That’s what makes a trip to Ireland so special – it involves a car and a boat – and for a young child, especially, the notion of sailing across the Irish Sea is a very exciting prospect.
Our children were thrilled when I told them we would be taking the ferry to Belfast, which would involve actually driving onto a boat, parking the car, getting out and climbing to the upper deck.
Anticipation mounted as we approached the dock in Cairnryan in Dumfries, where our Stena Line boat was waiting. Check-in was smooth and efficient – we were queuing in our car within a few minutes and, after another 20, were driving on board.
Anxious to try their first onboard cafe, the kids dragged us to the nearest eaterie. Burgers and main meals didn’t start until noon, but there was a wide variety of sandwiches on offer and cooked breakfast. The highlight of the meal, was when a six-foot-tall Mickey Mouse came to say hello. Our 20-month-old was enchanted. Children’s entertainment was not in short supply as crew handed out colouring-in books and crayons, and there was a soft play area. Our children loved the whole experience, and were most put out when we told them, 2 hours and 15 minutes later, we’d have to get ready to disembark.
We were staying at the Stormont Hotel, directly opposite the parliament, and just a 20-minute drive from the docks.
The white, neoclassical parliament is one of Belfast’s iconic buildings and a familiar sight from TV news reports, but I was surprised by the size and greenery of its grounds.
On arrival at the hotel, we were given a friendly welcome. Primarily a business hotel, it proved a good choice for a family stay, being comfortable and well-equipped, with relaxed staff. We had two adjoining bedrooms, so we were able to get the kids settled each night and then relax in the other room without fear of disturbing them. Its very central location, also made it the perfect starting point for visiting Belfast’s sights.
If you judge a city’s friendliness by its bus drivers, then Belfast would be a contender for the world’s friendliest place. Picture the scene: two rather frazzled parents, a six-year-old, a four-year-old and a toddler in a buggy roll onboard with not a clue how much the fare is to the centre or where they should get off. The bus driver, on being asked for his help, scratches his chin and spends a whole five minutes deliberating on the cheapest form of ticket and the best stop to get off at, with not the slightest hint of impatience. On our return journey, the driver even insisted on stopping between designated stops so we were closer to our hotel.
We had just two whole days in Belfast and found it impossible to see everything we wanted. Titanic Belfast is the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience. Housed in an iconic, six-storey building, the state-of-the-art attraction tells the story of the Titanic, from her construction in Belfast in 1911 to her ill-fated maiden voyage.
The building is located in what has become known as Belfast’s Titanic Quarter – the city’s former shipbuilding yards on the east side of the River Lagan.
The area has undergone a £1bn regeneration. We took the bus to East Bridge Street and joined the footpath along the river for a pleasant stroll past pretty townhouses, reminiscent of those in Amsterdam, towards W5, an interactive science centre for children in the Odyssey complex.
Our children enjoyed W5 more than any other museum we’ve ever taken them to – we arrived at 11am, left at 5pm, and there wasn’t a single ‘I’m bored’ moment. The family ticket for two adults and two children at £23.50 was excellent value.
For our final day in Northern Ireland, we headed out of town to Giant’s Causeway and an exploration of the northern coast. Northern Ireland’s only Unesco World Heritage Site, the spectacular rock formation is made of hexagonal stone columns stretching out to sea, and legend has it that they were built by an Irish giant, Finn McCool, so that he could cross the sea to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner.
A family ticket, which included parking, cost £21. If you can find somewhere else to park (possibly a tall order in high season), or are on foot, you can bypass the visitor centre and see the Causeway free of charge.
Afterwards, we drove to the seaside resort of Portrush, with a breathtaking beach of white sand that stretches for miles. Next to the beach is a great playpark for the kids, and directly behind, a restaurant - 55 Degrees North had lovely sea views and a good line in chicken goujons, fries and white wine.
Next morning we checked out and headed to Edinburgh. For the kids at least, the usual end-of-holiday blues were countered by the knowledge that we had another two-hour boat journey ahead of us.
• Travel with Stena Line from Cairnryan to Belfast from £28 single or with a car from £79, based on an economy crossing. Additional passengers pay from £28 each way and £14 each way for children.
For an extra £18pp each way customers can upgrade to the Stena Plus lounge and enjoy complimentary snacks and drinks and use of Apple Macs.
The on-board Pure Nordic Spa is available for £10.
Stena Line sails up to six times daily from Belfast to Cairnryan in 2 hours 15 minutes. To make a booking, click on www.stenaline.co.uk, call Stena Line on 08447-70 70 70.
• Two nights’ accommodation at the Stormont Hotel, breakfast each morning and dinner on the first evening from £110 per person sharing, with complimentary Wi-Fi and car parking. Call the Stormont Hotel on 028-9065 1066 or go to www.hastingshotels.com.