Northern Ireland with its history, mythology and scenic beauty is a traveller's delight.
My romance with Ireland started in my early teens with stories of elves and leprechauns roaming the glens of Antrim. I had harboured this burning desire to go to the land of Narnia's Chronicles but the “troubles” (as the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland came to be known) had deterred me. But when I did go finally I discovered why Northern Ireland is a treasure trove for travellers.
First stop was Belfast, just over an hour by air from London, a city wracked by violence for three decades but now emerging as one of the most attractive tourist spots in the world according to Frommers. The City Hall building where the Civic Representatives sit, majestically dominates the downtown area and the Ulster Museum a short walk away has a moving section on Northern Ireland's troubled history. On to another part of the city and you see the dry dock where the Titanic berthed. Murals dot the city, each one having a story to tell.
I walked into the heart of protestant Belfast - the Shenkill — and a pub called The Stadium, located next to the Orange Hall, a religious-social meeting area, where the Orange Day Parade was to be celebrated. A hush descended over the pub's inmates as I opened the entrance door, since hardly any non-locals visit here but within minutes the Irish friendliness smothered me and as Billy the owner explained to me later, my presence would be grist to the mill of bar room stories for many months to come!
Belfast Castle located at the foot of Cave Hill is a fairy tale castle. The climb up Cave Hill affords a breathtaking view of Belfast Lough (the Irish name for Lake) and the city of Belfast. On a clear day you can even see the Mountains of Mourne (made famous by C.S.Lewis)!
And there is a Lake District in Northern Ireland every bit as beautiful as the one in the north of England and a lot less crowded- Fermanagh.
I start the next morning taking the Westlink out of Belfast driving to my hosts, the Weirs, at Tamlaght a few miles out of Enniskillen in Fermanagh County. The drive has taken me a leisurely two hours through the serenity and greenery of pastoral Northern Ireland. As many small towns in Northern Ireland do, Enniskillen too has a castle, home to the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers who were acknowledged by the Duke of Wellington for having saved the centre of the line at the Battle of Waterloo. The Lough Erne runs around Enniskillen, and I chart a delightful route looping through Lower Lough Erne, stopping off to take the ferry M.V. Kestrel to one of the oldest medieval Christian settlements in Ireland, Devenish Island where the early Christians integrated many pagan beliefs to promote harmony amongst the faiths. The ferry sails alongside Portora Royal School (founded by James1 in 1608) and boasts such literary alumni as Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde amongst its students. No visit to Fermanagh can be complete without a visit to the two most beautifully wooded National Trust properties, Florence Court and Castle Coole — both a walker's delight. What a sight the greenery is!
The next day I drive through County Tyrone entering the walled city of Derry. I take an award winning city tour through the locations of the famous siege of Derry by the forces of King James.
Our guide is a treat to listen to with a commentary ranging from the dramatic to the descriptive as he tells us of the 13 apprentice boys who raised the bridge, grabbed the keys and closed the city gates as the Protestant garrison held out for months in appalling conditions. The famous murals of Derry grip you in its flavour of history and romance both headily mixed to be a storyteller's delight! One in the tour group tells me she is the sister of Roxanne, the well-known singer of the 70s' who was badly injured in a car bomb explosion.
My drive continues as I wing my way to an afternoon appointment at the Bushmills Distillery, Ireland's oldest licensed whiskey distillery.
Through the Roe Valley and Coleraine, I am entering some of the most scenic spots in the world as I take the Coastal Causeway and the coast plays hide and seek with me.
The Distillery has a fascinating whiskey tour and later I drive on to Glenariff — the queen of the Antrim glens- and a sheep farm called Dieskirt abutting the Glenariff Mountains. My hosts, the McHenrys are waiting for me and whisk me off to dinner to a cozy restaurant, Laragh Lodge, tucked away in the glen.
The next day is spent driving along the Coastal Causeway with unforgettable scenery and glimpses of the coast of Scotland and you remember Paul McCartney singing of the “Mull of Kintyre” to describe this area. Murlough Bay Fair Head down the road is the north-eastern most tip of Northern Ireland. Marconi's first radio broadcast was made to Rathlin Island, which is a blur on the horizon. The advantage of all these places on the Coast is that they are fairly close to each other and can be covered in an afternoon.
The next day is “fairytale” time, driving through the glens and soaking up local folklore. I pass Cushendall as dusk is falling and drive up Tiveragh Hill where some of the older locals swear to have been chased in their youth by “little men”. A deserted Tiveragh Hill sends shivers down my spine! The Antrim Hills offer a terrific view of the coast and with luck you can see the northern lights! I stop at the grave of Glenariff's most famous son, Charles McDonnell, Master of the Marco Polo and James Baines ships who sailed round the world in 132 days with the main skysails and stunsails set. These were records at the time and maritimers will tell you that the clipper ship period was the hay day of sail!
As I drive back to Dieskirt farm, my hosts have invited a professional storyteller, Liz Weir to regale me with the mysteries and spells of the glens.
The drive back to Belfast the next day is via fascinating Carrickfergus Castle, the oldest Norman Castle in Northern Ireland and steeped in 800 years of history. As I fly out of Belfast, I marvel at the diversity of the scenery within short distances and the warmth of the Irish people.