Dunluce Castle Photo Credit: Christopher Hill/Tourism Ireland

Troubles no more

By Patricia SchultzSeptember 20, 2017

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The day HBO's "Game of Thrones" introduced Northern Ireland's rugged landscapes and otherworldly beauty to the world is television history by now. The first season, filmed here in 2009, showcased the misty forests, mountains, haunting moorlands and abundance of castles found throughout the region's sparsely populated north.

The seventh and penultimate season has just finished airing, much of it filmed at Titanic Studios in Belfast, and the exposure has been a publicity windfall that has become a boon for tourism.

"Game of Thrones" fans add to the steadily growing numbers of those coming to explore Northern Ireland, a small country approximately the size of Connecticut comprising a sixth of the island of Ireland, with a mixed Protestant/Catholic population of 1.8 million. It consists of six counties (collectively known as Ulster by some) and is part of the U.K., along with England, Scotland and Wales.

Not all that long ago, visitors avoided it at all costs due to the ongoing, often violent sectarian conflict known here as the Troubles. But, following the IRA cease-fire in 1994 and the signing of the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement in 1998, those times have slowly but steadily been receding into the Irish mist.

The bronze Hands Across the Divide sculpture in Derry.
The bronze Hands Across the Divide sculpture in Derry. Photo Credit: Christopher Hill/Tourism Ireland

The benefits of steadily growing tourism to the Republic of Ireland -- the north's far larger neighbor to the south -- are clear. In 2016, more than 10 million overseas travelers visited the island, with a growing number crossing the border, heading to Belfast and beyond.

This culturally curious audience is the target of Tourism Ireland, the cross-border body that promotes the island and its two countries as one entity, along with niche markets such as golfers, business and incentive travelers and the widespread diaspora of emigrants.

"We have seen an exceptional performance so far from North America in 2017, up 21.6% compared to the first half of 2016, making it another record year," Alison Metcalfe, executive vice president of Tourism Ireland for the USA & Canada, told me.

Ancestral heritage has always drawn visitors, as has Ireland's reputation for warm hospitality and animated pubs where the craic (good times) and Guinness flow. We have long admired the 40 shades of green that color the landscape in classic films such as "The Quiet Man" and "Ryan's Daughter." Of all Americans traveling to Europe these days, 10% are heading to Ireland.

"A record 250,000 North Americans visited Northern Ireland in 2016," Metcalfe reported.

Catherine Reilly, the managing director of Dublin-based Brendan Vacations, concurs.

"Ireland's popularity is on the rise at the moment," she said. "And when our [islandwide] visitor numbers increase, so do those heading to Northern Ireland."

Established in 1969 and today a leader in vacations to Ireland and Scotland, Brendan has offered both guided and self-drive vacations to this country since 1990. With 2017 departures to Northern Ireland sold out months in advance, capacity for 2018 is being increased.

"Ireland enjoys a high number of return guests, and when they plan a second trip to Ireland, [Northern Ireland] is almost always on their list," Reilly said.

It was on my list, this time following a guided vacation I hosted around Ireland as the global ambassador for Trafalgar, the travel company that is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. It was one of the trailblazers in the early years of tourism to Northern Ireland following the Troubles.

"There has been great success in developing a vibrant tourism industry in Belfast," Trafalgar global CEO Gavin Tollman told me. "With such a compelling history and warm and friendly people, there is no doubt that tourism in Northern Ireland will continue to go from strength to strength. We are currently looking into expanding our programs to Northern Ireland and look forward to sharing more of this region's delights."

The Travel Corporation, Trafalgar's parent, purchased Brendan in 2006, and Tollman and Trafalgar took over management in 2013. Trafalgar and Brendan "code share/coach share" all guided vacations for Ireland and Scotland, while Brendan additionally offers travel styles that include private chauffeur vacations, golf vacations and self-drive vacations.

The author at Giant’s Causeway.
The author at Giant’s Causeway. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Patricia Schultz

As safe and welcoming as Northern Ireland proved to be, I cannot imagine experiencing it without a knowledgeable guide. Its history is not an easy one, nor is it brief or easily grasped by a non-Brit. Case in point is the 30-year period of the Troubles.

Commonly and mistakenly written off as a secular conflict between Protestants (loyalists who supported continued British rule) and Catholics (nationalists favoring unification with the Republic of Ireland to the south), the conflict was in fact primarily a social, cultural and historical feud that can be traced back centuries to when England first tried to settle the island.

As a guest of Tourism Ireland, I traveled with Billy Scott, an exceptional guide who tirelessly explained the country's centuries-old complexities (and many a "Game of Thrones" plot twist) during a six-day visit.


A stable peace

Though as far north as Moscow, Belfast is temperate, but its climate is also unpredictable and ever-changing: one minute sunny and windy, the next cloudy and rainy.

The capital is an easy 100-mile drive north from Dublin across an almost invisible border. The only indication that you have crossed into a foreign country are the speed limit signs that change from Ireland's kilometers to Northern Ireland's miles. 

The prevailing question is: Does Brexit, when Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. officially leave the EU in March 2019, foretell the inevitable return of the "hard border"of a generation ago?

Confidence in the country's peace process continues, and investors are encouraged by the growing political stability, government subsidies and a skilled workforce. Belfast today enjoys a renewed role as the country's economic engine. This is a city of new beginnings and hope, filled with good vibes and friendly people, with a once-deserted city center that is a walkable showcase of restored red-brick Victorian buildings, a grand Renaissance-style city hall and gleaming modern shopping centers.

Access to Belfast improved when Norwegian Air commenced nonstop service from both Newburgh, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley, and Providence, R.I., this summer. Nearby Dublin Airport offers service to and from 15 gateways across the U.S.

This year also saw 88 cruise ships arrive in Belfast, and 120 are expected in 2018. Their passengers make a beeline to the Titanic Belfast museum, the city's can't-miss highlight. The visually striking museum, covered in 3,000 sun-reflecting aluminum panels, has become a favorite stop for visitors to the city.

It offers lots of high-tech effects, personal histories of passengers and crew (only 716 of the 2,260 aboard were rescued) and trivia such as the cost of a first-class ticket in today's dollars ($70,000). Opened on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ill-fated ocean liner, built on the spot where the museum now stands, it is the anchor of the newly revitalized Titanic Quarter. Recently, the Titanic Hotel Belfast opened in the former headquarters of Harland & Wolff, which built the ship.

A vibrant nightlife

The Cathedral Quarter is the city's trendiest area, the place where new hotels are popping up around the Merchant Hotel, a perennial five-star favorite since opening in 2006. Set in a grand Victorian space that began life as the old Ulster Bank, it is still the place to splash out on afternoon tea or celebratory dinners in the opulent Great Room. The enterprising owners recently opened Bullitt, with 45 rooms in three different sizes, an equally popular property nearby for a younger and more budget-conscious guest.

The city's pub and bar scene begins at the venerable Crown Liquor Saloon, built in the mid-19th century, just before the Grand Opera House went up across the street. An architectural gem, it is now part of the National Trust. 

Down an innocuous cobbled alley in the city's former newspaper district, the Duke of York, the go-to pub for journalists and print workers, is a beloved institution today.

Building on the publicity generated by Northern Ireland's 2016 Year of Food and Drink, Belfast celebrates the last decade's transformation and growth in the food industry and restaurant scene.

Michelin-starred Ox and Deanes Eipic (the latter is the most sophisticated of the Deanes restaurant portfolio) join an awakening of respect for the country's traditional foods. The seafood, for one, is extraordinary, and the butter is a revelation. 

Spend a morning grazing through the red brick St. George's Market, operating since 1896. It was also the starting point for my Taste and Tour adventure, a delicious four-hour crash course for which we sipped, tippled and noshed in places I simply would not have found (or enjoyed as much) on my own.

The city's forward-looking residents, split somewhat evenly between Protestants and Catholics, will tell you that the Troubles are behind them, but the Troubles-themed tourism it generates is alive and well. Though safe, neighborhoods are still strongly sectarian and compelling to visit. "Black taxi tours" take passengers through the Falls (Catholic) and Shankill (Protestant) neighborhoods, guided by drivers who are likely to make their political views clear but who welcome debate.

The famous political murals are the highlight, powerfully dramatizing what transpired in these working class neighborhoods that grew up around the old linen mills, now being reborn as condos. An ironically named Peace Line -- a 20-foot-high wall of corrugated steel and concrete erected in 1970 and meant to be temporary -- still divides the neighborhoods today.

Beyond the city limits

"The lonely shores of Northern Ireland might just be the perfect day-tripping antidote to Belfast's urban core," Lonely Planet stated in its 2017 edition of "Epic Drives of the World." The writers were alluding to the Antrim Coastline, in particular the 5-mile-long Giant's Causeway. The country's only Unesco World Heritage Site, it is famous for its 40,000 basalt columns rising at staggered levels from the sea.

Though the result of an ancient volcanic eruption, Irish myth has it that it was created as a path to Scotland by an amiable giant named Finn McCool. 

We stayed at the old-timey, 28-room Causeway Hotel, which, together with the World Heritage Site, belongs to the U.K.'s National Trust. Its solitary location on a windswept promontory with sunset views of the Atlantic, coupled with the chance to walk across the parking lot to the brand-new, award-winning Visitors Centre well before the busloads arrived, was priceless.

In the charming town of Bushmills, you can sign up for guided tours at the Old Bushmills Distillery, said to be the oldest continuously operating distillery in the world, then peek into the cozy lobby and popular restaurant of the historical Bushmills Inn, for generations a favorite of U.S. travelers.

County Antrim is a treasure trove of attractions, none very far from the Giant's Causeway. Set-jetters ("Game of Thrones" fans, also known as "Thronies"), many on a pilgrimage of all things related to the series, diligently find their way to the gnarled-tree-framed avenue near Ballymoney, known as the Dark Hedges (Kingsroad in the series), small and peaceful Ballintoy Harbour (Lordsport Harbour in the series' Iron Islands) or the turreted, cliff-top ruins of Dunluce Castle (Greystone Castle in the series).

The popular Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge in County Antrim connects the mainland to a small island once used by fishermen.
The popular Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge in County Antrim connects the mainland to a small island once used by fishermen. Photo Credit: Arthur Ward/Tourism Ireland

The much photographed Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge stretches across a 70-foot chasm 90 feet above the churning sea, connecting the mainland to a tiny island where on a clear day you can see the island of Mull in Scotland, 17 miles away. Closer at hand is Rathlin Island, the country's only (barely) inhabited island, loved for its untamed beauty, seabird colonies and seals.

Derry, as the majority of its 100,000 inhabitants call it, is Northern Ireland's second-largest city and deserving of an overnight stay.

Derry (to Nationalists) and Londonderry (to Unionists) was the site of most of the decades-long sectarian unrest outside of Belfast. But its focus today is fixed on the future: Still basking in the glow of being the U.K.'s inaugural City of Culture in 2013, it awaits the outcome of its joint bid with Belfast for the prestigious title of European Capital of Culture for 2023.

Derry is Ireland's earliest example of town planning and its only walled city, enclosed by a completely intact set of brooding 17th century ramparts some 20 feet high and at least as thick. A one-hour walk along its milelong circumference with family-owned Martin McCrossan City Tours covered its ancient-to-recent history in depth, including a crucial role in World War II.

The ugly events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 focused the attention of the world on Derry. Today, a series of 12 murals dramatize events or incidents such as the Death of Innocence, which portrays the crossfire shooting of a 14-year-old girl, the period's 100th fatality and its youngest victim.

On to the future

There is a palpable feeling of optimism and growth in Derry, and we sampled innovative restaurants and checked out the new and delightful 21-room Shipquay Hotel overlooking the walls and steps from the redeveloped waterfront and Guildhall area.

An architecturally striking, S-shaped pedestrian Peace Bridge built in 2011 symbolizes the link between opposing neighborhoods on either side of the River Foyle, while nearby the bronze statue Hands Across the Divide (1992) embodies the spirit of reconciliation and hope for the country's future.

County Down and the rolling green velvet curves of the Mourne Mountains called. They are Northern Ireland's highest peaks, 20 of them higher than 1,000 feet and half of those higher than 2,000.

The sprawling, Victorian red-brick Slieve Donard Resort & Spa, named after the country's highest peak at 2,789 feet, sits on two acres of pristine bayfront land.

Its legendary neighbor is Royal County Down Golf Course and what must be one of the world's most naturally beautiful links settings. Voted the No. 1 golf course in the world by Golf Digest in 2016, it also earned Rory McIlroy's vote as "the best of the best." A native son of Northern Ireland and a popular ambassador for the island's world-class golf, McIlroy ranks Royal Portrush No. 2 in the world. The seaside course in County Antrim, just west of Bushmills, will soon underscore the country's image as "Home of Champions" when it hosts the 148th British Open in 2019, a historic return to Northern Ireland after nearly 70 years.

On our way back to Dublin Airport, we made one final and special detour to the simple, alleged tomb of St. Patrick in the small town of Downpatrick. The beloved fifth-century patron saint of Ireland, one of the most recognized saints in the world, has probably done more for tourism to the Emerald Isle than award-winning marketing campaigns and an HBO series combined.