MOST visitors to Northern Ireland head to Belfast, maybe throwing in a day trip to the Giant’s Causeway’s majestic volcanic rocks.
But for those prepared to venture just an hour further afield, the rewards are great in the beautiful county of Armagh.
On our family trip to the north, we decided to combine a short city break in the capital with a more relaxing stay in mid-Ulster’s rolling countryside.
At just two hours, the P&O crossing from Cairnryan was a pleasant hop to Larne, from where it took less than 30 minutes to Belfast.
The city which recently hosted Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Coldplay for the MTV Europe Awards buzzes with attractions. Our first stop was the W5 Science Centre, which friends had told us was a child’s paradise – and how right they were.
In the “Start” zone, your little one can fill their trolley in the child-size Tesco, enjoy a self-catering mini-café and splash out in the water section. Our tot loved being independent and making her own “purchases” from the supermarket.
The place to stay in Belfast for those with the cash to flash is the newly-renovated Merchant Hotel. This former bank glitters in the middle of the bohemian Cathedral Quarter and offers an elegant afternoon tea beneath its grand central dome.
However, if your purse has been feeling the pinch, there are plenty of welcoming B&Bs. We had the car so were happy to stay a mile out of town in the shadow of the Cave Hill at the friendly Sleepy Cedars, where there was free on-street parking and the aroma of freshly baked soda bread greeted us at the breakfast table in the morning.
In the mood for more fine fare, and on the owner’s advice, we ventured to St George’s Market, near the City Hall, to stock up on provisions. Established in 1890, this award- winning covered Victorian structure houses a riot of colour and bustle. Our little one was entertained by the crowds, loved snacking on bits of cheese and fruit, and the live jazz band had her clapping along in delight.
After a hearty repast, we hit the M1 and made for the county city of Armagh, where St Patrick built his first church in Ireland and the skyline is dominated by the towering peaks of its two cathedrals.
No sooner had we unpacked and gone for a swim at the central Armagh City Hotel than already adventure was calling. We’d been invited to toast some marshmallows on the fire at Tepee Valley Campsite, a few miles outside Armagh, near Markethill. This small campsite is a child’s idea of heaven, with accommodation comprising a picture book-pretty gipsy wagon, tepees, a log cabin, yurt and even a treehouse. In the gated park surrounded by farmland, we relaxed knowing the little ones could play safely, whether they decided to make like cowboys and Indians, feed the goats – watch out for your shorts! – or join the adults for a sing-along round the camp fire.
Armagh has a rich Celtic heritage, best displayed at Navan Fort, a hilltop site once the seat of Ulster’s kings and queens. Nowadays, the story of Cu Chulainn, Ulster’s legendary Celtic warrior, is told in an exhibition centre at the foot of the hill. Although the centre has a tempting café, we instead feasted on a picnic in the nearby lush countryside.
Our top experience was the willow and thatch house, where women in ancient Celt garb bake bread, weave and give a glimpse of life in the Iron Age/early Christian period.
Heading back to our hotel after an evening walk along the illuminated Georgian Mall, we discovered a Scottish connection in Armagh to make us feel right at home. An imposing new street sculpture of Cu Chulainn portrays the warrior balanced on the point of a spear, practising a martial art he learned from Skye warrior queen Scathach.
On our last afternoon, we pushed the boat out and opted to lunch in Uluru, the north’s only Australian restaurant, where we opted for kangaroo steaks before quickstepping down the hill for a brisk tour of Armagh Planetarium. Our tot was a bit young for the star show, but she enjoyed teetering through the universe, resting against the scale model planets, in the Astropark at the adjacent observatory.
We had fun in the north and, most importantly, kept the wee one amused. By staying in a B&B in Belfast and booking a special offer on our Armagh hotel, we kept costs to a minimum. In these belt-tightening times, a short trip across the Irish Sea could be just what the bank manager ordered.