The last time I visited Belfast, it was more a City in recovery, than the vibrant Metropolis it is today. Within hours of reaching the heart-beat of N.Ireland, it was clear that multimillion £’s of British and foreign investment in the City has put the Bzazzz back into Belfast.
Shopping centres in Donegall Place are booming; the new Victoria Square shopping mallis awash with all the British High Street favourites including Marks & Spencer, House of Fraser, Topshop, Reiss and H & M. If you’re antique hunting, Ballinderry Antiques is three floors of Wonderfland just outside Lisburn, the centre of Belfast’s diamond trade. We had booked our first two nights at the sumptuous five-star Culloden Hotel on the aptly named Hollywood Hill,, overlooking Belfast Lough and the County Antrim coastline, and still owned by the Hastings family. From the moment you step into its pink-painted reception area, you are aware of the personal touch and warmth of a true Irish welcome.
We checked in for two nights to see the Belfast sights and our Superior room boasted a six-foot bed, and a delightful grey marble en-suite bathroom. Dinner in the Gothic pannelled Mitre restaurant was the finest; locally sourced lamb from nearby Mourne, Angus Beef steak and a creme brulee desert decorated with herbs and flowers from the end of the hotel’s own garden, are the finest you could experience anywhere. After a great inclusive breakfast, we’re off to sample the most important new sight in Belfast, the Titanic Experience. The huge silver building with its four extended ship ‘hulls’ on the site of the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the doomed liner was built, is still overshadowed by the great yellow cranes, Samson and Goliath - now guarded by a preservation order. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer vastness and hands-on experience of this extraordinary museum.
Inside the massive atrium, you are surrounded by all four of the ship-hull shaped wings. We followed every step of Titanic’s life-story, from the laying of the first wooden struts in the early 1900’s, through to her launch on May 31st 1911, and then as she sets off on her fateful maiden voyage in April 1912. Fascinating historic films of those days, heartbreaking footage of survivors, stories of passengers and crew and contemporary links to undersea explorations are all designed to tear at your heart-strings. Inside the magnificent 3-D exhibits, you are right there, on the beautiful, ill-fated liner. Maurice has advised us to take a Black Cab Taxi-tour, with a specialist guide, on our first day to see the real Belfast through the humour of a native, including the extraordinary wall murals that decorate the entire City . The tour will be tailored to your needs, fun, friendly, hilariously funny and full of good old and new Irish jokes, as well as history of the serious stuff including the political districts like the Shanklin Road and Falls Road, world infamous for their part in 20th Century conflicts.
Early evening, and time to wander down a narrow cobbled alley to grab a seat at the Duke of York. It’s an amazing pub with an eclectic mixture of antiques and rare artefacts. I sipped at a real Bushmills Irish whiskey brewed just down the road, while my husband licked the creamy foam from his Guinness. We didn’t feel lonely. Within minutes we were chatting to Irish Americans on a ‘root-seeking’ mission and a local jeweller urging us to pay him a visit in Lisburn Road, the heart of Belfast’s diamond district.
We’d heard all about Made in Belfast, a local restaurant that sources all their ingredients locally, but offers dishes from all over the world including Aussie burgers and Scandi Smushis. We tried it on our second night, and it was what it said on the label. Maurice collected us at 7.30am next morning. We had an arm-long list of ‘must-sees’ and right at the top was the Folk and Transport Museum to the east of the City. Guides in period costume walk you through the story of Ulster - while in the transport museum you can journey its origins by land, sea and air.
After lunch, sandwiches of delicious soda bread, cheese and local ham, we chose to visit Dundrum Castle via the spectacular Mountains of Mourne. Having a private tour guide allows you to pick and choose your sights and experiences, although the choice isn’t easy. So much to see and do, although as Ulster is quite a compact country, just 5,345 square miles (13,843kms), it’s possible to see a lot in a relatively short time. We moved base to spend the next few days at Slieve Donard Hotel, the second of the Hastings’ family’s equally welcoming, if less sumptuous hostelries. It placed us within two hours touring at most to reach our chosen sights. Situated with the Mountains of Mournes behind, and views of the golden sandy beaches from our bedroom window, it’s the perfect resting place, and you can plan a relaxing game of golf at the Royal County Down Golf Club, right next door if you fancy. Although only about an hour’s ride out of central Belfast, it overlooks the Mountains of Mourne and its easy to see how Percy French was inspired to write the lyrics for the song ‘When the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea’ were born.
We started early next morning after an excellent breakfast in the aptly named Percy French restaurant. Our first stop Dundrum Castle, a Norman ruin originally constructed by John de Courcy, a Brit of Norman stock who invaded Ulster at the beginning of the 13th century. We climbed up inside the almost intact keep, standing magnificent still on a rocky tor overlooking Dundrum Bay.
Now for the drive of a lifetime, listed as one of the greatest drives in the world, along the 80 mile coastal road in all its spectacular glory to one of natures’ greatest wonders, The Giant’s Causeway. We stop briefly at Dunluce Castle on the way to admire another Norman castle from the road. In a country where giants and elves and leprauchauns, the little people, are the stuff of every story, it’s easy to believe these flat-topped, giant, golden basalt blocks rising out of the stoney beach were carved by the 54ft tall giant Finn McDool and his band of Fianna warriors. Now a World Heritage Site, £7.50p (43.45 UE Dirham) will buy you entrance to the site, a written guide, and use of facilities.
By the time you’ve finished climbing, you’re more than ready to visit Bushmills. The little town boasts Ireland’s most famous whiskey brewery. Before you succumb to ‘a drop of the hard-stuff’ in the distillery, Maurice persuaded us to peep at one of the most photographed natural phenomenon in the region. The haunting, and supposedly haunted avenue of Armoy known as ‘The Dark Hedges’, an eerie lane of trees, leaning together as though protecting their treasure.
With so much to see and do in N Ireland, you’re spoilt for choice. If you love unspoilt little villages, Ballintoy Habour with its working fishermen is obligatory, and a little further along the coast, the beach at Ballintoy. You might decide to follow the pretty road from Bushmills, through the beautiful village of Broughshane, famed for fabulous floral displays. Visit in summer and you’ll be overwhelmed by the colour and scent that pervades the ‘Garden of Ulster’. Travel on to Murlough Bay with its view of Rathlin Island. The Island itself is N. Ireland’s only inhabited off-shore island only 12 miles west of Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre. It’s home to around 100 people and its many ruined cottages and dry-stone walls are interesting features. To get there, you need to take the ferry from Ballycastle. If you haven’t managed to sample potato and soda bread, a real Ulster fry up, or Farls (potato cakes), learned a hundred mystical stories and a thousand Irish jokes before you leave, you’ll have no-one to blame but yourself.
For further information on places to stay, things to do, what to eat and where to shop contact Northern Ireland Tourist Board, 59 North Street, Belfast BT1 1NB telephone +44 (0)208 9023 1221 or visit www.irelandandscotlandluxurytours.com Luxury private chauffeur driven tours of Northern Ireland - contact . firstname.lastname@example.org. Expect to pay around £1850 - 10714 Dirhams for seven days touring, including hotels on a B & B basis. For flight deals Dubai to Belfast return, contact www.tripadvisor.co.uk. Prices from around £700 (4050 Dirhams) British Airways, Qatar Airlines and Air Lingus fly daily with one stop over in London, Glasgow or Dohar.
by Andrea Kon