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YOUTH BEAT

In Northern Ireland, Meet Me at the Fair--or Hostel

August 13, 2000|LUCY IZON

Timing your visit to take in local festivals and events is an ideal way for a budget traveler to make a visit overseas memorable. Festivals make it easy to mingle with residents and to experience local customs and traditional music or dance.

Northern Ireland is hosting its Ould Lammas Fair at the end of this month. Celebrating its 400th year, it's the oldest fair in Ireland.

Originally a weeklong event with matchmaking and horse trading, it's now a two-day celebration (Aug. 28 and 29) held in Ballycastle, a coastal city north of Belfast in a region of lush green valleys known as the Glens of Antrim.

You can reach Northern Ireland, with its dramatic hiking, castles and cozy pubs, by high-speed ferry service from Scotland in only 90 minutes. Round-trip tickets start at $46. From Dublin you can take a bus or high-speed train (two hours). The bus is about $15 one way, $19 round trip. The train is $23 one way or $35 round trip (Internet http://www.nirailways.co.uk).

Belfast, which was voted the "1999 Hippest City in the UK" by one magazine, has a popular modern hostel and economical university residence accommodations.

The Belfast Hostel is in the university area at 22-32 Donegall Road; telephone 011-44-28-90-321- 5435, fax 011-44-28-9043-9699, Internet http://www.hini.org.uk. It's open 24 hours and offers rooms shared by two to 14 travelers. It also has bicycle storage, a TV lounge and a coffee shop.

The Queen's Elms residence at Queen's University Belfast accommodates travelers during school holidays. It's at 78 Malone Road; tel. 011-44-28-9038-1609, fax 011-28-9066-6680. Belfast is small enough for you to explore many of its sites (including more than 400 pubs) on foot. Three-hour city tours depart daily from Belfast International Youth Hostel. They cost $11.50 and offer information on the city's turbulent past, including visits to areas such as the Falls and Shankill Roads, with their political murals.

City Hall, with its 173-foot-high green copper dome, dominates Donegall Square in the heart of the city. There are free guided tours of City Hall daily. There is also a memorial for the Titanic, which was built in Belfast, the city with some of the world's largest dry docks.

In November, Queen's University will host the three-week Belfast Festival, Ireland's largest international arts festival. Nearby are the Botanical Gardens and Ulster Museum (free admission). The museum exhibits include treasure from a Spanish ship that sank in 1588 off the Giant's Causeway.

The area between Queen's University and the Opera House is known as the Golden Mile, where you can find budget diners.

You can find out about entertainment in a free newspaper called the Big List. But for traditional music, try Kelly's Cellars on Bank Street.

Even if you don't stop for a drink, wander through the Crown Liquor Saloon, opposite the Opera House. It has been restored to its Victorian-era best.

To explore Northern Ireland, you can purchase a pass for unlimited bus and rail travel for $15 per day, $37 for three days or $55 for seven days. A seven-day Go-As-You-Please travel ticket with six nights' youth hostel accommodation is $112, available from Hostelling International Northern Ireland, tel. 011-44-28-9032-4733, fax 011-44-28-9043-9699.

The Youth Hostel Assn. of Northern Ireland also has hostels at Armagh City, New Castle, Derry City, Portaferry, Cushendall, Fermanagh and Whitepark Bay.

Whitepark Bay, just beyond Ballycastle, is an ideal stop for backpackers. The modern Whitepark Bay Hostel, tel. 011-44-28-2073-1745, fax 011-44-28-2073-2034, at 157 Whitepark Road, Ballintoy, County Antrim, has a spectacular coastal view and is just a few yards from a bus stop. The hostel is on a scenic hiking route that takes you east to the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (strung for local fishermen, it swings across a 60-foot chasm) or west along the Causeway Coast to the spectacular Giant's Causeway itself (more than 40,000 hexagonal columns of basalt, created from lava, form steps into the sea).

For more information visit http://www.causewaycoastandglens.com or contact the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, NY 10176; tel. (800) 326-0036 or (212) 922-0101, fax (212) 922-0099, Internet http://www.ni-tourism.com.

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Lucy Izon is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Internet http://www.izon.com.

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