So, today was the opening of the Tall Ships and Maritime Festival in Belfast, and as promised, the Smile family headed over to see what was going on. If you only read one line of this post, read this one: go to the Belfast 2009 Tall Ships & Maritime Festival, it's class.
My parents were supposed to be arriving at my house at about 11, and managed to restrain themselves until about 10.30, which is an improvement on the general pattern followed for outings. So we went into Belfast, and after a detour to the bank, started searching for a bus to take us to the festivities at The Odyssey.
This should not have been difficult, what with the big buses with 'Odyssey' written on the front, but it took longer than you might expect and even then we had 3 attempts before we finally got on board - mainly due to Too Much Choice, as the buses were queued up and the Inspector kept saying 'You can get on the one behind this' to the people in the queue, at which the 3 of us obediently moved to the queue for the bus behind, at which the Inspector repeated his information and we moved again. By bus 3, however, we had cottoned on that we didn't actually have to move, it was just that we could if we wanted to, and thereafter things speeded up.
Anyway, we got off the bus and joined the orderly queue which we could see nearby, for no better reason than that if everyone else was thinking it was a good idea, we didn't want to miss out. After 10 minutes of not moving, we realised it wasn't quite 12 o'clock and things hadn't opened yet; when I mentioned this to mum I was overheard by several people in the queue and a lively debate ensued as to what time it started at and what time it was now, and shouldn't they have a 2-way system in place? I'm not sure how the 2-way system idea got started and developed, but it seemed to have wings, and by the time the boats sounded noon we were a mere several steps away from a complete re-organisation of the event logistics with WhyNotSmile at the helm.
Thankfully the crowd started to move, so we followed it, and after another 10 minutes or so came back out 10 yards from where we had started and decided to go for lunch. At some point we had each acquired a leaflet with More Information, and although none of us was quite certain where it had come from or who had given it to us, we agreed that it would be wise to have lunch before everyone else, and to read the leaflet while we ate so that we would know what to do.
Now, we discovered yesterday (on our reconnaisance cycle trip) that there is a nice cafe at the Pump House, and we strongly suspected that people would not generally know about it and that therefore it would be quiet, so we decided that that was the place to be (I didn't mention this before today because I wanted to make sure I had a peaceful lunch without hordes of people there, but I'm telling you now because I've had my quiet lunch and you can all congregate there as much as you like without disturbing me). So we just had to find the shuttle bus to take us there.
We asked a bus driver, and he didn't know because he was only doing the route into town and back out, mate, so we asked a man in an official looking jacket, who didn't know either, and then we asked a Scottish lady who had both a uniform and maps, and she told us roughly where to head. When we got about half way there, we saw a sign saying 'Queen's Road Bus Stop', with an official-jacket man at it, so we thought we'd better check that it was the Bus Stop we wanted to be at for the Queen's Road, and it turned out it wasn't, which we hadn't really expected.
So the moral of this tale is that nobody in red jackets knows anything much about what's happening, but they are all very nice and have walkie-talkies and will try to help, and I dare say they'll have got to grips with things a bit more by the time they've had a couple of days under their belts. It also didn't help, incidentally, that when I asked people, I kept calling it a 'Shuffle Bus' and they kept laughing at me, so if you're asking, you should probably try to get that right.
Anyway, the actual bus stop was just behind us, and we got there just as the bus came. The entire 500,000 people who were expected to come to the event over the 4 days appeared to be on board already, so we spent about 10 minutes watching people get off (as my mum said, "I think they're just getting off and then going round the back and getting on again"). Eventually we boarded, with the remaining 3 people in Belfast who hadn't just disembarked, and the bus set off.
Stop 1 was the Harland and Wolff Drawing Office; the other 3 people got off, but since we were headed for lunch a bit further down we stayed aboard, and were joined by a gaggle of elderly ladies who couldn't decide where to sit, who to sit next to (in particular, Hetty was keen to go next to Aggie, but Aggie had already sat down next to someone else), where to get off or generally what they were there for, so that took some time. Stop 2 was the Pump House & Titanic Dock, and as we disembarked we realised with joy that our plan had been good, and indeed no one had thought to go to the Pump House for lunch. We perused the sandwiches at our leisure (Meal Deal: 1 pack of 'themed' sandwiches, a bottle of Coke/Diet Coke/Sprite and a packet of crisps for £4); I went for 'The Apprentice' on brown bread, mum had 'The White Star' on white bread (spotted the sandwich theme yet?) and dad just picked the one that looked the biggest.
So, moral 2: go to the Pump House for lunch; no one knows it exists, so it's quiet, it's not that expensive, and you can sit outside and look over the lough. Also, they have nice toilets.
At one point my dad disappeared; we had assumed he had gone to the loo, but once he had been gone a suspiciously long time, we realised he must be buying things. My dad loves buying things at stuff like this; so long as it's of no earthly purpose and is extremely awkward to carry round for the day, he will buy it (we still have, in the back of a wardrobe somewhere, a hawaiian skirt that he bought in a Christmas market back in about 1987, and which he has always sworn will come in handy for a fancy dress party sooner or later). So he came back with a Tall Ships Souvenir Guide, and we read that, and discovered all sorts of things about the boats, and formulated a Plan for the rest of the day. By this time it was about 1 o'clock, and we headed back towards the Odyssey, stopping off at the Drawing Office on the way. There they had an exhibition about the Titanic (made in Belfast - "She was all right when she left here") which is also worth seeing, and a man who will tap your name out in Morse Code.
After this we got the shuttle bus back to the Odyssey and wandered round there a bit; mostly it involved dodging people with prams and buggies and taking photos of everything in sight, much the same as everyone else was doing. At a conservative estimate, there must have been a million photos taken today alone, plus thousands of videos which will mainly consist of half a second of a tall ship and then 30 seconds of people almost walking into the camera and looking annoyed.
We strolled the continental market, where they were selling everything from hammocks, bags and jumpers to giant flumps, many-flavoured turkish delight and kangaroo burgers. There was also a funfair, but we didn't go to that, so I can't tell you any more; I'm just saying it's there.
Next step was to cross the river to 'The Other Side' - by now we had abandoned the idea of the shuffle buses, because although there were tons of them, you had to queue to get on, and my dad despises queueing - it's sort of a principle of his; even a queue of 2 people can be too much, and it is generally thought safest to keep him moving. On the way out of the Odyssey grounds, we caught a little bit of street theatre and then headed over the Lagan Weir with millions of other people. The crowds were massive, but all going in the same direction, so the only concern was that the person at the front would suddenly stop and 3 million people would grind to a halt, leaving us trapped in a sea of buggies, balloons and cameras, but fortunately this did not happen.
Across the other side (the Big Fish side), we made our way to Clarendon Dock and joined the masses there. The thing was, although there were lots of people, they did keep moving ahead, and unless you actually wanted something specific there was no need ever to join a queue. So we browsed the RNLI stand (we didn't take up their offer of sea rescue training, but it did look quite good), we looked briefly at the continental market and decided to do it on the way back, and then saw a sign saying 'Pat's Bar' and started following arrows (to be more precise, dad started following the arrows, and mum and I followed him). So we got to the bar, and sat in the square watching comedy acts performing, and listening to music, and laughing at people who had won giant teddies in the funfair and were carrying them around not quite knowing what to do with them, and had a drink (one each, you understand, not one between us).
At this point (by now about 2.30pm), we realised we hadn't actually done much in the way of Tall Ships so far (other than take photos), so we headed off to try to find one that would let us climb aboard for a look round. The first one we came to had a queue about a hundred yards long, and it was clear that dad was not going to manage that no matter how interesting the boat, so we kept going and found ourselves in another continental market and another funfair. Dad bought some macaroons, which were very nice, and we took more photos of boats and dodged some more crowds and buggies and then came upon a boat with a very short queue which was moving quite fast. This, clearly, was the vessel for us.
The ship was called Sagres, and is Portuguese, and really was very nice, and, most importantly, tall. Visitors were allowed on board and you could walk round a guided path and take photos and so on, and talk to sailors, although mainly only if you knew Portuguese, and get your Souvenir Guide stamped to say you had visited. So it was very interesting and we took plenty of photos and my mum flirted with sailors.
By now we were getting tired and hungry, so we came off the boat and went back to the funfair and market. The funfair, incidentally, is one of those at which, if you held a gun to my head and said I had to go on one ride or you would shoot me, I would carve you the bullets out of my own eyeballs, because it was all spinny things and high up things and those sorts of things which I hate. On our way round we saw some Gladiators with whom you could have your photo taken for a tenner, or you could just take a photo of them for free, which was kind of better because, to be honest, they were a bit slimy and their shorts were too tight.
So we got some Turkish Delight and a venison burger, and, having reached the apogee of this side of the lough, started to head back. Yesterday, Dad and I had seen a ship we definitely wanted to visit, called the Bounty - the one which was used in The Mutiny on the Bounty, and Pirates of the Caribbean - and thus we joined an orderly and not-too-long queue, and were delighted to see that about 10,000 people joined it just behind us, so we were able to spend our queueing time crowing over how we had come along just in time and if we had been a minute later we would have had to wait a lot longer. The Bounty was also very nice on board, and had the added bonus of letting you go beneath decks (as I believe the technical term has it), which was interesting to see. Again we got our Souvenir Guide stamped, and by now we were ready for home.
Of course, we couldn't find our way out of the docks area for quite some time, so by the time we were heading for the bus it was rush hour, and I ended up travelling the length of the Woodstock and Cregagh Roads sitting in the luggage rack, but the bus was full of people who had had a great day at the Tall Ships and everyone was delighted to compare notes; of course, it was also full of people who had been in work all day, and who were feeling grumpy and not all that keen on talking, but frankly, since it was full twice over and there was no room to move, it wasn't as if they had any option other than to sit there and listen.
So that was the Tall Ships and Maritime Festival, and really, if you haven't gone, you should go. In addition to the things mentioned above, there are many other things which were of less interest to us but might be of more interest to others, including bouncy castles, boat tours of the lough (which bring you up next to the ships for a closer look and more photos), the World's Strongest Man Contest (which hadn't started when we were there) and various radio stations doing roadshows. Oh, there was also live music. And face painting. And other things. In fact, there is tons to do, and it's free to wander, so you really should go. Just don't try to take the car in.
You will of course want to plan your visit before you go, and with this in mind, WhyNotSmile has thoughtfully produced a Guide To The Maritime Festival and Tall Ships, which you should print off and study:
The WhyNotSmile Guide To The Maritime Festival And Tall Ships
It is important to familiarise yourself with things before you arrive. To this end, you should visit www.gotobelfast.com and find out what's happening. This may seem like a basic instruction, but there really is a lot to see, and it's very hard to figure it all out when you're standing in a sea of buggies.
In addition to the things on the website, please note the following:
1. Food. Food is copiously available. For a quiet lunch, go to the Pump House, as detailed above. The Odyssey is also open for dining, and the continental market can supply a range of culinary delights and horrors, although this tends to be more expensive. It is also possible to take a picnic and eat it on the grass.
2. Footwear. Bear in mind that you will be going on boats, and therefore high heels are not appropriate. Many have tried, and while failure is frequently hilarious for others, it may detract from your enjoyment of the day. Wear something you can walk miles in, whether you intend to walk miles or not; once you get caught up in the crowd, you may have no option.
3. Children. Buggies get in the way. Take them if you want, but know that you will be annoying everyone else, and it will take 5 times as long to get anywhere or do anything. Narrow buggies are generally easier to manouvre and will get you fewer dirty looks, but it has been noted that an extra wide twin buggy can be advantageous, as it allows the pusher to build up a momentum which is not easily resisted.
If your children let go of your hand at all, they will be swallowed up in the crowd, so make sure they have their names and addresses round their necks, and enough money for the bus fare home. If it's wet, you should probably also give them a house key in case they get back before you.
4. Money. The only thing you have to pay for is food, and bouncy castles etc. The event itself is free, the buses are free, and the boats are free. In fact, you can probably turn a profit if you wear a strange wig and hold out a cap; buskers and street performers are copious, and sooner or later someone will give you a few coins.
5. The Boats. In all the excitement, it is easy to overlook the main point of the event, which is to see the Tall Ships. You should probably try to get on board at least one or two of them. Since they are generally not all open at once, the decision may be made for you, but if you find yourself confronted by choice, remember that in 15 years' time, you won't have much beyond a stamped souvenir guide and a vague memory of a lot of ropes and wood; choose the boat that where you can take photos of yourself wearing a sailor hat and standing at the wheel, and make sure you get your souvenir guide stamped.
Please note that I will be spending the next several days sorting through a thousand photos, editing, cropping and deleting; once I have finished, I will publish for you an exclusive WhyNotSmile Photo Souvenir Guide of the Tall Ships in Belfast 2009, which will be worth Something in years to come.
Also I have to decide where to go to watch the ships leaving on Sunday; I think I've come up with a secret vantage point, but I'm not telling you because (1) you'll all turn up and get in the way, (2) it's kind of awkward to describe and (3) it might turn out to be wick; I haven't quite figured out the lie of the land round there.