It was one of those weeks – everyone had an upset of some sort. Nothing big – just little things that are tough to deal with when you’re five or seven or nine years of age. Or twenty-one-and-a-good-bit and all your kids are upset. On Friday morning, after a particularly fraught start to the day, my husband messaged me to suggest we book tickets for Belfast’s Titanic experience for Sunday. I replied immediately with a resounding “Yes!!!!!!” We’d been talking about going for ages but hadn’t got around to picking a date. The timing was perfect – it would cheer everyone up after the challenging week, plus the eldest was doing a Titanic project in school. My husband messaged me back to say they do afternoon tea as well as an extra – should he book it? There’s really only one answer to that question.
So on Sunday morning, at the ungodly hour of 8am, we set off for Belfast. The kids have never been to Northern Ireland and it’s years since I have, so crossing the border generated big excitement, and they set about trying to spot ways that Northern Ireland looked different. The M1 took us on a straight run into Belfast, and the Titanic Quarter was well sign-posted – we were there in just over two hours after leaving Dun Laoghaire.
Inside, we picked up our tickets then asked a staff member what we do next. “It’s very busy at the moment but if you go quickly right now, I’d say you can get in,” she said, pointing to a small queue. I had no idea what that went but when someone says go quickly and you’ll get in, you just do it. It was only when we were inside and looking at huge black and white pictures of Belfast in the early twentieth century that I realised this was it – we were in the Titanic experience, an IKEA-like two-hour path that only goes one direction. With three kids and no food. We’d had nothing to eat en route from Dublin either – I was anticipating stopping for coffee on arrival. I don’t know what your kids are like after five hours without food, but mine aren’t great, especially my smallest. I also don’t know what kind of parent sets out on a journey like this without so much as a bag of rice cakes in her handbag, but you’re looking at her.
I crossed my fingers we’d find either a vending machine or an exceptional ability to cope without food, and off we went.
The first part of the experience sets the scene – we read about Belfast’s linen and shipbuilding industries, and the kids played with all the interactive maps and light shows. The girls were fascinated, stopping the read the information on the walls – the small boy was more interested in the many displays with buttons to push and lights to press.
Next we saw the shipyard and took a cable-car type ride inside it – this was just six minutes long but a big highlight for the three kids. Then we learned about the launch, and went on through to see the passenger quarters. First class cabins were beautiful – like luxurious hotel rooms, and even third class cabins looked good we agreed, as the kids borrowed my phone to take dozens of photos.
We read then about the maiden voyage – the route the ship took and which passengers got on at each stop. Some names crop up over and over through the experience and by the end you feel you know them. It was this I liked best – the stories of the people who were on the ship. Next came the sinking. This was wonderfully done and unbearably sad. We entered a dark room and listened to voices of survivors talking about the moment they realised the ship was breaking up. On the walls, we read transcriptions of the messages sent to and from the Titanic during her final hour.
“Come at once. We have struck a berg”
“Shall I tell my captain? Do you require assistance?”
“Yes, come quick!”
“SOS Titanic sinking by the head. We are about all down. Sinking. . .”
“Women and children in boats, can not last much longer”.
“This is Titanic. CQD. Engine room flooded.”
“Come quick. Engine room nearly full.”
After the upbeat displays of boomtown Belfast, the excitement about the launch, and the beautiful details of the cabin interiors, it was a poignant and sobering experience.
It was also as much as my small boy could take – he had been complaining about hunger for a while at this stage, but at this point it was full on dramatic faints onto the floor. Then the tears started. He’s a child who needs food every two hours, and it had been five. So my husband took the two smaller ones quite quickly through the rest of the displays, while my eldest and I followed a little more slowly, stopping to read about Titanic movies and myths, then looking at images of the wreck under the sea.
Coming out the other side, I found my husband desperately seeking food – this was one drawback of the overall experience – it was difficult to buy snacks. Obviously it would have been better if we’d just brought snacks with us like normal parents do, but failing that, a vending machine or kiosk wouldn’t go amiss. The queue in the café was very long, but we eventually procured three packets of crisps and shared them between us while waiting for our allotted time for afternoon tea.
And the feast that followed was worth the wait. This was the kids first ever afternoon tea, and mine too. As we sat down and looked around the dining room, I crossed everything that the kids’ food would come on the three-tired stands we could see going to other tables. The kids read the menu and asked how they choose what to order – I explained that they get everything on the menu, and their jaws dropped.
Their jaws dropped further when an individual three-tiered stand arrived for each of them, with scones and sandwiches, eclairs and jelly, macaroons and milkshakes. The grown-up ones come shared, but luckily there was two of everything, or there might have been a battle. The food was absolutely gorgeous and afternoon tea was one of the most fun things we’ve ever done. It’s not cheap, so definitely a treat, but sometimes you just need a treat.
Our final stop was to visit the Nomadic, a smaller ship built at the same time as the Titanic, used to bring passengers out from Cherbourg because the port was too small for big liners. We spent about an hour and a half exploring the ship, and the kids had the change to dress up in costumes from the era. Again the stories of individual passengers were dotted everywhere and made the whole experience more real.
We left for home just before 5 o’clock, all of us on a high after our big day out. It’s not a cheap trip, and afternoon tea (only available on Sundays) adds significantly to the bill (£22 for adults and £10 for kids at time of writing) but as a one-off treat, and a day they’ll remember forever, I think it was worth it.