You may think you know Belfast, but you don't. This city of 645,000 is nothing less than an undiscovered European capital, with four five-star hotels (that's three more than Toronto), a Michelin-starred chef and the most opulent Victorian pub in the United Kingdom. It's where Anthony Trollope wrote his first successful novel while working at the post office; Jonathan Swift, C.S. Lewis and Seamus Heaney all found inspiration here.
So don't misunderstand recent headlines about the first political shootings here in more than a decade. There's more to Belfast than memories of violence, and this peace is not a fool's dream. This gorgeous, complicated city's natural state is more concerned with commerce than bullets and bombs. The Troubles were the anomaly, the recent shootings a thuggish blip. The miasma has lifted. Belfast really just wants to get down to business.
And business, these days, is all about hotels, restaurants, pubs and shops. There's so much here, and all of it so new, you get the impression there's some municipal overcompensation going on, as if all the Ulster businesspeople got together to make up for three decades when business here, when it was possible at all, was strictly local.
The whole city is in a tumult of improvement, using 2012 - the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic - as a goalpost.
A $750-million shopping complex, Victoria Square, opened last year, and an entirely new quarter of the city, the Titanic Quarter, with a museum, hotel, a banking centre, a college and 1,000 apartment units, will be completed within the next four years.
This Belfast bounce-back seems to be just as micro as it is macro, as much in evidence in hopeful small businesses as it is in grand municipal plans. One such business is KM Tour Guiding Services: The KM stands for Ken McElroy, a proud Ulsterman who used to supplement his schoolteacher's income by shuttling international journalists into the backrooms of Unionist and IRA strongholds to get their interviews. When that dark business dried up, he switched to tourists, taking an increasing number of British and Irish visitors past the sights outsiders had been ignoring for so long.
McElroy can be found striding around the town he's been striding around for the better part of three decades, pointing out the huge Ferris wheel next to the effulgent Victorian city hall, with its statue of proud Belfaster Lord Dufferin in front. Old linen warehouses, now lofts and shops and cafés, populate the square surrounding it, testament to its industrial revolution specialty.
Talking in his County Armagh accent, the vowels rounded and pressed right to the front of his mouth, a phonetic reminder of the region's geographical proximity to both Dublin and Glasgow, he'll tell you about Belfast's origins as a village, its explosion in the 18th century, alongside Manchester and Liverpool, into one of the industrial engines of the British empire, reaching its apogee in 1911 when its shipyards launched the Olympia and finished building its sister ship, the Titanic.
He'll still give you what he calls a "political tour," if you want, through east and west Belfast, past what's now called the Wall of Peace - where militants used to have their least bloody conflict, fought with cans of spray paint. (Giant murals, either Catholic Republican or Protestant Loyalist, can also be seen on the sides of buildings and walls in the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas, and in the Ballymurphy estate.) But McElroy prefers the pubs.
As we walk down one of the hybrid alley-streets in this increasingly pedestrianized city, McElroy points out the Duke of York, the pub where Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams worked behind the bar as a young man, soaking up the disgruntled conversation of the journalists who came from the nearby newspaper offices. One of them, the News Letter, is the oldest English language newspaper still in circulation (founded 1737). "These days," he says, remembering cheaper, darker days, "you'll pay the guts of £3" - about $5 - "for a pint." With Dublin pints sometimes tipping into the range of $12, it's still a steal.
I realize, as McElroy takes us through the dense and compact downtown core, that all I knew of Belfast before I came I'd gathered from headlines, which mostly included words like "blast," "dead" and "IRA."
But there are at least three Belfasts, laid side by side in jagged bits. You can see elements of all three from the front door of the Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street. First, there's high Victorian Belfast, the overwrought splendour of which embraces you in this National Trust-owned gin palace, with its private snugs with a bell system to call the waiter to your otherwise unmolested box.
Directly across the street is the Europa Hotel, where the international press holed up during the Troubles. If there's a better symbol of the second Belfast, the one that tends to loom over the world's impression of the place, it's been blown up. Tall and V-shaped in its bold 1960s modern architecture, it has the distinction of being Belfast's most bombed hotel.
You can catch a murmur of the city's relationship to its recent past - the Good Friday Agreement that ended the conflict was signed 11 years ago - by talking to the Europa's concierge, Martin, who worked there back in the day. Ask him about the necktie. Usually there's one hung on a column by his desk. It's part of the Belfast bomb squad uniform, and was presented to the hotel's manager after he carried not one but two bombs out of the hotel for the squad to dispose of.
If you stick your neck out of the Crown and crane it a little to the right, next door to the Europa you'll see the five-star Fitzwilliam Hotel. It opened, with typical Ulster tongue-in-cheek, on Friday, March 13, and is a sister hotel to the five-star Fitzwilliam in Dublin. It's the latest addition to the third layer of this surprising city.
It will be hard-pressed to beat the Merchant, though. Open since 2006, this former bank headquarters offers a confident density of luxurious detail. The Merchant has 26 rooms and five suites; the bar is small but opulent. The dining room next door, with its 40-foot vaulted ceilings in what was once the main hall of the bank, is the sort that makes even those clients picked up from the airport by the hotel's own top-hat-chauffeured Bentley want to have their picture taken in it.
There's a Malmaison around the corner, part of the U.K. chain of boutique hotels that mix bordello colours with neo-gothic styling, making the whole look pleasingly like it's been put together by Russell Brand and Noel Fielding in a fit of erotic imagining. Walk outside the front door, look right, and you'll see the Sleeping Giant, the anthropomorphic top of Cave Hill said to be the inspiration for Gulliver when Swift lived in the area early in his career. If it's night, you'll hear the beats from Mynt on Dunbar Street, a huge gay bar and dance club, right next door to Milk on Tomb Street, another club that only gets going after about 1 a.m.
Popular, glam dance bars in Belfast. Go figure. But Belfast's a city that's been defined by change and tumult. The Industrial Revolution turned it from a village to a city, shipbuilding bolted it into international capital status, and the Troubles brought it low. The commercial rebirth is as big as any upheaval in Belfast's past, and to see the city in mid-surge is to see its very essence. This European capital won't stay undiscovered for long.
Pack your bags
Air Transat flies direct from major Canadian cities between March and October. It also flies to Dublin, 1½hours south; it's easy to fly into one and out of the other. 866-847-1112. http://www.airtransat.ca.
Where to stay
The Fitzwilliam Hotel
Great Victoria Street, 44 (28) 9044-2080. http://www.fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com.
The Merchant 35-39 Waring Street, 44 (28) 9023-4888. http://www.themerchanthotel.com.
The Malmaison 34-38 Victoria Street, 44 (28) 9022-0200. http://www.malmaison-belfast.com.
Where to eat and drink
Roscoff Brasserie French in flavour, modern and white in
ambience. 7-11 Linenhall St., 44 (28) 9031-1150.
The John Hewitt A good-times working man's pub, with live
music six nights a week. 51 Donegall St., 44 (28) 9023-3768. http://www.thejohnhewitt.com.
The Crown Liquor Saloon. 46 Great Victoria Street, 44 (28) 9024-3187. http://www.crownbar.com.
The Merchant Hotel Bar
A real find, with 30 Irish whiskeys (and 26 Scotches), plus the best cocktail list I've ever seen.