The Best Kept Secrets
Northern and Western Ireland are the best secrets in the British Isles. In addition to a colorful history, the natural beauty of the area is impressive and even surpasses that of its counterparts in the South. As with all of Ireland, the warm people and the friendly neighborhood pubs – their reputations well deserved — are what separate it from many other travel destinations.
Belfast, the second largest Irish city behind Dublin, is quickly becoming one of the ‘cool’ cities in Europe. It is now one of the most visited places in all of the U.K. Belfast has evolved significantly since The Troubles, as they are often referred, of the 1970s through the ‘90s. It’s a great place to begin your adventure. The colorful Peace Wall Murals are a part of Belfast that connect previous times with the newer Belfast, and it is well worth taking a black taxi tour through the city to see them (there are approximately 300 murals). The Titanic Belfast Museum, located on the same land as the shipyard that built the ill-fated ship, was opened in 2010 in an award-winning facility and sheds light on the history of Belfast’s shipbuilding tradition that was very much core to the city and The Troubles. Still, one of the most fun ways to see and understand the city is to enjoy a Belfast food tour, taking in the best cuisine and dining locations Belfast has to offer. If you are a fan, Game of Thrones was filmed primarily in Belfast and Northern Ireland (The Dark Hedges in County Antrim being one of the prominent filming locations), and the tours are quite popular. There are several wonderful hotel accommodations from which we can choose that won’t disappoint.
The magnificent Causeway Coastal Route winds its way from Belfast through the rich, green Glens of Antrim to Derry and past a number of Northern Ireland’s landmarks. First stop is The Gobbins, which involves a narrow walking path, tunnels and a tubular bridge over the crashing waves of the rugged coastline of the Irish Sea. Walking across the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, the most famous bridge in Ireland, can test your nerves, though it is rewarded by stunning views across to the little paradise, Rathlin Island, and, on a clear day, a view of Scotland. Torr Head is another detour off the Causeway Coastal Route well worth the view of the unruly, chiseled coast.
A treasure on this coastline is the UNESCO-listed Giant’s Causeway, where 40,000 hexagon-shaped basalt columns were formed from violent lava eruptions millions of years ago. It is both beautiful and amazing how nature has shaped molten lava into these nearly perfect geometric shapes, the most famous set of basalt columns in the world. Tucked away on a cliffside west of Giant’s Causeway are the ruins of the medieval Dunluce Castle, teetering on a jagged cliff, and the ‘lost town of Dunluce,’ the source of major archaeological digs in recent years. Before leaving the area, you can pay a visit to the village of Bushmills and the oldest working distillery in Ireland.
Turning toward the western part of Ireland, the sites along your travels just keep getting better. At 596 meters (1,955 feet), the Slieve League (County Donegal) on the Wild Atlantic Way has some of the highest sea cliffs on the island. Further down the coast in County Galway is Connemara, a region strong in traditional Irish culture and by far the largest Irish speaking area. Within Connemara, ‘real’ Irish villages such as Barna, Inverin, Roundstone and even the flora and fauna rich Aran Islands, are well worth staying in.
Connemara will ultimately lead to Ashford Castle, a legendary medieval castle and another of our favorites, that has been turned into five-star lodging. Most visitors are in awe upon first seeing it. Ashford Castle was originally built in the 13th century and has changed hands many times between conquerors and owners. It has been the set for a number of movies and hosted many notable guests. The food is fabulous, and the hotel lends itself perfectly to a range of activities: horse riding, fishing, falconry, cycling, kayaking and more. But what you probably will like best is strolling the grounds and imagining life there many centuries ago.
Even further south are the Cliffs of Moher (County Clare), more famous than Slieve League because its sea cliffs stretch for an incredible nine miles across in the glaciated karst dominated landscape of the Burren region.
Don’t forget that Northern Ireland is one of the foremost venues in the world for golf. Irish PGA golfers Rory McIlory, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, all continue to make homes there. There are some famous golf courses in North and West Ireland, and other lesser known courses that are just as special, if not more.
You will not be bored. We promise.