by Albert Rodriguez -
SGN A&E Writer
The first thing I noticed as I made my way from Dublin to Belfast was how green everything was. This explains the area's frequent comparisons to the Pacific Northwest, aside from cloudy skies and damp weather. But it got even greener and more appealing as my journey shifted up north to the remote Derry region, speckled with small towns and sheep farms. Northern Ireland doesn't scream 'luxury vacation,' yet I strongly recommend it for travelers wanting a genuine Irish experience, which Dublin can only deliver in morsels. And here's the most interesting part: although you're in Ireland, you're really on land governed by the United Kingdom, so it's like being in two places at once. If considering a future trip to Northern Ireland, visit www.discovernorthernireland.com for further information and planning assistance. Here are my tips for traveling to this amazing destination.
From Seattle, visitors headed to Northern Ireland can connect directly from several European airports to Belfast, which has the bulk of incoming international flights. However, you can also take the train from Dublin, called the Enterprise. The journey from Dublin's Connolly Station allows for magnificent scenery of the eastern seaboard of Ireland and quaint farming villages along the way, before arriving at Belfast's Central Station. The trip is just over two hours and costs around 45 euros one way for First Plus seating (coach would be less). You could also take a cab, which connects the two cities - it's a bit costly, but surprisingly won't break the bank and takes about 90 minutes. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have open borders, permitting travelers to go between the two without passport or immigration processing. For train schedules and fares, log onto www.translink.co.uk.
Belfast is the largest city and administrative capital of Northern Ireland, but don't expect a metropolis. It's slightly smaller than Seattle, with fewer than 600,000 residents in the urban spread. Although its history is gloomy, Belfast is fast becoming a major European destination for leisure and business travelers, as it modernizes some of its neighborhoods and undergoes a near-complete makeover.
The Queen's Quarter district is considerably inviting, safe, and upbeat. Built around the reputable Queen's University of Belfast, it offers students and visitors a cool variety of restaurants, pubs, theaters, coffee shops, and the 28-acre Botanic Gardens, where many locals jog or ride their bikes on early mornings. For accommodations, Malone Lodge (www.malonelodgehotelbelfast.com) is a contemporary hotel wedged between two- to four-story brick apartment buildings, with quick access to the college and surrounding sites. Rooms have a reasonable amount of space with desks, wall-mounted flat-panel TVs, large mirrors, complimentary WiFi and bottled water, and private bathrooms with glass-framed showers. The lobby is elegantly furnished and service is friendly. Malone Lodge has won several accolades, including Belfast Hotel of the Year.
There isn't a big Gay scene in Belfast, yet one nightclub to put on your list is the Kremlin (www.kremlin-belfast.com), which got worldwide exposure two years ago after pop star Justin Bieber dropped in following the 2011 MTV European Music Awards. Kremlin has everything from live DJs to themed parties to drag queen nights in a chic space. Also try the Mynt (www.myntbelfast.com), in the Cathedral Quarter, or Union Street Bar & Restaurant and its sister establishment, The Shoe Factory, both inside a former Victorian shoe manufacturing facility (www.unionstreetpub.com). For a great sit-down dinner, I highly recommend The Barking Dog Restaurant (www.facebook.com/TheBarkingDogRestaurant). It boasts a menu with meat and fresh fish entrees, homemade pastas and risottos, hearty burgers, salads, and regional draft beer in a cozy, warm dining room with a lively atmosphere. Belfast is well noted for having been the Titanic's departure point and today the city has devoted an entire district to it called the Titanic Quarter, an ambitious 185-acre waterfront development with a visitor center, film studios, hotel, and the two year-old Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education. For guided tours, visit www.titanicwalk.com.
Further north is the city of Derry, known to some as Londonderry or a combination of both, as in Derry/Londonderry.
It, too, has a grim past as the site of 'Bloody Sunday,' where a couple dozen civil rights protesters were shot by British paratroopers in 1972. Today, a tall memorial with the victims' names and wall-sized mural displaying the faces of those killed marks the spot where the tragedy unfolded, though many visitors take pictures from the city wall that looks out to the actual street. That was then. Derry now is a place metamorphosing itself into a popular destination, having just hosted the Fleadh Cheoil culture festival this summer and recently opening an indoor concert arena, The Venue, in a former army barracks-turned-entertainment district called Ebrington Square. Two years ago, Derry saw its first pedestrians cross over the River Foyle on the 235-meter Peace Bridge that provides the best photo opportunities at all times of the day, but especially as the sun sets behind green pastures in the distance.
Derry is the lone remaining walled city in Ireland. Its walls, measuring 1.5 km in circumference, were constructed in the early 17th century and guided tours are available at the local Visitor and Convention Bureau (www.derryvisitor.com). If shopping is on your itinerary, I suggest many of the local artisan shops and small boutiques downtown, but you might want to include a stop at Austins Department Store (www.austinsstore.com), the oldest of its kind in all of Ireland. It doesn't compare to Macy's or Nordstrom stateside, although I delightfully sipped a cappuccino in the mezzanine level cafe overlooking shoppers on the first floor. In the evening, catch a musical performance at the 1,000-seat Millennium Forum, which also hosts poets, live theater productions, and author readings.
I had amazing food in Derry, simple dishes at moderately priced restaurants with uncomplicated menus. My top suggestion is Browns in Town (http://brownsrestaurant.com), the newest of four restaurants under the same management, where a roasted quarter chicken over sweet corn risotto alongside chunky steamed carrots was to die for. Finished with a steamed rice pudding and fine cheese plate, it was easily my favorite meal from this trip. Nearby was a close second for best meal, Custom House (http://customhouserestaurant.com). The two-level establishment, pub below and restaurant on top, served the biggest piece of perfectly cooked salmon I've had in years with sautéed vegetables and garlic fries (garlic potatoes sliced or cut in various methods according to each chef).
A third consideration would be Quaywest Wine Bar & Restaurant (www.quaywestrestaurant.com), a double-story wine bar and dining attraction with the usual meat and fish specialties, yet they also whip up tasty chicken curries with steamed jasmine rice and fresh salads, all in a fun ambiance. For post-dinner drinks, Envy (www.facebook.com/envy.derry) is the only Gay dance club in town and gets going around 10 o'clock, located at one end of Strand Road. Sandinos (www.sandinos.com), a rustic pub with live music upstairs, is said to be Gay-friendly, although I was probably the only non-hetero customer on the night I visited. Still, everyone there, from the staff to fellow guests, was very polite.
Derry does have hotels in the city, but I based my stay about a half-hour from town at the Roe Park Resort (www.roeparkresort.com), a splendid multi-star resort deep in the lush, green Roe Valley, where a recent Dracula movie was filmed and which is occasionally used as a backdrop for TV's Game of Thrones. The hotel is attached to a major golf course and features two restaurants, a spa, a bar, and a lavishly decorated lobby. Rooms included all the essentials - flat-panel TVs, drawers, desks, firm beds, full closets, spacious restrooms, and front-side views of the gorgeous landscape (trees, hills, farms).
Note: Driving from Belfast to Derry, about 90 minutes by car, affords you a memorable drive along the Causeway Coastal Route, where you can stop for photos at the adorable town of Glenarm and then have scones with hot tea at the Londonderry Arms Hotel (www.glensofantrim.com) in Carnlough. Game of Thrones viewers should definitely plan on a visit to the Dark Hedges, a stretch of road tented by mysterious-looking trees, called the King's Road in the show, where Arya and Gendry are seen riding in the back of a cart.
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