Belfast, formerly known for its bombs and bullets is now a destination for stag-dos and city breakers. As I flew back to my home city for the weekend, I was accompanied by Batman and his mates and a wealth of international travellers. In the past, we always joked that one could recognise the queue for the budget flights to Northern Ireland by the traditional haircuts, lack of dress style and thick ‘Norn Iron’ accents! How times have changed! As I boarded the Airport-to-City coach, I found myself detecting travellers’ voices from Germany, Eastern Europe and America, backpacks jostled holdalls on the raspberry pink buses and the style had definitely become much less homogeneous.
Yet, there is more on offer here than just another hedonistic weekend venue. This green, beautiful and much-fêted land now draws tourists through its celebrated film locations and the whole province benefits. This relatively new, but booming, economy employs vast numbers of the population as extras and bolsters the coffers with Game of Thrones tours and CS Lewis statues. Never ones to miss an opportunity, the people of this reborn state, once renowned for Victorian industry and entrepreneurship, celebrates its bloody past in a truly “Irish” way. The bad old days are alluded to by copious street-art murals, and taxi tours offer embroidered histories.
The cities and larger towns now hum with cosmopolitan nightlife, theatres and restaurants. The Arts have always thrived in the Celtic nature but now benefit from the improvement in atmosphere. Riverside apartments have mushroomed and architectural sculptures announce sites of urban regeneration. The quality of life for many is better than ever and the high level of education has fuelled a boomerang generation of young professionals, returning to share the benefits of an education far from home.
Food and drink related business has always been a major industry in the whole of Ireland, but this has blossomed into a vast network of specialist producers, as showcased recently on Radio 4’s Food programme.* This “renaissance” has been heralded as a “golden era”. The traditional dairy farms and potato fields are now overshadowed by micro-distilleries and offers of gourmet cuisine and local delicacies where a shabby B&B and greasy Ulster fry once prevailed. Chefs now vie for local accolade with their mouth-watering menus marrying traditional recipes, world-class quality, local ingredients and international flair.
However, the metropolis was not my destination of choice. Having satisfied my hunger at one of the most popular eateries, aptly named “Made in Belfast”, I headed for tranquillity. Less than half an hour’s drive, in any direction, through negligible traffic for one used to the joys of the M25 on a Friday evening, transports one out into the gently undulating, verdant landscape. As we drove East, lambs and young bullocks filled the patchwork fields, idle buzzards soared high overhead and ancient hedgerows prepared to burst into snowy bloom. Familiar landmarks loomed on the horizon of a landscape that spoke of Celtic kings, Norman conquest and generations of family farming.
Strangford Lough is a rarity in Europe, as a breathtakingly beautiful stretch of water that has not succumbed to the cancer of tourist accommodation and water-sport commerce. The name of this favourite haunt of mine comes from the Old Norse Strangr Fjörðr, meaning “strong sea-inlet”. Lying on the east coast, this area has been designated as Northern Ireland’s first marine conservation zone. The tide rips through “The Narrows” between Portaferry and Strangford, where a resilient ferry transports locals and tourists across treacherous currents. The ever-changing water then flows north around more than 70 small islands, even more, tiny coves and bays until it sweeps across the mudflats running between Newtownards and Comber.
For me, this is a favourite microcosm of the wonders of this much-maligned country. Other attractions, on the rugged North Coast and the Western Lakelands, draw the masses with legends of Giant’s and watery pursuits, but this gentle land, once the refuge of monks and scholars and still a site to enjoy at the leisurely pace of kayak or sailboat, is a haven for those who prefer the company of abundant wildlife in unspoiled, very natural surroundings.
For many of you planning breaks in the coming months, Northern Ireland may be missing on your list. So, I invite you now to consider a still quite undiscovered part of the United Kingdom. The journey may be a short one, but the sense of distance from the press of population and traffic turmoil will fool you into believing you are many more miles away. Relax, recharge and return again and again.