More than 20 percent of tourists into Northern Ireland came from Scotland, with short-break trips to Ulster making up the majority of those visits.
Whether it’s a city break, cultural-themed tourism based around Game of Thrones or the Titanic exhibition, or golf tourism – RoyalPortrush hosts the Open Championship this July and is just one of the province’s several world-class courses – the area has much to recommend it to Scots.
Part of the appeal is the ease of accessibility. There are 12 ferries a day from Cairnryan, with the journey taking just two hours and 15 minutes. There are four flights a day from both Edinburgh and Glasgow, with Belfast just 45 minutes by plane from Glasgow and 50 minutes from Edinburgh (there are two airports: city, which is in the city; and international, which is 40 minutes from the city and used as a hub by Easyjet). There are also flights from Aberdeen, you can also fly into Derry, and flying via Dublin is also surprisingly easy, with the absolutely excellent train from Dublin to Belfast only taking an hour.
With the Open taking place from 18-21 July this year in Portrush, and many spectators staying in Belfast and travelling out by train each day, I went across to see some of what the area has to offer. Over the space of three days, we played four golf courses, stayed in two different hotels and visited two exhibitions.
We started off at Belvoir (like the castle in Rutland, it’s pronounced “Bee-vor”), a wonderful parkland course in Belfast city that was built in 1927 by the legendary Harry S Colt, who also built the famous Dunluce course at Portrush, and boasts 40,000 trees. This was a huge surprise – in the most pleasant way. An absolutely immaculate course, with an impressive modern clubhouse set up on the hill and boasting great views out over the water, this was a revelation. For Scottish golfers, the easiest shorthand to think about this was as a cross between Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield and Blairgowrie’s Rosemount, but at least as good as both those courses. Green fees range from £30 midweek during the low season to £110 at the weekend in high season.
The next stop on our golfing odyssey was Galgorm Castle, another parkland course, this time just outside Ballymena, so about 40 minutes from central Belfast but helpfully en route to Portrush. Although Galgorm is the venue for this year’s Northern Ireland Open, it suffered badly by comparison with Belvoir. It’s a decent track though, with plenty of water features, and some very quirky holes that will provide a test for even low handicappers. The website has a nice video tour of each hole. The green fees are £60 midweek and £70 at the weekend.
Having consumed the hors d’oeuvres, we moved onto the main course, arriving at the magnificent Strand links course of Portstewart. The finer of the club’s two courses is number three in Golf Digest’s best courses in Northern Ireland (behind Royal County Down, which tops Golf Digest list of the 100 best non-American course in the world, and Royal Portrush, which is seventh in that same list). Those figures, however, don’t do justice to a dramatic and remarkable links course that starts with one of the most intimidating tee shots in golf as you look out over the water, and progresses at breakneck pace through the dunes. The first nine holes are as good as Royal County Down or Royal Portrush, but the second nine are slightly less epic. It’s still wonderful though, although the recent price hike – it was around £50 per round, and is now £175 – may make many travelling golfers think twice.
We saved the best til last, with the final round of our trip was undoubtedly the highlight of our visit. Royal Portrush’s status as one of the very best courses in the world was reaffirmed with its hosting of the Open Championship in July 2019, and over four wonderful hours on the Dunluce course we were reminded why it is the only course outside of mainland Britain to be given the honour. A towering yet nuanced links course originally designed by Old Tom Morris and updated by Henry Colt in the 1930s, Portrush is a classic risk v reward course that presents a wonderfully intellectual challenge, but which is also accessible to higher handicappers. With views across to Islay and Machrihanish – both of which were visible when we played – the setting is marvellous, and the impressive updating of the two weakest holes on the course has made a gem even more outstanding. The green fees are £220 per person (£90 between November and March) and guests will need to have a handicap certificate with a maximum handicap of 18.
Belfast’s emerging tourist industry has two pillars: the Game of Thrones television series and its status as the birthplace of the Titanic. Our first visit was to the temporary Game of Thrones exhibition at the city’s Titanic Exhibition Centre, which runs until September this year. To be frank, even though I’m a fan of the show, this sundry collection of costumes was deeply disappointing and not worth the £17.50 entry fee. There are, however, several smaller GOT-themed exhibitions planned for Northern Ireland, and I’m assured that they are more inventive.
Far better was the permanent Titanic exhibition, a wonderfully evocative and thought-provoking collection which cost £100m to build but which far exceeded expectations. Based in a custom-built futuristic building which apes the shape and dimension of the ill-fated liner, the exhibition itself sets the scene for the liner’s construction and recreates every step of its development and demise. We spent two hours there but with its unrivalled wealth of artefacts, interactive experiences and contemporary footage, we could happily have spent twice as long there. Seriously, this is a marvellous exhibition that is worth travelling to visit. Tickets are £19 for adults, £8.50 for children.
ACCOMMODATION & DINING:
In Belfast we stayed at the 131-room city centre hotel Ten Square, which is right next to the city chambers and right in the heart of the city centre. A contemporary and pretty stylish base (dubbed “Belfast’s coolest hotel” by the Sunday Times), it boasts a huge bar and a restaurant called Jospers, named after the eponymous grill for steaks. Rooms from around £140 for two people per night.
We ate at the nearby Café Parisien, which turned out to be a good decision. A superior if classically French bistro with a two-course set menu for £25 as well as an a la carte menu, I’d heartily recommend this one.
When up on the north coast to play Portstewart and Portrush, we stayed at the four-star Bushmills Inn. Also handy for the Giant’s Causeway, this wonderfully rambling old coaching inn with just 41 rooms dates from the 1600s and is hugely popular, so book early to avoid disappointment. We loved this quirky place, with its great comfort food and gorgeous little bar. Despite an average room rate of £230 per night, it would be the first place I’d book next time I go back.
Hotels & Restaurants
· Ten Square –
· Bushmills Inn –
· Café Parisien –
· Game of Thrones –
· Titanic Belfast –