I HAVE a confession to make: I have never thought of holidaying in Northern Ireland.
Maybe it’s because I assume more of the same unpredictable weather?
Maybe it’s because it’s in the UK so it feels like more of a staycation?
Maybe it’s because of The Troubles and a lingering feeling that perhaps Brits aren’t welcome?
Well, all that scepticism faded after my 48-hour visit to Belfast, a city brimming with soul, history and excellent nightlife.
And as for The Troubles, well there is one sure-fire way of digging deeper into that — on one of the most memorable tourist attractions Belfast offers, an official Black Taxi Tour.
Visitors can pile into a traditional cab where they’ll drive around all of the areas in the west of the city most impacted by the violent, decades-long conflict between nationalists and loyalists.
The cab drivers are all friendly, fascinating locals with first-hand experience growing up on estates segregated ideologically and literally, thanks to the metal Peace Walls, reaching up to 45ft-tall, that were installed by the British Army.
To this day, those gates are locked every night.
Along with the ever-changing political murals lining the roads, these are powerful visual reminders that this is a city ravaged by division and scarred by battles with the British Army.
But, on whether we Brits are welcome, our cabbie insists: “It was never about the British people — it was the uniform.”
This is just one of the sobering tourist highlights in Belfast, but a Black Taxi Tour is not the city’s only historic attraction.
The famous Titanic Museum (entry costs £24.95 per adult and £11 per child, titanicbelfast.com) delivers another poignant reminder of its painful past.
Overlooking the slipways where RMS Titanic was actually built and launched, the museum is an immersive, emotive journey that transports you back in time through the ship’s construction to her maiden — and tragically final — voyage.
It’s a fascinating experience, but for altogether different (and less heavy) craic, you can embark on Belfast’s Traditional Music Trail, a mini pub crawl telling the story of Irish music.
Our two guides treated us to performances on uilleann pipes, flutes and whistles, before inviting us to join in some Irish dancing, with some Dutch courage coming from a few pints of the freshest Guinness I’ve ever tasted.
It’s a lively, uplifting way to really experience a city that feels just the right size — unlike in a behemoth such as London, nothing feels more than a few minutes away.
And that includes our hotel.
At 80m-high, the five-star Grand Central is the tallest commercial building in the whole of Ireland, with its 23rd-floor cocktail bar, the Observatory, providing a striking view across the city — and top-class cocktails.
Its stylish restaurant, Seahorse, offers phenomenal food, including an eight-course tasting menu and wine flight.
The city comes alive after dark, with charming, traditional pubs, trendy bars and jazz clubs and a plethora of live-music venues open until the early hours.
If you’re looking for something a little more low-key, the five-star Culloden Estate And Spa is just five miles from the city centre but, nestled high up in Holywood Hills overlooking Belfast Lough, it is an oasis of tranquillity.
With its 12 acres of gardens and woodland, the grand but homely 98-bedroom former Bishop’s Palace, adorned with stunning artwork, has turned city into country in an instant.
There’s a state-of-the-art spa offering a wide variety of treatments, plus a swimming pool, steam room and sauna, and with the option of a fine-dining restaurant and a gastropub serving some of the classiest food I’ve ever eaten in a boozer.
Delivering a great balance of lively craic and R&R across the weekend — even the weather was decent — more fool me for never searching for a holiday in Northern Ireland before.
Belfast, I raise my pint of Guinness to you. Cheers!
GETTING THERE: EasyJet flies from Gatwick, Luton, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Manchester, among other airports to Belfast International from £11.49 each way. See easyjet.com.
STAYING THERE: Rooms at Culloden Estate And Spa cost from £225 per night, on a room-only basis.
See cullodenestateandspa.com or call 028 9042 1066. Rooms at The Grand Central Hotel Belfast cost from £162 per night.
See hastingshotels.com/grand-central or call 028 9047 1066.
MORE INFO: See ireland.com/northernireland.