Winter is coming. It’s the first day of the October half-term holiday and we’ve driven from Edinburgh to Cairnryan listening to dire warnings on the radio about Hurricane Ophelia, which is due to be at its most ferocious around the same time as we’re setting sail. What have we landlubbers let ourselves in for?
As it turns out, the P&O European Highlander crossing to Larne is a comfortable cruise across seas as smooth as a mill pond, and a little over two-and-a-half hours later we arrive at the boutique Ten Square Hotel in the centre of Belfast.
The hotel is within walking distance of many of the main attractions and a short taxi ride from most of the others. Our family of five have two spacious and stylish rooms between us and, after unpacking, we head out to explore our environs. The winds by now though have got considerably stronger so we are forced to seek refuge – and Guinness – in the historic and listed Crown Liquor Saloon. After a couple of drinks we decide that’s more than enough exploring for one day and we head back for a meaty dinner at Ten Square’s Josper Restaurant.
The next morning we are met by driver guide Billy Scott for a black taxi tour of the more infamous areas of the north and west of the city, where we stop to take photos of political murals and add our names to the “peace wall”. Eye-opening though the whole experience is, after the best part of two hours in the back of the cab our youngsters are struggling to keep their peepers from closing – until we get our first glimpse of Game Of Thrones memorabilia. Billy takes us through the cobbled streets and alleys of the Cathedral Quarter, where buzzy bars and trendy restaurants abound, and we pop into the Dark Horse, a European-style coffee house that’s home to an exquisite wooden door intricately carved with a scene from Series Six. The timber comes from two trees that were felled in 2016 when Storm Gertrude battered Ballymoney’s Dark Hedges avenue of beech – better known to fantasy fans as Kingsroad in Westeros. There are a total of ten similar doors dotted throughout Northern Ireland, each depicting different episodes, and after getting our “Door Of Thrones” passport stamped, we vow to hunt down more of them on our travels.
We bid farewell to Billy as he drops us off at the newly opened Titanic Hotel Belfast, which occupies the elegant old headquarters of shipbuilding giants Harland & Wolff. Lunch is taken in the breathtaking, light-filled former drawing offices and afterwards we enjoy an impromptu tour round the stylish bedrooms and public spaces which mix historic features with contemporary touches, taking in the atmospheric office of Titanic architect Thomas Andrews and even the telegraph room which received the original distress call from the stricken vessel. The hotel is also home to a permanent collection of more than 500 original artworks and authentic artefacts and photographs which provide vividly atmospheric reminders of the golden age of ocean liners.
Afterwards we head to the Titanic Experience a few yards away, and although it’s a must-visit attraction that provides all you could ever wish to know about the ship in exhausting detail – plus access to the White Star Line’s last remaining vessel, the Titanic’s tender SS Nomadic – the hotel itself leaves a more lasting impression on us.
That evening we dine at the Yardbird, a fun, funky and deservedly stowed-out chicken restaurant above the Dirty Onion pub that doesn’t take bookings but does serve supremely tasty free-range rotisserie birds.
Next morning, we leave Belfast bound for a Game Of Thrones experience at Winterfell Castle (aka National Trust property Castle Ward, in the grounds of which much of Season One was filmed and where fans will find the Whispering Wood). As we don original costumes that were featured in the series, our guide Michael entertains us with anecdotes about what it was like to be an extra on the set, before we finish with a keenly contested archery competition. Take a bow, Winterfell, for a top outing that all the family enjoy.
We get lunch – and another stamp in our “Doors Of Thrones” passport – at The Cuan restaurant in nearby Strangford, before taking the 15-minute ferry across the Lough for a potter about in sleepy Portaferry, where we tick off a further carved door at the Fiddlers Green pub and buy some boilings from a quayside sweetie shop that wouldn’t look out of place in Royston Vasey.
A two-and-a-half hour drive later, we arrive at the manicured grounds of Farnham Estate Spa and Golf Resort, County Cavan, our home for the next two nights. It accurately described itself as a place to rest, relax and renew – our rooms are exquisite, and most of the guests are couples and older families, but we are well looked after at the sophisticated Botanica Restaurant none the less.
The next morning we begin the final full day of our trip and may have saved the best until last with a visit to the Cavan Canoe Centre in Butlersbridge, where owner Seán is as welcoming and accommodating as can be. With the rain bucketing down it wouldn’t be much fun for us novice canoeists, so instead he finds us all waterproof gear and we jump in his motorboat for a tour of the beautiful scenery around Lough Oughter, stopping to clamber around the ruins of Cloughoughter Castle on an ancient crannog. Cavan Canoe Centre offers all manner of excursions for families, groups and individuals, exploring the area’s waterways, landscape and history, and you simply couldn’t get a more genial host than Seán.
Too soon it’s time to end our trip, but not without a detour to the Blakes Of The Hollow pub in Enniskillen to pick up another “Doors Of Thrones” stamp. I make that four out of ten – leaving us at least another six reasons to make a return visit to a truly magical part of the world.
P&O Ferries operates up to seven sailings a day on the Cairnryan to Larne route, with no baggage restrictions and a journey time of two hours. Fares start at £74 each way for a car and driver. www.POFerries.com or call 0800 130 0030.
Ten Square Hotel, Ten Square Hotel,
10 Donegall Square South, Belfast BT1 5JD,
www.tensquare.co.uk, tel 02890 241 001, email [email protected]
Farnham Estate, Cavan, Ireland, tel 353 (0) 49 4377700, www.farnhamestate.ie, email [email protected]
Winterfell Tours, www.gameofthrones-winterfelltours.com.
Cavan Canoe Centre, www.cavancanoeing.com, tel 353 (0) 87 2905752.
Yardbird, www.thedirtyonion.com/yardbird, tel 02890 243 712.
Taxi tours, www.touringaroundbelfast.com