We've intended to visit Ireland for a while and never got round to it, so this April we booked a guest house, a plane journey and a hire car and headed off to visit the northern part of the island. We stayed at a lovely guest house just outside the village of Hillsborough, about 20 minutes outside Belfast. The owners and staff were very nice, the chickens were fun to watch, we had nice big breakfasts and the place was just off the main road heading in towards Lisburn and then Belfast.
Hillsborough is a pretty wee village, apparently built as a sort of designer village just outside of Lisburn. We dined at the Plough Inn a couple of times and very much enjoyed it there. But before we even got there we had a bit of time. The plane got in at 10 and we didn't check in until 4, so we planned to head up north to the coast to see what we could do on our first day.
The plans were almost scuppered as the hire car firm had had a transporter breakdown, so the only cars they were getting in were the ones being handed back by hirers. We joined the list, a bit disgruntled, but just had an hour to wait until we had a car to take away. It was an Astra SRi, full of features like rain detection and automatic lights, however it had precious little push, and proved a bit poor at picking up speed when joining the main road from the guest house on our trips.
Our first stop was Carrick a Rede, on the north coast. This is a nice bit of coastline with cliffs and islands, but best known for the rope bridge that joins the mainland to a small island. According to a friend at church it isn't nearly as scary as it used to be but it was fun to walk across. It seems to have survived the jungle canyon rope bridge cuts made in the 80s.
We made it across to the island safely and there's not really anything to do other than come back across. However we were delayed for 10 minutes as the wind was too strong to allow us to cross and the bridge was shut for a while. We imagined being stranded on the far side, but the wind died down and we got back ok. It was too late to visit anywhere else though, so we journeyed back down to check into our guest house and plug in all our devices to recharge.
We had no firm plans for the second day, but passing through Belfast on the way back from our first trip Cate spotted the sign for the zoo. So it was off to the zoo we went the next morning. Belfast Zoo was pretty good. Built on a hill like Edinburgh you get plenty of exercise, and they had quite a good selection of animals to see, most of them being out and viewable too.
There were very few people about so we had good views. We were a bit disappointed at the Chinese group who decided to feed a packet of Hob Nobs to the sun bears to make them come to the glass, but were quite pleased to see a fossa, famed for its appearance in Madagascar 2.
After the zoo we went into Belfast town centre, parking in a really expensive car park under the Victoria Square shopping centre. This has a stair that gets you up to a viewing platform in a glass dome that looks out over the city. After a bit of wandering around we went back to the guest house for a rest before dinner. We went to Lisburn, where they're building a new leisure centre, and had about five grill-type places all next to each other.
Some friends had been to Northern Ireland earlier in the year and gone to a place where they did hovercraft rides, so we thought that would be fun to try out. The place is called Foylehov, and it's up at the north of the island again. Wednesday looked dreary and wet, and we drove through several rainy patches on the way there, but were lucky enough to get a bit of sunshine when we were there. We had booked football golf as well as the hovercraft, so we started out with a game. It was a full 18 holes, and good fun, and took over an hour to get round.
Next were the hovercraft. We had a practise session on an open field first, learning how to start and stop and lean into turns. It's quite a physical activity, and easy to overshoot your corner. Cate and I had a practise each and then we were let on to the circuit. Here we had a path to follow, with lots of turns and some water sections to cross. When you cross the water it gets the skirts wet and it takes a lot longer for the craft to slow down at the next turn. So it was tricky getting the timing right and Cate ended up in a ditch at one point, while I came close enough to the spectators on one turn that I blew Cate over with the wind from the fan.
After the hovercrafting we reckoned we had enough time to visit Giant's Causeway, which wasn't too far away. We parked in the nearby town and got the courtesy bus out to the Causeway centre, where we bought our tickets.
The Causeway itself is pretty big. The rock pillars are smaller than I had imagined, and they make it really easy to climb about the structure, just like lots of steps to get up and down. It was interesting to visit and a spectacle. We even enjoyed the giant's boot and Humphrey the camel. It was very windy though, so we were glad when the bus came to get us back to our car.
We had been recommended a restaurant near Portrush, called the Tides, so we booked it up and headed over there to get dinner before the drive back to base. It was lovely, and their special menu deal of paying for the main course and getting your starter and sweet free certainly worked for me.
The Titanic Experience building is down by the docks in Belfast. It has a car park underneath but you have to pay for it, which seems a bit much considering how much it costs for the tickets. We took the tour round the exhibition, seeing how the ship was designed and built, what it was like inside, who the passengers were, before turning to the disaster.
The building and display were very good, the elevated ride was good, but I was left a little under-impressed, I think because lots of people had said how great it was. Anyway, it used up our morning, and we went back so that Claire could have a nap.
Cate and I went into Hillsborough, where we had spotted a sign for a forest. There was a car park and a lake we could walk around, through the trees. At the far end of the path was supposed to be an old fort or something, but it turned out to be just a round depression in the ground. The path did pass by a proper fort and the big church, so had plenty to see, including a swan's nest.
Last day. And when we had been in the town before we had visited Aunt Sandra's sweet shop, and booked up the sweetie experience. So we turned up this morning, after checking out of the guest house, to sit with some other families while Uncle Jim told us some of the history of the shop, its famous clientele, and showed us how they've been making sweets for the last half century. He kept us amused and made some ridiculous confections that the kids could win in the quiz at the end. Cate came away with an "iPhone 17".
Into the city centre and we parked at another very expensive car park, and made our way to St George's Market. We had a wander around for a while before buying something for lunch, plus some sweets to take home.
One of the guide books had a walking tour of Belfast, which we thought we'd try. We started off, but it got a bit too rainy to enjoy so we came back to the car park and did the tour on wheels instead. We travelled up the Falls Road, seeing the flags out of the windows, posters on lamp posts, murals on walls and so on. All here was green, white and orange. Turning and coming back, we passed the "peace wall" and came back down Shankhill Road, with its red, white and blue colour scheme, and a different set of murals. It was interesting and sobering to see not just a literal divided city, but also the extent to which feelings obviously still run.
Anyway, it was time to go home, so back to Goerge Best Airport we go, refuel, drop off the hire car and catch the plane back to Glasgow. The jet lag killed us for the next few days!
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