We woke on Thursday to grungy grey skies.😮 Wait, what? Grey skies weren’t on the agenda! Luckily the clouds lifted and we were back to “the usual” by the time we got to our first main stop.
We had planned a very full day with City and Causeway Tours. There were eight of us, and we had opted to spend an extra £15 each to have four in a vehicle instead of six. In hindsight, it was a good call because our day in Northern Ireland involved a lot of time in a van.
We left port right on time and headed towards the coast with our driver, Mick. He was excellent, and Mick taught us a lot about Northern Ireland and “the struggles” as only someone who has lived through and had their life altered by events can.
Things didn’t look too promising weather-wise as we started our day. It wasn’t a wash-out, but it was grey and the light was very flat. Not at all what I wanted when we were headed out to see the scenery! Please excuse the dirty windshield photos…
We drove through the countryside headed towards the coast, and Mick told us a little about what we were seeing and how Northern Ireland is really still very much a country divided. That is very evident as you pass through small towns and villages…the homes in the Nationalist/Catholic towns fly the flag of Ireland, and the Unionist/Protestant families fly the Union Jack. Throughout the course of the day Mick shared his experiences, and his story really helped me understand the “struggles” of Northern Ireland in a way I never had.
Our first stop was in (I think) the town of Carnlough, where there is a Game of Thrones filming location, and more important a large public restroom and coffee shop! We didn’t stay too long, because our goal was to try to stay a step ahead of the big buses. Most of our group walked across the street to see the stairs from the harbor that were used in filming an episode of Game of Thrones, but since Jim and I have never watched the show we were content to just stretch our legs. This picture is from the Game of Thrones website:
Shortly after we left Carnlough, we were treated to some luck of the Irish. One minute we were looking at grey skies and in an instant we found ourselves driving down a country lane enjoying brilliant blue skies and abundant sunshine (again)!
Our first real stop was at a scenic overlook where we could see the countryside, the sea, and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. We didn’t cross the bridge because of time constraints…our itinerary was ambitious!
From there it was a short drive to a beautiful scenic overlook at White Park Bay, and then a stop at the Fullerton Arms in Ballintoy, another Game of Thrones filming location (and restroom stop!🙂).
Mick then took us to an incredible, unexpected surprise…Ballintoy Harbor. The harbor is down at the bottom of a steep, narrow road — more like a path really — and definitely isn’t accessible by any big buses. What a gem Ballintoy Harbor was! Rustic, tranquil, and unspoiled by massive numbers of visitors, it was a very unexpected highlight of the tour. We stayed there about an hour, but I could have lingered for the whole day.
We followed Ballintoy Harbor with the day’s main attraction, Giant’s Causeway. Is it spectacular? Yes. Breathtaking? Yes. Crowded? Yes. Commercialized? Yes. In other words, it is a natural marvel, but one that everyone wants to see. The causeway is an area of about 40,000 basalt columns that was created by an ancient volcanic fissure eruption. The result looks like a moonscape or something from a sci-fi movie.
Interestingly, admission to the UNESCO World Heritage site is free. Admission to the visitor’s center and access to the bus is for a fee. I had read it was faster to walk down to the columns and take the bus back, so that was what I did. I was misinformed. The “line” for the bus was so long and disorganized that by the time I reached the top there were seven fellow tourists and two drivers waiting for me.
All the beautiful scenery and fresh air made us hungry, so it was lucky our next stop was at the Wee Cottage by Dunluce Castle for lunch. It’s a popular spot, being somewhat the only game in town, but it’s tiny and therefore it was pretty crowded. Mick had called ahead and we did manage to get two tables, but I don’t think they could have fit another person in there. I also don’t think they could have fit another object in there…to say it was filled with tchotchkes would be a gross understatement!
To be honest, my ham and cheese sandwich was nothing special. Maybe if it had been grilled the shredded cheese wouldn’t have kept falling out. As it was, it was messy! My sandwich might have been just OK, but dessert was another matter entirely. The scones with juicy strawberries and freshly whipped cream were awesome.
We took a look at Dunluce Castle after lunch, but didn’t go in. We had one more stop to make and sights to see in Belfast.
Our final stop in the Antrim Coast area was Dark Hedges, another Game of Thrones filming location. I thought the trees were beautiful and mysterious, but again, never having watched the show I wasn’t as excited to see the location as some others. The last image of Dark Hedges is from the Game of Thrones website.
We headed for Belfast after that, where Mick gave us a quick tour of the Peace Walls and the murals. During the tour of Belfast, Mick got pretty choked up. He has lived with the tension his whole life, and even lost his Protestant (Unionist) family when he was disowned for marrying a Catholic (Nationalist).
Although there is a peace agreement, the two sides still don’t mix, and that is very apparent looking at the clearly divided neighborhoods, tall walls, gates that close each night at 11:00, and homes along the walls protected by wire cages so they can’t be damaged by projectiles. I didn’t get the sense of “peace” so much as “uneasy truce” and it seems like things could erupt again at any time. Emotions are running especially high right now because of Brexit and the worries of those who currently travel freely between Ireland and Northern Ireland. They fear a physical border where they are now free to cross between the countries, and therefore being cut off from their friends, their extended family, and their heritage. I thought it was heartbreaking to hear about things from Mick’s perspective.
We said our good-byes to Mick at Titanic Belfast, where we were spending the last few hours of our day. You really can’t travel in Ireland without being surrounded by Titanic history, and no place is it more evident than in Belfast where she was built. Titanic Belfast sits on the old site of the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the Titanic was built. These pictures of the outside of Titanic Belfast are from Wikipedia:
I thought Titanic Belfast was very well done, taking visitors from the bustling city of Belfast at the turn of the 20th century, through the planning, building, and outfitting of the ship, the maiden voyage, the sinking, and the aftermath. Large windows overlook the area where the gantries for the Titanic and the Olympic once stood and from where the ships were launched. On the concrete you can see painted outlines indicating where the funnels, and lifeboats were located. There are wooden benches in the same location they were on the deck of the Titanic. It not only gives visitors a good sense of scale, it also makes you “see” people walking the decks or trying to fit in a lifeboat on that tragic night.
I thought this was very interesting since we visited the Titanic cemeteries when we were in Halifax last October. Pictures of the two graves mentioned here can be seen below. The small boy #4 has since been identified.
At the end of the slipway you can see the Royal Princess. Directly across the channel from the modern cruise ship dock is the old Thompson Graving Dock and Pumphouse. Behind the building is the giant dry dock where the Titanic was fitted out.
Our time at Titanic Belfast ended right at 7:00, when the museum closed. Honestly, by then we were ready to go back to the ship. We had been gone 11 hours and packed in just as much as we could. The ship looked close, and it was, but the only fast way to cover the distance would have been to cross the channel in a dinghy. Our taxi didn’t have that capability, so we had to go around and it took about 10 minutes.
We freshened up and for dinner went to Alfredo’s with Deedee and Chip. I don’t think any of us had an interest in getting spiffed up enough to go to the dining room. We just wanted something casual, and Alfredo’s fit the bill perfectly. Besides, their Sangria is awesome!
Deedee and Chip probably found some nightlife after dinner, but we didn’t. We had another really ambitious itinerary for the next day, AND we were booked for the Chef’s Table the next evening!
I’m not sure what I expected, but I was surprised by Northern Ireland in so many ways…the beauty of the coast, the warmth of the people, the tragedy of their ongoing struggles. Northern Ireland was always kind of mysterious to me — much like Russia or Cuba. It was forbidden fruit! Having lived in London in the early-mid 1970s, all I ever heard about Northern Ireland was it was a place where there was a lot of fighting between Protestants and Catholics. IRA bombings were always in the news. I found the fighting is gone but the tension and animosity is not. Past wrongs are certainly not forgotten. I also learned Northern Ireland is so much more than the struggles. I hated to leave, but we sailed away right at 9:00, headed for Scotland!