What used to called Belfast Central is now known as Belfast Lanyon place, but the buzz in the city’s main train station is easily recognised and picked up on. I am back in Belfast for a full 24 hours – an overnighter, a morning, and an afternoon before I revisit Lanyon Place for the express train back to Dublin. But that’s for tomorrow, tomorrow – as the song has it, it’s only a day away.
First things first – I need to check in. Less than five minutes by taxi from the train station, Grand Central Hotel (9-15 Bedford Street, grandcentralhotelbelfast.com) is the new jewel in the crown, and to say I’m impressed is an understatement. Originally named after New York’s Grand Central Station (based on the initial 1890s proposal by Downpatrick businessman John Robb that the site would be used as the city’s central railway terminus), as the decades passed the now developed hotel settled into the fabric of Belfast city life as its social hub. Back in the 1920s/’30s it was regarded as the finest hotel in Ireland. Come the 1970s, the opulent hotel shut its doors, but yet here I am – in the lobby and on the way to my room.
I’m not sure about you, but a few seconds after I walk into a hotel bedroom I can sense whether I have made either one of the best decisions or one of the worst mistakes of recent times. Sometimes I don’t even have to look around me to know this. Glad to say that the room – an Executive – was as toasty warm as it was design/style splendid. Instant love is generated, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. The King-size Cloud Bed is as broad as it is long, the writing desk is perfect to place my laptop on (and to charge up via USB ports), the lighting is a sensible blend of pragmatic and atmospheric, and the en-suite has two of the luxuries I couldn’t really afford at home: a back-heated mirror that dissipates the shower steam, and (keep still my beating heart!) bathroom amenities courtesy of ESPA. Call me shallow, describe me as the lowest layer of superficial you have ever seen or had experience of, but if there’s one thing I like in a hotel en-suite it is shower and bath products I’d never buy for myself. (Yes, I am a man, so what? Is there a problem?) Aanyywaaay…
A welcome drink in the hotel’s Observatory is very much on the cards, so I make my way up to the 23rd floor (via the exclusive elevator from the ground floor) to what is the highest and surely the most spectacular sky-high lounge in Ireland. This is a smart spot, and no doubt about it – no sports tops or shorts are allowed to tarnish the Observatory’s super-svelte vibe. Thankfully (and, yes, this might get me into trouble from mummies and daddies, but the older I get the less I care), no person under the age of 12 is allowed in here after 6pm. Sitting on a cushy, cosy sofa whilst looking out across the city, its skyline resplendent in balmy late-autumn hues, and sipping from what looks and tastes suspiciously like a killer cocktail, you can imagine you’re in a James Bond movie (From Belfast With Love, perhaps?). Of course, I’m not – I am merely drinking a Botanic Gardens (gin, rhubarb, Aperol, pomegranate, pink peppercorn, citrus, whites) in one of the smartest lounges I’ve ever been allowed into.
Dinner is booked for 8pm, and ordinarily I’d venture out into the city, having previously booked a table at one of the classy restaurants that Belfast can justifiably be proud of. Tonight, however, there is no need for me to head back to the room to get my coat, and to buckle up against the cool night air. Dinner, I’m glad to say, is in the hotel’s Seahorse Restaurant, which is truly class personified.
There are three distinctive spaces here, but the restaurant bests everything for various reasons. As you would expect, quality seeps from every corner in such a fine dining area, but there is more to attract the attention and appeal to the palette than this. There is something pleasantly dramatic about The Seahorse Restaurant, and it isn’t just its gloriously high ceilings (a thing of the past for so many space-conscious businesses these days) or its subtle art-deco hints. It is, I feel, more in the food – its provenance, its presentation, its inherent pleasure. I’ll be honest and say that I can’t recall what I ate, but I do know that I savour and swallow everything that is put in front of me. From starter to main to dessert – including the accompaniments of a selection of bread and a couple of glasses of red wine – it is gorgeous and healthy. Special mention should be directed towards the restaurant staff, which to a person are consistently polite, helpful and fast on their feet.
Morning arrives, and so does my hunger. Breakfast in the same restaurant is equally as good as the previous night’s dinner. Even more instructive is the booklet that lays on the table – ‘Who Made My Breakfast’, which is a clever marketing device that highlights the people behind what I put on my plate. Suffice to say that between Thompson’s Tea, Farmview Dairies, McCann’s Apple Juice, Clandeboye Estate Yoghurt, Irwin’s Breads, Carnbrooke Meats Honeybee Sausages, Grant’s Dry Cured Bacon, Gracehill Fine Foods Black & White Puddings and Clements Eggs, yours truly can hardly make it to the taxi to The Titanic Experience.
Despite having won the World’s Leading Tourism Attraction (by the World Travel Awards, 2016), I had never been to the Titanic Experience before, but nothing prepared me for how good it is. The first thing I see as I reach the so-named Titanic Quarter is the all-encompassing eight-storey structure (dubbed, with typical Belfast dryness, ‘The Iceberg’). Its angular shape references, of course, a ship’s prow, while the front-of-building female-figure sculpture (Titanica, by Rowan Gillespie) suggests both a ship’s figurehead and the 1996 ‘top of the world’ pose by Leonardo De Caprio and Kate Winslet in James Cameron’s movie, Titanic. Implied figures aside, even before I enter Titanic Belfast, I’m astounded by the sheer dramatic intensity and beauty of the building. Inside is just as impressive, with a series of exhibition spaces that really epitomise the term ‘visitor experience.’
Room after room, the chronology from joyous hard-working start to tragic end (and its aftermath) is outlined and, at times, recreated compellingly via state-of-the-art audio/visual accompaniment. The overall result is not only instructive (as it should be, of course) but often inspiring (as it rarely is in exhibition spaces such as these).
We end what is ultimately a sobering tour/museum experience tour with a Sunday Afternoon Tea treat in the Titanic Suite. This is, admittedly, a teensy bit chintzy and cheesy but it’s also great fun: a step back in time to the opulence of First-Class treatment on the mighty unsinkable (or so they thought) Titanic. We have finger sandwiches, fresh scones with lashings of cream, more-ish cakes and a never-ending stream of whatever tea takes your fancy, served in replica Titanic crockery.
It is, in fairness, a lovely way to end 24 hours in a terrific, reinvigorated city. I travel by taxi from the Harland & Wolff shipyard to the train station, spending most of the time on the journey back home asking myself how long it will take me to return. The answer? Not soon enough.
WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA