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SPRINg 2008 | Destinations: When in Belfast ...

SPRINg 2008 | Destinations: When in Belfast ...

Ten years ago, gay bars had trouble getting licensed," explained one of Belfast's Black Taxi drivers, doubling, as many of the city's cabbies do, as a peppy tour guide, "but not any more -- the city has been reborn!" Indeed, jokes about its being the berthplace of the "unsinkable" Titanic aside, Belfast is in positively buoyant spirits now that the Troubles (Northern Ireland's violent, decades-long struggle between largely Protestant pro-British unionists and largely Catholic republicans) have receded into history.

Twenty-first-century Belfast is a glittering boomtown on par with Europe's chicest second-tier culture capitals, flaunting new boutique hotels, smart condo/retail conversions of decaying 19th-century warehouses, innovative galleries, and a growing number of gay venues.

Go in March
If the city's boisterous St. Patrick's Day carnival and parade doesn't motivate you to hop on a direct flight from Newark, N.J., or Orlando, Fla., to Belfast, maybe the thought of watching dolled-up brindy (redheaded) boys strut the catwalk during Fashionweek will get your Irish blood rising. Base yourself in the arty Cathedral Quarter and genuflect at the district's straight-friendly eateries, pubs, and dance dens before venturing out to explore the rest of this freshly polished Victorian gem.

The Drink
Union Street
8-14 Union St., 8-9031-6060*,
All chrome and exposed brick, this trilevel 19th-century shoe factory primes flippant fops and loafers alike with pre-club cocktails and gastropub grub.

10-14 Gresham St., 28-9032-3590,
Belfast's newest gay bar, a classy three-floor lounge, gets a wee naughty on the last Friday of the month for "Gruff," a men-only night.

The Bite
Deanes at Queens
1 College Gardens, 28-9038-2111,
Just a short hop from Queen's University, Belfast's only Michelin-star-winning chef lures donnish noshers with local fare like venison mince and Portavogie haddock.

The John Hewitt
51 Donegall St., 28-9023-3768,
This lively gastropub's mixed crowd mingles well over titanic portions of modern Irish comfort food and Asian-influenced dishes in the way-gay Cathedral Quarter.

The Groove
96 Donegall St., 28-9031-6061,
Think New York's Eastern Bloc on performance-enhancing drugs, with mobs of barely legal trendoids in skinny ties bopping amid a labyrinth of Soviet kitsch.

2-16 Dunbar St., 28-9023-4520,
Baroness Titti Von Tramp, a seven-foot drag queen (in heels), hosts a Friday-night game show at this Cathedral Quarter behemoth, which sits on the former site of the Parliament, Belfast's first gay bar.

The Art
Ormeau Baths Gallery
18a Ormeau Ave., 28-9032-1402,
Opened in 1995, this former Victorian washhouse exhibits works by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Gilbert & George.

The Threads
The Bureau
44 and 46-50 Howard St., 28-9032-6100,
Deftly curated menswear "inspired by a love of Britain's youth movements." Don't leave without a pair of "trickers" (cross-trainers).

Smyth and Gibson
16-22 Bedford St., 28-9023-0388,
Ready-to-wear and custom shirts with mother-of-pearl buttons and 18 stitches to an inch. They'll even keep your measurements on file so you can replenish from abroad.

The Bed
The Merchant Hotel
35-39 Waring St., 28-9023-4888,
Formerly a bank, this five-star Italianate Victorian hotel epitomizes opulence (enjoy high champagne tea or a ?750 mai tai made with 17-year-old Wray and Nephew rum).

34-38 Victoria St., 28-9022-0200,
Gothy Tim Burton meets frothy Patricia Field in this trendy boutique near Belfast's leaning tower (the Albert Memorial Clock, 1870).

The Spa
Aura Day Spa
615 Lisburn Rd., 28-9066-6277,
Facials, foot massages, and full-body coddling; with chest, back and shoulder waxing if you want to meld with the Kremlin crowd.

*From the United States, dial 011-44 before these numbers.

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