Northern Ireland: Rebounding after decades of strife
Mention Northern Ireland to most people and what comes to mind is the bombings that divided the country and dominated the headlines for 25 years. But after a decade of peace, the country is transforming itself, becoming a dynamic destination for travelers. (Continued)
Belfast to Derry
The next day I set out on the Causeway Coastal Route, an 80-miles curve-hugging highway that starts in Belfast and ends in Derry. Although it’s a challenge to drive on the “wrong” side of the road, follow the signs, read the map, navigate traffic circles, take notes and snap pictures —- all solo -— I somehow manage.
My first stop is Carrickfergus Castle, built in the 12th century, the best preserved Norman citadel. Next I pop into Glenarm Castle, once home to the Earls of Antrim, where a tulip festival is underway. The walled garden is one of the oldest and prettiest in Northern Ireland and on this warm and sunny Spring day it’s ablaze in color.
The road becomes harrowingly narrow as I crest toward Torr Head, which is, unfortunately, socked-in with fog as I approach. A shame, for it boasts spectacular views over the rugged coast. Instead, I focus on the pretty yellow gorse bushes and make a note to inquire about a hand-lettered sign offering “fresh dulse.” (I later learn it is reddish-purple seaweed). The weather, so changeable, clears at Cushendall, a picturesque village where three glens (valley towns) come together. My stomach calls and I pull over at The Fullterton Arms, which sits on the Main Street in Ballintoy, facing the Atlantic Ocean. I order steak and Guinness pie to fortify me as I continue up the coast.
The Giant’s Causeway is the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site and its top tourist attraction. It’s after 4 p.m. when I arrive, but as it’s a bank holiday and the sun is bright overhead (with hours of daylight remaining), the parking lots—even the auxiliary one—are packed. According to geologists, 65 million years ago, volcanic activity formed thousands of thousands of hexagonally shaped basalt columns, some which tower more than 500 feet tall.
There’s science, and then there’s mythology. Local legend has it that the giant Fionn MacCumhaill built it as a pathway across the ocean to Staffa, off the Scottish coast as a way to flee his enemy, Benandonner. (Opinion is divided as to whether there was a giantess involved). Benandonner pursued Fionn to his home, but was outwitted by Fionn’s clever wife, who disguised her husband as a baby. Terrified at the size of the infant, he became fearful of the father’s size. Then he fled back to Staffa, his thundering steps tearing up the causeway to prevent Fionn from following him.
Whether you ascribe to fact or fable, the site is monumentally impressive. Thousands of people are scrambling over the stones, enjoying the water’s view and queuing for the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Originally built by fisherman to check their salmon nets, it sways with the weight of daring day-trippers.
I bunk down for the night at Bushmills Inn Hotel, a historic inn with ivy-covered exterior walls and a bright red wooden door in the wee town. It’s got a certain creaky charm, but by 2009, it will a more polished property. Enjoying the soft summer air, folks are drinking outside at picnic tables.
Derry and More Northern Ireland Pleasures
After a light breakfast, I head for the Old Bushmills Distillery. Celebrating it 400th anniversary, it was founded in 1608, making it the oldest in the world. The guided tour takes you through the whiskey ingredients and processes, including the copper still distillation and the cask aging. Then comes the fun part: enjoying a dram of the amber liquid.
I’m off to Dunlace Castle, dramatically perched above the water on a headland of the North Antrim coast. The ruins of this medieval castle, with a history that dates back to the early Christians and Vikings, are haunting. After meditative exploration, I steer toward Portstewart Strand. Children’s shrieks punctuate the salty air on the wide, golden sand beach you can drive on. At Morelli’s on the town’s promenade, the windows overlook the ocean and the line is out door for burgers, pizza and ice cream.
Londonderry -— Derry for short -— is the only completely walled city in Ireland and one of the best preserved examples in all of Europe. The walls, built as a defense in the early 17th century, form a walkway around the inner city and there are numerous cannons displayed throughout the walls. They are a fine vantage point from which to view the town. Located within the wall, The Tower Museum gives a splendid overview of the city’s history, including the siege and the impact of The Troubles on townspeople.
The road widens as I head for my final destination, Galgorm Resort & Spa. It’s mostly farmland between Londonderry and Galgorm: sheep flank both sides of the road and the pungent smell of manure and fresh -- cut grass fills my nostrils. The resort eludes me, but with the assistance of helpful, wildly gesticulating locals, I roll up to the countryside manor.
My fourth floor room is done up in soothing earth tones; it opens onto the burbling of the River Maine. At Gillie’s, I have a simple dinner of grilled salmon with champ, mashed potatoes with scallions, before relaxing in the infinity pool at the Zen-like spa and indulging in an hour and a half aromatherapy massage with custom-blended oils.
I’m as transformed as the country after my long weekend.
Visit www.discovernorthernireland.com to
plan your trip.
Read more about Belfast and Northern Ireland
A former Navy brat who traveled and lived abroad extensively, Suzanne Wright is a fulltime, freelance writer based in Atlanta. She is a member of NATJA, and has written numerous travel, food and decor features for numerous international, national and regional publications. Her articles have appeared in Elite Traveler, Wine & Spirits, Veranda, Atlanta Magazine, The Tennessean, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, Piedmont Review, Charlotte Place, Where, On Magazine and others. A suitcase is always packed and her passport always up to date.