The tourists who made me realise it's time to revisit the hidden gems on our doorstep
Sometimes you have to see what you've got through someone else's eyes before you can really appreciate it. That's how I felt last week when I got chatting to a young couple from France. We became acquainted after they asked if they could share our table in a packed out coffee shop, and I was only to happy to agree.
This was partly out of a wish to be hospitable, and partly from a selfish desire to flex my fading language skills, but mostly because I could feel my children recoil at the thought of their mum holding a conversation with two strangers.
Like all older children, my two eldest always assume their mother will embarrass them in public, and I'd hate not to live up to their expectations.
Before they'd so much as blown the froth off their flat whites, I was chatting away in French - not an easy task, given my hybrid of French/Ballymoney pronunciation and my freestyle approach to verb conjugation.
Living where we do, near the north coast, it's not unusual to bump into visitors from abroad, but the thing that struck me about this couple was that they had come purely to visit our wee country.
In a marked contrast to most tourists I encounter, there were no plans to visit Dublin, or Cork, no thoughts of touring the ring of Kerry or kissing the Blarney Stone. This pair had flown into Belfast and had planned a full week of exploring various attractions here, before heading back home to Paris.
I asked what sights they were hoping to take in. As they reeled off a massive list of must-see spots, including the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, the Marble Arch Caves and the Ulster American Folk Park, I found myself thinking, 'How long has it been since I took a step back to appreciate and enjoy the gems on our doorstep?'.
A few years ago, I had a similar realisation when we had friends over to stay from London and, being big fans of Game of Thrones, they asked about going to visit the Dark Hedges.
They were surprised when I told them that it was just 10 minutes from our house, and shocked when I went onto say that I hadn't been to see it since I was a child - and it was the same with the Giant's Causeway. In my head, that incredible sci-fi-like setting, with all those volcanic columns, had been forever condemned as a site of extreme boredom.
It was somewhere my parents dragged my sister and I to at the weekend to walk off the excesses of a heavy Sunday lunch.
It was also where I ended up, along with my equally unimpressed classmates, on most of our school trips.
I have one particularly painful memory of being taken there on a geography field trip to examine the effects of onion weathering on rocks when I was 14.
I was leaning against the stones, attempting my best sullen teenager pose, when two middle-aged American women approached me, mistook my hair colour - dyed what I thought to be a very rebellious shade of pillar box red - as my natural Celtic colouring and insisted on having their photo taken, "with the cute little Irish girl". I was totally mortified.
With my friends from London, I revisited those sites, and many others too, and reawakened my interest and pride in the multitude of stunning spots we have to entice tourists, created by both the hand of man and Mother Nature.
That summer, we holidayed at home and had a brilliant time, vowing that we'd make it an annual occurrence.
But, of course, life has a habit of getting in the way of the best-laid plans, and by the following year we had somehow forgotten to take a moment to appreciate our homegrown wonders.
I intend to right that wrong next week during the half-term holidays. Yes, my kids may adopt my own uninterested teenage lean as I drag them from one jaw-dropping location to another, but hopefully they'll be impressed, even if they don't show it.
All that I need now is a little sunshine to make our days out perfect. Barra Best, do what you can…