As our plane circled George Best Airport I peered out the window and saw shades of greens I hadn’t seen since the last time I was on the Emerald Isle, writes Steve Zacharanda.
Even in the rain Ulster looked as inviting as a perfectly poured pint of Guinness.
On the coast and framed by green hills Belfast is finally looking out to the world after decades of violently turning in on itself.
And 2012 is going to be a massive year for Belfast, as big as the Olympics is for London.
Two seminal new attractions, which aim to attract legions of tourists, will open at a combined cost of over a £100m, years of arguments and countless redrawn plans.
The new £90m Titanic Belfast museum opens on March 31 to mark the centenary of when the doomed liner set sail for Southampton.
Lovingly designed and built in Belfast’s famous shipyards there was collective shame and defiance in Belfast after the ‘unsinkable’ ship went down in icy waters off Newfoundland.
“She was alright when she left here,” became the mantra of the city which didn’t want its shipbuilding reputation besmirched by disaster.
But as the years passed something remarkable happened, a boat which was an abject failure became as famous as the Ark.
The legend spawned endless films, books and articles and now Belfast wants a slice of the moneyspinning action of the Titanic story.
Over 30,000 tickets have already been sold ahead of the opening of Titanic Belfast which will have nine interactive galleries and all the latest corporate bells and whistles to make it viable.
The iconic new building, designed by Eric Kuhne to look like four hulls, is on the site of the shipyard where it was built, bizarrely though, the headquarters of Holland and Wolf are going to wrack and ruin.
Walking around the grand offices, with its peeling wallpaper, empty staircases and decaying woodwork was fascinating and why some of the millions spent were not set aside to restore the historic building is beyond me.
However, if the Titanica: The Exhibition at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum is a taste of what is to come then the new museum will be a success, looking at artefacts recovered from the ship and hearing oral history of survivors sent chills down my spine.
The Metropolitan Arts Centre is the other huge project which will open its doors to the public in 2012. This six storey multi-purpose art, music and exhibition centre is a dream come true for local culture vultures after several false dawns and will be a catalyst for an already thriving arts scene.
The £18m centre will be breathe new life into the Cathedral Quarter and attract the world’s best artists in all different cultural fields.
Belfast already has some impressive public art which too many British cities lack.
The Big Fish, the Balls in the Falls, the Spirit of Belfast and the Ring of Thanksgiving amongst others liven up the cityscape which due to the climate is more often is in different shades of grey.
The powers at be have also paid for the honour to have the Cow Parade come to town in the Summer.
Fibre glass cows will be dotted throughout Belfast and decorated by the local community and artists.
Radio 5, of course, branded the Cow Parade a waste of money.
The default argument ‘money could be spent on schools’ was trotted out which is true but then again money could also be spent on special advisors, golden handshakes and parking permits for councillors.
Why should the London elite only have access to art? The Cow Parade will be fantastic for Belfast if not just for all the Facebook profile pictures of locals pretending to milk them.
And I’m sure some of the pictures might make it into the Belfast Exposed which one of the most innovative photography projects in the world.
Anyone who is interested can pop into the gallery and trawl through the thousands of photos taken by local people since the 1970s.
The Golden Thread Gallery on Great Patrick Street also pushes barriers and documents some amazing outreach work.
PS-Squared on Donegal Street is another little gem of a gallery which happily features controversial modern art some of which even mocks the balaclava clad terrorists which held Ulster back for so many years.
Hilton was one of the first multi-nationals to invest in Belfast after the troubles and it has two five star hotels in the area. The Belfast Hilton is one of the tallest buildings in the city and has all the mod cons what the modern tourist and business guest wants, when I was there it was a fight weekend and there was a real buzz about the place.
The only disappointment was the residents bar closed at 3am leaving a plenty of paying guests scratching their heads.
Belfast can cater for the clubber, live music lover, the fine diner and those wanting the perfect pub experience, in fact I did all in one night.
The Garrick bar is a Victorian pub which never seemed short of patrons, served a mighty fine Guinness and had plenty of entertainment.
The Vital Organs revival night on a Saturday was fantastic fun. It just finished too early.
A pint at the historic McHugh’s bar, Bittles and the Crown are all a must for any tourist as they have history dripping from the walls and atmospheres that the chain pubs on the mainland would die for.
Berts Bar is a wonderful 1930s American style jazz bar in the swanky Merchant Hotel which serves good food as a procession of great musicians entertain on the stage.
The Mourne Seafood Bar is worthy of any port city, simple, fresh food served by friendly staff in a warm venue made it the stand out restaurant in the city for me, the oysters were some of the best I’ve tasted and it is no surprise its oyster bar does a roaring trade.
Belfast has a musical heritage to be proud of and a musical tour of the city is great fun taking in the birthplaces and venues synonymous with everyone from Gary Moore to the city’s great ambassador Van Morrison. We even got to see some live music on the tour, as our bus was held up by a colourful and loud procession of Protestant pipers.
The guys running the tour seemed a tad embarrassed by this sectarian show of strength but the religious aspect of Belfast can not be ignored.
In fact most tourist tours take in the Falls Road and the Shankhill Road and the murals that can be both spellbinding and unsettling in equal measure.
But as the wonderfully off message chief executive of the MAC Ann McReynolds said: “Belfast is now seen as cool, as there is still that lingering frisson of danger.”
I’m not sure the PR people would quite put it like she did but it rings true, the city does have an edge, its history and divides ensure that, you see it when you look into the eyes of a pensioner drinking a pint in the corner, but as long as it remains there, Belfast can be a haven for tourists who want a fantastic few days away.
FACTBOX: Low cost airline bmibaby offers daily flights right to the heart of Belfast from Birmingham and fares start from £14.99 one way including taxes.
Hilton Belfast has a host of packages including a shopping package from £85 per room per night including cocktail and breakfast to the room.
For more information on where to stay and what to see and do in Belfast visit www.gotobelfast.com.