When I first visited, many years ago, the Good Friday Agreement had yet to be signed. The friends I stayed with seemed in two minds as to whether or not to remain. Belfast felt harsh, stagnant and defensive; it was full of no-go areas for tourists. The food was dross.
Fast forward to 2012 and it seems full of possibility. From Victoria Square I can see Harland & Wolff’s hulking Samson and Goliath cranes, the newly restored City Hall, bridges lit up over the River Lagan.
There is Waterfront Hall, which recently hosted the MTV Europe Awards. The star-shaped Titanic Belfast centre nears completion on the docks.
It’s miles removed from the toughened city of the Troubles. And with Titanic’s 100th anniversary and the 50th Belfast Festival at Queen’s on the horizon, 2012 looks like a big year.
After driving through a dynamic, 21st century reboot of the Northern Irish capital, our arrival at Belfast’s Hilton Hotel is something of a letdown. The hotel looks fab, but the multi-storey car park used by its guests is full of ridiculously narrow ramps, with walls bearing the scuffs and scars of drivers who miscalculated their turns by the millimetre.
After a stressful parking effort, we unload children, bags and buggy to find ourselves climbing up one set of stairs, down another, and holding several doors open before locating the elevators. To cap it off, we arrive at reception to find the parking charge is £18/€21.25 per day.
On the plus side, following my complaint, a letter from the front-of-house manager is delivered to our room. He apologises for the inconvenience, explains that the parking facility is owned by a separate entity, and that rates and operation are beyond the hotel’s control.
Rooms at the Hilton are slick as you’d expect, with business-like styling framing some excellent views over the city skyline. Pick of the bunch are the corner studios, with their floor-to-ceiling windows, but all rooms come with flat-screen TVs, recessed lights and marble-tiled bathrooms with Peter Thomas Roth products and powerful showers that are fast and easy to operate.
Other accommodation options I’d recommend include The Merchant Hotel (themerchanthotel.com), a beautiful five-star housed in a Victorian bank building in the Cathedral Quarter; the Europa (hastingshotels.com), probably Belfast’s best-known hotel, and more affordable alternatives including Jury’s Inn (jurysinns.com) and the Malmaison (Malmaison.com).
Dining in Belfast is improving, with stalwarts like Michael Deane and Paul Rankin joined by younger chefs determined to make their mark, though overall standards remain mixed. For quality restaurants, safe bets are Deane’s and James Street South.
Our favourite meal comes in Mourne Seafood (mourneseafood.com). It’s an ugly location, beside Kelly’s Cellar, but the seafood is superb — oysters served with shredded cucumber, pinkish slivers of fresh ginger and soy sauce is my highlight. It’s a popular and bustling place, with no reservations for lunch, so be prepared to queue. You can, however, book ahead for dinner.
At the Hilton, Sonoma Restaurant does international cuisine with Irish ingredients. We hit it for breakfast, which the kids loved — an island buffet ranging from cereals to meats, cheeses and hot items that our daughter returned to again and again playing waitress. Cables Bar does casual food, cocktails or Costa coffee too — it makes a good stop-off before a show at the Waterfront.
There aren’t that many reasons to hang out in the Hilton, but the hotel is a five minute walk from the city centre, and just over the road from St. George’s Market. Housed in a building used as an impromptu mortuary during the 1941 blitz, the food markets here are full of strong pongs, quick-witted characters and snap-fresh produce. There’s good coffee, too.
Also within a 15 minute walk, by crossing the River Lagan, is the awesome children’s activity centre, W5, in the Odyssey Centre (w5online.co.uk). If you have kids, don’t miss it.
April 14 marks the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic’s sinking, and Belfast is planning a big commemorative splash. As to why the city would celebrate building a ship that sank so infamously, the standard reply is that “she was fine when she left here”. Ouch.
Commemorations will include an MTV concert on the Titanic slipways (Apr 11) and a gala event in Waterfront Hall (Apr 14), but the lasting testament looks set to be the much-anticipated Titanic Belfast visitor attraction. Built at a cost of £90m/€106m, it’s set to open in late March, and will tell the story of Titanic’s conception through to her construction, launch and untimely demise.
In the meantime, Titanic enthusiasts can visit the original dry dock — effectively, the ship’s footprint — or take a Titanic walking tour. See discovernorthernireland.com/titanic2012.
Going to press, rooms at the Belfast Hilton were available from £69/€81.50 when booked up to 21 days in advance. Contact +44 (0)289 027 7000; hilton.co.uk/Belfast for details.
Belfast is on a roll, and 2012 looks like being a busy year. At the same time, it’s a small city, similar to Cardiff or Newcastle in terms of population, so a weekend will pretty much cover it. If you do have more time, think about a day trip — north to the Giant’s Causeway and its surrounding coastline, for instance, or south towards the Mourne Mountains.