Northern Ireland moving on from its troubled past

By Karen Bowerman

While its battle scars are fascinating, Belfast refuses to be defined by its grim past, writes Karen Bowerman.

Northern Ireland's Mourne Mountains. Photo / 123RF
Northern Ireland's Mourne Mountains. Photo / 123RF

My guide, David Lyttle, heads into a residential street in west Belfast and stops at the end terrace.

The front of the house looks like any other: small porch, neat net curtains and a white door. But the back is enclosed in a giant metal cage.

The home is just metres from one of Northern Ireland's peace walls, erected during the Troubles to try to defuse tension in areas where loyalist and nationalist communities lived close together.

The cage was built to protect a nationalist Catholic family from any stones, bricks or petrol bombs that may have been thrown over the wall by loyalist Protestants.

Murals in the Shankill Road area of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo / 123RF
Murals in the Shankill Road area of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo / 123RF

I find the 8m wall — and the house with its bars — disturbing. But David makes a telling remark: "Most of us don't see them any more."

It's a sign of how Belfast has moved on since the peace process of the 1990s.

Today, gable ends on the loyalist Shankill and nationalist Falls Rds still flaunt propaganda-style murals, but the streets, which were once the centre of sectarian violence, are now popular tourist attractions.

The Europa Hotel, where I'm staying, is another example of how the city has refused to be defined by the past. During the Troubles, the hotel was bombed 28 times. But in 1993, local hotelier Sir William Hastings bought the wrecked building and turned it into a city landmark.

Today, his hotel group continues to support local businesses and regional producers; I enjoy Leggygowan goat's cheese parfait followed by Glenarm salmon for dinner, while breakfast is accompanied by a booklet about the provenance of the food served.

Pages depict smiling suppliers holding muesli, milk, yoghurts, eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, sausages, bacon and award-winning black puddings. With the promise of a "true taste of Ulster" to start my day, how can I not try everything?

I spend the rest of the morning at the Titanic Museum on the city's waterfront, not far from the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the liner was built. The museum is shaped like four hulls, each a staggering 27m high — the same height as the Titanic.

The Titanic visitor attraction in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo / 123RF
The Titanic visitor attraction in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo / 123RF

Inside is a high-tech, multimedia experience, with a theme park-style ride through the shipyard and a 3D film taking visitors on a journey from the engine room, through the lavish decks, to the bridge, where everything is calm.

Later, the voices of survivors recount what happened during the 1912 tragedy. One recalls how, as they hit the iceberg, a piece of it broke off and landed on the deck beside him. He recalls an officer saying it was "nothing to worry about" and then proceeded to make a snowball.

That afternoon, I head to the Culloden Estate and Spa for tea — with a splash of Hendricks gin. Apparently, its subtle flavour, infused with cucumber and rose petals, makes it the perfect accompaniment to scones and cakes. It's a naughty treat but who's to know, since it's served in a teapot?

The Culloden is a five-star country house hotel in Holywood, County Down, about 10km east of Belfast.

After a quick lesson in mixology, I ask the barman if he's ever served any famous guests. He mentions Robbie Williams, David Beckham and Lady Gaga, while Van Morrison has an office in the hotel grounds.

The Belfast singer-songwriter, who launched his solo career with Brown Eyed Girl in the 1960s, has recently joined forces with Hastings Hotels to offer one-off shows for just a few hundred people. The idea is to recreate the feel of the jazz clubs where he began singing.

The Culloden's general manager, Adrian McNally, says the events, accompanied by a gourmet dinner, are a chance for people to get to know the performer better (Morrison is known for being mercurial).

"I'd describe him as a man of few words," McNally says diplomatically, revealing little more than the star is "very partial to Kit Kats".

From Holywood, I explore the Ards Peninsula, following the eastern shore of Strangford Lough, the largest sea inlet in the British Isles, to Newtownards.

Nearby is Mount Stewart, an 18th century house owned by the National Trust, which has just reopened after a three-year, $12 million facelift.

The house has been transformed into how it was in its heyday when it was owned by Lady Edith, wife of the seventh Marquess of Londonderry, early last century.

The property is best known for its 35ha of woodland, formal gardens and lakes. With the lough on one side and the Irish Sea on the other, it enjoys a rare microclimate — bananas grow alongside kiwifruit.

A short ferry ride across The Narrows (the strait at the bottom of the lough) takes me from Portaferry to Strangford, where I continue to Newcastle — a seaside town at the foot of the Mourne Mountains.

My room at the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa, which takes its name from the range's highest peak, has views of the crags and Newcastle's sandy beach. Next door is the Royal County Down Golf Course.

The hotel was built by the Belfast and County Down Railway as an end-of-the-line, luxury destination. It had a bakery, vegetable garden, pigs and a power plant, and offered seawater baths to guests.

Today, its spa is a little more sophisticated; built in conjunction with Espa, it's spread over two floors, with pools, jacuzzis and 16 treatment rooms.

That evening, I pay it a visit. As mist drifts over the mountains, I relax in the softly lit sauna and watch darkness creep over the sea. My troubles are gone.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Helloworld has a range of flight options for Northern Ireland, with Cathay Pacific.

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