When my husband told me we’d be moving to Belfast for seven months I started to cry. I had been promised London. I knew nothing about Belfast and sobbed, “Do they even have dog groomers there?” Turns out, with its wooded trails, hidden creeks and sea front views, Belfast is a best-kept secret. And now that I’m back in Los Angeles, I miss it a lot.
The reason I went to Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital city, is because my husband, Jonathan Goldstein, and his partner, John Francis Daley, co-directed and wrote the upcoming movie, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (set to be released in March) starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Hugh Grant, and Regé-Jean Page. My 10-year-old son and my dog and I went with him. Thanks to a generous UK tax rebate of 25 percent, plus an added incentive for filming in Northern Ireland itself, Belfast is becoming a hub for American film and television production. Game of Thrones was famously shot there. More recently, Paul Feig’s upcoming The School for Good and Evil, Kevin Hart’s Netflix comedy Lift and The Northman starring Nicole Kidman have lensed there as well.
Belfast was once primarily a shipbuilding town. The Titanic was built there. But when the shipbuilding industry started to decline there, it left massive spaces that are perfect for large-scale shoots. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, for example, was shot at Titanic Studio’s 106,000-square-foot stages.
My family rented a house just outside of the city in a town called, improbably, Holywood. I wanted to make sure I was in a walkable area, because the thought of driving on the left was daunting. Every day I walked down to the High Street where there was a pharmacy, restaurants, two butcher shops, two small markets, pubs, a manicurist and an ice cream shop. It was simple enough to get there via the street, but early on in our stay, I discovered a beautiful forest path that was nearly hidden by the trees that shrouded it. It was a quiet, green trail. Extremely safe and very un-L.A. It was like something out of a Jane Austen novel where Elinor Dashwood and Mr. Ferrars would sneak off to hold hands. You could also take Seapark, which is a winding, walking path that goes for 16 miles along the Belfast Lough. It’s extremely calming and a place to reflect or wind down after a day on the set.
It rains about 37 inches every year in Belfast. (By way of comparison, in 2020, Los Angeles got 5 inches.) It was also cold and constantly overcast (when the sun comes out, Belfastians call it “a hole in the clouds.”) Coming from a place where it never rains, I didn’t mind the weather and no one I was with complained either. Honestly, it was nice to put on a winter coat. Wellington Boots, Wellies to the locals, can really make an outfit. I did buy a sun lamp, though, just in case any of us felt seasonal affective disorder, but none of us ended up using it.
If you know anything about Belfast, you know about The Troubles. While the immediate danger is blessedly many years gone, there are places where you still get a sense of what it must have been like during that time, like West Belfast, where giant walls still divide the Catholic neighborhoods from the Protestant. We had a wonderful driver, Francis “Francie” McGuigan, a life-long Belfastian, who drove our family throughout the production. Francie showed my 10-year-old son what it was like in Belfast when he was his age and would take him to see the murals of Bobby Sands and others who died during the decades of strife. Francie grew up in Belfast and told us the story of when he was a boy and his mum took him to the mall. An IRA bomb went off nearby, blasting Francie off his feet. He and his mother got out okay, but like so many of the people who grew up in Belfast during that era, he carries a bit of the Troubles with him. Most of us understand the value of peace as an abstract concept. But for Belfastians, it’s part of their DNA. A piece of their lived experience. Maybe this is why the people struck me as happier. That’s not to say it’s Brigadoon, but as Francie used to say to us with a wink, “Every day on this side of the turf is a good day, but today is an especially good one.”
So should you find your production heading to Northern Ireland, don’t cry. Yes, it will be a dramatic change from life in L.A. or New York, but you may come out the other side missing the place and its many charms.
Here is a quick guide to life in and around Belfast, many of which were frequented by the cast and crew of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves:
Where to Stay
All of the families on our movie rented homes in the town of Holywood. It’s an upscale suburban town only 10 minutes from Belfast and the Titanic Stages. Shops and stores are within walking distance. It’s a very family-friendly community. You can live right along the harbor, or as we did, up in the more forested area.
Most of the actors (and studio execs) who came for shorter periods stayed at The Culloden Estate and Spa (rooms from around $204 a night). A grand old estate, it was originally built as the official palace for the bishops of Down. The Culloden has a restaurant and bar and lots of space for meetings and tea time. In addition to some of the Dungeons cast, some of the cast of The School for Good and Evil were staying there and hung out in the lobby. The vintage formality of the place set against all the young beautiful actors made it look like a kind of Soho House Belfast. Bonus celeb sighting: You can spot Van Morrison eating lunch there almost every day.
A lot of assistants on the film stayed at The ARC Apartments because of its close proximity to Titanic Studios. It’s a sprawling complex of 474 apartments along the waterfront with views of Belfast Harbor and The Titanic Museum. The benefits of being in Belfast Centre are questionable though. At night, it becomes very desolate since there are fewer shops or pubs in the area.
Where to Eat and Drink
While Northern Ireland isn’t often touted for its cuisine, there are some incredibly good gems you can find:
Noble in Holywood is a Michelin Bib Gourmand winner, and it deserves it. It offers posh meals without the snobbery. You’ll look forward to their Sunday roast all week.
A melter is a slang word in the UK for someone so boring it feels like your brain is starting to melt. That’s anything but true of the toasties (what we call grilled cheese) at Melter. Get the roast chicken or pulled pork.
Located right near Belfast’s beautiful city hall, James St. & Co. is a date night kind of place for steaks and fish. Get the Chateaubriand for two for a truly romantic night.
There’s a fish and chips shop on every corner, but John Long’s Fish and Chips is just special. It’s been open for 100 years for a reason: they do not skimp on quality.
The Dirty Duck Alehouse is a must for solid pub food and an outdoor patio.
The Cocktail Bar, located in the Merchant Hotel, is the perfect spot to try some local gin in a wood-paneled environment. (Jawbox Gin, a small batch gin distilled just outside of Belfast, is an excellent one.) Stay for the show at Berts Jazz Bar. You’ll think you’re back in New York at the Blue Note.
I’m afraid to check my cholesterol because Northern Ireland has some of the best eggs and dairy products you will ever have. There are a lot of shops with homemade ice cream, but Nugelato Ice Cream Boutique is a notch above the rest. Get their “Nuggy Pot,” an ice cream sundae made to order with your choice of toppings. Nugelato is so outstanding that Dungeons & Dragons producer Jeremy Latcham is franchising one here in America.
The great thing about Belfast is its location. The George Best Belfast City Airport is centrally located just minutes outside of Belfast. I don’t think there is a city anywhere with a closer international airport. You could fly to London in the morning for lunch and be back in Belfast for dinner. Dublin is only two hours away by car. Scotland is a two-hour ferry ride as well.
Things To Do
Polar bear swimming is a big thing in Belfast. Put on your warmest parka and drive to Helen’s Bay Village (20 minutes from Belfast) to watch the natives go swimming in 30-degree weather. Cold water swimming is known for activating endorphins in your body, so it becomes quite addictive. If you dare to try it yourself, add a Hot Box for the total experience. Hot Box is a rental of a mobile Finnish wood burning sauna located on the Causeway Coast. You drive your car straight out onto the hard-packed sand beside your private sauna. You can spend a really fun Sunday on the beach running from the cold water to the hot sauna.
Giant’s Causeway is only an hour from Belfast, and it’s one of the most beautiful hikes you’ll ever take. The Causeway is a surreal array of hexagonal basalt columns that rise from the sea. There are three hikes with everything from stunning sea views to lush green mountains. Step across Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and it feels like another world. Originally built to get from Carrick-a-Rede to Larrybane, the bridge was built by fishermen across two cliffs so they didn’t have to depend solely on boats. The area is mainly a tourist attraction now.
I can honestly say that The Titanic Museum is one of the best museum experiences I’ve ever had. You don’t just learn about a ship. You learn about the people who built the ship, grandfathers and great-grandfathers of today’s Belfastians whose life’s work were building these ships. And then you see and hear recordings of people who survived the sinking. I have never cried at a museum until this one. Bring Kleenex.
In addition to airport transfers and day to day driving, Francis McGuigan at Belfast Business Chauffeur Services (+44(0)7519881620, email@example.com) offers scenic tours and golf tours around Northern Ireland and Ireland. His political tours are fascinating for all ages as he takes you to the various landmarks where The Troubles happened. Francis’ infectious spirit is so captivating, you’ll want to keep in touch with him long after you leave Northern Ireland.
We lived on Marks and Spencer, a chic food market with ready-made meals as well as fresh-baked breads and fruits and vegetables. We went to Sainsbury or Tesco for everything else from dishwashing detergent to sandwich bags. Here’s a tip: Forestside Shopping Centre has the best of both worlds. Located on either side of the mall is a Marks and Spencer and a Sainsbury. You can take your shopping cart through the mall to get everything you need in both markets without having to endure the rain or cold outside. There’s also an H&M there and other fun cheapy stores for a quick pick me up.
In Belfast City Centre, I loved shopping in Sawers for fun food finds from around the world. You can find dried pasta and sauces imported from Italy and jarred molé from Mexico. If you find yourself craving “American” foods, they’ve got Pop Tarts or Duncan Hines too. Send out for sandwiches for lunch as well; they have a terrific array. Get some fresh-baked cannolis or baklava for dessert.
Flavour First vending pod is genius. It’s located on a farm in Donaghadee (a countryside town a half hour from Belfast) where they grow seasonal produce year-round. Owners William and Leanne have set up a large vending machine containing baskets of fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs and ready to cook meal kits. Don’t mind the cows staring out you as you bring your food to your car, they know they’re a part of the act.
Considered one of the best private schools in the area, Rockport School is for children ages two years old to 18. We should all be so lucky to be able to attend a school with rolling green hills and a view of the sea. It also includes the only school-based golf academy in Ireland.
A few of the families with our movie enrolled their preschoolers into Tiger Tots Nursery School and had great things to say about it. In addition, the school is right next to the Seahill train station so a car isn’t needed for transportation. In the summertime, they host a day camp.
Holywood Private Clinic is your concierge doctor away from home. They will keep track of the meds you need and get them for you when you’re running low. They will also come to your home if you’re sick. And if your Botox is wearing off, they do that too.
Mucky Mutts (+44 7703 306875) is a mobile grooming truck for dogs and cats that comes to you. My dog, Rockstar, adored Adam the owner. Adam loves your pets as much as you do and takes great care of them. Tell him I sent you.
Adena Halpern is the author of the novels 29, The Ten Best Days of My Life and Pinch Me. Her books have been translated into 20 languages. She has written for numerous publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire and Variety.