Culture vultures and nature lovers will discover plenty to satisfy appetites in Northern Ireland
It may seem incongruous to go from afternoon tea in the Great Room of the five-star Merchant Hotel – formerly Ulster Bank’s headquarters– to a walking tour of Belfast’s street art.
But Raspberry Martini and coconut crémeux followed by a debate on the importance of anti-establishment art? Yes, please, I’ll have both.
The opulence of the Merchant gives way to some of Belfast’s less splendid back streets during Adam Turkington’s street art tour (seedheadarts.com). Adam is the founder of an annual street art festival which takes place this year from September 5.
The tour has been described as a more all-round cultural and politcal experience than, say, a black cab or murals tour, though it still feels deeply political to me.
Adam talks about how Belfast has provided fertile ground for street art. As the godfather of punk Terri Hooley famously said: “New York had the haircuts, London had the trousers, Belfast had the reason.”
The city’s walls are adorned with 160 pieces of street art – including work by Maser, Dan Kitchener and Conor Harrington.
The tour is a great way of exploring parts of Belfast that I would not find alone and an engaging way of learning about its political and cultural layers.
Afterwards, I walk a straight mile up to leafy Malone Road and the heart of Queen’s University campus. The Lyric Theatre and Ulster Museum are moments away, as are popular restaurants like Deanes at Queens and The Barking Dog.
The plan is to base myself in the new Harrison Hotel for a culture vulture tour of the neighbourhood.
No 45 Malone Road was once the home of John Cleaver, co-owner of the luxury Robinson & Cleaver department store during Belfast’s golden era of linen-making. Today it’s a lovingly restored and distinctive small hotel run by Melanie Harrison.
Harrison’s project is a valuable addition to the city’s cultural fabric, of which she herself is a part. Her great-grandfather, John Lester, was the head carpenter on the Titanic and helped carve its famous wooden staircase.
I develop an instant hotel crush when Mel shows me around, followed by the loyal family bulldog, Blue. The Harrison Chambers of Distinction – to give it its full name – is her passion.
Every piece in the building has been curated by Harrison. The floorboards are salvage from the Royal Victoria Hospital, a piece of DeLorean leather is lined up to be used in chairs – the place is steeped in local references. Mel has also commissioned local artists to create wallpapers and artworks.
She has created a collection of Belfast stories, naming each of the 16 bedrooms after cultural and literary figures associated with the city – Seamus Heaney who studied and taught at Queen’s University, Samuel Beckett who taught at Campbell College for a year, CS Lewis who was a student at that college, Jonathan Swift, WB Yeats, John Lavery and others.
There are three types of room, called ‘Bohemians’, ‘Gallivanters’ and ‘Aristocrats’, and I sleep in one of the latter but deep down I know I should be in a ‘Gallivanter’.
My room has a four-poster bed, freestanding Victorian bath and chaise longue.
A breakfast of fresh fruit, juice, pastries and coffee is served to me each morning along with a decanter of iced water. I just have to decide whether to breakfast in the bath or on the chaise. The only thing that could possibly improve this room is an illicit lover sneaked in to share it.
Mel has produced a clever “people and places of distinction” map, linking each cultural figure with relevant parts of the city and from which I can easily follow a solo cultural tour that will take in a self-guided visit to CS Lewis Square and the Ulster Museum.
I’ll also add my own bits to it – the beautiful Glass of Thrones stained-glass exhibition along the Maritime Mile and perhaps a whiskey tour taking me back to the days when Belfast produced 60pc of Ireland’s whiskey.
I walk five minutes from the Harrison to the Ulster Museum. I could spend an entire day here soaking up the History of the Troubles and other exhibitions, but I also want to discover the region beyond Belfast.
I head to Islandmagee – half an hour’s drive from Belfast – and check in to The Gobbins, a unique cliff walk which can only be accessed as part of a guided tour.
A system of paths and bridges next to the cliff edge, it was created in 1902 by Wexford-born engineer Berkeley Deane Wise. It’s now owned and run by Larne council and offers people of all ages (above seven years old) and average fitness levels access to a stunning cliff route with a short tunnel section and some close-up views of bird colonies.
In the distance I see the islands that inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and daydream about ladies in long skirts walking the path with parasols in the early 1900s.
The walk takes two-and-a-half hours and with lots of info along the way, it unwinds at a leisurely pace. The route is mostly on uneven ground so walking boots and hard hats are a must.
From Islandmagee, I’m off to the Hidden Village of Galboly in the Glens of Antrim for an afternoon hike with Andrew Magowan from The Inside Trek.
The drive takes me along the Causeway Coastal route, passing through a chain of pretty villages like Carnlough and Glenarm on one of the most scenic routes on the island of Ireland.
Like Mel Harrison, Andrew has returned to Northern Ireland in recent years and is injecting new energy into the region’s tourism sector with a contemporary and sustainable company ethos.
Previously a lawyer with fashion giant ASOS, he offers a bespoke hiking service for private groups. He’s a lovely, down-to-earth guide, quick to laughter and full of info.
Before the hike, he offers me a selection of Northern Irish literature and music to explore. If I’m in Belfast for a few days and fancy a hike, but don’t have my walking gear, he can also provide boots and equipment. He provides transport to and from the hike too. But, most importantly as far as I’m concerned, he can take me to quiet, off-the-beaten-track routes.
The Hidden Village of Galboly is easily reached from a main road, but within 15 minutes I feel as if I’m in total wilderness. It’s no surprise to hear it was used as a location for Game of Thrones. From above its jagged rocks, I look across to Scotland. It’s a wonderful, two-hour hike, within an hour’s drive of Belfast.
My visit to Belfast has been about culture. On the last day, I take a totally different direction at Let’s Go Hydro (LGH) in Carryduff, a 20-minute drive from the city centre. On a hot Friday afternoon, the place is busy with plenty of Irish accents and car registrations.
The brainchild of Argento jewellery company owner and canoe polo enthusiast Peter Boyle, LGH’s main attraction is a Wipeout style aqua park that visitors literally race each other to enjoy and is hilarious for onlookers to watch.
But there’s a lot more going on besides water slides and jumps.
I could try wakeboarding, kneeboarding, kayaking, open water swimming, aqua rugby, volleyball, or yoga and swim. I decide to give paddle boarding a go with a lesson from Boyle’s son Angus.
The challenges of the SUP session – more stand-up comedy than stand-up paddling – will remain forever between myself and Angus.
Let’s just say there’s a knack to getting back on the board after falling off. So far, I have only mastered the falling off part.
I take my bruised ego back to my on-site accommodation and relax on my private terrace with its barbecue and wood-fired hot tub (given the weather, an ice tub would have been more appropriate).
LGH is also a popular glamping destination, with options from basic glamping pods to domes, safari tents, igloo huts and, my choice, a luxury Viking hut in a woodland setting.
I ignore the barbecue and head to the Pizza Boutique for mezze, flatbreads and pizza with mushroom and truffle, all created by young chef James Nelson.
After just one night at LGH, I’m totally relaxed and don’t really want to leave.
I end the trip laughing at people getting wiped out in the aqua park and wondering if Peter would do us a favour by bringing some aqua culture down to Dublin.