Hello and welcome! No, not a corporate sales pitch but a Belfast in-joke. The cheery salute is a play on Harland & Wolff’s giant black H&W lettering on the twin galley cranes ‘Samson and Goliath’ which have dominated the Belfast landscape for a century or more.
The H&W shipyards were once an uninviting place, a closed shop where Belfast’s ruling class built ships for Brittania to rule the waves,.
But they are now open to the world just as its flagship, the Titanic, is no longer just for the few but the many.
A million Titanic fans visit every year and Titanic Belfast has been voted the world’s top tourist attraction in recent years.
I scan the cityscape for the H&W cranes while cradling a gin gimlet at a reception in the Observation Bar atop the recently reopened and reimagined 300-room Grand Central Hotel on Bedford Street, near the City Hall.
This is the second iteration of the Grand Central, the original having stood proudly for more than 70 years on Royal Avenue where it established itself as the place to stay, and be seen, with The Beatles and The Stones among its many happy customers.
The Troubles, alas cast their long shadow on the Grand Central as it did the rest of the city and it was turned into a military barracks before being levelled to make easy for a shopping centre as the city returned to normality.
As Belfast’s beleaguered people strove to rebuild their city after 30 years of destruction thoughts turned again to restoring the city centre to its former glories.
A Grand old hotel
At the heart of that was the Grand Central Hotel and at the heart of the project has been the Hastings family who bought an office tower on nearby Bedford Street and turned it into the tallest hotel in Ireland, a 262ft 23-floor gleaming showpiece for modern Belfast which they only opened in June this year.
They put their own seahorse stamp on the side of the building in a nod to Belfast’s maritime heritage which remains in eyeshot everywhere you walk around the city centre.
I feel privileged to know that I will rest my head here tonight.
I drink in the spanking surrounds, my cocktail and the views in Ireland’s tallest bar, The Observatory, swivelling my neck to the left and looking out through the glass and over the imposing City Hall.
I dwell on the dome of the Victoria Square shopping plaza and wheel around to the busy social Cathedral Quarter. And then behind me to the Grand Opera House.
But what I am really looking out for is back over my right shoulder, Queen’s University and its students’ quarters where a young man I know is getting ready for his own night on the town.
Belfast, for 30 years a city which lost its youth to emigration, is mining its richest resource again, while also attracting young people from further afield.
A city reborn
And its sons and daughters home.
Belfast’s favourite son Van Morrison has been in exile these last years in South County Dublin.
The pull of Belfast and the North which he sang so evocatively of in classics such as Cyprus Avenue, Brown-Eyed Girl and Madam George has proved too strong as he approaches his mid-70s and he has taken up residence in the grounds of the Hastings Culloden Hotel in Cultra, near Holyrood, Co. Down.
Van though has no intentions of donning slippers and sipping cocoa, sat by the fireplace listening to his favourite jazz records, Heaven forfend.
Van’s the man
Instead Van, forever the working musician, sings for his supper, playing successive dinner cabaret nights with long-time collaborator and jazz organ virtuous Joey DeFrancesco in the Europa Hotel as a warm-up for his main tour.
And tonight we are the lucky ones who have scored seats at an intimate dinner party of just 350 who he tests out his 39th studio album, You’re Driving Me Crazy on.
In truth he knows he is singing to his choir, and conducting us too by dint of his brooding aura, unique voice and musical direction.
And much as I, and I know I wasn’t alone in thinking it, hankered for him to belt out Bright Side Of The Street, Have I Told You Lately, Here Comes The Night, Baby Please Don’t Go, or anything from Astral Week, I wasn’t about to risk his icy glare or that of my well-heeled fellow guests by shouting out.
And all at once he did go, Van, always one to leave his audience wanting more was off… and so were we.
Next door to the Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street, to give it its posh name, or the Crown to everyone else.
The Crown is, of course, something of an institution in Belfast, more of a place of worship rather than a mere bar or station.
The stained glass, finely-carved wood in the booth and ornate tiles would not look out of place in a church which is because that’s where you’ll find them.
For this is the work of Italian craftsmen brought to Belfast in the city’s Victorian heyday to decorate its prayer houses, and thankfully its gin houses too.
It’s at moments like this that you have to count your blessings. I am in the best of company, drinking an orange stout, of all things, full of belly with prime Ulster livestock and trimmings and humming Van Morrison tunes, and probably not under my breath either.
The night, alas, is not young and ‘we have homes to go please, gentlemen,’
I have a very plush Double Deluxe room at a very plush inn with the Ulster Fry to beat all Ulster fries awaiting me in the morning to soak up the booze.
I should probably turn in. But I’ll maybe stay out just a little longer… after all it it’s a marvellous night for a Moondance.
And while you’re here you ought to know more about Hastings and their famous duckies… https://jimmurtytraveltraveltravel.com/2019/12/16/love-a-duck-at-christmas/ and what else goes on at the famous family chain hotel… https://jimmurtytraveltraveltravel.com/2019/10/07/hastings-ulster-hotels-will-cure-your-snoring/
While who can forget the Open returning to Northern Ireland for the first time in 800 years (or close enough)… And I was there https://jimmurtytraveltraveltravel.com/2019/07/20/the-claret-jock-2/ and https://jimmurtytraveltraveltravel.com/2019/07/21/and-the-champion-golfer-of-the-year-is/