With all apologies to our friends, both foreign and domestic, who advised us to spend some time in Belfast, we decided to secure our rental car and drive toward the northern coast as soon as we landed in Northern Ireland. We were short on time and long on ambition, hoping to see both the northern and the wild western coasts of Ireland before returning to Dublin and our flight home.
But Ireland isn’t a country that can be fully appreciated in a whirlwind tour. It is an ancient land, rich in history and slow in distillation. And, as with all fine whiskey, it needs to be sipped to be truly enjoyed.
We pointed the car north, following the M2 and the A26 highways toward Giant’s Causeway, our first actual destination on this leg of the trip. Along the way, we drove through the Dark Hedges, which have gained fame in several films and television shows, including HBO’s Game of Thrones.
We watched a wedding happening under the ancient trees, and when things cleared out after the ceremony, we shot photos and video using the DJI Mavic Pro drone.
Since Game of Thrones was already on our minds and we were starving for a late lunch, we were understandably intrigued by the nearby Blackwater Bar. Which came first, the pub or the Battle of the Blackwater?
As we entered the Blackwater, everyone in the bar turned to look at us. There were two women behind the bar, four men enjoying pints, and even a handful of teenagers near the dartboard. I asked the bartender when dinner service started, and she replied with a smile, “June.”
Apparently the Blackwater doesn’t see a lot of tourists in the off-season.
We struck up a conversation with one of the patrons, who turned out to be a retired college lecturer. George was quite the philosopher and a truly fascinating man, as was his best friend, Morris. However, the two couldn’t have been more different from each other. Morris tells bad dad jokes loudly, while George grimaces quietly and laughs softly under his breath at the punchlines. Morris is a boisterous carpenter, and George is a peaceful lover of nature. Before Morris cuts down a tree on a job site, he calls George in to bless it. They are a very odd couple indeed, but even after a short conversation, you know they are perfect friends for one another.
The barmaid of the Blackwater turned out to be Sharon, who is also an alderwoman of Balleymoney. She was a wonderful host and gave us good advice on where to stay for the night. We went to The Causeway Hotel on her suggestion, but it was fully booked, so we enjoyed a lovely dinner there with a view of the coast before finding accommodations elsewhere.
Just a few minutes up the road, we got a room at The Bushmills Inn. It was late, but we couldn’t head to bed without enjoying a glass of Irish whiskey from the oldest working distillery in the country. When I asked the bartender for his recommendation, he encouraged me to have a glass of Bushmills 21 Year Single Malt. It was sweet and exquisitely smooth, and a generous double pour was just £10 for guests of the inn. I mentioned to the bartender that it was considerably better than any Bushmills I’d ever had, and he replied, “We don’t send much of the good stuff to the States.”
After a good night’s rest, we drove back around the bend to Giant’s Causeway. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986, this breathtaking coastline features more than 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that were formed sometime around 50 or 60 million years ago in a volcanic eruption. Or, if you prefer the local legend, they are the remains of a causeway built by Irish giant Finn MacCool. Either way, they are incredibly impressive.
The hike above the causeway is impressive in its own right, with sweeping views of the valley on one side and the Irish Sea on the other.
The Giant’s Causeway visitor center offers guided tours and bus transportation up the hill, but it’s worth the walk to take in the beautiful scenery along the way. The center also offers paid parking, but we had lunch just around the corner at The Nook and were allowed to leave our car in their parking lot for free. Housed in a schoolhouse built in the 1850s, The Nook had a nice variety of selections for lunch and several Irish beers on tap. We enjoyed a pint before leaving County Antrim and heading to Dublin to catch our flight home.
As if to cheer us up, Ireland offered three rainbows for our drive to the airport as well as a stellar sunset.
While it was a whirlwind, our United Kingdom adventure was wonderful, and we can’t wait to come back for another visit with Bill and Ev in Glasgow, another walk through John’s garden in Balbriggan, and another pint with George, Morris, and Sharon at the Blackwater.
Scotland and Northern Ireland have both made it onto the list of possibilities for our next home.
Today’s expat evaluation: +1 for breathtaking scenery, +1 for fine Irish whiskey, +5 for local pubs that make outsiders feel like family