Set against a rugged landscape, the backdrop to Game of Thrones is one of the few things about the show that isn’t pure fantasy. In fact, part of that rocky wonderland is right on our doorstep in Northern Ireland.
Up until fairly recently, NI probably wasn’t seen as a go-to destination for many Brits. But now that peace seems to be a reality and the country’s beauty has been highlighted on the small screen, it’s full of new energy and crying out for visitors.
We flew in on a cloudy Thursday morning to George Best airport. First top tip here – use the airport named after the famous footballer rather than Belfast International if you can. You get a very smooth and quick taxi ride into the city and can be there in under 15 minutes at a cost of £7.
Our first night was at the Europa with its unusual claim to fame as the most bombed hotel in the world. At the height of the troubles, MPs, policemen and journalists would congregate here, making it a major target.
Inside, the hotel retains some of its seventies feel but has a grand entrance hall (boasting a blue plaque that says Bill Clinton stayed here) and generously sized rooms, decorated in a modern hotel style with a friendly and accommodating staff.
At lunchtime, we walked the two minutes over the road to the famous Crown Liquor Saloon – a real highlight of Belfast, this high Victorian pub is a piece of art in its own right with its snugs, painted glass and a gorgeous carved ceiling.
After a walk around the city, taking in City Hall, St George’s Market and St Anne’s – the church of Ireland cathedral, it was time for dinner.
Belfast is beginning to make a name for itself as a gastro destination and at the forefront of this revolution is Ox. Inside, the décor is modern and understated with whitewashed walls and wooden tables. We kicked off with a cold glass of Brut de Loire – a dry sparkling wine – before embarking on our five course tasting menu (incredible value for the quality at £70 per head including matching wines).
Ox focuses on seasonality, precision and presentation and there was some inspired cooking going on here. Highlights included the venison carpaccio with kohlrabi and black garlic served with a chilled German Pinot Noir and the John Dory with black olives served with Domaine de ci de la Languedoc Roussillon.
A ‘must do’ in Belfast is a taxi tour of the murals of the Shankill and Falls Rds with Paddy Campbell’s Taxi Tours. (£30 for two and a half hours). Knowledgable and with an excellent gift of the gab, our guide drove us around the famous murals of the Catholic and Protestant areas, peppering his descriptions with personal anecdotes. It’s a haunting and disturbing journey but it feels like an essential way to really understand what happened here.
The second half of our trip takes us right into Game of Thrones country onto the rugged and spectacular Antrim Coast. And after hiring a car (£85 for 24 hours) to make the hour’s drive away from Belfast, the city’s woes feel like a million miles away. Drawing up to the Ballygally hotel, right on the sea, you feel like you’ve arrived at your very own GOT castle. Built in 1625 with a modern wing which was newly refurbished just last year – you get the best of both worlds.
The sky was grey and the sea pummeling the rocks so we felt justified in enjoying our stylish, comfortable room and warming up in the huge walk-in power shower. Dinner in the Garden dining room is a must. Like the Europa, it’s a Hastings hotel and the food is local, seasonal and of high quality. We had mussels (£7) and seafood chowder (£8) for starters followed by roast salmon with sautéed potatoes (£16) for our main courses. Fresh and perfectly cooked, this meal was simple and delicious. Spending the evening at the bar enjoying a couple of glasses of the local Bushmills whisky, we felt truly relaxed.
The next morning we found the winding drive along the coast from Ballygally was a beautiful pre-cursor to the stunner that is the Giant’s Causeway (£9 for adults). Formed from about 4000 interlocking basalt columns, it was created by an ancient volcanic eruption and has been intriguing and fascinating geologists and visitors ever since.
Flying home, we reflected on our trip. With long-established culture, history, incredible landscape and now the newer addition of stylish accommodation and top-notch gastronomy, Belfast and the coast have really got it all – no fantasy needed!
We stayed at Europa and Ballygally Castle hotels. A classic double at the Europa starts at £120 including breakfast and a superior double at the Ballygally Castle starts at £150 per night including breakfast. www.hastingshotels. Go to the Check Belfast section on Ireland.com for more tips.