HOW DOES the marketing director of the Northern Ireland tourist board persuade people to holiday in a place associated with soldiers and blown-up buildings? Presumably with some difficulty - although numbers of visitors to the province have been steadily increasing, from an all-time low at the start of the Troubles in the early Seventies, to more than 250,000 in 1991. If that seems a lot, visitors to the British Museum top five million every year.

While the board was recently accused of trying to make money out of people's misery with the mere suggestion that visitors' curiosity about in the Troubles should not be overlooked, the tourist brochures avoid the subject altogether. At present, they talk only of 'forest parks . . . windswept moors . . . white Atlantic sands'. And there is truth in this - if you go to the right parts. But I also went on to the wrong parts, to get some idea of what a tourist might learn in West Belfast.

Poor weather - forecasters make a habit of predicting a 100 per cent chance of rain - and the threat of bombs must make Northern Ireland's north coast one of the UK's most unspoilt. Here I came across no checkpoints or soldiers; usually, the only evidence of conflict is each town's RUC station, heavily fortified with lookout post and high fencing. That said, last November a 500lb IRA bomb destroyed Coleraine's town centre.

If you are prepared to brave both the elements of nature and the undesirable elements, you will have a magical place all to yourself. Driving beside the long sandy beaches, or exploring the beauty spots, I had just a few locals for company. Even on Magilligan Strand, Ireland's longest beach, there were only a few people strolling along. At its eastern end, Mussenden Temple - a bizarrely isolated neoclassical library on the cliff edge - was deserted. At Murlough Bay, in the north-east corner of the coast, there were only sheep, playing King of the Castle on rocky outcrops, and a lonesome cottage next to a lapping grey sea.

The only place that stays relatively busy all year is the Giant's Causeway, the promontory of thousands of hexagonal lava-made basalt columns protruding into the sea. It makes you wonder, as with a honeycomb, how something that looks so precise can be naturally derived.

Even here it is easy to find solitude. On the five-mile circular walk beyond the causeway, the grey basalt columns seem superimposed on the ochre cliffsides, some with names such as the Chimney Tops or the Organ. Below, waves throw spume over volcanic black boulders.

But visitors are constantly aware that this beauty is only one aspect of Northern Ireland. I wanted to explore West Belfast, the city's sectarian heartland, known as the most dangerous place in the UK.

Would I be able to tell this just from wandering around? Would a visit be seen as voyeuristic? The advice from the city tourist office went no further than 'you'll be safe walking along the Falls Road in daylight'. Its map stops at West Belfast's peripheries. Different places, different perceptions: in Britain, the whole of Northern Ireland is seen as dangerous; on the north coast, the city of Belfast is regarded with alarm; in Belfast centre, it is West Belfast the citizens regard as a virtual no-go area.

An hour-long tour of West Belfast in a taxi costs about a tenner. On the western edge of the city centre, a couple of hundred yards apart, are two taxi ranks, signs in Gaelic distinguishing the Catholic from the Protestant. Taxis go only to their own community - to the Catholic Falls or Protestant Shankill, for example. The taxis act like a flexible community bus service, dropping off and picking up passengers for 50p along set routes.

One advantage of a taxi tour is the chance to talk in private to a local. The driver may even be a loyalist or republican ex-prisoner. 'The fellas coming out of jail have done their time. They deserve a job,' said my Protestant driver.

My Catholic driver was a Sinn Fein supporter but, to my surprise, neither he nor any other republican I met, in West Belfast or anywhere in Northern Ireland, showed any animosity towards me.

I asked the driver when he had last crossed the few hundred yards into Protestant Shankill. More than a year ago, he replied - to buy a toy for a child. 'They'd know I was Catholic as I'd be looking over my shoulder the whole time.' My Protestant driver talked lyrically of drinking in Catholic pubs on the Falls Road before the Troubles.

Having got my bearings in the taxis, I felt confident to explore on foot.

Divis Tower acts as a solitary beacon guarding the entrance to the Falls. At the top of the flats is an army surveillance post - supplies are brought in by helicopter. At the city centre end of the Falls Road is the Sinn Fein office, which I braved to ask for a visitors' map of the area.

It gives the rough location of many political murals, as well as Sinn Fein centres and army barracks. The Sinn Fein shop next door, as well as promulgating Gerry Adams's words of wisdom and other political tracts, is West Belfast's tourist shop. You can buy 'I Love West Belfast' mugs, T-shirts featuring hooded gunmen, even your very own republican flag.

West Belfast has reputedly the worst housing, health and unemployment in Northern Ireland, and certainly the poverty on the Falls Road struck me as much as the declarations of nationalism. Among tattered republican flags, lampposts and kerbstones painted white, yellow and green, kids jump on to the outside of moving buses, dogs hold up traffic and drunks slump in doorways.

North of the Falls Road is the 'Peace Line' - metal fencing in places, elsewhere a proper wall. It slinks jaggedly between the Falls and Shankill, sometimes splitting residential streets in two. It is supposed to make policing easier and reduce vigilante attacks. Every night at 6pm the few crossing points are closed off. People fear being spotted driving down a dead-end street, their desire to be in the other community all too clear.

Murals are dotted all over West Belfast, many adorning the gable ends of terraces. Their strong colours and painstaking artwork seem at odds with their messages of hate and images of masked gunmen.

Republican murals often portray the Easter Rising of 1916, and Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, when soldiers killed 13 civil rights demonstrators. Sometimes the dates alone are left to speak for themselves.

There is less to see in Protestant Shankill - a result of the loyalist identity problem, my taxi driver said. At the end of his tour he had called over fellow drivers to demonstrate his point. On being asked their nationality, the first had said 'British', the second 'Irish'. But as I wandered up the Shankill Road, it occurred to me how certain ordinary sights - people wearing poppies for Remembrance Sunday, an RUC constable helping a shopkeeper put up a ladder - were unthinkable on the Falls Road a few hundred yards away. Here the kerbstones are red, white and blue, and a few Union Jacks fly.

The loyalist murals in Percy Street, off the south of the Shankill Road, use the simple symbolism of flags, crowns, coats of arms and initials of paramilitary groups. Northern Ireland is depicted in isolation. Some of the most colourful murals show William of Orange riding victorious over Catholic James II: the most significant Protestant date is 1690 - the Battle of the Boyne.

Is it morbid to visit West Belfast, like hanging around the scene of a gory accident? Nobody I spoke to thought so. Once, I came across two German tourists snapping away at murals. A resident who was parking his car moved it away from one of the murals so that the photographers could get a better view.


Getting there: British Airways (081-897 4000) from Heathrow to Belfast's Aldergrove Airport (19 miles from the city), from pounds 75. Britannia (0582 424155) from Luton to Aldergrove, pounds 78. Ferry: Scotland to Larne, 20 miles north of Belfast, takes about 2 1/4 hours. P & O (0304 203388) from Cairnryan, Sealink Stena (0233 647047) from Stranraer. From pounds 26 for foot passengers, pounds 150 for car and up to five passengers.

Accommodation: A double room in a north coast B & B costs about pounds 22; pounds 58 for a double room at the Bushmills Inn (02657 32339), the north coast's best hotel.

Most Belfast B & Bs are in the south of the city. Ash-Rowan (0232 661758), one of the best, has doubles from pounds 56.

Food and drink: Ramore (0265 824313), Portrush, is affordable and one of the best restaurants on the north coast. The Roscoff, Shaftesbury Square (0232 331532), almost merits a trip to Belfast in itself.

Belfast's so-called Golden Mile has a vast array of restaurants and pubs. At the city centre end is the Crown Liquor Saloon, with elaborate carvings, panelled snugs and Strangford oysters. The Strand restaurant (0232 682266), to the south of the Golden Mile, is excellent value.

Books: Despatches from Belfast by David McKittrick - the Independent's Ireland correspondent - is good on West Belfast (Blackstaff Press, pounds 8.95). The best travel literature on Northern Ireland is A Place Apart by Dervla Murphy (Penguin, pounds 5.95).

Further information: The Northern Ireland Tourist Board (0232 246609).

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