Recreational riots should not dim Northern lights
IN THE run up to Christmas Northern Ireland was anything but festive. News reports highlighted a sort of mob mentality as loyalists draped in Union Jacks assembled with purpose.
Bomb scares disrupted shoppers. Security forces scrambled to evacuate and close off roads.
The Christmas lights dangled from above city streets but the crowds were sent home.
Some tourists spoke on Morning Ireland about a mini riot that had erupted outside their hotel restaurant window.
They dined in stunned silence as protesters wreaked havoc on tourism and business alike.
It was amid this climate that I ventured north of the border for a pre-planned road trip.
The mini break had been booked in advance of the protests which began following a decision to limit the number of days the Union flag would fly over Belfast City Hall.
Friends who were due in Belfast instead diverted to Dublin for a city break. I called Hotels.com to cancel their non-refundable room.
Once I mentioned trouble on the streets of Northern Ireland, the money was immediately returned in full.
I wondered how many more potential tourists had opted out of a holiday to Northern Ireland. We left Dublin for Belfast. There was no denying the border; the colours of the crown were everywhere.
It could have been the height of the marching season with union flags flapping from lamp posts. This was a defiant land of red, white and blue. Except it was not.
Fortunately I met with no unease or unrest, no evidence of protests, no road closures.
Outside City Hall Converse-clad teenagers huddled in excitable groups.
The majestic building may have been without a flag but tasteful rows of fairy lights adorned its tall pillars.
We dined in a nearby stylish eatery called Made In Belfast. Here it was easy to see things had changed in Northern Ireland.
Trendy 20-somethings enjoyed mezze plates for starters and venison pie mains. Eclectic decor and chilled-out sounds complimented the menu.
Made in Belfast could have been London or Barcelona.
Belfast's skyline is still dominated by the iconic Harland and Wolff cranes.
I visited the Titanic Belfast experience located in a futuristic building next to the historic shipyard.
It's one of the top tourist attractions in Northern Ireland, where visitors can re-live the entire Titanic story.
During this tour, I heard accents from across the country, languages from around the globe.
Loyalist demonstrators should perhaps visit the foyer to get a flavour of what they seem intent on destroying.
From Beflast, I travelled north along the coastal causeway towards Derry. Again, union flags in various sizes peppered the journey. There was barely a pole in Carrickfergus without one.
But away from the towns, the rugged Antrim coastline was breathtaking in places.
Roarke's café in the quaint Ballintoy Harbour near the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge is the perfect pitt stop for a bowl of piping hot Irish stew.
This is a meal appreciated all the more after a trek around the legendary Giant's Causeway.
Finn McCool's ancient land is as impressive in real life as I had hoped; each slippery step steeped in a kind of mystery.
The day was blustery, the wind fierce at times, and as the Atlantic waves crashed against the shoreline, I was happy that I had not diverted to Dublin.
New Year's Eve in Derry marked the start of the city's status as UK Capital of Culture 2013. And much of this culture can be found in its troubled past.
A walking tour with local man Martin McCrossan sheds light on the dark history of this walled city.
A wander through the bogside to see the murals on the gable walls of terraced houses also offers an insight into how things used to be.
An Italian tourist kindly took a photo of us by the wall stating 'You are now entering free Derry'.
This would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.
The strides made for peace and prosperity should not be allowed to unravel.
A few days after my trip, trouble brewed again on the streets of Belfast.
Northern Ireland has so much to offer, but as long as 'recreational rioting' continues, it's hard to get that message out.