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A fantasy trip in Ireland

Lumiere figure overlooking Derry

Michelle Chenery reports on a legen-Derry visit arranged by ISES and Tourism Ireland

In 1613 Derry was officially named Londonderry. Four hundred years later, in 2013, it became a European City of Culture – but the disputes over what to call it were still going strong.
However, after a recent visit with a group of ISES members, I choose to call it Legen-Derry!

My immediate impression of the city was that the residents are all ambassadors, very keen to ensure that visitors appreciate its character, its warmth and its culture. Our driver from Derry Taxis doubled as a veritable guide on our way to the City Hotel.

Once in this 158-guestroom property it was no surprise to find that each of the 12 newly opened Collection Penthouse suites is dedicated to a famous city landmark. The doors to the rooms are designed to replicate the front doors of houses, with full-length images of the buildings along the walls of the corridors.

The rooms themselves are provided with duck feather pillows, quality fabrics, Smart TV's, iPod docking stations and unlimited Wi-Fi.

Situated on Queen's Quay adjacent to the River Foyle, City Hotel Derry has a dedicated meeting and events floor, consisting of nine rooms in total, all with natural daylight and free Wi-Fi and able to cater for up to 450 delegates. The Corinthian Ballroom, offering views of the River Foyle and Guildhall, can up to 350 theatre style or 180 for a banquet with a dance floor. The Writers Room, an opulent boardroom with executive seating, large oval table and built in projection, seats 18 boardroom style or 32 for private dining.

Our first real experience of Derry itself came when we ventured out to the Craft Village and Café del Mondo for our evening meal set in a quirky 19thC square where receptions can be hosted, delegates can enjoy music, dance, animation, craft demos and locally sourced produce.

As a preview to the city’s Lumiere Festival of Light, the trees on our walk bore lights that danced from trunks to branches and from tree to tree.

At the Cafe del Mondo we enjoyed a variety of starters, from breaded Irish goat’s cheese salad with red onion marmalade to smoked beef carpaccio. Our main courses ranged from young Castlerock fillet steak to venison and to fried sea bass with substantial side orders more than enough for the fiercest appetite, washed down with local beer or the wine recommended to go with the dishes. I finished with del Mondo’s own ultimate chocolate cake with whiskey cream.

A visit to Peadar O'Donnels Bar was an essential part of the evening’s memorable night life. Seats are reserved in one corner for local musicians to provide either organised or impromptu sessions.

Passion for the city
The following day began with a guided of the city., shepherded by Garvin Kerr of City Tours. He had no problem getting us to share his enthusiasm and passion for the city and its history. We toured the 17thC walls, walking along part of the 1.5km structure. We started at Magazine Gate and made our way to the Double Bastion, site of the famous Roaring Meg cannon, taking in some of the surviving 24 cannons as well as the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall.

This was the home of the original thirteen apprentices who shut the city gates in 1689 in the face of advancing Jacobite forces. With cries of ‘No Surrender!’ they defended the city during an attack lasting 105 days.

Another memorable landmark was St Columb's Hall. Built in 1886, this stunning building is situated in the heart of Derry City next to Derry's city walls. In its heyday it was a vibrant, much-loved theatre attracting many thousands. A major refurbishment has converted it into a multi-purpose entertainment facility whilst retaining its original character.

Another notable venue on our itinerary was the Millennium Forum. It is popular for conferences, seminars, fairs, exhibitions, banquets and lectures. A total of 21 function rooms can cater from 12 to 1000 delegates, with the main auditorium boasting a moveable ceiling, adaptable floor and seating. We were able to view the stage set for a show later that day. There are audio and lighting technicians on hand and it has fully licensed bars and a restaurant.

After taking in so much in a single morning, we headed for Legenderry Warehouse No.1 for lunch. Located next to the Guildhall, this newly opened Cafe is a hub of cultural and creative activity. It has grown organically through collaboration with three successful local companies: Bang on the Door, Nu Print and Harry’s Restaurant. Serving hearty portions of locally sourced food and beverages in a relaxed atmosphere, the warehouse also provides space for many local artists and designers to showcase their work. After a visit to the toilets by one of the group, we all made our way there to see the totally amazing Bang on the Door themes.

Next on our agenda was the Peace Bridge for cyclists and pedestrians. Spanning the River Doyle, it was opened in June 2011. As a group we could not resist taking photos of the suspended figures and the views of the city on our way to Ebrington Square. A military base during two World Wars, it has now been transformed into a venue for a range of cultural, leisure and tourism activities with an outdoor standing capacity for up to 15,000 people.

Building 80/81 Ebrington was host to the Turner Prize 2013, the first time in history that it was presented in Northern Ireland. During a whirlwind tour we found ourselves in a room where a huge male figure was urinating into a bucket. There were easels all around for people to draw what they saw, the resultant pictures festooning the walls. In another room we had to converse on a certain subject to earn a financial reward. We were successful and were able to donate money back to the charity.

Afternoon tea was served at the Hastings Everglades Hotel just five minutes from the city centre, it overlooks the River Foyle and has views across to the hills of Donegal. The property has 64 deluxe bedrooms, including three suites. With parking for 200 cars, there are five flexible conference and banqueting suites. The Grand Ballroom boasts a private cloakroom and bar and reception areas and is able to cater for up to 400 theatre style and 500 for cocktails. The Keys Suite is able to host up to 120 delegates, with smaller rooms for from 20 to 100 delegates, all with natural daylight.

There were endless trays of food, with staff on hand to bring fresh pots of tea. We spent quite a while grazing on sandwiches, cakes and champagne flutes of cream and chocolate.

Lumiere Festival of Light
That evening the Lumiere light festival was in full swing. There seemed to be flying figures located along the Peace Bridge; Ebrington building became a screen itself, with images across the facade of the Clock Tower; animated scenes of over 100 local school children could be seen from the city side of the river.

At St Columbs park, fire alchemists Compagnie Carabosse used scrap metal, charcoal and even cast-off clothing to create a magical fire garden on a huge scale. Fire sculptures lit up the entire park, t-shirt fire lanterns hung from trees, flower pots were alight on free-standing spiralling structures. Musicians played eery background music. We were mesmerised.

We dined at the beautifully restored Custom House restaurant that dates from 1876. It offers four event rooms, each with its own unique characteristics. The Boardroom boasts a large oval table with the original Custom House door built into the centre. A further three rooms benefit from natural daylight, complimentary wi-fi, welcome foyers and the latest conference equipment.

Our final stop on our #TweeTour took us over the border to Lough Eske Castle, a Solis Hotel & Spa, Donegal's only 5-star property. Set within 43 acres of forest, hugging the shores of Lough Eske, with the Bluestack Mountains in the background, the hotel has 96 guest rooms, including a two-bedroom Presidential Suite. Facilities include the Cedars Grill Restaurant, the Gallery Bar and Lobby Lounge, the Oak Bar and Spa Solis, which includes a thermal spa suite, relaxation area and a swimming pool and fitness centre. The meetings and banqueting space amounts to a total of 6,500sqft, including three ballrooms and two Glencare suites.

These can accommodate events for up to 60 theatre style and can be subdivided to smaller spaces and boardroom style. Group activities available on site include weaving, tours of the historic castle and grounds, hiking in the Bluestack Mountains, smoking your own fish, cycling, archery and target shooting as well as a long list of team building activities, with a wide range of off-site activities also on offer.

We enjoyed lunch in the informal setting of the Gallery Bar, marvelling at the number of whiskeys on display behind the bar, whilst tucking into our choices from the bistro menu: oysters on one plate, club sandwich on another and bowls of triple-cooked chips. To set us up for our journey home, we headed to the spa, where we each enjoyed a 30-minute session, ranging from a back and shoulder massage to facials and hand treatments.

Leaving Ireland was like waking from a dreamlike fantasy. In a very short time, an organiser can give a group a fabulously memorable trip.

If you would like to see some more images from the #TweeTour then please take a look at our Derry facebook album

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