Generally speaking, we prefer to avoid tours when we're travelling. Obviously there
are advantages to tours. They are usually led by guides who are knowledgeable about
the places being visited. They know which places are most important and most
appealing to a typical tourist, and they have a certain amount of in-depth knowledge,
historical or otherwise, about these places. They know exactly how to get to the
destinations, and the tours usually include transportation to get to them. Also,
tours are usually organized to efficiently visit multiple points of interest. But
it's arguable whether there really is such a thing as a "typical tourist". A
given customer will typically be more interested in some of the points of interest
than in others. Tours run on strict schedules, and a customer may find him or
herself spending too much time looking at something and then racing back to the bus
to keep from getting left behind (and maybe not making it). Or twiddling thumbs
after long since having lost interest in a gift shop the tour bus has stopped at
(more than likely in cahoots with the tour operator). But sometimes going on a tour
is a much simpler way to visit a particular sight than any other reasonable method.
This was the case for us when we decided to join a full-day tour to the Coast of
Northern Ireland Coastline
We looked online for a tour that would travel from Belfast to the Antrim Coast (and
back) and settled on one operated by
because of its good reviews and reasonable cost (16 British pounds at the time, or
about $25 US per person, for a full-day tour to several points of interest). They
even offered to pick us up at our hotel. As it turned out, while the tour wasn't
exactly what we would have chosen for ourselves, everything went off as advertised,
we learned about some things we otherwise would have missed, and we ended up being
quite pleased with the tour and the value provided.
The tour began with the hotel pickup, and our first point of interest was the Allens
Tours office, where we had to wait for a bit while other customers were collected
from their respective hotels. Once we were all assembled, we boarded the tour bus
and headed for our first official destination, Carrickfergus Castle.
The town of Carrickfergus (actually classified by the government as a "large town")
is located just eleven miles from Belfast, on the north shore of Belfast Lough. The
town's name means "Rock of Fergus", named for an Ulster resident called Fergus whose
ship ran aground there in the 6th Century. But the town wasn't established as a
settlement until about 1170, when Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy invaded Ulster
and established his headquarters there. The first version of the castle was built in
1177, and it was expanded to its current size by de Courcy's successor, Hugh de Lacy,
Carrickfergus predated any significant settlement at Belfast, and Belfast Lough
was in fact known as Carrickfergus Bay until the 17th Century. The town and the
castle were captured and recaptured several times over the centuries (including
by William of Orange, who visited personally in 1690), and the town was
occasionally burned. In 1778, American naval commander John Paul Jones lured a
British Sloop of war, HMS Drake, out from its Carrickfergus mooring and
defeated it in battle, dragging it off to France as a prize. In 1912, RMS
Titanic anchored overnight off Carrickfergus in its first trip out from
Belfast, on its way to Southampton. The castle remained a military installation
(most recently as a garrison and ordnance store) until 1928, when it was set
aside for preservation as a monument. It saw service as an air raid shelter
during World War II, but afterward reverted to its monument and tourist attraction
Our tour bus parked in a lot across from the castle, on the town's marina, and we
were told that we would have time to look around at the outside of the castle,
but would probably not want to pay the admission fee (not included in the tour)
to visit the interior, as there wouldn't be time to visit very thoroughly. So off
Philip and Carrickfergus Harbour
Nella and Statue of William of Orange
Statue of William of Orange
Walking Toward Castle
Ramp to Castle Entrance
Bob at Overlook
Around Castle Entrance
Bob and Entrance
Cannons Inside Entrance
Philip and Pikeman
Back to the Tour Bus
Returning to the bus by the appointed time, we continued northward along the coast.
Eventually we entered the region of the Glens of Antrim. The Glens are nine
valleys that extend from the Antrim Plateau to different points on the coast.
The first Glen is called Glenarm. It holds the Glenarm River, and reaches the
ocean at the town of Glenarm. We passed through Glenarm but did not stop.
Glenarm River, Glenarm
The second Glen is called Glencloy. It too has a river, but it's called the
Carnlough River. It hits ocean at the village of Carnlough, where we did stop.
Carnlough was pretty small (population around 2,000 – its official classification
is "village") and didn't appear to be a major tourist destination, so parking
options were somewhat limited. We ended up in the parking lot of a SPAR
convenience store, and we were given enough time to pick up lunch food at the
store (they sold some pre-made sandwiches, among other things) and to walk around
the harbour, located across the street. The harbour was not very big, and
contained what appeared to be pleasure craft and some small fishing boats.
Carnlough Harbour Sign
Carnlough Harbour and Waterfront Businesses
Carnlough Harbour and SPAR Store
Carnlough's harbour was originally built by the owners of some limestone
quarries to the west and to the south of town, to facilitate the loading
of stone onto ships for transport to places in need of limestone. The quarry
owners even went so far as to build a tramway network (with bridges over
Carnlough's streets) for hauling the stone from the quarries to the harbour.
The trams are no longer in operation, but it is still possible to walk the
route to the Gortin Quarry a mile to the west, given enough time. One of
the hotels in town, the
was founded in 1848 as a coach house by the great-grandmother of Winston
Churchill. Sir Winston himself owned the hotel until selling it in 1934.
Londonderry Arms Hotel
Businesses Along Harbour Rd.
Bob Crossing Harbour Rd.
But we didn't have the time to explore either the hotel or the quarry before
it was time to get back into the bus and continue up the coast. We continued
through the area of the Glens, passing through the village of Cushendall (the
meeting point of three of the Glens).
The Glens Hotel, Cushendall
Layde Parish Church, Cushendall
We veered away from the coast at this point, eventually returning to it at our next
"Carrick-a-Rede" comes from a Gaelic expression meaning "rock in the road". The
"rock" part makes some sense, as the expression refers to a small island just off
the rugged coast (the island is a prehistoric volcanic plug, around which softer
rock has eroded away to leave the island). But the "road" part doesn't make much
sense unless you're a sea creature, like, for instance, an Atlantic salmon whose
migration route passes this way. Area fishermen discovered this to be the case
centuries ago, and the island for a long time was a popular place to haul in nets
full of salmon. To get to the island, the fishermen needed to take boats, sometimes
in dangerously rough weather. Sometime in the 18th Century, it occurred to somebody
that this was silly, as the island was only offshore by about 60 feet. A primitive
rope bridge was put up to span the chasm, which was nearly 100 feet deep.
Late in the 20th Century, the fish began to come by in much fewer numbers, making
the salmon operation unprofitable, and fishing from the island finally ended in
2002. But the island by this time had taken on a different type of appeal. Though
the salmon were gone, the rope bridge was not. It had been repaired and replaced
many times over the years, and had evolved into an unsteady structure with one ropy
handrail and a "floor" made of planks, of which some were missing. The bridge had
become something of a magnet for daredevils who wanted to be able to claim they had
"made the crossing". The bridge, island and surrounding area were taken over by the
UK National Trust, which started charging a toll for use of the bridge. They also
added some much-needed fixes to the bridge, to keep tourists from tumbling into the
ocean. The bridge is much more substantial now, but it is still made from ropes and
planks, and still sways in the breeze somewhat, 100 feet above Certain Death. This
is enough to deter some visitors, including Nella, but Philip and I were determined
to take on the challenge.
Our bus found a parking area, and the tour guide handed out bridge passes (included
in the tour) to those who were interested in using them.
Ticket to Carrick-a-Rede Bridge
The parking area turned out to not be very close to the bridge, with a walk
of about a mile being necessary. Nella stayed with the bus and her crossword
puzzle book, while Philip and I set out eastward. The weather was less than
terrific, with clouds, wind and an occasional sprinkle following us to the
bridgehead. At least the view was nice, with the sea to our left and cliffs
to our right. Other islands and rocks protruded from the ocean here and there.
It was easy to tell when we'd reached the bridge area, as there was a long
line of people waiting to cross. Bridge traffic is strictly controlled – people
can only be crossing in one direction at a given time, and no more than eight
people can be using the bridge at once. We got in line and eventually reached a
doorway which had been constructed on the trail, where we had to surrender our
tickets to a doorkeeper. Beyond the doorway there was a stairway down to the
bridge, which we crossed without incident when it was our turn. Personally, I
didn't feel like I was in any particular danger while crossing, though I tried
not to dwell on the possible consequences of a bridge failure.
People Waiting for Bridge
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and Doorway
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
People Crossing the Bridge
If anything, the wind became stronger when we reached the island, and the
sprinkle may have become heavier (though it might have just felt this way
because of the wind). The island was a big rock with grass all over it.
There wasn't much of anything in the way of fencing, and the rain had made
the grass somewhat slippery, so we had to be careful near cliff edges.
The view was nice, though the weather cut down on the visibility a bit. We
could make out an island called Rathlin Island, but we didn't have any
chance of seeing Scotland, which is supposed to be visible in clear weather.
Bridge from Island
Cliffs Near Bridge
Philip and Cliffs
Cliffs and Sheep Island
Cliffs West of Island (Larry Bane Bay)
Bob and Rathlin Island
View to the West
Philip, Sheep Island and Rock
Having exhausted the scenery and our patience with the weather, we headed back
to the bridge. Again, there was a line, but it was much shorter on the island side.
People Waiting for the Bridge
People Crossing Back
Waiting to Cross Back
Philip Crossing Back
After returning to the mainland, we retraced our steps back to the bus, reuniting
with Nella, who seemed quite comfortable with having not shared our experiences.
After the remaining stragglers had returned, the bus departed for our next stop, which
was to last only a few minutes. This stop was in a small parking area across from
The first Dunluce Castle was probably built in the 13th Century, in a commanding
position overlooking the sea. It was rebuilt around 1500 by the McQuillan family,
eventually ending up in the hands of the MacDonnell family later in the same century.
It was besieged on occasion, and sometimes captured, but it always somehow ended up
back with the MacDonnell clan, under successive Earls of Antrim. A town of Dunluce
appeared near the castle around 1608, but it was burned in 1641 (archeological
excavations are currently underway to unearth the town's remains). The castle itself
was apparently sumptuously decorated, and at one time counted four Spanish cannons
from the wreck of the Armada ship Girona (see the
Ulster Museum page for
more on this) among its defensive armaments.
But one thing the castle did not have was a geologist. If such a person had existed,
s/he would probably have advised against building the castle on that particular crag.
According to the castle's website, part of the castle (including the kitchen, plus
the kitchen personnel) fell into the sea one stormy evening in 1639. A hundred years
later, a wall of the residence building followed the kitchen down the slope. But by
this time the castle was no longer occupied. In 1690 the MacDonnells made the
mistake of supporting James II when he attempted to regain his throne from William of
Orange in the Battle of the Boyne. The battle didn't go James's way, and suddenly
the Earl of Antrim had no royal support, and could no longer afford to maintain a
castle. He and his family moved into more modest accommodations, and over the years
the castle became weathered and was scavenged for building materials, until it became
the ruin that remains today. It's possible to visit the ruin in person, but this
wasn't part of our tour. We only had time to take a few pictures from a parking area
on the next hill over before moving on.
Dunluce Castle and Cows
Our next destination was the world's oldest distillery, the
Old Bushmills Distillery,
found in the nearby village of Bushmills (named for the nearby River Bush and a water
mill that had once been there). The "oldest" designation comes from a 1608 "licence
to distill" in the area that was granted by King James I, though an "Old Bushmills
Distillery" is not recorded as having existed until 1743. The Distillery has been
through many ups and downs, including an 1885 fire that destroyed the Distillery
buildings (which were quickly rebuilt). The 20th Century wasn't kind to Old
Bushmills, or to Irish whiskey in general. A big market for Irish whiskey at the
beginning of the century was the USA, and business at the time was brisk. But
Prohibition was enacted in 1920, and after it was repealed, Scotch whisky became more
popular, drastically eating into Irish whiskey's market share. But in recent years
there has been a great deal of renewed interest in Irish whiskey, largely fueled by
improved marketing (particularly by the New Midleton Distillery's Jameson brand).
Old Bushmills might have had some kind of a promotion deal with our tour operator,
though I'm only guessing at this. On the way there, our guide told us that the Irish
prefer Old Bushmills to Jameson, and he expounded in particular on the wonders of
Bushmills 16 year single malt – his personal favorite, though he admitted that it was
quite expensive. He made it sound so wonderful that for a moment I was considering
taking up drinking. But only for a moment.
At the Distillery we were turned loose to look around. There was a tour, but we didn't
have time for it. But of course there was a shop, and there was plenty of time to
peruse and try or buy the whiskey. This was pretty much lost on Nella and me, but not
on Philip, whose beverage preferences don't match ours. Irish whiskey isn't really his
favorite, but he did try a small glass (I think of Black Bush) for scientific purposes.
Sign on Fence
Bob and Sign
Whiskey for Sale
16 Year Single Malt
Philip Perusing Selection
Philip Testing the Product
Tank on Display
We made our way back to the bus through the continuing drizzle and were presently
joined by our fellow travelers, who seemed to have become more talkative than they'd
been earlier. Our guide reappeared and gave us some background information on our
next (and last) stop. This was to be the grand finale of the tour – the reason most
of us had taken the tour at all. This would be a visit to the Giant's Causeway.