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Romancing a hoary past

VISUAL TREAT Dunluce Castle; the causeway coastal route PHOTOS: Tourism Ireland, KALPANA SUNDER

VISUAL TREAT Dunluce Castle; the causeway coastal route PHOTOS: Tourism Ireland, KALPANA SUNDER  

VACATION Sleepy hamlets and dainty towns peppered with legends of Vikings, fairies, giants and ghosts. Welcome to Northern Ireland, says KALPANA SUNDER

R olling green hills dotted with plump lambs and highland cows gambolling in paddocks, low-hung clouds of purple and pink, fields of heather and barren bogs punctuated by electric green carpets of pastures and farms, and rugged promontories carved by wind and water over many aeons — the Causeway Coastal Drive and the Antrim Coast is a visual treat in Northern Ireland.

A dash of drama

We claw along the coast, under archways holding up overhanging rocks and swooping down green glens in a van listening to tales of leprechauns, Vikings and human foibles with a dash of drama from our affable Irish guide Andrew Beggs. There are a succession of sleepy, desolate fishing hamlets and spick and span towns — each with a unique history peppered with legends of fairies, giants and ghosts. This is the land of the ice-gouged valleys or the nine glens of Antrim. The characteristic U-shaped valleys have given rise to ‘ladder farms' — vertical stripes of holdings running down the slopes to the valley, which give each farm an equal share of lowland pasture, hill ground and mountain grazing.

This is also the land of legends. We drive past Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles, said to have been created when the giant Fin McCool lifted a piece of land to throw at a rival giant! On Rathlin Island in the distance is the cave where Robert Bruce is said to have taken refuge and been inspired by a spider to return to Scotland and fight the English. And, there is the Fairy Hill where fairies are said to congregate in a procession on April 30. The picturesque village of Carnlough and its harbour dotted with red and green boats has a piece of history too — the Londonderry Arms Hotel, an old coaching inn here was once owned by Sir Winston Churchill himself! It's an ‘Enid Blyton moment' as we dawdle on the harbour walls — ‘Quay Treats', ‘G&M McAuley Butchers' read the boards; one can almost imagine the ‘Five Find-outers' walk round the corner. As we drive out of Cushendall, a town with Georgian buldings, Andrew points to the mysterious Loughareema or the Vanishing Lake, a mud-encrusted valley on a dry day and a lake teeming with fish when it rains. When the lake dries, the fish hide in the limestone caverns below the limestone. And, of course, there's an Irish yarn — locals say it's haunted by the ghost of Colonel McNeil and his horses who drowned here in 1888 when water levels rose abruptly. There is the atmospheric skeletal remains of the 17th Century Dunluce castle teetering dramatically on a rocky promontory above the jagged coast. This was the stomping ground of early Vikings and Christians. Andrew tells us that in 1639, a storm blew the castle's kitchen into the sea taking with it the cooks and the evenings dinner — in a burst of typical Irish humour, he calls it the world's first ‘take away order'!

Close by is the spot where the Spanish Armada ship Girona, fleeing from Sir Walter Raleigh's fleet, was ripped apart and tossed on the rocks. Across the water is a glimpse of tartan in the dark hulking form of Mull of Kintyre made famous by Paul McCartney.

At its nearest point, Scotland is only 12 miles away. The Scottish connection is strong, and many local families have Scottish surnames. Portrush is the resort town of the district: amusement arcades, rides and seaside kitsch along with the largest number of camper holiday homes.

And, finally, the Giant's Causeway — a surreal, bizarre scene; perfectly-symmetric honeycomb of gargantuan basalt columns arranged like stepping stones. They are the result of a pool of bubbling lava slowly cooling into 40,000 columns 60 million years ago.

But, the local legend goes that two rival giants, Irish Fin McCool and the Scottish Benandonner are believed to have taunted each other from their respective shores. Finn's inventive wife is said to have disguised her husband as a baby and hid him in a crib. When Benandonner saw the ‘giant baby', he'd run away to Scotland, in the process, tearing up the causeway so that Fin McCool could not follow him!

You can trudge up the cliff for a bird's eye view or take a shuttle bus to the beach to see the formations up-close. There are intriguing formations with fanciful names such as Wishing Well, Giants' Gate and even The Granny. There's one that looks exactly like an ornate pipe organ.

The Irish salt spray flattens my hair as I walk on the causeway in wonderment, and I can almost feel the presence of marauding mythical spirits and giants of yore…



Giant's Causeway is surreal and bizarre; perfectly-symmetric honeycomb of gargantuan basalt columns arranged like stepping stones. They are the result of a pool of bubbling lava slowly cooling into 40,000 columns 60 million years ago

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