When you say the word ‘daytrip’, you might be thinking London, Manchester or maybe even Skegness. But thanks to the joys of low-cost airlines, it’s more than possible to go a bit further afield. Yes, early starts ahoy and a late finish, but who doesn’t love a good adventure.
It was in search of this kind of daytrip that I found myself schlepping down the M1 at 5.30am heading for Luton Airport and Belfast beyond. If you haven’t been there for a while, you may remember Luton Airport as the bottom-of-the-list choice you went to if you couldn’t find anywhere else that served your destination on the date you wanted to go. The poor relative of the big boys of Britain’s airports and nowhere near as glam.
That’s kind of changed. I first noticed when I went to Marrakech in October with my mum (yes, I haven’t blogged about that, because I’m useless). It’s been expanded, more space blah blah blah, but it’s also just a bit more ‘swanky’.
You know that feeling you get when you go to big old Gatwick (which I try to avoid wherever possible because it’s a million miles away) and see all the designer places that we don’t even have in shopping centres in the Midlands, let alone the bloody airport? It’s a bit like that!
On my latest visit, I was invited by Luton Airport (early disclaimer here, just in case you feel cheated when you get to the end) for a little tour before they took us to Belfast. It really is rather lovely. It’s undergone a £160million development which includes everything from a new dual carriageway to terminal upgrades.
Security has been expanded (and is pretty efficient) but it’s the new shops and bars you’ll notice. Shopaholics will like Chanel, Hugo Boss and Oliver Bonas’ first airport store but for people like me, you’ll notice the food stuff. Forget Frankie & Benny’s, a Wetherspoons and a Pret. Here you’ve got sexy fizz bar ‘Dubl’ and the lovely Enrique Tomas, an Iberian Ham specialist whose hanging hams will have you thinking you’re already on holiday.
We start our trip at Hawker Bar which, again, doesn’t feel like your average airport brekkie option. In fact, it wouldn’t be too out of place in Birmingham City Centre. Don’t worry, you can still get a Full English but it’s slightly more than your average greasy spoon. I opt for ‘Egg and Crumpet’ with some extra smashed avo on top. Because I like to think I’m a Millennial.
Before long, we’re on board our flight to Belfast (Ryanair in case you wanted to know, but other flights are available) and getting ready for an action-packed day. I’ve been to Belfast before – you may remember I had another whistle-stop trip when I ended up trying out Hadskis – but only very briefly and it’s a city where there’s a LOT to see.
We landed mid-morning and, given that it’s deep winter, we didn’t have a lot of daylight to explore the area. Fortunately, our hosts had engaged the services of expert guides City and Causeway who met us at the airport and whisked us out of the city to the beautiful Northern Ireland coast. There is literally so much to see – you’d need days – and I have a roadtrip planned to spend longer and do more, but you can squeeze a fair bit in.
First stop was ‘The Dark Hedges’, the tree-lined avenue that you might recognise as The King’s Road from Game of Thrones. The advantage of visiting right at the end of November on one of the windiest and rainiest days I’ve seen in a while is that the usual masses of tourists catching every GoT scene they could find hadn’t made it that day, so we virtually had the place to ourselves.
A quick stop and we were back on the road heading for The Giant’s Causeway, somewhere I’ve wanted to see for ages. It really is impressive. Seen by some as one of the greatest natural wonders in the UK, it’s made up of around 40,000 interlocking basalt columns. Some say they’re the result of an ancient volcanic fissure eruption, but I prefer the explanation that comes courtesy of folklore – the war between Irish giant Finn McCool and his Scottish rival Benandonner.
After the Giant’s Causeway, it was a brief trip down the road to Bushmills, home to Ireland’s oldest licensed whiskey (yes that is spelled right, it’s how the Irish spell it) as well as our lunch venue.
The Bushmills Inn was once a coaching inn in the 1600s and is now a boutique hotel. Lunch was served in a big dining room divided almost into booths to create an intimate, homely atmosphere. The menu in the AA Rosette award-winning restaurant is the same. Top notch yet rustic and comforting.
As tempted as I was by dishes like Dalriada Cullen skink or Antrim Coast seafood pie, I opted for stout-braised ox cheek with burnt onion mash, green peppercorn sauce and crispy shallots. A hearty plate of food, deep in flavour, yielding in texture and accompanied perfectly by a glass of pinot noir. Followed by an egg custard tart which, along with the other desserts on the table, reminded you that while the food is rustic in some ways, you’re in a place with a bit more finesse than the average pub.
Suitably refuelled, we headed to Bushmills Distillery for a quick gander at the home of this historic whiskey. Of course, you could wile away a whole day here but being on a restricted timetable we skipped straight to the tasting in the beautifully mood-enhancing bar, complete with still in the corner. Now, I’m no whiskey buff but I have found that I tend to prefer Irish to Scottish, so was right in my element trying a few different styles.
Whiskey ticked off the list, we headed back down the coast to the city. Via the rather impressive Dunluce Castle, a quick look at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and the beach at White Park Bay. All of which could merit a much longer look during a more lengthy stay.
We headed back into Belfast at dusk and managed to squeeze in a little look at the areas that tell the story of Northern Ireland’s Troubles. The Shankill Road, the Falls Road and the Peace Walls. The history of these areas are far too in-depth to tell here and merit more than my historical knowledge that is tragically lacking when it comes to this part of modern history. Needless to say, you should go. You (and I) should read more about this place and its history, because it’s what makes it even more impressive than most cities.
We finish the day off at the Crown Liquor Saloon opposite the Europa Hotel (google it and you’ll know why it’s famous) – an 1820s pub that oozes history through its carved-mahogany booths, etched-glass, and Victorian gas lamps. I’d popped in on my last trip just for a quick look but this time managed to snuggle into a booth for a swift half before we headed back to the airport.
And there you have it. A daytrip to Belfast, complete with popular culture, history, politics, scenery, food and drink. It’s doable. Of course, there’s far more to see and in my view, when you do any of the things above you should allow enough time to linger. But if time is tight and it’s a choice of doing some of this, albeit in a slightly hurried fashion, or not doing it at all, then do it.
Sometimes we get swept up in far-flung places, distance, escaping for prolonged amounts of time. But sometimes that’s to the detriment of the places right on our doorstep. Belfast is a beauty. I’ve seen it twice in far-too-fleeting visits and it remains somewhere I’m determined to return to for a decent stay. And you should too. Daytrip or not, it’s a destination to behold.
I was invited on a day trip with London Luton Airport. I wasn’t asked to write about it, or to write about the airport. All these views are my own.