Although the bus system in Ireland isn’t bad, and the trains in the North are actually quite good, we discovered that without our own car it is nearly impossible to reach any of the tourist attractions or villages outside of the regular tourist route. Our plan, upon leaving Belfast, was to head slightly north to the coastline and visit the Giant’s Causeway, a very popular attraction of naturally-formed basalt columns rising up out of the sea. But the only way for non-drivers to reach the Causeway is by tour bus. So we booked tickets on Paddywagon Tours, a guided bus tour of the Causeway, which would also stop at a rope bridge and a castle. Although the bus would take us roundtrip from Belfast, we had decided to stop at the end of the tour and carry on around the island.
All was well. We bought our tickets at the very helpful Tourist Information Centre in downtown the day before, and by 9am the next morning we were waiting for the big green bus. And we waited. And waited. And 9:30 came and went. There were two other young women waiting for the tour, and an older couple from Croatia who, after 45 minutes of waiting in the sun, got on the phone to the company, who assured them the bus was right around the corner. It wasn’t. After two more phone calls, and watching six other groups be picked up for their tours, the Croatians were not impressed, and back on the phone. Finally, it was determined that we had been forgotten. The bus driver had failed to come by our spot, opting for the other seven pick-up destinations instead, and was already well on his way to the destination. Fortunately, another bus was arranged to pick us up, and bring us to meet our original bus. We did miss Dunlace Castle though, and there was never any discussion of a refund. But, we pressed on.
We stopped first at Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, a National Trust site, and home of the 65 foot, swinging bridge, which takes brave visitors from the mainland to a small, rocky island.
Although not quite terrifying, it is a somewhat disconcerting experience, as the ocean crashes beneath your feet and the site guides rush visitors from one side to the other.
But the views from the other side are completely worth it: the Causeway Coast of Ireland, the hint of land near the horizon that is Scotland, and massive waves crashing against the rock. Walking to and from the bridge one is free to enjoy picturesque, almost too-good-to-be-true views of the Irish countryside, with sheep and cows grazing in the sunlight.
From there, we got back on the bus and carried on down the winding road to the Giant’s Causeway, another National Trust site. Our guide entertained us with the many folk tales and myths surrounding the creation of the basalt columns, but could not have possibly prepared us for the natural beauty we were about to see. We had a shockingly perfect day (we had been warned about the rain, but we had some of the most cloudless skies I’ve ever seen), and were given almost two hours to wander freely amongst the rocks and the visitors’ centre.
In true European fashion, there were no guidewires to keep people away from the crashing surf, and no warning signs to impede the view. Only the pure blue expanse of ocean, the amazingly symmetrical rock columns, and the cliffs rising up to wander upon and enjoy. We spent almost an hour taking in the view, examining sealife in the small pools created between the columns, and taking pictures of other tourists with their cameras. Rachel and I stopped for a picnic of leftover snacks, bread, cheese, water, and fruit from our previous shopping excursions, and then went on to explore the visitors’ centre, a brand-new looking building outlining both the scientific and mythological explanations of the Causeway.
Back on the bus, the driver took a small detour to give us a distant viewing of another set of castle ruins, and then stopped on the side of the road to let us off – the two crazy Canadians, asking to be pointed in the direction of the next town with our big packs. We were told that if we walked a kilometre or two in one direction, we would reach civilization, beds, and food. Which was partially true. Fortunately, it was only nearing evening, the sun was still warm, and there was enough of a shoulder on the highway that we could walk single-file to the nearest beach, what we later learned was likely Portrush East Strand, a picturesque, white-sand beach, filled with young families enjoying the September sunshine.
We estimate we walked about 5km from where the bus let us off to where we finally reached the town of Portrush, getting many strange looks along the way. The best one was the little boy who asked his parents and older brother in a perfect accent, “What are those people doing with such big bags on the beach?!” Only to have his mother answer, “Those are Canadians dear. They just do that.” Priceless.
Portrush, we learned, although full of cutsie souvenier shops, ice cream parlours, pizzerias, and nice hotels, does not have a hostel, and really is not fit for tourists past August. The very helpful woman at the hotel directed us to the train however, and suggested heading on to Coleraine, changing trains, and carrying on to Derry, a popular destination for backpackers. The train took us right along the coast, and we got to watch the sun go down on the Irish beaches all the way to Derry. It was the perfect end to the day.
Except the day was not over! In Derry, a slightly sketchy town when you arrive on the train, at night, and don’t know where you are, we found Steve, the owner and operator of Derry City Independent Hostel. Not only did we have a dorm room to ourselves for the night, Steve directed us to The Ice Wharf, where we could get fish and chips and mushy (or non-mushy) peas, and a pint, for 6 pounds each, and a live musician since we were there at 10pm. After a sleepness night with our friend from Downpatrick, and being left behind by the bus, we were very happy to enjoy the absolute silence of a weekday night in Derry.