Riding a wave ... Belfast's Titanic Museum. Photo: Alamy
April 2012 and Belfast is in the grip of Titanic fever. It's 100 years since the ship that wasn't meant to sink sank, and the city is awash with Titanics and Titanoraks; everywhere you look, there's Titanic tea and Titanic chocolate fudge for sale, Titanic crisps and Titanic strawberry jam, Titanic T-shirts, ashtrays, fridge magnets, pencil sharpeners, snow domes, key rings and bookcases full of Titanic books.
Every second shop window in Belfast's main shopping street has a dedicated Titanic display; replica Titanics made from hundreds of helium-filled balloons float above shopping centre atriums; coffee shops and restaurants feature Titanic menus and themed dinners; museums and galleries across the city have Titanic-themed exhibitions; the Titanic memorial garden at City Hall has had a makeover and there's even Titanic the Musical playing at the Grand Opera House, although tickets are pretty hard to get.
For an event that is supposed to commemorate the 1500 lives lost in one of the world's worst maritime disasters, it all has a slightly surreal, carnival-like air, although organisers insist that the celebrations are focused on the launch of the ship rather than its tragic demise. Presumably, the festivities will fade away once the centenary is over, but in Belfast, where the world's most famous ship was designed and built, the Titanic is here to stay.
Belfast's Titanic experience. Photo: AFP
Double-decker Titanic Explorer buses trundle Titanoraks (those with an interest - you could say obsession - with the Titanic) around the new Titanic Quarter, as the old shipyard and dockland area at the mouth of the Lagan River is now called, and red-shirted Titanic walking guides, all self-confessed Titanoraks, lead groups Pied Piper-style past the dry dock, pump house and other buildings and patches of concrete associated with the building of the famous ship.
The centrepiece of the new tourism precinct is the newly opened £97 million ($154 million) Titanic Belfast, the world's largest visitor attraction. Built beside the original slipway in the Harland & Wolff shipyard, the six-storey museum is the same height as the ship. Its exterior is clad in more than 3000 individual aluminum panels designed to resemble four gigantic hulls that lean out from the ground, towering above visitors as they walk around it.
Inside are nine galleries, where floor-to-ceiling video screens and displays bring to life the story behind the ship, from boomtown Belfast at the turn of the 20th century to the building of the vessel, its launch and fit-out, the sinking and the aftermath, the discovery of the wreck and the myths and legends that have surrounded the tragedy since.
Belfast's giant Titanic attraction opens
The largest Titanic visitor attraction in the world opened in the ship's Belfast birthplace on Saturday, some 100 years after the doomed liner was built in the same yards. Titanic Belfast is a striking aluminium-clad building which tells the famous ship's story through special effects, interactive screens and a ride. Organisers hope the $A149 million centre can boost tourism in the British province, which was torn apart by sectarian strife for three decades until the late 1990s. Photo: AP
It's more theme park than museum, with a ride that takes you to the top of the gantry and through the shipbuilding process with special effects re-creating the sights, sounds and smells of the shipyard. There is a 3D cave where you can "walk" the corridors of the ship, re-creations of the first-class, second-class and steerage cabins, and a theatre that shows underwater exploratory footage of the wreck lying on the ocean floor. We spent the best part of three hours at the centre and it would be easy to spend even longer.
What you won't find at Titanic Belfast, however, are many actual artefacts from the sunken ship.
To see those, you need to head to the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum in Holywood, 15 minutes east of the city centre, where the TITANICa exhibition features more than 500 items, including uniforms, furniture, photographs and crockery from the White Star Line and glassware, silverware and personal belongings recovered from the wreck.
A boat in the exhibition. Photo: AFP
It's back at the old shipyard where the Titanic was built that you really get a sense of the scale of the ship and how important it was to Belfast at the time. On the Titanic Walking Tour, the facts and figures fly at a furious rate: at 882 foot in length, the ship was longer than the world's tallest building at the time; at 46,328 tonnes, she was the largest man-made moveable object the world had seen.
For a long time, the Titanic was rarely mentioned in Belfast. Some say it was a sense of dented pride or even disbelief that the state-of-the-art ship, promoted by the builders as "designed to be unsinkable", came to grief on its first voyage.
Relatives of those who were lost recall that the deaths were never mentioned in the family - a far cry from some of the international visitors we bump into at Titanic Belfast, proud to be related to someone who lost their life on board. To be fair, we also meet a number of survivor relatives who are just as proud to be associated with someone who beat the odds and survived to start a new life in the US.
A White Star Line display at Titanic Belfast museum. Photo: Lee Atkinson
With the opening of Titanic Belfast, the city is making up for all those years of silence, with pride in the skills, hard work and craftsmanship that created the "finest vessel afloat" supplanting any shame or embarrassment felt over the disaster.
As they frequently like to remind you in Belfast, "She was all right when she left here".
Etihad Airways flies from Sydney to Dublin via Abu Dhabi; Belfast is a two-hour drive from Dublin. Return fares start at $2000. etihadairways.com.
Titanic Belfast is open daily. Adults £13.50 ($21.50), children £6.75. titanicbelfast.com.
Ulster Folk & Transport Museum is open daily except Monday. Adults £6.50, children £4. nmni.com.
Titanic Walking Tours daily 11am, 1pm and 3pm. Adults £10, children 10-16 years £7, under 10 £5. titanicwalk.com.
The writer was the guest of Etihad and Tourism Ireland.