Review by Fiona Duncan, published 2nd January 2011.
It was a good start. Billy, the hotel's driver who picked us up at the airport, gave us a warm Irish welcome, pointed out the landmarks and called us "girls", which was decent of him, considering the combined age of me and my mother is 144.
He put us in a good mood, which was needed, for our early flight meant arriving at the Fitzwilliam before 9am and our room was not ready. OK, fine, but we were weary and the tile-floored, steel-and-glass atrium lobby, however eye-catchingly furnished with white sofas, yellow armchairs and oversized steel reading lamps, was not a particularly congenial place to unwind and wait. Muzak played and the traffic sped relentlessly by outside. True, there was comforting warmth from the faux fireplace, one of those slits in the wall, until it suddenly went out. We were in what's advertised as a five-star hotel, but it didn't feel that way.
What makes a luxury hotel? If you were one of the celebrities who put up here when in town – on my brief visit I spotted Mary Peters (a Belfast resident), broadcaster Mark Lawson, dancer Michael Flatley and actor Tom Wilkinson – you may well be whisked to either the penthouse, a deluxe room or a studio suite, all of whose floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides allow long-distance views and create the vivid impression of floating in the air.
You may also choose to breakfast in your room and avoid the mild, un-five-star chaos we encountered in the restaurant. Down in the lobby, you would be aided, as are all the guests, by efficient receptionists and the charming concierge team, and after a cocktail in the moody bar, you might well leave the Fitzwilliam convinced of its status as a fitting haven for the rich and famous.
My old-but-bold mother was harder to persuade. The smart, mildly baronial black-and-lime green decoration (which I admired) in our superior room was of little consequence to her, but the lack of shelf space in the bathroom (huge walk-in shower and separate bath), the complicated lights, the unresponsive television remote, the unlovely view of the street below, and later the flaccid toast and tepid coffee at breakfast and the disappointing dishes at dinner (tomato salad on hot plates?) meant that the Fitzwilliam's luxury status was doomed.
For me, despite definite shortcomings, it's a cool addition to the rejuvenated Belfast scene and worth every penny of its current extremely modest rates.
- Great Victoria Street (028 9044 2080; www.fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com). Doubles from £120, including breakfast. Adapted rooms for guests with disabilities.
For information visit www.discoverireland.com; for flights:www.easyjet.com.
What to do
With its emphasis on the arts, theatre and music (and its kindly prices compared with those across the border in Eire), plus its compact size, friendly inhabitants and large student population, rejuvenated Belfast is becoming increasingly popular for short breaks. Don’t miss Victorian St George’s Market for its Friday variety market and Saturday food and garden market, with live music. Visit www.gotobelfast.com for information about what’s on.
Where to eat
Belfast is blessed with lots of great places to eat out. For dinner, I would recommend James Street South (21 St James Street South; 028 9043 4310; www.jamesstreetsouth.co.uk) and for lunch the Mourne Seafood Bar (34-36 Bank Street; 028 9024 8544; www.mourneseafood.com), just off the main shopping street and always busy, with swift service and good fish.
Also recommended is Nick’s Warehouse (35-39 Hill Street; 028 9043 9690; www.nickswarehouse.co.uk). And for lunch or dinner, don’t miss a visit to the historic and enchantingly beautiful Crown Liquor Saloon (46 Great Victoria Street; 028 9024 3187; www.crownbar.com). Reserve a cosy booth for Irish stew or beef and Guinness pie.