Text & Photos by Thomas Wilmer
One hundred years ago Belfast was on a roll. The robust and vibrant city touted the world’s largest shipyard along with dynamic linen and manufacturing industries. Today, numerous elegant Victorian and Edwardian edifices remain as mute testimonials to the city’s boom-times.
During the dark days of the “Troubles” life was drab in Belfast–real estate languished, industry was stagnant and when locals partied is was typically within private homes. Rosemary, a Belfast born and bred acquaintance, explained, “when I was a teenager, there were basically three or four restaurants in the city and one was a pizza place. And my dad forbid me from driving the family car in to the city in fear it would get blown up!’
Not anymore. Belfast today is an incredibly peaceful, pulsating place that has re-established itself as a prime destination for visitors from around the world. Belfast City Center abounds with cutting-edge eateries—trendsetters in the “farm to fork” movement, serving fresh, locally sourced foods. The town’s burgeoning nightlife absolutely rocks. For example Rihanna and Britney Spears both commenced their recent European tours in the city by the River Lagan.
Bono’s group, U2 was a vanguard for the city’s reputation as a happening music venue and now the world is beating a path to Belfast’s doorstep. International musical events such as MTV’s award ceremonies, staged in Belfast this past November, attract stars like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. Belfast Lord Mayer, Niall O’Donnghaile noted, “For many of us, the MTV awards are an indication that we really and truly have arrived.”
For the shopaholic, there are ample choices within walking distance from city center hotels, including Westfield Castle Court Center–an outdoor esplanade with an array of shops. The new eye-catching Victorian Square indoor Shopping Center is graced with a dramatic 110-foot diameter glass dome centerpiece.
Theater, pub life, music festivals and shopping options symbolize the city’s resurgence as a prime travel destination. But equally alluring is the city’s living history, palpably exemplified by the iconic Baroque Revival Belfast City Hall (circa-1906), and Queen’s university (chartered in 1845) sequestered in a tranquil neighborhood accented with lawns and towering shade trees.
The nearby Botanic Gardens’ centerpiece is the majestic Palm House. Built in 1840. The cast-iron-ribbed glass conservancy and the adjacent Tropical Ravine “Fernery” are exquisite examples of classic horticultural Victoriana (visualize London’s Kew Gardens).
Compact Belfast is an exceptionally walkable town. We spent three days exploring the sites and rarely hailed a cab or climbed on a bus. One third of Northern Ireland’s population lives within Belfast’s urban zone, leaving the remainder of the realm a bucolic, pastoral paradise.
Exploring the North
The Antrim Coast road trip is one of those special journeys that one savors and recalls long after returning home. Personally, I fondly revisit snippets from six months ago along with 14 years ago with the same freshness of yesterday. Visualize undulating gemstone-green hillsides etched with bushy hedgerows, a cliff hugging castle or two, and ancient stone-farmhouses accented with laconic black-faced sheep and Holsteins languidly ruminating in storybook fields.
The fabled “Nine Glens of Antrim”—the territory of glens and moors, fairies and leprechauns, as well a ghost or two—along with the entire North Coast are synonymous with ancient, untrammeled Ireland. This insular region was one of the last in Ireland to be connected with the outside world by road (the first roadways were blasted out of craggy cliffs in 1834). And its denizens were among the last to retain Gaelic as the spoken language. The 60-mile journey along the coast, from Larne to Portrush (think 2012 Irish Open at Royal Portrush Golf Course, founded in 1888, and ranked among the world’s top 12 courses), wends past ancient castles overlooking pristine sandy shores, rocky-beached seaport villages, over stone bridges, through tunnels and along sheer cliffs. It’s no wonder the experience is revered as one of the world’s most spectacular drives.
A not to be missed natural phenomenon is the Giant’s Causeway. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is ranked as one of the United Kingdom’s top four natural wonders and Northern Ireland’s number one tourist attraction. The rare outcropping of thousands of massive hexagonal volcanic-basalt pillars parade out of the sea and up the coastal bluffs.
Along the seashore, the columns have been nibbled-away level with the sandy beach by ceaseless wave action while the columns beyond the high-tide line range skyward thirty feet and more. Irish storytellers will explain that the massive stones are actually the remnants of a causeway built by the mythical giant, Finn McCool. Mention the local giant’s handiwork to a volcanologist and he might roll his eyes. But everyone knows the columns really are remnants of Finn McCool’s causeway that he built across the channel to battle with his nemesis, Benandonner the Scottish giant. As further proof of McCool’s handiwork the same basalt-stones, remnants of Finn’s bridge, are found on the Scottish Isle of Staffa.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
The swaying rope-bridge (originally constructed by salmon fishermen to maintain their nets) spans a 75-foot chasm between a precipitous bluff-top and the tiny rock islet named Carrick. This is a mandatory stop along the Antrim Coast trail—even if you are scared of heights and wouldn’t dare venture across the rope bridge. The hour-long walk from the car park is well worth the jaunt. It’s a bird watcher’s paradise, and on a clear day, the cottage windows on Scotland’s Mull-of-Kintyre 40-miles away glint crisply in the shimmering afternoon sunshine.
Bushmills—Ireland’s oldest Distillery
After a daredevil rope-bridge adventure we were well primed for a shot of Bushmills whiskey. The historic distillery and town of Bushmills, just two miles away from Carrik-a-Rede, has been in business since 1608. The distillery offers daily tours, including, of course, a wee dram or two at the tour’s conclusion.
It was such an action packed day that by sunset we thought we’d traveled far, far from Belfast but a check of our odometer confirmed that it was less than 60 miles back to town.
And that’s the amazing thing about this compact country—the size of Connecticut—no matter where you motor off to, odds are you’ll inevitably wind up not too far from Belfast at the end of the day.
It’s the people who make the place so memorable
We regularly experienced heartwarming interactions with locals. Whether it was a stop for petrol at a rural filling station (it took an hour as the attendant kept us rapt with tales and stories), lunch at the Interpretive Center in the Sperrin Mountains or a chat with a chemist in downtown Enniskillen, everyone cheerfully took time out to chat, talk story and share. The encounter with the chemist was typical—the proprietor was shutting for lunch and employees were skittering out the door as the shade was drawn. The owner was obviously savoring the prospect of a leisurely, undisturbed lunch. But he noticed us peering through the window and the shade went back up. An hour later, he was still regaling us with tales of his life in Enniskillen and quizzing us about our world across the pond.
Departing the Antrim Coastal road we drifted leisurely through one of the fabled glens and then arced across the Sperrin Mountains. Following a short visit at Woodrow Wilson’s ancestral homestead, we arrived in Londonderry just in time for dinner at the historic circa-1739 Beach Hill Country Inn (www.beech-hill.com) on the outskirts of town. Derry is loaded with historic architecture, trendy shops, fine-dining establishments and happening pubs.
King James 1st added the “London” prefix to Derry by royal decree in 1613. Not surprisingly, there are many who have forever since ignored the existence of the “London” tag and continue to call their hometown simply Derry, while others do so simply out of conversational convenience and affection.
“Old Town” Derry is contained within a circular stone fortress-wall (one mile in length), completed in 1608 in conjunction with England’s freshly implemented Plantation of Ulster. Derry, like Belfast, was once paralyzed with sectarian violence–a time when more than 50 percent of the town’s buildings were damaged by bombings. Today, the ancient city beams with a festive, welcoming atmosphere. And in confirmation of the city’s incredible evolution, Derry was recently awarded the coveted UK City of Culture designation for the year 2013.
If you come for a first time holiday in Northern Ireland, odds are superb you’ll start dreaming and planning a reprise visit within days of returning home.
IF YOU GO:
One stop shopping on the web:
www.discovernorthernirleland.com includes links to every imaginable destination, activity, festival, accommodation, and an invaluable “Plan Your Trip” site as well.
www.discoverireland.com is a companion website that also contains innumerable and valuable links to everything imaginable on the Emerald Isle.
A Sampler of Memorable Places to Stay in Northern Ireland
The 5-star Culloden, regarded as Northern Ireland’s most prestigious hotel, was at one time the official palace of the Bishop of Down.
Set on 12-acres, five miles from town, the castle-like circa-1876 estate hotel is a true step back in time with its exterior of hand hewn Scottish stone. The interior is graced with elegant furnishings, original work of art and an attentive staff.
Manicured gardens and pathways overlooking Belfast harbor and the Antrim Coast in the distance are as tempting as the luxurious suites, the spa and fine dining. www.hastingshotels.com
Radisson Blu Hotel—The Gasworks, Belfast
For an affordable and yet urban-chic hotel stay, a short stroll from Belfast city center, the Radisson is prime. For the seasoned traveler, the Radisson Blu flag offers the comfort of consistency. The very comfortable rooms are stocked with four-star amenities and the hotel’s Filini Restaurant specializes in Mediterranean cuisine.
Galgorm Resort & Spa, County Antrim
Thirty minutes from Belfast is the engaging 75-room hotel built around an Edwardian country manor house includes a full-service spa in addition to fine Italian dining. Set on 163 forested-acres overlooking the river Maine, amenities include detached cottages and log cabin accommodations in addition to a swimming pool, horseback riding and biking trails.
Tucked in the countryside on 8 acres, Ardtara is an easy drive from the Giant’s Causeway, Londonderry and notably the world-class Royal Portrush Golf Course.Ardtara was originally a country manor house for a linen manufacturer. Country house beckons with the opportunity to step back in time and savor the elegant, vintage architectural touches such as the dark wood paneling, original fireplaces and high ceilings.
Bestowed the Automobile Association’s coveted Most Romantic award, the warmth of home is the overarching feeling here—It’s much like staying in a friend’s private estate house. Fine dining and an international wine list are also specialties at Ardtara.
Ardtara was among the select few to be included in National Geographic Traveler Magazine’s 2010 list of Best Places to Stay in Britain and Ireland.
More than a county estate, Belle Isle’s main abode is a mini-castle. The 470-acre lakeside property offers seven suites in the main 17th century castle, detached cottages and utterly cozy accommodations in the adjacent, former stone-clad stables, dating from 1860.The estate is also a premier Northern Ireland culinary destination. Many people book a weekend or weeklong cooking getaway at the prestigious Belle Isle Cookery School. Situated on the banks of Upper Lough Erne, Belle Isle is a short jaunt from the historic town of Enniskillen.