Belfast and the Best of Northern Ireland

In this program we tour bustling Belfast's City Hall and Ulster Museum, then head out to Northern Ireland's favorite resort: Portrush, along the Antrim Coast, where we taste-test Irish whiskey, scramble over some six-sided geology in the Giant's Causeway, drop in on a world-class golf course, and stomp our feet to some traditional music.

Travel Details

Belfast

Ulster Museum

While mediocre by European standards, this is Belfast's one major museum. The delicately worded history section is given an interesting British slant (such as the implication that the Great Famine of 1845 was caused by the Irish population doubling in 40 years — without a mention of various English contributions to the suffering). After a wander through the Early Medieval Ireland exhibit and a peek at a pretty good mummy, top things off with the Girona treasure. Soggy bits of gold, silver, leather and wood were salvaged from the Spanish Armada's shipwrecked Girona — lost off the Antrim Coast north of Belfast in 1588 (in Botanic Gardens on Stranmillis Road, south of downtown, tel. 028/9038-3000).

Taxi Tours

At the intersection of Castle and King Streets, you'll find the Castle Junction Car Park where shared black cabs efficiently shuttle residents from outlying neighborhoods up and down the Falls Road and to the city center. When bus service was discontinued at the beginning of the Troubles, local paramilitary groups established the shared taxi service. Any cab goes up the Falls Road, past Sinn Fein headquarters and lots of murals, to the Milltown Cemetery , then back every minute or so (hop in and out, sit in front and talk to the cabbie). Trained cabbies do one-hour tours (tel. 028/9031-5777 or 078/9271-6660).

Derry

Stephen McPhilemy

Stephen McPhilemy leads private tours of his hometown, Belfast and the North Coast — when he's not on the road guiding tours for Rick Steves several months a year (tel. 028/7130-9051, mobile 078-0101-1027, steve@irishexperience.ie).

Portrush and the Antrim Coast

Ramore Wine Bar

Harbour Road
tel. 028/7082-4313

Old Bushmills Distillery

The 45-minute tour starts with the mash pit, which is filled with a porridge that eventually becomes whiskey. (The leftovers of that porridge are fed to the county's particularly happy cows.) You'll see thousands of oak casks — the kind used for Spanish sherry — filled with aging whiskey. The finale is the tasting in the 1608 Bar — the former malt barn. Everyone gets a single glass of his or her choice. To see the distillery at its lively best, visit weekdays when the 100 workers are manning the machinery (tours book up fast; in summer, call and put in your name to get a tour time before you arrive; quarter mile from Bushmills town center; tel. 028/2073-1521).

Giant's Causeway

Browse the information and watch the video in the Visitors Centre (a minibus zips tired tourists a half-mile directly to the Grand Causeway). For a better dose of the Causeway, follow the high cliff-top trail from the Visitors Centre 10 minutes to a great viewpoint, then go 10 minutes farther to reach the Shepherd's Stairway. Zigzag down to the coast; at the T junction, go 100 yards right to the towering pipes of "the Organ." Then retrace your steps and continue left to the "Giant's Boot" for some photo fun and the dramatic point where the stairs step into the sea. Just beyond that, at the asphalt turnaround, you'll see the bus stop for a lift back to the Visitors Centre. Or, you could walk the entire five-mile Giant's Causeway (tel. 028/2073-1855).

A quaint, narrow-gauge steam locomotive connects the Causeway to the town of Bushmills on a two-mile, 15-minute journey (tel. 028/2073-2844, www.freewebs.com/giantscausewayrailway).

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're really on the edge. Stay with us for the best of.Northern Ireland.

As far as I'm concerned, no trip to Ireland is really complete without a visit to Northern Ireland. Sure it's had its "troubles" and we'll check out some powerful political sights. But there's so much more. Northern Ireland comes with the same friendly people and lush scenery you'd expect to find anywhere on the Emerald Isle.and absolutely no tourist crowds.

We'll tour bustling Belfast, sneak a peak at its more politicized sectarian neighborhoods, go wild in the Ulster Coney Island, taste-test Irish whiskey, scramble over some six-sided geology, drop in on a world class golf course and stomp our feet to some traditional music.

Ireland is part of a group of islands called Great Britain and a political entity called the United Kingdom. The Emerald Isle is comprised of the independent Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This region is also called Ulster. From Belfast, we travel to fun-loving Portrush, the rough-and-tumble city of Derry and the attractions along the Antrim Coast.

Here in Northern Ireland, sightseeing makes more sense with a little background. This entire island was once ruled by Britain. But the Irish didn't assimilate according to plan. While Britain was Protestant, Ireland was mostly Catholic and with the religious differences came a deep-seated cultural divide. To bolster its control of Ireland, London planted Protestant settlers — mostly from Scotland. These people became the Scots Irish — the dominant ethnic group up here in the north today. But centuries of British rule led to strife. After a bloody war in the 1920s, most of Ireland became an independent country — Catholic.and ruled from Dublin. But the North — with its Protestant majority — opted to stay with Britain. And the island remains divided to this day.

You'll see symbols of that division throughout Northern Ireland. Orange parades are common. Several thousand a year during marching season — between Easter and early September — fill the streets with sectarian pageantry. While 90 percent of these are Protestant parades through Protestant towns and therefore peaceful, a few are antagonistic, marching through Catholic towns and neighborhoods. Far more political than your average parade, these are like pep rallies for the cause of continued Union with Britain.a chance for parents share their political passions with their kids.

The long established Orange Order works to defend the union with Britain — so their political philosophy is "Unionist." Orange is the team color and the union jack is its flag. This is countered on the Catholic side by Republicans — people who want the entire island to be one nation. Their color is green and they fly the Irish flag.

In the Republic of Ireland, there's no question — Catholics rule. But here in the Protestant-dominated North, the Catholics — with over a third of the population — are too big a minority to ignore. To maintain control, the Protestants employed policies which were considered tough on Catholics. This escalated tensions which led to "The Troubles" which have filled headlines since the late 1960s. As Protestants and Catholics clashed, the British Army entered the fray. They've been here every since. Thankfully, real progress toward peace has been made lately and while you still don't want to sing Protestant songs in Catholic pubs like this (or vice versa) Northern Ireland has become a great place to visit.

Belfast, just a couple hours north of Dublin, straddles the Lagan River. It was only a village in the seventeenth-century. But with the influx of Scottish and English settlers and the Industrial Revolution, which took root with a vengeance here, Belfast boomed. While the rest of Ireland remained rural and agricultural, Belfast was nicknamed "Old Smoke" — shipbuilding was huge.

This slip way was the birthplace of the Titanicand many ships that didn't sink. The neighborhing dry dock is where that ill-fated ship — the biggest man-made moving object of its day — was outfitted. Nearby, two huge cranes (once the biggest in the world, nicknamed Samson and Goliath) rise like skyscrapers above the harbor — another reminder of this town's former shipbuilding might.

In 1888 Queen Victoria granted city status to this boomtown of 300,000 and soon after its citizens built Belfast's centerpiece, City Hall. With its statue of Queen Victoria scowling down Belfast's main drag and the Union Jack flapping behind her, it's a stirring sight.

The free tour gives you a rundown on city government and an explanation of a building which is the pride and joy of Ulster.

Queen's University is also from the illustrious reign of Victoria. Its back yard is a inviting public park — particularly relaxing on a sunny summer afternoon. The palm house — an early example of an iron and glass greenhouse dating from the mid-1800s — gives you a lush and humid jungle experience right in Belfast .

Also in the garden is the Ulster Museum — the city's one major museum. You'll find an interesting " Made in Belfast" exhibit under an arch proclaiming, "Trade is the golden girdle of the globe."

It feels like a new morning in Belfast. It's hard to imagine that this bright and bustling commercial center was once a tense and subdued security zone. Today there's no hint of security checks — just a decade or two ago a tiresome daily routine.

Still, it's a fragile peace — especially evident in the working-class Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Mean-spirited murals and pubs with security gates are reminders that the island is split and a dwindling — yet still substantial — number of extremists prefer it that way. These original hotbeds of "The Troubles" have become tourist attractions to many curious visitors.

This downtown garage at the foot of Falls Road is a busy transportation hub from where shared black cabs efficiently shuttle commuters between the city center and outlying Catholic neighborhoods.

This service originated a generation ago, when city buses were hijacked and used as barricades in street fighting. When bus service was discontinued, local paramilitary groups established this shared taxi service — both to provide cheap transportation and employment. Originally, drivers were former political prisoners in need of work.

For a reasonable hourly fee, many cabbies give visitors impromptu tours. My guide, Norman, is sharing some personal insights.

Murals are artform — and they come with a strong political message. Ireland will rise like a phoenix, Ireland free and united.and so on. Police stations stand like fortresses. Even pubs are fortified. Row houses give a glimpse at local life. And everywhere, the Republican cause is honored.

An important stop along Falls Road is the Milltown Cemetery where Gaelic crosses allow Catholic Republicans to make a statement in death and where IRA fighters are buried with the honor of fallen soldiers.

The most visited grave site here — s et apart by little green railings — commemorates IRA heroes. Among many others, it remembers Bobby Sands and nine other hunger strikers. They starved themselves to death in a nearby prison in 1981, protesting for political prisoner status as opposed to terrorist/criminal treatment.

A bleak wall separates the Catholic Republicans of the Falls Road area from the Protestant Loyalists in the Shankill Road area. It's called the Peace Line because without it there would be no peace. But progress is being made. In a promising change, after 30 years of being closed, this gate is now open connecting the two neighborhoods.

For a sampling of Unionist passion, you can explore this working-class Protestant neighborhood. Murals on Shankill Road celebrate the Unionist or loyalist cause. There's lots of symbolism. This mural reminds the neighborhood kids that Cromwell hated Catholics way back in xxxx.

Every time I visit, locals stress that it's not Protestants fighting Catholics. It's extremist loyalists — who happen to be Protestants fighting extremist Republicans who happen to be Catholic. It's these extremists who are proud to live in the sectarian neighborhoods and it's these extremists who fan the persistent flames of Ireland's troubles.

The big hope now is for a new generation to be raised without the extremism of the past. Children playing together are both Catholics and Protestants — part of a summer-camp program giving kids from both communities reasons to live together rather than apart.

About an hour's drive from Belfast takes us to North Ireland's favorite resort: Portrush. This is the playground of Ulster and an ideal base for exploring the highlights of the Antrim Coast.

Portrush has long been the "Coney Island" of Ireland's north. Its architecture retains the atmosphere of a genteel seaside resort. Portrush fills its peninsula with family-oriented amusements, fun eateries and cheep and cheery B&Bs. Summertime fun-seekers promenade along the toy harbor and tumble down to the sandy beaches, which extend in sweeping white crescents on either side.

Barry's Old Time Amusement Arcade is a fine chance to see Northern Ireland at play. While some do the loop-de-loop, others mellow out on the bowling green.

Or maybe you'd rather go golfing. Serious golfers can get a tee time at the Royal Portrush. Irish golf courses, like those in Scotland, are highly sought by people who know the game.

I dig my divots next door at the pitch-and-putt range. You get two clubs and balls for just a few pounds. Rookies young and old share the same glorious setting and sought after turf with — who knows — perhaps a champ in the making.

Ireland and Britain are no longer bastions of terrible food. The Ramore Wine Bar offers an inviting menu you wouldn't have found anywhere in Ireland a decade ago. Everything from crab to steaks to vegetarian at a reasonable price. And a glass of wine is a welcome break from all that beer.

Here in Northern Ireland as in the rest of Britain, bed-and-breakfast places offer a fine budget value. Bedrooms are a comfy as a hotel's, but feel like home. The inviting lounge makes you feel like part of the family. And the included breakfast is hardy and comes with a chance to meet the other guests.

An hour's drive from Portrush, the town of Londonderry — also known as Derry — is the second city of Ulster. Its characteristic streets are lively and its wall is formidable — hinting of a hard-fought history. Like Belfast, Derry comes with the security trappings.

Steven McPhilemy — a Derry guide — is joining us. Years ago he showed my tour group his hometown. Steven was so good, he now leads my Ireland tours.

Derry is the finest walled town in all Ireland — and visitors are free to walk the ramparts.

Stephen's taking me to a pub. In sectarian neighborhoods — pubs are particularly sectarian.a hangout for either Unionists or Republicans. In this pub, the decor — particularly the Irish flag — makes the politics of these folks perfectly clear — this is a Catholic crowd. Protestants can feel comfortable here, unless they say something provocative or wear Unionist colors or symbols. (Leave your Union Jack at home.)

A great thing about Catholic pubs.traditional Irish music.

In a town like Derry, with little tourism, I find locals are just as interested in me as I am in them. Here in the pubs, the wonderful Irish gift of gab guarantees some great craic — that's slang for conversation.

On a single day out from Portrush, we'll enjoy a whiskey distillery, a geological wonder, a bouncy rope bridge and a ruined castle. And it's all along a stunning coast line.

The Antrim Coast is one of the most popular and scenic drives in the whole of Ireland. Homesteads are pristine. A short drive through this idyllic farm country makes it clear: tidiness is a Scots-Irish forte. Visitors enjoy desolate walks, evocative castle ruins and dramatic beaches. The Antrim Coast is a popular vacation get-away for Belfast. A road trip here is spiced with fun surprises, like "show off your horse day" at the local pony club. Build a little slack into your itinerary so you can actually stop and enjoy the action.

Antrim towns — like Bushmills — are Scots-Irish and decorated strictly Protestant.

And this town is home to a famous whiskey. Bushmills claims to be the world's oldest distillery. While King James I granted the town a license to distill whiskey in 1608, they've been making it here since the 13th century. Guests are welcome and tours finish here in the tasting room.

Irish whiskey-makers brag that their whiskey is triple distilled — and therefore smoother than Scotch whisky.

Those taking the distillery tour learn this emphatically during the tasting. Four volunteers per tour get to taste test eight different whiskeys.

The leading attraction along the coast is the Giant's Causeway, a four-mile-long stretch of shoreline famous for its bizarre basalt columns. The shore is covered with hexagonal pillars that stick up at various heights. It's as if earth is offering God his choice of 37,000 six-sided cigarettes.

This was a big stop for 19th-century tourists. Early guides gave nicknames to the peculiar formations like "the Pipe Organ".and the "the wishing chair."

Geologists claim the Giant's Causeway was formed by volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago. As the lava surface cooled, it contracted and cracked into hexagonal shapes. As the layer of hardened but alligatored rock settled, it broke into its many stair steps.

Oh, that isn't so at all. The Giant's Causeway was formed by an Ulster warrior giant named Finn MacCool who wanted to reach his love on the Scottish island of Staffa. At that time, the causeway stretched to Scotland, way back when the two lands were connected. Today, while the foundation has settled, the formation still extends undersea to Staffa, just off the Scottish coast. Finn's causeway was ruined (into today's "remnant of chaos") by a rival giant. As the rival fled from ferocious Finn back to his Scottish homeland, he ripped up the causeway so Finn couldn't chase him.

Giants or geology — you decide. Either way, the Giant's Causeway is well worth a stop.

A few miles further up the coast is a bridge you can cross. For a great little hike, a powerful dose of Ulster nature and a few butterflies in your stomach, follow the trail to the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. For 200 years fishermen have strung a skinny bridge across a chasm between the mainland and a tiny island.

Whoa! This is the rope bridge of any kid's dreams.

The bridge gives access to the salmon nets that are set during the summer months to catch the fish turning the coast's corner. The island affords fine views and great seabird-watching, especially during nesting season. That's Sheep Island. When Vikings came a plundering, locals put out their sheep on this island as a tribute and to not be raided.

The romantic ruins of Dunluce Castle, perched dramatically on the edge of a rocky headland, are a testimony to this region's turbulent past. Local guides are expert at bringing the ruins to life for visitors.

During the Middle Ages, Dunluce resisted several sieges.

But on a stormy night in 1639, dinner was interrupted as half of the kitchen fell into the sea, taking the servants with it. That was the last straw for the lady of the castle, who didn't like living on this drafty bluff anyway. She packed up and moved inland — abandoning Dunluce castle to the forces of nature.

Northern Ireland — from its blossoming capital stained with sectarian struggles, to its Coney Island (amusement) and natural playgrounds (golf and beach), its geological wonders (causeway) and its ongoing challenges (parade) — is a rewarding part of any Emerald Isle experience.

I hope you've enjoyed our look at the best of Northern Ireland. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. 

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