A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet
The old Irish saying is certainly true when you decide to go on a coach tour of Northern Ireland. Yes, Northern Ireland where the stigma and fear have kept the tourists away from its shores. Well, the ‘scars’ are still there but are being taken over by the renaissance of the country. Many people avoid Northern Ireland because of the ‘troubles’ over the past 40 years, but time is a great healer and Northern Ireland is on the mend!
This coach tour started with a flight to Belfast – coach/flying – no, this is not leprechaun speak! We flew from Manchester Airport and it only took approximately 45 mins once you are in the air. Contact the coach tourism council and they will help you plan your journey. It could be a tailor made trip for you and your family, or just for two or a single traveller. If you want to go on a golfing or fishing trip, and yes there are many golf courses and beautiful lakes to try out in Northern Ireland, then that too can be arranged. If you don’t like flying then sailing in the large ferry boats is an easy stressfree way to travel, the Stena Line and the Ulsterbus Express will arrange a boat/coach tour to suit your needs, and Guinness in the bar on the way over will set the scene for your holiday in Northern Ireland.
Our coach tour started in Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland which has historically been a centre for the Irish linen industry, tobacco production, rope making and ship building. It is a city that is ‘powered by history’, from the Dock Side regeneration to the swish bars and restaurants that are now springing up all over the city, to the amazing Titanic Experience. Belfast is vibrant and interesting, and as safe as any major city in Europe.
We stayed at the Europa Hotel which is very central and is within walking distance to many maor attractions. It is a large comfortable hotel that has seen through its doors the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Van Morrison and many others, it is a four star hotel and certainly lives up to its ”stars”. The city is split into four quarters: Gaeltacht, Cathedral, Queens and Titanic. The Cathedral quarter is within walking distance of the hotel and encompasses the shopping area and the bars and restaurants, you can get walking tours, Red bus tours and taxi tours to all the major attractions around the city. The Red Bus tour is £10.50 for a concession tour which lasts around 1hour and 30 mins but the hop off arrangement is great for seeing the major attractions.
Belfast has something for everyone from the Zoo and the Titanic Experience for all the family, to the sophisicated restaurants and shops for the shopaholics; and for the culture vultures theatres and shows are in abundance. The restaurants can compete with any in Europe; we ate at the James Street Bar and Grill and the food was excellent .The pubs with ‘Irish music’ are around everywhere; across the road from the Europa is the famous Crown pub that is an experience on its own. Just go in for a look or have a drink or meal, it takes you back to the time when pubs had booths to sit in and the stained glass windows are amazing. But if you fancy a pint and some music then most evenings, the Robinson’s pub is the place to be – next door to the Crown and within wobbling distance from the Europa Hotel.
The history of Belfast is around every corner, the remnants of the ‘troubles’ are still very obvious in the Gaeltacht Quarter the Falls Road and the Shanklin area of the city. The coaches, taxis and the red bus will take you to this area. The murals and the street art is still very prominent and the wall to keep the two sides apart and check point charlie is still there for all to see. Flags fly over areas that depict which group lives in that area: an eerie reminder of the past, but time is a healer.The wonderful Titanic building is doing just that, it is bringing people to visit this amazing city and is unmissable.
The Titanic exhibition is located in the heart of Belfast, on the slipways where RMS Titanic was built. Inside this iconic building, visitors re-live the entire Titanic story from her birth in Belfast to the fateful maiden voyage and her eventual discovery on the seabed. The cost to visit the Titanic Experience is £10.50 for concessions and worth every penny, there is disabled access and helpful, knowlegable staff. It can take up to 2 hours to do the experience, but another hour would have been welcome for the cup of tea at the end to digest the enthusiasm at first then the melancholy feeling of knowing the demise of this ill-fated ship. On a lighter note the Irish say that the ship was made in Ireland but the captain was English – only a joke, but sadly true.
We then visited Stormont Parliament Building which is set in a public park. Pedestrians can walk from the main gates to the statue of Carson, along the Prince of Wales Avenue and can also enjoy the glen walk and visit the excellent facilities at the children’s playground.
Visitors to Parliament Building are welcome to view the Great Hall, however guided visits for groups must be sponsored in advance by an Assembly Member.
- Read Chapter 2: Exploring beyond Belfast – Giant’s Causeway, Dunluce Castle and the Peace Bridge
- Read Glynis’s Titanic Experience
Glynis Sullivan was a guest of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the Coach Tourism Council whose members include more than 140 UK coach operators, many of whom feature tours to Belfast and Northern Ireland. They can be found at www.findacoachholiday.com.