Monday, January 28, 2013

Titanic Belfast - A Museum Short on Artifacts, Large on Innovation

The Louvre has the Mona Lisa, the Vatican Museum has the Sistine Chapel, Titanic Belfast in Northern Ireland has… well, actually pretty much nothing in the way of art or even artifacts.  But this museum will knock your socks off.
A little disappointed Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio
aren't greeting me at the door, but whatever

Before the 1997 blockbuster, before the ship sank in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that cold night in April in 1912, Titanic was built in Belfast.  This museum, located it what is now known as the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, pays homage to not only the ship, but the city that constructed what was then known as the “ship of dreams” (or was that just something that Rose said?).

This is the last known picture of Titanic

Titanic Belfast takes you through nine galleries that explore this historic ship.  We start with…

Gallery 1: Boomtown Belfast

What was Belfast like before Titanic?  It was a city known for making linen from the flax seed.  Don’t know what flax seed is?  Most people don’t, so I took a picture of it.

Most people also don’t find flax seed, or linen, to be very interesting, but the creators of Titanic Belfast realized that.  They made it a point to include pictures from the era…

Recreations of important features…

This represents the gates to Harland and Wolff, the company
that built Titanic

And most notably, interactive components to keep even the littlest tyke entertained.

I was pretty amused by this: an interactive
floor.  Just stand where it reads, "Stand here,"
and information pops up on the screen.  It helped
me learn all about the tools that helped make a
ship as large as Titanic.

Gallery 2: The Arrol Gantry and Shipyard Ride

The Arrol Gantry was the gigantic framework constructed to help build Titanic.  You took an elevator to get to the top.

A recreation of what the Arrol Gantry
would have looked like

Once there, a museum worker informed you that you were about to go on world’s slowest roller coaster.  He used “roller coaster” very loosely, as this ride topped out at MAYBE one mile per hour, but I guess some people aren’t interested in riding.  Too bad, because it takes you through the Arrol Gantry, complete with the sounds and information of what went on in the shipyard.

After the ride, you saw some of the pictures of people building Titanic.

The caption said, "Workers fitting Titanic's
starboard tail shaft.  The rudder behind them
has just been fitted, 1911."  I was super
impressed with the scale of the rudder
to the worker!

The guy overseeing this whole process?  Thomas Andrews.  You know, this guy:

Not his exact words, but you get the point.

Gallery 3: The Launch

Each gallery is clearly marked

This gallery was not the launch where Jack quickly boarded after narrowly winning his tickets to sail on Titanic in a card game.  That was in Southampton, England.  This is just the launch to make sure Titanic could float in Belfast.  It could.

Gallery 4: The Fit-Out

Okay, now that the ship can float, it’s time to put some stuff on it.  Titanic Belfast recreated what a first-class, second-class, and third-class room would have looked like.

A typical guest who would have stayed in the room was super-imposed - how cool!

Then, it’s time to Bon Voyage!

Gallery 5: The Maiden Voyage

This is where Jack quickly boards after narrowly winning his tickets to sail on Titanic in a card game.  What the movie doesn’t show you is how the ship really set out for its maiden voyage.  It left Belfast with just crew members on board.  Then it sailed to Southampton, England (where Jack and Rose would have gotten on board), then to Cherbourg, France, then to Queenstown, Ireland, before it finally set sail into the Atlantic.

Gallery 6: The Sinking

So much for being the unsinkable ship.  This gallery recounts the telegraphs sent between Titanic and other ships in the area.

The most interesting: one sent from the Californian to Titanic at about 9:05, about an hour before the ship struck the iceberg, according to “Titanic Inquiry Project.” 

Californian: We are stopped and surrounded by ice.
Titanic: Shut up.  I am busy.

By 1:39am, some of the last transmissions from Titanic.

"Cannot last much longer" was one of the
final messages Titanic sent out before
sinking into the ocean

You can read more about the final telegraphs from this article.

Gallery 7: The Aftermath

Before cell phones, heck, before telephones really, it was hard to spread the word through any other medium besides the newspaper.  Sometimes two editions a day would come out.  The day after Titanic sank, many of the first editions reported that everyone on board the ship had survived. 

From The Library of Virginia

By the second edition, many people knew the tragic truth.

Gallery 8: Myths and Legends

This gallery was very small and no one would let me take pictures because I had already moved at a snail’s pace through all the other rooms.  It did show fact and fiction for the movie Titanic though, as well as what is considered the most historically accurate movie based on the ship, A Night to Remember.

Gallery 9: Titanic Beneath

This gallery was, perhaps, the most impressive.  Again, no art, or artifacts, but the interactive let you explore the ocean floor, to see what this maritime disaster left behind.

You could even stand on a recreation of the ocean floor showing the remnants of this wreck beneath.

Even though I have been to museums paying tribute to the Titanic that showed actual pieces from the ship, these cool interactive activities made this room well worth it.

As we departed Titanic Belfast, we could see clothing worn in the actual movie – the only REAL “artifacts” on display.

I'll never let go, Jack.
I'll never let go.

But real artifacts or not, this museum was one of the best I’ve been too.

Total Cost: £13.50 each ($21.96)
Best Deal: Here’s the not best deal: buying tickets online.  I bought three tickets too many and the tickets were non-refundable.  The museum did extend them for 30 days, but the rest of my group wasn’t going to make it, even then.

Friday, January 25, 2013

24 Hours in... Belfast

The Belfast of today is a far cry from the Belfast of 20 years ago, when this city was known forp political and religious strife as British Protestants and Irish Catholics went head to head in the streets. Now, Belfast, being part of Northern Ireland, is rated as one of the top budget destinations of 2013, according to this article. We spent two of the last three days of 2012 in this so-called budget country, and I can verify – it was economical.

First of all, Northern Ireland is an entirely separate country from Ireland, though they are both on the same island. Though Belfast has oodles of things to see and do, this city is most known for the almost 30 year time-span known as the "The Troubles," when rioting over religious differences ran rampant. Now, those living in Belfast seem to love a good bomb-throwing and protest still, but, much to our dismay, all was quiet on this front. Our 24 hours in Belfast were jam-packed and pretty easy on the wallet.

Arriving in Belfast: There is an international airport in Belfast, about 30 minutes away. We, however, arrived by train from Dublin. It cost 15.99 (that’s about $21), but you can get fares even cheaper if you have enough foresight to book a few days in advance.

Once in the city, we were ready to begin.

10:00am – Titanic Museum

Belfast is divided into several different quarters and this museum is in, you guessed it, Titanic Quarter.  A full report on this museum can be found here, but everywhere I read said it's best to book tickets in advance and arrive when the museum opens. I did book tickets online and ended up getting screwed, since almost half of my group couldn't make it. Tickets for the Titanic Museum are non-refundable. Anyway, I would allocate at least three hours for this museum, maybe more if you’re a dork like me.

12:00pm - Lunch

Back in the center of Belfast, we found a great, quick, and cheap restaurant called The Bridge House.  This place was very vegetarian friendly, with even far-out dishes like “lentil, mushroom, mozzarella and pumpkin seed roast.” I got a veggie burger.

It's nothing luxurious, but it tasted good and the price was right!

Prices were as low as £3.99 ($6.30) for a meal with a drink.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t order our beer until 12:30pm because it was Sunday.

A new cider, well worth the wait!

1:00pm – City Hall

After lunch, take a walk around the central part of the city, also called Cathedral Quarter.  Everything is quite close together in Belfast and it’s easy to get around on foot.  Start at the City Hall on Donegall Square, which shows some pretty architecture, which is actually even more awesome when it’s lit up at night for Christmas.

1:30pm – Shopping

From City Hall, you can make your way to Victoria Square, stopping at shops along the way on pedestrian only streets.

You'll also see some pretty cool architecture

Victoria Square is a huge outdoor shopping mall with more than 50 stores, including TGIFridays (I was unaware this chain was in Belfast, but I wouldn’t go there in the U.S., let along across the pond).

You can even go up into the dome atop Victoria Square to see an aerial view of the city of Belfast.  We did not do this though because Frank was more interested in the next stop which was the…

4:00pm – Historic Bars

The area around Victoria Square has some pretty unique bars that date back more than a century.  Though the Kitchen Bar is fairly new (the old Kitchen Bar dated back to 1859, but was torn down to make way for Victoria Square), it still retains an ol’ timey feel.

The coolest bar in all of Belfast, though, was Bittles Bar, just around the corner from Kitchen Bar.

Outside, the bar looks just like it’s from 1861, which it is, complete with an antique car out front (the car was just coincidentally parked there).  Inside, the bar features random artwork featuring everything from the Muppets to notable figures in the United Kingdom.  The bar also had a great selection of ciders.

I had never heard of this cider before, it was delicious!

7:00pm - Dinner

Along with historic bars, you’ll also find historic restaurants in this area.

The Morning Star Bar dates back to 1810.

The Morning Star Bar has a great ambience, complete with a big mahogany bar.

This restaurant also had scrumptious food.  Though I’m not a meat-eater myself, the restaurant touted awards for the best cuts of steak.  I stuck with a seafood selection.

Frank got Pork and Leek Sausage, I had Battered Haddock

We paid about £25 for our meal and two drinks (equivalent to $40).

8:00pm – Enjoy the night

We found one of the best things to do in Belfast was just observe.  We did this plenty on the streets, as we hopped from bar to bar.

The Jaffe Fountain was created in 1874.
After a hiatus in another part of Belfast,
it's back outside of Victoria Square, hoping
to be what the Trevi Fountain is to Rome,
according to this article.  It's not, but it's
still pretty.
Since we were there during the holiday season, it was entertaining to see how this city celebrated Christmas.  

We took advantage of the decorations to have more than one photo shoot.

10:00pm – Holiday Inn

The Holiday Inn on Ormeau Avenue in Belfast had a lot more going on than you would think.  I’m not sure if it was a gypsy wedding or prom or funeral, but it was definitely gypsies that we saw partying their barely-clad booties off.  Besides that though, I thought the Holiday Inn was a pretty decent accommodation.

It was clean, from the bedroom, right down to the bathroom.

A fire alarm did go off about five times during our stay.  I’m attributing that to the gypsy wedding/prom/funeral.  But, at £85 a night ($134), the price was right.  We could rest easy knowing we didn’t spend an arm and a leg as we explored a new country.

Titanic Museum: £13.50 each (£27 for both of us)
Lunch: £3.99 each (almost £8 for two)
Drinking: Approximately £4 each beer (let’s say we had two per person, so that’s £16 total)
Dinner: £25
Hotel: £85

Total Cost: £161 (that’s $254)
Best Deal: Everything seems so much cheaper in Belfast because they use the pound!  Right now, £1 is equivalent to $1.58.  So, you think you’re only paying $3.99 for a meal and a drink (at lunch), but it’s really $6.30.  So, EVERYTHING seems like a really good deal!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Authentic Amsterdam - What It's Like to Stay on a Houseboat

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. So when in Amsterdam, stay on a houseboat.

Just floating around on a canal in the Jordaan...

I've told you before about the advantages to skipping the hotel and renting a vacation home. I did it in Italy, France, and Sanibel Island. As impressed as I was with those experiences, nothing can beat renting a home in Amsterdam. especially when that home was on the water.

Even though this "hotel" is on the water, you
don't feel any rocking, even on windy days!

Not even just water view - on the water, on a houseboat, where you can see swans and ducks swimming by the window.

We found the houseboat on VRBO.  My travel group had some reservations about the houseboat. When I asked the owner if the boat would accompany four people, she said, "yes, if you don't have much luggage."

We actually had tons of luggage, because, you know, we
were traveling in Europe for almost two weeks!

Well, we didn't have much of a choice because we decided to book a place so close to our travel dates and we were still trying to be economical. So, houseboat it was. And boy were we surprised!  When you walk in, you can see the living room, with a pullout couch, as well as a small bedroom.

Right next to that, a pullout couch, as well as a small bedroom, complete with a map of Amsterdam.

This map actually saved us quite a few times in our wanderings
because I had taken a picture of it!  Of course, we're the people
who go to a city that's hard to navigate without a map.
The best part of this houseboat was the authentically decorated Danish kitchen...

With a fully stocked refrigerator!

The owner, Annette, thought of everything! We had eggs, bread, sandwich meat, cheese, and milk.

And it wasn't just the kitchen where Annette paid attention to detail, the bathroom was also perfect for houseguests.

Annette even filled the medicine cabinet with hair products, lotions and soaps!

Perhaps the detail we appreciated most was the bottle of sparkling wine.

How much would a hotel run with all these extra amenities AND that slept four people?  Well, we wouldn’t know since we couldn’t even find one.  Hotels in Europe traditionally fit only two, maybe three people.

That makes the €200 per night we spent a deal! Rates are cheaper if you aren't staying during a holiday (we were there for New Year's Eve) or if you stay for a longer period of time.  If you’re interested in booking this houseboat, or just talking with Annette, click here for more information.

Total Cost: €400 for two nights

Best Deal: Having an authentic Amsterdam breakfast that you can only get when a woman who lives in Amsterdam does your grocery shopping.

Even Annette couldn't explain why people in
Amsterdam eat sprinkles on their toast, but
it tasted so good!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Anne Frank House – Six Things to Know Before Your Visit

It was the place where eight Jewish people, fearing for their lives, hid out for two years, in a secret annex, a whole other world, just behind a bookcase.

A postcard from the museum.  Photo by: Allard Bovenberg

Being a lover and devourer of all things history, I put the Anne Frank House at the top of my list of things to do in Amsterdam.  At just €9 (about $12) to enter, I consider that very economical to experience such a monumental part of history.  However, there are just a few things I wish I knew before my visit that would have changed my experience for the better.

The tour books I had read beforehand suggested buying tickets in advance to avoid long lines.  How long can the lines be on New Year’s Eve, I thought to myself.  Apparently very…



Long.  Like, an hour and a half long, as I described in this post.  Waiting sucks, but waiting in 30°F weather is nothing short of terrible.

I'm smiling through the pain, but Frank is not

So, first thing you need to know about the Anne Frank House…

Book tickets in advance

Or else you’ll suffer like we did.  You can book them online right through the Anne Frank website.

Once we were about 50 people away from getting into the museum, a worker came around and gave us all brochures about the Anne Frank House.  They were very informative, detailing where Anne Frank and the seven others hid, what you would find in each room, and even provided quotes from the diary that fit perfectly with each room.

Frank is glad to have something to focus
on besides the freezing cold

Which brings me to the second thing you need to know…

The brochure is exactly like the actual museum

Same quotes, same pictures.  Sure, the museum has a few more things, but not many.  For example, the brochure details some of the pictures of celebrities you’ll find on the wall in Anne’s room.  When you see Anne’s room, you see the pictures from the brochure, and a few others.  And you see the exact same quotes from the brochure.

Still, even though the brochure explains much of the house, you should still be prepared for the third point about the Anne Frank House…

It is very, very crowded

The house is not big, although it is bigger than you expect, with five rooms:

·         A bedroom for Anne and Mr. Dussel
·         A bedroom for Anne’s mother, father, and sister
·         A bedroom for Mr. and Mrs. van Pels (also the living room and kitchen)
·         The attic, where Peter van Pels slept and food was kept
·         The bathroom

So it takes awhile to move hundreds and thousands of visitors through.  But, even with crowds, you’ll be surprised how long it takes to move through the house because…

There’s not actually anything in the Anne Frank House

The rooms are mostly empty.  It’s a poignant statement that Anne Frank’s father insisted on leaving because when the Gestapo discovered the Frank family and the others in hiding, they cleared the secret location out.  So, when Otto Frank came home, the only one alive from the secret annex, he basically said, “Keep the house the way the Gestapo left it.”  It makes sense, and it hits home about the way the Jewish people were treated during this time.  There are pictures in the rooms depicting a recreation of how the rooms did look at the time.

Postcard from the museum. Photo by: Allard Bovenberg

That’s point number five…

You cannot take pictures in the Anne Frank House

Which, I get, I totally do.  Except, you can take pictures of 3,000-year-old things in Rome, but you can’t take pictures of 80-year-old things here.  Most of the objects in the Anne Frank House are paper-based, so I’m sure a flash would ruin that.  Maybe they could have said “no flash photography?”

I’m not one to ruin history, but I did take one picture.

This illustrates the last thing you need to know about the secret annex…

Many of the objects are not explained

I took that picture in one of the last rooms of the house, not a room where Anne Frank and the others hid, but still a room you walk through.  It showcased all eight people who lived in the house, explained what happened to them in the end, and showed a memento from their life.  Except, I wasn’t sure what exactly the memento meant.  It certainly looked old and interesting, it would have been nice to know.  So you may have to do some pre- or post-research on what you will find inside the house.

The history of Anne Frank, and the rest of the Jewish people who faced persecution, is extremely important to remember.  I admire her, the seven people she lived with, and the other six million Jews who faced this travesty.  But be prepared to be a bit surprised at your experience and the time it takes to get into the house (about an hour) and go through it (about an hour).  If you don’t have two hours, check out the 3-D tour online.

Though a touching depiction of history, this museum was
not what we expected

Total Cost: €9 each (about $12)
Best Deal: Pictures are worth a thousand words, but since you can’t take them, buy a postcard for €.50