Gareth Huw Davies

Travel Blog

We are all Northern Ireland tourists now.

2112 shone a bright light on Northern Ireland tourism. Sunset at the new Giants Causeway Visitor Centre.

2012 shone a bright light on Northern Ireland tourism. Sunset at the new Giants Causeway Visitor Centre.

There was a long time when we looked the other way. You didn’t go there. Northern Ireland was toxic, a place of self-destructive conflict. It was a terrible family argument, spilling, metaphorically, out into the street. Even passers-by were in mortal danger.

Those days are over, and it’s hard to believe they will ever return. And I write this only days after the vote in the City Council not to fly the Union Flag over City Hall, and the violence that once again erupted in central Belfast and other towns, and is continuing.

We were there, by chance, the weekend before. I would have said it then. Go there. Go as longer-travelling tourists, or as short-stay visitors. Go to Northern Ireland. It’s safe, it’s open, it’s magnificent.

Then we had the December violence. Nothing has changed, in my view. So I repeat what I would’ve said anyway. Go to Northern Ireland. It’s safe, it’s open, it’s magnificent.

It was my first visit in 12 years. In three days I had seen enough to convince me. The province’s promise of a bright, shining future must outshine any prospect of a return to the dark days.

Look where you like. Across the harbour to the scintillating new Titanic Centre. Four floors up in the atrium of the Ulster Museum. Around the swanky new Coffee Yard cafe, ambitiously styled on an American diner, in Holywood. West, towards the setting sun, in the inspired new Giant’s Causeway interpretation centre. The message is the same.

We left Belfast, on the quick flight back to Luton Airport, feeling optimistic and positive about the future. 24 hours later there came the Monday vote and the start of renewed violence. But I’m still optimistic and positive – there are far more intractable problems in the world – and I’m writing the article anyway, but with extra emphasis.

As an act of national uplift, when you consider the history there, few things outdo the sound of a choir of young people of Northern Ireland singing to the universe from the Giant’s Causeway at the start of the Olympics opening ceremony.

The 60 million-year-old Causeway is one of the province’ s two totemic touristic attractions of 2012 – the other is the Titanic Experience. Both, by the time of the renewed violence, had done precisely what the authorities wanted, and more. They had both exceeded their visitor targets by a handsome margin. The new Giant’s Causeway visitor centre welcome its 300,000th visitor, from 130 lands, just four months after the €22.8m facility at the National Trust-managed site opened. Titanic Belfast recorded 615,000 visitors from 111 countries in the same time.

A report by the Aviation Foundation using government statistics publishing November (2012) showed that 59,700 people work in tourism in NI. In Belfast almost 17,000 are employed in tourism.

With unfortunate timing (or perhaps it was the opposite, a chance to make a defiant statement) there was a big tourism meeting in Belfast two days after the flag vote. The message was that Northern Ireland is to compete with Scotland, the Lake District and Devon and Cornwall to tempt more tourists in 2013, when the G8 Summit is held in the province, and Londonderry will be the UK’s City of Culture.

It seems the world is already listening. A feature of our visit to the Giant’s Causeway, on a cold December afternoon, was the big proportion of South East Asian visitors. Now that’s a market that isn’t likely to decline soon.

You very quickly discover, (or have a view you previously held confirmed), that people here are friendly and welcoming, and all very normal. Nobody eyes you warily, as if half suspecting that you support the other side, in the statistically unlikely event that they themselves belong to a side at all.

It started with the young lady behind the car hire desk in Belfast International Airport. Welcome. Warmth. We found it in the National Trust volunteer taking the tickets at the precarious Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge on the north east coast. He and his colleagues had, he informed us in a five minute chat, just seen a whale quite close to the shore. On a warm day we would have happily sat there all afternoon, facing the short channel between this coast and Scotland, gazing at the gently rolling waters.

They were just as warm and engaging at Giant’s Causeway interpretation centre, and I can’t remember when we last had a 15 minute conversation – which he initiated – with a custodian at an international visitor spot.

30 years of conflict did not diminish that instinctive desire to connect. If anything, I suspect, it has made people even more determined to engage with visitors and promote their province.

Thank goodness, incidentally, for vision and ambition. After briefly wavering, the government stuck to the original, and much more impressive design for the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre, and it was completed (in 2012) with funding from the National Lottery and Europe.

The main building is moulded into a hill, with turf roof, geothermal heating (4.5km of pipework under the car park gather geothermal energy for heating), permeable paving, and rainwater and grey water recovery for toilet flushing. The basalt for the facia of black monoliths – 186 hexagonal columns – is locally quarried in Kilrea, from the same lava flows which formed the Causeway. Grasses and wildflowers, raised in fields nearby, carpet the roof.

“Interfering with the landscape was sacrilege”, said a project spokesman. This surely is how visitor centres in the future must be built (that includes Stonehenge) unobtrusively, half buried in folds in the landscape, with renewable energy solutions.

The interpretation centre is quite invisible from the monument itself, tucked away around another headland. You cannot see a single contemporary detail down there, among the 40,000 hexagonal basalt stones, unless it is the shuttle bus that runs the quarter-mile down and back to the top.

There’s a supplementary viewpoint, from which you can see the stones for nothing, from the high cliffs behind them. Part of the project involved improving the footpaths – which lead from the car park up to the promontory above the causeway, with views right back across County Antrim. The coastal path continues the 11 miles to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.

I suspect our SE Asian visitors would have been directed – via the Bushmills distillery – back to Belfast for the Titanic Experience. A more thoughtful itinerary would lead them lead them down the coast. There is a bonus attraction, all along this east side.  It’s the stupendous view of Scotland, the Mull of Kintyre, the islands of Jura and Islay. Even in broad daylight, the twinkling beam of a lighthouse drew my eye to a snowcapped Scottish mountain far in the distance behind it.

On the way, on the A43, we passed down another grand geological feature. Glenariff is the “Queen of the Glens”, the biggest of the Glens of Antrim, scoured out many years ago by a wide glacier.

Where should the visitor begin in Befast? I would certainly recommend the top deck of the open-top bus for the city tour. They leave nothing out, from the extravagant conceit of Stormont Castle set imperiously on the hill above the city, to the Falls Road, the Shankill Road, and the wall between the two still-divided communities. These are not tourist attractions. These are living, vibrant communities, places we all need to see if we are to understand Northern Ireland.

There’s another high vantage point. We make much of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. Belfast has a walk in the woods, on the west side of the city, leading to a similar high outlook, at the top of a classy Victorian house, now owned by the City Council.

From an observatory room on the top floor we could, using an electronic camera, and viewing the image on a screen, pan across the entire cityscape, looking right down to the mountains in the south.

Directly east is the redeveloped old Docklands area. And the answer to a big anniversary question. How should the tragic Titanic be remembered in 2012, 100 years after its launch here? Belfast took the view that it was an important part of the engineering heritage of the city, and has marked the date by launching Titanic Belfast. The £97 million visitor attraction is one of the largest of its sort in the world. Imagery, objects, reconstructions, audio-visual presentations and interactive features are spread over seven floors.

The doomed ship connects with a very distinguished Belfast of 100 years ago. At that time Belfast, in its city centre buildings, was every bit as grand as the great Victorian cities of mainland Britain, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. Today the chief legacy of that age of late Victorian pride is the monumental City Hall.

The city’s history and architecture went largely unnoticed and unremarked upon even by travellers of taste in the rest of the United Kingdom. Then, in 1969, the doors were shut for a very long time. Too few of us even knew what we might have been missing.

Some other big, bold visitor attractions have been built or renewed in the city since the Troubles. The bright, sparkling and entertaining Ulster Museum, renovated in 2009 is a splendidly up-beat 21st-century balm for the province’s 20th-century pain. And now Belfast has the brand-new MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre).  This arts venue in the Cathedral Quarter serves up music, theatre, dance and art –  “all kinds of exhibitions, blockbuster performances, experimental works and endless goings-on.”

We walked through the Botanic Gardens, next to the Ulster Museum, and on into a rather fine Georgian streetscape, (even if the front doors are slightly smaller than Georgian Dublin’s).

There is a car-free way back to the city centre along the new waterside walkway and cycle path alongside the River Lagan, from the Queens University district to the city centre, quite close to the old covered market. The river was buzzing with rowers on our walk. I mean the seriously competitive sort in the sleek, fast racing boats we are so familiar with since the Olympics. It could have been the Thames at Henley, or Oxford, or Durham.

People must have a positive view of the future, if they are to invest in this province. They should be encouraged by two quite distinct initiatives. The first is the city centre Victoria Square shopping mall, opened by the two most unlikely names ever to have appeared together on a plaque on a new building, Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, once bitter political rivals.

Then there is the Coffee Yard cafe in Hollywood, just six miles north east of the city centre. We had a bounteous breakfast in the new venture, styled as closely and faithfully to an upscale American diner as I’ve seen in the UK. It joins onto a very smart arts shop.

Things are changing even in the old St George’s Market. There’s a new internationalism there. We bought our lunch at a Lebanese stall, one of a number run by market traders from overseas who surely must have arrived after the Troubles.

You could compose a full and rewarding visit to the province just by following the National Trust signs. We set off to the east and made a big sweep down the side of Strangford Lough, taking in the NT property of Mount Stuart House, with its abundant garden. (We diverted back to Bangor for lunch.) Another time we will take the ferry across the narrow mouth of the lough and visit the trust’s Castle Ward property.

The mouth of the lough is, incidentally, the site of an interesting example of the new direction the Northern Ireland economy is taking. Shipbuilder Harland and Wolff (they built Titanic) are trying out a tidal energy project, in the form of a semi submerged floating tidal turbine, here.

It’s almost worth taking out National Trust membership, just for your visit. There are 14 different properties, including the outstanding destination, the Giants Causeway (admission is £8.50 for adults).

There are very good connections from the British mainland. Look, if you can, for flights to George Best (City) airport, a short train trip from the centre of the city. The international airport is 17 miles to the north west. (There’s a bus every 30 minutes, costing £7 single).

We hired a car. For what it’s worth, a category A vehicle cost us £28 (without additional insurance). Petrol for a day’s touring up the north-east coast, then along the north coast, cost an additional £12.

The peace process may yet stumble and falter, but I find it almost impossible to believe that the city will go back to how it once was. There’s an imperative to move on, to do better. I don’t think that momentum can be stopped.

So you may want to go to Northern Ireland as a gesture of supportive solidarity. But you don’t need that justification. The province is interesting enough anyway, so even if your aim as a traveller is simply to get the best value out of your guidebook, you must still go.

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