than the mixers so expect strong drinks! We visited Peter Island Resort for a day on the beach, where the service was fantastic. Our beach hut had a drawstring flag which we raised when we wanted to order a drink or a snack. We watched all of the boats and catamarans moor up and as people swam in we realised that our next holiday would have to be on a boat in the BVI. 

I’m looking forward to trying out their spa in January when we return. We had lunch and daiquiris on the beach and then my friend joined us for dinner in the resort’s outdoor fine dining restaurant which, although very pricey, was delicious and again, had fantastic service.

We made our way over to Virgin Gorda for a day too. We rented a small Suzuki Jimny and explored the island’s unspoilt white sand beaches. In the afternoon, we popped into another resort in Little Dix and took advantage of their secluded bay for some pre-dinner swimming and splashing about. Dinner that evening was in Coco Maya on Virgin Gorda, a modern Asian fusion restaurant with a great wine list and serious cocktails. It’s on the beach so we curled up on the beach furniture, drank Prosecco and watched the sun set before eating. It was a real highlight.

It was while sipping mojitos at Saba Rock that we started to form the plan for our return... we googled the cost of a yacht charter at Christmas and texted good friends to see if they'd share : )

Tearing ourselves away from the BVI was difficult but we had the NYC leg (read the shopping leg!) of our trip left so that cheered us up. We stayed in the Empire hotel on the upper West Side which is, of course, owned by Chuck Bass in a fictional universe (xoxo Gossip Girl…).

It’s a high end boutique hotel with a popular rooftop bar and club but the super expensive Wifi let it down.

Happily, there was a Starbucks next door with free high speed wifi, perfect for texting home to check on Ming. We managed to catch up with some friends in McSorleys, the iconic ale house in the East Village (which only serves 2 types of its own beer and certain soft drinks - the floors are spit and sawdust so it's not the place to order anything fancy).

We squeezed in a show that’s been on my husband’s to do list for a while (which I wasn’t expecting to enjoy at all) called Avenue Q. It was crudely hilarious, although I don’t know whether my review of it was coloured by drinking the theatre’s potent in-house vodka cocktail…I think I tipped the snack vendor $20 and made his day!* 

Anyway, the misery of flying home was eased considerably by the business class treatment at JFK and the shopping in the airport.

Reviewing our holiday snaps reminded me how fantastic a holiday it was. Half the fun of a holiday, as everyone knows, is in the planning. We are busy planning our return visit to the BVI! On St Stephen's Day we fly to NYC for some post-Christmas shopping for four days and then we head down to BVI where we pick up our 43 ft Jeanneau 439 for the week. I can't wait to catch up with my friend again and happily, two other friends are also coming for the week sailing before they head off exploring the rest of the Caribbean for a month. (Jealous? Me?)

We plan to spend New Year's Eve on Jost Van Dyke island which is apparently a legendary party island that time of year. So, It'll mean packing my case with boots and fur for the NYC leg and squeezing in some bikinis too! 

*This is a drunken theme.  I'm pretty sure I tipped a bathroom attendant 20 pounds (STERLING!!!) on my hen night in London's Bunga Bunga too. She said she would pray for me! 

One martini, two martinis, three martinis, floor

DRY JANUARY IS OVER!

If you want to sound like you know your booze, in a classy sort of way (we're going for more dark, panelled cocktail bars where people debate politics and less cans on the canal...) then know how to order a proper martini. 

 

My personal poison is a wet vodka martini with either a twist of lemon or an olive. Lemon pre-dinner and olives post is my general rule of thumb.  Martinis are a recent revelation for me and their main draw was that they tend to be the least calorific of the cocktail options when out and about.

Disclaimer. They can be expensive. I ordered my usual (more on which below) in a bar in town and the barman turned to my husband and said "Jesus you'd know it isn't her round anyway!" The cheek. 

Vermouth (particularly extra dry vermouth) is super low-cal so a good option for the weight watchers among us is an extra wet martini. (Nope it's not logical that more dry vermouth makes a wetter martini but them's the rules.) 

So, how to order a martini? If you've tried before and been put off by the follow up questions (Wet or dry? Shaken or stirred? Lemon or olive? Preferred vodka?*) then this guide is for you.  I believe I sound exceptionally chic at the bar ordering "an extra wet Belvedere vodka martini, twist of lemon, shaken please".  Most bartenders smirk or roll their eyes but I'll live with that for a great martini! Great bartenders usually thank for me for making it easier for them. Crap bartenders ask me if I want it dirty. I won't even dignify that with a response because a dirty martini is an abomination and an egregious insult to the best bartender I know, Paul Lambert of the Blind Pig. 

Wet or Dry? A classic martini is probably about 50/50 vermouth (such as Martini...the clue is in the name) to vodka. The more vermouth you want, the more wet it is, so an extra dry martini is basically just vodka. Which means the vodka has to be top shelf stuff. This is not a job for Smirnoff (perish the thought) or even that cocktail stalwart Absolut. 

I love love love Grey Goose. It's crisp, clean tasting and fresh on the palate. And I didn't even DRINK vodka until last year so this is high praise. But given that a Grey Goose martini will set you back about €16 to €19 euro* it's worth having other options on standby.

Belvedere is another premium vodka which is a little lighter on the pocket than Grey Goose. Still delicious though, it makes a great martini and it replaced Smirnoff (and to a lesser extent Finlandia) as the vodka of choice for James' martinis in the Bond instalment, Spectre. 

I often have an 'I made it through another week' martini on a Friday evening. Happily, I'm working my way through a litre of Grey Goose from the duty free! I like it extra wet; a mixture of about 60/40 dry vermouth to vodka, shaken with ice and garnished with an olive or lemon twist. 

Why shaken? Well it's partly affectation when I'm ordering in a bar (I'm an obnoxious drunk) but mostly because vodka should be served cold and shaken with ice, while a gin martini should be at room temperature and simply stirred. 

The concept of a martini has evolved in recent years so now anything served in a martini glass is fair game on the cocktail menu. One such bastardisation of the martini which is becoming a cocktail classic in its own right is the espresso martini. Of course it's not a martini at all; there's no vermouth in it, but it is delicious and a real after dinner pick me up. Many bartenders claim to have invented it but as the story goes, a supermodel, jet lagged and potentially under the influence of more than just jumping timezones, ordered a drink that would wake her up and f*ck her up too. 

The espresso martini was born. 

My coffee liquer of choice.

My coffee liquer of choice.

 

Like everyone else, I'm watching my sugar intake so my homemade espresso martinis make elegant but light desserts when we've dinner guests. Once again, a good vodka is the base ingredient. I used to use Kahlua (a perfectly respectable coffee liqueur which I discovered when I met my now husband who used to drink white russians made of milk, Kahlua and vodka) but I've graduated to tequila based liqueur. Patron XO Cafe is the new go-to booze for my espresso martinis, on the recommendation of the best cocktail bar in Dublin. They also rate Fair Spirits fairtrade coffee liqueur but I've yet to try it. 

My tip for delicious no aded sugar espresso martinis is to use good quality vodka (that way you don't have to add sugar to mask the taste of the booze) and flavoured Nespresso (like caramel or vanilla favour pods) for the sweetness. I'm currently shaking up: one shot of Grey Goose, one shot of Patron XO Cafe and a shot of Nespresso vanilla espresso - all shaken vigorously with ice. That creamy froth at the top is made when the coffee liqueur and the ice mix.  To finish them off, I grate 80% cocoa dark chocolate over them for garnish and a little chocolatey kick, then serve and enjoy! A sweet surprise is to pop one chocolate coated coffee bean into the glass too. Delish. And not the worst dessert if you've over indulged on dinner either. Bonus. 

it goes without saying that too many of these babies isn't a good thing. See the title...I've been there. 

*We're assuming vodka martinis here. Gin martinis are not for me for reasons best left vague. 

**I learned this the hard way, tipsy and feeling flush with cash in The Bodaga in Cork at a hen party. To be fair, each time I ordered the barman asked me about ten times was I sure I wanted Grey Goose and that he could make it with a less pricey vodka. However drunken me insisted.

I haven't tried this yet...

I haven't tried this yet...

 

 

Kalak is a new Irish vodka made from barley. Very smooth with a distinctive taste and aroma. Could be worth a try in either a classic martini or the caffeinated version. 

 

Grey Goose. My fave.

The husband brought me back a litre from the duty free on a recent business trip. He knows me so well! His colleagues must think I'm an alcoholic. Or as my favourite barmen say "an alcohol enthusiast".  Does having favourite barmen make me an... I won't finish that question. 

A Monart virgin - the original review

**Summer 2015**

This review is long overdue. I visited Monart destination spa for the first time in the Summer of 2015 and it was amazing. Few places or experiences live up to all of the hype and sometimes you can arrive having expected a little too much. Not so with Monart. It was everything I had heard it would be and more. I only wish we could have stayed longer than two days. 

 

We pulled up to the old house, having announced our arrival at the electronic gates, to be met by lovely staff who took our bags and our car keys and promptly took the car off out of sight for three days!

 

Inside, we checked in at the gorgeous peaceful lobby in the newer part of the building and the receptionist gave us all of the information we would need for a relaxing stay. It's worth noting that dinner should be booked well in advance as the restaurant and the more casual wine bar fill up fast. It takes some getting used to but robes can be worn all day in any part of the building and spa (except the formal restaurant) and in fact, guests are encouraged to do so. It does lend Monart the feel of an upmarket sanatorium when adults are shuffling around in fluffy white robes and slippers but it's part of the experience. Adults is a key word here. I almost forgot to point out that it's child free and is a grown-up only spa. (I hesitate to say it's an adult spa as that has different connotations altogether...)

 

We ate in both the wine bar and the formal restaurant during our stay and both were fantastic. Although the food was obviously better in the formal dining room, the staff were equally as attentive and as pleasant in both. The restaurant is very reasonably priced for a fine dining meal with unexpected little amuse bouches. 

Breakfast is served in the dining room each morning and it was real highlight for me. I should say that about 90% of what I love about staying in hotels is a good hotel breakfast. Monart did not disappoint! Fruits, yogurts, all manner of baked goods, porridge, fish, continental cheeses and meats as well as hot options like omelettes and of course the full Irish if you're so inclined. Tea and coffee was served in silver pots with matching tea strainers and a silver creamer and sugar bowl on each table. I loved the feel of lifting the heavy solid teapot each morning to pour my Earl Grey! So much so that I'm on the hunt for a silver tea set myself (a search which took me from the two antique shops in Rathgar to the Spitalfields market in London but that's for another day...).

 

And so, to the treatments. Firstly, the therapists are more knowledgeable than any I have met before. I had noted my mild thyroid issue on the pre-treatment form and my therapist for my full body massage immediately brought it up when we met, asking whether I had an under or over active thyroid as it would affect the treatment. She also chose specific products and oils to ensure minimum thyroid disruption. For example, she discounted anything with seaweed in it as the iodine in seaweed can have a negative effect on those with an under active thyroid, like me. 

My other treatment was a full body scrub which I had before the massage. I have never felt so smooth or relaxed. My muscles felt heavy but in a really good way, like they were resting. Time out between treatments (or any time you like really) can be spent in the thermal spa trying out the various rooms like the outdoor sauna and the vitality pool. Not being much of a water baby myself, I spent most time in the upstairs dark room dozing after treatments or in the bright relaxation room with my own moisturising mask on. The relaxation room always had a bed available including folded fleece blankets and there was a constant supply of fresh water, mint tea and fruit. My only faux pas was that I brought a section of the Weekend Irish Times into the room only to realise later that the spa is a 'news free' zone. Daily newspapers (and plenty of them) are available each morning in the old house but guests are asked to enjoy them there and not to bring the real world into the news free cocoon of the spa area. 

 

We spent our evenings reading, chatting and drinking wine (just to undo all of the goodness from the day of healthy eating and drinking mint tea!) and one evening we sat in one of the reading rooms in the old house playing chess. They keep a selection of board games in there and there is a drinks service from the bar. Bliss. 

The down side? It doesn't come cheap. However, they have good packages online which can include treatments or meals and the restaurant is not particularly expensive, considering the quality of the food, presentation and service. In fact it's probably better value for money than the more casual bar which also serves food. 

Monart is well worth a visit for any other frazzled professionals out there (or frazzled parents, brides to be..anyone frazzled in any way at all really!) because it's a real escape from everything and it's a couple of hours in the car from Dublin. We basically floated home in a happy cloud of lotions and potions and I glowed for about a week afterwards. I don't even think I washed my hair for the three days we spent there, I just kept adding oil and hair masks to it and pinning it up out of my way before dinner! It's never been so shiny. 

I'm already planning a trip down with my Mum and sisters because, from the food to the decor, the treatments and mostly the staff, it was hands down the most luxury I've experienced in a hotel in Ireland.  I may need to revise this assessment after a visit to the newly refurbished Ashford Castle in October...but until then I'm raving about Monart as the perfect escape. 

Monart..again & twice in a month!

I'm blaming it on the baby but I visited Monart TWICE in the last month! I'm now living on cupboard remnants until payday as a penance for my profligacy. Richard I and spent a couple of nights there together on a mini babymoon and a few weeks later my sister and I brought my Mum for a night away for her birthday.

Strangely, I had the same therapist both times, first for the Becoming Mum package and then a customised facial. Becoming Mum was fabulous. It's a back, head and leg massage with a mini facial and it was amazing. Don't knock a cooling leg massage until you've had one. On my next visit I booked a prescriptive facial using Pevonia products. However, when Brid (my lovely therapist) looked at my skin she felt that the Pevonia products would be too strong for me as my skin has become quite sensitive as the pregnancy progresses. So instead, she suggested a cooling and repairing facial which is made of layers of thin gauze painted with product and built up in layers. I really noticed a difference after that and I'm normally a little cynical about the miracles promised by facials*.

*Unless it's the Doctors Mulroony laser and glycolic facial of course, which actually does deliver miracles and isn't a facial at all; it's a minor cosmetic procedure but more about that later. 

I've no pictures of the thermal suite because phones aren't permitted for obvious reasons. I'm not always the biggest fan of the various heated rooms and being pregnant limited me to the salt room and the caladarium, both of which are warm but not too hot. So on both recent visits I spent most of my thermal spa time in the vitality pool swimming and splashing around to try to stop my ankles pooling with retained water and blood. (A real pregnancy treat those blood swollen ankles.) On the plus side, baby must have liked the swimming because after each dip she went mad and danced around my insides. 

My mum, sister and I tried Monart's afternoon tea offering. It's very reasonable so we treated ourselves to a bottle of Prosecco and I even had a sneaky half a glass. As ever, Monart was worth every penny and I have mostly floated through this month, insofar as a big pregnant belly can float! 

Littlebowpip.com

I just discovered Littlebowpip.com and I'm so excited because I have been looking everywhere online for these types of baby bows! I found out at the 22 week scan that we're having a girl and at my check-up today I asked the consultant to double check : ) 

He confirmed that she's definitely a she so now the clothes buying can begin and I can't wait. I was googling fruitlessly for days until I happened upon Littlebowpip.com's instagram (@littlebowpip)and realised they sell exactly what I've been looking for. I just bought one in each of pink, navy and cream. Once they arrive, they'll be packed away with the other cutesy baby stuff that still feels like doll clothes! 

Ashford Castle

I didn't think that Ireland offered luxury like this.

 

The Shelbourne and the Merrion are all very well but Ashford Castle is a different class of hotel. An out of body experience during my deep tissue massage, falconry, incredible food in the George V restaurant, extensive wine list, silk covered walls, afternoon tea, a cinema(!)...I could go on. The husband put it well when he said that you can see and at the same time you can't see the 65 or so million spent on the hotel's recent facelift. Everything is plush, tasteful, expensive but nothing is brash and there's minimal gold and marble. 

This is beyond 5 star luxury. They know their market though. The only Prosecco served is at breakfast. The rest of the day it's Champagne or nothing. I like your style Ashford Castle. 

A full post to follow... but perhaps the best birthday getaway I've ever had. 

Long overdue update...about 7 and a half months (or 31 weeks and 3 days if you're counting) overdue to be exact. And yes, at the risk of a TMI moment, I'm pretty sure that I actually became pregnant on my 30th birthday in Ashford Castle! The annual birthday poke obviously did the trick ; )

But aside from that happiness, which of course I only realised long after I had left behind the luxury of Ashford, the weekend was an experience. The castle has undergone a serious but tasteful facelift and it shows. 

Once we checked in, our bags were taken away and we headed out for a cycle around the grounds on the hotel's bicycles. They have different sizes and types for ladies and gentlemen. It was a gorgeous Autumn day so we explored for about an hour. There are landscaped gardens to walk as well as acres of natural countryside alongside the lake and the grounds are big enough that there are numerous routes to try. We had driven from Dublin though, so an hour was enough.

We settled into our room and did our best not to smudge the padded silk wallpaper and matching silk bedspread with our grubby fingers.  

A quick change into robes led Richard to produce a bottle of Bollinger (my favourite Champagne) and then we raided the mini bar for chocolates. You may know that Cong and part of the castle's grounds were used for filming The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. Once Richard heard that I haven't seen this classic, he was determined that we watch it. The film is always available in every bedroom for complimentary viewing so we finished the Bolly watching some good old fashioned sexism unfold. I know it's a classic but it's very much a film of its time. 

We made like the locals (all Americans, everyone of them; we were literally the only Irish people there other than staff) and drank vodka martinis in the Prince of Wales bar pre-dinner.

By the time we wobbled into the George V dining room, I was tipsy enough that I thought I was imagining the British man in front of me. He was about my height (maybe 5 ft) and was wearing crocodile skin Prince style heels with a long pointed toe, which curled up horribly at the front, giving the shoes a very cheap look when they were probably not cheap at all.  Dinner attire for gentlemen requires a jacket and this man's choice was a snakeskin bomber. His shirt was open past his chest, just enough to show off a huge gothic style diamond (or rhinestone?) crucifix around his neck. He wore bootcut (BOOTCUT!) jeans and his hair was mostly plugs, a blonde dye job over red hair. He was, I'd guess, in his fifties but his face was tauter and smoother than the shiny leather patches on his jeans. 

Heads definitely turned. 

His dining companion was a long leggy Eastern European peroxide blonde about 25 years his junior and 2 feet taller than him in heels. She may have missed the dress code memo. Her full length black sequinned gown (gown is the only word for it - dress doesn't do it justice) certainly stood out. 

Dinner was delicious and extra fun because everyone wanted to know how the couple was and we were all stage whispering about them (which they loved). Oh, he wore his huge mid-noughties sunglasses throughout dinner so we all assumed he must be a minor celebrity. He was also staying for a full week and had a custom orange Bentley (to match his hair I assume) so he's obviously doing well for himself. I'd be lying if I said I didn't google celebrity interior designers or gardeners (he just had that vibe) for a few days afterwards! I still can't figure him out though. Ageing rock star from an eighties band is another possibility. 

The next day, I was booked in for a Swedish massage and it was fantastic. I squirmed in glorious discomfort (which is how I like my massages). My therapist was shocked that I wasn't American; seriously, we were the only Irish guests there!

The spa is small but it's been beautifully designed and it's an unobtrusive addition to the castle. No phones are permitted but I cheekily took these pictures on the basis that I was alone in the pool and relaxation area so I wasn't disturbing anyone or invading anyone's privacy. 

Dinner on Saturday was in the dungeon restaurant. It's much more casual dining than the George V but it was lovely. I was wrecked after my massage and too many martinis so it was an early night that evening. Plus...you know...babymaking. 

Breakfast is usually my favourite part of a hotel stay and Ashford didn't disappoint. It's silver service and the choice of food was incredible. The smoked salmon was some of the best I've ever tasted. It's the attention to detail that amazes me. On the first morning I tried some homemade fruit and seed bread and the next day, one of the waitresses came over to our table to apologise for not having any available and to recommend the next best bread, even though I hadn't asked for any! I either ate so much of that bread that I stood out or it was the Irish thing again. 

 

Finally, as if we hadn't eaten enough, we had afternoon tea on Sunday afternoon before we left. In my long career of afternoon tea tasting, I can honestly say that this was the best. The sandwiches were freshly made, the scones were warm (they had cheese scones too!) and served with jam and lemon curd. The miniature desserts were light, fluffy and again, very fresh. Heaven. 

 

We rolled ourselves out of Ashford considerably fatter and poorer than when we checked in but if you are looking for serious luxury in Ireland, this is it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mansplaining

Not a new phenomenon but one I hadn't really paid attention to until I was 'mansplained' to recently. A perfectly nice chat about the economy (I said nice, not exciting) turned into a lecture on taxation which was an almost verbatim regurgitation from economist David McWilliams' programme on the wealth divide, aired recently on RTE. And poor old David McWilliams wasn't even credited...! 

The Irish Times Women's Podcast

Anyone else listening the Irish Times Women's Podcast (ITWP)? I'm an episode behind so I have one to look forward to on the cycle into work tomorrow. I'm so used to This American Life (my go-to podcast) that it was a pleasant shock to hear Irish voices on the ITWP! Kathy Sheridan is a natural host and the discussions so far have been interesting and engaging. I really enjoyed hearing about the experiences of three different women (with very different political views) when Kathy spoke to Lucinda Creighton, Averil Power and Darcy Lonergan. If you're a woman (or a man - it's not my usual brand of rabid feminism!) then I definitely recommend a listen...at least until Serial returns! 

Winter wedding

We were lucky enough to be invited to a beautiful wedding at the Village at Lyons, a well known wedding venue in Kildare. Two of our friends got married on 29 December 2014 on a gloriously bright freezing cold day. Perfect Winter wedding weather. Mr E and I stopped in St Stephen's Green for a quick photograph on the walk from the church to the car before we drove to Kildare. 

(Yes it's mink but in my defence it's vintage and I received it as a gift long before we adopted our shih tzu Ming, and before I understood a love for animals.)

The Village at Lyons was beautifully Christmassy. 

We decided to stay in the area to avoid driving home on icy roads from Kildare. I was a little disappointed when the accommodation at the wedding venue was already booked out (I left it too late to book!) but everything worked out when we booked into one of the recommended local bed and breakfasts, the Springfield B&B . What a find! 

When we arrived, our host Mrs Sheehy had homemade Christmas biscuits and miniature gluten free chocolate cakes waiting. On a cold day (and an empty tummy before the wedding reception) these sweet treats and a cup of Earl Grey tea really hit the spot. We left our car at the house as Mrs Sheehy had arranged for her son to deliver us to the Village at Lyons in style in his super spacious 5 Series. The house was a 10 minute drive from the wedding venue and other guests staying at the same time as us were attending a wedding in the nearby K Club. The Springfield B&B is ideally located for both venues and is close to another popular wedding venue, Barberstown Castle. 

Our bedroom was suitably grand and had a big open fireplace and beautiful views over the fields behind including very old listed trees.  The sign of a really comfortable bed is when your head touches the pillow and you fall into a sleep coma. That definitely happened here (nothing to do with the vodka martinis I drank at the wedding...)

Breakfast deserves its own paragraph. I'm only sorry I was too hungry (and perhaps too tired and delicate) to take any pictures. We were seated in the formal dining room and served hot homemade gluten and dairy free pancakes, cinnamon rolls made with figs and then of course, a perfect Irish breakfast with more Earl Grey tea and freshly squeezed orange juice (pink grapefruit juice was also an option). I spotted a Nespresso machine hiding in the corner with a huge bowl of coffee pods available for guests but I don't think my post wedding stomach could have handled coffee at that stage (though I did admirably with the pancakes, cinnamon rolls, sausages and poached eggs!). 

I really couldn't recommend this bed and breakfast enough. The icing on the cake was meeting the 6 or so Pugs who were living in the kitchen at the time (we couldn't hear them as the house is huge but when we heard that there were Pugs in the house we HAD to meet them) and the two friendly Great Danes who guard the front door. 

When we were leaving, the Sheehys were preparing to welcome a wedding party who were getting married at the Village at Lyons the day after our friends. They had chosen to sleep in Springfield the night before the wedding and set off from there to the church, which, based on our lovely experience there, I can only imagine was a great morning for them all.