Never in its history has Northern Ireland enjoyed such peace, stability, and investment, all of which is making it the envy of Europe. Once a region torn apart by civil strife and sectarian violence, today it has changed beyond recognition. A dizzying rate of regeneration has led to the glossy rebirth of its two major cities, Belfast and Derry, bursting with confidence and contemporasry cool. A creative and cultural renaissance has brought an astonishing surge of interest from many parts of the world, and new super-luxury hotels, trendy bars, and chic restaurants have created a huge number of opportunities for holidaymakers.
The Six Counties that make up Northern Ireland cover less than 14,245 square km (5,500 square miles)—the country is about half the size of Delaware and less than one-fifth the size of the Republic of Ireland, its neighbor to the south. But within Northern Ireland’s boundaries are some of the most unspoiled scenery you could ever hope to find on this earth: the granite Mountains of Mourne; the Giant’s Causeway, made of extraordinary volcanic rock; more than 320 km (200 miles) of coastline beaches and hidden coves; and rivers and leaf-sheltered lakes, including Europe’s largest freshwater lake, Lough Neagh, that provide fabled fishing grounds. Ancient castles and Palladian-perfect 18th-century houses are as numerous here as almost anywhere else in Europe, and each has its own tale of heroic feats, dastardly deeds, and lovelorn ghosts.
Northern Ireland not only houses this heritage within its native stone, but has also given the world perhaps an even greater legacy: its roster of celebrated descendants. Nearly one in six of the millions of Irish who journeyed across the Atlantic in search of fortune in the New World came from Ulster (the historic name for this part of Ireland that geographically—although not politically—includes Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan which are part of the republic) and of this group (and from their family stock), more than a few left their mark in America: Davy Crockett, President Andrew Jackson, General Ulysses S. Grant, President Woodrow Wilson, General Stonewall Jackson, financier Thomas Mellon, merchant J. Paul Getty, writers Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain, and astronaut Neil Armstrong.
In the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s, Northern Ireland was synonymous with conflict; sectarian killings and car bomb explosions were an almost daily occurrence from 1969 to 1994, amounting to the deaths of more than 3,500 people. The “peace process,” begun with the help of President Clinton, has been a long journey but the two communities now live in relative harmony as a younger generation embraces life without violence.
Present-day Northern Ireland, a province of just 1.8 million people that along with Great Britain composes the political entity of the United Kingdom, retains its sense of separation, both in the vernacular of the landscape and, some would say, in the character of the people. The hardheaded and industrious Scots-Presbyterians, imported to make Ulster a bulwark against Ireland’s Catholicism, have had a profound and ineradicable effect on the place. For all that, the border between north and south is of little consequence if you’re just here to see the country, and though political divisions still exist, peace reigns in Northern Ireland today. There are no border road checkpoints, no one is stopped or questioned, no passports are checked, and there isn’t even a sign announcing you are passing from the north into the south. Visitors—even ones with English accents—are not hassled in any way, and Americans are more than warmly welcomed.
It’s a golfing powerhouse, with some of the world’s best courses (and golfers); its young bands are renowned; its writers and poets have been internationally acclaimed; and Belfast is home to the Titanic Belfast Centre, one of Europe’s leading visitor attractions. The “peace dividend” has led to massive investment and revitalization in many towns and cities and the North is truly open for business as never before.
The best time to visit the area is from May to September, when the weather is mild and a little friendlier to travelers, especially in coastal and lake areas. Apart from holiday weekends there should be no trouble getting accommodation anywhere, except for Belfast. If heading for Belfast, book in advance. Most of the city’s cultural events—except early August’s lively West Belfast Festival—take place in autumn.