anna.aero’s Editor Marc Watkins had a nervous start to the day, having arrived at Birmingham Airport at 08:20 for Flybe’s flight BE402 to Belfast City, scheduled to depart at 08:55 – fortunately the parking was convenient and the security processing was swift at Birmingham. An uneventful flight saw an on-time arrival in sunshine, which had disappeared by the time the aircraft parked on stand. Watkins brushed up on all the ways to say “Welcome” on his two-minute journey from aircraft to kerb at City.
It’s official; I am in love with this place. I had been to Belfast before – on an emergency mission to attain a replacement passport for my holiday to Canada – but I didn’t see, or more importantly feel, the vibrancy of the city because I was too worried about making my 16:20 Air India departure from Birmingham to Toronto. But on this reconnaissance mission, a sort of glimpse into what is waiting for the 1,200+ Routes Europe delegates that will arrive in Belfast in late-April, I fell in love with Belfast. I fell in love with people who simply could not do enough for you, whether it was giving you directions or serving your food; I fell in love with the atmosphere, the buzz, call it whatever you want, of a city that was ambitious to change the perceptions of the past but also of one knowing exactly where it was going and where everyone was on message and pulling in the same direction. And like a lover, I was also jealous; green with envy at all the pubs, bars and restaurants that oozed with their own unique style and which seemed to fill every nook and cranny of the city to leave the high streets happily bereft of the chains that dominate most city centres these days. I also came away from Belfast being jealous of you lot – Routes Europe Belfast 2017 delegates – as I have had my first time with the city, and yours is yet to come.
This reconnaissance mission was born out of a meeting I had with Katy Best, Commercial and Marketing Director at Belfast City Airport in Chengdu at World Routes last September. She invited me to experience Belfast for myself in the run-up to Routes Europe, and these two days were the result. And boy was she right about this place. I had 36 hours in Belfast, most Routes Europe delegates will be in town for three or four days, but I encourage you to stay for five or six days and see what else the city, and indeed Northern Ireland, has to offer. You won’t be disappointed.
Breakfast on the first day was at downtown restaurant Harlem – less than 10 minutes from the airport by taxi. There, Watkins met up with Katy Best, Commercial and Marketing Director Belfast City Airport to catch-up on her Routes Europe preparations. Crammed full of suits enjoying a breakfast meeting in extravagant surroundings, anna.aero’s Editor had Harlem’s full monty Irish breakfast (locally-produced pork sausage, oak-smoked bacon, free-range egg, grilled tomato, sauté mushrooms, potato bread, soda bread, pancake and black pudding), while Best had a slightly more healthy smoked salmon and free-range scrambled eggs. “While we would of course accept instant route development success from being hosts, we are taking a longer-term view, as we are still trying to change people’s perceptions of the new Belfast,” said Best. Domestic passengers, which commands more than 70% of the airport’s traffic, still has some network white spots. “Bristol and Newcastle remain obvious gaps. Our London connectivity could be improved – it’s a three million annual passenger market, but we only have flights to Heathrow and City,” says Best. The airport is keen to add extra European hubs to its network too, particularly for its key corporates. “We have 2,500 Citibank and 8,000 PwC [PricewaterhouseCoopers] workers in the city which are keen for better connectivity. Chicago to New York is the most-flown PwC air route in the world; #2 is Belfast City to London City,” adds Best.
Don’t use the M-word. One of the jewels in Belfast’s and indeed Northern Ireland’s tourism crown is the Titanic Belfast experience (please don’t call it a museum) – World Travel Awards World’s Leading Tourist Attraction Winner 2016. Just a short hop from downtown on the edge of the city centre, the thought-provoking, emotionally-engaging and educational building allows visitors to appreciate the scale and scope of the Harland and Wolff works which gave birth to the ocean-going behemoth and its sister ships (RMS Britannic and RMS Oceanic). The visually-stunning building is meant to represent the three bows of the three ships, with the outline of RMS Titanic etched onto the slipway just outside of the experience.
The Titanic Quarter is also the home to Titanic Studios which is used to film some parts of Game Of Thrones, which is shot on location in Northern Ireland. Riveting conversation – Titanic Belfast’s guides are on hand to help and explain the sights and sounds of the experience, including the fact that the building is home to Ireland’s longest freespan escalator at 25m long!
Watkins enjoyed his very own Titanic moment with Joy, one of the very informative guides aboard the SS Nomadic which sits in Hamilton Dry Dock, beside Titanic Belfast. Built by Harland & Wolff in 1911, it was the tender (a small vessel) that transferred passengers from Cherbourg to RMS Titanic. Now fully restored, it gives visitors the opportunity to experience first-hand some of the opulence that RMS Titanic’s ill-fated passengers enjoyed.
Posh nosh. The rest of the afternoon was filled with a city tour, including a visit to Belfast City Hall, as well as afternoon tea in The Great Room at The Merchant Hotel situated in the heart of Belfast’s historic Cathedral Quarter. Afternoon tea is served in the traditional manner, with finger sandwiches, scones and pastries and of course a fabulous choice of teas. Belfast City Taxi Tour guide Billy Scott and Watkins shared a pot of Lapsang Souchong while enjoying their smoked salmon, avocado cream cheese and samphire sandwiches and salted caramel and Valrhona Tainori chocolate gateaux.
One of these men is an international style icon and sex symbol, the other is just an American actor no-one has ever heard of. Overnight B&B was in the Bullitt Hotel (Bullitt is a 1968 American film starring Steve McQueen) in the Cathedral Quarter, which boasts 43 rooms in three distinctive styles to suit different budgets – Dinky, Comfy and Roomy. One thing that Belfast is not short of is pubs, bars and restaurants. Those airports attending Routes Europe which like to entertain their airline customers on the sidelines of the event will have no problem in finding the perfect venue for a memorable evening. Joined by Belfast City Airport’s PR agency staff Mark Sterling and Carly Rodgers in The Muddlers Club restaurant, Watkins indulged in the scallops, chorizo, celeriac and golden raisin starter, followed by salt-aged beef, horseradish and bone marrow jus. The evening was capped off by a Pistol Berry Mojito (Disaronno Amaretto, mint, berries, lime and cranberry juice) in Muddlers, before several more standard Mojitos in The Spaniard, a speciality rum bar just two minutes away.
The second day of the Routes Europe Belfast reconnaissance mission started with a visit to St George’s Market, again easy-walking distance from downtown hotels. The indoor market is one of Belfast’s oldest attractions. Built between 1890 and 1896, St George’s was named UK’s Best Large Indoor Market 2014 by the National Association of British Market Authorities. Open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, it offers a huge range of local, continental and speciality foods including meat and fish, cheese, coffee beans, tapas and organic products. However, Watkins was drawn to Jenny Hot Lips’ curry stall, which also offered more traditional fare, Irish Stew for just £3.50 (€4.75), which was excellent. There was also live music on offer in the market to entertain the shoppers.
“By 1 January 2018 we hope to have extended our departure lounge ,” says Mark Beattie, Belfast City’s Operations Director and guide for the afternoon’s airport tour. Currently the facility has a throughput of around 2.7m annual passengers – the planned terminal improvements will hopefully see its capacity rise to between 3.5 and four million passengers, and give the airport at least another five years of growth. In terms of apron space Beattie confirmed that City still has spare capacity, with 10 contact stands (one with airbridge) and five remote bussing stands, more than adequate for its immediate and short-term needs. Despite being late departing back to Birmingham, the facilities of the airport’s Aspire business lounge, with great apron views, were enough to keep the delay boredom to a minimum.
Thanks to Belfast City Airport, Tourism Northern Ireland, Discover Northern Ireland and Lighthouse Communications for making this trip happen.