Belfast: A low-key Sunday in Northern Ireland

Sunday, July 8, 2007 – BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND

Put away those Euros…it’s back to Pound Sterling again!

We docked in Belfast, about a mile and a half from the downtown area. The Belfast Welcome Center provided free shuttle buses starting at 8am for all passengers to their offices near City Hall, so we were able to take our time and have a leisurely breakfast in the DaVinci diningroom. NOTE: Since it was Sunday, we’d already been warned that most of the shops don’t open until at least 10am, but in reality, the vast majority did not open until closer to 1pm.

Belfast City Hall

We were anxious to get started, so we took a shuttle that got us into town right at 10, and sure enough, it was like a ghost town! None of the stores on the main strip were open, except for the Belfast Welcome Center. We went up to take a quick peek, and the gift shop was very large and had lots of great offerings. I promised the kids we’d come back later and do some shopping. We didn’t want to have to carry around our purchases all day long, so we figured we’d save it for later, right before hopping on the shuttle back to the ship.

There are several ship’s tours you can take in Belfast, but we opted to keep this more of a low-key day. Some of the attractions you might want to see include Belfast Castle (located a couple of miles northwest of the harbor), the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, or The Botanical Gardens (behind Queen’s College). You could also visit Carrickfergus, a small suburb of Belfast that is 12 miles north of downtown and is accessible by bus or taxi (I’ve read that there’s an 800-year-old castle there, some pretty churches, and other attractions.) All of these sights sounded tempting, but Rich and I decided that after all of the touring we’d done so far (museums, churches, galleries, etc.) it was time to focus on some things that the kids would really enjoy, so we decided to visit the Belfast Zoo.

We asked the folks at the Welcome Center what the best way was to get to the Zoo, which opens at 10am. They advised us to take a city bus on the #1 route, 1A, B, C, D or E. Tickets were £2.50 for adults, £1.25 for children.

We decided to take a walk over to Belfast Cathedral first, before hopping on the bus to the zoo. On the way, I saw lots of people lining up to catch the red City Sightseeing bus, since there really wasn’t much else to do at that time of the morning—not a bad idea, and probably a good way to kill time until the shops open.

Across the street from the Belfast Cathedral (also known as St. Anne’s), we found Writer’s Square, which had quotations from famous writers carved into the slate walkway. It was warm that day, so Rich wore shorts, but realized afterwards that he probably wasn’t dressed well enough to enter the church, so I went in on my own with the girls while he snapped some pictures outside.

I wanted to go to the Cathedral to say a prayer for my father, who passed away last year. Before we left for our vacation, I was feeling sad that this would be the first birthday I’d be celebrating without my Dad around to wish me a Happy Birthday. I decided to ask my Dad for a sign, a signal that he could send during the trip to let me know that he was up there watching over me. I’ve read that you need to be really specific in what you ask for, so I decided to give my Dad a real doozy of a task: I asked him to show me some pink roses in a green container. Pink roses are my favorite, and while Rich and the girls did send me a bouquet of them for my birthday the day before, they were in a clear vase, so that didn’t count. The container had to be green! Rich said it was probably an impossible thing to ask for, but I had faith that my Dad would find a way to make it happen.

We entered Belfast Cathedral, and Sunday Mass was about to start. The usher told us we were welcome to stay, but I said we just wanted to say a quick prayer, so he showed us to some seats towards the back. As I was praying for my Dad, my 11-year-old pointed to the floral arrangements at the rear of the church and said, “Mom….LOOK!” Sure enough, the flowers adorning either side of the aisle were big bouquets of pink roses, artfully arranged in a large, green basket. Just then, the Mass started, and the choir gathered at the back of the church, forming a semi-circle between the two floral arrangements. They sang the most beautiful hymn, bringing tears to my eyes, and in that moment I knew for certain that my father was sending me a message that he was still around, and was answering my request for an unmistakable sign. It also dawned on me that he chose to send me the sign I asked for in a church named “St. Anne’s”, and my mother’s name is Ann. When the processional hymn was over, the girls and I slipped outside to continue exploring Belfast, but it was those magical moments in the Cathedral that will stand out as the highlight of my trip.

We walked back to the main street and waited just a few minutes before our bus arrived. We let the driver know that we were going to Belfast Zoo, and another passenger alerted us when our stop was coming up. It was the Bellvue stop, but it’s hard to see the sign until you’re almost upon it.

When you get off the bus, you have to walk up a V-E-R-Y steep uphill incline to get to the entrance of the Belfast Zoo. It’s about a 5 minute walk, and was certainly good exercise. (Thank goodness, it wasn’t raining.) Admission is £7.80 for each adult, £4.10 for children, so it was worth it for us to get the Family Fare for £21.

Peacock at Belfast Zoo

The Belfast Zoo was great fun, and the world-class exhibits featured many endangered animals. Since the weather had changed from sunny to cool and overcast, the animals were also very active. Some of the memorable animals we saw: Barbary lions, a Red Panda, a White Tiger, a Moloch Gibbon, Tamarins, and a sweet little baby Lemur being cuddled protectively by his parents. The zoo itself has many hills to walk up in order to see the various exhibits, but the reward for all of that uphill climbing is some absolutely gorgeous vistas of Belfast and the surrounding area.

View from Belfast Zoo

There are picnic areas located throughout the zoo, and on the far side was a small café with sandwiches, drinks, chips and ice cream. We wanted to eat lunch at a pub downtown, so we let the kids have some ice cream to tide them over. There are bathrooms located just below the café, and they were surprisingly clean.

After a couple of hours, we made our way out of the zoo (successfully avoiding the gift shop!) and were very grateful the walk to the bus was all downhill, because it started to drizzle. By the time we got to the bottom, it was raining pretty hard, so we quickly crossed the street and got under the bus shelter. By this time, it was 1:40pm. We checked the schedule, and there were buses due to depart at 1:37pm and 2:15pm. We figured we’d missed the earlier bus, but it was running a few minutes late and came shortly after we got there. It was a very quick ride into downtown. We took the bus all the way down, to the other side of City Hall (which is closed on Sundays), and hopped off to explore that side of the city. We found two pubs that looked good, and they were right across the street from one another: The Crown Pub and The Broken Docket. We opted for The Broken Docket because they had some more varied menu choices. (The kids’ menu for both pubs was the same: chicken nuggets or fish sticks.) My 7-year-old ended up having a hot dog, while my two older girls had lasagna and said it was terrific. Rich had Stuffed Chicken (the stuffing was homemade) and I had the “Pie of the Day” which was Ham & Chicken Pie. The food was absolutely delicious! In keeping with my quest to sample the local food & drink in each port, I had a Harp beer to go with it.

The bathrooms at The Broken Docket were super-clean (another good sign that it was a top-notch place) and after freshening up, we headed out for some shopping. Rich stopped at a liquor store across the street (they’re called “off license” stores there) to pick up a bottle of Bushmills Whiskey to bring back to the ship. If you try to buy the duty-free alcohol on board, they don’t give it to you until right before disembarkation, because they want you to buy your drinks from the bar. Purchasing our own bottle off the ship saved us some money, and was a lot more convenient when we wanted a nightcap before bed.

We took our time heading back to the Welcome Center (big mistake!), stopping in a few shops (one in particular, Past Times on Fountain Street, had some beautiful crafts). We got back to the Welcome Center at about 3:50pm and found out that it closes by 4pm! YIKES!!

They weren’t letting anyone else upstairs, but I begged the guard to PLEASE let us up, and promised that we’d take less than 5 minutes to make our purchases. He relented, and we ran up the escalator and shopped like high-speed superheroes. I really wish I’d had more time there, because the prices were surprisingly good, and they had a nice selection of authentic local crafts and linens. I purchased some tea towels, a table runner, our obligatory fridge magnet, and some Celtic wall decorations. They started turning the lights off so we hurried to the registers and paid. They were literally locking the doors behind us as we left!

Once outside, we hopped on the shuttle and headed back to the ship.

Rich took my oldest daughter, Christina, to see the pre-dinner show, which was a tribute to the Beatles, while I stayed behind with the other girls and had a much-needed rest.

The dinner menu was a little strange that night. It was “International Night”, so the menu choices were quite eclectic: Asian-inspired choices alongside heavy French dishes and spicy Mexican food. Kinda strange, but interesting.

Afterwards, we went to the Princess Theater to see the rescheduled performance of Cinematastic, which had been postponed the night when the weather was really bad. The show was outstanding. They had a great audience turnout, and the show was a spectacular presentation of music and dancing from a variety of movies. (They even sang a medley that included the song My Heart Will Go On from the movie Titanic. Talk about brave!) The costumes were colorful, and the dancers did a great job.

All photos by RichYak, copyright 2007

Coming up next: My eldest child celebrates her first “teen” birthday, as we explore Glasgow, Scotland.

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