This is the companion piece of my last post. This my second visit within a year, where I expanded my scope to the city’s outskirts and integrated family oriented activities to entertain my daughter Nina.
On this occasion we decided to drive from Dublin. Belfast isn’t the best city to find hotels with available parking so I picked the Balmoral Hotel which is 15 minutes outside the city. It helped it was £60 pounds for the night, not bad for a three star hotel.
Leaving Dublin at 10:30am, after getting some pounds from the Post Office (commission free) I made good time getting there within 2 hours. We checked into our hotel, it being ready early. The room was fit for purpose, two single beds, bathroom with shower and most importantly clean. The reception staff were very friendly.
It was a crisp windy March afternoon but in a winter typified by rain and snow, this was a welcome relief. Having the car I was able to expand the scope of my sightseeing beyond the city centre. So we drove out to Scarbo Tower, it dominating the views from its hilltop position for many miles before we reached it. GPS led us to a dead-end but it was easy to determine the rest of the way.
As we parked a local sparked up a conversation with me, advising I look out over Strangford Lough. It has an undesirable history, in that the German warplanes would fly up the Lough in World War II and use the tower to get their line right, for their bombing raids on Belfast city.
The walk to the tower is steep but short and there are wonderful views of the Lough below. It was a struggle to get Nina up though, it was if she seized-up after the drive. The 41 meter tower itself was built as a memorial to Charles Stewart, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry in 1857, in honour of his efforts in the Napoleonic Wars. It wasn’t open that day in April but nonetheless worth the visit. There are 2 floors of exhibits and a viewing floor with great panoramas for those who get to enter.
In the interest of fairness I took Nina to Pirates Adventure Crazy Golf in Dundonald. It’s a solid way to spend an hour and entertaining. It’s an attractive course too, with good use of its theme. It was £17 pounds to do both courses, which was a little expensive. After 36 holes, we had one more hole to fill, that in our stomach, so we crossed the road to Wolfe’s Diner for a good if greasy lunch. I went for their jalapeno burger and Nina predictably for sausages/ chips.
Returning to the outskirts of Belfast I unsuccessfully tried to drive to Stormont Castle. So I discovered you can’t. From what I gather you can only drive onto the Estate on official business. I parked at the bottom of Prince of Wales Avenue content to take a few photos. I chanced my arm and asked about driving up the Avenue. The security guard forever endeared himself to me by letting me drive up the lime tree-lined avenue. Sound guy. It’s exactly a mile from the gates to the parliament building. The parliament building were designed with symbolism in mind, being 365 feet wide to represent the days of the year, and the 6 front pillars the counties in Northern Ireland. It’s a majestic building. I finally found Stormont Castle too, enclosed in a fenced off area. The grounds here are beautiful for a walk.
Traversing the city we started up Cave hill to visit Belfast castle. Cave Hill is part of a low-lying range of basalt mountains sheltering the city from the North West. It rises to 368 metres. A network of paths dissect the hill and along the way several caves and evidence of early human settlement can be found. It is also the location of Belfast Zoo and a seasonal playground. The whole hill area is designated a country park.
There is a car park near the castle. It’s a very photogenic sandstone building on the outside and has a great position above the city. The castle was constructed on the site of an earlier castle which was burned down. The Chichester family were landlords and moved to govern their estate in Ireland. Changing their family name to Donegall, they decided to build a new castle which was completed in 1870. The castle was designed and built in the Scottish Baronial Style. The castle later passed to the Earl of Shaftesbury who donated it to the people of Belfast in 1934. It served as a naval base during World War II.
Admission is surprisingly free. Most of the interior is used nowadays for conferences and banqueting. So no period furniture remains but most of the original ceilings, oak stairs and panelling, and wallpaper are intact. The Chichester Room is the most ornate, and runs the length of the castle. On the second floor there is a museum on Cave Hill and the castle. This leads out into the formal gardens. These are dedicated to the castle cat, and this is where one reaps the best views of the building and of the city below. The serpentine stairs which links the main reception room to the gardens is gorgeous.
The drive back to the hotel was a lethargic one through rush hour traffic, and I had that familiar feeling of coming down with a head cold. Asking the hotel reception when I arrived back about a pharmacy, they instead told me they would get some paracetamol. They didn’t even charge. Fantastic customer service. I kept the focus on beating the cold with a dinner in hotel of veg broth and spicy wings. They were exactly the tonic I needed.
I awoke with a clearer head and set the day up with an Ulster Breakfast. Selection of cooked items was quite good, but Nina was content with a breakfast cereal. We finished at a time that wasn’t ideal for catching the city centre bus, so plan b, we checked out and drove into the city. Luckily it turned out as parking was very reasonable at the Odyssey Car Park.
Perhaps the day before had strong focus on me so on this one had an even bigger focus on Nina. She’s academically very good and interested in science so the W5 Science Museum seemed the perfect place to encourage her. It was. Incredibly she was content to spend seven hours there, the entirety of the day. Admittedly it’s an informative place, I learned a thing or two, and she used pretty much every exhibit. With broad themes from construction, forensics, robotics, physics to augmented reality, there is a lot to entertain. We broke the day with a lacklustre lunch in their cafe, of sandwiches and paninis. I endeavoured to get away singing of the praises of Titanic, but she had none of it.
So overall not what one would call an eventful day, but I had previously successfully toured the city centre in my earlier visit. There is such a pronounced contrast between travelling with a child and an adult. As evening fell, I directed the car south, having spent another enjoyable few days in Northern Ireland’s capital.