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Quiet Beauty Emerges in Northern Ireland

You could be forgiven for not having put Northern Ireland at the top of your list of favorite holiday destinations for the last 30 years.

Sudden bomb explosions in your hotel lobby, Army roadblocks around every corner, the prospect, however remote, of being caught in automatic weapons cross-fire: These do not make for a relaxing vacation. Since "The Troubles" broke out in 1969, and the British Army went in to try to maintain order, tourists have stayed away from Northern Ireland in droves.

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But rising hopes for lasting peace are changing all that, and tourism officials here are confident of attracting visitors to Ulster now that they can concentrate on the scenery instead of their security.

"Tourism is one of the first areas where we'll see a difference" as a result of the peace process, says John Stringer, president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce. "The potential for growth is tremendous."

Especially among Americans. Only 85,000 visitors came to the province from the United States last year, eight times fewer than went to the Republic of Ireland to the south. And while Dublin has seen tourism triple over the last 10 years, Ulster tourism is far more closely tied to the political situation and has seen its ups and downs.

In the year after the Irish Republican Army declared a cease-fire in 1994, for example, visitor figures rose by two-thirds. Then they dropped by a third when the cease-fire collapsed a year later.

Today, the province bears practically no resemblance to its notorious reputation as a war zone. In Belfast, you occasionally come across a British military patrol in an armor-plated Landrover, but they rarely bother with the downtown area where most visitors spend their time.

Indeed, when all you have seen of the city are TV images of bomb-destroyed buildings and Army checkpoints, it is astonishing to find how peaceful, prosperous, and normal Belfast has become.

Outside the capital, Northern Ireland's rolling hills, lakes, and dramatic coastlines are quite as beautiful as those to the south, and the people pride themselves with just as much justification on their hospitality. "You haven't seen Ireland till you've seen the North," reads an Ulster tourism ad.

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Most visitors head for the Giant's Causeway on the north coast, a bizarre lunar landscape made up of thousands of basalt columns - some as much as 40 feet high - that has been declared a World Heritage Site.

Locals will tell you that the rocks are the footsteps of legendary Irish warrior and giant Finn McCool; geologists attribute them to a distant volcanic eruption.

Less well known is the coast that calls itself Northern Ireland's "Secret Treasure," the shoreline of County Down, an hour's drive south of Belfast.

At Newcastle, a small resort that hugs a pebbly strand around a sheltered bay, the looming Mountains of Mourne drop sharply into the sea. A few miles up the coast you can find sandy beaches from which to swim (although the Irish Sea is not the Caribbean), and inland walkers can hike, or stroll, for hours in quiet woods.

Strangford Lough, a large saltwater inlet, is especially beautiful, set between green hills that in spring are aflame with bushes of yellow broom. The shore is dotted with castles, ancient churches, and stately homes, and for those who like to watch wildlife, the lough is full of seals. For those who prefer to eat it, the water is full of oysters.

Eating in Northern Ireland can be a somewhat starchy experience. The national dish, an "Ulster fry" consists of a plateful of bacon, eggs, sausages, and potato bread. That's fried bacon, fried eggs, fried sausages, and fried potato bread.

Pizza tends to be served automatically with a side order of garlic bread, but even this is not always enough for local tastes. I once sat in a Belfast pizzeria and watched a woman at a neighboring table spread her order of potato salad over her Pizza Napolitana before slicing and eating it.

Even at the posh Slieve Donard hotel in Newcastle, an imposing Victorian red-brick pile where Charlie Chaplin once stayed, the dessert table at the luncheon buffet one recent Saturday offered only one bowl of fresh-fruit salad but a choice of eight different cakes.

Increasingly, though, restaurants are popping up that make simple use of the province's magnificent fresh produce, such as salmon, oysters, and beef.

And visitors can buy and cook such items themselves if they choose a "self-catering" holiday.

This is not simply a money-saving option (though renting a cottage is a good deal cheaper than staying in a hotel). It opens up possibilities that would be unheard of in more traditional holiday destinations.

At Killyleagh Castle, for example, the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland, which dates from 1604, you can stay in one of the 17th-century towers in the wall surrounding the forecourt.

And be grateful that at long last in Northern Ireland, those towers offer glorious views over the surrounding countryside, rather than protection from surrounding mayhem.

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