My Little Duke

Travel

Lay a really good table.

Faith, TravelSteph Duke1 Comment

A few months ago I felt a burden on my heart to create a space for women to encounter God. It was a no-brainer where this space would be ... Hill House in Sligo. 

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This season has been one where I've been trying to be obedient to what I feel the Lord is leading me into. It hasn't been easy. I've felt conflict in my spirit over finances, my marriage, motherhood and my ability to be any sort of useful vessel for God to use. But God has been faithful. If he places something on my heart and confirms it over and over again, it's a very simple choice for me to make. Do it. 

So when I got in touch with a few girls about a Spiritual Retreat in Sligo, I shouldn't have been surprised at their responses.

Yes. Yes. YES. A million times YES.

This time, this space, this place where exactly what was needed, at exactly the right time for these women, and also for me.

I needed to be brave, to step up and to lead, regardless of my own feelings of inadequacy. I had absolutely no need to doubt because God so graciously confirmed this weekend in the most incredible ways. But as usual, I let my own fears run riot in my mind, instead of focusing on what I was called to do and just getting on with it. 

And the other girls, well ... it took such courage and commitment to agree to come away for the weekend (they didn't even know each other) that I wanted to ensure that they felt right at home. God's promise was to "provide peace" (Haggai 2 v 9) at the retreat and he had prepared a place especially for each of us. All we had to do was show up.  Typical me wanted to be Martha again, to do all the stuff! Yet in all my striving and panicking to ensure the girls were well-fed, pampered, relaxed, encouraged and equipped, I was reminded that any work or ministry for God must begin from a place of total surrender. Once I let go of "self" and handed everything to God, I had no need to strive, no need to panic. This was all God's idea. I needed to accept that anything I brought to the table was not in my own strength, but from a servant heart, completely reliant on God. With open hands and a compassionate heart I prepared for the retreat.  

I spent some time alone with God a few weeks beforehand on a solo retreat to Sligo and got lots of the biblical prep done then. Our focus verse was Romans 15 v 13. 

Lettering print by Megan @growingracelettering

Lettering print by Megan @growingracelettering

In His goodness, God connected the pieces of the puzzle together so beautifully during the weekend. The places we visited where timely reminders of Paul's prayer to all believers and God's presence was tangible wherever we went. God was interested in the tiniest details of this retreat and I could feel His guiding hand even as I planned the itinerary. Amazing. 

Practically, I was able to provide the girls with their own lake-view room, bedlinen and Neal's Yard treats to enjoy.

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The girls also received some stationery bits n' bobs too!

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On arrival at Hill House on the Friday afternoon we all took time to get settled, unpacked and grab a cuppa. The living space has a stunning view of Lake Loughanelteen - such a wonderful way to begin to rest and unwind. 

The view of the lake from the living area balcony

The view of the lake from the living area balcony

After a cuppa, the sun made an appearance so I took the girls for a quick tour of the space. Hill House is part of the larger West of Ireland Centre that belongs to my in-laws. The area spans 55 acres and is tucked safely away beneath the mountains - a truly unique place to escape and retreat away from the hustle and noise of our busy lives. Knowing the surroundings meant that the girls could take time to explore and enjoy the tranquil surroundings whenever they wanted to.

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We enjoyed some time chatting and relaxing before it was time for me to get the dinner on - Mango Chicken was on the menu! I am still super grateful that Denby Pottery very kindly gifted some dinnerware from their beautiful Studio Blue range. What an absolute treat! Laying a really good table was made easy with such stunning pieces. 

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There is something really special about good conversation around a table isn't there? We chatted, ate and chatted some more, so much so that time was nearly away from us and we had lots more planned for the evening! 

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Following dinner we enjoyed a brilliant brush lettering workshop by Megan from @growingracelettering. Megan expertly shared her talents and tips and we soon got into the swing of it. I may or may not have gotten quite competitive by the end!! This was such a lovely way to bring Friday evening towards a close. Megan regularly hosts lettering workshops if you live in Northern Ireland and fancy trying your hand at it. I was surprisingly hooked by the end! Check Meg out on her instagram for her next workshop dates. 

See my  IG  story highlights for some live video footage!

See my IG story highlights for some live video footage!

Zoe's  IG  story :) 

Zoe's IG story :) 

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By the time we had finished our lettering prints it was almost time for bed! I'd originally planned for some pampering for Friday night but saved that for Saturday evening instead. I was definitely optimistic about timings during the weekend! I'll know that for next time! 

Before bed we had a short group session and I shared a little of my heart behind the retreat and what we would focus on over the coming days. Then we concluded day one with worship, no better way to end what had been a beautiful day. 

On Saturday morning the girls could wake up and grab breakfast any time before 11am. It was home from home - just work away in the kitchen and make whatever took your fancy. We had pre-organised to each bring some groceries, so there were lots of breakfast options!  I was up early getting some prep in for our morning group session. Although I knew what I wanted to say, God kept downloading fresh truth that I wanted to make sure I articulated correctly to the girls. 

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That Denby bowl though! 

That Denby bowl though! 

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What a lovely breakfast enjoying the peace and the view! By this stage we were all feeling rested and relaxed. It was now time to get ready for another group session before heading out for the afternoon. Saturday's session started with a really beautiful time of worship, followed by a short teaching time. We learned about living in overflow and the importance of being a conduit for Christ - an open-ended vessel that allows God to continually flow in as we continually pour out. More importantly, we discovered that when we operate our life in overflow we can change the landscape around us. Thank you Charlotte for your wisdom in this.  

Zoe spotted this while out shopping on Saturday afternoon. I just love how God gives us visual reminders that He's near and He's interested in our everyday. We studied the dandelion and propagation just a few hours before! 

Zoe spotted this while out shopping on Saturday afternoon. I just love how God gives us visual reminders that He's near and He's interested in our everyday. We studied the dandelion and propagation just a few hours before! 

Then it was time for lunch! I took the girls into Sligo town to Kate's Kitchen to eat and then for a few hours shopping. I let them loose while I enjoyed a coffee and some prep time in my favourite bakery. 

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Kate's Kitchen, Sligo

Kate's Kitchen, Sligo

The retail therapy was followed by a trip to Glencar Waterfall. The whole Glencar area is breathtakingly beautiful. The landscape and scenery are just incredible - well, well worth a visit, and the waterfall itself is a hugely popular tourist spot. I've been numerous times now, but this time felt really special. Once again, there was a real sense that God was near - the air was cool and crisp and we stopped and savoured the moment.  

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Awh. These girls!

Awh. These girls!

There was only time for a quick stop back at Hill House to freshen up before heading out to another one of my favourite spots - Rosses Point. We enjoyed dinner at The Driftwood, followed by a beach walk, before returning home for a cuppa and some pampering! It was Neal's Yard mini facials and head massages all round!

Rosses Point

Rosses Point

Sunday morning was another slow morning. We were so relaxed by this point that we decided just to do our group session in our pyjamas! God began to tie everything so beautifully together and we spent time being ministered to, taking communion and praying together -  just worshipping at the feet of Jesus. It will be one of those special times of encounter that I don't think I'll ever forget. 

Still in our pyjamas at noon, we set off for our mountain walk! Yes, in our pjs! Having this scenery in the back yard of Hill House still blows me away. Views of 'The Sleeping Giant' on one side and Lough Gill on the other. From the top of the mountain you can even see the sea stretched out in the distance!

Zoe taking in the view of 'The Sleeping Giant' - half in Co. Leitrim, half in Co. Sligo

Zoe taking in the view of 'The Sleeping Giant' - half in Co. Leitrim, half in Co. Sligo

Stunning views of Lough Gill

Stunning views of Lough Gill

Jesus, sweet Jesus

Jesus, sweet Jesus

Our final stop before our retreat came to an end was Strandhill. The girls were especially excited to visit Shells Seaside Bakery, Cafe & Little Shop after hearing so much about it! It certainly did not disappoint. We made a quick stop after lunch at Hill House and Strandhill was absolutely buzzing ... there was jazz playing on the bandstand and the sun peeped out from behind the clouds just long enough for us to drink our coffee and watch the surfers. This felt like the perfect way to end our weekend!

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I'm still a little overwhelmed by the whole experience if I'm honest. I felt called to lay a really good table for God. To provide a space and a place that welcomed others to come and enter in to God's presence. The table (literal and metaphorical) was and is, representative of God's presence, a place of ENCOUNTER. And as I've typed this post I've been reminded once again that I'm back where I began ... back at the place of surrender. I bring NOTHING to the table, except all that has been given to me by God. Any of my giftings, abilities or passions have been mercifully given to me and I am THANKFUL. And I have never been more aware of stewarding them well.   

There has already been interest in another retreat ... at this stage I have two possibilities:

1. Come Undone (spiritual retreat)

2. Escape to the West (non-spiritual retreat)

The finer details (cost/date) are yet to be finalised but if you are interested in either retreat, or have any questions, please email me  on steph@mylittleduke.com. 

On a final note I must thank my wonderful in-laws for allowing us to use Hill House and the girls for bravely joining me on this West of Ireland adventure! There is a whole lot more Sligo to see ... we barely scratched the surface ... 

12 magical hours in London

Travel, Motherhood, BloggingSteph DukeComment

This week Phoebe, my mum and I took a whirlwind trip to London. A few weeks beforehand, we had been invited to take part in a campaign for VTech’s latest toy release: Myla the Magical Make-up Unicorn. The campaign included an exciting workshop in the Unicorn Theatre in London for Phoebe to enjoy and she would also receive her very own Myla. I remember instantly checking flights to see if I could get any cheap enough (and within the budget of our payment for doing the advertisement.) When I did, the decision was easy! I checked if mum fancied coming along and we booked the flights soon after. It would be an early flight and a long day for Phoebe but I was hopeful that she could manage. The excitement of the travel and the theatre would hopefully distract her from feeling too tired.

As the day approached, I made sure that we had a plan of action! Phoebe’s slot at the theatre was at 10am-12noon so we needed to be off the plane and onto the train from Stansted fairly sharpish! Our morning flight was from Belfast International at 6.05am and we landed in Stansted ahead of schedule. The buggy arrived off the plane quickly too and we were able to hot-foot it down to catch the 7.41am Stansted Express train into London. Phoebe coped brilliantly with the early start. I’d prepped her in advance that Mummy would come in and wake her in the middle of the night and we would travel to the airport in the dark! As soon as I woke her (with bated breath at 3.30am in case she started roaring), she peeped out of the window to check if it was dark, and the excitement on her face was confirmation that I’d made the right decision to go!

Sleepy eyes but smiling and ready for take-off!

Sleepy eyes but smiling and ready for take-off!

There were a few hairy moments at the airport as we waited to find out our gate for boarding … Phoebe just doesn’t have any patience! But thankfully with some persuasion and a new sticker magazine, she avoided meltdown! The Easyjet flight was less than an hour and all on time. I’d pre-booked our Stansted Express tickets and kept them in my handy wallet on my iPhone - we only needed tickets for mum and I, Phoebe was free. Hooray! I remember sitting on the train as we travelled into London and feeling so thankful for this experience. Phoebe munched on a croissant while cuddled in next to me as I read a story out of her magazine. So far, she had coped better than I anticipated and her excitement was growing by the minute to go and get her unicorn!

A snapshot from a sweet little video my mum took (see full vid and more on my  insta-stories/highlights )

A snapshot from a sweet little video my mum took (see full vid and more on my insta-stories/highlights)

The train journey took just over an hour and then we were at Liverpool- Street Station. Armed with Google Maps in one hand and a Krispy Kreme donut in the other, we exited the station and onto the streets of London. It was busy, very busy - lots of people making their way into work. But we managed fine with the buggy and nipped into a Pret-A-Manger (they are everywhere!) next to the theatre to freshen up and change. So far, so good.

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We arrived early to the Unicorn Theatre and were greeted by a lovely girl who directed us to where we needed to be. It was an absolute joy to watch Phoebe for the two hours that followed. Moments like those are moments that I will remember. She was captivated from start to finish. 

Unicorn Theatre, Tooley St. London.

Unicorn Theatre, Tooley St. London.

Phoebe was treated to unicorn-styled hair, complete with pink spray and lots of glitter! She had no idea what on earth was going on at the start, but she soon settled in, began to relax and get her confidence. The girls did an amazing job on all the kiddo's hair ... I was quite envious until Phoebe suggested I get mine done too! I obliged but suggested to the girl that I'd have to walk around London AND get a flight with whatever style she created ... needless to say there was no colour, but two lovely little braids to match Phoebe. She was so chuffed!! 

Phoebe's awesome hair!

Phoebe's awesome hair!

Next up was creating some magical unicorn glitter spray, having fun with gooey slime and making a cute little unicorn pot to bring home. Phoebe loves crafts and really enjoyed getting creative with decorating her spray. She wasn't so keen to get her hands in the slime - all talk though! 

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After crafting, all the kids gathered in the middle of the room for a brilliant imaginative role-play session. They were expertly guided into a land of make-believe and I watched on proudly as Phoebe got caught up in the magical journey to the land of the unicorn ...

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Then came the bit that Phoebe had been most excited for ... getting her very own Myla! She was bigger than I'd imagined she'd be, so we had to get the girls to cut her out of the box! There was no way we were bringing that box on the plane home! Phoebe immediately wanted to get trying Myla out anyway. A huge thank you to the girls who made sure Phoebe had a ball. 

Wee red face after all the role-play!

Wee red face after all the role-play!

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Thanks girls!

Thanks girls!

Our original plan was to leave the theatre around 12 noon and get a bus/taxi to Covent Garden for lunch. However, the bus route that we had hoped to take was closed for the month of August and I could't work out if Uber would take a child in a buggy or had car seats available? I didn't want to order an Uber and then have to pay for their time if they arrived and weren't able to take Phoebe. So after 30 minutes of trying to get a taxi sorted we decided that we might just try walking instead. The route would take around 50 minutes and it was either walk or hang around the theatre and grab lunch somewhere. I had my heart set on visiting Neal's Yard Remedies in Covent Garden and mum had never been to CG before so we set off following Google Maps once again.   

It's amazing how children sense when you are stressed isn't it? As we passed a nearby bus stop, I hopped on to ask the driver if he knew of another bus that might take us the direction we wanted to go. One driver was useless and another just told us to have a nice walk! And unfortunately, because I had went onto the bus, of course Phoebe thought that meant we were all going on the bus. Cue total meltdown. She'd done so brilliantly up until now and this was make or break time. We still had about 3.5 hours before needing to head back to the station so we motored on, trying to avoid the sympathetic/horrified stares of passers by! The streets were busy, we were trying to navigate our way towards Covent Garden and Phoebe was getting worse. It got to a point where we pulled the buggy over and I took Myla off Phoebe, threatening to throw the toy in the bin if she didn't stop yelling and screaming. I explained (through gritted teeth) that she had had a great day with lots of fun and now it was Nanny and Mummy's turn, while also suggesting she might like to lie back with Myla and close her eyes for a little while. Thankfully she obliged and as I handed Myla back to her she lay down and we started to walk. Not 5 minutes later her eyes were closed and she was out. Cue sighs of relief and silent prayers of "thank you Lord!"

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The rest of the journey to Covent Garden was actually quite pleasant! I also must thank the kind man who helped me lift the buggy (and sleeping Phoebe) up a flight of steps behind the Savoy - that would definitely have been a struggle for mum and I! As we neared CG I spied a coffee spot I'd seen on Instagram and made a beeline for it while missy moo was still snoozing. So glad I did - the place had a class vibe and the coffee was up there with some of the best I've had. Cheers Grind, you were just what this mama needed after that walk!

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That sign though.

That sign though.

Mum and I managed a very quick dander round a busy Covent Garden before Phoebe wakened. We were all starving so I decided a Shake Shack was the way to go ... turns out Phoebe doesn't like their burgers or their milkshake! There is little I hate more than spending money on food that Phoebe doesn't eat.

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My wee Mummy

My wee Mummy

Nevertheless, mum and I fuelled up before hitting my most favourite spot of the day ... NEAL'S YARD! It wasn't long after I booked the flights that it dawned on me I'd be able to visit the original Neal's Yard beside Covent Garden. It did NOT disappoint. Wow. The sun was shining and the courtyard was buzzing! I could have stayed here all day. Some day I'll come back and just sit and drink in the atmosphere. Maybe even steal a few hours in the Neal's Yard treatment rooms or attend some NY training - who knows?! But as a new consultant for Neal's Yard I'm not ashamed to say it kinda' feltlike Christmas came early!!

Some spot!

Some spot!

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Phoebe getting in on some sampling action

Phoebe getting in on some sampling action

Chillin' like a villain!

Chillin' like a villain!

A sweaty mess here but SO HAPPY!

A sweaty mess here but SO HAPPY!

Our time in London was coming to an end and as we made our way back to the station I savoured the moment. This trip would not have been possible without Instagram. And I need to take a moment to publicly apologise for my winging and whining about Instagram this last wee while. It's been a personal problem. Not Instagram's. I've been really blessed to have gained such a thoughtful, kind and supportive following - one I do not take for granted. If you are reading this and you are new round these parts, or if you're reading and you've been here a while ... hear this ... I VALUE YOU. I APPRECIATE YOU. I AM THANKFUL FOR YOU. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to read my blog, to like my content or have conversation with me. 

Back to our trip ... we made it back to Liverpool Street Station in good time and through security with more time to spare. Once again our travel was easy, everything was on time and we had no hiccups. God was so good to us. Phoebe was as excited about going home to show her Daddy and Granda her new toy as she was on the way there. 

Still loving Myla on the train home

Still loving Myla on the train home

Still smiling at 8pm despite being up from 3.30am! 

Still smiling at 8pm despite being up from 3.30am! 

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We made it home!

We made it home!

Finally, would I recommend flying to and from London in one day with a small child? Yes I would! As a parent, you know your own child and if you think they could handle it (or you have the opportunity for them to sleep during the day) then go for it! Yes, there were a few *moments* but that's normal. I actually came away from the experience a prouder mama and more inclined to be adventurous again. Witnessing Phoebe's joy in the moment was priceless, something I'll remember for a long time. So thank you Instagram, thank you Takumi and thank you VTech for making magic in London for our little Northern Irish babe.

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* Disclaimer: This blog post is not sponsored, neither am I being paid to write it. I was paid solely for the promotional post of Myla on my Instagram grid. This post is merely a documentation of our day - something I can fondly look back on! All thoughts and opinions are entirely my own. *

My Sligo Solo Retreat

Faith, Motherhood, TravelSteph DukeComment

I read a while ago about a ‘Solo Retreat’ and was instantly intrigued. There was something about setting aside intentional time for resting and writing in God’s presence that appealed to me – deeply, in my heart.

A few weeks ago, while in Sligo with family, I knew that if I ever were to be brave enough to book a solo retreat – I’d do it in Sligo. Several recent trips here have confirmed to me that this is a place where I can and should write. It’s a place that feels like home, but doesn’t come with the baggage that I associate with my own house. I love my home – don’t get me wrong – but when I’m at home I see everything that’s ‘unfinished’, everything that ‘needs doing’ and everything that can and will distract me from sitting down and writing.

There are lots of these same issues in Sligo, but I just don’t think about them here, and they definitely don’t distract me. I accept these same imperfections, yet at home they constantly play heavily on my mind and I can’t settle until I tidy, or clean, or do laundry … and I could keep going! Perfectionism is something I’ve always struggled with and it’s something God and I are working through. But a conversation with Matt just a few days ago helped me be brave, make the move and arrange my very first solo retreat. Practicing obedience is brave and I’m slowly learning how to live a life in surrender and obedience to Christ.

My room for the night

My room for the night

Hill House, Co. Sligo

Hill House, Co. Sligo

Financially, coming to Sligo for 24 hours doesn’t cost me a lot as I’m blessed to be able to use my in-laws accommodation at Hill House free of charge. The only cost is for fuel for travel and if I were to eat out while here. But obviously there is a personal cost – leaving my daughter and husband. If I were to write a pros and cons list I’d be at it all day and never make a decision. Phoebe and her Daddy enjoyed quality time together and I too, enjoyed my own quality time: uninterrupted and undistracted time to be productive, to hear God’s voice and to come home rested and grateful; more able and equipped to be a better mum and wife.

So what did my solo retreat consist of? For me I needed three things:

  1. Quiet
  2. No distractions
  3. Time

I was in desperate need of quiet time to process the myriad of thoughts and ideas swirling endlessly round my head. And I needed somewhere with no distractions. No bums to wipe or juice to refill, no-one yelling ‘Muuuuuummmmmmy’ every 5 minutes. I also needed time - a good, decent chunk of time to sit and process said thoughts and ideas. 10 or 20 minutes when I can grab it just isn’t working for me. Not when I’m in a season of hearing frequent downloads from God, trying to navigate these new waters of being ‘self-employed’ and figuring out what the future might look like for my family including how the heck I might ever make any money again!

I packed my little suitcase, filled my water tank in the Twingo and set off for Sligo - armed with my bible, laptop and several journals. I knew I was doing the right thing but that didn’t stop me feeling anxious about leaving Phoebe and even more so about spending the night solo! Yet, deep down I always knew I was never really ‘that’ far away and if I needed to, I could race back down the road to home.

The journey down felt strange, but good. I only had to think about myself. What did I want to listen to? No nursery rhymes or music picked by Matt. My choice. I pressed play on a series of podcasts I’d been meaning to listen to and didn’t look back. I devoured several podcasts – all very timely, affirming and encouraging. I started to feel more at ease and as I crossed the border and the landscape began to change, I felt peace.

In the 15 years I’ve travelled the road to Sligo, I’ve never once stopped being captivated by the landscape. It’s no wonder Yeats’ found inspiration from this Western isle of Ireland. The ruggedness, the contours of the mountains and the wild coastline all create a special kind of magic I’ve only ever felt here. And as I drove the country lane towards my retreat I stopped for the first time at a lake I’ve passed hundreds of times on route to Hill House. There was no toddler who ‘might wake up’ or husband to ask to ‘pull over’ – it was just me - I took the opportunity with both hands to pull into the lay-by and press pause on this moment in time I was never going to get back.

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I can totally see the appeal of solo travel! There’s such ease, speed and a wonderful freedom to explore. Having major life regrets right now! How did I get to 30 years of age and not try to see more of our planet!? Anyway, I stood lakeside in awe of the view and savoured the silence. This was why I did this. Thank you Lord for allowing me opportunity to press pause and enjoy your presence.

After arriving I took some time to make a plan of action and settled myself with my laptop and journal. It felt good to be productive and enjoy writing in a slightly calmer environment! At tea-time I took a drive out to the coast for something to eat (I’d driven up through lunch so was needing some sustenance) and enjoyed some good food and planning by the sea, followed by a nice fresh walk. I wasn’t as productive in the evening as I would have liked (I never am), but took the opportunity to get an early night and a luxurious uninterrupted sleep.

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Shells sea-side bakery & cafe

Shells sea-side bakery & cafe

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Strandhill

Strandhill

I have to admit that waking up naturally is a pretty nice way to wake up - something that just doesn’t happen to parents of small children! I’m usually jolted awake by a toddler poking and prodding my face, telling me she’s ‘soooo firsty Mummy!’ My solo morning schedule started with a blissful breakfast and worship. This is the way all my mornings should start. Are you like me – full of good intentions but never the follow-through? If every morning started the way today did, my world would be a better place. I’ll not be expecting a blissful breakfast, but breakfast and worship has got to be achievable! Time spent with the Father is never wasted time and like any good relationship, it is so good to talk.

Time was moving on quickly and I’d planned to do some studying and writing at my favourite little French bakery. I’d enough Euros to buy me an hour and a half to sit in the sun and do some much needed prep for a very exciting event that’s coming up. Fuelled by a chocolate cruffin and coffee, I set to work and enjoyed a really productive session - time, once again, where I felt God close, speaking to me as I studied His Word and put pen to paper.

Le Fournil

Le Fournil

Next up was a swim! I had allowed myself time to go to the beach if I’d been productive at the bakery, and what a sweet, sweet reward. The sun had begun to peek out of the clouds as I parked the car and dawned my swimwear. The beach was almost empty and I plunged into the water with a thankful heart. God you are so, so good to me. The sea was cold and clear, the air salty and fresh. The sun even stayed around just long enough to allow me 10 minutes to lay down and dry off. Total and utter bliss. This simple act is something I completely took for granted before I had a child. I savoured every single second on that sand before heading back home.   

I got back in the car with salty skin, sandy toes and a full heart. Even though I didn’t achieve everything on my list, I received everything that I personally needed and more. I queued up the podcasts and began the drive home, thankful and excited to see my family and implement some new processes into home life that ensure that I can be the best mum and wife that I can be, and live a life worthy to be called a follower of Christ.

Rosses Point

Rosses Point

I swam in this water - beautiful Rosses Point 

I swam in this water - beautiful Rosses Point 

So would I recommend a solo retreat? Yes I would. It’s not the sort of thing that will suit everybody. It will certainly look different for you than for me. But I can 100% assure you that it was needed for me, at the right moment in my life. It was a time of preparation, evaluation and consolidation of what has gone before and where God is leading me to in the future. I needed this time to be Mary, not Martha. All my life I’ve tried to live a Martha lifestyle when I need to be more like Mary. Will I do another solo retreat? Yes I think I will. Not for quite some time I’m sure, but it is definitely worthwhile.

Have you ever been on a solo retreat or done something similar? I’d love to know where / how / why! Is a solo retreat something you would be interested in doing? Perhaps a small group retreat is of more interest to you? Please get in touch as I’d love to hear your thoughts. Email me at steph@mylittleduke.com if this is you! 

Amsterdam 2017

TravelSteph DukeComment

My sister and I always talked about jetting off together, just the two of us. Opportunities came and went, yet we never managed to arrange anything.  However, Emily turning 21 last December seemed like too good an occasion to be missed and I remembered a recent conversation where, over several G&T’s, we ‘joked’ about just ‘doing it’ - just booking flights and going! So, that’s what I did for her birthday.

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We had both been to Amsterdam in 2016 with our other halves, so it was the perfect city to explore some more. Amsterdam would have an air of familiarity to it, yet with so much adventure still to uncover in those canal-lined streets. After coercing my wonderful husband into agreement, I started the search for flights. Flying to Amsterdam is so affordable – it’s a great place to visit on a budget!

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Emily’s birthday arrived and we excitedly began to plan our holiday. Being both the eldest and a mummy made me feel a great deal of responsibility. Not only for keeping us both safe on our trip, but also for finding a cool place to stay. My husband had me staying on a house-boat during our stay in Amsterdam (read about it here – found on AirBnb) so I desperately wanted to find something unique, yet affordable for Emily and I. I searched and searched with no result for weeks on end. It can be so frustrating trying to find that one place that just goes ‘POP’ and you know it’s the place for you. Time was ticking by and the closer we got to February, the closer I got to throwing my laptop out the window!

Then, completely out of the blue, during a search that I’d done numerous times before, I came across ZOKU. I knew instantly that it was the place for us. As I clicked and scrolled through the website, I was convinced I’d hit the jackpot. It was more than I could have imagined. The graphics/photos/website ticked all the boxes: clean design, modern, unique and aesthetically pleasing. Even the location was spot on for where we had planned to visit. A bit giddy, I selected a loft, praying all the while that the price would be within our budget … and it was! I sent Emily the link along with some photos and we booked our stay. Obviously I downloaded the handy ZOKU APP for my iphone and followed their IG account!

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On arrival we used Uber to get to from Central Station to the hotel and I remember going up in the lift, feeling a mix of excitement and nerves, hoping that Zoku lived up to my ridiculously high expectations. When we stepped out of the lift and onto the top floor I knew I had made the right decision. The hallway was a beautiful glass conservatory, lined with plants, filled with music and smelt of (I can’t even describe it to you) it just smelt…incredible, spa-like and floral – just heavenly. It was late and dark when we arrived and it felt truly magical as we made our way to the community space and arrival desk.

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We were greeted by a lovely member of staff who gave us the low-down, checked us in, and gave us directions to our loft.

ZOKU offers 4 types of accommodation at the hotel:

  • Zoku Loft
  • Zoku Loft XL
  • Zoku Room
  • Zoku Bootstrap

Check their website for all the deets!

Emily and I stayed in a ZOKU Loft. Seriously, we were mesmerized from the moment we opened the door. So many neat storage ideas, gadgets and spaces to explore; Emily had the hidden staircase pulled out before I’d even got into the room and was up and cosy in the bed within seconds!

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We were both starving so set off in search of some famous Amsterdam chips n' sauce cones! As you can see, it was after midnight by the time we found some! But, so, so worth it!

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By the time we finally got back to the hotel, we were zonked. Thankfully, in the community area of the hotel, there is always a member of staff there to help, 24/7 - so we enjoyed some complimentary iced tea and toddled off to our cosy bed! But, not until we'd had a nosy round the community space. It's full of sectioned off areas, seats around tables, cosy nooks, games room, work room and even a corner full of on-the-go snacks and little travel essentials in case you forgot to pack something! 

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Our bed must have been comfy as neither of us woke up until lunchtime! It was a rest that we both needed, setting us up for another busy day in the Dam! It was a grey, misty start as we headed off in search of brunch. Zoku is within walking distance of all Amsterdam's main tourist streets. Emily and I walked our way round everything on this particular day. 

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We headed to the top floor of the Library for our brunch, before tackling some of the main street attractions ...

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Bloemenmarkt - the beautiful canal-side flower market

Bloemenmarkt - the beautiful canal-side flower market

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We had pre-booked our tickets for the Xtra Cold IceBar for 5pm. This, again, wasn't too much of a walking distance away. I actually really enjoyed the Icebar experience. You get a cocktail and x2 shots included in your ticket price (£16) and around 15/20 minutes in the actual Ice Bar itself. You get provided with gloves and a thermal coat, it gets pretty baltic the longer you're in there! The shot glasses are made from ice, so it's a pretty cool wee experience. Honestly, I don't think I'd go back though, it's the sort of thing that once you've done it, that's enough!

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Next stop was Rotisserie West for food. My husband and I had visited Rotisserie East on our last visit for Valentines Day and absolutely loved the vibe - full of locals and the food was superb! As Emily and I were eating so early, it was quiet when we arrived, but by the time we were leaving, the place was buzzing!

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Then, like two wee grannies, after a busy day, we pottered back to Zoku for board games, cocktails and hot chocolate! No wild Amsterdam night for us! 

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On our final morning we took the opportunity to get a few photos of our loft in daylight. Both Emily and I thought the whole hotel was class, especially the bed in our loft. Being up high and enclosed away from the world in a cosy nook was just the ticket for a great night's sleep! I particularly liked the usb port and pouch on the headrest - genius! If anyone had seen us when we arrived, the 2 of us squealing every time we opened a drawer or found something neat!

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Zoku is without doubt, one of the coolest hotels I've ever stayed in. I loved absolutely everything about it, the only negative was having to leave! Thankfully they have plans to roll out the hotel across Europe and the US - devastated that NYC isn't ready as Matt and I head there in Feb (still without somewhere to stay!!)

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After saying sad goodbyes to Zoku, we made tracks back to the main street for breakfast. After croissants and coffee we went in search of bicycle hire and tentatively began to cycle towards Amsterdam's famous Vondlepark. I honestly don't think I've ever been so scared in my life. Between cars, trams, crazy local cyclists and tourist pedestrians - the cycling experience pre-Vondlepark was quite terrifying! Seriously bonkers! Wearing a dungaree-dress that day was definitely a mistake! Trying to learn how to back-pedal brake is no easy feat, especially in a tight skirt haha!! Once I mastered the art of braking I was in my element, especially when we made it to Vondlepark (still don't actually know how we managed to navigate ourselves to the right place!!) At one stage, when we were literally seconds away from returning the bikes, I turned up a one-way street (the wrong way) and nearly wet myself as I tried to turn around, in the middle of total chaos!! Some craic! 

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Taking a Stroopwafel and coffee break from the cycling.

Taking a Stroopwafel and coffee break from the cycling.

Our last activity before hot-footing it back to the airport was to take the free ferry out to the A'Dam Lookout Tower. Matt and I had been across on the ferry on our last visit, but the Lookout Tower was only being built at that stage - we did the Eye Film Institute that time. 

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You can see the 'Over The Edge' swing on the top of the tower!

You can see the 'Over The Edge' swing on the top of the tower!

At the top of the Lookout Tower you enjoy a 360° panoramic view of the city and if you're brave enough to try the swing, it swings you out over the top of the tower! I was surprisingly nervous and because we queued for so long, the nerves had plenty of time to grow! But, what an experience ... especially to share with my sis. The feeling was incredible ... swinging out over the whole of Amsterdam. A must do if you get the chance!

A wee bit of fun on the way up!

A wee bit of fun on the way up!

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What a way to end our sister city break! Actually a little bit emotional after going through our pics from the trip. I am so grateful to have a sister, especially a sister like Ems. This was the perfect getaway for us both.

A great city.

A cool hotel.

The BEST company. 

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