Date of Trip: June 2003
I spent a weekend in Northern Ireland near the end of my year studying abroad at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. The flight from Glasgow to Belfast on Ryanair was only 20 minutes of actual in-air time (my shortest flight ever), though unfortunately it was delayed by two hours, ugh. We took an Airbus from the airport into town and walked through absolutely deserted streets to our hostel; for a major city, I couldn’t believe how few people were out and about at around 10 p.m. Not sure if we were in the wrong part of town, or if this is just a city with very little social life!
Our first day in Belfast, we wandered in and out of stores on Donegal Place on our way toward City Hall. After a quick look inside (not too much to see) we continued in the direction of Queen’s University. We got waylaid at the Salvation Army, of all places, drinking free tea and coffee with some buttered raisin bread (yum). We felt obligated to purchase stuff from their second-hand book sale, so we each got one for a total price of one pound (big spenders we are not!).
We eventually made it to Queen’s University, which is an attractive little campus of red stone buildings. I bought a postcard there, and then we continued to the adjacent Botanic Gardens, where we saw a beautiful rose garden — definitely my favorite part of Belfast. After taking some photos of the multicolored blooms, we grabbed some food and walked to the Ulster Museum. From the outside it’s a big concrete slab, but inside was a little of everything: art, photographs, Irish history, natural history (fossils, dinosaur bones, stuffed dead animals), etc.
We took a load off our feet at the Queen’s University student union (not much going on — it was late May, so perhaps the term was over?). The last thing we did that day was take a quick photo of the Albert Clock (who’s Albert?) and the cathedral, which unfortunately was closed by that point.
The next day was a bit of a fiasco. We had hoped to go to the Glenariff Forest Park, where there were supposedly some nice hiking trails and waterfalls. We weren’t quite sure how to get there, so we asked a guy at the information desk at the Laganside bus station in Belfast. He suggested a different route than someone had the day before, but we went ahead and followed his advice — even though it would require walking about four miles each way to Glenariff, where we would then…do more walking! Hah! A brilliant plan.
So we hopped on the Antrim Coaster up to Waterfoot, where we got off and discovered we could grab another bus to the park from there instead of walking. Great! We stood on a lonely corner in the rain until the overpriced bus turned up (over $5 for two five-minute rides), at which point we learned that we would have to catch the earliest return in order to catch our OTHER bus to Ballycastle, our next stop on the trip — meaning that we had a grand total of 25 minutes in the park. Sigh.
It was cold and rainy, and I was freezing and frankly quite grumpy as we walked the 15-minute journey into the park — which looked like it would be really pretty to explore if we had the time. Instead we took a few pics, turned around, and caught the bus straight back to waterfoot. Moral of the story? Either do better planning than we did, or take a cab.
We killed a little time at Angela’s Restaurant and Bakery, where I had some interesting but tasty broccoli and bacon soup. We ended up talking to some Americans who gave us a lift in their rented car to Cushendon. There we sat on a pretty beach and then caught our last bus of the day to Ballycastle, a little resort town. We checked into our hostel, took a few photos of the beach (the sun had come out by then), and went to O’Connor’s, a local pub, for some traditional Irish music. This was definitely the highlight of a rather disappointing day — it was basically a big cozy jam session with accordions, banjos, a drum and even a little whistle of some sort. People joined in as they came into the pub. We talked to a few locals, secretly laughed at the two obvious Americans across the room (they just looked too smiley and wholesome to belong), and then headed back to the hostel to get a good night’s sleep.
The hostel was pretty nice — there was barely anyone there, so we had our own room overlooking the beach. The only bad thing was the shower, which I do believe is one of the worst I’ve ever experienced. It wasn’t just the non-existent water pressure, but also the temperature fluctuations between freezing and scalding with no warning.
The next day I tried hitchhiking for the first time in my life, since there were apparently no buses that would get us where we wanted to go (the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge) when we wanted to get there. I never would have hitchhiked if I were traveling alone, but the part of Northern Ireland we were in was generally quite safe. We held up hand-crayoned signs saying “Rope” and “Bridge,” and were picked up by the first person who drove by, a retired geography teacher and headmaster. He pulled over at a viewpoint and talked to us for a while about local geography and history before dropping us off at Carrick-a-Rede. We took a 10-minute walk along a steep coastline to get to the bridge, which was blowing slightly in the strong wind. It was a bit scary to go across (it’s 24 meters above the sea), but being able to sit and chill out on the little island was worth it, and the views of the sea and the rocky coast were incredible.
We did manage to get a bus to Giant’s Causeway, probably N. Ireland’s most famous attraction. We pretty much had Carrick-a-Rede to ourselves, but when we arrived at the Causeway there were tour buses and tourists swarming all over the place. We walked along a really high cliff and then descended to see some unique geological formations like the Organ (which looked like organ pipes carved into the side of the cliff) and the Causeway itself, a series of basalt columns. To be honest I had been expecting the columns to be bigger, but I guess they were dwarfed a bit by the cliffs behind them.
The weather was overcast and very windy (ie freezing), so we relaxed in the cafe for a while before trying to hitchhike to Coleraine, where we could catch a bus or train to Derry. This time our hitchhiking efforts were unsuccessful…we just stood there by the side of the road, being watched by a couple of bemused horses in a nearby paddock, as car after car drove by containing folks looking alternately disapproving, regretful or oblivious. About an hour later, we finally caught a bus to Coleraine. There we found a train to Derry, where we found our hostel — it had a very laid-back, slightly seedy, college-dorm sort of vibe to it. We hit two pubs that night, the first one seemingly filled with high school kids, and the second very smoky, with some traditional Irish music.
The next day we visited the Tower Museum for some info on Derry’s history, and then walked along the old city walls. From there we could see a collection of murals in the Bogside neighborhood, where a lot of Derry’s sectarian violence has occurred. The murals are pretty impressive, some in color and some black and white; the most famous one is a guy in a gas mask. After a quick stop in two fairly plain churches (St. Columb’s Cathedral and St. Augustine’s), we went to look at the murals close up. We also checked out the Free Derry corner and the Bloody Sunday memorial — quite chilling to see in contrast with such a bright, sunny, peaceful day.
We finished up our time in Derry by wandering around town a bit; I grabbed an ice cream, we peeked our heads in on a Harry Potter lookalike contest going on at a local mall, and took a long bus ride back to Belfast.
Overall we were impressed by the friendliness of the Northern Irish people (no matter where we went, people always said “hi” as they passed on the street) and the gorgeous coastal views that we’d seen.