North Coast, Ireland
My sister got married in November, and after a great few days celebrating with the family we had a weeks holidays in Northern Ireland to look forward to. Dundalk, where I’m from, is a border town half way between Dublin and Belfast. I’ve spent a lot of time up North over the years but rarely went further north than Belfast and hadn’t been up that direction since I was a youngster on a family camping trip to Antrim. After peeling ourselves from a cosy fire and my mums cooking, we set off on the M1 towards Belfast to start our weeklong sojourn up North and see what it had to offer.
Our plan was to drive around the coast from Belfast to Derry and finish up in Rathmullan in Donegal where we’d two nights booked in Rathmullan House, a wedding present from Ríona’s bridesmaids Maria and Serena and their manboys. We wanted to base ourselves in the same place for the first few days (possible to do because Antrim isn’t too spread out) and needed to keep things fairly cheap so we booked a good value self-catering cottage in Limepark outside Armoy (about fifteen minutes drive from Ballycastle). Limepark is a cluster of old farm buildings dating back to the 1800′s that have been restored as artists studios and self catering cottages. Each of the cottages has it’s own unique character and the one we stayed in, Ned’s Loft, was like a little church with it’s stained glass windows and wooden paneled walls. Our cottage was one of the only ones without an open fire which was the only downside, but the underfloor heating and oversized duvets more than made up for it. I think we paid £145 for the three nights which was great value for this place. We made good use of our wee kitchen every night to eat in.
We spent our few days in Antrim exploring the local highlights. First on the list was Carrick-a-rede rope bridge which is usually closed in the wintertime but was still open when we got there. The bridge was originally built to give access to the tiny island off the coast from where salmon fisherman put out their nets to trap fish on their way inland to spawn. It’s not in use any more; the stocks of salmon are too low to sustainably net them but the fishermen used to take up to three hundred fish per day back in the sixties and seventies.
Not too far up the road from Carrick-a-rede is Dunluce Castle. This is one of the most impressive castles I’ve seen in Ireland, a sight to behold perched right on the edge of the cliffs. The photo doesn’t do it much justice and makes it look a lot smaller than it is, but it’s definitely worth a visit and it has a nice interpretive centre on it’s grounds run by the National Trust.
Further up the road from Dunluce is the Giants Causeway which is probably the biggest attraction in the area. The rock formations are pretty unusual and fun to potter about in but the area is fairly small and you’ll see the main sights in an hour or so. They’re free to enter if you park down the road, otherwise you pay for your parking (which goes to the National Trust anyway). Worth a visit.
After three days in Antrim, where we also visited the Bushmills whiskey distillery who put on a great tour, we set off for Derry. We were trying to get to the Bogside for 10am to join one of the walking tours but were delayed and missed the start of it. Luckily enough the group came back for us so we got to experience most of the walk. The tour was run by a republican ex-prisoner and was both interesting and harrowing. It focused mainly on Bloody Sunday which happened in the surrounding area. There’s a newish museum (the Museum of Free Derry) nearby with a lot of exhibits on Bloody Sunday and the civil rights movement which will easily fill a couple of hours if you’ve any interest in the history of the conflict.
After a quick lunch in Derry (we didn’t spend too much time in the city centre because it was lashing and we were soaked), we set off for our final destination, Rathmullan House on Donegal’s Fanad peninsula. This family-run hotel has been enjoying great press in recent times, winning awards from Good Food Ireland and Electric Picnic. We’d read good reviews, so were expecting to have a luxurious and relaxing time there. It didn’t disappoint. The drawbacks, to get them out of the way, were the pool and treatment area – which were only disappointing because we assumed there would be a spa (as our package included a massage) and a modern swimming pool. Our mistake really, we hadn’t actually read anywhere that there was a spa, but in this day and age, one makes assumptions! So we were slightly disappointed to realise that the pool area was a bit functional and the free massage took place in the one small treatment room. But the masseuse was excellent, she really knew her stuff, gave us both a good deep massage and more than made up for the lack of usual spa stuff.
Once we got over this slight disappointment we were really impressed with Rathmullan House. It’s the most relaxing hotel we’ve stayed in in Ireland, old style but in a good way and totally chilled out. The fact that its family run really makes all the difference in terms of ambiance and service. We spent our day there walking the beach, driving up the coast to admire the lighthouse and making plans to learn more about Irish history after our week of exposure to all things past – both ancient and more recent.
The Flight of the Earls commemoration was the last historical sight we came across and it was poignant to think of how that event from 1607 led on to a chain of events which brought us to the recent Troubles and on to today. After all the mental exertion brought on by this renewed interest in our nation’s history, we spent our last evening in front of one of the many open fires in the hotel. Our weekend in Rathmullan House was deeply relaxing and a bit different from other hotel stays we’ve had; more like being in a posh relative’s (very fancy) comfortable, welcoming home. Our 2 night stay included B&B, one dinner, a massage each and cost €215 each. Thanks again to Serena, Maria, Pip and Conor; it was a fab wedding present, and a great end to our trip north.