Northern Ireland has always had its fair share of devotees, addicted to some of Europe's most startling scenery: such places as the gorgeous Glens of Antrim and the grand, unsettling Giant's Causeway. But these established stops on the Northern Ireland tourist route are situated in the largely untroubled north of the province. When the tourist board starts extolling the virtues of the former "bandit country" of South Armagh, and is happy to point you in the direction of sightseeing tours of the mural-daubed estates of West Belfast, you sense an important shift is taking place.
what to see
Londonderry, the rejuvenated second city in the north-west, has a tourist bargain in retired architect Harry Bryson. He charges just pounds 1.50 (75p for a child) for his inspired walking tours. Phone the city tourist centre on 01504 365151.
An hour down the road from Londonderry is Omagh, home of the fascinating Ulster History Park, which contains examples of every type of house ever built in the province, starting with a Mesolithic hut. Tel: 01662 648188. Nearby is the Ulster American Folk Park (01662 243292), started in 1976 with the cottage in which American billionaire Thomas Mellon grew up. It has grown to represent not only all of the 18th and 19th centuries in Ulster, but a transatlantic passage and brave new start in Pennsylvania. Just west of Omagh is Fermanagh, the fabulous lakeland where Ulster goes out to play, not to mention an annual shoal of German anglers.
Closer to Belfast, the Irish Linen Centre in Lisburn, about 10 miles down the M1, has not only a fascinating exhibition on the days when Northern Ireland was the world hub of linen, but a shop selling everything from napkins to exquisite raincoats. Tel: 01846 663377.
A drive south will take you to the Exploris aquarium in Portaferry, nursing back to health one of the province's great unexplained mysteries, a female seal called Selkie found last autumn in a field, covered in cow dung.
where to stay
My favourite Ulster hotel break this year was a cycling weekend at The Londonderry Arms in Carnlough, formerly owned by Winston Churchill. For pounds 59.95 I got a mountain bike and a packed lunch from manager Mary O'Neill, who, suffering either from double vision or excessive generosity, had packed enough for two.
Tel: 01574 885255. The tourist board's Where to Stay guide is pounds 3.99. Tel: 01232 231221.
where to eat
Northern Ireland's highest-profile restaurant is named after a French port, which seems suitably Irish. Roscoff in south Belfast opened six years ago: Loyd Grossman has since named it his favourite UK restaurant. It now runs only set menus, at a piffling pounds 21.50 for three courses. Lunch at pounds 14.50 is even better value. Other well-heeled eateries which respond to the surprising fact that Northern Ireland has more BMWs per capita than anywhere else in the world outside Germany include Deane's on the Square in picturesque Helen's Bay, Shanks in Clandeboye, the Grange in Waringstown and Beech Hill Country House in Londonderry, which boasts a chef so attuned to his profession that he goes by the name of Noel McMeal. All highly recommended by my waistline. The Kitchen Bar in Belfast city centre does wonderful traditional Irish pub lunches. Pick up the tourist board's Where to Eat guide, pounds 3.99. Phone 01232 231221 for details.
where to drink
There can be few finer pleasures in life than calling into the Crown Bar in Belfast on the way home from Saturday afternoon shopping. Built in 1826, and embellished in 1885 by Italian craftsmen, the Crown is Victorian Gothic at its intricate finest. As the gaslights come on and dusk gathers in the day, raise your glass of stout and drink a toast to the National Trust, which restored it in 1981.
For details of the Crown and other nosh and slosh outlets pick up a copy of Sybil Taylor's Pubs of Ireland (Appletree), pounds 5.99 from bookshops and tourist information centres.
how to get there
There are direct flights to Northern Ireland from just about everywhere in Great Britain. The slower alternative is to take the ferry from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire or Dublin and then drive north, or drive to Stranraer and take either of two ferries to Larne or the SeaCat direct to Belfast. Contact your travel agent or the Northern Ireland Tourist Board on 01232 231221.
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