A volcanic world steeped in myths and legends
By Sonja Stark
The narrow country roads of Northern Ireland connect visitors to one of the most scenic drives on earth, the Coastal Causeway.
I was invited on a summer sojourn in June that included scaling cliff walls, exploring remote islands, surfing frigid waters and fishing for breakfast. I knew this gutsy environment played a big part in the filming locations for the HBO series, “Game of Thrones,” and now it was my chance to go. I couldn’t have been more excited!
No Shortage of Storytellers
The fabulous Fitzwilliam Hotel in Belfast provided a warm welcome prior to hitting the road for the north. It was here that I was introduced to a plate of Chantilly desserts and Blue Badge Guide, Billy Scott. Both sweet as ever! Scott would be the first of many personalities I’d meet with a passion for storytelling.
Blue Badge guides are great at weaving stories that enlighten, entertain and inspire. Often, I was engaged with details not found in guidebooks.
Shut Your Gob
Our first adventure turned out to be a big tease but worth mentioning for the next time I visit: The Gobbins. Gob is slang for beak or mouth.
Ideally, I’d love to tell you how this cliff walk, chiseled out of an ancient layer of basalt along the sea, is a must but due to landslides, it was temporarily closed when I got there.
The Operations & Development Manager, Alister Bell, of the Mid & East Antrim Borough Council, apologized for the unexpected change of plans.
He admitted that the popular attraction continues to seek maintenance due to the region’s turbulent weather. Much of it was built in 1903 using the first reinforced steel beams imported to Europe.
“It’s a jaw-dropping trek on tubular bridges and through dark caves wearing harnesses and helmets,” admits Bell. I sighed but the disappointment didn’t last long.
Enchanting Snapshots in Time
We continued to head north. We navigated narrow hedge-bordered roads, through pretty coastal villages and around lively seaside towns, I took photos in rapid succession out the bus window.
Our guide Billy Scott repeated stories that would make your hair stand on end: dead chieftains, memorials to St. Patrick and castle ruins.
This was a truly enchanting ride and it evoked a sense of returning to a bygone era. Suddenly, ascending a heather-clad hill in the Antrim glen (valley), I caught the unmistakable profile of an extinct volcano in the distance. “Wow, That’s amazing!” I exclaimed, waking up several dozing passengers.
Fifty-eight million years later, this volcanic plug is now referred to as Slemish Mountain. In the foreground, a patchwork of brilliant greens and mustard-colored squares added to the tapestry.
Continuing past the picturesque Murlough Bay, the guide announced that the bay is famously described as a ‘momentary glimpse of Eden.’ I don’t doubt it!
The Rathlin Express
The bus pulled into Ballycastle for a boat ride or ‘boot’ ride as Billy Scott pronounced it, to a 6-mile wide volcanic extension known as Rathlin Island. Our fast ferry cut through choppy waves across the Sea of Moyle to the delight of children pummeled wet by the crashing waves.
Inhospitable white cliffs welcomed us to an ancient community of massacres, legends, and Viking raids.
We squeezed onto the Puffin Bus and ascended up a windy slope to the RSPB Bird Center. The driver entertained us with folksy tales of Robert the Bruce, the Scottish king, who, in 1306, was driven from Scotland by King Edward of England and sought refuge on the island.
The story goes that he learned how to survive by watching the efforts of a spider build a web. In 1314, he regained the crown of Scotland.
While exploring on foot, it became clear that the untamed seabird colony far outnumbered the people. Thousands of kittiwakes, gannets, and gulls jostled for space on a rock pinnacle close to the viewing platform at the Visitors Center. Remarkable.
Being that this was Puffin season, I hoped to observe newborn chicks up-close and unaided by binoculars. But the Puffins were shutter-shy. They remained at a safe distance.
No matter, the iconic ‘upside down’ lighthouse was more than willing to show off her recent renovations. For decades, the light keepers oversaw five floors of rich maritime tradition until automation took over in 1983.
In the Footsteps of Giants
Visiting the volcanic bastion that is Northern Ireland, our next big adventure was the national treasure Giant’s Causeway. According to legend, the 40,000 interlocking basalt columns were built by giants. Really!
A friendly reminder, leave time for the nearby “Game of Thrones” filming locations: Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, The Dark Hedges (where Arya Stark makes her escape down The Kingsroad) and the Cushendun Cave (where Melisandre gave birth to the shadow feature).
Harnessing the Forces of Nature
Learning to surf is commonplace in Hawaii and California, practically a rite-of-passage for most, but in Northern Ireland…could this be a premier “Hang 10” spot as well? In fact, big wave playgrounds throughout Ireland have thrived since the late 1960s and today draw the world’s gnarliest pros to international competitions.
“The staggering beauty of an emerald green backdrop truly makes this destination the most beautiful in the world,” admits the instructors at Troggs Surf School in the town of Portrush.
Because of the cold water, we delicate tourists stretched into full neoprene wetsuits and donned bright yellow Student T-shirts.
Carl Russell, the owner, and manager of Troggs, a fully accredited ASI (Academy Of Surfing Instructors) Surf & Stand Up Paddle School, gave us a short introduction on how to stay upright.
We practiced our paddling motion belly-down on our blue longboards from the beach. He and his crew teach safety and awareness to people of all ages, from the young to the young at heart.
I was so stoked to check this activity off my bucket list that I didn’t realize that my bare toes went utterly numb a few minutes into the 54-degree Atlantic chill. The long leash string was a bit of pain too but soon I was having too much fun to notice either.
The “pop-up” technique proved harder than it looked. The footing didn’t come naturally. A squatting stance was the best I could hope for before my noodle arms went all akimbo and my tail feather kissed the sea. Wipeout! Others found their sweet spot on the board and did marvelously.
In the end, I resigned to sit in the sand and cheer on my mates.
Catch and Cook
Somehow, the next morning, still queasy from gulping too much ocean water, I managed to crawl out from under my plush bedding before sunrise. This morning, I was expected to hook breakfast from aboard a charter boat docked right outside the Atlantic Hotel.
Wendy Gallagher, the owner of Causeway Coast Foodie Tours, promised us a unique adventure. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and stumbled onto the Causeway Cass, a sturdy 70-foot vessel run equipped with rods, tackle and accessories.
A capable skipper and eager captain helped us aboard still slippery from a catch the night before. A salty dew coated everything while a salty breeze gently rocked the tub back and forth.
For many, the art of fishing tends to connote loving, childhood remembrances of father-son or father-daughter duos sharing a clump of grass hoping to catch dinner. I was no different. Being from upstate New York, where the lakes, streams, and rivers are stocked, I too have fond memories of lessons in patience and hook injuries.
As soon as we dropped our shiny green feather rigs into the calm waters near the Skerrie Islands everyone wondered who’d be the first to reel in the monster.
“I don’t know what it is, but there’s always friendly competition in this sport. It just happens naturally,” smiled Captain Charlie.
I held my thumb against the spool of thick white line cranked back the break. Then I waited. It didn’t take long. At a shallow depth, I felt a short, sharp twitch on the line. The excitement kicked in.
The light rod bent forward and I reeled in what was to become the first of more than enough iridescent brain food for all. The species didn’t turn out to be the tough Atlantic fighter I expected. In fact, it was almost too easy!
Neighboring anglers had the same luck. We all benefited from a hungry school of fish swimming just underneath us. The result yielded a full pail of booty, cleaned and cooked in record time.
After docking, we rushed our stash to the super-friendly waterfront eatery: Babushka Kitchen Cafe. Chef George turned our bloody bucket of mackerel into a feast fit for a king. The tender, moist fish flakes fell right off the bone.
George also took great care in the preparation of our specialty coffee offering small batches of experimented flavors. Even those who didn’t normally drink caffeine went gonzo for some of the steamed concoctions.
Challenging my Inner Tarzan
As tempting at it was, rather than loop back to Belfast on the same route, our driver hit two more ultimate outdoor experiences. Both I’d never ever dreamed of doing. The first was hovercraft racing at Foylehov and the next was surviving a treetop obstacle course at Jungle NI.
At Foylehov, the instructors timed our laps against other. Wouldn’t you know, my early childhood of riding ATVs and snowmobiles helped me qualify for second place on the course – still nowhere near past contenders final times. From 70ft high, my tree hugger tendencies helped me teeter across rope bridges and spin like a whirling dervish on a tree top zip line.
But it was the Power Fan Drop, a free fall from 30 feet, that completely “slaughtered” (as Bill Scott predicted) my fear of heights.
Wrapping up the Fun
Admittedly, the picturesque villages and scenic locations I visited wouldn’t have been the same without the tales told by my guides, especially Billy Scott. His whimsy and wisecracks ran wild, from the macabre descriptions of ghosts and goblins to the fairytale moments. In the end, everyone had to admit that they loved his descriptions even if we hadn’t the bloodiest idea what he was talking about.