Beauty, cul­ture and a great Ul­ster fry... Karen Bow­er­man and coun­try in North­ern Ire­land ex­plores city

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Yguide, David Lyt­tle, heads into a res­i­den­tial street in west Belfast and stops at the end ter­race. The front of the house looks like any other: small porch, net cur­tains and a white door. But the back is en­closed in a gi­ant metal cage.

The home is just me­tres from one of North­ern Ire­land’s peace walls, erected dur­ing the Trou­bles to try to defuse ten­sion in ar­eas where loy­al­ist and na­tion­al­ist com­mu­ni­ties lived close to­gether.

The “cage” was built to pro­tect a na­tion­al­ist Catholic fam­ily from any stones, bricks or petrol bombs, which may have been thrown over the wall by loy­al­ist Protes­tants.

I find the 8m high wall – and the house with its bars – dis­turb­ing. But David makes a telling re­mark: “Most of us don’t see them any more.”

It’s a sign of how Belfast has moved on since the peace process of the Nineties. To­day, gable ends on the loy­al­ist Shankill and na­tion­al­ist Falls roads still flaunt pro­pa­ganda-style mu­rals, but the streets, once the cen­tre of sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence, are now popular tourist at­trac­tions.

The Europa Ho­tel, where I’m stay­ing, is an­other ex­am­ple of how the city’s re­fused to be de­fined by the past. Dur­ing the Trou­bles, the ho­tel was bombed 28 times. But in 1993, lo­cal hote­lier, Sir Wil­liam Hast­ings, bought the wrecked build­ing and turned it into a city land­mark.

To­day, his ho­tel group con­tin­ues to sup­port re­gional pro­duc­ers; I en­joy Leg­gy­gowan goat’s cheese par­fait fol­lowed by Gle­n­arm salmon for din­ner, while break­fast is ac­com­pa­nied by a book­let about the prove­nance of the food served.

Pages de­pict smil­ing sup­pli­ers hold­ing muesli, milk, yo­ghurts, eggs, mush­rooms, toma­toes, sausages, ba­con and award-win­ning black pud­dings. With the prom­ise of a “true taste of Ul­ster” to start my day, how can I not try ev­ery­thing?

I spend the rest of the morn­ing at the Ti­tanic Mu­seum on the wa­ter­front, not far from the Har­land and Wolff ship­yard where the liner was built.

The mu­seum is shaped like four hulls, each a stag­ger­ing 27m (90ft) high – the same height as the Ti­tanic.

In­side, is a high-tech, mul­ti­me­dia ex­pe­ri­ence, with a theme park-style ride through the ship­yard and a 3D film. Later, the voices of ac­tual sur­vivors re­count what hap­pened dur­ing the 1912 tragedy. One re­calls how, as they hit the ice­berg, a piece of it broke off and landed on the deck. He re­calls an of­fi­cer say­ing it was “noth­ing to worry about” and then pro­ceeded to make a snow­ball.

That af­ter­noon, I head to the Cul­lo­den Es­tate and Spa for tea – with a splash of Hen­dricks gin. Ap­par­ently, its sub­tle flavour, in­fused with cu­cum­ber and rose pe­tals, makes it the per­fect ac­com­pa­ni­ment to scones and cakes. A naughty treat but who’s to know, since it’s served in a teapot?

The Cul­lo­den is a five-star coun­try house ho­tel in Holy­wood, County Down, about six miles east of Belfast.

Af­ter a quick les­son in mixol­ogy, I ask the bar­man if he’s ever served any fa­mous guests. He men­tions Rob­bie Wil­liams, David Beckham and Lady Gaga, while Van Mor­ri­son has an of­fice in the ho­tel grounds.

The Belfast singer-song­writer, who launched his solo ca­reer with Brown-Eyed Girl, is of­fer­ing one-off shows for just a few hun­dred peo­ple. The Cul­lo­den’s gen­eral manager, A Adrian McNally, says th the events, a ac­com­pa­nied by a go gourmet din­ner, are a ch chance for peo­ple to ge get to know the pe per­former bet­ter (M (Mor­ri­son is known for be­ing mer­cu­rial).

“I’d de­scribe him as a man of few words,” McNally says, diplo­mat­i­cally, re­veal­ing lit­tle more than the star’s “very par­tial to Kit Kats.”

From Holy­wood, I ex­plore the Ards Penin­sula, fol­low­ing the eastern shore of Strang­ford Lough, the largest sea in­let in the Bri­tish Isles.

Nearby, is Mount Ste­wart, an 18th cen­tury house owned by the Na­tional Trust. It’s just re­opened af­ter a three-year, £7mil­lion facelift. The prop­erty is best known for its 35 hectares of wood­land, for­mal gar­dens and lakes plus a unique mi­cro­cli­mate; look out for ba­nanas and ki­wis!

A short ferry ride across The Nar­rows (the strait at the bot­tom of the lough) takes me from Porta­ferry to Strang­ford, where I con­tinue to New­cas­tle – a sea­side town at the foot of the Mourne Moun­tains.

My room at the Slieve Donard Re­sort and Spa, which takes its name from the range’s high­est peak, has views of the crags and New­cas­tle’s sandy beach. Next door is the Royal County Down Golf Course.

The ho­tel, an­other mem­ber of the Hast­ings group, was built by the Belfast and County Down Rail­way as an end-of-the-line, luxury des­ti­na­tion. It had a bak­ery, veg­etable gar­den, pigs and a power plant, and of­fered sea wa­ter baths to guests.

To­day, its spa is a lit­tle more so­phis­ti­cated; spread over two floors, with pools, jacuzzis and 16 treat­ment rooms.

That evening, I pay it a visit. As mist drifts over the moun­tains, I re­lax in the softly-lit sauna and watch dark­ness creep over the sea.

The Peace Wall in Cu­par Way, Belfast

TheT Ti­tanic Ho­tel in Belfast (left) and (above) the Cul­lo­den HotelH in Holy­wood where Karen Bow­er­man tried a ‘brew’

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