In the past year and a half, I’ve been pretty lucky when it comes to traveling. Not just the ability to do it; but also the ease. Well, all that karma came back to me this past weekend. The plan was to take the first flight of the day from Leeds to Belfast, giving us enough time to see Belfast the rest of the day and next morning before picking up our rental car to drive north. Well, Leeds-Bradford Airport was ensconced with fog, and our flight was canceled. There was enough space on the afternoon flight, but it did mean that we sat at the airport for over eight hours.
But ultimately, we did arrive safe and sound in Belfast. Unfortunately, it was just after most of the sites were closed. Therefore, I can’t give you too thorough a review of what Belfast has to offer. But what we planned to see was:
- Ulster Museum
- Crumlin Road Gaol
The other big attractions that Belfast promotes are associated with the Titanic, which was built in Belfast; and HBO’s Game of Thrones. The main site is the ‘Titanic Experience‘ which tells the story Titanic’s construction, sinking, and its influence on Belfast. Reports of the museum are generally positive; but at £15.50 per person, HUBs (who enjoys a marathon of Mighty Ships) figured he knew already how ships were built, and I was never that into the Titanic. The main studio for Game of Thrones is in Belfast and spots all around Northern Ireland have been used as filming locations. The Queen visited the iron throne this past summer; but as a working studio it is closed to the public. I guess when you are the Queen, special arrangements can be made.
Our arrival in the late afternoon gave us time to check in at our hotel, relax, and walk around the Cathedral Quarter before our dinner reservations at 4th Wall (which was excellent if you ever find yourself in Belfast). Following dinner we walked around the Christmas Market at City Hall, which we had to queue to get into.
The next morning we visited The Mac, an arts center showcasing local artist. It was next to where we had dinner the previous night, but the exhibitions were closed. It also has a very good canteen serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week.
The one thing on our itinerary that we were able to do was take one of Paddy Campbell’s Taxi Cab Tours. The tour offers a political history of the city of Belfast focusing on the time from the 1969 riots to the present day.
During England’s occupation of Ireland the English government encouraged the migration of Protestant Britons into Ulster province to diminish its rebellious tendencies, thus creating a Protestant majority in six of the nine counties. Northern Ireland also industrialized, along with England, more than the south, creating an economic divide. The Ango-Irish treaty that gave Ireland its independence, also included an opt-out clause for Northern Ireland; and unsurprisingly, the six counties in Ulster with Protestant majorities remained with Great Britain.
In 1968 there was a civil rights movement in Northern Ireland to protest unfair voting policies towards Catholics. And in 1969 the protests turned violent with riots breaking out in Belfast, beginning what is known as ‘the Troubles’. Eventually the British Government would station over 20,000 troops in Northern Ireland (more than it stationed in Afghanistan). Neighborhoods were divided along religious lines; but they are also lines of identity, one group viewing themselves as Irish and the other as British (technically both sides are eligible for British and Irish passports). To try and maintain peace and the British military built a wall between the two of the most infamous neighborhoods, Falls Road (Catholic/Irish) and Shankill Road (Protestant/British), this was the primary area of our tour. Each neighborhood has murals commemorating those involved with ‘the Troubles,’ with the Falls including murals to international causes they identify with. Our driver used these murals to tell the story of the conflict.
Our tour dropped us off at the airport, where we picked up our rental car and made the hour and a half drive up to Ballycastle, on the Causeway Coast for a two nights stay.
We had one full day on the coast, and we started our morning at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, once used by fisherman to catch salmon as they made their way to the rivers to spawn. The rope bridge is suspended between the land and a small island, and was much more stable than I was expecting it to be. As you cross there is a little bounce up and down, but not any side to side. The island itself isn’t very big, and parts of it are cordoned off in winter for safety; but there are paths along the mainland that you can hike as well.
From there we continued west along the coast to Giant’s Causeway. We arrived just in time for a guided tour. The majority of the tour is on the walk down to the Causeway leaving you there to explore on your own (about 45 minutes in length). It focused on: the legend of the area, how the rocks were formed, and the sites history as a tourist attraction. Our guide was very engaging, and I appreciated that we were provided with wireless earpieces to listen. It meant that noise from wind wouldn’t be an issue, but also that if you wanted to stray a little bit for a picture on the walk you wouldn’t miss anything. If you don’t arrive at a convenient time for a guided tour an audio guide is included with your ticket. It is about a 1km walk down to the causeway on a paved sidewalk, but there is also a bus for £1 (free for National Trust members). You are free to climb along the stones; and there is also plenty to see from flat land.
In the afternoon we headed in to the town of Bushmills to see the distillery. Having visited a few distilleries (boy, that doesn’t look good typed out); I found their tour to be very visitor friendly. It hits the main ideas, without overwhelming you with small details, and it is about 45 minutes in length. At the end they have a small cafe and you get a sample from some of their range (Bushmills, Bushmills Honey, Bushmills Black, Bushmills 10, Bushmills 12).
After our drink, we had just enough daylight left to visit ‘Dark Hedges,’ one of the Game of Thrones filming locations that the public can visit. Dark Hedges has served as the ‘King’s Road’ in several Game of Thrones episodes. It is a pretty cool road, lined with bendy beech trees; but it does show the ‘magic of Hollywood.’ I was expecting it to be much longer and I haven’t decided if the fence was taken out for filming, or if they ‘fixed it in post.’
The next day we had more than enough time to get back to the airport in Belfast from the coast, so we drove back the slightly longer way along the coastal highway. Not surprisingly it rained, so we didn’t stop anywhere along the drive. But if you are thinking about making the drive I would recommend somewhere around Waterfoot/Glenarm or Carrickfergus; avoiding Larne, where the focal point of the waterfront is a large power station.
The Verdict: We had a very relaxing trip in Northern Ireland, despite our troubles getting there. It was primarily a holiday in the country, so the focus was on enjoying the land, just stopping in at a local pub when we got hungry.