There’s a magical quality to the Causeway Coastal Route, where history, heritage, myth and mystery combine with breathtaking scenery to produce something truly special.
It’s always been on my doorstep, of course, but the closest I get to really enjoying the Antrim coast is when I take an occasional work trip to Larne. It’s very easy to overlook what’s under one’s nose, so when I was offered a chance to avail of an overnight stay, I saw this as an opportunity to get to know that coastline a little better.
There was an unforgettable scene as a huge pod of dolphins danced and splashed in a synchronised, spectacular show as my wife Diane and I checked out of the Ballygally Castle Hotel. Though unexpected, this magical visual treat - which was like nothing I’d seen before - seemed somehow in keeping with the rest of the weekend, simply adding an extra dimension to our experience.
And even then we weren’t finished; we still had more of nature’s delights to marvel at as we travelled back home to the north west along that beautiful coastline that stretches from Carrickfergus to Castlerock, Downhill and Benone.
Our visit had begun when we checked into the historic Ballygally Castle Hotel, complete with its ‘Ghost Room’, where it’s not unheard of for a mischievous spirit to knock on doors in the middle of the night.
Staying there was a great experience, and while the view was wonderful, the room lovely and the food delicious, the staff were exceptional - they were as good as any I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet in any hotel, in particular the young woman who greeted us at the restaurant in the evening and again at breakfast.
Our first visit was to Carrickfergus Castle where our guide, Philip, provided a very funny commentary on our tour, helpfully pointing out what was myth and what was factual. I make no comment on the less helpful aspect of his conversation, or the consequences for the rest of my weekend, of him asking whether Diane was my daughter.
King John himself visited the castle; and today visitors can actually still visit what Philip jokingly called ‘King John’s john’. Philip also gave us a fascinating insight into its 800 year long history, including the brutal methods once used to repel attackers, such as the ‘murder hole’ from which all sorts of scalding oils and other extremely unpleasant substances were poured down on invaders’ heads.
He also informed us that old traditions suggest the town’s name derives from a Scottish ruler, King Fergus who came to drink the waters of a well that was said to cure leprosy but who drowned when his boat struck the rock. Carraig Fhearghais - rock of Fergus - became Carrickfergus and the well is preserved and visible within the castle walls.
From the castle, we travelled to Islandmagee and the Gobbins Path. I hate heights and I’m also not nearly as fit as I should be but I was determined to go through with the tour.
However, it turned out to be a breathtaking experience both in terms of the scenery and, for the unfit me, the uphill walk at the end. Its staff were also great - friendly, helpful people seem to be a feature of the entire area. During a full 2.5 hour fully guided walking tour, The Gobbins experience “takes visitors along a narrow path hugging the dramatic cliff face; across spectacular bridges amid the crashing waves; traversing hidden tunnels under the Irish Sea; up and down rugged staircases carved into the cliff face and into caves that were once home to smugglers and privateers”.
The Gobbins Path (main picture) was masterminded by railway engineer, Berkley Dean Wise as a tourist attraction; it originally opened in 1902 and was later abandoned in the 1960s until an investment of over £7.5 million brought about its rebirth in 2015. It seems he was even more skilled as a tourism visionary than railway engineer - the train tracks have long gone but Wise’s unique path is well on the way to becoming a world class tourist attraction.
Sadly, the weekend was too short to do everything we’d planned because the north coast has so many places to see. We’d wanted to take in the full Game of Thrones experience, however we ran out of time. There’s far too much choice so we’ll just have to make plans go back there to see more.
We took the coastal road home, and passed through beautiful Whitehead, with its colourful row of houses along the seafront, Carnlough, Glenarm, and Cushendall where a funeral service was held just a few weeks ago for a former Johnston Press colleague, John Bills, who died much too young after retiring to the area. His death at 59 years old shocked all who knew him.
I could instantly appreciate why John - a native of Mansfield in England- was so happy to have moved to this particular part of the world, to enjoy what was a tragically short-lived retirement in his new seaside home on one of Ireland’s most beautiful coastlines.
We arrived in Cushendun, where he’d lived, with dusk falling on a long but exhilarating and beautiful day. And as the last red rays of a sinking sun illuminated sky and sea on the distant horizon, Diane observed that while she never knew him, she’d guess John would have loved every minute that he’d spent there. How could he not?
In contrast to the lively display put on by the dolphins to greet us in the morning, this was a more poignant, serene moment to bring the day to a close, though it was just as spectacular in its own way, and every bit as special.
Nothing can be more beautiful than what nature provides, and it provides in abundance along the Causeway Coast. Add the local history and heritage into that mix, and the warmth of the people there, and you have something truly unique.
Give me a chance and I will set off to Spain or a European city break every year when the opportunity knocks, but if I’ve learned anything from the weekend, it’s that I don’t spend anywhere near enough time enjoying what’s on offer on my doorstep.
For more details on the Causeway Coastal Route, visit www.discovernorthernireland.com