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In the footsteps of giants
The Giant's Causeway, in Northern Ireland
MSN Travel ran a competition to find out what you consider to be Britain’s greatest landmark. You nominated your favourites, and then out of that list we then put it to the vote. The winner, resoundingly, was the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland (we should point out to the sticklers that the poll included all lands in the United Kingdom). I have never been to the Causeway, and so, given that so many of you had deemed it so spectacular, I made a point of visiting it, to see whether it lived up to the hype.
There were other reasons for making the trip to Northern Ireland. There has been lots of talk recently about Belfast’s rise from the ashes of its troubled past, helped along by the opening of the new Titanic Museum. The latter was rather unkindly shortlisted for the Carbuncle Cup, but I thought it looked marvellous - a futuristic metallic cube brightening up an otherwise unremarkable quayside.
The idea was that we’d drive to Belfast from the International airport, then head on up to the Giant’s Causeway, which is perched on the north coast. So my husband Rob and I picked up a car from Sixt at the airport – a nippy SEAT – and a short drive later, we arrived at the Merchant Hotel, which had been voted the best hotel in Northern Ireland in 2012.
The hotel has two distinct personalities. The building used to be the headquarters of the Ulster Bank, and its magnificent architecture and detailed ceilings were very much in evidence in the cocktail bar and the Great Room which is the main restaurant. There’s a great sense of history, and it’s a place where you really feel as if you’re getting your money’s worth.
The Merchant Hotel in Belfast
The other personality of the hotel is found in the multi-million pound extension, which is distinctly modern and has hiccups of slightly at-odds décor – the corridors and lifts are adorned with giant pictures of a model. But our bathroom is lovely; blue tiles and a gushing, giant showerhead. The main room was large, and although I had some doubts about the giant rug on the wall, was inoffensively decorated, sort of like a room from a catalogue. You might not want it in your own house, but it's perfectly fine for a guest room.
The dining room was busy and there was scant evidence of a recession. It's a feeling that stayed with us when we arrived at Ballymena, a small town about 45 minutes drive from the Giant’s Causeway.
Mains in the restaurant are around the £20 mark, and we opted for red meat, locally sourced; I had the lamb and my husband Rob tucked into his very good Irish steak. Starters included Scottish scallops, dressed crab and seared quail. But however good the food is, the architecture of the room was clearly winning. The atmosphere was incredible, and you sit beneath a vast ceiling decorated with generous dabs of ornate, gold paint. Plush, red velvet chairs are capable of cushioning even the boniest of bottoms, and long banquettes are great for family gatherings.
The next morning, we got off to a drizzly start, and once past the city’s outer limits, we watched the countryside unfurl around us. Our destination was Ballymena, a small town about 45 minutes's drive from the Giant’s Causeway. Again, there seemed to be no noticable signs of an economic recession. The drive is ridiculously easy and was a pleasure as we passed stretch after stretch of emerald green fields shining from the rain, many cows squinting suspiciously at us (more on that later) and massive houses – most of which look like new builds. It's surprising as we know how badly Northern Ireland has been hit by the recession, but when we pull up to the Glenburn bed and breakfast run by the amazing Janice, she tells us that Ballymena is a well-off town - people apparently have money to spend.
Janice took us in and served up hot tea and toast. The interiors look immaculate – white is evidently the theme running through the house – and it was all spotlessly clean. Our room was huge (the building is a converted farmhouse), the sheets crisp and fresh, a a jug of water and some fresh flowers had been placed on the table, and the rugs and curtains looked well kept. We couldn’t fault it at all; and the rates were reasonable - between £70 to £90 a night. Our favourite picks were the little tea station outside the room, which had fresh milk and biscuits, and Janice’s cooked breakfast, which was a pared-down version and was the best I’ve had in a B&B. Actually, having eaten at the nearby Galgorm Resort and Spa, and the Tullyglass Hotel, I'd say she probably serves the best grub in Ballymena.
Soon we were on our way to the Causeway, with Janice’s son’s fleeces (Rob was presumably under the impression we were going to Aruba, having decided to come in just his t-shirt) and fortified with a cup of hot tea.
Driving along the north coast
I highly recommend hiring a car – it’s a great way of seeing the coast in a snapshot. And if you get lost because perhaps one of you refused to listen to the other’s directions, it’s no bother because the scenery is so placid, so green and calming. Plus, walking has its downsides - as I discovered while wending my way down a narrow country lane. Some cows that were also in the lane really didn't like sharing it and frightened the life out of me by mooing and beginning a slow stampede in the direction I was headed. This wouldn't have bothered me on a normal day but the bull in the herd looked slightly psychotic (well, more so than bulls normally do).
A spanking-new visitors’ centre has just opened at the Giant's Causeway; it is vast and has a fun exhibition that will occupy the kiddies. But beyond the gift shop, there’s not a huge amount to do, and so we embarked along the slow, winding path down the cliffside to the Causeway itself. The. The map is well-marked, and there are various levels of difficulty in the walks, if case you are after something more challenging.
From afar, the Causeway looks like a black slick of tar against the sea, but as you draw nearer, there is simply nothing like it. Pillars of basalt emerge from the ground, looking for all the world as if they are the work of an ancient master mason and spread out like the foundations of a long-forgotten temple. These extraordinary-looking columns of geometrically shaped stone, tightly packed together in an interlocked formation, seem all the more remarkable because they aren’t man (or machine) made.
I know some of our readers preferred cathedrals and historic monuments to the Causeway, but in my opinion, it is worthy of being called one of our greatest attractions. Clambering over the smooth stones, watching the seabirds twirl in the mist as the waves crashed below, created a memory that is now lodged in my heart.
Poorna hired a car from Sixt, which cost in the region of £100 for three nights. She stayed at The Merchant Hotel in Belfast, 16 Skipper Street, BT1 2DZ. Call 028 9023 4888 to make a reservation. In Ballymena, she stayed at the Glenburn bed and breakfast, 116A Fenaghy Road, Galgorm, Ballymena, Antrim BT42 1JJ. To make a reservation, call 028 2588 0378.
For more information visit Discover Ireland.