North Ireland coast 

Historical wonders and adventures abound – once the fog clears

click to flip through (4) PHOTO BY PHENSRI RUTLEDGE - Dunluce Castle
  • Photo by Phensri Rutledge
  • Dunluce Castle

Stunning coastline, windswept cliffs, spectacular scenery and fabulous unspoiled beaches are the promise on one of the world's great road journeys. Unfortunately, all we can see at the moment is fog.

My wife and I are driving on the Causeway Coastal Route in Northern Ireland with high expectations but so far the results have been disappointing. We have crawled out of Belfast and are now peering through the gloom at Carrickfergus's well-preserved 12th century Norman Castle.

The road heads north and the weather slowly improves. It's now inland to the charming village of Glenarm then on through flower-filled Broughshane where Saint Patrick is said to have tended livestock in the 5th century.

Bright sunshine appears on approaching Ballycastle. Our spirits have soared and so too has the scenery. We stop at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge which traverses a 30 metre deep canyon. I am immediately intimidated, however, despite my fears I make it across, as have salmon fishermen for 350 years.

We are surprised to discover that the bridge is more than a kilometre from the car park but the walk along the cliff-top path is exhilarating with stunning views across to Rathlin Island. Spring has brought wild flowers and a profusion of bird life.

There are toilets, a tea room, gift shop, ticket office, and picnic area at the entrance to the walk. Rangers control access to the bridge and we are told that sometimes there are considerable delays for the thousands of visitors who want the challenge of the crossing.

It is now on to Northern Ireland's top natural attraction, the Giant's Causeway. Apart from the amazing layered basalt columns plunging into the ocean there are famous legends and colourful folklore associated with the causeway.

The six-sided basalt columns have been formed when molten lava filled a river valley 60 million years ago, then cooled and cracked. The site is now owned by the National Trust and has been free to visit at any time, however, with the opening of the new Visitor's Centre a charge of around $12 now applies.

The area around the causeway is attractive. Grasslands, heath, cliffs, marshes, the rocky shore and the sea provide homes for a wide variety of plants and animals. We see purple orchid flowers, vivid yellow gorse, colourful stonechats, petrels and peregrine falcons.

Alexander Mehaffy, the tourism development manager, tells us how the causeway is made up of three promontories with one curving gently out to sea towards Scotland. She also points out strange rock formations known as the camel, the organ and the harp.

The historic 1830s Causeway Hotel is serving food but we cannot resist a visit to the Old Bushmills Distillery, Ireland's oldest whiskey distillery, which was granted a licence in 1608. Luckily there are guided tours, a gift shop and a cafe.

A few kilometres further along is Dunluce Castle, said to be the most romantic and picturesque in Ireland. The ruined castle has clung onto its dramatic hilltop location since the 14th century. It was built by the Scottish McQuillans and was once owned by Winston Churchill. We pay the admission charge then wander around by ourselves fantasizing about events long past. It is said that many years ago part of the kitchen collapsed into the sea and so the wife of the owner refused to live in the castle any longer.

Nearby Portrush has been a fun destination for generations of people and its beaches, hotels, amusements and stimulating night life are still here. We stop at the Royal Portrush Golf Club which is home to 2010 U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell and 2011 British Open Champion Darren Clarke. The club, founded in 1888, is one of Ireland's premier tournament venues and has dramatic physical features that provide a formidable challenge to all players.

Mountsandel Wood is a venue of a different kind. This is the earliest known settlement of man in Ireland dating back nearly 10,000 years. There is an earthen fort and a forest walk. The forest walk goes from the high point at the fort to the banks of the Bann River. Next is Downhill Demesne, a stunning landscaped park with sheltered gardens and cliff walks. Close to the edge of a sheer drop stands Mussendon Temple, an 18th century folly based on the Roman temple at Tivoli, Italy.

We drive on to Londonderry, Northern Ireland's second city but our thoughts are still on the special place we have just visited. As they say here, "When God made time, he made plenty of it!". We have seen it in a day but we could equally have taken a week.


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