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EIRE QUALITY
DISCOVER A NEW BELFAST IN THE MAKING - NY POST
By GRETCHEN KELLY

The Belfast murals are part of the tour.

September 12, 2006 -- THANKS to countless clips on the nightly news, the image on the mural is a familiar one: A black-hooded militiaman is pointing an AK47 in your face.
Below the painting, written on the wall, are slogans, such as "Ulster is British," or "IRA Rules."
After nearly 30 years of "The Troubles," these murals survive, but you're viewing them from the back seat of your silver Bentley, sipping champagne as your driver whisks you to your hotel, a chic little number in the heart of the griddle-hot Cathedral Quarter.
Times have changed. Belfast, post-1998 Good Friday Peace Accord, is now the "Celtic Tiger" of the North. A wave of investment is pumping in, reinventing this faded Victorian gem into something entirely new: a metropolis blending the sophistication of London, Madrid or Paris with classic Northern Irish charm.
The virgin visitor may be surprised to find Belfast a very beautiful, very green city.
High Victorian architecture, particularly in the city center, is the norm.
Beyond the heart of town, the tonier neighborhoods have the upscale feel of London's St. John's Wood (book a night at an old bishop's residence just outside town, now the Culloden Hotel, to feel like a well-heeled local).
All over Belfast, old buildings like the Merchant's Ulster Bank are being buffed up and reborn - often as small luxury hotels.
Classic pubs like the Crown Liquor Saloon and landmarks like the Europa Hotel (once called the "most bombed hotel in Europe") remain as well, making the city feel like a more easily accessible London or a friendlier, more down-to-earth Dublin.
As the town moves on, Belfast buzzes with the electricity of change.
The city's once working class Titanic Quarter (where the ill-fated ship was built) is now the site of some of the most valuable real estate in the UK, snatched up by trendy boutiques and restaurants.
The Lady on the Lagan, a huge open-work steel sculpture on Belfast's River Lagan points energetically up to an expanse of blue sky. The city center's decidedly fashionable residents fill street-side cafes and sleek new restaurants with the confident buzz of commerce.
But the past lives on, in many ways - you can still find the raw energy and edginess of old Belfast in local pubs in the Republican Falls or Loyalist Shankill Road neighborhoods, but you'll probably have to brush past busloads of sightseers on Troubles Mural Tours to do it.
LAY OF THE LAND
During The Troubles, the city center was the place where both Loyalist and Nationalist alike could meet on neutral ground. Today, some of the old boundaries still exist (you don't want to walk down the Falls Road wearing orange, the color of the Loyalists) but tourists usually find a warm welcome.
The Victorian-era Belfast City Hall is right in the center of downtown and is a good place to start off. It's right next to Donegall Place and Royal Avenue, the two main shopping areas.
Within downtown - just to the north of City Hall - you'll find the Cathedral Quarter and, to the east, along the River Lagan, the Titanic Quarter.
From here, it's 15 minutes' walk south to Lisburn Road, the trendiest strip in town.
Both the Loyalist neighborhood (Shankill Road) and the Nationalist (Falls Road) are west of the city center zone (about a 20-30 minute walk, depending on how fast you stroll). To join a tour, head north of the Cathedral Quarter to the Castle Court small, where cabs congregate.
Finally, Belfast Castle, which sits at the top of Cave Hill off Antrim Road, is about a 15-minute cab ride from the Titanic Quarter.
WHERE TO STAY
Belfast is experiencing a mini hotel-boom, which began in 2005 with the opening of a Malmaison, one in a chain of mid-priced luxury addresses around the U.K. that are as exciting as any W Hotel, and a fine choice if that's your bag. Though, the bar crowd is mighty good-looking (from $210, www.malmaison.com).
Happily, there's more home-grown chic on hand these days. At the top of the pile you'll find The Merchant, a 26-room, over-the-top marriage of uptown and downtown style carved out of an elegant mansion.
The Great Room restaurant offers Titanic-era indulgences like Lobster Thermador and Beef Wellington. Dedicated hedonists should pre-book the Silver Bentley airport transfer (from $440, www.themerchanthotel.com).
You'll pay about half the price, but your stay at the Ten Square Hotel on Donegall Square will be every bit as memorable, even if the theme - Asian - is rather improbable for this neck of the woods. Clean but not spare design and a fat plaster Buddha on an orchid-laden glass tabletop await in each room - ditto on the stereo playing "The Last Emperor" soundtrack when you first open the door. Best bed in town (from $210, www.tensquare.co.uk).
If you don't mind being a bit removed from things, Culloden Estate is an old bishop residence in a pretty suburb that's now a well-appointed country house hotel, complete with spa. Certain CEOs have been known to land helicopters on the lawn. (from $340, www.hastingshotels.com).
Even if you don't stay, breeze through the very-'70s Europa, where foreign journalists holed up while filing reports on the conflicts over the years. Today, the only thing bombed at "the most bombed hotel in Europe"are the business men hanging out in the upstairs bar (from $180, www.hastingshotels.com).
SHOPPING
Belfast's well-heeled congregate in Lisburn Road - an area known as BT9, for its postal code.
Ladies will want to try Honey, a self-styled haven of fashion. Shoes, lingerie and swimwear put the sex in the city for Belfast belles (627 Lisburn Road).
Style-obsessed men should check in at Clarke & Dawe, a bespoke traditional (but very trendy) British tailor for "men who aspire to be gentlemen" (485 Lisburn Road).
For a good, old-fashioned scene, head to St. George's, Ireland's oldest covered market. Along with the special festive events the market holds a City Food and Garden Market, each Saturday, with over 100 stalls and a Friday Variety Market selling everything from books to fresh local fish (Oxford St. at May St.).
WHERE TO EAT
For better or worse, seeing and being seen has become a local pastime. Things reach full tilt over at at Ta Tu, in Lisburn Road. Sink into the caramel-colored leather chairs on the riser lining the long sleek bar and sip a glass of wine before dinner in the intimate grill room that serves supper till 9:45 from Monday to Saturday (701 Lisburn Road).
Ask a local where to dine and they'll probably point you to James Street South, the white-on-white minimalist chic brainchild of popular local chef Niall McKenna, who achieved fame and fortune in London. Expect to pay London prices for his saucy fusion food (21 James St. South).
Don't leave without paying your respects at Michael Deane, Belfast's only restaurant carrying a Michelin star. It's actually two restaurants. The downstairs Brasserie is about as crowd-pleasing as it gets. Then there's the more hushed, upstairs boite that's prix-fixe only (36-40 Howard Street).
PUBBIN' & CLUBBIN'
Private rooms are all the rage at the city's clubs - happily, some are pretty accessible. For instance, drop $60 on a bottle of Bollinger champagne at the Café Vaudeville, and you'll get instant access to one of its top floor private spaces (25-39 Arthur Street).
For a more democratic experience, head down to the Rotterdam, a dive with with just enough panache to make you glad you bothered. The crowd is friendly, but a bit rough around the edges (52-54 Pilot Street).
THE LOWDOWN
GET THERE: Continental Airlines has direct daily flights Boeing 757 to Belfast from Newark Airport (www.continental.com).
If you don't book early and can't get the flight you need (the flights are often crowded), numerous carriers serve Dublin, which is a 1.5 hour bus ride from Belfast.
GET AROUND: The city is extremely walkable. Most major attractions are about ten to twenty minutes apart on foot.
WE WARNED YOU: Consider taking a taxi home after 11 p.m., especially on weekends. It's not dangerous on downtown streets, but the bar crowd can get obnoxious. Their bark is usually worse than their bite.
MORE INFO: www.gotobelfast.com