Exploring beyond Belfast – Giant’s Causeway, Dunluce Castle and the Peace Bridge
Our time in Belfast was short but thorough, and I would certainly go back there again, however, we were on our coach tour and so set off to the Glens of Antrim. The famous Nine Glens of Antrim is an area of outstanding beauty with its rugged coastlines, woodlands, rivers, waterfalls and breathtaking views. The nine glens are on the coast road – looking at the map it goes all the way around the coast from Belfast to Derry/ Londonderry. There is Glenarm, Glencloy, Glenariff, Gelnaan, Glencorp, Glenshesk, Glentaisie, Glenballyeamon and Glendun. Coach tours will take you through most of the glens but whichever one you are in it has beautiful scenery. We drove to Portstewart and Portrush, and passed beautiful golf courses, some of which have been voted by the golfers as amongst the best golf courses in the world. Castles and beautiful unspoilt beaches create interest and conversation with your other passengers – 'friends' as you drive to your lunch or coffee breaks. We stopped at the Ballygalley Caste Hotel for a lovely lunch and the chance to stretch our legs and enjoy this beautiful hotel in an envious position right on the beach. The hotel's staff gave us a warm welcome and served very good food. The hotel also has a 'ghost' – – well we didn't see it ,but the hotel is near to the Ballycastle golf club so book early before the ghost hunters get there!
The Causeway Coast Route is the route that the coaches follow, high cliffs, secluded beaches and numerous historic sights, with the wonderful view of the Mull of Kintyre (remember the Paul McCartney rendering) as a back drop. If it is a misty or rainy day you will not see it but the day we visited it was clear and we could see it very well. The next stop is the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, if you have the nerves of steel then this is for you. The rope bridge spans a 20m wide chasm and is 30m deep. It was traditionally erected by salmon fishermen to get from the main land to the island. If you have the nerves then it is an exhilarating experience and certainly one you will not forget.
One of Northern Irelands top visitor's attraction and UNESCO World Heritage site is the Giant's Causeway. Our tour started at the visitors’ centre which is an eco friendly building, and worth a second look, the cost is £8.50. We set off from the centre by collecting our audio tape that gave information on the way to the site. The Causeway is set down a fairly steep path that takes around 15 minutes to walk to, on a good day it is lovely but on a wet or windy day, then fear not, a small bus will take you down and bring you back for a small charge, there are also disabled facilities, and it is well worth the effort to go down to the sight that you will behold. But be careful: you are warned of the uneven rocks underfoot and that the black rocks are wet and slippery – don't go near them the sea can turn at any moment. The Causeway consists of formations of unusual six sided basalt columns which were formed by volcanic activity, but the legend has it that a Giant by the name of Finn McCool created the Causeway – I won't spoil the story, you need to go and see this wonderful sight.
We stayed at the Causeway Hotel, very comfortable and good food, we were not disappointed with any of the hotels, all a good standard and the tour coaches have strategic stops for your comfort. The town of Bushmills has good pubs and restaurants for an interesting evening dine at the The Distilers Arms, it is like a Tardis looking rather small on the outside, but just go inside and you will be amazed at the size of this beautiful building. Our next stop was the Bushmills Distillery, the oldest whiskey making distillery in the world is their claim – I won't argue with that, but even at 10.30 am the whiskey tasted very good!! The distillery produces 18,000 barrels a year and it takes between 5 to 21 years to mature. I recommend the 12 year old whiskey, or the 16 year old – hic – oh and the 21 year old – only joking. The price of entry is £7, or £6 for concessions and there are no disabled facilities, wheelchairs are not allowed, due to all the steps – 144 steps to be exact, but you can stay in the bar area and receive at talk on the distillery and more time in the bar!
Our next photo stop was Dunluce Castle, perched on the headland, with cliffs plunging into the sea, a really dramatic sight. Then onward to Derry or Londonderry which ever political/religion stand you take. Derry or as some people call it 'Legenderry' which has won the 2013 City of Culture Award and that is well deserved. Our tour started on the Walls of Derry, the walk on the walls is interesting and very moving, don't miss the Tower Museum it is definitely worth visiting. Our tour guide explained the history of the 'troubles' – you can see the houses on Bogside that were situated in the middle of the fighting. The house walls are covered in art murals depicting the 'troubles', the sights of the walls and gates that kept the rival factions apart are more than evident, the Bloody Sunday and the 'wounds' are still on show, but this City of Culture is trying hard to move on.
The Peace Bridge is a wonderful construction across the Foyle River connecting the oldest intact City Walls with a spectacular redevelopment at Ebrington, which was once the city barracks which were used for 170 years. A statue constructed with two bodies, hands reaching out almost touching is very moving and the sculptor said he would like to come back one day and join up the hands to signify peace in Northern Ireland. The restaurants and bars are in abundance and if you want to indulge in one of the best restaurants in Northern Ireland then visit Brown's on Bond's Hill, Waterside and do your taste buds a favour!! The shopping centre is busy and vibrant and boasts the world's oldest independent department store – Austins in the Diamond area since 1830. History is all around you the city played a key role during the Second World War owing to its strategic position as the Allies' most westerly naval base. At the war's height 20,000 sailors for various nationalities were based in this thriving port.
We stayed at the Roe Park premier golf resort; it is a parkland course that takes full advantage of its beautiful setting with Lough Foyle providing a dramatic backdrop to the course. The accomodation is excellent and the facilities are very good and a spa for relaxation after a long day on the golf course.
Join the 'coach party' and see a beautiful part of the world, meet strangers that become friends and let the coach take the strain. As one person described the tour 'it is like a cruise on land' –why not come and see for yourself?
For more information, please visit Coach Tourism Council
• Read Chapter 1: A stranger is a friend you haven't met yet
Glynis Sullivan was a guest of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the Coach Tourism Council whose members include more than 140 UK coach operators, many of whom feature tours to Belfast and Northern Ireland. They can be found at www.findacoachholiday.com.