I have an important bus to catch. I’m on my way to Belfast to explore the city, follow the story of Titanic, watch our first major boxing event and most importantly, spend the weekend with Brendan. Just the two of us. No kids. I can almost smell it.
Getting To Belfast
My sister takes me to a bus stop outside Arklow. She finds a parking spot amongst the rows of cars parked on each side of the R722 to wait with me. It’s 12:50 when the Wexford bus arrives ten minutes late but I’m too excited to mind the little wait. A quick hug and a kiss to my sis before I join the line of two.
She’s looking after the kids for the weekend with the help of my Mom. There’s no need for last-minute instructions or words of parental wisdom because she has three of her own! All between 7 and 2. Besides, my bus is waiting.
It sounds like the start of the weekend trysts Brendan and I had in our twenties when we flew back-and-forth across the Irish Sea. In 2006 he lived in England and I was in Dublin. Thanks to cheap Ryanair flights at 1Euro a pop, we thrived on romantic rendezvous almost every other weekend when we could arrange time off from work. Those were the days.
Back To The Present
I try to figure out what the Wexford bus driver is saying to me. Yes, I know I’m foreign, but he isn’t Irish either. I gather that I have to pay €16 to get to Busaras station in central Dublin and I pay him the fare.
For a change, I’m traveling light. That’s how people without children travel. Solo travelers travel light. A small backpack is all I have and I keep it on my lap as I queeze into a spot on the full bus, next to a smart lady busy on her smart phone.
If I had to guess her job or hobby for a million dollars, I’d say blogger because, as we cruise into central Dublin, she aims the eye of her phone at the same things I would’ve if I had the window seat. It’s a long shot, but some things are of interest to regular tourist and others just aren’t. She snaps away at a play park that seems popular with locals, at a market in another park and she tries to capture the hustle and bustle of Dublin around the bridge as we cross over the river Liffey.
I think to myself I’d better get a window seat on the way back from Belfast to snap that cool park and market. For now, I sit back to take in the view across the river and remember one of the most romantic nights of my life.
With a silly grin on my face, I remember a night of being wined, dined and loved in Dublin by Brendan. He serenaded me as we walked across a Dublin bridge and stopped to watch the colorful city lights reflect on the dark face of the river Liffey. We took a photo of that and I wish now that I could find it, but I think it’s long-lost already.
What was that song he sang to me?
The bus stops about a block away from Busaras. At 14:45 I’m an hour early for my next bus, but entering the terminal a driver shouts out last calls for Bus Eireann passengers going to Belfast. I take a chance and join the short queue for his bus.
He’s also not Irish and tall with long blond hair tied back in a pony. I can see him on a surfboard waiting to catch the next big one or in a vintage VW van or a Beatle with his board tied to the roof. I’ve probably got it very wrong.
Anyway, he’s a helpful chap and tells me to hop on the bus. Confirmation of the €10 one-way ticket from Dublin to Belfast that I bought online last night is quickly found as I flash him the ticket number on my phone. The driver amends it on his system and we’re good to go.
I’m finally on my way to Belfast!
There are only a few passengers on the bus, but the front seats on the upper level are taken. They’re my favorite, but at least I got a window seat this time. I settle into my seat and soon the rhythm of the bus nearly lulls me to sleep. I may even have dozed off a little, but I’d hate to snore myself awake and wipe away the drool in front of strangers. I fight heavy eyelids and enjoy watching the Irish countryside go by for the rest of the two and half hour bus ride.
I didn’t notice a clear border or any major signs to signal that we’re crossing into Northern Ireland, but by the time we reached Banbridge I knew, without a doubt, that we were not in Ireland anymore. There may have been one sign saying ‘Welcome to Northern Ireland’ at some point. I never saw it, but you don’t need to see a little sign, because you cannot look out the window without spotting a Union Jack.
It’s in your face. The flag of the United Kingdom flies high all along the motorway. It shouts out its identity from buildings, windows and lampposts in towns we pass. It’s everywhere. This is not Ireland.
I Forgot Belfast Is In A Different Country!
I panic a bit because I didn’t bring my passport or my UK sim card and I try to call my Mom back in Ireland. It’s strange to think she’s just an hours drive away but she’s in a different country! The Irish cellphone carrier’s message is clear: “Calls are charged at international rates”. Oops.
What if I have to pass through customs in Belfast!? I see myself staying on this bus and going right back to Brittas Bay tonight. Mom and Sis will surely be happy to see me as they throw the kids back in my face.
It turns out there are no customs at Europa Buscentre to send me back where I came from. Happy Days.
Europa Buscentre sounds enormous, but its quite small with a few boarding gates, a ticket station, one small cafe that only accepts cash and a larger coffee shop where they charge almost £4 for a coffee.
I’m sorry, but I still can’t help converting back to South African Rands (unless it’s something I really really want, then I won’t) and R70 for a coffee is astronomical. A good coffee in SA costs about R25.
From the bus center, its a two-minute walk through a small shopping center and I’m in the heart of Belfast. As I step out of the shopping center onto the sidewalk of Great Victoria Street, the first place I see is this.
I walk past it on the way to our hotel and make a mental note to drag Brendan there later for a pint just because it looks special, not knowing that it’s the world-famous Crown Liquor Saloon; one of Belfast’s top tourist attractions.
With only 5% battery life left on my phone, I rush to reach the Premier Inn hotel before my phone dies and I can’t follow along on Google maps anymore. I make it just in time, check in quickly and effortlessly and wait for Brendan to arrive while my phone is charging and the kettle is boiling.
A Happy Reunion
The kids and I said goodbye to Brendan in England two weeks ago and it’s so good to see him now. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but we hate being apart. He has to return to England after this weekend for four more weeks of work before we’ll see him again so the time we have together now is special.
We end our reunion day with a pint and a half of Guinness at the Crown and dinner at Flame. The half pint is for me. Guinness is an acquired taste that I’ve never been able to acquire. Even after being coached by an old Irishman many moons ago in a pub in Galway on how best to drink a Guinness, I still can’t stomach more than half a pint.
The Crown Liquor Saloon
It’s a visual delight encased in intricate woodwork, tiling, and marble inside and out. Dating back to 1826, The Crown is the most famous pub in Belfast and is owned by The National Trust. The seating booths each have their own set of swinging saloon doors for added privacy. We went on a Thursday evening. It was packed and we could hardly get to the bar counter. We waited quite a while for our turn to be served.
The booths all seemed full so we stood around and finished our pints while appreciating the excellent workmanship of the eccentric decor before we left to find dinner somewhere more quiet.
We didn’t walk far before we found Flame restaurant. It’s smart with gorgeous decor. I almost turn to leave in my slightly underdressed jeans and trainers but Brendan pushes on to talk to the waiter.
I’ll have to wear something other than trainers tomorrow because the doorman at The Perch Rooftop Bar didn’t like them either and I really want to go there before we leave Belfast. It looks amazing.
Dinner at Flame was overpriced and basic. All the food are cooked over open flames and as South Africans who grew up on “braaivleis” (meat cooked over flames of wood fire), we thought we hit gold with this one. We soon found out that you need gold to get it.
I’m no food critic but I love good food. I didn’t eat much of my dry tandoori chicken and you don’t want to know the price of that lonely looking steak with the four cherry tomatoes for company. The steak was good. Still, some people may like to spend £60 on a one-course meal for two and tell others about it, but we don’t; unless we clear our plates and ask for more. Not this time.
I wake up to the excitement of a full day in Belfast on my own. I can go where I want, when I want, how long I want for; without worrying about when a little person is tired, cold or hungry! Not having to plan a day around the kids is a welcome change to our travel style.
Traveling with our kids is an amazing experience, but any honest parent will tell you, it’s a challenge; especially if they’re under five.
It’s overcast and there’s expectation of drizzle later, but being on my own, I don’t mind it at all. Throughout the day I see parents fussing with kiddies and trying to cover prams to keep babies dry and I realise how stressful it gets sometimes being out and about with the little monsters. I say that lovingly, of course.
Titanic, Shopping and more Titanic
My day started with a walk to the Titanic Memorial Gardens and Belfast City Town Hall, followed by some shopping. I strolled through shopping aisles at my leisure and even tried on stuff if I wanted to. This is a basic activity most people take for granted, but when you have busy little toddlers, it’s not easy and almost impossible to do on your own time.
Finding a public toilet was not as easy as it was in, for example, Windsor. In Belfast, I found only the spaceship type cubicles that you have to pay for so you must find an ATM and then get loose change first, which can seem like a mountain to climb if you’re already reaching panic stations. Be prepared.
Titanic Belfast & SS Nomadic
I could write a full post about Titanic Belfast and SS Nomadic only, but I’ll try to keep it short.
Belfast is littered with awesome things to do and see, but I chose to spend my day learning about its connection to Titanic. The Titanic Trail is marked throughout the city with informative signposts all the way to the Titanic Quarter across the river Lagan leading to the Titanic museum, Titanic Belfast, and SS Nomadic.
It’s August holidays and Titanic Belfast is full to the brim. Visitors are given timeslots to enter the museum to manage crowds and improve the visitors’ experience. It’s best to go to Titanic Belfast to buy a joined ticket for entry to both the museum and SS Nomadic, even though you pass SS Nomadic on the way to the museum and may feel tempted to visit SS Nomadic first. This way you’ll get a discounted ticket for both attractions and you’ll know which slots are available for the museum.
I had an hour to kill before my slot to enter Titanic Belfast so going to see SS Nomadic first made sense. An hour is more than enough. The best part about the whole Titanic experience for me is to read the stories of her passengers and crew and on SS Nomadic there were many of them.
SS Nomadic is a ship of the White Star Line, launched on 25 April 1911 in Belfast. She was built to transfer passengers and mail to and from RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic and is the only White Star Line vessel in existence today.
Onboard you can follow the stories of passengers who transferred from SS Nomadic to Titanic for onward travel to New York. I liked ringing the bell at the bar to listen to the virtual bartender speak about the ship and her passengers.
A Tragic Story Told In A Wonderful Way
Titanic Belfast is an amazing interactive museum spread over four floors. It tells the whole story of Titanic from start to tragic end broken up into the before, the launch, the disaster and the after. The 10-minute ride and the section that tells the story of the men who worked at the dock who built her was one of my favorite parts. A part I’ve never heard about or even paid any thought before.
Three thousand men took two years to build the Titanic and they hammered in three million rivets; a duty that left many men stone deaf. Health and Safety officers or safery rules did not exist back then.
They say that two hours is enough to tour the museum, but I’d suggest more time if you have any to spare. It’s a great experience and one worth taking your time over.
Back At The Hotel
Following the story of Titanic across Belfast city on foot was more than enough action for one day. I got back to the hotel after 5 pm and waited for Brendan to get back from his project. We decided to stay in and order takeaways. What was supposed to be a relaxed evening turned out to be not so relaxing.
The hotel doesn’t offer room service and the phone in our room was broken. The sweet result is that I end up running up and down to collect various deliveries from reception. One of the delivery men tells me it’s not necessary for them to tell us on the phone that they accept cash only, because “This is Belfast, it’s always been cash only.” What?! Really?
It’s altogether a story for another day, but ordering take-out was a choice I wish we’d skipped completely. The good news is the food we got, in the end, was nice. We made big decisions about upcoming travel plans and booked and paid our RV for our USA road trip.
Our last day in Belfast was all about Fight Night Live at Windsor Park.
What an amazing transformation! We were there for fight night. We were soaked sitting ringside, but we had a perfect view of the action at our first live pro heavy weight fight. #Belfast #boxing #tysonfury #familytravelexplore #somethingtoremember https://t.co/TTSCOxit3G
— Family Travel Explore (@ExploreFamily) September 12, 2018
Fights 1 to 9 happened pre-broadcast on live TV. And then the big boys came out play.
Cristofer Rosales v Paddy Barnes
12 x 3 min rounds at Flyweight
WBC world title
Tyson Fury v Francesco Pianeta
10 x 3 min rounds at Heavyweight
Carl Frampton v Luke Jackson
12 x 3 min rounds at Featherweight
Interim WBO title
What an experience! The atmosphere was great with 24000 spectators often breaking into deafening song in unison. The queues for the loos were unprecedented with hour-long waits and some of the fighting spirit spilled over into the crowd, but security was tight. Overall, the night was one to remember with an impressive line-up of fights.
Our time in Belfast was great. We felt safe and welcome walking in its streets by day. We never made it to The Perch, but that’s just one of many reasons to visit Belfast again. My bus ride back to co. Wicklow was much the same as coming threes days ago and uneventful, but pleasant. And, a break from the kids always seem great, but once away, we miss them terribly. Getting back to them was super sweat.
Have you been to Belfast? What were your thoughts?