BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- These days, when you cross from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland, there are no British soldiers standing guard and checking cars for bombs.
There are no gates to pass through or any noticeable differences at the border -- except that a line painted on the side of the street switches from yellow to white.
There are no clues that you've entered a region emerging from a deadly, sectarian, war-torn past between residents who remain loyal to England and favor its control over Northern Ireland and Irish who want freedom from British rule and to live in one, united Ireland.
With a power-sharing agreement in place since 1998 and the Northern Ireland Assembly finally seated, paramilitary
Although Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, the region is stepping away from a legacy of terror and is tiptoeing into a new era of hope.
And tourists are trickling in.
"Northern Ireland used to be Iraq," said Stephen McPhilemy, our guide from the Dublin-based Paddywagon Tours as he led our caravan on a three-day tour of the region. "Now it's Northern Ireland. Young kids here today have never heard gunshots."
More than 3,600 were killed from the 1960s through the 1990s, a period known as The Troubles, which involved lethal clashes between English loyalists and Irish Republican paramilitaries.
Although the parliament
Packed tour buses are rolling into the region. About 1.7 million overseas visitors in 2006 -- 2 percent more than in 2005 -- made their way through this mysterious, mythical and often-misunderstood land that has long been ignored by outsiders.
Many are curious about the region and want to tour political murals found in such cities as Derry and Belfast. The artwork testifies to the region's bloody history and struggle for equal rights.
Derry or Londonderry
More than 105,000 people call this city home, and the name you use depends on who you are. To Irish Catholics, it's Derry, the original name of the town. But in the 1600s, the British came to town and changed its name to Londonderry.
The city's name has been a source of contention among residents ever since.
Heading to town, you see the word "London" crossed off Londonderry street signs. Other signs on the outskirts instead refer to it as "The Walled City" -- for the 400-year-old walls inside -- in order to keep the peace.
Catholics and Protestants are segregated in this city. And while that appears to be a religious division, the longstanding conflict of Northern Ireland has nothing to do with the church.
Instead, it's been a fierce struggle between nationalities over power and control. About 56 percent of the people in the region are Protestant and side with the English, while 44 percent are Catholic and feel Irish.
"I read a U.S. newspaper that called the IRA Catholic guerillas," said McPhilemy. "But the war had nothing to do with religion."
Derry will always be known for Bloody Sunday. On Jan. 30, 1972, 14 young Irish men staging a civil rights demonstration were shot to death by British soldiers in front of reporters and the public.
Following the deadly shootout, the British government held an investigation that cleared the soldiers and England of blame. Outraged families campaigned for a second investigation, and in 1998 then-Prime Minister Tony Blair called for a second inquiry. Known as the Saville Inquiry, the results have not yet been released.
For tourists, the heart of the city's history can be found in an area called Free Derry -- its name since the late 1960s, when nationalists built barricades to keep British soldiers out. A landmark street sign that reads "You are now entering Free Derry" still stands along Rossville and Fahan streets.
About a block from the corner stands a black monument erected in memory of the men who died in the Bloody Sunday shooting. Nearby stands the Museum of Free Derry, an archive of the civil rights movement and The Troubles.
Murals on the sides of buildings depict the political turmoil and violence that have embroiled the area.
One mural shows a person wearing a gas mask with a Molotov cocktail in hand. Another shows a demonstration for equal rights for employment. In an expression of peace, one mural is simply a beautiful dove flying freely through the air.
Seeing neighborhoods segregated with fencing was a disturbing sight for one visitor, Bryan Olinger, 22, of Ohio.
Olinger is Presbyterian and of Scottish descent, but his lineage links back to Derry, and his family has always celebrated being Irish.
That would not be the case if he still lived in Derry. About 400 years ago the English brought Scots to Northern Ireland and gave them land that the Irish had owned. The new residents remained loyal to the monarchy.
"I would be in this neighborhood and living this," Olinger said of an area where a British flag flies and curbs are painted red, white and blue. "But at home we celebrate our Irish heritage."
Along the rugged northern coast of County Antrim is the Giant's Causeway, a treasured landmark and World Heritage Site spanning two miles.
Annually seeing 500,000 visitors, the site's history is also an intersection of no-nonsense modern science and traditional Irish mythology.
Stacks and stacks of rock resembling wine corks stretch from the steep cliffs into the thrashing ocean. They stand packed together in an oddly perfect formation, resulting from a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago, scientists say.
Locals have their own explanation about the geological wonder, deriving from a fabled creature known as Finn MacCool. Legend holds that the Irish giant built the causeway to walk to Scotland and battle another giant.
Residents repeat the fable with a sly smile and ask you to decide whether to believe the matter-of-fact scientific version of the story or the long-loved tale.
This capital of Northern Ireland, and home to about 277,000, saw the brunt of the violence during the decades of The Troubles.
Although lethal clashes have subsided since 1998, you can quickly get in touch with the city's grim past through Black Taxi Tours of Belfast.
On 1 1/2-hour tours, these four-passenger private cabs are driven by guides who provide a wealth of history and impartial commentary about Belfast as they whisk you past historical sites known mostly for violence.
The Europa Hotel, for example, stands gleaming and bright today in the heart of the city center, but it has the infamous reputation of being one of the world's most bombed hotels. It suffered more than 30 bomb attacks during The Troubles. Paramilitaries seeking global attention often targeted the hotel because it was typically filled with journalists in town to cover sectarian conflict, said Hans Jillings, our Black Taxi Tour driver.
As the tour traveled past Falls Road, Jillings pointed to high-rise flats, home to many Catholics. The British military was stationed on the top three floors for years and used the Catholics as human shields, Jillings said.
The military pulled out of the flats nearly two years ago. In fact, the British military has greatly reduced its presence in Northern Ireland during the last 10 years, slowly shrinking its military size from 30,000 to about 5,500, McPhilemy said.
Practically around the corner from Falls Road, we pulled over at Shankill Road, home to a strictly Protestant working-class neighborhood painted with murals reflecting loyalist causes. The two areas rocked with violence during The Troubles.
Murals of men pointing rifles are dubbed the Irish Mona Lisa, because everywhere you turn, they are looking directly at you.
As we took pictures of the area, Jillings warned us not to snap photos of residents because they may think you have deceptive motives.
"They say the war is over, but not everybody has relaxed," Jillings said. "If they see you taking their picture, they will take your film. And that will be the least of your problems."
Jillings, who began these tours in 1995 during a cease fire, had bricks hurled at his car during the early days, he said.
Although the atmosphere in Belfast has transformed from bloody conflict to post-war cosmopolitan, it will take time to heal its many open wounds.
While the fighting has subsided -- aside from a sprinkle of small-town flare-ups -- Catholics and Protestants are not necessarily standing around engaging in group hugs. But they are looking at ways to integrate.
And as the fragile region steps away from its painful past, its new leaders are seeking to build a thriving economy for the residents.
The North's First Minister, Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness -- once deadly enemies -- traveled to the United States in December for photo opportunities on Wall Street and with President Bush, hoping to show American investors how times have changed for the better in Northern Ireland.
The trip was largely ignored by major American newspapers and media outlets.
Around Belfast, which has the industrial look and feel of Long Beach, there is a spark of optimism, as well as signs that the region is moving ahead: Recently, an IKEA store opened up.
And, with Scotland rejecting Donald Trump's plans to build a world-class resort there, some Northern Ireland officials now hope to lure the American business tycoon across the sea.
Ironically, as Northern Ireland polishes up its tarnished image for investors, its haunted, tortured past remains one of its most attractive selling points for overseas visitors.
IF YOU GO:
Planning a trip to Northern Ireland? These contacts might be helpful:
-- For inexpensive, fun-filled and educating tours through Northern Ireland, go through Paddywagon Tours, based in Dublin. It mainly sees backpackers ages from 18 to 40 years oldand offers bunk bed, hostel lodging. All ages are welcome, however, and the agency will also arrange bed-and-breakfast accommodations. www.paddywagontours.com; (800) 783-4191.
-- The Northern Ireland Tourist Board's Web site offers information about accommodations, events, things to do and other information about the region at www.discovernorthernireland.com; (011-44-28) 9023-1221.
-- The Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau lists local events, special offers, tours and more at www.gotobelfast.com; (011-44-28) 9024-6609.
The Derry Visitor and Convention Bureau has loads of information about travel, lodging and exploring the famous walled city at www.derryvisitor.com; (011-44-28) 7137-7577.
-- Learn more about the civil rights movement in Derry at the Museum of Free Derry at www.museumoffreederry.org; (011-44-28) 7136-0880. The museum is at 55 Glenfada Park, Derry.
-- Black Taxi Tours of Belfast offer unbiased political tours through some of the worst parts of this capital city. Tours cost $50 for up to three people. With four or more, the price drops to $16 per person. The business does not have a Web site. To arrange a ride, call Hans at (011-44-79) 7481-4002 or his partner Walter at (011-44-77) 2106-7752.
-- Information about Giant's Causeway, its gift shop and accommodations are at www.northantrim.com/giantscauseway.htm; (011-44-28) 2073-1855.