Northern Ireland's coastal wonders...Surprising Belfast...Hoping to get to London
BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Quite the surprise.
I really didn’t know what to expect when I crossed the border into Northern Ireland. I did think there would be a sign. Likely not a Checkpoint Charlie, mind you, but at least something that said, “You are now in the U.K.”
Instead, I think the first thing that made me take notice was that the road signs suddenly indicated miles instead of kilometers. That was about it, really.
I’ve heard a lot over the years about the Giant’s Causeway (see photo) and Bushmills distillery and the rope bridge in Northern Ireland, all major tourist attractions on the coast just east of Portrush, which has a lush and lovely links golf course that I was positively drooling over.
The golf looks great. The Giant’s Causeway is wonderful. But it was the overall feel and dramatic sculpture of the coast drive that really had me thinking these folks are onto something really, really good.
I had some nice coastal views in the Republic of Ireland, but nothing as spectacular for driving as the northern coast of Northern Ireland. Wonderful vistas at every turn, plus cute villages/towns, tons of sheep and cows and lovely restaurants and hotels, including the Ballygally Castle.
Belfast itself was a huge surprise. There’s tremendous, old architecture as well as great shopping, fine restaurants and a real sense of a city that’s on the rise. Sure, you can visit sites where Catholics and Protestants made war, but there’s also some cool parks and great food and wonderful streets for walking about. Not to mention the hotel the tourism board put me up at: the Merchant. Wow. And wow again. It’s an old bank, and there were cherubs and stained glass windows hovering over my shoulder at breakfast under a giant dome.
The rooms are lush and the entire feel of the place is solid and fashionable and simply marvelous. It’s fairly new; located up in the Cathedral quarter not far from St. Anne’s and close to the magnificent City Hall and the pubs of Great Victoria St. A great Irish band was playing at the Duke of York pub on Sunday night, and I had a great steak ciabatta with skinny fries at a French brasserie near the hotel. Deane’s, a Michelin starred restaurant near City Hall, serves up classic dishes in a lively atmosphere with plenty of beautiful people.
Hard to believe this place has seen so many, well, troubles. But it appears those are pretty much behind a city that has so much to offer. It ain’t Dublin. It’s not London. But it’s got a charm and a personality that’s very enjoyable in a “second city” kind of way.
ON MY WAY TO LONDON…MAYBE
Well, this is gonna be fun.
I had a flight booked for Sunday morning from Belfast to London Heathrow, but BMI flights into Heathrow were cancelled due to the volcano in Iceland. Join the club, Byers. It looked on Sunday morning as if flights might be grounded for days, so rather than sit in Belfast and hope to get a BMI flight I opted to take things into my own hands and aim to get to London.
That way, I figured, if Air Canada suddenly started flying again on, say, Tuesday, I would only have to haul my butt from central London to Heathrow and not have to worry about a connecting flight from Belfast. Good theory, I thought. So I spent several hours on the Internet, trying to book a ferry and a train to get me to London from northern Ireland. Of course, it was complicated. One ferry goes to Liverpool but it takes eight hours. That didn’t sound appealing. So I opted for a two-hour ferry ride to Stranraer, Scotland. Where on earth that is, I had no idea. On the coast, I figured, being a geography whiz. But not much else came to mind.
I’m supposed to take a 7:30 a.m. ferry to Stranaer, which takes a couple hours. The first train I could find was at 12:40 p.m., which means I’ll be doing some serious raiding of the scones at the Stranaer train station.
It’s then a, wait for it, 10 hour friggin train ride to London’s King’s Cross Station. It could be a lot worse, but that’s a long time.
Getting the reservation was hilarious. I went to Google, naturally, and found a national rail web site. I clicked through five or six times before giving up. It simply wouldn’t let me purchase the ticket I wanted, so I called. They put me through to East Coast train lines, or some such. They couldn’t help. The guy said something about how I could make a reservation but I couldn’t’ actually buy a ticket until I got to Scotland. Made absolutely no sense to me.
Then he said it wasn’t their train, anyway. Why they sell tickets for someone else’s train I haven’t a clue. He said it was Virgin’s train. Virgin has trains? The planes I knew about. But I didn’t know Sir Richard Branson was into trains. So I went to their web site. Naturally, I couldn’t get it work. So I called. Same rigamarole. There was a good 10 minutes of explaining what train I wanted, and I went through a big procedure and the guy asked me all sorts of questions.
Did I want a window seat or an aisle? An aisle. Might have to pee.
Did I want a fold-down table? How the hell would I know? Sure.
The best question? Did I want the quiet section?
No, actually, I’m stuck on a 10-hour train ride after a two-hour ferry ride and a three-hour scone inhaling mission on very little sleep and I’d much rather sit with some howling children and maybe a couple live chickens.
Finally, after this big procedure and my explaining I wanted an aisle seat in a quiet part of the train, the guy said I couldn’t actually book the ticket until I got to Scotland.
Apparently it’s an automated system called Fast Ticket or some such, and this little port in Scotland doesn’t have a machine. They have people who can sell me a ticket, but not a machine that will spit out a reservation.
This of course, sent me right around the bend in full Bill Bryson exasperation mode, not to mention making me think of the great Seinfeld episode about having the car rental company TAKE his reservation but not actually HOLDING the reservation, which is the most important part as anyone can just take ‘em.
I had to ask the guy on the phone.
“So, why can’t you call the guy who works at the train station and tell him it’s okay and he can sell me a ticket now?”
Naturally, the guy on the phone had his head spinning.
“It doesn’t work like that.”
No, it doesn’t. Turns out you can buy a ticket from a machine, but you can’t buy one in advance from an actual person.
And people wonder why Britain doesn’t rule the world any more.
Why are all these different companies running trains? Why do the websites not work and why do they quote wildly different prices? Why can’t an ACTUAL PERSON make a reservation for me and take my credit card number and hold my ticket for me until I get there?
I have no clue. But they can’t. So I have to wait until I get to sunny Stranraer to find out if they have space on the train.
I can hardly wait for the fun to begin.