When my wife told me she had booked a family holiday around Northern Ireland in February, my immediate thought was, “Are you mad?”. What if the sea is rough for our ferry crossing? What if the Beast from the East rears its ugly head again? How on earth are we going to entertain the kids for six days in the Irish countryside in winter? But I know better than to think such thoughts aloud…
Having a car would be essential to the trip’s success and by travelling to Northern Ireland with P&O Ferries from Cairnryan to Larne, we could take our own, saving on rental and making packing so much easier. Priority boarding and access to the exclusive Club Lounge meant our two-hour crossing on the European Highlander couldn’t have been smoother. We were first to embark and disembark, the kids stuffed their faces with the complimentary snacks and juice in the relaxing Club Lounge and my wife (designated driver) had a power nap on one of the many comfy sofas, leaving me the opportunity for a cuppa and a stroll around the ship. Even the sea was calm.
Once landed, our first destination was the wonderfully named Lusty Beg Island in county Fermanagh. The sun was setting towards the end of our three-hour journey and as the winding country roads became narrower and darkness fell, we drove over a bridge on to Boa Island and came to an abrupt halt at one of those car falling into water hazard signs. We were at the shore of Lower Lough Erne and we could see the welcoming lights of Lusty Beg twinkling in the inky black.
Like something from a bygone age, we hailed a boat across the water via a special phone box. The voice at the other end said we would be picked up in a jiffy, and shortly, out of the gloom, appeared the tiniest ferry I’ve ever seen, expertly operated by a lad who didn’t look old enough to drive a car, let alone pilot a passenger vessel. In a matter of minutes we and our wheels had been wafted across the narrow channel to the resort on the island.
After a warm welcome and a hearty meal, we used the little map of the island provided by the receptionist, to locate our surprisingly grand accommodation. Whatever we were expecting, it certainly wasn’t a lodge as swanky and spacious as this, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Dazed and exhausted we collapsed into bed.
Our two nights on Lusty Beg really weren’t enough to appreciate all the outdoor activities available, including all kinds of water sports. Our children loved searching for the sprites and trolls on the Fairy Trail, dodging muddy puddles and climbing over mossy branches. My wife Sine also tried out the renowned seaweed bath in the on-site Island Spa, returning to the lodge glowing and rejuvenated after her natural iodine infusion.
Lusty Beg is also a good base for exploring the surrounding area and we ventured across on the tiny ferry back to the mainland and on to Enniskillen. The highlights of this historical border town include Enniskillen Castle with its fantastic interactive museum, the quaint Irish oddity that is the Headhunters Railway museum with a working barber shop right in the middle of it, and the fantastic Lakelands Forum Play Park, with giant fort, multiple slides and – my favourite – a zip wire.
Dinner was at Northern Ireland’s own chain of pizzerias, Little Wing, which came highly recommended, and I can see why. The food was fantastic and reasonably priced, and the atmosphere was relaxed and family friendly.
Right on the border with Eire is the world famous Belleek Pottery which offers a guided tour where you get to meet the crafts people and watch as they create amazingly intricate porcelain vases, mugs and dishes.
Of course, one of Sine’s objectives in planning our Northern Ireland trip was to meet her relatives. This was no chore, entailing a drive along the spectacularly beautiful Causeway Coastal Route to Coleraine in County Londonderry followed by dinner at The Lodge Hotel, where we also stayed the night.
Here we were ideally placed to explore the breathtaking Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site next day. Owned and managed by the National Trust, the 40,000 hexagonal basalt rocks of the Giant’s Causeway and the Visitor Experience Centre should be on everyone’s bucket list, and 1.7 million visited last year alone. The family audio tour was well worth the money. Our children Reuben (five) and Sarah (three) were captivated by the legends and myths that brought the stunning scenery to life, but best of all was climbing the rocks and watching the giant waves crashing against the shore below.
Just a few miles further along the road is another National Trust treasure; the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge. Follow the coastal footpath for 1km from the carpark and visitor centre and you’ll come to a 66ft long rope bridge 100ft above the sea. Originally erected by fishermen over 250 years ago, it is now a popular tourist attraction, especially since it has been used in the filming of cult series Game Of Thrones. My wife, my daughter and I wobbled cautiously along the rickety bridge with our hearts in our mouths, but our son, susceptible to vertigo, sensibly chose to stay on solid ground.
After our brief stay in Coleraine, we moved on to Belfast for the last two nights of our trip. We found the Hampton by Hilton hotel in the city centre, just around the corner from the famous Crown Bar, comfortable, ultra modern and clean. It also offered a fabulous Irish buffet breakfast including freshly made waffles with a myriad of sickly sweet toppings.
But the real highlight of the capital was the Titanic Experience, just a G2 Glider bendy bus journey from the Belfast City Hall. It offers an interactive journey through the compelling history of Belfast shipbuilding and the tragic story of the passenger liner’s last voyage. The Titanic Experience captivated all four of us and while we adults reflected on some of the more poignant exhibits, our children were kept busy with their treasure hunt through the attraction.
But Belfast isn’t a one trick pony. Just a few minutes’ walk along the docks from the Titanic Experience is W5, a science and discovery centre designed for children of all ages. We spent an afternoon immersed in all its interactive and jaw-dropping wonders but could easily have spent all day there. Set over four floors, this enormous centre has themed zones, including a hi-tech MED-lab exhibition all about the human body and medical science. With a version of the classic board game Operation, x-ray simulators, ultrasound gadgets and a machine that uses your heartbeat to beat a drum, it was enormous fun as well fulfilling its educational remit. There are also cleverly designed creative play areas to stimulate little ones’ bodies and minds.
Although it seemed as if we had barely arrived it was time came to pack up and go home. My misgivings about visiting Northern Ireland in the depth of winter had proved unfounded. Just a stone’s throw from Scotland and with wonderful ferry and air links, it’s an ideal holiday destination at any time of year. We can’t wait to go back for another adventure.
P&O Ferries fares start from £94 each way from Cairnryan to Larne for a car and driver. For further information on all sailings and the latest P&O Ferries offers please visit poferries.com or call 0800 130 0030.
Lusty Beg, Boa Island BT93 8AD, Kesh, Northern Ireland, (028 6863 3300, www.lustybegisland.com)
Belleek Pottery Ltd, 3 Main Street, Belleek, Co Fermanagh BT933FY (028 6865 8501, www.Belleekpottery.ie)
Admisson to the Giant’s Causeway is £12.50 for adults and £6.25 for children. Visit www.giantscausewaytickets.com and save £1.50 on adult admission, 75p on child admission and £3.75 on family admission (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/giants-causeway)
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is priced at £9 for adults and £4.50 for children (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/carrick-a-rede)
Rooms at Hampton by Hilton Belfast City Centre start at £73. Hope Street 15, Belfast BT12 5EE, (028 9031 3335, www.hamptoninn3.hilton.com)
For more information about Belfast go to www.visitbelfast.com