When I mentioned that I was going to Northern Ireland for a weekend, many friends and readers were really surprised. But it was one of the places I always wanted to go – it is shameful how little time I spend travelling around the UK, so I was keen to make it happen. Plus Mr. O does a fab Northern Irish accent and I wanted more. A lot more.
On a beautiful Thursday morning, we left London Heathrow, and under an hour later, we landed at Belfast City Airport. Everything was going particularly well, until we realised that the car that had hired for us was not waiting for us at the airport – because it had been booked for the city centre. A couple of phone calls and Enterprise sent a driver to pick us up in under 15 minutes. You all know my track record with car rentals, so I thought I was due another repeat of a poor experience – and I have to say, I was not. We had the loveliest welcome and when we saw the car (which didn’t love as way too small), were surprised with ‘oh we can just upgrade it for £7/day’. Really? I was worried how getting back to the airport would be, and was assured that there would be a driver waiting for us and we wouldn’t have to wait.
Within minutes, we got to the city centre, which was alive and kicking. It was nearing lunchtime and we were starving and made our way towards the City Hall, where we parked at the NCP Car Park – I know you are thinking ‘Why the hell does that matter?’. Because it does, a lot. We got to the barrier and the car park was full, which meant we had to wait for another car to come out. A lovely car park attendant came towards our car to confirm this and as another car approached the barrier to leave, he asked us to wait. What did he do? We asked the other driver in which floor he had parked, so it would be easier for us to find the space. I think I was in shock for about 30 seconds and couldn’t thank him enough. Oh, the people of Northern Ireland. 2 points.
For lunch, we went to Mourne Seafood (which has 2 locations in NI and one in Dublin) – there wasn’t a person I did not speak to prior to the trip that had not recommended it. And obviously, it was fantastic. Really really good – you know I am a simple girl, give me the freshest fish and seafood and a glass of Pouilly Fume and you pretty much have me. Halfway through lunch, Mr. O made an announcement: he had a really bad toothache. Oh no. My first point of call was Google, which delivered a few results and after a few calls, we could not get an appointment for any money or love. I then called Pandora Skies, one of the people I was looking forward to meeting the most on my trip to Belfast (as we have been chatting for years now on Twitter) for help. Within minutes, she called back saying her dentist was fully booked but she would keep calling. The restaurant manager overheard us and came back with a few more numbers and suggestions. After a few calls, his dentist would see us two hours later. People of Northern Ireland, 3 points.
As we had a bit of time to kill, we walked around the city centre and had a look at the Christmas Market (not really my thing, to be honest) and then hit the jackpot and discovered Victoria Square, a new shopping centre which would keep me entertained for hours. We had time to go to the top floor and see some good views of the city, before the dentist appointment.
It turned out that Mr. O had an abscess, which had to be ‘popped’ and antibiotics needed to be taken. No worries, we thought. When we were paying for the appointment, expecting a 3-figure bill, not starting with a 1, we almost died when we were asked for £10 for the appointment. I know it took 2 minutes to check him out, but we did not see this coming. We went to get the prescription which cost us £5 and recommended a Hot Toddy for good measure. People of Northern Ireland, 4 points.
With the whole dentist episode, we were quite late getting to the hotel, with whom I was in touch via Twitter. We were welcomed with open arms by the Adrian McNally, the GM of the Culloden Estate, who assured he had the cure for Mr. O – a Hot Toddy would be sent shortly to our room, alongside a glass of bubbles for me. How sweet was that? People of Northern Ireland, 5 points.
The Culloden Estate, located in Holywood, outside Belfast is the grand dame of Northern Irish hospitality and our home for 2 nights. We had a very comfortable stay, although parts of the hotel felt dated, but there is a renovation going on at the moment and half of the rooms have been done. We had the Bishop Suite, which boasts probably one of the best views across the Bay.
We had dinner at the hotel, which has one of the Belfast’s top restaurants and we had an outstanding evening. The food, all locally sourced (and a big deal for Hastings Hotels, which we noticed throughout our stay in Northern Ireland), was exceptional. We had foie gras, a fillet of beef and ended (not sure how) with an Irish cheese board.
During dinner, we had the pleasure of meeting Peter McAllister, the hotel’s F&B Manager who introduced us to the delights of neat Redbreast whiskey (who is a brave girl? Exactly!) and really made our evening. We chatted actually for a few hours (I did have some questions) and then I asked a question which changed the course of our very well planned trip forever.
‘Name 3 well-known Northern Irish brands’, I asked. I also decided to ask Discover Northern Ireland and my Twitter followers (many of which are proud Northern Irish and I never knew). Well… it started with Tayto Crisps, obviously Bushmills whiskey, there was a tea brand I can’t recall, and mention of something truly special: Shortcross Gin, Northern Ireland’s first craft gin brand. I had to change my plans for the next day. People of Northern Ireland, 7 points (one is for Peter alone).
We ordered breakfast in bed as sadly, the weather wasn’t fab the next morning. Which kind of killed our plans to go on a scenic drive towards the South of Belfast. So we had a very lazy morning and managed to convince the Lady and Lord of Gin (seriously, best twitter names ever) from Shortcross Gin to welcome me to their estate later in the day.
But before that, it was time for lunch, and taking live advice from many many lovely people from twitter, we headed to Mourne Seafood‘s other location in Dundrum, because I really wanted some more of that chowder.
One thing that did not work well in Northern Ireland, was Vodafone. I was relying on Google Maps to get around and getting 3G signal was seriously difficult – Mr. O uses EE and he was fine, which is not the norm. And that made us get seriously lost and delayed on our way to the Rademon Estate, home of Shortcross Gin. But eventually, we made it, and were not disappointed.
I loved meeting David and Fiona, who are fellow gin lovers and created something very special – I had never seen a distillery before, let alone such a boutique one, but I loved their story – you have to respect someone who loves gin so much to go around the world for 2 years learning how to make it. And then deliver an exceptional product. People of Northern Ireland, 9 points.
We left our new friends and made our way towards Newcastle – which I couldn’t tell you what it looked like as the rain persisted and it got dark so early (we had changed from BST just a couple of weeks before which takes some getting used to, plus being further North than where we live in the UK). We had an appointment and at Soak Seaweed Baths, which I must confess, was not for me. It was a very interesting set up and Mr. O did enjoy his, but I couldn’t stay in the bathtub for 40 minutes, I just couldn’t.
We then lost track of time, and had to drive back to our hotel and change for dinner, which took place at Meat Locker by Michael Deane, a very well-known local restaurateur. It was great to finally meet Pandora Skies and we had a great night in town, which involved a few more after dinner drinks as well. When in Rome, you know… People of Northern Ireland, 10 points.
We made it to breakfast this time and were actually quite sad to say goodbye to the Culloden Estate. But there was more Hastings hospitality to look forward to and, guess what, the sun was actually shining. Our goal on this day was to drive north and take the Causeway Coastal Route, which stretches for 120 miles from Belfast Lough to Lough Foyle.
Unmissable attractions on this route included Carrickfergus Castle (pictured above), the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Dunluce Castle, and the world-famous Giant’s Causeway, Ireland’s first World Heritage Site. The goal was to see them all. But it did not turn out that way. First, we just wanted to be by the sea and took every little road we could find – any brown sign that said ‘Scenic Drive’ was our goal and we totally lost track of time.
The twitter community was wide awake on Saturday morning and insisted we took another detour for lunch – instead of going to Bushmills for lunch, we should head to Portstewart’s Strand Beach and its latest addition – Harry’s Shack. When we finally got 3G coverage again, we realised we were almost 2 hours away and needed to move on. So we drove and drove and drove and finally made it to the restaurant at around 2pm. And to say we were starving would be an understatement.
We had nothing to worry about and had not only a lovely table waiting for us, Harry welcoming us with open arms and a delightful fish meal. We also managed to walk around the beach for a bit – there were a few others wandering about and we just wanted to stay. And not go anywhere else.
If you look at the photos you will see something really bad happening – the sun was setting. We were not used to Winter time yet and really were caught by surprise. So we left and made our way towards Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, a few miles away, only to find it closed. We also tried to get to the Giant’s Causeway, but it was too dark, so we did not see anything. To soften our blow it was clear what we needed: some whiskey.
We drove back to Bushmills and managed to miss the last guided tour of the Old Bushmills Distillery. Seriously. So we settled for a (shared) whiskey tasting, which was nice.
As it was dark by then, we decided to drive to our hotel which was over an hour away, further South, in Ballygally. On the way there, we passed dozens of villages called Bally this and Bally that. We liked the sound of Bally Money and Mina and the rest. It was cute indeed.
Our hotel for the night, was the Ballygally Castle, located in, well.. guess.. what… Ballygally. A sister hotel of the Culloden Estate, it has been recently renovated and it is a ‘grand’ 4-star hotel. Grand was one of my favourite words from this trip.
Our room was nice and very comfortable and we were surprised how lively the hotel was – there was a wedding taking place but the restaurant was fully booked as well. I indulged a lot, and obviously had plenty of ‘champ’, which is a Northern Ireland speciality – mash potations with spring onions which were delicious. We spent the evening at the bar (and with the help of GM Norman McBride), we even managed to watch some Irish dancing at the wedding. We had a lovely evening and plenty of Redbreast, to continue with our whiskey evening traditions. We slept like babies, of course.
On Sunday, we woke up to this view (albeit disturbed by the car park of the hotel) – and after a hearty breakfast, we started our drive back to Belfast (not taking the scenic route). It was our last day and we had a packed diary.
When we got to Belfast, our first stop was the epic Titanic Belfast (which we were due to visit on Thursday afternoon, but had our dental emergency). I was told that it was really worth a visit, and I have to say, it was EXCELLENT. The Titanic was actually built in Belfast (I had no idea), and the ‘museum’ was incredibly well curated, very modern and the building itself was nothing short of spectacular.
Our next stop was St. George’s Market, which was very lively indeed. I love visiting a market when I am somewhere, and it was good to see lots of little boutique brands and great food. By this time, lunch was *really* what we could think about, so we headed to Bert’s Jazz Bar at the Merchant Hotel for a lovely brunch.
Our last activity, suggested (and organised) by Peter McAllister at Culloden Estate was to do a Taxi Driver tour of Belfast. I have to confess I was quite intrigued – basically, you get a black cab for an hour (or 90 mins or whatever you want) and the taxi driver shows you his favourite places, the historic places and you can either ask for a Protestant or a Catholic driver, or just be surprised, which is what we chose. Our driver, Ian, was excellent and it was very interesting to hear a bit more about the events that happened and changed Northern Ireland forever.
And after that, we dropped off our car, had a well timed transfer to the airport and got back home in under an hour. We were on such a high after the weekend we had in Northern Ireland, I cannot tell you. We were stunned by the natural beauty of this part of the world, surprised by the food (and drink, and drink) and above all, the people, who were simply incredible and made our stay truly unique. Or ‘grand’ as they say in ‘NornIron’. 100 points.
We shall be back.
Disclaimer and Fact Box: A huge thank you to Tourism Ireland and Discover Northern Ireland who went out of their way to organise a truly fantastic weekend. Special points to the Twitter team behind @DiscoverNI on twitter, who were on duty for the whole weekend, day and night, and contributed to the complete change of our itinerary. Their sense of humour was fantastic and made the trip extra fun.