Coast to the Right of Me, Towns to the Left, Here I Am
Most road-cycling itineraries shouldactually mustincorporate County Antrim. In the Glens of Antrim, nostalgia isn't just a fleeting sensation but a permanence, a landscape William Thackeray described as "Switzerland in miniature." The nine main glens, or valleys, along this stretch protect a confection of geological oddities, including the White Rocks, a group of bizarrely weathered limestone cliffs and arches near the resort town of Portrush on Ramore Head (55 miles directly north of Belfast). In Glenariff, purportedly the most beautiful of the nine glens, the rugged coastline melds into lush forests and foamy waterfalls, probably Ulster's wildest region. The area's nine rivers that carved the deep valleys of Glenariff National Park push through the Antrim Mountains to the sea. The park's four trekking routes offer a respite from the bike saddle, and numerous footbridges and catwalks afford spectacular views of the immense waterfalls. Also a good stop to break a day's cycle, the park's campsites are open year-round.
If Glenariff National Park elevates Antrim to near-Edenic status, then the Giant's Causeway, Ireland's only World Heritage site, assures the country world-wide fameand justifiably so: Numerous legends have been created to explain this amazingly surreal landscape where thousands of basalt columns, each shaped into an almost perfect hexagon, create a massive, honeycombed staircase jutting out of the Atlantic Ocean. The most prevalent (and colorful) story says that the Ulster giant Finn McCool built the Causeway so that he could reach his mistress on the distant Scottish shore. There's even a stone wishing chair, where, myth has it, any wish made will come true. If you get a chance to take your turn in that perch, you may wish away the flocks of tourists that congregate at the Giant's Causeway. Over two thousand people visit each day in the summer months.
Fortunately, if the crowds overwhelm you but you're not ready to return to the saddle for another long haul, the world's oldest whiskey distillery, Old Bushmills, is a leisurely three miles southwest of the Causeway. In 1608, the distillery received its "Grant to Distil," and it has been pumping out the stuff ever since. Always filled with good cheer, the distillery hosted Tsar Peter the Great during his study tour of Europe in 1697, and it's said that the tsar took an immediate liking to the amber nectar.
If the whiskey tasting engages you as it did young Peter, the nearby villages of Bushmills and the small hamlet of Billy (one and a half miles from the distillery) make cozy overnight resting points (as well as good places to sober up responsibly). You'll find plenty family-run B&Bs on offer, such as Glebe Lodge, built in 1710, on Billy's Cabragh Road.
Farther west on the Antrim coast, 13th-century Dunluce Castle, one of Ireland's most impressive ruins, sits precariously above a gaping cave and the thundering sea below. In 1639, a storm actually blew the castle's kitchen into the sea, taking the cooks and their dinner preparations along with it. The castle was once the main fortress of the MacDonnells, the chiefs of Antrim, and although the roof is gone, the cobbling and towers have been well preserved. Dunsverick Castle is just down the road; the castle is much older and was the departure point of fifth-century Irish raids on Scotland, but only one massive wall remains.
The coastal road continues to wind westward toward Londonderry, or Derry depending on which side of the political fence you fall. Don't let that dissuade you, however. Even in this bitterly divided arealook for indicators of possible unrest, such as the contentious "marching season"the locals remain unfalteringly proud of their country and they are ever ready to toast their visitors:
Health and a long life to you.
Land without rent to you.
A child every year to you.
And if you can't go to heaven,
May you at least die in Ireland.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication