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Trip Report Ireland with a Northern Twist

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First … thank you so much to all who helped with suggestions. The impetus for this trip was to return to the annual Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival. Belfast & Nashville are sister cities and the festival is fantastic. This was our fifth trip to Ireland and we’ve explored (and loved) much of the island. Our plan for this trip was to concentrate on the north—the Antrim Coast and Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland, and County Donegal in the Republic.

We landed in Belfast, and before we had even left the airport I was reminded of how exceptionally warm and friendly the people are. It took about 40 minutes to sort out a problem with my work visa. By then, all the other arriving passengers had left and the immigration agents chatted with us like old friends. They repeatedly apologized for the delay, offered to bring us some water, and when I mentioned that the nose-piece on my glasses had broken, they even offered to bring me a “plaster” (Band-Aid)! We enjoyed the “craic” so much I was almost sorry to leave.

Rented a car from Europcar and headed to our first stop—the Bushmills Inn in Bushmills. We loved it there. The staff was exceptional and the hotel has a lot of charm and character. When we slept through breakfast (jet lag!) the first day, they insisted it was no problem to serve us. Once again, plenty of craic with the servers and desk clerks.

On previous trips we had stayed at Limepark Cottages in Armoy (near Ballycastle) and absolutely loved it, but decided to try Bushmills this time, to be closer to the Giant’s Causeway and some places we hadn’t seen before. The room was quite nice and reasonably priced at around $160 U.S.D including an enormous breakfast. The restaurant had enormous windows that overlooked a lovely courtyard, making you feel like you were dining in a garden.

There were advantages to staying in both places. On a previous trip we had enjoyed stops in Cushendall and Cushendun, and LOVED the waterfall walk in Glenariff – in the Glens of Antrim. This time, we didn’t get down that far, concentrating on sites more to the north. But I’d say that Glenariff –and the waterfall walk -- is a “must-see” for those who haven’t been there.

The Giant’s Causeway is the star attraction on the Causeway Coastal Highway—and it is SPECTACULAR. The setting itself would be enough, but the octagonal geological formations are fascinating. But, there’s so much more on that route. In the past two years I’ve driven California’s Highway 1 from San Francisco to L.A., and Australia’s Great Ocean Road. The Causeway Coastal Highway is absolutely on par with both of these. The scenery is nothing short of stunning.

“The Dark Hedges”—a “Game of Thrones” filming site—is inland a bit, and is a photographers’ paradise (as is most of this area). I’m a bit of a photography nut and took one of my favorite photos ever there.

Really enjoyed a photo stop at Dunseverick Harbour—which was only marked “Harbour” by the sign. A seventy-year-old kayaker (it was late February—and the wind was blowing!!!!) told us the name. The Irish are a hearty lot!!! We had a nice conversation. It seems everyone wanted to chat—and it was so nice.

But hands down, my favorite place of the entire trip was Ballintoy Harbour—that was another filming location for “Game of Thrones.” The beauty of that part of the Antrim coast is nothing short of breathtaking. Some of the rock formations look like sculptures carved by the sea, and one of them looked exactly like an elephant. There were enormous caves to explore, too. I could gush on and on, but you’ll understand when you see the photos.

We stopped to snap pix at every pull-off: White Rocks, Rinagree Coastal Park, Portrush, and Dunluce Castle which is simply incredible. It’s a gorgeous setting and so interesting to explore. This was another fave. Did a long walk at Carrick-a-rede, with its famous rope bridge. Sooo beautiful. (Help! I’m running out of superlatives.)

Portstewart was not on my radar, but a local suggested it as a great place for a coastal walk. The town is a beach resort that’s very popular with locals. We did “the Nun’s Walk” aka “The Convent Walk” and the “the Clift Walk.” Whatever they call it, it was beautiful. It was bright and sunny, but when the wind blew it was quite cold, yet there were quite a few ice cream shops, including a famous one that makes its own. An amazing number of people were walking while eating ice cream!!! AGGHH. After the walk we enjoyed browsing the shops.

That evening we had an exceptional dinner in Bushmills at Tartine (at the Distiller’s Arms). It was surprisingly good food with beautiful presentation, and reasonable prices. Overall, our meals exceeded expectations.

Will post a link to photos at the end.

Next stop: Derry/Londonderry …

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    Chapter 2:

    It was an easy 90-minute drive from Bushmill’s to Derry/Londonderry, with beautiful coastal scenery much of the way. We’d chosen to stay at the Belfray Country Inn—just outside the city. The reviews looked good and it seemed more peaceful and scenic than staying in the city. It was a good choice. The room was nice and comfortable and the staff was exceptional. But the best part was the restaurant. The meals were fantastic, and enormous. It was always packed with locals—which is typically a good sign.

    We had booked a guided tour with Martin McCrossan who seems to be the #1 tour guide. He’s guided the likes of Susan Boyle, Will Ferrell, and the Prime Minister. He picked us up at the hotel and our first site was the Peace Bridge with its statue of two people with their hands outstretched—almost touching. He commented that the hands are getting closer each day. Very moving. We walked the 400 year-old city walls and the guide explained the history of the city, the walls, and the sites beyond. There were some beautiful views and marvelous old churches.

    The guide took us into beautiful St. Columb’s cathedral where we viewed the stained glass windows, a silver chalice from the 1600’s and an actual cannon ball that King James’ forces had fired. We were lucky enough to hear the dean play Londonderry Aire on the massive organ. Sooo beautiful. As everywhere in Ireland—and especially the north—there was lots of chatting, which we enjoyed.

    The tour guide took us to a little shop where we had tea and scones with cream and jam before continuing on. He offered to take us on a drive into the country to see an ancient ring fort—An Grianan—on a site established in 2000 B.C. (when I was just a wee lad)!! He explained that although we’d be crossing the border into the Republic and entering County Donegal, there were no checkpoints and no sings—but I noticed that the signposts changed from miles to kilometers. Local historian & tour guide Dessie McCallion met us there, and explained the history. The wind was intense, but the views were awesome. Fascinating, and amazing to stand in a spot where people have worshipped and congregated for three thousand years.

    On the way back, we took narrow, winding roads that Martin explained were used by bandits who wanted to avoid capture on the main roads. He explained that during “The Troubles” the border was heavily guarded and there were security checkpoints and curfews.

    The guide mentioned that rather than have some people refer to the city as “Derry,” while others call it “Londonderry” (depending on your leanings) they are encouraging referring to it as “LegenDerry.”

    The tour was excellent, and I’d recommend it highly. We chose the option of having him drop us off in the city, so we could continue touring on our own. Our next stop was a café he recommended for lunch: the Primrose Café. It was quaint and charming—and the food was indeed delicious.

    We loved the architecture and stained glass windows at the Guild Hall—and the items from the time capsule. This is a “must-see” stop—and it’s free. The stained glass was stunning. We enjoyed the exhibits, but the building itself is the main attraction. We also enjoyed visiting the Workhouse Museum (in a former workhouse) were we learned about the famine and the sad lives of those who were relegated to the workhouse.

    We enjoyed just wandering around, browsing in the shops, and photographing the old buildings and pubs. Then headed to the Bogside neighborhood to visit the Museum of Free Derry. The museum is located on the spot of the Bloody Sunday massacre. So powerful!!! It really brought “the Troubles” to life and was the first time I felt I had begun to grasp the conflict. (U2’s song will never be the same to me!) The man who took our £3 to enter told us that his 17-year-old brother had been killed that day. It was a profoundly moving experience—analogous to visiting the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Alabama.

    When we left the museum we were in the heart of where the events we’d learned about had happened. Really enjoyed viewing the political murals and memorials. For me, this was a highlight of the trip.

    Dinner was once again at the Belfray Inn—and once again, it did not disappoint.
    It’s sad that when people hear Northern Ireland all they think of is “The Troubles.” I never understood the conflict until this visit. I think it’s inconceivable to Americans. Thankfully, the healing is progressing. I felt 100% safe everywhere and would urge anyone to visit Northern Ireland. The natural beauty, scenery, architecture, and history matches anything I‘ve seen in the Republic—and I’ve traveled extensively in the Republic, including the gorgeous the Dingle Peninsula.

    Our final day in Derry a rainy morning gave way to bright sunny skies and we decided to forego the Tower Museum for a walk at Ness Wood that had been recommended on this forum. En route we pulled over to photograph the ruins of Brackfield Bawn—built in 1611. The walk was beautiful! THANK YOU to whomever had suggested it. We followed a stream to Northern Ireland’s tallest waterfall. It didn’t seem very tall to me, nor as big as the waterfall at Glenariff—but still, very pretty, and a peaceful, lovely way to spend our last day in that area. Although we had already checked out of the hotel, for our last meal, we drove back to the Belfray Inn for a delicious, enormous carvery lunch (£9.99).

    (I’m waiting to post the pix till the end of the report)

    Next stop … Donegal

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    Thank you for such a great report. I want to see all that you have wrote about. One of my relatives was born in Derry so have that on my list but didn't know of all the other info.

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    Chapter 3: Donegal & Belfast

    I’ve had a penpal in Gloucester, England for twenty years. We only met for the first time a few years ago. He now has a vacation seaside cottage on the Inishowen peninsula in Co. Donegal. (He calls it “the hovel,”) We had a wonderful visit, and mostly did long walks by the sea, then chats by the fire in the cottage. He’s a wonderful cook, so we didn’t eat in restaurants.

    The highlight was the Glenveagh park which housed a beautiful old stately castle where Greta Garbo had visited and swam in the pool. The setting and home were stunning. We toured the home and really enjoyed it.

    The drive from Derry to Belfast took us through the Sperrin Mountains. It was a sunny day and the scenery from the motorway was lovely—although not “dramatic.” The plan was to return the rental car at a “city” office, then walk to the Holiday Inn where the music festival would take place.

    Well … trying to find the EuropCar return in the city was a nightmare because there is no sign at the entrance to the industrial park. Our GPS stated that we were 6/10 of a mile away. It took 45 minutes—which included accidentally pulling onto a motorway in bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic! We returned the car ten minutes before closing!!! It was very stressful, but things got much better from there.

    Walking to our hotel, we passed the Europa Hotel (infamous for being the most bombed hotel in the world—40 times during “the Troubles.”) We stopped into the famous Crown Pub across the street. It was packed and quite beautiful.

    The Holiday Inn was fine. We were able to walk everywhere from there. Re: food … we like Nando’s when we travel in Australia and were thrilled to have one next door to our hotel. We had several meals there. (They specialize in peri peri Portuguese grilled chicken.) We also had a good authentic, inexpensive Asian meal at Tao Noodles. There were a lot of Asian and Indian restaurants in the area, as well as many restaurants and pubs. We wandered by Darcy’s Belfast Bistro and saw an article posted outside that called it “a hidden gem.” They were not kidding.

    The menu stated that they serve all local foods—and it specified where they came from. There were lots of traditional Irish dishes available, as well as some others. At our first visit we allowed the waitress to steer us to her favorite dishes. The Parsnip/bacon soup (served with sundried tomato bread for £3.95)was amazing!! I had “honey mustard” chicken with lyonnaise potatoes. The chicken was in an exquisite sauce—but it did not taste anything like honey or mustard.

    We were back the following night, and our choices were just as good: sweet potato/leek soup and chicken and ham pie with fresh vegetables. The prices were very reasonable. Before 7 PM most of the mains were £7.77. It was only two or three additional pounds after the “early bird.” This was our favorite restaurant of the trip.

    We loved St. George’s Market which has been operating since the 1600’s. It’s open weekend mornings. We had just eaten breakfast at the hotel or I would have eaten my way through the market. The baked goods, produce, cheeses, olives, flowers, all looked picture perfect. I took back fresh-baked wheaten bread and OMG scones. Just wandering and looking at the antiques and displays, and talking with the vendors was great fun.

    St. Anne’s Belfast Cathedral is exquisite. The mosaics on the sides were magnificent. This is another “must-see.” But City Hall is one of the most exquisite buildings anywhere—both inside and out. If possible, do the tour; if not, just seeing the lobby is a “must.” WOW! I can say the same about the outside of Queen’s University—but they have a modern statue in front that I could do without.

    Afterwards we strolled through the lovely botanic garden and visited the beautiful Victorian “palm” house. (no admission charge). The Ulster Museum is across the street. We enjoyed that on a previous trip, but didn’t have time this time.

    I love old buildings, churches, and unusual architecture, so for me, just wandering around Belfast was great. Came upon the Merchant’s Hotel that was beyond ornate. It made Liberace’s home look like a dump! It really was gorgeous and I would have loved to do their afternoon tea, but the timing didn’t work out. On a previous visit I’d done a Black Taxi Tour that took you to the main sites of the conflict in Belfast. It was exceptionally moving and I’d highly recommend that for anyone interested in the history.

    I’d previously been to the Titanic museum, so I skipped that on this trip. But it was good. I especially liked the parts that gave you a sense of what it was like to live in Belfast when the Titanic was built. But we enjoyed walking around the Titanic Quarter and seeing the beautiful old custom house.

    The rest of my time in Belfast was at the Belfast Nashville Music Festival—ten days of concerts and classes that were FABULOUS. Highlights included Mary Wilson (of the Supremes), Donovan, Midge Ure … and of course, me ;-).

    It was an amazing trip with more beauty than my camera could hold ☺. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a link to the photos:

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    I too have travelled all over ireland and am coming back this September and planning on three nights in Kenmare and a full week in Dingle...we've considered extending our trip to explore this area, particularly Donegal and the Giants causeway. Thanks for the report and wonderful photos.

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    We finally got there and you were right, Ballintoy Harbour was amazing. I loved Giant's causeway but the surf at Ballintoy Harbour was huge and powerful. Looked like hurricane waves. the Dark Hedges were just about to bloom, another week and it would look very different.
    We went to Portstewart for the Northwest 200 and got to see the town. Belfast really impressed me, you were so right about the people. Loved the Black cab tour with Bobby.
    We need more threads about Northern Ireland. We will be back.

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    Really enjoyed your report and photos. Considering a tour of Ireland maybe next year. Everything I read about Ireland has a common thread -- how wonderful the people are!

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