Tuesday, January 10, 2012
My last trip to Belfast was six years ago. I arrived on a train from Dublin, ran through the rain to a cafe, met a friend, then returned to the Republic of Ireland. An hour in total, it wasn’t much of a visit. When I had the opportunity to travel to Belfast again last weekend, I looked forward to getting a proper introduction to the city and a special tour of Belfast’s Titanic sites.
bmiBaby brought me out to Belfast on Friday afternoon on a short 50-minute flight from Stansted. I arrived at Belfast City Airport in the early evening, and a 10 quick minutes later I found myself in the heart of town. The airport bus dropped me off right in front of Belfast City Hall, a beautiful neo-Renaissance building in Donegall Square.
From there it was a short walk to my hotel, the Malmaison Belfast. The hotel and its brasserie recently underwent a £250,000 refurbishment, and I was invited to spend two nights exploring the renovated spaces in the beautiful 1850′s building.
My room was large and had a color scheme that mixed dark woods and purple pillows with bright white linens and striped walls. The bed was large and comfortable and I also had a desk, wardrobe, chair, and spacious ensuite bathroom. Later I saw the hotel’s two suites, one of which had a huge pool table in the middle of the room.
On my first night in Belfast I had dinner at the newly refurbished brasserie. The room was reminiscent of a New England beach town, complete with metal pails and nautical designs. At the beginning of the meal, I enjoyed a special amuse bouche of sea bass on a bed of noodles with teriyaki sauce and pickled cucumber and ginger. It was excellent.
After that I ordered a starter of winter vegetable and barley soup and a main course of Donald Russell aged entrecote, which was naturally reared and grass fed, then dry aged on the bone. For dessert I had a slice of white chocolate cheesecake. Needless to say, I left the restaurant pleasantly full.
The following morning I went on a day trip from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. That evening I returned to the city and took a walk to see some of the sights. I passed by the stately Grand Opera House, which dates back to 1895, and a historic watering hole called The Crown that had one of the most beautiful pub interiors I had ever seen.
After my stroll I settled in for dinner at the Mourne Oyster Bar, a new addition to a famous Belfast establishment called Mourne Seafood. The oyster bar was hidden up a dark stairway, but once I got to the top I found myself in a cozy space with a small bar and tables lining the walls. I ordered a bowl of the seafood chowder and learned why Mourne was so famous for its shellfish. It was delicious.
The next morning I was up early for a Belfast Titanic tour. The city is famous for being the location where the ill-fated ship was built, and the tourism board had set me up with a guide to show me the maritime and Titanic sites in Belfast. She wasn’t just any guide, though. Susie Millar was the great-granddaughter of one of the passengers on the Titanic.
Seeing Belfast’s Titanic highlights with Susie was a very unique experience. Her knowledge of the ship, its history, and its building site was both deep and passionate, and her personal connection to the maiden voyage made the tour extra special.
We started our Titanic tour at The Belfast Barge, a museum housed in a boat on the River Lagan. There I was given a personal tour by the historian, Lee, who showed me everything from models of the SS Canberra to footage of personal interviews with people that had worked in the shipbuilding industry in Belfast.
After the tour, Susie took me to the place where the Titanic was designed. Now abandoned, the building once housed the offices of Harland & Wolff, the firm that built the ship. We walked through its eerily empty halls, passing by rooms that looked like their occupiers had left them on a moment’s notice.
The highlight of the building was the drawing room where the Titanic was designed. Susie showed me a photo of the room back in the early 20th century, when drafting tables filled its floors. Today the room is badly in need of a face lift and several coats of paint, but the eerie emptiness and dilapidation add a romantic, mysterious quality that fits with the tragic tale of the Titanic.
There are plans to renovate the room before the neighboring Titanic Belfast museum opens on March 31st, but I almost thought it would be better to leave it as it is. In either case, it stood in stark contrast to the soon-to-open museum’s contemporary design.
The Titanic Belfast has been one of the most hotly anticipated new museums in the world for the past year. Opening in time for the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s maiden voyage and tragic sinking on April 15, 1912, the museum will showcase the ship’s story from its birth in Belfast to its discovery on the ocean floor.
Visitors will be able to take a ride to the top of the building, where they will overlook the location where the Titanic was built. They will also take part in an immersive theater experience during which Robert Ballard, who found the ship in the Atlantic Ocean in 1985, will talk about his experience. I was jealous that I was two months too early to see it myself, but excited to get a sneak preview.
From the Titanic Belfast museum we walked next door to see the SS Nomadic, one of the Titanic’s tenders. The ship ferried passengers from the land in Cherbourg, France to the larger ship off the coast, and was a replica of the Titanic itself. In the years since the sinking, the SS Nomadic has been everything from a Japanese restaurant in Paris to a wedding venue. Thankfully it was returned to Belfast as part of the Titanic’s heritage, and is now being refurbished in a dry dock next to the new museum.
After a quick visit to the Titanic’s own dry dock, which was a massive chasm by the water, we continued our Titanic tour of Belfast with a visit to the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum in nearby Holywood. There I saw a permanent exhibition called Titanica, which showcased 500 artifacts related to the ship, some of them originals that were recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic.
From first, second, and third class tableware to colorful posters and postcards, it was all there. The most memorable part of the exhibition was a model of the ship with tiny figures showing the number of passengers saved and the number lost at sea from each cabin class. With around 1,500 deaths out of 2,200 people on board, it was a sad reminder of the tragedy of the Titanic.
But despite the tragedy, the Belfast Titanic tour was a positive experience. It was amazing to see all of the history in the city, and to have a guide with such a unique connection to the ship. As I left Belfast that afternoon to travel back to London, I couldn’t help but want to return to Northern Ireland in March to see the new Titanic Belfast museum and continue learning about the ship in the city where it was built.