juliamhammond

Travel advice and guidance

New York for second-timers

OK, so you’ve been to the Big Apple, and during that first trip, you diligently ticked off the essential sights: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State (other towers are available!), the Brooklyn Bridge.  You strolled through Central Park, caught the Staten Island ferry, shopped on 5th Avenue, dined in the neon-lit Times Square and were humbled by your emotions at the 9/11 Memorial.  So that’s it, right?  Wrong.  Here are some great New York City experiences to keep you busy when you return for more.

Bronx Botanical Gardens and Zoo

These two attractions are just a short walk from each other, so combining them on the same day makes sense, especially on a Wednesday when you can get into most exhibits free of charge.  I visited in November, the perfect time to witness the fall colours at their best and watch the animals play without distracting crowds.

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High Line or Lowline?

Both, of course.  The High Line park is now well established on everyone’s must-see list for New York, and won’t disappoint.  I love it in winter; if the sun’s shining and the wind’s absent, there’s no place better to chill out.  But now the elevated railway has a rival, at weekends at least: the Lowline Lab, an experimental space destined to become the city’s first underground park.

Update: the Lowline has now closed.

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Gospel brunch in Harlem

The other great way to spend a Sunday is to savour the tastes and of course the sounds of brunch in Harlem.  You don’t have to be religious – just musical – to appreciate the atmosphere and joy generated in a number of excellent eateries.  Sylvia’s and The Cotton Club have been at it for years, but I opted for a relative newcomer, Ginny’s Supper Club, located in the basement of Red Rooster – and wasn’t disappointed.

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City of New York Museum

You’ll have paid a visit to the Met and the Guggenheim last time, so how about learning a little of the city’s history to give you some context.  Located beyond the Upper East Side facing the north-east corner of Central Park, it’s the perfect place to learn more about the story that whizzed past you as you ascended the elevator to the top of the Freedom Tower.

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Skyscraper Museum

This tiny museum is tucked away around the corner from Battery Park, but is well worth the detour.  It has a mixture of permanent and rotating exhibits, explaining the development of the skyscraper and its contribution to the city’s iconic skyline.  If you’re in the city between now and January, check out the Skyline installation.

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Governors Island

Once known as Nut Island, this tiny haven from the noise of Manhattan was renamed Governors Island by the British in 1699 who occupied it until the time of the American Revolution.  Later a military base for the US Army and home to the Coastguard, it’s now open during the summer months as a city playground.  Once you’ve admired the view of southern Manhattan, rent a bicycle, enjoy a lazy picnic or try out Slide Hill, one of the island’s newest attractions.

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Watch a game

Which sport you watch depends of course on the season in which you visit. In summer or autumn, head up to 161st Street where you’ll find the Yankee Stadium.  In winter, try the ice hockey at a fast-paced Rangers game or watch the Knicks play basketball at Madison Square Garden.  The latter offers an interesting backstage tour as well.  For those of us visiting from outside the US, it’s as much an exercise in people-watching as anything else.  Attention spans are low compared to the intensity of watching the footie back home, for instance, but grab a beer and a hot dog to soak it up anyway.

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Bryant Park Christmas market

Once Thanksgiving has passed, it’s time to focus on Christmas.  My favourite Christmas market in the city is at Bryant Park, an easy hop from Times Square in the heart of Midtown, though the last time I was there heavy rainfall had flooded the paths and many of the stallholders had gone home early.  Union Square also has a market, a little smaller but also worth a look.

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Roosevelt Island tramway

It’s been a while since I rode this, but a ride on the Roosevelt Island tramway is worth it for the views alone.  After the Staten Island ferry, it’s probably the biggest public transport bargain in the city, as you can ride it for a price equivalent to a single subway ride using your MTA card.  If you think it looks familiar, that’s because t’s been featured in many movies, including Scarface, City Slickers, Now You See Me and Spiderman.

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New York Transit Museum

The shops and cafes of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg are well-documented but a few miles down the road, you’ll find the New York Transit Museum, occupying a decommissioned subway station where Boerum Place meets Schermerhorn Street.  Underground, you’ll find a collection of vintage subway cars, some of which are over a hundred years old.  The best bit: no one minds if you hop on board.

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Tips for keeping yourself – and your stuff – safe while you’re travelling

Travel safety is a big consideration for most travellers and as a solo female, it’s something that has to be thought about, both at the planning stage and while I’m on the road. Here’s some advice based on what I’ve learned over the years about keeping myself safe.

Plan before you go

I hold what I call my reserve bucket list. I contains places that I hope to go to one day, but for safety or security reasons aren’t top of the list right now. One of the websites I go to when I have a trip idea involving somewhere that might just be a bit dodgy is the FCO’s – and in particular its Travel Advice by Country. Sometimes it can make for scary reading, but knowledge is never a bad thing. The FCO’s up to date facts about a country can help rule it out – sorry, Mali, you’ll just have to wait in line with Yemen – but where it’s clear that any issues involving safety are contained to a specific part of the country, it can sometimes rule a country in.

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Guatemala – one place where the FCO’s advice helped me prepare

Keep abreast of news while on the road

I’ve found Twitter to be an invaluable help in finding out what’s going on within a country from the inside. In Haiti last year, it was the most accurate way of tracking the unrest triggered by fuel price rises and ensuring that I didn’t leave sleepy Jacmel too early. It’s also been handy to check how the roads are running in and out of Calais when my family have taken a cross Channel ferry during the recent difficulties.

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Haiti – not the safest place to travel but  certainly interesting

Think about luggage

Habitually I travel with a rigid-shell wheelie, which would be harder for thieves to slash than a soft suitcase. My aim is usually to appear a more difficult target than someone else, so to that end I ensure zips and fastenings are done up, small padlocks secure outside pockets from interfering fingers and bags are worn cross-body so they can’t easily be slipped off my shoulder. Valuables are buried deep within inside pockets and expensive equipment like cameras are in plain bags rather than labelled ones with Nikon or Canon clearly visible. One thing I never do, though, is wear my rucksack on my chest – personally, I just think that marks you out as a dumb tourist and makes you more of a target.

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My trusty travelling companions, seen here waiting for a ferry in the Seychelles

Trust your instincts

Over the years I’ve either been lucky or I’ve developed the skill of knowing when something just doesn’t feel right.  Of course, I could have been blissfully unaware of any potential danger.  Sometimes, you just have to go with your gut and accept help or hospitality from complete strangers.  I’ve trusted people to give me a lift and turned others down simply because it didn’t seem right; spoken to others at length and entered their homes while avoiding eye contact with others.  One of the most rewarding aspects of travelling is the encounters you have with people along the way, which would be impossible if your guard was always up.  So far, though I shouldn’t want to jinx my luck, I’ve never got myself into any situation I couldn’t get out of.  Perhaps that’s the key – have an exit strategy in the back of your mind.

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I’ve been rescued by a group of Rastas in Zambia

Choose accommodation in a safe location

It can be tempting to book a hotel or hostel near a bus or train station but I do check first to find out if that puts it in an insalubrious district. Better to have a short taxi ride or subway trip than to risk walking around somewhere that I’m more likely to get robbed. That’s especially important if I’m arriving after dark, which may be earlier than at home, of course. If arriving after nightfall is unavoidable, then I’ll almost always take a taxi; to do otherwise could be false economy. It’s also good to take local advice.  The hostel I stayed at in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, was very clear with the advice posted on its gate: leave anything behind that you didn’t wish to lose – pickpockets were, sadly, rife.

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Damascus in the daylight

Ironically as it turned out, when I visited Syria just months before the civil war kicked off, I took the airport bus from Damascus into the city and then walked alone through its deserted streets at 2 am – and have rarely felt safer than I did that night. Perhaps safety is a state of mind?


Travel hacks for solo travel

For almost three decades, I’ve happily travelled the globe alone. While I enjoy travelling with family or friends, nothing beats the joy of being by myself as I discover a new place. But there are, as with anything worthwhile, a few issues to consider. Here are a few tips to help you discover solo nirvana.

Watching the bags

One of the most inconvenient things about travelling alone is having no one with you to watch your bags.  With a bag on your back or at your feet, you become very vulnerable when your attention is distracted – like when you’re booking a bus ticket for instance.  There are several ways of reducing the chances of being robbed.  Travelling light is the obvious one – carry less stuff and there’s less chance of that stuff being stolen.

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All the luggage I needed for a two-week trip to the Indian Ocean

Also consider which type of luggage you’re carrying and how to avoid being the victim of an opportunist thief.  I travel with a hard shell wheelie and when I’m off somewhere dodgy, pop a mini padlock on my rucksack.  It’s not foolproof – a bag slasher obviously wouldn’t have a problem – but it is a small deterrent.  If the person next to you has their bag wide open, you’re not going to be the first choice for a thief.  Keep your bags in sight and where possible, keep the strap across your body.

Timing is everything

On a related point, I’ve never thought it would be smart to leave my bags unattended. I’ve no wish to be the reason an airport is evacuated. But I’m also regularly the victim of suggestion – and if I see a toilet, then there’s  a good chance I need to visit it.  That can be tricky when you’re on the move with all your bags and the floors are at best grubby, at worst, well, let’s not go there…

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No single option even in the loo – Norway’s answer to toilet queues

Timing is everything. Go before you leave your hotel, in an airport where the cubicle could be big and clean enough to leave belongings on the floor or somewhere there’s a solid, heavy duty hook. And pray it’s not a squat toilet. Believe me when I say it’s almost impossible to keep your balance with a rucksack on your back.

Avoid tours

The dreaded single supplement can make it all too obvious that solo travellers incur a financial penalty from some establishments. While I understand how frustrating it must be for hoteliers to lose half the potential revenue from a double or twin room, I still have a travel budget to stick to. I look for hotels with single rooms – they’re not all windowless cells shoved in basements – and unpackage my trip to swap private drivers for public transport.

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Don’t rule out private rooms in hostels for single occupancy

I also avoid tour companies promising single rooms without the single supplement – usually all they’ve done is absorbed those charges into their headline price. If I do need to take a tour, I opt to share with a same-sex stranger – sometimes you get lucky and get a room to yourself anyway and where that’s not been the case, I’m relieved to say my room mate has been a pleasant distraction for a few nights and not a surprise snorer.

Personal space

Most of the time, while I’m happy for my husband to rest his head on my shoulder, the same doesn’t apply for complete strangers who just happen to be occupying the seat beside me. On buses and trains, I seat myself on the aisle seat with my bag by the window. Most people would prefer to slide into an empty seat rather than have to ask someone to move, so you often keep your seat even when the bus is quite full.  I’m always gazing intently at something out of the window, though if they ask me to move over or let them in, I always do so with a smile.  There’s no sense in pissing someone off who’s going to be next to you for hours.  It’s also easier than you might think to find single seats, whether on trains or on the overnight sleeper buses that are common in South America.

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No shortage of space on Italy’s FrecciaRossa trains in executive class

If you do end up next to someone, it’s not the end of the world. The most comfortable flight I ever took was an overnighter from Ghana wedged tightly up against a very large woman – she was as soft as a goose feather pillow and happy for me to snuggle up as she spilled over into my seat.

Eat at the bar

Often, the only time when I’m really conscious I’m travelling alone is when it comes to dinner. Where eating breakfast without a companion rarely feels odd, there still seems to be a stigma about sitting alone over dinner. I’ve never been one for room service (and let’s face it, rarely stay somewhere smart enough to even have room service) so how do I overcome the thorny problem of dinner for one? I’m not frightened to say no to a table shoved up at the back of a restaurant by the kitchen door – if they don’t want to give me a decent table, I’m quite happy to take my business elsewhere.

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Alas, there was no one present to witness me eating grasshoppers in Mexico 

But if I’m feeling sociable I often sit at the bar to eat, as the bar tender and fellow patrons are often chattier there. And if I’m not, I’m quite happy to read a book between courses or simply people watch.

If you’re thinking of travelling solo but are scared to try it – don’t be! It might just be the best thing you’ve ever done.


Weather to travel: New York City

For a first time visitor wanting to maximise sightseeing time, good weather is a must, but when’s the best time to visit New York City? I’ve visited in all seasons, so here are some observations and tips based on my experience.

Avoid summer if you can

Summer in the city, with its long sunny days and picnics in the park, sounds like the perfect recipe for a great trip, right? Wrong! New York in summer is humid and hot. Typical temperatures push 30°C which in my opinion is too hot for sightseeing. Add to that average humidity which peaks in August at around 70% and conditions are often unpleasant. It’s sweltering if there’s a storm brewing and when the rain does fall, it’ll be heavy and you can expect localised flooding.

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Beating the summer heat on a bicycle round Governor’s Island

It’s beach weather, sure, and there are some fun places to go close to the city like Coney Island, but if you’re planning to visit the Big Apple’s iconic sights like the Empire State and the Statue of Liberty, then you’ll be standing in line until you’re good and sweaty. If you have booked to travel between June and August, then take a ferry to Governor’s Island to catch a breeze, rent a boat from Central Park’s Loeb Boathouse or head out of Manhattan to the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.

Don’t write off winter

Travelling to New York in winter is not without its risks. If your holiday coincides with a big winter storm, then you can find yourself stranded if the subway system shuts down and the buses can’t get through. That said, there’s a lot of fun to be had snowballing in Central Park and seeing the rooftops dusted with powder. Overnight temperatures can plunge to -10°C or below, but in the daytime, it usually hovers around zero. Wind may well be your biggest problem, but an advantage of a grid pattern street network is that if you turn a corner, you’ll come out of the icy blast and warm up. Make sure you pack accordingly, and don’t skimp on the hats, scarves and windproof down jacket.

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Coney Island closed for the winter

The main advantage of travelling in winter is the lack of crowds – those who venture to the Big Apple in winter are rewarded handsomely. First-timers can pack more into an itinerary and reduce the need for pre-booking popular attractions such as the Freedom Tower. It’ll also be easier to pick up tickets for popular Broadway shows. Restaurant week takes place in late January or early February, with lots of establishments offering special menus and good deals.

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9/11 Memorial in winter

Spring and autumn might just be the best compromise

Temperatures by April are on the rise, and it can be warm and sunny through into October, so travelling in the shoulder seasons is a good option. You’re looking at an average of around 17°C in May which in my book is perfect for sightseeing. Statistically, October is the driest month, though that was also the month in 2012 that Storm Sandy wreaked havoc, so it’s not a dead cert. April is the wettest, but rainfall averages are fairly constant through the year so that’s not a deal breaker. Markets reemerge from their winter hibernation, blossom enhances the High Line and stepping out is a pleasure.

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Some of New York’s attractions are great whatever the weather

Book your hotel well ahead, however, because late spring and early autumn are when you’ll see accommodation prices spike – it makes sense, of course, as you would expect demand to drive up rates. May sees temperatures climb and after Memorial Day weekend, summer has officially started; try earlier in the month if you prefer it less busy. You’re more likely to find a deal in November, and maybe even plan a trip to coincide with Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and the leaves will be on the turn in the city’s parks to boot.

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The Bronx River in autumn

What I have learned over the years and through numerous visits, is that there’s really never a bad time to go. My personal preference is for a winter trip, but I’ve never had a bad holiday in New York yet.

Tempted to book? Don’t miss these earlier posts from Julia’s Travels:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/julias-guide-to-new-york-part-1-lower-manhattan/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/julias-guide-to-new-york-part-2-manhattan-west/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/julias-guide-to-new-york-part-3-manhattan-east/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/24/tips-for-getting-the-best-out-of-a-trip-to-new-york-city/


How to survive a long haul flight

Always wanted to visit that far flung destination but dread the flight you’ll need to take to get there? Sometimes a long haul flight is the hell that has to be endured to reach paradise. If you aren’t lucky enough to fly First Class or have incredible views beneath you through a cloudless sky, you might need my help. Here are a few tried and tested tips for making that journey fly by (sorry, couldn’t resist!)

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London at dawn from the air

Drink plenty

Sadly, I don’t mean chug back the wine and pass out. Save the alcohol for your holiday and instead drink plenty of water. Flying is very dehydrating – which means if you don’t keep topping up your liquids, on top of thirst, you risk suffering headaches, dry skin and tiredness. And none of those are conducive to a happy flight. You can keep asking cabin crew for water, but you might be more popular if you buy a bottle of water from the airside newsagents before you board. Pack a travel-size moisturiser to keep your skin hydrated too.

Keep moving

Unless you’re still lucky enough to be a lithe and supple twenty something who can curl themselves up into a ball on take off and stretch like a contented cat as they awake on landing, a long flight potentially means discomfort. Spending a long time in a cramped environment leads to aching muscles and stiff joints. Make a point of getting up at regular intervals to move those legs and you’ll feel much better for it.

Bring some reading material

Forget War and Peace, what I take on a flight has to be easy to read. Eschew the literary classics and think chick lit, trashy magazines and historical sagas. I was so engrossed in Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles on a recent flight I barely noticed we’d landed. Make sure the Kindle’s fully charged or go retro and take a paperback. And if you’re taking a guide book, don’t pack it in your hold luggage; plan your trip in the air to maximise time for sightseeing when you arrive.

Save up your correspondence

There are rarely enough hours in the day to fit everything in and it’s not uncommon to fall behind, so I spend some of a long flight writing drafts of emails on my iPad ready to send when I arrive. (Some airlines offer Internet access on board but check the small print to find out how much it’s likely to cost before you connect.) I also use the time to write future blog posts, draft articles for clients and make to do lists.

Make the most of the on-board entertainment

Listen to the album you’ve not had chance to download, engross yourself in that film you failed to catch at the cinema, binge watch addictive TV sitcoms – most airlines have plenty of choice. I also make sure I’ve got lots of games on my tablet so I can pass the time playing Scrabble, card games and Sudoku.

Talk to your neighbour

Whether you’re travelling with a companion or solo, it’s often pleasant to chat. Take the hint though if your neighbour is monosyllabic with their responses – some people might find your inane chatter intensely annoying. And if you’re stuck with the cabin’s biggest bore, dig out some headphones and announce with an apologetic shrug you’ve been looking forward to listening to that album or audio book for ages.

Hit the snooze button

If all else fails, sleep. Beg, borrow or steal an extra pillow and blanket to pad out those uncomfortable armrests and snatch a nap or two.


Why not paying attention to your Geography teacher could cost you dearly

Next time you go online to book flights, be careful. You may end up miles off course if you don’t double check your booking before you confirm travel.  As an ex-Geography teacher myself, I couldn’t help but shake my head in despair at the unfortunate couple who this week made the news as they managed to book themselves flights to Las Vegas from Birmingham Alabama rather than the UK’s second largest city:

Couple book flights from Birmingham airport… What could possibly go wrong?

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Vegas, baby!

While it’s a shame they missed out on their dream holiday, it shouldn’t be an easy mistake to make.  Flight booking sites are easy to navigate and cities clearly identifiable.  They’re not the first, either.  I remember a couple trying to get to see their daughter in San Jose, Mexico but who ended up flying to San Jose, California instead:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/Couple-mistakenly-fly-to-San-Jose-California-instead-of-San-Jose-Mexico/

The flight codes are only one letter different, so if I’m being generous that could have been hard to spot. But then there was the granny who actually wanted to be in San Jose, California but headed to the Costa Rican capital instead:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-118629/Grandmother-flown-3-000-miles-way.html

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The beautiful Spanish city of Granada

While many accept responsibility for their mistakes, some just can’t believe it. This American couple decided to sue when they were wrongly routed to the Caribbean island of Grenada instead of the Spanish city Granada:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/25/american-couple-sue-british-airways-grenada-granada

They aren’t the only ones to fall foul of these two similar sounding places, though at least this granny can claim she was misheard:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2478016/Granny-sent-Grenada-instead-Granada-booking-mix-up.html

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Dakar’s colourful boats

I could go on and on.  The internet’s full of tales of people mixing up Dakar and Dhaka, respectively the capitals of Senegal and Bangladesh and located on different continents, Melbourne, Florida and Melbourne, Australia (I’d recommend the latter if you can’t decide which to add to your bucket list), and Paris, Texas with the French capital itself.

So, if your child isn’t paying as much attention as you’d like in school, show them this blog and tell them to pull their socks up, or one day they might find themselves facing an expensive onward flight!


When it isn’t OK to post a bad review

Recently I stayed in a hotel very close to Colombo’s airport, the Otha Shy Airport Hotel. The Sri Lankan capital is some distance away, and as I had a late arrival followed by a morning onward flight, I was more focused on location than quality. I took a cursory look at some reviews but didn’t bother with much more.  The price was reasonable, it looked clean and I wasn’t going to have to spend an hour in traffic worrying whether I’d miss my flight.

On arrival, at nearly midnight following a delayed flight, the person manning reception was pleasant and efficient. He gave me a complimentary bottle of water and a working WiFi code. The room was spotless and I had a comfortable night’s sleep. I woke reasonably early and half an hour or so later I became aware of some persistent hammering from the floor above. I wasn’t too worried, as I was about to check out anyway.

On check out, the reason became apparent: the ground floor was complete but the first floor was a scaffolding-clad building site. Never mind: the owner was still charm personified and despite his late night, gave me a free lift to the airport about ten minutes up the road.

Curious, I checked the reviews. Most were very positive.  Here’s what Trip Advisor has to say: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g2550421-d8656795-Reviews-Otha_Shy_Airport_Hotel-Katunayaka_Western_Province.html#review_361396695 and here are the reviews on Booking.com: http://www.booking.com/hotel/lk/otha-shy-airport.en-gb.html#tab-reviews.

The owner was very enthusiastic about his expansion plans and convinced that the building work would be completed this month (April 2016).  He was the kind of man you want to root for; he had a dream and was determined to realise it.  What’s nice is that the lack of poor reviews means that the people that have stayed there while construction is underway get that.  I can’t imagine there being much leeway in his budget, so he’d need bookings for his ground floor rooms despite the noise or disruption.  A few bad reviews could scupper his dreams.

I’m not in the habit of destroying someone’s chances to improve themselves.  Mr Nalaka, I wish you every success with your business and if I return to Sri Lanka, I’ll be booking my old room.