A narrow beam of light streaked along the floor of an ancient passageway, straight into the heart of the pitch-black Stone Age burial chamber.

A display, using electric light, recreated what first happened more than 5200 years ago when prehistoric dwellers built the giant mound to house the ashes of their dead.

Newgrange is a massive Neolithic monument in the Boyne Valley, County Meath — the jewel in the crown of Ireland's Ancient East, about 90 minutes' drive south across the border from Belfast. Newgrange is best known for the illumination of its chamber by the sun on the winter solstice.

Above the entrance to the passageway there is an opening called a roof-box. This was created to allow sunlight to penetrate the chamber on the shortest days of the year, around December 21.

Advertisement

At dawn, from December 19-23, a beam of sunlight bursts into the roof-box and reaches the floor, gradually extending 19m to the rear of the mound. As the sun rises higher, the beam widens so the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated. This event lasts for 17 minutes, beginning around 9am.

Standing with my back pressed to a wall inside this 13.5m-high structure, it was hard not to try to transport myself back to a time when Stone Age astronomers harnessed the sun.

"Above you is about 200,000 tons of loose rock which is holding all this together," the Newgrange guide told our tour party, with a touch of Irish mischief. "But don't worry folks, it won't fall down ... remember the Irish are world famous for being builders."

The accuracy of Newgrange as a time-telling device is astonishing when you consider it was built about 3200BC — 500 years before the Great Pyramids of Giza and more than 1000 years before Stonehenge.

One theory is the ancients designed it as a pathway to the gods, so the dead could follow the beam of light directly to the sun.

The mind-boggling site at Newgrange was just one of a number of surprising highlights of a two-day visit to Belfast in Northern Ireland before continuing south to the international tourism mecca of Dublin.

I arrived in Belfast from Glasgow on a short-hop domestic flight after travelling from Auckland.

The stylish Malmaison Hotel near the heart of Belfast's CBD proved the perfect base to explore the city, which has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent times.

Belfast is keen to play down its troubled past, while at the same time acknowledging that the violent sectarian conflict that once raged between its Catholic and Protestant populations is part of its rich and varied history.

At the height of the industrial revolution, Belfast was the global epicentre of tobacco production, rope making and ship building, and of the Irish linen industry. Today, it is morphing into a resurgent, dynamic capital that boasts emerging quarters, diverse charms and hidden secrets.

The Cathedral Quarter is the oldest part of town and has lively pubs, clubs, restaurants and hotels to suit every budget.

Belfast is also proud of its musical heritage and has colorful and beautifully crafted street murals celebrating famous sons such as the incomparable Van Morrison, punk rock heroes Stiff Little Fingers and the late Gary Moore, guitarist for 70s chart-toppers Thin Lizzy.

It is an easy area to explore on foot and in-between listening to any number of live bands and singers at the vibrant and packed pubs, top eating spots include Hadskis in Donegall St and Deane's Meat Locker in the heart of the city.

Belfast's architecture is also well worth exploring. The City Hall in the Linen Quarter was completed in 1906. It was constructed to reflect Belfast's city status, which was granted by Queen Victoria in 1888. The rich interior includes notable features such as the Grand Staircase, the Reception Room and the Great Hall.

And the impressive Linen Hall Library in Donegall Square North is also worth a look. It was founded in 1788 and is steeped in local history.

But if you want to mingle with the friendly locals, head for the bustling St George's Market, one of Belfast's oldest attractions. Built between 1890 and 1896, St George's was named Britain's Best Large Indoor Market 2014 by the National Association of British Market Authorities.

Russell Blackstock in Belfast.
Russell Blackstock in Belfast.

Open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it offers a huge range of local, continental and specialty foods including meat and fish, cheese, coffee beans, tapas and organic products.

But the biggest attraction in town is the spectacular Titanic Belfast experience. It is Northern Ireland tourism's runaway success story. Built at the cost of nearly $200 million and opened in 2012, Titanic Belfast relates the story of the famously doomed ocean liner that was constructed at the local Harland & Wolff shipyards.

The iconic, state-of-the-art building is shaped like the bows of a ship and comprises nine galleries over four floors.

Titanic Belfast transports you through time: travelling from Edwardian "Boomtown Belfast" — learning about the lives of the workers who built the ship and the lives of the passengers and crew who made the fateful voyage - to the present day.

There is even live streaming from where the wreck has lain at rest on the North Atlantic Ocean floor since it struck an iceberg and sank in April 1912 on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.

With the established delights of cosmopolitan Dublin just a short drive south, Belfast offers a great second option for a thrilling two-city break to magical and historic Ireland.

Rocky road to Dublin

There are many great ways to get a taste for history in the capital of the Irish Republic.

Dublin Literary Pub Crawl

Explore Dublin's literary history with a tour of the watering holes the city's celebrated authors once frequented. Whether you're a drinker or not, there's plenty to take in as you embark on an entertaining journey through the streets and drinks that inspired James Joyce (right), Samuel Beckett, Flann O'Brien and more great Irish authors.

Dublin Gravedigger Ghost Tour

Boldly proclaiming itself the "Scariest Dublin Ghost Bus Tour" (are there others?), this tour explores the darker side of the city — with a particular focus on those who succumbed to the plague in medieval Dublin. You'll visit an old jail haunted by a strange phantom pig, stop by a historic graveyard and end your journey with a well-deserved drink at the Gravediggers Pub. The tour includes a free Haunted Dublin Walking Tour pass.

Guinness Storehouse Tour

A trip to the Emerald Isle wouldn't be complete without a visit to the brewery where Ireland's most famous beer is made. The seven-storey Guinness Storehouse is one of Dublin's most visited attractions — you'll get the chance to stand at the bottom of the world's largest pint glass and enjoy a complimentary pint at the in-house bar. True connoisseurs can upgrade to a special tasting experience, where expert staff will guide you on a 90-minute sampling session.

1916 Rebellion Walking Tour

Hit the streets and learn about the history of the 1916 Easter Rising, which precipitated the formation of the Irish Republic. The tour was founded by Dublin historian Lorcan Collins, who literally wrote the book on the subject. It takes different routes daily, but visits plenty of sites that were important during the revolutionary period — including Dublin Castle, the Four Courts, City Hall and the Custom House. All of the guides are historians and published authors, so it will be an accurate and educational experience.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies daily between Auckland and Dublin with direct connections each way in Dubai.