Monday, October 31, 2011

Going Coastal on You!

In our original travel plans, Al and I were going to head to Belfast bright and early so we could have the better part of the day there. We’d arrive by 10:30 and then we could count it as a full day. In our original travel plans, however, we failed to account for the step-aunts wanting to do morning coffee. We finally boarded a bus in Dungannon at 11:45. If you’re keeping track and home, that’s 3.5 hours later than we anticipated. Our day in Belfast turned into an afternoon. And what a wet miserable afternoon it was!

After a wrong turn out of the bus station which almost led to us walking into Falls Rd/Shankill Rd area (which is where a lot of the troubles in Belfast were centred), we found our hostel, ditched our bags and phoned the first Black Taxi cab tour listed in our guide. The voice on the other end of the phone said he’d pick us up in 15 minutes. It was the only thing that went according to schedule that day!

Our guide, Ken Harper, was fabulous. Friendly, knowledgeable and hilarious, he kept us entertained from beginning to end. We got on well with him and our 1 hour tour actually ended up being 1.5 hours as he threw in a quick go around the city centre as well. I wish I had more pictures to share, but the rain was bucketing down on and off throughout our ride meaning a lot of the picture opportunities found Al and I just sitting in the cab because even rolling down the window for a decent shot just wasn’t worth it.

This is the part of the peace line that people sign. Ken offered us a pen; Al and I just laughed.
We could barely see the wall from the car it was raining so hard!

The rain did stop long enough for us to see the hooded gunman mural. The mural has been the centre of a lot of controversy over the years (Really? A hooded man pointing a gun in mural form in an area affected by violence has garnered controversy? No way!), but I was mostly interested in it because the gun apparently follows you as you walk.

Unfortunately when we got back in the car and drove to the other side, the rains had started up again, but I can say that the gun most definitely follows you. It’s very creepy. I know it’s just a painting but dude, it’s a gun and it follows you! There is no way I could walk past that at night!

I have a strange relationship with Belfast; I want to like it, I want to think it’s a great city, I want to believe I should encourage people to go there but I always come away feeling let down. It’s not a friendly city. I know that has a lot to do with its past and that people tend to keep much more to themselves compared to the rest of Ireland (even compared to the rest of the North), but it makes it hard for me to say that Belfast was awesome. It’s definitely worth a visit, I'm just not convinced it's worth a stay.

Still, my cousins who live there seem to love it.

We spent the night hanging out with my aunt and uncle. I chose not to stay with my aunt because she’s never been in great health and she had just had surgery on her cataracts a week before we arrived. I figured she didn’t need the stress of two girls staying with her. Well, I obviously thought wrong because all I got all night was a good old Irish-Catholic guilt trip about not staying with them. “It’s a pity you’re in a hostel when we have all these empty rooms.” “How much money would you have saved by staying with us?” “You come all the way from Canada and you don’t even stay with family.” And the parting shot as we left, “it would have been lovely to have spent more time with you, but I guess we should get you back to the hostel.”

She! Just! Had! Surgery!

Still, she poured the stiffest drink I’ve ever seen. My glass was half rum, half 7-Up! Maybe we should have stayed with her...

The next day was our tour along the Antrim Coast to Bushmills (where we’d jump off the bus and then public transit it to Derry, everyone else got driven back to Belfast). We had booked the tour on a whim the day before. We originally planned to get to Giant’s Causeway on our own but when we saw the tour company across the street from the hostel, we decided to see if it was feasible to only go the one way. Not only was it feasible, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions we made on the entire trip.

The day looked like it was going to be a washout as the rains started up as we departed Belfast. For our first stop in Carrickfergus, only half of us got off the bus to take pictures. By the time we had left Carrickfergus the sun was out. While the occasional shower would continue to show up during the course of the trip, that was the only really bad rain.

Our guide, a quick-witted Scot named Tom, had us all in stitches with his stories about the area. He had married a local girl and it was clear that he had fallen just as much in love with the country and he had with her. Of course, he still pointed out Scotland across the water every chance he got!

Driving the coast road

Stopping for a break in Carnlough

Of course, the upside to the weather was that we got a lot of rainbows.

Being on the tour meant that we stopped at Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, something we wouldn’t have done on public transit. The 1.5km walk out to the bridge afforded us lovely views out to Rathlin Island.

That's Rathlin Island on the horizon.

Our first view of the bridge.

Once we got to the bridge, I had to pep Al up a bit. She’s not big on heights and what all these pictures fail to show is how incredibly windy it was that day.

Half-way across just before a huge gust of wind.

Al did cross and I can’t begin to explain how happy I was that she did. Even with all my ‘can do’ bravado about the bridge I had a moment of panic halfway across when a huge gust of wind started the bridge swaying. The words ‘I hate you’ may have escaped Al’s lips after we reached the other side.

That's the fishing hut which was the reason the bridge
was first put up between the island and the mainland.

After we walked to the far side of the tiny island and snapped a few pictures, we crossed back. I half expected Al to kiss the ground once we were back across but she managed to refrain herself... probably only until I wasn’t looking.

That v-shaped gap is where the bridge is.

We've crossed the bridge, Al's still smiling and she hasn't killed me.
If our friendship can survive this, it can survive anything!

The next big stop on our trip was Giant’s Causeway. When asked if the Giant's Causeway was worth seeing, Samuel Johnson one quipped, "worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see." As Tom kindly pointed out, Johnson also travelled three days to see the Causeway so his opinion is to be taken with a grain of salt.
I'm willing to be that Johnson didn't have views of rainbows on his walk to the Causeway.

We opted to walk down to the Causeway and save ourselves the £1 and the views were worth the saved money. (Although we totally paid the £1 to take the bus back up from the Causeway.)

The Ulster Way follows much of this part of the coast.
I can't help but think what a spectacular hike it would be!

Science would have us believe that the Causeway was the result of volcanic activity and the subsequent cooling of the resulting molten basalt millions of years ago. As the basalt cooled unevenly, geometric shapes formed where the cooled areas pushed against each other. This is all a very fascinating explanation but as Tom so kindly pointed out, do you see any volcanoes in the area? No.

Legend has it that Fionn mac Cumhaill (pronounced Finn MacCool), a giant who once roamed the Irish countryside, had a beef with a giant in Scotland. After tossing insults and threats back and forth, Fionn decided enough was enough and it was time to settle the argument. He built the Causeway so the other giant, who couldn’t swim, could cross the water and the two could duke it out. Except when he got his first glimpse of the other giant, the other giant ended up being much bigger than Finn had anticipated and Finn realised he was going to lose the fight.

Fionn ran home to his wife and told her of the problem. Unbeknown to Fionn, she devised a plan. After giving Fionn a potion so he’d fall asleep, she swaddled him up like a baby. She invited the other giant in, explaining that Fionn was off working but should be home soon. When the other giant saw the baby, he figured ‘if that’s the baby, how big is his father?’ and he ran back to Scotland, smashing the Causeway as he went so that Fionn couldn’t follow him.

Doesn’t that sound a lot more plausible than volcanoes in Ireland? ;)

We finished up the day with a quick trip to Bushmills and Dunluce Castle before Tom stopped traffic to flag down our bus to Coleraine. There’s nothing really special about it except that Tom went above and beyond to get us on that bus and because we had to run, we didn’t really get a chance to thank him. Also, he's a huge Game of Thrones fan and when he found out that I was as well, he pointed out all the filming locations that we passed. All in all, he was a great tour guide and if you’re in that neck of the woods and looking for an Antrim Coast tour, I would whole-heartedly, without any hesitation, recommend getting on a tour with Tom who works for Ben Allen Tours. Seriously, the man was incredible. (Ben was a gas as well and I wish we could have chatted longer. He was cracking Al and I up.)

From Coleraine, we hopped the train to Derry. For the most part, we tried to avoid the train as it was usually very expensive unless you book well in advance but the trip from Coleraine to Derry was supposed to be spectacular as it followed the coast of Lough Foyle. It did not disappoint.

Came out of a tunnel to this view. That's Co. Donegal across the Lough.

We pulled into Derry just as the sun was setting. After a bit to eat, a quick pint, and a bit of traditional music, we called it a day and headed off to bed.

Note about the links to businesses in this post: Neither of the businesses I've linked to knew that I would be writing about them and/or linking to them. I've linked to them because I was really happy with the service they provided to a nobody. Please note that I don't even recommend the safari company I went with in Tanzania because it's owned by a friend and I don't feel comfortable sending people to him when I know that my fabulous experience was based on already having a pre-established friendship with the guide, so when I recommend these businesses, I really, really mean it.

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