Coastal Thrills and Adventure in Northern Ireland
By Christopher Ludgate
“Ireland is just not on my list of places I want to visit” or “We went – it was eh,” said no one ever.
It isn’t mere folklore that travelers of all kinds are enamored by the land of hobbits and castles.
When I returned from my recent journey convinced that they don’t make that deep lush shade of green anywhere else, what I could tell people in a pint-sized nutshell was that it looks just like the rolling pastoral images in the storybooks.
And the culture is generally as fun-loving, smart, and full of wit and poetry in brogue just as supposed. So, indeed, much of its reputation is true.
But the journey that awaited me – from Northern Ireland’s wild shores to its lofty cliffs cascading north and east of Belfast – swept me up to unexpected heights. And by the measure of momentum the destination has gained in tourism lately, it’s an experience many are finding equal in quality and adventure.
24 hours in Belfast
Arriving at the airport in the midst of typically moody weather, rays of sunshine began reaching through the marbled cerulean sky to the herd of emerald hills in the distance during the car ride from the airport to the bustling center of Belfast.
I was meeting Karen, a friend from Galway, and a few others at the Park Inn Hotel where – with amenities that included a relaxing steam-bath and restaurant with an elaborate breakfast buffet — I felt well taken care of.
Tourism NI had arranged for us some bike rentals and a guide. Biking around Belfast was an ideal way to make the most of our time while being adventurous, green, and economical all at the same time.
Acclimating ourselves past City Hall, we cycled into quaint old Cathedral District which is known for its classic Irish pubs, mews, and street art – with many a tribute to Northern Ireland’s natives like C. S. Lewis, Van Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Mary Peters…
Past the old clock tower at Queen’s Square, on to the waterfront, and over the bridge of the Lagan River we got a full view of the flourishing and evolving city amongst some of its old architecture.
Once a shipbuilding hub, Belfast was the very launching place of the famous RMS Titanic, who’s restored slip stretches out from Queen’s Island. We cycled up to the Titanic Belfast, a touristy homage to Ireland’s maritime heritage and the Titanic herself.
The grand structure unmistakably emulates the bow of the ill-fated ocean liner. Inside, visitors can interactively “explore the shipyard, walk the decks, travel to the depths of the ocean and uncover the true legend of Titanic in the city where it all began.” Also by the slip sits an arena built for open air concerts and a thriving TV Studio.
Paddling the Lagan
We rode back along the river pulling into Bryson Lagan Sports trading our sightseeing gear for the seafaring kind. We coupled off with a good go at paddling upstream, but in a spectacle of comedy let the spiraling autumn breeze take us back to shore with the wind at our backs and our sights set on a well deserved pint.
We all met up later at nearby Deane’s Deli Bistro, an inspired local haunt favored by celebs. One of a whopping seven restaurants owned by Michelin Star chef Michael Deane, who attributes the bistro’s success to his team and their “dedication to sourcing the best local produce and demanding the highest standards.”
This is a very elegant, yet relaxed spot, so don’t let the term ‘deli’ fool you.
We meandered that night in and out of hot spots like the renowned Fibber Magees where a spirit of pure joy danced jigs all around us with locals, live music, and craft beers flowing.
Doors down, we elevated up to the trendy rooftop of Perch, and after headed to swanky low-key Rita’s.
We exited round back again entranced by the striking authentic Victorian décor and glowing polychromatic exterior of The Crown Saloon which boasts enclosed booths where we closed out the night by midnight.
The next morning, we were lucky enough to pinch an opportunity to romp through 19th c St. George’s Market, a Belfast must, but open weekends only.
Irish crafts, cheeses, pastries… it’s one of those great spontaneous pit-stops where you discover something great, like my Belfast Brew loose tea from Karen’s fave, Suki Tea.
Thrills on the Northern Coast
Even though the dark billowing sky bucketed down upon the pastures while we trekked along tiny scenic roads down to Portaferry on Ards Peninsula by the mouth of the Irish Sea, I felt something I didn’t expect to.
It felt like home – a sudden familiar comfort. I leaned back in my headrest and soaked up the breathtaking landscape and the rocky sea, catching my happy grin in the window. Oh, but I gush.
We arrived at the Marina at the gateway of Strangford Lough, a reserve of noted biodiversity and beauty lined with rolling landscapes and colorful seaside houses.
This is where Europe’s fastest tide flows. Strangford Sea Safari offers an exhilarating guided RIB boat ride that had us holding on to our seats at a raucous 100mph completely thrilled and filled with laughter.
Plus we occasionally slowed down to say hi to the seals and take in the surrounding beauty. Karen says she thinks that feeling should be bottled. I totally agree.
Roadtripping by the Sea
Our roadtrip continued along the wild coast and we visited with a fisherman and his mussel beds in Killough. My companions joined in for a tasting of the local industry’s best catch and vino, but I could not resist jumping the barrier to the sandy cliffs and waves whose thrashing thunder just didn’t translate for the lens. The sea that day was one of those things that couldn’t be caught, but it keeps in my mind’s eye.
HBO’s hit show Game of Thrones has fans flocking to see the show’s multiple locations in Antrim and County Down, NI. We saw the mysterious Caves of Cushendun, explored 12th c Dundrum Castle in a spontaneous moment, captured the light at Dunluce, and visited the set at Castle Ward where fans can act out some of their Thrones inspired fantasies.
After I stopped in for a fitting at wardrobe, my companions were convinced I’d be a shoe-in for a part on the show. I’m game.
Arriving in the pretty seaside town of Newcastle for the night, we poked around before landing in award-winning Brunel’s where we unwound with wines and enjoyed unique dishes like the Rigatoni with kale & walnut pesto, pickled celeriac, truffle honey, and chocolate malt. You weren’t expecting Shepherd’s Pie were you?
In the Giant’s Footsteps
On the way to Giant’s Causeway by Ballycastle we found ourselves in Bushmills, home of the whiskey distillery of the same name that dates back to 1608. We went in to explore a little speed tasting of three of their notables. I left with a few souvenirs, so you get the idea. When in Rome…
What I was about to encounter at the Causeway was exactly that storybook moment I mentioned earlier. Also known as Clochán an Aifir in Gaelic, this majestic site speaks as much about the unique geography of Antrim’s coast as it does the mystery of its appearance that hails back millions of years.
Its beauty and power have inspired poets and painters, and charmed dreamers like me. Folklore tells that long ago giants created it… Its shapes, emerald slopes, hobbit-like nooks, chiseled cliffs, the thousand large hexagonal basalt pins pushed up from the water just so… its divine nature commands and captives.
We headed to Red Door Tea Room in the nearby countryside having built up an appetite. It’s a charmingly decorated Irish teahouse with diverse lunch options, coffee, wines, and pastry to enjoy amongst sprawling views of sheep herds from the window or terrace.
Horseback on Ancient Sands
The beachscape here is known to many as one of the most amazing places in Ireland. White Park Bay was formed roughly a hundred million of years ago.
A magical looking place where Ammonite and Gryphaea fossils are found, where dunes are a thriving habitat, and elephant rock is buried, it’s removed serene atmosphere is a perfect place to picnic, forage, or trot along the coast on horseback as I did.
And imagine the splendor of randomly encountering a gorgeous herd of cows just chilling there on the shore as you pass on your merry way on an awe-inspiring bit of heaven on earth. A first for me.
High in Carrick-a-Rede
Strung up 30m above the crashing waves where the Irish Sea meets the Atlantic is a rope bridge hung by fisherman 350 years ago in a place called Carraig-a-Rade in Scottish Gaelic.
The kilometer-long steep and cliffy path takes daring visitors to meet the challenge of the cross, and the hike is beholden to some spectacular views, if you can stand them anymore. There was no question when I arrived, and swiftly, steadily, I crossed.
When I got to the other side onto Carrick Island, I took some relieved breaths, and even sat cliff-side, dangling my feet, looking down fearlessly like a master before crossing back again – sweaty palms and all.
Portrush from the Sea & Blokarting
We were staying in the northernmost seaside town, Portrush, for a few days at the Atlantic Hotel which has a commanding view of the harbor and overlooks the Italian themed Mermaid restaurant where we were to soon have our last meal and cheery shenanigans as a group.
Carpe diem, we seized a day before sunrise in a unique nautical excursion on a foodie boat tour in the Causeway on which Karen had a go at fishing for her breakfast and had me simply admiring silhouettes against the dawn.
Later that day, beautiful, sunny Tyrella Beach proved something unexpected in the often moody climate of the region. The sandy, clean, green pride of the area attracts water sports of all kinds, even surfing. I had not heard of blokarting before, and after seeing the strange apparatus, I could not wait to try!
With a low to the ground three-wheel body, a rope, a steer, and a sail, learning to blokart took some folly, but once learning to catch the wind in our sails, the proverbial road rose up to meet us and we were speeding down a beach in pure surrender to our wild NI adventure!