By Jennifer Mullen
When people imagine taking a trip across the Irish Sea, they usually think of the shamrocks, Guinness and other stereotypes associated with the southern parts of the Republic of Ireland. A less obvious, but equally fascinating tourist destination is Ireland’s North coast, made up Donegal in the North West and Northern Ireland itself. Green, windswept and full of character, this corner of Europe has a slow laid-back pace and plenty of Gaelic charm. If escaping to untamed nature is high on your agenda, then a trip to the North coast of Ireland, with its pristine beaches, cliffs and jagged coastlines will give you the solitude you crave. So choose an appropriate soundtrack, whether it be the wistful melody of a flute, or the rousing gallop of a fiddle in full flight, and consult your Northern Ireland tour guide on the best way to see this emerald stretch along the water.
Driving down the Wild Atlantic Way
Starting in the Republic of Ireland at the port of Donegal, the road wanders round to Killybegs, with its commanding Sliabh Liag cliffs, some of the tallest in Europe. The town has a thriving fishing industry, making it the perfect spot for lunch, and in summer one can also catch the “Blessing of the Boats” festival. Next up is Ardara, a rather quaint heritage town well known for the manufacture of handwoven tweed and hand knit garments, perfect if a lashing from the elements has been forecasted.
The area around Malin’s Head is everything you would expect to see on a post card of Ireland; an endless carpet of emerald grass framed by layers of rock, with the birdlife and waves providing the perfect background theme tune. Banba's Crown is 16km north of Malin Head and is the most northerly point of the Irish mainland. The point is named after Banba, who was one of the mythical queens of Ireland. The area is famous for the ghostly wrecks of sunken ships from the two World Wars, often carrying a fortune in gold bars. Nowadays, the only danger one is likely to face is from the stoic sheep, which amble along the country lanes, oblivious to traffic. One of the best beaches in the area is at Rathmullan located on the picturesque Fanad peninsula, with its exquisite white lighthouse whose beauty seems immune to the fierce winds that whip the area.
Entering Northern Island
A North Coast tour guide would then advise you to continue east into Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. This area traditionally relied on industries, such as shipbuilding, rope manufacturing and textiles, which are now being superseded by a flourishing services industry and a surge in tourism. Derry, officially Londonderry, is Northern Ireland’s second largest city and has the reputation of being warm, witty and welcoming. Anyone old enough to remember the political and religious turmoil that violently scarred Northern Ireland for decades would recall names such as the “Bloody Sunday Massacre” and news headlines announcing bitter hunger strikes. The Memorial Museum, as well as murals and placards, such as the wall which states “You are now entering a free Derry”, are very important visual reminders of the troubled past. Nowadays, Derry is a city of vibrant culture, with an interesting contrasting skyline, showcasing the old and the new.
Moving again eastwards, for picture perfect photographs, County Antrim’s most famous attraction is the Giant's Causeway, which is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland. These polygonal columns of layered basalt, which according to legend were carved from the coast by the mighty giant, Finn McCool, were actually caused by a huge volcanic eruption approximately 60 million years ago. Any Northern Ireland tour guide will proudly tell you that the Glens of Antrim are also well worth taking several days to explore. Stretching for 80 miles, each glen has its own name (such as Glenariff - glen of the plough, or Glanaan - glen of the little fords) to describe their individual character. The famous warmth and character of the local people here is best experienced during one of the many summer festivals, which may have you singing from dawn to dusk.
For sports enthusiasts, the Atlantic offers an exciting playground, from the small but busy seaside town of Portrush. The beauty of the coastline can be appreciated as part of a fishing trip, or by those who are plucky enough to hire a wetsuit or surfboard and catch a few Atlantic waves. “Coasteering” rambles are also popular for those energetic individuals, who wish to literally scramble over the coastline, clamber over rocks and plunge into crystal clear pools. If the water temperature literally takes your breath away, a good way to warm up is a trip to the nearby Bushmill’s Brewery. This world famous distillery, the oldest licensed one in the world, attracts up to 120,000 visitors a year to sample the famous golden whiskey. Just don’t drink so much that you start to hallucinate about rock throwing giants!
No trip to Northern Ireland would be complete without soaking up the atmosphere of Belfast, located on the north east coast. Now a thriving and culturally vibrant city, Belfast is full of life, with great shopping, museums, hotels and historical attractions. Night owls will also be delighted by the lively pub and restaurant scene in the cathedral quarter, which includes the world’s first ever crisp sandwich cafe. The best view in Belfast has to be from Cavehill, with its iconic rocky “Napoleonic Nose”, which is certainly worth the hike to the summit at 370 metres. On clear days it is possible to see as far as the Isle of Man and Scotland. It is thoughts that this hill was the inspiration for Gulliver’s Travels, as it is believed that author Jonathan Swift imagined that it resembled a sleeping giant, watching over the city. If the weather is not suitable for climbing, Belfast has a number of interesting indoor tourist attractions.
The Titanic Museum tells the story of the RMS Titanic, from her construction in Belfast, to the infamous maiden voyage and watery end. Ulster Museum holds a very special place in the hearts of local residents, many of whom would have wandered through the extensive collections since their childhood. Here it is possible to dodge dinosaurs, mingle with Ancient Egyptian mummies and marvel at modern masterpieces. Again for those who wish to understand more about the turmoil of the twentieth century, the Murals of Belfast have become symbols of the atrocities and bravery, which arose from the religious and political divisions. It is here that a knowledgeable Belfast tour guide will be able to explain the significance of these bold images and statements, and the values of each community, which they reflect.
Moving South of Belfast, towards the end of the coastal journey is County Down, famous for its wildlife and conservation areas like Silent Valley and Ben Crom, as well as Strangford Lough. Archaelogical and historical associations in the area are proud to have charted local history back to ancient times, seen in landmarks such as the Ballynoe stone circle. County Down is where water and mountains meet in perfect harmony.
A trip to the north coast of Ireland may not have guaranteed sunshine, however it is the warmth of the locals and the never ending horizon, which will stay with you forever.
(Jen Mullen is a seasoned traveler, having lived and worked in the UK,Germany, Switzerland, Australia and most recently Southern India. In her opinion, the best parts about traveling are meeting the locals, sampling as much new food as possible and making an effort to learn new languages)
Image Details and Licenses: https://flic.kr/p/8aufww ((Carrie Sloan), CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/e6bYjZ (Ricky Bamford, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/6KEZC4 (Foomandoonian, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/fAtPMM (Dave Gunn, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/dtopd (Al, CC BY-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/77UWjS (Iker Merodio, CC BY-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/6DWQJf (herbrm, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/76EUWN (Machine Made, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/cMPVdm ( CC BY 2.0)