Sunday 15th May until Thursday 19th May – 19th meeting of 2016
Any of you who have been followers of our blog for some time will know that once a year we venture out and have a short break of four or five days. This is always somewhere one of us fancy and we in turn like the idea so everyone is happy. The main difference is that our husbands come along making it completely different and good fun!!
Sunday 15th May – Day one
This year we had chosen a trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland which was an organised trip run by National Trust. One of our ladies had kindly and very efficiently arranged it all and sorted our the finances etc etc. Many thanks to her. Our total number was 16 and this meant two mini buses from home to Heathrow to catch our Aer Lingus flight at 14.45. This went fairly smoothly aside one of our ladies having her case searched! After a flight of just one and half hours we arrived at George Best City Airport, Belfast. Here taxis were waiting for us and a drive of half an hour found us at our hotel, La Mon Hotel and Country Club at Castlereagh.
We settled in our rooms and then all met up again for 7.30 dinner. Our impressions of the hotel were good. A very modern hotel of around 120 rooms with swimming pool, two gyms, tennis court and lounge area. After dinner we met our rep Angela and told we would be meeting at 9.30 in the morning to board our coach to visit Belfast and Titanic Experience. After dinner we went to the lounge for a drink and chat about our day and this was to set the scene to become the ritual at the end of each day.
Monday 16th May – Day Two
We were all up and ready for breakfast at 8.30. Angela was waiting at our coach. She introduced Esther our driver for the trip and once all on board we set off for Belfast. She explained the plan for the day and gave a very informative talk as we went along. The journey was very nice and an excellent surprise was a visit to Stormont home of the parliament of Northern Ireland. It was built for parliament after the split in 1921 and opened in 1932 and is a really stunning building. The drive up to it was spectacular and the beautiful gardens all around are now open to the public to visit. I, for one, was really thrilled to visit here. Although just a 10 minute stop for photos it made me very happy as I have wanted to see this building for a long time and must say that it is as impressive to see as it looks on television!
Onto Titanic Experience which is housed in the Harland & Wolff ship yard. This museum which opened in 2012 is very modern and large. It gives the impression of a ship from the outside and is set on three floors. The first floor explaining Belfast at the time the Titanic was built. The second floor was how it was built and third floor the whys and wherefores of the sinking. There is also a ‘ride’ where you experience many aspects of the building of Titanic. A good experience. A very modern, interactive museum with lots of slide shows, images shown on the walls, some relics and lots of information all around. There was an awful lot to see and I think not possible to take it all in on one viewing. It was very busy and crowded and it is the biggest attraction in Belfast.
From here we went for a coffee in a very nice quirky cafe run by the combined churches of the area by volunteers. It was an honesty cafe where there are no set prices you just pay what you think your goods were worth. What a lovely idea and it seems to work as it was a thriving cafe with a lovely atmosphere.
We boarded our coach and went to City Hall where a local guide accompanied us and we went on a tour of Belfast. A very good experience. We went to Shanklin Road and areas known to us by name from the troubles. The painted walls were a sight to see. The main international picture being the centrepiece. It was hard to imagine what the streets were like in the troubles but our guide gave us a good idea. Where the Catholic streets meet the Protestant streets the houses still have barred wire up at the windows and grills on the doors! A constant remember of bad times.
We left the coach at City Hall were we had two hours to ‘do our own thing’. We went inside the City Hall which was a very impressive building inside and out. Inside lots of marble columns and beautiful stain glass. From here we went on a mission to find The Crown Bar, oldest pub in Belfast and owned by the National Trust. After about 15 minutes we found it and on entering it was really amazing. High decorated with candelabras, stained glass windows and the seating area was small doored cubicles. An amazing sight. Unfortunately all the cubicles were occupied so we decided to go to the pub next door which was also very old. We found a nice corner which we fitted into and ordered a drink and some nibbles. I along with one of the other ladies ordered a Guinness as we thought you just can’t be in a Irish pub and not drink Guinness! And very nice it was too! I liked Belfast and found it a very interest place with some lovely architectural features.
We got back to the hotel around 5.30 and then dinner at 7.30. The food in the hotel was very good. After dinner we went to the lounge for a drink and chat and lots of laughter about the events of the day. Then off to bed after a very good day.
Tuesday 17th May 2016 – Day Three
Breakfast at 8.30 and coach at 9.30. A full day today as the morning was a visit to Giant’s Causeway and afternoon at Antrim Castle Gardens.
The weather today was overcast, pretty cold and rain was forecast. To reach Giant’s Causeway it was an hour or so drive along the coastal route which was very pleasant and a chance to see the beautiful scenery. Very pretty views and so so green. Angela kept us amused with stories of this and that on the way. She herself was from Northern Ireland and certainly had the Irish sense of humour, chat and charm!
We hadn’t had much rain on the journey but it seemed just as we arrived it started to rain rain rain! This natural wonder is now a designated World Heritage Site and belongs to the National Trust who has built a large visitors centre with much information, interactive displays, gift shop and cafe, that you pass through to get to the Giant’s Causeway. The area consists of enormous basalt columns produced by volcanic eruptions some sixty million years ago. To get to the stones some of us opted to take the bus and some walked. Thank goodness we had all come dressed for cold wet weather as by now it was really raining. Once on the beach area we could see the strange stones. Quite amazing to think that this is all natural. We had a walk about in the time allowed and then got the bus back to base camp! For me this was a great experience as I have for some time had it on my list of ‘things to see’.We went into the hotel for a warming drink and cake and to dry our wet coats. A little look in the gift shop and I bought a few little sovereigns then on the coach for our next stop.
Once at Antrim Castle Gardens and a short talk from a guide, we were given a time slot for our guided walk and then we went into the cafe for some lunch.
We met with our guide and he took us on a good walk around the grounds and told us of the history of the site. The gardens are 400 years old and over the last few years have undergone a lot of restoration to bring it back to its original setting. The refurnished Clotworthy House provides the story of the Massereene Family and their lives.
We traveled back to our hotel for dinner, drink and chat in the lounge and then bed all a little weary after a long day.
Wednesday 18th May 2016 – Day Four
After breakfast we boarded our coach for our last full day of the tour. We drove by Strangford Lough with some superb views to Castle Ward property of the National Trust. Weather was dry and the wind had dropped so a much nicer day. We had a guided tour of the house. An eccentric 18th century house that features a curious mixture of architectural styles. We visited the laundry that is set in the stable-yard along with tea room, secondhand bookshop and gift shop. The laundry was amazing. It had all manner of laundry equipment going back many many years, irons, mangles, sinks, washing boards and a few of us remarked that we could remember our Mothers using some of the items!! Some of us then walked to the farm-yard and although we could hear chickens, cows and sheep it was very difficult to see them as all gates were locked but we did see some ducks!! We took a walk down to the lake which gave us some lovely views and then made our way back to the coach.
We drove to the ferry on the shores of Strangford Louch which have recently been used as a film location for the television series Game of Thrones. It was a very pleasant sail of fifteen minutes. We went as foot passengers as it made driving the coach on much easier for Esther who was an excellent driver. She was quite young but manoeuvred the coach with no trouble at all! There were about fifteen cars also on the ferry. A short drive brought us to Mount Stewart House and Gardens. Here we could ‘do our own thing’ until we needed to board our coach. We went to the very nice tea rooms for food and drink. We decided to go into the house first and worked our way through all the rooms. The house is the property of National Tryst has just undergone a £7 million restoration and reopened in 2015. A beautiful house with some fabulous furniture and items on show.
Then a really pleasant walk around the beautiful gardens. The position of the grounds makes for a wonderfully atmospheric garden and has a distinct Mediterranean feel thanks to the exceptionally mild climate of nearby Strangford Lough. The Italian garden was particularly pleasing and we sat for a while relaxing and admiring the beautiful plants in the sunshine.
I thoroughly enjoyed this venue. I found the house amazing and the gardens superb. For me a really pleasant surprise and one the highlights of the tour.
Back to the coach and our hotel and our usual routine of dinner, drink in the lounge for a chat and then bed. A few of us stayed a little longer tonight as it was our last night. We found so much to talk and laugh about.
Thursday 19th May 2016 – Day Five
Up for breakfast for the last time. We had a late flight from George Best City Airport at 17.20 so a relaxed day ahead. The taxis to take us to the airport were booked for 15.30, hopefully they would arrive on time as there was some confusion as to what time flight we had. After breakfast we said our goodbyes to Angela our guide who had been excellent throughout the trip. She was very funny, attentive and informative making it a great time for all. We went back to our rooms to pack. We checked out and then meet up for a coffee. A few of us went for a walk around the hotel and gardens and then meet up again and we ordered some lunch and a farewell drink. Unfortunately the taxis were late arriving for us but luckily traffic was ok and we got to the airport quickly, checked in and straight onto the plane. A smooth journey back apart from one of us having to move because of a drip of some strange liquid from the overhead locker. We never found out what it was!
The flight home was amazing. As we came into Heathrow the view of London was magnificent. We, or I should say those seated by the windows, saw London at it best, the sun was shining and we spotted Thames Barrier, Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Wembley Stadium, Trafalgar Square just to name a few. A real treat for us London Walkers!!
Back at Heathrow after collecting our luggage we tracked down our taxis and made our way back home. Lots of kisses and handshakes when we said our goodbyes to each other. It certainly was a fantastic trip. The hotel was excellent with really good food giving variety, nicely presented and served by friendly staff. We were very busy and packed a lot into the five days but it was so good. We enjoyed each others company as much as the tour. Having the men made it very good. All in all a great time was had by all. A great tour with great company! I look forward to 2017 when I hope we can do another mini-break!