Belfast people can be a little queasy about things Titanic. Even before the 2012 centenary of its sinking, I heard one woman – contemplating a jar of Titanic jam in a Belfast deli – declare herself “Titanicked out.”
However, on a Friday night there are Belfast accents aplenty in the bars of the new Titanic Hotel: people gathering for functions here or in the nearby Titanic Visitor Centre (named the world’s leading tourist attraction last year), or simply popping in to check out a new place in town.
The hotel is in one of Belfast’s true architectural gems, the former headquarters of Harland & Wolff, known locally as the Drawing Office. There are in fact two drawing offices here – at right angles to the beautiful sandstone facade. The first is now the Titanic Hotel’s largest function room; the second is the main bar. The hotel has augmented the already abundant natural light – skylights run the length of both rooms – with more glass along the entire front of the hotel.
I am dining alone and have a view from my table to the Titanic slipway and across the Victoria Channel to the Belfast hills. It’s raining, but that’s OK. Better than OK: I am a sucker for Belfast autumns. Autumns are what we do best … And fish.
My leek and white onion velouté comes poured over a small mound of smoked eel and Comber potato (the EU-protected spud from County Down). My main is cod with a salt hake fishcake on charred broccoli in almond and herb dressing, with a side, as suggested by Norbert who is serving me, of honey-roasted carrots. (You’re dead right, Norbert.)
I’m in reflective mood, and not just because of the glass – though there are more windows all along the back wall, and in the centre of the restaurant floor a wood-and-glass cubicle (once the chief draughtsman’s office), with a table for four. My dad, a former shipyard worker, told me when he went to the Visitor Centre all he saw were ghosts of the men he once worked with. I don’t know what he’d make of the artwork in the hotel lobby, which consists mainly of huge ships’ prows and ranks of workers, faceless beneath their flat caps.
I consider walking into town after dinner – it’s 15 minutes over the Lagan Weir bridge to the Cathedral Quarter – but get waylaid by the wonderful old photographs in the back lobby and up the wrought-iron staircase – which is a thing of beauty in its own right.
My room is a blend of art deco black-and-white and brass-cornered wooden furniture. I could have wandered into a state room on a White Star liner, and if that screams “theme!”, it is one that has been come by honestly. One of those old photos tells how the original building was constructed from the same materials that went into the Harland & Wolff ships.
There are, it has to be said, touches too muches. The restaurant’s chandeliers are made of rope and black tyres, for example – but in the main the decor strikes the right balance between heritage and innovation.
As I sit at breakfast on Saturday (more good fish, smoked this time), the Titanic tourists are out in force, as are the Belfast teenagers with their scooters and skateboards. No question of their being Titanicked out. This is as much a part of their city as Cornmarket or Smithfield were for me growing up. And it will be their history too, long after I have joined the ghosts.
I wouldn’t mind haunting the Titanic Hotel for a few more years yet though – as a guest if that’s all right. It really does have beautiful light. And fish.
• Accommodation was provided by Titanic Hotel Belfast (until 21 December only doubles start at £109 room only, titanichotelbelfast.com)
Ask a local
Ursula Devine, development executive, Northern Ireland Screen
Dinner at Holohan’s Pantry near the university is an amazing experience. You’ll often find the owner playing traditional Irish music with her friends, creating a fun atmosphere. The menu has Irish dishes, including boxty (potato pancake), which I haven’t been able to find anywhere else in the north of Ireland.
On a Sunday morning, when nothing else is open, head to St George’s Market for local and international food and crafts.
An uplifting, beautiful and varied walk starts at Belfast Castle: with a loop up round Cavehill.
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