Monday, November 20, 2017
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A Trewly unique milestone...!

By Award-winning travel writer JOHN TREW

THIS IS the 250th occasion upon which my Trew’s Travels meanderings have been published in Northern Ireland Travel News over the past two decades. As a teetotaller, I won’t be popping any bottles of Bollinger, but I have put two extra sugar cubes in my tea as I write this.

As you will see under the masthead on the front cover, it is actually Issue 260 of the newspaper itself, but I missed most of the first year because I was freelancing all over the USA from my base in Ann Arbor where my wife Karen was Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan. I travelled 35,000 miles across America (thanks mainly to a Delta Airlines Press Pass) in 1990-91 and about 215,000 miles since then, reporting on holiday travel trends from countless destinations - without missing a single deadline.

Rare visitors to my ‘office’ in what used to be the big back bedroom of our seaside villa, always remark upon the heaps of yellowing Travel News copies that bear witness to the forest of trees that has been sacrificed to build me a paper platform on which to parade my passions to people like you. (Since last month readers are able to enhance their enjoyment by downloading the free Travel News App to access the newspaper on-line!)

Anyway, on top of my office’s mountain of memorabilia is the stylish SeaCat Travel Journalist of the Year trophy, awarded for this column in 2001. As that was the last year of the SeaCat Travel Awards, I am still technically their Journalist of the Year, as nobody else has succeeded me to the title, not even my big mate Geoff Hill who seems to have won every other travel writing award in the world.

SAD LEGACY OF 9/11/2001

As it happens, the world of tourism changed completely in that fateful year of 2001, following the Islamic terror attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, our daughter Suzy’s birthday. In the following month’s Trew’s Travels, I told the story of how we had phoned her at her Edinburgh home, intending to sing ‘Happy Birthday’. Instead, she greeted us with a terse: “Turn on BBC1 quickly!”; seconds later, we watched stunning live coverage of a plane ploughing into the towering inferno. What made it more poignant for Karen and me was the fact that we had stayed a weekend - for a bargain $99 - in the Marriott Hotel located between the Twin Towers, during one of our annual summer trips to America in the 90s. We watched, horrified, as the hotel became engulfed in billowing debris when the North Tower collapsed onto it.

When I wrote my first column about the tragedy, I alluded to the disastrous effect that it was already having on global tourism, with Americans cancelling their Irish vacations and air travel becoming a painful chore. I could never have predicted that 13 years after 9/11/2001 , the world travel industry would continue to be deeply affected, day and daily, by the awful legacy of what will be forever known as ‘Nine-Eleven’.

Here’s the only relevant ‘good’ news I could find on which to end this Introduction to my 250th column: Next month, THE 9/11 MUSEUM is due to open as New York’s latest place of pilgrimage on Ground Zero. Its entrance fee is a hefty $24 for tourists. Last summer, our Suzy made a pilgrimage with son Simon and husband Henry to the outdoor monument which had nearly been completed, THE 9/11 MEMORIAL. She found it both poignant and appropriate although she may agree with me that photos of the new museum make it look a bit like Titanic Belfast.

Some highlights in local tourism

MENTIONING TITANIC BELFAST reminds me that this column played a part in waking up the authorities here to the need for a world-class visitor attraction to be ready in time for the Titanic Centenary in 2012.

A full decade before the anniversary, I appealed in Trew’s Travels for urgent action, under the headline ‘It’s time to take the Titanic project off the ice!’. For years, the original sketchy plans for a grandly-entitled Titanic Signature Project - a commemorative monument of some description - had been left on the shelf while the so-called leaders of this wee Province fought ancient battles as their contribution to the ‘peace process’, instead of getting things done.

Councillor Cathal Mullaghan came on board the campaign; he was a good friend of mine from our days working together on Tourist Board publications, and had risen to an influential role in Belfast tourism development at the City Hall. The discussion on the best way to mark the 100th anniversary was re-opened, but the bean-counters at the City Hall and Stormont were still thinking about some kind of low-cost statue or empty monument.

My proposal for a full-on Titanic Experience, based on the purchase and re-location of the magnificent replicas of the ship’s interior which had starred in James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster movie, was rejected. That’s why thousands of ‘Titanic Tourists’ now go to Rosarito Beach, Mexico (where the film was largely shot) to enjoy the ship’s lavish dining room Palm Court Café, cabins —including Thomas Andrew’s stateroom - and the massive boiler room.

What an asset these magnificent sets - created by Hollywood’s greatest designers and riggers -- would have been to Titanic Belfast, whose sole replica is the Grand Staircase on the top floor of the now-iconic building. Those wooden stairs must have cost a lot, because they are exploited by the operators as an extra-special attraction with the emphasis on ‘extra’. For example, visitors who are wealthy enough to shell out £23 per head for Sunday Afternoon Tea are allowed to take ‘selfies’ posing on the Staircase, presumably holding Very Expensive Wee Buns in their sticky fingers.

I am trewly sorry if I seem negative about an attraction for which I mounted a campaign; that is the opposite of the truth. I am actually DELIGHTED that Titanic Belfast has been such a success in its two years of operation, welcoming well over a million visitors from 145 countries. Let’s hope it will make back the £100 million it cost to create; that’s almost certainly millions more than it would have cost if it had been started at the time, and in the way, suggested in Trew’s Travels.

Sweet success for T-POTS Campaign

MENTIONING AFTERNOON TEA prompts me to recall another of my campaigns - one which was immediately adopted and became a soaraway success when I launched it in Trew’s Travels back in the mid-1990s. It is called T-POTS – The Preservation of Tea and Scones – and its original tongue-in-cheek Mission Statement said: “It is time to resist the tidal-wave of Cappucino Culture that is threatening our Traditional Teatime Treats such as Traybakes, Scones and Pancakes with Preserves and a Wee Pot of Tea.”

I was genuinely fearful that all the multi-national coffee-house franchises with ‘falsetto Italiano’ names and fake-leather sofas, would put an end to our home bakeries and tea-shops in the same way that American fast-food outlets had largely replaced our street-corner chipper’s pastie ‘n chips with alien pizzas and skimpy burgers.

My core aim as self-appointed World President of T-POTS was to publicise the names of local eateries - mostly recommended by readers - where you could get scones the size of a farmer’s fist and were able to choose from a selection of traybakes that could rival the lady bakers of Comber Second Presbyterian who still provide the magnificent spread that is my personal highlight of every Comber Horticultural Show.

The Old Post Office Tearooms at Lisbane, near Killinchy is an all time T-POTS favourite

I visited cafés, restaurants, tea-shops and garden centres all over the country and personally awarded a jokey little certificate describing the boss as World Vice-President of T-POTS for their local area, eg Bushmills, Fountain Street or Madeira (yes,I enjoyed fresh cream scones and tea from a Belleek pot poured by an ex-pat Englishman who ran a café on the island who became Vice-President for the Atlantic!). I sampled scores of establishments over the years and gave most a mention in this column.

I am pleased to report that many of them are still prospering, including the winner of the very first T-POTS Certificate, CAFÉ RENOIR in Belfast’s Queen Street which now has another busy branch in Botanic Avenue. Tea and scones have not only survived in Ulster, but have prospered alongside coffee culture. Afternoon Tea is expensively trendy hereabouts, especially since hospitality guru and gamechanger Bill Wolsey promoted it successfully in his growing portfolio.

My all-time Top of the T-POTS Award goes to the OLD POST OFFICE Tea Rooms, a food- and art-lovers complex at Lisbane, near Killinchy, Co Down since 2004. Sipping tea at a wooden table beside the pond in its colourful summer garden is sheer delight… even if the cinnamon scones are not as big as the ones in DONAGHADEE GARDEN CENTRE.

The ups and down of assignments abroad

I HAVE TRAVELLED a quarter-million miles to some of the most desirable destinations on earth. There is just not enough space in this celebratory 250th column even to list them, so I am picking out a few highlights and lowlights of the past two decades.

The biggest change in tourism has been the advent of low-cost airlines which took off in the mid-90s. They have had an amazing impact. A return flight to Edinburgh, for example, became £30 instead of the £150 we had formerly paid to visit our daughter there. For around the same bargain fare we flew to Paris and Nice regularly (as well, we continued to take our own car by Irish Ferries to Normandy and Brittany). I wrote destination reports in my monthly columns about flying holidays to the Spanish costas, all the Canary islands, Majorca and Madrid. My wife Karen says we have not visited Italy nearly enough, having loved our trips to Rome and Venice. She picked up Hepatitis in the famous spa in Budapest so we have avoided Eastern Europe - although the Hermitage Museum in Russia remains near the top of my bucket list.

We lived in helter-skelter Hong Kong for a short while; enjoyed the World’s Best Afternoon Tea in the iconic Raffles Hotel, Singapore and had an incredible suite (with a bedroom for my bodyguard!) in the super de luxe Mandarin Oriental Hotel,Macau. We sampled other Far Eastern cities including an unplanned overnight stop in Tokyo where £10 bought me a Coke, a postcard and stamp.

My most enthusiastic reviews about Australasia were from Sydney and quaint little Pomona in North Queensland where we stayed with my schoolmate and eco-warrior Robert Bell. We love America even more than Australia, particularly New York, Florida Everglades and New England in the Fall; I made a BBC programme about my favourite corner of the USA, quirky little Ocean Grove, Noo Jersey where we stayed every year with my QUB friends,The Toweys.

Ulster people are the world’s greatest holidaymakers, so I have always had an enthusiastic audience for my yarns in Trew’s Travels about exotic events, memorable meals and heart-warming hospitality abroad, as well as for the scores of columns I devoted to holiday breaks nearer home and across the water. I have loved every minute of my ‘research’ trips.

Well, perhaps not quite EVERY minute, such as the time our car was ransacked in a busy street on the French Riviera, and I lost the tools of my trade (camera, laptop etc). The policewoman who handled our case was totally bored with her job dealing with foreigners – even those of us fairly fluent in French. It would have put a dent in my life-long love of France were it not for the later revelation that the thieves were a Bulgarian armed gang!

The only country I have ever visited, but did not recommend, was Morocco. It was a long time ago; we had to hire a poor beggar to keep other beggars from constantly pestering us. I was very touched by the plight of a blind human skeleton whose stock-in-trade was a set of rusty bathroom scales on which passers-by could weigh themselves outside Tetuan’s Golden Mosque. I organised a whipround for him in the Press Bus and raised a fistful of dirhum coins which I counted out to him – discreetly, I thought. As our bus passed, I saw a crowd of child beggars around him, chanting for their share. I hope Morocco has changed for the better.

The same goes for Nassau, one of the busiest cruise ports in the Caribbean. I have never really taken to cruising. I recognise that it’s the biggest growth area in holiday travel so I hope the capital city of the Bahamas is not as congested, scruffy, overpriced and unwelcoming as we experienced on our one-and-only visit.

I am proud to have not only written the text of Trew’s Travels, but to have also taken nearly all of the thousand or so photographs which have appeared in my 250 columns. I snapped this extraordinary picture at Dolphin Reef in Eilat, Israel’s wonderful winter resort on the Red Sea. I went swimming with the resident pod of wild dolphins and as I was drying off, I was astonished to witness a terrier trot down to the jetty and announce his arrival with a bark, as he does every day, apparently, at 4pm. Within seconds, a female dolphin surfaced alongside Joker (as he is known to locals) and they conducted a ‘chat’, she clicking and squealing,he barking. I captured this action picture as she leapt into the air when departing to re-join her family. You can watch Joker play with the dolphins on YouTube!

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