There has not been a better time to visit Northern Ireland for 30 years. With the possibility of permanent peace on the horizon, attitudes are changing and suspicion is fading, leaving a tangible air of optimism about the place. The trickle of tourists is beginning to grow and may soon turn into a flood. Come now and see old whiskey distilleries, magnificent mountains, cathedral-like caves, an Irish Camelot - and history in the making.
Air: Both British Airways (0345 222111) and Jersey European (0990 676676) fly to Belfast from around pounds 69 return. If you want to take your bicycle, check the conditions of carriage.
Trains & Ferries: For journeys involving a combination of train and ferry travel, call National Rail Enquiries (0345 484950). The most useful ferries are the Liverpool-Belfast (Norse-Irish Ferries 0151 9441010) and Stranraer- Belfast (Seacat Scotland 0990 523523).
Buses: Eurolines (01582 404511) run regular coaches to Belfast from a number of major cities across Britain. Prices start at pounds 59 return.
The most convenient way of touring the country is by car. If you don't have your own you can hire one from around pounds 32 per day in Belfast City from Europcar (01232 450904), or at Belfast Airport from Avis (01849 422333).
Ulsterbus runs regular and reliable services throughout the six counties, and particularly to those towns not served by the limited railway network. A Freedom of Northern Ireland ticket will give you unlimited daily (adults pounds 9, children pounds 4.50) or weekly (adults pounds 32, children pounds 16) travel on all Ulsterbus (01232 333000) and Northern Ireland Rail (01232 899411) scheduled services.
A more leisurely way of getting around is by bicycle. These can be rented from McConvey Cycles (476 Ormeau Road, Belfast. Tel: 01232 491163) and some of the larger towns for around pounds 7 per day or pounds 40 per week.
THINGS TO SEE
While the main "see and do" sights are dotted all over Ulster, you'll come across plenty of interesting ruined castles and picturesque villages along the way.
n Belfast is one of the most interesting cities you're ever likely to visit. Not far beyond the triumphalist Victorian architecture of the central Donegal Square lies the working-class area of West Belfast. The two most infamous streets in this district are the Catholic Falls Road and Protestant Shankill Road, which are divided by a high red-brick wall known as the "Peace Line". To tour this fascinating area and admire the many murals you can drive yourself or take a taxi. Don't go at night.
n The Ulster Museum (Mon-Sat 10am-4.50pm, Sun 1-4.50pm; free) is housed in the grounds of Belfast's Botanic Gardens. It has an extensive remit covering everything from a 35 million-year-old mackerel, to modern art by Francis Bacon and Henry Moore. The main highlight, though, is the treasure collection salvaged from the Spanish Armada which floundered off Giant's Causeway in 1588.
n The Glens of Antrim are an expanse of stunning moorland that sweeps dramatically upwards from the weathered coastline. Each of the villages in the region has a distinctive character. The castle at Glenarm is home to the earls of Antrim, the inn at Camlough was once owned by Winston Churchill, and the red curfew tower at Cushendall was built in 1809 as "a place of confinement for idlers and rioters". One of the best ways to explore the area is on foot.
n The Ulster American Folk Park (Mon-Sat 11am-6.30pm, Sun 11.30am-7pm; adults pounds 3.50, children pounds 1.70), situated just outside Omagh, tells the story of Ireland's early emigrants and ranks as one of the country's top tourist attractions. The reconstruction of an Ulster village comes complete with original buildings, including cottages, a forge, a Presbyterian church and a "famine cabin". A full-sized replica ship makes the connection with the New World settlement in Pennsylvania, while actors in period costume bring the whole place to life.
n The Bushmills Distillery (Mon-Sat 9.30am-4pm, Sun noon-4pm; adults pounds 3.50, children pounds 1.50), just a few miles from the Giant's Causeway, has been producing whiskey since 1608, when King James I granted the original licence to distil "Acqua Vitae". This makes it the oldest licit distillery in the world. Even if you're not a malt maniac, this fascinating place is still worth a visit - if only for the smells.
n The Giant's Causeway, on Ulster's north coast, is a mass of four- to eight-sided basalt columns which are anything up to 40 feet high. Some sophisticated thinkers believe the Causeway is a geological freak caused by volcanic eruptions, cooling lava and so on. But locals will tell you that when the giant Finn MacCool fell in love with a lady giant from the Hebrides, he built this handy highway to bring her back to Ulster. You'll have to make up your own mind.
n The Mourne Mountains are a youthful set of 12 shapely summits stretching up to more than 2,000 feet on their eastern side. In the summer time there are plenty of short jaunts and longer walks to enjoy. One of the most popular is the steep afternoon trek up Slieve Donard from the car park at Bloody Bridge near Newcastle. From the top you can see the distant Isle of Man, the full length of Strangford Lough and the pale line of Lough Neagh.
n Navan Fort (open access; free), just two miles west of Armagh, was the ancient seat of kings for nearly 700 years. It is the earliest capital of Ulster and is probably best described as the Irish version of Camelot. The settlement was overthrown by the Collas brothers' army in AD332 and razed to the ground forever. To get the most out of Navan you should visit the nearby interpretative centre (daily 10am-7pm. Tel: 01861 525 500), which covers the fort's exciting history with an excellent multimedia exhibition.
n Draperstown & Moneymore are fine examples of Ulster's many plantation settlements built by the London companies. The patriotism which drives places such as these to paint their kerbstones red, white and blue, and to have Union Jacks fluttering from every lamppost can be strangely unnerving. If you'd like to know more about the plantation of Ireland, call in at the Plantation of Ulster Visitor Centre (daily 11am-5pm; adults pounds 2.50, children pounds 1.25) in Draperstown.
n Marble Arch Caves (daily 10am-4.30pm; adults pounds 5, children pounds 2) are the most spectacular cave system in Ireland. The unforgettable one-and-a-half- hour tour begins with a boat journey along a subterranean river, then on through brilliantly lit chambers full of huge stalactites and stalagmites. Ring ahead to make sure the tours haven't been booked up with parties, and bring warm clothes and sturdy shoes - even if it is blazing sunshine outside.
FESTIVALS & EVENTS
Northern Ireland has literally hundreds of different events and festivals going on all year round, but the main ones are as follows:
n 7-21 March
This is the time for the Celtic Spring Festival in Derry. Drama and Irish language events are the highlight of this cultural feast which includes Celtic rock bands and set dancing on St Patrick's Day.
n 22-25 May
You've just missed the seventh Southern Comfort Jazz and Blues Festival in Derry. Every year a host of international names draw in the crowds and create a real party atmosphere. Put it in your diary for next year.
n 5-27 June
During the Festival of Classic Opera at Strangford, County Down, you'll be able to catch a performance of Verdi's La Traviata in the impressive Castleward stately home.
n 26-28 June
Sailing enthusiasts shouldn't miss the Portaway Galway Hooker Regatta in Strangford Lough at 3pm on Sunday. Although there will be a variety of events for sailors and land-lubbers alike all weekend.
n 26 July-2 August
Rostrevor's Fiddler's Green International Festival gets bigger and better every year. Over the four days there will be music schools, art exhibitions, hill walking, children's events, and a literary pub crawl.
n 2-9 August
The mountains of Carntogher, Moneyneena, Glenullin and Slieve Gallion are the setting for walks led by professional guides and native story-tellers during the Sperrins Hill Walking Festival.
n 11-13 September
During the Hillsborough Oyster Festival in County Down, the pretty Georgian village will be hosting oyster-eating competitions, a street carnival and fun raft races.
n 13-29 November
Belfast comes alive in November with a feast of drama, comedy, ballet, cinema and every kind of music, during the annual Belfast Festival. Venues include the Queen's University and the Waterfront Hall.
PLACES TO STAY
The places below are among the finest on offer in their relevant locations. All prices include a full cooked breakfast and en suite bathroom. If the following options do not suit you, contact the main tourist office in Belfast for alternatives.
n Madison's, 59-63 Botanic Avenue, Belfast (01232 330040), is a new hotel with trendy rooms complete with modern art, a popular bar and throbbing night-club. A single/double (preferably on one of the upper floors) costs pounds 65/pounds 75 a night.
n Slieve Donard Hotel, Downs Road, Newcastle (013967 23681), has wonderful sea views from the front-facing rooms and a free health suite for guests. Superior singles / doubles go for pounds 82/pounds 120 a night.
n Charlemont Arms Hotel, 63-65 English Street, Armagh (01861 522028), in the centre of the small but perfectly formed city of Armagh, is an old hotel with a variety of spacious rooms. Singles/doubles cost pounds 30/pounds 55 a night.
n Royal Arms Hotel, 51-53 High Street, Omagh (01662 243262), is smack in the middle of the pleasant town of Omagh. Currently, special promotion bargain singles/doubles cost just pounds 24/pounds 39 a night.
n Bushmills Inn, 25 Main Street, Bushmills (012657 32339), is an old coaching-house with a cosy atmosphere, peat fires and a popular restaurant. Singles/doubles cost from pounds 58/pounds 78 a night.
FOOD & DRINK
The quality and range of food on offer in Northern Ireland has improved dramatically in recent years. The food is still highly meat-oriented, but just about everywhere offers some vegetarian options. The classic Irish drink is, of course, Guinness, but you shouldn't leave without sampling some of the excellent malt whiskey.
n Mizuna Restaurant, 99 Botanic Avenue, Belfast (01232 230063), is a romantic place with a wonderful fusion of European cuisine and a good wine-list. A threecourse meal should cost round pounds 25 without drinks.
n The Pavilion Restaurant, 3a Railway Street, Newcastle (013967 26239), serves dishes like grilled trout almondine for pounds 5.50 in the downstairs restaurant, and has superb three-course meals for pounds 19.50 upstairs.
n Jodies, 37 Scotch Street, Armagh (01861 527577) is a pink and blue place in a modern building with an a la carte menu with decent veggie options. A three-course meal can be yours for less than pounds 15 without drinks.
n Grant's Restaurant, George Street, Omagh (01662 250900) is an old-style place in a modern building. A wholesome and hearty three-course meal should cost around pounds 20 without drinks.
n Killen's Restaurant, 28 Ballyclogh Road, Dervock (012657 41536), is located in a converted 19th-century schoolhouse. A superb six-course meal will set you back just pounds 19.50. Booking recommended.
For information on anything from hotels to hiking, contact the Northern Ireland Tourist Information Centre, St Anne's Court, 59 North Street, Belfast (01232 246609). Most of the larger towns and holiday destinations are blessed with helpful tourist information centres. Their addresses and telephone numbers can be obtained from the main Belfast office (see above).Reuse content