Remember in the first post when I said the more time I had to plan this vacation the longer it go? Well, that's mostly because we *had* to see Giant's Causeway, and if we were going to go that far, we may as well stay in Belfast and make it a leg of the trip instead of an in and out. Based on Google Maps, I thought this was a possibility. I had thought wrong. All I can say is thank goodness we decided to add an extra night in Belfast because (1) there was no way we could have seen Giant's Causeway while having driven from Ashford Castle all in the same day no matter what the maps tell you and (2) it became one of my favorite stops on the entire trip.
Getting to Belfast though was not without its challenges. Remember all that flooding? Well, the first two routes out of Cong that we attempted to take were a bust - the roads were completely submerged in water. We sat watching a Jetta get stuck and start smoking in one of the recently-formed lagoons and quickly knew that our drive was not going to be without its troubles. Eventually we had to back track about an hour out of our way and go around the flood - what would have been a 10 minute drive to the road ended up taking over an hour. That said, it was a very lovely drive - the roads really are dotted with dry stack stone walls and there really are sheep as far as the eye can see. Oh, and rainbows? Ireland has those too.
To avoid the weather, we drove up through Sligo, across to Eniskillen and then on to Belfast. Sligo itself wasn't anything special, but the region around it - known as Yeats country - was absolutely breathtaking.
The traffic in Eniskillen was awful - we moved maybe 2 miles in an hour. I don't know how we could have avoided it, but I really wish we would have been able to as it added another extra hour onto what was already going to be a five hour drive. As you drive out of Eniskillen you really realize that you're no longer in the Republic of Ireland as everything suddenly changes - no more stacked stone walls (everything is hedges), the houses are bigger and more refined looking, the roads are smooth and wide and the signage changes.
We arrived in Belfast as the sun was setting so we only got to see a little bit of the city. The hotel we stayed at - The Culloden Estate & Spa - was located outside the city center in a suburb called Holywood. For those in the Bay Area, it was pretty much like staying in Piedmont or at the Claremont Hotel in the Oakland Hills, definitely a small bedroom community, and most certainly upscale. The hotel, which overlooks the Belfast Harbor, was decorated for Christmas which I loved. At first we were given a room overlooking a parking lot, but just by asking we were moved across the hallway to a newly remodeled room that had a view of the grounds and out onto the harbor. The room itself was nothing special, but it was warm, nicely positioned and comfortable.
I had read on TripAdvisor that the train stop was right outside the hotel and that was certainly the truth. You literally walk to the bottom of the hill and there it is. And the trains. Oh, how I loved the trains. I wish BART could have trains this nice; it would make everyone's commute so much better and BART riders so much less aggressive and dour each morning and evening.
Getting into Belfast, you're dropped off at the main station which is kind of way out of the way in the "dodgy part of town." (Gold star to the first person who gets that reference.) We knew two places we wanted to visit for dinner & drinks so we just followed the map we had into town. Off in the distance I could see a lit up ferris wheel, but didn't think much of it. Then, as we turned a corner we saw the entirety of the city hall was decorated for Christmas. Upon closer inspection they were also having a Christmas market. I cannot explain to you how much I love Christmas markets. I want to spend an entire vacation cruising down the Danube visiting all of Eastern Europe's best Christmas markets I love them so much. We ended up scrapping our previous plans and just eating at the market.
We also wandered around the city's main shopping center - Victoria Square - which is this really cool indoor/outdoor mall that has a glass dome so large you can see it as part of the city's skyline. The shops were closing up so we didn't really do any shopping, but it was pretty evident from the shoppers out and about that Belfast wasn't suffering from the same sort of recession woes that Dublin was, which I imagine had something to do with different governments and the pound versus the euro. No one we spoke with at all in Northern Ireland mentioned the current financial difficulties, whereas EVERYWHERE we went in the Republic, that was the main topic of conversation.