Sticky Beak Flies Off To Belfast
The Man Bird had to go to Northern Ireland recently for his day job, so I tagged along in order to explore some of Belfast city’s charms and get me some legendary Irish Craic! We are pretty much Joe Average in terms of earnings and don’t have masses of disposable income, so we try to do as much research as possible to get good value for money on our travels.
The flights over to George Best airport (Belfast City airport, not Belfast International airport) were with Flybe, who I have to say I’ve never travelled with before. The check-in procedure was smooth and swift, and the desk staff were very nice, so that got things off to a good start at Leeds Bradford Airport. Our plane was a something-or-other Dash8, and very nifty it was too – clearly the pilot was pretty good at his job too as we got there a little ahead of time.
Landing at Belfast soon came around and it was only a matter of 5 minutes later that we got our baggage off the carousel! We hopped a cab (fonacab) over to the Jury’s Inn hotel, checked in, unpacked, hopped in another taxi and went to the TEC exhibition centre to set up for the trade show His Nibs and his colleague were there for. Between the four of us (the 2 workers and us long-suffering, medal-worthy partners!) we soon had the stand and equipment up and running, ready for the next day.
The TEC site had a fabulously funny security guard who had the most incredible, dry sense of humour, so we chewed the fat with him for a bit whilst we waited for our taxi to take us back to the Jury’s Inn where we were staying. Over the back of the venue is the outdoor stage set for Game Of Thrones, not that you would ever know, because it’s very well shielded from the public and has a drone embargo around the perimeter. I will admit at this point to being one of the few people never to have watched a single episode of G.O.T!
Having arrived back at our rooms and with a bit of time on our hands before dinner, we could have a look at our accommodation in a bit more detail. The room and bathroom were both very clean, and there was plenty of wardrobe space, toiletries, and refreshment facilities; first impressions were very positive. Our lovely cabbie had given us a couple of suggestions of good bars nearby, so we headed into the Crown Liquor Saloon. On our way, we passed the Europa Hotel which has the unfortunate record for the times it’s been bombed; 56 in total, making it the most bombed hotel in the world. Shame, because it’s a lovely looking building.
The Crown Liquor Saloon is just breath-taking when you step inside; owned by The National Trust, this bar is oozing with character. The ceilings are dark wood, carved with ornate leaves and flowers, and it doesn’t stop there; the pillars have the same intricacy to them and the tiled floors are beautiful. Seating is a mix of informal bar stools and raised tables and then there are the individual booths with wooden doors and stained glass panels – trust me, you won’t have seen a pub like it!
I found a new fave tipple – Irish Gunpowder Gin; gosh this stuff’s good. Everyone else was on the Guinness, and then His Nibs discovered the delights of Hop House 13 lager, which became his poison-du-jour!
Dinner that night was at Revolucion De Cuba, and as you would expect, it was absolutely spot-on. The other two in our party hadn’t been to any RDC venue before, so we introduced them to possibly the best Guacamole in the world, stonkingly good Mojitos, and of course the lip-tingler that is the Spicy Rum Sauce. All the food was great, and you can read a more detailed review here
After a swift night cap, we all headed off to bed for some much needed kip; it had been an early morning and the next day was going to be full on. The beds are lovely and comfy at Jury’s Inn Belfast, and the pillows were very supportive (something that I really need), so His Nibs and I woke up well rested in the morning. They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so we loaded up plates and bowls with a full fry-up, cereal, and toast and pastries. The cereal selection was good, as was the fruit and yoghurt section. Bagels, Croissants, pastries and various breads were laid out nicely and some folk were making toast.
We weren’t all enthused about the hot counter though; I didn’t like the sausage at all, The Man’s work colleague found her egg to be like rubber, and the coffee wasn’t to her liking either. It’s hard to pull off a hot breakfast counter due to the unsteady nature of guests’ arrival; things have to be prepared ahead and kept hot, and not everything translates well in this mode of delivery. However, it filled a gap and stopped tummies rumbling for the time being.
Whilst our other halves were earning dollar, us real chiefs headed over in a valucab to Titanic Belfast to take in the exhibition about The Titanic, Belfast’s most famous ship. Titanic wasn’t the only ship built by hard-working Belfast folk, but it’s perhaps the most famous – not only in the country, but possibly the world. The story of the White Star company is included in the exhibition as well as the process of designing and building Titanic, and stories of shipyard workers and survivors of the disaster are also brought to life. It’s well worth a gander, and we whiled away 3 hours would you believe?!
There also a couple of ships just next to the Titanic Belfast experience; HMS Caroline, and The Nomadic which was built to ferry Titanic’s first and second class passengers out to her in the shallow port of Cherbourg in France. Due to Titanic’s massive size, few ports were deep enough for her to dock, so the White Star company had to come up with a way to get their more well-to-do passengers out to her in comfort.
We had a good look around the decks of Nomadic and it was a pared down version of Titanic, decor-wise and this was a deliberate move on the part of White Star. They wanted the passengers to have a little taster of the scale of luxury that awaited them on board Titanic, so they introduced some of the furnishing styles and standard of fittings that were waiting for them when they boarded her.
For lunch we decided to try Bistro 401; I had Cauliflower Macaroni Cheese with truffle and my partner in crime had Salmon fillet with Teriyaki noodles, adding homemade Coleslaw and Pasta Salad to complete his meal. Both meals were piping hot and really generous in size, more so than we were expecting if I’m totally honest!
The Man Bird and his fellow worker bee weren’t quite so fortunate; the size of the exhibition at TEC was far too large for the catering facilities (Fed and Watered) to cope with. Despite the staff working at full capacity, long queues ensued. Having survived on coffees and half a slice of Lemon Drizzle cake each all day, our grafting other halves were hangry and tired when we went to meet them (especially since breakfast wasn’t 5 star grade!). Yet again, it was our taxi driver that came to the rescue, getting us back to Jury’s Inn in double-jig time where we just went straight to the bar!
Belfast has every cuisine style you can shake a stick at, so we headed to an Italian restaurant called Scalini’s. Unusually, this venue doesn’t accept reservations for groups of less than 6, so we turned up and chanced our arm – as did half of the city by the look of it when we first rocked up! Luckily, it wasn’t long at all before we got seated. The Maitre D’ intermittently took up 2 or 3 groups of waiting diners at a time, getting them settled and then coming and getting more at varying intervals. We waited perhaps 15 minutes before it was our turn, and it became apparent as to why the process is quite speedy; the venue is situated over several floors and seats a good number of diners!
This is where I have to ‘fess up folks – I forgot to take my notebook or phone out with me, so I actually can’t go into great detail about any of the dishes we had! I know, I’m a complete dufus, what can I say, except sorry? What I can say with certainty though, is that all the food was delicious; piping hot and exactly as it had been described on the menu. Put it this way, when I next visit Belfast I’ll be making my way to Scalini’s again for something to eat.
The Workers had a meeting to attend for a couple of hours next morning, so me and my fellow man-of-leisure whiled away the time by having leisurely Lattes, a pint of the Black stuff and a bowl of Nachos with sour cream, salsa and guacamole in the Crown again.
We all met up back at Jury’s Inn and then bought tickets for the hop on/hop off City Sight-seeing bus. Our live guide, David, was brilliant; with it being a little quieter in the afternoon he took time to talk to us off-script as well as the “official” talk, so we got some local insight of day-to-day living in this colourful historied city. We got to see the murals of the Shankhill road as we made our way up to Crumlin Road Gaol.
When lunch was suggested, us leisure birds just kept schtum about the fact we’d had nachos and went with the flow! Cuffs restaurant does a wide variety of hot and cold dishes, but we hadn’t got much time to eat due to our guided tour of the Gaol starting in the next half hour, so we just had sandwiches. I loved my BLT sanger, but my companion wasn’t as smitten – he’d been expecting hot Bacon; His Nibs and his fellow worker were happy enough with their Chicken sandwiches. Secretly, we’d all wanted something hot, so we were feeling a bit negative but hey-ho, that’s life, right?
The Gaol is absolutely fascinating, a bit grisly in parts, but then it’s not going to be all hearts-and-flowers is it?! Our guide took us through the venues history from being a mixed prison that also housed children, right through to its closure in 1996. There was an actual padded cell (not my second home, before any of you say it!) and we got to go into the execution chamber, complete with its original hanging beam. I did say it was a bit gruesome!
For our final night, which also happened to be Valentine’s Day, we had chosen to eat at Stix and Stones; purely for the quirk of cooking your own steaks on hot stones at the table. Everyone we’d told said that it was a good place to go, so we were looking forward to it. It is a lovely place decor-wise inside, and there’s plenty of room for dining; we were greeted nicely and taken to our table.
Our server was a lovely young lass, and she got our drinks sorted out in next to no time. For starters, His Nibs and I both chose the pan fried Scallops; our companions both had the open Seafood Ravioli. There’s no denying that the Scallops were nice and moist, but they were on the small side by anyone’s standards, so I was a bit disappointed to be truthful. The Ravioli was also deemed to be on the stingy side, portion-wise, but with Steaks coming as main courses it wasn’t a huge problem.
Ah yes, the steaks, what can I say? Texture was excellent, flavour distinctly lacking; you wouldn’t have said it was beef if you’d been blind-folded, put it that way. My stone was superb, but then I only have my steak rare so it doesn’t need long to cook! The Man Bird’s stone was ok, but his colleagues didn’t stay hot for long at all, so she was less than impressed; her champ was only lukewarm, so she had to send that back too! It came back nice and hot, so harmony was restored. I’d ordered extra Salsa Verde with my steak and also a Watercress and Radish salad – I was in the mood for punchy, clean flavours rather than creamy sauces and dishes. The Salsa Verde was not to my liking at all, I just found it to be Parsley in oil –there was no punch or clean Herb taste at all, so I was under-whelmed personally, but someone else may have enjoyed it.
The Watercress and Radish salad though wouldn’t have been to anyone’s taste! I’m not a negative Nellie, but I’m going to break my habit on this occasion and just say it like it is. The dressing was sweet (yes, sweet!) and was frankly awful – I can’t pretend at all I’m afraid; it was allegedly dressed in Lemon Oil, but trust me there was absolutely no citrus to be found. It wasn’t just me who thought that either; I’d been so flummoxed by the dressing that I offered it round to my fellow diners, just to check that I hadn’t got a palate-destroying bug or anything. Nope, it was just dire, period. Watercress is also meant to be peppery and punchy, right?
The wilted rocket leaves under my Scallops had had more fire to them (and that’s saying something because they were insipid too!).Nothing is ever totally horrible though, and the service we’d received from our server was top-notch; she was polite, efficient and lovely all-round. Even as we were complaining she took it all on board, even apologising (we said it wasn’t her fault, she didn’t cook the food) and offering us a cocktail or liqueur coffee on the house to end our night on a positive – she didn’t want us to have a bad Valentine’s Day, how sweet is that?!
I don’t want you to think that Stix and Stones was dire though; to a lot of locals it’s great, but we all thought it just lacked “something”. If the flavours are sorted out, then this would be lovely, but I’m afraid as it stands for the money (and it isn’t a cheap option here) it isn’t somewhere I would recommend at the moment.
Feeling somewhat deflated, we headed to Brennans Bar which is next door to Crown Liquor Saloon, to have a couple of drinkies and enjoy the live music that was on. And what do you know, the night turned out to be an absolute blinder!! The drinkers in the bar were friendly and we found ourselves belting out songs at the top of our lungs.
Our good fortune continued the next morning with our last breakfast at Jury’s Inn being a real bobby dazzler. The trick is to get down as soon as the breakfast room opens; everything has just been done fresh so there’s no hard fried egg in sight and it’s all piping hot!
Belfast it’s been great craic in the warmth of your bosom, seen you soon.