by Sean Hillen
Belfast’s most renown hotel, the Europa, is doing what it does best – reflecting the mood of confidence in the city as it rises in the tourism rankings.
Opened in 1971, it was once considered the most bombed hotel in Europe during the so-called ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland when journalists were plentiful, but visitors rare. Now, with 272 rooms, this soaring downtown property is a shining symbol of resurgence.
A member of the Hastings Hotels group, which operates seven hotels across Northern Ireland, it occupies a prime location within a five-minute walk of Royal Avenue, the city’s main shopping street, with the Grand Opera House almost next door and the City Hall itself literally just around the corner.
A grand entrance off busy Great Victoria Street leads into the hotel’s spacious rotund lobby with its ornate columns and gleaming marble floor, the reception desk being straight ahead, a bar to one side and a restaurant on the other. A winding staircase leads to the first-floor Piano Bar where traditional afternoon tea is served.
Spare a moment to enjoy the interactive installation and information plaques on the wall to the left as you enter through the front doors which grant interesting insights into the hotel’s colorful history. One intriguing snippet of information is that in 1993 Sir William Hastings wryly described his attempt to purchase the hotel as “the longest running saga since Dallas.” Otherwise, the hotel could have been turned into apartments.
Two years after this and after renovations costing around eight million pounds (almost 10 million US dollars), former US President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hilary, were among the first celebrity guests. Other famous guests have included actors Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Daniel Day Lewis and singers Bob Dylan and Lionel Ritchie. The cast of hit television series, ‘Game of Thrones,’ which was filmed in part in Northern Ireland, also stayed here.
“Despite almost constant challenges and setbacks, the Europa continues to stand proud as a beacon for Belfast’s unique enduring spirit,” said Julie Hastings, marketing director of Hastings Hotels. “And it was this confidence that then led to Belfast, and Northern Ireland, to begin its journey to become the well-loved tourist destination that it is today.”
Our room 923 granted us a broad view over downtown Belfast and bustling Great Victoria Street below. Its modern décor comprised carpeted and wood floor, combined bath and shower, convenient reading lamps, two armchairs and a round coffee table. Appliances included flat-screen TV, kettle, ironing board and coffee-maker.
Our bed was extremely comfortable, no surprise considering it featured 1,600 pocket springs and Egyptian cotton linen. Known as ‘Cloud Beds,’ it was made by local company, King Koil.
A key hallmark of the hotel is the friendliness of its staff, whether that be the delightful mother and daughter team, Kym and Ruth Montgomery, in the Piano Bar who reserved us an excellent table for afternoon tea overlooking the legendary Crown Bar across the street and kindly joined us for photos. Or Jill McMillan in The Causerie ground-floor restaurant who entertained us with her good humor as my companion and I enjoyed a late dinner there one evening.
Aside from our ‘live entertainment,’ we also enjoyed the food – a starter of squid with salt, chilli, coriander, lime and aioli, followed by roast monkfish with spelt risotto, tender stem broccoli and red wine vinaigrette and ribeye steak with sauté spinach, confit beef tomato and peppercorn sauce. We eyed the list of succulent desserts such as apple and cinnamon flapjack crumble with vanilla bean ice-cream and vegan Knickerbocker Glory but it being so near bedtime …alas, it was not to be.
The Causerie is also where a buffet breakfast is served, ranging from a ‘full Irish’ of bacon, egg, sausages and black and white pudding to the hotel’s special Bushmills whiskey porridge or the classic continental of fruit, pastries, cereals, meats and cheeses.
So proud is the hotel of its close relationship with local food suppliers, it has even created a special ‘Who Made My Breakfast’ booklet describing in detail the artisan groups it works with. Among many are Farmview Dairies owned by the McDowell family in the nearby Castlereagh Hills; P. McCann and Sons, producing artisan apple juice in county Armagh; homemade granola made by Jill and David Crawford in the coastal town of Portaferry in county Down; and black and white pudding from Gracehill Fine Foods in county Antrim.
Don’t forget to treat yourself to the hotel’s homemade ‘scruffins’ – a cross between scones and muffins.
Due to its prime location, the Europa Hotel is within a ten-minute taxi ride from many of Belfast’s top visitor attractions including the Ulster Museum and Titanic Experience and the Waterfront Hall and SSE Arena entertainment centres.
While the hotel doesn’t have its own car park, one is located two minutes’ walk away offering discounted rates for guests.
And don’t forget to take your plastic duck away with you when you leave – it’s a cute Hastings tradition. Send back a photo of it from an exotic location, and it’ll feature in the house magazine.