Day 1. Exploring Belfast

George Best Airport Belfast
A part of the British Isles that we’d neglected to visit up to now, so a free January weekend tempted us to book flights and visit Northern Ireland.  We took a 7.00 am flight from Leeds Bradford Airport over to Belfast with Flybe on one of their small Bombardier Dash aircraft and in little more than an hour we were touching down at George Best International Airport.
Jury’s Inn, Belfast

After a few minutes wait,  Bus 600 arrived to take us into the city centre.  We bought day tickets so that we could travel on the local buses later in the day.  The bus station was about a fifteen minute walk to our hotel, the Jury’s Inn on Great Victoria Street.  It was only 10.20 am when we arrived at the front desk, but the helpful receptionist checked us in straightaway, letting us have access to our room.

Nearby we found a cafe serving breakfast so we warmed ourselves up with food and mugs of coffee whilst taking a look at our guidebook and map.  We decided that was a good place to begin our sightseeing tour of Belfast would be Donegall Square, home to the impressive Belfast City Hall.

Belfast City Hall
We ventured inside as we had read that it was possible to take guided tours of the building, this turned out to be true, so we booked a free tour for later in the weekend.

On the other side of the square lies the Linen Hall Library which is Northern Ireland’s oldest library, founded 228 years ago.  Still operating today as a lending library, it has beautiful oak pannelling, ornate carved wooden book stands and a delightful old reading room.  We bought souvenir bookmarks celebrating its 225 year annversary then went in search of a bus to take us out to Stormont.

After locating the correct bus stop, our journey took 30 minutes, the nearest bus stop being on the main road at the entrance to the Stormont estate.  The impressive driveway is one mile in length with the parliament building standing proud on a slight incline at the far end.   After passing through an airport style security check we were allowed into several of the ground floor rooms for a self guided tour.  Near the entrance is a small cafe / gift shop where we enjoyed tea and scones.   It started to rain as we left but we continued our walk around the Stormont estate before returning to the main road for our bus back to the city centre.

After relaxing back in our hotel room awhile we were ready for dinner.  Our plan for this evening was to eat at the The Crown Liquor Store which is the National Trust’s only public house.  Fortunately for us, the pub was located just down the road from our hotel on the same street.  Entering the door, it felt like we had gone back in time, the pub has been carefully preserved just as it was in Victorian times.  The interior was beautiful with the booth seats having their own opaque glass pannelled doors for privacy.  Seats were upholstered in a rich Crimson velour and waitresses wore traditional black and white uniforms with starched white pinafores.   The menu featured Victorian classics, so we selected Roast Beef, which was cooked to perfection.

Interior of The Crown Public House
Well, our first day in Belfast has been a success, I wonder what tomorrow will bring?


Day 2. Visiting the Giant’s Causeway and the Antrim Coast

Breakfast at the Jury’s Inn was plentiful and soon afterwards we were collected from the hotel lobby by Allen’s Tours with whom we had booked a full day excursion along the north coast.  As it was January there were only 18 booked on the tour so our driver/guide Ian suggested we all sit on the right hand side of the coach for the best views.

Our first stop was Glenarm, apparently famous for its haunted castle.   A few miles further on we made a 30 minute stop at Carnlough which had a picturesque harbour.  The coach tour continued along the coast, pausing briefly for photos  at Cushenall to view its 17th century curfew house and then we made a longer stop in Cushenden with its Cornish style cottages and pretty harbour.   We noticed that cattle in this part of Northern Ireland have a distinctive white stripe on their backs, something I haven’t noticed elsewhere.

Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland
Our journey took us through Ballycastle before arriving at the National Trust owned Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge.  We spent an hour there, following the path from the car park down to the rope bridge.   The bridge is open all year, closing in strong winds, it spans 20 metres and hangs 30 metres above the rocks below.  It’s a popular tourist attraction with often lengthy queues waiting to cross.

Settng off again we passed through the village of Ballitoy before arriving at the National Trust owned Giant’s Causeway.   Here, we were given two hours to explore this geological phenomenon of basalt columns which are estimated to be 65 million years old.   We climbed the Shepherd’s steps and found time for a walk along the cliff top trail with its spectacular views of the causeway coast.

Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge
It was extremely windy along this exposed stretch of the wild North Atlantic coast and gladly we just found time for a mug of coffee in the Visitor Centre’s cafe before the coach departed.

Bushmill’s Distillery
Our final stop of the day was at the Bushmill’s Whiskey Distillery where we had the opportunity to drink small samples in its famous tasting room.  As neither of us like whiskey we didn’t take up the offer but did have a pot of tea in their cafe before returning to Belfast.

Although we prefer to travel independently it would have been impossible to have seen so much in one day without a car, so it was a worthwhile trip and one I would recommend.

Day 3. Queen’s University, Belfast and the Titanic Quarter

Queens University, Belfast
After a hearty breakfast we walked along to the Queen’s Quarter, taking us 20 minutes.  We strolled through the grounds of the Queen’s University  which was founded in 1846, it’s historic buildings were beautiful with carefully tended lawns and quads.

The Palm House, Belfast
Just across the road stands the Botanical Gardens, being January there was little to see outdoors but the magnificent Palm House contained many exotic plants and shrubs.  This is one of the earliest examples of  a glasshouse made from curved iron and glass.  The building was completed in 1840 and the glass dome added in 1852.  Located in the gardens is the Ulster Museum where we spent an enjoyable hour learning about the history of Ulster and before leaving we had hot drinks in the museum cafe then returned to the city centre.

On our way to the Titanic Quarter we visited St Anne’s Cathedral also known as Belfast Cathedral with its ‘Spire of Hope’ a 40 metre stainless steel spire which was added in 2007 and is illuminated each evening.

On reaching the waterfront we could see the iconic giant cranes from the Harland and Woolf shipyard, builders of the ill fated Titanc liner.

St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast
On the exact spot where the shipyard stood stands the Titanic Experience museum   The recently named ‘Titanic Quarter’ also contains a shopping / cinema complex and  waterfront apartments.

Harland and Woolf Cranes, Belfast

The Titanic Museum, Belfast
At 2.00 pm we were back in Donegall Square for our guided tour of Belfast City Hall.  This was very interesting, we were shown round several rooms of the hall which was built in 1906., these included the Council Chamber, the Banqueting Suite and the Robing Room where we were invited to try on the sumptuous gowns worn for special occasions by council officials.

After a busy day, and aching feet,  we ate dinner in a pub near our hotel.

Belfast City Hall

Day 4. Belfast’s Peace Walls

After breakfast we checked out of the Jury’s Inn,  leaving our luggage for collection later in the day.  The city centre hotel had been a good choice with friendly, courteous staff, a modern, comfortable room and a large selection at breakfast.

It was off to the eastern suburbs this morning noted for ‘The Troubles’.  We walked the length of both ‘The Falls’ and ‘Shankill Roads’ viewing large sections of the peace walls which were constructed from 1969.  The walls were built to separate Irish Nationalists (Catholics) from their Unionist (Protestant) neighbours.  The walls range in length from a few hundred yards to three miles and are constructed of iron, brick or steel, rising to 25 feet tall.  At various places we noticed iron gates which were open to allow access but which can be closed at times of heightened tension.   The walls are covered in brightly coloured paintings, slogans and flags.

Wall murals, Belfast
The neighbourhoods seemed quite run down but we felt completely safe and were warmly welcomed in the small cafe we entered for warming mugs of coffee.  One area notorious during ‘The Troubles’,  Bogside has now been transformed into a nature reserve ‘Bog Meadows’ with well designed boardwalks and information boards.

Returning to the city centre for lunch, we headed to the Queen’s Quarter to find Bishop’s,  a famous local fish and chip shop and restaurant.  We dined in the restaurant and were served large portions of freshly cooked cod, chips and mushy peas, setting us up for our return home this evening.

Bog Meadows Nature Reserve
Our afternoon was spent shopping in the city centre before returning to the airport for our 7.00 pm flight home.

We were pleased that we had finally decided to visit Northern Ireland,  and as my four posts on this blog describe, there was plenty to see and do during a long weekend break.

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