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I was vacationing in Belfast, Northern Ireland, this spring when everyone was talking about the Titanic. The entire city seemed to be high on the centennial and with good reason: The Ill-fated ship was built in and departed for its maiden voyage from Belfast in April 1912 when Belfast was at the forefront of the shipbuilding industry. From tours and packages to concerts and tributes, the legendary Titanic is ubiquitous and, in a way, pride in its history is necessary. As an international icon, the Titanic is unarguably the city’s best means to reestablish a connection with tourism. Belfast has emerged from a dark political past that still echoes, and it can’t rely on agriculture as its number-one industry anymore. Belfast hopes the Titanic will create an identity for the city and lure visitors from all parts of the world.
Only recently has Belfast become a favorite destination for Europeans. Not only did the city host the “MTV Europe Music Awards” last year, but popular shows that are filmed there, such as “Game of Thrones,” are putting Belfast back on the map. Ironically, despite Northern Ireland’s civil war of 1968-1994, Belfast is known to be one of the safest cities in all of Europe based on nationwide crime figures. Belfast is also home to famous rock stars and bands — such as Snow Patrol, Van Morrison and Ash — and famous authors, including Jonathan Swift and C.S. Lewis, have been inspired by Northern Ireland’s capital city.
Obviously, the Titanic has left one of the biggest marks on Belfast. Visitors can now explore the new, $156-million Titanic Building opened April 2012. This museum center stands the same height as the original Titanic — 10 stories high — and is designed to look like the hull of the ship. The building is just behind the original slipways and comprises nine galleries with interactive features so visitors can feel like they were actually on the ship. Just behind the Titanic Building is the Victorian Titanic Dock & Pumphouse. The shipyard features the original Titanic pumps right on the river Lagan and the dock where it was built.
If clients have had their fill of Titanic history, there’s more to Belfast than the liner. History lovers make a beeline to Nick’s Warehouse, a popular 22-year-old restaurant housed in a 1830’s building that serves fresh fish and cold beer.
Speaking of beer, a trip to Northern Ireland isn’t complete without a visit to a pub. Touted as Belfast’s oldest tavern, established in 1630, is White’s Tavern, tucked away in an alley where locals gather for a Guinness to listen to live music. Down the street, Kelly’s Cellars, established in 1720, has low ceilings, old tables and seemingly more character.
Music lovers flock to the Oh Yeah Center in the Cathedral Quarter, a studio space/gallery/dedicated music center where aspiring musicians can record, with tributes to Gary Moore of Thin Lizzie and other popular local musicians on display.
While Belfast can be toured in a short time, visitors take advantage of excursions to nearby attractions and towns in Northern Ireland. A popular itinerary is driving along the Causeway Coastal Route, constantly voted as one of the world’s top road trips thanks to the 120-mile scenic stretch from Belfast to Derry and passing small coastal villages to see former homes of ex-presidents (Andrew Jackson), historic caves and natural attractions immortalized in songs by Paul McCartney. A stop at Bushmill’s Distillery in Bushmill is a must as it’s the first legal charter to distill whiskey in 1608. Check into Bushmills Inn (www.bushmillsinn.com), a 41-room hotel dating hundreds of year and has several nooks and crannies and even false bookcases that lead to other rooms.
Royal Portrush Golf Course is the most famous course in Ireland and arguably one of the top in the world. It will be home to the Irish Open, the first time in 60 years Northern Ireland has hosted.
The small city of Armagh is Ireland’s oldest, founded by St Patrick in 445. The oldest library in Ireland, Armagh Public Library, is home to the first-edition printing of “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift. Armagh is also home to the two original St. Patrick Cathedrals, built in 445 and 1840 respectively. But it’s not all ancient here. If clients are pop culture fans, they will remember Lady Gaga renting out the entire private, 400-acre Montalto Estate. With nine well-appointed rooms and butlers to boot, it’s a favorite for the high-brow.
Visitors will eventually end up in the city of Derry, famous for its 17th-century walls, the only remaining completely walled-in city in Ireland built in the early 1600s. Only an hour and half from Belfast, the city famous for festivals recently won the first-ever U.K. City of Culture for 2013, so expect a boost to the infrastructure. The new, 25-million Peace Bridge built last year links to Ebrington, a new city center site (former army barracks) that will be the largest public square in the city with a boutique hotel and maritime museum planning to open in the next few years.
Where to Stay
The five-star boutique Merchant hotel recently had a facelift with a $25 million extension. www.themerchanthotel.com
Located on the banks of the Lagan River, the Hilton Belfast hotel is a five-minute walk to the city center. www.hilton.co.uk/belfast
Where to Eat
Nick’s Warehouse serves cold beer and fresh seafood in a history building, dating back to the 1830s. www.nickswarehouse.com