Breaks: Fitzwilliam offers a corner of luxury in the heart of festive Belfast
Sometimes we overlook what's on our own doorstep but, on a festive city break blending music, fun, shopping and dining, Jenny Lee was reminded that Belfast has bags to offer
ALTHOUGH I'm no stranger to the commute to Belfast for work, getting my husband into the city is another story. An even greater rarity is to get him to go shopping.
Thankfully, when the opportunity arose to spend an evening listening to the majestic music of André Rieu and his Strauss Orchestra at the SSE Arena and enjoy a festive overnight stay in the five-star Fitzwilliam Hotel, he was persuaded.
We took the train from Portadown to Belfast's Great Victoria Street – just a short walk from both the station and Europa Bus centre, the boutique Fitzwilliam Hotel was festively decorated with white trees and golden baubles.
In our fifth floor junior deluxe suite, lights dimmed and classic FM softly playing in the background, our pre-Christmas stresses were immediately eased away. Situated on the corner of the building, the suite's floor-to-ceiling windows afforded us panoramic views across the city and beyond.
The spacious room's airy, open-plan design features a separate seating area, with quirky folding panel shutters between bedroom and bathroom.
After a quick caffeine fix (from the Nespresso machine – there were also petit fours!), I managed to coax my other half out of his room for a spot of Christmas shopping. Top of the list was my present, of course.
The Fitzwilliam is a great location for exploring the city and only five minutes from the popular Belfast Christmas market in the grounds of Belfast City Hall, with it's feast of international cuisines and handcrafted goods.
To borrow its marketing phrase, Belfast certainly is buzzing this Christmas. There seems to be something new around every corner of the city centre – from carousels, to the luminated German windwill grill in Castle Place and the Giant Snow Slide in Donegall Place.
Then in Hope Street, there is Planet Fun's Winter Wonderland, complete with a covered ice rink. Still recovering from a slip during last winter's icy weather, I decided it was best give that a miss, but we did take a spin on the giant observation wheel – one of two wheels in the city this month (the other being at Buoy Park, off York Street).
After dropping our shopping back at the room, we made our way down to the hotel's lobby where festive afternoon tea was awaiting us, and where we were offered a warming glass of mulled wine.
Having notified the hotel in advance of my dietary requirements, I was given a gluten-free option. To start we had a small cup of seasonal soup, and ham hock terrine with cranberry jam. Then came a selection of sandwiches, Guinness wheaten bread and scones with clotted cream.
Desserts with a festive slant included fruitcake with brandy butter icing and red velvet macaroons. Surprisingly there were no mince pies, though to be honest we had more than enough.
The staff boxed up our leftovers, which we later enjoyed as a midnight treat when we waltzed our way back to the hotel after a night with André Rieu, where Christmas music, classical pieces, marches and popular music blended into a spectacular live show.
With the men in full dress suit and tails and the ladies in dazzling Disney-style princess ball gowns, the orchestra and choir, which have been touring worldwide for over three decades, provided a concert that surpassed all expectations.
Video projections to match each song transported you all over the world and cheeky host Andre delivered amusing speeches to the audience between each song. A huge balloon drop and indoor snowfall added to the party atmosphere and after 10 encores, the concert finally ended with a rendition of Vera Lynn's We'll meet again.
As I melted into our super king-sized bed later that night, I fell asleep dreaming that this perfect Christmas short break could be come an annual tradition.
:: The Fitzwilliam's Festive Escape package includes a four course evening meal in the AA Rosette Award-winning restaurant and a full Irish breakfast on the morning of departure. Rooms available from £190 per night. Offer valid until December 23.
:: The Stay and Shop package includes a £30 shopping voucher for Victoria Square. Unwind with mulled wine and mince pies after a busy day exploring Belfast city centre in an executive guest room and then wake up to a full Irish breakfast. Rooms from £180 per night. Offer valid until January 31.
:: Festive afternoon tea is available throughout December from 2-4pm, for £27.50 per person. For further information and booking visit Fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com or call 02890442080.
:: The Belfast Christmas Market continues until December 22. For further information on events in Belfast this Christmas season see Visitbelfast.com