Northern Ireland: The foodie fan's break for the Border
Year of Food & Drink
Mark Evans goes on a two-day trail of beer, cider and food in Armagh, Down and Antrim
Some people believe travel is all about sights, scenery and culture.
Me? I've always been convinced it's about the people you meet - and there's no better way to meet them than over a pint or a bite to eat.
The smart traveller doesn't need much encouragement to head across the border for a short break - but basing a calendar year around booze and food adds even more incentive.
Northern Ireland is currently showcasing dozens of artisan producers - many with historical connections, others just the recent brainchild of daring young Turks.
I took a tour of a tiny slice of what's on offer - roughly in a straight line just across the border in Co Armagh, up to the furthest north-eastern corner of the island on the Antrim coast.
First stop was Armagh - the aptly-named Orchard County of Ireland - at the Armagh Cider Company, at Ballinteggart.
It's a beautiful part of the country, and Ireland's answer to the Champagne region of France. Don't take my word for it - the powers that be in Europe have designated the Bramley apples grown in the Diocese of Armagh with a PGI status, so only local apples can boast that fact. The Troughton family have been growing apples on their estate since 1898, and the latest generation - Philip and Helen Troughton - have taken it one step further by turning some of those apples into cider.
It's a small business, and even if you don't like the sweet ciders of the mass market, it's worth trying out their drinks (no additives) like Carsons or Maddens. They're full of taste, and more in common with the fresh cider you'd pick up on holidays in northern France. Check out armaghcider.com.
It's a short drive to Belfast, a city where the food offering is often underestimated. Even during the darkest days, its Golden Mile in South Belfast was bustling with good restaurants. Now the scene is even livelier.
I tried lunch in James Street South (jamesstreetsouth.co.uk), right in the heart of the city. It's a locally-focused menu, with Strangford Lough Bouillabaise and local organic lamb. The two-course menu costs £15.50 - good value for a restaurant that looks a look more upmarket - with soups that are arty creations, cured salmons, cider-braised pork and truffle on offer.
I didn't expect to find one of the best lagers I've ever tasted in Belfast, but Yardsman would give the best from Germany or the Czech Republic a run for their money.
Before Dublin grabbed the headlines, Belfast had 13 breweries back in the day. Niall McMullan (below) is slowly changing that with The Hercules Brewing Company, situated near the famous Titanic museum.
And his beers are about as local as you can get. Yardsman is named after olden days local workers in industries like linen-making, ship-building, distilling and brewing - and the beer is made by filtering Irish lager malt and Belfast water through Irish linen, before being matured for six weeks.
It's not just lager, there are other beers, and Niall says: "People are going mad for the double porter." Sadly, they're not available in the Republic - yet - but widely available up North. Check out yardsmanlager.com for pubs and stockists.
The nice thing about the North's push on food is that each month is dedicated to something different. April was drinks month, so it tied in with the Belfast Craft Beer Festival, with (hipsters ahoy!) plenty of local beers, with some great ones from the Mourne Mountains Brewery (mournemountainsbrewery.com), plus whiskey and gin distillers.
Michelin-starred restaurants aren't exactly ten a penny in Ireland, but Belfast boasts one of the best - OX (oxbelfast.com). Overlooking the River Lagan, its lunch is a steal at £20, but you can splurge £50 a head (£30 extra for matching wines) for the course-after-course tasting menu. It's pure MasterChef theatre - cured halibut, Mourne lamb, and vegetables that are turned into mini works of art.
The nice thing is that it's also casual and friendly, so not a bad way to fine dine without the fuss. Further up the road is Ireland's hidden treasure - the Antrim coast.
It should get more visitors from down south, as it's stunning. The golf mecca of Portrush, the ruins of Dunluce Castle, the Giant's Causeway, and Bushmills, home to Bushmills.
The area has had a licence to distil since 1608, and it's going strong since. I'm not a whiskey fan, but it'd be rude not to have a tasting session of six different blends just after breakfast. The tour is fascinating and easily walkable. bushmills.com
Just up the road is the Bushmills Inn (bushmillsinn.com). If you like big, big portions, a lovely beer garden in the summer, or a hearty fire in the winter, this is chillout central. I'm only sad to say I didn't stay overnight as the food (seafood, steaks, burgers) is pretty satisfying and exceptional.
It'd be a shame to head straight back to Dublin. The town of Hilden (named by German soldiers who stayed on from the William v James battles),is home to Hilden Brewery (hildenbrewery.com). One of the pioneers of the North's beer renaissance with tasty beers like Belfast Blonde, it's in a beautiful spot and also hosts its 30th annual beer and music festival this August, an event that's definitely worth checking out.
A cinch. I stayed in the central Europa Hotel in Belfast (hastingshotels.com. pictured above), which is a handy drive from Dublin, or you can get there by train via Belfast Central and Great Victoria Street (next door). Really comfy with a great night bar, it's just across the road from the Crown Bar, too.
More info: June is all about dairy, July about fish, August is meat in the North. For ideas, check out discovernorthernireland.com.