I had an earlier start than necessary due to a bit of a cough – bastard! Could’ve done with another hour or so sleep, but at least I got some writing done. We got off to a good start and headed straight to Mussendon Temple and the ruins of Downhill Palace. Walking through the wreck of the palace was so frustrating – how could such complete and utter neglect be allowed to happen? All that exists of this once gigantic and splendid mansion is a shell. Despite the destruction, the grandeur and beauty of the building is still apparent; in the scale of the fragments of walls, cement-rendered to prevent further deterioration. When I asked how the palace had reached its current state, I was told that it had been gutted by fire, which would understandably leave a terrible scar. This intrigued me, so I checked the National Trust website and discovered that while Downhill was ravaged by fire in 1851, it was repaired and restored in 1876. Its current state is a direct result of the roof being removed in 1950 after being sold by the previous owner, which led to its decline. Sad.
For lunch we headed to the town of Bushmills, all ready for something spectacular at the Michelin starred restaurant, Tartine’s, that I had researched. Bugger that it was only open for dinner – obviously the research was not very thoroughly executed this time! We went instead to Bushmill’s Inn, which had good reviews on TripAdvisor. We had a seafood tempura – mixed local seafood with wasabi mayonnaise (which was a little oily and had cooled a bit too much by the time it came to us); ‘Textures of Cauliflower’ – beignet, sweet pickled and puree with truffle, honey and raisin dressing; and two sides – broccoli with smashed cashews & chilli butter and fine beans, shallots & garlic butter. Greens were a tad overcooked, though. Shame, that – a bit disappointing.
The Giant’s Causeway was calling us, and with the sky becoming darker, we thought we should get onto that calling immediately! Due to major construction of the new Information Centre at the causeway (meant to be complete by May 2012 – but appears no where near done), there are parking areas in the township of Bushmills where a ‘park and ride’ option is offered. There are also a limited number of spots near the causeway, and even though an electronic sign stated that they were all full, we decided to give it a go anyway. Paid off. Perfect parking spot just for us – and being National Trust members, it was free (being members, the elitist in me feels those spots should be for members, anyway!).
The large beasts of metal that were gouging and plundering and shifting the earth for the information centre also prevented the use of some of the walks along the top of the cliffs. This wasn’t a big problem, though, because after we had walked down the bottom along the Causeway, past the Giant’s Foot, along to the Pipe Organ, and up the 165 steps, and back to the car park, we had probably had enough walking anyway! The Giant’s Causeway is such a bizarre creation in nature – it looks like a humungous child’s hexagonal puzzle, one where buttons and pedals are to be pressed in order to score points! It also looks freakishly like Superman’s retreat at the North Pole in the Christopher Reeve films (only made of rock, not ice!). A glorious and wondrous place to visit, albeit a crowded one! Not that we were there anywhere near the peak season – I can see why it was necessary to increase the parking area and visitors’ centre!
We made a half-hearted attempt to visit Bushmill’s Distillery – when we arrived, we would’ve had to wait another half an hour for the next tour, and since we had already done the Jameson’s tour in the Republic, we decided to just purchase some whiskey chocolate and head to the rope bridge at Carrick-a-fede, while the clouds were keeping their rain in check. Good decision. While the rain was held at bay, the sky definitely had an angry tinge to it, and the one kilometre walk from the car park to the bridge was cool enough without water added to the mix! The walk across the rope bridge was not as scary (or as long) as expected; it was actually fun! We timed it well – there was no crowd of people waiting to cross, and there were only a few couples on the small island, exploring (or in one case, curled in a rocky ditch going for it in a big snog-fest!). When we were climbing our way back to the carpark, the squeals of girly-girl-women could be heard from the bridge as their boyfriends showed how clever and manly they were by jumping up and down to fright them. Some fellas are just so nice . . . and some chicks are just so annoying!
Our trip along the Antrim coast continued south to Cushendall where we chose Harry’s Bistro/Bar/Restaurant to have an early dinner – it came highly recommended and didn’t disappoint! Even though we were still in their ‘early bird’ time slot, Una was kind enough to allow us access to the regular a la carte menu (the other menu was still very good, but we had drooled over a couple of the options on the a la carte menu when online!). A mixture of the starters on offer was calling us, so they did us a bit of a platter with our various choices and we ploughed through the meal. These included: sesame coated scallops, crushed ginger and garlic and ‘naughty boy’ dressing; grilled goats cheese, burnt red peppers, marmalade glaze; Bloody Mary mussels with garlic dipping bread; avocado, stilton and beetroot salad. Were glad that we called into this little gem on our way down to our accommodation – it would’ve been much too hard to keep driving, check in to our hotel, then drive 30 minutes back for dinner, and return to the hotel afterwards. Too tedious!
Our abode for the night was the Ballygally Castle, just north of Larne on the Antrim Coast. All that lies between the hotel and the Irish Sea is the road and a carpark – so the views are lovely. We bit the bullet with our wifi commitment and bought 5 days (with 2000 minutes) through the BTOpen Zone – the only option for wifi with Hastings hotels. I have mentioned the inconvenience of this before, but it was even more so this time, as the purchase had to be online rather than through the hotel reception, then there was setting up an account and having the credit card charged. Of course, things went awry and I was charged twice for the privilege. And of course, there are no ‘contact us’ numbers available on the site – only found one on a brochure in the lobby, attempted to use it but only got a recorded message that they were closed. After spending an hour with this damned internet thing, trying to sort it all (I just wanted to check emails, for crying out loud!), I gave up and went to the bar. This plan did not prove ideal either, as the trio of men getting drunker, louder and more misogynistic by the minute, grew wearisome. The answer? Take the cognac to the room and free ourselves of the rabble around us. At times like these, nothing beats a good book – and Louis de Bernières’ The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman was just the ticket!