This is the 500th post on A Lady in London. The previous 499 have covered travel destinations all over the world, and, closer to home, locations throughout the UK. I have written numerous posts about my exploits in England, several about my sojourns in Scotland, and a couple about my weekends in Wales. But in the four-and-a-half years I have been living in London, there is one UK destination that I have not covered in this travel blog: Northern Ireland.
Over the weekend I set out to change that. With Belfast as my base, I explored the coast of Northern Ireland on a tour that took me along the stunning Causeway Coastal Route. From castles and caves to rock formations and rope bridges, the day trip from Belfast was packed with adventure.
I met my tour, which was offered to me by McComb’s Travel, in the Belfast city center at 9:45am on Saturday. As the bus drove us to County Antrim for our first destination on the tour, our guide and driver, Mark, pointed out places of interest along the way.
Soon we arrived at Carrickfergus Castle, which dates back to 1177. The formidable fortress rested right on the water, and was fronted by a statue of William of Orange. He came to Carrickfergus in 1690 to fight King James II at the famous Battle of the Boyne.
The castle was beautiful in the changing light of morning, and sat stately in front of a harbor full of colorful boats. Lamposts along the pier extinguished their lights in the grey dawn as the sun rose across the water to throw light on the historic ramparts.
Back on the bus, we drove deeper into County Antrim. The Causeway Coastal Route showed off its beauty in the sparkling sunshine, and the water glistened along rocky banks. Mark likened the route to Highway 1 in California, and I couldn’t help but agree.
Along the way we passed through towns like Ballycastle, where Guglielmo Marconi made his first successful radio transmission from a nearby island. We also saw the cottage where American president Andrew Jackson’s parents lived before they emigrated to the USA, learned that the Queen’s salmon came from fisheries off the coast, and drove past the quarry where HBO’s Game of Thrones is filmed.
The second stop on our Northern Ireland tour was the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Formerly used by salmon fishermen to get to a small island off the coast, the bridge is now a famous sightseeing attraction. We walked out to it along a beautiful coastal path as the wind whipped foam from the water all the way up to the top of the cliffs.
When we reached the bridge, we saw that it was suspended across two volcanic cliffs, swinging precariously as the sea surged beneath it. It was closed that day due to high winds, but I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to cross it even if it had been open.
Back on the bus, the tour continued with a drive to Bushmills, the first licensed whisky distillery in the world. Dating back to 1608, the complex was a mix of old buildings and new ones, and the smell of both malt and history pervaded the premises.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to do a whisky tour at Bushmills. Instead we had a quick lunch in the cafe before boarding the bus for the next destination on our Northern Ireland tour: Giant’s Causeway.
I don’t think I was alone in booking the tour primarily to see the famous geological phenomenon on the coast. It was the main attraction for most people on the tour, and we couldn’t wait to get a glimpse.
We arrived at the Causeway Hotel, from where it was a short walk to the Giant’s Causeway on the Antrim Coast. The name of the place comes from a legend that Irish giant Finn McCool built a causeway to Scotland so that he could fight his rival, Benandonner.
The wind was fierce, but we battled through it to see the causeway, which was comprised of 60-million-year-old basalt columns that had formed as a result of a volcanic eruption. The 40,000 hexagonal columns came in various heights and shades of beige, all of them impervious to the the furious sea lashing white waves at their base.
Somehow I had imagined the Giant’s Causeway to be bigger, taller, and more spread out than it was. Still, the interlocking columns were impressive and I was glad to have seen the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site on Northern Ireland’s coast.
Daylight was receding by the time we left for the final stop on our tour. Thankfully it was only a short drive to Dunluce Castle, where we stopped for about a minute to take photos from a vista point overlooking the fortress. In the summer months when the days are longer, there is more time to visit the castle and see it in the daytime, but in early January we weren’t so lucky.
Still, as we drove back to Belfast I was amazed at how much we had seen in an eight-hour Northern Ireland tour. Castles, villages, a famous rope bridge, the world’s first licensed whisky distillery, and a causeway built by a giant were not things I see every day in London. It may have taken me four years and 500 posts to get there, but Northern Ireland was well worth the visit.