Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Northern Ireland

Greetings, Blog Fans.  I've got a longer than average weekend post because we had a longer than average weekend.  This past weekend was the August Bank Holiday weekend and we went off the norm in a number of ways with our trip to Northern Ireland.

I didn't think we were going to make it here during our 3-year stay as there are many places in Great Britain that we can reach by car for a long weekend.  However, two other ex-pats, the Schetzels and Seppanens ventured there and it seemed like a good trip so off we went.

We get bank holiday weekends in early May and late August where we fit in a UK-based long weekend.  (There's another bank holiday at the end of May that coincides with a longer school break so I don't count that).  Here's where we have gone:

2011 -- N. Wales, Bath/Stonehenge
2012 -- Lake District, N. Wales
2013 -- Dover/Canterbury

All are around 3 hours away give or take by car.  To do Northern Ireland in an efficient manner requires a flight.  So, we splashed out and made a long weekend out of it.

It was convenient enough.  We could fly from our regional East Midlands Airport on FlyBe to the Belfast City (Regional) Airport (Derby is in the lower right of the map above; Belfast is "A").  Including two checked bags it was around £400 for the family -- not super cheap but not bad either.

We took an extra day off and left on Thursday after work.  We drove straight up to north coast to stay outside of Bushmills at the Valley View B&B, our home for 3 nights ("F", above).  Doug and Tara also stayed here when they came (and it's rated #1 on TA) so that was an easy and good choice. 

We are now the longest standing ex-pats here (I think) and have done our share of traveling.  I've selected our destinations after careful research and factoring in what makes us click.  But, I'm an open-minded bloke so when the Schetzels and Seps raved about N. Ireland we gave it a try.  For the first day, we essentially did the Schetzel plan:  Giant's Causeway (C), Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (D),  a drive down Dark Hedges and a quick stop at Bushmills Distillery (but no tour).

We had a distinctly Frey day on Saturday, Day 2:  walk from Giant's Causeway along the cliffs to Dunserverick Castle, coastal drive to Glenariff Forest (E) and another short walk.

Day 3 was in Belfast with only a rough plan but it came together nicely.

On to the photos!

Day 1 -- The Schetzel Plan

The main reason for visiting was to see the Giant's Causeway.   So despite the gloomy forecast, that's where we went.  We really scored with our National Trust membership at both this site and the Rope Bridge.

From the Vistor's Centre you walk down and around the cliff before seeing the causeway. 

see the sleeping camel along the way?

our first peak -- nothing too exciting yet but the anticipation is building

the rocks in the area are largely basalt -- cooled volcanic lava.  Some appear in the strangest places like on the hillside (I think this one was called the onion but I'm not quite seeing it)

 the "chimney pipe" in the distance

here's our first glimpse with a side view

but more impressive when looking down

Roughly 60 million years ago, Europe and North America split into two.  As the plates pulled apart slowly, they formed the Atlantic Ocean.  Along the line of separation, hot magma surfaced as lava.  The Giant's Causeway is basalt, solidified lava, from one of the lava flows.  It's somewhat akin to mud drying when a pond dries up.   It was able to cool slowly and gradually which can rise to the geometric shapes of intersecting cracks.

There's also a legend to help explain it:  Legend tells of Finn MacCool wanting to do battle with a rival giant in Scotland.  The two giants had never met, so Finn built enormous stepping stones across the sea so that the Scottish giant could cross to Ireland to face the challenge.  When Finn sees the enormous giant he runs home and has his wife hide him as their baby.  When the Scottish giant sees the large baby, he imagines the daddy giant to be huge and runs back to Scotland tearing up the causeway as he goes.

 some boulders and the bulk of the causeway in the distance

 the fam venturing out

 required family photo shot

 bonus photo with all four of us (and a rain drop on the lens)

 kids and the rocks

I helped Alex clamber  up this one

 the "large" part of the causeway

 looking down from the large one

 pipe organs

 I liked this shot so I borrowed this family

 up close and carrying on to the sea (and Scotland!)

 not a bad place for a belated 19th anniversary celebration

 a little seaweed in the mix

 out to sea (I didn't try walking any further though)

 some random ones in the hillside

We all really enjoyed the site and it was certainly worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.   After a tour of the Visitor's Centre and a lunch break in the cafe, we hopped in the car to drive to the rope bridge.

But wait, a stop along the way at White Park Bay.  It looked enticing but it also looked like a decent walk down and back up.  It would have been a nice stop but we decided to carry on.  We later heard there were some cool stones and even cows roaming the beach -- oh well.

Just a few miles further down the road was the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.  It's about a 3/4 mile walk from the "car park" (parking lot) and you get glimpses of it along the way.  You can't see the bridge above but it connects the mainland on the right to the small island in the center.  Fishermen would scoot across a much more precarious bridge to hang their nets in the summer time to catch salmon and other fish.

I first scurried up to the viewpoint to catch my three going across.

 half way wave

 and almost to the end

my turn -- it had a good bit of bounce to it especially with someone of my, er, buoyancy

 photo from the island looking back at the (now familiar) limestone cliffs

 nice one of Nicole

and zoomed out with both kids

Alex's head growing out of a rock

 rock body

 and back across, all together

As we were walking back, I did a double take as I thought I saw a familiar face.  Unfortunately, my early onset of old-man's disease kicked in and I couldn't remember Heather's name so I ran after them and yelled out something about like "hey Seppanen's neighbors".  Of course, it was the Greggs, fellow ex-pats and former Littleover next door neighbors to the Seps.  I didn't see Todd pass as hopefully that would have jarred my now feeble name recollection skills.  (Todd and I watched a few Colts games together at Jay's last year before Jay took his toys home).

What a coincidence!  Neat stuff.  I felt like we were one step behind them the rest of the way as they beat us down to Belfast as well.  (The Greggs were also the ones that told us how cool White Park Bay was).

Next on the Schetzel plan was to find the small side road named the Dark Hedges.  From the linked website:

This beautiful avenue of beech trees was planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century.  It was intended as a compelling landscape feature to impress visitors as they approached the entrance to their home, Gracehill House.  Two centuries later, the trees remain a magnificent sight and have become known as the Dark Hedges.

The Dark Hedges is one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland and a popular attraction for tourists from across the world.  It has been painted by hundreds of visiting artists and is a favourite location for wedding photographs.

this jump for joy is for you, Doug and Tara

Since we were staying so close, we had to stop in Bushmills to see the distillery.  Well, if seeing it means taking this photo.  We actually did venture into the gift shop and tasting room where I was able to get a little communion-cup size sample of the 12-yo single-malt but I cheaped put and passed on the tour (seen one . . . .).  That was good enough for me.  Not a huge whiskey or whisky (Scotch) fan but I thought I'd pay my respect.  (Novice Kuk tried a couple of drops as well and breathed in at the wrong time which induced an eye-bugging coughing fit that the kids found humorous.  Needless to say, she didn't buy a bottle either).

 since 1608 -- impressive

This was our greeter, Shadow.  Whenever we returned to the B&B she would come and say hello.  Very friendly and mellow dog.  (We love dogs).

My copycat plan worked great for day one.  The only thing that fell over was dinner.  I'll often do some research and book ahead, especially for a bank holiday weekend but I simply didn't have the time this time.  Our first few choices were booked up and we ended up at The Nook by the causeway.  Too pubby for us.  Their Guinness was even a little off -- sacrilege.   We more than made up for it second night.

Day 2 -- On the Trail

This was our "extra" day in the area and we made it our own.  Our lovely B&B hosts both recommended the cliff walk from the Causeway to Dunseverick Castle.  We even got to park for free again at the Causeway with our NT membership -- sweet.  The tricky bit with a linear walk is to get a ride back so we had to time the hourly Rambler bus right which caused us to rush through the last bit.

It was a "short" 4.7 miles that we did in 2:15.  It had a few small ups/downs but was generally flat.  It was hard to chose from all the photos and the views were outstanding.  Note:  we were walking east so water on the left is in the direction of the walk; on the right is looking back.

 the resting camel from a higher vantage point

 down on the Causeway -- the point sticking out in the middle is where Kuk and I had our photo taken

the walk ahead

 back to the causeway

 chimney in the distance -- lots of nooks and crannies in the coastline

 green cliff face

 sheep on the plateau with a hill in the background (gotta have sheep in a UK/Ireland walk)

 close up of the chimney -- Nicole was yelling at me not to go further

 looking back

 the next cove

 more sheep

 more pipe organs

 the horseshoe

check out the formations on this one -- also note the sheep out there!

 green grass, sheep, cliffs and water -- what more could you want?

honorary Jay Seppanen -- Steve Frey livestock close up

Dunseverick Castle -- not much to look at but it was good to make it to the end on time (in the end, the bus was late, but we didn't want to count on that!)

So, after using our NT pass to use the toilets at the Giant's Causeway, it was back in the car for a drive around the coast.

Photo op number 1:  Rathlin Island.  This is home to many birds and was originally in my plans to visit.  However, the puffins and perhaps most of the other birds are gone this time of year so we gave it a pass (the B&B host said the walk would be better).

Further down we could also see the Rope Bridge island from a distance.

Quick photo of our ride for the weekend.  I had booked a "Premium" class (like an Audi) for a few quid more than the intermediate.  I think the Jag qualifies as "Luxury" but was what was available.  It was my first experience and can't say I was all that impressed.  The interior controls / dash felt like an 80's Caddy.  It was comfortable for touring and fortunately a diesel.  Normally around here it's not good to get upgraded to a large car, but I must be getting used to things and I thought the roads in NI were wide and surprisingly straight away from the coast.

Our ultimate destination for the day was to visit one of the 9 Glens in the area.  The recommend "best" one was Glenariff and its Forest Park outside of Cushendall (hey, Jay, saw your big hurling mural as we passed through).

The park is still recovery from some snow / landside damage so not all the trails were open.  We were able to take one down to the waterfall and then around from some views.  We tacked on another 2.5 miles for the day (and 700' of elevation) so we were suitably spent by the end of it.

 and there it is

Sorry for the interlude -- not sure why this bench near the waterfall caught my fancy.  I've never seen so many flies when there wasn't poop involved.  I just needed 2 more and I could have diagrammed a 3-4 defense in football.

Back up from the valley looking down the glen to the sea with the family

 said valley shot

thought we might get a bonus sheep hearding demonstration (can you pick out the two collies near the tractor?) but it wasn't happening (or at least at the speed we wanted it to)

Man, on man, we did good that night.  We booked a table at the Bushmill Inn for dinner the night before.  Outstanding food and service.  This is Kuk's surf and turf main which has to qualify as a bargain in the UK at £22.

 my fillet steak with a proper whiskey peppercorn sauce -- mmm, mmm

 chocolate mousse (inside the chocolate ball) and coffee ice cream plus . . .

 a chocolate caramel tart

One of the best meals we've had in the UK.  Not cheap (£100) but well worth it in our mind.  It more than made up for the night before (I get big demerits if I don't feed a certain someone well on holiday).

Day 3 -- Belfast

We decided to spend one day in Belfast to see if we could get a brief feel for the city's history.  One obviously can't "see" a city in a day, but we enjoyed the overview.  We've transitioned into rural vacationers so the 2 days in the country / 1 in the city was the right split for us.

Perhaps everyone knows the history better than me, but here's my quick layman's take (my own words -- hopefully I get it right enough that no one is offended).  Ireland fought for its independence from the British Crown in the early 20th century.   When that was won/granted it was acknowledged that there was still a number of loyalists that did not want to be part of the new Republic.  It was decided that 6 counties in Northern Ireland (which I presume were generally Loyalist) would stay as part of the UK.  Sounds all fine and dandy except what about the non-loyalist (republicans) that were already there?  (Definite similarities to the Israel / Palestine situation).

By and large, the Republicans are Catholic and the Loyalist are Protestant and it (appears to be) as much about that as Irish/UK.

So, the Loyalists/Protestants have a local majority but feel that any in-roads made by the Catholic/Republicans are a threat to their way of life.  So, some made it uncomfortable for them to "encourage" them to leave.  Similarly, the Catholic/Republicans feel they have a right to live where they have always lived and think that the area should be "Irish" and therefore fight back.  The tactics on both sides have been gruesome at times.

Fortunately, a cease fire between the IRA and British Government occurred in the mid-1990s and things have been somewhat safer since then though there are areas in the city in particular where you would not want to be caught out.

After some careful contemplation (and a thumbs up from the Greggs), we decided to take a Black Cab tour of the area to learn what we could.

The first part of tour involves the Shankill Road Protestant area.  You notice all the flags flying like it was coronation day.  It wouldn't be fair to judge, as these folks are on the extreme side, but they are more "loyal" and Protestant than what one would normally see in England (if I'm qualified to say). 

 The colors (red, white and blue) even on the curbs.

 The beginning of it all in some sense:  [Protestant] William III taking over from a Catholic king

 numerous murals of heros / thugs depending on your point of view

One of the legends of the Red Hand of Ulster was that in order to win the boat race for the N. Ireland (Ulster) kingdom and be the first hand on shore,  the would be king chopped off his hand and threw it to the shore.  Notice that the red hand is in the middle of the (former) N. Ireland flag.

 memorial to those killed in a pub/bar bomb

 more bunting and flags

The Peace Wall which divides the Catholic and Protestant [extremist] areas.  It was told to us that they needed a wall so that there would be peace though plenty of messages of peace exist on the wall.  Long ways to go in terms of school and marital integration so it may be some time before the wall comes down.

 On the Fall Rd. (Catholic) side now.   No crown nor underlying English flag on this one.

 The Bombay Street fire is widely seen as the beginning of The Troubles in 1969 (wiki link)

 no flags here

 murals on the Catholic side

 and another

Fairly sobering tour.  I think we all learned a bit but we need to keep in mind that we basically got one man's view (i.e. the cab driver's) and that might not be representative.  He seemed to focus more on the atrocities of the past and I didn't get a feel for the state of things today.  He acknowledged that we were touring extremist areas and things weren't quite so black/white outside of that.  He mentioned that his Catholic son had a Protestant friend sleep over the other night and he didn't think anything of it so perhaps many are trying to live harmoniously.  Let's hope so.

After the tour, we had the afternoon to see the city.  I decided on a self walking tour to see the highlights.

The Europa Hotel -- sight of many bombings as well as stays by famous dignitaries
Lunch was at the awesome Victorian Crown Liquor Saloon, a National Trust property.  Great atmosphere and architecture and the food was quite good too (as was my pint of Guinness).

 Opera House walk by

City Hall  -- notice no flags.  They've agreed to only fly them on special days (17 if I recall) which causes angst on both sides

 Queen Victoria in front of City Hall

Titanic Memorial (had a chance for a quick math lesson as I had Alex estimate of the number of people by counting a column and the # of columns-- he got 1500 which is close to the actual number and will remember it more now)

 front of Titanic Memorial

 artsy shot of City Hall

 still a little edge to the city -- check out the armored police van

 and the kit these two cops have

 random t-shirt in a souvenir shop

 Albert Clock Tower

 unnerving helicopter overhead -- not sure if that was normal or not;  just checking?

 St. Anne's (Belfast) Cathedral


 stained glass reflection in silver cross

 stained glass

The walk from the City Hall to the Cathedral was a little gritty.  We then walked over to the Titanic Quarter and this subway (underground walk way) was grittier (and down right dirty)

 river shot

the new, impressive Titanic Museum-- We would have liked to have gone but we knew we could not do it justice in our limited time (and energy level) so we gave it a pass

 out front

a glimpse of the shipyard -- there were more free areas but I'm afraid we didn't have the energy at the end of the day
Quick note on our Belfast Premier Inn hotel.  I was quite pleased that I snagged a special deal for £29 pre-paid.  Premier Inn's are cheap and cheerful, clean and consistent though certainly no frills.  They have rare family rooms for city hotels but often the extra beds (or mattresses) are jammed in there like this one.  Cozy for sure, but only 1 night (and £29!!).

Yes, Brits, it is possible to pay at the pump.  Just ask your Irish neighbors.

We didn't need a car while in Belfast, so I planned to turn it in the day before we left to avoid parking charges and another day's rental.  The City Airport is so close that it was easy to drop it off and take a £10 taxi back to dinner (and out again the following morning).   The logistics went even better since we found free street parking on Sunday morning when we drove into the city.

And finally, I booked a table at Sakura's Japanese restaurant after reading some reviews a few days earlier.  After the fiasco on the first day I quickly scrambled to get back on track.  This was okay but not as good as the place we found in Liverpool (and certainly not as good as our place back in Indy).  We did not sit at the conveyor and ordered freshly made food.

It's a shame that many Brits (and I guess Irish) think that sushi comes on a conveyor.  That's the equivalent of a heat-lamp burger, folks.  You can do better!

All in all, it was another great experience.  We've certainly found our groove and know what we like.  The outdoors on the north coast were fantastic and it was good to get a little recent history in Belfast (though I'm sure we have much more to learn there).   By and large, the people were very friendly.  Glad we made the effort.

It's not fair to judge a city on one day but first impressions and all -- Belfast was "okay" and we are glad we visited but it didn't capture us as say, Liverpool, did.

Bonus pic:

I posted this on Facebook earlier in the week but I thought I would include it here.  Alex had misplaced his iPod when in Switzerland on our train ride home (too many electronics) and was devastated.  He had written it off.  However, in the background I had e-mail the Swiss train company (SBB) to see if anyone turned it in to lost and found.  Well, we got lucky.  Someone did (probably the conductor but maybe a good Samaritan).   I could pick it up at any Swiss station for 20 Swiss Francs or mail it for 80.  Fortunately, our friends the Henkles were going to be vacationing there and we arranged for them to pick it up.  After they got back (and we got back from our Gran Canaria trip), I surprised Alex with it (his eyes were closed when Nicole gave it to him).  Pure joy.  (Thanks guys).

That's (finally) all for now.  Have a good week everyone.