My daughter Lily looked at me with disbelief and, if I was not mistaken, with compassion. I had transported her to my childhood town of Dungannon in County Tyrone and she was extraordinarily impressed.
“How is it possible that so much happened in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, and yet your life was so small and so strange?” he asked himself, rhetorically.
Apparently “the patch of wasteland where we threw the potato that the faith healer used to treat my warts” wasn’t (currently) on Trip Advisor.
But things resumed when I brazenly stopped outside the red brick house where my four sisters and I were born, rang the bell and asked if we could visit the back garden.
“Go ahead,” the elderly occupant said, as if it were the most normal of requests, then closed the door and left us there.
It was a real shock to see that the rhubarb stain was gone. The “kinky chip” tree? Pulled down. And there was a big reddish extension where we sunbathed until we had blistered, pale Celtic bodies smeared with baby oil.
Yeah, I know honey, but that was just the way it was in the ’70s. No seat belts. Avid parents. Armed soldiers on the streets.
Back to my roots
My daughter, Lily, is 20 years old. Before she joins Generation Rent and gets a door key (from the landlord), I wanted to take her back to my roots.
But luckily for her, either way, Dungannon was just a pit stop on our big tour, even though we had a gluten-free brunch. “Gluten free? In Northern Ireland?” I cried with stunned joy as we ordered. He thought I was being ironic.
Honestly, I wanted to show my girlfriend the glamorous new province, a place where people drink cocktails, where Game of Thrones was filmed and fabulously bizarre passenger pedal party buses plod through the streets every weekend, playing everything. volume the pop classics.
But I didn’t know where to start, after graduating from college in Scotland in 1984, 14 years before the Good Friday deal. My Generation Z wasn’t gradual: “Siri, what’s the most luxurious hotel in Belfast?” Lo and behold, we found ourselves in the five-star Fitzwilliam right in the heart of the city: elegantly modern in style but homely in atmosphere, with welcoming and rudimentary staff who were happy to chat.
In the lounge, afternoon tea (in Northern Ireland?) Was served as we perched on instagrammably glamorous white sofas. Heroically generous, we ate so many sandwiches and fantasies that we couldn’t manage another bite until breakfast.
But there was a lot to cram before then. To say that Belfast has been transformed is a radical understatement; the peace dividend brought high street shops, crowded restaurants and the experience of the Titanic, a world-class attraction that carries the wonderful and terrifying story of the world’s largest ship and those who set sail for her fateful maiden voyage to a vivid and heartbreaking life.
Afterwards, we felt pretty emotionally drained, so we went to the pub, of course. It’s the Irish way, child. The first stop was the most iconic pub in town and the former Victorian gin palace. Grade A rated and owned by the National Trust, The Crown bar is a vision of mosaic floor and carved ceiling, mahogany booths, etched stained glass and original 1820 gas lamps.
But it was the live music we were looking for, so we headed over to Madden’s (google, seriously – after all the partying I have no idea where it is). Upstairs – where a band of traditional musicians were playing full blast – we sat comfortably when a group offered to regroup and fell into a surprisingly energetic conversation about Game of Thrones even though we had never seen it.
White wine was execrable; nothing more than single bottles of Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio, I followed it with the rose, which was probably worse. I have been assured that every pub serves it as a standard. That’s enough to take a girl to Guinness.
Later we went to Kelly’s Cellars, where there was a singer singing crossover country and the wine was – ah, but you’re in front of me. Lily tasted her first harp before a last snifter (and more live music) at the Fitzwilliam’s bar.
There, as everywhere, we had a friendly conversation with visitors and locals alike – and there was Albarino! Maybe a little too much, actually, but the crack (only foreigners insist on renaming it “craic”) was fantastic.
Luckily, the beds were like sleeping on clouds which mitigated a hangover, so the next morning we took a Black Taxi political tour through Belfast’s most famous spots. Our driver showed us murals on Catholic Falls Road and grisly memorials on Protestant Shankill.
He attempted to be impartial, but his narrative was distorted by the long surgical scar resulting from a British Army rubber bullet that ricocheted off a wall and hit him in the head when he was a teenager. After a brief coma and a couple of metal plates, he considers himself one of the lucky ones.
We stopped to sign the “peace” wall, one of about 40 in the city that were erected to separate loyalist and nationalist communities. We were both shocked to find that the West Belfast gates are still closed every night; a bitter legacy of the divisions that still exist on the far fringes even though ordinary people have moved on with gratitude.
Our driver asked if we wanted a photo near the gates. It seemed wrong, so we hesitated: Lily was shocked that in 2022, more than 20 years after the end of the Troubles, part of the UK is actually living under a curfew.
Peace and pampering
Once back in the city center, we headed to St George’s Market, where we perused the arts and crafts stalls, buying wonderfully unusual jewelry from local Banshee silversmiths and picking up some charming – and, at £ 15 each, beautifully affordable. – woodcuts by way of first Christmas gifts.
And then we set off to visit my sister in Carrickfergus, home to the imposing Norman castle built in 1177, recently visited by the new Prince and Princess of Wales. From there, we took the scenic route to our final destination: the four-star Galgorm Resort and Spa in Ballymena, nestled in 163 acres of parkland with the rushing Maine River flowing between the luxurious outdoor hot tubs and heated cabanas. on its banks.
“Luxurious outdoor hot tubs? In Northern Ireland? “I yelled.” It’s unbelievable. So lush. And in good taste. Except that big plastic heron on the rock. Hey. A little tacky, don’t you think?
My daughter chose a dignified silence as the heron departed, took off, and fluttered haughtily. My bad.
Galgorm turned out to be spectacular; gorgeous and ingenious landscapes, centuries-old apple trees laden with late autumn fruit in the walled garden, outdoor hot tubs and hidden saunas you stumble upon on a stroll.
Our self-catering cottage was a hop and hop off the spa garden – and yes, I’ve reached the age I must say; the bed was also fabulous. Not sure what’s going on with the wine, but Northern Ireland can’t be beaten when it comes to mattresses.
My signature rebalancing massage – on a bed of warm quartz sand, with the addition of bamboo rollers to a meditative soundscape, no less – was among the best I’ve ever had. Could it be because the oil was infused with CBD or cannabidiol, an active ingredient found in cannabis (just not the psychoactive one)? I’m probably thinking.
For the record, Lily and I were able to break away for the short trip to the famous Dark Hedges, a 20 minute drive up the road. There was too much sun for any sense of threat, but the strong, rushing wind in the crackling canopy of leaves gave it a different eerie (that is, tremendously satisfying) vibe.
Then he went back to luxury lying on heated water beds. There was live music in the bar every night from 10pm, but it was too late for us. Instead, we noticed that the absolutely genuine heron had returned as we sat in the palm house for El Dorado cocktails at sunset.
Once upon a time I could have shouted “Sophisticated sundowners? In Northern Ireland?” – but my daughter suggests a more verbal, less clumsy update to reflect a place that has truly changed.
“Sophisticated sundowners? Sure, it’s Northern Ireland. “
Galgorm (028 2588 1001; galgorm.com) offers two night stays from £ 675 for two guests, including a spa treatment, spa village access, afternoon tea and dinner.