My Little Duke

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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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