ALL THE BEST FOR THE NEW YEAR
By NI Travel News’ Award-Winning Travel Writer JOHN TREW
I STARTED A TRADITION, two decades ago, to welcome in the new year by devoting my January edition of Trew’s Travels to a menu of tourism tips and trends garnished with my best old jokes.
Here’s an example which combines all of the above:
“Q: When is the best time to visit Paris?
“A: Between 18 and 34.”
I discovered the truth of that witty response when we rented an apartment near the summit of Montmartre around the time of my second hip-replacement. Since I was well beyond the 18-34 age group, I had to struggle up the steepest streets in France to buy a baguette. Admittedly, the breads in LE COQUELICOT CAFÉ bakery near Abesses Metro were well worth the trip, because I always had to take a breather on their sunny outdoor terrace to enjoy the world’s most buttery croissant with a bowl of dark brown coffee while watching pretty parisiennes swinging by.
In recent years, Karen and I are more likely to rent an apartment nearer Sea (ie Seine) Level thus avoiding unnecessary hill-climbs, but we still use the same agency which specialises in Montmartre holiday rentals. They operate from PerfectlyParis.com.
When you go to the site, click on ‘In the News’; there you will find enthusiastic articles of mine - in full - from Northern Ireland Travel News, alongside the gushings of American writers from Condé Nash Traveler and a dozen other world mags. My friend, the founder Gail Boisclair and her team of fixers and greeters ensure that the 31 apartments in the portfolio are always in welcoming condition, with the wi-fi working (that’s today’s No 1 priority with guests.)
MY MOST UNUSUAL travel tip for 2015 is to urge you to visit the great Interactive Science Centre in the unlikely location of Birr Castle in the delightful Georgian town of Birr, Co Offaly. The Castle and Grounds there were a hub of scientific discovery for over a hundred years thanks to the genius of successive Earls of Rosse, who put the Irish Midlands to the top of the world of innovation. The recently rebuilt Great Telescope (above) was once the finest astronomical instrument on Earth, but the fascinating new Centre also displays the family's contribution to the development of photography and marine engineering. In my autumn visit I learned that our own Titanic's turbines originated in Birr! Wonderful courtyard café restaurant is another good reason to visit this all-year-round attraction
Over the years, we have got to know Gail, her lovely daughter and family cats. Her right-hand man, Preston, now not only sorts out problems 24/7, but also runs great insider Parisian tours for wine lovers since he ‘passed out’ of the Wine & Spirit Trust (perhaps I should have written ‘graduated’) a while back.
Renting a flat has many advantages. Not only do you get to live La Vie Parisienne, but it’s good value too. From around 700 euros a week for a comfortable little abode near the famous artists’ colony of the Place du Tertre, to a family-size luxury apartment with jazzy rugs costing €2000. Give my regards to them if you a looking for more info.
Favourite Cities for a Few Days of Fun
MY MOST FAQ as a travel journalist is: “Which is the best city destination for a special occasion/cultural tour/impulse break?”
The top three for me in Europe will always be PARIS (see above) AMSTERDAM and VENICE. They all offer such different delights – but choose accommodation wisely. For example, a middle-aged couple wishing to celebrate their anniversary in sophisticated style should never book into an Amsterdam hotel next to the Red Light District; they may end up sharing the lifts and bars with three rugby clubs from Tyneside on a supposed ‘tour’, or even a posse of Essex girls open for bottle or draught. Read the guest reviews in Trip Advisor – in spite of their alleged unreliability, I reckon the overall tone of these comments will give you a feeling for the kind of place the hotel is. As so many holidays are booked at third hand nowadays through bucket shops and sites like Booking.com, you don’t have access to somebody on the hotel’s Front Desk whom you could ask - unless you call them AFTER the hotel voucher arrives.
Last spring we stayed in a well-loved hotel on the northern shores of our own wee Province. It never occurred to us that it was the height of the Wedding Season and the all the public rooms would be packed with noisy, over-dressed people in celebration mode from 4pm until 4am.
It was only on checking-in that I remarked upon some potentially noisy celebrants I noticed arriving, so the canny receptionist upgraded us to the best room furthest from the bars. I never saw so many hung-over people the next morning; the breakfast orange juice ran out four times and black puddings stayed untouched…
VENICE is top of my list for special occasion trips or romantic breaks – especially for those who have never been there before. My friend JB was delighted with my recommendation after he surprised his wife with an Anniversary Trip to the world’s most beautiful city. She told me they were overwhelmed with the “utter uniqueness” of the canals overlooked by grand palaces plus squares bounded by amazing churches and treasure-houses of art.
They were well-pleased, too,with my favourite Venetian palace, HOTEL PALAZZO STERN located on the Grand Canal with its own water-bus stop. It was formerly the home of an art collector, so rooms are full of paintings,statues and ancient artefacts. It is good value all year round, so the tariff won’t take the tarnish off your Silver Anniversary. Regular readers will recall my enthusiastic coverage of our recent trip to Amsterdam in the Nov/Dec edition of NI Travel News. My recommended place to stay, the HOTEL ESPRESSO is ‘minimalist’ in comparison to the Hotel Stern’s ‘baroque’ style. However, it was convenient to the City’s magnificent Rijksmuseum, the modern art Stedelijk Museum and my world favourite Van Gogh Museum as well as Anne Frank House. Wonderful city.
Nearer home, EDINBURGH is always hard to beat – especially at Festivals time (which are now almost all year round).Thank God, the new tramway has bedded down after years of travel frustration, so getting around is much easier for drivers. That’s why we chose to take our own car over on the excellent Stena Service from Belfast – Loch Ryan. We now also always upgrade to Stena Plus; by paying an extra few pounds, you get enhanced pleasure and goodies.
The expense of LONDON hotels is becoming a deterrent to making impulse trips to the capital, but it will be a great pleasure in 2015 to see scores more Wrightbus Ballymena-made ‘Borisbuses’ on famous shopping streets!
Time to Take a Bite of the Big Apple
FURTHER AFIELD, NEW YORK heads my Bucket List of Must-Sees. We spent a lot of time there thanks to our friendship with Brooklyn-born Tom Towey and wife Susan - and that was long before you could hop on a plane in Aldergrove for breakfast and arrive in New York for lunch (well, Newark anyway). I fondly remember one June 18 when I opened my birthday cards at home and blew out the candles on my celebration cake at the Toweys house across Brooklyn Bridge.
I urge you to visit the new 9/11 MEMORIAL MUSEUM on Ground Zero. To avoid the controversially high admission prices, I have heard that throughout 2015, Tuesday nights are free with tickets you can book online in advance. It was due to another friendship that I fell in love with SYDNEY, which may be a bit far away for a weekend break, but should be high up near the rim of anybody’s Bucket List.
My schoolfriend Robert ‘Dinger’ Bell invited me to address his Rotary Club in Queensland, so we made a month of it. I eulogised in these pages about Queensland - snorkelling around the GREAT BARRIER REEF, travelling from Brisbane to Cairns aboard THE QUEENSLANDER luxury train and being peed upon by a koala in the otherwise sophisticated resort of NOOSA.
However, it was Sydney that took my breath away for the amazingly high quality of life enjoyed by residents and visitors. Under a Mediterranean-type sun, they work hard,play harder and eat better. We found ‘If you’re Irish, come into the parlour’…well, that was the Sydneysiders’ welcome before Ulsterman Tommy Bowe and the Ireland team demolished the Aussies last November!
Inside Stories of Iconic Hotels
BEST TV TRAVEL REPORTER is, for me, the actor Richard E Grant - perhaps a surprising choice for a lifelong journalist. His scenic mini-series about the artists who made the French Riviera their open-air studio, was two hours of delight for art-junkies like me (in spite of my art historian friend Conor dismissing Richard’s flashing smiles as ‘tiresome’).
However, Grant’s series HOTEL SECRETS on Sky Atlantic is much more populist; I cannot imagine any regular traveller not enjoying his unique take on the world’s most luxurious and iconic hotels. He flings his skinny torso onto the fluffed-up duvets of kingsize beds in suites costing up to £40,000 a NIGHT - often without taking off his shoes. I hope a new series is upcoming in 2015; I have sent a pleading note to the Sky commissioning editor Siobhan Mulholland who sounds like she might have Ulster connections.
Fine Dining Year For Local Gourmets
LOCAL RESTAURANT clients can look forward to a finger-lickin’ New Year. Standards of cuisine have never been higher - and competition between old and new gastronomic ventures has led to better value all round.
My best bet for dinner among long-established eateries is THE BOATHOUSE in an historic building on Bangor’s Seafront.Run by two Dutch brothers with Ulster accents, this is fine dining indeed, with enormous attention to detail with everything locally sourced – including the samphire (poor man’s asparagus) hand-picked by the chef from a secret Strangford location.
In Belfast, SHU on the Lisburn Road has everything locally sourced – including the samphire (poor man’s asparagus) hand-picked by the chef from a secret Strangford location. In Belfast, SHU on the Lisburn Road has maintained its approval-rating with both the commercial sector (car salesmen from nearby Motor Mile) and the artistic set (headed by Ulster’s most popular artist Neil Shawcross who has been known to invite me to join his gang for good food and great craic.)
Among the newer restaurants, I urge you to try HOLOHAN’S on the Lagan Legacy Barge tethered to Lanyon Quay. The fish ‘n chips are unbeatable, and the enthusiasm of the service is equalled only by the quirkiness of the setting. Up near the top of the Ormeau Road, THE SHED serves up bistro food prepared with cosmopolitan flair. I regularly lunch with old rugby-playing school-mates at THE POINT in Ballyhackamore village, one of the pioneers of fine food in the former oasis of East Belfast.
If you’re looking for Asian food that attracts Asian clientele, try SHANAKA, the friendly Japanese where I go for the colourful £20 set menu which I eat under the gaze of well-mannered Tokyo families.
Up in Derry/Londonderry they are becoming legenderry for their good grub as well as everything else worthwhile. THE SOOTY OLIVE on the Waterside is highly regarded among friends of mine for its contemporary twist on tradition, while the BELFRAY INN across the Foyle maintains its reputation for good old-fashioned food and service.
I cannot let another Annual Review go by without mentioning my regard for the VALLEY HOTEL Fivemiletown where the Williamson family remain devoted to upholding exemplary standards of food and accommodation in the Heartland of Hospitality.