We were up very early Thursday morning to do our second Railtours Ireland excursions - The Giant's Causeway Glens of Antrim and Wild Atlantic Coast. We needed to be at Dublin's Connolly Train Station by 7:10 AM to meet our tour group for a daytrip to Northern Ireland. Traci and I were hoping to take the tram to the train station but the receptionist at our hotel told us there was not a convenient tram line to get there from the hotel. She told us we could walk to the train station in 15 to 20 minutes. We decided to take a taxi since she could not recall street names or landmarks.
We arrived at the train station by 6:45 AM. I bought a disgusting sausage roll from one of the eateries while we waited. It was a mushy minced meat on a bread roll - blah! We soon located our Railtours guide wearing his bright yellow jacket. We actually had two guides for this excursion because our group was so large. Roughly 40 members of our group were affiliated with a soccer team from a university in Pennsylvania. Their coach, who grew up in Ireland, brought the team there to play some teams abroad and to do some sightseeing. They were a well-behaved group of young men. Also in our tour group were two French families and a lone traveler from Japan.
We were headed to Belfast, Northern Ireland. Our Railtours guides reserved a railcar for our group. This train seemed to be a bit older than the ones we had when traveling from Heuston Station. There were no electrical outlets and no Wi-Fi. It was a two-hour and ten-minute train ride from Dublin's Connolly Station to Belfast. It probably comes as no surprise by now that I slept most of the way. The few times I did open my eyes, we seemed to be traveling through mostly urban and residential areas.
There was a noticeable drop in temperature when we stepped off the train at the Belfast station. It was not only cold at the platforms but also inside the station.
Although Northern Ireland is physically located on the same island as the Republic of Ireland, it is not politically part of the Republic. It is actually part of the United Kingdom along with England, Scotland, and Wales. As such, the currency of Northern Ireland is the Pound Sterling - not the Euro. Almost our entire group waited in line at the ATM in the train station to get the local currency. We were told we would need £3.50 per person for one of our stops that day in addition to money for lunch. Our guide estimated £20 would suffice for Traci and me for the day but I withdrew £40 (approximately $60)
We were led out of the train station to board a motorcoach. Our driver, Steve, would narrate our trip for the day. He is from Belfast and had a thicker accent then what we had heard since arriving in Ireland. However, we had no problems understanding him. His accent was not as thick as an English accent and definitely not as thick as a Scottish accent that I struggled to understand during our visit to Scotland several years ago.
Belfast is an industrial city. We saw the ships and cranes in the harbor. Our driver pointed out the coal power plants. Although most of the city appeared to be modern, we got an extreme blast from the past when we were given a photo stop at Carrickfergus Castle which was first built in the 12th century.
Belfast was not the destination of this excursion. We were headed north for scenic coastlines, natural wonders, and other adventures. As we made our way out of the city, our driver pointed out upper class neighborhoods and even one of the properties of pro golfer Rory McIlroy.
I struck up a conversation with one of our tour guides who happened to be seated across the aisle from me. He began to talk to me about the conflicts in Northern Ireland between Catholics who felt Northern Ireland should be part of the Republic of Ireland and Protestant British loyalists who believed Northern Ireland should remain a part of Britain. He referred to the violence that took place in the 1970's and 1980's as the "Trouble Years". Thousands of people were victims of shootings, bombings, and arson. Things have settled down majorly since then but our guide told me there are still undercurrents of the Trouble Years. I could tell the Trouble Years was a sensitive subject for him because whenever he discussed it, this mild-mannered man occasionally sprinkled in some profanity. Some of the neighborhoods we rode through really displayed their national pride with things such as streets lined with flags and curbs painted red, white, and blue to represent the colors of the British flag.
We rode along the Antrim Coast Road. Unfortunately, our views were not so great that day because of the rain that caused foggy bus windows. The rain briefly let up as we entered an area that reminded me of the Scottish Midlands with peat bogs and hills covered with imported spruce trees.
We made a lunch stop at The Old Bushmills Distillery. Established in 1608, it is Ireland's oldest whiskey distillery. Our group was given an hour to enjoy a cafeteria-style lunch there.
By the time we got on the road again, the rain started. We traveled through small towns where there are vacation homes overlooking the coast. We even saw a few beaches. The most memorable moment for me was when our driver told us to look left as he turned the corner. Wow! There in the distance were the remnants of a castle on a cliff. It was Dunluce Castle. It looked mysterious. It looked forbidding. We all ooh'ed and aw'ed. We were allowed to step out of the bus to take photos. I know it sounds cliché but pictures did not do it justice.
We eventually arrived at our first major stop, the Giant's Causeway. I have never seen a natural wonder such as this. It is a bunch of hexagonal stone tubes along the shore. Geologists believe they were formed by volcanic activity about 60 million years ago. We were given audio devices at the visitor center to listen to facts and myths about the stones during the 15-minute walk necessary to reach the area from the visitor center. There was also a shuttle bus to transport visitors for a fee of £1 but we did not use it.
We were given an hour and a half to explore the Giant's Causeway. Mother Nature was on our side that day because the rain always stopped when we stepped off the motorcoach. We only had to deal with wind and cold. The rocks were amazing. It really looked like someone had deliberately chiseled them into their hexagon shapes. After seeing the rocks, we spent a short while wandering inside the visitor center where we checked out exhibits explaining theories of the formation of the Giant's Causeway. We also heard about the folktale of a giant who carved the stones.
The next stop on our tour was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. The Carrick-a-Rede is a 60-ft rope bridge stretched between two cliffs 100 feet above water. This is not for the faint of heart. Our entire group was brave enough (maybe crazy enough) to take on this challenge. Our tour guides allowed us to pay in pounds (£3.50) or in euros (€5) for the ticket necessary to walk the bridge.
By this time, it was no surprise to us that it was a 15-minute walk from the parking lot to the bridge. I must add that this was one of the most scenic walks we did. We saw the rocky coastline, sheep grazing on the mountainside, and islands in the sea. We could even see a little bit of Scotland in the distance.
At the bridge, each member of our group began crossing. No more than eight people are allowed to cross at a time. Traci went before me. She and others made it look easy; therefore, when my turn came, I stepped confidently at first. But then, I started to feel the strong wind. This was causing the ropes ahead of me to begin arching to the left and the side of my hood to cover my right eye. My fear of heights was starting to kick in. The bridge became more bouncy as I got near the halfway point. "Dear Lord, please get me across this bridge safely and help me to not look like a wimp while doing it."
There were plenty of smiles and picture-taking when we reached the other side. We walked along a short path to take in some views of the sea. All was good until we realized that unless we wanted to spend an eternity on this rock island, we were going to have to cross the bridge again. This crossing was more frightening than our initial one because we knew what to expect. Traci made two false starts before she psyched herself up enough to continue. Then it was my turn. My heart was pounding and my legs felt like jello. I somehow found the courage walk across the bouncy rope bridge (hood off this time) to join Traci on the other side. Now that the ordeal was behind us, there was almost a giddiness as Traci and I discussed our bridge crossing experience with others in our group.
"You don't really think I'm going to walk across that rope bridge?"
No turning back now, Traci. There are three people behind you.
Whoa! That's a long way down.
"Don't look down. Don't look down..."
It was time to head back to Belfast to catch the train back to Dublin. Our driver took the highway back to Belfast instead of the scenic coastal road. This got us back to the city in about an hour. Just when I thought the day could not have gotten any better, our driver announced that he was going to give us a tour of Belfast instead of having us wait around in the train station for an hour and a half. Even though it was nighttime and the bus windows were foggy from the rain, he gave an outstanding tour. Most of his narration had to do with how much Belfast has changed since the Trouble Years. We were driven through the shopping district. A person would have had to pass through several security checkpoints to shop there during the Trouble Years. We were driven around city hall which reminded me of Philadelphia. We saw where the British military, the IRA (Irish Republican Army), and other opposing groups once established their headquarters. We saw the neighborhood gates that used to remain closed between 7 PM and 7 AM to help quell violence. One of the highlights of the tour was the peace walls. They used to contain a lot of political graffiti. There is still some of this today but overall these walls contain murals with messages of world peace and happiness. Before heading back to the train station, our bus made a stop at the very elegant-looking Europa Hotel to drop off one of the French families that was doing a multi-day version of the excursion. Our driver decided it was an opportune time to tell us that the Europa Hotel has the record for being bombed more times than any hotel in the world. Between the 1970's and 1990's was bombed 44 times! One of our guides joked to the family, "If you hear something ticking, run!"
Our group took the 8:05 PM train back to Dublin and arrived there around 10:30 PM. It had been a long but wonderful day. Unfortunately, it ended on a sour note. Traci and I exited the train station to get a taxi back to our hotel. All three taxi drivers in the taxi queue told us they did not know where the Academy Plaza Hotel was. Even after we told them it was just off the very popular O'Connell Street, they made no attempt to look it up on their GPS or call for directions. It became obvious that they did not want to drive us to the hotel. Even though our skin color was the same as that of the taxi drivers, I suspected racism. I will never know for sure.
I began to wonder how we were going to get back to our hotel. I kind of knew how to get there on foot but I did not want to take a chance on getting lost at this time of night, regardless of how low Dublin's crime rate is. God always has a way of looking out for us. After we were rejected by the third taxi driver, Traci looked up and saw a LUAS tram pulling away from a stop. I was certain the receptionist at our hotel told us there was not a convenient tram between the Academy Plaza and Connolly Station. Nonetheless, we walked across the street to look at the posted tram route. I was elated to find it was the same Red Line tram we had ridden several times during the week. We made it back to our hotel in no time. Best of all, our ride was a lot cheaper than if we had taken a taxi. continue...