Travels

Ireland Dream Vacation

I know my way around Belfast so when I am asked to set up a trip for an old friend that includes a stop at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, I know just what to do. He can have a tasting experience like no other and learn how to pour a perfect draft with just the right amount of head. The professionals will take him in hand. I happen to know one or two personally as they come from my town. Privileged visitors can take the connoisseur tour at the Guinness Storehouse. Find out your favorite dark blends while you enjoy the view from the Gravity Bar. There is also a museum displaying artifacts and information about the history of Ireland’s favorite brand.

If you are a beer lover, the Storehouse is not to be missed, which is why I placed it high on my sightseeing list.  I plan for my friend to sample Guinness Draft, Extra Stout, Black Lager, and Foreign Extra. There are others but this is a good start. There is a lot to know about our legendary Irish dry stout. Every visitor goes home with a souvenir. But first you get to see the 4th floor luxury lounge to complete your connoisseur experience of one of the most successful beer brands in the world. I love the pouring ritual to achieve a perfect head, so much so that I went and read up about it on Crack a Cold One. The beer is creamy, poured fresh from the tap, and has a wonderful smooth flavor with chocolate undertones that are rich and delicious. Some beer has full-bodied notes as it is brewed with extra barley and hops to add a special bite. After the typical tasting session, you pick your favorite and get a pint to savor on the spot or as you wish. There is much to be seen after in and around the Storehouse. Seven floors of memorabilia constitute the vast museum.

Beer is big in Ireland as you might have guessed. Every tourist rushes to the nearest pub for our stout. We are proud of our heritage and enjoy sharing it with the world. The Guinness Storehouse is a top attraction. When my friend arrives, I will start with a city tour of Belfast and a meal at my favorite local eatery. We will catch up about old times and I will prep him for his trip to Dublin. I wish I could go along, but alas I have to work. I expect a full rundown in any case and, of course, his Guinness preference. We ae taking bets as to what it is likely to be. The winner gets treated to a dinner of his choice.

Belfast is a grand town with lots to do and sights to enjoy. In each blog, I will highlight the best. I thought I had to mention the Guinness tour right away so readers don’t forget to put it on their to do lists when visiting. I wish you a great experience.

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Joys of Retirement

Anyone who has grandkids, knows the sublime joy they bring. Having them around more than makes up for the boredom of retirement. I put it off for as long as I could, hoping that I would come up with a new hobby or pastime. It was no longer possible to play cricket with my friends, who like me were already passed their prime. My son and his wife love that I am willing to babysit, along with grandma when she is available. She loves to bake and socialize, so she meets with friends on Facebook a great part of the time to share recipes and whip up good stuff for the family.

When you babysit a lot, you try to come up with new ideas. They can get bored with their old toys, and even the newer ones I keep in a closet. They like board games only if I play which means sitting uncomfortably on the floor. I get up with a stiff back. Then it is time for a walk around the block and a few minutes of tossing a ball. Between all this and regular meals, the time flies by.

Grandma suggested that we buy the best mini trampoline for the tots as it would fit nicely in the rec room or backyard. I could see their bright, smiling faces as they would jump up and down. We got the item right away. I read all the instructions and went online to learn how to teach them a few moves. I would not be participating, of course. They started by fighting over who would go first and when all had calmed down, they took turns jumping uncontrollably. When they were pretty tuckered out, I showed them a picture of a knee tuck so they could vary their sessions. It wasn’t hard and they had a little competition about who could go the highest with their knees pulled in.

I showed them more photos and they got ambitious. Each of them attempted an advanced trick: a half or full body twist. I made a big deal out of it, pretending that they were in the Olympics. I would rate each effort with a number from one to ten. They insisted on perfect scores each and every time. It made me laugh so hard.

“Look, grandpa,” was the constant chime. They wanted my full attention and accolades. Now when they come over, they insist on the trampoline first, ignoring all the fabulous toys and games in the closet. They are getting rather one-dimensional and I couldn’t even get them to stop to go out for ice cream. The trampoline was a brilliant idea. Someday I would buy a larger one for the backyard. First, I would make sure that all the safety features were in place and that they understood how to avoid getting hurt.

Meanwhile, I can watch them grow up right under my nose in my own house. I notice that they want to come over at every opportunity. They don’t have to be coaxed.

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Place to Visit: Windsor Park

Northern Ireland is privileged to have a great National Football Team which participates internationally within its association. I am a big fan. It all started in the late 19th century up to 1921 after which the original team was changed by the Football Association of Ireland. The pro tournaments are dynamic and exciting for locals and expats who live elsewhere. It can be a subject of debate and argument, as with many sports. I don’t miss the world Cup.

Home matches took place at Windsor Park for decades, home of Linfield. The stadium was under contract until it was realized how much it needed major new construction. It involved more than a mere facelift. There has been considerable controversy about who will play in the new venue when it is ready. Meanwhile the games occur at Casement Park in west Belfast until Windsor Park is rebuilt. Several proposals were offered and relevant studies conducted. Phased in work would be undertaken after demolition. In 2013, permission was granted for the vast redevelopment project at the enormous cost of 29.2 million. The source would be the government as state aid to Linfield. All kinds of pros and cons were tossed around before the new stadium got the green light. Not until 2014 was it started at long last. It is well underway and includes a new South Stand, Kop Stand, and Railway Stand. It is near to the end awaiting an anxious footfall public. Eighteen thousand fans will be accommodated. Young and old will once again flock to Windsor Park, a location filled with history, and they will continue to come for generations. Northern Ireland football is ever so popular.

Let me end with a few words about the uniforms and equipment so you get the full picture. You can view them on line if I entice you. After all, the soccer team reached the quarter-finals in 1958 and 1982 followed by a first appearance at the European tournament second round last year. The gear includes a colorful jersey emblazoned with the words “Northern Ireland Football” and a logo. Choose from white, black, or green—short or long sleeves. Cleats and shoes come to match if you shop at the world soccer shop on line. Last but not least, the players where their own kind of shin guards (see here) and have a preference to the ball. Small personal items go in the team green backpack, suitable for a water bottle and lunch.

The shin guards are not that different from most soccer teams consisting of a rather bulky pad and strap. They can be made by special order in a particular color. Nike, Sondico and Wilson make them for professional use and Adidas makes the socks. As one might expect, the shin guards have a soft synthetic lining for maximum comfort and a highly protective front plate or hard shield. There you have the gear in a nutshell. Now watch a game!

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Atypical Sports in Belfast

So you think basketball is only an American sport? Well, you would be wrong. We play it in Belfast and other parts of our country both indoors in a gym and out in a playground court. It depends on the weather and time of year. All we do is switch between the best indoor/outdoor basketballs as they make one for both locations. I see you are surprised. You assume that we only enjoy Gaelic football or hurling. You would be right and basketball, while played, is atypical. We prefer ice hockey and Zorbing. Nevertheless, you will often spot individuals and teams in the midst of “shooting hoops.” It is perhaps another Americanization of Ireland.

We know about hockey as it is popular worldwide, especially in Canada. You probably think hurling is something you do when you have eaten too much. In actually, it is an ancient Irish outdoor team game popular with spectators. It dates back over 3,000 years old—wow. We must be pretty good at it in Belfast by now. If you want to indulge, find an Irish community in your neighborhood and bring a “hurley,” or wood stick, and a “sliotar,” or small ball. The goalposts are usually in place topped by a crossbar and covered with a net. Like hockey, there is a goalkeeper, but goals yield three points.

Unlike soccer, the ball is caught in the hand and carried up to four steps. It can alternatively be struck by the hurley while in the air on the ground. Making it even more unique, the ball can be kicked or slapped. Players must maintain a foot on the ground and they can make a shoulder-to-shoulder attack, only if the target is holding or playing the ball. In spite of this kind of aggression, no protective padding is necessary except for a helmet and faceguard.

You are now enlightened, but there is still zorbing to describe. It is a recreational sport that entails rolling downhill inside a kind of orb. You hear right. This game is really different. Of course, you want to stick to gentle slopes to avoid injury, and in many cases a level surface is preferred for maximum control. Just picture this on the green hills around Belfast. For the adventurous, zorbing can be done on water with sealed, buoyant balls. Watch for it in theme parks in Ireland and around the United Kingdom. You might notice a variation in harnessed and non-harnessed orbs, the latter carrying up to three riders. They are used on different slopes in desirable locations.

If you visit Ireland as a tourist, you might want to try one of these sports out. If you are leery, then stick with basketball. I bet that most males have played it at least a few times in school. It is definitely one of the main options along with softball, swimming, and tennis. You will be surprised at the deft and skillful local players. They have been enjoying basketball for years.

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Seasonal Considerations

I love Belfast and am proud to be a resident of a wonderful city. I will share its glories to anyone who will listen. There is one small drawback. Some people experience winter affective disorder, also known as SAD. We share this problem with Finland, Iceland, Greenland, Sweden, and Norway. It shouldn’t keep you away however. The condition is short-lived and changes with the seasons. Thus, it is a matter of winter blues when you feel a bit down, lack energy, sleep too much, eat too much, have trouble focusing or maintaining interest in your normal life. It isn’t always dire and there are light machines that help you get the sunlight you are missing, and although it is artificial, it works. Only the super sensitive will not come in winter.

Interestingly, there is a reverse condition of SAD that happens in the summer months for those who live close to the equator. If you travel, looking into this topic may help you avoid the negative symptoms and keep your biological clock in tune while you are on the road. If you can regulate your serotonin and melatonin levels, you will enjoy renewed vigor and improved mood. Reverse SAD is less common, but it pays to learn a little about it which you can do here. While winter SAD is associated with a lack of sunlight, the summer version is caused by too much, which can affect melatonin production. It is exacerbated by the fact that people tend to stay up later from June to August. It throws one’s circadian rhythms for a loop. Not surprisingly, people who live in the warm southern US experience summer SAD more than those in the north.

Summertime sadness needs treatment as much as the winter blues. Depression and mood disorders must be addressed. Winter symptoms revolve around lack of energy while those of summer can bring on a manic episode. Changing the body temperature can help but the treatments are otherwise different for each modality of SAD. I am guessing that most people don’t know they have the summer version since more is known about the winter onset. I hope this blog helps those who have experienced the odd symptoms without knowing the root cause. As mentioned, it will affect your ability to travel at certain times during the year. SAD in either form is unlikely to keep you away from Belfast. We don’t have gray skies during peak tourist time nor too much darkness. It is pleasant most of the year

SAD is a treatable and rare condition so don’t fret too much if you have been given a diagnosis. Make sure you have a competent physician well versed in the illness. Solutions are available for any type including counseling. I really got into this issue quite by chance. I hope I have enlightened a few souls. If you are depressed and wanting an uplift, please come my way. Belfast has much to offer.

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If You Don’t Want a Job, Do It Poorly

I am retired and to tell you the truth, I don’t relish days and days sitting around the house. I go out and meet friends or enjoy the sights of Belfast. It is a vibrant city full of life and scenic countryside. Hiking, taking photos, visiting friends and relatives – that is what it is all about. I know how to pass the time profitably. I pepper the extended hours with sports, games, movies, and other forms of recreation and entertainment. There is a lot to do in my town. I can sit in a café and watch the tourists admire the scenery. I am, in fact, part of it. I suppose I look colorful and authentic. I don’t mind playing the part.

The work years were fun and rewarding as I advanced up the ranks and made more money over time. Now, my wife thinks I am a lazy lout. I don’t deserve this epithet. She wants more help around the house. I say okay if it is limited to the yard. My first foray into vacuuming was a real disaster. Frankly, I wasn’t sure why she asked. A good vacuum practically works by itself. Why did she pass the chore to me? It wasn’t my usual task. I am willing to rake the leaves, clean the windows, mow the lawn, mop the kitchen, or take out the trash. After that, leave me alone.

The appliance we have to tackle the carpet is top of the line – a Shark from The Vacuum Challenge – so there is no excuse for incompetence. It is state of the art with simple instructions for easy operation. A child could do it. It should have been a breeze. For some reason, we didn’t get along and the job was done poorly. Maybe I did it on purpose, thinking that “if you don’t want a job, do it poorly.” I think you’ll agree that in certain circumstances, this is good advice. I was not asked to touch the vacuum again and I was the subject of a post on Facebook too.

Here is what happened. From the moment I turned the machine on, it started to growl and rebel. It sounded like it had nuts and bolts inside the body of the device. I ignored it and proceeded to maneuver it around the carpet. It spit out dust. In a panic, I stopped to let it get its bearings, and then I moved on. It cooperated for a few turns around the floor before the cord got entangled like some kind of skinny snake that had escaped from the backyard pond. I undid the knot, let it calm down, and finished the job. There were telltale signs remaining on the rug. My wife was not pleased. I took the nasty vacuum into the garage and emptied the accumulation, what remained of it. I turned it on and it seemed good as new, but by this time (no surprise), my wife had lost confidence.

“Let me do it,” she snapped.

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Getting the Most Out of Any Trip

As a former travel agent, I’m alwaysgoing to tell you that the best vacations start when you visit a travel office. Instead of spending your time making reservations and planning itineraries, let someone else worry about all the details. This is especially good when you’re going overseas—you’ll always have someone to call for help if something doesn’t go right.

Before you talk to your local travel agent, there are some things to consider. Figure out who you’re going with on this trip. Make a realistic determination regarding your budget for your holiday, and figure out how many days you want your trip to be. You should also have an idea of what type of vacation you want. How far are you willing to go: do you want to fly, take a train, or drive? What sort of things are you looking for when you’re away? Something busy and fun? Sporty? Relaxing? Full of culture? A culinary extravaganza? Figuring out simple questions like these will help the travel agent narrow down potential destinations to find a trip that’s perfect for you.

Once you’ve got a destination in mind, tell the agent any preferences you have for things like plane tickets or hotels before they are booked. For example, if you want an aisle seat or need a room with a refrigerator. Ask for recommendations on hotels and look online or ask the agent to show you pictures of the rooms. Be honest if it isn’t what you’re looking for.

After your arrangements are made, do some research on your destination. Your travel agent will let you know if you need a passport/visa/shots or anything like that, but there are other things to consider. If you’re going overseas, you might want to buy a translation app or learn some important phrases. You might need outlet adapters or weather gear that you don’t typically need like snow boots or SPF clothing.

The next thing is packing for your trip. I always recommend bringing tops and bottoms that coordinate with more than one thing to give yourself options. Pack as little as you can to get through your trip—luggage can be expensive to bring on a plane and why lug things you don’t need everywhere with you? I find it’s very helpful to make a checklist so that I have everything I need.

Lastly, and this is a hard one, when you’re on your trip, try to relax. While I always encourage people to try new things, who you are is not going to change. If going to museums makes you want to scream, don’t spend your whole trip staring at paintings just because you’re there. Set limits on what you’re going to do and how long you’re willing to do it each day. Realistic expectations are the key to actually enjoying your trip. Be sure to drink plenty of water and schedule meals and rest breaks into your day so that it isn’t too overwhelming.

And, if you run into any trouble, call your travel agent! It’s our job to make sure you have the best vacation possible.

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A Game of Thrones Experience

If you are a fan of the books or the acclaimed show on HBO, come to Belfast to immerse yourself in the Game of Thrones saga. While tours of the physical sets (aptly named Titanic Studios) are not an option, you can see the studio where production takes place, at Paint Hall in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast. If you want to see more than the exterior of a building, you’re in luck. In Belfast and the surrounding areas, you can find severalcharacters’ homes and some of the outdoor locals of the series’ more memorable moments.You can find out more about the specific locations through your travel agent or online, and even set up a tour if you’re so inclined. If you’d like to go about it on your own, I’ll give you a few hot spots both in and around Belfast to check out and what they represent in the show.

The abandoned Magheramorne quarry area has been repurposed for Game of Thrones. Here you will find Castle Black, Hardhome, and the Wall. With the help of CGI, these places look incredible onscreen. They do look pretty cool in person even without the digital enhancements.

Although it is outside Belfast and will take you a little over an hour’s travels, Tollymore Forest Park is a must see for GoTfans. In real life, it was the first forest park in Nothern Ireland, and it certainly is a beauty. If you watch the show, you’ll probably know it as the Forest of the North. Some memorable scenes that took place here were when the Nightwalkers were spotted, as well as where the Direwolf pups were discovered by Ned Stark. Walking around the park, you’ll be able to see some non-native trees like the eucalyptus and giant redwood, as well as oldest tree located in an arboretum in Ireland—the Clanbrassiliana.

And speaking of trees, if you’re looking for the memorable Kingsroad that Arya Stark travels during her escape, you’ll find it at Ballymoney’s Dark Hedges. Located about 78 km (49 miles) north of Belfast, it’s worth the hour or so car ride. The beech trees, planted in the 18th century, that line the road are just as eerie and beautiful in person as they are on screen.

While you’re north of Belfast, another worthwhile stop is Ballintoy Harbour. This small fishing harbour has a second life serving as Pyke Harbour and as the Iron Islands. When you visit, you’ll remember it as the place where Theon Greyjoy returns to the Iron Islands and where he meets his sister Yara for the first time. There’s even a plaque to show you how the view looks in the show to help refresh your memory.

If you travel southeast toward the coast, you will find Castle Ward. Some of the scenes that take place at Winterfell are shot here, especially those in the first season. Castle Ward is an 18th-century mansion that you will recognize by the farmyard and the Lough as Stark’s home. You can take a tour and walk around the grounds and the mansion. You can also try your hand at archery in the same place Bran was taught by Jon Snow.

There are many other places around Northern Ireland that have served as exterior locations for various scenes inGame of Thrones. I highly recommend a professionally guided tour, as you’ll be transported to the different places by an experienced guide and all you will need to worry about will be taking photos!

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No Place Like Home

My family left Belfast when I was young; it probably would have happened eventually anyway, but The Troubles certainly helped speed my parents’ decision making along. The danger and uncertain future they faced made it easy for them to accept my uncle’s offer of a place to stay and the promise of work in a much more stable environment.

Although I can’t blame my parents for leaving when they did, nowhere else has ever felt quite like home the way our place in Belfast did for me. I didn’t understand the reasoning behind why we left until I was much older, and I think that was part of the reason why it took me so long to accept the fact that we had to leave. I’ve gone back many times. What started as a family visit once or twice turned into a fairly regular holiday for me. If I haven’t been for a while, it does seem like I can hear it calling me to return. No matter where else I have been, I think Belfast will likely always be my favorite place to go. I’d love to move back there some day.For now, however, life keeps me here and I will have to make do as I always have, with frequent visits.

The city never ceases to charm me. Belfast is a very old place, and it has come through its changes gloriously—not always peacefully, but with perseverance. Within her boundries, you can find a 5,000 year old henge, a 12th century castle, 150 year old shipbuilders, and even more modern businessesdealing with things like aerospace.She is a complex blend of the ancient and the modern, a wonder of nature and of the ingenuity of man. To me, there’s nowhere else like it in the world, and I’m a travel agent—if I haven’t been there, I’ve likely had to research it as an option for a client.

While it’s true that Belfast suffered significant damage to its people, reputation, and the city itself during The Troubles, the Good Friday Agreement brought about a crucial change. While the past will never be forgotten, a new mentality has emerged. Belfast has been able to rebuild and redefine itself as a desirable place to live, work, and visit. With a rapidly growing economy and its appealing job market, the stability in the area has breathed new life into its once tumultuous streets, and Belfast is finally winning the tourist trade back over.

And why shouldn’t it? Belfast is a gem of a place. Gorgeous coastlines, scenic mountains and valleys, picturesque castles, historical murals, and modern-day allure: what’s not to love?

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Great Things to do in Belfast

If you are looking for a place to spend your vacation, you should definitely consider Belfast. It is a beautiful place, full of picturesque sites and historical significance. Here are a few things you can do in Belfast to help convince you it is worth a look:

Titanic Belfast. The infamous ship was made right here in the Belfast shipyards, so it’s fitting that we have the largest Titanic-themed exhibit in the world. Here you can learn about the shipbuilding boom that took place here as well as artefacts from the Titanic itself. It’s more than just a few old documents behind glass; there are interactive features, special effects, dark rides, and reconstructions. You can even visit the SS Nomadic, the tender that was built to transfer passengers as well as mail to and from the Titanic.

Another good way to experience the culture and history of Belfast is to visit the hundreds of murals around the area that are dedicated to The Troubles and the history of the Irish. Whether you’re looking for interesting art, political and cultural context, or if you’re just curious, there are tours and guides—in person and on the internet—to help you as you experience one of Belfast’s beloved traditions of expression.

The Ulster Museum, The Ulster Folk & Transportation Museum, and the Ulster American Folk Park are all part of the National Museums of Northern Ireland.  You’ll find something for everyone: storytelling for kids, art, natural science exhibits, a historical parkland depicting life 100 years ago, and a selection of transport vehicles spanning the ages.

And if you like to drive, you’ll love the Causeway Coastal Route. It’s a marked drive along the coast of Northern Ireland. You’ll drive alongside the sea and over mountains on a 190 km (120 miles) route between Belfast and Londonderry. There are nine other routes that loop off the main route to provide anexploration into other beautiful locals, like rural Derry. Travelling along these side roads provides you with access to some gorgeous scenery and quaint towns, as well as unique shopping and dining opportunities.

If food and drink are more your things, we’ve got that, too. From Bushmills Whiskey Distillery to Michelin star restaurants OX and Eipic, there are plenty of high-quality options. With a great music scene and some fantastic bars, you can’t go wrong with a pub crawl to experience both at the same time. Start at the Duke of York and you may never make it to another pub on your list!

These are just a sampling of what you can expect on a trip to Belfast. Talk to an experienced travel agent or do some online searching for more on these or other great things to do in the city of Belfast. I guarantee you’ll find something worth your while!

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Great Accommodations in Belfast

If you’re coming to Belfast, you’re going to need a place to stay. Here is a quick rundown of what I recommend looking for, and some of the places I have recommended.

I always advise friends who are doing their bookings through a website and not an agent to read lots of reviews. Look at pictures of the room and see what it looks like—not just the words they use. Luxury linens might mean silk sheets to you, and to them, it might mean 300 thread count. Also, consider the location. If you’re going to be spending a lot of money to stay somewhere, be sure that it is near the places you want to go. There are great, unique places to stay that I love recommending, but they’re outside of Belfast itself, which can be an issue for people who don’t want to hail a cab everywhere they want to go. Decide what’s important to you and plan accordingly.

If you want 5-star class all the way, check out hotels with great concierge service. To me, that is the real measure of 5-star service. A good concierge can be invaluable on a vacation. He or she will help you book excursions, give you directions, make dining reservations, or anything else your trip may require. If you’d like to be in Belfast City, you can’t go wrong with the Fitzwilliam Hotel. It is a great place that’s at a wonderful location, giving youeasy access to places like the Crowne Saloon, the Grand Opera, and City Hall. The rooms range from a standard hotel room to the Penthouse suite (complete with a private butler). They offer complimentary WiFi for guests and Bluetooth speakers in your room. If you’re going on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, or you have the money to spare, I recommend staying here. I’ve never had a client come back disappointed.

4-staraccommodations don’t necessarily have to feel like a step down if you choose the right place. These can also be amazing places to stay with a lavish feel. They may just be older or have fewer amenities in the room, possibly they are lacking a high rated restaurant or an in-room minibar. A great 4-star accommodation is the Tara Lodge. They offer some wonderful sightseeing packages right from their website, making it easy to plan a complete vacation. The rooms are phenomenally decorated and comfortable. Plus, breakfast is included in the rate of your room. It is an easy way to have a stress-free trip.

If you’re looking for a great mid-range hotel, the Jurys Inn Belfast is a good bet. It is located right in the middle of the action in Belfast City, and the rooms are still good quality. You’ll still get a well-appointed staff, too. It’s really easy to get to from the airport, and the breakfast comes very highly recommended by my clients who have stayed there.Mid-range hotels are great, and something I often recommend to clients. They don’t cost a lot, they have the necessities, and they are usually near things that tourists want to see. If you plan on doing a lot of sight-seeing, it probably won’t matter to you that your room is on the smaller side. When all you want is a fantastic night’s sleep in a nice, clean room, mid-range is the way to go.

For those of you looking for more space, there are plenty of apartment rentals. You can do something like Airbnb or a house swap. Some online apartment rentals are scams, so I really recommend you be careful if you go this route. Make sure it is on a reputable site, and use a location that has decent reviews. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Be sure to know what is included in your stay. Sometimes linens are included and sometimes they are not. Some places will stock the pantry for you with staples like tea and sugar, while others don’t even give you a pot to cook in. Others require you to clean the place before you leave. Just understand what is expected before you go and you’ll be fine. To that end, I have sent people to stay at Giant Serviced Apartments, and most tell me that it felt like a combination of home and a hotel–which is just what most of them are looking for.

Good luck with your booking, and let me know if you have any questions.

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