Sunday, 15 April 2018

A weekend in Co. Antrim / Co. Derry

OK! Let’s call it spring… but it really feels like winter, doesn’t it?

Well, if there is one thing we have learnt (the hard way!) since we moved to Ireland, it’s that you cannot wait for the sun to come out if you want to make the most out of your free time with the kids. You have to go out and look for places that will “brighten up” the rainy days. Wellies and raincoats all packed in your suitcases, of course!

Maybe it’s because our boys have lived here most of their lives, but they do not seem to bother about the weather… Just look at the youngest showing us how to do it:

So, following this number 1 rule, a couple of weeks ago (during the Easter break), we decided to visit, the North, Co. Antrim: an amazing part of the island (of the world!), full of things to do and where you can still find pure nature at its best: ocean views and cliffs that will make your jaw drop and landscapes that you would admire for hours.

There are certain things that will never change, one of them being that we always leave the accommodation arrangements till last minute, and this time was no exception. Thanks to a bit of good luck and our life saver Airbnb, we found a place to stay in the coastal village of Castlerock in Co. Derry. Right at our doorstep, a magnificent beach that The Dog and the boys thoroughly enjoyed from the first minute of our stay.

Once we got there, we found out that Castlerock is only one kilometre away from The Downhill Demesne and the Mussenden temple, which was actually one of the first items in our “to do / to see things” list for this short trip. So in the afternoon of our first day, we decided to visit it.

The whole place is perfect for a quiet afternoon / evening stroll. When we arrived, we started wandering around with no specific direction, as we carried no map, and we loved it: easy paths for non experienced hikers like us, perfectly well maintained, and we even found a nice playground and signs with directions to a café (that we did not visit this time, but that may come in handy depending on the time of the visit).

After a while admiring what we were seeing, we found the correct path to what –for us– was the star of the show: the Mussenden Temple, built by Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol, in 1785 and inspired by the temple of Vesta, in Rome. The building served as a library and it was dedicated to the memory of Hervey’s cousin, Frideswide Mussenden (we were wondering about the strange name before we visited it… well, now we know where it comes from!)

I read somewhere that it is one of the most photographed buildings in Ireland, and when you see it, you understand why: it has a stunning location, at the edge of the cliffs over Downhill strand, which is lovely, by the way. Over the years, the erosion of the cliffs has brought it even closer to the edge, making it “dangerously beautiful”.

The beginning of our trip couldn't have been better! We slept like angels that night, hearing the sound of the ocean waves, just metres away from us.

For our first full day up North, we decided to follow the Causeway Coastal Route… well, not all of it, because there are so many things to see and do, that it would not be possible to cover it in just one day. We started just a few kilometres away from Castlerock: in Portstewart Strand, also in Co. Derry.

Portstewart Strand is a two-mile long sandy beach owned and managed by The National Trust. It really feels like it’s much longer when you get there and see it from the top of the hill, and it has that automatic attraction that only some very special places have - that “need” to go for a walk on the sand, to touch the water and feel the breeze on your face.

When I first read about the strand, a few days before our trip, I learnt that cars could park directly on the sand, and I thought: “OMG! It’s going to be in very poor conditions” but I was wrong: the beach is so broad and well maintained that, even with a full carpark, cars , pedestrians, pets, kids and local fauna can all do their thing (walking, jumping, excavating, castle building, etc) without disturbing each other - fantastic!

Before leaving the strand, you have to grab a coffee/bite/full lunch at Harry’s Shack, at the very edge of the beach. It is a favourite amongst locals and tourists alike. We arrived mid morning right after breakfast, so it was only coffee and hot chocolate for us, but the menu looked super attractive, so we will make sure we arrive at the perfect time in our next visit: the reviews we have read are very interesting!

Back to the car, we continued our trip towards Portrush. The road is really nice and our “oooh!s” and “woow!s” were constant with every turn of the road. Made a couple of stops to take some pictures.

One of the stops not to be missed is the Rinagree Coastal Park:

My recommendation: Leave the car at the car park and take the path along the coast - the views of the cliffs are simply breathtaking!

We drove past Portrush, another lovely seaside resort with a few fabulous beaches  and a top class golf club - I can imagine it must receive a lot of holidaymakers during high season…

And our next stop was Magheracross Viewpoint (had to change the SD card of the camera at this point because my finger had gone crazy clicking and clicking!).

Portrush and Portstewart to one side and Dunluce castle to the other… wherever you look, you like what you see. Unfortunately for us, the day was a bit dark at moments, so the pictures were not as bright as we would have liked them to be, but we still took them because the place is worth it, even when it’s a bit dark… Even The Dog wanted a photo ;-)

Only a couple of kilometres from Magheracross, we reached another big name in our list: Dunluce Castle.

By this time of the day we had already understood that Northern Irish middle age people knew how to choose the best locations for their castles, and Dunluce just confirmed our theory!

The history of this castle since 1500, when it was built, is fantastic, perfect for an adventure movie: sieges and battles for ownership, ghosts, banshees, shipwrecks nearby, imprisoned maids, great storms… Even Churchill was the owner for a while!

Our next stop on this amazing road trip was Giant’s Causeway: we had been there a few years back, when the boys were very young. Back then, we took the shuttle bus from the car park to the  rocks, so this time we wanted to walk that short distance and enjoy the views, take a few (more) pictures and get to know the surroundings…. The guy at the entrance of the car park told us that the price for parking was 29 GBP, which we considered incredibly expensive –we just wanted to walk around– so turned the car around and left. We still keep this stunning place in our memories, though :-)

The good thing about getting there, even if we did not make it, is that we found the perfect food truck: Maegden - they are parked just outside Giant’s Causeway and they prepare the best grilled cheese sandwiches ever! The kids had the mac’n’cheese one with sauce and the adults had the plain one. Both of them were absolutely delicious.

Back to the road, the "ooh!s" and "woow!s" kept on coming: beaches, villages, even the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge that we did not walk (as one of the kids is afraid of heights) but that we saw from the distance.

When we reached Ballycastle, we decided to turn around and drove back home.

I believe the distance is perfect for one day if you –like us– like to stop every now and then to see, take pictures, stretch your legs and have something to eat or drink.

The second part of our short trip was amazing... but will write in my next post ;-)

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