Editors’ Note: As we await the final installments of our formal university visits, please enjoy this post from Andrus Ashoo of the University of Virginia, one of about a dozen NAFA tour participants who spent a brilliant Saturday venturing to the Northern coast of Ireland after our visit to Queen’s University Belfast. (The lesson, of course, is to take advantage of these special opportunities when they arise.)
Special Excursion (June 4)
by Andrus Ashoo (University of Virginia)
In what we learned was typical of their hospitality, Susan McCleary and Queen’s University Belfast arranged for an extra excursion for those of us who wanted to experience some of Northern Ireland’s natural (and distilled) beauty. Even though Northern Ireland is a small country, our day excursion could only whet the appetite.
We set out along the Coastal Causeway, which follows the entire coastline from Belfast to Londonderry, offering brief detours to small villages, breath-taking views, and simple wonder.
The first stop was a castle! Carrickfergus Castle, built in 1177, is the most complete Norman castle in Northern Ireland. We only briefly paused for a comfort stop and a chance to stretch our legs. However, it was enough time for me to take advantage of the opportunity to do something I would never do in the presence of my two-year-old daughter: Lay siege! Unfortunately, the castle is still standing for a reason, and I was able to climb up only so far.
As our journey continued, we looked out the windows at a non-stop photo opp: eternal natural beauty peppered with peaceful villages and the occasional seafarer. The first substantial stop of the excursion was at the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge. Some of us braved the heights to cross over to a small island. Oh, was it worth it! While clearly a tourist attraction, the island never seemed inundated with people. I climbed (and slid!) down a portion of the island to find my own little haven of serenity. The lush, deep grass peppered with patches of low-growing and vibrant wildflowers demanded a spot of reflection—and a nap in the company of bees, wildflowers, and ocean birds.
On to Bushmills Distillery for lunch. Upon arrival, we were greeted with the opportunity to taste three of the whiskeys. Some of us may or may not have taken advantage of the man’s insistence that one sip was not enough and then proceeded to try all three again. We’ll call that the “unofficial” tasting. At our table at lunch, we talked about how we met our spouses, our children (or plans for children), and what we enjoyed in our free time. The food was good, but the whiskey was calling. By this point in the trip, I had already developed a reputation for trying everything. The official tasting included the Bushmills 12 Year, available only at the distillery.
While I enjoyed the three new whiskeys, I had to confess (quietly) to the driver of our van that my heart (and taste buds) remained in Islay . . . Scotland. At that point our driver informed me that we could actually see Islay from the rope bridge at Carrick-A-Rede. This is fantastic news if you have ever explored how to get to Islay while in Scotland, which requires a day’s travel. Alas, this conversation spurred an elaborate addition to my already forming family trip to Northern Ireland. For the To Do List: Investigate the willingness of anyone with a boat on the North Coast to take me and my family to Islay . . . and pick us up the next day. (And I caught Islay in the photo above!)
The Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage site, represented the next and main attraction of our excursion. Our driver-cum-guide was very helpful in dispelling any nonsense about geology and instead told us the true story about the creation of the causeway. We had beautiful weather, which means that it was unfortunately overrun with tourists, but that didn’t stop Kris Larsen (NYU) and me from hopscotching our way among the many boulders in the sea rather than using the path along the coast to the causeway. It was a wonderful area where the group spent a few hours and easily could have spent the whole day among the walking trails, an additional guided tour, and the causeway itself. Important note as you plan: The Giant’s Causeway is free to visit, but the visitor centre charges a hefty fee.
While I don’t care about Game of Thrones in the least, it was interesting to learn about the power of film – both to rejuvenate (saving a small hotel that was for sale before the cast started staying there regularly) and to irritate (the Dark Hedges, 200-year-old beech trees, line a road that is daily in use).
It was a bittersweet day for me. I had just spent the last few days falling in love with Belfast, the Northern Irish, and Queen’s University Belfast. I tried to soak as much of it in as possible before leaving for London. I cannot wait to return. #LoveQUB