When a whimsical lunch break with my work colleagues, Gemma, LA and Lauren, escalated from discussing a possible weekend in Edinburgh to finding an amazing weekend break in Venice, our flights were booked before you could say City of Water.
We jetted off the weekend before Valentine’s Day, which happy coincidence was the start of the famous Venice festival. Our flight was Belfast International Airport was slightly delayed, but, since we were all super excited, the time flew in and we had touched down before we knew it.
There are a few ways to travel to your hotel, however we opted for the Alilaguna public boat which took us directly from the airport to the nearest water stop, located a mere 5 minutes walk from our hotel. It was dark when we arrived and so we didnt see much of Venice but the transport was very easy to navigate and at €27 for a return trip, was very reasonable.
Our hotel for the weekend was the Palazzo San Lorenzo. This elegant 4-star boutique hotel, which boasts 26 stunning bedrooms, enjoys a prime location overlooking the Rio dell’Osmarin. All the key tourist spots are within walking distance, whilst the area immediately surrounding the hotel is brimming with snack spots and inviting restaurants.
Venice is not a large city, and the many bridges scattered throughout make it possible to walk to most destinations. However, with alleyways and walkways galore, Google Maps will quickly become your best friend.
My experience in Venice elicited several gasps due to the breathtaking views, from St Mark’s Basilica (if you visit it’s worth paying €5 to go to the roof were you can see the famous Roman horse sculptures, ancient mosiacs and stunning views); the illustrious Rialto bridge and the aptly named Grand Canal; and the colourful houses of Burano island. When exploring this extraordinary capital city, it was hard not to feel like you had wandered into a painting. It is impossible not to constantly snap photos, although they really do not do the views justice. Regardless, a picture – and video – speaks a thousand words, and so I wanted to share a snapshot of my first Italian adventure.
One sure fire way to blow away the cobwebs is a visit to the North Coast, and that’s what my family and I did over the weekend.
WHERE WE STAYED
Our home for the weekend was the well appointed Ulster Cottages. Situated a few miles from Portrush, Portstewart, Coleraine and Bushmills, these modern, spacious cottages are the perfect base for exploring the North Coast. Our cottage slept 6 adults (and a tiny human) and was equipped with three bedrooms, two ensuites, and a kitchen with all the amenities you could need. The Ulster Cottages also has ample parking spaces making it ideal if you are travelling from further afield and want to take your car with you.
Although Barry’s Amusements is shut until Easter, the four-year-old in our midst was delighted to visit the several Amusements dotted along the Main Street in Portrush which are still open outside of peak season. As a huge fan of Super Mario – particularly Princess Peach – she was vibrating with excitement as her dad managed to defeat the Claw Grabbing Machine to add a haul of new additions to her Super Mario collection.
Whilst it was quite blustery during our visit, the sun came out and we had the chance to walk along the East Strand. Along with the stunning Arcadia building (which is closed until Easter) and an unrivalled glimpse of Whiterocks beach, this area of the town is a wonderful spot for scenic photos and relaxing views.
As the sun continued to shine we decided to also check out Dunluce Castle. Dramatically perched on the edge of a cliff, these iconic ruins, which were built around 1500, are truly a wonder to behold. As well as exploring the rich history of the Castle, from its ownership to how it instigated the formation of Dunluce town, as well as eerie tales of banshees, this National Trust treasure, which boasts breathtaking views, is a must visit.
FOOD AND DRINK
The North Coast is synonymous with good food and drink. Whether you want something simple like fish and chips or something more gastronomic, you are sure to find something to tickle your tastebuds. We enjoyed the chunkiest chips at Mr Chips Diner – which has views as impressive as the food – but the piece de resistance for me was dinner at The Bushmills Inn. The historic building, with whitewashed walls and warm mellow brick timbers, is warm and inviting whilst the staff are attentive and welcoming. The menu offers a diverse range of locally sourced dishes, from fresh seafood to steaks and – what I devoured – tender chicken with dauphinoise potatoes and roasted carrots. The desserts all sounded delectable but I had to sample the Bushmills Irish coffee, which really was one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
Whether for a cosy lunch or an evening meal, the Bushmills Inn – as I found out – is definitely the perfect place to celebrate a special occasion and make unforgettable memories with your nearest and dearest.
The North Coast is not only a place to visit during the summer months. Winter and early spring bring clear crisp days, and dramatic landscapes that are guaranteed to capture your heart. With something for all ages, from the Bushmills distillery tour to walks along the beach and arcades galore, a visit is sure to be anything but mundane.
Christmas is my favourite times of year. Although I love the spontaneous nights out, the unexpected catchups with friends and making new memories every year, I also love those traditions which make the festive season complete. Here’s my top 5 traditions that are top of my Christmas list.
1. Christmas production at the Lyric
I love a trip to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast anytime of the year, but for me it does not feel like Christmas without catching the theatre’s Christmas production. This year’s festive offering was Grimes and McKee’s Driving Home For Christmas. Directed by Frankie McCafferty, Driving Home For Christmas sees various travellers finding themselves at the Dander Inn, deep in the Sperrins, on Christmas Eve as the roads become impassable as the result of a ferocious snow storm. As it seems unlikely the weather will clear up, they find themselves facing up to the liklihood of spending Christmas together, with their increasingly strange hosts, Pat and Paddy.
Driving Home For Christmas is a wonderful combination of comedy and drama with just the right amount of musical numbers. The performances from all the cast were superb, though with the multiple role as proprietors of the Dander Inn, Connor Grimes stole the show for me.
After last year’s staging of Bah!Humbug, the standard of expectation was very high. Although Driving Home For Christmas took a while to warm up, it was bursting with laughs, creative staging and twists that’s keep you on your toes throughout. So, if you fancy something a little bit different this Christmas period, be sure to snap up tickets to the Lyric Theatre; Driving Home For Christmas runs until 4 January 2020, the recommended viewing age is for 14 years old +
2. Wrapping presents whilst watching Elf
Elf is one of my favourite festive films. It is fun, colourful and spreads Christmas cheer every year. I have seen the film that many times now, I can almost recite it word for word. It has also got to the stage, much like Will Ferrell’s other comedic masterpiece Anchorman, that I find myself laughing before key moments as I know what’s coming. As I love it so much, every year I love combining a viewing of it with one of my other favourite things to do at Christmas: wrapping presents. By the end, my Christmas cheer levels are through the roof.
If you have not yet watched Elf, or just want to rewatch it, catch it on Christmas Eve on UTV at 5.15pm.
3. Watching It’s A Wonderful Life at QFT
The Queen’s Film Theatre is a wonderful place to visit. This time of year it is even magical, as without fail it adds a screening of my all time favourite festive film to its listing. It’s A Wonderful Life, featuring the superb James Stewart, tells the story of George Bailey, who after problem and problem befalls him, begins to question if taking his own life is his only solution. After his guardian angel Clarence is sent to earth, he aims to show George what the world would be like without him.
It’s A Wonderful Life, whilst not a cookie cutter happy film, never fails to send me away with a smile on my face; George Bailey is a good man who goes above and beyond for those he loves and it’s hard not to get invested in his fate. With themes of friends, family and loyalty, set against Christmas, it’s the perfect film for this time of year.
It’s A Wonderful Life runs at the QFT until Christmas eve 2019.
4. Having a chimney cake at the Belfast Christmas Market
Christmas is a time for sugar and one of the things I love most about the festive season is my annual trip to the Belfast Christmas Market for my annual Chimney Cake. Originally a Hungarian street snack, the chimney cake has a crispy exterior and a soft interior. Coated in cinnamon and sugar and filled with ice cream, fudge and chocolate brownies, it is pure decadence and one of the things I look forward to every Christmas.
5. Family time
My all time favourite thing about Christmas is getting to spend time with the family. The big day itself is filled with calling at different houses, delivering presents and spending quality time with loved ones. As the family make up changes, Christmas day traditions continue to change and evolve but as long it’s filled with family, good food, a few drinks, love and laughter, my wish list is complete.
I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and enjoy your festive traditions, whatever they may be.
One of favourite parts of Christmas is the opportunity to catch up with some of my favourite people whilst getting the chance to discover new places along the way. This week I visited two new hotspots and re-discovered an old favourite…
COFFEE AT BOLT
Bolt Cafe, situated off Boucher Road, is a new venture by Charles Hurst Group. The modern 80-seat cafe and restaurant boasts a New York feel, with high ceilings, exposed brick and steel beams. The cafe, which is being run by Hospitality Belfast, a joint venture between Mount Charles and Yellow Door, offers a creative and reasonably priced food menu with an emphasis on high quality produce. I only popped in for a latte, and was impressed with the extensive coffee menu on offer. The coffee, which is locally sourced, tasted amazing, and the staff were incredibly welcoming and cheerful; I left with a smile on my face and will definitely be back to sample the food.
RAMEN AT KAMAKURA
I have been wanting to try Kamakura, a sushi and ramen restaurant located on Donegall Pass, for ages. I finally had the opportunity when my sister, Gail, and I were planning a pre Christmas dinner and catch up. We visited on a Wednesday night, and the colourful, brightly lit space, had already attracted a number of diners who were tucking in to a selection of divine looking dishes.
As we were being seated our waitress offered to take our coats. Once settled, we looked over the menu, which is extensive, and there were several dishes that took my fancy. After much deliberation we opted to order a portion of Gyoza to share as a starter, whilst for mains I selected the Kimchi Chicken Ramen and Gail ordered the Katsu Chicken Curry with rice.
I haven’t had Gyoza before but I absolutely loved the deep fried dumplings whilst the flavoursome Gyoza sauce was perfect for dipping them in. The Kimchi Chicken Ramen, which was presented in a deep bowl, was incredibly impressive. The chicken was succulent, the chicken and pork broth was rich with flavour whilst the oodles of noodles and topping of bean sprouts added a delightful texture. With a hint of spice it was the perfect way to warm up on a winter’s night. The Katsu curry, likewise, was scrumptious. The breaded chicken was plentiful and the sauce was delicate, perfectly balancing spice and flavour.
With the option to sit in or take away, this is one place I will definitely be frequenting again; there are a number of dishes my taste buds would be keen to explore in future.
CHRISTMAS DINNER AT NEILL’S HILL
I first tried Neill’s Hill several years ago for lunch. I thoroughly enjoyed it at the time, however I haven’t been back since. When it came to planning a Christmas dinner with a group of friends, it was one of the venues that came up in discussion, and after a look at the menu we were all sold.
The atmosphere on arrival was electric with a number of parties getting well and truly stuck into the festivities. We were shown to our seats, and as we had pre-ordered our food, the only decision we had to make was what drinks we would like to order.
The service throughout the meal was superb, with staff being professional and attentive without being overbearing. The food was also of a high standard, being well presented whilst also creating an exquisite compilation of flavours.
Though we ordered from a set Christmas menu, the choices were varied with something to suit all palates. Starters included grilled goats cheese, prawn cocktail, mushroom pate and vegetable and barley broth, however I went for the Thai salad. Combining seared beef, noodles and chilli, this was an explosion of flavour, which got the meal off to a wonderful start.
For mains, there was traditional roast turkey with all the trimmings, roast fillet of hake, and lamb tagine, to name a few, however I couldn’t resist the roast breast of Gressingham duck, which was served with an apple and cranberry jus and potato gratin. I requested it to be cooked medium and it was served perfectly. It was tender and succulent, whilst the potato was flavoursome and the perfect accompaniment.
My favourite dish is always dessert, and for this we were spoilt for choice with options including, Christmas pudding, creme brulee, pecan pie and lemon posset. I subscribe to the notion that a good dessert requires chocolate as the key ingredient so I had to chose the steamed chocolate pudding with chocolate and hazelnut sauce and vanilla ice cream. The combination of hot and cold is always a winner, whilst the pudding was rich and gooey, and I devoured every last morsel from my plate.
After having enjoyed a wonderful evening of laughs – thanks to the crackers with cheesy jokes that adorned the tables – not to mention appetising food, I couldn’t help but wonder why it has been so long since I dined at Neill’s Hill. After this experience, however, one thing is for sure, it won’t be as long next time.
In the 90s my sister and I spent countless hours surfing music channels. Whilst my go to was MTV2, which played everything from Smashing Pumpkins to Willie Mason, Gail’s was MTV Dance, which soared from Chicane and BT to Faithless. Dance anthems were never my thing, I preferred lyrics over beats, but the older I get, the fonder I become of the tunes that were once inflicted on me during my teenage years. They make me feel nostalgia for a simpler time and they incite joy in me as they remind me of my favourite – and, ahem, only – big sister. So, last week (this unfortunately has taken me a while to post), I attended my first ever Lush! Classical at the SSE Arena. I attended, with Gail, of course, as well as my bro-in-law Alan and a few mates including Kyle who was instrumental in securing us a spot in the Golden Circle. Though the tickets were slightly more expensive, they were worth it as they included access to the Golden Circle bar, meaning you didn’t miss any action on stage.
The highlight of Lush! Classical, which is now in its fourth year, is getting to witness memorable dance hits being reimagined by the insanely talented Ulster Orchestra. After the crowd was suitably warmed up by guest DJs, including Seb Fontaine, the magnificent orchestra took their places on stage. The catalogue of the night included Planet Funk’s ‘Chase the Sun’, Fatboy Slim’s ‘Right Here, Right Now’ and Daft Punk’s ‘One More Time’, to name a few. The excitement was palpable as sisters Philippa and Jolene O’Hara took to the stage; their powerful vocals perfectly complemented the stunning performance by the orchestra. The surprises didn’t end there as dance legend Maria Nayler and sensational saxophonist Lovely Laura absolutely wowed the crowd.
I was surprised by how much I LOVED my first experience of Lush! Classical. I was absolutely mesmerised by how the orchestra were able to capture the heart and sounds of each anthem. Whilst the Orchestra might be more known for pure classics, modifying their repertoire to include dance classics resulted in a truly memorable event which clearly has attracted a new audience to appreciate these skilled musicians. With impressive staging which included fire and lasers as well as glitter and streamers being fired into the crowd, Lush! Classical felt like it would have been right at home in Ibiza. I danced my socks off from start to finish, so much so, I was incredibly thankful for the advice from big sis to leave the heels at home. As the night concluded with a clear audience favourite, ‘Insomnia’, which saw a xylophone being used to wonderful effect, I felt seriously euphoric. I’m already set for a encore (en fois)!
For a snapshot of the night, check out a (rough) video of my favourite moments here:
I love food and family time; when the two are combined I’m at my happiest. And so I was in my element when the whole gang of us headed for Sunday lunch at Novelli at Belfast City Quays which is located in the wonderful AC Marriott Hotel for my mum’s birthday. As the name suggests, the restaurant, which is the initiative of Jean-Christophe Novelli, boasts a stunning river view, with the SSE Arena, Titanic Quarter and the landmark Harland & Wolff Cranes visible across the water.
Novelli, which is a Mediterranean and French influenced brasserie, offers a superb Sunday lunch with a two- or three-course option. When booking my sister mentioned my dad is coeliac and once seated we were presented with the menu which our waiter took the time to explain the menu and also point out gluten free options which were suitable for dad.
The starter was the ‘Chef’s Table Appetisers’ which was a selection of continental meats, cheese, artisan breads, bread sticks, olive, hummus, terrines, and soup de jour. The food was literally laid out on a ‘chef’s table’ where you could mix and match what you had to eat. I loved this concept and really enjoyed getting to sample different tastes and dishes, it was the perfect introduction to our dining experience. It was also a nice touch that the restaurant ensured my dad had plenty of gluten-free bread as he was unable to try the breads and bread sticks from the chef’s table.
For mains and dessert we chose from the menu. Options for mains included roast beef with red wine jus and mushroom risotto, however, I opted for the chicken supreme which was served with roast potatoes and mixed vegetables. The chicken was tender and perfectly complemented by the tantalising sauce.
With such a high quality of food on offer, I was eagerly awaiting dessert (I’ve such a sweet tooth), however before it arrived we were surprised – and very delighted – by the arrival of a beautifully presented plate of handmade biscuits to wish my mum a happy birthday. With a chocolate bourbon emblazoned with AC Hotel, short bread and a luscious jammie dodger. After we all had a taste of these fabulous sweet treats, our desserts were served. I selected the brownie which was crispy yet gooey and served warm with fresh cream. I practically licked my plate clean it was that delectable.
Novelli is a modern and stylish restaurant with a spacious and elegant setting. The staff were absolutely superb, they were professional yet friendly and I was incredibly impressed with their catering towards coeliacs, ensuring my dad’s experience was every bit as good as everyone else’s. The food is creative, beautifully presented and tasted divine whilst the Sunday lunch menu, with two-courses for £18.95 or three-courses for £22.95, was very reasonably priced. I think we’ve found our new family favourite restaurant!
Anyone who reads the blog will know my sister Gail and I are afternoon tea-aholics. And so we figured the best way to instill this love for all things dainty and sweet into the next generation was to take my four-year-old niece Rachel to Princess Afternoon Tea which was held in The Treehouse, Belfast.
The sun was shining for our sugar-fuelled adventure and The Treehouse, the rooftop bar and restaurant above AM:PM on Upper Arthur Street, looked absolutely stunning. On arrival the grown ups were welcomed with a glass of ice cold prosecco whilst the little princesses were treated to their choice of orange or blackcurrant juice.
Before food was served, there were smiles galore as real life princesses Rapunzel, Ariel and Elsa mingled with families and posed for photos.
When it was time for tea to be served, the kids were served their choice of dish which varied from pasta to chicken goujons, whilst the grown ups enjoyed finger sandwiches, soup and cheese bites before a three tie stand brimming with sweet treats was presented to each table. With scones accompanied with jams and fresh cream, profiteroles, chocolate gateau and cake bites, this was the perfect way to indulge your sweet tooth.
Once the food was inhaled the little ladies were invited up to dance with their favourite princesses before having the opportunity to get their face painted. During this Gail and I soaked up the sun whilst enjoying a chilled glass of Jawbox gin with ginger and honeycomb – which probably explains why we also ended up with getting our faces painted.
The Princess Afternoon Tea at The Treehouse was a fabulous day; whilst the little princesses had a belter of a day – Rachel did not want to leave – there was delicious food and an extensive drinks menu to also keep the adults thoroughly entertained. With the announcement there’s a Hocus Pocus Family afternoon tea scheduled for October in sister restaurant the Cabaret Supper Club, I already have my Halloween plans sorted!