Belfast bound

We hit the ground running when we got to Belfast. We headed straight to Titanic Belfast. If you plan to visit, be prepared to say “wow” – a lot. That’s before you’ve even stepped through the door. At 38 metres tall the building matches the height of this world-famous passenger liner. The silver-sharded colossus that is the Titanic Belfast visitor attraction dominates the dock area on the south side of the city. It is utterly breathtaking and worthy of many, many wows.

The impressive Titanic building has the wow factorThere is something particularly haunting about the fact that this is exactly the spot Titanic was constructed. It’s this connection to the city that is really brought to life in the impressive interactive visitor experience across the four floors. My children Maisy, aged ten and seven-year-old Mack, were totally engaged with the stories of the construction and the design of the ship via totally immersive experiences. We enjoyed the floor-to-ceiling sound and cityscapes of early 20th-century Belfast. The best was the Shipyard Ride, a kind of aerial gondola trip that swooped us around recreated areas of a working shipyard. Complete with authentic smells and sounds, it took us up close to riveters and welders working in tiny spaces, so we could feel the heat on our faces. More wow.

We were able to peek at the first class cabins and compare their embroidered linen finery with the wooden bunk beds of third class. A 180 degree video experience guided and glided us around the ship's interior, and we could stand on the deck and look out across the ocean, impressively created by a surrounding video wall. The immersive nature of experience is one of the best I’ve had for a visitor attraction.

There is much to see at Titanic BelfastHaving understood the immense effort, time, lives and money that went into building the Titanic, I’ll admit to having a shiver down my spine when we stood looking out of the glass fronted building at the exact point she was launched into the water at 12.13pm on 31 May 1911 to the celebration of the entire city that created her.

There is no sensationalism when it comes to telling the tale of the dramatic events of the night of 14 April 1912. In a dark room, with starlit ceiling, the sounds of the SOS code are accompanied by the transcripts of the communication from the deck of the Titanic to nearby ships as she began to sink. Audio of actual survivor accounts were haunting. I would have preferred to linger, for a little more reflection - a luxury not possible with two kids keen to see what was next.

A cinema that live-streamed images from the Titanic’s remains at the bottom of the sea brought us up to date. We stood on a glass floor and could look down on to footage of the tragic Titanic wreck passing beneath us.

The dock area, renamed the Titanic Quarter is frequented by tourists rather than dockworkers now.

You're never too far from good food in BelfastThere are cafés and a weekly market here plus another fantastic destination if you are travelling with children. Just a hop, skip and a jump from W5 is an exciting science and discovery attraction for children. We could have stayed for hours.

The quote from Benjamin Franklin emblazoned on the wall as you enter sums it up best: “Involve me and I learn.” We touched, bashed, jumped, launched rockets, climbed, filmed our own weather reports, built and played across floor after floor of fascinating hands-on exhibits. Maisy presented a weather report in a hurricane and Mack flew a plane. I ran up and down the piano stairs, a different note for every step, and made a robot shout our names.

I can’t rate a place without experiencing the food. We chose Hadskis in the Cathedral Quarter of the city. It turns out we chose well. I now want this restaurant close to my house as I want to taste everything on the menu. This is modern Northern Irish cuisine that uses the country’s best produce in its intimate but friendly restaurant. We took the children for a 5.30pm booking on Saturday – the place was full and the atmosphere sophisticated but relaxed.

The dish of the night for me was my starter – smoked eel from Lough Neagh, the largest inland body of water in the country served with ox tongue, beetroot and horseradish. Smoky, earthy, meaty and tangy it ticked every tastebud. My husband Gavin’s seafood chowder was equally moreish. I chose the prawn bisque and scallops from Strangford Lough, where we are heading tomorrow, served with champ – mashed potato and spring onion. It was another wonderful plate. The service was impeccable, and the food is the kind you never want to end. Exceptional. And I don’t say that lightly.
Belfast with the kids? I can’t fault it. They have already asked to come back.

Picking up the van

Bunk Campers is just a short taxi ride from Belfast. Being February half-term we decided warmth and a little extra luxury were required, so Custard our old campervan has been left at home. In her place, we have Grande, a six-berth motorhome complete with required heating. Bunk Campers offers an impressive range to suit all types of camping, from two-berth campervans up the scale to the Grande. I make no excuses for choosing the luxury option at this time of year.

The campervan gets the thumbs up from Maisy and MackI’m never one to say a negative word about my beloved 28-year-old Mazda campervan, so I’ll focus on the positives offered by our rather snazzy temporary home for the week – storage (plenty of it), en-suite toilet and shower, fridge and freezer, oven grill and hob, and beds to sleep six including a spacious double over the cab plus bunks (‘dens’) at the back for the kids. Oh, and did I mention heating?

We had a slick and thorough demonstration of all the key features and then we were off, heading for nearby Strangford Lough.

At the first opportunity Maisy and Mack made camp in the bunk beds positioned at the back of the van. The curtain has created a theatre, a tent and even a film set in the first 24 hours. There is no need to ask what they think, I just need to look at their faces. This is fun family camping at its easiest.

Ali Ray Ali Ray is as passionate about camping as she is about eating and cooking with locally produced food. You can read more from Ali in Camping & Caravanning and online. Read other posts by this author