About Jonny Scott Blair
Jonny Blair is a self confessed traveling nomad. He sees every day as an adventure. Since leaving behind his home town of Bangor in Northern Ireland ten years ago he has traveled to all seven continents, working his way through various jobs and funding it all with hard work and an appetite for travel. His website Don’t Stop Living, a lifestyle of travel' contains over 1,000 stories and tips from his journeys round the globe. He wants to show others how easy it is to travel the world, give them some ideas and encourage them to do the same but most of all he aims to constantly live a lifestyle of travel. He is currently based in Hong Kong and on Twitter @jonnyblair.
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“Someday we’ll return here. When the Belfast Child sings again.” – Simple Minds
Belfast City — “Never forget where you’re coming from” – Take That
When I left Bangor in 2003, I didn’t mean to travel the world. Honestly. It just happened. Yet here I am, on a Sunday afternoon in Belfast, working out my schedules. How do I get from Belfast to Ballintoy? Why do tourists take taxis in Belfast, when walking normally suffices? How much is a Guinness in the Crown Bar in Belfast?
“It’s a city that’s changing” – Boney M
Train out of Belfast
After my constant writings on numerous sites promoting Northern Ireland, an opportunity came up for me to travel round my home country. I’m not shy of being Northern Irish. In fact, it’s my lifeblood. Geographically we’re on the island of Ireland. Politically we are under the rule of the UK. But me? I’m Northern Irish.
“One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist” – Primal Scream
Flying the Northern Ireland flag in Antarctica.
I’m proud of our 6 counties and the weights we constantly punch above. I said it before: I don’t want to be an “also ran”. And neither, my friends did Rory McIlroy, Gerry Armstrong, Wayne McCullough, Van Morrison, Tim Wheeler, Ian Paisley, Darren Clarke, Dennis Taylor. David Healy. Yes, David Healy. None of them were “also running”. They were the best at what they did and they made bloody sure the world knew where they were from. This little magical country called Northern Ireland.
So here I am, sat with a pint of Guinness, my favourite beer in the world. I’m sitting in the Piano Bar here on Great Victoria Street in Belfast. The very building I am in is the swanky Europa Hotel. Some would argue, this is the best hotel in Northern Ireland.
In the 1980s, it made headlines as being the most bombed hotel in Europe. I’d get home from school. “The Europa was bombed again” said my Dad. It was casual, normal and as a 1980s Northern Irish kid, we lived in the moment. It was enjoy yourself, on with the show and if we get a future, we’ll enjoy that too. “Don’t Stop Living.”
“They [Spartak Moscow] couldn’t beat Glentoran in their Belfast home” – Stephen Le Fevre
Spartak Moscow tried and failed, they couldn’t beat Glentoran in their Belfast home.
My plan for the next week then is to travel through Belfast, have a pint in the Crown bar, relive the tourist sights of my hometown of Bangor, stay by the Atlantic Ocean in Ballintoy, near the Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge and grab a coffee in Newtownards.
“We’re not Brazil, We’re Northern Ireland” – Stewart McAfee
Quay Street, Bangor, Northern Ireland – home of the Windsor. My local pub.
Guatemala City is a breathtaking beast of a city. An absolute beast pumped to the max. Those who fly into Guatemala City and make a beeline straight for Antigua – shame on you. You’ve missed the pumping heart of the country, the cultural capital of Central America (for 2015) and a city which is as diverse as it is dangerous (allegedly). Plus you avoid the hoardes of tourists who flock to Antigua, for no apparent reason.
GC – the country’s pumping heart.
Follow your wandering heart and stay in GC. This is the trendy, arty side of Guatemala with no frills attached. What you see is what you get here – nothing geared for tourism or commercialism, which sadly doesn’t apply to places like Panajachel, Antigua and Flores. That hat trick seem to rely on tourism – you know the old saying “trade your passion for glory” and then lose sight of your passion. GC has the passion and won’t let go.
Head to zone 1 to stay as it’s just more central to the old historic quarter and choose the cosy Posada Belen Museo Inn, where I based myself for 3 nights. The city is massive and you want to be somewhere in the centre, so you can walk some of this on foot. Francesca at the Posada Belen Museo Inn is the most welcoming host and I loved my time there.
You can do the Guatemala City cycling tour with Marcos and see a lot more of the city, including some truly off the wall scoops that are hard to get to. Marcos does tours to the dump, the cemetery and the finest coffee in town, if not the world. For now, here’s my personal GC top 15.
Parque Central – this is GC’s centerpiece. It’s like any capital city’s main square except here there are no tourists. Walk round at your leisure and pose by the Guatemala City flag admiring the buildings all around. Colonial, religious and political Parque Central is a good place to start when walking your way around the capital.
Palacio Nacional de la Cultura – the National Palace is right here. You can get inside at selected times during the day between Monday and Saturday. It’s an elaborate building which was built during General Jorge Ubico’s dictatorship.
Outside the National Palace.
Inside the National Palace in GC.
Centro Civico - the centro civic is the name given to the area featuring a roundabout and a load of really important buildings in GC’s past and recent history. Take your time to look around – the Palace of Justice is here, so is the bank of Guatemala’s headquarters and the City Hall.
Torre de Reformador – at first glance you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in France. This resembles the Tour Eiffel, but it was built in 1935 and therefore is an obvious “copy” of its more famous French Tower. You can’t climb it…just stop by and admire it!
Museo de Ferrocarril - I love trains, and travelling on them.
Museo de Ferrocarril, Guatemala City.
Here in Guatemala City the trains no longer run- trains are a thing of the past sadly in most of Latin America, but some places such as Paraguay’s Asuncion (my visit to the train museum there) have kept good reminders of what once existed here.
By an old train in GC.
Quite simply the Guatemala City train station museum is excellent.
Casa MIMA - Casa MIMA was close to my hotel and is a fascinating small museum with a real arty mix to it. You’ll get to discover art and Guatemala City go hand in hand. This city is the most artistic and cultural for miles and miles around it.
Casa MIMA, Guatemala City
Catedral Metropolitano – the main Cathedral has already been kind of listed here as it’s in Parque Central, but go inside and admire it. There’s a Black Christ within and stunning designs. Sadly in August 2014 a car crashed into a brick at the front, destroying some memorials on the outer wall.
Fabulous main cathedral in Guatemala City.
Inside the Cathedral
Centro Cultural Metropolitano - this building arches over the colourful colonial streets of the old town, also near my hotel.
The Centro Cultural Metropolitano in GC.
Señora Pu - Senora Pu is a bit of a local legend. Her “kitchen” which is a tiny, cosy restaurant offers some of the best dishes in Central America. Most come away raving about it!! Some of the menu items she has invented herself.
Senora Pu’s kitchen and restaurant.
Senor in her restaurant
Mercado Central - as with most main markets in Central America, this places oozes personality, diversity and flair. From food stalls to cafes to souvenir shops, you can find what you want here.
Mercado Central in Guatemala City
Mercado Central in Guatemala City
Mucho Iglesias - I’m cheating here by just putting “churches” as a main sight. Churches alone could have made their own top 15 churches post. I toured a load of streets near my hostel finding more Churches than I could believe. Yes, Jesus was bigger than John Lennon and Paul McCartney. GC proves it.
Palacio de Justicia - the Justice Palace is in the Centro Civico zone.
Palacio de Justicia
Independence Monument - this monument is south of the city centre and we stopped at it on the bicycle tour. Worth a peek but actually in an odd location, away from the buzz of everything else.
Independence Monument in Guatemala City.
Casa de Aguila - Eagle House is simply one of many many top drawer art galleries that grace Guatemala City. To find out more about Guatemala City, get in touch with local guide Marcos who will be happy to take you around.
Casa de Aguila
Traveling through Northern Ireland this month, I’m living out some childhood dreams as well as aiming to inspire everyone out there to visit Belfast and Northern Ireland. As tourists flock to London, Manchester and Edinburgh, the Northern Irish capital city Belfast glides by gracefully in the background, somewhat un-noticed.
As a child I will always remember the famous Europa Hotel. This magnificent structure in Great Victoria Street was once the most bombed hotel in Europe, if not the world. The windows were shattered so often by bombs, that they were boarded up, as I recall. However, thankfully those days have passed Belfast by. Excuse the pun but tourism in Belfast has been “booming” lately.
Europa is a luxury hotel which typifies the new school Northern Ireland, post troubles, ceasefires and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. If you want to live it up for a bit in Belfast City, the Europa Hotel is the place to be.
The Europa Hotel is finally getting the publicity it deserves and it was always a dream of mine to spend a night there. On my journey from Bangor to Coleraine, I decided to stop off for a day in the capital and spend a night here rediscovering my home capital city.
The hotel exudes history! Bombed for three decades, the hotel survived, recovered and is now the best hotel in Belfast in my opinion, because each room has a history folder in it.
A folder with information on the Europa’s history. There are also plaques on the wall on the stairs on the ground floor to the first give a detailed history of the hotel and what was happening in Northern Ireland at the time…
As a general rule, Northern Irish people are tidy, clean and well presented and the Europa fits with this local stereotype. Pristine rooms, carefully laid towels, tea and coffee stand neatly on the cabinet and everything immaculate for your entrance.
The Europa is well positioned and centrally located with views from rooms at the front will catch the magnificent City Hall and the famous cranes in East Belfast (Samson and Goliath) as well as the Crown Bar and Robinsons.
My room was 634 and had a view out to Sandy Row, the City Hospital and Windsor Park. (excuse the poor photography)
Situated in the heart of Belfast, the Europa Hotel is perfect for exploring Belfast City. The City Hall, the Grand Opera House, the famous Crown Bar are all within a few minutes walk!
Grand Opera House – right beside the Europa Hotel.
Even better right next to the Europa is the bus and train station which serves not just all of Northern Ireland, but parts of Ireland too. In two hours you could be in Dublin although personally, I’d recommend a train north to Coleraine or Londonderry/Derry.
Tea, Coffee, Biscuits in the Room – for a 4 star hotel, it should be standard. The Europa doesn’t disappoint.
The Europa boasts a few bars including the Lobby Bar and the Piano Bar. I’ve had a beer in both, and on this occasion I chose the Piano Bar as it offers a view down over the street. Sit with your fresh pint of Guinness overlooking Great Victoria Street, watching the world go by…wifi as a bonus too!
A fresh Guinness with a view onto Great Victoria Street
The Piano Bar
Real Local Northern Irish Breakfast — what I really love though is that the Europa Hotel keeps it local. It doesn’t forget where it is and you won’t forget where you are. You’re in Northern Ireland and the breakfast options reflect this. Armagh Apple Juice – yes they have freshly pressed Apple juice all the way from Armagh.
Ulster Fry buffet featuring Black and White Pudding (Irish specialities). Eat as much or as little as you like. The Ulster Fry is Northern Ireland’s iconic and quintessential morning feast.
Bushmills Whiskey Porridge – you’re thinking “what?” but the local whiskey here Bushmills is world famous and the Europa encourages you to try a drop of whiskey and cream in your morning porridge! Kickstart your day with a boom!
Put some Bushmills whiskey in your porridge? Why Not – you’re in Northern Ireland!
Irish Tea – It’s not just a myth from the Father Ted series. Irish people love their tea! Ask the staff for a pot of local tea and you can’t go wrong!
Survival – you did it!! Some people really do it just to say they did it. They stay here just to say “I stayed in the Europa Hotel and I survived”. And so my friends, this ironically is as good a reason as any. Belfast is safe remember – the locals are great craic – they’ll welcome you to their capital. Besides, President Bill Clinton once stayed here so you can also brag about that.
- A choice of 272 bedrooms – including 92 Executive Bedrooms and Suites.
- Elegant décor, contemporary bistro, bustling bar and relaxing piano bar lounge make the four star Europa Hotel the hotel of choice for business and leisure guests visiting Belfast.
- Due to its prime location, the Europa Hotel is a short distance from many of Belfast’s top visitor attractions including the Ulster Museum,Grand Opera House, City Hall, Titanic Belfast, the Waterfront Hall and the Odyssey Arena.
Great Victoria Street
Belfast BT2 7AP T
+44 (0) 28 9027 1066
Hotel San Buenaventura de Atitlan is a family owned and operated 4 star Extended Stay Hotel located at the edge of Lake Atitlan, near the town of Panajachel, in the Guatemalan Highlands.
For those who haven’t been to Atitlan before, the lake was formed by a volcanic caldera and is the deepest lake in Central America. It is surrounded by picturesque volcanoes and escarpments. The Kaqchikel Maya make up 95% of the local population and have a vibrant and colorful culture. Imagine a hotel nestled in such a stunning environment.
The hotel has fully furnished and equipped finely designed houses that can lodge from four to six guests comfortably, suites for two and standard hotel accommodations ideal for one or two guests. While we list standard fixed rates through travel agencies we are flexible and frequently offer specials, depending on season and circumstance. Because of the impact of the global economy on international tourism, now is an especially good time to contact us.
Their facilities include a bar and restaurant, heated pool, Mayan sauna or “tuj”, Jacuzzi (below) and areas to rest and relax at our private beach. If you wish, you can rent a bicycle to ride on our roads and trails in the old Hacienda San Buenaventura. At the front desk, you can also rent kayaks that you will find at the beach. They also have a pier and boat services so you can visit the Mayan towns around the lake.
The location is ideal since they are adjacent to the lake-front community of Panajachel, which has banking, shopping, live entertainment and other tourist attractions. The hotel creates tailored programs built around conferences, seminars, and retreats to suit your special interests, a fantastic getaway spot. They also offer guided tours that explore the Mayan cultures.
The area around the area houses a valley as well as the stunning and renowned lake. The Valley is home to coffee groves and the Atitlan Nature Reserve, dedicated to protecting the flora and fauna of the Lake basin and to environmental education. This Reserve is open to the general public and features signed nature trails, a butterfly preserve, hanging bridges that cross picturesque ravines, and a zipline that traverses the natural forest canopy of the Reserve.
You get to Panajachel after a short speedboat ride across the lake from San Pedro La Laguna. Also check out the cosy “Writer’s Lair” at Posada Los Encuentros before heading over if you are an artist at heart.
Hotel San Buenaventura is on the lake and has a stretch of beach, and offers private beach for stretches at a time.
The on-site swimming pool has exquisite views – the ultimate place to go for pure peace and tranquility.
Their sauna extraordinaire.
Kayaks for guests are complimentary.
They offer delicious breakfasts — try the Desayuno Tipico which comes with coffee and juice.
Phone:+502 7762 2559
Crazy crazy night of travel – attending the fire ball festival in Nejapa, El Salvador.
“There’s a bullet in the gun. there’s a fire in your heart” – Planet Perfecto
Fire ball festival/Bolas del Fuego, Nejapa, El Salvador **
You’ll tell everyone you’re coming to El Salvador for a few days, and like me, you’ll end up staying a bit longer as you’ll love it so much. Tales of touring Tazumal, seeing how indigo dyeing works, visiting Casa Blanca, surfing at Barra de Santiago and staying in Capricho and Ximenas as well as trying Salvadorian cuisine. However, on a dark Sunday night, on the 31st August 2014, I headed out to the barely known town of Nejapa in El Salvador.
Here in Nejapa, a seemingly “normal” town in El Salvador becomes one crazy insane town just for a night. I headed to Nejapa for the Fireball Festival, known in Spanish as Bolas de Fuego and it was just insane, intense and unbelievable!! Photos, videos and words may never do justice to this festival, but I’ll try…
The Bolas de Fuego Fireball Festival in Nejapa, El Salvador **
Fireworks on entrance to the town, the local lad telling us we had to move the minibus, hundreds of people piled onto the streets for a festival. The place had a buzz and you could feel it, you feel it in the air.
Fireball tornado – you could feel the magic in the air. **
The evening wasn’t only about fire though, there were more surprises up Nejapa’s hot hot sleeve and here’s how the evening unfolded in order…and disorder.
“You’re a monsoon and a fire all in one” – Super Furry Animals
With the dude who prepares crazy shots in Nejapa
My shot. Below, together with our shots!
Hot milky alcohol mix for $1 US to get us in the mood for the Fire Ball Festival in Nejapa, El Salvador.
“I predict a riot” – Kaiser Chiefs
The preview features some crazy guys with fireworks and sparklers on their heads!!
The Fireball Fight. Yes, it’s a fireball fight. Two teams on opposite ends of the street throw live fire balls at each other. There is no health and safety here whatsoever and the balls drift into the crowd every now and then. I kick one away a few times, another one lands on my camera just as the fight is coming to a close. There are some crazy alcohol fuelled guys who are involved and are NOT wearing gloves. They pick up and kick the fireballs with their bare hands. The fight lasts well over an hour and anyone can get involved.
“One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist” – Primal Scream
People dressed up in costumes, mostly black and reminiscent of Halloween nights fight it out with the other team by hurling fireballs at them. It’s an organised riot in essence.
Fire on the streets of Nejapa **
Though admittedly it’s not too safe!! There are only a few police, fire brigade and paramedics on the scene ready for any mishaps.
“I’m your venus, I’m your fire, at your desire” – Shocking Blue
Lines of fire on the streets of Nejapa
Birmingham is England’s second biggest city and while it doesn’t attract anywhere near the same number of visitors as London, it’s a really great city to explore for a few days. I’ve been to Birmingham a few times now, and this time, I chose to stay at the small but quaint and oh so English hotel just outside the city centre – The Royal George Hotel.
The Royal George Hotel in Birmingham, England.
It was part of a big reunion for me with some old friends so having a place which was cosy and welcoming was important. Here’s a few reasons why I recommend staying here when you end up in Birmingham.
Victoria Square, Birmingham.
The Royal George is a traditional English style Inn, you know the type – bar and restaurant downstairs and rooms upstairs. The difference here is that the rooms are modern, refurbished and in pristine condition.
There are two downstairs bars full of great atmosphere, friendly staff and a range of beers and food. It’s also a great place to watch football, just don’t turn up in an Aston Villa top!!
The rooms and both bars also have reliable and free wifi, free parking (not a given in Birmingham I must add) and an ensuite.
Royal George Hotel
B9 4PN – England
Tele: 0121 773 4859
I was sitting in a bar in Baku, Azerbaijan and my friend Nal asked us if we would visit Turkey soon and because we had already been, it wasn’t on my list to return, however tales of great hospitality and exciting activities changed our minds.
For visa reasons we decided to fly into Istanbul and work our way over to Iran. Overlanding it through Turkey gave us some amazing added bonuses on route and the opportunity to see Ankara, Adana, Trabzon and Dogubayazit before crossing into Iran. From Ankara we got a bus to Goreme in Cappadocia. At Goreme, the biggest bonus is getting up early to see the sunrise over the other worldly moonscapes of Cappadocia. (above and below).
We spent two nights in Goreme where we stayed in Cave Villas, literally carved into the rocks.
Hot air balloons blowing up in Goreme before dawn.
It was very cold so gloves, hats and coats were needed. We arrived at the viewing point at 6am and as the sun began to come out, the hot air balloons begin to go up. There were probably about 70 of them.
Base yourself in Goreme to save time. The sunrise walk in Goreme to the view point is quick and easy, plus you don’t need to drive anywhere to see the viewpoint. Some of the other towns and villages in Cappadocia are a bit further out. It’s worth adding this to your list.
Top photo credit: Reversehomesickness.com.
I arrived back in Europa – to Andorra and was inspired once again. I headed to the incredible Caldea Centre in Escaldes Engordany to relax. It was an incredible night of pure relaxation and my body felt so good for the first time in months and months.
The magnificent Caldea in Andorra by night.
Caldea is as good as it looks. The building pierces the Escaldes Engordany skyline and gives the town a futuristic visual appeal. Put simply – Caldea is the largest spa and leisure centre in the south of Europe: 20,000 square metres of facilities for you to enjoy water in all of its states!
The natural thermal waters of Caldea sprout at 70 degrees and are special for their properties. The waters here are rich in sulphur, sodium and minerals and are greasy as thermal plankton. When you bathe in them, they produce an anti-algic, healing, decongestant and anti-allergic action naturally in your body .
The centre is so massive that it would take a week here to truly feel the relaxation and get full use of the facilities. Alas, I had one night to experience it, but I still loved it – here are just a few of the truly relaxing parts of Caldea that I enjoyed and a top 10 for you to enjoy.
Caldea – largest spa centre in Southern Europe
Hamam: Here in deep Andorran mountainside lurks a Hamam. Basically a Middle Eastern style bath. I previously visited Hamams in Turkey, Iran and Iraq.
Sauna: having picked up a load of bites in Central America, I have this idea that being in a hot sauna will help kill them off. I have no idea if this works or not, but it certainly felt like it helped.
Where do I start with the swimming pool? The main pools of Caldea are simply outstanding.
Main swimming pools of Caldea, Andorra
Underwater snap of Caldea
Jacuzzis: lots of baths in Caldea of all temperatures and states. Jacuzzis, still somehow feel like the most soothing place in these types of centres and I spent quite a bit of time in them.
Dark Room: if you want to escape everyone else, there is a tranquil dark room. You can literally go in there, close your eyes and just have a deep think. There are some wave like lights on the ceiling but that’s it.
Massages: I didn’t have the time or feel the need for the massages but they have a range of massages and body treatments available too. Tailored to your needs.
One thing I really noticed here was that Andorrans are extremely well groomed, healthy and attractive.
Having just returned to Europe for my longest stay here in over 5 years, this was a perfect first stop off point for in Escaldes Engordany (I stayed in the Residencia Nuria Hotel) after crossing in from Barcelona and touring Andorra la Vella.
Changing Rooms in Caldea.
If you want to relax for a few days and nights – Andorra is simply perfect for it – it’s a small country with a low population (80,000) and with Caldea here in the heart of Escaldes Engordany you can truly relax as well as a night time tipple in one of the best bars in Andorra.