Practice makes perfect. And that old saying was certainly the case on a trip across the Irish sea to the vibrant city of Belfast.
It was fourth time lucky for the Hay family, we love Belfast so much that any opportunity sees us heading off for a bit of a craic with the locals.
There is no time for boredom either, as everytime we visit there is something new to see and do. Our previous trips have seen us travel by air, but this time we wanted the convenience of having the car and so we opted for the ferry.
A short trip from Lancashire to Cairnryan, near to Stranraer takes you to the hub of operations. StenaLine has six daily crossings on its Superfast VIII ferry. After a smooth and quick check-in, the car is soon abandoned and you can relax and enjoy the on-board facilities. There is something for everyone with a good choice of restaurants, free WI-Fi and films, duty free shopping and a games pod to keep the computer addicts happy.
There is a Nordic spa too if you fancy a bit of pampering and plenty of seating areas where you can stretch out and read a good book as you travel across. And for a small fee you can also use the facilities of a Stena Lounge. You are on and off in minutes and the ferry lands in the heart of Belfast, meaning you only have a short drive into the centre, so what could be better?!
We headed for the Gasworks area of town, which has been transformed into a hotel and business district. Our base for the three day trip was the Radisson Blu. Handy for the city centre, with big and modern rooms, the hotel is ideal. And the fact that Ruaridh (7) and Flora (4) were left a tiny Radisson bear on their beds, added to the fun of the stay. The hotel offers big hearted breakfasts with a fantastic range for all diets and more importantly a pancake machine which was working overtime when we visited!
Food is a big thing in Belfast and the city has a growing reputation for its cuisine. Catering for small folk with big tums, but little patience can be a challenge. But the Canteen at the Mac,the Metropolitian Arts Centre, hits the spot with such delights as treacle and Guinness bread served with top drawer fish chowder, smoked coley and chips and confit duck ragu just some of the dishes on offer. There is a separate menu for the children too and cocktails ranging from non-alcoholic Shirley Temple’s to rum punching Knickerbocker glories to taste.
And then a chance to explore, with first stop the docks and the impressive Titanic Museum and W5 centre.
The infamous Titanic was built in the city’s Harland and Wolff shipyards in the early 1900s and its ill-fated journey which ended in disaster when it hit an iceberg, is well documented. The museum is testament to the expense and expertise which was needed to create the ship and the interactive displays cover the grit and determination needed to build what was one of the most impressive ships of its time.
Housed in a modern building, the museum uses modern technology to tell the stories of the shipbuilders, the passengers, crew and the surivivors. A fun-fair style ride takes you around the shipyard and there are models of how the sumptuous cabins of the first class compared to those of the second and third class.
The tour can take you a good few hours to complete and also brings people up to date with the undersea discovery of the remains of the Titanic. To close the exhibition, there is an Ocean Exploration Centre which promotes ongoing marine expeditions in Ireland.
It’s a fascinating museum for all the family and there is a special section on Wallace Hartley, the bandmaster from Colne, who died leading his band as the Titanic sank.
The museum is in the Titanic Quarter which is one of Europe’s largest urban waterfront regeneration projects, which boasts shops, hotels,a film studio and apartments and even an Honesty Café, run by a local church and offering refreshments and simple snacks in return for a donation of your choice.
The W5 museum is also in the quarter and a must for families. There are 250 interactive exhibits to enjoy, with the first floor dedicated to the under 8’s, the highlight of which for Ruaridh and Flora was some musical stairs to run up and down. There is a huge indoor climbing frame to try your hand out and the other floors are dedicated to beating the lie detector, playing invisible musical instruments and writing and starring in your own weather report. It’s fun, modern and we all loved it!
We also loved The JungleNI, an hour’s drive out of Belfast, passing the city zoo, packed with exotic animals in lovely surroundings, on the way. JungleNI is an activity enthusiasts heaven. People can paintball, enjoy tree top adventures, learn to zorb (that’s roll down a big hill in plastic balls to you and me), have a go at archery and ride Segways. The activities are usually undertaken by corporate team bonding groups or stag and hen dos, but every weekend throughout the summer, a family fun day is organised to give children and adults a taster of what is on offer.
Top of the list for the thumbs up from Ruaridh and Flora were the llama trekking and wall climbing, all set in stunning countryside. JungleNI also offers glamping and camping, so everyone is catered for.
Much has changed in Belfast since the first time we travelled there, Kenny and I now have Ruaridh and Flora and the city has flourished and rid itself of the problems the Troubles brought from the late 1960’s to 1998.
It’s a vibrant, happening spot with all the charm, only the Irish do best and as we headed back on the StenaLine, we were all planning our next adventure in the Emerald Isle!
Transport: One of the most economic ways to travel to Belfast is by ferry. Stena Line runs an efficient and quick service to Belfast from Cairnryan in Dumfries and Galloway, transporting you to Ireland in around two and a quarter hours. To book your very own Stena Line trip log onto www.stenaline.co.uk/days, call 08447 70 70 70 or visit your local travel agent or Stena Line office.
Accommodation: Belfast has an abundance of accommodation to meet everyone’s needs. The Radisson Blu hotel is in the Gasworks area of the city, is a handy spot for walking into the centre. It has all the mod cons you would expect from a four star hotel. Log onto: www.radissonblu.co.uk/hotel-belfast
Food: All culinary tastes are catered for. For traditional Ulster fare, log onto: http://themaclive.com/visiting-the-mac/canteen
Tourist information: Visit Belfast has won lots of accolades for its service and deservedly too. It’s website, www.visit-belfast.com and then national tourist information via www.discovernorthernireland.com are packed full of all the details you will need to plan a trip.