Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Local Tourist - Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland

My last few posts have been reliving the adventures I had as a "local tourist" on our recent visit to Yorkshire. It was really interesting to see places I'd heard of but never visited and also to revisit places I'd been before and look at them through different eyes. As luck would have it, the Yorkshireman and I had similar plans with our merry band of amigos not long after our return to Northern Irish soil.

One of the reasons I think myself so fortunate to live in Northern Ireland is the North Antrim coast. As far back as I can remember, "a drive up the coast" has been a popular daytrip for my family as well as everyone else I know who lives here. Inevitably the destination is usually Portrush and/or Portstewart and you look forward to getting an ice-cream in Morelli's at the end of the trip, but with our coastline the journey itself tends to overshadow the destination. It's just so beautiful, with winding coastal roads running along the bottom of rugged cliffs, separated from the blue-grey sea by picturesque stone walls, passing through pretty little towns, quaint little harbours and plenty of greenery. Even on a dull day it can be stunning and on a sunny day it can be breathtaking.

That's why we were excited to have arranged a daytrip last weekend with our friends up to Portrush via the coastline. We were meeting a couple of other friends for dinner but we had the whole day before that to play - yay!

Fuelled with caffeine (two of us are pretty much addicts), we piled into the car (very kindly driven by the only one of us who can actually drive) and set off. After Belfast the first place the coastal road passes through is Jordanstown, which is basically made up of nice houses, a decent beach and a university. Next up it's Carrickfergus with its intact Norman castle, which is somewhat special to the Yorkshireman and I because that's where we got hitched. We resisted the urge to stop for ice-cream at Mauds, still being morning and all, but added it to our "to do" list for later.

The next stretch of the coast road isn't particularly pretty: you go through Greenisland and pass Kilroot Power Station. Then Larne, which is essentially some shops, some houses and a harbour mainly taken up by a ferry port. It's all a bit dreary at that stage. But then, before you know it, you're on to the coast road proper and you can relax into your journey.

My geography skills are far from sharp, so I won't go into a place-by-place rundown of the coast road. Instead I shall just say that, after much driving, admiring the scenery and singing along to CDs, we finally reached Carnlough. Carnlough isn't a particularly noteworthy place to visit for most people. It has a small walled harbour but other than that it's not very exciting. Unless, of course, your daytrips up the coast involve the Spar.

You see Carnlough is at the point along the coast road where children start getting restless ("are we there yet?") and adults need their next coffee fix, and the Spar at Carnlough takes full advantage of this fact. There are even public toilets and a picnic area right beside it, which makes it the perfect comfort break spot. And so, as tradition and necessity dictated, we stopped for a coffee and snack break and enjoyed our goodies over by the harbour, trying not to giggle when someone cast a fishing rod and it ended up embedded in the wall opposite rather than in the water.

Then it was on to Ballycastle. Ballycastle is one of those little seaside towns where there really isn't all that much to do but yet you seem to recall spending a fair amount of time there in your youth. Probably passing through on the way to Portrush! Anyhow, we had a walk in the rain through the little park area just off North Street and my sister and I insisted on playing on the big wooden ship in the children's playground (what?!) before heading into a café (I think it was called Quay Coffee) for yet another cup of coffee and a snack from a vast array of yummy-looking homemade traybakes. The Yorkshireman decided that he was still fully refreshed from our recent Spar visit and so went off wandering to take photos instead. I had a latte and a scone. We each know how to make ourselves happy.

Then it was back on the road. Again I'm not great with the names of the places we passed through, but our next stop was Dunseverick Castle, which to me just looked like ruins but apparently is quite historically significant. You can apparently walk right over to it but as we wandered around the grassy cliff tops it started to rain a little heavier and it was getting quite slippery, so we headed back to the car shortly after. Might be nice for a wander on a dry day with good walking shoes I guess, but I won't be hurrying back.

Next we stopped at another castle, this time Dunluce Castle. I remember hearing the story about how the kitchen fell into the sea from I was only a wee tote and I've always thought the Castle was very pretty (y'know, for some ruins) but I've never actually been up close and personal. Every time I've been past on a daytrip we've been in too much of a hurry to stop or else there's been a wedding going on and we didn't want to intrude on the photography. This time we deliberated actually paying admission and venturing inside, but the weather was still a bit iffy, time was ticking on and it was fairly expensive (£4 each) to see what are essentially some ruins, so we just stayed up around the perimeter and admired the views from there. There did some to be some kind of archery demonstration going on though, which I was sad to miss because I love a good go of a bow and arrow.

Eventually we set off on our final stretch of the journey: Portush here we come! Now, every time any of us go to Portrush we end up spending about a year looking for a parking space. It probably doesn't help that we only ever go at popular times and that everyone else has the same idea for a daytrip. This was a bank holiday weekend that also coincided with the nearby Ould Lammas Fair, so in retrospect our timing could have been better. Eventually though we found a nice man heading towards his car and effectively stalked him until he left. Worked a charm and soon we were off in search of Mauds.

Technically, as any Northern Irish person will tell you, the ice-cream you should have while you're in the area is Morelli's - it's a matter of local pride and all that. However we discovered during our car journey that we were all very much in the Mauds camp. Traitors, the lot of us. But that clinched it - our first stop in Portrush was a small Spar (yes another one) that sold Mauds. I very much enjoyed my Poor Bear covered in mini marshmallows and the others seemed equally enthralled by their gooey delights.

Then it was on to the main attraction of Portrush. Yes indeed, we were off to Barry's. Barry's, for those not in the know, is the closest thing Northern Ireland has to a theme park. However if you went expecting anything like Alton Towers or Blackpool Pleasure Beach, or even M&Ds you would be sorely disappointed. It's more of a glorified amusement arcade really, but it passes the time of day. Most people say they remember it being sosomuchfunomg when they were children and are now convinced that it has gone downhill since their misspent youth. However whilst I always remember it being mildly entertaining, I always remember being vaguely disappointed too, as in, "is that it?" Clearly I've always been difficult to please.

Actually though, this time I did have great craic! Out of the five of us, only two of us were willing to go on the Freak Out ride - the others thought it best that they make every effort to keep their recently ingested Mauds inside their bodies. Wusses. However my brave amigo and I ventured onward through the rain and laughed nonstop throughout the whole ride despite being soaked and having to hold our glasses on. Next it was on to the Time Machine simulator where I think we may have accidentally disillusioned a group of younger children, much to the chagrin of the lady supervising them. Oops. Finally it was out to the Waltzers, which I remembered at the last minute are not actually part of Barry's but rather part of a tiny group of amusements which clearly make good business positioning themselves beside it. Still it was only £1.50 a ride and we indulged ourselves twice. I do love a good Waltzer!

Dizzy, we decided we'd had enough fun for one day and went for a walk along the harbour. We found a little patch of wall that looks out over the Atlantic and spent some time just watching the waves crash and spray against the rocks below. The Yorkshireman got busy once again with his camera whilst the rest of us tried to predict which of the incoming waves was "a big one".

Finally, covered in salt water and starting to get a bit chilly, we headed over to the Harbour Bistro, where we were due to meet our other friends for dinner. However when we went in and asked for a table they told us there was nothing available until 8.30pm. Bear in mind that it was about 5.45pm at this point! I know it's popular but that's one heck of a waiting list! So we went next door to its sister restaurant Coast, which looked marginally emptier, but again had no joy - it would be over two hours for a table! Bearing in mind one of the friends who was joining us was heavily pregnant, we decided it was just too long a wait.

After a bit of a team huddle and a confession of absolutely no local knowledge from we city folks, the new additions to our group led us to Riverside Retail Park in nearby Coleraine and to a restaurant called Yoko. At first glance it just seemed to be a noodle bar (mainly because it advertises itself as one) but it actually did a whole lot of different things. I had great fun looking through the hugely extensive menu and narrowing my choice down to three. No four. Okay three. Aaaargh ok that one. No wait, that one. Yes, definitely that one. With a side of that, just to try, y'know?

Everyone was more than happy with their food. The portions were huge, the quality was perfect and it wasn't badly priced either. Also, we were childishly excited that they serve their desserts atop a bowl of dry ice - it was pretty cool (pun fully intended!). I would definitely recommend Yoko if you're up that way and looking for somewhere to grab a bite to eat.

Eventually, stomachs full and feeling happy but weary from our day of fun and sightseeing, we bid farewell to our northern friends, exclaiming that the next time we met they would be parents (how grown up!) and headed home down the motorway. It had been a long and lovely day spent in one of my favourite places in the world with some of my favourite people. It was wonderful to head up the coastal road again and renew my memories and opinions of the places I've visited so many times in my life.

To me it's still a bit of a treat because I don't drive, so I can't just head off for "a wee trip up the coast" on a Sunday afternoon like a lot of people do, but that just makes it special. Maybe one day things will change and the Yorkshireman and I will be bribing our own children to behave themselves with sweeties from the Spar in Carnlough on the way to Barry's, but until then I'm happy to tag along with anyone else who fancies a bit of fresh air and beautiful scenery. Don't suppose you're heading that way any time soon..?

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