Saturday, July 23, 2011
Colin Wilson enjoys 48 hours in Belfast and says this compact city is great for a short break.
Why go now?
Belfast is a great city for a 48-hour break – a short flight, compact enough to see by foot, good transport links from the airport to the city centre, great hotels and restaurants and a buzzing nightlife, without the ever-increasing cost of the euro which is hitting breaks in cities such as Dublin.
We flew from Stansted airport on a new route with bmibaby into Belfast George Best City Airport, taking around an hour – bmibaby flies up to 16 times a week from Stansted to Belfast City. Fares start from £14.99 one way including taxes.
The airline offers many passenger benefits including allocated seating, online check-in and the opportunity to join bmi diamond club – the UK’s most generous frequent-flyer programme.
For further information or to book a flight visit www.bmibaby.com
From the airport it is only a 10-minute drive by taxi or bus into the city centre. If taking the shuttle bus there are at least three city centre drop-offs, depending on where you need to be, and the return cost is just £3.
Other airlines do fly into Belfast International Airport, which is about 40 minutes’ drive into the city centre.
On this visit, one of a few we have made to the city over the years, we stayed at the Fitzwilliam Hotel, in the heart of the city. Opened in 2009 and awaiting its much anticipated five-star status, the hotel is in Great Victoria Street – right next door to the Opera House and just minutes from the city sights, as well as shops, pubs and restaurants.
Following a £20m investment, the Fitzwilliam is a design-led luxury property and hails itself as the first of its kind in Northern Ireland’s capital, offering 130 bedrooms, where due to the unusual layout guests will be able to lie in their luxurious bed, which faces a window wall, and take in beautiful views of the city and surrounding hills. Designed with soothing greens or mild yellow interiors, the guest rooms have ample space to relax and a king-size bed draped in crisp Egyptian linen with huggable duvets and fluffy Fitzwilliam Bathrobes.
If you wish to work or keep up to date there is complimentary high-speed wireless and wired internet access. Or you can watch movies on demand on a 26in flat-screen television or listen to favorite tracks on a mini Sony music system with i-Pod/MP3 connectivity. Finally, the monochrome bathroom, with a separate bath and powerful sunflower shower is complemented with bespoke toiletries from H2O for a bit of pampering. From the executive rooms, right up to the 1,250sq ft two-bedroom Penthouse Suite, all luxuries have been thought of, as well as the expected essentials.
The location of this hotel is unrivalled. If you take the shuttle bus from the airport it drops you off only a two-minute walk from the lobby, or the concierge can arrange a taxi if more convenient – as well as supply a sturdy umbrella from the seemingly never-ending supply if you get hit with a shower.
The Fitzwilliam Hotel in in Great Victoria Street, Belfast, BT2 7BQ. Telephone 028 9044 2080 or check out the hotel’s website at www.fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com for availability, prices and special offers.
Stop for lunch
A trip to Belfast is not complete without lunch, or at least a compulsory pit-stop, at the Avoca Café. Situated in Arthur Street, near Victoria Square shopping centre, this gem is worth the flight to the city alone. The food is so delicious there’s a good chance you won’t leave without buying from the deli, or buying one of their cookery books to re-create the menu at home.
Attracting locals and visitors alike, it’s a food hall, home store, fashion and gift store all rolled into one, as well as the best place to stop for a refuel whatever the time of day. It’s open seven days a week, but the café closes at 5pm – so don’t leave it too late.
Two well-known bars, frequented by locals and visitors alike, are The Duke of York and The John Hewitt – while both busy and bustling, they are a welcome sign of Irish hospitality and attract a wide age range.
Both found in the Cathedral Quarter, The Duke of York is a traditional bar, often heaving in the evenings, but if the weather is nice it has its own outside area to spill out on to.
The John Hewitt, another traditional bar, is also a social employment project and offers a warm welcome.
Having visited both, during the day or post dinner, we enjoyed their friendly atmosphere.
For a pint of ‘the black stuff’, while stepping back in time, the Crown Liquor Saloon is not to be missed. In Great Victoria Street, just across the road from the Fitzwilliam Hotel, this famous Victorian pub is owned by the National Trust. It is still lit by gas, and adorned with Italian tiles and stained-glass windows. The original layout, with drinking booths designed to shield women from unwelcome stares, are still in situ and, while a busy bar, is definitely worth a visit.
Dining with the locals
For a super-cool Michelin-rated restaurant, owned and run by a celebrity chef, and where ‘bargain’ and ‘world class’ are used in its description, head to Cayenne. Paul Rankin wants his restaurant to be serious about the quality of what it offers – its food, service and good old-fashioned hospitality – along with a buzzy and bustling atmosphere and it definitely achieves on all levels.
For dinner we enjoyed Asian prawn chowder and salt ’n’ chilli squid, followed by breast of duck and crackling, served with scallion cake and beetroot, and roast rump of lamb, with goats’ cheese gnocchi, aubergine and wild garlic. For dessert we polished off a buttermilk pudding with rhubarb rosewater, wild sorrel and hazelnut biscotti and a mouthwatering mango tarte tatin with the most wonderful coconut and lime sorbet.
Other tempting offerings included starters of Ryefield goats’ cheese and potato ‘puff pizza’, salad of crispy duck, mains of miso cod and pork cheek osso bucco style, and desserts such as pear and raspberry Crumble with lemon curd ice cream or passionfruit crème brulee.
Cayenne offers an extensive wine list, including many available by the glass.
This is a real find in Belfast and well worth going to – and like us you may see Paul when he makes a trip from the kitchen to front of house to greet his many returning guests.
Cayenne is in Shaftesbury Square, Belfast BT2 7DB, just a short stroll from the Fitzwilliam Hotel. It is open for lunch Sunday to Friday and dinner six nights per week (closed all day Tuesday). Reservations are recommended on 028 9033 1532 or online at www.cayenne-restaurant.co.uk
Another great evening dining option is the uber-stylish restaurant within the Fitzwilliam Hotel – Menu by Kevin Thornton. Overseen by Michelin-starred chef Kevin Thornton, the restaurant is a casual dining experience in a modern and fashionable setting.
We dined from the set evening menu for hotel guests and enjoyed St Tola goats’ cheese with wheaten bread and chicken and leek terrine with prune puree, followed by butternut squash ravioli with pine nut and spinach and pan-fried hake with shrimp beurre noisette, followed by a bread and butter pudding with Earl Grey ice cream and a brown sugar parfait with soft nougatine and poached pear – an absolute dining triumph.
The Menu by Kevin Thornton restaurant at the Fitzwilliam Hotel is open to residents and non-residents. Reservations – 028 9044 2130.
Sights to see
There is so much to see and do in this great city, but this is a taste of the great things to enjoy:
Firstly take a taxi tour of the city (Value Cabs offers this service – 028 9080 9080), or alternatively an open-top bus tour – there are points throughout the city where you can hop on and off. Both offer an insight into the city’s past, present and future.
A Titanic Boat Tour departs from Donegall Quay three times a day, discovering the port of birth of the world’s most famous ship as this year marks the centenary of its launch, as well as a waterside view of the building of Titanic Belfast, a new world-class visitor attraction which will open next year to mark 100 years since her fateful tragic voyage.
St George’s City Food and Garden Market, near the law vourts, is a must on a Saturday morning. Set within the beautifully-restored Victorian covered market, this is a vibrant place to be, with local entertainment and good local food.
The Belfast Music Coach Tour is a welcome option to rest weary legs, while still being enthralled by the tales of a rock ’n’ roll city. From the Ulster Hall, home to the Ulster Orchestra and a stop-off for many of today’s music legends, the tour takes in many landmarks associated with the city’s music story, covering venues that put the city on the international music map, as well as places that inspired songs.
Details on all tours and attractions can be obtained from Belfast Welcome Centre, 47 Donegall Place, Belfast. Telephone. 028 9024 6609 or visit www.gotobelfast.com