After last evening exploring Belfast and dining at Ox, we returned the next morning to Established Coffee for a quick breakfast:
Then we were picked up by Paddy Campbell’s Famous Black Cab Tours by the legendary Paddy Campbell himself at 8:30am and was guided to an alternative tour of the darker history of Northern Ireland (between the Republicans/Catholics and the Loyalists/Protestants) known by many as “The Troubles.”
There are many “Black Cab Tours” imitators out there, but Paddy Campbell is the real OG.
We first took in the political murals of both the Falls and Shankill roads, learning about the perennial violence that took place on these streets:
We then drove up to and around the Peaceline, a modern day “Berlin Wall” where a series of separation barriers in Northern Ireland still separate predominantly Republican and Nationalist Catholic neighborhoods from predominantly Loyalist and Unionist Protestant neighborhoods:
We then drove by the International Wall that compares the struggle to that of Israel/Palestine, Black Lives Matter, and other similar conflicts worldwide:
And finally we stopped at Bombay Street, where it all started in 1969:
After an informative 90 minute tour, we then drove north for our adventure around greater Northern Ireland.
About a 30 minute drive from Belfast are the picturesque and eerie Dark Hedges, famous for its cameo appearance in Game Of Thrones:
We then drove another 30 minutes to the Ballintoy Harbor and coast, first reaching the famous rope bridge of Carrick-a-Rede. Despite the constant rain and fog, the views were splendid.
“God was in a good mood when he created Northern Ireland. They just forgot to put up a roof.”
You have to pay 9£ at the front by the car park if you want to cross the rope bridge (and only after another 15 minute hike to get there):
After exploring the smaller island across the bridge, you have to get back on line to cross back over:
From Carrick-a-Rede we drove west 10 minutes to the day’s highlight, Giant’s Causeway.
They’re an iconic natural wonder where basalt columns jut upwards out of the sea as is they were literally a stairway for giants.
There’s a 2£ roundtrip bus that can take you back and forth if you don’t want to make the 15 minute hike there.
After 20 minutes at Giant’s Causeway, we drove another 10 minutes west to Dulunce Castle, where despite it falling it apart, still stands imposingly 20 minutes north by the coast.
It too enjoys being part of Games Of Thrones lore as Castle Greyjoy:
Afterwards we enjoyed a splendid and cozy lunch by the castle with some of Paddy’s friends at the Wee Cottage Cafe and Gift Shop right outside the castle entrance.
Then it was an hour’s drive back south to Belfast where we turned in early.
Despite a wonderful week away, I need to say my goodbyes early; gotta catch the 5:30am Goldlink X1 bus from Belfast Europstar Bus Station to Dublin Airport! The goal is to board a 9:20am flight out so I can speak for the UVSASE 2019 Element 2 conference in Atlanta, GA!
Made it to Dublin Airport only to find out my 9:20am flight has been delayed up to 3 hours. Can’t win ’em all.
- At time of posting in Giant's Causeway, it was 15 °C -
Humidity: 98% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: raining buckets
After 2 nights and 2 days in the Isle Of Man, our gang headed out early for our morning flights out.
A twice-a-week ferry does run between Isle Of Man and Belfast, but it runs at midnight and 2:30am in the morning and costs almost as much as a flight.
Given we didn’t want to waste a day, we elected instead to hop on the 45 minute 1:00pm Flybe flight to Manchester, catching the 1 hour 3:30pm flight for Belfast.
Once we reached BHD airport, we took a 10 minute Uber and checked into our lodgings in the city center.
We then hit the ground running, beginning with a quick lunch at Established Coffee and a visit to Saint Anne’s Cathedral. It costs 7£ (4£ for students) to enter!
We then walked over past the Customs House…
…and headed to the waterfront where they began construction of the Titanic at Lagan Boat Co overlooked by the Lagan Lookout Bridge:
We then decided to change plans and walk 20 minutes across the lookout bridge to check out the giant gantry where the Titanic was actually constructed:
Facing the gantry is the massive Titanic Belfast Museum, costing 19.50£ to enter.
An immersive museum experience for any fan of the story of the Titanic, we stayed at the museum for about an hour and a half. It begins with what life was like in Belfast, then an immersive look into the construction of the Titanic, and the aftermath of its eventual sinking.
There’s an optional, slow-moving 6 minute “theme park” ride inside that may or may not be worth the 30 minute wait:
We then took a cab back towards the city center to resume our walking tour at the Albert Memorial Clock:
From there we walked south to the pedestrian malls along Corn Market:
Belfast City Hall, the center of the city, is only a few blocks south:
Don’t miss the array of stained glass pieces dedicated to Game Of Thrones:
Just across the street southwest is the Grand Opera House:
And if you’re into bars, The Crown Saloon is famed for its decor dating as far back as the 1820s:
We then walked east back towards the River Lagan, passing by where St George’s Market is:
Sadly, it’s only open from Fridays to Sundays:
At the end of the street we stopped at the ICC Belfast / Waterfront Hall:
…and turned to pass by Victoria Square to our left:
After a walking tour that lasted not even an hour, we then finished off with 6pm reservations at Ox Belfast.
One of 2 Michelin-Star restaurants in Belfast (the other being Eipic), Ox surprised me at how fine dining can have both an elegant and casual vibe without sacrificing quality. Highly recommended.
This was our 6-course dinner (60£) —
Lough Neagh smoked eel, cucumber, saffrom Gougére, Coolattin cheddar, beer
Pea, lobster, créme fraiche, verbena
White asparagus, lardo, fig leaf, truffle
Scallop, coral butter, lemongrass, courgette
Mourne mountain lamb, spelt, wild garlic, pine nuts
Beetroot, rhubarb, red basil, peppercorn
70% chocolate, pecan, ginger, banana sorbet
Salted caramel, cherry, chocolate, passion fruit
After 3 and a half hours dining and conversing over various deep topics, we then took a leisurely evening stroll back to our apartments.
- At time of posting in Belfast, Northern Ireland, it was 14 °C -
Humidity: 94% | Wind Speed: 15km/hr | Cloud Cover: rainy and wet
On my way to Isle Of Man this evening, I enjoyed an unexpected 8 hour layover in lovely Manchester.
Taking the 10pm Thomas Cook Airlines flight from JFK Airport in NYC, I arrived 7 hours later at 9:55am local time at Manchester Airport.
My morning started with first going back and forth between Terminal 3 and 1 to find a left luggage facility to drop off my big bag (the guy at Terminal 3 said “I’m not trained to use the x-ray”…erm yeah).
Once solving that, I headed over to The Station on the 7th floor and took the 20 minute shuttle train into the city.
I got off at Victoria station at around 11am.
From there I began my walking tour north at Chetham’s Library, a public library built in 1653 housing thousands of books & manuscripts. There are set times for entry for otherwise free public tours inside.
Afterwards I walked 5 minutes south to and around the Manchester Cathedral:
It’s free to enter:
After a few minutes, I walked 10 minutes south to an oasis of calm at Trinity Bridge:
Then turning east, I walked 5 minutes towards Saint Ann’s Church:
Down the block south from St. Ann’s Church is John Rylands Library, famous for being the home to the ‘Manchester Fragment’: the earliest known fragment of the New Testament and part of St. John’s gospel that was found near Alexandria. It dates from 2nd century, shortly after the gospel itself was first written.
If you come at around 12pm, they’ll open the upper galleries for an hour for you to take photos.
As UK’s notoriously perennially bipolar weather went from sunny to rainy back to sunny, I happened to come across a religious parade/procession right outside:
Across the street to the east and through a small alleyway lies St Mary’s Church, Manchester’s oldest Catholic church and built in 1794.
I then kept walking along Princess Street and passed by Manchester City Council:
Next to the city council is the Manchester Central Library:
Manchester Chinatown, the new center of Manchester’s changing and evolving youth culture, which is right down a few streets:
And The Village (aka Gay Village) is embedded within this neighborhood along Canal Street:
And from the Alan Turing Memorial in a quiet park across the bridge, I walked along the canal back west.
After a nice 15 minute walk, I reached Castlefield, a relaxed neighborhood of public esplanades, canals, casual waterfront bars and green spaces.
And the best part was that this whole walking tour took about 2-3 hours at a turtle pace.
At around 2pm I decided to get back on the train here towards the airport o catch my onward 5:35pm Flybe flight out to the Isle Of Man.
- At time of posting in Manchester, UK, it was 16 °C -
Humidity: 61% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: manic depressive: sunny, cloudy, sunny, and rainy
I never thought I would be back in London so soon.
Although it was 5 months ago where I was able to review my experience flying First Class on British Airways, it really feels like it was only yesterday where I was in London blogging from the British Airways Galleries Lounge.
But it was truly only yesterday where after months of deliberating on what flights to take before starting my trip to The Balkans, that I finally touched my 176,000 American Airlines miles (acquired for free after signing up for both the US Airways and American Airlines credit cards before the airlines merged) that have been untouched for over 3 years!
So when it comes to having a ton of miles, the general recommendation is that you “earn and burn”: redeem those miles as quickly as you earn them. That’s because there’s no use to hoarding miles that never accrue any extra value or interest over time, especially when airlines are recently finding more ways to devalue these miles. But the reason why my AA mileage program has been collecting dust all these years is that AA miles don’t truly get you a “free flight” like other mileage programs do.
For example, I can use 57,500 United miles to acquire a long-haul business/first class flight on any airline within the Star Alliance network (up to 20 airlines worldwide that includes heavy hitters such as Turkish, Thai, Asiana, Lufthansa, etc.!) and not pay anything more than a nominal $8.00 on fees. In fact, I did exactly this less than 2 months ago when I flew Turkish Airlines First Class for my last monsoon.
However, while 57,500 American Airlines miles within the Oneworld network also can snag you a long-haul business/first class, it’s also usually tacked on with a $500-$800 fee. That’s more than 90x-100x the cost for the same number of miles!
So this was a difficult pill to swallow. Furthermore, the available oneworld itineraries that AA offers to redeem your miles with are also pretty crappy (involving a ridiculously number of multiple connecting flights and inconvenient layovers) whereas United’s Star Alliance network gives you much more flexibility and choices.
But alas, after narrowly missing out on a nice $750 roundtrip flight from NYC to The Balkans that I had been eyeing for a few weeks, I was just about to settle for the old-fashioned $1300-range of last minute round trip flights before giving American Airlines mileage another chance. And lo and behold, I actually discovered a decent 57,500 mile itinerary via British Airways “Club World” Business Class that allowed me a 10 hour layover during the daytime in Zagreb, Croatia. Sure, this could count as a crappy itinerary for others, but I never left Zagreb’s airport the last time I was in Croatia so the option of exploring this capital city seemed pretty convenient before starting a trip in The Balkans.
That said, the downside was a fee of $555.00. . . .yeah, can’t win them all.
Therefore, about 12 hours after booking the flight, at around 5:30pm today I arrived at JFK and checked into the British Airways Terminal 7 Galleries Lounge, which I haven’t been to since taking off for my first official monsoon 7 years ago!
I grabbed a few cookies and snacks before heading out to board my flight. Up the stairs I go. . .
Although there’s more privacy in BA’s pseudo-suites in first class, I actually preferred the business-class “Club World” option on the upper deck in terms of design and convenience.
The in-flight entertainment worked more smoothly than what I had experienced in first class and the offerings of drinks and food were similar enough that I didn’t mind missing out the extra attention to detail that first class had.
The business class seats are arranged in an alternating “clamshell” where the outer seats have direct access to the aisle and the inner ones have more direct-access storage and privacy. Both can lay completely flat at 180º so you can sleep soundly. Like this guy.
Along with welcome drinks (I chose their champagne), a newspaper, and an amenities kit (toothbrush, toothpaste, hand lotions) when you arrive at your seat, you’re given a card where you can choose whether to be woken up for breakfast or to be left undisturbed to get the maximum amount of sleep (and choosing to eat breakfast instead at the arrivals lounge reserved for Club World and First Class flyers).
I chose maximum food where i was served warm bread, guacamole, lamb shank, and a caramel chocolate dessert, which is where they shined the most.
After dinner they dim the cabin lights and I was able to get in a good 4-5 hours of solid sleep. By the time I woke up there was about 30 minutes of flight left so I got the breakfast before landing and disembarking. Then after another round of security checks, I checked back into the British Airways Galleries Lounge, this time on the London side.
Good to be back 5 months later.
Once uploading some photos for this post, I headed back out to Gate 17 where I boarded my 2 hour, 8:15am flight to Zagreb, where their “Club Europe” class on their shorter-haul flights is essentially a regular economy seat with larger tables to work/eat on and the middle seat replaced with another table for cell phones and drinks.
We then landed at 11am, where I now begin my day trip in Zagreb, Croatia!
- At time of posting in London Heathrow Airport, it was 11 °C -
Humidity: 93% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny
After a day of climbing some Edinburgh hills, my group and Alistair graciously saw me off at the bus station in Edinburgh.
From there I took an overnight 8:30pm National Express Bus #954 from Edinburgh to London, with the bus taking a half an hour rest stop at 1:45am in the morning.
As nicely run as National Express buses are, I remained stuck sitting 90º upright even with the chair “fully reclined.” Nevertheless, it came with enough power plugs that work pretty well, a functioning big clock in the front, and superfluous seat belts. There’s no wifi on the bus, but when does that ever work?
I arrived at London Heathrow at 6:15am. No transfers needed!
From there I took the tram to Terminal 5.
Last year I acquired 100,000 British Avios miles by spending $20k on its eponymous credit card on anything I could (gift cards to myself, taxes, group dinners, flights for other trips) and with those miles, I was able to get a first class seat on this trip back to NYC.
And with that first class status on my ticket, I breezed through Fast Track to security.
After security, I checked into the exclusive Concord Room, which is open only to First Class flyers. The big difference is that there’s no self-service; you have dedicated butlers and service staff with all the food and drink being complimentary and delivered to wherever you sit.
You can also get a free 15 minute service at the adjacent Elemur Day Spa whether it’s a massage, shave, or facial.
After an hour here, I headed towards the gate and into the plane towards the first class section.
I chose my seat to be at the very front of the plane: 1A.
There I settled in with a glass of orange juice and bubbly.
The best part is having your seat fully recline to a 180º flat bed, along with an adjustable footrest at 2 different heights.
The best part of first class on British Airways is that their service is impeccable, with them delivering in choreographed succession: welcome drinks, a newspaper of your choice, US customs forms, a leather washbag…
…containing a plethora of high class vanity and sleep products…
…as well as a pajama set…
…then a menu…
…followed by a peach and raspberry smoothie…
…a really well done tea set…
…appetizers and bread basket…
…and then the main course.
After the meal if you start to develop food coma and start to look a little drowsy, you can put away your clothes in your personal closet (on the right) as they carry over for you a pair of slippers and a duvet.
Then after a 2 hour nap, I woke up to afternoon high tea…
…accompanied by a bottle of water and pastries…
…and fresh warm scones.
After feeling satisfyingly full, rested, and 3 movies in, it was time to land after 6 quick hours in the air.
Thanks for the experience BA!
Although the hard product of BA’s first class is very similar to that of business class of other airlines, it’s the more focused and fine-tuned orchestrated service and feeling of privacy that transitions it from business to first. And I guess their champagne is higher quality? Either way, if you have the chance, it’s worth a one-time experience.
After landing I was treated to a remarkable Monsoon Diaries reunion 2 hours later in the east village, where I was able to meet up with Sidian (who showed me around his native Athens 2 years ago), Dmitry (whom we got to know when we ran into each other in Romania 5 months ago), Nisa (whom went on my Southeast Asia tour led by Dave 2 years ago), William (whom went on 3 trips with me), and my unnamed partner-in-crime (whom was in Romania with me when we met Dmitry, and Greece when we met with Sidian, amongst many others).
- At time of posting in London, it was 7 °C -
Humidity: 82% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly cloudy
Seemingly on an unrelated note, now that it’s spring break season the past month I’ve been working closely with fellow YPT colleague Alistair Riddell — who was aso our guide on our famously epic 40-person Cuba trip in 2014 — on a bunch of tours for Cuba. It’s been hard for us to coordinate, however, given our relatively busy schedules.
Well, guess who I ran into today in his native Edinburgh? And crazy enough, we’re both there for just a weekend!
And thanks to Alistair taking some time off today, we were able to hike up the 3 great hills of Edinburgh to view the city from 3 separate angles and all from the top.
With the help of Alistair’s trusty Skoda car to pick us up from the hostel, we first did a brisk 5 minute walk up the stairs on Calton Hill:
Here you get the classic panorama views of Edinburgh that you see in all the postcards, with the castle in the center:
By the hill is an odd incomplete structure that remains unfinished due to a lack of funds, which has rendered it from its originally designated status of national symbol into a national disgrace.
Then after about 20 minutes there, we drove further out to Arthur’s Seat, which takes about 15-20 minutes to climb.
In the distance you can still see Edinburgh Castle pretty well:
But more laughably was the idea of Calton Hill that we had just climbed minutes before:
After a half an hour taking in the views at Arthur’s, we decided to go all out and drive out into the suburbs of Hillend. There at the Midlothian Snowsports Centre (formerly the Hillend Ski Centre and also known as the longest dry ski slopes in Europe), we paid 3£ for the ski lifts to take us up halfway.
This is skiing in the spring:
After getting off our gondolas, we hiked up the rest for another 20 minutes to reach nearly the highest point you can get for views of Edinburgh:
And from Hillend if you squint hard enough, you can make out the sorry excuse of a hill Arthur’s Seat was, which you had climbed only minutes before…
…behind you are the range of Pentland Hills that stretch 20 miles beyond Edinburgh:
Unlike Calton or Arthur’s, there are no crowds at Hillend. So after about 20 minutes taking this all in and being on our own, we headed back down.
Driving back into the city, we happened to pass by The Elephant House, famous for supposedly being where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter “on the back of a napkin.”
Then it was back around the Edinburgh castle grounds for dinner…
…and with the weekend already over before we knew it, I now bid my fellow travelers goodbye as I hop on an overnight 8:30pm National Express direct bus to London Heathrow Airport.
- At time of posting in Hillend, Scotland, it was 13 °C -
Humidity: 42% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear