September 17-18, 2011
BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Yesterday we visited Belfast, a city I have long been interested in. We had a very early start as our small group tour departed at 7 a.m. The tour was organized through the Cruise Critic roll call online by Mary Ziergiebel, who tells me that she has been organizing such small group tours for about seven years.
I connected up with Mary at the Cruise Critic “Meet and Greet” on the first full day at sea. She had a cancellation for two within her tour group and Chet and I snapped up the spots. We paid 60£ (about $95) for the two of us. The ship was charging $169 per person for a comparable itinerary.
Our group of 27 left the pier promptly on time in a Mercedes bus with our driver-guide Tommy. As it was a quiet Saturday morning so Tommy first spent an hour showing us about the city. As there was almost no one in the streets, we were able to see a lot…the Cathedral Quarter, the newly developing Titanic Quarter, the political murals along Falls and Shankill roads, churches, pubs and more. It was obvious the money that has been pumped into the city by U.S. and European investors since the peace accord between the Catholics and Protestants.
It was interesting to note that there are still parts of the city where Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods butt up against each other and that there is still a physical wall between them with gates that are locked at nights and other times. But it is also obvious that peace is creating prosperity for the city.
In 2012, the centenary of the Titanic’s maiden voyage from the shipyards of Belfast, a major new attraction will be opening called Titanic Belfast. This is a dramatic building which will offer a ride through the ship’s construction, relieve the drama of her sinking and visit the wreck on the ocean floor. It is at the heart of a number of other Titanic experiences and I look forward to seeing them on my next visit. (www.titanicbelfast.com)
We then got on the motorway and drove about an hour and a half to the county of Antrim on the northern coast (Atlantic Ocean) to see the country’s greatest natural attraction, the Giant’s Causeway. This World Heritage Site is a mass of some 40,000 regular-shaped basalt columns packed tightly together at the water’s edge. They were created some 65 million years ago by volcanic eruptions. They create “stepping stones” and other rock formations that can be explored on foot (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/giantscauseway.)
The site is operated by the National Trust which operates a bus between the visitor center and the site for those who don’t want to walk (2£). If you visit the Giant’s Causeway on your own, you might want to take advantage of the Park and Ride deal offered by the nearby Bushmills Distillery (which I wish we had been able to include in our visit). The cost is 1.75£ per adult or 5£ per family. As it costs 6£ to park at the Causeway, this is worthwhile.
The drive to and from the Causeway is quite beautiful – it is called the Causeway Coastal Route and extends 80 miles from Belfast to Londonderry. It has been ranked as one of the five most beautiful road trips in the world. Our bus took a shorter route but we were able to see lots of lovely farms and all the wonderful shades of green that Ireland offers. (www.causewaycoastandglens.com)
Of course, it rained off and on during the day…this IS Ireland, after all…but we did have sunshine for much of the time.
We stopped for lunch in the charming village of Ballycastle and our meal (on our own) was the “Pie of the day with mash and vegetables.” This turned out to be a delicious pot pie with chicken and English bacon with sides of mashed potatoes and mashed squash. All for under 5£ at the Central Bar at 12 Ann St. If you are looking for beer, wine or spirits the Cooperative grocery just off the main town circle has great prices…we did a little stocking up.
On our return we visited the rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede (some of our group paid the fee to walk across it) and then back near Belfast we made a quick stop at Carrickfergus, a well-preserved 12th century Norman castle set in a lovely seaside town. (www.carrickfergus.org)
We were back at the ship at 4 p.m. and it was certainly a full day. We sailed out of the River Lagan and Belfast Lough at dusk and were able to see clearly the shipyards (shipbuilding is pretty much defunct here now) and the drydock where the Titanic was outfitted. This is a small city with lots of possibilities and well worth a future visit.