GROWING up in the 70s and 80s it would have been as unthinkable to say you were going on holiday to Northern Ireland as it would to say you’d just booked a package to Afghanistan today.
Belfast and its environs were a no-go zone. A place associated with bombs, shootings and terrorism. Viewed through the prism of news bulletins over here, it was somewhere to be avoided.
Fast forward to 2011 and, 13 years after the historic Good Friday peace agreement, it’s a different story altogether.
No-one batted an eyelid when I said we were off on a short break to Belfast, despite the shooting of a Catholic policeman and the discovery of a 500lb bomb in a van the week before we were due to travel.
Everyone we met in Northern Ireland was at pains to point out that they don’t ever want to return to the dark days of The Troubles. They are not afraid to talk about it openly, every tour guide we had mentioned it, but they are keen to put it in the past tense.
And walking round Belfast it’s easy to see why. This is a lovely city that depends on the tourism industry, so it’s in everyone’s interests to keep the peace, and the prosperity it brings with it.
Major investment of recent years includes the £320m Victoria Square shopping centre with its central dome viewing gallery. From there you can enjoy a bird’s eye view of this manageable city that’s not much bigger than Sheffield.
Everything is in fairly easy walking distance, even for children, ensuring you can cram a lot into one day, as we proved.
Our first day of a three-night break started with a city Splash tour on a specially adapted ‘duck’ bus which starts on dry land in Castle Place and then converts into a boat to take visitors along the River Lagan (www.belfastsplashtours.com).
From here it’s easy to see how far Belfast has come in recent years, with posh riverside apartments, big hotels and big business all in new buildings along the waterside.
It’s a great way of getting your bearings because after being dropped off again on dry land we found our way easily to the shopping centre for lunch.
This year is the 100th anniversary since the doomed Titanic left the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, where she was built, to set sail for Southampton. As the locals are fond of saying: “She was alright when she left here.”
We took a Titanic boat tour around the shipyard area with a very knowledgeable guide who gave us the history of shipbuilding in Belfast and lots of fascinating information about Titanic, one of three sister ships built here (www.laganboatcompany.com).
After that it was a walk across the river to the W5 discovery centre in the Odyssey complex. W5 stands for who, what, where, why and when and it’s a brilliant place for children (and adults) to learn scientific stuff while having fun.
Lots of interactive displays allow youngsters to learn without even realising it, everything from how an aeroplane flies to the geological history of Northern Ireland (www.w5online.co.uk).
And no lesson in geology in this part of the world would be complete without a visit to the Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage Site. Our tour guide said it has been described variously as the eighth wonder of the world or simply a pile of old rocks.
Anyone who describes it as the latter has no romance in their soul. These amazing layered basalt rock formations are a sight to behold and, remarkably for these days of over zealous health and safety officialdom, visitors are still able to clamber all over them. Formed 60 million years ago they stand proud on the rugged North Coast shoreline, hidden from view until you turn a final bend in the footpath down from the cliff top.
Our full-day coach trip was with McCombs Tours (www.minicoachni.co.uk) which picks you up from your hotel and takes you all along the causeway route which hugs this beautiful coastline. On a clear day like ours it is possible to see the Mull of Kintyre across the water, only 12 miles away.
Our guide Alan was full of enthusiasm for all the places he took us to, particularly the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. Visitors to this National Trust site get the chance to walk over the flimsy-looking bridge, in my case trying not to look down on the 80ft (30m) drop to the swirling waves crashing onto the rocks below.
We also had brief stops at Carrickfergus and Dunluce castles, all part of the rich history of this part of Northern Ireland, which Alan talked about both knowledgeably and with humour.
History fans will also love the Ulster Museum in Belfast which, with five floors, is a treasure trove of interesting artefacts and hands-on activities to keep young and old enthralled for hours. It took us half a day to get round, and that was at a fairly brisk pace, so it would be best to set aside longer if you have the time. It’s right next door to the Botanic Gardens which are beautifully laid out and allowed the children a chance to run around and let off some steam before we headed back to the airport for home.
We stayed in self catering accommodation at the Malone Lodge Hotel in south Belfast, just a short bus ride from the city centre. Our little two-bedroom house attached to the main hotel gave us the best of both worlds, the freedom of self catering but with the bonus of having top notch hotel facilities on tap, perfect for families. Details are available at www.malonelodgehotelbelfast.com.
We flew to Belfast from East Midlands Airport with leading low cost airline BMI Baby. At just an hour’s flight it puts Northern Ireland within easy striking distance for a short break. For the lowest fares and to book a flight, visit www.bmibaby.com.
To be in with a chance of winning the flights, simply answer the following question.
Q) What is the name of Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage Site?
Mark your answer ‘Belfast competition’ and email your entry to email@example.com or send it by post to The Worksop Guardian, 21-27 Ryton Street, Worksop, Notts S80 2AY.
The closing date for entries is Friday 13th May and winners will be contacted by telephone so do not forget to include a daytime contact number.
Normal Guardian competition rules apply.
Travel must be booked and taken by 31st October 2011 excluding school and public holidays.
For full T&Cs contact Worksop Guardian.