The Giant's Organ, Giant's Causeway

The Insider’s Guide to Northern Ireland with Jeremy Taylor

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From pubs in Belfast to the Giant's Causeway

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Want to know what you can see and do in Northern Ireland? Jeremy Taylor makes a nostalgic return trip to the Province to find out.

The Best Hotels in Ireland

The Insider’s Guide to Northern Ireland

Twenty years ago I landed at Belfast City Airport for the first time and flagged down a black cab. What I didn’t realise then is that I’d be sharing the car with two other people – both heading to different places.

This still happens in Belfast, so we dropped one on the largely Protestant Shankill Road, while the second alighted on the Falls Road, the Catholic hub of the city. The driver was from India but with a Northern Irish accent and together we formed a jolly travelling party.

Today, any preconceptions you may have about Northern Ireland soon dissipate on arrival. The mood among the passengers in that taxi reflects the state of the Province now – Belfast seems to be catching up for lost time as one of the liveliest destinations in the world.

The city centre on a Friday night makes Sydney look tired. London’s West End can’t compete, nor Ibiza, or even after hours in New York. Belfast, as the locals would say, is ‘bunged’ and you need to be prepared to see a lot of flesh and frivolity, whatever the weather.

And while the tourism authority prefers to dwell on Northern Ireland’s connection to Game of Thrones (which I’ll come back to later), the excellent Titanic Quarter, or the scenic splendour of the Giant’s Causeway – currently the National Trust’s number one attraction in the UK – Belfast nowadays seems a hub of happiness.

I lived in Northern Ireland for eight years and was keen to revisit. I wanted to see now it has changed and what the region has to offer inquisitive tourists looking for a staycation across the water. A lot has happened, some things remain the same – this is what I found.

When I went house-hunting in County Down in 2001, an ex-footballer called George Best was also interested in one property. He cancelled his appointment twice and the house was mine. Belfast City Airport is now named in the Irishman’s honour but this time I’m arriving in Northern Ireland by car.

Depending on where you live in mainland UK, the Holyhead to Dublin ferry is usually most convenient for travellers to the Emerald Isle. Anglesey is a four-hour drive from London, the Stena Line crossing takes three-and-a-half hours, then it’s just 90 minutes on new motorways direct to Belfast.

Stena Line

Reminders of the past are never that far away in Belfast. Some of the towns and villages are still covered in flags and red, white and blue curb stones. While the armoured Land Rovers and barbed wire have mostly gone, I’m staying at the Europa Hotel in Great Victoria Street, famed for suffering 36 bomb attacks during the Troubles, as well as garnering the unenviable reputation as the most bombed hotel in Europe.

That was all in the last century but as if to prove it, directly opposite, the Crown Liquor Saloon still has chunks of masonry missing from the walls. This former gin palace is a Belfast institution and now run by the National Trust. Still lit by gaslight, the ornate interior and original wooden booths are the most Instagrammed attraction in the city. Try the pub’s local mussels with a pint of Guinness.

The Europa’s grand entrance is overlooked by a first-floor piano bar, while the hotel’s Causerie bistro plays things safe with a decent chowder and steak at reasonable prices. More adventure folk might head out to one of Belfast’s many top restaurants, such as Ox or Deanes.

Europa Hotel

Straight after lockdown, service was still a bit rusty at the Europa, like our view from the bedroom window over a car park and barbed wire. Still, the Europa is unbeatable for location and value (£20 to valet park – imagine that in London!) and the staff are more than helpful.

Once you’ve recovered from a big night out, Belfast has much to offer. A city bus tour is a good way to get your bearings, although the famous black cab tour of the street art and murals is an absolute must.

Best of all is Titanic Belfast – a vast, modern edifice to the most famous ship in the world. Built on the dockland spot where the ill-fated cruise ship was constructed and launched, the exhibits, videos and reconstructions are simple unmissable. Bookings are essential.

Titanic Belfast

(c) Aiden Monaghan / Tourism Northern Ireland

Did I mention Game of Thrones? I have to hold my sword up and admit I’ve never watched an episode but the epic fantasy series has been a boon for the Northern Irish tourism industry. It was shot in 25 locations here, many up the Antrim Coast, north of Belfast.

This stretch of coastline is already one of the most visited in the whole of Ireland, thanks to a meandering road that hugs the shore past dramatic cliffs and windswept beaches. It’s also the scenic route to the Giant’s Causeway and one of the most picturesque hotels in the country.

Ballygally Castle hotel is an ancient building right next to a small, sandy beach popular with locals and tourists. Indeed, the day I arrive, despite ‘modest’ temperatures, a group of ladies are already splashing around in the surf with dogs running wild – it’s proper bucket and spade stuff.

Ballygally Castle Hotel

Ballygally Castle Hotel (c) Christopher Heaney

The castle is a favourite stop for Game of Thrones fans, with nearby Cushendun Caves doubling as the Stormlands in the series. The Dark Hedges, which led Ned Stark to his death, are further north on a quiet road to the Bushmills distillery. The hotel’s own gardens are worth a look too.

Ballygally is reputedly haunted, with tales of a ghost appearing in rooms and leaving a scent of vanilla. I slept like a log, despite noise from a road that passes between some of the castle bedrooms and the crashing waves.

It would be criminal to travel this far and not visit the National Trust’s jewel in the crown – the Giant’s Causeway. Flanked by the wild North Atlantic Ocean, the 40,000 interlocking basalt columns are steeped in folklore, luring more than one million visitors a year pre-pandemic.

The Giant's Causeway

(c) Tourism Northern Ireland

Take the fast A26 road south from here, bypassing Ballymena and Belfast, towards the Mountains of Mourne at the southern end of County Down. The beautiful, undulating scenery around Strangford Lough has been immortalised in song by Belfast-born Van Morrison.

Tourists disappear as I drive through pretty villages like Baloo, Whiterock – don’t miss Daft Eddy’s Bar – and bustling Downpatrick. My next stop is Newcastle, once a thriving Victorian seaside resort and home to the imposing Slieve Donard Hotel.

Surrounded by six acres of manicured grounds, with views down to the beach and mountains on the opposite side of the bay, Slieve Donard boasts 180 bedrooms and is something of an institution these days.

Slieve Donard

Slieve Donard (c) Jack Hardy

A hundred years ago, Belfast people would catch the steam train to Newcastle, where the hotel would welcome guests in all its grandeur. Acclaim soon spread worldwide – Charlie Chaplin, Desmond Tutu and a host of golf stars playing the neighbouring Royal County Down links course have all signed in.

A well-equipped spa is now the major attraction for many guests, although the afternoon tea is simply spectacular. Do not book for supper if you are tempted by the cake-fest on offer!

Northern Ireland will make headline news again over the next 12 months as it finds itself at the sharp end of the Brexit debate. But if you can scratch deeper than the politics and a troubled past, this is a beautiful and fascinating corner of the United Kingdom that’s deserves to be seen.

BOOK IT

Jeremy Taylor was a guest of Hastings Hotels. For more information, please visit hastingshotels.com or call 028 2858 1066.

TRAVEL

Stena Line operate four routes to Ireland, including Holyhead to Dublin and Cairnryan to Belfast, from £119 each way. For more information, please visit stenaline.co.uk or call 03447 707 070.

Featured image: (c) Tourism Ireland

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