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I did Northern Ireland all wrong. Really, I did. I had thought it would be worthwhile—although brief—to head north for my flight to London rather than bussing to an airport like Shannon or even Dublin to fly. After all, I hadn’t seen any of Northern Ireland and had seen astounding photos from the Giant’s Causeway. I wanted to go there, at least.
So with that in mind, I booked a bus from Galway to Belfast (a 5 or so hour trip with a connection in Dublin) and another Paddywagon Tourof the Giant’s Causeway, the famous Rope Bridge of Carrick-a-Rede and the surrounding countryside. I had such a good experience with them for the Ring of Kerry trip I took out of Cork that I figured it would be a sure thing. I also reserved a bed at the highest-rated hostel in Belfast, and hoped that my 2 night, 1 day stay would suffice.

I should have known better. I should have known as soon as we took off from the bus transfer in Dublin. The driver told everyone with Belfast as their destination to put their luggage on the other side of the bus, completely ignoring the fact that clearly 97% of the riders were heading there, and all the luggage would not comfortably fit. My bag was the last one in, and as a friendly Australian backpacker helped me smush it against the rest of the suitcases in the hold, it became quite clear that no amount of shoving would get it completely in. We took our seats and assumed the driver would realize this when the luggage rack doors wouldn’t shut. He did get off the bus, although to do what I have no idea, because as soon as the bus started we heard the familiar “STAND CLEAR. LUGGAGE DOORS ARE CLOSING. STAND CLEAR. LUGGAGE DOORS ARE CLOSING” requisite of every BusEireann bus ever.
And then they didn’t stop. Rather, whenever the bus stopped, the automatic refrain would start up again; at stop lights, in standstill traffic along the freeway. STAND CLEAR. LUGGAGE DOORS ARE CLOSING.
By the end of that bus ride, I—along with most people on the vehicle—were pretty darn annoyed.
I tried to shake it off. After all, I didn’t want such a silly thing to bother me and spoil the short time I had there. So, I made it to my hostel and was greeted by the enthusiastic staff at Vagabond’s. It was already almost 7:30 and all the museums would be closed, but the Christmas Market was open at City Hall, which was within easy walking distance.
“So are there any areas it’s not safe to walk in at night here in Belfast?” I asked the guy working reception. He assured me that Belfast was one of the safest cities in Europe, neglecting to remind me that that week there had been a number of Loyalist protests that had turned violent. To be fair, I should have read up a little beforehand on the local news, but I had been so busy dancing that I hadn’t thought of it before arriving.
The Christmas Market was lovely. There were dozens of stands selling food and gifts. I bought myself some handmade Irish seaweed soap, since I had already gone through my soap from home. Note to self: It takes about 5 months to go through two Moja bars, which are currently my absolute favorite soaps. I perused the stands to decide where to eat, and because gluten was out, I settled on some really tasty chicken paella and a cup of hot cocoa with whipped cream for dessert. One stand was selling excellent gluten-free chocolate cookies and it took a lot of willpower not to eat all dozen in one go.
The next day was my tour. It turned out that the hostel recommends a different company that has a similar itinerary but with an extra stop—dinner at the Bushwick’s Distillery—and a couple other travelers from Vagabond’s were going on that one. It was too late for me to join them, as I had already reserved my other tour, so I headed out on my own to catch my Paddywagon bus.
Upon returning from my day trip, I was zonked and I had to get up early for my flight to London the next day. I had no interest in socializing with the other guests, which was a shame because they seemed nice. As the evening wore on, I realized, too, that I was feeling a bit under the weather, which would make for a nasty flight the next day. As I went to bed, I tried to figure out why I was feeling so…dissatisfied.  This is what I came up with.
The biggest error I made was that my stay was too short. It didn’t allow for everything I wanted to do, like taking a Black Taxi Tour, checking out the Ulster Museum, or visiting all the Titanic stuff, in addition to seeing the Giant’s Causeway. ALSO, if I had done my research I would have known that GAME OF THRONES IS FILMED THERE AND I COULD HAVE DONE MORE STALKING FAN APPRECIATION TOURING!
 Taking the Paddywagon Tour rather than the hostel-recommended one. I never even thought about the fact that this company was based in Dublin, and although that doesn’t matter necessarily in terms of where we went, it wasn’t a local company. I think I had the mistaken expectation, too, that because my experience had been so fun on the other tour, this one definitely would be, as well. Groups vary, though, as do guides and circumstances, and although I’ll never know, I suspect I would have had a better time on the other tour.
Eating before seeing The Giant’s Causeway.  I should have listened to my guts on this one, just bought a snack at the gift shop and eaten after taking enough time to see the site and museum. What really happened was that I let myself go with other peoples’ flow and we ended up spending way too much time trying to get our meal at the pub next to the museum. I ended up spending only 15 minutes at the Giant’s Causeway, not seeing any of the museum, and feeling really disappointed in myself.
NOT CHARGING MY CAMERA BATTERY THE NIGHT BEFORE. This happened to me in Mycenae, too. I arrived at the ruins, saw the Lion’s Gate—something I’ve been excited about seeing in person for ages—and my camera battery DIED. BECAUSE I DIDN’T CHARGE IT. In Belfast, I had almost learned my lesson because at least I thought about it beforehand. But I saw 3 out of 4 bars for the battery charge and figured I’d be safe, but then proceeded to forget to bring my charged phone, as well, which would have been a perfectly adequate backup. This resulted in me only getting 2 photos from the Giant’s Causeway, and I haven’t heard back from the other tour-goer who took my email to send me the ones he took of me. I’m hoping he still just has to upload them or something and I’ll have better ones than me where I’m not even on top of the rocks…
The only photo I got of myself with the Giant’s Causeway before the battery died…
There’s always a silver lining, though, so here’s what I did right:
Vagabond’s. The hostel was really great—the facilities were good, the staff was fun, and the travelers I met there were very nice. For example: one night, in a fit of hypochondriac anxiety, I woke with a super sore throat that felt so bad that I was worried about being able to swallow. One of the guys in my dorm was a doctor working on research for the week, and he very generously offered to check out my throat to reassure me that no, I was not going to suffocate in my sleep and die.
Also, I had a crazy small world experience at the hostel! An Irish gal came in on my last evening and she mentioned she had lived in Cork for a number of years. At this point, I’m super excited whenever I meet Irish people, and we chatted a bit about how much we both liked Cork. I mentioned that I was there for the Jazz Festival, and she said she had only gotten out to one thing on Monday night at The Oval. On Monday night, I, along with several other swing dancers, was at The Oval relishing in the last evening of music from the incomparable Old Fish Jazz Band with Jessy Carolina. She had seen me dancing there! Small world, eh?  After a pseudo-disappointing day, this made me feel better about the whole thing.
The Learning Experience. Now I know I do want to head back to Belfast and spend a proper few days touring it. It served as a good reminder to read some local news before going to a place; even though it didn’t negatively affect my experience there it would have been good to know about the protests going on beforehand. Further, while I was there more protests broke out and there were attacks directed at police and a lawmaker as a result of a legislation about the flying of the Union Jack above city hall. I should always double check to see if the hostel where I’m staying has better recommendations for local services and tours. And it reconfirms that my habit of reading hostel reviews is a pretty good bet.