Northern Ireland: Discover vistas, good value

Northern Ireland is an easily acquired taste, a place where the locals are friendly and the traditional hospitality and welcome second to none.

Famous for its outstanding natural scenery, dramatic coastline with sweeping vistas, charming villages, majestic mountains and glorious green lowlands, Northern Ireland is undoubtedly one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. Here, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, you can escape the crowds and enjoy a more relaxed pace of life as you savour the humour and conversation of the locals (known as the ‘craic’).

Scenery and heritage
The Northern Ireland landscape is as easy on the eyes as the lilting accent is on the ears. All the green you’ve seen before pales in comparison. Once you’ve witnessed the mossy Mountains of Mourne, the verdant pastures of Fermanagh and the magnificent nine Glens of Antrim, you’ll understand why the grass just can’be greener anywhere else.

Take a tour along the spectacular Antrim Coast road and experience some of Ireland’s most breathtaking scenery, taking time along the 80 km route to visit some of Northern Ireland’s famous heritage attractions. These include medieval Carrickfergus Castle and the famous Giant’s Causeway, a world heritage site where you can marvel at its creation and enjoy the myths and legends surrounding the famous Irish giant Finn McCool. Further along the coast is Dunluce Castle with its stunning location on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean – well worth a stop to blow away the cobwebs.

National Trust houses
Northern Ireland is also home to countless stately homes and gardens, many of them looked after by the National Trust. A must for garden lovers is Mount Stewart House and Gardens with its unrivalled collection of rare and unusual plants, as well as Rowallane with its 21 hectares of landscaped natural gardens and plants from around the globe. Other highlights include Castle Coole, Florencecourt (one of Ulster’s most important 18th century houses), and Crom Estate, both located in Co. Fermanagh.

The City of Derry is Ireland’s only completely walled city and houses among other attractions the award-winning Tower Museum. Derry is an ideal touring base for exploring the North West of Ireland.

Next page: Belfast City

Belfast City:
Imagine the city you think you know. Now start again. Ringed by high hills, Belfast Lough and the Lagan river valley, Belfast is Northern Ireland’s vibrant capital city. It was here that some of the greatest ships that ever sailed, most notably HMS Titanic, were built and launched and where today world famous Irish linen is still available. The year 2002 in fact marked the 90th anniversary of the launch of the Titanic.

Belfast today is all about history and culture. For a taste of the real Belfast, visitors should take one of the many tours available that show the city at its very best, whether it’s an historic pub walking tour, a living history bus tour or the more unique black taxi tour.  Belfast is perhaps best enjoyed on foot, allowing an opportunity to admire the city’s many fine examples of Edwardian, Georgian and Victorian architecture.

And as you might expect from a city that has produced some of the world’s greatest actors, poets, playwright, painters and musicians, Belfast boasts a rich and eclectic arts and cultural scene. Ask any recent visitors to the city and they’ll talk enthusiastically of its rich diversity of artistic activity, the quality of its theatres, music venues, bookshops, museums and art galleries. Art seems to permeate from the very fabric of city life.

For a taste of the city’s rich culture, take a free tour of the magnificent domed City Hall with its splendid Italianate marble interior, or enjoy the graceful antiquity of the Ulster Museum whose collections include treasures from the Spanish Armada ship Girona. Embrace the natural wonder of the Botanic Gardens, admire the stately splendour of Queen’s University, or head down to the Lagan Waterfront, home to W5, Ireland’s new Science and Discovery Centre. Then, in the evening, pay a visit to the Opera House, enjoy the Ulster Orchestra or a variety of other musical and theatrical events at the Waterfront Hall, Lyric Theatre or Ulster Hall.

In and around the city you’ll find somewhere to stay to suit every taste and budget – from cozy B&Bs to a wide range of hotels and guesthouses.Similarly, first-rate restaurants provide excellent fare at prices less expensive than many other European cities. Little wonder Belfast has in fact been dubbed the ‘undiscovered frontier’ of affordable dining in Europe!

Next page: A golfer’s paradise

A golfer’s paradise
With more than 80 courses to choose from, Northern Ireland is a golfer’s paradise. (It was voted Golf Destination of the Year by the International Association of Golf Tour operators in 2001). While the quality of Northern Ireland’s courses is undisputed, it was the combination of golf, scenery and warmth of welcome that saw Northern Ireland crowned as a world-beater.

The two championship links of Royal County Down and Royal Portrush (ranked in the world’s ‘Top 20’) are must-plays. And you may want to consider playing in one of Northern Ireland’s famous amateur tournaments – namely the BlackBush /Causeway Coast Tournament (June) or the Heart of Down Tournament (September).

How to get there
Direct charter flights operate from Toronto to Belfast from May to October. High-speed car ferries operate between Scotland and Northern Ireland, the quickest crossing taking just one hour. The popular route between Troon and Belfast takes 2 1/2 hours, and there’s also a service between Heysham (just south of the English Lake District) to Belfast.

Where to Stay
Northern Ireland offers a wide range of accommodations – everything from great value country guesthouses and B&Bs to cozy country inns and luxury hotels. Visitors looking to stay in one spot while enjoying day tours can choose from a variety of quality accommodation rentals. These range from cottages and houses on country estates to luxury apartments in coastal settings and rural cottages in scenic locations.