Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ireland Day Two -- Antrim

It was a rough night in Belfast last night. The room, though nice, was quite stuffy, and as is typical over here, there was no air conditioning. So we opened up the window a crack to get some air before going to bed. Even with this, I was sleeping on top of the comforter. Not a good start.

Around midnight, somebody started emptying the recycling bins below our window. Who empties recycling bins at midnight? Can't it wait until a respectable five AM? So, I got up and shut the window. Becky and the boys slept through it.

Then, around three AM, the bachelorette party returned to the room adjoining ours. It was giggles and vodka shots and "Whoohoo!" for the next hour. For all of the noise, I should have invited myself to the party, but I'm way too old for that. I thought about calling down to the front desk to complain, but I'm just not the type of person to make that call. Instead, I lay in bed fuming, and getting further and further from sleep. Becky and the boys slept through it.

Around three thirty, I noticed the heavy odor of cigarette smoke seeping into our room from the still-raging party next door. Great. Stuffy, smoky, and I'm still not sleeping. So, I got up and re-opened the window, which helped a lot to clear out the smoke. The same couldn't be said for the ladies next door. Becky and the boys still slept through it.

Finally, at four AM, I was still not asleep, so I got up and showered, checked email, and went down to the lobby at five AM so as not to wake the family. Becky and the boys... well, you get the idea.

Arriving in the lobby, I asked the hotel desk clerk if there was a place that I could get a coffee this early, and he said, "Yeah, wait a minute."

He stepped over the cordon into the darkened hotel restaurant, and came back shortly with a beautiful steaming latte. No charge--very nice. Noticing the Belfast Telegraph on the counter, I asked if I could borrow it.

"It's yesterday's paper," he informed me.

"That's alright."

I took it and enjoyed an hour of peace, quiet and caffeine. I read about the latest Top Gear on BBC 2. I attempted the miserably difficult British crossword. I noted that the houses in the Northern Ireland area went for between £149,000 and £300,000. Actually, about the same as Virginia.

Finishing my cup of coffee, I walked back up to the room, and still the family was asleep. Finally, at eight o'clock, I'd had enough, and tried to rouse Becky. She pushed me off, and it wasn't until quarter of nine that I finally got her out of bed. I was hungry, and wanted breakfast!

Leaving Belfast, we took Oliver (yes, the boys have named our Opel) on the A-2 Causeway Coastal Road around the northeast corner of Northern Ireland, meandering our way up to the Giant's Causeway.

This incredible site of basalt hexagonal columns sits right against the Irish Sea facing Scotland. Legend tells that the giant, Finn McCool, built the causeway to harass his Scottish neighbor, Benandoner, until the angry Benandoner destroyed his causeway forever, leaving only the rocks at the coasts of both Antrim and Staffa in Scotland.

Just after the Giant's Causeway is the lovely Ulster town of Bushmills, home to the most famous, and arguably best Irish Whiskey produced.

There are three differences between Irish Whiskey and Scotch Whisky:

First, Irish whiskey is spelled with an "e", whereas the Scottish spell theirs without. I've no idea why, but there it is.

Second, the barley for Irish whiskey is kiln dried in hot air, not over smokey peat fires, so the Irish whiskey has none of the smokiness of its Scottish brethren.

Finally, Irish whiskey is distilled three times over the Scottish two, yielding a smoother whiskey, although Becky and I would argue that it also loses some of the complexity of the Scottish drink with the third distillation.

The Bushmills tour was definitely worth the time and money. Our guide, Emma, was immediately charmed by the boys (yes, children are welcome!) as she told us the usual stuff about the mash tuns, spirit safes, condensing towers, etc. etc. etc. It really was a very good tour, and I was very glad not to endure hearing about the angel's share for the fortieth time (though it did get mention in the video before the tour). But the key part for me was the tasting at the end. I tried the 12 year single malt, and Becky sampled the 10 year. Both were excellent.

I was very surprised to learn on the tour that the regular Bushmill's "Original" is a blended whiskey made of up only 40% malt, with the other 60% being corn grain spirit from Midleton near Cork. I think I'll pass on the "Original" from now on.

After our excellent tour, we stopped at Dunluce Castle, the one-time home to the MacDonnell Clan, distantly related to the Scottish MacDonalds. Dunluce now sits in ruins, and was abandoned by Flora MacDonnell when the entire kitchen--cooks, supper and all--fell off the cliff and into the sea. Everybody perished, dinner was ruined, and Flora would not live in the house again.

The castle holds some great surprises, the most striking of which is the sea cave that sits directly below the castle itself. As you wander down the path around the castle, you come upon a great yawning dark cave, and it is only upon entering the mouth that you see a complete tunnel to the sea. The cave is large enough for a small boat to navigate, though with the crashing waves, it is probably ill-advised.

After Dunluce, we arrived in our seaside holiday town of Portrush. Our hotel, the Portrush Ramada is a very nice hotel indeed, situated on the point overlooking the sea, right in town centre. The rooms were immaculate, and the dinner at the restaurant was first rate. This hotel represents the best that European hotels have to offer--crisp, clean, tasteful, and totally unique.

Tomorrow, we'll set off early to return to the Republic, exploring Donegal and Inishowen. And now, to bed, and dreams of whiskey!

© Copyright 2005-2014, Scott E. Harris. All Rights Reserved.
Please do not reproduce or copy without the permission of the author.