From taxi tours of its murals in the heart of Belfast to its breathtaking coastal route to the world-famous Giant’s Causeway, Mark Eadie discovers how Northern Ireland has chosen to embrace both its past and its future

GEORGE Best, Van Morrison, The Undertones, Game of Thrones, the backstop and, of course, The Troubles . . . and, well, that’s probably about it. Despite having spent a large part of my formative years in the west coast of Scotland and even though there are only 12 miles of water separating the two countries at their closest points, my knowledge of Northern Ireland had been woefully lacking.

Now, more than two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement, I finally set off with my better half and our two young children on a personal quest to find out just what we had been missing.

Watching P&O’s flagship MV European Highlander edge into Cairnryan is an impressive sight, while the thrilling prospect of going to sea provided a welcome distraction for two boys who had been cooped up in the back seat with no tablets or DS games to entertain them. Torture indeed.

Our car safely ensconced below deck, we began our two-hour journey to Larne – the trip being made all the better as we enjoyed the comforts of the Club Lounge, which included free snacks and drinks. Priority boarding allowed us easy access both on and off the vessel. A nice touch.

After the half-hour journey into Belfast, we arrived at the AC Marriot hotel situated along the River Lagan’s up-and-coming quayside, easily accessed from the main route into the city. We quickly unpacked before embarking on the first of our adventures – a whistlestop trip round the city’s main historic sites, including the city’s famous murals – the very symbol of the Province’s torrid past.

Our driver, Walter, from Billy Scott Black Cab Tours, was the perfect guide, exuding all the bonhomie and enthusiasm required to put any nerves at ease, especially when cruising down the Shankill Road or stopping off to admire the Peace Wall. Checking out the haunts of Mad Dog Adair may not be everyone’s idea of a good way to spend a Friday night, but our host’s matter-of-fact description of The Troubles never appeared judgmental, all the more remarkable coming from a man who had clearly lived through one of country’s most painful periods of history.

We also took in Belfast Castle perched on the slopes of Cave Hill overlooking the city. Now owned by the council it is open to anyone interested in exploring the days when the ubiquitous big house on the hill dominated the people and the land.

Next day, and with a full “Ulster” breakfast under our belts courtesy of the hotel’s generous buffet, we readied ourselves for our much-anticipated journey up the coast to our ultimate goal . . . the Giant’s Causeway. Following the M2 and A2 we were fortunate enough to have the weather on our side as blue skies, winding roads and precipitous cliffs revealed the glorious vistas of the Causeway Coastal Route, which, along with Belfast, was named the Lonely Planet’s number one region to visit in 2018.

Our first stop was Carrickfergus Castle situated on the banks of Belfast Lough in County Antrim. A medieval fortress that can trace its history back to 1177, it is lined with massive 68 pounder front loading guns that swivel on rails for wider field of fire, arrow-slit windows to fend off any uninvited intruders and also has a horrifying “murder hole” – more than enough to fire up imaginations both young and old. One quirky feature is the addition of model historic figures in various poses dotted around the site. One unfortunate aristocrat is even frozen in time perched unceremoniously on a garderobe or castle loo, much to the amusement of us all.

As our journey continued north, the road opened up even more dramatic landscapes, flanked by the Mull of Kintyre to our right. With its combination of breathtaking scenery and abundant relics, it is little wonder the producers of Game of Thrones chose this area for filming. Our two following stops had links to the show – Ballygally Castle Hotel, which is the proud home of the “Door of Thrones”, and the quaint little village of Cushendun, which appeared in season two as a cove in the Stormlands, where Melisandre gave birth to the shadow creature, apparently.

We then took the more daring B92 option past Torr Head – its steep inclines and single-track road are not for the faint-hearted, although it does offer spectacular views of Rathlin Island. And then after a much-needed ice cream and playpark pitstop in the picturesque village of Ballycastle we headed off to the Giant’s Causeway.

There are two sides to the origins of this coastal phenomenon – the geological and the mythological. The first describes how molten lava suddenly cooled 60 million years ago, creating the natural pavement of hexagonal basalt columns stretching into the Atlantic Ocean. The second, tells how in a time before scientists, myths and legends helped explain the strange landscape. Irish giant Finn McCool built the enormous stepping stones across the sea so he could challenge his Scottish rival. Both versions, as well as people’s stories and natural life, are covered at the grand Visitor Centre, with the help of displays and projection shows.

The walk down to the shore took us roughly 20 minutes, although we quickly realised we were not alone. A Saturday afternoon is perhaps not the best time to visit if you are expecting a place of solitude and quiet reflection, not that the high volume of fellow tourists proved enough to detract from the experience. We were helped along the way by hand-held audio guides that provided a running commentary of the attraction’s highlights.

We all managed to negotiate the rocks without much problem and were able to take plenty of family pictures. It’s amazing to think such a famous World Heritage Site still allows the public the freedom to roam with virtually no restrictions. Thankfully, the designated bus offered a welcome alternative to the walk back up.

Our final stop for the day was another Game of Thrones must-see – Dark Hedges. This unique avenue of beech trees overhanging on both sides was planted in the 18th century as the entrance to the Stuart family’s Georgian mansion. It is well worth a visit, even for non-Thrones fans, just to see the remarkable way nature has magically framed the road in such aesthetically pleasing form.

Day two began with a stroll into Belfast centre and a visit to one of the city’s oldest attractions, St George’s Market – home to artisan food and local crafts – before a quick bus trip across the river to the much-lauded Titanic Quarter. More than just a homage to the ill-fated ocean liner and star of Hollywood films, Titanic Belfast’s numerous interactive galleries give visitors the chance to experience the sights, sounds and smells of life stretching from Edwardian “Boomtown Belfast” right up to a present day live streaming of where the wreck lies in the ocean. Constructed at the cost of £97 million and opened in 2012, the building (shaped like the bows of a ship) comprises of nine galleries over four floors.

One visit really doesn’t do it justice, such is the abundance of the interpretative displays and information. A spectacular showcase of the city’s proud shipbuilding heritage, the museum is at the forefront of Northern Ireland’s tourism drive and deservedly so. Nearby is docked the SS Nomadic, the last remaining White Star Line vessel and one-time tender to the Titanic, where our children had the freedom to explore, don costumes and take the ship’s wheel.

From here we travelled to one of the surprise highlights of our weekend break – the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. Due to time restrictions we were forced to focus solely on the folk museum, but we were not disappointed. Set in 170 acres of countryside, we ventured inside thatched cottages, farms, schools, shops, a newspaper office and a cinema all modelled on life 100 years ago. A far cry from the state-of-the-art extravaganza of the Titanic Experience, its charm lay instead in its simplicity – the chance to sit in a pre-First World War classroom or talk to and watch an expert weaver at work.

On our final morning we visited W5, situated close to Titanic Belfast and within easy walking distance of our hotel. Billed as an interactive science and discovery centre, its climbing and robot exhibits allowed our boys to use up some energy before our late-morning departure for home.

Having dipped my toe across the water and discovered the rich history and stunning scenery Northern Ireland has to offer, I can honestly say any preconceived notions I may have had are now well and truly banished. Our weekend trip was all but too fleeting and with a great deal more to explore I have little doubt we will be back.

The figures

Giant’s Causeway Visitor Experience: T: +44 (0) 28 2073 1855 W: Adult £12.50, Child £6.25, Family £31.25

P&O Ferries: Fares start from £84 each way from Cairnryan to Larne for a car and driver. Customers can upgrade to Club Lounge from £12 per person if booked in advance (£14 per person, if booked on board) and currently includes free Priority Boarding for Cars (worth £6).

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Carrickfergus Castle: Adult £5.50, child (age 4 - 16) £3.50, child (under 4) free, family (up to 5 members, including up to 3 adults) £15.00, senior citizen £3. T:(028) 9335 8262

Titanic Belfast: Adult £18.50, child (5-16) £8, child (under 5) free, family (2 adults and 2 children) £45, senior (60+) £15. T: +44 (0) 28 9076 6386

Ulster Folk & Transport Museum: T +44 (0) 28 9042 8428