Northern Ireland: EMERALD ISLE WILL MAKE YOU SMILE; Gayle Ritchie Has a Craic-Ing Time in Vibrant Cities and Lush Countryside of Northern Ireland
If you fancy a refreshing break in one of Europe's safest, friendliest and most exuberant tourist hotspots, look no further than Northern Ireland.
Whether you want vibrant cities or glorious countryside, you'll have a ball.
A great deal has happened here politically and economically in the past few years and old perceptions of the 'troubled' north have been rewritten.
Belfast's dynamic nightlife - with its thriving club scene, swanky bars, traditional pubs and gourmet restaurants - has huge appeal.
Its setting is as dramatic as its history and its fascinating story is evident everywhere.
Proof of the city port's renewal is the huge increase in hotel numbers - they have trebled in just five years.
But it's easy to escape the beaten track and find yourself surrounded by lush green countryside.
Miles of cycle tracks and way-marked walks have opened up enchanting rural and coastal areas and getting around by bike or on foot are fantastic ways to explore the real beauty of the country.
After just three days roaming about, my stress had melted away.
I took the Stena Line ferry crossing from Stranraer to Belfast, a speedy and relaxing journey.
First stop was the four-star Radisson SAS Hotel, a great base for exploring as it is in a quiet location just 10 minutes' walk from the city centre. I loved the welcoming bar, friendly staff and great fitness suite.
After enjoying a hearty feast at the stylish Oxford Exchange restaurant, I strolled round the compact downtown and found it impossible not to stop at several pubs. The highlight was McHugh's Bar, with a fantastic old-time frontage.
It's one of the few bars that makes any reference to the troubled past. On the walls are framed front pages of the Belfast Telegraph bearing the headlines "It's over" and "Peace at last" to mark the ceasefires.
The next day it was time for lunch at the city's bestknown pub, The Crown.
Famed for its buzzing atmosphere, original gas lamps, cosy snugs, ornate mirrors and stained glass windows, the food was delicious.
Once I'd stuffed myself with a bowl of stew and champ and several pints of Guinness, it was time for a bus trip through the Sperrins landscape, a rich tapestry of pasture, woods and hills.
On my arrival at the An Creagan Visitor Centre, I began a 15-mile cycle along solitary backroads stretching from moor to mountain.
The centre also boasts fascinating archaeological sites, interpretative displays, trails and walks.
Next stop was the historic walled city of Derry, also known as Londonderry. …