One of the unique perspectives resulting from a secondment is spawned when your friends and family visit from your home country. While we have never before considered running a bed & breakfast, my wife and I have hosted a total of sixteen visitors, including eleven different members of my extended [and apparently mixed] family in the past month. Having experienced Northern Ireland for ourselves and now with an array of other Americans, we are now tourism specialists. It has been over a year since I took a break from whingeing on about my travel tribulations to convince people to try expatriation, so here is a long-term visitor's advice to anyone visiting Northern Ireland for the first time.
Arriving and getting around
While there are ferries to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, this would be a silly way to reach Belfast from the US because there are three convenient airports:
- Belfast City airport (BHD) is not deceivingly named and flights from London many times a day, you could reach city centre in under ten minutes by car, taxi, bus, or even train. This efficient and small airport is great if your chosen airline flies direct to Heathrow.
- Belfast International airport (BFS) is a little further from the city, but still less than thirty minutes travel. Outside of a stretch in early 2015, there is a daily direct flight to and from the infamous Newark Liberty International airport (EWR). I could list the flight numbers and times, but then I'd just be showing off the information I remember despite being accessible in 3 seconds on a phone.
- Dublin International airport (DUB) was recently bestowed the great honour of being named my favourite airport. A lot of people don't realise this globally-connected airport is only ninety minutes drive or two hours by train or bus to Belfast.
My point is that it is quite easy to get to Belfast, and if you really want to breeze through customs, arrive in Dublin and tell the customs agent you are going to spend your entire stay in Northern Ireland. The stamp they put on your passport might as well say "someone else's problem".
Once here, you can reach the edges of the city on "the pink bus" for under three pounds, but you might want to study the Translink NI website before you arrive because despite being a small city, the bus routes can be puzzling. Taxis are very affordable, likely able to bring you anywhere in the city limits for under ten quid (translation: pound sterling). Just be prepared to receive text messages informing you when your taxi has been "despatched", which is apparently an acceptable spelling of "dispatched" mostly phased out worldwide, but now built into the automated system for my taxi service of choice. We have had a few visitors take a bus tour up the coast or around the city and everyone has enjoyed them, but if you prefer to explore yourself, I suggest hiring a car while you are here. While I was incredibly lucky, we learned the value of the added insurance when my cousin was involved in a minor accident navigating the thin streets and shocking [to Americans] parking procedures.
The most important thing you can pack for your visit is a light, waterproof jacket. It doesn't matter what time of year you'll be visiting. In the winter, you'll need a jumper (translation: sweater) under the jacket. In the summer, you will be carrying it for a few hours some days, but happy to have it when the temperature unpredictably drops to thirteen degrees (translation: 55F) in the afternoon and is accompanied by a light mist. The weather is a common discussion topic in Belfast, but mostly commiseration and exaggeration about the suffering it incurs. However, visitors are often pleasantly surprised by the weather while here, just as long as they don't put any trust in the forecast. Nate Silver explained how weather forecasts are purposely skewed to avoid angering consumers in "The Signal and the Noise", but the same tactics just don't suffice here as a ten percent chance of rain at ten in the morning turns into a heavy, short downpour while an identical prediction at three becomes a sunny, summer afternoon. I don't blame the meteorologists, though. The weather is constantly changing, so while you rarely get a full day of sun, at least you rarely have a day completely filled with rain.
Sights and sites
The first Northern Ireland sight on everyone's list is the Giant's Causeway on the north coast. All of our visitors have been to see it and some even got in free by avoiding the visitor centre and simply walking down the coastline. The rocky cliffs and ocean coastline offer stunning views and you even get to learn a combination of mythology and physical science while there - it's called giant's causeway after the giant, Finn McCool, who built it with hexagonal rocks as a path to Scotland to fight the Scottish giants but silly scientists eventually debunked that with evidence it consists of basalt columns formed by volcanic eruptions fifty million years ago. In sheer beauty, though, I would suggest making the hike for the view from the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Originally, a rope bridge from a cliff to a "casting island" was repaired every spring so local fishermen could spend an entire day reeling in the salmon you can still smell and hear the seagulls eating today. Both of these "Areas of Outstanding Beauty" are managed by the National Trust along the gorgeous Causeway Coastal Route I love to drive to its end near the great-for-kids Carrickfergus Castle. Other beautiful drives are along the Mourne Coastal Route, which is so confusing it exists on both sides of the Strangford Lough you can only cross via ferry and stops just short of the Ballyquintin Scenic Loop, which goes from Portaferry to the very southern tip of the Ards Peninsula and includes a view of the world's first commercial-scale tidal turbine.
No visit to Belfast is complete without taking a Black Taxi Tour, and if you want recommendations on drivers, my wife "has got a guy" our visitors all strongly recommend. This tour aims to give you an unbiased guide to the various sites of "The Troubles", the political and cultural clashes of the past fifty years. Every driver has his own story he may or may not share, but the murals, gates, and other locations key to the tour are the best way to get a feel for the weight of the events we only heard about in the United States when tensions peaked. Other popular places to learn about Belfast's history are the Ulster Museum, next to the Botanic Garden, and the Titanic Museum, conveniently located where the Titanic was built on Queen's Island, accessible from city centre via a brand new walking bridge, and very near the W5 (WhoWhatWhereWhenWhy), where my wife and I recently survived an afternoon with six girls under ten years of age. [Thank you, science and discovery.]
If you're celebrating a special occasion and can spend a little more, stay in the Victorian wing at the Merchant Hotel. It will make you feel like proper ladies and gentlemen from a period drama, except for the ridiculously luxurious rainwater shower I'm certain is a more recent addition. Even if you're not looking to channel your inner Keira Knightley for an entire night, you should book reservations for afternoon tea.
Shops (not stores), food, and drink
I am not a big fan of shopping, so I am not going to offer any advice on getting clothes in Belfast, but you need to make sure you get to the shops before five o'clock on every day except Thursday, when they stay open much later [because it's Thursday! duh.] You need to find some way to visit the markets while visiting, whether it is St. George's Market any Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, or one of the various seasonal markets in city centre or on Queen's Island. The fruit, vegetables, and meat available at the local M&S are fresh enough to reignite my cousins' love of strawberries and I just cooked some burgers from St. George's which tasted like a strange and delicious new meat I need to have again. Soon. We have never been freshness zealots, but having everything grown nearby and available at such reasonable prices is already changing how we plan to spend our money upon returning to New England. If you want a meal at any market, I recommend an Ulster fry (back bacon, sausage, fried egg(s), grilled tomato, potato pancake, soda bread, baked beans, and/or mushrooms) or a Belfast Bap (some combination of sausage, back bacon, egg and red or brown sauce on a floury roll), but the crepes and burgers are all very popular, as well.
There are tons of coffee shops around Belfast and while caramel squares are the traybake (translation: baked dessert) of choice at most of them, the scones have elicited their share of impressed comments for being crumbly yet moist, so you don't choke on the powder. Don't expect a great deal of breakfast options on Sunday because ten is considered an early opening in many neighbourhoods. Don't order a lemonade and expect to get anything other than a 7UP or Sprite. Everyone has their favorite place for a brunch or lunch Ulster Fry, but what has thus far surprised everyone is the quality of modern European restaurants best described as eclectic and incredibly fresh. Belfast isn't known for a specific cuisine, but the average restaurant has exceeded every expectation to date.
Belfast pubs and bars very much live up to the Irish reputation, but the best part of the experience is the crowd. Crown Bar is in all of the tourism books because of its history as a Victorian gin palace, complete with snugs for drinking very privately, but the best reason to visit is the bar staff who take pride in quieting noisy patrons and explaining it's a "Proper bar - no frackin' mixed drinks. You've got your liquors, beers, ales, wines and ice." Right next door is Robinson's, which includes a large assortment of crisps (bacon or beef flavour!) and a back bar called "Fibber Magees". You need to visit Fibber's because it promises live traditional music every night of the week and there is nothing quite like watching an impressive Irish fiddler on a weeknight with a Guinness and people of all ages enjoying it with you. I don't know anywhere else in the world where every age group so casually and appropriately enjoys an occasional pub night together.
People and "events"
I always love the conversations after our family and friends interact with Belfast residents. If someone asks you fifty questions, they are genuinely that friendly and interested. Most of them have visited some area of the United States. If someone asks a variation of "any craic?" [pronounced like "crack"], they are just asking if you did anything fun. When people say they are from a mixed family, it means one of their parents is Protestant and the other is Catholic.
For anyone looking to learn more about the cultural divide than is covered on the Black Taxi Tour, you can visit on the Twelfth of July, also known as Orangemen's Day. I am not going to get into too much detail around it, but after having planned a holiday in the south last year, my family, including my mixed-couple parents, walked down to see the parade this year. Marching bands from across Northern Ireland and Scotland march and display a very diverse series of banners showing everything from pictures of a young Jesus with his flock of sheep to a conquering Dutch King on his horse. The public intoxication differs from Mardi Gras in New Orleans because it covers all ages and it's followed by the most impressive bottle clean-up crew before darkness even falls. I did, however, manage to grab a picture of one particularly glorious pair of Buckfast bottles the next day, when the buses took a mostly unannounced public holiday.