With the Sea Always On My Right: Counties Belfast and Antrim

County Belfast

The first things you see on entering the city are the huge cranes of the Harland & Wolff Shipyards. It was here that the Titanic was built. We crossed over the Queen’s Bridge with its lanterns dating to 1843. Passing the slightly leaning Albert Memorial Clock Tower, built in 1867, I found Belfast to be just the right size. It has many architecturally interesting structures, mostly constructed in the 19th century, when it was a booming industrial town.

Belfast City Hall

Belfast City Hall

Donegall Square is the heart of the city with the beautiful City Hall, looking more like the capital of a nation than a city hall. Completed in 1901, it did hold the first meeting of the Northern Ireland Parliament until it was moved to the Union Theological College. It later moved to Stormont in 1932, where parliament met until 1972, when power was transferred to London. A statue of a dour Queen Victoria stands in front of the building in the center of the Square.

The City Hall is a huge rectangle structure, done in Neo-Classic Renaissance style, with porch and pediment on all four sides, small green domes on each corner with a large dome in the center. People were sitting out in the sun on the grassy lawn of the Square, which is also bounded by other admirable edifices. On the west is the five-story Scottish Provident Building, decorated with fascinating statuary and two large, green, copper domes on each end. On the eastern side is the Pearl Assurance Building, done in a more traditional 19th century style. Across from the City Hall is the more sedate Linen Hall Library. Next to it is the Robinson & Cleaver Building with more green, copper domes. These domes were my favorite things in all the cities and I was able to find an abundance of them.

A few block further west brought us to Great Victoria St. and the Grand Opera House. It’s a landmark of Belfast that was bombed by the IRA in 1991 and again in 1993. But it has been completely restored both inside and out and is open for musicals now. Done in red brick with white circular designs and two towers with two small, white domes, it is an attractive bit of architecture. Across the street is the Crown Liquor Saloon now part of the National Trust, and the Presbyterian Church, now a shopping mall. Further down is College Square with the Technical Institute with more green, copper domes.

County Antrim

Immediately upon leaving Belfast, we were in County Antrim. Antrim has one of the most gorgeous coastlines of the island and was my reason for choosing to go north first instead of south. I thought we’d keep the much-praised southwest coast to near the end of our trip. We were enjoying another perfect day with the sun still shining brightly. I was so happy to see Antrim under these conditions.

Driving along the northern shore of Belfast Lough, we came to Carrickfergus, the ancestral home of Andrew Jackson. There is a grand castle located there right on the sea. It dates back to the late 12th century and early 13th and is the best-preserved castle in Northern Ireland. We left the car in the carpark and strolled around taking photos.

Further on, we came back to the Irish Sea, which had turned a turquoise color now. We could see parts of Scotland over to our right as the Irish Sea became known as the North Channel. Glenarm was the first of nine to twelve glens (depending on the guidebook) we would encounter along this stretch of County Antrim. We drove through Carnlough, Glenariff and Cushendall. But it was when we left the A2 at Cushendun and took Route 382, the coast road, that we saw the most magnificent scenery!

The route was unbelievably curvy as it winded up and down. It was only big enough for one car at some places. We were in a place that was unspoiled and entirely rural. The kelly-green landscape, sprinkled with the golden gorse and white sheep, combined with the royal blue of the sea, was breathtaking!

Out at the end of one of these lonely hills jutting into the sea was Torr Head. We thought the structure atop the promontory might be a hotel. What a location! We wanted to stay there. But it was something else. We passed by Murlough Bay and Fair Head and went into Ballycastle. We were now in the northern part of the island on the Atlantic Ocean. There were great views of Rathlin Island further to the north.

We took the B15 from Ballycastle heading to Ballintoy to stay on the coast. Our next stop was the Giant’s Causeway. But I just happened to see a sign for the Carrick-a-Rede rope-bridge. I thought we had missed it so I was very excited to find it. I had seen a show on the Travel Channel about the Antrim Coast. The man on the travelogue had walked here. Also, I seemed to recall from a National Geographic article or some other source that this rope-bridge connected one village to another. The sign in the carpark said the bridge was closed but I still wanted to walk out to it. The hike itself (and that’s what it was) turned out to be fantastic!

Steep, jagged, white cliffs with tiny coves, which plunged straight into the sea, were below us as we climbed along the trail. The water had many hues ranging from green to blue with turquoise in between. The path went up and down with flights of steps erected in some cases. It took a kilometer to reach our destination. The rope-bridge spans a chasm that is sixty feet wide. It does not connect villages like I thought. But rather it joins a craggy islet, where a salmon fishery is located. Most of the salmon are swimming westwards but they don’t go through the opening under the bridge. They are deflected northwards into a net that the fishermen set during salmon season.

The bridge has a drop of eighty feet and can be a harrowing crossing for the adventuresome people who walk it. There is a restriction of only two people on it at one time. It was closed so at least we didn’t have to wait in a long line to get to see it. I am too chicken to have crossed it anyway. We had had a nice workout with this unexpected, long, walking jaunt in contrast to sitting in the car all day. It was too late to continue to the Giant’s Causeway by the time we tramped back to our car. So we decided it was time to look for a room.

We first stopped at a B&B just across the road from the turnoff to Carrick-a-Rede. The woman there said she was full and we might have trouble finding a room. We drove into Ballintoy and checked at a hotel called the Fullerton Arms. The woman there was devastating! She said all the rooms were taken in the northern part of Ireland by people here for the motorbike races. We’d probably have to go to Donegal to get a place to stay. This was unthinkable! We still had so much in this area to see before going to Donegal.

A farmhouse accommodation was advertised so we took that road inland. It was a beautiful new home with magnificent views of the Atlantic Ocean and Rathlin Island. I crossed my fingers and hoped we would have the “luck of the Irish” and find a room for us here. But the woman said she had just let her last room. We were ready to beg her to let us sleep on a sofa in the living room. But she went on to say that she had a friend who might have a spare room. We waited anxiously. Then she gave us the very welcome news that her friend did have a room. Hallelujah!!! And the friend was coming over to her house so that we could follow her and not get lost.

Mountain View House was the name of the place, because it looked upon the lone mountain in the area. It was called a farm accommodation, also, because it was on a working farm. Mrs. Getty, our hostess, told us they raised cattle. But it wasn’t like we were on a farm at all. The cows were way off in the distance. In reality the house was like a small, new hotel with six rooms to let.

Bikers from England and Scotland were staying there. One had cancelled because he was in an accident before this weekend. His misfortune was our very, good fortune. The room was en-suite, meaning with a private bath. It was large and nicely furnished with the biggest TV we had on the trip.

After settling in our room, the woman gave us directions on how to get back to Ballintoy so we could have dinner. The most presentable place turned out to be the Fullerton Arms. I was glad to show the woman there that circumstances, thank goodness, had not been as bad as she had predicted. We decided to have a complete dinner with appetizer, entrée and dessert. What a fantastic meal it was!

A prawn cocktail was our first offering. It must have had fifty, tiny shrimp (that’s what we call them) in it with thousand-island dressing accompanied by the ever-present coleslaw. The main course was medallions of pork in a tasty brown sauce with a bowl full of parsley potatoes, another dish full of carrots and green peas, and yet another bowl of delicious cauliflower. It was absolutely too much to eat. A white New Zealand wine was a delightful new discovery to go with all of this. The meal was topped off with a trifle, which I thought had unidentifiable fruit in it. But when I asked the waitress who asked the chef, the fruit was peaches, pears, pineapple and cherries. It was simply divine!

We were so glad when we found our way back to our lodging without any problems. With a full stomach and a great place to sleep, we felt very fortunate. We watched a little telly. I lay in bed and recaptured, in my mind, all the beautiful panoramas we had seen this day.

We awoke to the sound of biker’s talk coming from the dining room, just two doors down. When we made it to the dining room, they were just leaving. They all had to catch the ferry back to England this morning. Mrs. Getty had been very strict about us telling her the exact time we would have breakfast. She told us she had to serve twelve people. She had a full house. I wonder if this was the first time. We had said 9:30 but arrived at 9:25. We had to wait five minutes to be served.

Have you ever had an Irish breakfast? I’ve told you something about it before but I will expand on it now. There is a selection of juices, cereal (usually corn flakes) and several choices of yogurt for a starter. This is followed by eggs, baked tomatoes, bacon, sausage, two slices of a quiche-pie baked with potatoes, toast, butter, orange marmalade and black currant jam. Big pots of tea and coffee accompany this. After this, you think you won’t need to eat all day. And usually, we only had one other meal as this was so filling. It is always included with the price of your room.

We said our goodbyes to the Gettys, mother and two young daughters. How thankful we were that they had had a room for us. The only thing that let us know that we were in strict Protestant country and not too much in favor of drinking was a rule posted in our room. It said we couldn’t bring alcohol on the premises. But that was all.

We left at 10:15am, which was an early start for us. We stopped and gazed at the neat and tidy farms in the distance. Then we quickly headed back to the coastline. We turned off the road at Whitepark Bay, which has the same jagged, white cliffs as yesterday. But there was also a beautiful, large beach or strand down below, about a mile long.

The Whitepark Bay Youth Hostel is located here, one of the newest and best in Ireland. Large windows give its guests “one of the most incredible sea views on the North Antrim Coast.” Norman and Margaret, back in Ballyhalpert, had recommended this place. We had called from their home for a reservation but it was booked. It was not my idea of a youth hostel. You can rent nice, private rooms here. I wish we could have stayed there.

Dunseverick Castle, in ruins with only two massive walls left, was at the end of the oldest road in Ireland thousands of years ago. The Celtic people crossed from here to Scotland. Also, a road ran from here to the Hill of Tara. It was worth a quick stop for a picture. Then on to the Giant’s Causeway via B146. It is a World Heritage Site and the most famous tourist attraction in Northern Ireland. We parked at the Visitor Center and had the choice of taking a bus or walking to the main area. You couldn’t see anything from the Visitor’s Center. We opted for the bus.

As a natural site, one of unusual occurrences of nature, it interested me more than its impressiveness. Roughly thirty-seven to forty thousand basalt columns, some towering, others no more than a foot, are packed together in such a regular manner that they appear to be manmade. But scientists tell us that they are the result of a volcanic explosion, which occurred fifty-five million years ago. I liked the part called the “organ” the best. It has the longest concentration of pole like structures, reaching from twenty to thirty feet.

The Irish, of course, have a story about it. In fact there are several versions, all concerning the Ulster Giant, Finn Mac Coul. One goes that he had a love on the Scottish island of Staffa, and he erected these steps to go there. The same formation re-emerges on the shores of that island. Another goes that there was a fight between Finn Mac Coul and the Scottish Giant, Finn Gall. Finn Mac Coul built the causeway. When he went home to rest, Finn Gall used it to follow him. When Finn Gall burst into the home of Mrs. Mac Coul, he asked if the sleeping giant was her husband. She shrewdly replied that no, it was her baby. The Scotsman thought how big the father of this baby must be! He hurried back to Scotland, destroying the causeway on his way.

Dunlace Castle was our next stop on A2. A romantic ruin, situated spectacularly on the steep cliffs of the seacoast, it was the main residence of the MacDonnells, the chiefs of Antrim. They came from the isles of Scotland and captured this area through marriages and conquests. We again opted not for a tour but just took some strategic photos from different angles. We continued along the coast to Portrush, our chosen destination for last night. We were only a little behind schedule.