Where shall we go for a week’s vacation in Europe this summer? Southern France? Tuscany, Italy? Ireland’s Ring of Kerry?
I’ve got it: Let’s go to Northern Ireland! If we don’t get caught in the petrol-bomb cross fire, imagine the interesting snapshots we can send back home: Belfast in flames, Catholics and Protestants throwing bricks at each other. For sure, a vacation spot no one else (in her right mind?) would choose.
I am entertaining cynical thoughts such as these as our clown-car small Nissan passes the guarded border between the Republic of Ireland and British-controlled Northern Ireland late one August night, watched warily by police and at least one British soldier in camouflage. Feeling suddenly uncertain about this whole idea, I note inwardly that we are leaving the lush, green, Guinness-guzzling, America-loving land of the Republic of Ireland for - what?
Driving with cautionary slowness on two-lane roads through the Northern Ireland darkness, we do not reach our first destination, the little coastal town of Cushendall, until 2 a.m. And as we wait there to be met by the brother of the woman whose farmhouse we are renting, there is more uncertainty: We find ourselves surrounded by throngs of very young and apparently very drunken Northern Ireland youths who, for lack of anything more interesting to do, are hanging out on the curbs.
If this is a Protestant town, I worry, we may be in trouble with our Republic of Ireland plates. And what if they find out we are Americans?
Northern Ireland’s Protestants are often suspicious of Americans, whom they assume, with some logic, are sympathetic only to the Catholic side.
John McCauley, the brother of our house’s owner, Eileen McCauley, shows up in his car with a friendly wave. I feel embarrassed by my paranoia: These laughing, joking local youths obviously have zero interest in our presence.
John McCauley leads us down pitch black and curving country roads to our rented farmhouse. It’s surprisingly modern and elegant, equipped with everything from a dishwasher to a gas-fired barbecue grill. We fall asleep to the sound of “baahing” sheep somewhere in the distance. We awake at about 10 a.m. to a sight that stuns us with its beauty.
Why decide to go to Northern Ireland for a holiday? Perhaps it’s because this trouble-spot, like trouble-spots everywhere, tries so hard to please its visitors. I have come here as a journalist many times in the last two years. And I have found that, compared to London, Paris, Venice and several other European tourist hot spots, Northern Ireland’s people are friendlier, hotels and food more reasonable, and the shopping cheaper. Another real plus: There are never any overwhelming and annoying tourist crowds.
Our destination is not Northern Ireland’s often stressed capital, Belfast (which I happen to enjoy), but the scenic County Antrim coastline that juts like a green mitten into the cold North Atlantic off the isle’s northeast tip. I had hoped we would find spectacular scenic beauty here, and, of all things, peace. We found this and more.
I don’t mean to minimize the troubles that have bloodily divided Catholics and Protestants here since the late 1960s. You can hardly travel anywhere in Northern Ireland without seeing evidence of that division: The trained eye looks for green, orange and white Irish flags on houses (denoting a Catholic neighborhood) or red, white and blue-striped curbs and flying Union Jacks (denoting Protestant). It’s always easy to find the local police stations; they are heavily-fortified buildings protected by watch towers and tall wire fences - to ward off mortar attacks.
But unless there is something spectacular going on - say the often controversial Protestant Orange Order marches on July 12 - Northern Ireland is a laid-back and entertaining place, one that welcomes visitors with open arms. I’d recommend at least a brief stopover in Belfast, which has a lovely opera house (reconstructed after bombing), a lively downtown shopping district, and a host of sophisticated restaurants. Barely a half-hour drive outside the capital finds you in the lush green and gently rolling Northern Ireland countryside.
Our rented farmhouse was near the pastel-pretty and historic fishing village of Cushendun, just a little over an hour north of Belfast, though in spirit Belfast seemed thousands of miles away.
When we awoke our first morning there, we were taken aback by the sight. Our little white-plastered house was encircled by a ring of dramatically rising green hills, themselves decorated with clusters of sheep and trees. Eileen McCauley, who lived next door, had distinguished this country home with large beds of flowers of every type: Hollyhock, rose, dahlia, shasta daisy, geranium and petunia. The weather was sunny and warm - unusual for blustery Northern Ireland - with the clear blue skies one sees only in Northern Europe’s most rural and open areas.
It was at this moment that I knew we could happily spend the entire week in our home, or hiking on the surrounding hills, with a trip or two to the local grocery store. But alas, even in this small and isolated part of Europe, there was too much to do and too much we didn’t dare miss.
We were staying in a fabled area called the “Glens of Antrim” - a series of nine beautiful and sparsely inhabited valleys originally settled by ancient Irish and Scots from the nearby Hebrides. Each glen, it is said, is named for some important moment in the distant past: Glenarim for glen of the army, Glentaisie for a legendary princess named Taisie, Glencorp for glen of the slaughter, and so on.
The glens, some with picturesque villages such as Cushendun and Cushendall, are encircled by towering green hills interspersed with vast stretches of green treeless plains, identical to the incredible sweeps of open, bare land one finds in the Scottish Highlands.
The Antrim coastline itself, with its dramatic chalky cliffs jutting into the sea, resembles the spectacular northern coast of California - with perhaps 90 percent less traffic.
Of all the must-see Northern Ireland sights, one called the Giant’s Causeway was at the top of our list. Imagine a mountain of hexagonal columns, rising layer by layer toward the sky in an eerie natural stairway. Visitors have been climbing up the rocks for at least 200 years. The scientific explanation is that volcanic lava settled into these incredible shapes, but I like the old legend better: The steps were built by a giant named Finn McCool so that a girlfriend giant from a nearby island would have a way to get across the water to meet him.
On another day, a brief ferry ride took us to the desolate Rathlin Island, with its dizzying bird sanctuary on a sheer cliff side hundreds of feet high. Back on the mainland, my teenage son Matthew and our American nanny, Jackie Davies, took a deep breath and walked across the swaying “Carrick-a-Rede” rope bridge 80 feet above the jagged rocks and crashing surf.
Along the coastline, we ran on deserted white sand beaches. (It was always too cold to swim.) There were side trips to Bushmills, home of the world’s oldest legal distillery, and to the stunning Genariff Forest, where each turn on the footpath revealed a more lovely waterfall.
Time for a dose of Northern Ireland reality: A two-hour drive - a big chunk of it spent behind a crawling tractor-trailer carrying the top of a house - brought us to Londonderry (Derry to the Catholics), Northern Ireland’s second largest city and arguably its most troubled. The kids gawped at the giant freedom murals painted on building sides by residents of the Catholic Bogside neighborhood.
But it was our peaceful little farmhouse that we loved the most, and not only because it was a European bargain at $415 for the week.
McCauley was a gracious, friendly hostess, greeting us with a luscious apple pie and giving us invaluable advice on the best local sights. I never knew if she was Catholic or Protestant, nor did anyone ask this about us.
In our Northern Ireland hideaway, it didn’t matter at all.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: If you go You may contact the Northern Ireland Tourist Board office in New York, (212) 922-0101, or in Belfast, 011-44-1232-246-609. Belfast time is eight hours ahead of West Coast time. For information on rural cottage holidays in Northern Ireland, call 011-44-1232-241-100 in Belfast. British Airways and British Midlands have direct flights to Belfast International Airport from London’s Heathrow Airport. Jersey European makes direct flights to the more centrally-located Belfast City Airport from London’s Gatwick Airport. Aer Lingus makes direct flights to Belfast from New York’s JFK.