FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Antrim: Irish Fling

Oct 1, 2011
2011 / October 2011
imageDreamstime

Northern Ireland’s Antrim Coast can steal a gal’s heart. It wooed me with promises of giant-sized steps, soaring headlands, Neolithic sites and castle ruins, then seduced me with forested glens, craggy cliffs, walled gardens and birdsong. I came armed with a laundry list of must-sees and must-dos, which included soaking up the Irish craic and sipping pints of Smitty’s, but as soon as I departed Belfast, heading north on the A2, I tossed my plans aside and let serendipity rule.

I couldn’t resist stopping, if only briefly, to admire Carrickfergus Castle, a 12th-century Norman fortress in County Antrim’s oldest city. I savored the view of the waterfront castle along with mighty tasty fish and chips, purchased from a dive-ish takeout facing the water. Thoroughly satiated, I continued north on the Antrim Coast Road, which threads between coast and cliffs. A 19th-century engineering masterpiece, it funnels through the Black Arch, a tunnel cut through a headland, before arriving in the first of the nine Glens of Antrim.

Legend and lore permeate the Glens, volcano-cast and glacier-sculpted valleys comprising woodlands and grasslands, peat bogs and sand beaches, cliff-edged mountains and rock-bound headlands. Ancient ruins and historic sites are folded into the landscape among the bleating sheep and bellowing cows. Locals say giants and wee fairy folk reside in the mist-shrouded woodland caves and coastal crags.

Signs promising a tearoom and walled garden lured me into Glenarm. Its castle, one of Northern Ireland’s oldest estates, has been home to the McDonnell family, earls of Antrim, since the 17th century. After indulging in tea and scones, I explored the 18th-century garden. It wasn’t hard to imagine that fairies had engaged in a paintball battle within the walls, splashing vibrant reds, pinks, oranges and yellows amid the greenery.

I detoured again in Glenariff, Queen of the Glens, a U-shaped valley that begins in woodlands and widens through stonewall- and hedge-stitched farmlands to a long sand beach. The Glenariff and Inver rivers tumble through the dense, century-old oak, ash, willow and hazel trees of Glenariff Forest Park. Trails edge the flows, crossing bridges over gurgling stepped falls and passing through mossy-walled gorges where plunging cascades mist the air with the damp, strangely life-affirming scents of decay and new growth. Had I lingered any longer, I might have attained enlightenment; not the lights-flashing, God-appearing, Hallelujah! type, but a subtle, restorative, all’s-right-with-the-world kind.

After returning to the coast through Glenballyeamon, I passed through the Red Arch and the village of Cushendall. A2 cuts inland here, but I didn’t. I looped through Glennann, home to Ossian’s tomb, a megalithic court cairn reputed to be the final resting place of the Celtic warrior poet, and returned via Glendun, which revealed glimpses of Glendun Viaduct, a 19th-century marvel of engineering over the river Dun, then continued to Cushendun. This Cornish-style coastal fishing village, now owned by the National Trust, was designed for Lord Cushendun by Clough Williams-Ellis, famed for designing the lavish, Italianate-style Portmeirion in Wales.

While the glens whisper their secrets, the coast shouts. Torr Road, a sinewy, white-knuckle drive, wraps around the shoreline northwestward from Cushendun. It soars and plunges, snakes around farmlands, edges windswept headlands that drop to crashing surf and delivers stunning vistas around nearly every twist and turn. A rugged path leads out to the ruins of a lookout station on Torr Head, and it’s worth the effort for the views to Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland’s most northerly point. I sensed that if I could just get to that distant island, the universe would reveal its secrets.

Despite tossing my list, I wanted to visit Antrim’s most famous sights, Carrick-a-Rede and Giant’s Causeway. The rope-and-slat Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, originally used by salmon fishermen to access their nets, spans a 66-foot-wide, 75-foot-deep chasm separating Carrick Island from the mainland. Walking the roughly one-mile trail to the bridge is the easy part. Crossing it isn’t for the faint of heart or the fearful of heights. I rewarded myself with lunch at the site’s teahouse and café.

According to legend, Irish giant Finn McCool built the nearby Giant’s Causeway so he could walk across the sea to battle Scottish giant Benandonner, and the polygonal basalt columns do appear as if placed for a giant to happen along and climb up and out of the frigid blue waters that froth at their base. Maybe years ago, before the hype and the tour buses, the visitor center and the endless parking lots, this UNESCO World Heritage site was a marvel to stumble upon, but I found it depressingly overcrowded. Perhaps if I had visited first thing in the morning or escaped the throngs on the two-mile Runkerry Head trail, I might have enjoyed it more.

Over a dram at Bushmills, which has been distilling whiskey for more than 400 years, my thoughts kept returning to Rathlin Island. Unable to resist its siren song, I backtracked to Ballycastle and booked ferry passage to the L-shaped island six miles distant across the Sea of Moyle. Way back in 1306, when driven from Scotland by England’s Edward I, Robert the Bruce took refuge on Rathlin. Locals say that watching a spider succeed after trying repeatedly to bridge a hole in its web inspired him to gather new forces and return home to fight for his kingdom.

These days, sparsely populated Rathlin is best known as the site of Northern Ireland’s biggest seabird colony. In early summer, nomadic seabirds flock to the basalt cliffs and sea stacks punctuating the island’s western end. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds maintains a reserve and staffs a visitor center in the upside-down West Lighthouse, built midway up a 300-foot cliff. Since my time was limited, I rode the Puffin Bus, which meets the ferry and carries those who don’t have the time or inclination to walk the four miles to the reserve. The one-lane road led to a lofty headland, from which a marked path descends toward the lighthouse before giving way to 89 (count ‘em) steps to the viewing deck.

I watched mesmerized as tens of thousands of seabirds — fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins and razorbills — performed avian antics, swirling around the cliffs and stacks. Their cacophony drowned out the waves dashing the rocks far below. When I finally tore myself away, I knew that if there is royalty among Northern Ireland’s fairies and wee people, they most assuredly reside in this spectacular spot.

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FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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