After a number of days driving up the west coast of Ireland, I noticed that fuel prices and speed limits suddenly seemed a little different. While the Republic of Ireland is an independent country and a land of Euros and km/h, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and specifies things in GBP and MPH. I believe I may have inadvertently incited some road rage in the cars behind me when I first entered some small towns, all with unit-less speed limit signs proclaiming “30.” With my km/h speedometer dutifully hovering around the prescribed number, I inched along at a snail’s pace, wondering what on Earth could justify such restrictions.
Once I figured out we could drive at a more normal speed, we set about exploring our new surroundings. Portrush and Portstewart are both pleasant coastal resort towns, with a few beaches, lots of oceanfront real estate, and a handful of highly acclaimed golf courses. While I’m sure these towns are bustling with activity in the peak season, we found them to be quiet and subdued, and our walk along the beach met seemingly nobody but locals out playing with their enthusiastic dogs, who disregarded the chill in the air and splashed eagerly through the surf to retrieve their thrown toys.
On one of the less-than-beautiful days, we took a jaunt over to the Old Bushmills Distillery, at the recommendation of our AirBnB host. As one of Northern Ireland’s oldest distilleries, they produce nearly everything on-site in small batches. Interested to try the whiskeys that Ireland had to offer, I bought one of their “premium tastings,” which included everything that Bushmills makes – it seemed a little steep to get a half dozen sips for 15 GBP, but I figured it would be fun to hear about the history.
I presented my premium tasting ticket to a bartender, and was immediately handed a complimentary hot toddy and asked to please have a seat. After a few moments, a bearded guy presented himself as Jack and led us to a special tasting room, warm and comfortably furnished, and it became clear that we were the only ones who signed up for the tasting, and were going to get a private lesson. Jack spent an hour and a half sitting with us, explaining Bushmills history, providing large samples of not only the distillery’s wares (including their life-alteringly amazing 21-year-old single malt), but a couple of other brands – one from the US and one from Scotland – for comparison. He was incredibly knowledgeable, and helped us understand the flavor profiles of everything I tried, how to get the most flavor out of each sample, and why I liked or didn’t like some of the past whiskeys I’ve had. For example, I’ve never been fond of Johnny Walker, and he explained that Scottish whiskeys (actually, they leave out the “e” in Scotland to differentiate from their rivals) have their grains dried with peat fires, whose smoke has an intense effect on the flavor. We got to handle samples of different aging barrels to understand the difference between the American charred barrels and the toasted barrels that they use. It was amazing to see just how much more the alcohol interacts with the wood of the charred barrel, providing much of the vanilla flavor that’s common in American whiskey. At the end, he left us with a certificate, a full measure of their 12-year distillery reserve, and a hugely improved knowledge of the craft. It was an astonishing value and one I highly recommend to any whiskey lover.
When the weather was a little more cooperative, we headed out early for Giant’s Causeway. Thought to have been formed around 50 or 60 million years ago, the rapid cooling of the lava bed in the area caused the basalt to fragment into roughly 40,000 hexagonal columns. Of course, the local legend for the area is far more colorful. Though the stories vary, one of the more popular versions says that an Irish giant named Finn – though relatively small at a paltry 52’ 6” – challenged the Scottish giant Benandonner to a test of strength. Finn offered to build a causeway across the sea so the two could battle, but fell asleep after his exhausting labor constructing the craggy walkway. When Benandonner came to find the Irish giant, Finn’s wife, Oonagh, saw his size and knew her husband would surely lose the fight. Thinking quickly, she disguised the sleeping Finn with a nightgown, telling the Scottish goliath that he was their child. Frightened by the thought of how large the father of such a baby would be, Benandonner fled, destroying the causeway in his thunderous haste.
Regardless of how the causeway appeared, it was a stunning location. I was prepared to be underwhelmed, assuming that the fractured rocks were mostly constrained to a tiny area where all of the pretty sunset photos are taken. The walk along the cliff over the causeway, though, winds around a gorgeous coastline, with frothy, white-capped waves crashing into the base of rugged cliffs, and an abundance of birds and wildlife despite the cold wind. Skipping the direct route down to the rocky shore meant we had the entire cliff face to ourselves, the trail hugging the edge of the precipice before descending down to the edge of the water.
Once there, a short walk brought us to the surprisingly large, almost mesmerizing, expanse of repeating hexagonal shapes, broken at all different heights to form a crazy, undulating shoreline. It’s bizarre, and invites a thousand photographs of a thousand angles, each one slightly different, capturing and reflecting the light in a myriad of shapes and colors. Quite the unique place, and one I was pleased we could visit in the off-season – the visitor center and regular bus service suggest that our people-free photos might not have been possible once the weather is a little warmer!
For our drive to Belfast, I decided to stick to the tiny winding roads along the coast for much of the drive. We paused at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a tiny suspension bridge of steel cables and wooden planks hanging 30 meters above the ocean, but skipped the entrance fee to walk its short, 20-meter length. As we proceeded along the coast, the roads narrowed, twisted, and turned, often barely wide enough for our tiny car to pass, following the shoreline among rolling emerald hills snaked with hundreds of miles of squat stone walls. The late-season sun stayed low in the sky, casting long shadows and providing incredible light for the entire trip. We stopped off at Torr Head to take a short walk up to an abandoned farmhouse overlooking the bay, and looked back on sheep grazing in verdant meadows, bathed in golden light under a blue-and-white sky. Just spectacular.
Our last stop in Northern Ireland was a brief visit to Belfast. Our previous day’s journey along the winding farm roads took up most of the daylight hours, so we had a scant morning of sightseeing before needing to get back to Dublin. We stopped by to see a couple churches, including what’s suggested to be the largest Celtic cross in Ireland on the St. Anne’s Cathedral, before driving up to Belfast Castle. The castle and the surrounding grounds were quite lovely in the morning light, despite the season clearly being past for the carefully tended gardens, and there seemed to be cats everywhere we looked – mosaics in the walkways, sculptures nestled among flowers, and even a carefully sculpted bush in the shape of a sitting feline, with stick whiskers. We spent some time exploring the castle grounds and the network of nearby walking trails, but eventually, we had to bid farewell to Northern Ireland. With one last look at the beautiful countryside overlooking the sea, we headed back to Dublin.