Northern Ireland: Portstewart, Derry and Belfast

I spent the last week of my Ireland trip in Northern Ireland, before returning to Dublin for my final days and then flying out to England.  Honestly, there’s so much to say and so many mixed emotions I have about this part of the continent.  In many ways, I am so, so glad I went to the North and I wish I had made it a priority to stay longer.  In a few ways, it lived up to a few scary and less-than-flattering images I had had in my mind about it before I went.  Either way, it’s an important part of Irish and English history, and I don’t think anyone going to Ireland for a long period of time like I was should skip it.  

Now, again, I’m going to say that I would understand people’s hesitation.  Much like I expected a warm scone and a cup of tea when I arrived in Ireland (not the cavity search that I actually got… thanks a lot, Dublin Airport customs agent), I expected an angry punch or a mugging when I arrived in Northern Ireland.  Their history is tumultuous, to say the least, and even though The Troubles have been over for years, you get the feeling in some areas that all the raw feelings that they brought are hiding right there under the surface.  I was nervous to travel there by myself, especially with a car with a southern plate on it.  I had rented a car in Sligo for my last week on the road, and drove from Sligo to Donegal, and up through Northern Ireland before returning the car to Dublin the following week.  Several people had told me to be careful with a southern car in the North; make sure to park it in a safe, well lit area, don’t leave anything in it overnight.  I’ll say the car part made me the most nervous, as several people had stories to tell about someone they knew whose car was vandalized while in the North, but there was really nothing I could do about it since I needed a car to do the traveling I wanted to do at my own pace.

 

One of the places I wanted to stop while I drove through the North was Derry, which is located between Donegal and Portstewart, where I was staying for a few nights.  Derry, like Belfast, was a place I was slightly concerned about visiting, and so I didn’t book an overnight there, and planned to just stop for the day.  This is another regret from my trip; if I had to do it all over again, I would stay in Derry for a couple of nights, probably instead of staying in Belfast at all.  To me, Derry was a much nicer and much more appealing city than Belfast.  I really thought Derry was beautiful, it was clean, it was modern but charming, and it did have pieces of old world Europe peppered around the downtown area.  Driving in, there was a huge and beautiful sculpture that I wish I had gotten a photo of called Hands Across the Divide.  I tried to get back to where it was by foot later, since there was nowhere to pull off when I was in my car, but I couldn't seem to relocate it.  Anyways, I explored the city via the city walls, elevated up from the streets and full of history themselves.  Derry is the only remaining intact walled city in Ireland, and the walls form a walkway around the inner city.  I got a beautiful weather day when I visited Derry, so I spent most of the day walking around and taking in the city.

 

As I said, my first few days in Northern Ireland were spent in a coastal town called Portstewart, and on my drive there from Derry, I fell in love.  With everything.  The fields, the flowers, the houses, the horses… we were having great weather that whole week and so Northern Ireland felt just as magical, if not more, than any other part of Ireland I had seen.   When I arrived in Portstewart, it was a little bit more condensed, with taller apartment buildings and condos, but still beautiful and right on the water.  There was a main strip that felt a little bit like being back in the states, and just past that was my B&B, Cul Erg.  It honestly ended up being the perfect choice for me, and again I was happy with myself for doing my homework on TripAdvisor.  Cul Erg was charming, right on the water, and run by a truly lovely couple who obviously took pride in their home.  It was big, but it felt homey and welcoming inside.  I was worried that in a 3 floor establishment, I wouldn’t sleep well with people above me, but they ended up putting me on the 3rd floor, which worked out perfectly.  In the mornings, I would eat in the dining room with the other guests, and I quickly learned that Northern Ireland is HUGE for golfing.  Most everyone else staying in the B&B was there for a golfing tournament or golfing trip.

 

Portstewart was a good base for exploring the Antrim coast, which had been my main draw to the North.  By following one road on the Antrim coast, you can see Dunluce Castle, the Giants Causeway, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, and the Bushmills Distillery.  Now, I don’t know why, but I actually only ended up really doing 2 out of 4 of those I listed.  I saw all 4, for sure… but at this point in my trip, castles were a dime a dozen, and I didn’t have too many more dimes in the bank.  I knew I was running low on funds, with 2 more weeks of travel in England ahead of me, so I chose not to pay to walk the actual grounds of Dunluce Castle.  You could actually see plenty of it from different vantage points on the road and the parking lot, and since it was castle ruins, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything inside by not paying to go in.  I could see it all through my naked eye and my camera lens, and so I skipped the expense.

 

The rope bridge was something I actually really wanted to do, but the timing never worked out.  My main objective was to photograph sunset from the Giants Causeway, and so I found myself on the coast road right before sunset two nights in a row, trying to do everything at once.  I would say that if you have the time, do 2 and 2… maybe Dunluce Castle and the Giants Causeway one afternoon/ evening, and the Bushmills Distillery and rope bridge the next.  By squeezing too much in, I found myself panicking that I would miss sunset at the Causeway… and there’s already too much stress in traveling without adding more yourself.  As it was, I got to the rope bridge too late.  It was closed, but you were still able to go in past the closed ticket counter and turnstile and walk down to the rope bridge.  Which is what I did.  With a camera bag on my back, in warm weather… I walked what seemed to be a mile down the winding path.  It was so long, and it was one of those mental conversations you have with yourself during which you say “Is this a joke?  If it’s not around this corner, I’m turning back” and then you get around the corner and still don’t see it, and you think “Okay, I’ve come this far, I can’t turn back now, it must just be around that next corner.”  After what seemed like forever, I got within view of the rope bridge, got excited, turned the final corner… and realized that there is another gate… a very locked, very insurmountable gate that there’s no way to get around after hours.  I have never been so annoyed in my life!  And here I am, huffing and puffing with my camera bag, and I’m now RUNNING the mile back to my car so that I don’t miss sunset at the Giants Causeway.  I tell you all this so that you can avoid my mistake: don’t try to do the rope bridge after hours.  It will be a fruitless expedition that will result in lots of under-the-breath swearing and unnecessary sweating.  Annoying… and gross.  Bad combination.

 

I did make it to the Giants Causeway on time that night, and since the weather was beautiful the whole week, I ended up there the next night as well.  I can honestly say that some of my most peaceful times on my trip were the nights that I ate dinner early and traded out the drinking for my camera and a good sunset spot.  The sunset from the Giants Causeway was breathtaking, and it’s so vast and expansive that there are plenty of places to sit and relax without being on top of other people.  My pictures really don’t even do this natural wonder justice; one thing I learned on my trip is that as much as I’d like to be, I am NOT a landscape photographer (yet, anyways)… but the Giant’s Causeway was perfection and my only regret was that I hadn’t made Kevin take those couple of days off of work… he had never seen the Giants Causeway and I know he would have loved it there.  I showed him my pictures a couple days later in Dublin and I can hear his reaction now:  “Wow, that’s class.”  :)

 

On my last morning in Portstewart I headed to the Bushmills Distillery.  This wasn’t originally on my itinerary and didn’t seem like something I absolutely needed to do, but since I had gone to the Jameson distillery in Midleton and visited the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, I figured one more alcohol-related tour couldn’t hurt, and I stopped on my way out of town.  Unlike Jameson, I wasn’t on a tour with 90 non-English speaking Germans (I’m sorry, but THANK GOD) and so I found Bushmills a little more enjoyable.  Our tour guide was great, and he couldn’t believe that most of us could actually understand everything he was saying.  His Northern accent was strong, but after 3 months of practice deciphering accents, I never really had any problem understanding people anymore.

 

This was also the morning of the fateful Van Morrison ticket.  As I said, it was a gorgeous, sunny morning, and on my way to Bushmills, I pulled over to get a picture of Dunluce Castle from down the road a bit.  But when I got to a good spot, I noticed they were setting up some sort of event there.  I walked down and saw a sign for a Van Morrison concert happening there in 2 days.  There was a setup crew, and I got to talking to one of the guys on it about the concert.  I was considering looking up tickets and I asked if he knew where I would get them.  He went and got the production manager, who came over to chat.  He asked me if I was traveling alone, and I said yes.  He asked how long I was in Ireland for, and I told him 3 months.  “Three months?!?!?!  By yourself???”  He was incredulous, to say the least.  He was also impressed… and by the end of that conversation I was on the guest list for the Van Morrison concert.  I didn’t tell the production manager that I was leaving Portstewart for Belfast that day, and in my head I was immediately conflicted because I wanted to continue on my way, spend time in Belfast, and not have to worry about driving the two hours back to Portstewart in 2 days.  But things like that don’t just happen every day, and so I knew I would be back in 2 days for the concert.

 

I continued on to Belfast that day and I will say that this is when my opinions of the North started to take a turn downwards.  I wanted to like Belfast, I really truly did.  Once I saw Derry and how lovely it was, I had high hopes for Belfast impressing me in the same way and exceeding my expectations.  But quite honestly, it just didn’t.  As soon as I arrived in Belfast, I felt like I had in Wexford and Sligo, but on a much larger scale, since Belfast was much bigger.  It felt dirty, it felt impersonal, it felt industrial, it felt hard and cold and it felt slightly dangerous… and I felt out of place.  And disappointed.  And relieved that I had a ticket to a play that night, and that the Van Morrison concert would give me an excuse to spend one less evening in Belfast.

 

I found my hotel without much problem and although the neighborhood felt safe, I was slightly put off when the person checking me in brought me to my room… which was in a building next door.  I wasn’t staying in the main hotel, with the security and the person at the front desk if I needed anything… I was staying next door, in a creepy-feeling apartment building with no signs of other people.  That said, I did have an absolutely gorgeous room, and I was completely excited about that.  But again, I had that sad feeling that I wished Kevin was there with me, and I couldn’t wait to get to Dublin in 2 days to see him.

 

That first night, I headed to the Belfast Grand Opera House to see Hairspray.  I purposely got there about an hour early so that I could go across the street to the Crown Liquor Saloon and have a drink before the show.  The Crown Liquor Saloon is definitely a must- see while visiting Belfast, as is the Opera House… both are gorgeously decorated.  I had never seen Hairspray (the play or the movie) before, so I was excited to see something new in such a beautiful location.  It was a great show and I met a lovely family sitting next to me in the theater.

 

The next day, I was picked up at my hotel for a private Black Taxi Tour that I had pre-booked a couple of days earlier.  There are other ways to see the Murals and the areas where the Troubles occurred, but as a solo female traveler, I honestly felt safest doing a guided tour with a Belfast native.  My driver was a great guy, and although I asked him while he was explaining Belfast history at the beginning of the tour whether he was Catholic or Protestant, he wouldn't tell me until the end.  He wanted me to have a completely unbiased, subjective view of the city, without knowing which side he fell on.  He picked me up at the hotel, and we started the tour seeing the murals in the Shankill neighborhood.  My taxi driver took me out of the car and walked me around the buildings in this neighborhood, showing me the murals and explaining their meanings and their history.  He gave me a few minutes to walk around on my own and take photos, but he stayed close enough so that I could ask any questions I had.  When I was ready to move on, we got in the car and headed to see the murals on the Falls Road.  The Shankill Road is considered unionist (Protestants who identify themselves as British) and the Falls Road is considered nationalist (Catholics who identify themselves as Irish), and they are separated by a peace wall that is still locked every night at 10:00 pm.  You can, of course, still get out if you need to, but it would require walking or driving a few miles out of your way.  After seeing the murals in both neighborhoods, we walked the peace wall for a few minutes, my tour guide talking about his childhood in Belfast and me reading the names and quotes on the wall while he talked.  After I signed my name to the wall, and after one or two more stops on the tour (including the absolutely gorgeous church you'll see below), my tour guide brought me to the Titanic Museum and dropped me off there.

 

From an architectural standpoint, the Titanic Museum is pretty amazing, and much like the Titanic itself, it is just colossal.  Standing at the base of it, it’s almost overwhelming.  But it’s gorgeous and it certainly must boost the tourism in Belfast immensely.  The inside is beautifully structured as well, and I was excited to do the tour.  That being said, I ended up completely confused by the layout of the museum.  Not the physical layout or how to get around; that was easy and it was self guided, so you could go at your own pace.  I was confused by the lack of continuity… there didn’t seem to be a start or a finish to the museum, and everything in between the beginning and the end seemed random.  I mean, I remember walking in to the start of the tour and learning about linens in Ireland in the early 1900’s.  What???   I just felt completely confused by the way the information was laid out.  There was no shortage of information though, and this museum would answer any question you could ever have about the Titanic.

 

After leaving the Titanic Museum, I headed back to the hotel to grab my car and head back up to Portstewart for the Van Morrison concert.  It was a beautiful night, but as usual I mistook the Irish sun for warmth that didn't last all too long :)  I wore a dress and ended up FREEZING and had to leave the concert a bit early, but what I did stay for was amazing.   Heard some of my favorite Van songs, like Brown-Eyed Girl (of course), Days Like This and Crazy Love.  The peak of the night was probably hearing Into The Mystic, while staring out onto the water and seeing that perfect sunset.  To see Van Morrison, live, and hear him play one of my all time favorite songs, while watching an Irish sunset over the water, with a castle to my right and miles of beach to my left... yup, it was a good night :)

 

Here are some photos from Northern Ireland!

 

Dunluce Castle...

 

 

 

 

 

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge...

 

 

 

 

The Giants Causeway...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This might have been the second night at The Giants Causeway... I ended up there two nights in a row photographing sunset, and the second night when I was walking down, the sun was creating this perfect shape and shadow on the tunnel... I don't know why but I had to take a picture of it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portstewart...

 

 

 

My B&B...

 

 

Van the Man!  :)

 

 

 

 

From the concert... Dunluce Castle is nestled over on the right...

 

 

 

Sunset and concert rigging silhouettes...

 

 

 

More from The North...

 

 

 

The cause of most Irish traffic jams :)

 

 

The Bushmills Distillery...

 

 

On my way down to Belfast I pulled off at a rest stop to take this photo...

 

 

And ended up meeting these hilarious guys who were taking in the sun and having a little picnic :)  I chatted with them for a bit and as I was saying goodbye they both took out 5 euro and told me "If we had met you in a bar, young American girl braving the world on her own, we would have bought you a drink because we both have daughters your age and would want her taken care of.  So take this money and have a drink or a snack on us."  It warmed my heard :)

 

 

The beautiful city of Derry...

 

 

Exploring the city from the walls...

 

 

Derry has murals as well... although not to the extent I saw in Belfast, which you will see below...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My last northern city visit, Belfast...

 

 

 

This mural is very famous, because no matter where you move in front of it, the gun is always pointed directly at you.  Very weird... very spooky... very cool.  I moved all around and the gunman was still staring me down...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the gates I was talking about, that gets locked every night at 10 pm...

 

 

 

 

My favorite Irish song of all time, memorialized on the wall...

 

 

 

 

 

The Titanic Museum...

 

 

 

After Northern Ireland, I headed back to Dublin for a couple of days before flying out to England.  Being back in Dublin in good weather completely changed my opinion of the city... when I was there in the freezing cold rain of early March, I wasn't too keen on the decision I had made to stay there for a week... or come to Ireland at all!  Lol but being there in June was incredible and I fell in love.  However, since I already blogged a tiny bit from Dublin when I was actually in Ireland, I plan on going straight to Liverpool and London for my next blog post.  Stay tuned!  xoxo :)