Sunday, April 15, 2012

6 Things to do on a Sunday in Belfast

My mum likes to respond to childish whingeing of "I'm bored" with "only boring people get bored".

I was finally inclined to agree with her when Aoife, our lovely B&B owner, told  us that she often has guests complaining there's nothing to do in Belfast on a Sunday afternoon.

Anyone who has told you there's nothing to do in Belfast on a Sunday afternoon is just boring. We managed to do not one, but six awesome things in one afternoon!

1. St George's Markets
I was shocked at how few people were on the streets in Belfast. When I entered packed St George's Markets, I realised where they all were! This large market boasts some of the best market food I've ever encountered. I could have eaten four times over! I eventually settled on a perfect paella.

2. Ulster Museum
Part art gallery, part cultural museum, part natural history museum, there's something for everyone at the Ulster. Paul enjoyed the Lavery collection. I liked the triceratops.

3. Victoria Square
This modern shopping centre includes a glass lookout and a mexican place with great margaritas.

4. Go for a walk
Just walking around this city is a pleasure. Mind you, we were blessed with extraordinary weather.

5. The Crown Pub
One of the oldest and most loved landmarks in Belfast, the ornate Crown Pub is the best place in Belfast to enjoy your obligatory pint of Guiness. I happened to enjoy mine in a pie, which I'll add was delicious.

6. The Botanical Gardens
The grounds make for an enjoyable Sunday afternoon walk, and the Palm House is pretty impressive too.

5 Titanic Tributes in Belfast

When we booked a trip to Belfast for the weekend of the 100th Anniversary of the Titanic disaster, we had no idea just how much the city that birthed the ship of dreams would do to commemorate it.

The Grand Old Opera House had a performance of Titanic: The Musical that began at exactly 11:40pm - the time the ship struck the iceberg. We decided this was just a little too excessive and opted instead to watch the new 3D version of James Cameron's movie. Though on reflection it's hardly less excessive!

There was even a commemorative voyage that retraced the route - sans sinking.

The most publicised memorial is the new museum located on the dock where Titanic was built. The modern design based on the bow of Titanic echoes the Sydney Harbour House, while the texture resembles the high seas.

The experience is like the museum of the future - you can touch just about everything. The enormous space is separated into zone, and visitors can navigate through them freely. The first zone recreated Belfast as it was when Titanic was built, and the zones afterwards progress chronologically through the story of the fateful voyage. The sinking itself is treated tastefully - there are no tilting floors. 

The most interactive section sees you carried in lowering gondola cars through the shipyard learning about the techniques that were used to create the largest ship ever built - at the time. This includes the gondola actually passing through a replica of the piece that held the propellor; to illustrate the mammoth size.

The experience makes for a fantastic few hours, and it's not morbid at all. Belfast appears to have staked its hopes for regenerating the tourism industry on it, and though it was bound to be packed on the 100th anniversary, the reception I saw would indicate that it's going to be a roaring success.

Elsewhere in Belfast, you can't escape the Titanic:

Victoria Street shopping mall features an enormous Titanic suspended from the roof. It looked like it was made of balloons. Or stress balls. I'm still not quite sure!

About 100m from the Titanic Experience,  a guy shows off his impressive 6 foot long remote controlled model.

A modern art installation shows the Titanic as pieces of a model.

But among the interesting tributes, the award for tackiest piece of self promotion easily goes to Thompson's Family Teas for this enormous billboard. If I was the copywriter who came up with that awful, confusing, insensitive pun, I think I'd sack myself!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Giant's Causeway

Determined to see more than just Belfast on my first trip to Northern Ireland, I booked a day trip with Allen’s Tours to the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Giant’s Causeway.

The first stop of the day is barely an hour outside Belfast. The formidable Carrickfergus castle. Northern Ireland has produced uncharacteristically sublime weather for us, and we’re in good spirits.

After another quick stop at a small seaside village where we stock up on traditional hard boiled clove sweets, our third stop of the day is at Carrick-a-Rede with a rope bridge they brand 'death-defying'.

On such a beautiful day I would brand it more 'good fun' than bungy-level-terrifying.

On the other side of the rope-bridge, we found a comfy spot and read a few Walt Whitman poems aloud. It's hard not to celebrate nature on a glorious day like this one.

The views of beautiful Rathlin Island (with its homogeneous group of residents who apparently never leave) alone are worth the walk to the rope-bridge and steep-sounding £5 crossing fee.

Just a short distance later, the ruins of Dunluce Castle offer a glimpse at the centuries of history this part of the world possesses.

Then, a quick stop at the working Bushmills Distillery, where we gladly join a quick tour having a look at the whiskey making process. We promptly make complete fools of ourselves by mishearing '40' for '14'. A few minutes before the end of our 20 minute stop, we can tell the tour is nowhere near finishing. When we tell the tour guide, he looks mortified, then leads the entire group all the way back to the start, to drop us off at our coach. I spent the whole walk back trying to pretend I was invisible and avoiding all eye contact.

Thankfully, we're soon distracted from our embarrassment by our next stop, the highlight of the trip: The Giant's Causeway.

Nobody knows what caused these rocks to splinter into perfect hexagons. Just that it happened a really long time ago. In years gone by, the Irish knew it could only be the work of giants... hence the name.

The entire area is a marvel, and well worth a visit. No wonder they call it the missing eighth wonder of the world.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Sleepy Cedars

As someone who frequents hotels and hostels, it's a delight to stay in one of those elusive other types of accommodation: the B&B. It's often not an option for us further abroad for location reasons, but in Belfast we figured we'd at least have the advantage of language on our side.

And boy, am I glad we did! Sleepy Cedars is a comfy, family-style B&B with only a few, well kept rooms. The bed was as comfy as a large marshmallow. The sparkling clean bathroom had a great shower.

More than any other place I've stayed, Sleepy Cedars feels like a home away from home. This is probably because of the care that Aoife, who has solo responsibility for the B&B, takes of every guest. She was more than just a source of city information, but actually treated us like friends or family.
Mind you, I'm quite partial to anyone who can feed me as well as Aoife. Breakfast was a treat I can barely put words to. Nearly everything was home-made. As well as traditional Irish breads, preserves, cheese and ham, there were cheesy puffs, homemade yoghurt with blueberry compote and home roasted granola, and a delicious spiced rice served in cute little blue teacups.

Everything was delicious, and you couldn't wish for more.

I would highly recommend Sleepy Cedars to anyone visiting Belfast.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review: Wicked in Dutch

If you're seeking an impartial view on Wicked, then you'd better keep looking! I'm a very biased fan who has seen this wonderful show enough times that I need two hands to count... (see my last few Wicked posts here, here and here!)

I'm even geeky enough to have watched videos that analyse different women playing Elphaba, to decide who's the best. Surprisingly, the resounding winner isn't the original.

She doesn't even speak English.

The winner every time is Willemijn Verkaik, who originated the role in the German language production. Unfortunately she left that production shortly before we caught it.

But she's not actually German. She's Dutch.

And guess who they brought on board to recreate the role in her native tongue, at the Dutch production that recently opened at The Hague?

Willemijn Verkaik is a formidable talent, who grasps this character with a depth I doubt I'll ever see matched. And her voice is easily the most nimble I've ever witnessed live, except perhaps for Celine Dion.

She was worth planning a trip to Amsterdam around.

Plus... I'm excited to announce that this ticks off one of my bucket list goals:

Saturday, April 7, 2012

8 Things to Do in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is mecca for fun-loving tourists (and hippies, though no-one knows why!). This Easter, The Antipodean checked it out to see what all the buzz was about.

In no particular order, these are The Antipodean's Top 8 unmissable experiences for an unforgettable long weekend in Amsterdam.

1.  Explore the canals
Getting lost in a new city is one of my favourite things to do. And Amsterdam is a city of serendipity, with gorgeous tree-lined canals around every corner. It's a pleasure to explore.

2.  FOAM

Foam stands for Photography Amsterdam (in Dutch). It's a world renowned magazine with it's headquarters in Amsterdam. And if you're lucky enough to visit, you can pop into their wonderful museum to check out the latest exhibition, and grab a perfect macchiato and appeltaerte (Dutch apple pie) at the café downstairs. While I was there the light streaming in from outside gave it the perfect Saturday morning hipster coffee appeal.

3.  Anne Frank Museum

Like many, I read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was young. I remember feeling shock and surprise to find out she didn't survive the war. I was still at the age where the Disney Happy Ending was my dominant understanding of the way the world worked. Before his own death many years later, Anne's father helped the city of Amsterdam to preserve Anne's memory by converting the factory building where she hid for two years into a museum. This is absolutely unmissable. But reserve tickets online early - they'd sold out by the time I got to it, and I had to queue for nearly two hours.

A replica of the bookcase that sealed the secret annexe where Anne and her family hid, in the position of the original bookcase.
4.  An afternoon at The Hague
All I knew about The Hague before visiting was that it was home to the International Criminal Court. That was enough curiosity to convince me to visit, once I realised it was under an hour from Amsterdam by train. I spent most of my time in the dystopian beach area of Scheveningen. With an enormous, mostly deserted, shopping mall right on the beach, along with a large pier, this area has a bizarre but fascinating vibe. It was worth visiting, but I'd suggest steering clear of the gelato... it tasted stale and watery.
You can see why I called Scheveningen dystopian. This reminds me of the angels in suits on the beach in City of Angels.

5.  Van Gogh Museum
This hardly needs an explanation. My favourite Van Gogh (Starry Night) is on display at MoMA in New York, but this museum offers an insight into his earlier years, and includes his genius, well-known self-portrait. The queue is always long, but a stall across the road sells them for the same price - allowing you to join the pre-booked queue and save an hour or more!

6.  The Red Light District
Nothing can prepare you for a wander through the red light district of Amsterdam. I'm not sure what surprised me more, that the streets were beautiful, or that the girls in the windows were beautiful! Apparently being a lady of the night is the second most popular part-time occupation for female medical students in this city. They're a far cry from the burly women walking the streets of K Rd in Auckland!

7.  The Rijksmuseum
The National Gallery of the Netherlands is well worth a visit. Currently they're undergoing major renovations which have resulted in about 80% being closed. This turns each visit into an express tour of the best of the collection (for the time being). Dutch master Rembrandt's The Night Watch alone is worth the ticket price.

8.  A Grass House
Drugs, even when legal, are not my thing. But even I couldn't resist a quick visit to one of Amsterdam's many grass houses to find out what all the fuss was about. Out of curiosity, I asked the owner what flavour the muffins were. He shrugged and gave me a confused "why does it matter?" look.

...May I warn you that even second hand smoke can procure quite a memorable zing!

Sleeping With the Fishes

In most cities there's a lot to consider when choosing where to stay. But not in Amsterdam. Well, not for me at least.

Why? Because in the city of dykes and canals, I knew I wanted to stay on the water, in a Botel.

After checking out a few options, I settled quickly on the Passenger Ship Avanti.

And boy, am I glad I did!

The entire upper deck is a comfortable common area, with the cabins below deck. Each has a porthole, which provides surprisingly adequate ventilation. This isn't for the spoiled - the rooms are very small. However, they're perfectly comfortable, and I found myself waking up well rested each morning.

The guy who runs the botel is friendly, and the breakfast is more that sufficient. Plus, due to the compact rooms, it's very well priced. What's not to love?

If you don't mind close quarters, and enjoy accommodation with a bit of character, look no further.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday in Brussels

Easter marked my first ever trip on the Eurostar. This is particularly monumental because I currently live about a four minute walk from St Pancras Station, where it departs.

Besides the ease of processing and the fact that liquids are no problem, my favourite thing about travelling on the Eurostar is that you get to stop places on the way (in our case, to Amsterdam). First Lille, in France. Then Belgian amusement park 'Mini Europe'. Then Brussels.

In Brussels the first thing you notice is the quaint architecture. You feel like you're walking around inside a city of doll's houses.


Then, of course, the chocolate. Who could resist Belgian chocolate at Easter! We stuff our bags with delicious treats from L'Art du Chocolat and continue to the Royal Museum of Fine Art. Their collection includes the startling Death of Marat, and the largest collection of René Magritte's work in the world.

Leaving the gallery, the walk towards the city is stunning.

We couldn't find the metro station we were looking for. But we didn't care.

We couldn't continue to Amsterdam without sampling hot chips in the place they were invented. Apparently the person who nicknamed them 'french fries' just couldn't spot a Belgian accent. Poirot would disapprove.

It was another three hours to Amsterdam. But we were grateful we'd stopped, even though it was only for a few hours.

Life Lesson #44 - The Waffle

Today I learned never to eat local cuisine on the street. At least, not unless you're sitting down.

This is especially true if you're somewhere really cool, like Belgium, where they have a really awesome national food, like waffles.

If you do have to eat something really delicious on the side of a beautiful cobbled road, don't get it with strawberries and cream. At least, not if you really love strawberries and cream.

Because then you may cry when this happens:

That is all.