T ravelling is a very personal experience. Different strokes for different folks is the mantra that should always apply: some will want five-star hotels, while others want self-catering, others again want their backpack and ticket to the end of the line. But regardless of what option one takes, an area that one almost always encounters is tour guides. They can be superb, so-so or seriously dull, but a good one can transform a cultural experience from the humdrum and everyday to something very unique.
In my travels across four continents I’ve encountered many at all ranges of the scale and when you get to meet a good one then it really jumps out at you. One of those five-star tour guides is Ronan McNamara in Derry City – who regularly works with Royal Irish Tours.
When I first met Ronan in the city centre of Derry he announced to the tour group, “No need to adjust your vision, I am the only Chinese Buddhist tour guide in Derry.” With that, the tone is set for a unique and interesting tour of the city; you can sense it from the off.
Half Chinese and half Irish, Ronan cuts an unusual figure in what is a predominately white city in Northern Ireland. And as he expertly pieces together the history of Derry – the 2013 UK City of Culture – charting its pivotal place in The Troubles and subsequent emergence and growth in peaceful Good Friday Agreement Ireland, he tells personal stories. Those stories involve growing up as a mixed race Asian-Irish and the intricacies that brings, especially when his Buddhist beliefs are thrown into the mix.
His personal stories also give an insight into using his Buddhist beliefs to guide the upbringing of his children in this post-Troubles era.
Derry is a magnificent city, full of life and chat and banter from the locals, who are clearly delighted to see it grow as a tourist destination.
The murals relating to The Troubles are a major attraction and give a crucial insight into the divisions and ideologies of the city and also of the art that can be created as result of politics.
The history of the city is muti-layered incorporating the Siege of Derry, the Battle of the Bogside and the 17th century city walls. Add to that the Guildhall, St Columb’s Cathedral and the Peace Bridge and you have a superb list of sights to encounter. Seeing it in the company of Ronan will make it all the better.
The Titanic Exhibition, Belfast
Just down the road from Derry is Northern Ireland’s capital - Belfast. It's an international city that, like Derry, has emerged from its chequered past to become a melting pot of ideas, culture, bars and restaurants.
The shining light of those cultural attractions is The Titanic Exhibition, which details the building of what can only be described as the world’s most-famous ship, as well as its short life, and the story of the fateful night that it sank in the Atlantic Ocean on 14 April 1912.
Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet made the ship a world star in James Cameron’s 1997 film, but getting the real story, away from the Hollywood razzmatazz, is so worthwhile and gives you a real insight into the tragedy that occurred to the unsinkable ship. The lives lost are poignantly remembered and rightly so. See this museum if you can.
The hotels of Northern Ireland and Donegal
Ireland, the island over, has a selection of the best hotels in the world. There can be no denying that the country’s famous reputation for hospitality transcends across into the hotel business to make the island a frontrunner in the hotel trade worldwide.
A number of hotels across Ireland offer superb options and create a mix of superb design, amazing hospitality, excellent food and drink and most importantly a welcome that feels real rather than just tacked on to make cash from its guests. It’s one of the country’s major selling points.
Choosing hotels to stay in can be the hard part, but during my time working with Royal Irish Tours I have been impressed by their superb taste and judgment of what a guest needs and is looking for. Their office in Toronto will take care of you from the start and tailor your needs to a property in Ireland.
RIT partner with Manor House Hotels of Ireland and Irish Country Hotels in Ireland, and having spent several days this year travelling across Ulster seeing for myself what they have on offer I must say I am impressed.
The hotel group is a co-operative whereby these Irish owned and run hotels come together under one banner to promote their services.
The properties are situated across both the Republic of, as well as, Northern Ireland, and the familial nature of the business means that the approach is extremely personal and gives guests the feeling that they are being invited into an Ireland more real than an international brand hotel.
Everyone has favourite places to stay and eat on their travels, and as I alluded to earlier, by trial and error travellers tend to find what works for them, but I’ve selected some of my favourite destinations in the region to give you a helping hand.
The Londerry Arms Hotel in Carnlough is a three-star located one hour from Belfast. Good food and local produce is one of the main selling points of the hotel that was previously owned by the former prime minister of Britain, Winston Churchill. That link is maintained by the O’Neill family, who have owned the premises since 1946 and are able to tell the minutiae of Churchill’s ownership of the property. If you're a European history buff then this hotel is for you. Sports fans will also want to stop by see the horse shoe of three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Arkle hanging in the bar.
Another hotel full of charm and local character is the Brown Trout Golf and Country Inn located in Aghadowey, near Coleraine. Like the Londonderry Arms the hotel has a lived-in feel that emanates history: the history of the local area and the hotel itself. And that history is a fascinating one, originally a bar and US grill-style restaurant in the 1960s, it was largely destroyed in a bombing during The Troubles in 1976 and has since been rebuilt to incorporate a bar, restaurant, hotel and lodges. All of this is set in the most beautiful of Irish countryside, with a superb golf course to boot. A stay here combines history, a beautiful landscape, great food and also local fishing and horse riding. It’s a hotel that has a little bit of everything in a great little package.
Up in the very north-western tip of Donegal and with that Ireland, lies Arnolds Hotel in Dunfanaghy. If you want to see remote beauty then this is it. Directly in front of the hotel the coast laps up against the shores on a wild expanse of beach along Dunfanaghy Bay, which leads out to the Atlantic. The hotel is old school Ireland, with a lovely wooden bar, a roaring fire in the hallway and an uber-friendly Irish welcome.
And the activities offered by the hotel are varied and diverse: horse riding, walking, golf, fine dining in the restaurant, watersports, cycling, fishing, photography, writing, painting and quilting classes can all be arranged.
The hotel is also situated bang on the Wild Atlantic Way and the various coastal attractions and sights it offers. But perhaps the biggest selling point of the hotel is its family-run feel. It’s a father-daughter run affair and their constant presence around the property ensures that the hotel keeps its standards high at all times.
If it’s luxury you’re after the Galgorm Resort and Spa, Ballymena, is a beacon for that commodity. Set in 163 acres of parkland the setting is one of green and lush beauty, with a woodland running trail and the River Maine running along by the hotel’s edge. Things only get better from there as one enters a property with world-class customer service and dining, especially the lavish and extensive breakfast.
The hotel brands itself as Northern Ireland’s No 1 premier luxury hotel and I am not one to disagree on that score. The current spa is superb, but in September 2015 they’ll open a brand new spa village as well as 48 deluxe rooms and suites to further improve the guests’ experience and indeed allow more people the opportunity to enjoy the facilities.
A pianist playing tunes in the lobby as you enter, a choice of three restaurants, a brand new state-of-the-art spa, a beautiful rural setting, free WIFI, and log cabins also available. It’s not hard to see why I can recommend this hotel to everyone.