Before leaving the Ballygally Castle Hotel, we climbed their very old tower to check out the resident ghost. Apparently, she’s friendly, but I still made the climb in daylight! The story goes that the poor wife of cranky rich nasty man of title was locked into the tower after giving birth to their son. One version has her falling to her death attempting to escape, the other has said husband (or henchman) hurling her to her death. Her bedroom is very drab and tiny and cold and poorly furnished, which adds to the drama and spookiness. The climb up the tower passes some function rooms, all decked out in period furniture and dressings, so combined with the ghost, it does feel more than a bit geared to the tourist – Ballygally’s quirky drawcard. Still, it’s a sad story if it’s true. Go to Ballygally Castle Hotel
Through the grey rain we made the very short journey to Belfast. We left our luggage and our car at The Europa Hotel (the Hastings chain seems to be improving with each check in!), and had the concierge book us a black cab tour – a tour of the places of political significance to The Troubles. We were both very impressed with our tour guide, Jim, from ‘NI Black Taxi Tours.’ He was very thorough in his explanations, yet never once were we able to discern his own political leanings – he expressed compassion for the victims of both sides of this long, violent argument. He was more than happy for me to be asking some very open and direct questions, too, and really clarified so much about the whole ‘one Ireland’ debate that still continues, albeit more peacefully, now. It was moving to write our names on the Peace Wall (managed to squeeze them in right next to Bill Clinton). If you are looking for Belfast Taxi Tours you should consider NI Black Taxi Tours for an interesting and impartial take on Belfast’s political history.
Dropped in at the historic (and gorgeous) Crown Bar for lunch. What a unique watering hole. The glistening and colourful tiled bar and intricately ornate red, yellow and gold ceilings drew us into an intimate and atmospheric little snug where we pressed the button for service! There is exquisitely garish painted and etched glass everywhere you turn, and the many mirrors give the illusion of the saloon being much larger than it is. Am really glad we went for lunch (managing to score a snug) and had the opportunity to throw ourselves back in time in one of the most glamorous Victorian pubs I have ever seen. The menu suited the surrounds – we had a hearty vegetable tart, which had a little too much Worchester sauce on the caramelised onions (too salty – maybe the bold decore encouraged bold tastes!), but the beer battered mushrooms with garlic mayo were fabulous. And once again the side of greens were overcooked (seems to be a trend in Northern Ireland with that). Go to The Crown Bar
The Europa is an interesting hotel, full of history and mayhem – it’s the most bombed hotel in the world (although not always was it the target!). Bill Clinton even stayed here on his peace talk visits (although I am sure his rooms were a bit posher than ours!). We had an executive room with a very comfortable bed, arm chairs, robes, even a sensor light in the bathroom for those disorienting night time visits! Disappointed, though, that their bar, The Lobby, didn’t have any peanuts or chips for sale to have with the wine (is that even legal in Australia?). Ended up sending John across the road to Tesco’s for a packet of peanuts, and it made all the difference to my enjoyment! Go to The Europa
We wandered the city in the afternoon, shopping for our little contributions for the evening’s dinner. Found an exclusive wine shop – Direct Wine Shipments – family owned store, but deals in VERY nice stuff, not what you’d get at the supermarket – they source their product from the smaller boutique wineries. Was very impressed. The Sancerre from France and the Pinot Noir from Spain would do nicely. Go to Direct Wine Shipments
We found for ourselves some sublime chocolates at Co Coutoure (award winning chocolates, no less!). The lovely woman who owns/runs the place makes her the chocolate on the premises. We had quite a natter and made a few selections – one very impressive number was a chocolate covered brownie that also had caramel streams through it – so delicious (she threw in extra cause she liked us!). Go to Co Couture Chocolate
In our search for some exclusive coffee beans for Richard (our charming and talented chef for the evening), we were directed to Sawers, a rather upmarket and a bit posh deli absolutely crammed to the brim with deliciousness – plump fresh sardines, butternut squashes stuffed with feta and many, many, many different cheeses! We managed to refrain from succumbing to the oodles of temptations, and selected two different types of beans to gift to our host. Sigh – if only we weren’t booked into all of these fabulous restaurants for meals, we might’ve been able to buy the makings of a picnic . . . Oh, who am I kidding??? Regret of fine dining? I don’t think so!!
We had a truly wonderful time with our Irish friends at dinner (Mary and Jeremy from Kilmahon House joined us as well). The food was amazing – I swear we could’ve been eating in one of Belfast’s finest restaurants, only the decore, table setting and cutlery were far too exquisite! I, of course, negated all of this gorgeousness by eating so much that I had to unbutton my pants – classy! Had a fantastic night – we left about 1am and caught a cab back to the hotel (our hosts were so gracious that they forgot to remind us that they had work the next morning!!). We were sad to say goodbye. Sometimes, it really isn’t fair making friends with people overseas – you hardly ever get the chance to see them again in the flesh (but am grateful for Skype and FaceTime!).
We couldn’t sleep in the next morning as we had tickets for the Titanic Exhibition (set admission times). Ironically, I felt so very relaxed this morning, just chillin’ – maybe just very tired still. LOVED the exhibition! Spent two hours wandering through the amazing interactive exhibits – so very thorough in their information and brilliant in design. The ride, a la Disneyland, through the bowels of the ship and the building process was a particular highlight, as was the virtual immersion film that ‘levitated’ you through floor after floor of the ship, from the engine room to the bridge. There were surprises and delights at every corner. Wish more exhibitions and museums had as splendid an eye for detail and design as this! Even benches and chairs were perfectly placed so that at the moment when one felt like a rest – there was a seat! There is even an app that hints at the scope and creativity of this museum (it’s called ‘Building Titantic’). If you get to Belfast, this is a MUST see! Go to Titanic Belfast
From the Titanic Exhibition we walked back to our hotel through a large redevelopment in the docklands area of Belfast. It would’ve only taken about 25 minutes if not for the snapping photographer and the chocoholic who found Hotel Chocolat! (Another excellent chocshop, although more deliberating needed as the goodies were mass produced so there was an abundance of choice). Go to Hotel Chocolat
Robert picked us up for lunch and surprised us with a visit to the finest hotel in Belfast – The Merchant. This multi million dollar revamp of the old HQ for the Ulster Bank, complete with many of the original Italian fittings is truly exquisite! Très élégant. It even has its own art gallery! We went to The Bar for our meal and we were ecstatic to have fine dining in terms of portion size and not just in the flavours and presentation of the food (we really have been indulging so much that my pants are almost acting like a tourniquet!): wild mushroom, truffle oil risotto; artichoke heart salad with rocket, semi-dried tomatoes, pine nuts. Perfect! Go to The Merchant Hotel
As this was a late lunch, we pretty much whiled away the afternoon in chat and laughter, with a bit of business talk thrown in for good measure (mainly Robert motivating us to expand the blog into a website – this plan will be put in motion on our return). To continue our enjoyment of the city and the improved weather conditions (it was reaching 10˚C most days!) we ambled back to The Europa for some relaxation before deciding on the venue for our final meal in the capital.
CoCo Restaurant won our favour, and we were so pleased with our selection, both in venue and menu: Thai crab cake, red onion, green beans, naughty boy dressing (don’t really know what this is – have tried to google it, but the results were a tad scary!); goats cheese fritters, bell pepper essence, wild rocket; sides – cauliflower cheese and mixed vegetables (finally cooked properly!!). Glass of champagne to start followed by a burgundy and some cheeses, including a Camembert calvados cheese. Too, too tasty! Too, too full!!! Go to CoCo Restaurant