The (not necessarily golf) trip you should take to Northern Ireland
(Pictured above: Newcastle, Northern Ireland)
Surprising as it may seem, I do actually know people for whom the phrase “golf trip” does not, in fact, revolve solely around golf. Some of these people are even friends, with whom conversation does not always revolve around golf. Hard to believe they want to spend time with me, but there you go.
So, having been to Northern Ireland now twice in the last twelve months, I feel it’s my duty, not to mention my pleasure, to write a column for these friends (including you, dear reader), extolling the virtues and opportunities that abound in this northeastern section of the Emerald Isle; with only minor reference to the magnificent and abundant golf on the menu. (As both my visits were exclusive to Northern Ireland, I’ll restrict my comments to what I’ve seen and heard, and hope that a visit to the southern Republic of Ireland may happen before I meets me maker.)
First of all, surprisingly, there are no direct flights out of Toronto to Belfast. You’ll need at least a one-stopper to get to Belfast, or, fly direct to Dublin, the capital of the Republic. Aer Lingus and Air Canada offer non-stops there. From Dublin, it’s about an hour’s drive to the border, and about 1:45 up to Belfast. (But unless you’re in a hurry, surely you’ll want to spend a day or two in Dublin.)
Just a quick word of explanation: Northern Ireland is home to six counties, and the people refer to the counties continually when describing places, people and things. It’s a good idea to study a map of the country in advance of arriving and get to know the names and rough placement of the counties. If you ask someone, “where’s Ballymena?”, they’re likely to respond with “ohhh, pretty much in the middle of County Antrim, I’d say”, which could leave you asking the next person and getting the same answer.
And something else you need to know.
Lest you were under the impression that it might be a bit risky to visit Northern Ireland because of the political and sectarian problems they’ve had there over the decades, please perish those thoughts. Yes, for roughly eighty years, on and off, Northern Ireland experienced what are widely referred to as “the Troubles”. No point in giving a history lecture here; suffice it to say they were difficult, and bloody, and heartbreaking – especially considering what a beautiful and vibrant country Northern Ireland has always been, and what warm and wonderful people inhabit it.
But the Troubles came to an end, most would agree, with the signing of the so-called Good Friday Agreement of 1998. And everyone I’ve spoken with in my two recent visits has stated unequivocally that absolutely no one believes that violence will ever flare up between Irish Protestants and Catholics ever again. Thank God.
That said, everyone, on both sides of the border, shrugs and says, “who knows?” when asked what Brexit will bring to Ireland. A hard border, with customs and immigration checkpoints between the two sides, seems ludicrous, impractical and unthinkably inconvenient. But if one side (the Republic) is still part of the EEC, and the other (the “province” of Northern Ireland) is not, how can you have free flow of goods? Who knows?
But let’s leave that discussion to the Economist. This is Fairways, after all, and we have far more important things to discuss… like touring Northern Ireland.
So, let me suggest a route that was similar to mine. Instead of going straight up to Belfast after your first stop in Dublin, you might want to consider an initial detour to the eastern coast. A great place to start is the town of Newcastle, which happens to also be the home of Royal County Down Golf Club, considered by all sources (including moi) as one of the top ten golf courses in the world. Even if golf is not your priority on this trip, you must experience “RCD”, as everyone refers to it. And even in lousy weather, which is common, it’s a fine and gorgeous test of your game.
Newcastle itself is a charming seaside town of roughly 8,500 people, which boasts a large and long beach along the Irish Sea, and the handsome Mountains of Mourne as a backdrop.
If cost is not a factor in your budgeting, then consider staying at the landmark hotel known as the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa, named after the highest hill that overlooks the town. Slieve Donard is part of a relatively small but absolutely first-class chain of seven Hastings Hotels. I have no ulterior motive or obligation in saying this, but having stayed in two Hastings properties, and salivated at web photos of the others, I could easily compose my next Northern Irish holiday around the locations of each of the group. (www.hastingshotels.com)
During two visits to Newcastle, I’ve had occasion to dine at a superb little restaurant there called Brunel’s, and I sincerely wish they’d open a Toronto branch. The proprietor, Paul Cunningham, when not in the kitchen creating unexpectedly awesome culinary masterpieces, spends his spare time foraging the city, shoreline and countryside for edible herbs, flavours and ingredients that separate and enhance his dishes – including my rigatoni pasta – from mostly anything else you’ve ever tasted. (www.brunelsrestaurant.com)
It never ceases to amaze me how little out-of-the-way towns and villages can hide some of the most outstanding dining experiences on the planet. Brunel’s is one of those places, for me.
To continue my suggested route, you may wish to head 30 minutes up through the town of Downpatrick, then down to the seaside village of Ardglass. Downpatrick, a little larger in population than Newcastle, is home to an imposing cathedral that dates back two hundred years, but with some components, including church site, that go back to the 12th century. The cathedral is considered by most scholars to be the resting place of Saint Patrick, as much the patron saint of Ireland as any icon in any country.
Ardglass is, of course, charming. (Is it possible to use the term “seaside town” without putting “charming” in front of it?). But I mention it because, charm aside, it’s home to a bracing test of golf, with non-stop views out to the Irish Sea, and a clubhouse that was built as a small castle fortress in 1405. I’m happy to say, the showers in the locker rooms have been updated since then. I can’t comment on the accommodations here in the region, but I’m sure that, between Downpatrick and Ardglass, you’d find something suitable, affordable, and, well, charming if you choose to stay the night.
Before I continue, a word about the Irish people. It would be a pretty nasty travel writer who ever described the host country’s people as anything less than… oh jeez… charming. But gee, the Irish are unbeatable on the hospitable, friendly and funny scales. I find that most of the young adult Irish men I came across look like Jason Statham on steroids, or – for you older folks like me – quite a bit like Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man (1952). Which is quite a coincidence, since Victor was playing a typical Irish man. Irish women are char—no, not again! – let’s say, super nice, and, to use a word my Dad might’ve said, “comely”. If you ever run across an impolite or rude person in Ireland, you should seriously ask which country they came here from.
Now, skipping around Belfast for a moment, I must mention Game of Thrones… yes, the television series. I personally have not watched one frame of this production, but about seven billion other people on the planet have, apparently. And what you, and they, may not know is that most of it was shot in… yup, Northern Ireland. Like, all over Northern Ireland. So if you want to fill up some or all of your trip looking at where the Game was played, I suggest you spend some time on www.discovernorthernireland.com/gameofthrones. It’s chock full of info.
I have in my hands a brochure that lists 26 different shooting locations for GoT, many of them along the northeastern coast, north of Belfast. Taking in these spots will pretty much deliver you to the doorstep of the famous Giant’s Causeway. This is one of Northern Ireland’s most visited tourist attractions – a natural outcropping of rock formations that look machine-made but aren’t.
Now, if this is a trip that doesn’t include golf, I’m not sure that I personally would insist that you visit the Giant’s Causeway. But if golf is a possibility, then yes, go up to that coast… see the Causeway, and play Royal Portrush (site of this year’s Open Championship, for the first time since 1951), Portstewart, and a little further west, Castlerock. (And if whiskey is a priority, you’re in luck: Bushmill’s Distillery, over 400 years old, is close at hand after your tour of the Causeway!)
By the way, even if you don’t take the time to play golf at Portstewart, at least take a couple of minutes right now to savour the beauty of this drone video of their front nine: https://www.portstewartgc.co.uk/
If you keep heading west from Castlerock, you’ll end up in the City of Londonderry, or Derry as it’s equally billed. Often referred to as Northern Ireland’s “second city”, it’s long since shed its bleaker past as home of some of the worst of “the Troubles”, and now is considered a culinary mecca. It’s also the last completely walled city in Ireland, with 400-year-old fortifications that have many stories to tell.
If you haven’t already made your visit to Belfast, then you may want to head back that way, from Derry. Now, you could take a low route that sweeps south into County Tyrone with a stop in Omagh (and its handsome parkland course), and County Fermanagh with a visit to Nick Faldo’s highly acclaimed new course at Loch Erne Resort, outside Enniskillen. But again, if this isn’t a golf-priority vacation, you could also head to Belfast on a more direct route, via Ballymena (which just happens to be the location of Galgorm Castle and its golf club, home of the Northern Ireland Open, in mid-August).
Okay, let’s talk about Belfast. You simply can’t go to Northern Ireland, and not visit Belfast.
What’s in Belfast? Well, tons of things… and of course, many events happen through the year so you should really plan your visit after checking the calendar to see what might fancy your tickle. But regardless of calendar, you might enjoy the Belfast City Hall Exhibition of the city’s great history… Belfast’s 115-year-old Cathedral and 150-year-old Castle… the quite stunning, and modern, Victoria Square Shopping Mall… and, for sure, Belfast’s number one tourist attraction, the Belfast Titanic Museum. Opened in 2012, on the 100th anniversary of the ill-fated maiden voyage of the greatest ocean liner built up to that time (and built right there in Belfast), the museum is a wowzer piece of architecture on the outside, and a fascinating tribute to all the b’yes who built the boat, and all the b’yes who sailed ‘er.
There are many hotel choices in Belfast to suit your budget. If you happen to like traditional, vintage style inns, consider Culloden Estate and Spa, a little northeast of the City. There’s also the Europa Hotel, which has managed to maintain its first-class ambiance and reputation, despite being the target of several bombings back in the bad days.
Or the fabulous The Merchant Hotel, right downtown, which has been transformed from a magnificent 19th Century bank building into a 5-star stunner, with classic Victorian and art deco bedrooms. Even if you don’t stay at The Merchant, you should treat yourself to dinner in its main dining room, which was the old banking hall, but is more like a Roman temple. And if you do that, have a drink or a nightcap in their very cool, jazz-infused cocktail bar.
I was fortunate to stay in the Grand Central, which lives up perfectly to both its names. Also located in the heart of the city, the Grand Central is ultra-tall, ultra-modern, and ultra-fine.
It would be a shame not to spend at least three days in Belfast as part of your trip. It’s a good city to just stroll around in, and to get thirsty in – there’s a pub roughly every twenty feet, or so it seems. And in Northern Ireland, if there’s one thing that is absolutely, one hundred-per-cent guaranteed, it’s that you’ll feel welcome in any pub, because you’ll receive a welcome from staff and fellow customers alike that you won’t get anywhere else.
So, whether with clubs in tow, or left back in T.O., you’ll love Northern Ireland either way.
And if you’re looking for someone to take with you, I’m cheap, cheerful, and available!
Links for Places mentioned above:
Royal County Down Golf Club: www.royalcountydown.org
Slieve Donard Hotel, Newcastle: www.hastingshotels.com/slieve-donard-resort-and-spa/
Ardglass Golf Club: www.ardglassgolfclub.com
Giant’s Causeway: www.ireland.com/en-us/amazing-places/giants-causeway/
Bushmill’s Distillery: www.bushmills.com
Royal Portrush Golf Club: www.royalportrushgolfclub.com
Portstewart Golf Club: www.portstewartgc.co.uk
Castlerock Golf Club: www.castlerockgc.co.uk
Omagh Golf Club: www.omaghgolf.co.uk
Loch Erne Resort and Golf: www.lougherneresort.com/golf.html
Galgorm Castle and Golf: www.galgormcastle.com
Culloden Estate and Spa: www.hastingshotels.com/culloden-estate-and-spa/
Europa Hotel: www.hastingshotels.com/europa-belfast/
The Merchant Hotel: www.themerchanthotel.com
Grand Central Hotel: www.grandcentralhotelbelfast.com