72 Hours in Belfast – Beer, Food, Politics, and Beauty
Day 1 – 72 Hours in Belfast
9:33 am – Not the Way to Welcome a Travel Writer
As a travel writer, I don’t expect a lot from a host destination. I don’t expect them to slaughter the fatted calf, open a bottle of their rarest vintage, or offer up the village virgin. What I do expect is for them to let me into the damn country – which almost didn’t happen in Northern Ireland. I stood watching the border patrol for twenty minutes greet each visiting foreigner with a smile, a joke, and a stamp. I approach the window, only to stand there for another 20-minutes while the agent scrutinizes every answer on my immigration form and threaten multiple times to prevent me from entering the country. Finally, he grants me access. I blame my beard.
3:34 pm – A Dip into Northern Ireland
The two-and-half hour bus ride from Belfast to County Fermanagh allows for little sleep as the motor coach bounces wherever the road tosses it. The destination is Lough Erne – our lodging for the evening. The rooms aren’t ready yet. I almost cry. All I want is a nap. Instead, we embark on a food and beer cruise along Lower Lough Erne.
The water taxi stops at three different lake islands. Each stop pairs a local beer and snack with a historic sight highlighting the three eras of history found on the lakes – pre-historic, monastic, and early Christians. My soul awakens to not only the beauty of the country – the richest greens I’ve ever seen, deep blue waters, and a perfectly cloudless sky – but to tastes that have been hidden from me for far too long.
7:15 pm – More Tastes of Northern Ireland
Rested from a beer-induced nap, I stroll along the shoreline of Lough Erne Resort from my lodge to Catalina Restaurant, the resort’s five-star dining affair. Once again, I feel jilted that for my entire life, Irish food has been defined by corned beef and cabbage with the occasional savory pie tossed in. That schlop in no way resembles the farm-to-fork cuisine that isn’t a trend in Ireland but a way of life. Every item on the menu, from the rabbit to the bacon to the vegetables, comes with an annotation of the grower or producer. It’s fresh, it’s hearty, and it’s perfect.
Day 2 – 72 Hours in Belfast
9:30 am – A Lesson in Irish Cooking
Like a hobbit, I’m about ready to sit down for breakfast number two – because the black bacon, two fried eggs, black pudding, white pudding, pork sausage, grilled tomato, and grilled mushroom that I already ate wasn’t enough. Breakfast number two comes with a cooking demonstration led by the resort’s executive chef, Chef Noel McNeel (click on over and pick up his cookbook – you’ll thank me later). Mushroom caps topped with black bacon, black pudding, cheese, onion, and a raw duck egg baked until the egg is only slightly runny. It’s silky, it’s gooey, it’s Heaven in my mouth.
1:43 pm – Stuffed
The rest of the morning is merely a lazy bus ride to our next meal – lunch at Mourne Seafood Bar in Belfast’s Cathedral District. I loosen a notch in my belt before sampling a feast of fresh seafood. Once again, my perception of Irish cuisine is altered. Isn’t Irish seafood served fried with a side of chips? What’s this bucket of mussels in white wine and garlic sauce? What are these raw oysters and smoked salmon? What’s this grilled calamari with a chili sauce? Why have I never had a seafood meal this fresh before?
3:36 pm – A Trio of Breweries
The afternoon includes a sample of Belfast’s growing craft beer scene with stops at three different breweries before concluding at Belfast’s first annual beer festival. While the beer isn’t quite to the style – and in some cases standards – that I’m used to from the US’s craft beer, I’m impressed by the overall creativity. Boundary Brewing produces hop forward and sour beers (sometimes on accident) that are shocking to the local palate. Hilden Brewery is the oldest craft brewery in Northern Ireland but isn’t afraid of continuing to define tastes. Brewbot is a digital brewery that didn’t have any of their own beers on tap but poured a delicious variety of craft beers from all over the UK.
4:45 pm – Peace?
Along the way, various peace murals dot the sides of buildings, showcasing pictures of Catholics and Protestants shaking hands for the good of their country. Not so hidden are murals depicting the hurtful grudges that still exist with paintings of masked men holding assault rifles and quotes that read, “Ready for peace. Prepared for war.”
7:30 pm – More Beer!
After struggling to find a single beer with an ABV above 4.5% and enough hops to constitute a hops profile, I ask a fellow festivalgoer why most of the craft beers fall on the weak side. “Our drinking culture is a bit different that in the United States. Here, when we go out, we plan to drink 9 or 12 beers. You can’t do that with 7% beers.”
11:36 pm – So. Dang. Tired.
I’m so tired (or drunk) that my legs feel like they are walking on clouds and the world has a slight spin to it. Yet, another journalist convinces me that I must visit the Spaniard with him. I’m weak, so I give in. As we wait in line to order beers – I’m opting for my first Guinness in Ireland – the perfume of gin and tonics intoxicates me like a seductive French perfume. The chap in front of us buys our beers after hearing our accents. I want to return the gesture but head back to the hotel after finishing my pint. Jet lag and a day full of drinking don’t mix.
Day 3 – 72 Hours in Belfast
8:00 am – Hangover Food
We begin the day at St George’s Market, Belfast’s oldest market. While my fellow journalists disperse to take pictures and browse the variety of venders, I’m in search of what has been described to me as the perfect hangover food – the Belfast Bap. The boulder sized roll is stuffed with bacon, eggs, cheese, sausage, mushroom, and tomato. It’s the perfect cure for all that ails me. I’m ready for another day of eating and drinking.
9:27 am – Distortions
I’m not one to involve myself with the politics of other countries – mostly, because I hate it when outsiders voice their opinions about American politics. However, when our tour guide states that the capitol of Northern Ireland is Dublin, I can’t help but to press her a little.
Me: “Isn’t the capitol of Northern Ireland Belfast?”
Her: “No. It’s Dublin.”
“But you’re not the same country as Ireland.”
“It doesn’t matter. I live on the island of Ireland. Therefore, my capitol is Dublin.”
“Isn’t there a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland?”
“Then how can Dublin be your capitol?”
“Because I’m Irish.”
“But you were born in Northern Ireland and you live here?”
“Then your capitol is Belfast.”
“Let me ask you this. Who do you pay your taxes to?”
“Belfast and London.”
“Then those are your capitols.”
Our bus driver refused to speak with her after overhearing this conversation. It appears the country isn’t entirely healed.
10:36 am – Mmmm… Butter
You can’t dine at any restaurant in Belfast without hearing mention of Abernethy Butter. The award winning, artisanal butter from County Down is a pride and joy of Northern Ireland. We watch a butter making demonstration and then have a hand at both churning and rolling butter on our own. I wonder if there would be a market for a similar product at my local farmers market in Charlotte.
12:45 pm – Game of Thrones?
A bus branded with Game of Thrones Tours barrels by in the opposite direction as us. I don’t get it. With a country steeped in beauty and history like Northern Ireland, why would anyone want to chase fictional filming sites? St Patrick is buried in the same vicinity. Isn’t that far more impressive?
Instead, I stand waiting for a ferry to cross Strangford Lough. It’s my first ferry ride and the day is idyllic – sunny and bright, if not slightly chilly. Three convertibles line up behind us, tops down with the passengers bundled and the heaters on. I enjoy the fresh air and am thankful lunch at The Cuan was only a bowl of fish chowder. For the first time on the trip, I don’t’ feel full.
2:39 pm – Tanks, Moonshine, and Gin
I can’t help but notice the army tank not so discreetly hidden in a warehouse as we tour the grounds of Echlinville Distillery. The Troubles didn’t end that long ago. Is that the right signal for a new distillery to send? We later learn the tank is one of many in the owners WWII collection.
Onto the spirits – all of which are produced from estate grown barley. The Danville Old Irish Whiskey is a 10-year old single malt aged in sherry casks. The flavor delivers refined notes of sherry, tropical fruits, and mild tannins. The Jawbox Gin was created to mix with a locally produced ginger ale. It’s maltier than most with a soap quality carrying juniper and citrus. The Bon Poitin is Echlinville’s take on traditional Irish moonshine. It’s earthy, spicy, and strong.
8:12 pm – A Farewell Feast
Dinner is at Meat Locker Brasserie, which is owned by famed local chef Michael Deane (also owner of Michelin starred Deane’s Epic). The steaks here are matured in Himalayan Salt Chambers and grilled to perfection on open grills that diners can see in action through giant, glass windows. I order the Delmonico Rib with Chop House Butter (made with Abernethy Butter of course). Like the butter melts on the steaks, the tender beef melts in my mouth. I clean my plate.
11:23 pm – He Likes Me
The rest of the journalists in my group invite me on their whirlwind tour of Cathedral Quarter bars. They want to snap pictures for their publications of as many bars as possible. I decline. Snapping and running doesn’t constitute a story. I want to drink Guinness and listen to Irish pub music until I pass out from exhaustion or the beer. I want to experience culture.
The band at Duke of York plays a mixture of Americana (apparently, Wagon Wheel is the national anthem) and traditional Irish tunes. As I sip, arm wraps around me shoulder, a hand caresses my leg, and a man whispers in my ear, “Can I buy you drink?” I look around the bar panicked that I stumbled into the wrong place. I didn’t. Politely, I decline. The (straight) ladies next to me laugh. They’ve never seen that happen in conservative Belfast. Could it be the beard again?
Day 4 – 72 Hours in Belfast
10:00am – If You Have to be Proud of Something…
In a country living under the shadows of a not so bright past, one would think their latest tourism spend wouldn’t be in honor of a ship that sank. As any local will tell, “The boat was floating when she left our harbor. The rest was up to her English captain.” The Belfast Titanic is one of the most well done museums I’ve experienced. It provides not only a look at travel of times past and the historic shipwreck, but also Belfast’s industrial past.
Oh, and I skipped breakfast
Want to go on a similar trip?
I stayed at Malmaison in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter and Lough Erne Resort in County Fermanagh. Check out the latest Belfast hotel reviews on Tripadvisor. Belfast in 3 Days will help you find all the best spots in Belfast and beyond.
Thank you to the Discover Northern Ireland for hosting me on this press trip. As always, my opinions remain my own.
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