Country Antrim, Northern Ireland: A Coastal Affair
It’s hard to believe that my family and I came back from Europe three weeks ago. Kaylee came home from Dublin nine days ago. As sad as I know she was to be leaving home there, I’m very, very happy she’s back.
My parents are the root of my travel bug, raising Brady, Kaylee, and I to seek out the cadences of culture and nature from a young age. I never forget how privileged I am be part of a family who has always prioritized travel. And I’m grateful not only for the places we have been able to go to together, but that we love one another’s company enough to travel all together, even with **mostly** adult children in the mix. There’s the occasional brawl, but would a family trip be complete without frustration? Confined to ourselves for a majority of the time, feelings can’t help but build up sometimes.
Still, they blow over quickly, because they’re stupid things, like someone (don’t look at me…) doesn’t get the directions to a restaurant before heading out and everyone is hungry and tired and sunburnt, and a snap comment is made that the responsible party only worsens. Arguments are a form of love, right? We always laugh about them after, a memory as fresh and valid and memorable as the happier times. For that I am also so fortunate to be part of something that, to me, is one of the most precious things in the world.
There’s never such thing as being too old to travel with your family.
I like it even more as an adult, because the five of us are pals. Only in those heated instances do I remember they’re my family. We’re always bound by blood, but so too are we bound by our fierce liking for our pack.
For the first leg of our trip, we were Kaylee-less. Her group took a weekend trip to the west of Ireland, organized by Champlain Dublin (where I studied and where Kaylee now is finishing her semester), and as we flew into Dublin on Thursday morning, while her day had already begun, we really had no time to see her.
Dublin Airport, Co. Dublin → Ballycastle, Co. Antrim
We arrived at Dublin Airport just after eight in the morning, and from there picked up our rental car to drive up to Ballycastle, Northern Ireland. The flight was one of sleep deprivation, to a desperate point that I suggested to my mom we find something boring to put on and see if that helped us nod off. (Fun fact: an episode of Ice Holes will, indeed, help for a little bit; but the sheer humor of one particular ice fisherman kept me awake. His dog, Bubbles, locked him out of their mobile home, and stood at the window calling for Bubbles to open the door.) Needless to say, the four of us were groggy and the thought of three hours in a car was hellish. Even more so for my dad, our driver.
Along the way we stopped three times, all at the country’s beloved Applegreen rest stops: once for breakfast, and two separate times to park and nap for fifteen minutes at a time. The intermediary (driving) was spent singing along to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a Maher family classic. So much so, we listened to it twice through on the way up, because Brady fell asleep and, when he woke up, asked if we could re-listen. Maybe we were initially begrudging, but you can only be disgruntled for so long before the possessing powers of “Go, Go, Go Joseph” take hold.
The combination refreshed us, surprisingly, for the entire day.
The weather played into that a bit. Ireland is unpredictable, clear and cloudy skies both nimble and fleeting. Carrying an umbrella at all times is a safe policy. But on both ends of the spectrum, you just never know. What started as a cloudy, chilly morning almost magically dissipated into a gloriously bright, sunny afternoon and evening.
Ireland was even more an ethereal beauty than before. And it was otherworldly to begin with.
My mom and I planned a majority of this trip together, which was a lot of fun. We built it on a “flex plan,” leaving for lots of wiggle room and open-ended possibilities for our schedule. As two lanes became one, drifting deeper into the island’s humble narrative, my mom suggested going to the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge now, while the weather was nice. So we plugged the address into my dad’s phone and continued along the Antrim coast, leaving us breathless at every new turn.
But on arrival, at just after 2:30pm, we were told the bridge was closed. They would reassess at 3pm.
“Closed for weather?!” I exclaimed, incredulous, once my dad had rolled the window up. “Look at this!” I said, gesturing to the turquoise waters glittering under a golden sun. We learned the next day that they check the weather three times daily–at 9am, 12pm, and 3pm–to determine whether they will be open.
You just never know.
Sticking to the original plan, we visited the Giant’s Causeway. It’s truly amazing what a little shift in the sky will do for the soul: it makes everything sing. Even more than that, what the world will do for you. The four of us clambered along the road winding downwards, admiring the yellow buds bursting among the brush, interlocking arms in pairs to keep up and steady, staggering under the sight of the stepping stone-esque kingdom of giant-constructed basalt columns. I had stood in its presence before, enamored with the fairytale of it all, the magic that nature and folklore had stirred together. It simultaneously felt familiar and fresh, but ever a wonder.
In the car, mom and I munched on a bag of cheese-filled pretzels bought at Logan Airport in Boston as we made our way to our guesthouse, stopping once to capture the coast.
Ballycastle and the Irish coastal charm
After dropping off our luggage, mom and I grabbed our cameras and walked around the property. Just look at this! Then and there, I didn’t want anything else.
Because we’d skipped lunch, we drove into town around 4:30 for an early dinner. It was relatively empty at Finn Patrick’s, aside from the few middle-aged men sipping pints of Guinness and a pair of children belonging to one of them, running into the late afternoon day with pool sticks. It was at least twenty degrees warmer than it had been for us up to the day that we left Boston, but we still relished in the crackling fireplace beside us.
I ordered their beef and Guinness pie, delighted to find a puff pastry baked on top of the stew. My mom and I shared our meals, and we all gasped at the haddock she ordered, as long as my arm from wrist to elbow.
“Why didn’t we just share this?” She laughed, cutting it in half. Though we all chipped in to eat some, the plate was still full with fish. Delicious fish, I-live-in-Massachusetts-and-we-still-don’t-make-fish-and-chips-like-this fish, nonetheless.
Ballycastle at first impact is magnetic. Town of color and seaside shops, it is a point on the Causeway Coastal Route and a treasure among the dazzle of the Antrim coast. It teems with a joyful, freeing bustle. The four of us spent some time along the water and, the next night, explored the local grocery store for some pale ale-d goods. Town gives way to land, gives way to the heart being blown away.
Stories and poems wrapped themselves around my imagination, squeezing tight and asking that it never forgets them there.
The Causeway Coastal Route
On Friday, we remained on the Causeway Coastal Route for a majority of the day. It began at the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge, which was open on that cloudy, windless morning, and where we were some of the first guests to cross. The walk to the bridge from the ticket booth is about twenty minutes, but it isn’t without striking views of the cliffs and, on a clear day, the edge of Scotland thirteen miles away. This is one attraction I would recommend visiting as soon as it opens, because the crowds come in. We passed a nearly endless cluster of people headed for it on our way back. This way, we had the luxury of time on our side, to walk over waves colliding with rock without being rushed and take photos along the bridge without other people in it.
I’d forgotten the way the bridge can make your stomach plummet a little bit, but in the most thrilling way.
Andrew Jackson’s Ancestral Home
We’d mapped out the day to continue at the furthest end of the route, in Carrickfergus, and wind our way back. Fittingly, the ancestral home of President Andrew Jackson’s parents resides there.
Anyone who knows us know that Brady has turned us into living, breathing presidential flashcards. In the last few years, we’ve made numerous pit stops at presidential homes while on vacation, and as a family of history lovers, these have always been fun. What luck it was when, one afternoon, mom was scouring the interwebs and came across this information. “You’ll never believe what’s in Northern Ireland,” she’d said. I hadn’t.
We arrived at the whitewashed thatched cottage to discover that this isn’t the Jackson’s homestead, but their former neighbors’ and friends’ land. It was after their home had been demolished that people realized who they were and planned to maintain the house next door as a replica.
The guide at the house, Paul, greeted us warmly as we ducked in. He moved so breezily between the story of the Jacksons in Carrickfergus, Darby’s Rangers (whose museum is behind the home), and tips for our route. At the end of our visit, he’d whipped out a few maps of the coastal route and his words blended as he circled, starred, and drew arrows across the green and blue. He even circled the location of his newly purchased home for us.
The Darby’s Rangers museum was interesting. My parents gushed about the film based on this group of American soldiers, sent to Northern Ireland to train during World War II. About 1/7 of the troop survived the end of the war. And it painted a new picture for me of the war that wreaked havoc on Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom who was deeply involved in the war, and the Republic of Ireland, which remained neutral.
Choose Your Own Adventure
With nearly thirty stops and a labyrinthine of off-the-path spots, the Causeway Coastal Route was. My mom and I sat in the back of the car and fanned out our maps, for the first time in my life acting in part as the navigator via paper.
In Carrickfergus, we stopped for lunch at Ownie’s, a recommendation from Paul. I warmed up with a cup of coffee, a cup of broccoli cheddar soup, and a chicken salad sandwich which, in its literal sense, was grilled chicken and a bed of lettuce and vegetables between slices of wheaten bread. We sat among a handful of couples sipping wine and catching up over plates of fish and chips.
Outside, the rain was spitting, and the rest of the afternoon was cast in misty gray. But it was ours; and though we didn’t step out of the car too much, we traipsed the coast and counted sheep.
We erased a few places on our list, like the Glenarm Castle, whose signs we missed somewhere along the way. We ended up at other places, like the Glenariff Forest park, where we stood above the foggy Glens of Antrim. We stopped for dinner at the Peppermill in Cushendall, then picked up some treats for the last leg at the local Spar.
The Causeway Coastal Route is wondrous along every turn. And sometimes, around a bend you’ll catch a waterfall hidden behind the trees or a pair of goats standing on the rise of land by the road.
The Iron Islands and Ballintoy Harbor
Recently, in transferring the contents of my phone to a replacement one, I lost 200 photos, almost all of which were from Ballintoy. I suffered a few moments of self-pity, until I remembered I had plenty of photos on my camera. Maybe it was part universe telling me to remember it through the visions constructed in my memory, not on my phone, and that I hadn’t needed to take so many anyways. Either way, Ballintoy Harbor was our second to last stop on the Antrim coast, and with the hues of magic sprinkled over the place.
It’s the site of the Greyjoy’s harbor in Game of Thrones, and slightly unrecognizable but chilling with the awesomeness of it.
It’s one of those places so sharp, so full of color and movement, so dreamlike lovely, that you feel like you’re transcending the earth. Like you’ve just jumped into the middle of a postcard, wondering how this can be real while also falling into a trance so deep it tastes like love.
Wherever I go, I focus on the way the air feels, and the way the sun falls on me. Here it was bright, unfading, a balance to the whipping winds.
Stay: Crockatinny Guesthouse
The Crockatinny Guesthouse was off of the road, in a small cul-de-sac that included the guesthouse and the owner’s home. Our room was a cozy nook on the ground level, overlooking the rise of the property’s greenery. It’s the sort of place I dream about when I’m stressed at work: quaint, dressed in the attire of home, offering sweeping views that settle the mind on first glance.
The Irish are overtly friendly, and our host was the embodiment of hospitality and kindness. We all shared lovely conversation with her, and struck a quick and effortless bond. We don’t have (many) qualms about staying four to a room anyways, but this was a superb place for us to lay our heads at night–and we conked early the first night, waking up ready to seize the day. On our second night, we sat in the sitting room, tried but failed to figure out how to turn the TV on, and drank pints of the Irish lager, Harp.
Though Ireland always leaves me wanting more, I was content to come back and actually do nothing.
Breakfast was included, allowing us to choose items from a traditional Irish breakfast: eggs, sausage, black and white puddings, bacon, soda bread, and potato bread, alongside a buffet table set with yogurt, cereal, fruit, coffee, tea, juice, and milk. HOST’S dog basked in the morning light, a fluffy white husky. Every morning I left happily stuffed with fresh eggs and meat, and if I could have ordered four times the potato bread, I would have happily done so.
Guesthouses make a getaway really feel like one, with the added component of home and connection. There was, I believe, one other couple staying while we where there; possibly two. Whether we were alone or among others, the peace and solitude coupled with the buzz of welcome was needed and loved. And on the Emerald Isle, it’s one of the sweetest authentic experiences to have.