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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 County Antrim.
Northern Ireland Coastline
Northern Ireland Coastline
Antrim Coast
Antrim Coast

We looked online for a tour that would travel from Belfast to the Antrim Coast (and back) and settled on one operated by Allens Tours, 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, around 1205.

Carrickfergus Castle
Carrickfergus Castle

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 role.

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 we went.

Philip and Carrickfergus Harbour
Philip and Carrickfergus Harbour
Carrickfergus Castle
Carrickfergus Castle

Nella and Statue of William of Orange
Nella and Statue of William of Orange
Statue of William of Orange
Statue of William of Orange

Walking Toward Castle
Walking Toward Castle
Fake Defender
Fake Defender

Flower Display
Flower Display
Ramp to Castle Entrance
Ramp to Castle Entrance

Bob at Overlook
Bob at Overlook
Around Castle Entrance
Around Castle Entrance

Bob and Entrance
Bob and Entrance
Cannons Inside Entrance
Cannons Inside Entrance

Philip and Pikeman
Philip and Pikeman
Back to the Tour Bus
Back to the Tour Bus

Returning to the bus by the appointed time, we continued northward along the coast.
Rocky Coastline
Rocky Coastline

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
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 Sign

Carnlough Harbour
Carnlough Harbour
Carnlough Harbour and Waterfront Businesses
Carnlough Harbour and Waterfront Businesses

Carnlough Harbour and SPAR Store
Carnlough Harbour and SPAR Store
Harbour Entrance
Harbour Entrance

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 Londonderry Arms, 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
Londonderry Arms Hotel

Businesses Along Harbour Rd.
Businesses Along Harbour Rd.
Bob Crossing 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
The Glens Hotel, Cushendall
Layde Parish Church, Cushendall
Layde Parish Church, Cushendall

We veered away from the coast at this point, eventually returning to it at our next destination, Carrick-a-Rede.

"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
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.
Sheep Island
Sheep Island

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
People Waiting for Bridge
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and Doorway
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and Doorway

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
People Crossing the Bridge
People Crossing the Bridge

Warning Sign
Warning Sign

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
Bridge from Island

Cave
Cave
Cliffs Near Bridge
Cliffs Near Bridge

Philip and Cliffs
Philip and Cliffs
Island Cliffs
Island Cliffs

Cliffs and Sheep Island
Cliffs and Sheep Island
Cliffs West of Island (Larry Bane Bay)
Cliffs West of Island (Larry Bane Bay)

Bob and Rathlin Island
Bob and Rathlin Island
View to the West
View to the West

Neighboring Rock
Neighboring Rock
Philip, Sheep Island and Rock
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 Waiting for the Bridge
People Crossing Back
People Crossing Back

Waiting to Cross Back
Waiting to Cross Back
Philip Crossing 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 Dunluce Castle.

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
Dunluce Castle and Cows
Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle

Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle
Cows
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
Sign on Fence
Distillery Buildings
Distillery Buildings

Storage Tanks
Storage Tanks
Distillery Building
Distillery Building

Bob and Sign
Bob and Sign
Whiskey for Sale
Whiskey for Sale

16 Year Single Malt
16 Year Single Malt
Philip Perusing Selection
Philip Perusing Selection

Philip Testing the Product
Philip Testing the Product
Tank on Display
Tank on Display

Cross-Promotion Poster
Cross-Promotion Poster

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.