Northern Ireland has emerged from decades of ‘The Troubles’ with a new-found vigour to show tourists it has plenty to keep them entertained. Entry to the Province from mainland Great Britain is via Belfast (George Best) International Airport, some 30 minutes by road from the city centre in Antrim, or the ferry terminals in Belfast and Larne, though Belfast also has good rail and road links with the Republic of Ireland.
Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital city, is built on a plain between mountains and sea. Developed principally in the Victorian era, the city has a fascinating industrial heritage and you can now follow The Titanic Trail from the domed City Hall with its marble staircases in the centre of Donegal Square, across the River Lagan and through the Harland and Wolff Shipyards where the ill-fated ocean liner was built.
The world renowned Queen’s University and Stormont Castle, home to the Northern Ireland parliament, are impressive buildings within the city boundaries, though the latter is no longer open to the public, while the Ulster Museum, situated in the Botanic Gardens, houses a permanent exhibition detailing the history of Northern Ireland. Belfast’s cafes and restaurants have improved out of all recognition in the last few years and the city centre bars also go out of their way to make visitors seeking a traditional evening of entertainment more than welcome.
Away from Belfast, the countryside begins to show why Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle. Carrickfergus, on Belfast Lough, has its harbour overlooked by a Norman castle while the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum can be found at Holywood, on the main road between Belfast and the seaside town of Bangor. Killyleagh, on the shores of Strangford Lough, has its own castle and is recognised as one of the most picturesque towns in the Province.
No visit to Northern Ireland can be complete without exploring the Giant’s Causeway
. Located on the North Antrim coast, close to the town of Bushmills, legend has it that this vast collection of basalt columns is where the Irish giant Finn McCool set off to confront his Scottish counterpart Benandonner. In reality, it was formed by a volcanic eruption around 50 million years ago.
The town of Bushmills, itself, is synonymous with Irish Whiskey and tours of the distillery take you through the whole process of manufacture from mashing to bottling, with a taste of the tipple before you leave. Dunluce Castle, at White Rocks between Bushmills and Portrush, dates back to the 14th century and has a rich and varied history while the ruins of Kinbane Castle dominate the rugged cliffs and rocks of Kinbane Head. Bird watchers and botanists can take a ferry to Rathin Island from nearby Ballycastle and this stretch of coastline is also an excellent spot for diving with around 100 registered wrecks to explore.
There’s an unusual attraction at Florencecourt in County Fermanagh
. The Marble Arch cave complex contains caverns, waterfalls and underground rivers and the tour, best if pre-booked, starts with a boat ride through the access passages while it’s also easy to pass a relaxing few hours at the Ulster American Folk Park. Located north of Omagh in County Tyrone, the museum has a large car park and is also on the main bus route between Belfast and Derry. Characters in costumes of the time recount the story of the mass Irish emigration to America using mock-ups of typical Irish thatched cottages and a frontier log cabin. There are also craft demonstrations and depictions of how those early transatlantic travellers survived and flourished when they arrived in America.
On a final note, make sure you visit the Mountains of Morne before you leave. Just to the south of Downpatrick and the Church of Ireland cathedral, last resting place of Ireland’s patron saint, Saint Patrick. On the road to Rostrevor on the shores of Carlingford Lough from Kilcoo, you pass by some of Northern Ireland’s most picturesque villages. Kilkeel is the largest town in the Kingdom of Mourne and a port renowned for its seafood. The capital of County Down, it’s only a short drive from there to the spectacular Spelga Dam.
Northern Ireland isn’t as easily accessible as the rest of the UK but you certainly won’t regret taking the time to sample its attractions.