When one thinks of Belfast in Northern Ireland images of a downtrodden desolate and paranoid emerge in one's mind. This perhaps as a result of the narrow, blinded focus on 'the troubles'. Yes, Belfast and the whole of Northern Ireland has had it's fair share of conflicts in the past. A target for terrorism and a center of passionately divisive feelings. While the issues have not nor maybe ever will be completely resolved, the darkness that once defined the city has cleared. The history remains but Belfast has emerged a beacon of light for the Irish Isles, with pride and grace.
My family were graciously invited by the Northern Irish Tourist Board and PR impressario, Michael Raffrety, to have a weekend in Belfast and to sample the fine things that the capital has to offer a demanding (me) visitor. This trip coincided with a personal appearance in the city by my friend and client Calum Best, son of legendary football hero George Best. We were also filming for a docu about Calum's father, a Belfast native. So my wife, daughter, Calum and film crew all climbed aboard British Airways to the emerald green isle.
We landed at George Best Airport, named in honour of Calum's father. This was surreal for me so I can only imagine what it feels like to Calum. However, it was still kind of exciting nonetheless. The weather when we landed was sunny and warm and on the drive in the landscape was earthy and dramatic.
We arrived at the Europa Hotel. It is a grand, spacious and vast place. Enormous and filled with photographs of illustrious past visitors from the heads of state to legendary singers and actors. The hotel also has the unique achievement of being the most bombed hotel in Europe. This is a peculiar accolade but one that is accepted and made light of in spite of the fact.
Once checked- in we are invited to see Van Morrison, another Belfast native, perform in his first concert in the city in 25 years, the following night. However, my family and I have much to explore before then.
First stop is the recently opened £97m Titanic Belfast Museum : www.titanicbelfast.com, at the actual spot that the doomed ship was built. It is a fascinating trip back through time. My 6- year old daughter loved it and I was enthralled. It comprises 9 galleris over 4 floors and every bit is engaing to young and old. Incredibly well done.
My wife was determined to do some shopping and to compare it to London. We head to Victoria Square, which is an 800,000 square- foot complex. It is one of the largest in Europe and houses the best names in international retail. An incredible glass dome sits atop the venue and offers great views of the city.
Starting to really feel at home with the aspirational aspects of Belfast, I a compelled to taste the restaurant scene. I ask the concierge for a restaurant close to the hotel that would sit well in London. One that is sophisticated, glamourous and chic - oh and with cool food. He sends us to James Street South www.jamesstreetsouth.co.uk. Opened in 2003 by talented young chef- patron Niall McKenna. Decked out in all white interior with matching immaculate looking staff, it maintained an unpretentious vibe. The wait staff and manager where very funny and engaging. The food was modern and very very tasty as well as well presented. The other clientele were aslo very well- heeled.
My evening was spent at one of the more fashionable nightclubs, Time Bar, just outside Belfast with Calum and his fans. Very good music and groovy people.
The next morning, after filming at the grave and family home of Calum’s father, it was time for more to see in Belfast. We started by visiting St George Market www.belfastcity.gov.uk/stgeorgesmarket, a farmers market of sorts. It’s elegant and a very special and traditional area to savour. Next stop was MAC or the Metropolitian Arts Center : www.themaclive.com. This place exemplified the diversity and moderinty that Belfast has come to celebrate. It’s really joyful and a feast for the senses. Jam-packed with diverse and extraordinary things to see and do. Located in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, The MAC is home to all kinds of exhibitions, blockbuster performances, experimental works and endless goings-on. We attended the Andy Warhol exhibit. This was a comprehensive collection of his work and life. Including what he influenced at what inspired and informed his art.
After a quick stroll though the Botanical Gardens and a peek at the Ulster Museum we headed back to our suite. Dinner was approaching and our hole party was invited as guests of the famous Cayenne Restaurant, owned by celebrity chef Paul Rankin. This unfortuately closed shortly after our dining experience. It is easy to see why it was so highly regarded with it’s southern flavours fused with modern british and french cuisines. It was indeed a pleasure to eat there. A loss for Belfast most definitely.
Departing the next morning back to London, I left knowing I will be returning. The Northern Irish people are strong, resiliant and above all kind and welcoming and for those with a luxury palette one is not disappointed.