NORTHERN Ireland was the first region in the UK to reopen for holidays.
And last weekend I got to experience its warm welcome on the gorgeous Causeway Coast.
I was headed for Portrush, the historic seaside town in County Antrim. And after a quick flight to Belfast, I was soon driving through gorgeous green countryside — the best feeling after weeks cooped up indoors.
My home for the night was Blackrock House, a 5H B&B about a mile away from the Royal Portrush golf course which hosted The Open last year. The Edwardian townhouse has been transformed by owner Nicola Neill into a high-end B&B with incredible views of the Atlantic Ocean and the West Bay.
She tells me: “When Covid broke out in March, I had a lot of bookings in the system for the year, particularly from American guests and international golfers.”
Many chose to reschedule their bookings to 2021, but others had to cancel altogether. Nicola adds: “To see everything that you’ve worked for over the last four or five years kind of disappear almost overnight was very frightening.”
But she was relieved to be back open — with new safety measures in place. An infrared thermometer was used to check my temperature when I arrived, and hand sanitiser was always available.
It’s a similar scene at the excellent Ramore wine bar, just a short walk down the West Strand Beach, where Perspex dividers have been put up between tables in an otherwise extremely welcome return to a swanky meal out. Portrush is the perfect starting point for exploring Northern Ireland’s cultural treasures.
The walled garden at Glenarm Castle offers visitors a serene stroll between manicured hedges and man-made sculptures. From there, you can hike the island’s glens or drive the magnificent Causeway Coastal Route that winds around the clifftops of the northern shores.
And Game Of Thrones fans are spoilt for choice with nine shooting locations in the area, including the Dark Hedges used as the Kingsroad in the series. But the jewel in County Antrim’s tourism crown is the Giant’s Causeway, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The natural wonder of 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns is the otherworldly result of violent volcanic activity and glacial movement over the course of millions of years. You can learn all about the history of the causeway in the site’s visitor centre. But to really bring the stones to life, book a tour with Dalriada Kingdom Tours.
Guide Mark Rodgers can tell you everything about the site’s mythical, geological and cultural history — and even show you where David Cameron and Lionel Messi took a seat in the Causeway’s famous Wishing Chair. But just standing on the deserted stones, with the waves crashing around you, is an experience that makes the journey worth taking.
Learning about Northern Ireland’s political history is also an absolute must — and there’s nowhere better place to do that than in the historic walled city of Derry. The city’s divided past during The Troubles has been brought to the attention of younger generations in recent years by comedy series Derry Girls.
But how it has become a vibrant, modern city is perhaps less well-known. The Bishop’s Gate Hotel, which has hosted Winston Churchill and poet WB Yeats, was voted the second-best hotel in the UK last year in the Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards. For a more unusual way to discover Derry, try a kayaking tour down the River Foyle with Far And Wild.
The excursion, which can also be taken at night in “moonlight tours”, is led by a local guide in a separate kayak. Martin McCrossan City Tours does a great walking tour for a more comprehensive insight into Derry’s past and present.
The award-winning, hour-long tour also takes you back further into its rich 1,500-year cultural history, punctuated with hilarious stories told by guide John McNulty.
With such a rich history, magnificent places to visit and luxurious places to stay, Northern Ireland really is the perfect post-lockdown getaway.
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