Northern Ireland - Golf, Guinness, and Giant's Causeway
The landscapes of Northern Ireland are not to be missed. Spending a week along her shores allowed us to discover the creative charm and gritty history of Belfast, stroll the breezy seaside town of Portrush, play 18 holes of golf at Portstewart and Ballycastle, and take in the breathtaking beauty of the Causeway Coast.
There's just something about enjoying your first Guinness in a bar that was established in 1720. Kelly's Cellars in downtown Belfast was a great place to start, with friendly staff and Irish "Trad" music playing overhead. There are plenty of choices for traditional Irish fare and fresh seafood, or you can enjoy the Italian, French, and Asian influences as well.
The city is divided into seven districts, each with its own unique identity. Belfast City Hall sits at the center of it all and offers free tours and a lighting display at night. The Hall's pristine lawns invite you to grab an ice-cream, relax, and people watch. There's a large presence of university students, so there's an added liveliness and energy to the air.
The Peace Walls are really something to see in person. This city has seen its share of conflict, and the walls serve as a constant reminder. They span almost 21 miles in total and stand as high as 25 feet in places. There are still iron gates that separate certain sections of the wall, and these are closed nightly. The most popular section of the wall divides the Falls and Shankill Road in Western Belfast, and definitely makes for some interesting reading. Over the years, some of the colors and messages have changed to reflect more current times, but there is still plenty of political and religious statements from their tumultuous past. One evening while chatting with a local about the current state of affairs regarding this divide, he said, "let me put it to you this way, our family is Catholic, and my sister married a Protestant. We call that a mixed marriage."
The government had plans to remove all walls of separation by the end of 2023, and although this goal seems highly unlikely, talks are still circulating as to the possibility of improving community relations and a Northern Ireland that's free from these divided lines. It seems it's much easier to build them than it is to tear them down.
Spend a day strolling Belfast via Riverside Walk along the River Lagan. It's a great way to tour the city, and you'll have plenty of shops, restaurants, parks, museums, and other historical sites to explore. You'll also find several movie theatres for seeking refuge in case it rains. Rain in Northern Ireland? Nah!
Head north towards the Belfast Lough, which is the inlet to the Irish Sea. The river will lead you to the Titanic Quarter, and the famous Titanic Museum. The Belfast Harbor Marina creates a lovely backdrop for the shipyard and prominent yellow Sampson & Goliath Cranes that serve as reminders of Belfast's industrial legacy.
The museum is built on the same slipway where the RMS Titanic was launched, and they've done a stellar job at presenting the details and tragedy of her maiden voyage in 1912. The exhibit also recounts her initial construction and underwater discovery decades later.
If you're a fan of artistic murals, there's no shortage in Belfast. As of a few years ago, there were over 700 illustrations documented around the city center. That's a lot of artwork, and it makes for a fun treasure hunt to see how many you can find.
One of the experiences I was determined to witness, was a live traditional, or "trad" music session. We stumbled upon this outdoor party and got caught up in the pure joy transpiring at this local hangout.
While Portrush definitely lives up to its reputation as a golfer's paradise, it also has the luxury of being situated on a mile-long peninsula, surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It has three amazing beaches, and they were filled with brave souls taking surfing lessons and enjoying a swim in those extremely frigid waters. I looked on in admiration with my "Dark & Stormy" rum cocktail.
Seafood dishes are a plenty in this resort town and Shanty Portrush was a favorite. It's full of history, thoughtful cuisine, and artfully crafted cocktails. Shanty makes their own gin, and I had the best Negroni of my life there. Be sure to make reservations, as this is a hot spot for diners.
Indigo Cafe Portrush served up homemade peanut butter and banana on freshly baked sourdough bread, a "dirty" chai latte, and a warm welcome. The display case is beaming with pastries and confections, an array of soups, salads, and sandwiches, as well as gluten-free and vegan options. Feel free to bring "Fido" in for a doggie treat. They're consistently voted one of the best cafes in the city for dogs, and their humans.
We relished our nightly oceanside strolls, and we were lucky enough to catch a playful display from a pod of dolphins, so always be on the lookout for the local sea life. There's plenty to see in Portrush, and one of the benefits of having it be your home base, is the easy access to the Causeway Coast and several nearby golf courses.
The Strand Course at Portstewart Golf Club was our first round of golf in Northern Ireland. This championship links course has been voted top of its game many times over. I highly recommend a caddie, not only for the charming company and fun banter, but this is one challenging course. The imposing dunes and tricky greens will test even the greatest golfers. The scenery from almost every hole is breathtaking, and there's an added factor of excitement knowing that you're playing on a course built in the late 1800's that's been home to numerous amateur and professional championships. Stop by Harry's Shack for fresh off the boat seafood and a beautiful view of Portstewart Strand Beach.
Ballycastle Golf Club blew us away during our second round of golf. Also built in the late 1800's, it sits just yards away from the Causeway Coast and offers panoramic views of the North Atlantic. On a clear day, you can make out some of the western isles of Scotland. We played without a caddie, and it proved to be an easy course to navigate on our own. It's just as challenging as Portstewart however, with the same intimidating dunes, blind greens, and steep hills. Wear a fitness watch while playing these greens, and you will enjoy that Guinness even more after documenting that calorie burn.
The Causeway Coastal Route has been voted one of the most scenic drives in the world. That's all the proof I needed to add this destination to my travel bucket list. The causeway is approximately 130 miles long from start to finish, and it would take several days to take in all of her beauty. The good news is that if you only have a day or two you will still see some pretty spectacular locations. There are UNESCO & National Trust sites, Game of Thrones filming locations, castles, and whiskey distilleries along the way.
The 16th century, medieval ruins of Dunluce Castle are best admired a bit earlier or later in the day. It's a hotspot for tourists, and once the buses arrive, you may miss a clear photo op. Winston Churchill once owned a portion but gave his share over to the government in 1928. It's maintained by the state, and it's astonishing that so much of the castle ruins are still standing once you see the hazardous position they occupy on the cliff's edge.
The legend of Giant's Causeway must have been a favorite bedtime story for a lot of children growing up. It tells the tale of two giants who were at odds with one another. Irish giant, Finn McCool built the rocky pathway in order to confront his nemesis, Scottish giant Benandonner. As the causeway sign clearly states, "Everyone knows that giants don't like getting their feet wet. That's why Finn built the Causeway to Scotland." And there you have it.
The moderate hike down to Giant's Causeway takes about 30 minutes, and I recommend the Causeway Coast Way Car Park versus the Visitor's Center. It's less expensive and you will avoid the tour buses. The incredible Basalt columns have been formed over millions of years. These lava creations are over 40,000 strong and the symmetry of these hexagonal pillars are just incredible.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is a favored attraction for visitors and a real act of bravery for some. The bridge was originally constructed back in the 1700's by salmon fishermen to connect the island of Carrickarede to the mainland. Thankfully, it's been reconstructed and open to the pubic since 2008. It dangles 100 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, and some may feel the need to calm their nerves through song. A charming group of elderly women in front of us starting singing, Help! by The Beatles. It seemed appropriate.
One of the most memorable aspects of this attraction is the hike along the white cliffs and rugged landscapes so unique to Northern Ireland. The merging shades of sea, sky, and land are truly magnificent.
You can find great value for your money in Northern Ireland, and two of our favorite stays were The Therapy Lodge in Ballycastle and Glendaloch B&B just outside of the Belfast Airport.
The owners of Therapy Lodge are inviting their guests to come face-to-face with serenity and relaxation. We took full advantage of the hot tub and tranquil surroundings. It's an add-on to their original property, and still gives you a feeling of complete privacy. Stop by the Salthouse Hotel for a delicious lunch and panoramic views of Ballycastle and the coastline.
The Glendaloch B&B is located just a few miles from Belfast Airport and was a great way to spend our last evening in Northern Ireland. The owners have thought of every detail; homemade croissants, price lists for snacks, wine, and dining options, as well as a full binder with things to do and see nearby. The property is beautifully manicured, with outdoor seating for guests and ample space to roam.
The hospitality, warmth, and charm of the locals will not soon be forgotten. There's plenty to experience for every variety of traveler, and if you enjoy fresh air, epic scenery, a round of golf, a Guinness or two, and the gift of gab, you'll have no trouble finding good times and friendly conversations, otherwise known as, "the craic."
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