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Northern Ireland: Transformed from the Troubles

As the Troubles recede into history, Norman WrightfindsNorthern Ireland buoyant and beautiful during an action-packed weekend coach tour

There can be few drives anywhere that can match the Antrim coast route in Northern Ireland, and it’s even better when you can enjoy the ever-changing seascapes from the elevated viewing platform of a luxury coach.

Leaving Belfast, you soon hit the sea road. The coast is gentle at first but as you head north it becomes increasingly craggy. The green hills and glens end in rocky cliffs, now hit harder by the Irish Sea rolling in from the Atlantic beyond, funnelled by the Scottish mainland whose closest point is only 11 miles distant.

Soon you are looking down on the ant-sized people edging their way across the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge as the waves race below their feet. Your coast journey ends at the basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway that edge out to sea headed for their counterparts on the Scottish island of Staffa.

Northern Ireland offers many highlights for a holiday, the first being that it is so close. We took a short lunchtime flight from Birmingham and had time to explore the city centre in the afternoon. If you can fly into the George Best City Airport rather than Belfast International, you are only a few minutes by taxi from the centre.

The Botanic Gardens, including the Victorian Palm House and the nearby Queen’s University, make a perfect evening stroll and before that we visited the Titanic memorial in the gardens surrounding the impressive City Hall.

From there it is a short walk to the Europa Hotel. An icon during the Troubles, it was the HQ for journalists from around the globe and is famed as the world’s most bombed hotel, surviving no fewer than 28 attacks.

Our coach took us on a tour of the West Belfast areas that dominated the news of the Seventies and Eighties. The Republican area around the Falls Road and the Loyalist strongholds of the Shankill have begun to change radically since I was last in Belfast six years ago.

Many of the back-to-back terraced streets are being redeveloped into more modern housing areas, and with the demolition have gone some of the wall murals and outward demonstrations of the sympathies of their residents.

The peace lines dividing the communities remain and the sight of 25ft metal barriers between streets and estates is still chilling. It is a fascinating tour, however, and if you are not on a coach trip there are several bus offerings as well as specialised black cab tours available. Everywhere in Belfast, there is regeneration and the promise of a better future. Down by the waterfront, the gigantic shipyard gantry cranes of Harland and Wolff are reminders of a more glorious past, although Belfast’s newest tourist attraction commemorates the most infamous moment of the city’s shipbuilding heritage.

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Have you been to Northern Ireland? How are you celebrating this St Patrick's Day? 

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