We visited Derry for the first time this summer for a day during a week long holiday in Northern Ireland, based in the Glens of Antrim. We were so taken with the city during our short visit that we resolved to return soon for a longer visit. One set of parents also travelled with us and it was their first visit to Derry. We all had a wonderful time and are looking forward to returning before too long. Here’s how it went……..
HOW WE GOT THERE: -
As we all live close to Dublin Airport, flying up to Derry seemed like the best way to travel, particularly with elderly parents/parents in law travelling with us. We took advantage of a special pre-booked weekend rate of €10 per 24 hours in the short term car park right opposite the terminal. Our Aer Arann flight cost €45 return/round trip per person inclusive of taxes, charges and 15kg of checked in baggage each. There were no queues at the Aer Arann desk (online check in is only available for passengers with hand luggage only and we intended to take advantage of our free checked in allowances) and being able to use the fast track domestic security channel meant we were from car to departure gate in no time at all. We had a short and smooth flight of about 30 minutes, with a short delay on departure and another short delay before landing when we found ourselves sharing a picturesque flight path over the Foyle with a flock of swans! Our bags arrived in the small terminal almost as fast as we did and we were on our way towards Derry in no time. The flight home was also smooth and uneventful.
HOW WE GOT AROUND: -
City Cabs, the official City of Derry airport taxi company, have a desk in the terminal and we were on the road straight away. The taxi journey to our hotel in the city centre took about 20 minutes and cost £14. The return journey was £12. Apart from a taxi tour on Sunday morning, we mostly got around on foot. The city centre and adjacent areas are pretty compact and it’s a pleasant if very steep city to walk around (a great workout for your calves!).
WHERE WE STAYED: -
Oh dear. We had chosen the 4 star Tower Hotel for its great location, right by the famed city walls and in fact the only hotel within the old city walls. We had a really good value rate of £69 per person for two night’s bed and breakfast and one evening meal which came courtesy of our insurance company’s loyalty scheme. We had taken advantage of similar offers in hotels around Ireland on numerous occasions and we’d had positive experiences and fantastic value. We’re not high maintenance hotel guests, and mostly see hotels as places to sleep rather than destinations in themselves, and we certainly weren’t expecting a gold standard experience at that price. But the service at the Tower Hotel was so poor, it encroached way too much on our weekend and risked spoiling it all for us.
The condensed version of our stay……. lost bookings, vague and indifferent receptionists, virtually a whole day spent checking in, a seemingly clueless duty manager for whom sorry seemed to be the hardest word, restaurant advertised as open seven days a week closed with no notice on Sunday evening and with no-one bothering to tell us, a replacement meal in the soulless bar with the kitchen closing at 8pm, broken coffee machine, broken boiler (no hot water for a shower on Sunday morning), Internet access for guests in the lobby broken, dodgy bathroom fittings, unappealing stains and marks on hard and soft furnishings in one of our bedrooms……basically lack of management, maintenance, training and lots of couldn’t care less. We’ve stayed in many hotels around the world and we fully understand that even in the very best establishments things can go wrong but our real problem with the Tower Hotel was the apparent lack of acknowledgement, responsibility or even interest on the part of the staff when things did. On the positive side, the location was great, the rooms were large and the whole breakfast experience felt like we had entered another hotel (in a good way). We fed back our experiences to the company operating our insurance company’s loyalty scheme and shortly after received a full apology from the hotel’s General Manager who stated that he had investigated all of the issues raised and was taking action. He explained that the hotel was currently undergoing refurbishment and by way of an apology invited us back for a complimentary weekend once the work had been carried out. Fair enough – we need no encouragement to return to Derry and in the interests of research and natural justice, we’re prepared to give the Tower Hotel a chance to get it right!
WHERE WE ATE AND DRANK: -
A sudden heavy mid morning shower of rain while walking the walls of Derry sent us running for cover into the welcoming shelter of Blooms Café. Located on the walls, the café raises funds for and employes people with learning disabilities. Delicious home made scones, good coffee at very inexpensive prices, a lovely interior and very friendly staff made for a pleasant pit stop. We were almost disappointed to see the rain had stopped!
This was our second visit to Halo for lunch and we couldn’t wait to return for more of their delicious fish cakes and sublime seafood chowder. We ate in the Pantry (the more formal Grill is open in the evenings) and again it was very enjoyable, with the same friendly and relaxed service we experience on our first visit. And again, the owner who was passing through stopped to say hello. Lunch for four came to about £30 before service.
The Bayleaf: -
A thoroughly delicious meal for all of us in the low key elegance of the two Georgian ground floor rooms housing the Bayleaf. We thought this might be a little special and we weren’t disappointed. We always see it as a promising omen when restaurants are bold enough to offer a shiraz as their house red. Between us we dined on mussels, home made soups, confit of duck, steaks and venison. All of the dishes were very well executed (the venison was divine) with well chosen vegetable and other accompaniments which left us collectively licking our lips. Service was professional and friendly and we thought the total bill of approximately £115 before tip excellent value for four starters, four mains, two desserts, two coffees, a glass of port and a bottle of wine. We booked in advance by phone about a week before our trip. We’ll most definitely be returning to the Bayleaf on our next visit.
We headed to Fitzroy’s for Sunday lunch. It offers good value bistro/pub staple dishes in a series of French-inspired contemporary dining rooms and is obviously very popular with families. We were seated in the rear room of the restaurant which was mainly populated by couples, older people and older children so lively but still relaxing (the more vociferous junior diners had happily been seated closer to the front of the restaurant!). We had a filling lunch of soups, salads, Thai green curry, chicken goujons, various sides, a couple of desserts, a couple of coffees, and two large bottles of mineral water. Service again was friendly and very efficient. The restaurant was offering a 30% discount off everything and our total bill excluding tip came to approximately £43.
Walls Restaurant, Tower Hotel: -
We booked our inclusive evening meal for Sunday evening in advance by e-mail and reconfirmed our reservation on arrival. We found out by chance late Sunday afternoon that the restaurant (advertised on the hotel’s website as open seven evenings a week) was closed and our dinner would be served in the bar. Oh, and the kitchen would close at 8pm. No notification, no explanation, no apology – entirely consistent with our experience of the Tower Hotel that weekend.
Our dining experience was not pleasant. Our parents/parents-in-law are not really pub people, and this particular pub/bar was of the modern, soulless variety, not what we would have chosen for them at all. While other hotel guests had been accommodated in the regular booths and tables of the bar, we were seated uncomfortably at the dining equivalent of a camp bed plonked in the middle of the floor at the end of the bar. The music was very loud and mother/mother in law who is partially deaf and wears hearing aids was struggling. At this point we really just wanted to eat as quickly as possible and get out of there. The food was indifferent and there were ridiculously huge amounts of it. Two of us ordered a pork steak dish, only to be served with pork chops. It felt like anything left in the fridge was being cooked and served up. By the end of our main course, we were the only people left in the bar. When we asked for a couple of espressos at the end of the meal, we were told that the coffee machine was broken. The cost of our inexpensive bottle of wine was taken off our bill by way of an apology for the whole fracas. Unfortunately, too little, too late. We left a decent tip for the helpful and efficient young bar woman who had served us our food and hastily departed.
The Boston Tea Party: -
Our parents/parents-in-law had just returned from a Mediterranean cruise where they had met some folk from Derry who, on hearing that they were planning to visit, recommended the Boston Tea Party café to them for lunch. The café is located in the Craft Village which was just around the corner from our hotel and we headed there on Monday for our last Derry lunch. Parents/parents-in-law got chatting about their mutual cruise ship acquaintance with the lovely women running the café and before long they were firm friends. It’s a really cute and welcoming café with wonderful baked goods, snacks, and some hot dishes on offer. We had a couple of baked potatoes with cheese, coleslaw and salad, a plate of four delicious home-made scones and lashings of tea, all for £16. The service was even friendlier than all of the other very friendly cafes and restaurants we’d visited.
The Sandwich Company: -
The two of us popped into the Sandwich Company at the Diamond, following a visit to Austin’s Department Store next door, for yummy Snickers and chocolate biscuit cakes, washed down with mugs of frothy coffee. It’s part of a franchise but the neat red diner-style interior caught our eye and we were in dire need of a sugar rush!
Peadar O’Donnell’s: -
We hit the atmospheric and welcoming Peadar O’Donnell’s pub twice over the weekend, it being just a stone’s throw from our hotel (so it wouldn’t have been neighbourly not to…..!). We caught two very enjoyable sessions, one on late Saturday afternoon and the other on Sunday night (complete with an accomplished uilleann pipes player).
WHAT WE SAW AND DID: -
Walking the Walls: -
We did this back in the summer and thought our parents/parents-in-law would enjoy it. It’s a great way to get a feel for this historic city and the views at some points stretch for miles. The walls can incline/decline steeply in parts and crossing the various gates involves a certain number of steps but mother/mother in law who sometimes has difficulty in getting around managed it without too much trouble once we took our time.
City Taxi Tour: -
We had originally planed to take the city open top bus tour which we had enjoyed during our summer visit but there was no regular service at this time of year. Because of the restricted mobility of one of our elderly travelling companions, we opted for a taxi tour. We booked one of Martin McCrossan’s City Tours by e-mail a week or so before our trip and Martin himself turned up promptly at 11am on Sunday morning for our hour-long tour. It was an ideal time for a taxi tour with little traffic around and we had the added bonus of a city bathed in bright winter sunshine. Martin’s commentary was informative and entertaining, and mother/mother-in-law was delighted that, despite her hearing problems, she caught every word. The tour cost a total £25 for one hour for the four of us and was a very comfortable way of getting an overview of the city and its history.
Tours of Derry’s renowned Guildhall are only available in the summer months but we were welcome to wander around the public areas of the building ourselves. The Victorian Gothic construction houses a tremendous concert organ and some stunning stained glass which recounts the history of the city and its connections to the London guilds. Unfortunately, due to construction some of the stained glass had been covered for protection and isn’t visible. We loved the dancing fountains which spurted from the paving stones across the square in front of the Guildhall.
Museum of Free Derry: -
The Museum of Free Derry is an excellent community-based museum which charts the story of the civil rights campaign which emerged in the 1960s and the Free Derry/early Troubles period of the early 1970s. It’s fixed within a global context of the struggle against injustice which took its inspiration from the US black rights movement of the 1960s. Most of the artifacts on display are on loan from local families and individuals who lived through the period. The museum staff member who welcomed us lost a brother on Bloody Sunday. We found the museum fascinating and moving, and at the same time harrowing and healing. We spent some time there before setting out on a walking tour and the museum unfortunately had closed before our walk ended. But we most definitely want to return to spend more time there.
Free Derry Walking Tour: -
Our political walking tour, which departed from and returned to the Museum of Free Derry, was simply the best tour we have ever taken anywhere. Our tour guide, Adrian, was a Bogside local who was extremely knowledgeable, passionate, articulate, erudite and absolutely fascinating. Our tour group was a small one of just six people – two Irish people (one northern born, one southern born), one Englishman, two Americans and one Pole. All had some knowledge of Derry’s recent history as well as its more ancient past, and the smallness of the group enabled some really great discussions as well as plenty of opportunities to ask copious questions as we went along. The geographical area of the tour was small and largely confined to the Bogside murals and the Bloody Sunday memorial, but ran way over the published time of 70 minutes to 140 minutes, and yet it seemed to end all too soon. All three of us (mother/mother-in-law wasn’t able for the walk) came away feeling far more heartened and uplifted than we would have ever expected. Highly recommended.
Tours cost £5 per adult and £4 concessions. Joint tour and museum tickets are available.
None of us normally spend much time shopping when travelling but we did have quite a splurge in Derry. Thank heavens for the 15kg of free checked in luggage allowance from Aer Arann!
We spent time shopping in the Foyleside and Richmond shopping centres which were close to our hotel.
And of course no shopping expedition in Derry would be complete without a visit to Austin’s, Derry’s landmark department store which harks back to another time and at 160 years old is the world’s oldest independent department store.
Don’t miss the Craft Village in the centre of Derry. Apart from a pitstop at the Boston Tea Party, spending time in the charming thatched quilt shop is better than therapy! While the shop has a few craft quilts for sale, it’s mostly selling the makings for quilts and has a number of stunning samples on display. They also run a variety of quilt making courses – we were intrigued by the stained glass quilt course. We found mother/mother-in-law who is a former seamstress in the back room off the main shop area chatting animatedly with a group of older women who were in the middle of a course and were swapping techniques with her and showing her samples of their work. It’s a lovely shop and well worth a visit even if you are a complete stranger to a sewing needle!
Parents/parents-in-law also bought some sparkling crystal at City of Derry Crystal next door to the quilt shop.
THE WEATHER: -
We were pretty lucky – with the exception of a few downpours on Saturday, the weather was bright, sunny and crisp. Ideal for strolling around the city and along the banks of the Foyle.
Once we’d managed to put the trials of the Tower Hotel to one side, we thoroughly enjoyed our weekend in Derry. It’s a fascinating and lovely city, and on an island known for its friendliness, it just raises the bar. Wait staff, taxi drivers, shop assistants, strangers in the street who wished us good morning or commented on the nice weather……. there’s a general air of genuine welcome and friendliness about the city which makes it a very relaxing place to spend time. And with such great eating (thanks so much to Shells99, Derry Destination Expert, for all of her great restaurant recommendations), drinking, music, shopping, history and walking on offer, we wanted to cram in as much as we could.
A week ahead of Hallowe’en, we just loved the buzz and sense of expectation about the place, and felt a little like Cinderellas leaving just before the celebrations had begun! We’d heard Hallowe’en was big in Derry but we didn’t appreciate how big until we saw the decorations and dedicated Hallowe’en shops. Definitely in our diaries for next year. But with the Tower Museum yet to see (the madly protracted checking in debacle at its hotel namesake put paid to that bit of our plans) and our plans to revisit the Museum of Free Derry, we hope it won’t be too long before we return to the Maiden City.