I didn't think we were going to make it here during our 3-year stay as there are many places in Great Britain that we can reach by car for a long weekend. However, two other ex-pats, the Schetzels and Seppanens ventured there and it seemed like a good trip so off we went.
We get bank holiday weekends in early May and late August where we fit in a UK-based long weekend. (There's another bank holiday at the end of May that coincides with a longer school break so I don't count that). Here's where we have gone:
2011 -- N. Wales, Bath/Stonehenge
2012 -- Lake District, N. Wales
2013 -- Dover/Canterbury
All are around 3 hours away give or take by car. To do Northern Ireland in an efficient manner requires a flight. So, we splashed out and made a long weekend out of it.
We took an extra day off and left on Thursday after work. We drove straight up to north coast to stay outside of Bushmills at the Valley View B&B, our home for 3 nights ("F", above). Doug and Tara also stayed here when they came (and it's rated #1 on TA) so that was an easy and good choice.
We are now the longest standing ex-pats here (I think) and have done our share of traveling. I've selected our destinations after careful research and factoring in what makes us click. But, I'm an open-minded bloke so when the Schetzels and Seps raved about N. Ireland we gave it a try. For the first day, we essentially did the Schetzel plan: Giant's Causeway (C), Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (D), a drive down Dark Hedges and a quick stop at Bushmills Distillery (but no tour).
We had a distinctly Frey day on Saturday, Day 2: walk from Giant's Causeway along the cliffs to Dunserverick Castle, coastal drive to Glenariff Forest (E) and another short walk.
Day 3 was in Belfast with only a rough plan but it came together nicely.
On to the photos!
Day 1 -- The Schetzel Plan
The main reason for visiting was to see the Giant's Causeway. So despite the gloomy forecast, that's where we went. We really scored with our National Trust membership at both this site and the Rope Bridge.
From the Vistor's Centre you walk down and around the cliff before seeing the causeway.
see the sleeping camel along the way?
our first peak -- nothing too exciting yet but the anticipation is building
the "chimney pipe" in the distance
here's our first glimpse with a side view
but more impressive when looking down
Roughly 60 million years ago, Europe and North America split into two. As the plates pulled apart slowly, they formed the Atlantic Ocean. Along the line of separation, hot magma surfaced as lava. The Giant's Causeway is basalt, solidified lava, from one of the lava flows. It's somewhat akin to mud drying when a pond dries up. It was able to cool slowly and gradually which can rise to the geometric shapes of intersecting cracks.
There's also a legend to help explain it: Legend tells of Finn MacCool wanting to do battle with a rival giant in Scotland. The two giants had never met, so Finn built enormous stepping stones across the sea so that the Scottish giant could cross to Ireland to face the challenge. When Finn sees the enormous giant he runs home and has his wife hide him as their baby. When the Scottish giant sees the large baby, he imagines the daddy giant to be huge and runs back to Scotland tearing up the causeway as he goes.
some boulders and the bulk of the causeway in the distance
the fam venturing out
required family photo shot
bonus photo with all four of us (and a rain drop on the lens)
kids and the rocks
I helped Alex clamber up this one
the "large" part of the causeway
looking down from the large one
I liked this shot so I borrowed this family
up close and carrying on to the sea (and Scotland!)
not a bad place for a belated 19th anniversary celebration
a little seaweed in the mix
out to sea (I didn't try walking any further though)
some random ones in the hillside
We all really enjoyed the site and it was certainly worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. After a tour of the Visitor's Centre and a lunch break in the cafe, we hopped in the car to drive to the rope bridge.
I first scurried up to the viewpoint to catch my three going across.
half way wave
and almost to the end
my turn -- it had a good bit of bounce to it especially with someone of my, er, buoyancy
photo from the island looking back at the (now familiar) limestone cliffs
nice one of Nicole
and zoomed out with both kids
Alex's head growing out of a rock
and back across, all together
What a coincidence! Neat stuff. I felt like we were one step behind them the rest of the way as they beat us down to Belfast as well. (The Greggs were also the ones that told us how cool White Park Bay was).
Dark Hedges. From the linked website:
This beautiful avenue of beech trees was planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century. It was intended as a compelling landscape feature to impress visitors as they approached the entrance to their home, Gracehill House. Two centuries later, the trees remain a magnificent sight and have become known as the Dark Hedges.
The Dark Hedges is one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland and a popular attraction for tourists from across the world. It has been painted by hundreds of visiting artists and is a favourite location for wedding photographs.
this jump for joy is for you, Doug and Tara
since 1608 -- impressive
My copycat plan worked great for day one. The only thing that fell over was dinner. I'll often do some research and book ahead, especially for a bank holiday weekend but I simply didn't have the time this time. Our first few choices were booked up and we ended up at The Nook by the causeway. Too pubby for us. Their Guinness was even a little off -- sacrilege. We more than made up for it second night.
Day 2 -- On the Trail
This was our "extra" day in the area and we made it our own. Our lovely B&B hosts both recommended the cliff walk from the Causeway to Dunseverick Castle. We even got to park for free again at the Causeway with our NT membership -- sweet. The tricky bit with a linear walk is to get a ride back so we had to time the hourly Rambler bus right which caused us to rush through the last bit.
the resting camel from a higher vantage point
down on the Causeway -- the point sticking out in the middle is where Kuk and I had our photo taken
the walk ahead
back to the causeway
chimney in the distance -- lots of nooks and crannies in the coastline
green cliff face
sheep on the plateau with a hill in the background (gotta have sheep in a UK/Ireland walk)
close up of the chimney -- Nicole was yelling at me not to go further
the next cove
more pipe organs
check out the formations on this one -- also note the sheep out there!
green grass, sheep, cliffs and water -- what more could you want?
honorary Jay Seppanen -- Steve Frey livestock close up
So, after using our NT pass to use the toilets at the Giant's Causeway, it was back in the car for a drive around the coast.
Further down we could also see the Rope Bridge island from a distance.
Our ultimate destination for the day was to visit one of the 9 Glens in the area. The recommend "best" one was Glenariff and its Forest Park outside of Cushendall (hey, Jay, saw your big hurling mural as we passed through).
The park is still recovery from some snow / landside damage so not all the trails were open. We were able to take one down to the waterfall and then around from some views. We tacked on another 2.5 miles for the day (and 700' of elevation) so we were suitably spent by the end of it.
and there it is
Back up from the valley looking down the glen to the sea with the family
said valley shot
my fillet steak with a proper whiskey peppercorn sauce -- mmm, mmm
chocolate mousse (inside the chocolate ball) and coffee ice cream plus . . .
a chocolate caramel tart
One of the best meals we've had in the UK. Not cheap (£100) but well worth it in our mind. It more than made up for the night before (I get big demerits if I don't feed a certain someone well on holiday).
Day 3 -- Belfast
We decided to spend one day in Belfast to see if we could get a brief feel for the city's history. One obviously can't "see" a city in a day, but we enjoyed the overview. We've transitioned into rural vacationers so the 2 days in the country / 1 in the city was the right split for us.
Perhaps everyone knows the history better than me, but here's my quick layman's take (my own words -- hopefully I get it right enough that no one is offended). Ireland fought for its independence from the British Crown in the early 20th century. When that was won/granted it was acknowledged that there was still a number of loyalists that did not want to be part of the new Republic. It was decided that 6 counties in Northern Ireland (which I presume were generally Loyalist) would stay as part of the UK. Sounds all fine and dandy except what about the non-loyalist (republicans) that were already there? (Definite similarities to the Israel / Palestine situation).
By and large, the Republicans are Catholic and the Loyalist are Protestant and it (appears to be) as much about that as Irish/UK.
So, the Loyalists/Protestants have a local majority but feel that any in-roads made by the Catholic/Republicans are a threat to their way of life. So, some made it uncomfortable for them to "encourage" them to leave. Similarly, the Catholic/Republicans feel they have a right to live where they have always lived and think that the area should be "Irish" and therefore fight back. The tactics on both sides have been gruesome at times.
Fortunately, a cease fire between the IRA and British Government occurred in the mid-1990s and things have been somewhat safer since then though there are areas in the city in particular where you would not want to be caught out.
After some careful contemplation (and a thumbs up from the Greggs), we decided to take a Black Cab tour of the area to learn what we could.
The colors (red, white and blue) even on the curbs.
The beginning of it all in some sense: [Protestant] William III taking over from a Catholic king
numerous murals of heros / thugs depending on your point of view
memorial to those killed in a pub/bar bomb
more bunting and flags
On the Fall Rd. (Catholic) side now. No crown nor underlying English flag on this one.
The Bombay Street fire is widely seen as the beginning of The Troubles in 1969 (wiki link)
no flags here
murals on the Catholic side
Fairly sobering tour. I think we all learned a bit but we need to keep in mind that we basically got one man's view (i.e. the cab driver's) and that might not be representative. He seemed to focus more on the atrocities of the past and I didn't get a feel for the state of things today. He acknowledged that we were touring extremist areas and things weren't quite so black/white outside of that. He mentioned that his Catholic son had a Protestant friend sleep over the other night and he didn't think anything of it so perhaps many are trying to live harmoniously. Let's hope so.
After the tour, we had the afternoon to see the city. I decided on a self walking tour to see the highlights.
The Europa Hotel -- sight of many bombings as well as stays by famous dignitaries
Opera House walk by
Queen Victoria in front of City Hall
front of Titanic Memorial
artsy shot of City Hall
still a little edge to the city -- check out the armored police van
and the kit these two cops have
random t-shirt in a souvenir shop
Albert Clock Tower
unnerving helicopter overhead -- not sure if that was normal or not; just checking?
St. Anne's (Belfast) Cathedral
stained glass reflection in silver cross
Yes, Brits, it is possible to pay at the pump. Just ask your Irish neighbors.
We didn't need a car while in Belfast, so I planned to turn it in the day before we left to avoid parking charges and another day's rental. The City Airport is so close that it was easy to drop it off and take a £10 taxi back to dinner (and out again the following morning). The logistics went even better since we found free street parking on Sunday morning when we drove into the city.
It's a shame that many Brits (and I guess Irish) think that sushi comes on a conveyor. That's the equivalent of a heat-lamp burger, folks. You can do better!
All in all, it was another great experience. We've certainly found our groove and know what we like. The outdoors on the north coast were fantastic and it was good to get a little recent history in Belfast (though I'm sure we have much more to learn there). By and large, the people were very friendly. Glad we made the effort.
It's not fair to judge a city on one day but first impressions and all -- Belfast was "okay" and we are glad we visited but it didn't capture us as say, Liverpool, did.
I posted this on Facebook earlier in the week but I thought I would include it here. Alex had misplaced his iPod when in Switzerland on our train ride home (too many electronics) and was devastated. He had written it off. However, in the background I had e-mail the Swiss train company (SBB) to see if anyone turned it in to lost and found. Well, we got lucky. Someone did (probably the conductor but maybe a good Samaritan). I could pick it up at any Swiss station for 20 Swiss Francs or mail it for 80. Fortunately, our friends the Henkles were going to be vacationing there and we arranged for them to pick it up. After they got back (and we got back from our Gran Canaria trip), I surprised Alex with it (his eyes were closed when Nicole gave it to him). Pure joy. (Thanks guys).
That's (finally) all for now. Have a good week everyone.