This is the fourth in a series of posts about my December 2019/January 2020 trip to Dublin and Belfast. My last post, covering the first part of my stay in Belfast, is available here. Note: this trip was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic, and thus may reflect a very different world than we are facing now.
I was able to go see my family for a bit and work has been super busy, but I’m back. And we’ll now pick up on the rest of my stay in Belfast, back in December, which seemed a lifetime ago.
Giant’s Causeway and the Causeway Coast
One reason I decided to go to Belfast as part of this trip was because I could easily do a day trip up along the Causeway Coast, and do some light hiking around the Giant’s Causeway- an area of 40,000 basalt columns along the coast in County Antrim, on Northern Ireland’s northern coast. Given the mild winters in the area, I wasn’t worried about the weather. I hadn’t realized, though, that a lot of the best transit options are not available during the off-season. While peak season has a bus/train combo, it wasn’t running when I went. Renting a car is probably the best way to do it, but the cost for one day for an automatic was a bit obscene, and a lot of in-town car rentals weren’t open on Sunday anyway. I decided to go with a third option- one of the many, many day tours organized by companies in Belfast, that would take you up and back in a day.
A lot of the Giant’s Causeway tours have a Game of Thrones component. I had no particular interest in that. So, I booked a generic “Premium” Giant’s Causeway full day tour, which included stops at both the Giant’s Causeway Visitors Center, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, and the Bushmills Distillery, including admission fees, for about $45.
At around 8:20am, I was picked up by a van at the Hilton Belfast, and after stopping at the Holiday Inn Express, I was dropped at an office near Great Victoria Station, where I had to check in and was directed to another, larger bus. It was a total zoo, as about 6 or 7 buses were leaving for Giant’s Causeway at the same time from the same location, and there was a lot of confusion—especially seeing as a lot of tourists didn’t speak English. It was quite a wait for the bus to fill up, and we finally got on our way around 9:15am.
On board the bus, our guide announced that the Bushmills Distillery was closed for the holidays, so we wouldn’t be going there, which was a bit disappointing. We then settled in for the pretty drive along the coast, stopping once at a boring castle, Carrickfergus, and then at a small Spar grocery store in the tiny town of Carnlough, where you could pick up food. Unfortunately, every stop took forever, as people didn’t come back to the bus in time. So, it was 12:25pm before we got to our first real stop, the Giant’s Causeway Visitor’s Center. To give you an idea of how unnecessarily long the process was, if I had rented a car, it would have been under a 90-minute drive from the Hilton.
At the Causeway, we were given two hours to explore on our own. There was a big modern visitor’s center that had some exhibits, and then a series of trails, one above the beach, and one along the beach. I was really not anticipating how crowded it would be. I can’t imagine how crowded it gets in a (non-COVID) summer! The admission fee includes an audio guide, which has some interesting stories including the legend of the Causeway, which you can read about here. One cool thing I learned is that the basalt formation actually stretches to Staffa, an island off Scotland I got to visit back in 2018, and didn’t blog about.
I spent about an hour on the trails. It was definitely a walk, not a hike, but still some exercise. I then had some seafood chowder in the Visitor Center. It was surprisingly good (and not absurdly priced)!
From the Causeway, we made our way to the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which, as the name suggests, is a rope bridge from the mainland to a tiny island called Carrickarede. It’s quite a walk from the parking area down to the bridge itself, 1 km, and we had just over an hour for the stop. I found it quite pretty, but people really have problems following directions for the queue to cross the bridge. They let about 20 people across the narrow rope bridge, then 20 people the other way, and back-and-forth. A lot of people would stop midway across to get Instagram pics, despite being told by the staff to keep moving. Others jumped on the bridge which was NOT COOL. I didn’t have any time to explore once I got across, as I had to just get back in the line to come back. It was very pretty, though!
Here’s some video:
I dozed on the way back to Belfast, and it was already 5:20pm when we got to Great Victoria Street—and pitch black. I’d thought there would be roundtrip transportation to my hotel, but it seemed like they just dumped everyone there. I asked the guide what the best way to get back was, and he said the bus was going to back towards the Hilton, and volunteered the driver to drop me off. So, I rode on an otherwise empty large bus back to the Hilton, arriving at 5:33pm.
It was a long day, so I took a bit of a nap before heading to dinner at Six by Nico- a restaurant with a rotating six-course themed tasting menu at a fairly affordable price point. I had visited the location in Edinburgh back in summer 2018 and found it more charming- a smaller venue that seemed less factory-like. But it was still an interesting experience. The theme was an Alice in Wonderland/Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. One of the more interesting aspects was the table next to me, where the young (very-straight) guys wanted to stop the meal midway through as the food was too dainty/fancy for them. It is weird since they had a reservation and seemed to have no idea that it was a set menu or anything. The manager was able to convince them to stay on the grounds that the 4th and 5th courses (fish and meat) would be more to their liking.I had some ciders at one of the gay bars nearby after, and then returned to the Hilton.
West Belfast Black Taxi Tour
In the morning, I had booked a “Black Taxi tour” of West Belfast before I would head back to Dublin. This was unfortunately the biggest disappointment of the trip. As with Giant’s Causeway, there are dozens of tour options where you can get one of the old-style black taxis to give you a tour of the historic sites in West Belfast, explaining “the Troubles” and sharing stories of the divisions that made Belfast a really dangerous place for much of the later 20th century.
It’s hard to know what you’re getting as all the tours sound the same. The one I booked had me show up at a hotel in the center city, where I stood waiting for a 10am tour. A guide from another company saw me waiting quite a while, looked at my voucher, and told me I should call, as the company I booked would just “send over a taxi, and it might not be a black one.” Sure enough, I called, and a driver in a regular Volkswagen Passat came by. He kind of just drove around and asked me what I wanted to see…as if I knew what there was to see. A bunch of places, he stopped and I got out, and saw other “Black Taxi” tour guides giving descriptions and detailed information. I asked some questions to try, but basically, I was stuck to reading things on my phone or on wall plaques.
The murals on the wall that divided the city were interesting, and there were some pretty strong sectarian political displays—including very graphic photos—which indicated the divisions certainly still exist for some, and the tension between Unionists and Royalists remains.
I walked back to the Hilton, stopping for some shopping, checked out of the hotel, and made it back to the Lanyon Place train station for a 12:35pm Enterprise train back to Dublin.
In all, Belfast was an interesting city and I was glad to have spent two days checking it out.
Next up, I’ll do a quick review of the Hilton Belfast.