PETER and ANN FROST suggest this is the perfect year to take a holiday in Northern Ireland.
There have always been a hundred and one great reasons for heading for Northern Ireland but with the opening of the Titanic quarter in Belfast, a brand new visitor’s centre at the Giant’s Causeway and Derry or Londonderry becoming City of Culture; 2013 has to be the year to make the Province your number one destination.
Derry with its wonderful un-breached city walls and with music in the pubs and on the streets wherever you go has always been a city of history and culture. In 2013 that has been officially recognised. We loved the walk around the walls.
All of Northern Ireland is a country of legend and song. The mountains of Mourne really do run down to the sea. The fairy glens actually are as pretty as a picture. Wherever you go there is always music in the Londonderry aire.
Forget all those historical headlines and a troubled history, the people you meet along the way are as friendly and welcoming as any you will find anywhere in the world.
The North Antrim coast road is perhaps our favourite drive in the world; it swoops along with the sea as your constant companion and takes in tiny fishing ports and bustling holiday resorts.
At Carrick-a-Rede every spring salmon fishermen stretch a rope bridge worthy of Indiana Jones across the maelstrom between the cliffs and a small rocky offshore outcrop. Brave souls can cross the swinging bridge for themselves.
History is rich on the ground over here. We visited Carrickfergus where King William landed with his orange army and Downpatrick where Ireland’s patron saint has his final resting place.
In Belfast’s shipyards in 1912 they built the largest, most luxurious passenger liner the world had ever seen. They launched her into Belfast Lough and proudly named her the Titanic!
The story of the ship and how it hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage with a tragic loss of over 1500 lives has been told many times. Now a hundred years on Belfast has created the Titanic Quarter.
Much more than a museum, it’s a place where you can still visit the original dry-dock and slip where the mighty behemoth of the oceans was built and launched.
This tragic Titanic story is also told at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Bangor not far from Belfast itself. This amazing museum has steam trains, trams, boats, motorcycles and cars including the fabulous Northern Ireland built DeLorean.
We also enjoyed the recreated town at the museum. It was like stepping back in history.
Today in Belfast all is at peace. We walked up the Shankhill and down the Falls, two roads that have featured in far too many headlines in recent years. The peace line and the huge wall murals make this a popular attraction today.
At Bushmills in County Antrim they have been making whiskey for the last four hundred years. After a taste or two we had to agree they have just about got the recipe right by now!
In fact Bushmills distil their golden nectar three times for added smoothness. Scotch is distilled just twice and American whiskies only once. That’s just one example of how nobody hurries anything here in Northern Ireland.
At Omagh we called in at the Ulster American Folk Park. Here the sad story of the 1840’s famine and the emigration it caused is told in a most imaginative way.
We started our walk among traditional buildings moved here brick by brick, stone by stone from all over Ulster. The buildings are populated by period costumed characters who bring the history to life.
The centre point of the museum is the harbour where we boarded an emigrant ship to head for the new world. From the ship we disembarked in what might be Boston or Baltimore or any other city of the Irish Diaspora.
Here genuine log cabins and other traditional American buildings tell the story of how Irish emigrants played their rich part in the history of the USA across the water.
Did you know that no less than 22 Presidents of the USA have claimed to have Irish antecedents? Many from the North.
We drove from the Camping and Caravanning Club’s own site at Delamont Country Park around the Ards peninsular. We took the little car ferry across the fast flowing waters of Strangford Lough. The Vikings were here and named it Strong Fjord and the name stuck.
Our destination was the fishing port of Portavogie and the strange beasts that inhabit the harbour. At late afternoon the fishing fleet sails home. The catch is gutted and cleaned on deck. The fishermen throw the waste into the water where a family of very overweight grey seals enjoy the feast. It’s better than any dolphin show.
We took our cue from the seals and enjoyed a fine fresh fish supper in the restaurant that looks out over the sea and beach nearby. It’s a Frosty rule – eat your fish where you can see the boats that caught them.
If the seals of Portavogie are real if a little unbelievable then the Giant Finn McCool is certainly the stuff of legend. Did he really build his causeway from Ireland to Scotland just a dozen or so miles away?
Or were the thousands of regular sculpted hexagonal basalt columns really the result of mere volcanic activity as the scientists claim. The new visitors centre has all the answers – geology or Irish myth?
I know which story I believe and after a drop or two of that local thrice distilled wonder with new friends from Northern Ireland I think I know which one you will believe too.
The Frosty’s top five things to do in Northern Ireland
- Walk the walls of Derry.
- Brave the Carrick-a-Rede bridge.
- Take the Titanic Dry Dock Tour.
- Scramble over the Giants Causeway.
- Guinness, oysters and traditional music in a good pub.
What’s in a name?
Few places in the world have as much problem with what to call themselves as the City of Culture 2013.
We’ve a number of choices. The local City council and most of people who live here call it Derry. The British Government and the Northern Ireland Government call it Londonderry.
Whichever name you choose you are sure to upset someone. The BBC, keen to avoid any controversy instructed presenters always to refer to it as ‘Derry stroke Londonderry’ Local Radio presenter Gerry Anderson humorously even shortened that to ‘Stroke City’. The good folk of the city are quick with a joke. Anderson became universally known as Gerry stroke London Gerry.
This article first appeared in Camping and Caravanning Magazine in 2013