In RMS Titanic’s centenary year the eyes of the world are on Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The city that built the most famous ship on the planet has a story of Titanic proportions to tell.
It’s a tale coming highly recommended by the likes of National Geographic’s ‘Best in the World’ list and one that’s been heralded as ‘the world’s biggest tourism story’ for 2012 by travel publishing giant Fodor’s.
Having completed the largest and best Titanic visitor attraction now available anywhere around the globe, the city that designed, built and launched the legendary transatlantic liner is now ready to tell the world its Titanic story.
After three years of construction – the same time it took to build the famous ship – the eye-catching £97 million Titanic Belfast makes an iconic addition to the city’s skyline.
Silvery, shiny and standing proudly at the head of the very slipways down which the majestic ship first glided into the waters of Belfast Lough, the angular, aluminium-clad building is a sight to behold.
At the exact height of the original (93 feet), a walk around the star-shaped perimeter of the six-storey Titanic Belfast gives a sense of being dwarfed under the prow of a gigantic vessel, a deliberate architectural device to invoke the scale, power and beauty of the ship, a reference also to the White Star Line, the company that owned her.
Inside, Titanic Belfast provides no fewer than nine interpretive and interactive galleries that tell the ship’s fascinating history from her conception in Belfast’s famous Harland & Wolff Shipyard in the early 1900s, to her tragic sinking in 1912 and then re-discovery led by ocean explorer Dr Robert Ballard in 1985.
The nine galleries are contained within the first four floors of the Titanic Belfast visitor experience. The next two feature a 1,000-seat banqueting suite that includes a replica of the Grand Staircase in the ship’s first-class section.
The Titanic experience begins at ground level in 19th-century Boomtown Belfast, when the fastest means of shrinking the globe was the ocean-going liner and the biggest and best at building them was Harland & Wolff.
There are multiple dimensions to the Titanic Belfast experience, which draws together thrilling special effects, theme rides, full-scale reconstructions and innovative interactive features.
Visitors can take a journey through a simulated shipyard, hearing, feeling and even smelling what it was like to work on Titanic.
Included is a 20m ride in a metal elevator up the Arrol Gantry, an enormous steel structure built to facilitate the construction of Titanic and her sister ships, Olympic and Britannic.
Believed to be the first of its kind, another ride is a six-seater car that rotates and moves up and down along a ‘shipyard ride’ circuit accompanied by computer-generated imagery, audio and special effects.
Visitors can also experience the reality of the ship’s interiors in a ‘3D cave’ that recreates the engine rooms, third-class saloons, first-class corridors, Grand Staircase, a la carte restaurant and navigation bridge, and also a virtual ‘walk’ of the ship’s length – it contained five miles of decking.
There are detailed full-scale reconstructions of first, second and third-class cabins, and in gallery seven the interactive visual and audio displays centre on a replica of a Titanic lifeboat that interprets the aftermath of the sinking. Voices of survivors, recorded in the 1960s, recount that horrifying night.
In the final gallery, ‘Titanic Beneath’ the visitor has unparalleled access to Dr Ballard’s high-definition footage from the wreckage. An Ocean Exploration Centre gives visitors interactive engagement with 21st-century technologies, including live links with Ballard’s exploration vessel Nautilus and marine research departments around the world.
At one of the windows in the building, which offer breathtaking views over the city and Belfast Lough, visitors see archive footage of the Titanic’s launch on 31 May 1911.
As the footage fades away, it leaves a view of the slipways that are still there today.
Titanic Belfast Festival
It is these historic slipways that will ring to ‘Titanic Sounds’, a dynamic MTV night of live music (13 April) which is part of the city’s celebration and commemoration of the ship’s centenary, following the opening of Titanic Belfast (31 March).
Highlights among the 120-plus events of the Titanic Belfast Festival 2012 (31 March – 22 April) include an event at Belfast City Hall (7 – 10 April) featuring an array of Titanic related exhibitions, artefacts, tours, films, talks and family fun.
One of the largest light shows ever attempted will be projected onto the new iconic building over the Easter weekend (7-11 April). A requiem for the lost souls of the ship and televised gala commemoration evening at the city’s Waterfront Hall on the 100th anniversary of the night Titanic struck the iceberg (14 April), and a Memorial Garden will be unveiled at Belfast City Hall (15 April).
A verbatim play by Owen McCafferty will also open the new Mac theatre in Belfast´s Cathedral Quarter. The playwright’s Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912), is a courtroom drama full of intrigue, bravery and human frailty.
While the worldwide thirst for information, experiences and stories on the legendary ship is voracious, the best place to feed that appetite is now Belfast, as nowhere else can claim a bigger, longer or more appealing lure for all things Titanic than her home town.
The period of the Titanic Belfast Festival will be a fantastic time to visit the city for the first time or make a return trip to see the massive strides Belfast has made. But there is plenty to satisfy and entertain the most serious ‘Titanorak’ or the just plain curious at any time. For apart from the new Titanic Belfast visitor experience, the liner’s mighty footprint is still very much in evidence around Belfast city.
The Titanic Quarter, of which Titanic Belfast is the centrepiece, also includes the original Titanic Pumphouse and Thompson Dry Dock where craftsmen fitted out the ship.
In the same area, still there to see, feel and touch are the Drawing Offices where Titanic was designed and the SS Nomadic, the last remaining White Star Line vessel in the world and the tender ship that ferried first-class passengers to her.
A Titanic Walking Tour runs seven days a week bringing Belfast’s Titanic tale to life providing access to all of the key Titanic sites around Belfast.
Titanic Boat Tours provide riverside views of the magical Titanic Belfast building, the slipways and more, and you can also take an entertaining Belfast black cab or open top city bus tour that takes in the key Titanic sites, the shipyard and Titanic Quarter.
Why not combine bike ‘n’ boat and explore the history of this iconic vessel in an eco-friendly way with Titanic Bike ‘N’ Boat Tours.
The Titanic wall murals – superb photo opportunities in the now famous Belfast tradition – are but a short walk from the Titanic Quarter.
Belfast’s surrounding towns also offer various Titanic memorials and tours of the former homes of Harland and Wolff supremo Lord Pirrie and the ship’s designer Thomas Andrews.
Titanic exhibitions run in various locations in the city, including TITANICa at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum featuring never before seen artefacts from the ship.
Titanic talks, activities and family events are ongoing at any time and you can even drink Titanic whiskey and beer and eat a lavish nine-course Titanic menu.
Rayanne House, an award winning guest house overlooking Belfast Lough, recreates the menu served in the first-class restaurant on the iconic ship.
Belfast’s luxurious Merchant Hotel is also offering a Titanic inspired menu during the month of April to mark the centenary celebrations.
The two pennies
Another operator, Titanic Tours Belfast, offers a luxurious VIP Mercedes to take you round some of the most evocative Titanic sites. The tour is run by former TV journalist Susie Millar, whose great grandfather Tommy Millar worked on, travelled on and perished with Titanic.
Before he left Belfast, Susie’s great grandfather gave his two young sons a new penny each, dated 1912, telling them ¨Don´t spend those until I see you again.¨ Of course, he never returned.
The younger son kept the two pennies all his life, passing them on to his own son, who in turn gave them to his daughter, Susie.
Just one of the many poignant stories Belfast can tell about the ship of dreams.
It is this intimate connection to Titanic, the city’s historic past, coupled with a re-generated, resurgent, friendly and music-inspired present that is driving Belfast’s rankings to the top of the world’s must-see destinations.
The birthplace of the Titanic is telling her story, pulling together with pride, ready to welcome the world.
And for ardent fans and even for the just mildly interested, there is a Titanic amount to share.