Ireland …How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways
* The fun, humor and banter of your people; they can talk; they can charm; they can cook, and they are passionate about their past and their future.
* The Anglo-Irish homes and quaint fishing villages that dot your magnificent countryside and hug your windswept coastlines.
* Where every stone you turn reveals a little history, from crumbling castles dating back to the 13th Century and feudal lords to restored manor houses that have been renovated into five star hotels.
* The crystal clarity of your lakes, rivers and waterfalls; the sweeping expanse of your gentle hills and shamrock green fields, where sheep, cows and horses graze contently.
* Your majestic heather- covered Sperrin Mountains that rise proudly; the fog and mist that rolls off your bogs and moors; and the warmth of the Irish sun that refuses to be daunted by passing clouds.
My overnight Continental flight into Belfast takes 5 ½ hours. Bernard McMullan from the Irish Tourist Board in New York and local tour guide Ken McElroy are waiting to meet us. We head south, following the St. Patrick’s trail to Downpatrick. The St. Patrick Centre presents the Saint’s story and legacy in a fascinating state-of-the-art multimedia exhibit.
Continuing along the coast, we check into the seafront Slieve Donard Hotel and Spa in Newcastle. A refreshing and invigorating walk along the beach takes me to the Seaweed Soak House where I relax in an old fashion steam cabinet and a deep tub filled with slimy detoxifying seaweed.
Slieve Donard Hotel, on the sea in Newcastle
Tuesday 9:00 A.M.
The van departs Newcastle for County Fermanagh. We visit the quaint Priory Cottages; have lessons in basket weaving and pottery-making from resident artists, and savor delicious homemade onion soup in the Priory House Restaurant.
We wind our way down to the sea, hugging the windswept coast, passing fishing villages and farms stocked with trout. If only there was time to meet the people who live in the white houses with black tile roofs and sweeping views of far distant islands. The fog rolls in, slowing our descent; castles rise from the mist, reminders of life in the days when feudal lords ruled their fiefdoms.
The 600 acre Lough Erne Resort & Spa has a Nick Faldo championship golf course and an authentic 20,000 square foot Thai Spa. The scenery and hotel amenities are spectacular. In my round turret room; I feel like Rapunzel about to let down my hair for an Irish prince. There’s time for a golf buggy drive around the challenging links; I watch a group of men tee off against the backdrop of a sparkling lake and a foreboding sand trap.
The authentic Thai Spa is exquisitely appointed with exotic murals; therapists are from Thailand, and my traditional Thai massage is a deeply rewarding experience that brings back memories of Chiva Som.
General Manager Jonathan Stapleton hosts a pre-dinner reception in the private members’ club. We then move into the elegant dining room where we are served a delicious sampling of Executive Chef Noel McMeel’s culinary talents and gourmet menu; his signature crab meat salad is my favorite.
The Ulster Folk Park, an outdoor museum, tells the story of emigration during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Old and New World layout of the Park illustrates the various aspects of emigrant life on both sides of the Atlantic, and the hardships they endured acclimating to harsh winters and the planting of corn instead of potatoes. Traditional thatched buildings, American log houses and a full-scale replica emigrant ship bring a bygone era back to life. Costumed demonstrators go about their everyday tasks of spinning, printing and blacksmithing in authentically furnished houses and stores.
Old fashioned printing press
The medieval walled city of Derry/Londonderry, won a bid to be the first UK City of Culture in 2013, and will play host to a year long celebration of culture and history. After lunch at the popular Halo Pantry & Grill we take a guided walking tour of the 17th century Derry City Walls & St. Columb’s Cathedral
Cobblestone streets of Derry
The drive along the Causeway Coast is glorious: the scenery is inspiring and stretches for miles; jagged cliffs lead down to deserted beaches; sheep, horses, and cows graze contently on shamrock green fields. Ken, our treasured guide, is a wealth of knowledge on just about every subject that relates to his beloved country. He sings local ditties; recites odes and sonnets, and is quick to let us know “nine American Presidents trace their lineage back to Ireland “.
We explore Dunluce Castle on our way to Giant’s Causeway, the UNESCO World Heritage Site that rises from the sea and was formed by molten lava over 60 million years ago. I struggle to climb the slippery hexagonal columns and rocks.
Exploring Dunluce Castle
The lava rocks at Giant’s Causeway
Belfast has a climate suitable for growing flax. Abandoned linen factories along the river are reminders of Derry’s past as the shirt capital of the world. En route to Ballycastle, Ken points out the school where Oscar Wilde was educated. Mist shrouds the countryside; I strain my eyes looking for mischievous leprechauns, hoping to see one dancing on a bog.
Street signs lead the way
The tour of the Bushmills Distillery is fascinating; we move from production to bottling. Irish malt whisky differs from Scotch malt whiskey in that it is dried in closed kilns without introducing smoke; we taste several to educate our palates.
Friday… a day to explore
Driving back to Belfast, we stop to see the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge which dangles 90 feet over the sea; it was once used by salmon fishermen to reel in their nets. The October air is crisp and clear as the sun struggles to outsmart the clouds.
Belfast, “the city of inventors”, home to two Nobel peace prize winners and once a great industrial ship building city, is struggling to forgive its past and move forward with its future. Political art, in the form of 80 or 90 huge billboard murals painted by local artists, tells the story of Northern Ireland’s strife, struggles, and pain.
Political street art
Today, Belfast is on the rise; its storied docks, where the original Titanic was built, are being transformed into a large urban development and a major tourist attraction, with interactive exhibits, galleries, shops, restaurants and a hotel /apartment complex. At the Titanic Center construction site, we don special gear for a hard hat tour.
On my last night in town, I settle in at BERT’S BAR in the Merchant Hotel to hear some local jazz and to unwind after my whirlwind tour of Northern Ireland.. Musician Linley Hamilton takes the stage; the cool sounds of his trumpet send me on my way with fond memories of a country that welcomed me into its embrace.
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