IT'S not difficult to see why Northern Ireland is becoming more popular with vacationers. The country has remarkable rugged scenery, some of the best boating and fishing waters in Western Europe, friendly people, and wide open spaces where the silence is a balm for the wounds of the world.
Tourist chiefs in Northern Ireland indicated a record number of visitors in 1987, suggesting that the province's image as a trouble spot has been changing for the better.
Northern Ireland measures some 14,000 square kilometers in size, roughly the area of Yorkshire in England. The population totals about 1.5 million, with the capital city of Belfast claiming roughly 360,000. It's often referred to as Ulster, though three of the ancient counties of this province - Donegal, Monaghan, and Cavan - are now in the Irish Republic. The six counties of Northern Ireland are Antrim, Londonderry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh, and Down.
Although the province is administered by 26 local councils, political control rests with the British Parliament at Westminster - partly because local politicians in Northern Ireland cannot agree on a power-sharing formula.
The visitor will find evidence of military and police activity in parts of Belfast and Londonderry, as well as along the border.
Apart from the known trouble spots, however, the greater part of Northern Ireland is peaceful and has many attractions for a tourist who is looking for something different.
In Northern Ireland the distances are relatively small, and a visitor can choose his or her itinerary on the way to or from the Irish Republic. Significantly, many American tourists and other visitors now look on Ireland as a two-center vacation destination, with time spent in both the north and south. Road and rail links from Dublin to the North are good. Belfast itself is an excellent starting point for a circular tour of the province.
Belfast, set in a beautiful inlet at the edge of the Irish Sea and virtually surrounded by gorgeous green hills, is an industrial city. It has good cuisine, a vibrant cultural life, and hospitable people with a quick sense of humor.
Traveling north along the Antrim Coast Road, one sees spectacular scenery. A visitor should take time to look at White Park Bay and Port Braddon, which has one of the smallest churches in the world.
Farther along, the Giant's Causeway is a superb example of basalt columns and outcrops formed some 60 million years ago by cooling lava. Ulstermen, of course, have a different story about its formation; they will tell you that an Irish giant, Finn McCool, built the causeway in order to walk across the sea to nearby Scotland without getting wet! Those visitors who wish to know more will find a marvelously equipped tourist center nearby.
The next major stop, beyond the small seaside resorts of Portrush and Portstewart and the market town of Limavady (where the world-famous ``Londonderry Air'' was first heard) is Derry city. Some of its parts are a little battered from the troubles, but Derry has some of the best-preserved city walls in Europe, and a wealth of history where the very stones of St. Columb's Cathedral speak volumes.
Outside Derry, the road leads to Strabane and Omagh, where there are special attractions for American visitors.
One of the main selling points of Ulster tourism is heritage, and many Americans visit the province to trace their ancestral roots in this part of the world, which provided the forebears for more than a dozen United States presidents from Andrew Jackson to Woodrow Wilson.
At Strabane, there are historic printing presses in the room where John Dunlap learned his trade. Later, he emigrated to America, where he printed the Declaration of Independence.
The American connection is further illustrated by the attractive Ulster-American Folk Park near Omagh. This is a ``living'' museum, complete with thatchers and blacksmiths, and a wealth of detail highlighting the links between the Old and New Worlds. Omagh is near the ancestral home of President Ulysses S. Grant.
Down in Fermanagh's Lakelands, pleasure cruisers give access to outstanding fishing and scenery. In Fermanagh, the wonderful subterranean figures of Marble Arch Caves, caused by the underground erosion of limestone, are well worth seeing.
Those who wish to sample the rest of Ulster should return by historic Armagh City, with its two cathedrals, and then they should go on to the Mourne Country, with its folklore and outstanding mountain scenery.
Outside Down Cathedral, at Downpatrick, is the supposed grave of Ireland's patron, St. Patrick. Farther east are the numerous inlets and islands of Strangford Lough, named by the Vikings ``the violent fiord.''
On the way back to Belfast, the visitor should call at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, another ``living'' museum that is one of the best of its type in the world.
And be sure to save time to meet some of the people of Ulster, with their mixture of charm, helpfulness, and quiet humor.
If you go
For more details about travel to Northern Ireland, contact the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, 40 W. 57th St., 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10019; (212) 765-5144.
Alf McCreary is the author of the best-selling travel book ``An Ulster Journey,'' published by Greystone Books, Antrim, Northern Ireland.