In BriefSunday we docked in Belfast, Northern Ireland. We took a guided bus tour along the Antrim Coast which is considered one of the natural wonders of the world. Highlights included a photo stop at Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, the ruins of Dunluce Castle, lunch featuring roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and finally a tour of the Giant's Causeway - a natural basalt column formation that legend says was created by the Irish giant Finn McCool.
Details of Belfast and Northern IrelandWe woke up early and had breakfast this morning as we had to report for our excursion at 8:30 am. Almost 1/3 of the ship was taking an excursion today so it was quite the process to get everyone grouped and across the gangway and on the buses. They assign you to a color and a number based on your tour and then give you a sticker. They call you by group and your bus is always marked with your group so that it is easy to find when you get off somewhere.
As we drove out of Belfast, headed towards the northern coastline, we heard about the shipping and linen industries which is where Belfast made most of its wealth in the 19th and early 20th century. Belfast is where the Titanic was built. Heading into the country I saw that the landscape looked more like rural England and the Lake District than what we had seen in the Republic of Ireland. Not as many shades of green, and more pasture land rather than farming. Tons of sheep and cows still. Beautiful heather growing wild. I wonder if we could grow that in our backyard in DC? Scottish influence on Northern Ireland vocabulary is very apparent. For example they use the Scottish version of the word for most land features, rather than the English.
We stopped in the village of Larne for scones and tea, then continued on towards Ballycastle, where we stopped to take photos at a couple of sites. My favorite was Dunluce Castle, built in the 14th century. It was built right onto the coastal cliff which made it highly defensible, but also made it susceptible to damage from the sea. In the 1500s, while serving Christmas dinner, the kitchens and a few rooms fell right off the cliff killing most of the servants! The lady of the castle refused to live there any longer so the family abandoned it to ruin after that. We also stopped to get some photos of the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge connecting the mainland to a small island. Tom was disappointed that we did not have enough time to stop and cross it - maybe next time.
- Glen = valley
- Tarn = hill beside a lake
We stopped at a local hotel for lunch where we had a fruit plate with raspberry sauce to start, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, carrots, cabbage, mashed potatoes and lightly fried potatoes. To finish we had pavlova, which is merengue topped with whipped cream, fruit, and a citrus fruit sauce. I had a few bites of everything since it was all too much in one sitting.
After lunch we drove to the Giant's Causeway which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is run by the National Trust (similar to our National Park system). We had 1.5 hours to explore the site so we picked up our audio guides and walked about 15 minutes down the hill to the natural rock formations. Tom climbed all over the stones to explore but I stuck to the paved path.
There are several ideas as to how the causeway was formed - I'll let you decide which you like best. Science says that the thousands of hexagonal basalt columns were formed by volcanic activity about 30 million years ago. Irish legend tells a different story that the Irish giant Finn McCool built a land bridge to nearby Scotland so that he could battle another Scottish giant. He got all the way to Scotland and saw how big the giant was and ran back to Ireland. He told his wife what happened and she had him hide in the bedroom. A short while later, the Scottish giant showed up asking for Finn. Finn's wife said he was out but that the visiting giant could have a seat and wait and she would make him some tea once she fed the baby. She went in the bedroom and wrapped Finn in a blanket like a baby and carried him out. The Scottish giant took one look and thought that if the baby was that big than the father must be enourmous! He hightailed it back to Scotland and tore up the Giant's Causeway as he went so that the Irish giants could not get to Scotland again.
After exploring the stones and enjoying the sunshine, we headed back for the visitor center. We had perfect timing since the clouds gathered and the heavens opened just as we finished. Explored the museum and tried the Victoria Sponge cake (sponge cake layered with raspberry jam and clotted cream) then headed back to the bus.
In the way back, we learned about the Irish school system and this is true of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. School for ages 5-16 is compulsory. No tuition cost, but parents are expected to provide the basic uniform - polos with pants or skirt and a sweater. Students age 14-16 specialize in subjects of their choosing that would shape their career. If academically inclined, they can apply for grammar school and then take the A-level exams which determine which university they would be eligible to attend. University can cost about £25k ($40k) per year without books.
This area was hit by the recession but is starting to bounce back in the past 15 months. A 3-bedroom, semi detached house (shares one wall with the house next door) is measured as the average. In Northern Ireland, the average home costs £135k. The same house costs £185k on average in England, not including London. London did not really feel the recession and the 2012 Olympics brought a lot of foreign investment from Asia, almost like land grab speculation. Northern Ireland is trying hard to build up their tourism now that visitors seem to understand that "the troubles" of the late 20th century are over and while there are still community activities and decisions in the making regarding cooperation between those who believe there should be one united Ireland (republicans) and those who believe they should remain separate, all parties are getting along amicably and it is very safe here. They are trying hard to build up more hotels and golf courses along the picturesque Antrim coast in the hopes of hosting large golf tournaments and making the area into resorts that would attract wealthy Americans and Asians who right now fly in and out by helicopter to golf at the royal courses.
Off to Scotland on Monday!