Roam­ing free in North­ern Ire­land

The Coffs Coast Advocate - - ESCAPE - PHIL HAWKES More at ire­land.com.

THERE’S noth­ing like a road trip in Europe to get that hol­i­day adrenalin pump­ing. Try rent­ing a car in Italy’s Amalfi Coast, for ex­am­ple.

The sight of crazy scoot­ers, dare­devil driv­ers and hu­mon­gous coaches tear­ing around cor­ners straight at you is enough to get the blood pres­sure ris­ing and your pas­sen­gers pray­ing. Fun? Yes, as long as you have a sense of hu­mour and some choice Ital­ian words.

Ire­land is dif­fer­ent. They drive on “our” side of the road, are (mostly) pa­tient and cour­te­ous and, best of all, you get time to en­joy the scenery. And what sights there are to see. From the pretty south to the rugged west and to North­ern Ire­land (part of the United King­dom), it’s just one spec­tac­u­lar view af­ter an­other.

A re­cent trip took us from Belfast to Lon­don­derry (Derry) along the Cause­way Coastal Route over sev­eral days of leisurely driv­ing and stops for pho­tographs at care­fully signed van­tage points around the coast­line.

Best of all, if you travel as a free spirit with­out for­ward reser­va­tions you can choose from hun­dreds of friendly bed and break­fasts, or de­light­ful pubs where there’s no need to drive any fur­ther af­ter din­ner and a gutsy Guin­ness.

Chan­nelling Amer­i­can novelist Jack Ker­ouac (famed for his book On The Road), there’s a feel­ing of ex­hil­a­ra­tion and an­tic­i­pa­tion as we hit the bi­tu­men from Belfast, a city which has had its own share of ex­cite­ment in re­cent his­tory.

We re­gret say­ing good­bye be­cause there is so much to see and do there, in­clud­ing the im­pres­sive Ti­tanic precinct, the street mu­rals around Falls Rd, the mar­kets, the pubs, the mu­sic … Belfast has the feel of a lib­er­ated city with a vibe that shouts “free­dom”.

We’re also sorry to leave the com­fort of the Mer­chant Ho­tel, a beau­ti­fully re­stored bank build­ing and ar­guably the best break­fasts in the whole of Ire­land. But de­part we must, and here are some of the high­lights we en­counter along the 400km Cause­way Coastal Route.

Car­rick-a-Rede Bridge

Suf­fer from ver­tigo? Well I do, es­pe­cially af­ter see­ing the Hitch­cock film of the same name. But here, you need to grit your teeth and, what­ever you do, don’t look down as you make the shaky cross­ing. Af­ter all, it’s less than 100 me­tres to reach tiny Rath­lin Is­land where salmon fish­er­men used to cross to their nets.

The Gi­ant’s Cause­way

Close to the north­ern­most point of Ire­land is this phe­nom­e­nal sight stretch­ing out into the At­lantic, a rocky cause­way cre­ated by Ir­ish gi­ant Finn Mac­Cool, known at that time as Big Mac. Mac’s pur­pose was to join Ire­land with Fin­gal’s Cave in Scot­land so that the gi­ants on ei­ther side could con­ve­niently fight each other.

That’s the story, although ge­ol­o­gists are non-be­liev­ers and have a dif­fer­ent ex­pla­na­tion in­volv­ing vol­canic erup­tions about 60 mil­lion years ago. Which­ever story you be­lieve, the Gi­ant’s Cause­way is an ex­pe­ri­ence not to be missed on your coastal jour­ney; in­deed it’s been awarded UN­ESCO World Her­itage sta­tus and has been voted in var­i­ous polls as Ire­land’s num­ber one tourist at­trac­tion.

Ballintoy Fish­ing Vil­lage, Bush­mills and Port­stew­art

All these vil­lages are worth a stop or de­tour. The mod­ernised Bush­mills Ho­tel and Restau­rant, a 16th cen­tury coach­ing inn, is a gem and a great place to overnight, es­pe­cially if you in­dulge in a tast­ing at Old Bush­mills, the world’s old­est li­censed dis­tillery, which opened in 1608, luck­ily a short stag­ger from the inn. Port­stew­art is an­other vil­lage with ex­cel­lent ac­com­mo­da­tion near the Strand, a pop­u­lar three-kilo­me­tre sandy beach.

Photo: Arthur Ward/Rob Durston

LOTS TO SEE: The Car­rick-a-Rede rope bridge along North­ern Ire­land's Cause­way Coast (top). Gi­ant's Cause­way in County Antrim, North­ern Ire­land (bot­tom left). In­side of The Mer­chant Ho­tel in Belfast (bot­tom right).

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