Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In the steps of giants.

Northern Ireland turned on its prettiest face for us today. Blue skies, clear water, no wind.
We dined on a scrumptious Ulster breakfast (eggs, bacon, black pudding, sausage, potato bread and mushrooms) at the guesthouse and then tried to beat some of the crowds to the highlighted tourist spots of NI. We were almost successful at the Dark Hedges (as featured in Game of Thrones). We parked at the Dark Hedges hotel car park (very nice of them to allow this and a considerate tourist thing for everyone to do so you don’t mess up other people’s photos with your car) and walked the 500 metres or so to the road. I managed to take two clear shots of the hedges with no one else in them and then suddenly we were swamped by other people on the same mission. Unfortunately, most of them just parked their cars on the side of the Dark Hedge road, making it impossible for anyone to get a sense of the mysterious atmosphere.

The Dark Hedges
We weren’t quite early enough at Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. The ticket box had just opened but the car park was already full and the path to the bridge was reminiscent of the hordes at Niagara Falls. The bridge spans a little gorge between the mainland and a rocky outcrop. It’s a loooong way down but the bridge is steady and they only allow 8 people on it at a time so I managed it quite easily. On the other side, the views are spectacular, especially on a gorgeous day like this but the edges are unfenced and the drop is sheer. The terror of watching everyone get as close as possible for the perfect photo gave me a panic attack so I had to sit and do some mindfulness exercises!
Across the bridge

View from the top

Too close to the edge!

Time out for a panic

From there we went to the Giant’s Causeway and that’s when the desire to see the natural wonders of the world on a sunny Sunday in Summer got bat shit crazy. The carpark looked like the MCG on grand final day, as every tour bus and international school camp in NI and about ten thousand locals vied for a chance to pay 10 pound, (about $18 each), to step foot on the ancient, tessellated rocks. This was too much for us Aussies (not bad grammar, just an appropriate line from Spamalot) so we retreated to try again at a later, or earlier time.

Portrush is the epicentre of the beach towns along the northern coast. We’d planned to have lunch there but it too was wall to wall cars along the beach front, the harbour and the street. There were numerous amusement arcades and a giant mobile home park. In the public toilets there were several teenage girls changing into bikinis, applying 57 layers of makeup and creating cocktails with vodka in their drink bottles! We parked down the far end and did a bit of people watching, decided we were very glad we were staying in Ballycastle and took off again, back through Coleraine and the Dark Hedge road (bumper to bumper by this time). Ballycastle was busy too but in a pleasant, country village way, with a hurling tournament and a market by the beach. The runners (everyone but me) did their exercise thing and I strolled through the market and down the beach.
Break hour in Ballycastle

Ballycastle beach

For dinner we packed a picnic with ingredients from Tesco and headed back to the Giant’s Causeway. This time we avoided the Information Centre altogether and, quite legally, took the red trail (extreme cliff climb!), at no cost, to the causeway. Our picnic spot at Saguenay Fjord last week was a definite winner for lunch but this is a new contender for best dinner venue. I doubt there are many days in NI where you can comfortably walk across the causeway in your shorts and t shirt at 9.30pm, but this was one of them. It was absolutely stunning.
162 steps down

The Giant’s Causeway stretches out and up like a 3D version of Hexa. It’s pretty hard to believe that these stones aren’t man made; there are thousands of perfect hexagons in different sized stacks, reaching out into the sea. To make it even more perfect, the sun was beginning to set and we were sharing this amazing vision with only a handful of other people. Don’t get me wrong- I think it’s wonderful that so many people are travelling the world but like my fantasy of first class air travel, I just wish they weren’t all doing it at the same time as me so the decision to wait till the evening to visit will go down as one of the best decisions of this trip. Turns out the blue trail (moderate, no steps path) is also accessible without an official ticket, so we returned to the car that way.

On the way home we stopped at Ballintoy harbour to watch the last of the sunset.

It was a perfect day.

PS - for any of my Humanities class reading this today - we're in Clifden now on the West coast and then we're travelling through Galway to the Cliffs of Moher before we go back to Dublin. See if you can find out something for us to do in the Connemarra area tomorrow and maybe somewhere to stop off on the trip to the cliffs and then back to Dublin ;-)

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Belfast to Ballycastle

I was right to worry about the traffic noise last night. Combined with a lack of curtains in the apartment, we all found it a bit hard to sleep. Geoff & Sophie got up and went for a run around the Titanic Quarter then we made our own breakfast (courtesy of Lidls) and headed to the Titanic Belfast exhibit.
Running track
This is a very popular exhibit and there were already a lot of people, including several school excursion groups there when we arrived. This forced me to put on my school teacher voice a couple of times- much to the horror of my own children. The exhibit covers 7 floors, with information not only about the Titanic but ship building in general, and particularly, in Belfast. Some of it is a bit tedious but all in all we enjoyed it enough to spend nearly 3 hours examining the displays.

There’s lots of symbolism built into the design of the building, with each feature paying tribute to different elements of the Titanic, from the span of the fa├žade matching the width of the ship, to the morse code patterned lines on the path outside. My favourite part was reading the testimony of the survivors and the information dispelling some of the movie myths about the sinking. Given that some of my students are basing their Drama solos on one of the survivors, it was also good research material.
Front of the building reflects the size and width of the Titanic
As luck would have it, the ticket seller at Titanic Belfast was from Ballycastle, our next destination. He gave us a copy of his suggested route along what he called the Causeway Coastal Tour, dedicated to his dad who had coined the phrase back in the 60s. All he asked was that we visit the bench named in honour of his dad on the Ballycastle foreshore, take a photo and send it to him. I love the interesting and helpful people you meet while traveling!

By the time we hit the road it was after 1 and unfortunately it was raining pretty hard so the magnificence of the coastal road was a little bit muted into a solid sheet of grey sky meets grey sea with no discernible horizon and we couldn’t get out of the car. Nevertheless it was majestic and I’d love to drive that way again when there was a touch of blue in the sky.
Road block

Sightseeing in NI

From Casheldun we took the scenic (and incredibly skinny) Torr road. No need to spend money on fairground roller coasters- here was one for free. Up, up, up, then around and down, down, down- repeat. All done on a road just barely wide enough for two small vehicles to pass one another on the straight stretches and a sheer drop on one side to the sea many, many, many metres below. It was a crazily beautiful drive, even in the rain.

We were really lucky at Torr Head that the rain let up long enough for us to climb to the top for a view across the Mull of Kintyre to Scotland. No doubting where Sir Paul McCartney got the inspiration for that song.

Mull of Kintyre

Top of Torr Head

Another big win with the accommodation awaited us at Ballycastle. At the An Caislean guesthouse we have been upgraded to a little family suite; two separate bedrooms, a bathroom and vestibule. Up on the top floor of the beautiful Victorian building we have a lovely view down towards the sea.

Taine was running low on fuel so we walked to the sea front in search of a snack and then took our ice creams for a stroll around the harbour. There were some hardy Irish families swimming at the beach (it was 14 C), people playing tennis on some lovely grass courts and lots of fishing boats coming in with their day’s catch. Altogether a very pretty vista. We stopped long enough to take a photo on Jack O’Kane’s bench and to skip a few stones across the river mouth and by then it was time to search for dinner.
Jack O'Kane's bench

We’d been given a few suggestions from the B&B and another one from my geography class at home (thanks Liam) but they were all chockers except for the Diamond Hotel who luckily had just one table for 4 left. We’ve had terribly bad luck on this trip with fish and chips but ever the optimists, we all ordered the cod and sweet potato chips. Hallelujah! The fish was fresh, huge and crisply battered. The accompanying salad was just enough and the beer was cold. Lucky there are 3 flights of stairs to take the edge off before bed.