Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Antrim Coast - Nature's Wonderland

I'll be the first to tell you that I am usually more impressed with man's creations than natures (whatever you consider nature to be), but I've got to admit the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland is pretty, pretty, good. I figured we would breeze along the coast without once feeling the desire to stop and walk around. I was wrong. When this place evolved it seems the only crayons in the old Crayola box were primary colors. The constant breeze was refreshing, not irritating as I had expected. I now understand why Elizabeth George placed Lynley along the cliffs of England (said to be very similar) after the death of his wife. This is the place to go when you want to be alone with yourself.

Wednesday - September 23, 2009 - Ballycastle, Northern Ireland

Ballycastle is a small village on the northeast coast of Ireland. It is in county Antrim, one of six that remains part of the British Empire. The official currency is the British Pound sterling, making our Euros worthless (and to complicate matters even more, some Northern Ireland banks issue banknotes that are not accepted in England). We picked some up (we know not what variety) at the ATM in Belfast airport. Measurements are in feet and miles, and pints and quarts (mind your p's and q's) like at home. Now if they only drove on the right side of the road.

Our bartered apartment overlooks the coast and is fabulous. It is spotlessly clean and beautifully decorated. We feel like we are house-sitting for really good friends who have gone on holiday. Mary and Paul (the owners) have left brochures on local attractions with annotated maps and suggestions for touring and dining. They thoughtfully left an unopened bottle of Bushmill's and we are pretty sure it would be an affront if we did not at least sample some. And get this, there is an English version of the same (expletive deleted) combination washer/dryer that has caused us such consternation at the previous two swaps. Right on the counter is the Rosetta-stone owners manual which we hope will answer the operational questions that have been queuing up for a couple of years (more about that later).

Showered, shaved and feeling great, we were soon on our merry way. Driving during the daylight takes a lot of the mystery out of it. Even without speed limit signs, roadways dictate acceptable progress. Having the roadside vegetation brush against the car as you are tooling along takes some getting used to, but apparently does no harm to the car's finish. We followed the coast road west (we don't need no stinking map), and couldn't keep ourselves from pulling over at the first scenic overlook. Before us were the ruins of the Dunseverick castle, set on an imposing cliff. I was starting to get into this. Instead of just seeing a pile of rocks, I started imagining the castle and it's occupants, and what must have been a desolate way of life, given this was built long before motorized transportation. I couldn't imagine a lot of traffic streaming by.

Up the road a wee bit is an area called "The Giant's Causeway" and our next stop. Legend has it that a land bridge was built across the Irish Sea by a giant (Finn McCool - great name) who had a tiff with a Scottish giant and was spoiling for a fight. The Scottish giant was a fraidy-cat and tore up the bridge. What's left is a volcanic plateau with cool, hexagonal, basalt columns that you can walk and climb on. It's an adult playground. The car park is at the top of the cliff and you carefully make your way down a series of steep paths and steps. There are no railings so you have to be on your best behavior.

At one particularly hazardous little cliff edge, we were approached by a group of people wearing identical parkas. Turns out they were from the Health and Safety division of the National Trust (like our National Park Service but with better uniforms). They sought visitor opinions about the safety of the park and were particularly interested when they found we were from the US (I'm not going to say Americans anymore because it seems to peeve the thin skinned, inferiority complexed Canadians). We all agreed they should leave it as is, and not build safety fences and barriers across the top of the cliffs. We didn't think the Northern Irish should turn into a fraidy-cat Scottish giant. I think they liked that answer, and I know I liked the head honcho when he told me that I should light up and enjoy my cigar while visiting their park. (I made that part up about the giant, but not the cigar.)

Two miles to the south is Bushmills, the village made famous by the distillery that sits astride the Bush river. Upon opening the car doors we were greeted by the overwhelmingly pleasant smell of fermenting malted barley. The tour was informative and I learned 3 things: Irish whiskey has an "e" - scotch not, the Scots use peat to roast the barley giving it the unique flavor - Irish don't, and third I don't remember because we were hungry. Fortunately Bushmills lets tour participants eat in the company cafeteria, and it was very good, and inexpensive.

I passed on the country pie and went for the fish and chips which were very good. I asked Joanne, our waitress, if there was malt vinegar and she looked at me like "you've got to be kidding, we produce three gazillion tons of malt barley every day." There were pitchers of it on the sideboard. Taking one look at it Rich decried that it couldn't be malt vinegar as it was clear. It was good and tasted like malt vinegar and I was satisfied that it was, however Rich had to ask Joanne if it indeed was and she (very nicely I thought) assured him it was in fact distilled malt vinegar. He remained staunchly unconvinced and this little episode clearly illustrates the maxim "For some no proof is necessary, for others no proof is possible." (Perhaps the discussion found at this page will settle the matter. Perhaps not.)

Heading back to Ballycastle, we had three more sights to see. The first was Dunluce castle which must make Dunseverick castle green with envy. Still just a pile of stones, the stones are arranged very nicely. It's big, and the story goes that the lady of the house refused to live there anymore when the kitchen fell into the sea. I can understand that. We passed on going inside, but pictured the dickens on the outside.

Our second stop was at White Rocks beach, and suffice to say the name is the description and you don't need to know anymore.

Our last stop was at something called Carrick-a-Rede (translated means a terrifying, rickety old rope bridge slung between two rock outcroppings that funnel hurricane force winds, and is 95 feet above the roaring Irish sea). It is something to behold. First glimpse it doesn't look too bad, but as you approach it the willies start. What if this is the time ... Plus, once you get over to the other side and explore the Rede, the only way back is through pucker-pass. They don't allow more than 8 people on the bridge at the same time. You have got to be kidding me. Rich and Lu made it easily (and proudly). I walked behind Kat and the steps of just the two of us caused these little ripples on the "bridge." My mind flickered back to those cartoons we watched as kids, where one side lets go and the characters bounce against the cliff face then cheerfully climb up this bridge-cum-ladder on the other side. In the cartoon it's funny. The view from the other side is spectacular.(I don't know if there is a view from the middle of the bridge, so don't ask what it was like.)

We picked up some beer, groceries and take-away fish and chips (from a shop called "Mortons" right on the waterfront). It was fabulous. Great food, conversations and sunset views ended the day in this little slice of heaven.

Well, there was one more thing. I'd be remiss if I didn't scribe this anecdote. As we were leaving Mortons, a portly (in a nice way) young female officer exited her patrol car and came in to pick up dinner for herself and car mate. She was festooned with an equal weight of weapons and communications gear, looking like a serious SWAT team all by herself. We smiled at each other, and I remarked that she was "loaded", testing the reputed good nature of the Irish. She emitted a small laugh (confirming my suspicions) while Rich gave me a serious evil eye (and a stern talking to), apparently concerned that she would would use some of that gear she was toting - on us.

My guess is he was still unbalanced about being wrong on the malt vinegar.

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