LOOK, let’s admit it. When it comes to winning the Titanic cash-in stakes, Belfast has us well and truly licked.
In fact, I defy anywhere associated with the doomed liner – Liverpool, Halifax, Cherbourg, New York and, of course, Southampton – to even attempt to compete.
From Titanic-themed restaurants to Titanic tours to Titanic memorabilia – heck, they even have a whole Titanic Quarter to their city – Belfast has pulled so far ahead, the rest of us may as well give up trying.
Of course, having a £90m Titanic attraction – most of it paid for with public funds – as the centrepiece to a rapidly developing waterfront helps.
Certainly the striking museum, surely now Belfast’s most iconic building, knocks our own SeaCity into a cocked bosun’s hat.
But more of that later.
I had returned to Belfast to attend the annual conference of the Society of Editors.
The conversation was of press freedom, appropriate in this city where too many journalists have died reporting the Troubles.
Our hotel, The Europa in Great Victoria Street, is the most bombed hotel in Europe.
A constant target in the days of strife, it was home to the press corps who found themselves all too often too close to the action for comfort.
Today The Europa is a swish, stylish city centre destination where the action takes place in the bars and restaurants where locals and guests gather to raise a glass of Murphy’s stout to Bushmills whiskey.
Without doubt The Europa could be said to be symbolic of the ongoing regeneration of the city, now that peace has come. That regeneration – the result of hundreds of millions of pounds in UK and EU funding as well as masses of private investment – is evident all around.
The waterfront in particular has been transformed from run-down wharves and dilapidated buildings into bright public spaces, attractive bars and restaurants and displays of public art.
New homes have been built near the water’s edge where the River Lagan reaches into Belfast city centre proper. It is yet another model of what Southampton could emulate if it ever gets to grips with its own waterfront opportunities.
Short steps from the waterfront and the area close to the dramatic City Hall – well worth a step inside, and organised tours are available – the shopping heart of the city has been transformed.
Yes, there are sparkling new malls, but they are only part of the story.
The main arteries of the city – Donegal Place, High Street, Royal Avenue and their neighbours have emerged from the dark days of trouble to flower as destinations. The stores are bright, the eateries and bars are modern and welcoming.
Belfast has joined the ranks of the UK’s destination cities.
Thankfully so much of the best of the old way of life has also been preserved. Historic pubs such as The Duke of York in Commercial Court, Lavery’s in Bradbury Place, Robinson’s in Great Victoria Street and, of course, The Crown Liquor Saloon next door are still on the tourist trail. A pint is a must, and for gastro pub grub the steak, onions and Headless Dog pie at the John Hewitt on Donegal Street can’t be beaten.
The Cathedral Quarter abounds with historic sights, well preserved amid new public spaces. Walk further along Donegal and stand at the gates of Clifton House, the city’s former workhouse, and the best preserved Georgian building in Belfast. Around the corner is the Clifton Street Graveyard, the great leveller.
Here lie buried all ranks and religions, rich merchants and the founding fathers of the Irish republican movement side by side with thousands of unknown poor buried in paupers’ graves.
Ten minutes further along the Crumlin Road and the infamous jail stands empty now, preserved as an example of Victorian penal architecture.
Opposite, stands the now crumbling, yet still imposing former court house.
But it is Belfast’s next area to be developed, the Titanic Quarter itself, that is likely to finally push this city across the threshold and leave the troubled years behind just to memory. A huge area, the north-east quarter stands opposite the city across the river where once the famous Harland and Wolff shipyards were the greatest in the world.
From here mighty oceangoing liners went down the slipways and, in many cases, into history. The new Titanic attraction stands alone at the moment, awaiting the rest of the quarter to be completed.
A dramatic structure, designed to resemble the three prows of the most famous sister ships of all time – Titanic, Britannic and Olympic – first impressions are stunning.
Inside, second impressions are overwhelming. The huge entrance lobby with its massive plated walls prepares visitors for the sheer scale of the exhibits inside.
For £90m of course it needs to be done well. And it is. The special effects are stunning, the sinking of the great liner just a part of an amazing attraction telling the story of Belfast’s rise as a shipbuilding giant, its decline and present plans to rise again. Highlight has to be the ride through a mock-up of a giant liner being built.
Belfast without doubt is benefiting from huge sums pumped into its infrastructure from both the UK and EU governments. But there is a sense of “can do” that is ensuring what was once Ireland’s largest and richest city is leaving the bad times behind.