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Follow in a Giant's steps

By Ron Smith

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Travel writer Ron Smith journeys to Northern Ireland and finds it full of surprises, from the coast and the world-renowned Giant's Causeway to Belfast which boasts another world-class attraction, the Titanic exhibition...


NORTHERN Ireland is a great place to visit; full of surprises – good surprises.

It is easy for us to get to – Flybe (www.flybe.com) – fly from Inverness direct to Belfast City airport, which really is in the city. It is a small airport, so you are quickly through and into a hire car to explore the Causeway Coastal Route (see www.causewaycoastandglens.com), 120 miles of scenic road, well signposted, from Belfast to Derry (Londonderry).

The City airport is right next to the motorway and it is easy to drive out of Belfast onto the route. Before you've gone very far you are in Carrickfergus, and its castle is worth a stop, remarkably well preserved, standing on a large rock dominating the sea and the entry to Belfast by ship. The panel on the castle claims that Fergus, 'the first King of Scots', gave the town its name. The 'Carrick' part of it is the Irish for rock.

Around 501AD Fergus sailed to Ulster to a healing well to find a cure for his leprosy, but in a storm his ship was wrecked on this basalt outcrop, which was forever after known as 'Carraig – Fergus', and the present castle was built here around 1100. This was the start of many links with Scotland and a joint language that you will come across.

From here we carried on to Whitehead, home of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (www.steamtrainsireland.com), who run regular steam excursions, and then you turn north to follow the coast. Passing Larne, the road constantly twists and turns, sometimes passing through small tunnels where the cliffs drop straight into the sea, sometimes running through attractive wee villages in small bays, like Ballygally (so many places have lovely names).

The map of the route, which you can pick up from the tourist office in the airport, shows several detours that can be made into the Glens of Antrim but we pushed on, to reach our overnight base at Bushmills, home of the famous distillery of course but not of much interest to me, living in Keith, where we have even more famous distilleries.

Nearby is the bus park for visitors to the Giant's Causeway. From here a tourist railway carries day trippers to the centre, just two miles from the village. The Giant's Causeway Centre (National Trust) is a multi million pound development, with a huge car park, restaurant, shop, experience displays and so on. You pay to go in, and pass through to descend along a road down to the sea. For those with mobility difficulties, there is a National Trust minibus which shuttles the half mile or so to the famous pile of six sided basalt columns.

This is Northern Ireland's biggest tourist attraction, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The legend is that a giant was building this to be able to cross to Scotland. It certainly is a very odd collection of stones, and despite being told that it is the result of molten rock surfacing and being suddenly cooled by the sea, and other scientific explanations, it looks very supernatural to me. It is very, very popular, one of the NT guides said that in the summer peak, with many bus parties, they can have as many as 80,000 visitors in a day. Certainly worth seeing.

The next thing further along the road to the east, half a mile from Ballintoy village, is the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge. That word 'Carrick' again, giving the clue, it is another rock. Just off shore is Rathlin Island. This creates a sea channel between it and the mainland, and this has always been a good spot to catch salmon. For many centuries fishermen have used a rope bridge to reach the island, and the tradition is carried on by the National Trust. The rope bridge is renewed each spring when it is reopened for the season. You pay at the tourist shop/office, and follow the path along the cliff top. Then you pass through a gateway controlled by a NT person to regulate the number of people crossing the 20 metre wide rope bridge over the 30 metre drop into the water below.

The island is not very large, and seemed full of tourists when I was there (early April), all taking photographs of themselves against the wonderful coastal scenery. As the rope bridge is so narrow, you have to queue up to cross in batches of maximum eight people, with several ladies gripping on extremely tightly to the ropes! There is a cliff top walk here, and you can walk all along the coast, with interesting birds, animals and flora everywhere.

Next on the agenda was Dunluce Castle, three miles east of the town of Portrush.

The castle was built around 1500 by the MacQuillan family, who in the mid-1550s were ousted by the MacDonnells, who came from Clan MacDonald of Scotland. Dunluce Castle was taken into the care of the government in 1928 and today is in very good repair. It is open all the year round (see www.ni-environment.gov.uk).

After this it was down into Portrush for refreshment. This town is a bonny, cheerful, bucket and spade and fish and chips place. It is also the terminus of the railway line; trains from here go to Coleraine (established in 430 AD by St Patrick) and on to Belfast. It has the Royal Portrush Golf Club, dating from 1888, which is renowned for its challenging course.

After two days exploring this northern coastline and its many features, it was back to Belfast, which is such a cheery place to visit. Belfast has so many attractions. One that I particularly wanted to see was Belfast City Hall. This magnificent building is in a sort of road and traffic island, and dominates the area. Belfast in the late 19th century was very prosperous, and in 1888 Queen Victoria declared Belfast to be a City. It was decided that a grand City Hall was needed, and money was raised by public subscription to build this, and it opened in August, 1906. Because the people of Belfast paid for the City Hall, entry is free, with guided tours available most days at 11am, 2pm, and 3pm.

It is a breathtaking, grand, elegant, vast building, full of marble, stained glass, tiles, carpets, paintings, coats of arms, and civil servants still working there, squeezing past the groups of camera clicking tourists. The Great Hall had a German bomb through it in 1941, but the repair is so good you wouldn't know. There is the great dome, the Rotunda, chambers and banqueting halls.

One thing about Northern Ireland is the number of times you will hear "in the world". For example, the tobacco factory in Belfast was the biggest "in the world", our guide said that the men in Belfast are the handsomest "in the world", the first air conditioning system "in the world" was down to a Belfast man who invented the first tea drier, which enabled the worldwide spread of Indian tea. The Harland and Wolff shipyard built the Titanic, which was the biggest "in the world" – you could make it a challenge for the children to see how many times they hear it.

The Titanic exhibition was next on the agenda, and it is simply stunning. It shows just what should be done. The shipyard area was a wasteland. This totally striking new building has rejuvenated the whole area, attracting hotels, restaurants, offices and housing. The Titanic was too large to go into Cherbourg, so a tender vessel, the SS Nomadic, was built to ferry the passengers in and out. It had a dramatic career, but was eventually rescued and renovated. Now she sits in a dry dock across from the Titanic centre, and you can visit it, and have a gourmet dinner inside it, with the glamour and glitter of a miniature luxury liner.

The Titanic exhibition itself (www.titanicbelfast.com) is truly unique and fascinating. They have absolutely found the balance between reverence for the enormous loss of life of the tragedy, and displaying the whole story for the public. On entry, you can pick up the visitor pocket map to help you get around; it is available in many languages, including in Ulster Scots! This is entitled "poakit airtin fur sichtseers" and can be well understood by any Doric speaker. For example, one extract – "Gae doon tae tha bottom o tha sea an pree whar it's weel kent Prof, ballard cum on tha Titanic in 19an85. Luk roon tha ship wi filum clips in oor aucht alane an tak a rael trip o..."

The whole exhibition is accessible by wheelchair. You start by going to the top of the building, and descending gradually down the nine levels, starting with the Belfast of 100 years ago. Then you get into a gondola which carries you down through the construction of the mighty ship, an experience in itself as you are turned this way and that. Then there is the remarkable area where you feel that you are looking through huge windows as you see the ship launched. You explore the furniture and fittings, the maiden voyage, the disaster, and at the ninth level, the film of the wreck on the bottom of the ocean. However much time you think you will spend here, double it – you will be fascinated. It is open every day, and if you book in advance on line, you get a 5% reduction on the entrance prices.

In Belfast (which comes from the Gaelic 'Beál Feirste' or 'mouth of the river') I stayed centrally at Ten Square Hotel, which is at 10 Donegall Square South, directly opposite the City Hall (www.tensquare.co.uk). It is a grade 1 listed building, thoroughly modernised and top quality. Being in the city centre it is ideal for exploring, but has limited car parking, so check in advance. It has 22 guest rooms, and a great restaurant which is used by locals as well, always a good sign.

And talking of restaurants, a good one is Hadskis in the Cathedral Quarter (www.hadskis.co.uk), close by St Anne's Cathedral, down a small side lane, 33 Donegall Street, Commercial Court.

Scottish banknotes are accepted everywhere, no problem.

I have been to a great many places, and to be honest, most of them I would not go back to again, one visit covering most things, but Northern Ireland still leaves me with the feeling that there is so much more to see there. I will have to go again.

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