FASCINATION with the tragic story of the Titanic is practically universal, but in Cork it has a special resonance.
No wonder, then, that the Titanic Experience in Belfast had a huge share of ‘C’ plates in the car park when we visited it over the recent mid term break.
It’s a fair drive from West Cork to the historic city on the Lagan, but a great tip is to pick a stopover en route if you can. We chose to annoy our relations with a Friday night visit to Dublin but a pit stop in Wicklow, Meath or Louth would be equally wise.
It meant that on arrival in Co Antrim the next day, just before lunch, we were relaxed and ready for some mammoth sight-seeing.
The kids had never been to Northern Ireland before, so they were fascinated with the different road signs, post boxes and buses.
Our first destination was the Ice Bowl in Dundonald, a family activity centre that has a year-round ice rink.
The manager gave us a warm welcome and organised our tickets for an afternoon of skating. We had done some turns around the Dundrum rink in Dublin last Christmas, but it still took us all quite a bit of time to get our ice feet again, including the few mandatory falls. But when we realised everyone takes a tumble now and then, it was less humiliating.
A word of warning – bring sterling £1 coins and make sure to have everything you need before you close your locker, as the £1 is non-refundable.
There are other games options here, too, if you want to make a day of it, and a multiplex cinema closeby.
The next day we had another busy schedule which included a shopping trip for the teen girls to the Castle Court Shopping Centre in town and then a walk along Royal Street to Lush for some aromatic soaps.
The streets were not as busy as, say, Dublin on a holiday weekend, and are very well signposted (unlike Dublin). We had no problem finding our way around.
That evening we took a trip to Crumlin Road Gaol.
Dating back to 1845, it closed its doors in 1996 and is now open seven days a week as a visitor attraction.
Full of history and with a list of former inmates which includes Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Ian Paisley and even a number of Suffragettes, the decommissioned facility is now a major tourist attraction.
Used in a number of feature films, its well restored interior is both creepy and macabre and we were even led into the execution room, which still has the original timber frames for the hangman’s noose.
There’s an allegedly ‘haunted’ tunnel which the kids loved exploring, and our tour guide Bobby was wonderful and happy to answer everyone’s questions.
The next day was the highlight of our trip: the Titanic Experience.
This massive building, which rises to the same height as the hull of the ship, is perched on the edge of the Harland and Wolfe dockyard, right where the mighty ship was launched.
The bustling centre is as impressive inside as out – and despite the huge crowds when we visited (which, apparently, never abate), the queues moved quickly and were very well organised.
Once inside the main attraction, you follow a numbered route, and can avail either of a tour guide or a hand-held audio guide. We opted for the latter, to allow us to move at our own pace.
My favourite parts were the reconstructed rooms –from first class down to steerage, and those in between, and the three-sided wall with a graphic depiction of each floor of the ship.
You really felt like you were standing on each deck, as the views before you spread out into the dining room, dancehall, bridge, and more.
There is also a delightful little motorised ride through the sights and smells of the H&W shipyard, mid-way through the experience.
Your ticket can be exchanged at the end of the tour for a White Star Line ticket to commemorate your visit.
The shop has some nice memorabilia, like the little bars of Vinolia cream bath soap, as supplied to Titanic passengers, and hand towels with the ship’s logo on them, as might have appeared in the upper class cabins.
It really is a must for those of us who can’t get enough of the stories of that horrific night in 1912.
Outside we posed for photographs at the very slipway where the giant ship first made contact with water, now a commemorative site with name plaques for the passengers.
On an adjoining site, the ‘Titanic Studios’ are home to the Game of Thrones set, with its own tours for fans of the show. A trip to Titanic Experience is worth allowing about three hours for, and more if you intend to eat on-site. The two cafés were hugely busy when we visited, so we opted for takeouts instead.
Our hotel, the La Mon in Comber, was a very pleasant low-rise in its own grounds, in a leafy suburb about 15-20 minutes’ drive from the city centre.
It was perfect for us as the leisure centre included a decent sized pool, sauna, steam room and jacuzzi.
There was also a kiddies’ room, with DVDs and books to borrow, and secluded grounds for strolling.
Saturday night dinner in the Mill restaurant was very impressive – the children were given as much attention as the adults, and nothing was too much trouble for the wonderful waiting staff.
Breakfast was a generous buffet and Full Irish options, with a nice selection of pastries and croissants to delight wide-eyed youngsters who are normally restricted to cereals and granola.
The bedrooms were good sized, warm and comfortably furnished, with satellite TV, and tea/coffee facilities.
On our second night in the city, we dined in the trendy Graze eaterie on the Upper Newtownards Road.
Options varied from gourmet burgers to a good selection of fish dishes (hake, cod, monkfish and prawn risotto) and fillet steak. I opted for a delicious orzo pasta with butter nut squash, spinach and purple broccoli.
The children’s menu featured a burger, fisherman’s pie, tempura of chicken, or linguine – well priced at £5.95, which included a cordial and ice-cream too.
While the current exchange rates make the trip seem expensive to southerners, there is still good value to be had in food and tourist attractions. It was also a useful history lesson for the children, too, and certainly well worth the long drive.