Our Giant Walk (Giant’s Causeway to Carrick-a-Rede)

Bird_CliffsWhenever you travel, there are always things you planned to do, things you hadn’t planned to do but ended up doing, things you didn’t plan to do but should have, and things you planned to do but sadly couldn’t. There are things you planned to do that you shouldn’t have bothered with. There are things you didn’t plan to do that were amazing. And then there are the things you planned to do, absolutely HAD to do, so you did them, and they were as awesome as you’d hoped.

One of the things I wanted, absolutely HAD, to do on our honeymoon was walk the Causeway Coastway in Northern Ireland, between the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Amazingly enough, the one day we’d set aside for doing this was sunny (which for Northern Ireland is nothing short of miraculous) and all in all, TC estimates we walked upwards of 25 km that day.

Believe it or not, the walking was the easy part. In order to give us as much walking time as possible, I decided that we should stay someplace quite near one of the two attractions we were walking between. The community I settled on was Bushmills, an adorable bunting-filled town a couple of miles from the coast and the Giant’s Causeway (also home to the Bushmills Distillery, a plus for TC). We booked a room for two nights at Finn MacCool’s Guest House on the main drag (I describe their awesome friendliness at the end of this post), and then just sort of forgot about it.

Until we realized that there is no rail line to Bushmills, and no line between Galway and Coleraine (the nearest train station to Bushmills), or even Galway and Belfast. We had to book a train from Galway to Dublin Heuston (opposite side of Ireland), catch a tram to Dublin Connolly, take the train to Belfast, and hope we could buy a ticket for Coleraine there before the next train left. Once in Coleraine, we would ask about the next bus through Bushmills and do our best to be on it.

Though we stayed up later on our last night in Galway planning, and had to wake up earlier than I would have liked the next morning (some cries of “But we’re on our honeymoon! We’re supposed to be RELAXING!” may have been uttered), our crazy, multi-train + bus travel plan actually went off without a hitch. We JUST missed a Bushmills-bound bus in Coleraine, but the next one was only 25 minutes later which gave us time to regroup and eat a sausage roll.

Once in Bushmills we needed maps and bus schedules (helpfully provided at the guest house which is good because the websites for such things were somewhat hard to use), and we needed to figure out where to start, how to get there, and how the hell to do this big long walk anyways. We discovered that part of the cliff-top walking path had been blocked by a landslide and that we would need to detour between Dunseverick and Portbraddan (luckily, the walking map we had, issued by WalkNI, was really more of a booklet with smaller maps of each section we were going to walk and descriptions of where to turn, etc., including for the detour section. It’s worth noting that their published literature was more useful than their website. Huh). We also checked the high tide times for White Park Bay to make sure that stretch of coast would be accessible when we wanted to reach it (it was). TC made the call that we would walk from Bushmills to the Giant’s Causeway and go towards Carrick-a-Rede, as opposed to busing to Carrick-a-Rede in the morning and not getting to start our journey until likely past noon.

So that is what we did. At the suggestion of the lovely Tracy at Finn MacCool’s, we walked to the Causeway by way of the old Bushmills Railway (there’s a good path along the tracks) and from the end of the railway went past the spendy visitor’s centre and down the long and winding road to the Giant’s Causeway. Which is really effing cool. We could have spent a good hour climbing all over those hexagonal rock stacks and taking photos but we had a long day of walking ahead of us and we wanted to get going.

There was a bit of panic and swearing and furious fast-walking (mine) when we realized that the Shepherd’s Steps path, which connects the Giant’s Causeway to the Coastway above, was closed, and that we would need to do a couple kilometres of uphill backtracking to get back to the clifftop. We weren’t sure how to join up with the rest of the walk and I was getting a bit weepy at the prospect of potentially missing out the ONE THING that I had REALLY wanted to do (and the thing I had put the most planning and effort into). Luckily, I remembered that the walking guide mentioned that you don’t need to go down to the Causeway to do the Causeway Coastway, which meant that obviously the path should be accessible from above, and it was. Glory be.

Of all our experiences on our honeymoon, this was by far my favourite. After that little bit of morning adversity, the sun shone warmly on our faces and the sea was blue as a jewel. Topped by farmers’ fields (with the occasional sheep or cows), the cliffs were sometimes sheer, sometimes craggy, folding into islets and inlets that were breathtaking at every turn. It was important to remember to look behind us every once in a while so we would not miss the equally impressive views unfolding at our backs. Very little (almost none) of what we saw that day would have been visible from the motorway. No sirree. This kind of North Irish beauty is reserved for those on foot.

And so we walked. And walked. And ate bananas. And walked ever so much more.

Eventually our feet and knees and hips did begin to get tired and sore (especially when we had to detour onto asphalt roadways, ouch) but once past Dunseverick (where the last bus stop is before the rope bridge) we really had no choice but to continue on to Carrick-a-Rede and to be honest, it would have taken a lot to make me to give up my goal of walking from the Causeway to the bridge.

And so it was that we reached the car park at Carrick-a-Rede just before 5 p.m., feet like hot lead and joints like old wicker chairs. We could have caught the bus back to Bushmills right then and there, especially when a little signpost pointed towards the rope bridge, still a kilometre away. We thought, is it worth it just to see a rope bridge? And then we thought, we’ve come this far.

So we went to the booth and paid our admission and walked the kilometre and stood in the line and walked across the bridge and looked around the little island (and at Scotland, about as far away across the sea as Vancouver Island looks from Vancouver) and stood in the line again and walked back across the bridge and back along that kilometre of path to the car park and had a scone with jam and cream (well, I did) and at 6:10 in the evening caught our bus back to Bushmills. And all that, TC estimates, was more than 25 km of walking. We did it!

Tips and thoughts and other things if you want to do the same walk we did:

  • The walk between the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede bridge is just a section of the much longer Causeway Coastway. You don’t necessarily have to begin or end where we did (or travel in the same direction), but you should make sure you know where you can catch a bus, etc. at the end of your day or if you need to abandon your walk early. We kept a bus schedule with us along with our maps. People who walk the whole Coastway do it over three days or so and stay in accommodation along the way.
  • Dressing in layers is strongly recommended. It’s generally cool and cloudy in (Northern) Ireland, even in the summer, but we found the weather changed hour by hour during our trip, sometimes minute by minute. You definitely need a shell that can keep out the rain, preferably one that has a hood. I started our walk wearing five layers on top, at some point was down to two layers, and ended the day at four. Layers are the bomb.
  • We were SO tempted to just hop the fences and scramble across the land-slide blocked trails. We chose not to for our own safety of course, but also the safety of anyone below. How terrible would it be if you hurt someone (or damaged the beautiful natural landscape) below you just because you couldn’t be bothered to take a little detour?
  • If you are staying in Bushmills and don’t have a bunch of money for the fancy Bushmills Inn, I heartily recommend Finn MacCool’s Public House and Guest Inn. The rooms are fairly spartan but they were clean and warm (or as warm as it gets in such damp climes) and I can’t praise the hospitality enough. Though Finn MacCool’s has a pub and does breakfast, they have no restaurant of their own so they let us bring our take-out into the pub, gave us plates and cutlery and napkins, and cleared up after us as if we’d bought the food there. TC got to try a 16-year-old Bushmills single malt on the house and after we checked out on our last day, Tracy let us leave our bags behind the bar and continue to hang out in the pub and watch TV and use the wifi for a few hours while we waited for our bus. We’d bought strawberries for lunch and she gave us a bowl of whipped cream for them (I assume they had it for Irish coffees). We didn’t want to take up a table for nothing so I bought a soda and TC had a cup of tea but when we rose to leave Tracy just waved us off and wished us well. Thank you Tracy!
  • The Giant’s Causeway is amazing (and free, as long as you don’t go into the Visitors’ Centre), but the Carrick-a-Rede bridge is a little underwhelming, especially as you have to wait in line for a lot longer than it takes to actually cross the bridge. If you aren’t going to do the long walk we did the trail from the car park does have some nice views but honestly, we saw better!
  • The websites for Northern Irish transit and transportation are not as good as those in Ireland or North America. It’s best to organize travel in Northern Ireland ahead of time and find up-to-date hard copy published material if you can. On the flip side, people are so nice there we had help and suggestions at every turn.
  • White Park Bay (and the 2km of beach pathway on it) is not accessible during high tide. You should definitely check high tide times before going out; we found them on a surfing website.
  • The train between Belfast and Coleraine is not very fast. There is a bus that goes from Belfast right to the Causeway via Bushmills but only once a day. We used it to get back to Belfast and it is much faster.
  • Bathrooms on the walking path are few and far between (I believe Ballintoy Harbour maybe had one, and there’s one at Carrick-a-Rede). The cliff path is mostly wide open, with fields on one side and a sheer drop on the other. The Emerald Isles are not known for having an abundance of trees and the low bushes along the trail were so thick and prickly they were a definite no-go for bathroom cover. There were some taller grasses along the cliff edge, but I didn’t fancy falling to my death with my pants around my ankles. You might just have to make sure no one’s coming along the path and go for it, which is more or less what I did.

And on that note, happy trails.

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Killarney, Galway, and Connemara – Ireland is very pretty

A few days ago, I was sitting on a low stone wall by the side of the river in the little village of Cong, in County Mayo. As I was sitting there enjoying the rare Irish sunshine, I saw two ducks hurrying along the bank towards me.

The first duck said “Quack! Quack!”

And the second duck replied, “I cannae go any quacker!”

This is my favourite joke of the many told to us by Michael O’Malley, bus driver and tour guide extraordinaire, with the Galway Tour Company (he told this joke as we were leaving Cong by way of a road which passed the aforementioned low stone wall and river). But I am getting ahead of myself.

Before Galway and our lovely bus tour through Connemara, we were in Killarney, touring ourselves through the beautiful Killarney National Park on rented bicycles. In 1932, Arthur Bourn Vincent donated Muckross Estate, which was comprised of his parents’ 19th-century mansion and extensive property, to the country of Ireland. The mansion, Muckross House, has been restored and the public can tour inside for a fee (we didn’t do this but we did eat our lunch and take a walk through the massive and well-maintained gardens). The grounds were eventually substantially expanded through further land donations to create Killarney National Park, Ireland’s first national park.

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The bike tour suggested to us by the tourism office in Killarney had us on a nice day trip around Muckross Lake and down then south of Killarney town for a detour to Ross Castle. In total we probably put in about 20 km, occasionally on the roadway but mostly on the bicycle/walking/jaunting car trails in the park. Though the park as a whole is quite hilly (with mountains I’m sure would be gorgeous to explore by car or on foot), our trip was quite easy and relaxing. We stopped several times for pictures, to eat, and to look around. Apart from having a sore behind at the end of the day, the fact that I don’t cycle much in Vancouver didn’t seem to matter much–the bike paths are not hard and the bikes we rented were great.

Though there are nice walking paths accessible from the town of Killarney (Ross Castle and the jaunting cars there are not far away if you want to take advantage of them), if you don’t have a car and want to see the park I really recommend renting a bicycle. There are bicycle rental shops all over town and most give out free maps (the one we used also gave us helmets). As I mentioned before, you don’t need to be a hardcore cyclist, but it does help to make the couple more boring patches (when you’re on a roadway, for example) go faster. It’s a fun and relatively inexpensive way to sight see around Killarney.

After spendy Dublin, we decided to do Killarney on the cheap and booked a couple of beds in Neptune’s Hostel. We were in a 6-person dorm room in a brand new section of the hostel. As hostels go, I thought Neptune’s was pretty great. The room was clean and comfortable (with real duvets, a hostel first for me). We had a big kitchen in the hostel and a Tesco supermarket across the street, so apart from some late-night fast food after a night at the pub, we didn’t eat out in Killarney.

What we did do was go to a pub for a couple of pints and to take in a session of Irish music. Of the live music we’ve managed to catch on our trip to Ireland, this was the first session and probably the most casual. Three musicians sat around a table, drinking pints and playing on a guitar, fiddle, and accordion. When the fiddler got up to go the restroom, a local in the pub took over his fiddle for a song or two (the same thing happened with the guitarist as well). There were some traditional Irish tunes but also songs that people in the pub seemed to know and could sing along to (like You Are My Sunshine). It was relaxed and homey and musically great. And I got drunk without meaning to because in Ireland, the pints are really pints.

After Killarney, we were on a bus and off to Galway on Ireland’s west coast. We stayed in the Forster Court Hotel, just off Eyre Square. Galway itself is a very pretty albeit touristy town (like Killarney in that way), and it was here that we finally did some shopping (great High Street for that). I was tempted to buy a Claddagh ring since they originate in the area, but apart from the rings related to my marriage I’m really not much of a ring wearer so I was able to resist. I was not able to resist a tin whistle.

Our/my real reason for visiting Galway was to see if we could find a day-tour into Connemara, which our Lonely Planet refers to as a “kaleidoscope of rusty bogs, lonely valleys, and shimmering black lakes.” This beauty was surrounded by grey and red-tinged mountains and stone walls, and liberally dotted with old stone cottages and sheep. As it turns out, there are several options for tours and we decided to go with the Galway Tour Company. Our guide/driver was sweet and funny, and kept the landscape alive through his funny and knowledgeable commentary. I learned how peat bogs were formed, what happened to all the trees in Ireland (they were cut down, which is why people started burning peat), where the fairies went (underground), and a plethora of jokes with which to regale my friends and loved ones.

We stopped at the impressive Kylemore Abbey, the cute village of Cong, and the ruins of an old friary, but for me the best part was just the drive through the interior of Connemara. The beauty of this region cannot be overstated. As the clouds (and there are so many clouds in Ireland) pass overhead, the sun dapples the green and red valleys. The mountains with their grey peaks and empty slopes encircle the landscape and create an effect that feels at once spacious and cozy, timeless and firmly rooted in the passage of the seasons. I highly doubt the farmers who live in these valleys have an easy life, sheep’s wool being an almost zero-profit industry at the moment, but I do envy them the beauty in which they live and work.

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Sadly, we did not really enjoy dining in Galway (we ended up in an underwhelming and expensive tourist trap the first night and in a pub for basic pub fare the second), but our night at the pub did give us a chance for TC to watch Chelsea beat Burnley in the English Premier League (on the TV, obviously) and for us to listen to some more live music (two fiddles and two mandolins, three or so tables over). It’s so nice to watch people who are really good at what they do in such a casual setting. The musicians seemed quite young this time and I began to become terribly jealous of anyone who can play an instrument well enough to make such satisfying music. Oh well. I’ve got my tin whistle.

My biggest regret about our time in Galway is that we did not give ourselves more time enjoy the area. What we saw was only a small fraction of the amazing scenery and experiences Ireland’s west coast has to offer. We also needed to get from Galway up to Northern Ireland, which meant a lot of our evenings spent planning this leg and an early morning after our second night. Luckily, Northern Ireland had more than enough to offer.

In Dublin and Well-Fed

On Saturday, my TC were wed by the sea on Salt Spring Island. Though our wedding day was perfect, it was sandwiched between days of preparation and recovery, and two full nights during which I did not sleep. In my infinite wisdom, I had long ago decided that I wanted us to leave on our honeymoon directly after our wedding. This is why, not five days after getting hitched, I am sitting in the Fleet Street Hotel in Dublin, preparing for our second night in Ireland’s capital city but also for our onward journey to Killarney tomorrow. So far, married life is a bit of a whirlwind for this happy couple.

What drew us to Ireland for our honeymoon? For the both of us, the country’s reputation for beauty, charm, and friendliness. Additionally for me, my love of folklore and the fairy stories of my youth. For TC, his love of whiskey (or whisky, but here in Ireland it’s always with an “e”).

_DSC0216.JPGThough jet lag and exhaustion have prevented us from venturing out far (or late), Dublin is an incredibly walkable city with most attractions crowded south of the River Liffey (with a few places, like the Old Jameson Distillery, situated on the north side of river). Upon our arrival in Dublin around noon yesterday we made napping our immediate priority, however, we were still able to sneak in a walk through the Grafton shopping district and down to St. Stephen’s Green (my favourite part was the ducks) before dinner.

This morning we made sure to tick off something on TC’s Ireland wish list by taking a tour of the Old Jameson Distillery on Bow Street (we booked our tour online which is good because by the time we arrived it was sold out). No distilling actually occurs on Bow Street anymore (the new massive Jameson Distillery now operates in Cork), but with our amusing guide and some scaled-down models of distilling equipment, I was still able to learn a lot about how whiskey is made (TC already knew everything but since he was picked for the special comparison tasting at the end and got a certificate with his name on it I think for him it was just about fun). Did you know that the smoky taste you get in a Scotch whisky is from using peat to malt the barley (versus Jameson whiskey which used odourless coal and now uses natural gas)? I didn’t (well, I knew peat was involved though I wasn’t sure how), and now I do. The tour itself is pretty quick for what you pay (14€ for an adult ticket, cheaper online), but you do get a drink of Jameson Original at the end (either straight, or, if you prefer, with gingerale and lime), and the building itself is kinda cool.

Our next stop was at the campy museum, Dublinia, just across the street from Dublin’s Christchurch Cathedral. At this point in our trip, this is the attraction I probably could have done without. Though our Lonely Planet: Ireland had mentioned that the museum was decent, “at least for kids”, I sort of ignored the “for kids” caveat and dragged the jet lagged TC through three floors of kitschy interactive displays about Vikings, medieval Dublin, and archaeology (where the kids can try on hard hats and boots!). Though I like to think we’re young at heart, my new husband and I did not have the energy for posing in pretend bearskins and writing our names in runes (I tried and got frustrated). The medieval level with its re-creations of Dublin’s quayside, markets, and merchant home life was actually pretty impressive, but I think the museum maybe overdid it a little with their mannequin displays (like the cart of dead plague victims or the man sitting on a latrine seat, accompanied by an audio feed featuring his groans of satisfaction on the crapper). If you ever travel to Dublin with kids they’ll probably get a kick out of Dublinia, but otherwise I’d give it a miss.

Not being much of a city person (or a James Joyce fan), I can’t say I’m blown away by Dublin but I think it’s fair to say that both TC and I like it and are enjoying ourselves, exhaustion aside. Our hotel is within walking distance of everything I want to see, the shopping (if I were here to shop, which I’m not) appears to be excellent, the streets seem safe and the buildings quaint, and our dinners have been superb. Taking Lonely Planet‘s advice and steering clear of the Temple Bar area with its faux-Irish tourist traps, we have ended up eating at French restaurants on Exchequer Street both nights and have not been disappointed.

Last night we took advantage of the “pre-theatre” 2-course menu at Fallon & Byrne (a fancy restaurant above an only slightly less fancy grocery store). Despite being part of a deal, our evening was not cheap, though it hardly matters when the food, cocktails, and service were so excellent (despite our being obviously underdressed, wearing what we’d been wearing on the plane). On something special like the first night of our honeymoon, I don’t really mind spending a lot of money if the food is worth it, and it was: chicken terrine with mango chutney, fresh bread and butter, roast chicken with red onion relish and shrimp butter, mango sorbet with pieces of mango, pineapple, and meringue, topped with whipped cream–it’s fair to say we waddled back to our hotel last night.

This evening we decided to try more French fare at the Green Hen. Slightly cheaper than Fallon & Byrne (though with a tighter interior and busier atmosphere), the food on their “early bird” menu (I guess a reward to tourists and locals who feel like eating early) is just as good. We should have made a reservation, but we didn’t, and were lucky enough to be seated at the bar. We started with cocktails and smoked salmon with capers before moving on to vegetable risotto (for me) and duck confit with blackberries and melt-in-your-mouth butter, I mean potatoes, for TC (I think the duck was better but my risotto sure wasn’t bad). TC declined dessert but I went for the passion fruit cheesecake with shortbread ice cream and it was even better than I hoped it would be. I would never say that TC and I are foodies but we do appreciate good food, and this food was very good.

So good, in fact, that for the sake of our wallets it’s probably for the best that we are moving on to Killarney tomorrow, where we will be staying in a hostel and partaking in natural, i.e. free, attractions instead of fancy French restaurants. Not that there’s anything wrong with French restaurants in Ireland. Evidently not.

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