Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Why there’s really plenty to do in our wee country

Frances Burscough

It's not very often that a report on the day to day activities of the Assembly would catch my eye, but a recent story in the Tele did just that.

A bit of a squabble broke out after Sinn Fein MLA Phil Flanagan complained that visitors to Northern Ireland would be hard-pushed to find enough activities or attractions to fill a typical holiday break.

“When somebody is looking at a website at home for places to visit, particularly those from places like Australia or America where there is quite a lengthy journey, many will find it difficult to find enough activities or events to justify staying here for a week or a fortnight,” he said.

Well, for the first time ever, I really wish I had been there to join in the debate.

And I would begin by suggesting that Mr Flanagan really should get out more. Heck, there's more than enough in Belfast and its environs alone to keep visitors entertained, amused and enthralled, let alone the country as a whole.

I should know — as an Englishwoman who ‘emigrated’ to Northern Ireland two decades ago I've had enough visitors of my own to contend with and not a single one has ever left our wee country feeling short-changed. In fact, to a man they've always fallen in love with the place.

So, Mr Flanagan, I have a few suggestions for you.

Aside from the very obvious and well-known tourist attractions such as the Titanic building, the MAC Centre, the Crown Bar and the open-topped buses, how about kicking off with a trip along the Lagan on one of the fascinating tour-boats? Or a night at the Odyssey Arena watching the Belfast Giants thrash the Nottingham Panthers whilst the cheerleaders, in-house drummers and crowd of loyal thousands go completely buck mad?

Have you never strolled along the mouth of the river on a misty morning at dawn and startled a heron, or watched a peregrine falcon catching prey for its young on Cavehill? And when was the last time you witnessed an historical schooner in full sail glide silently into the harbour, bedecked with the colourful flags and bunting from past international voyages? Things like these are more than photo opportunities to commit to an album, they are experiences to commit to memory.

Bejaysus! Have you never even taken a pint of porter in Kelly’s Cellars or a hot whiskey, or five, in White’s Tavern? And what about a leisurely wee pub crawl through the Cathedral Quarter on a Friday night, stopping off for some live music at the Black Box or the Oh Yeah Centre?

Next up, an afternoon of vintage classic films at QFT followed by a leisurely stroll around the bounteous Botanic Gardens and a visit to the newly-spruced up Ulster Museum? Then when the open road calls you away from the smoke of the big city, how about a day-trip down the Ards Peninsula ... or, better still, even a long weekend there, staying at the Portaferry Inn as your base, exploring the idyllic deserted beaches all along the coast; the fishing villages in between; the historical grandeur of Mount Stewart one afternoon, the wildlife of Castle Espie the next, and then ending with a round trip on a speedboat sea safari out of Strangford Lough and into the sparkling open sea?

Would you never think of taking a fishing trip out along the Antrim Coast and watching the gannets, shearwaters and grey seals all fighting to grab the mackerel off your line? Or a strenuous hike up to Silent Valley followed by a relaxing picnic amidst a panoramic vista where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea?

How about apple picking in Armagh followed by an enthralling evening observing the Milky Way at the Planetarium? Or delving the depths of the earth at the terrifying yet awesome Marble Arch caves?

And we'll always have the Giant’s Causeway as a back-up plan. It really is worth going to see, no matter what Samuel Johnson may once have said.

Who was he anyway, an MLA?

Really, Mr Flanagan, do you even know the country you are there to represent? You really need to get out more ...

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