Saturday, November 18, 2017
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New-style B&Bs not bed and bored!

Award-winning Travel Writer JOHN TREW examines the impact of a global phenomenon…

ONE OF the initiatives of the past few years that is helping to transform the global accommodation scene is AirB&B ( Our daughter Suzy now uses the service frequently as part of her jet-setting corporate lifestyle, from Brazil to Belgium, while my widowed friend David offers room and breakfast at his welcoming home amid the leafy glades of East Belfast.

Founded eight years ago in San Francisco (where else?) Airbnb is a community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodation around the world – online or from a mobile phone.

The core of the business resembles the traditional B&B offer — a room for a night or two with breakfast provided by a locally-savvy host. However, it is now also possible to book an Irish castle for a week, or an Italian lakeside villa for a month. Airbnb currently promises to connect travellers to unique experiences in an astonishing 34,000 cities and 190 countries. By providing good customer service and a growing community of users, Airbnb claims to be a good way for people with rooms to spare to capitalise on their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions. Corporate Hotels are suffering as global firms like Google exploit the savings involved in B&B deals (such as keeping execs out of hotel bars!)

I am not so sure if I am overly-enthusiastic about the largely-amateur nature of the services provided. A lifetime in travel journalism has given me a healthy respect for professionalism in the hospitality industry. I prefer my accommodation to be regularly inspected by the local tourism authority, environmental health department and fire brigade.

Having said that, on the Airbnb website there are hundreds of favourable comments by tourists about their ‘wonderful host’ and ‘ Fine Ulster Fry’ but some photos of pokey little attic rooms in 1950s homes in run-down estates betray the highly optimistic ‘get-rich-quick’ aims of some amateur members. Too many reviewers are very scathing indeed about low standards and inadequate customer care.

I must say,however, that a random click-through of the three hundred or so registered units in the Greater Belfast area (from £14-£90 ppn) gives a generally favourable impression of Airbnb accommodation hereabouts. Some attractive places that caught my eye included THE NARROWS in Portaferry, now being operated as a community project, offering Social Refugio, an oddly-named self-contained apartment, plus a Big Double Room in the main building with views of the Strangford ferry. Host Celia gets high-praise bordering on adoration for her slow-cooking and handmade loaves.

Celia’s chief marketing strategy seems to be the proximity of the National Trust property of CastleWard, one of the increasing number of cinematic locations for the phenomenally successful House of Thrones. Good luck to her.

I remember back many years ago when The Narrows was launched as an Ulster Heritage-style restaurant with rooms, in a newly-refurbished stone-clad building with pine-flooring rescued from demolition jobs on historic local mills and — if my memory serves me — Belfast’s late-lamented Plaza Ballroom.

We were so impressed by the award-winning architectural refurb that we asked the talented creators to give us a quote for doing something similar by way of a Sun Room for our seaside house in Bangor. Alas, they were going to be too busy, so we eventually got a standard conservatory which is well-used.

My trawl through the local Airbnb listings revealed that a growing number of long-established, professionally-run B&Bs are now registered. I talked to one veteran landlady of my acquaintance to find out the score and was told that ‘only a few’ of their bookings came through Airbnb, but that was maybe because they were usually so busy with accommodating regulars that few dates were available on the site.

Anyway, my daughter Suzy has been travelling the world on behalf of Heineken for years and was disenchanted with the general treatment of the lone female professional traveller by the big-brand hotel chains (with some notable exceptions). Always a meticulous planner, she discovered that Airbnb was a great platform for entrepeurial, gregarious women to open their homes to greet like-minded female travellers.

She speaks highly of her encounter, for example, with a woman artist who was proud to show her the sights of her native city, take her to her favourite haunts, make arrangements in Portuguese for her and introduce her to friends.

Airbnb has now become a keystone of her family holidays as well, with a number of successes in the likes of Italy last summer with her husband Henry and son Simon. Yes, that’s the Simon who has frequently appeared in Trew’s Travels over the past 16 years!

Sixties Painting Captures Traditional B&B Room

ON THE topic of B&Bs, I am pleased to share with readers the nearby watercolour of a long-gone room in a 1960s seaside guesthouse, sketched by a Belfast painter called Renée Bickerstaff.

Her pictures evoking the people and places of my youth strike a chord with me, and I usually make a bid when her watercolours — and occasional oil paintings — come up for auction at Ross’s. We now own a dozen or so, ranging from a surprisingly explicit ink drawing of a nude female (my favourite) to a colourful oil painting of a countryside smallholding complete with nanny goat and chickens.

She is often described in the auction catalogues as ‘Renée Bickerstaff RUA’, indicating that her artistic talents merited the accolade of Academician of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts, but my friends there have been unable to trace her in the membership rolls during the post-War years when she was busy painting everything from gardens and birdlife to the backyards of Cookstown and Mountains of Mourne.

We are very keen indeed to learn more about this talented chronicler of Ulster life who, in my opinion, would be up there with the likes of more-famous women artists of her era, like Gladys Maccabe and Kathleen Bridle. Renée may well have been an art teacher in the Belfast area in her prime. Please email me if you know anything about her: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it is my direct address.

Anyway, I have invented a narrative to go with her colourful interior study of a typical bedroom in a traditional B&B. She is obviously lying on the bed with her A4 sketchpad and travelling paintbox, maybe because bad weather has washed-out her planned sketching holiday on the coast. The washbasin is a dead giveaway that that this is one of those B&Bs which proudly advertised ‘H&C running water in every room’ There is no sign of any other en suite facilities.

Note the leather suitcase with the timeless pink nightie; however, the blue Beatles Cap on the bed indicates she had an ‘art college’ approach to the fashions of the day so I am guessing she was a trendsetter in the mid-60s. I bet I am not far wrong!

Bienvenidos al Irlanda del Norte, Amigos

NO COLUMN of mine would be complete at this time of year without reference to the Spanish Tourism Office Press Lunch I have attended on the eve of every Belfast Holiday World back as far as I can remember.

I look forward to meeting up with my amigos and amigas based in Dublin and London who invariably make a mid-January trip to Belfast to meet the Press and Travel Trade (unlike other national tourist boards I could mention) before promoting key regions at the big show itself.

It’s no wonder that Spain and its islands are still — and deservedly so— the Number One Destination for Irish holidaymakers! My photo above includes my good friends PACO GUTIERREZ (left of picture) London-based Social Media and Events Executive and Dublin-based SARA RIVERO (centre) Media Manager, who was sorely missed by Yours Trewly during her maternity leave. The rest of the party at Deane’s Restaurant includes representatives of Fuerteventura, Castellon Mediterraneano and Salou, Costa Daurada. They were enthusiastic about the new Holiday World venue in the Titanic Quarter.

Why Escap3d tops Belfast fun attractions

WHEN I was the Editor/Compiler of the official Belfast Guide back in the 1990s, I spent years writing about the same old, same old visitor attractions. The City Hall, Ulster Museum and the Zoo were top of the list.

I found it challenging to write something fresh about the limited portfolio of tourist traps, and prayed that new places would open up when peace broke out. By that time, some unlikely — but popular — attractions such as Crumlin Road Gaol and the world-class W5 had appeared on the scene, but I had moved on to other more exciting aspects of travel journalism.

Now that I am a punter like everyone else, I crave for novel experiences to share with my visitors and friends when they come over (they have become overly familiar with Castle Espie and W5). That’s why I am so enthusiastic about an attraction that deserves to be better known, even though it is claimed to be the second most popular Fun and Games Attraction in the Belfast area according to Trip Advisor (First place is the Queen’s Film Theatre which is hardly fun & games?) It’s called ESCAP3D and my family team of five tackled the challenge of working out how to get out of padlocked rooms within an hour, by solving puzzles and applying knowledge of school Chemistry.

Based in a unit in a nondescript business park at The Cutts, Dunmurry, the prospects of a fun event looked highly unlikely at the outset. However, thanks to the ingenuity of the organisers and the charm of the operator on duty, we had a truly satisfying and amusing 60 minutes of overcoming intellectual barriers to Freedom.

Excellent fun - but really difficult, and only about 20 percent succeed, so it's really only for those who are really up for an mind-expanding challenge requiring much more than everyday pub-quiz abilities.

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