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Northern Ireland : Mention Ulster and most Americans think of terrorist bombs and British tanks. But in Belfast and beyond, a native daughter finds a surprisingly peaceful world and one of the best-kept secrets in travel.

May 05, 1991|SALLY OGLE DAVIS | Davis is a free-lance writer based in Ventura

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — I knew they were American tourists the moment they walked into breakfast in his-and-hers Aran sweaters and loafers, she clutching a copy of a Birnbaum guide to her bosom.

My husband and I were staying at The Old Inn at Crawfordsburn, a thatched 16th-Century coach house in County Down, Northern Ireland, 10 miles from Belfast. As the couple dug into their "Ulster fry"--eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, soda and potato bread--we asked what had brought them to this chunk of the United Kingdom, about the size of Connecticut.

The day before, Robert and Cynthia Stedeford, real estate brokers from Atlanta, had driven north from Dublin, in tense silence.

"Cynthia was so terrified at the idea of coming up North that she refused to talk to me," admitted Robert.

"I expected to be surrounded by tanks and guns as soon as we crossed the border," Cynthia explained, "but all we found were wide-open motorways with hardly anybody on them and everything looking neat and prosperous. We couldn't believe how much cleaner and more orderly everything was than in Southern Ireland."

The Stedefords had discovered one of Europe's best secrets, an area whose No. 2 industry was tourism until the 1970s, when the nightly news and daily papers bombarded the world with the images of a territory at war. Today, 25 American tourists visit the Republic of Ireland to the south for every one that comes North.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 19, 1991 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Column 1 Travel Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Northern Ireland--In a story in the May 5 Travel Section, the location of the Royal County Down golf course was incorrectly identified. It is in County Down.

I was going North, but I was by no means a disinterested observer. As a native daughter, I had taken the well-worn path of the immigrant to North America almost 25 years before. American friends, on hearing I was Irish, invariably said, "Oh, I've been to Ireland many times," but they had never been to My Ireland.

I understood their reluctance to visit anywhere they perceived as troubled, but I had always felt their fears were unjustified. Friends and relatives in Northern Ireland had told me how little their day-to-day lives were affected by the political struggles. Now I was about to put my money where my mouth was and see for myself.

Passengers flying to Belfast (a one-hour trip from London's Heathrow or Gatwick airports) share terminal space with those going to Israel on El Al airlines, so there is eagled-eyed security, which gives one a fine sense of comfort. Surprisingly, there was no obvious armed presence at Belfast's Aldergrove Airport, and the atmosphere was that of a busy international airport anywhere.

Driving around the province, I quickly discovered what the more adventurous tourist already knows: Northern Ireland is a throwback to the good old days of European travel. A traffic jam is three cars at a stoplight; the fine, wind-swept beaches are among the most underpopulated in the world, and golfers at the more than 60 courses have never heard of waiting to tee off (in fact, one stretch of the North Antrim Coast has seven courses within 10 miles, among them the Royal County Down, which an American golf magazine rated one of the 10 most beautiful in the world). The rivers and lakes are clear, unpolluted, teeming with trout and salmon and under-fished, and there are eight yacht clubs within a 30-mile drive of Belfast alone. And in these days of the weak American dollar, Northern Ireland is a good 30% cheaper than the South or the rest of Britain.

Considering its image abroad, it may surprise many to learn that the city of Belfast is Europe's safest capital, at least according to a 1989 report by the U.K.'s British Home Office, whose crime statistics included terrorist acts. I felt safe walking the streets at any hour. Yes, a visitor will catch sight of the occasional British armored car, or soldier armed with an automatic weapon patrolling the sidewalk, but civilian crime is far lower than any U.S. city.

And there is ample reason for Americans to visit Ulster. The ties that bind the province to the United States are strong. When John F. Kennedy became President, much was made of his (southern) Irish ancestry. But many Americans may not realize that there have been no fewer than 14 Presidents whose families emigrated from Northern Ireland. There is an Ulster-American heritage trail that includes the ancestral home sites of many of America's Presidents, including Andrew Jackson (at Carrickfergus), Ulysses S. Grant (just outside Dungannon) and Woodrow Wilson (near Strabane). All are open to the public. Other prominent Ulster-American families include the Gettys, the Mellons and the Armours, to say nothing of that other distinguished American son of Ulster, Horace Greeley, who popularized the phrase "Go west young man."

Belfast is a city much changed since I knew it in the '60s as a rather Puritan provincial place of shipyards and linen mills. Ironically, the devastation in the '70s has resulted in a frenzy of revitalization recently. There is construction going on everywhere, and the city center has been transformed into a chic, pedestrian center with banks of flowers and fountains.

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