BELFAST — Tattooed muscle men in tight pink shorts. Drag queens in ballgowns and bedazzled bras. A tiny tot in kaleidoscopic fairy wings. Whole families out for a day of fun, cheering on the out-and-proud crowd marching through the streets of Belfast.
If you’re looking for a measure of how far this city has come since “the Troubles,” you could hardly find a better example of acceptance and inclusiveness than the Gay Pride Parade. No one seems concerned about whether you’re Protestant or Catholic, a Loyalist who wants to remain with the U.K., or a Republican who desires a united Ireland. Never mind orange or green. On this day, at least, everybody embraces the rainbow.
“Trust me, we don’t care (about those historic religious and political divisions), as long as you’re good-looking,” jokes Dee Morgan, a tour guide who was born around the onset of the conflict in the late 1960s. But with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Morgan insists that “the Troubles are done, dusted, never to raise their ugly head again.”
Above: Tour guide Dee Morgan, above, opens up a lot of doors for tourists by showing them Belfast's wall art.
In the absence of bombs, tourism has boomed, and Lonely Planet declared Northern Ireland the No. 1 destination to visit in 2018. Top attractions include Titanic Belfast, a whizz-bang interactive “experience,” and film location tours for Game of Thrones, which is mainly shot around Northern Ireland.
Admittedly, some folks still come looking for trouble — or rather, to learn about the Troubles — and plenty of evidence remains. Morgan shows my friends and I key sites, like the politically charged murals of the International Wall, and the Peace Wall, where folks pen messages of love and hope.
“We had Bill Clinton. He wrote ‘Strength and wisdom are not opposing values,’ ” Morgan quotes. “We had the Dalai Lama. He wrote ‘Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.’ And we had Justin Bieber. He wrote … "Bieber,” she shrugs, with a roll of her eyes.
But Belfast’s graffiti is evolving, as I learn on the Seedhead Arts Street Art Walking Tour through the Cathedral Quarter, the hub of Belfast’s nightlife scene. Guide Adam Turkington, who commissions about 40-50 new murals each year for an annual street art festival he founded, views this art form as the visual equivalent of punk rock — a means of filling the space between binary politics and differing faiths.
In Murals Square off Commercial Court, for instance, brick walls are covered in scenes that touch on everything from the Queen and corgis to religion in the Middle East to same-sex relationships.
“The owner of the Duke of York and the Harp Bar commissioned these to represent a shared future,” Turkington explains.
Yet many other works along the tour, such as a frisky fox with steam vents for eyes, seem intended only to amuse or intrigue. I’m particularly partial to a flame-haired, Shrek-green goddess with a Frida Kahlo-esque moustache and unibrow proclaiming “Girls Just Want to Have Fun … and … Fun … Damental Rights.” You go, grrrrl!
Above: Belfast's gay pride parade has become one of the biggest tourist draws to the city each year.
The city has also become a foodie favourite, as evidenced by the eye-opening, mouth-watering Belfast Food Tour with Taste & Tour, which begins at St. George’s Market. For over four hours, I shovel in sausage, soda bread, marshmallow-laden “Fifteens,” local cheeses, a hamburger with rum BBQ sauce and deep fried pickles, whilst whetting my whistle with locally produced Jawbox gin, Belfast Blonde beer and MacIvors cider. Best of all are the wee artisan chocolates and steaming cup of hot chocolate we sample at Co Couture. As owner and chocolatier Deirdre McCanny helpfully points out, pure chocolate is actually a fruit. I say, bring on my five a day.
Perhaps the most visible symbol of Belfast’s flourishing fortunes is the recent opening of the Grand Central Hotel, the latest addition to the family-run Hastings Hotels’ portfolio. It’s less than a five minute walk from the Europa, once known as “the most bombed hotel in Europe,” which the late Sir William Hastings purchased in the early 1990s and where U.S. president Bill Clinton bunked while visiting Belfast in 1995.
Above: While pubs like the Duke of York, right, remain popular, Belfast's food scene is far more diverse now.
The new Grand Central, located in a glamorously renovated former office building in the Linen Quarter, is the largest hotel in Northern Ireland with 300 guest rooms. At 23-storeys, it’s also the tallest, a glittering glass icon proudly punctuating Belfast’s skyline. You know you’ve arrived, in every sense of the word, when you’re greeted by a doorman in a top hat, standing at attention atop verses from a specially-commissioned poem, “Hymn to Belfast” by Paul Muldoon, which have been etched upon the pavement outside.
The ground and first floors feature double-height ceilings with floor-to-ceiling windows, flooding the contemporary Grand Central Café and the elegant Seahorse Bar & Restaurant with light. Bedrooms are equipped with a pillow-plumped “Cloud bed” and dressed in teal and taupe textiles. Mine even has a bathtub facing a plate glass windows, so I can soak up the cityscape as I soak in the bubbles.
But you can’t beat the bird's eye views — and expertly mixed cocktails — at The Grand Central’s 23rd-floor Observatory, the highest bar in Ireland. Kitted out in a stylish mix of teal blue and orange velvet with gleaming brass accents and a grand piano to provide the tunes, it’s the perfect perch to contemplate Belfast’s bright future as you gaze out over the horizon.
JUST THE FACTS
• Getting there: From Toronto, you can fly to Belfast with British Airways via London.
• Where to stay: Grand Central Hotel http://www.grandcentralhotelbelfast.com
• Tourism info: http://www.ireland.com
• Tours with Dee Morgan: http://deetoursireland.com
• Titanic Belfast: http://titanicbelfast.com